Prajney & Karuney

May 29, 2021 at 9:15 AMMay (Media, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

Though a bit nervous, I still didn’t miss spotting the Buddhist Seminary across the road. As I walked towards the examination center, getting down from the auto, I decided to visit the Seminary after the exam.

It was May 2009 & I was in Bangalore to write my M.Phil entrance exam, for which the venue was the Kendriya Vidyalaya, in Sadashiva Nagara.

As soon as the exam got over, I walked across the road and entered the Seminary. There was nobody inside. I sat there for a while, feeling my breath, and felt relaxed after feeling anxious for nearly two days.

When about to leave, I felt the urge to see the idol from near and went close to the sculpture of Buddha. I had one of the most basic phones those days with a very poor camera. Since it never promised good images, I had never clicked a single photo with it. But that day when I stood there, I found myself slowly pulling out the phone from my pocket and click the image of the idol (Image 1) of Buddha. That was my first step in mobile photography!

“Not bad”, I told myself looking at the image I had captured and began walking towards the door, to exit from the Seminary. And, there I came face to face with a monk who greeted me with great warmth! He asked me for my name and where I came from. On learning that I had come to write my entrance exam, he took me to their office, made me sit, and asked me what course I had applied for. He was happy to know that my plan was to quit my job and go for higher studies. “There is no end to learning,” he said and took out from their cupboard a small idol of the Buddha (image 2) and handed it over to me, saying, “Carry this along with you when you go for higher studies.” I smiled and accepted it.

Not knowing what to say, I sat there silently. After few seconds, the monk broke the silence saying, “prajney (wisdom in consciousness) and karuNey (compassion, kindness) are very essential for humans,” and suggested that whatever I do in life, the aim of my actions must be to lessen the pain of people around me.

I bowed down to the monk and left…

I still carry the idol and also carry his words in my heart, perpetually trying to practice and failing at it, but never giving up.

(Vesak, 2021)

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The Untranslatable Poetry

May 22, 2021 at 9:15 PMMay (Literature, Poetry, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

In the year 2017 when the publishers of my first book sent me the complimentary copies of my book,  I showed it to my mother with great pride. My mother smiled reading its title ‘rooparoopagaLanu daaTi‘ and asked me what was the book about. I told her it’s a compilation if 74 poems from across the globe, from different languages, translated into Kannada by me. She said nothing after that went back to cooking, and I got back to my room.

In some time Amma knocked at my door and when I opened she held a bowl of gaajar ka halwa… She scooped out a spoonful of halwa, put it in my mouth saying, “I dont understand poetry, but I am very happy for you.” There was mist in her eyes.

As I got back to work station, with halwa in my mouth and tears in my eyes, I realized that the best poetry is mother’s love. That, I realized, I will never be able to translate.

***

That evening when I natrated this to my friend Randheer Kaur, she recollected a poem by Surjit Patar, originally written in Punjabi, and roughly translated it for me into English…

The poem by Surjit Patar in the translation of Gurshminder Jagpal reads:

My mother could not comprehend my poem
though it was written in my mother tongue

She only understood
son’s soul suffers some sorrow

But with me alive
wherefrom did his sorrow arrive

With utmost keenness
my unlettered mother gazed at my poem
Look!
The womb-born
conceal from mother
and confide sorrow in papers

My mother picked the paper
and held it close to bosom
Perhaps, thus
would get closer
born from me.

(Originally written as an Instagram post on 2021 mothers’ day)

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Holy Rights: a brave film essaying complex battle for gender rights by Muslim women

April 30, 2021 at 9:15 AMApr (Activism, Cinema, Friends, Media, Musings, Uncategorized)

Shot and edited between 2016 and 2019, at a time when Hindu fundamentalism in India has tightened its grip on state apparatuses and Islamophobia has evenly spread across the society, Holy Rights by Farha Khatun contextualizes the incredibly complex battle for gender rights by Muslim women.

While the entire Muslim community is under threat, a parallel battle for gender justice and gender equality by Muslim women could turn counterintuitive to their original vision and politics. By capturing and chronicling the complexities of this multiple and parallel battles, without diluting the central vision of gender justice, or forgetting the overarching Islamophobia, Holy Rights emerges as one of the strongest and also one of the most courageous films to be made in current times.

Holy Rights follows Safia Akhtar, a resident of Bhopal, who is one of the first women to become a Qazi (Muslim Clerics, traditionally male, whose verdict is final on issues related to Muslim personal law), in India. She was also at the forefront of the fight to ban instant triple talaq.

Lost in Interpretation

Very early on in the film, we see few women confiding in Safia their personal stories of divorce by instant triple talaq. One woman speaks about how she got separated from her husband after he uttered talaq thrice over the phone. Another lady narrates the humiliating experience of being divorced by her husband on a busy street, followed by the strangers, who had gathered, loudly declaring that the marriage is over now.

To these women, Safia explains what the guidelines for talaq as per Quran are and asks how the male Qazis can overrule the words of Allah and sanction validity to instant triple talaq?

Here we realize not just that the Qazis have misinterpreted or rather mister-interpreted the Quran through their gendered gaze, but also realize it is such occurrences which prompted Safia to undergo the necessary training (along with 30 other women) to become a Qazi.

Safia and her comrades went on to challenge the men within the community, who importantly are male religious heads, and also engaged in a bold battle to demand ban of the non-Quranic and non-Islamic triple talaq, by moving to the Supreme Court and writing to the Government.

Layered and entangled complexities

Right in the middle of the 53-minute long film, there is a defining sequence that reveals the complexities of the matter and also the politics of the film.

This is how the sequence flows:

A religious Safia while about to perform namaaz (prayer), asks the filmmaker, a non-practising Muslim, whether she offers namaaz every day. On hearing the answer in the negative, Safia in a seemingly disappointed tone tells the filmmaker, “galat baat,” (It is wrong) and without stopping there, she repeats, “bahut galat hai” (It is very much wrong) and suggests Farha to take time out of her busy schedule and pray every day.

Cut to…

Safia speaks about a news/rumour in circulation about a Fatwa to be issued expelling her from Islam. Responding to this she asks in an unshaken firm voice, “Who are they to expel anyone from Islam?” Declaring her faith a personal matter between her and “my Allah”, and that she is only following the Quran’s path, Safia announces, “Merely their saying or issuing Fatwa will make no difference. I am Muslim, I love Allah, I fear Allah, and I am following Allah’s path. So I am Muslim.”

Cut to…

Taajul Masjid, Bhopal. An all-woman meeting is held under the banner of Bharateeya Muslim Mahila Andolan. The organizers of the meeting ask the gathered women to introduce themselves and insist they be loud enough to be audible to everyone in the assembly. “We also want you to get rid of your inhibitions, your shyness so that we have the strength to speak to people,” explains Safia. Housewives, girls who dropped out of education after high-school – all introduce themselves. Spelling out the purpose of such an organization and such meetings, which is “to gain knowledge about everything”, Safia reassures them that it is a safe space and the ladies, “should be able to discuss frankly”. As the meeting progresses, she tells the gathering, “The biggest issue with Quran is that it is written in Arabic…”

The spoken words continue but the shot cuts and shifts to an interview Safia is giving to India TV, where she continues with the same sentence…

“… Because of that nobody understands the meaning.” Then she goes on to explain what problems this gives rise to. Whenever women have any problem concerning their marriage, talaq, or property, Safia says, they go to the Qazi or Mufti who are considered the ultimate authority on Islam and are believed to be right, even when they are wrong.
Safiya then elaborates on the struggle she and her comrades of concern are battling: “So we make women aware, and tell what rights they have in Islam. Our Quran speaks of equality, justice, mercy, and wisdom. So our Constitution and our Quran both have the same values. So we want that our law is made as per the Quran. So it is obvious that the country in which we are living and its Parliament will pass that bill. So we have given a letter to the Prime Minister that the draft on this matter should be considered and that our laws should also be codified and we should get the same benefits that our religion provides us.”

Cut to…

Safia and her husband Syed Jalil Akhtar are watching TV while having dinner. They are watching Ravish Kumar’s Prime Time where he speaks on how cow smuggling is being used as a justification for lynching and criminalizing people from the Muslim community. With statistics about lynching and criminalization of Muslims, Ravish Kumar speaks about how after 2014 there has been a rise in Islamophobia and communal violence against Muslims.

This sequence which comes at the centre of the film captures the heart of the struggle of both Safia and the filmmaker. It also brings forth the levels and layers of the battles being fought.

Appropriation and expulsion

At a time in history, when a communal and a fascist regime has declared war against an entire religious community, fighting a parallel battle that locks horns with the people within the community is certainly not easy. It does not just run the risk of the battle being appropriated by the larger political enemy but also of being antagonized within, if not out-casted from the community.

When this battle for the ban of instant triple talaq began, we see in Holy Rights, how certain media houses that have a communal gaze, enthusiastically amplified the voice of Safia. We also see how the gendered gaze of the interpreters of the Quran and their allies found Safia to be a traitor and wanted to expel her from Islam.

The vulnerable section within the community become more vulnerable by the very support they receive. But the women risked the vulnerability of being weaponized by the state and fought for a liberatory political demand.

Fight against power and not for power

When we hear Safia say, “Who are they to expel anyone from Islam,” while responding to the news/rumour about a Fatwa, we realize the depth of Safia’s politics. Even in a moment when she has become the individual target, her question is not “Who are they to expel me?” but “Who are they to expel anyone from Islam?” It is not the kind of privileged feminism that bell hooks warns us against, where the battle is for a share in the power. It is a kind of feminism that bell hooks propagate – a feminist politics driven by a love-ethic formed on the idea of love, justice, and equality. For Safia, the struggle is not just to occupy the male-dominated space of religious leadership, but to liberate the community from the hegemony of patriarchy and its interpretation of the Quran, which is wronging its women.

The larger battle

The film Holy Rights, while documenting this struggle and also participating in this struggle, doesn’t forget the larger battle the community is fighting against communalism and Islamophobia. Though not unaffected completely by the current socio-political scenario, we don’t see (at least in the film) Safia engaging much with it. But the filmmaker has consciously chosen to engage with it by highlighting the issues of lynching, criminalization of Muslims and the violence against them.

To counter the popular narrative about Muslims lacking love for the country, the filmmaker underlines the patriotism among these women by showing them singing “jis desh mein Ganga behati hai” and putting up a play which speaks of Constitution with great respect. We see through this filmed play, how these women locate the rights of Muslim women within the Constitutional values. We see how the women identify themselves as rightful citizens of the country which, at least in its Constitution, guarantees them liberty, equality and justice.

The necessary battle

While engaging in a parallel battle against the male dominance in religious leadership and the wronging of women in the community, Safia and her comrades of concern, also realize the importance of another battle at an individual level among the womenfolk within the community. And they engage in it too. They not only make the women folk aware of their rights as per the Quran and the Constitution but also assist them in finding their voice and strengthening their voices.

Exploring complexities and resisting stereotyping

While showcasing these struggles, which like vortex go deep and turn more intense as one goes deeper, the filmmaker problematizes the struggle and also resists stereotyping at the same time in two extremely significant moments in the film.

At the All India Muslim Personal Law Board Conference held in Kolkata, where the men on stage are speaking about the protection of women’s rights and upholding the Shariah law, the filmmaker moves to the corner where women are seated and puts the mic before them. While some young women initially speak to the filmmaker and critique the Govt’s intention to ban instant triple talaq and defending the custom of instant triple talaq, other women around them first request and then instruct the filmmaker to leave them alone. Some tension is built between the filmmaker and the women gathered on the side-lines of the conference. When the filmmaker tries spelling out that there is a difference between listening to men and women about issues concerning women, a burqa-clad young lady tells the filmmaker in clear English, “Whatever you wish to know is being spoken by the men on stage. Just listen to them and let us also listen.” The filmmaker is then immediately asked to leave the “segregated place”.

While on one hand, this moment shows what Safia at the beginning of the film says about women viewing themselves “through the eyes of the men,” the same moment also punctures the majoritarian and stereotypical view of Muslim women as being submissive and uneducated.

The woman, who initially narrates her experience of getting separated from her husband after he uttered talaq thrice over the phone, is seen in one of the end sequences of the film coming to Qazi Safia with her husband and seeking intervention. Safia explains to the husband that as per Quran instant triple talaq is not valid. The lady’s husband disagrees with Safia and, in a desperate, restless, and slightly vulnerable tone, says, “As it is I have committed a sin by giving talaq. Now I can’t commit another sin by staying with her.” He repeatedly says he cannot agree with Safia’s (miss)-interpretation of the Quran and cannot accept his wife back because he has to “face Islam, face Allah” and that he “cannot go against Islam.”

The words of the husband reveal how deeply the interpretation of the male Qazis and Muftis about the custom of instant triple talaq has been etched in the minds of the members of the community, and how difficult it is for anyone to change it, even though the change is in accordance with the sayings of Quran. At the same time, it also shows how the man who somewhat regrets his decision and action of instant triple talaq (“As it is I have committed a sin by giving a talaq”), now doesn’t want to reunite with his wife, because he subscribes to the interpretation of the Quran by the Qazis. The husband, who otherwise would have reunited with his wife, now sticks to his decision, and goes against his heart because he wants to “face Islam”.

The film exposes how an inhumane custom, which largely harms women, also traps men and with the slight glimpse of the man’s vulnerability and complexity, also punctures the majoritarian and stereotypical view of men and specifically Muslim men.

This aspect is underlined thickly by introducing Safia’s husband Syed Jalil Akhtar, a very tender and supportive partner to Safia.

Safe spaces: making the politics personal

By showing the loving relationship between Safia and Jalil, which undoubtedly adds to the strength of Safia, the film brings forth an argument for the need for safe and loving spaces at a personal level and how it is an essential part of and for politics.

The confession of Jalil Akhtar saying earlier he wasn’t the way he is now, makes one wonder if it is Safia who turned him into what he is or is it the love-bond between them which enabled him to become what he has eventually become. What gets communicated is the strength of love to humanize us and create safe spaces, and also the necessity of safe and loving spaces for us to humanize ourselves and gain strength as individuals.

The necessity to create safe and loving places gets highlighted throughout the film. We see how Safia and her comrades of concern create a safe and loving space for women to meet, bond, share, and organize. We see how this safe and loving space not just enables these women socially and politically, but also by creating an atmosphere for them to let their guard loose, makes it possible for them to express themselves (seen through dancing, singing, and merrymaking) and just be themselves unhesitatingly.

By highlighting this creation of safe spaces and making a case for them, Holy Rights silently reminds us that the collective fight finally is to make the world a safer and healthier space, and it can begin only by creating such small pockets of safe and loving spaces.

What one cannot ignore is how despite the intrusive nature of the camera, Farha still manages to create a safe space where the entire struggle reveals itself in all its complexities. The empathetic and sensitive gaze of Farha, her sympathy for women and their traumas, and the trust she builds with all of them is what creates the required safe space for the film to mediate the politics of the struggles, and also build the politics of the film.

If Safia and her husband’s relationship establishes a safe space for feminist politics, and the relationship between the women demonstrate the safe space for feminist praxis, then Farha’s craft exhibits the safe space of filmmaking for a kind of honest internal critique and solidarity amongst Muslim women, and the film as a cultural product aspires to create a safe space where an honest introspection could possibly occur.

It is only in such safe spaces that a religious Safia and a non-practising Muslim filmmaker Farha can come together, befriend each other, and become a part of the essential political action geared towards creating a healthy and safe space for all.

Through this, the film Holy Rights also tells us how for political action and social change, solidarity and political consciousness by itself isn’t enough. They have to be supported by a culture of love. The film also speaks how a political battle for equality cannot be fought overlooking the social battles and that the social battles cannot be fought overlooking the security of individual rights and building safe and loving spaces for individuals.

But then, as the final shot of the film says, at one level, these battles can feel lonely at times. However, the battle is also to fight political and personal loneliness.

(This article was originally published in TwoCircles.Net on 17 Feb 2021)

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From Speaking Silence to the Poetry of the Unuttered

March 22, 2021 at 9:15 PMMar (Activism, Friends, Literature, Slice Of Life)

I must begin by confessing I am not an official student of Pattabhirama Somayaji (Pattabhi from here on), meaning I haven’t been his classroom student. Yet, I do consider him my teacher and me his student. I doubt if anyone who comes in contact with Pattabhi can escape being his student, for everyone who crosses paths with him will have their horizon widened.

Pattabhi and silence

It was mid-April of 2006. A solidarity protest held in Udupi, in support of the hunger strike that Medha Pathkar had undertaken in Gujarat. By the time I, still a PG student then, reached the spot- outside of the the then Taluq Office, Udupi- after classes, the solidarity event had already begun. It was the first-ever protest I took part in, and I was not familiar with many of them who had gathered there, except a couple of them. As I joined the gathering, one of the senior activists who I knew, said, “I am glad you came,” and then pointing at a man in a long kurta, seated amidst the protestors, continued, “Pattabhi spoke just before you arrived. You missed it.”

Throughout the solidarity event that evening, I kept seeing how Pattabhi was being respectfully greeted by everyone who joined us eventually, and everyone who greeted him got a wordless charming warm smile in return. The silence, I could sense, wasn’t silent. I found that non-silent silence extremely intriguing. When the solidarity gathering came to an end that evening, someone who I held in respect back then said, “Come let me introduce you to Pattabhi”, and I excitedly followed the man. Pattabhi was standing in a corner and smoking a cigarette. When introduced, Pattabhi just raised his hand, with the burning cigarette between his fingers, exhaled the smoke, and just smiled without uttering a single word.

That is how I got introduced to Pattabhi and his defining non-silent silence and his charming warm smile.

Pattabhi and minimalism of spoken-words

It was a long long evening in Sagara at the residence of Vrinda and PV Subraya. The latter was Pattabhi’s college-mate in Mysore. By this time Pattabhi and I had become friends who exchanged texts occasionally. As soon as a senior friend and I reached PV Subraya and Vrinda’s place, Pattabhi keeping aside his glass of whisky, welcomed us with a warm embrace.

That evening, my senior friend, who was a former colleague of PV Subraya, narrated the story of an unrealized dream. When working in Sagara, our friend, wanted to build a small hut in the backyard of PVS and Vrinda’s house and live a humble life. Prior to the teaching job at Sagara, the friend had worked in Jharkhand with a documentary filmmaker and worked in the midst of the aboriginals there. Expectations and pressure from the family had compelled him to quit the life of an explorer and take up a job in Sagara. There he wished to live a minimalist life, in a hut. But within a year, he had to leave Sagara for a job he got in Manipal. Narrating all of this our friend very emotionally said, “I took up the job unwillingly. But I am happy that I have been able to take arts and ideas into this otherwise corporate setup. I have been trying to churn thoughts and dialogues on issues that matter in this otherwise indifferent setup. I am not satisfied, but I am happy that I am able to do these.”

Listening to all of these patiently with his legs crossed and his index finger on his mouth, Pattabhi, without any hesitation and yet without any condescension, said, “It is good that you are doing this job of sensitizing blindfolded people. But, what is the state of the hut?” He said nothing more. Even we had nothing to say after listening to his minimalistic response.

This conversation has always stood as an example of Pattabhi’s silence and also his quality of not mincing words and not wasting words.

Pattabhi’s speeches & lectures

When I joined The Hindu (Mangalore office) as a reporter, in 2008, one of the initial assignments I had was to cover a protest meet, where Pattabhi was also present. The protest wasn’t held by the organization which Pattabhi identified himself with. The organizers had prioritized speakers from their organization. A reporter who stood next to me, who did not know of my friendship with Pattabhi, getting impatient with the on-going speeches, said in frustration, “Why are they not handing over the mic to Prof Pattabhi?” I looked at the reporter with surprise. A reporter waiting for the speech of a particular person at a protest and getting angry over the delay of the speech, said so much about the street speeches of Pattabhi. Acting naïve, I asked the reporter, why was he waiting for the speech of Prof Pattabhi and I clearly remember him telling me, “At such protests, almost everyone speaks the same stuff and most of them are predictable. But he is someone who brings in a new perspective and brings in fresh thoughts and insights.”

During my tenure with The Hindu, Mangalore, for professional reasons I had to interact closely with the the then students of Pattabhi. This was in 2009, after the infamous attack on women at a pub in Mangalore. Following the attack which brought the national media’s attention to Mangalore, several protests were being held and Pattabhi was making several furious speeches. One of his statements to a TV channel irked the members of ABVP in the college he was teaching and those students went on strike demanding the expulsion of Pattabhi. When I went to report this occurrence, the students of ABVP mistook the name of the newspaper I was working for as a pro-Hindutva paper. They not just told me how they were backed by “higher-ups in the party” to protest against Pattabhi but also confessed to me that most of the times in class they instigate Pattabhi to speak of “controversial subjects” that are “political” in nature. Even the protesting students, backed by the VHP and BJP, considering me a friend (since I worked for HINDU paper) told me that though they would get irked by the statements Pattabhi would make in class and disagree with his politics, they still consider him to be, “a good teacher and an extremely knowledgeable person.” At the same time, I was also speaking with the students who stood in support of Pattabhi and against the ABVP students. These bunch of students who knew me for my political and ideological leanings would tell me at length about the lectures of Pattabhi and I can strongly remember some of them telling me how Pattabhi showed more interest in them getting an education than their family members. “It is not just his affection but also the kind of issues he addresses in class and the way he looks at and analyses literature which instils strength in us, grounds us,” one girl had told me.

On evenings when I would be relieved from the office of The Hindu a bit early, I would go meet Pattabhi at his residence. The nature of daily reporting did not allow me to engage with the kind of reading and writing which stimulated me. The easiest way of compensating for all of it was to spend some time with Pattabhi. It is during these informal sessions where Pattabhi and my bonding strengthened.

On such evenings, I got to hear Pattabhi at length. Those were neither street speeches, nor class lectures. Yet they were both and more. If Pattabhi’s street speeches were filled with insights and interpretations, like a literary class, his literary classes were marked by political consciousness, like street speeches. The same was a part of personal conversations in private spaces too. In strange ways the political, the personal, and professional came together in Pattabhi and not just became one but went beyond all the boundaries.

Pattabhi and anger

You are not a friend to Pattabhi, if you have not been subjected to his anger; anger which is not an outburst but anger which boils like water, with bubbling expressions in language, and then cooling down over time.

“Please bear my cross with you,” once came an SMS from him. Who fights so gracefully and artistically?- I had wondered!

Once Pattabhi and another senior friend of mine had a disagreement and the conflict went on for long. It was a difficult situation for people like me who were younger to both and held both in great respect and affection. Pattabhi those days would repeatedly make obvious his anger towards the other senior friend of mine. Probably it was his child-like notorious way of testing my loyalty. I don’t know. So he would refer to the other senior friend as “dushTa” (evil). Once when I mentioned this to another friend of my age group, he very playfully asked why Pattabhi was being so decent even in his rage. Until he mentioned it in a joking manner it hadn’t occurred to me that even in his anger Pattabhi was maintaining a dignity of language!

The same fight between titans continued for some more time and it angered me more because I had failed to bridge the gap between two senior friends of mine. Also, I felt some of Pattabhi’s anger, triggered by his fight with the other senior friend, was being displaced on me. I was hurt by it to an extent. When I confronted him with this complaint, Pattabhi in his signature style, said, “You are holding him on your head (an expression in Kannada equivalent to ‘putting someone on a pedestal). So when I spit at him (a Kannada expression for verbally expressing anger), a bit of it falls on you too. If you wish to escape it, you must not carry him on your head.” I was floored by the image he brought in! There were metaphors even in angry expressions! For a moment I forgot everything and marveled at the literariness of that expression.

As much as I have respected Pattabhi for always having a space to fight with him, and for him to fight with his dear ones, I have equally respected him for the way he fights with his friends without abusing the language. It only shows how language is such an important tool for Pattabhi and knowing its strength and its power, he doesn’t want to mishandle the tool, even in a fit of anger!

Pattabhi’s poetry

Having tried to map Pattahi through shades of his communication, I must confess, in the end now that I have always struggled to decipher his Avant-guard poems. Jokingly I have said some of my friends that when Pattabhi writes poems in English, I feel I do not know English and when he writes in Kananda, I feel I do not know Kannada. Maybe, along with English and Kannada, I also do not know poetry. Possible. But I have always believed that his poems, which I cannot say I have understood in its entirety, is another extreme of his loaded silences, and I cannot but have my jaws dropped at the poetry that is not just an excellent play of words but also says more through the unsaid than the said.

Pattabhi’s range between speaking silence and poetry of the unuttered is just amazing!

Conclusion

When requested to write for this volume, I initially wanted to write about the loneliness of Pattabhi, drawing the title from Arundhati Roy’s essay on Noam Chomsky. In the intended essay, I wanted to explore the political, literary, and emotional aloneness of Pattabhi. Probably it is the fate of the unconventional and those who are above and beyond the set frame-works to end up being left alone, like an island in an ocean. That was about his political and literary loneliness. But what has always haunted me is his emotional loneliness and have never dared to speak of. When I started to write the intended essay, I found myself trying to explore and understand- through writing- the emotional loneliness of Pattabhi, more than the other- political and literary- loneliness of his. Not just because I wasn’t sure if my understanding is right, but also because of some inexplicable reason, I abandoned that essay and began to write this. But the attempt to write the intended essay made me realize that Pattabhi for me has been more of an emotional connection than being just a comrade of concern or guiding light in literary sensibility. Now, that emotional connection can be best explained only through silence or probably by the unuttered in the spoken.

I have not just admired Pattabhi in all these years, I have also had severe fights with him, disagreed with him and his actions. I have felt he is wrong on some occasions and has seen how he has been wronged on some other occasions. All shades of emotions have colored my relationship with Pattabhi, but the constant undercurrent always has been that of love. Probably it is only love which makes space for togetherness with disagreements, and acceptance of humans with all their flaws and shortcomings.

***

Article written for oDalu: oDanaaDigala oDalaaLa, a festschrift for Prof. Pattabhirama Somayaji ideated and edited by Rajalakshmi Narasajjan with the assistance of Shareef Salethur.

Pattabhi is retiring on the 31st of this month.

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Relationship with Languages

February 28, 2021 at 9:15 PMFeb (Friends, Literature, Media, Poetry, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

Someone with whom I shared an intimate bonding, once told me, “I can have sex only in English.”

Their words made me reflect and I realized I feel hungry in Kannada, think in English, experience pain and love in Hindustani, and my struggle with mental-health is in all three languages.

Some people like me are torn between languages.

Kannada has given me the earth to be rooted in, English has granted me the sky to fly and Hindustani has tempered my heart to feel a connection with things. But the language of my inscape always is: silence.

I have a complicated relationship with languages.

(Note written on the occasion of International Mother Language Day observed on 21 Feb)

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Life Through Changing Times

January 31, 2021 at 9:15 PMJan (Media, Musings, Slice Of Life)

Royal Watches, a shop owned by Goddumari Venkateshwaralu, in Ananthapuramu, displays cell-phones and as you enter. As you walk past the narrow space where customers stand inspecting the phones they wish to buy, you see times change. There sits the owner of the shop on his table with a glass case around him, a magnifier glass on his eyes and the walls decorated with old wall clocks.

The shop Royal Watches opened its shutters for the first time in the year 1986 when G. Venkateshwaralu moved to Ananthapuramu from Guntakal after repairing watches there for 16 years. Teaching his younger brother the skills of watch repair he let his brother take care of the shop in Guntakal and moved to Ananthapuramu.

When G. Venkateshwaralu was 16, his father who owned two lorries, sent his son to learn watch repair when their lorries got into a mishap and pushed them to a loss. “I had an eye for technical things and my father identified it,” says G. Venkateshwaralu before explaining how learning watch repair was not an easy task back in those days. “I had to move from one person to another to learn. Nobody would be willing to teach all the tricks of the trade,” he explains. Later his father decided to buy him some tools and asked him to learn by himself based on what he had learnt from others. “Experience taught me more than the training I went through the several watch repairers,” tells G. Venkateshwaralu.

Back in those days when he had just started his life as a watch repairer he would go sit in the weekly markets in the nearby towns and would repair watches there. Slowly he went on to set up his own shop in Guntakal. Remembering his journey from then to now G. Venkateshwaralu says, “There used to be pin watches, winding watches earlier and slowly over the years electronic watches took over. Also, earlier watches were being worn for the purpose of maintaining time. Later it became a fancy. That is when the outer shape of the watches started to change. Slowly a time has come when people do not wear watch. Mobile phones do the work of showing the time.” He says that the watches would last long up to 30 years when he began his work, slowly the life-span of a watch got reduced to 12 years and now it has come up to 2 years. Back then, he says, watches came to him for servicing and repairing. Slowly the rate of servicing decreased and repair increased. In the last one decade the concept of repair has decreased almost completely. “Now the repairer does more of replacing than repairing,” he says. From specific problem being repaired to entire mechanism being replaced, the job of G. Venkateshwaralu has undergone a change with time.

When G. Venakateshwaralu set up his first shop in Guntakal he also started to sell watches in his shop. The ones who would buy watches from him would come to him for servicing and repair. When he moved to Ananthapuramu and set up Royal Watches he continued to sell watches there too. But with the mobile revolution the number of buyers for watches started decreasing. That is when the person in Hyderabad from whom he would purchase spare parts for watches shifted his business to mobile phones. That was a hint to G. Venkateshwaralu about changing times. So the front portion of his shop where he used to sell watches saw watches being replaced by mobile phones. His son took over this area of the shop and G. venkateshwaralu continued to repair watches, on his tiny table at the interior portion of the shop, where he used to sit earlier too.

“Online shopping has had an impact on the sales of mobile phones in shops like ours,” says G. Venkateshwaralu. His customers still are those who couldn’t take a leap into the new technologg completely and still use the watch or those who have a fancy for watches. Some of the new technologies, he says, are such that only company authorized repairers can do the repair work. Others cant. Major part of his work now is replacing some machines in the watch and replacing straps of the watches. He still has some of the old kind of watches in his drawer and the spare parts of the old watches.

When people with old kind of watches come to G. Venkateshwaralu now for repair, he doesn’t take it up because he understand the love they have for their watch which is why they still possess it. “If I am not able to repair because of the machine having become delicate or me becoming old, it won’t be nice,” he explains.

On asked if he find his knowledge and skill, in the shift of times, become irrelevant, G. Venkateshwaralu says, “The question itself is irrelevant. This knowledge and this skill earned me my bread and butter. I could take care of my family and educate my children. It has met the needs of the time for me.” He goes on to say how everything in the world has changed and shares his thought, “We do what we do in order to be able to make a living. It is to make a living that I had to learn watch repairing first, repairing new kinds of watches later on, replacing of machines after that, shift from watch sales to mobile phone sales. I have done it all to make a living and I have had a satisfactory life. If everything I know and did becomes irrelevant now be it. I haven’t failed. I have sailed through.”

(Interview conducted: 20 Nov 2018. Special thanks: Sandeep Nayani)

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The Habit of Eating Together…

December 30, 2020 at 9:15 AMDec (Friends, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

Once in a while, quite often, I get an early morning call from a teacher-mentor of mine. Every time he calls me early in the morning, which is early for me and not for my teacher-mentor, I know what the purpose of the call is. As the later bloomer wipes his eyes and answers the call, the voice from the other side says, “Please join me for lunch today”. And more than often I join him at his regular lunch eating place.

Several years ago when I was still doing my post-graduation, this teacher-mentor took me for lunch every single day, when I was in the final semester. My parents and I had shifted our house and it wasn’t close enough for me to go home have lunch and return to college. So, I had to eat out. Recognizing this, my teacher-mentor told me, “You please come with me every day for lunch.” I could not say no to the offer. I could not say No because my teacher-mentor is a storehouse of knowledge and stories. Joining him for lunch every day meant extra time, and that too individual time with him and access to his knowledge and experiential stories. That was an additional advantage over free food.

In those days, I realized that even on the days I couldn’t join him, he wouldn’t eat alone. He would take someone else for lunch and pay for them too. Years after those days of final semester of post-graduation, after all my journeys for higher-education and work, when I returned to my hometown, whenever I go to meet him, he insists I have lunch with him that noon. At times, I would receive a morning call from him and that would seal my plan for noon. Sometimes, the call would arrive just before lunch hour. “Today there is nobody to accompany for lunch. If you are free, please join.

“One day over a good meal when I asked him, he told me why he cannot have lunch alone. “Ours was a huge family and we were poor. There used to be limited food. If we were to eat separately, the one eating first could’ve eaten more, leaving less food for the ones eating later. Or, fearing not much will be left for the ones eating later, the ones eating first might eat less. My mother wanted to avoid this. So he always insisted we all eat together and the food could be distributed equally to everyone and all could know the hunger levels of the other and share food considering everyone’s needs,” my teacher-mentor told me. Mentioning that it wasn’t backed by any higher philosophy such as ‘a family that eats together stays together’, but was just a strategy of a poor family. He recollected this to demonstrate how this practice got him habituated to eating together. He then said, “Now, I just can’t eat if I am alone.”

I was deeply moved by this anecdote and wondered how did he manage to have dinner all alone at home after his wife passed away. Did he eat alone or did he start skipping dinners, I wondered!

Around two months ago, my teacher-mentor contracted Covid and had to be hospitalized. Those days, as much as I was concerned about his health, his recovery, I also wondered, how, in isolation, he managed to eat all alone, by himself, with nobody giving him company. Every time I messaged him, asking him about his health, I wanted to ask him about this, but could never ask.

Once my teacher-mentor got discharged from the hospital recovering from Covid, his son came and took him to Bangalore. It was a relief. After spending slightly over a couple of weeks, my teacher-mentor decided to get back home. That worried me a bit.

The day he returned, my teacher-mentor gave me a ring. “I am back. Please join me for lunch.” I rushed immediately.”

I have gotten used to staying alone after my wife passed away,” he told me and added, “Even when they were taking good care of me and when good care is essential for complete recovery, staying with my son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren was became uneasy for me after a while”. So he had returned to stay by himself, and I could understand that.

But even now once in a while, I get an early morning call from my teacher-mentor: “Today there is nobody to accompany me for lunch. So, please join.” And I go to eat with him…

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Emotional Safety: An Existential Necessity

November 25, 2020 at 9:15 AMNov (Friends, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

Emotional safety is something which not many of us have come to recognize as a real thing, forget identifying it as a necessary thing. To feel emotionally safe is an existential necessity, and sometimes more important than feeling or being secured financially, physically and socially.

When violated or/ and when stripped off of dignity and agency, one might begin to feel emotionally unsafe. It is a horrible and horrific state to be in.

A sense of emotional unsafety makes human connection and association difficult, by instilling trust issues. That ends up making the person isolated. In isolation, the person gets sucked and swallowed in a whirlpool, which spins the person endlessly but never drowns them entirely.

Human connections and safe spaces in human connections are extremely necessary. Nurturing spaces and relationships where emotional safety is experienced, should be prioritized. Not just for oneself but also for others.

Equally important is to free oneself from the clutches of spaces and relationships where one does not feel emotionally safe. To withdraw quickly, immediately, and abruptly might not be easy, and might also fuel the feeling of unsafety, given the power a toxic atmosphere has over the human body, mind, and spirit, and the lack of a safety net to hold when jumping off the claustrophobic building. To be mindful of this and work tactically and strategically is important.

More important, however, is to liberate oneself from such traps and swim into the vast space where emotional safety breathes freely.

(Special thanks to my therapist. These thoughts took shape during the process of a therapy session.)

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Revisiting and Re-reading Chak De India

October 30, 2020 at 9:15 PMOct (Cinema, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

A couple of months ago I decided to revisit the film Chak De India written by Jaideep Sahni and directed by Shimit Amin. I hadn’t revisited the film after having watched it in the theaters during the first week of its release.

Back in 2007 when the film had hit the silver screen, I remember having been mightily impressed by the film. The love for the film came naturally because of my love for Shahrukh Khan and also because the film’s story-line had an underdog team finally achieve success, a man who was wronged finally earn back his dignity by disproving the allegations made on him earlier, the underestimated gender disproving the stereotyped notions/ biases against them- which are all a subversion, and also a kind of poetic justice. Of course, the thrills and joys of team building, the idea of team and its extension- the idea of a nation, and the victory of that collective along with the pride that accompanies the victory, also played a role in making the film appeal to me back then. Like almost all sports films and films with an undercurrent of patriotism, Chak De India also caused an adrenaline rush which added to the thrill and also making the film click.

Thirteen years after its release, when I revisited Chak De India, I was again mighty impressed. But this time I was drawn to a very different aspect of the film; something I had not noticed earlier, something that had not occurred to me earlier. Though I do not want to certify myself by saying my observation is marked by novelty, I must confess that in all these years I haven’t heard anyone speak of it. Hence, I am attempting to document my thoughts here now in this post.

Chak De India, I realized during my revisiting, is a very mature film which heart in heart is about building individuals, and not about building a team or a collective. The film, I have come to believe now, is about building individuals and the importance of building individuals in order to build a collective.

A collective or rather any collective, the film says, is a failure or is bound to fail if the individuals who are a part of it are failing in their individual spaces. Only an individual who has built the inner muscles can shoulder and also make healthy contributions to the formation of a collective and sustaining it. Interestingly, the film also points out that this building of individuals can happen only in a collective.

In Chak De India, a team, a collective is formed and victory achieved not by making the members of the team want to disprove the bias against their gender or is their energy being extracted for the idea of a collective pride (nationalism or patriotism). Though these forces are pushing them to an extent, it is finally the building of each individual which makes possible the formation of a team, a collective which triumphs!  If the team in Chak De India were to be formed in the name of patriotism or formed to dismantle the bias of the Academy, the team might have come together or rather could have been brought together but that wouldnt have been enough to form a healthy collective. It is the maturation of each individual, in their individual orbits and in the collective, which enabled the collective to succeed. 

The skepticism of modern individuals is that of the community /collective identity eclipsing, or rather erasing, their individual identity and turning them into foot-soldiers of the community/ collective and chaining them to unfreedom. This skepticism usually results in a highly individualized self who subscribes to a privatized fate. An individual who subscribes to a privatized self and fate usually misses the sense of security and safety that a community/ collective promises, assures, and also provides. Also, the sense of unsafety and insecurity gets amplified because the individualistic individuals tend to forget the requirement and significance of being there for each other and being responsible for each other, a phenomenon that not just makes every individual operate on a survival mode, turns individuals against each other but also turns every individual very lonely and helpless too. But at the same time, the community/ collective in its demand for loyalty expects surrender and submission from individuals and also an erosion of individuality from its members, which results in a crisis of identity. That exactly is what a modern individual’s fear is!

The polyphony turns into a cacophony when it moves in either the direction of individualistic individuals with privatized fate or in the direction of a community construction which erodes the individuality of its members. A right-based individualistic society and a duty-based communitarian society both cause an unhealthy atmosphere where either a bunch of narcissistic individuals mushroom or a collective narcissism emerges. In either case, the individuals defeat the collective and/ or the collective defeats the individual.

Between these two possibilities exists a possibility of mutual-responsibility where every individual considers oneself responsible for each other, and also responsible for the collective and the collective takes up the responsibility for each individual. To use the phrase which was once a cliche but now has become outdated and also forgotten: each for all and all for each. This is what the film Chak De India is about, it appeared to me during this revisit.

Chak De India, with its extremely profound vision and maturity, escapes from the possibility of turning itself into a success story of an(y) individual’s privatized fate or slipping into a nationalistic or jingoistic trap while upholding the idea of collective.

The vision, the worldview of Chak De India says: It is only in the individual victory that a collective victory is made possible and it is in the collective victory that each individual’s liberation can be achieved.  The growth of the team, the collective in Chak De India relies on the growth of its individuals, and the growth of individuals relies on their ability to retain their identity yet identify with the collective and participate in the collective by taking up responsibility for each other. When such individuals get formed, the polyphony becomes not cacophony but a harmony, and a collective gets formed which doesn’t feel the need to demand loyalty from its members but has the commitment of its members.

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Battle Within and Outside

September 19, 2020 at 9:15 AMSep (Friends, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

Some years ago, while working on a project far from home, I fell ill. When fever wouldn’t come down even after two days of home medicine, and because of severe indigestion followed by immense weakness, I had to be hospitalized. At the hospital, I was diagnosed with cerebral malaria.

Though the project was opening me to not just a new world altogether but also a new worldview, I still was a loner in the city; a city that was more of a small-town aspiring to be a city, or rather a small-town on which now there was an imposition of city-ness if I can call it so. Falling ill in this stranger city, with no social circle or a support system, pushed me into a very strange zone of loneliness. Being all by myself when unwell, led to a feeling of general anger color my overall behavior those days. The person who I was working for, a very friendly person, did attend to me when I was in the hospital and also once got discharged. But that wouldn’t erase the sense of loneliness within me that kept fueling restlessness in me.

Once discharged, I was asked to take rest for over a week, and that left me with more alone time and lonely time, adding to my frustration. During that rest period, I kind of built a narrative about how I contracted the disease. A week before I fell sick, I had visited an Adivasi village as a part of my field trip. After spending some days there, I had returned to the city from where I operated. Within a few days, I fell ill. But in my analysis, it was not my stay in the village which disturbed the equilibrium of my health, but the unhealthy nature of the city I had returned to. To the best of my knowledge, I wasn’t wrong with my analysis. I was quite kicked my analysis and also, by then, my frustration had reached an unbearable state. Both my excitement and my frustration needed a release!

Around the same time, I remembered this one person of whom I only knew back then, but wasn’t friends with. She lived in the same town, about which I had learnt from. I had earlier texted her a couple of times after arriving in their town. So I decided to contact her to speak with her and find an outlet for my frustration and excitement in the speech.

“In a city/ town which does not have proper garbage, sewage and drainage facilities, in such place malaria is not (just) a disease, but state violence.”- I wrote to her. In response, this person asked me why I said that and on learning what had happened and my lonely recovery phase and my simmering anger asked which part of the city I live in. I named the area I lived in. She expressed her sadness of not being able to help much since it was far from where she lived and also said, if not, she would at least help me with some healthy food daily. Still brimming with anger, since my anger and my loneliness was not validated, I said my food was being taken care of and that wasn’t a problem. I wanted her to acknowledge that their city’s administration was responsible for what had happened to me. So I repeated my statement. I was also proud of myself for linking malaria to state violence and wanted an appreciation for that analysis! On hearing it the second time she said, “You can fix that later. For now, you focus on your recovery.” (no exact words but something on the same lines)

What her words meant with that was quite profound which I did not grasp entirely back then. But over the years I have remembered this conversation quite often and have told myself how important it is for one to finish the battle with oneself before venturing into a battle outside of self, or with the world beyond, but connected to, the self!

It is only when one finds a foothold in their personal world that one is able to operate effectively in a space outside of the self. A broken self requires some amount of healing- the building of inner muscle- to be able to fist-fight things outside. It is true even if the fracture of the self was caused by external forces. Fixing of the matters outside alone will not cement the cracks within. But a healed or healing soul can certainly effectively contribute to the repairing of the faulty order of things outside that causes injuries and damage to several selves. The battle outside is not half begun if the battle within is not at least half won! But in the end, it is only in the constant and simultaneous healing of the within and outside which can liberate both, self and the world!

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