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awaaz Spring 2011 Double Issue | Volume 3 Issues I&II

the voice of South Asia Who’s the Man?

Masculinity and Its Meaning in Bollywood Nikhila Sri-Kumar

The Lal Koti

Prapti Chatterjee

Spring 2011 Double Issue | Volume 3 Issues I&II

Mark Hay, Editor-in-Chief Prapti Chatterjee, Managing Editor Rithu Ramachandran, Publisher Rakhi Agrawal, Senior Editor Abhaya Aravind, Senior Editor Jordan Borgman, Senior Editor Shruti Kulkarni, Senior Editor Lewis West, Senior Editor Ananta Pandey, Layout Editor

Special thanks to: Jordan Alam, Manisha Bans, and Chaitanya Medicherla. Cover Illustration by Anne Park. Border on left by Hafeez Sheikh.

Contents Non-Fiction


4 Who’s the Man? Nikhila Sri-Kumar

1 Arranged Marriage Sanchali Pal

11 Lessons from Jamkhed to Cleveland Kermit Jones

46 The Jump Krupa Harishankar

14 The Art of the Chant Chaitanya Medicherla

52 Untitled Jordan Alam

17 India’s “Spectacular” Criminals Radha Kumar

55 Beggars Joyojeet Pal

22 Protecting Sex Workers in Nepal Kabita Parajuli

59 The Lal Koti Prapti Chatterjee

24 Passover in Cochin Samantha Hicks

67 Mr. Mukherjee’s Secret Kshounish Palit

28 Against Ashis Nandy Sahil Vora 31 Reading The Namesake Sharleen Mondal

Culture 2 Bad Education Abdullah Younous 43 India’s Martin Luther? Sarah Khan


37 Healing with Beauty Hafeez Shaikh 40 Sketching South Asia Zara Sheikh

Interview 70 Your Religion, Your Soul, Your Identity Interview

Poetry 77 Helmand, How Calmly You Flow Mujib Mashal

A Note from the Editor When I started writing for Awaaz a couple of years ago, before I was editorially involved with the magazine, I didn’t know (or didn’t notice) that the full name of the magazine was Awaaz: The Voice of South Asia. But once I registered and began to process the name, I had problems with it. There was, of course, the issue of redundancy—as a bourgeoning Hindi-Urdu speaker, I couldn’t for the life of me figure why someone would call a magazine “Voice”: The Voice of South Asia. It just seemed like sloppy copy writing to me, but I ran with it. Still, it was mostly the presumption of the name that I took issue with.            To think that 80-some flimsy pages a year, much less pages stitched together by the clumsy hands of 20-somethings, could actually call itself The ������������������������������������������������������������������������ Voice of South Asia—it was absurd. It still is absurd. Even the content of the issues rebelled against the title. The bulk of Sharleen Mondal’s piece in this issue (31) is exclusively about the unspeakable plurality of the subcontinent, and most other pieces herein pay homage to that cacophonous diversity.             Originally I thought the editors of this magazine who came before me were trying to cram all of that together into some definitive and cohesive entity, some document that could encompass the whole of the lives of everyone from Herat to Manipur, Srinagar to Male. Given the wide variety of content the magazine solicits— fiction, non-fiction, art, poetry, the full grab bag, some of it academic and inaccessible when first it reached us, some of it dumbed down just a smidge too far—crafting a uniformly accessible magazine was already a tall order. But making an engaging magazine that was comprehensive… it was impossible, almost insulting.             But in the process of putting this magazine together, I’ve finally come to terms with our name. This magazine could go the route of other academic journals on the region and limit its scope to scholarly analysis. Or perhaps we could embrace the quality and quantity of fiction we receive—it is a flowering time for South Asian diaspora literature, after all. Maybe we should limit ourselves to undergraduate work, or to the issue of religion, or identity, or some other sub-division. It would certainly make the magazine more uniform and, in some ways, more appealing. But it would render the magazine less worthwhile than it is now.             The beauty of Awaaz is that it really is, in the most literal sense, The Voice of South Asia. It is scholars and natives and diaspora and leaders and even goras (like me) meeting in one place. It is the eruption of noise that comes when all of those individual voices collide. It is not pretty, and some voices rise higher than others, some voices seem to overshadow others, some voices may appeal to certain readers more than others. But that dissonance has meaning and value—it prevents these pages from ever being predictable, from ever developing a bias. It exposes the writers, the editors, and the readers to the other voices in the conversation on South Asia that they would not have heard picking up another journal. And, hopefully, in giving just a taste, it can inspire the ravenous and open-minded consumption of all manner of resources by the reader.             Or perhaps there really is no meaning to the name. Maybe it was just terrible copy writing by some genesis staffer. But even accidents of history can create a dense and unique culture. And this is our culture at Awaaz—the din of voices, the struggle of different styles and ideas, competing freely.             It has been my intentional policy as an editor to present as diverse an issue as is possible, both in terms of voice and in terms of content. If our name is our mission, then it is our job as editors of Awaaz ������������������� to help writers to convey their thoughts clearly, but beyond that not to step on the volume or the intonation with which they broadcast their ideas, or to mute those ideas. With that mission in mind, what you will find in the following pages is helter skelter. But it is lovingly so. And it is my sincere hope that you will enjoy it, gain as much from reading and struggling with it, as I have sitting at a desk and fretting over the argumentation and the commas of it all.   Mark Hay Editor-in-Cheif

Arranged Marriage

Sanchali Pal

Image via Wikimedia Commons Trees in Kerala

Swish swish, swish swish. Her body weaved deliberately through the thick mango grove, hair cascading down the outcrops of her collarbones. The air was cool and moist against her skin. Crooked arm and cupped palm tenuously supported the terracotta vessel on her head. ---

Five o’clock, finally. The afternoon had been dry and uncomfortable on his bare shoulders and shade was a welcome relief. The man waded carefully through the lush ground-ferns to the center of the grove, his feet bare, watching silently for signs of the girl. ---

The girl lay out by the packed-dirt bank, ankles crossed. The sky blushed dusky and deep. This place was her only peace today. For a moment, she imagined his soft lips falling into a frown as he clutched a piece of her shattered vessel. She hoped he would keep it, tuck it away close to his skin. She knew his day was long, that he would not want to hear the news. Somehow, she hoped, he would understand. She pulled open her eyelids. The water was endless blue. A hollow wooden boat down the shore bobbed on the mid-afternoon waves, quietly alluring. Every morning she wore that same mischievous, daring look with her kohl-dipped stick, in anticipation of the few moments in the grove. The casual stream of her unbrushed hair, the window of soft flesh between cloth and blouse, the simple silver anklet snaking around her slender ankle. All carefully, innocently dangerous. She unwound her ankles, stood up, and walked towards the boat. She paused on the shore. If she couldn’t have him, she wouldn’t have anyone. Feet dusted lightly with red dirt stepped onto the wooden planks. Calloused hands grasped the smooth, deep-brown oar. ---

An hour later and at last the sun abandoned

him. A fortnight since he had first taken the chance shortcut through the grove and the girl had not once kept him waiting. Surely any minute now the leaves would part and she would emerge, cotton sari draped elegantly even after a day’s work. In silent devotion, he yearned to drink in her curved hips, the secret flesh beneath her blouse, her neckline’s smooth sweep. She would glance up—her kohl-lined eyes meeting his— and look down, modest again, disappearing into the silvery leaves. But he could not afford to reach home any later. His dinner would be cold and the woman would scream at him. He unfolded his legs and refolded them. Five more minutes couldn’t hurt. With the woman, what would come, would come. Breath still tight in his chest, his eyes strained in the dim light. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for—a piece of cloth, a fallen bead, anything that might reveal she had already passed through. He saw them immediately, the shards of her smashed terracotta pot. He picked the smallest and ran his bony fingers over the jagged edges, again and again. How many mornings had he meditated, straining to clear his mind and focus on the day’s work, only to find images of the girl in front of him again? How many nights had he begged for sleep, only to be haunted by her mysterious frame? Now, for once, all he wanted was to see her face one more time. He tucked the shard into the folds of his dhoti. She was caught in the same trap as he, arranged captivity. Numbly, he pointed himself toward the village and began the long walk back. He would hide the piece before reaching home, or the woman would see. Sanchali Pal is a junior at Princeton University studying Economics at Princeton. She enjoys running, traveling, and dessert. She can be reached at


Bad Education

Abdullah Younous

The Good Intention and Poor Execution of Outsourced Is Outsourced racist? The critics seem to want us to think so. In American television culture the line between offensive and humorous is not always clearly defined, and designating one show or another as racist while the larger context remains blurry is not particularly constructive. The show does attempt to navigate the line between educating the American public about Indian culture in an entertaining way and reinforcing cultural and racial stereotypes for cheap laughs, often with mixed results. Labeling it as racist is thus both easy and tempting. For those unfamiliar with the show, Outsourced begins with Todd Dempsy (Ben Rappaport), a young American man, who upon arriving at his workplace

one day finds his office is empty except for his boss, Jerry. Jerry provides the plot twist: all of the workers at “Mid-American Novelties” have been fired, and their jobs have been outsourced to India. Todd has also been outsourced to India. With college loans to repay and few other job prospects, Todd soon ships out to the subcontinent. Immediately, he bonds with the two other white characters in the show: Charlie and Tonya, both managers of similar calling centers. Charlie, an American man, is chunky, culturally insensitive, brutish, bizarrely dedicated to hunting, and not terribly smart. Tonya, an attractive blond Australian woman, is “with it,” sexually assertive, and independent—and the love interest of both Todd

and Charlie, precipitating in an extremely predictable drama as the show progresses. The rest of the show is dedicated to “documenting” Todd’s blunders through the Indo-American cultural divide. Luckily for Todd, he is not alone. Todd’s staffers are also his guides through this new world. Regrettably, many of these characters are two-dimensional archetypes. Yet while the show may be guilty of over-simplification, it still presents Indian culture in a reasonably honest manner. There is no Apu-esque character ala The Simpsons. There are no typical, flavorless taxi driver jokes, and there are no conspicuous propagations of misunderstandings about Hinduism or Buddhism.  The characters, although exaggerated, have credibility as people existing outside of stereotypes and attempt to educate Todd—and the audience by proxy—whenever the opportunity arises.   Rajiv, the assistant manager, is the classic ambitious, yet lovable, nemesis. His antics include locking the office doors as soon as the workday begins, constantly

berating his employees, and wondering aloud how Todd will ever get the workers to be efficient without firing anyone “as an example.” As the show progresses, however, he quickly evolves into one of the more complex characters in Outsourced. Rajiv’s ambition is to be the manager so that he can raise his social status and prove to his future father-in-law that he is worthy of marrying his daughter. The issues of class, status, and social expectations are recurring themes in Outsourced. Asha is a young, outspoken, opinionated, and well-educated college graduate. Todd is shocked, then, to find out that she is slated for and accepting of an arranged marriage. The situation precipitates a learning experience for Todd about Indian cultural notions surrounding marriage, and highlights a serious tension for young Indians who are faced with integrating into a globalized society without alienating familial and cultural obligations. Madhuri, another young woman, is perhaps the most quietly compelling character in the series. Very poor, shy, and quiet, she supports her whole family with her

“The characters, although exaggerated, have credibility as people existing outside of stereotypes and attempt to educate Todd—and the audience by proxy—whenever the opportunity arises.”


CULTURE wages from the call center. Throughout the show hints are dropped that she is a member of one of the lower castes of Indian society. Nonetheless, she is able to stand up for herself. When Todd, unaware of Indian customs about touching, pats her on the back, Madhuri takes offense. While the situation is invariably played for comic effect, as Todd is faced with a charge of sexual harassment, the scenario hints at serious cultural divergences on the issues of modesty and gender relations.

shows capitalize on the type of sophisticated workplace humor that Outsourced fails to capture. While slapstick is universal (because who doesn’t like a good bucket of paint dropped on someone’s head?), it doesn’t provide the verisimilitude of The Office or the creativity of 30 Rock. The writers and directors seem to be walking on eggshells; AOL’s “Stay Tuned” critic Maureen Ryan comments on the tepid nature of the show, designating “its scaredy-cat caution” as its defining characteristic. More

“In trying to ascertain what will trigger a public relations storm and what is too tame, the writing is uneven and educational attempts fall terribly short.” While the show has the potential to address relevant cultural situations, more often than not it boils down to formulaic humor and offensive stereotyping. The show cheapens the struggles of young Indian professionals to find their place in a transitional setting with characters like Manmeet, young and girl-crazy, whose attraction to America is based upon misconceptions of it being a land where “women will come up to your car and ask you for a date.” In searching for humor, Outsourced relies on bumbling misconceptions, slapstick antics, and the distortion of cultural touchstones. For example, the presentation of important religious celebrations like Holi is without cultural sensitivity, and hammed up for humor’s sake. The devolvement of the festival of colors into a threeminute long paintball grudge match between rival call centers tokenizes the event, and works at counter-purposes to any educational aim to which the show might aspire. In a similar instance of cultural trampling, the show oversimplifies the concept of reincarnation. Gupta becomes a Buddhist priest, a path undertaken only by those with pure intentions, and then goes on to express a desire to come back as “something better— like a doctor, or a movie star or a pet in America.” This cheapening of important aspects of culture for a few weak laughs is a common motif throughout the series. To be sure, the misrepresentations and distortions are products of stereotyping, and stereotypes have a long tradition in comedy. However, Outsourced suffers more from a lack of substance than from actual racism. This show follows on a series of successful situational comedies from NBC, but simply does not deliver the same punch as shows like 30 Rock or The Office. These

important than the question of racism is the question of its efficacy. The Los Angeles Times reviewer Robert Lloyd has the same questions: “I approached with trepidation — you walk a fine, slippery line when you contrive to build a comedy around People Who Talk Funny and lampoon, from a superpower’s perspective, a foreign culture.” Outsourced pushes the ticket, but only so far. In trying to ascertain what will trigger a public relations storm and what is too tame, the writing is uneven and educational attempts fall terribly short. A situational comedy is, in point of definition, situational. It is too bad that Outsourced is hamstrung by its “exotic” locale. As Ms. Ryan points out, “many, many shows have mined quality humor from fish-out-ofwater scenarios. Outsourced is not one of them.” With a chance to examine a different kind of office, the show focuses too much on the obvious. Clearly, Todd is in a different country, but that shift can only be farmed for laughs for so long and Outsourced has yet to hit on a deeper vein. The charm of the show cannot be denied; somehow or another these people ‘Who Talk Funny’ manage to worm their way into our consciousness, and when Hulu puts up another episode, it’s not too long before we’ll watch it. And perhaps there are a few moments during which we’ll laugh—but afterward we’re left with a bitter aftertaste, and the realization that we’re not completely satisfied. Outsourced has potential, but as its ratings have proved, it has yet to grasp it completely. Abdullah Younus is exploring his options. He can be reached at


Who’s the Man?

Nikhila Sri-Kumar

Masculinity and Its Meaning in Bollywood From the mid-1970s to 1980s Amitabh Bachchan was the undisputed king of Hindi cinema, essentially creating a genre of his own through the “angry young man” films in which he starred. Characterized by the protagonist’s need for revenge, these films were a showcase of hyper-masculinity and vigilante violence rather than romance, which was often only tangential to the narrative. Bachchan’s strong, deep-voiced characters represented a true break from those once played by Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Rajesh Khanna, among others, star actors of previous decades whose characters did not stray far from that of a mild, more romantic hero. The 1970s were a time of turmoil in India as disillusioned citizens increasingly rebelled against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s regime. This rebellion culminated in an “Emergency” suspension of civil liberties by the prime minister that lasted from 1974 to 1977, and through the 1980s this violence was reflected in the new genre of revenge films. As Bachchan’s star power waned and he took a step back from acting in the early 1990s, however, the phase of angry male heroes also tapered within Hindi cinema, giving way to a revival of the feudal family romance and a new genre of romantic films directed toward the Indian diaspora. Starting in the 1990s, Shah Rukh Khan became one of the biggest stars of contemporary popular Hindi cinema, having discarded the vengeance of Bachchan’s characters and completely embraced the role of the lovesick romantic hero in countless films. It was not a decline in social unrest in India that contributed to the change of tone in Bollywood, but rather an unwillingness to acknowledge political crises any further. Khan’s fanciful romances reflected an abandonment of any attempt to relate to the repressed masses struggling with class riots. These riots intensified in the wake of the 1989 Mandal Commission’s reification of affirmative action practices towards lower castes and the rising tension between religious extremists following the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya. Most


significantly, many of the characters Khan plays differ from Bachchan’s very masculine roles by seeming only ambiguously masculine, if not verging on feminine. The primary rasas—the Indic classification of emotions provoked by art—of Khan’s films end up being those normally associated with women—love and pathos— rather than the heroic rasas of the protagonist for which a troubled and repressed public may have searched. Khan instead catered to a relatively new audience—that of the contented middle class, rather than the more traditional audience of the dissatisfied, disenfranchised audience form whom Bachchan had struck such a chord. By failing to acknowledge the needs of his audience, Khan’s characters regularly reject the paradigm of masculine behavior which Bachchan’s films created. Specifically, they lack the individual drive, strength and male sexuality present both in the angry young men characters as well as in the roles played by Khan’s peers in the Bombay film industry. Often, outside analysis of masculinity in South Asia falls victim to a phenomenon similar to the practice common in general film studies—blindly applying western-based theories to decidedly nonwestern contexts. Masculine behavior within India must be examined and defined within, as Dr. Geert De Nerve of the Sussex Center for Migration Research writes, “the localized relationships in which they [men] contribute to the shaping of particular authority, status and community relationships.” After his observations on men in a South Indian neighborhood, De Neve writes of a particular woman—the mother—who has a significant impact on shaping her son’s masculinity. In this neighborhood in Tamil Nadu, as in much of India, masculinity is commonly assessed on the basis of one’s ability to be a capable provider for his family, and a mother should help her son grow into such a provider. “The idea of a man as somebody who will marry a woman and become a good provider, a father, a husband goes uninterrogated,” Doctors Caroline and Filippo Osella of the School of Oriental and African

NON-FICTION Studies at the University of London and the SCMR, respectively, write in Men and Masculinities in South India. In his widely cited study on masculinity, R.W. Connell, University Professor at the University of Sydney, wrote of the existence and interaction of hegemonic and subordinate masculinities wherein there are multiple male ideals, but some behaviors dominate others. This theory has important implications as first, it allows for multiple definitions of

emotionally ambivalent relationship with women. “‘Playing Krishna,’ an expression used by one of my informants for addressing the practice of collecting sexual and love relationships with women, is a central aspect of everyday life,” Dr. Paolo Favero of the University of Lisbon, writes of young New Delhi men in India Dreams. “Watching and commenting on women are prominent parts of their sociability among friends. Even those who…could be old enough to be in a hurry to marry, are still reproducing a bachelor’s

“It was not a decline in social unrest in India that contributed to the change of tone in Bollywood, but rather an unwillingness to acknowledge political crises any further.” masculinity within a certain context and second, does not reduce masculinity to an argument of essentialism but rather makes for an exploration of context and of how women play a part in constructing masculinity. Bachchan’s popular culture model of strength and sexuality and traditional need to be a provider composes the archetypes commonly at work in Indian masculinity today, but does not encompass the limits of the Indian conception of masculinity. Movie stars are well understood to be, as the Osellas write, “dense points of transfer of desire, belief, self-affirmation or transformation” to young fans searching for role models, and as such can define masculinity in their own right. In “Young Malayali Men and Their Movie Heroes,” the Osellas examine the different types of masculinity exhibited by the two top male stars in Kerala: Mammootty and Mohan Lal. Mammootty often plays a high-caste family man with power and status, a “familiar style of masculinity…as a man-of-action or phallic hero,” whereas the younger Lal plays a greater variety of roles, including those of a violent, angry young man. Despite their differing styles, and rival fan clubs of young males, both actors are unequivocally considered masculine—“‘manliness,’ ‘toughness,’ are equally applied to both.” Though Indian society is generally viewed as socially conservative—pornography is entirely illegal—and the chastity of women tends to be fetishized, pursuing sex and reveling in sexual exploits with women is an integral part of being young and masculine in India today. Most young Indian men do have a general desire to marry and have a family, but before marriage many preserve a purely sexual,

lifestyle. They avoid those women who appear to require too close a commitment.” The fact that this type of behavior has a slang term—Playing Krishna— indicates its prevalence and, by its association with the god Krishna, its acceptability. Additionally Favero identifies this behavior as the epitome of “a bachelor’s lifestyle,” a bachelor being the very definition of an independent male and this behavior being the structure of his masculinity. Ambivalence toward women and a desire not to engage with them emotionally is depicted here as a crucial part of masculinity. Manliness as conveyed through violence and sexuality was rarely present in Hindi cinema prior to Bachchan’s ascension to fame, but since the birth of the “angry young man” genre, these characteristics have become the primary mode of masculinity in Bollywood. Though few vigilante films—which were originally inspired by a growing disenchantment with Gandhian ideals and a society collapsing under government corruption—were produced after the 1980s, the ideal of male strength they created left a lasting definition of masculinity within Hindi cinema. Through his movies, Bachchan became the hero of the fringes of society, with nearly superhuman strength and the will to stand up to the apparatus of the state. In films such as Shakti (1982), Deewaar (1975), and Zanjeer (1973) Bachchan’s character is preoccupied not with love but with rebelling against a corrupted humanity in order to regain his own; he fights outside the structure of the law, with police officers and government officials portrayed as inept and somewhat effeminate throughout, to seek vengeance for a


NON-FICTION previous injustice. Though romance is tangential in these films, what relations the hero has with women besides his mother are predominantly sexual and only sometimes incidentally emotional. This way of including romance in the narrative serves to only enhance the masculinity of the angry young man in movies such as Deewaar. In this film, Bachchan’s character pays attention to women when they are dancing in minimal clothing or aggressively pursuing him in a bar. This is a clear break from the wholesome romantic interests of Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. Though he is linked romantically to only one woman throughout Deewaar, Bachchan is portrayed as having sex with her soon after meeting her—he is seen in bed with her shirtless—and as impregnating her out of wedlock. Romance within the film is nothing more than an additional vehicle for demonstrating aspects of his masculinity—his virility in sleeping with a woman, his male form in his appearance in bed with her, and his potency in impregnating her.

Bachchan’s characters set a paradigm within Hindi cinema of ultimate masculinity—a joining of Eastern and Western constructions of ideal male behavior into an unabashedly celebrated hyper-masculine being. Since Bachchan faded from lead roles and the political climate became so tense that Bollywood was no longer willing to reference it through vigilante films, fewer hyper-masculine characters have been seen in Hindi popular cinema. However, when they do appear, they follow at least part of Bachchan’s prototype of a virile, violent male. In the film Hey Ram, released in both Hindi and Tamil in 2000, the main character Sanket Ram (played by Kamalahasan) endures a personal injustice early in the film when his wife is raped and murdered, after which he is transformed into a militant, hyper-sexualized being. In addition to his violent plot to kill Mahatma Gandhi, the new sexuality of Kamalahasan’s character is emphasized: early in the movie his is shown as being playfully and gently sensual with his wife, a woman for whom he

“Manliness as conveyed through violence and sexuality was rarely present in Hindi cinema prior to Bachchan’s ascension to fame, but since the birth of the ‘angry young man’ genre, these characteristics have become the primary mode of masculinity in Bollywood.” The anti-heroes he played represent the strongest of the “martial” genre of Hindi cinema— those that focus on male heroism, power, social obligation, and revenge. Bachchan’s masculinity is unambivalent—it is proactive and productive in the face of injustice. Beyond a desire for justice and a general disinterest in romance, the masculinity of these characters is enhanced by Bachchan’s seemingly superhuman fighting skills—in fact, fight choreographers were added to the staff of Hindi movies for the first time in these films—as well as the fact that the protagonist’s father is often killed early in the film, a narrative element that allows the angry son to be the central, and sole emblem of masculinity throughout much of the film. In “Blood, Sweat and Tears: Amitabh Bachchan, Urban Demi-God,” Ashwani Sharma explains that Bachchan’s characters were based on an assimilation of the tension between morality, justice, and family loyalty present within the Mahabharata as well as the rebel heroes of other national cinemas: Clint Eastwood of Hollywood and Bruce Lee of Hong Kong Kung Fu films. As such,


cares for deeply, but when he is forced to remarry he is virtually emotionless toward his new wife, and when they have sex the violent, phallic imagery of a gun flashes onscreen. Karen Gabriel, a scholar of women’s development in India, writes in “The Importance of Being Gandhi” that this movie reveals “the orthodoxy of the relations that are usually forged between gender, sexuality, power and religious and national identity.” The same violent thirst for vengeance and emotionless sexuality, “Playing Krishna” in a sense, of Bachchan’s films is replicated to create Kamalahasan’s idealized, hyper-masculine protagonist. In even more recent films, top Hindi film stars employ parts Bachchan’s model of masculinity in such movies as Jodhaa Akbar and Ghajini (both released in 2008) to assert their own masculinity. In Jodhaa Akbar, though, romance between the main characters is central to the narrative. Akbar (played by Hrithik Roshan) maintains his duties and focus beyond his love for Jodhaa—he is not incapacitated by an emotional relationship with a woman. Additionally, as they do not consummate their marriage until

NON-FICTION nearly the end of the film, Roshan demonstrates his masculinity through violence if not through virility. As a warrior king, Akbar has the same primary duty of violence as Bachchan’s wronged, angry man and is shown fighting with great strength in battle. In addition, there is a scene in the middle of the film where Roshan’s character is practicing sword fighting shirtless in his palace, at first unaware that his new wife is watching from nearby. This extended scene focuses on Roshan’s half-naked body and uses the same technique as in Deewaar to assert the character’s masculinity—in this case exposing the male form, specifically in the context of violence. In Ghajini Aamir Khan’s character briefly revives the angry man genre in a film about the main character’s violent search for justice in a corrupt world. After his fiancée is killed and he is severely injured, the protagonist disconnects himself from the world to focus only on building his strength and killing the murderer. Though in neither of these films does the male lead entirely embody Bachchan’s archetypal masculinity—in Jodhaa Akbar Roshan’s character is very emotionally invested in his relationship with a woman and in Ghajini, the narrative is entirely underscored by romance as well—these characters are still quite masculine. Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan, as well as the previously mentioned Malayali stars Mohan Lal and Mammootty, exemplify Connell’s theory of multiple types of masculinity. The characters played by all of these actors, in addition to those created by Bachchan, are all undoubtedly masculine but do not demonstrate it in identical ways. Bachchan has created the model of masculinity against which all popular Hindi actors may be compared, but different genres and narratives allow for contemporary masculinity to have varied representations. The notable exception to this hypermasculinity among today’s Hindi film superstars is Shah Rukh Khan—an actor whose roles seem to reject any attempt at embodying either the masculine ideal formed by Bachchan or by heroes of the epics such as the Mahabharata, and embrace instead an ambiguous sexuality that at times may also be considered “metrosexual” or feminine. In countless films, including some of the highest grossing Hindi movies of all time, Khan plays characters who are interested almost exclusively in their quest for love, who are profoundly affected by women, and for whom the existence of sex or violence within the narrative serves only to highlight their lack of masculinity.

In his exploration of rasas, University of Connecticut Professor of Postcolonial and World Literature Patrick Colm Hogan explains that each dramatic work should be identifiable by a primary rasa. “The primary rasa should be known and clear from the outset,” he says, “the rasa was not based on surprise. It was well known from the start so that the audience members could focus on that particular rasa and thus experience it more fully.” Hogan attempts to prove that the primary rasas of Khan’s films are neither the Vira (heroic) nor Adbhuta (marvelous) rasas often associated with heroes in film and definitely attributable to Bachchan’s revenge films. Instead, audiences expect primary rasas of Karuna (pathetic) or Sringara (erotic/love) from Khan’s films—rasas that are generally associated with the mother figure and the heroine, respectively. The primary way in which Bachchan evoked Vira was through his unmatched fighting skills. Though Khan does not refrain from engaging in physical combat in his films, he often loses. In the indulgently romantic film Om Shanti Om (2007), Khan fights multiple men at once—something Bachchan does successfully in almost all of his early films—in an effort to save the woman he loves. Not only does he fail to drive the men away and save the heroine, but he is also so battered that he walks into traffic and is killed almost immediately afterward. “Fighting has been a signifier of masculinity in all cinema, but in Bombay cinema fighting, and violent action in general, take on an extra significance because masculinity and femininity are not very clearly demarcated, especially in romantic social films,” Sharma writes. In this romantic film, where masculinity needs more than ever to be asserted through fighting, Khan’s character loses his fight and thereby his demarcation as masculine, evoking rasas of Karuna and Sringara, which render his sexuality ambiguous. Where Bachchan’s angry young men never lose their drive for vengeance, Khan’s characters can be distracted from any ambition by a love interest. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001) Khan’s character Rahul plans his life and education around taking over his father’s company; however, when his father forbids him from marrying the girl he loves, Rahul gives up his family and future career to leave with her. Similarly, in Asoka (2008) Khan plays a wronged and exiled prince who, instead of seeking vengeance for the injustices perpetrated against him, forgets his misfortune when


NON-FICTION he falls in love with a girl. This is in stark contrast to the more masculine portrayal of a ruler in Jodhaa Akbar, in which romance was important, but Akbar remained focused on his duties as king and on his ambition to rule the subcontinent even after falling in love. Khan’s characters repeatedly get overwhelmed with feelings for a woman and distracted from a mission, be it in searching for personal justice or fulfilling an ambition, thereby standing in utter contrast to Bachchan’s focused, driven, and strongwilled masculine paradigm. As is common in the narratives of Hindi popular cinema, the male lead in many of Bachchan’s films is completely devoted to his mother. While most of Khan’s characters demonstrate this same unconditional loyalty to the mother, they stray from the masculine ideal by often being reliant on her and many other people as well. In Bachchan’s films his relationship with his mother serves to enhance his masculinity—in Deewaar the lead character Vijay works with the mob and murders people all for the sake of making enough money to provide a very comfortable life for his mother. He is a strong, independent male who loves his mother but does not rely on any other character in the movie for support. Though prior to Khan’s films the mother figure traditionally enhanced a son’s masculinity in this

sexuality in Deewaar or his role as Mala’s protector in Zanjeer—Khan’s romances highlight his lack thereof; not only is he so consumed with the emotions (not sex) associated with love, but he even needs his romances to be arranged by a young girl. By always being the one to pursue, and sometimes be rejected, within his romantic narratives, Khan plays the pathetic feminine role in Bachchan’s model of sexuality. In all of his movies previously mentioned, as well as in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008), Veer Zaara(2004), Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), and Om Shanti Om, to name a few, Khan’s character spends a significant part of the movie pursuing and winning over his love interest. Women have power over him and many times play the more distant, ambivalent role within the romance, which Bachchan always did to assert his masculinity. In Beyond Bollywood, Jigna Desai, Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Minnesota, does acknowledge that the post-diasporic female has relatively greater purpose and agency. However, by ceding the power within romance to the women—by chasing them, waiting for them, or being rejected by them—Khan cedes a large part of his perceived masculinity to them as well. Though song and dance have featured prominently in Hindi popular cinema since nearly

“... Shah Rukh Khan—an actor whose roles seem to reject any attempt at embodying either the masculine ideal formed by Bachchan or by heroes of the epics such as the Mahabharata, and embrace instead an ambiguous sexuality that at times may also be considered ‘metrosexual’ or feminine.” way, Ravi S. Vasudevan of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies writes in Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, “traditional form, far from being fixed or fixing of cinematic convention, has been selective and open to revision.” Demonstrating such a revision, in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) Khan’s character, again named Rahul, is shown being emotionally and otherwise reliant on the help of his mother and daughter in both his day-to-day and romantic lives. The mother becomes a symbol of his lack of masculinity. In addition, it is actually his daughter who orchestrates the meeting between him and his love, Anjali. As Bachchan’s tangential interaction with women highlighted his masculinity—be it in his


its inception, by singing, dancing, and dressing in revealing clothing in many of his movies Khan associates himself with feminine sexuality. Lovesick, his characters have sung many songs that have turned into major hits across India and the world. However, the ambiguity of his sexuality likely peaks with the item number “Dard-E-Disco” he performs in Om Shanti Om. In “Hidden Pleasures: Negotiating the Myth of the Female Ideal in Popular Hindi Cinema,” Indian drama critic and instructor Asha Kasbekar writes that the item number is, “a recurring feature in the song-and-dance extravaganzas where the woman’s fetishized representation is central to the spectacle, is

NON-FICTION the staged dance performance and almost all Hindi films include at least one such ‘public’ exhibition… Historically, the staged song-and dance performances with the leading female star offering herself to the erotic male gaze, has been a crucial, commercially driven component of Indian cinema.” Khan’s performance of this song conforms to this description perfectly, except for the fact that he is technically male: his representation is on a stage, fetishized, and central to the spectacle as his shirt is unbuttoned, his chest wet and shining, and wind is blowing through his hair. By participating in an element of the film that again is usually reserved for the female, Khan continues to make the sexuality of his characters ambiguous, verging on feminine. Though there is the potential for a homoerotic gaze, it is not well established in mainstream cinema; Desai explains that in diasporic films such as Khan’s, “heteronormativity functions as a site of cultural authenticity… [and] as a key component of South Asian diasporic cultural nationalisms.” Thus by performing for “the erotic male gaze” in a heteronormative context, Khan eliminates his character’s own masculinity and submits to that of the gazer. In three parallel and telling narrative elements, one can see the utter imbalance of masculinity between Bachchan’s characters and those of Khan. By examining the nature of the main characters’ dream sequences, paternal relationships, and portrayal in bed with women it is clear that the ambiguity of the latter’s character’s masculinity is profound and purposeful. In each Zanjeer and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham the male leads have a dream sequence that is important to the narrative and also demonstrates the male character’s relative masculinity. In Zanjeer, Vijay has a recurring dream with horse imagery, a phallic symbol in Indian culture. “What Zanjeer does is connect the power of horse symbolism (always threatening, always ambiguous) with the figure of Amitabh Bachchan,” Vijay Mishra, Professor of English Literature at Murdoch University, Perth, writes in his book Bollywood Cinema. The film uses the narrative element of a dream sequence to reinforce Vijay’s hyper-masculine persona, as his masculinity reaches beyond his physical being into the subconscious realm. In complete contrast, Khan’s character, Rahul, has a dream sequence that is essentially a sexless daydream about a woman. Khan forgoes the masculine practice of fetishizing the female body to fantasize primarily about the emotional aspects of a romantic relationship.

photo via Wikimedia Commons wiki/File:Shah_Rukh_Khan_(Berlin_Film_Festival_2008)_4.1.jpg Shahrukh Khan

While the early death or disappearance of the father in Deewaar and Zanjeer serves to enhance the son’s masculinity within the film, Khan’s character Rahul is emasculated by his own father in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. By disowning his adopted son and ignoring him as he kneels crying before him, Rahul’s father—interestingly played by Bachchan himself—exerts total power over his son and claims the masculinity in the relationship entirely for himself. This is a sharp contrast to what Sharma writes of the angry young man: “In the narrative he [Bachchan’s character] becomes a ‘man’ and ‘head’ of the family when his father is killed…It allows the son to become the central male protagonist.” Instead of being the head of the family and exerting his masculinity, Khan’s character is cast out by his own family, severing the very familial ties that allow any male in India to define himself and his masculinity. Not only do Khan’s characters seem to intentionally reject the male ideal, but also in scenes like this other characters in the film actively strip them of their masculinity. Again in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, after Rahul and Anjali marry and move to London, a scene opens with the married couple in bed. Instead of an image evoking masculinity and sex as the shot of shirtless Bachchan in bed with Anita does in Deewaar, Khan is shown fully dressed with cotton in his ears. By


NON-FICTION stripping the character of the epitome of masculinity that the marriage bed can convey—being sexual and the head of a family—Khan seems to once again flout an important aspect of masculinity. As Sharma explains, the people and context around a particular man shape his masculinity, and correspondingly the women surrounding Khan’s characters regularly dismantle his masculinity. His characters are consistently ridiculed by and vulnerable to others in the film—the opposite of the powerful, controlling masculine ideal. “The self is not based on individual self-perception but is dependent on others and other formations for its psychological and moral coherence,” Vasudevan writes. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai Rahul loses to Anjali in basketball early in

films consistently emasculate and overpower him, leaving the sexuality of his characters all the more ambiguous. Ultimately, Bachchan and Khan are heroes for different classes, and the way in which they acknowledge this and relate to their audience is the final, metaphysical assertion of their characters’ relative masculinity. In the 1970s and 80s Bachchan was the slum-eyed hero who emphasized, according to Sharma, “the importance of strength and endurance in contemporary urban India,” at a time when a need for vengeance and action resonated deeply with the oppressed lower classes. Khan, on the other hand is the hero of the 1990s and 2000s, of, as Rachel Dwyer of SOAS says, the “big-budget, plushy, romantic films,

“These indulgent romances are selfish in their unwillingness to address the deep-rooted social problems of India in the 1990s and forfeit their last shred of masculinity by failing to act as their audiences’ protector.”

the film, and later when he professes his love for her she runs away and he has to wait for her answer—his fate in her hands. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Rahul lights a match and puts it out on his tongue in an effort to impress Anjali; this otherwise masculine demonstration of strength is immediately undermined when he flinches and acknowledges that it hurt. In Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge Simran calls Raj, Khan’s character, up to a stage to play piano. Though he can actually play piano well, Raj makes a fool of himself for a few minutes, slamming on the keys and allowing Simran the pleasure of humiliating him. And finally in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna Dev faces ultimate emasculation: his wife is the provider of the family, leaving him with little role within the family unit. “The production of the normative household through the institution of marriage is the ultimate outcome of the processes of gendering,” the Osellas write, and as such Khan fails to properly gender his character in this respect. He is a “pawan,” an unsuccessful man who fails to provide for his dependents “and is thereby left without the means to...demonstrate personal masculine prestige.” In this movie his character is also shown asking for sex advice from a woman, thereby submitting not only the traditional masculine role of being a provider but also that of being sexually competent and knowledgeable to women. In this way the female characters in Khan’s


which…mark the dominance of the values of the new middle classes.” His films represent a cultural dominance of the middle class and a lack of enduring interest in resonating with and relating to lower classes. The social and political conditions in India were challenging in both the 1980s and 1990s, and the way the bulk of each actor’s films acknowledge this— or fail to—is the ultimate marker of their characters’ masculinity. Bachchan’s films related to a confused and suffering part of India’s population, letting them escape into a universe in which the ills they suffered would be avenged. The angry young man genre, though related to the personal injustices of the main character, acknowledged the needs of its audience and sought to protect them to an extent. Khan’s films commit their ultimate, metaphysical discarding of masculinity by failing to protect their audiences in any way. These indulgent romances are selfish in their unwillingness to address the deep-rooted social problems of India in the 1990s and forfeit their last shred of masculinity by failing to act as their audiences’ protector. Nikila Sri-Kumar is a senior at Yale studying Economics and South Asian Studies. She hopes to eventually pursue a career in development economics. She was inspired to write about the enigma that is Shahrukh Khan after taking a seminar called “Understanding Bollywood” last year. She can be reached at

Lessons from Jamkhed to Cleveland

Kermit Jones

In Health Care Cost Reduction, India: 1, U.S.: 0 Interesting things happen when one takes the per capita cost of health care in the United States, roughly $7700, and performs a few exercises in multiplication and division. When multiplied by any number between three and twelve, you get a new number that falls within the wide range of costs for heart surgery in the U.S: 20,000 to $100,000. However, when you divide the U.S. per capita cost of health care by three you get the average cost of open heart surgery in a place about 8,000 miles outside of the U.S.: Bangalore, India. In the game for innovation in health care delivery and cost reduction, India is innovating in ways that should cause America, in particular American physicians, to want to learn as much, and as quickly, as possible. Narayana Hrudayalaya, a 5,000 bed health care center in Bangalore, boasts one of the largest health centers in the world. Started in 2001 by Dr. Devi Shetty, a British trained cardiac surgeon, it has become a regional magnetic for health care. 40 cardiac surgeons perform between 30 to 50 general cardiac surgeries per day and 60 to 70 pediatric heart surgeries per week. In 2008, they performed over 3,000 heart surgeries, with their 30-day mortality rate for coronary-artery bypass surgery, one of its most common procedures, at 1.4 percent, compared to the U.S. average of 1.9 percent. Soon, American physicians won’t have to make

K.S. Vasuki, Corporate General Manager at Narayana, informed me by phone one February morning. “Hopefully by 2012 we’ll be able to better supply the market of westerners that need more affordable health care.” Right, I thought to myself jokingly. We’ve been sending jobs to South Asia for at least two decades. Then we started sending patients. The least the physicians at Narayana could do is to make it easier for us hand them our economy by cutting seven thousand miles off the distance the patients will have to travel to get to them. Health insurance companies are definitely appreciating the effort being made by overseas hospitals like Narayana to meet western patients half way. To show how much they appreciate it, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of South Carolina recently created a subsidiary to help their patients travel overseas to receive less expensive health care. When I traveled to India in 2004 for a medical rotation at Christian Medical College and Hospital I received a firsthand look at the ways that India is reducing costs in health care delivery. I commented to a clinical preceptor about how nice it was that one of the patients’ families had brought them lunch. The physician laughed. “If they didn’t bring them lunch what else would they eat?” he asked. I shrugged. “Hospital food?”

“…take the poor and the partially illiterate—two groups in abundance in India—and teach them how to deliver basic health care to their neighbors and family members.” an 8,000 mile trek to observe firsthand how Narayana is achieving economies of scale by concentrating all of its referral entities in one central location and reducing their marginal costs by driving large volumes of patients. “We’re coming to the Cayman Islands,” Mr.

“Hospital food? You think we actually feed the patients?” As a matter of fact, in many cases they did not feed the patients more than once a day. The hospital also did not provide the patients with extra blankets or pillows. They slept on thin cots in rooms with no



Photo via Flickr An operation room in a U.S. hospital

privacy and in many cases no television. But where the hospital skimped on amenities the patient saved in costs, while still receiving some of the best care, oftentimes for free. India seems to be beating us American physicians in health care innovation outside of the patient’s

global deficit of nearly 2.4 million doctors, nurses, and midwives in over fifty-seven countries. An organization called the Comprehensive Rural Health Project, based in the small Maharashtran city of Jamkhed, has been addressing the physician shortage in their state with an innovative medical

“But where the hospital skimped on amenities the patient saved in costs, while still receiving some of the best care, oftentimes for free.” beds as well by using health care to heal societal as well as corporeal wounds. Many countries struggle with staffing rural clinics with physicians even though in some instances it in these places that the need is the greatest. This is one of the many reasons that the World Health Organization estimated that there is a


educational system based more on results than medical conventions. Dr. Raj and Mabelle Arole designed a system to take the poor and the partially illiterate—two groups in abundance in India—and teach them how to deliver basic health care to their neighbors and family members. Additionally, they provide information

NON-FICTION has noble roots. But in many instances physicians comabout sanitation and nutrition to plain that it stifles attempts to create efficient supply these communities. chains. And antitrust laws, if too broadly interpreted, “We start them out slowly can prevent physicians from efficient organizational and we build their confidence, structures that could make the cost reduction goals of teaching them to believe in themthe 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act a selves and trust that they are valureality. able. Then we teach them how to As seeking health care abroad becomes easier be health workers,” said Dr. Shobha

“We’ve been sending jobs to South Asia for at least two decades. Then we started sending patients.”



Arole, the daughter of the Aroles and now medical director of the program. The Rural Health Project’s strength comes from its results. For 38 years, in over 300 villages their health workers have been providing everything in terms of health care to their patients, to the effect that in the villages where the program is active, the infant mortality rate has been cut in half. “Many of our workers aren’t initially accepted in their villages,” said Arole. Social norms about caste often overrule human rights, equality, and even public needs. “But when they see our results, many of them come to realize that health matters a great deal more than social posi-

The situation in America is not exactly analogous to that of India, so enacting similar innovations to the U.S. health care system could be tricky. In India, a combination of private, public, and Non-Governmental Organization-based financing funds pays the majority of the U.S. $45 per capita spent on healthcare. The needs of an American population where a combination of government-based, individual, and employer-sponsored insurance covers approximately 85 percent of the population, would be different. On the legal side, a number of laws set up potential barriers to those who would try to adapt the Indian models to American hospitals. The Stark (“anti-kickback”) laws, originally conceived to decrease Medicare fraud by preventing physician referrals to diagnostic entities owned by the referring physician,

for Americans, U.S. physicians must be the ones to lead the way in repairing our health care system as they are conspicuously absent in efforts to combat many of its market failures. Yet the promising efficiencies of Electronic Medical Record movements take hold only at the behest of government administrators, a few hybrid provider-payer organizations, and health information specialists. Insurers are the ones driving the innovation in physician-patient information asymmetries by providing financial incentives for them to take better care of themselves through wellness programs. But instead of joining together to lobby for the legal flexibility and innovation to reduce health care delivery costs, many physicians seem content to hope that congress will perpetually override the payment reductions required under Medicare’s sustainable growth rate calculations, which could, if allowed to proceed unmolested, reduce reimbursement rates for physicians by over 20 percent. American physicians have never had to worry about these matters. Few see the need to study the comparative effectiveness of alternative delivery systems or learn about organizational structures that could reduce cost and increase value for their patients. If things continue the way they are, no matter our number of medical discoveries, India and a host of other nations will continue to siphon off U.S. patients as the American health care system prices out more and more of its own citizens. These nations can show us the tools for effectively reorganizing medical systems in ways that reduce cost but not quality in medicine. But it will be up to us, as physicians, and as a nation, to decide to use them. Kermit L. Jones is an MD, JD and a Masters of Public Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He may be reached at


The Art of Chant

Chaitanya Medicherla

Preserving the Sacred Vedic Oral Tradition The tradition of Vedic chanting is a sacred Hindu practice that both preserves Vedic texts and is means for realizing their intended spiritual effects through their recitation. The oral transmission of each verse is strictly defined in terms of the fine subtleties in intonation, meter, style, and inflections of notes—all of which is not entirely conveyed through the text. Having noted the necessity of oral transmission to capture the nuances, Vedic scholars from approximately 2000 B.C. devised various innovative techniques to preserve the verses and their chanting. These efforts have proven highly effective in ensuring the survival of chants in their original form. As a result, we can now chronologically track mutations and external influences on the verses. However influences such as regionalism, caste, and pop-culture have effected Vedic recitation. While these systematic techniques are effective in preserving the accuracy of a verse, they are unable to defend against the gradual diminishing of the tradition of chanting itself. In essence, Vedic chanting has been unable to maintain its own existence despite its highly sacred, systematic, and structured nature. The purpose of this discussion, then, is to consider these external influences and the means by which they have altered, reshaped, and diluted Vedic recitation. And in so doing, we hope to realize new methods of preserving this sacred tradition. In order to accurately assess the nature of degradation, one must first briefly consider the techniques involved in Vedic chanting that allow for the preservation of the myriad of verses. The most prevalent methods fall into the category called patha, Sanskrit for recitation. There exist two main forms of recitation for each verse, prakritic and vikritic. Prakritic recitations do not change the word order. They either logically combine the words based on Sanskrit sandhi rules, samhitapatha, or present the words individually, padapatha. To appreciate the power of these techniques, consider the verse 5.2.7 from the Rig Veda, which in samhitapatha reads: sunaiscicchepam niditam sahasrad yupad amuncah. In padapatha, the chanter


does not adhere to sandhi rules, and each word is separated, unmodified, to its independent form: sunahsepam cit niditam shasrat yupat amuncah. Samhitapatha, with its extensive use of sandhi, presents a smooth transition of words that yields a chant-like melody, whereas the divisions inherent in padapatha seemingly disrupt the natural flow. However, in deriving the original words from samhitapatha, one risks altering or misinterpreting verse due to the multiple locations of division. Contextual clues will often aid in arriving at the proper definition. In padapatha form, however, Vedic chanting avoids ambiguity altogether. In contrast to prakritic recitations, vikritic recitations change word order extensively often grouping adjacent words into pairs or triplets and presenting phrases in forward and in reverse order. A three-line verse can become as long as twenty-six lines when recited in the most complex form of the vikritic recitation, ghanapatha. The repetition of each word several times drives the memorization process. The one reciting the chant, however, takes great care to preserve the sonority and timbres of particular syllables regardless of the order of pronunciation. The subsequent connections made between various sounds in forward and reverse order cement the relative locations of the words. While reversing the order of an English phrase such as “John killed Bob” would read “Bob killed John,” Sanskrit can avoid these alternative translations since word order and grammatical meaning are derived from word-endings. The recitations are also combined with particular hand and body gestures, mudras, that “mark specific melodic motifs or phrases,” according to scholar of Vedic chanting Wayne Howard, that must be intoned, thereby adding to the holistic approach of understanding and memorizing each verse. Layering each verse with several forms of recitation and gesticulation serves as a proof-reading mechanism—any alteration in one form of recitation drastically changes the meter and thus causes an inconsistency when subjected to cross-analysis against other recitations. These techniques, though, preserve

NON-FICTION semantic meaning and avoid external influences. One affairs. From an organizational point of view, this facould argue, however, that the complexities of the cilitates specialization and, in turn, fosters preservation tradition contribute to its demise. Namely, proper of tradition. The chaturvarna system, however, no lonlearning of these various forms of recitation demands ger serves its original purpose, and now reinforces the tremendous dedication by students. And training manipulation of seemingly lower classes. This form of requires strict regimens and active critical listening by castialism is considered unethical for it withholds natugurus. But such an argument overlooks the complexral individual rights. In fact, some regions of India ity that arises naturally in any tradition which hopes that adhere to highly oppressive and discriminatory to transmit information without fail through several policies claim that a shudra, an untouchable, is, as Saral millennia. Complexity is both essential and inevitable. Jhingram writes in Aspects of Hindu Morality, “not One of the main detrimental forces facing allowed to perform Vedic sacrifices or read or listen to Vedic chanting also disrupts the very cultural unity of the Vedas.” Such policies of discrimination and oppresIndia. India is split sion, not based in into several regions the original chaturlargely based on varna system, have language. While outraged many in the tradition of modern society Vedic chanting is and continue to Sanskritic, many fuel efforts to elimwords are misproinate caste. This is nounced due to the certainly a positive lack of sounds and movement in that characters in other it facilitates class languages. One mobility, fosters commonly cited progressive ideas example is the misof equality, and pronunciation by promotes national many Tamil speakstability. ing Nambudiri But setBrahmins of the ting aside the word “pracodayat” positive effects as “pracodayal” in of abolishing the the Gayatri Mancaste system, there tra. Sanskrit also are detriments relies heavily on to demolishing photo via Wikimedia Commons unusual syllabic such traditional conjuncts which ideological sysVedic Text are not commonly tems. Surely, the used in languages such as Hindi. This often results in original Brahmin-varna aided in preserving the Vedic mispronunciation of verses. Whether this limits the tradition, but so did the misconstrued Brahmin class realization of the intended meanings cannot be ascerof the oppressive caste-system. Vedic scholarship was tained. To be sure, the proliferation of such pronunconsidered a privilege granted only to the people of ciations can only distance modern recitation from its this high class. They held the power of the Vedas in sacred past. their hand and were considered not only significant The diminishing strength of the caste system members of society, but also a necessary part of Hindu also undercuts the traditional transmission of Vedic religious life. This served as an incentive for those of chants. The Rig Veda speaks of a chaturvarna systhe Brahmin class to pursue Vedic scholarship and tem which divides Hindu society into four varnas, commit their entire lives to the practice and preservaor categories, based on occupation. A Brahmin class tion of the tradition. Today, the question of responconducts rituals, recites mantras, and tends to spiritual sibility arises as quotas, constitutional amendments,


NON-FICTION and various other legal actions blur the boundaries and as Deva Premal’s Gayatri Mantra and movies such as The Matrix trilogy which draw from Hindu philosolessen the exclusivity of this class. Many individuals phies “bring about some good such as raising mass from other castes now have the opportunity and responsibility to practice and preserve Vedic chants. But awareness of the culture.” A well known example is George Harrison’s popularization of the Hare Krishna anyone who would suspect this change to increase the movement through songs such as “My Sweet Lord.” number of chant practitioners would be disappointed. Many reasons, such as an insufficient number of Vedic It topped the charts throughout Europe and brought countless individuals into contact with Vedic culture. schools, and distracting effects of modernization are Harrison, a Krishna devotee himself, sought to raise probable causes for the lack of chanting’s proliferaawareness of the spiritual effects of mantras, namely tion among other castes. Perhaps the prime reason the Maha Mantra, and agreed with the Vedic belief involves the popularity of other lucrative professions: “Nowadays, students are reluctant and their parents are that, in his words, “mystical energy [is] encased in a sound structure.” Dasa adds that because the music is reluctant because they want academic studies so that devotional and does not defame or mock the tenets of their children can get a better job,” says Geeta Pandey of the BBC News. As the number of Brahmins practic- Hinduism, it aids in attaining that which Vedic chanting tries ultimately to achieve—enlightenment. ing Vedic chanting decreases and the number of nonThe positive awareness engendered by these Brahmins involved remains stagnant, the oral tradition individuals may lead to greater investigative efforts by as a whole suffers greatly. scholars. This is best demonstrated by Pandit Sitaram, The question arises as to whether the numa famous Vedic scholar and head of the Veda Vidya ber of non-Brahmins who practice Vedic chanting is Gurkul in Delhi, India. Pandit Sitaram, along with actually stagnant. If one considers globalization and fellow scholar Siva Prasad Tata, gathers various Vedic technological advancements which facilitate dissemischolars and records recitations of the Vedas. Sitaram nation of Vedic chants, we realize that the number provides these recordings free to the public, further of non-Brahmins and even non-Indians and nonfacilitating scholarly investigation and discussion by Hindus involved in this tradition is increasing. Yet this has resulted in a loss of authenticity. Deva Premal, those seeking to unearth Vedic tradition. Though we have already lost recitations such as the Jaminiya Braha popular German based singer fuses new-age music mana due to the demise of Vedic schools and the death with Sanskrit verses. Her most popular composiof esteemed Vedic scholars, it is through the efforts of tion, Gayatri Mantra from the album The Essence, is a Sitaram, Dasa, Premal, Harrison and many others that fusion of the aforementioned Hindu mantra. While the oral tradition of Vedic chanting continues to thrive. it preserves some qualities of the chant such as meter As awareness increases through recordings of genuine and a surprisingly sacred atmosphere, it overlooks the strict rules of intonation and tempo. The popularity of chants, new-age music, movies, and the popularity of Yoga, efforts to maintain this tradition will undoubtedsuch fusions spreads misconstrued forms of the tradily increase. The United Nations Educational, Scientific tional chanting of the mantra. Western Yoga centers use these chants as background music during sessions, and Cultural Organization recognized Vedic chanting which further leads people ignorant of the Vedic tradi- as an “intangible heritage of humanity,” claiming that, “in the age of globalization and modernization when tion to believe that such a rendition represents Vedic cultural diversity is under pressure, preservation of orthodoxy. Conservatives such as Taikkat Nilakanthe oral tradition of Vedic chanting—a unique cultural than, a highly learned Vedic scholar and organizer heritage—has great significance.” Hope lies in posterof the 1990 Somayagam, a large Vedic ritual held in India, was critical of even video recordings of the 2003 ity’s ability to seek such recognition and to use it in preserving Vedic culture. Oral traditions decay, but Somayagam. Likely, he and many other Vedic elites it is our duty to actively explore and preserve them so would be appalled by new-age fusion of mantras. In this very modernization and fusion, though, that we may continue to enjoy the wisdom of our past. one may yet find a method through which to preserve Chaitanya Medicherla is a junior at Columbia UniverVedic chanting. Pandit Gadadhara Dasa, the Hindu sity majoring in Biophysics. He enjoys playing tennis chaplain and religious counselor of Columbia Uniand listening to South Asian classical music. He may can versity, invites western influences into Hindu tradireached at tions. Dasa claims that new-age fusion music such



India’s “Spectacular” Criminals

Radha Kumar

Thugs, Dacoits, and the Legacy of British Colonial Law

Image via Wikimedia Commons Group of Thugs

There are thugs at Jubulpore from all quarters of India; from Lodheeana to the Carnatick, and from the Indus to the Ganges… A Thug considers the persons murdered precisely in the light of victims offered up to the Goddess… He meditates his murders without any misgivings, he perpetrates them without any emotions of pity, and he remembers them without any feelings of remorse. India is emphatically the land of superstition and in this land the system of Thuggee, the most extraordinary that has ever been recorded in the history of the human race, had found a congenial soil… The horrendous crime of Thuggee described here by W.H. Sleeman took center-stage in early nineteenthcentury British India. Thugs quickly became an object of Orientalist fascination, whether in Philip Taylor’s book, Confessions of a Thug (apparently a favorite of the Empress Victoria) or in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, where Phileas Fogg mixes his oriental myths and rescues a sati from a thug. The thug’s appeal was long lasting, and as late as 1984, intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones combated a Thuggee cult in India. In these depictions, thugs were roving bands of

murderers, that moved in secret fraternities, had their own secret language, and passed on their trade from father to son. They killed unsuspecting travellers (whom they first befriended) by strangling them with a rumaal, a handkerchief. The Goddess Kali watched over the Thugs, and in return they offered her the blood of their victims. Sleeman’s task, as Commissioner for Suppression of Thuggee and Dacoity, was to rid India of this scourge. The other crime featured in Sleeman’s portfolio was not quite so colourful. A dacoit is a uniquely Indian sort of bandit. Often, he is no hero—neither in official accounts nor in popular perception. The Oxford English Dictionary defines him merely as “a member of a class of robbers in India and Burma, who plunder in armed bands.” But if the dacoit did not excite the western imagination much, in India itself the legacy of the term lasted longer than that of the thug. While Sleeman could boast that Thuggee had been exterminated by the mid-nineteenth century, dacoity has continued until the present day, albeit in new avatars. The most famous dacoits of the twentieth century were Gabbar Singh, the iconic villain of Hindi blockbuster Sholay, and Phoolan Devi, his real-life coun-


NON-FICTION terpart. Phoolan, who allegedly terrorized the people of the Chambal ravines in north-central India in the 1970s and ’80s, finally surrendered to the state police and spent over a decade in jail. She captured the imagination of the nation, was the subject of a movie titled Bandit Queen, and even won election to the Indian parliament upon her release from jail. The narrative on thugs and dacoits has thus taken several twists and turns, and at times reached deadends, in the past two centuries. How can we explain these changes? In truth, Thuggee and dacoity are not coherent crimes with certain well-defined characteristics as appears from their representations in nineteenth century judicial records. Rather, their differing definitions represent the changing attempts of an expanding colonial state to contain threats to its political stability. In deconstructing these crimes, the judicial re-

domain. Officials frowned upon vagrancy and often simply criminalized it. Marauding bands—whether they were mercenaries supporting a local ruler, common robbers, or murderers—thus invited its ire. Officials—notably Sleeman, who originally belonged to the Bengal Army—tended to gloss over differences between several such groups, and proclaimed them to be thugs, part of an all-India order of criminals. Colonial officials found Thuggee a difficult crime to track down: its perpetrators were itinerant, lived outside the pale of civilization, and left no witnesses behind after committing their ghastly crimes. Accordingly, the early colonial state devised new legal measures to capture and convict thugs. A special Thuggee and Dacoity Department—independent of the regular police and judiciary, and with more extensive powers —was set up, and the Thuggee Act (XXX of 1836) was

“What distinguishes thugs from dacoits? Thugs were murderers, but they also robbed. Dacoits were robbers, but they also killed.” cords and confessions made by “approvers”—thugs and dacoits who turned informers for the state—are valuable resources. A close reading of these confessions calls into question the depiction of Thuggee and dacoity in colonial accounts. Indeed, historians such as Kim Wagner and Stewart Gordon have engaged in precisely this task. Their work describes the context of political turmoil which enabled banditry to flourish in parts of eighteenth and nineteenth century India. This banditry, painted by British officials in vivid Orientalist colours, emerged as the exotic crimes of Thuggee and dacoity. One should not, however, try solely to understand the historical truth of Thuggee or dacoity in isolation. Instead, one must sketch the larger trajectory of colonial perception of Indian communal criminality. This trajectory includes not only Thuggee and dacoity but also extends to the enactment of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Furthermore, the colonial state’s perception of criminality and the measures it took to counter it evolved in tune with the changing discourse that legitimized colonial rule. British officials first encountered Thuggee in the early nineteenth century, as the East India Company expanded its presence in the face of increasing local opposition. Officials complained that native chiefs harboured criminals active in regions adjoining princely territories, which were the frontiers of Company


passed. The Act was unlike any other in many respects: it applied even in areas not directly under Company jurisdiction and it freed itself of obstacles to conviction stemming from Islamic law’s evidentiary requirements. The law never clearly defined Thuggee, yet it made membership in a gang of thugs a legal offence. The rate of convictions skyrocketed and punishments were severe. In the decade following 1826, when the operations for the suppression of thugs began, Company courts tried 1562 individuals, sentencing 1450 of them to death, transportation or imprisonment. Of the remaining hundred-odd accused, some died and others escaped before the sentence was awarded. Only 21 were acquitted, and as many as 49 were “made approver.” By 1840, Sleeman declared Thuggee destroyed. The colonial state now shifted its attention to the less horrific but nonetheless serious crime of dacoity. Act XXIV of 1843 extended the provisions of the Thuggee Act to dacoity. As in the case of Thuggee, the law criminalized dacoity without ever clearly defining it. Like with Thuggee, the state perceived dacoity as a hereditary and communal crime. Membership in a gang of dacoits justified conviction and punishment. The campaign against dacoity, however, was not as ruthless or short-lived as the one against Thuggee. It continued until the end of the century, losing steam along the way. The Thuggee and Dacoity Department itself was

NON-FICTION abolished in 1904 at which time the Central Criminal Intelligence Department was set up for, according to its charter, the suppression of “dacoits, wandering groups of criminals, professional poisoners etc.” In the nineteenth century campaign against hereditary criminal gangs, the approver played a key role. An import from British law, the approver was created as a judicial category for the express purpose of catching and convicting thugs. An approver was one of the accused who turned (or was made) State’s Witness in the hopes of a pardon. In the event that he presented evidence enough to convict his co-accused, the approver won pardon; if not, he was sentenced. The approver’s testimony was vital for Thuggee and dacoity cases where the nature of the crime precluded the availability of other witnesses or evidence. The reams of confessions made by thugs and dacoits served not only judicial purposes; they also helped construct the myth of these oriental crimes, legitimized the colonial state’s action against them, and finally, provided raw material for history-writing. Coming as it did from the voice of the criminal himself, the approver’s testimony held special sanctity in historians’ attempts to retrieve the past. It thus acquired an exalted status as evidence, not only in building the colonial narrative on Thuggee and dacoity, but also in later historiography that conceded the colonial state’s achievement in ending Thuggee. This unquestioning acceptance of the approver’s testimony was effectively challenged by historian Shahid Amin in his study of the Chauri Chaura “riot.” In 1922, a rioting mob burned a police station at Chauri Chaura with 23 policemen inside, bringing Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation movement to a grinding halt. Amin attempts to redeem the incident, long dismissed as a crime in both official and nationalist narratives. Key to this endeavour is a deconstruction of the testimony given by the approver in the Chauri Chaura case. Amin suggests that the confessions of the approver were produced within a field of power structured by the state and its judicial discourse. The approver’s testimony then, rather than recording the subaltern voice, served an instrumental purpose in the state’s coercive attempts to prosecute its rebels. But the significance of the approver’s testimony lay far deeper than revealing clearly the motives and structures behind its forced nature—it in fact played the primary role in building a narrative of the event for the prosecution and for the judgment. This judicial record was central to the construction of a popular histori-

cal narrative. Chauri Chaura was thus remembered as crime and riot. The need to question the approver’s testimony arises in Thuggee and dacoity cases as well. A deconstruction of the approver’s testimony reveals the dual role of the approver as accomplice and accuser. In order to win a pardon, the approver had to achieve convictions. And in order to achieve convictions, he had to implicate himself as well as others in the crime. This is seen repeatedly in approvers’ testimonies of Thuggee and dacoity cases, and also in the Chauri Chaura case. The testimony therefore was built as a sequence of what were seen as the essential elements of the crime. Consider, for instance, the following selections from a deposition made by witness Kadir Khan, “formerly a cultivator but for the (previous) twenty-one years a Thug by profession,” according to the court docu-

Image via Wikimedia Commons Phoolan Devi


NON-FICTION ments. him to lull his fears, strangle him, throw his corpse In the month of Augun, 1840, fuslee, Shumsherah, into a body of water, split the booty, and then go on Oozerah, Moradun, Bukus, Asmut, Mehar Ali and their way. The scores of thugs’ confessions recorded myself went on a Thuggy expedition to the westward, and enduring to today display an almost formulaic and reached the “Oude” territory. At “Chand Peradherence to this same pattern. taubpoer” we met Chuta Thug in company with a Confessions made by dacoits are fairly similar in traveller who was afterwards strangled and eleven the way they specify the names of the accused, includrupees with two or four cloths found on him… After ing that of the approver wherever possible. Details of walking some distance in the direction of Benares we time and place are as abundant. The sequence of events overtook two Mossulmen travelers with three bullhowever is a different one, but equally rigid across ocks. They went in with us to our halting place the various dacoits’ confessions. Here the events include: Dhurm Salah, at Kupuldharah. Towards daybreak assembling at a spot (usually outside the village to be we departed, and about a mile off near the banks of attacked), preparing the weapons, making Kali-puja, the Ganges, Mohur Singh and Goury strangled the arriving at the destination, smashing the doors, and travellers. We found on them five rupees, a sword, lighting torches. At this point some enter the targeted and two or three pieces of cloth. Mohur Singh took all house while others stand sentry outside. and drove the bullocks on before us. Our people threw How seriously can one take this ritual adherence the bodies into the river… to a pattern of events so scriptedly criminal? A critical Very early the following morning we proceeded reading of the approver’s confession suggests that the towards the west. It was then the month of Jeit, and state’s need to prosecute rebels already seen as thugs or the period of the Ghazy-meean festival. When we dacoits inflected the voice of the approver. Once one reached a tank we found two Sepoys and a Bearer deletes the overtly Orientalist elements from the above sitting there. We drank Toddy with them and all accounts—strangling with a rumaal, making Kaliwent on together… When one quarter of the night puja, ceremoniously lighting a torch and so forth—the only remained, we continued our journey and went crimes seem even more ordinary. Furthermore, the two miles on the Punch Cossy road, where there is works of historians Gordon, Wagner, David Arnold, a pucka well with two mangoe trees near it. There Martine van Wœrkens, and Radhika Singha indicate ‘Moma’ and ‘Imam Bux’ strangled the travellers, I that the official assumption that thugs (or dacoits) standing by. Thirty rupees, ten pieces of cloth and formed a closed fraternity tied by indissoluble bonds of two brass pots were found on them. There was also a community was not always valid. horse and a mare. We were then twenty-five persons. Such analyses question the authenticity of the Some of us threw the bodies into the well. My share colonial representation of Thuggee and dacoity as was a doputta and a rupee eight annas. The other coherent crimes. This is a conclusion that has already Thugs had their proportion. I took the mare and been reached in revisionist historiography on banditry, Mohur Singh the horse. From thence my companions crime and law in nineteenth century India. Yet this and myself separated from the gang and went home. body of writing continues to be limited in some ways Kadir Khan was at pains to prove his reliability as a by the colonial construction of these crimes. Colonial witness: the depth of detail regarding dates, places and thought still frames the details of the argument and names in his recollection of the events is impressive. therefore dictates many of the questions raised when He appears to have been especially keen on individudiscussing Thuggee and dacoity. Were thugs a closelyally identifying the guilty, including himself. Unequiv- bound fraternity? Did they actually come from one ocally stating who strangled and who watched, who community? Were dacoits assisted by the local poputhrew the bodies in the well and who split the booty, lation? And so forth. Each statement or investigation ensured his survival. He was very probably here tradstill on some level relies on colonial definitions of ing notes on the crime—real or tailored—in the hope Thuggee and dacoity. However, one should not deny of winning a pardon. that these are interesting questions that add to our There is a pattern to the events described above. understanding of the early colonial state. Each instance of the crime is marked by certain activiMore importantly though, the historiography ties: the thugs travel for a while, meet the unsuspecting still sticks to the not-entirely meaningful categories traveller, befriend him, possibly spend a night with constructed by the colonial narrative vis-a-vis Thug-


NON-FICTION gee and dacoity. In reality, the two crimes are not so to subdue vagrants that threatened its political order, different. What distinguishes thugs from dacoits? even while continuing to use coercive ones. Both worked in gangs and were itinerant. Thugs were For its part dacoity took on a life of its own. Turnmurderers, but they also robbed. Dacoits were robbers, of-the-twentieth century documents show subtle assobut they also killed. One was simply made more exotic ciations between dacoity and dry lands. Periodic publithan the other. If one breaks this wall and analyze both cations of the British government and local newspaper crimes in concert, one understands the true nature of reports remarked on the increase in crime every time the crimes and gets a better sense of changes in the co- there was a famine. Though the preoccupation with lonial state over the course of the nineteenth century. Kali-worshipping, torch-lighting, professional thieves Why did the colonial preoccupation with Thuggee give had weakened, there were still significant continuities way to that with dacoity by the mid-nineteenth centu- with the dacoits of yore. First, the idea of communal ry, and why did the discourse on both of these crimes criminality, though not stated explicitly, reappeared get replaced by one on criminal tribes by the end of the in the association of several newly classified criminal nineteenth century? tribes with dacoity. Second, dacoits continued, in the Although historian Ranajit Guha describes colonial eyes of government and citizenry, to occupy an infeauthority as dominance without hegemony, he also rior and opposite position from that of securely settled argues that the use of brute force was far higher in the agrarian society. The dacoit always posed an impendearlier decades of Company rule than later. It is signifi- ing or actual threat to agrarian order. In a state where cant that it was in this period that the state conducted law was identified with agrarian order, this marginal its draconian campaign against Thuggee. Singha too position denied the dacoit any claim to either law or suggests that this campaign was as much an articulajustice. To appreciate this, one need only watch the tion of new imperial authority as a response to crime. megahit Hindi film, Sholay. Although the campaign against Thuggee was dropped Recall for a moment the scene where Gabbar Singh by 1840 on the grounds that it had achieved its goal, makes his entry in Sholay: there are blue skies, barren the real reason, as Singha points out, may well have mountains, and the echoing sound of solitary drumbeen the impossibility of continuing to justify such beats. These give way to the resounding footsteps of extraordinary state measures. It was at this point that leather-shoe-clad Gabbar, who walks up and down as dacoity became the principal target of attack of a state he lashes his studded belt on the rocks. Thirty seconds that was expanding its political reach and establishing pass before the camera shifts focus away from his feet its legitimacy to rule. The difference between Thuggee to his face—thirty seconds of grey rock, black shoes, and dacoity then owes as much to the changing disbronze belt, and dull thuds. course legitimizing colonial rule as to roving criminal The barren landscape that frames Gabbar throughgangs that murdered and/or robbed. out the movie, one of the most iconic in Hindi cinema, Towards the end of the nineteenth century, nois integral to his character as ruthless dacoit. For over tions of Indian communal criminality and dacoity a century the dacoit has been associated in the Indian split paths. Caste had become central to characterizing popular and official imagination with desolate landIndian society. Concomitant with this was the theory scapes and agricultural ruin. In stark contrast to Gabof criminal castes, crystallized with the passing of the bar stands the hero of the film, Thakur Baldev Singh— Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Unlike thug or dacoit landlord, patriarch, police officer, guardian of the law gangs in which criminality was passed on as a profesand of the people. Law and agricultural prosperity, sion from father to son, criminal castes’ inherent disre- which go hand-in-hand through the movie, ultimately gard for the law formed an essential part of the group’s triumph and Gabbar, captured by the Thakur’s men character. It was believed to be coded in their genetic and duly handed over to the state police, meets his just make-up. But unlike thugs or dacoits, criminal tribes and lawful end. The dacoit continues to live his colowere not hunted down by a punitive state. Rather, by nial legacy. the early twentieth century, the colonial state exercised its benevolence by trying to reclaim and civilize crimi- Radha Kumar is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. Her focus is on caste nal groups. The state allotted criminal tribes special and politics in nineteenth and twentieth century India. settlements, granted them agricultural land, and gave She can be reached at them jobs. The state here used persuasive methods


Protecting Sex Workers in Nepal When the Law is Silent As those who work against sexual violence frequently repeat, silence is not consent. But in Nepal, oddly enough, silence (at least on part of legislators) has helped protect sex workers. The laws have not specifically sanctioned or prohibited sex work, but a Supreme Court verdict upheld the constitutional right of Nepali citizens to do any type of work for a living, allowing women to practice and organize a trade they find (whether one sees it as unfortunate or not) necessary. However, the constitution doesn’t secure them safety in the jobs it tacitly allows them to keep. Social attitudes towards sex ensure that popular discrimination against sex workers remains high. “If we have 100 clients,” says sex worker Anita (unless otherwise stated, all names have been changed for the privacy and safety of sources), “ninety will be rude, and perhaps ten will be polite [to us].” Her friend, Phul Maya, agrees. Sitting in the park where the women find clients, it is clear that the majority of those outside—almost exclusively young men in groups—are aware of what these women do for a living. Phul Maya reels off a list of the expletives that men use as they pass by the women. But the attitude of passersby, while hurtful, does little to deter the women from their job. “I say, ‘how do you know what we do?’” says Phul Maya. “Maybe they’ve used our services, maybe they had a bad experience. They have no idea why we have to work.” Though the law does not explicitly prohibit sex work, it also does not hold accountable those who would harass sex workers. Sex worker advocate Lok Hari Bashyal blames the legal system’s silence for the bulk of the harassment, especially that perpetrated by police members. Local police have been known to act upon personal interpretations of the law, arresting women on mere suspicion of prostitution. When one senior member of the police was informally questioned as to the legal backing of the arrest of sex workers despite the former constitution’s silence on the issue, she pointed to social pressure. “Yes, there have been raids on dance and cabin restaurants, for example,” she said. “Without


Kabita Parajuli necessarily condoning their actions—because we don’t know all the circumstances in which they acted—we must recognize that local police are caught in a bind. They don’t necessarily have the legal backing to carry out their arrests. But then, those who live near dance restaurants and the red light areas frequently complain about perceived police ‘laziness’ with regard to issues of morality. Pressure compels the police to act.” The issue, again, is the law’s ambiguity regarding sex work. “What do you think? Personally, I believe there needs to be legalization,” says the officer. “Until that point, sex workers will continue to be exploited.” Police raids against sex workers have died down in recent years. Now the mantle of persecution has fallen upon the high-handed Young Communist League, the Maoists’ youth branch. The YCL proves to be just as troublesome, if not more, than the police so for sex workers. Phul Maya tells the story of two recent raids by the YCL. “They took people to Hanuman Dhoka [a palace complex in Kathmandu],” she says bitterly. “They took a police van, and threw people inside, forcing them into the back. The worst was what they did to one woman—they tore off her clothes and forced her to dance in the middle of the field.” Another time, three women were taken to Maiti Nepal, a rehabilitation centre for women. “They insisted: ‘This will make you see what you have been doing wrong,’” says Rita, another sex worker. “They don’t for one moment stop to think about our families, or our needs.” While police abuses were at least criticized by human rights activists, the YCL has so far acted with almost total impunity. Local police are powerless as the Maoist youth carry out their missions—tasks that are particularly ironic given the Maoists’ apparent mandate to raise the most exploited people, and the status of those they are harassing. In this condition of societal hypocrisy, sex workers can neither secure for themselves a steady and safe place in the world or work

NON-FICTION to better their situation. “As a human and as a woman, I think there must be legalization,” says Sharmila Shrestha, social activist and president of the Kathmandu- and Butwalbased Non-Governmental Organization, Women Acting Together for Change. Like others she discusses the significant rise in sex workers over the past few years—both street-based and otherwise—due to the demographic and economic upheavals of conflict. On legalization, she adds, “Without this first step, police treatment will not change and individuals will continue to interpret the law as they will. Legalization will minimize violence committed against sex workers.” At the same time, she warns that legalization alone cannot change social norms about sex and sex workers. A host of additional short- and long-term reforms would be needed to truly secure the safety of these women. She also worries about what women would be able to make of their status once legalization set in. “It is not the right of NGOs and INGOs to speak on the behalf of sex workers,” she says, qualifying her view. “Our education system needs to head in a direction such that legalization doesn’t cause damage to others. It’s all very well to talk about income generation schemes, but if one is not educated about how to spend such money, or of one’s rights with respect to work, we cannot hope to progress.” The possibility for increased exploitation of uneducated or unprepared sex workers forms Tulasa Amatya’s perspective on the issue of legalization. As head of Community Action Centre Nepal, a pioneer group in advocating against domestic violence and child abuse, and for mothers’ rights, she believes that this is not the right time for legalization. “If we legalize sex work now,” she says, “brothel owners and pimps will benefit—even more will be exploited.” Like Shrestha, she states that she cannot speak on behalf of the sex workers, but she maintains, “What we really need to do is work on poverty alleviation, education, and income generation programs.” Legalization aims to minimize unpunished violence towards sex workers and ideally would be coupled with efforts to decrease the pressures forcing individuals into this line of work. But in Nepal’s current political environment, it remains unclear whether even these basic regulatory functions of legalization could be effectively implemented. Beyond

Image via Flickr Sex workers in a red-light district

this, legalization of sex work, if properly written and implemented, would change societal attitudes about and pressures on sex and sex workers and the nature of the work itself—but how that change would manifest is uncertain as well. The sex workers themselves share the trepidation of their NGO counterparts. Rita hesitates before addressing the issue of legalization; like the others, she has repeated the story of how her economic circumstances forced her into sex work. Her belief, it seems, is that the government should not merely legalize sex work, but that it must work harder in areas of poverty reduction and economic development so nobody is involved in sex work out of necessity. Anita, who recently became a co-coordinator in a newly established organization to prevent HIV/AIDS in sex workers, jumps in. “Of course,” she says. “Unless our work is legal, our sisters and we will be treated as badly as we are today. We have to recognize our rights, stand up for them, and be supported by the state—only then will there be change.” Anita expresses a great deal of faith in rightsbased education and poverty alleviation programs, which she believes must go hand-in-hand with legalization. The potential of legalization in Nepal to change social mores, rather than using law to reflect the interpretations of conservative values, is a promising prospect for these women. Whether the state and the law can manufacture such far-reaching changes in values when it is currently so fragile, though, remains to be seen. But silence, and the harm to these women it entails, whether on the part of the law or reformers, cannot continue. Kabita Parajuli graduated from Columbia University in 2010 with a degree in Comparative Literature and Society and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. She can be reached at


Passover in Cochin

Samantha Hicks

The Unique Identity of Indian Jews Tracing the acculturation of a particular religion from its inception to its state in the present day, one might find that the path resembles very much the roots of a large tree. Just as the roots of a tree extend, change direction, and give rise to smaller offshoots, religious diasporas begin in one geographical or cultural location and later branch out into new territory, shifting and changing according to surrounding environments. Transplanted religious groups tend to absorb aspects of new host countries and cultures, and these aspects both alter and contribute to the essence of the larger religion. Although religions may maintain many of their structural and philosophical aspects as they progress farther away from their sources of origin, they often gain unique ritual practices via interaction with a host culture. For displaced or foreign religious groups, this is the act of acculturation. Four culturally unique and fascinating Jewish communities in India, namely the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel, the Baghdadi Jews, and the Bene Menashe exemplify these patterns of acculturation. Judaism’s rich history and vibrant culture, set against a colorful Indian backdrop, has led to the development of distinct religious rituals and practices. While all of these groups have interacted to some degree with local customs, religions, languages, and rituals, each has acculturated differently into Indian society. The extent to which these groups absorbed facets of Indian culture depended on a variety of factors: the ways Jewish doctrine called for the addition of local customs, the construction of temples, connection to their original homeland, and the willingness to integrate into non-Jewish neighborhoods. An exploration of Indian Jewish acculturation reveals both benefits and pitfalls: for these communities, it wasn’t so simple as deciding to be halfJewish, half-Indian, or completely one or the other. In order to be both Indian and Jewish simultaneously, these groups had to possess or portray defining aspects


of each culture. And, after having been in India for some time, there was often no easy place to draw the line between their religion and the culture around them. Those who made aliyah, immigration to Israel,

also found that Jewish groups outside of India had different ideas of what their identity was and they often faced discrimination at the hands of these external Jewish forces. While the impossibility of defining a clear, concise identity might be one of the pitfalls of

NON-FICTION acculturation, there arose a creativity within Indian Jewish communities that was unique throughout the world, leading to the formation of an entirely new culture. Synagogues and Jewish feasts took on a completely Indian feel, folk songs emerged in Hebrew and the local language, and Indian Jewish communities sprung up in Israel as more people began to make aliyah. Though most of the Jewish groups in India claim tenuous and ancient ancestries, the first evidence of Jewish life in the subcontinent appears in the south Indian town of Kudungallur, just north of Cochin. Over years of trade-related migration going as far back

they number under a thousand. The Bene Israel came later, not for trade, but in flight from persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century BCE. That is the claim, but the first evidence of their settlement only appears in the 11th century CE in the modern state of Maharashtra. When they were rediscovered in the 18th century by Baghdadi traders, they retained few Jewish practices and had no tradition of religious scholarship. The contact with Baghdad, though, revived the faith, leading the group to prosper under British Raj. But after the creation of Israel, enough fled so that now less than 5,000 remain. The Baghdadi traders who found the Bene Israel constituted themselves the foundation of a later sect of Indian Jews. Fleeing instability and persecution in the Middle East, these Jews arrived as early as the 17th century in northwest India, but only came in droves in the mid-19th century where they served under the British Raj and received preferential treatment. After the collapse of the Raj and with the promise of new life in Israel, many fled back to the Middle East. Latest to emerge were the Bene Menashe, a group of 9,000 Jews in Manipur and Mizoram in northeastern India. Formerly Christians (and only converted to that faith in the previous one to two centuries), in the mid-20th century after a prophetic dream by an elder, several local tribes became convinced that their mythic founding ancestor, Manmasi, was none other than Menasseh, son of the biblical Joseph and a father of one of the lost tribes of Israel. Convinced that their pre-Christian, pre-Indic heritage was Jewish, they converted en masse and were later recognized as a Jewish group by religious leaders in Israel. Present scholarship on inter-cultural and -religious interaction presents a myriad of terms that can be applied to the phenomenon among these groups that has thus far been referred to as acculturation. In Who Are the Jews of India, Professor of Religious Studies Nathan Katz of Florida International University defines both acculturation Photo credit: Samantha Hicks and assimilation in reference to Jewish integration Hebrew signs in India in Indian culture. “By acculturation I mean fitting as the era of King Solomon, the Jews in the region had comfortably into a society while retaining one’s own gathered the economic clout to form a small, princely identity, whereas by assimilation I mean that the loss of state. After their weak kingdom, based more on respect that identity is a perceived condition for acceptance.” and trade than military might, was broken by invading Katz’s definition describes a perfect integration Arab traders in the mid-16th century, the Jews moved of one group into a foreign society without a loss of to Cochin and slowly dribbled out of the nation—now identity. But it is impossible to both perfectly integrate


NON-FICTION and perfectly uphold one’s identity simultaneously. His definition is more hypothetical than literal, considering that each of the communities he describes experienced a loss of their former identities in some way. Certain aspects of Judaism allow for the absorption of facets of local culture while still maintaining the essence of the religion. This predisposes most sects of Judaism to adapt an acculturative model when displaced to a foreign host country. In India, similarities between some Jewish and Brahmanical religious practices also presupposed Jewish acculturation. In The Judaisms of Kaifeng and Cochin: Parallel and Divergent Styles of Religious Acculturation, Katz explains how Jewish conventions such as the ethical and ritual dietary code of Halacha, family purity practices, and Shabbat procedures—to name a few—both explain ubiquitous Jewish practice and promote the integration of local customs. “Halacha, however,” says Katz, “is too generalized to provide explicit guidance in all matters of religious observance. Therefore, local customs (minhag, plural minhagim) evolved which enabled Jews to practice Halacha in the societies in which they lived... Halacha provides the framework, but one would be unable to celebrate a brit milah (circumcision ritual), a bar mitzvah (the celebration of a male child’s religious coming of age), a wedding, or a funeral, unless one relied upon local minhagim.” Most Jewish rituals and ceremonies require a cultural context in order to be enacted in full. Holidays are often accompanied by food, dress, and music that vary by geographical location and culture; thus, ceremonies are inherently different depending on where they are celebrated. The Cochin Jews, the Baghdadis, the Bene Israel, and the Bene Menashe arrived in India from different places, during different times, and practicing different forms of Judaism. Unsurprisingly, each group acculturated in distinct ways and formed unique identities: some were eager to integrate into Indian society while others preferred to maintain as many of their traditions from back home as possible. The Cochin Jews had perhaps the most complex identities of all the groups, due to the subgroups within the wider community that distinguished members based on origin stories and physical appearance. The Cochin Jews were essentially divided between the malabaris, or “black Jews,” and the paradesis, or “white Jews.” The malabaris resembled the


native Indians of the community, whereas the paradesis were said to be the purest of the Indian Jews because their roots were in Israel. The two groups’ claims of origin are what established them hierarchically in Indian society, especially since they adopted the local notion of caste. Based on this, the paradesis used a caste-based rhetoric to strongly discriminate against the malabaris, creating animosities between the two groups. The origin story of the Cochin Jews contrasts with those of other Jewish groups such as the Bene Israel Jews, as Katz describes: In other ways as well, the Bene Israel Jews of Bombay and the nearby Konkan coast are a perfect counterpoint to the Cochin Jews. The Cochin Jews established and maintained their identity through the construction of an origin legend that reflected both Indian and Jewish status, through the skillful adaptation of Hindu symbolic and ritual elements within the framework of Judaic law, and through the emulation of Indian social structure. They were actors in the finely balanced drama of Indian Jewish identity. The Bene Israel, on the other hand, were more reactors—albeit creative ones—than actors. They clung to highly attenuated, vestigial Judaic observances and, through a series of serendipitous encounters with other Jews, Christian missionaries, British colonists, and Indian nationalists, were transformed from an anonymous, oil-pressing caste of the Konkan coast into modern, urbane Jews. Their transformation is so unlikely that one is tempted to see therein divine, rather than human, agency. A parallel discrimination to that between the malabaris and paradesis arose between the Baghdadi Jews and the Bene Israels when the former excluded the latter from minions at their synagogues. For the most part, Baghdadi Jews acculturated very little into Indian society compared to the Bene Israels, preferring to keep many Middle Eastern traditions such as wearing Middle Eastern clothes, speaking and singing in Arabic, and bringing over Torah scrolls from the Middle East.

NON-FICTION In Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames, Jael Silliman of the Ford Foundation explains how it was uncommon for Baghdadi Jews to become close with people outside of their community. Sally Solomon, writing about the few Anglo-Indian neighbours with whom she played as a child, underscores the unstated distance-maintenance that was observed between Jews and others. ‘I cannot remember going upstairs to my neighbours, the Marleys’, or the Marleys being invited to dinner. It seemed to be understood on both sides, that while we would always be good friends, family affairs would remain private.’ By resisting acculturation, the Baghdadis created a somewhat elitist identity that distanced them from other Indians as well as other Jews. Those who made aliyah to Israel encountered some of the pitfalls of acculturation through the discrimination that they faced from Israelis once they arrived. Before actually making aliyah, many people believed that they were already part of Israeli society because of the intense religious calling they felt to the country. What they found when they got there, however, was that they had experienced only a false sense of acculturation and what they anticipated about Israel was not completely accurate. The malabari Jews found Israelis to be less religiously observant than they themselves were and were somewhat disappointed by the secularity of Israeli society. Many Indian Jews were also discriminated against due to their color, in spite of their religiousness. Indian Jews left India and moved to Israel for a myriad of reasons. Many of the Cochin Jews emigrated for marriage, economic, and educational reasons. Others felt that the Jewish community in India was simply too small. The paradesis tended to feel proud of their Indian identity once in Israel because of their high caste status in India. The malabaris, on the other hand, focused on their religiousness, but were less intent on remembering their Indian identities. Professor Joan Roland of Pace University describes how the Bene Israel were perceived in Israel: “In India, they were considered to be Jews; in Israel, the “land of the Jews, they are Indians.” Once they arrived in Israel, their Indian-Jewish identity completely shifted from what it had been perceived as in India. More extremely, many Bene Menashe were not only pointed out because of their different looks,

but were often mistaken for illegal Thai or Philippino workers. It was in some ways very difficult to acculturate into Israeli society because of the obstacles their appearances created. It is interesting to trace the acculturative patterns of Indian Jews because most communities have integrated into both Indian and Israeli societies. Indian Jews have expanded the reaches and ritual practices of Judaism while simultaneously creating new types of Indian, Israeli and Jewish identities. The differences between the four communities demonstrate the difficulties in defining a clear Indian Jewish identity. Nevertheless, each is illustrative of crosscultural and religious interactions. Newly formed religious and cultural identities differ based on the extent to which the incoming and host cultures are open to integration, as well as the tendencies of these groups to maintain their former identities. The Cochin Jews, for example, forged a unique identity that interwove both Indian and Jewish ideas and customs to create a hybrid that allowed them to integrate into Indian society while at the same time opening themselves up for caste-based discrimination. In contrast, the Baghdadi Jews held themselves aloof from their adopted land, but in so doing were able to create an elitist vision for themselves. These acculturative strategies are further complicated for those communities who made aliyah to Israel. These communities found their Indian identities to be either assets—as in the case of the Cochin Jews—or liabilities, as in the case of the Bene Menashe, who found that the relative status they enjoyed in India was suddenly stripped away in Israeli society. In India today, these Jewish communities are few and far between due to mass immigration to Israel. The synagogues built by these groups were once bustling with life, but now remain as artifacts frequented more by outside tourists than actual members of the local Jewish community. Though a dwindling community, those who remain exemplify the highly interesting and often complicated model of religious acculturation. It will be of interest to Jewish and religious scholars to watch how the remaining communities interact, as increasingly small entities with increasingly global ties, with their Indian and Jewish roots. Samantha Hicks is a senior at Barnard College majoring in Religion. She can be reached at samanthapaigehicks@


Against Ashis Nandy

Sahil Vora

Indian Secularism and the Pursuit of a Tolerant Society The venerable political and cultural critic Ashis Nandy’s scathing critique of secularism in post-colonial India has thrown every Indian secularist into a spiral of self-doubt. Most scholarly assessments of the state of Indian secularism after the publication of his article spend many paragraphs and footnotes responding to Nandy’s criticisms. However Nandy’s arguments may not be as conclusive or well founded as most scholars take them to be. Nandy’s basic argument suggests that secularism as an ideology has lost its capacity to bring about tolerance in modern society. He views secularism as a Western civilizing project born of the colonial era and adopted by Westernized post-colonial elites immediately after independence. Nandy believes that society should be tolerant and inclusive, but argues that a secular state works against such goals. Nandy first traces contemporary social trends in India and introduces some critical definitions. The author argues that religion in modern India has split into faith and ideology. By religion-as-faith, he means the non-monolithic, pluralist, and heterogeneous set of traditions that guide ordinary peoples’ everyday lives. Meanwhile, religion-as-ideology refers to a political force that self-identifies as the purest form of the religion, attempting to unite religious communities to vying for non-religious interests. Nandy also suggests that secularism has come to mean different things for different strata of the community. India’s Westernized elite pursues a modern, definitional secularism that “chalks out an area in public life where religion is not admitted.” Meanwhile, non-modern Indians opt for an accommodative, pluralist interpretation that encourages public dialogue on religion in a search for common principles. The modernist project of secularism, Nandy then states, has failed to create tolerance, and has sparked increased violence. First, Nandy argues that widening democratic participation has allowed nonmodern, non-secularists into the higher echelons of political society. Whereas once Indian elites could


essentially handpick the leaders of various government and social institutions, multiple cycles of democratic elections have allowed religious leaders into politics. Nandy uses the example of elected ministers in the central government accused of organizing religious riots to demonstrate that religion has forced its way into the political process. Second, modernity has hegemonized politics, which then has marginalized religion-as-faith and caused adherents of religious faiths to turn into angry, violent fanatics. Nandy attributes the violence of religious fanatics to “the sense of defeat of the believers” as religion-as-faith loses influence. Third, Nandy blames secularism for the violence of modernity as well as communal riots. Nandy unconvincingly suggests that modernity marginalizes and destroys dissenting populations. He suggests that the new elites of Indian society have become “internal colonizers” who treat religion as either quaint cultures to be studied or dangerous ideological obstacles to be eliminated. Nandy also asserts that organizers of communal violence are in fact “secular users of non-secular forces in the society.” Finally, Nandy argues that tolerance is a uniquely pre-modern and pre-secular tradition. Throughout the paper, he encourages Indians to search for principles of tolerance in India’s various religious traditions and reject the secular rhetoric of the modern state. Though “secularism” as a term and idea has a long history of usage in Western contexts, its Indian manifestation contains uniquely Indian elements to account for local needs. In Western political history, “secularization” was first used to describe the royal takeover of church property at the end of the Thirty Year’s War. Then, in mid-19th century Britain, George Jacob Holyoake famously used “secularism” as a part of his rationalist theory of social progress. However, as Nandy readily admits, secularism remained “accommodative” and “emphasize[d] diversities and co-existence in the matter of faith” in Holyoake’s interpretation of the term. Nandy unfairly accuses the Indian state of

NON-FICTION importing and replicating Western secularism through internal colonization. Indian economists Amartya Sen and Rajeev Bhargava, among others, have argued that secularism can either be prohibitive or neutral. Prohibitive secularism treats religion as a “political taboo” and bans religious discourse from government. What Nandy refers to as the Western and definitional theory of secularism, where the law bars religion from public discourse, seems to be similar to this form of prohibitive secularism. However, prohibitive secularism only really exists in a select few contemporary Western states. For example, the Constitution of the United States demands the separation of church and state through the First Amendment’s establishment clause and free exercise clause. Likewise, French secularism bans public displays of religion, like wearing a hijab in schools. Meanwhile, neutral secularism forces the state to engage in religious dialogue, as various religious communities issue political demands. The state evaluates religious demands based on whether or not they match the state’s “antecedent commitments” to preserving basic rights for its citizens. As Bhargava writes, “A state is politically neutral, if in a context of deeply conflicting high ideals, and for the sake of a decent life to all individuals and groups, its policies intend to help or hinder to an equal degree all those sensitive to this context and committed to these goods.” Indian secular-

much effort engaging religious communities without maintaining its antecedent commitments. Significantly however, even when the state has become entrapped in religious disputes, the involved parties have framed their demands in terms of neutral treatment, rather than demanding total exclusion of religious demands. This fact alone proves that Nandy misrepresents Indian state secularism when he accuses it of excluding religion from politics. Nandy attempts to attribute every form of economic, military, political, and discursive violence to Indian state secularism. However, his most significant criticisms of secularism also happen to be his most specious. Simply put, the author does not provide a causal link between secularism and religious violence. Nandy first provides a horrific vision of secular India, where “to accept the ideology of secularism is to accept the ideologies of progress and modernity as the new justifications of domination, and the use of violence to achieve and sustain the ideologies as the new opiates of the masses.” Of course, among other problems, this argument suffers from the fallacy of division, where what may apply to the whole—the project of modernity—does not necessarily apply equally to each part—secularism, “development, mega-science, and national security.” Development may cause economic violence by causing poverty; national security may cause military violence by labeling certain populations

“Indian secularism suffers from its fair share of flaws, but its guiding principles still retain merit.” ism, unlike Western secularism, attempts to maintain an equidistant, symmetrical, or neutral relationship to all practiced religions. Nandy’s claim that the modern Indian state forces religious dialogue out of the public sphere seems completely counterfactual. For example, in the mid- to late-1980s, Rajiv Gandhi oscillated between appeasing Muslims and Hindus, first regarding the Shah Bano case, in which an elderly Muslim woman was divorced by her husband then denied alimony, sparking controversy over the different civil codes for different religions, and then regarding the legitimacy of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (namely whether an older Hindu temple had been destroyed to create the Muslim holy site). A more legitimate and relevant criticism of Indian secularism would be that the state has spent too

as threats; but, political secularism seems unlikely to cause any form of violence. Nandy’s criticism assumes that the state somehow coerces its citizens into renouncing religious beliefs. Secularism in India, however, attempts to open channels of inter-religious communication, not shut religion out of public discourse. Next, Nandy argues that religious violence stems from modernization. He states, employing sweeping assertions and broad generalities, “As India gets modernized, religious violence is increasing… Obviously, somewhere and somehow, religious violence has something to do with the urban-industrial vision of life and with the political processes the vision lets loose.” However, intolerance of other religions is neither new nor a mere byproduct of modernity. Aurangzeb in the 17th century, for example, famously


NON-FICTION employed divisive religious politics to justify violence against Hindus. Even if individuals’ sense of belonging in the modern world enables them to self-identify with a national religious community—which may cause religious tensions to multiply and spread rapidly—it would be entirely unreasonable to blame a state policy of religious neutrality for religious violence. Nandy also attributes the violence of religious fanatics to a sense of displacement caused by the modern state’s destruction of religion-as-faith. He suggests that the modern state prefers to deal with religionsas-ideologies because that form of religion makes demands that the state can comprehend and manage. However, it is not so much that the state prefers religions-as-ideologies. Rather, religions-as-ideologies access and manipulate a democratic government more effectively. Heterogeneous folk traditions can guide a person’s or small community’s way of life, but cannot be invoked to unite national voting blocs. Therefore, religion-as-faith, religion-as-ideology, and the modern state can co-exist through different spheres of influence, where faith guides small communities while the state and ideologies guide national movements. Even if the modern state marginalized religions-as-faiths, heterogeneous, pluralist, and accommodative traditions seem unlikely to turn violent and fundamentalist. Instead, religious fundamentalists and terrorist groups seem to ascribe to religions-as-ideologies, where all means become acceptable to defend a pure, uncompromising set of religious edicts. Though this short critique cannot outline all of the causes of religious fanaticism, suffice it to say that an accommodative secular state cannot be one of them. Finally, Nandy accuses modern secularists of organizing and leading communal riots. This argument flatly contradicts Nandy’s previous claim that Indian secularism has failed because democratic cycles have allowed religious communal riot-organizers into political office. More significantly, riot-organizers may seem “secular” because they are cold, calculating politicians that reject the core principles of their own religions by choosing violence over dialogue. However, this association does not imply that riot-organizers support a secular state. Indians who attempt to rouse communal passions and divide the nation along religious boundaries want the state to satisfy only their community’s interests. Likewise, the government’s secularism does not make riot-organizers calculating and amoral. Indian secularism suffers from its fair share of flaws, but its guiding principles still retain merit.


Despite Nandy’s concerns, the secularist project has not lost its capacity to create a tolerant Indian society. In fact, Nandy’s suggestion to create tolerance through religion and the Indian state’s politically neutral secularism are not mutually exclusive ideologies. Neutral secularism encourages religious dialogue in the public sphere, which results in a consistent search for common ground. With tolerance and respect being the “antecedent commitments” of state policy, public religious discourse can be used to achieve these larger goals. The only remaining question is which framework—religion or secularism—serves as a better guide for achieving tolerance in society. In a neutral secular society, the state allows religious communities to make demands based on their fundamental beliefs. However, if fundamental beliefs between religious communities differ, the state reverts to a set of universally acceptable norms. In a society governed by a religion, laws are pre-established and uncompromising by virtue of their being sacred. A secular state provides more incentive for differing religions to be tolerant and find common ground than a non-secular state. State secularism can also be more meaningful for the Indian society if secularists explain their position in terms of national traditions. Indian history certainly does not suffer from a lack of tolerant, secular icons. The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (304 – 232 BCE) and Mughal Emperor Akbar (1542 – 1605 CE) have become legendary for their religious tolerance, pluralism, and syncretic beliefs. First Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru represents the scientific secular modernism of the state, while Mahatma Gandhi’s religious pluralism encourages the faithful population to view tolerance as a fundamental component of religiosity. State structures of secularism can easily accommodate public dialogue that elucidates a common set of ideals, embodied by national heroes. Secularism as a project and ideology demands a revival but has not become defunct. Nandy’s apocalyptic rhetoric wrongly conflates local secularism with colonial domination, and religious neutrality with communal violence. His argument glosses over critical complexities that differentiate India’s secularism from a larger modernist project, which ultimately stop him from acknowledging secularism’s immense potential. Secularism, when implemented correctly, provides a path to a tolerant society. Sahil Vora is a senior at Columbia University studying Economics. He can be reached at

Reading The Namesake

Sharleen Mondal

The Politics of Community Dialogue In Mira Nair’s 2006 cinematic rendition of Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel The Namesake, upon the Ganguli family’s return to their suburban neighborhood, Gogol (Kal Penn) and his sister Sonia (played by Sahira Nair) discover that while they have been away visiting family in Calcutta, someone has spray-painted “Gangrene” onto their mailbox. While both Gogol and Sonia are enraged—Gogol fumes that he is going to “get the racist punks who did this”—their father Ashoke (played by Irrfan Khan) has a different response. “Just some kids having fun,” he says cheerfully to no one in particular after Gogol and Sonia have already stormed into the house. The difference in their responses seems especially stark given the seeming unity in perspective shared by the family in the scenes preceding Image via Flickr this one in which the Gangulis marvel together at the beauty of the Taj Mahal Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Namesake in Agra. Their homecoming reminds us that despite the overdetermined and class-based differences, among others. Thus, at day trip to the Taj as a marker of the family’s shared times, the term can group together individuals whose “Indianness,” what it really means to live and claim experiences bear little similarity, who might not share such an identity in the United States can vary widely, fundamental values or beliefs, and who might not even within the same family. actually imagine themselves as sharing a community. Indeed, recent cultural production from The connections and disconnections attendant various locations of a far-flung South Asian diaspora to a complex and diverse South Asian diaspora can has highlighted such differences, not only for Indian impact public community dialogues around texts families living in the United States, but also for like The Namesake (both the novel and its cinematic others—for instance, Bangladeshi families living in adaptation). The Namesake in particular provides rich London’s Brick Lane. The immigrant experience, opportunities for community dialogue around issues so often referenced in its singular form, is rich with of migration and culture, yet those very opportunities diverse experiences that trouble attempts to speak of or are also sites of conflict for South Asian participants for a unified South Asian community and identity. The challenged with the task of organizing productive term “South Asian” itself, sometimes a useful marker discussions about issues faced by the ephemeral South for signifying alliances and solidarities, is fraught by Asian community. generational, religious, gendered, language-based,


NON-FICTION In 2007, I participated in a series of discussions about Lahiri’s novel and Nair’s film that were offered through the Seattle Reads program. This excellent program, organized by the Seattle Public Libraries, invites readers to select a book together and to participate in readers’ groups, community forums, cultural events, and other programming to engage issues raised by the shared text. These events culminate in an author visit, including public interviews and discussion with readers. Lahiri’s visit involved extensive collaboration months in advance between South Asia studies and Asian American studies scholars at the University of Washington, activists (including staff and volunteers) from local South Asian community organizations, and Seattle Public Libraries staff. My participation in Seattle Reads involved drawing on both my expertise as a literary scholar and instructor of undergraduate literature courses at the University of Washington, and my role as a volunteer and community activist for Chaya Seattle, a nonprofit organization providing services and support for survivors of domestic violence in the local South Asian community, as well as cultural events and community forums to discuss domestic violence. My experience collaborating with scholars and community activists to organize readers’ groups, discussion panels, and my interview with Lahiri was exciting, yet plagued by challenges stemming from the pressure to present and represent a unified South Asian community on the one hand, and the tensions sparked by the diversity of that community on the other hand. Community Dialogue and the Diaspora In Gurinder Chadha’s 2004 film Bride & Prejudice, a Bollywood update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Catherine Darcy (Marsha Mason), American hotel empress and mother of William Darcy (Martin Henderson), instructs Lalita Bakshi (Aishwarya Rai), Will’s Indian love interest, to tell her “everything about India” as she has “always been fascinated by it.” Lalita, clearly overwhelmed by such a broad question, replies, “India is such a huge country. I wouldn’t know where to begin.” Catherine confides that she dreamed of visiting India as a child and now dreams of expanding her hotel empire to its shores, as “everybody has their hand on India these days.” Yet Will, persuaded by Lalita’s impassioned argument that the extension of the Darcy hotel empire to Goa is a form of American imperialism, has dissuaded


his mother from building the hotel, a decision that Catherine bitterly informs Lalita “lost us a fortune.” Catherine muses that if she had been able to build a hotel in India, she might have visited, but “with yoga and spices and Deepak Chopra, and wonderful Eastern things here, there’s no point in traveling there anymore.” The fetishizing of cultural commodities in Catherine’s words convey the idea that the consumption of an object is the equivalent to experiencing a culture or place. This fetishization is at stake not only with yoga and spices, but also with literary texts branded as South Asian fiction. A fellow Seattle Reads collaborator who led one of the book club discussions on The Namesake reported that a reader remarked after completing the novel, “I feel like now I can understand my Indian co-workers at Microsoft.” Such a statement seems to suggest that reading a novel can substitute for the rich and complex process of conversation. The understanding and misunderstanding, identification and alienation, agreement and disagreement that characterizes connecting with someone with a different cultural background. It also captures the perception that there is a unified Indian experience and that by reading a novel like The Namesake, one can gain enough cultural literacy to understand an Indian, despite the diversity of identities and experiences held within that term. As discussion leaders, panelists, and for many of us as South Asians, my Seattle Reads collaborators and I agreed that we wished to resist the fetishization of South Asian fiction in this way. Rather than perpetuate the notion that the novel could be read as some sort of guidebook for understanding brown people and their experiences, we would use the opportunity afforded by the text to generate a conversation on the complicated and textured experiences of immigration, the intimacies sealed and lost therein, and discuss globalization as an organizing force in these processes. The general programming of events for Seattle Reads supported this approach, bringing readers together for discussion of work by other South Asian authors, artists, and performers. Yet the panel discussions involving scholars and activists from local community organizations threw up particular challenges for me, despite our shared agreement on the kind of approach to The Namesake that we did not want to perpetuate. These challenges were revealed during the first of three local library branch panel discussions.

NON-FICTION We began with a colleague’s overview of the history of South Asian migration to the United States and specifically to the Pacific Northwest, including the 1907 Bellingham riots against Sikhs and the changes in immigration sparked by the 1965 Immigration Act. We hoped that this information would both orient our audience to the general historical context that would have made the Ganguli family’s immigration experience possible in The Namesake, and spark our audience’s interest in the way that South Asian immigrant experiences have unfolded differently when considered within particular historical junctures. We followed with another colleague’s explanation of why we were approaching a discussion of The Namesake through the perspectives of people involved with different local South Asian community organizations. One of the richest functions of literary texts, he argued, is that they offer an occasion for conversation about issues and questions raised therein; thus our panel discussion would seek to open up dialogue on compelling issues as a way of engaging the novel and its cinematic adaptation (released only months before). Each community organization then provided a brief summary of its mission and goals, followed by a discussion of issues in the text that might be read and discussed in light of concerns typically addressed by that organization. Thus on behalf of Chaya, another volunteer and I brought to light how Ashima’s dependent visa status upon arriving in the United States might have influenced the intense loneliness and alienation that she initially experienced. We pointed out how women on dependent visas who come to the United States for the sake of their husband’s job are faced with particular limitations that impact their choices and experiences with motherhood, wifehood,

Northwest, committed to supporting LGBTQ and differently-oriented South Asians. They, too, linked their insights to specific parts of the novel or film in order to open up the story for conversation and critique. In this way we not only invited readers to think about The Namesake in terms of the historical context that shaped it and other South Asian immigration narratives that differ from the Ganguli’s story, but also to imagine South Asian experiences as diverse, dynamic, complex, and shaped by a variety of social and cultural concerns. Or that another way for community organizations working together to spark dialogue on issues in a novel is to say, simply, that the experience of reading is not the same for everybody. The emotional responses, critiques, questions, antagonisms, or even apathy generated by a particular text are not uniform for each reader. Talking about those differences and what they mean is a valuable exercise. Conflicting Stakes: Community Dialogue Meets Literary Criticism This kind of work is not without its challenges. There was a distinct gap between the highly academic register of some panelists’ remarks, and the more accessible language of others. While these differences did not exclusively fall along an academic/nonacademic divide, members of the audience with whom I debriefed afterward confided that the academese was very alienating for South Asians who had decided to attend the panel discussion because they felt some affinity or familiarity with the topic, only to find it being discussed in terms that were difficult for them

“The term “South Asian” itself, sometimes a useful marker for signifying alliances and solidarities, is fraught by generational, religious, gendered, language-based, and class-based differences, among others..” friendship, employment, and many other arenas. As literary scholars, my fellow Chaya panelist and I both moored our discussion of these issues to close readings of specific passages in the novel in order to model a reading practice in which one opens up a given narrative to its attendant social issues. The other panelists represented Tasveer, an organization focused on independent South Asian cinema, and Trikone

to access. Additionally, there were challenges in addressing a mixed South Asian/non-South Asian audience. For example, during my portion of the first panel, I tried to highlight the diversity of India by listing the many languages spoken and religions practiced in the subcontinent. During our planning sessions, my colleagues and I had agreed that such a move would help resist the inclination to read


NON-FICTION the novel as some kind of guidebook on Indian culture. However, after the panel, one of my South Asian friends in the audience told me that he found my providing such a list to be condescending, as though I were somehow imparting some kind of new knowledge. I found it difficult to balance the different levels of familiarity with India and South Asia at each of the three panel discussions, especially since I could not anticipate in advance what the audience would look like. Furthermore, even if there were to be a significant South Asian contingent in the audience, this does not discount the value of basic information for those who might not be familiar with it. I also experienced a tension internal to our group of panelists, planners, and facilitators. My own family history shaped my reading of The Namesake such that I found myself identifying with Gogol, Moushumi, and Sonia to a considerable degree. This is likely based on a shared Bengali bhadralok class identity, as well as the fact that I grew up in a family with a university professor father and two children (the son the older of the two), an arrangement paralleling the Ganguli’s. The tone of nostalgia with which the novel is written pained me and brought back to me in expressive, beautifully crafted sentences something about the intimacies and fissures in my own family. Yet not everyone in our group was stirred in a positive way by the text. Some people felt supremely alienated by the Gangulis narrative, angrily asserting that one of Hanif Kureishi’s works—something like My Beautiful Laundrette—would have been far more representative of a South Asian experience, or at least would have troubled the myth of South Asians as the model

copy of The Namesake


minority that The Namesake does little to disrupt. Some scoffed at the first generation/second generation clash of cultures, arguing that this type of story was so cliché it ceased to be meaningful. Another colleague stated in no uncertain terms, “I hate this book,” feeling (as I understood it) that the norms the novel perpetuates and the forms of intimacy and sociality it excludes merely furthers a type of violence against particular bodies and experiences. While I respected and understood these reactions to the text, I found myself conflicted in how I responded to the people offering them. I was ashamed to even suggest that I identified with the Ganguli’s experience and appreciated Lahiri’s portrayal of it, given the dominant unsympathetic reaction to the Gangulis narrative in our group. I responded poorly to my colleague who passionately asserted her hatred for the novel; rather than regarding her reaction on its own terms, I suggested that she ought not to express her dislike for the book so blatantly during panel discussions, as this might cause readers to shut down and not hear her critique of the limited, heteronormative framework of the novel (after all, readers would attend these panel discussions because they found something about The Namesake compelling). She rightfully told me I had no business instructing her on what she could or could not say about the novel. She was, of course, correct: what made my reaction to the novel any more uproductive than hers? And yet this conflict threw up another, more complicated question. While it was true that I had crossed a line by suggesting that another panelist mute or soften her honest response to the text, what were we trying to achieve by providing our responses to the novel in a public forum in the first place? On the one hand, my disagreement with this colleague served precisely the function we had hoped our diverse readings could perform: to show the different, and at times conflicting, South Asian experiences that could shape the reading of the same text. On the other hand, in addition to the task of demonstrating the nonhomogeneity of South Asian experience, our panel discussions also bore a pedagogical task: to serve as a guide for a critical literary conversation. As such, those of us with experience teaching literature at the university had particular stakes in the discussion. To put it simply, just as in a literature classroom, where I do not often foreground at the very beginning of the discussion my own reading or emotional response to a

NON-FICTION text, as this usually shuts down students with different responses, I approached our panel discussion with similar caution. Yet not every panelist taught literature and shared my pedagogical concerns. Should they, too, have been expected to approach our panel discussions pedagogically and not just as readers? In a broader sense, was there a distinct role for the literary scholar and critic in this kind of programming? The Function of the Literary Critic at the Present Time

This question remained unresolved for me through our third and last panel discussion. Even as the tensions became easier to navigate by that final community dialogue, as we offered one another frank feedback on what kind of academic language was difficult to access and what kinds of expectations we might share (or not) about how to convey our responses to the novel fruitfully to readers attending the panels. The composition of the panels also changed, with different colleagues serving on each one. Since I participated in all three, I was able to observe the dynamic change as different people brought fresh energy and insight to our conversation. I was asked to interview Lahiri herself at one of the public interviews, to be held at Seattle Central Community College, a great privilege

yet retained their complexity, whether I was fairly representing the concerns that had come up in so many of the conversations I’d had, and whether the questions were prefaced with enough (but not too much) context in terms of where they came from. Backstage, I clutched some notes and my well-worn copy of The Namesake, little yellow post-it notes fanning out crazily to mark significant passage that I might refer to as needed. Lahiri seemed nice, and there was something about her hip, knee-high leather boots and neatly done hair that seemed reassuring—like I wasn’t the only one who had dressed with carefulness for the occasion. We chatted a bit before being introduced and going onstage. It was not until we were seated on stage under the bright lights and I had asked my first few questions that I realized the disconnect between the Pulitzer prize-winning author I was interviewing and me, the literary critic. The gap can be conveyed best by Lahiri’s responses two particular questions I asked. One of the novel’s richest points of interest for many of the readers I’d talked to (and for my own group of fellow panelists) was the conflicted relationship that Nikhil has with his girlfriend Maxine’s parents, Gerald and Lydia. On the one hand, he prefers them in some ways to his own, yet their interest in him is fraught with a kind of exoticization of his Indianness. This is not to dismiss

“I was ashamed to even suggest that I identified with the Ganguli’s experience and appreciated Lahiri’s portrayal of it, given the dominant unsympathetic reaction to the Gangulis narrative in our group.” after having engaged so closely with colleagues and community members to analyze and appreciate Lahiri’s novel. The interview questions that I prepared grew out of those months of collaboration, conversation, argument, and analysis, the product of focused and sustained discussions of The Namesake. In short, I arrived at the interview after having participated in a rich, intellectually and emotionally rigorous dialogue with scholars, activists, and other members of my community. The questions I had prepared I regarded as no less than the fruits of an intense and collaborative labor of love, refined and revised through numerous interactions with fellow readers. I was nervous about meeting Lahiri, as I had been preparing for this very public conversation for some time. I worried about the wording of my questions—whether I had made them accessible

Gerald and Lydia altogether, but rather to point out the complexities of Nikhil’s interaction with them relative to his own parents and the cultural differences between the two families. In all of the conversations I had with readers about this tension, not once did anyone deny that it existed. Certainly, some readers were more ready to judge Maxine and her parents than others— sometimes for cultural insensitivity and ignorance, sometimes for racism—but no one denied that there was something of interest there. I was stunned by Lahiri’s response to a question I asked about how and why she chose to portray this very interesting conflict the way that she did. She replied that she does not judge her characters—that she gets to know them by walking with them, seeing life through their eyes, but she does not judge them. When I pressed her a bit on how she chose to portray the social issues that


NON-FICTION shape conflicts like that between Nikhil and Maxine’s parents—as Lahiri walked with these characters and saw life through their eyes, of course—she told me that she does not think of her fiction in this way, that she doesn’t analyze it, and once she’s done with a work she has created, she is done with it. I felt my face grow hot as the auditorium full of people laughed. For an interviewer prepared with questions primarily on the social issues that shaped the Ganguli family’s narrative, this was not

and the conversational mismatch I felt during the interview. Our group met for lunch to debrief on our experience with the different events we had facilitated for Seattle Reads, including reader discussion groups, the community dialogues, and the interviews. One colleague mentioned that she felt uncomfortable leading a reading group because while she could discuss the text, she had no training on how to lead a discussion on a text—that pedagogical aspect, the relevance of which I had pondered in the context of

“It was not until we were seated on stage under the bright lights and I had asked my first few questions that I realized the disconnect between the Pulitzer prize-winning author I was interviewing and me, the literary critic.” good news. Another underlying tension that made me wish I hadn’t agreed to do this interview in such a public forum: that of authenticity as a South Asian. I felt as though the questions I had prepared after a very long and sustained engagement with local South Asian communities were now being deemed overly analytical and uninteresting by someone who had far more clout than I did—than we, my community and I, did—to represent the South Asian. After all, we’d won no literary prizes for our trouble, and we didn’t have hundreds of readers who looked up to us for insight on the “South Asian experience.” I was being confronted, not unkindly, but bluntly, with the power of the established genre of South Asian fiction to shape readers’ expectations and cultural perceptions. I did not feel as though Lahiri had been unfair; rather, I felt as though we were approaching the text in fundamentally different ways, as author and critic— one of us with mastery in crafting characters and narratives, and the other with expertise in analyzing those characters and narratives in their broader social and historical context. I got through a few more questions before opening up much earlier than planned for a question and answer session with the audience. Later, when approached by an audience member and asked how I came up with my list of questions, I felt embarrassed but told the truth: after months of discussing the book with readers across the city, I compiled a list of questions that reflected our mutual points of interest. It was not until a month or so later that I gained perspective on the roller coaster of emotions


our community dialogue. I mentioned that I felt like maybe I shouldn’t have been chosen to interview Lahiri, that perhaps someone with training in creative writing should have been asked to do it. I regarded my interview as a failure because I hadn’t been able to engage Lahiri very well with our questions. One of my colleagues offered a response that has since given me valuable perspective on the role of the literary critic in public conversations about literature. He reminded me that there is something instructive precisely in those moments of disjuncture between author and critic. Just as the diverse and sometimes contradictory approaches to reading a text were instructive in themselves during our community dialogues, to dispel the myth of a homogenous and uniform South Asian experience, the friction during the interview also demonstrates of how literary analysis brings something meaningful, and useful to a conversation that is otherwise limited to the imagination of characters and situations as a solitary experience. While novels might be written in isolated cabins on beaches that can be enjoyed through writing fellowships, narratives are shaped by social, cultural, and political issues that make possible the worlds that we imagine. Sharleen Mondal received her Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Washington. She currently serves as a Lecturer at the University of Washington Bothell, where she teaches courses in South Asia Studies and writing. She can be reached at

Healing with Beauty

Hafeez Shaikh

A Modern Islamic Artist on His Works Hafeez Shaikk is an artist with a modern vision for Islam. He strives to open up the stereotypical image of Muslims—often portrayed by outsiders as a bizarre and inaccessible group—and change it, in both his personal life and his artwork. Hafeez works in a very traditional art field: Islamic art, which is characterized by its non-figural representation and often features repeating patterns incorporating the Arabic language. But Hafeez brings a refreshing new face to the register of traditional artists ranging back to the twelfth century. Rather than using traditional materials and inks, he works in mediums like oil paints or stained glass, and he does not often use repeating patterns. Having received a master’s degree in graphic design from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, he brings together Western materials and techniques with traditional Islamic subject matter such as the names of God in Arabic, as seen in his series “99 Names of Allah.”

The way that Hafeez works is simple. He says that the role of the artist is one that mimics the art that Allah would create—Allah gives him the subjects for his art and the vision, and he simply puts down the beauty that he is supplied with. Two of the Arabic names of Allah, “The Painter” and “Beauty,” are incorporated in the creation of his art. He says that although he creates with an idea in mind, the rest of the work evolves organically; his thought process is simultaneously planned out and spontaneously driven by Allah. I sat down with Hafeez to talk about his artwork, but the conversation soon evolved into a fullblown discussion about how Islam interacts with the West and vice versa. Clearly well-traveled and informed about current affairs in the Muslim world, Hafeez expressed his opinion that Muslims often contribute to their own isolation by being standoffish and not letting any other religions near them. Many churches in the tri-state area, he said, showcase his artwork, right next to the cross, but no mosque would



ever exhibit an image that related to Christianity. In that way, he says, Muslims are not trying to connect with the West, and are digging themselves a bigger hole because of it. In his own life, he says, he invites coworkers of any religion into his home in order to show them what real Muslims live like and to dispel assumptions about his lifestyle. Hafeez voiced his views on how many Muslims are not reflecting the true values of Islam by propagating terrorism, withholding education, and practicing arcane local customs such as stoning a woman. Islam should be divorced from the political and cultural eccentricities of any given place; although Hafeez says the people he speaks attribute their actions religious fervor, he believes that it is instead their political beliefs and the ignorance of the people that lead them to commit the violent and unlawful acts that we have often see in the media since 11 Sept. 2001. Islam is about forgiveness—that was, after all, the major goal of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). As Hafeez and I talked, I came to realize how his artwork contributes to the his modern presentation of Islam in the West. Rather than try to break down the monolithic infrastructure of the Western media and their assumptions about Muslims, Hafeez instead builds up the image of Muslims through production of artwork that is both beautiful and modern while incorporating traditional themes. He opens his doors and leads a generous life in the name of his religion, asking buyers of his artwork to donate their money to charity and send him the receipt in lieu of payment. After that horrific day in 2001, Hafeez has met stereotyping with kindness, and through art he has brought a different vision of Islam to the West: one of a peaceful and beautiful coexistence. Hafeez Shaikk hosts a website of his art at www.arthafez. com. His works are available for purchase on the site. He can be reached at




Sketching South Asia

Zara Sheikh

From the Notebook of a Local South Asian Clothing Designer

When she is not pursuing her Masters at Columbia’s School of Social Work, Zara Sheikh is a fashion designer who enjoys incorporating traditional modes into contemporary fashion. Born in Pakistan and raised in Brooklyn, Zara sketches, designs and sews pieces for South Asian women living abroad. Most of Zara’s work centers around rehashing the salwar kameez: the combination of dress and pants worn by women in South Asia. She places unexpected pieces of jewelry against solid, simple backgrounds. She also creates designs embellished with jewels, beads, sequins, laces, and hand-stitched embroidery using stones and thread. Her inspiration: eastern textiles, architecture, furniture, glamorous Bollywood films, international fashion runways, and her surroundings. In the end, her work becomes a mishmash


of eastern and western design elements. Her passion began in high school, when she started sketching rough ideas on loose-leaf paper. Soon, she was sorting through her mother’s bag full of trims, laces, buttons, and fabric and dictating to her mother the garments she envisioned. She then took dressmaking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology and drafting classes locally, and mustered up enough courage to sew her own creations as an undergrad. She avoids assembly-line looks and believes a woman deserves custom designs flattering to her figure. The traditional styles are replicated over and over in local ethnic markets and overseas, but Zara’s pieces are different: they give life to what lies between east and west, to what South Asian women want to wear.




Zara Sheikh can be reached at


India’s Martin Luther?

Sarah Khan

Misappropriations of Kabir and Their Meaning Today, we are all too aware of the threat of cultural appropriation, so much that the very term now takes on pejorative tone. However, to discount as invalid the myriad ways in which India’s poet-saint Kabir (1440 – 1518 CE) has been misappropriated is to evade one of the most puzzling aspects about him: the universal appeal of his works that inspired the misappropriations. It seems strange that a poet whose tone is often confrontational at best, and whose writings could very well be interpreted as blasphemous by some, should be celebrated so ubiquitously without being mired in controversy. Kabir makes direct, scathing at-

However, the bhakti movements of India, while questioning the prevailing social structure and offering a place for those excluded by it, did not bring about any tangible reforms to these structures. Hawley critiques Kabir and his contemporaries, such as Ravidas, for placing the social question at the fore of the bhakti movements without pushing actively for reforms. Alternatively, one could argue that the bhakti movements of India were just a questioning of, rather than an answer to, the caste system, and so whether they were actually able to uproot it or not is immaterial. If one understands these movements in this way, the real

“…the bhakti movements of India, while questioning the prevailing social structure and offering a place for those excluded by it, did not bring about any tangible reforms to these structures.” tacks at the Hindu pandits and Muslim qazis alike, and yet his hagiographers narrate a Muslim-Hindu feud over which community would receive the privilege of laying claim to his dead body. When viewed through the retroactive lens of Western history, he is situated in an Indian Reformation as a Luther-like figure on the one hand, and paralleled with the Quakers on the other. These appropriations reveal a modern understanding of and use for Kabir. One way to understand the perception of Kabir is to examine the bhakti movement with which he is associated. Barnard College Professor John Hawley, a specialist in north Indian devotional traditions, emphasizes the element of social protest in the bhakti movements. One can read in Kabir’s work a strong rejection of the hierarchical social structure present in India at the time. Verses such as “If you’re a Brahmin/ From a Brahmin woman born/Why didn’t you come out some special way?” clearly call the Hindu caste system and the notion of social privilege by birth into question.

achievement of Kabir’s work is the open and popular questioning of the prevailing system. One can also look at the bhakti movements purely as religious reform movements. Polyglot and late scholar of Indian literature A.K. Ramanujan in his introduction to Speaking of Shiva, notes that, “bhakti religions like Virasaivism are Indian analogues to European protestant movements.” It is precisely this understanding that has paved the way for parallels between Martin Luther and Kabir. One can certainly find traces of Lutheran theology in Kabir’s writings. There is a shared protest against relying on mediators in the religious experience in favor of original, individual experience. Kabir emphasizes, like Luther, the importance of a direct connection with the divine: You say: “It’s Narad’s command.” “It’s what Vyas says to do” “Go and ask Sukdev, the sage” Kabir says: you’d better go and lose yourself in Ram For without him, brother, you drown

In Three Bhakti Voices, Hawley makes a pertinent


CULTURE point about how the author’s signature, in the case of Kabir, and other poets like Mirabai and Surdas, actually draws further attention to this notion of individual experience. “… [T]he signatures in bhakti poems communicate much more than authorship. They lend these poems authority and conviction.” Thus the phrase Kabir says at the end of the verse means more then that the verse was penned by Kabir; it reaffirms that its content is somehow a product of Kabir’s own experience. While the selective identification of Reformist elements in Kabir’s works is not unwarranted, the celebration of Kabir as an Indian Luther is more problematic, as it carries with it all the ideas of what reform should look like. If Hawley was expecting something similar to a Peasant’s War as a challenge to the caste system, he is rightly disappointed. The iconic sociologist Max Weber, in a cursory side-note in his The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, compares Kabir to the Quakers rather than the Protestant reformers: “the Kabir Panthi, established by Ramananda’s student Kabir— came to deny Brahmanical authority and all Hindu deities and ritual. It was strongly pacifistic, suggesting the Quakers. It advocated ascetic techniques of holy seeking—displaying forbearance to all forms of life, avoiding lying, shunning all worldly lust.” The rejection of rites and sacraments and emphasis on direct communion with God in Quakerism does seem to resonate with Kabir’s ideas. More interesting, however, is the trend in early Quakerism to view Christ, rather than the Bible, as the Word of God and to reject the Reformation idea of the Bible as sola scriptura. In this regard, Kabir’s ideas do seem more aligned with Quakerism; he too expresses deep skepticism of overreliance on scripture: “Fool, Throw away

Kabir had the advantage of being born into a Muslim family and then converting to Hinduism, thus having an insight into both religions. Although he displays uniform disdain for Hinduism and Islam in many of his works, he has been embraced by both. The monotheistic theology of the nirguna bhakti faith which Kabir prescribes brings it closer to Islam than mainstream Hinduis, or saguna bhakti, which utilize the idol and image worship strictly rejected by both nirguna bhakti and Islam. The nirguna bhakti conception of the Divine as formless and existing in all creation is very much like the notion of wahdat-al-wujuud or the Unity of Existence in Sufism. Both Kabir and Sufi saints have a tendency to reject what they perceive to be artificial divisions created by institutionalized religion, particularly Islam and Hinduism. For instance, the two verses below by Kabir and Bulleh Shah, a 17th century Sufi poet, respectively, express almost exactly the same concern about the Hindu-Muslim divide: Hindus, Muslims – where did they come from? Who got them started down this road? Search inside, search your heart and look Who made heaven come to be? —Kabir

Remove duality and do away with all disputes; The Hindus and Muslims are not other than He. Deem everyone virtuous, there are no thieves. For, within every body He himself resides. How the Trickster has put on a mask! —Bulleh Shah

Ramanujan notes that the bhakti movements were a “revolt from within” against mainstream Hinduism, while Jainism and Buddhism were “revolts from the outside.” In Islam, a similar project was taken up

“While the selective identification of Reformist elements in Kabir’s works is not unwarranted, the celebration of Kabir as an Indian Luther is more problematic…” that book, and sing of Ram.” “Vedas, Puranas—why read them? It’s like loading an ass with sandalwood!” While the comparisons drawn between bhakti movements and European religious reform movements do not necessarily imply that either influenced the other directly, Kabir’s ideas have had direct influence on later religious movements within the South Asia.


by Muslim poet-philosopher Iqbal in the 1920s and 1930s. Like Kabir, Iqbal expresses deep concern about the hijacking of religion by pandits, qazis, and the like, and calls for individual reasoning and personal struggle in religion. In his series of lectures called The Reconstruction of Religious Thought, Iqbal stresses the principle of movement in religion, and makes an argument that Islam is inherently amenable to reform.

CULTURE This is especially interesting because there is an attempt here to interpret mainstream religion to lend legitimacy to the kind of “revolt from within” that Kabir and his contemporaries achieved through the bhakti movements. Between Kabir and Iqbal transpires the essential transformation of the project from one of oppositional revolt to one of legitimate reform. Perhaps the numerous interpretations of Kabir’s work become problematic because they are so varied. Bengali literary figure Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay raises the concern that “there is a persistent tendency to ‘anachronism’ in the form of reading in Kabir a prototype or early anticipation of some current ideological or philosophical position.” One may also speculate about whether the Orientalist readings of Kabir, which draw parallels between bhakti movements and Protestantism and Quakerism, are Euro-centric and assimilate Kabir into a Western tradition at the cost of ignoring his importance in a specifically Indian context. While all these concerns are certainly valid, what is interesting is that Kabir has lent himself to such a diverse set of interpretations. There is a point about the genesis of religious reform to be made here. What makes Kabir so universal is that he speaks to a problem that has afflicted all religions at some point—that of dead dogma. Image via Flickr In the context of the Christian ReformaTemple in Rajasthan has strong associations with the Bhakti movement. tion, the philosopher John Stuart Mill deKabir had an influential role in the movement. fines this as “the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, ring concern very much valid in modern times. but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth However while Iqbal and Luther clearly speak of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or to this problem of dead dogma, their agendas are espersonal experience.” This concern is expressed clearly sentially specific to their religious and political conby Kabir in the following verse: texts. On the contrary, Kabir’s take on the problem is Your mind is blind. You’ve no knowledge of yournot specific to Hinduism or Islam, or even necessarselves ily to India. Kabir’s universiality makes him unique Tell me brother, how can you teach anyone else? among thinkers and writers—his frequent misapWisdom is a thing you sell for worldly gain, propriation is a sign of the success of his mission as a So there goes your human birth—in vain writer. It is certainly not a new concern; we see it in Jesus’s castigation of the Pharisees, and his call for a return Sarah Khan is a senior at Columbia University studying to the spirit of the law versus the letter. And as Iqbal’s Economics. She can be reached at sk2947@columbia. writings of the early 1930s demonstrate, it is a recuredu.


The Jump She was supposed to jump. Padmini had packed a tan suitcase with her prized possessions, but she had not cared to take even it, now sitting at the foot of her bed. She stood before it, examining the leather, worn from use over time. But the suitcase had only become hers in the past year, transferring ownership from her father. He had taken it along on his countless travels—work trips that ranged from the rural mountain villages in India to a state with an unpronounceable name in America. The leather was cracked and bore creases reddened by perpetual Indian dust. But Padmini did not care for it or its contents. “Padmini kuti?” Padmini heard her mother’s voice calling for her, but she did not respond, prolonging this stolen moment of privacy. The delay was uncharacteristic of her. Padmini had been raised to answer promptly in respect to elders and she generally obliged. They had all been surprised when they found out she was supposed to jump. “Oh, you’re still in here?” Padmini turned to the doorway and, seeing Amma, busied herself with fixing her hair in the wardrobe mirror, pretending this had been her concern all along. After hurriedly combing through a few pin-straight strands with her fingers, Padmini flicked her eyes up to see if her mother was still there. She was, and the intensity of Amma’s gaze made Padmini suspect that her mother had guessed where her thoughts had been moments ago. But instead of saying anything to confirm Padmini’s suspicions, Amma simply raised the bunch of white jasmine she held in her hands. She approached and began tying the flowers into her daughter’s hair. “We can go as soon as you’re ready,” she said. But Padmini didn’t move. She looked in the mirror as her mother fastened the hairpins and kept staring even after Amma had left the room. Padmini had imagined how she would feel the moment before the jump so often that she was convinced everyone knew this was


Krupa Harishankar

what preoccupied her thoughts each time she stared into space or said the wrong thing in conversation. It was disconcerting, feeling so transparent after living a reserved life for nearly twenty years. But that was not the only aspect of her appearance that Padmini found disconcerting. For the moment, standing in a plain cotton churidar with a bindhi positioned in the center of her forehead, Padmini looked as she always did. The only difference was her long, jet-black hair, which fell loose across her shoulders and cascaded down her back, as it did only on the rarest of occasions. Normally, Padmini would weave it into a single, tight plait, but today her hair would be done for her. And with her hair already adorned with flowers, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the red silk sari, kohl rimmed eyes, and jangling gold bangles that would soon follow. They had spent weeks picking the clothes, the jewelry, the new things she would have for her home. It was in these moments that Padmini had often paused an extra second, unable to decide between these copper pots or that iron set, the cream sheets or the white, and she believed they all knew why. She crossed to the bed and sat down, the cot’s metal springs barely moaning beneath her petite frame. Although she was slender, Padmini was not frail. Scouts had taken care of that. She had been born in Kerala just after India was freed from British rule, and in the fledgling years of independence had joined the Scouts with her brothers. She was not in their division, of course, but part of an all female one in which the girls learned wilderness skills on field excursions and, in army-like drills, honed the discipline with which they would later rule their homes. Padmini could gut and clean any fish, chop its head off in one swift motion and slice away the shimmering scales in under a minute. She loved the freedom that came with this precision, the keen sense that she could survive in any situation. But once back in the comforts of her

FICTION own kitchen, Padmini had thought better of showing off her skill. Though Kerala remained the state that voted the Communist Party to power every election and preached equality between the sexes, many of Padmini’s friends had soon left the Scouts for more traditional pursuits—dancing, singing, veena lessons. Perhaps it was Padmini’s increasing incongruity with the girls who chose to stick with the Scouts that had earned her the lasting nickname of Padmini kuti. She was small and lithe while the other Scouts were strong, with masculine shoulders and legs like tree trunks, built for running. They all shouted in unison, but while the others’ voices carried strong into general conversation, Padmini’s retained the soft-spoken ways of her girlhood. And yet, the day she found out, Padmini came home from Scouts determined to tell her family. She kept the news to herself for a few hours and turned the idea over in her head, her stomach doing flipflops whenever she imagined it. Still, each time her nerves began to get the better of her, Padmini thought

Sitting on the bed now, a year later, Padmini recalled that it was Mukesh’s reaction that had made her certain of her decision. “Ni da? Padmini kuti?” he’d said. You? Little Padmini? Even her younger brother still addressed her as a kuti, a little one, a child. But she would shed the nickname soon enough. Her suitcase was packed. She was ready to go. Padmini rose from the bed, conscious that it would be for the last time. She would not live here anymore. She picked up the suitcase and left the room without a second glance. A black sedan was waiting at the housing compound’s entrance. Amma slid in first and then drew in Padmini, cupping her hands around her daughter’s head as she had done when Padmini was a child and prone to bumping her head on the car door. Padmini supposed the gesture was now made so the jasmine would not get crushed and so she ducked, but she did not sidle next to her mother once in the car. Amma directed the driver, but for her part did not say anything further, leaving her daughter to her thoughts as she had for much of the past year. During that time, Padmini had often wondered

“Padmini could gut and clean any fish, chop its head off in one swift motion and slice away the shimmering scales in under a minute.” through the steps of the most complicated knots in the Scouts’ manual and felt her resolve tighten. She knew she’d need this presence of mind when the time came to say her piece. As it turned out, the time would come at dinner, after the sambar sadham but before the thire. They were nearly done eating, and her father and older brother Ramu had finished the discussion they’d kept running throughout the meal—something about Ramu’s studies. Padmini’s younger brother, Mukesh, was seated next to her, carefully licking the sambar remnants from his fingertips, though at 15 he was a little too old for the habit. Amma was up and about, doling out more sadham to everyone so they could complete the meal with the yogurt rice meant to cool their insides. “Amma, could you sit down for a minute before you do that? I have something to tell you,” said Padmini. Amma only sat after she finished serving the rice. She glanced over at Padmini’s father, and the words travelled from Amma’s eyes to Appa’s mouth. ‘“What is it?” her father asked.

what her mother was thinking. It wasn’t Amma’s way to give her opinion freely. For a long while that had been all right because Padmini herself didn’t wish to speak much. But even after her future had been decided, when Padmini’s aunts and cousins had begun to cajole and tease, Amma looked on without participating. Padmini was sure her mother had taken part in the arrangements, and for that she was thankful. Amma would know her wishes better than Appa possibly could, but Padmini wondered why, if that were true, Amma hadn’t spoken to her about what had passed. Now everything was decided. Padmini supposed her mother believed, as she did too, that there could no longer be much to say. Her story was like so many others. Padmini passed the ride with her head propped against the window as the car took the two through the streets of Palakkad. She had known these roads all her life, and without paying much attention to the view, allowed her mind to wander across the cracked pavement, beyond crowded intersections at which no one bothered to heed the traffic lights, and then to a place Padmini herself could not define. This space and its


FICTION thoughts were amorphous, like air and clouds beyond which something solid existed, but just out of sight. She suspected that the place, could she glimpse it, might have streets like Delhi, but Padmini didn’t know what that city looked like. North India might as well have been a world away. So the mental space remained undefined, but still it seemed that her thoughts arose from this mist. These were sudden, irresistible notions; she never saw them coming. Like now, nearing her destination, Padmini couldn’t help but wonder what would have come to pass if she’d been provided a car before. Perhaps none of this would be happening now. How things would have changed. Hers might have been a story worth telling. But though it had seemed so close, so believable that she would go, the distance to traverse had been impossible. Padmini had arranged to travel far from her family, her life, everything she had known for her nineteen years. First she would leave by train, and then she would jump. That had been the plan, until he had been arrested. George Fernandez—leftist union leader and worker’s advocate, according to the papers—was a man whose name Padmini hadn’t noticed a year ago, preoccupied as she was finishing packing for Delhi. And he would have meant nothing to her if railway workers across the country had not protested his arrest and stopped working, indefinitely. Padmini had set her suitcase in the wardrobe while she waited to leave, opening the trunk daily to check its contents during the first week. But each day, her khaki Scouts uniforms looked the same as they had the last, and soon the suitcase sat untouched. After a month, the strike was called off amidst much public outrage, and the railways became operational again. Meanwhile, Padmini’s plans died more quietly. She had missed her chance.

studying accounting because the work was mechanical and absorbing; she could forget herself by arranging numbers according to pattern. Padmini found she was good at that, but her schoolwork was nothing more than a series of tasks to pass the time. She waited, and the opportunity presented itself once again, as she had known it would. Though the holidays had long since ended, the day she got the phone call was the last day of summer weather before the monsoon season. By chance, Padmini found herself alone in the flat when the call came. The voice on the other end, female, apologized for the circumstances. She said they’d had to postpone the jump one year from its original date. But the same offer would be extended to Padmini again, if she were still interested. Padmini assured the caller she was, but the woman insisted that she would call back again in a few days for an official response. They needed to be sure. This time, said the voice on the other end, nothing unforeseeable would get in the way. Padmini nodded to herself and set down the receiver just as Mukesh came in. She did not respond when he asked, “Padmini kuti, who could be calling for you?” Instead, she walked to her room and shut the door behind her. Assured by the soft thud, Padmini opened her wardrobe, allowed her hands to sweep across the row of silk and cotton saris hanging there, and then reached behind them to take hold of the suitcase’s handle. The leather felt soft in her palm and Padmini held on to it for an extra moment before yanking the suitcase from its resting spot. She had not unpacked it. The same suitcase was currently stored in the car’s trunk, the only part of her old life that Padmini would carry with her. Padmini had been adamant upon taking nothing else, not the saris Girish had complimented her on or the kolusu that she’d worn around her ankles, which had jingled softly as she walked, catching

“But Padmini noticed that her father had not written anything on his paper, and as the blot on the page bled outwards, it crossed her mind that maybe Appa had not considered any reasons at all” It had been too late to leave that year. By the time the strike ended, the summer months—interminable moments of oppressive heat that seemed to bear down on Padmini more harshly than usual— were almost over. Biding her time, Padmini had heeded Appa’s advice and enrolled in a local college. She began


her soon-to-be husband’s attention for the first time. Padmini had never really argued with Amma before this refusal to fold and pack the majority of her things. It wasn’t that Amma expected Padmini to wear the outfits she’d donned as a single woman after her marriage, but she had insisted that Padmini would want

FICTION these keepsakes. Padmini had not had the heart to explain that these, the dresses, jewelry and handful of English romance novels she’d purchased over the years, were not the keepsakes she would have chosen for herself. The only thing she wanted, she could now never possess. But this was too difficult to explain, so instead, Padmini had convinced her mother that not taking the debris of her teenage years would make the packing go more quickly. “I’m just tired of waiting,” she’d said. “I’ve taken everything I’ll need.” Amma had pursed her lips as if she were about to speak and pulled the tail of her sari around her body until it hugged her hips. But finally, she had turned her head away without argument, perhaps thinking her daughter was anxious to escape her childhood, her family. Padmini knew she’d been misunderstood, but had not bothered to correct the impression, satisfied for the moment with being heard. In the car, Padmini tried to catch Amma’s eye, but her mother was ducking this way and that in order to get a good look at the traffic ahead. Many of the drivers, including their own, were honking their horns incessantly, and finally Amma glanced over at Padmini, knowing her daughter had been prone to headaches of late. She berated the driver for making such a ridiculous amount of noise and Padmini was grateful, though she did not mind the horns as much today. The drivers too wanted only to announce their presence, to be heard and heeded. “I’m just tired of waiting,” said Padmini, hoping her mother would understand this time that she only wanted to jump. The second time, after receiving the phone call, Padmini had been more direct. She’d summoned the courage to approach her father at his desk. “Appa?” He hadn’t looked up from his work. “I got a call from Delhi,” she said, and his pen stopped scratching across the paper. Padmini knew this was her opening, the space to insert her words. She breathed and began. “They’re going to delay everything one year, but I have to tell them I’m coming. I have to let them know soon. They have to keep to the schedule this time. They’ll be calling the papers, so they can’t afford for it to go wrong again, and…” Padmini ran out of breath prematurely and her words tapered off. She did not tell him “And I can’t let it to go wrong again,” or, “I’ve been waiting, I’m tired of waiting.” Instead, Padmini chewed her lip, unsure

whether she was waiting for Appa’s approval or had simply reached her limits of explanation; in either case, there was only silence. Then Appa shuffled his papers together and set down his pen, not bothering to cap it as he intended to return to his work soon. He looked at his daughter and she flicked her eyes away upon meeting his gaze. “Ilai,” he said. No. Appa picked up his pen again and pressed it to the page in front of him, but Padmini did not leave. She watched the ink begin to flow and reasoned that Appa had of course meant to say, “You’re enrolled in college now. You have responsibilities, an education to complete.” Still, he had not said this. Perhaps then Appa had other ideas for Padmini’s future, plans he had not yet voiced. But Padmini noticed that her father had not written anything on his paper, and as the blot on the page bled outwards, it crossed her mind that maybe Appa had not considered any reasons at all. Maybe he’d made his decision in the split-second it had taken to speak. The world became silent and Padmini found herself transported back to that cloudy space high and far away from everything. And without the assurance that the places beyond would someday be uncovered, her suspension there was alarming. She wanted to jump, but Appa was holding her hands now, saying “Padmini kuti…” and she didn’t need his words to know that her father could not imagine his little girl traveling alone to the North. He could not imagine sending her to the metropolis of Delhi to undergo the two weeks of intensive training that had been offered by the national government to a single female scout. That one woman chosen to take off in an airplane would rise, rise until the plane doors were opened, making way for the first female parachutist in all of India. All she had to do was jump. When the contact in Delhi called back as promised, Padmini turned down the offer. For days on end, she attended classes and came straight home, and the days turned into months that passed just the same as the last, until one afternoon Padmini returned to find another family seated in her home. That first time, Padmini had merely put her hands together and uttered a quick “Vanakam Auntie, Uncle,” before slipping off into her room, but the initial meeting was followed by occasions on which Padmini served chai and sweets to Girish and his parents. Between these gatherings, there were festivals he would take her to where they would dance, Girish stomping about heavily and


FICTION wholeheartedly, Padmini light on her feet and cautious, her thoughts elsewhere. He drove her to the beach on his scooter, which Padmini loved for the sensation of the wind weaving through her hair. They would walk along the shoreline in a comfortable silence and stop only when Girish insisted they buy masala-roasted peanuts and sit down to watch the kites. Padmini would oblige, though she would have preferred to continue walking. It was on the beach that she first saw the article and photo announcing the news. The peanut-wallah ripped a sheet from the day’s paper to fold into a cone to hold their peanuts, and Padmini noticed the headline announcing “a monumental moment for India.” But before she could protest, the man had fashioned the cone and scooped sizzling peanuts into it. Pad-

mini took the food and ate with Girish, pretending the nuts were too spicy when her eyes teared and she could not look as he pointed up at the lantern kites, soaring above the rest as if they alone could put a light amongst the clouds. Carefully, when the nuts were gone, Padmini slipped the newspaper sheet into her sari’s top, the karam masala residue and black ink words burning against her body. Padmini leaned against the upholstered seat back in the car and closed her eyes, remembering that evening as the start, even as the vehicle carried her along the final stretches of her journey. After Girish had taken Padmini back to the flat—he taking the risk to kiss her goodnight, she allowing it—Padmini had sat on her bed with the door to her room closed and read the grease stained paper she had stolen. With the kiss and

Image via Wikimedia Commons Parachuters



the news, that night and the following day had been filled with firsts—the first moment she realized she would marry Girish, the first morning she refused the paper when Appa offered it to her after he’d finished. In the months since then, she had become engaged to Girish and not read the news once, until today. But Padmini had not sought out the newsprint for updates on the piece that had merely moved from the front page to the middle section in the past months, the story that had captivated the entire country, the piece that hadn’t ceased to be interesting even when its time had passed. Instead, Padmini flipped the flimsy sheets searching for a few specific lines printed among so many others in the society column of the local news pages. There, nestled amongst other names and dates, was her wedding announcement. Padmini had examined it once before creasing the edges of the column with her henna-red fingertips and tearing it from the page. Then, she’d folded the section carefully and pressed it into her top. Now, as she stepped from the stopped vehicle, Padmini put her hand to her chest and took a breath as if she were adjusting to the hot, dense air outside the car. As she inhaled, she briefly felt for the concealed papers, checking that the scraps she carried were still there and did not show in the loose churidar. Satisfied on both accounts, Padmini walked with her mother into the mandabum through its back entrance, the driver following with her suitcase. The front entrance and wedding hall had been decorated with pink and yellow frangipani for the arrival of the guests, but the side room in which Padmini would ready herself was calmingly plain, except for the richly dressed, jewelry laden women who rushed in shortly after Padmini herself. “Ah, Padmini kuti!” her aunts squealed, but Padmini did not listen to the endless chatter and unsolicited words of advice they gave as they pulled at her hair and encased her face in a layer of makeup. Padmini nodded and smiled, held her face and tilted her head as her mother stood back and directed, but did not venture to speak until it was time for her to change. “Just my mother,” she said. “But kuti,” said an aunt, beginning to x_Parachute.jpg protest before Padmini’s mother silenced her.

“We will manage,” said Amma. After the other women had pressed Padmini’s hands, gushed and given her their best wishes in turn, they finally left mother and daughter to complete the costuming. Amma carefully lifted the churidar top from Padmini’s shoulders so it would not mess her hair or smear the makeup. She handed her daughter the blouse. Padmini slipped it on quickly and held her breath while she waited for her mother to fasten the hooks in the back, hoping Amma wouldn’t notice. But Amma came around to straighten the top, and, as was her way, knew something was amiss. “What is it?” Amma asked, her gaze not wavering from Padmini’s eyes. For a second Padmini stood there, half-dressed in old pyjama bottoms and a silk sari blouse, her face fully made up and expressionless. But she could not conceal herself from Amma, who didn’t look away while her daughter reached inside her top and pulled out the clippings. Wordlessly, Padmini handed over the folded squares, small enough to be held between two fingers but still detectable to her mother’s keen eyes. Amma took them and unfolded the papers; but instead of examining them, she asked Padmini, “You intend to take these with you?” Before seeing the torn sheets of words pinched between Amma’s nails, Padmini had intended just that. Carrying these scraps—the first an article announcing the name of some other woman as the first female parachutist in India, the second the announcement bearing her own name—Padmini had hoped to reconcile herself to the marriage. Another had taken her spot. History could not be undone. But looking at the papers now, Padmini was not resigned as she’d hoped she would be. She still felt herself on the verge, halftipping, almost jumping. Padmini shook her head no. “Put them in the suitcase,” she said. The trunk had come this far with her, and with the clippings inside, it was finally fully packed. Now she could go. Padmini wrapped her sari, and later its gold embroidery shone a blinding white as she stepped around the wedding fire. After the ceremony was over, bombarded with endless congratulations, Padmini forgot the suitcase in the wedding hall. Her breath caught in her chest when she remembered it afterwards; then weightless, she jumped. Krupa Harishankar is a sophomore at Columbia College studying Creative Writing. She can be reached at


Untitled Kari learned to knit at age 32. Her mother decided she needed this lesson. She had been ill for years by that time, and was so old that she could barely make the motions anymore; nevertheless she still carved out an hour every night when she struggled and strained to teach Kari how to make each stitch. Kari would cup her mother’s fragile hands as they shook and say, “Amma, slow down, repeat the last step,” until finally she got it. When she got home, the ball of yarn and needles would sit in a tangled mass next to her bed, waiting for the next night to be touched again. Kari’s mother had known how to knit since she was 7 years old—it was just one of the many womanly skills that she was required to learn. It was as if a checklist had been made and knitting was right in the center of it, between cooking and herbal remedies. But, unlike the other domestic tasks she had been forced to perform, Kari’s Amma actually enjoyed knitting and had spent every free moment she had attending to it. The feel of the yarn between her fingers, the click of the wooden needles as they churned out fabric, and the look of the finished garment, ready to be displayed to the parents of any potential suitor, were what gave her the greatest happiness. Now, as she was dying, she felt the need to impart it to Kari. Born Karuna Rahman, Kari had always been a distracted child. Her shortened name had come about as teachers repeatedly snapped at her when she talked out of turn or was staring dreamily out of windows. She had a short attention span for anything that involved sitting still. Consequently, traditional Bangla things held no interest for her. She had passed up cooking and singing for roller skating lessons and tennis. The weekend courses on Bengali script, always held at some “auntie’s” house, ended when she started flinging pencils across the room. As a last ditch effort, they tried traditional dance classes—after one lesson, the teacher dismissed her for “lack of effort.” But now, as her mother reached her final days, Kari was making an honest attempt.


Jordan Alam

When they met in her mother’s bedroom each evening, Kari was often lonely. Her sister had usually left by then and the caregiver had seen to her mother’s nightly medication. The house would be dark when she let herself in, but a little reading lamp with a warm yellow glow from her mother’s room would signal that her mother was still awake. The floors would creak in the silence, but Kari always gave a customary knock on the door to signal her presence. Her mother would rise out of bed with a little strain and whisper, “Kamon acho?” in a wheezing voice. Kari would reply— ”Bhalo achi”—and take her seat in a red chair near the bed. They would begin in silence while Kari tried to figure out where she had left off in the scarf she was making, which was really just a sampling of patterns on a long strip. When she had it sorted out, her mother would take measure of her progress, feeling the fabric rather than putting on her glasses to see it, and tell her whether her stitches were too tight or loose, whether she had dropped one in the middle. Then she would begin the lesson for the night. It would be slow and her mother would model the stitches first before unraveling them for Kari to try. Kari thought her mother would have been a remarkable teacher if she were given the chance—she forced you to work with that gentle smile of hers. But Baba would never have let his wife lift a finger. Not in this country. Sometimes, after a particularly frustrating knot


Image via Flickr Yarn and bamboo needle

or a difficult pattern stitch, her mother would insist that she put the needles down. Being stubborn as well as impatient, Kari would try to protest. “No, Amma, let me finish this one row. I’ll be done quick-quick.” But her mother’s hand would come to her struggling fingers and snatch away the needles abruptly. Sometimes stitches would fall off, but she made no fuss about it. Almost to distract her, Kari’s mother would then launch into a story. “When I met your Baba, he was a lot older than me. He went to a private school and he already knew English pretty well. All the schoolgirls admired him because he had grades that made his family boast when they were published in the paper. We were small then and we thought that marriage was a far, far thing. We didn’t know our parents were planning it from the

start. They put us near some families and took us away from others purely out of tact—you know how they say some children make influences? We were looking for influence.” “Amma, I think you mean that some kids are bad influences. Influence has two meanings...” “I know, I know, yes. What I was trying to tell you is that your father had good influence. The kind my parents wanted. So when I was finishing my high school, I saw him hanging around our house more often. He was already nearing the end of his university work, so I didn’t pay any attention. A year or two after I graduated though, we got the letter. Baba was already here and he already had a salary coming in! My parents were very excited. Our wedding in the village was very big, very colorful. But the part I remember the most was


FICTION weeks afterward at the airport. All your aunties and uncles were there to send me off. And I was so scared, you can’t imagine...” She would break off into silence, lost in thought. And when the silence ended, the mess would be fixed. “There!” she would cry, “Now you can start on the next row.” It was only when Kari left that she would remember that her mother was sick. Driving back home, the headlights of passing cars would flash into her own windows, illuminating her pile of knitting for a brief instant. Tears would well up in her eyes, but she would choke them down, hoping that when she got into bed she would be able to sleep right away. Most times, sleep didn’t come so easily. Into the early morning, she would lie awake thinking. About Amma, about Baba, about how different their lives were. Though she had been back to Bangladesh a few times with them, she hadn’t seen what they saw. She had seen dirty children and meat with bones and colorful saris, but she had not seen it with the nostalgic wonder that her parents always did when they went back. She did not feel the instant connection with all the strange relatives. She felt curiously alone. But when she listened to her mother speak about the days when she was a girl, a spark jumped inside her. She wanted to be part of it. She would clutch her pillow tight and pray to God to let her sleep, and in the morning she would forget everything. On Saturday night, she came to the lit room and her mother was already asleep. Kari sat down beside her and stroked her grey hair, listening to her breath rattle in her chest. She turned off the light and slipped out of the room, leaving her needles and yarn on the red chair. That night she slept easily, dreaming in vague colors and shapes. The next morning, there was a message from her mother’s caregiver on the answering machine. “Kari, your mother has been taken to the hospital. She was in the emergency room early this morning, but they’ve moved her to a room. They don’t think she’s doing too well. The doctors instructed me to call you and Shachi right away.” She was out the door before the message ended. As she fumbled for her keys, she thought of the million possible things that could be wrong. She tried to reassure herself: her breathing hadn’t been that shallow last night. But the drive to the hospital was still agonizing; in the same way she prayed for restful nights, she


prayed that the drive would be over and that she would be there already. When she got there, she met Shachi outside the door. “I canceled all my plans. I’m going to stay with Amma today. I don’t know if you want to too, but...” Shachi was looking anywhere but her eyes. “Of course I want to. How’s she doing?” “The doctors say that she might not make it through the day.” Her skin went cold. Kari nodded and looked down at the floor tiles. “I’m going in there,” Kari finally said. “I’ll meet you in a minute.” Her mother looked more fragile than ever, attached to an IV and a breathing tube. She was asleep, drawing in little puffs of air. Kari came down by her bedside, scanned her wrinkled face. For a moment, their lives seemed to have barely overlapped, like she was looking at an old photograph. She reached out to touch her mother’s hand, and it was cold. Beside the bed, a little bag had been packed with emergency supplies and some of her mother’s things. Kari examined it for a moment, caught by something poking out through the top. Carefully, she extracted the knitted scarf she was working on, a mass of cerulean blue yarn and bamboo needles. The caretaker must have assumed it was Amma’s, she thought. Kari sat down on a chair and started wrestling with the tangled yarn. A few stitches had slipped off in transport, but she stuck the needle back through them and was careful not to add any more. With a calm hand, she started to do a basic stockinette stitch, watching the fabric curl around itself in a protective cocoon as it grew. Kari thought of her mother’s life in the little anecdotes they had shared over knitting. She thought of the young girl who had learned all the womanly tricks and then became the smart girl shipped off to America. To a place where she didn’t have to work, and where she found little company. She was as lonely as Kari was when she returned to Bangladesh. The needles clicked together as Kari got to the end of the strand of yarn. Binding off, she looked at the hodgepodge creation that she and her mother had made. Throwing it around her neck, she leaned back in the chair, and promptly fell asleep. Jordan Alam is a sophomore at Barnard College studying English and Creative Writing. She can be reached at

Beggars “Don’t give money to beggars.” I remember Paati, my grandmother, telling me the beggars on the streets of Chennai were all part of a larger mafia run out of Pudhupettai. “Even Sivaji can learn some acting from them,” she said as two sets of leprous fingers rubbed against each other in a fervent plea for a meal in exchange for the Lord’s blessings. I disagreed. Sivaji Ganeshan, who owned the vibrating face of cinematic tragedy, could make Paati turn over any sum with a shuddering jaw. Perhaps the pleader ought to invest in a ticket to a Sivaji movie. It was the kids who got further than the older beggars. Sometimes a kid would come up to us as we walked around the shops of Mylapore, attracted like a moth to Paati’s crisp kanjivaram sari. “Mother, mother, mother, I haven’t eaten for two days, mother,” he would say. His hand would just breeze at the edge of the sari rather than grip it and pull. I realized that not only her skin, but also her clothes were out of bounds. Had the boy gripped the sari enough to strain her shoulder, Paati would have had to reach for something to whack him without touching him, thereby ending all possibility of continued dialogue. This instead would elicit the expected reaction, “Don’t touch!” The boy’s strategy raised more annoyance than the elderly leper’s plea invoked melancholy, but at least he got Paati’s attention. Back in the day, Paati tells me, there was no such problem as this. Beggars sat outside temples and did not bother you, and you gave them money if you wanted to. “See the courage of this little boy! Shameless.” She was consistent and never paid a beggar. She did not need to react, but she frequently saw fit to do so in an instructive manner, specifically when I was with her. For her, this was a part of my education. Each retort was her way of arming me for life’s inconveniences. “Great actor!” she barked, “Stop pretending, you’ve eaten very well. Now go away.” Over the years, I had learned much: “He has eaten very well, just pretending.” “His mother is not dead, just pretending.”

Joyojeet Pal

“She hasn’t come from the village and lost all her money, just pretending.” “That plaster cast is a fake, just pretending.” “He is not a cripple, just pretending.” “But Paati, he has no legs!” “Summa, these fellows cut off their legs so that they can make money begging.” As a six-year-old, I wasn’t sure who “these fellows” were. But I knew begging was an insidious business. The boy at Paati’s sari was contemplating his next move. It had drizzled earlier that afternoon, and groveling on the pavement was more inconvenient than usual. Paati must already have seemed to him an unlikely philanthropist. He took a quick glance at me, his tragic face transforming slowly to one of indifference as he turned his attention away from Paati. Some part of me felt I must react. The word of a woman in my company was in the process of being ignored, by my equal, a six-year old male. This was to be the beginning of many years of shooing beggars away from women I accompanied. Before I did anything, he scuttled off to another passing kanjivaram sari, but not before making a pointed accident to leap through a small puddle, splashing the edge of Paati’s sari with fresh muck. “Ayogya! Useless one!” she screamed as the boy made off. A policeman was standing just behind her, and she swiftly barked, “Oi! Constable, catch him! See, he did it deliberately!” “Ay!” the constable shouted perfunctorily at the running boy. Then he turned back to her, “Let it go, mother.” Since we had picked up enough attention, the boy had to forego his next customer and shoot for the alley to stay clear. “Let it go? Decent citizens are being harassed and you want me to let it go? This is a big mafia—that is the problem. You must be involved too!” I found I felt a striking pain at the base of my spine whenever deeply embarrassed. A good part of the street had stopped whatever it was doing to turn around and face the constable, and I thought he too must have felt a share of what I was feeling. He did not want a confrontation with an old lady to go any further.



Image via Wikiimedia Commons Boy begging on street

Paati and the constable waited in a brief silence. Paati made the first move. “Younger brother, you should help us, isn’t it?” she asked. It was a clever turn, and she shone with the endearing vulnerability of an aged freedom fighter just hit on the head with an imperialist baton. “Please go, mother. He has run away now. I will catch him the next time,” he answered. All was well with the street. As we walked away, Paati turned to me and said, “Nothing will ever change in this country.” Seventeen years later, I left India, and seven years after that I was back in Mylapore, Madras. I had to find Amutham Fancy Store, by the temple pond. I walked around the Kapaleeshwar temple, shocked at the calamitous number of people and the fact that I still stuck out. It was one thing being the only brown man on a street in Helsinki, but the feeling of being an outsider in your own home is thornier on several fronts. I am still not


sure what scent emanated from my stonewashed jeans that made it so obvious that I wasn’t a temple-going kind, but it seemed everyone saw a tourist when they looked at me. The neighborhood was a microcosm of Madras. It was built around the massive temple and adjoining tank, and the streets were lined with residences alongside businesses, restaurants, hawkers, public services, and God. Mylapore had stuck out its tongue at the Walmart experience. Every transaction remained deeply personal, where a slip of eye contact would destine whether you’d turn customer for flowers, for a temple guide, for bangles, or for alms. I was only interested in finding the store, then walking straight back to the car and getting out of here. Most of my time here since returning had been around the broader avenues of Mount Road and Nungambakkam and the redeveloped areas across the Adyar River. There, I was amazed at how wrong Paati was. So much had changed. Paati was dead. I now had to find

FICTION my way around Mylapore without the comfort of her Kanjeevaram to cling to. I still remember the day I was to leave for the United States seven years ago. On the way to the airport, my father told the taxi to take a detour on Mount Road past the Life Insurance Corporation building, so I could admire it a last time. For a frugal man who would insist on the shortest route even where there wasn’t one, it was a momentous gesture. At thirteen floors, the LIC building was the pride of the city and the insignia of Madras jingoism. The detour through LIC also meant we would drive over the Gemini Flyover, the first in Madras, and the one film superstars Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth rode down on their Enfield motorbikes en route to simulated daredevilry. All the techies had ended up back at the homes where they started, at least on the first trip. The neighbors were the same, the food tasted the same, and perhaps there was more on TV. Our homes change, but the comforting bits remain the same: kitchen counters in granite, rusty wrought iron bars on the windows, and the Technicolor pictures of sunburn relatives on the memorabilia counter. The real surprise was outside. Almost every restaurant now served meat, without bothering to put up the warning of “Veg and Non-Veg” usually put up alongside “A/C and Non-A/C” for discerning customers. Years ago, you could only eat meat at the Military Hotel, where protein-hungry military men had to eat food cooked by whoever was available. If you wanted to go out for the night, you’d do better taking a flight to Bombay because save for the bar at the Adyar Park hotel with its Anglo-Indian guitarist and crooning partner, you could only enjoy peanuts and a half-frozen Arun’s triple-chocolate bar under a dead politician’s statue. Now, Adyar Park was with the Sheraton group and housed only one of the several clubs. Massive clothing stores, with entire floors for windows had glass elevators sticking out of the facades for customers to gloat at the masses outside. A lagging reminder of developmental dissonance was the escalator. A grandmother assisted onto the first step by her entire family felt like an antidote to the techie’s surprise. But others, men with sarongs or women with saris dragging the dirt, embarked and disembarked as though they had been doing it daily. How distant seemed those days when tourist buses drove to the LIC building to show villagers the new wonders of Tamil architecture. But nothing had changed more than the streets. With long pedestrian-free flyovers snaking all over the city, nobody went up the Gemini flyover for kicks anymore.

The slight rush of blood to the head when the car started its descent down the flyover was so passé that I felt like a bumpkin admitting I ever felt it. As a techie riding the revolution, I was not allowed to cast reservations on these changes. But I was returning to a city that was once mine, a key to my identity. But even calling it Gemini flyover now was a sign of my own recidivism. It had been renamed Anna flyover a long time ago. Madras was now Chennai. Mylapore had not changed as much as the rest of Madras. I had decided on an air-conditioned car in favor of an auto-rickshaw with flexible pricing and the annoying possibility that the prices were upped fifty cents for my jeans. From the backseat of the car, I saw a lot of the old shops on streets that hadn’t been widened. A young boy came up to the sun-shaded window of my rented car. There was no Paati to turn to. Now I was the mark. I waited: perhaps if I could rationalize long enough, the traffic light would turn green and the car would make the decision for me. The boy said the usual, “Please help me, I haven’t eaten.” My mind went back to New York where beggar is a politically incorrect word. There, they are panhandlers, or the homeless, or the residential situation of the petitioner. “Spare change for some booze,” “spare change for coffee,” “spare change to start a revolution.” There was some good marketing in there. Requests for help in India was couched in the wretchedness of the pleader, but also on the wickedness of a fate that can be attributed no human blame. One can’t ask for money to offset the unemployment caused by a weak economy or the trauma of the government’s decision to go to war. All one can do is appeal, with no sense of entitlement, to the giver’s sense of fatalistic inequity. “Sir, God has given you so much, and me so little…” leaves a conscience clear. In fact, it allows me to either act mercifully on behalf of the unseen hand, or walk away on the same pretext— God must have intended it for a reason. To spare was more dramatic, frequently depicted in Indian cinema: gangland assassination legends from Mumbai, “Please, spare my life, I have little children,” or molestation legends from countless Tamil films, “Please spare me, for God’s sake.” Paati’s wisdom on beggars sealed the case for the boy. “Remember, they are all pretending.” The window between the boy and me stood him at a substantial disadvantage. Hired taxis in Chennai have dark one-way windows in which the kid could see his own face in reflection.


FICTION The conservative school, of which Paati was a part, believed that begging is never to be encouraged. This was a simple political message. The liberal school, which I thought I belonged to, felt you should assist the needy but that the truly needy were overshadowed by the opportunistic, and they had to be appropriately weeded out. Like most liberals, I had caveats. Conventional wisdom held that children who beg should never be given money, since they should be in school. Women who beg with children in their arms should never be encouraged, since they were using the child unethically. And adult male beggars, generally few and far between, should not be encouraged because they plan to blow it on booze. In other words, money is hard to come by, and now that I earned it, it wasn’t for me to waste on

car, she would look to the next and chart their path past the fenders and bumpers. She did it with a swiftness that made you wonder if her companion was an inflatable dummy or a man with perfect sight. I watched them at several cars. I wasn’t sure why I pulled down the window, but I did. Perhaps the man’s face was one of a peace that I needed to see closer. Perhaps I needed to know if he was really blind. Perhaps I had settled on a one-rupee donation for this traffic signal, and the least offensive customer for my generosity had appeared. The woman caught on to the opening window with characteristic haste. In a moment, they were over at the car, and she placed the man in front of me, with his hands at the window. I opened the window further and

“Summa, these fellows cut off their legs so that they can make money begging.” someone who could earn it too. That still left the old and the infirm, but within that category there were exceptions. Beggars with minor mutilations could easily get jobs, and therefore ought not to be encouraged. The blind frequently sold lottery tickets or combs on the street. The infirm when accompanied by someone who did the actual begging were almost certainly never to be helped since the able-bodied assistant would invariably keep the money and spend it on booze. The boy had moved on from my car. Other beggars at the traffic light will also realize then that this particular car is not worth the investment. But one couple a few cars away had not seen the boy take off. It was a blind man, probably in his thirties, accompanied by a woman who took him from car to car and placed him in front of each window and held out her hand with a little plate. He was well dressed for a beggar, in a shortsleeved shirt and brown trousers, clean-shaven with his hair neatly parted. His accomplice looked more like a beggar, scruffily dressed in a torn sari, her hair matted and covered in dirt. The two made an odd couple. The man, with a half smile, seemed happy to be along on the ride. He said nothing at all to any of the cars he was placed in front of, and neither did she. She held him by the right elbow, took him to the first car, put her hand out, waited a few seconds, then moved on to the next one. The woman had an urgent sense of purpose about her and spent no time on wasted expression. As she stood in front of one


put the coin into the little plate in the woman’s hand and prepared to put my window back up. She had already turned her face to survey the rest of the traffic by the time the coin landed. But the man stood frozen, as though the transaction was incomplete. I saw her tugging at his elbow, first as she looked around the other cars at the signal, and then at his face. He stood with his hands now opened with palms facing the open window. She tugged him harder, but he stood planted, smiling wider now. The traffic started to get restless in anticipation of the green light His two hands stayed planted vertically, at the level of my face, as though in gracious blessing. I wondered if this was a moment of cinematic beauty, if his hands were held out in approval of my return to Madras, if the change I had wanted to undo around me was hidden in my first human contact. With an expression of absolute delight, he turned to her. “Wait here for a moment. How cool it is. Aaaah! Air-conditioned car!” I waited with my window open, looking straight at his sunglasses, convinced they hid nothing. I wonder what Paati would have said. Joyojeet Pal is assistant professor at the School of Information, University of Michigan. His research is primarily in technology and development, and he occasionally writes on Indian media—specially South Indian cinema in the past decade. He can be reached at joyojeet@

The Lal Koti Fatehgram, 1987 The picture house had been built on shaky ground. It stood crumbling, white, and alone at the top of Fatehgram’s northernmost hill. On the outside wall that had felt the quivering of premiere day stampedes, there was a pear-shaped hole no larger than a handprint, and no wider than Mahesh’s right eye. Two small cracks, as fine as spider veins, jutted from the top and bottom of the hole. He stood outside of the movie theater trembling, his feet covered to the ankles with mud. He had run through the green shades of banana and coconut trees and the general underbrush that smelled of fragrant bougainvillea and urine. To his left there was a path to the shacks of villagers, and behind him there was the overgrown path back to the the Lal Koti. Where he could not, where he must, eventually return. The rain splattered and dripped, mixing with his skin and scent and drenching his white undershirt and navy shorts. By the grace of God, he had remembered to change out of his school uniform. From the small hole in the wall Mahesh could hear laughter. He crossed both arms over himself, and walked through the runny mud towards it. He remembered thinking the hole had been made just for him. In later years he would have to bend his knees slightly, and then need to squat to see anything at all, but that first day he fit there easily. Perfectly. He saw only a flash of green-tinted celluloid— two smiling faces reversed, their singing muffled and slightly distorted. Mahesh could hear the whir and click of the projector, and match its inconsistencies to the black, grainy spots on the screen. The actor with the wide face had said something funny; the audience erupted into hoots and cackles. Mahesh hunched over, putting his hands on his knees as he coughed. When he looked up again— She had found him. His mother slapped him, once, hitting the meat of his cheek and the sharp point of his chin, hard

Prapti Chatterjee

enough for it to sting. He had expected that. What he had not expected was to see her alone, without Vikas holding an umbrella over her head or allowing her to hit him with it. He had never seen her so alone. He had never seen her cry, either, as she did when saying to him: “This is no place for you.” Mumbai, 2009 A car honking outside the window jolted him awake. There had been a steady stream of wellmoving traffic, a rarity in Mumbai, and during that lull Mahesh had taken a well-deserved nap. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and then started tinkering with the TATA billing program. The project had been complete as per the client’s orders for some time now, but Mahesh had a policy of never handing in work early. Then the clients thought you were too efficient, and gave you a bigger project with half the budget next time. It was the third consecutive day Mahesh had fallen asleep at work. He tried to think of reasons why this could be, and finally settled on something less dramatic than an undiagnosed malady—boredom. The Indian Institute of Technology building in Mumbai was a cold place. The air-conditioner whirred on incessantly, and brought a chill to the small cubicle Mahesh had come to call his second home. He was still focused on the Java program when his phone rang. “IIT Communications, this is Mahesh speaking.” “Mahesh?” He almost dropped the phone. He scanned through all the possible reasons she could be calling him, here, in the order of their likeliness: a check lost in the mail, a death in the family—he thought for a moment, then reversed those—Naina succumbing to an untreatable illness, the closing of the picture house…he lingered on the last thought, and wondered if she would even bother to let him know. Before leaving home the last time he had requested that she do so. “Mahesh, is that you?” He took a quick breath. “Yes, Ma, you’ve called


FICTION me at the office.” “I know. I know it. Your voice sounded so Amrikan.” So, no one had died. “What is it, Ma? I must get back to work.” “You should come by Friday.” He had made dinner plans with Malini for Friday night. “I cannot take off so soon.” “It is your sister’s engagement. You can take a half-a-day.” “A half-day,” he stated bluntly. “Yes. You can leave in the morning.” That she expected him to drop everything, dinner plans with Malini, work, and, he realized, a meeting with the tailor, was unbelievable. He had a life here. He was having a new suit made, slate gray with bold metal buttons. Malini had picked the color. He had a small picture of her clipped to the side of his cubicle. Her hair was curled like a series of

flirted with him, and once he had put her on hold so that she would not hear him smile. He was afraid to like her. And yet he admitted to himself that he could love her, that maybe he already did. “Malini?” His voice sounded rough on the cell phone, he thought, strained. “Mahesh?” She was just getting out of bed. Malini worked at The Times of India as a fact checker, and often took the late-shift. He didn’t allow himself to be jealous of her small luxuries, her four p.m. wake up, her spacious office in central Mumbai, even her friendly co-workers. He had once asked her if she liked her job, and she had stared at him as if she had no idea what he was talking about. “Of course,” she’d said. Of course. And with that, and with her smile afterward, she had stunned him. Malini had gone on to do everything she wanted, everything she had ever dreamed. The night they had met at the house of a mutual friend, he had slept rather unsoundly. He had let his mind consider all the

“He had never imagined that he would want to be good with women. Marriage, he assumed, came naturally.” cascading question marks, and her face was slightly blurred; he’d taken the picture the second time they’d gone out to the place of her choice—Suraj Water Park—and they had been walking along when the impulse overcame him to photograph her. She hadn’t posed, just turned and smirked, her brown eyes turned umber by the flash of the camera and her hands still by her slim, sashaying hips. The lights of the theme park winked above her head. It was a good picture, adding life to the dull sobriety of his computer-filled office. He sighed back into his chair, still holding the photo. He had never imagined that he would want to be good with women. Marriage, he assumed, came naturally. There would be some adjustment, and then there would be a routine, someone there to make him tiffin to bring to the office every day. Love was never a part of his ideal—too distracting, and never like it was in the movies; Mahesh considered himself incapable of breathlessness or long glances full of adoration. Better that was left to Jethander, or Dharmender, actors who had built their reputations by making girls swoon. His justification was that Malini was not a girl, but a woman. Sometimes she called him at work and


things he would have, could have done, if the path of his life had not been dictated since the moment of his birth. This is no place for you, his mother had deemed. She had never liked living in the village, thought it backwards and inconvenient compared to her city, Kolkata, where she had sent him as soon as he was able to live with her parents. He was grateful for the escape, but resentful too, which she had never understood. “Why?” she would ask when he talked of visiting her. “Why do you need to come back?” He did not miss his family as much as he missed the picture house. It had taken him many months to find a movie theater in Kolkata that didn’t play Shah Rukh Khan films on repeat. When he had found the renovated Priya Theater, which played Goldie Oldies every Thursday night, he took extreme measures to catch the Kishore Kumar retrospectives, even riding his bike the two kilometers to the theater and skipping tram rides to school so that he could save enough money to purchase the movie ticket himself. He told his grandfather he was at a friend’s house, studying physics, and his grandfather believed him, or so Mahesh thought. The cinema was Mahesh’s reward to himself, and it was well deserved.

Naina was to be married, he was next in line. Surely she knew that. There was some hesitation on her side of the line. “Of course you’ll go. No question.” “I’ll see you when I get back.” “Okay,” she said, and hung up the phone. He left for Fatehgram Thursday night and slept for almost all of the eight-hour Mumbai to Dehra Dun Express train ride. From the Dehra Dun station he took a bus, and sat for three hours trying to imagine what a twenty-year old Naina might look like and how the village might have changed since his last visit. He hadn’t been home since graduating from Image via Flickr IIT Mumbai. His mother had given “I won’t be able to make dinner Friday night,” him her blessing, had said, “We are proud of you,” and he told Malini. “I’m sorry for the late notice.” then offered him some halwa and tea. He had stayed She breathed into the phone. “Why not, Mafor maybe seven hours. Since then he’d stuck to the hesh?” weekly fifteen-minute phone conversations with his “My mother—” mother and frequent e-mails to Naina. “She’s called you home?” He listened to the There was no official bus stop for Fatehgram. sounds of her getting out of bed, moving around her When the bus passed a familiar dirt road, he had to sheets, clicking on the lamp, putting on slippers. All race to the front, where the bus driver was seated, and this he imagined her doing. They had never spent a ask to be let off. Without as much as a cursory glance, night together for him to know for sure. the driver opened the doors and Mahesh stepped off “Yes. For Naina’s engagement.” He said the into the light drizzle, carrying two duffle bags stuffed words, and then thought he should take them back. What if she wanted to come? She had asked him once, with last minute gifts and clean clothes. As Mahesh walked down the road he had travjokingly, when she could meet his parents. Now that


FICTION eled innumerable times as a child, his head covered with a week old newspaper he’d found on the bus, he debated whether or not he had the time to revisit the picture house that had given him so many of the dreams he still coveted; that he kept secret, sometimes even from himself. Sometimes he allowed himself to imagine what his life would have been like had he chosen a different path. What would have happened had he, instead of becoming Mahesh Agarwal, engineer extraordinaire, had become, like his idol Satyajit Ray, a famed director. He would make films about small things and great things, about all of India and about just his small village, even about one small river in his small village. He would remain humble, Mahesh mused, even after presenting his first film. And after he had gone on to win every Filmfare Award there was, he would write a book. An autobiography. Perhaps he would even dedicate the book to his mother, as thanks for guiding him through his hard life. He could well imagine what her reaction would be. “A hard life?” she would say. “You?” Finally Mahesh arrived at the center of the village. The downpour continued, and his newspaper became soggy and heavy, and his arm tired from holding it for so long above his head. He tossed it into the garbage by the single drugstore in the whole village, which was closed now due to the rain. That was a nice thing about Fatehgram. You never had to go to work if you didn’t want to, because everyone knew who you were and could just as easily bother you at home as they could in the store. He walked west, towards the picture house. As he neared he could see the trees dissolving, and the white building—still intact—more distinctly. His relief at finding they had not torn down the picture house was immense, greater even than he had thought it would be. But before he could take the final steps towards the back of the ecru building to see if his small hole in the wall still existed, he heard an excited shout come from the east: “Mahesh!” He whirled around to stare stupidly at his joyful sister, who flung herself into his embrace. “What are you doing here?” she exclaimed. “We’ve been waiting all day.” Mahesh nodded, shouldering his bags and casting one last look at the theater, still partially hidden by the trees, and then he followed his sister home, back to the the Lal Koti.


“Sharma.” “Rajeev Sharma.” Mahesh pondered the name for a moment. “Now say Naina Sharma.” “Rajeev and Naina Sharma.” He gave his sister a sidelong glance. Her grin was irrepressible. “It’s good.” “No bhaiya, it’s very good.” She squealed, and hugged him. “It’s been too long. I was afraid you weren’t coming.” “You’re to be engaged—I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” She pouted. “Ma said you were reluctant. That you were taking a half-a-day only.” He nodded, taking a sip of the hot lemon and honey tea. No one could make tea quite like Vikas, who had grown old but had remained just as sharp witted as always. “I leave tomorrow morning.” “So soon!” She flicked her long braid over her shoulder. “Absolutely not.” He laughed. Naina was impetuous and imperial. Even his mother had not tried to break her spirit. She was ten years and some months younger than he, born two years before he had left for Kolkata. It had always been a point of disappointment for him, that he had not been here to watch her grow up, and teach her the things only an older brother could. The first time he had come back to the village, she had taken one look at him and started to cry. He had been a stranger to her, and then, within a few days, her best friend. He wondered when it was he had finally earned the title of bhaiya, brother. “So,” Mahesh said, leaning back onto the divan, “What is he like, this Rajeev Sharma?” She sighed down beside him. “You won’t believe how handsome.” He laughed. “I hope he has some better qualification than that.” “Of course. Third in his class, IIT Delhi.” “Only third?” he joked. Naina rolled her eyes at him. “Not everyone can be a top-star like you, bhaiya.” He grew quiet. The door to their privacy creaked open. “Ay, bhaiya,” Naina whispered, turning over to lie on her side, placing her head on her hand, “Have you told her?” He looked at his glowing sister. He would not lie to her today of all days. When was the last time she had been so genuinely happy? Naina put up a good front for his sake, he thought, but she too must have

FICTION felt stifled in the village. She was happy to be leaving, he realized. He got up to face his mother, and said, “Hello, Ma.” His mother’s pinched face looked smooth in the sunlit room. She tugged her moss-green sari tighter across her shoulders. Naina had told him Ma felt cold most of the time these days, always complaining about the air conditioning, and asking Naina to turn on the dusty, overhead fans instead. Mahesh explained that everyone felt that way when a household of forty shrunk to a countable handful, when a family once wealthy and respected enough to garner the title the Lal Koti for their ancestral home was surrounded by twelve other homes just like it. The Agarwal family was

had imagined this pilgrimage home would be like their telephone conversations: brief, cold, formal. Now she had broken their dysfunctional, but comfortable pattern, and he was unsure how to react. “Come,” she said, and they followed. The night of Naina’s engagement, the Lal Koti seemed to muster and light the remaining embers of its beauty. It was scrubbed from first floor to fifth; its lawns were trimmed, and Mahesh suspected Vikas even managed to find enough red paint for a single recoating—not a single piece of chipped cement could be found along its outside walls. His mother put him in charge of greeting the guests. “But how will they know me?” he asked, read-

“Naina put up a good front for his sake, he thought, but she too must have felt stifled in the village. She was happy to be leaving, he realized.” no longer a Fatehgram novelty. Their world of privilege was expanding, and they were being replaced, just like the factories that were uprooting the old grain mill, filling the calm skies of Dehra Dun with their plumes of dark smoke. Newer, faster, better minds were at work, and the Agarwals, with only one male heir, and an aloof one who chose to live in Mumbai at that, could no longer keep up. Still, he thought, the the Lal Koti was a proud place. Vines may have infested its sloping roof, anthills swollen on top of its now-barren land—land that had once held Dehra Dun’s most famous wheat—and torrents of heavy monsoon rain may have chipped at its brick-red cement walls, but it was still the The Lal Koti. Still, it stood; still, it sheltered. “What have you been eating?” she asked him. “Are you healthy? Are you well?” He stood up and said, gruffly, “I’m fine.” His mother walked the four steps in between them. She touched his forehead with the lightest of touches. “You next, hain?” She tapped his cheek. You next. He wondered if she had a girl lined up already—one, or many? Mulling over her strategy— where had she found the girls? The village? Had she imported them from Kolkata? What, America? —distracted him thinking from about how his mother had showed him the first sign of affection in a decade. He

justing his sherwani so that the itchy threads of gold fabric grazed his undershirt and not his shoulders. A good point, Mahesh thought, since they had never seen him before. It was not like his mother to take the time to show the guests their few family pictures. Most likely, she had treated their initial visit like a business transaction; you like it, you buy it. It was lucky for her that Naina was so charming. “Introduce yourself,” she said as she lightly dusted the dresser in one of the guest bedrooms. The aunts were coming, Mahesh guessed. She looked him over critically, then said, “In any case, they will know you.” In a manner he considered miraculous, and his mother apparently thought predictable, the Sharmas arrived and greeted him by name. “Ah, Mahesh! Kaise ho? Mumbai se ho, na? Sab theek hai na, beta?” “I’m well, thank you…” he would say feebly, trying not to sound too confused. They shook hands. Rajeev’s thin face was open and slightly flushed, and Mahesh thought he saw the same bewildered excitement in him as he’d seen in Naina. It might be necessary, Mahesh thought, to have a conversation with the man who would soon be his brother-in-law, who would soon take away the last child of the Agarwal family and make her, irrevocably, one of theirs—a Sharma—but there was too much to


FICTION be done before the engagement to even try stealing a few minutes away. He glanced around the large hall, where Sharmas and Agarwals alike had gathered. Near one of the hall’s great ivory pillars, clustered in small gossiping rings, were his aunts, whose husbands were either dead or on the verge—or perhaps simply having a smoke in the backyard. It was impossible to tell them apart after so many years, and Mahesh was careful not to look at them too long, lest they think he was interested in actually talking to them. Closer to the middle of the black and tan tiled floor stood his mother, dressed simply but gracefully in an off-white sari. Naina had begged her to wear a crimson- and gold-patterned one, but she stood firm in her old-fashioned principle: a widowed woman does not wear red. For any occasion. Mahesh noticed his mother’s usually furrowed brow was even, and that she was smiling. How anxious she must have been. She looked over at Mahesh, and he thought her smile dimmed somewhat. Things between them had never been perfect—but how could they be after she had sent him away, and after he had, willingly, stayed away? What had she expected Mahesh to do? Return the Lal Koti to its former glory, he could only presume, but he had neither the will nor the ability to do so. And Mahesh had not been the only one to shed himself of the the Lal Koti burden. His cousins, too, had moved to cities in Uttar Pradesh or the south, some even to America. The Lal Koti was a childhood home, something they each had outgrown. And even if he had returned, it was unlikely she would let him commandeer any renovation of the house. There was only one part of his life that she had not touched, that he never intended to let her control—Malini. He understood why


Naina wanted the secret out; his mother had a knack for knowing such things, and if she guessed before he told her, there would be trouble. But if he should say it, if he should say, Ma, I have met someone, he knew it was unlikely that she would approve.

Image via Wikiimedia Commons Lal Koti


Mahesh led Naina down the stairs. She insisted on looking down all the way, and drawing a sheer veil over her face, dyed red to match her ghagra. What he called stupidity, an accident waiting to happen, she called tradition. “He cannot see my eyes until we’ve exchanged rings.” “But he’s seen your eyes already, so many times!” he cried, exasperated. Thank goodness, he thought, Malini was a practical woman. “No,” Naina insisted. “Not like this.” And so Mahesh gripped Naina’s arm, more terrified, perhaps, than she was about the whole affair. She had only to experience it; he had to make it memorable. At last her feet touched the cool tiles of the ground floor, and the Lal Koti reverberated with suppressed glee. His sister was showered with flowers: marigolds and chrysanthemums, flowers that mingled with her toes and her dress and made her, at last, smile fully. The band struck up a familiar, upbeat tune and Rajeev, whose face was covered with a veil of jasmine flowers, was jostled by his father to the middle of the entrance hall so that he and Naina, both blushing and happy, faced each other. As he slipped the engagement ring onto her finger, Rajeev attempted to whisper something into her ear. Mahesh looked on and wondered if this was the last happy moment the house would ever see, which would explain why the Lal Koti seemed to glow like a house rekindled. He glanced over at his mother again, who was wiping silent tears from her face. It was good to know she loved Naina like that. He wondered, briefly, if she had cried when she had sent him away. Extending his wishes to the happy couple, Mahesh couldn’t help but think that the Sharmas were a godsend. Third in his class at IIT meant Rajeev would be recruited by TATA, or some such industry giant before Naina’s mehndi had even fully dried. Mahesh knew the feeling. His success at IIT Mumbai was no fluke; he had worked hard, like all the others, even cut his eyelashes for the last Joint Entrance Exam like his one serious rival, Anmol, so they would ping sharply against his cheeks whenever the thought of sleep even remotely entered his head. All the while he had maintained a sense of detachment that his friends claimed was the source of

his success, but that Mahesh understood to be a sign of disaster. Engineering did not make his heart race – but this he’d known from the beginning. He had known from the moment he pressed his eye to the mud-caked picture house wall that he was meant for something different. But he had resisted, for her, because she would never accept a son that did something as nonsensical as filmmaking. The moment she had dragged him, ear-first, from the theater to the Lal Koti, she had banned all Hindi music and movies from the house, claiming it would corrupt him in some way. It hadn’t mattered; he had gone to Kolkata, watched the movies she had warned him away from, listened and memorized the songs she had told him not to hear. But she had not taken into account his bitterness. Mahesh did not come back, even after his father died, to take care of her like she thought a proper son would. For too many years he had been hidden behind Kolkata’s green shutters, locked out of her world, and that of the Lal Koti. So she had taken care of herself. She had roused the house from its slumber, and seen that Naina was married. He wondered what there was left for her to do. The full moon, a mark of the night’s auspiciousness, took refuge behind the Lal Koti’s ancient trees. Mahesh stood on the open roof listening to the crows cawing from the telephone wire. He had meant to sleep last night, but the aunts had swept the house to better times with their talk, and the uncles had prodded him to drinking with them. He hadn’t needed much prodding. “There you are.” His mother stepped onto the verandah behind him, dressed again in her cotton green sari. “You should have some breakfast before you leave.” He nodded his acquiescence. He was surprised when she touched his shoulder, and turned him towards her. “I am glad you came, Mahesh beta.” There were new wrinkles forming by her mouth. Her hands looked considerably weaker than they had six years ago, though her hair was still dark— she was only fifty-four, he remembered. She looked out beyond the domed gates to the decaying wall that had for so long protected the Lal Koti. They could see the whole village spread out before them, though she was sure her son’s gaze was fixated on that one hill, as his thoughts had been when he’d lived here. He had been distant, foreign, almost,


FICTION even in the cradle of her arms. It did not matter how close they were physically, Mahesh had always set his eyes and his hopes far away from her. She said, “I thought you should know.” “What?” “I’ve sold it. The the Lal Koti.” He looked at her, stunned. “To whom?” “The Sharmas.” She paused only a moment. “It was her dowry, Mahesh.” Mahesh took a moment to catalog his emotions, but the overriding was one of immense relief. It became clear to him soon enough. The Lal Koti had served its purpose— it had been sold to the highest bidder, and would be stripped of its rang, its color, and its prestige, before it was turned into a warehouse or destroyed, it and its ivory pillars, together. The thought did not nearly disturb him as much as it should have.

“No,” she said, smiling at him faintly. “You never did belong here.” And then, he realized, she was glad for it. Where did he belong? The budding romantic inside of him thought, with Malini. But the ever-present child, bubbling somewhere beneath his furrowed brow and pursed lips, thought only of the picture house. After his mother left him to prepare his breakfast, he walked back towards the theater, and circled it once. The doors were locked by a thick silver chain, which was threaded through the door handles. The lights were dimmed, but through the clear glass doors he could see some of his favorite movie posters glued to the wall, their edges crinkled. A wooden desk, the kind Mahesh had in his office, functioned as the teller’s

“His cousins, too, had moved to cities in Uttar Pradesh or the south, some even to America. The Lal Koti was a childhood home, something they each had outgrown.” “And where will you live?” She looked at him steadily. “With you. And the girl you will marry.” “Which girl?” His mother squinted, facing the sunlight. “The girl you were speaking to earlier, on the phone.” He had stepped out of the ceremony for a moment to answer a call from Malini, who wanted to know if he had arrived safely, and if things had been running smoothly. He hadn’t thought his mother had noticed. “There is a girl,” he started cautiously. “Malini.” “A good name,” she said. “Strong.” “She is.” They were both quiet for some time. Mahesh felt a lightness descend. He would worry later about how Malini would feel about the situation. His mother was the quiet, helpful sort. He was not entirely sure his mother had fully embraced the idea of Malini, but it seemed to him she had decided to let him make his own decision. “Ma,” the word was raw in his mouth. “I thought you would want to keep it in the family.” The Agrawal family, he meant, to whom it had belonged for generations.


station. After giving the handles a firm shake to see if they would budge, and finding they would not, Mahesh walked straight to the back of the theater. At first glance he thought he had simply missed it. But as he moved closer, he found that he was not mistaken; the hole was gone. Mahesh ran his hands over the space he thought was where it had been, and felt a patch that was rougher than the others. He squatted beside it and found the two fine cracks still above and below it. Someone had found the crevice and covered it up. Mahesh looked at his watch. A bus would be at Fatehgram’s informal stop in an hour. He sighed, looking at the now invisible hole. It hardly mattered, though. He knew it was there, that it would always be there, beneath those layers of cement and paint. He took the path back to the Lal Koti where his mother, and his breakfast, waited. Prapti Chatterjee is a junior at Columbia College studying Creative Writing. She enjoys thunder, lightning, and rain, but never all at once. She can be reached at

Mr. Mukherjee’s Secret Nandini’s father, Mr. Mookerjea, was a manager in a steel plant in a small town located four and a half hours from Calcutta. Four and a half hours, at least, is what the trains took. Once an adventurous uncle of Nandini, whom she called Daarri Mama, took out his Ambassador from the garage in South Calcutta and decided to drive down. It took him nine hours. He had not had the mental strength to drive the car back. And that is how Mr. Mookerjea got his car. It was decided within the family that the car would be used extensively only during the children’s two long school vacations, wherein it could be passed off as someone else’s car, thereby allowing the Mookerjeas to avoid alienating themselves from their not-so-rich peers. During the summer recess and the Durga Puja holidays, some eight of Nandini’s cousins would arrive at their sprawling company bungalow with their mothers, their fathers sometimes dropping by for the odd weekend. Consequently, May and October were the two most joyful months of the year. Daarri Mama had no children. In fact, he didn’t even have a wife. All he had was an enviable beard (or daari), which earned him his nickname, and an equally enviable amount of wealth. An old Ambassador did not mean much to him. In fact Daarri Mama easily

Kshounish Palit

hired a driver by the name of Shivaji. Very soon, the car came to be known as Shivajida’s car. Shivajida had the most wonderful job in the world. For ten months he would come late in the afternoon, wash the car, take a shower himself, and leave. Nandini’s mother told her that Shivajida was poor and did not have running water at home. When the kids arrived, on break from school, Shivajida took them and their parents out in hoards. Sometimes to a nearby picnic spot, sometimes to the mela, and sometimes as far as the Mython dam. Nandini had once counted twelve of them squeezed into the car and that, she marveled, did not include Shivajida. Nandini was the eldest of the eight tadpoles that kicked around the house during the vacations. And, with every passing year, she began to discover the power of this providence. She figured out all the undue advantages she could take. This included wresting the front window seat of Shivajida’s car, away from the other children, which she procured not by brute force necessary but by simply putting on a grave air and asking, “Who’s the eldest?” Some of the tadpoles weren’t even old enough to answer. Nandini was nine at that time and her closest competitor to the front window seat, Totan, was a full three months younger.

“Nandini was the eldest of the eight tadpoles that kicked around the house during the vacations. And, with every passing year, she began to discover the power of this providence” convinced Nandini’s mother that this was his bit for the family he was a part of but didn’t belong to, by dint of not contributing a child. The car stayed in the garage for the rest of the year. Mr. Mookerjea’s Bajaj Chetak scooter was sufficient for Nandini and her mother anyway. The color of the Ambassador was impossible to describe. It was a faded black that has no comparison to any available car shades of today. Mr. Mookerjea

Nandini never lost an opportunity to remind him of that. Now, Totan was a very self-righteous boy and, even if he resented Nandini, he knew facts were facts. So, to combat the eternal misfortune into which he was born and to get some share of the pie that was always hogged by Nandini, Totan had to constantly reinvent his logical standpoint. Since the age argument would not work, he argued on grounds of fairness


FICTION using the law of averages, and thereby, sometimes, much to Nandini’s dismay, he would be given the front window seat. Nandini protected her authority over Totan zealously since he was the only one she could have absolute control over. After all, she had to share control over the others with Totan as the rest were younger than either. Apart from the window seat, their jurisdiction extended to various other matters, ranging from who would decide the casting for the skit that was to be staged for the elders in the evening, to who would ensure that the others finished their homework on time. Over all these vital issues, Nandini and Totan were forever at odds. Bitter fights, hair pulling, exaggerated complaints to the elders, vehement denials, malicious counter-allegations, and exacting severe punishments were all fair play. Here, too, Nandini had the upper hand. She could pinch more painfully than Totan. And although Totan pinched her back, he always knew his pinches were not as painful. Things were going the same way vacation after vacation, when one year—when the temperatures outside reached 42 degrees and Nandini and Totan were eleven years, six months and eleven years, three months old respectively—things suddenly changed. Mr. Mookerjea had just finished his lunch and left for the factory for the second time in the day and the mothers had just made sure the children had gone to sleep, so that they themselves could settle in for their well-earned afternoon siesta. The only two people awake were Nandini and Totan. For the last year, they had been exempt from the afternoon sleeping rule, as they were now considered old enough to not need

today’s houses. Even in the afternoon light, patches of stray darkness here and there gave the place a ghostly feel. Totan’s first suspicion was that Nandini had got up to steal achaar. The very thought made Totan drool. This was the perfect chance to catch Nandini red-handed, raise an alarm, and forever destroy her supremacy. Better still, he could blackmail her for a short while. He carefully peeped inside the kitchen. There, right in front of his eyes, on the counter and bathed in sun coming from the skylight, were two bell jars full of mango pickles marinating for future use. Nandini, however, was nowhere to be seen. Totan walked towards the jars and contemplated. Maybe this was a trap set up by Nandini. She was ever known to be scrupulous; such deeds were not beyond her. He looked around again carefully. Nandini was definitely not there. He dipped his right index finger and thumb gingerly into one jar and picked up the biggest slice of mango he could find. It was too big for his mouth and he had to jam it in. Having satiated his desire, he resumed his search for Nandini. He would not have found her had it not been for the light coming in from the crack of the wooden window slats. She was peering at something outside and was extremely still. The rest of her was in the shadow of the otherwise pitch-dark room. This was Mr. Mookerjea’s bedroom and the kids were not allowed in here. Totan froze in fear. Nandini had broken that rule, and he knew he was about to break it too. What if he got caught? What if they got caught?

“Totan froze in fear. Nandini had broken that rule, and he knew he was about to break it too.” constant supervision. That day, however, since it was too hot to do anything else, both of them were lying down and trying to sleep nonetheless. As a few gentle, anonymous snores began to emerge from the long row of people sleeping on the ground, Totan suddenly saw someone move from the corner of his half-shut eye. He stayed still and watched. Nandini was tiptoeing out. The minute she was out of sight, Totan followed her out stealthily. But, standing in the partial darkness created by the windows draped with khuskhus mats, he could not tell which way she went. The bungalow was like a large maze with every room opening into every other room, quite unlike


But curiosity was too strong a temptation, standing in front of the fragile possibilities and fear. Totan held his breath as best as he could, inhaling and releasing it as infrequently and as silently as was humanly possibly, and tiptoed behind Nandini. Nandini sprung around like a tigress, startling Totan. The lifted slats fell and even in the darkness Totan could feel Nandini’s entire body was bristling. “What are you doing here?” she hissed. Even though Totan’s heart was thumping, he did not lose his presence of mind. Without a word he quietly opened the slats again and peered outside to see what Nandini was looking at.

FICTION Two bungalows were separated by a large garden and for a moment Totan did not see anything interesting in it. And then he saw. Shivajida, oblivious to his surrounding, was taking his shower under the tap on the naked pipe, used to water the plants, jutting out of the ground. Through the carelessly draped towel around his waist, his private parts were showing. Totan could feel the temperature rise in his ears. He knew very well that watching someone naked was taboo. He slowly closed the slats and in the darkness turned towards Nandini. “You are having achaar,” came Nandini’s voice. Slow, confident and accusative. In an instant, Totan knew he had lost his advantage. As he stood there cursing his greed, Nandini said something that made his head swim. “Show me yours,” Nandini urged. Her form grew visible to Totan’s eyes as they adjusted to the darkness with every passing second. For a moment, he thought Nandini wanted him to be a partner in her

body would react to such a suggestion, but the very idea of breaking a taboo, coupled by intense curiosity, overcame him. He had not known how a girl was different from a boy. “Show me yours first,” Totan asked hesitantly, not knowing how Nandini would react. Nandini did not say a word. She held Totan’s hand and pulled him inside Mr. Mookerjea’s wooden walk-in closet and pulled the door behind them. Both their hearts were on the verge of exploding in the silence. They could not see a thing, but they could feel. The smell of naphthalene balls was intoxicating. As they groped about in the dark, Totan’s hand suddenly touched something cold, metallic, and heavy on one of the shelves. Something fell. With it, a few other things came crashing down in the darkness. Suddenly, there was a deafening bang. As Totan stood there, shocked and shivering, he fumbled for Nandini. But all his hands found were Mr. Mookerjea’s freshly ironed shirts hanging from the hangers.

Image via Flickr “But all his hands found were Mr. Mookerjea’s freshly ironed shirts hanging from the hangers.”

crime so that he could never expose her. At the same time, the intense lure of the forbidden act made his heart beat faster. Even as he said “no,” he could feel his excitement surge. He was not yet of the age when his

Kshounish Palit is a freelance director of non-fiction television shows and is based in Mumbai, India. He can be reached at


Image via Wikimedia Com

Your Religion, Your Soul, Your Identity A Conversation with His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami (Vasudev Das) is a prominent religious leader of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu faith, a doctoral researcher of leadership and organizational change, and a scholar of the social sciences. He was born in Bayelsa State, Nigeria, and commenced his wide-reaching religious and communal activities there in 1984 with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), colloquially known as the Hare Krishna movement. His Holiness frequently travels around the world to spread his faith’s values of love, peace, unity in diversity, self-realization, positive change, and community development. The Hare Krishna movement His Holiness represents is a prominent branch of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, which arose from the established bhakti (devotional) tradition of 15th-century Bengal founded by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition is unique in Hinduism for its exclusive, monotheist worship of Krishna as a personal God. The modern Hare


Krishna movement is further distinguished by its expansion of the Gaudiya Vaishnava faith, far beyond India’s borders, even into the western world, and its rejection of a birth-based caste system (a relatively recent cultural imposition on Indian Hinduism). Awaaz: ISKCON’s philosophy presents a unique view of the world, the identity of its people, and their relationship with Krishna [God]. What is this view? His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami: The ISKCON philosophy, which hinges on the Bhagavad Gita as its primary book of wisdom or spiritual literature, with all of the Vedic literatures, brings to bear that we are creatures of God, or parts and parcels of God. We call God Krishna. Krishna means the all-attractive Personality of Godhead. The relationships we find in this world—like the parent-child relationship, friendship, the servant-master relationship—these are all relation-


mmons ISKCON’s governing body commission in Mumbai

ships that exist between the living entity (the creation of God) and God. Through the process of devotional service unto God, unto Krishna, we become purified and we are able to become reinstated in those—our original relationships with God, with Krishna. So relationship is a fundamental principle; the variable is the object of our relationship, or the type of relationship we have. Relationship is intrinsic value of spirit souls, that is why we are all struggling to have sustainable relationships in this material world; but the original relationship exists between we the living entities, or creatures of God, and God. We are spiritual sparks, parts and parcels of Krishna, or God; and we have relationships with Krishna or God, such as conjugal love, parenthood, friendship, servitorship, and neutrality; and the point is we can realize these relationships, in this life, by engaging our senses in the Master of the senses—Krishna, or God; that is, by engaging ourselves in devotional service unto Lord Krishna. This has a purifying effect, and we can very easily realize our original relationship with God.

There is God. God is not just hanging out in ethereal space; He has His kingdom. We can go to that kingdom and experience these amazing eternal relationships with God. So yes, the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita is very rich—rich and unique, in the sense that we are all trying to create sustainable relationships in this world, and that is rooted in the fact that we do have original relationships with God. And so there’s nothing new. It’s just a matter of the perverted reflection that we tend to dwell on in this material world. We have eternal relationships with Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, or God. A: A core religious text of your spiritual tradition is the world-famous Bhagavad Gita. What are the basic tenets of this scripture, especially in relation to one’s actual spiritual identity? HH: The core, or the central, tenets of the Bhagavad Gita are basically that there is 1) God, or the Creator, or Bhagavān, Krishna; and 2) the jīvas, or living enti-


INTERVIEW ties, we who are creations of God, who are parts and parcels of God; 3) material nature; and 4) time. Of course, our relationship with God is also delineated in the Bhagavad Gita… The Bhagavad Gita is all about creating a viable future for human society because it begins with the need for action, and for us to take action, we must understand our pristine identity. What constitutes action? What are the interplays of the elements of action? What are the attributes of those who are involved in the action—are they impersonal, or are they personal? Obviously God is personal, and we are also personal, because we are His parts and parcels. And so in the Bhagavad Gita, the first six chapters deal with action. Then the middle six chapters deal with devotional service to Krishna, or God—or action in relation to God, service to God. Why that? Because that helps to elevate our consciousness, to purify our consciousness. It’s just like when you have an iron nail, and you put the iron nail in fire, the nail becomes gradually hot and it ultimately acquires all the qualities of fire, and the nail can actually act like fire. In a similar way, if we understand the middle six chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, which is like the confidential aspect of the Gita, then we can actually act in various ways to be able to create a positive change in our societies, in our families, and even in the whole globe. So, the whole idea of the Bhagavad Gita is to let people come to the realization that there is a need for us to understand that there is an Enjoyer in this world, and that we are simply to work towards that fulfillment inasmuch as we try to live our lives separately from God, then we experience so much of miseries. So ultimately, in the end of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna told Arjuna—who is the recipient of the information, the recipient of the knowledge—that, “You should just surrender unto Me, and I will give you all protection. Don’t fear.” … And therefore, if people understand the essence of the Gita, it’s not just to read the Gita and philosophize what is the essence of the Gita. The essence of the Gita is to be able to give our lives as a sacrifice, as a service to God, so as to become purified, and to be able to go back to the kingdom of God where originally we belong. So the Bhagavad Gita deals with so many things, but the essence is to know that “kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam” [Srimad Bhagavatam, 1.3.28]— Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. And if we want to be happy—just like if the hand is separate from the body, the hand is not going to relish life; but


if the hand is attached to the body, not severed from the body, then the hand can be nourished—in a similar way, the Bhagavad Gita brings us to the knowledge that when we become reconnected with God, when we become reunited with God, then we can experience a blissful life of knowledge and eternity… This world we are living in is a world of trouble, a world of distress, a world of perturbation… So many things are going on in this world. We have even been imposed with so many things, like old age, disease, death, etc. But in the spiritual world—where Krishna stays, the kingdom of God—there is no old age, disease, or death. So if we don’t want to keep suffering in this world in silence, there is a need for us to understand the essence of the Gita, which is to surrender to Krishna and go back to His Kingdom of God at the end of this life. A: The organization Your Holiness is affiliated with— the International Society for Krishna Consciousness— follows the Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu faith; yet the organization is quite unique, in that it is universal in welcoming new members of all ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, from all over the world. This is distinguished from typical “Hinduism” which is ethnically tied to the Indian people and is not typically open to foreigners. What created this distinction? HH: What happens is that we of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness are practicing the original tradition that has been passed down in the Vedic literatures since the beginning of the cosmic creation. It’s just like every machine, or every electronic gasket, has a booklet that comes with it that tells you how to use it. So this material cosmos is also like a small machine, and the Vedic literatures give a delineation of how to use this machine. One of the ways is that we who found ourselves in this material world have to be able to figure out constitutional position—and that constitutional position is enhanced by the practice of sanātana-dharma. Sanātana-dharma is the eternal duty of the spirit soul to the Supreme Soul, Krishna or God. Examine our lives, and you will find that everyone in this world is engaged in some service. Even the president of America, Barack Obama, is engaged in some service. No one can say that he or she is not serving, because intrinsically our constitutional position is that we are servants of God, and we can’t change our status. We can’t change it. We may be serving the external energy

INTERVIEW of God, or we may serve His internal energy. It depends on what we want. And so, in sanātana-dharma, the established principle is that we have to serve God. And what is the benefit? We get purified. So sanātanadharma is the eternal religion for humanity at large. What people are practicing in different religions is an aspect of sanātana-dharma, but in the Vedic literature it is clearly set out, and very graphically delineated, how to do this. Therefore the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, founded in the Western countries—or transplanted in America, Europe, and other parts of the world—by our FounderĀcārya, His Divine Grace Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, is just the fulfillment of the predictions of Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu [an incarnation of Krishna], who is the original founder of the Hare Krishna movement, or the sanātana-dharma. Because sanātana-dharma, or the eternal duty of the soul to God, is founded by God Himself—it was something given by God right from the beginning of creation, so that we may be able to understand the objective criterion of human existence, and to be able to pave way toward emancipation from our mundane inebrieties. Therefore when our Founder-Ācārya, Śrīla Abhaya Caraṇāravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami, or A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, came to the West and translated these works into endless languages, people went after it. People digested it, people lived the philosophy, people applied the teachings in their lives, and they became holy people, sādhus, sages. Therefore, this process of Krishna Consciousness is not limited to the Indian subcontinent, in the sense that it is a cosmozonal philosophy that brings about a revolution in the lives of the citizenry. If someone is hungry, all that [he’s] thinking about is food, food, food. So spiritually, everyone in this world is hungry. For some people, their hunger is covered; but for some people, their hungry is very much overt, very open. Therefore with some people, when they see this spiritual food—spiritual philosophy, practice of devotional culture, practice of authentic spirituality rooted in Vedic thought and Vedic literature—they don’t waste time. That is why you find that these teachings of the Krishna Consciousness movement spread all over the world within the twinkle of an eye inasmuch as it is not something that is within, or that is circumscribed to the Indian subcontinent. Whereas what people really refer to as “Hinduism” is maybe something that is precluded to Indians, the Krishna Consciousness philosophy or sanātana-

dharma is not something precluded to any group of people, whether you are a man, a woman, a child, an old man, old woman, or whatever. Whether you are a black, yellow, green, white—people are from all races. It’s just like life—there’s no distinction that this is a white race life, or a black race life. No! Life is life. And food, for instance, is food. Everybody wants to eat… And because spiritual transformation is very contagious, it goes on to spill over and affect people from all over the world to be able to embrace these teachings… And so, we have temples all over the world, farm communities, etc. Anyone could be part of it. And it’s simply based on the fact that there is one God—there is one living God—and that God is available for anyone and everyone. So, we are not postulating ideas that are antiquated; rather, we are presenting the original teachings of God as presented in the Bhagavad Gita as it is… Those are the fundamental underpinnings of the uniqueness of this philosophy, because it is contagious and it is something that anyone can practice. It is not restricted to any subcontinent, or whatever. A: You happen to be a living example of this distinction—Nigerian-born and raised in a different spiritual tradition, but now a world religious leader of ISKCON. What is your own background, and how did you take to this spiritual path? HH: I was born in a Christian family, right back there in Nigeria. And as a God-fearing young child, I was always making inquiries about when people die, where they go—as a matter of fact, that was one of my major questions. People—relations and parents, even my teachers—tended to think that this boy is so small to think of all these type of deep questions, but I was keen to know these things right from childhood. And therefore, as I was growing up—I think I remember vividly—at the age of twenty, my mom called me one day and said, “You asked too many questions when you were a child. Now you are twenty. Go into the world, and figure out things yourself. Figure out the answers to your questions.” And so I started investigating, and I got in touch with these Krishna, ISKCON devotees. I got some of their books, and I became attracted. In fact, their books gave me wonderful information about those intriguing questions that were bugging my mind. And so I visited their temple—that was in the oil city of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, in the southern part of the


INTERVIEW country. So when I went to the temple, I met with the temple president. I spoke with him about my needs— my spiritual needs, how I really wanted to expand my consciousness to know more about the purpose of life, etc. In a nutshell, this is how I became involved with the Krishna Consciousness movement. I met with the devotees in 1983, in December. And in February—I was with the Rivers State Judiciary then, and I was on vacation at the time—so I went to the temple to spend [around] three weeks. After my vacation, I felt that there is more I needed to investigate and really learn in this organization. And that is how I resolved to become a full-time priest and study more, explore more of the Vedic literature. It inspired me to create some changes in my own self, and of course how to be able to impart those changes in my own life unto others who are around me. That is why I didn’t hesitate to become a full-time priest. Because I found the teachings very intriguing, very satisfactory to me, and I found that this is what I’ve been looking for. So I didn’t waste any time; I took it up with all alacrity. A: In addition to being a world religious leader within the Hare Krishna movement, you are also a scholar of international repute in the social sciences. A number of your published works feature a unique deep integration of the spiritual and the secular. How do you manage this integration? HH: As an academic and a priest, my primary objective is to utilize Vaishnava Vedantic philosophy in proffering solutions to global problems for a positive social change. Utilizing Vedantic constructs and concepts in addressing social, political, and economic issues in the global village is an accomplishment that has been achieved through practice and detachment from the results. Basically, integrating spirituality and secularity has been made easy in my life through high emotional intelligence. By emotional intelligence, I am referring to the integration of social skills and time management rooted in indefatigable sonic therapeutic intervention and diet therapy. Actually, the majority of our problems could be resolved through proper integration of spirituality and secularity in our globalizing era. For instance, through sādhana, or spiritual practice, it becomes easy to develop strong determination and focus in one’s discipline for a positive social change. Therefore, I


didn’t find anything really difficult in terms of trying to do what I’m doing, and I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for a pretty long time. A: How does your spiritual worldview influence your view of the secular, and vice-versa? HH: Since we—should I say, we are embodied souls— since we are quintessentially spiritual beings, developing one’s pristine spiritual identity enhances execution of secular obligations and accomplishments. Secular duties could be likened to the field of events or the field of activities, and the living entity or living being is the knower of the field of activities. Therefore, the more one’s worldview is hinged on expanded spiritual consciousness, the easier it is for him or her to be able to positively influence his secular accomplishments and transform even his or her challenges into sustainable developments. The antithetic view could be that the less we are spiritually developed, or the more we are spiritually bankrupt, the more we will find challenges very much impenetrable. Therefore, it is important for us to understand our spiritual worldview and the secular worldview are just the same coin with different parts, different faces. And we should appreciate that point, and simply use one to complement the other. It’s a matter of trying to practice this, and then one will find it very easy. And of course, in my case, my spiritual worldview has had a lot of positive influence on my secular worldview. That has helped to create a lot of ameliorable or positive relationships between myself and other colleagues, professor-friends; and even internally, within our organization, I have a good relationship with a number of people, based on the fact that I utilize my spiritual worldview in trying to create a positive change in the secular setting, or within the administrative setup… A: Define identity. What is our actual identity from a spiritual perspective, and how does this differ from our identity from a material perspective? HH: Denotatively, identity is the sense of the self, or cognizance of reality of being. Connotatively, identity crisis is a disorientation concerning one’s sense of supra-mundane or spiritual self, transcendental values, and objective criterion in life. Consequently, one gravitates to misidentify the transitory material body

INTERVIEW to be one’s self, and this is the genesis of the crisis in the world. We have our gross bodies—which are made up of earth, water, fire, air, and ether. However, beyond the gross elements, we also have the mind, intelligence, and false ego, which constitute the subtle or astral body. And beyond the astral body there is the spirit soul characterized by eternity, knowledge, and bliss. We are minuscule spirit souls. In other words, we are infinitesimal spirit souls. In other words, we are not these bodies we are so much enamored to. We have seen these bodies as objects of exploration and exploitation, but we are not at all these bodies. The mundane approach to identity drives people to the brink of disaster. When we identify with our material bodies, we tend to follow the dictates of the mind and the sensory modalities. Then we tend to think, “If I follow my mind, I will never go wrong.” However, the reality is that if you follow your mind, you will be a jailbird. The mind is like a typical mischievous monkey of Vrindavana [an important city and holy place in India, famous for its many fruit-stealing monkeys on the streets. It is also the city where Krishna grew up according to legend]. If you follow the impulses of the material mind, you could even rape someone, and you will serve behind bars and destroy your track record. In a nutshell, we have constitutional supra-mundane identity, and we also do have conditioned or mundane identity—we call it material identity. Life rooted in supra-mundane identity generates peace, harmony, and happiness, whereas life hinged on conditioned or material identity creates fractured relationships, problems, and crises on the planet. We have to choose which way we want to dovetail our lives. Obviously, channeling our lives to spiritual identity is the best bet for mundane man. A: Are there factors that distinguish religious identity from spiritual identity? HH: When we talk about religious identity, religious identity is very temporal, and spiritual identity is something permanent. For instance today if I am a Christian, tomorrow I can be a Muslim, the next day I can become a Hindu, I can become a Buddhist, or whatever. But the spiritual identity has to do with sanātana-dharma—service to God—and basically we, as creatures of God, are servants of God. But we are spirit souls, so that is our spiritual identity... And of course, spiritual identity and civiliza-

tion go very much together. Because the more one is identifying with the spiritual aspect of one’s origin, or one’s existence, then it becomes easy to be able to mix with people, and to be able to integrate into the greater society, without really minding whether this person is from this race, or from that country, or from this tribe, or whatever—or from this religion, or that religion. Because if you are spiritually situated, if you realize your spiritual identity, you will be able to live with people in an equal way, just like how you treat you wife will be the same to how you treat every other woman out there, or how you treat your child will be the same to how you treat every other child out there. But when people are blinded to spiritual identity, then the distinction is there. We will think, “I am of this religion, and you are of that religion, and therefore we have to fight.” But this doesn’t really make any sense. Therefore if I can really vividly give some delineation here, to me it implies that religious and spiritual identity are completely different—they are different concepts, they are different constructs—and therefore, they are of opposite polarities… In most cases, people don’t realize their spiritual identity, which sustains their existence. Life is a continuum, and that has to do with the spiritual identity. Therefore religious and spiritual identities don’t really work hand-in-hand together. They can balance each other if utilized properly, but they are distant futures, in the sense that for religious identity one could go to kill some other person. But one who is situated in spiritual identity will never harm anyone; he will see anyone and everyone [and everything] in the same light… Now keep in mind that even within the body, we have two souls. We have the living entity, which is the jīva, and then we have the paramātmā, or the super-soul, the guiding angel who oversees our activities. Therefore we can never hide anything from God. Paramātmā is Krishna; paramātmā is an expansion of Krishna. So whether we think that religious and spiritual identity are cultural embedded or whatever, we have a weakness, and if we cause any harm or if we do any violence to anyone based on religious identity, then we would be doing more harm than good to ourselves, because no one can ever “eat his cake and have it.” There is retributive justice, and so there is nothing that we do [for which] we escape it. Therefore we have to understand that the concept of spirituality is there and religiosity is a step-


INTERVIEW pingstone to a higher understanding of spirituality, a higher understanding of spiritual realization. And if religion could actually help us to move further ahead to become really united with God, that would be a good deal for us. Otherwise, our so-called openness to the world will be simply based on how to bring people or to lure people into our fold to use them as agents of violence, which is all-pervasive in the modern era now. People are killing, all in the name of religion; religious crisis is gradually taking over all over the world, and major problems of the world are actually hinged on some form of religious issues. Therefore, we have to understand that religion itself should give rise to some form of essence of elevation of consciousness; otherwise, it becomes mundane religion. There are two types of religion—mundane religion and transcendental religion. Transcendental religion heightens our consciousness; mundane religion simply binds us more and more in this world, and wreaks so much of havoc in society. Therefore, we should be making progress, even if we are practicing religion; and if we are practicing spirituality, then we are culturally oriented, we could be open to all. And because we can really see each and every one on the planet as a spiritual entity—part and parcel of God— [then] he or she becomes our brother or our sister. So this is the unification of spirituality. Spirituality can bring about a reunification in the world, a reorganization that would be able to create a viable future the whole world in terms of peace, harmony, and justice. A: Is either form of identity—religious or spiritual— culturally embedded? If so, to what extent is it culturally embedded? HH: No, spirituality is not culturally embedded. Otherwise, the Hare Krishna movement wouldn’t have left the shores of India to come to the Western countries and all over the world. It is not something that is circumscribed within the cultural boundaries. Mundane religion is circumscribed by cultural boundaries, yes… A: What are the negative effects of the identity crisis caused by the discrepancy between these two identities? How are these negative effects practically seen in the modern world, and how may they be overcome? HH: … Identity crisis only brings problems. Identity crisis is only an ill wind that brings no good to the world. Because once we misidentify with the body, we


tend to think, “I am American. I am an Iraqi. I am a European. I am an African. I am a Dutch.” Therefore, this simply creates fragmentation, balkanization, and wars. Because then we think that someone within “my country,” or within “my tribe,” or within “my region,” or within “my colony,” is my brother or my sister, and anyone out there is my enemy, [and think of] how to conquer them. But this is the root of the matter, because we fail to understand that we are all brothers and sisters, we are all emanations from God, and that we are spiritual entities… If one person kills the whole world, then how can he even enjoy the whole world? Enjoyment means variety, you know. We need people to be able to enjoy. No matter how rich you are, no matter how powerful you may be, if you kill everyone else out there, and you don’t have someone to talk to, how are you going to enjoy? You’ll be miserable. Therefore, it is gross foolishness, gross ignorance, that people go out of their way just to try and annihilate the whole world to be able to satisfy their ill intentions. And it is important for us to understand that identity crisis is the root cause of all of the problems in this world. Just think about any of the wars on this planet. It is rooted in the fact or on the principle that the people who are embarking on the war or who generate the war want to control. They want to conquer. They are thinking that they are the controllers. However, no one is a controller. Who has transcended old age, disease, and death? And so this is the gross ignorance. … But at the same time, they are championing different causes for world peace. How could you create violence, and at the same time be looking for world peace? It is ironic! … And all of this desire for conquest is based on identity crisis. We think that we are these bodies, we have to conquer, and we have to enjoy; when we conquer and take all of the assets, then we have to enjoy unlimitedly. But nobody can really remain on this planet more than the allotted number of years that he is supposed to live. And therefore it is important for us to understand that we have to break through this box of identity crisis, and come to realize our real identity, our pristine identity, as spirit souls, parts and parcels of God. And in that way, we will be able to repose our love and affection in God, serve God, become purified, and be able to see each other as our brothers and our sisters in the light of creating harmony and peace on the planet.

Helmand, How Calmly You Flow Mujib Mashal

Image via Flickr Troops along the Helmand

For the past ten years, the Helmand River Valley in Southwestern Afghanistan has seen some of the most brutal protracted fighting of the Afghan war. The Taliban have turned this region into their frontline and NATO forces have responded with heavy military campaigns. Thousands upon thousands of local Afghans and hundreds of coalition forces have lost their lives here. But militancy, drugs, and misery are very recent associations with Helmand. For the longest part of the twentieth century, Helmand River Valley was the center of development in Afghanistan. Tremendous investments were made to build dams and develop modern irrigation systems and turn Helmand into a model to be followed by the rest of the country. Today, very little of that remains either physically or in the public memory, a testimony to the devastation of war. Abdul Bari Jahani’s poem, “Helmand, How Calmly You Flow,” is a history of the human suffering and misery that the Helmand River has witnessed unfolding on its banks. Abdul Bari Jahani is a renowned poet of Af-

ghanistan who writes in Pashto. In his own words, Baghavat—literally translated as revolt or rebellion—is his favorite theme. But invasion, resistance, pain, music, and intoxication are some of the other themes that constantly run through his poetry. Numerous poems by Jahani have been turned into songs by prominent Afghan singers. In fact, he words for current national anthem of Afghanistan were composed by Jahani. Jahani works across several poetic genres. He is particularly celebrated for his free verse and satirical poems that have clear narratives and deal with themes of superstitions and corruption of traditions. Translator’s Note: I have taken the liberty of not including certain verses from the original. Also, for the sake of precision, I have broken certain lines into two in the translation. Mujib Mashal is a senior at Columbia University studying History. He returns to his native Afghanistan often to record oral histories and report on the region. He can be reached at


POETRY Helmand, How Calmly You Flow Sitting on the banks of the Helmand, swept by thoughts, I watch as time flows in its waves. It bends and twists to the embrace of centuries, holding in its chest an eternity of stories.

If stories of darkness do not suit you why shall we remind you of our pain? why shall we cry to you of our ruins? How long shall we pollute your waves with tears? How long shall we engulf you in our flames?

Helmand, I ask you in the language of the heart: do you recall the cruelties of your time? You know well what’s happened at your edges. You listened as angry skies grumbled and death rained down with bullets. You watched blood flow with your waves as hangmen discarded martyred bodies. And you witnessed those who looted the Bedouin girls’ nose rings: All in the name of the great lord.

Come, Helmand, lets forget the stories of yesterday and renew our vow with the skies. Come, let me avenge the cruelties of time let me subdue your enemies at your feet. Let me snatch away their sleep, Let me curse their kismet with defeat. Come, leave the accounts of justice to another day And, in your soft embrace, forget our moments of separation. As you flow today, spread bouquets of flowers And on your beautiful banks, let a city of Bedouin tents flourish again. Raise a soft cloud above the herds And return to the young shepherd his flute of jolly tunes.

Helmand, how did you learn to flow with such calm? Haven’t brutal storms tested you in life? Haven’t your waves raked in scores of heads? Haven’t mothers wailed to you at night? Your bosom remains pretty from blue skies. Haven’t your waves been colored red in blood? Your God-given beauty remains intact Haven’t you felt the darkness of hatred? And as ever, you roll up with pride. Has no one woven a moment pain to you? Come, Helmand. It’s good that you are oblivious

as you flow through our village, our ruins. You have been shield to our memories. Come and continue to keep our tales alive in your waves.


Helmand, I cradle a world of dreams on my wings. Hold me so tight that I can flow with your drops, like a story that I can turn with your waves, like pages. And as I release myself in your swing of dreams the rotting blood of love reawakens in my veins. I have spread my wings above your skies Please let them be So you don’t awaken the world of my dream-angels.


Image via Flickr The Helmand River



Awaaz: the Voice of South Asia Spring 2011 issue