“Literature Is Also Like Chai…”

November 27, 2013 at 9:15 PMNov (Friends, Literature, Media, Poetry, Slice Of Life)

“Stop stop. I want to eat.”

It was 22 of May 2012. Deepu, Sandy, Veeru and I were on our way to Sagara. We had started at around 15:00 hrs from Manipal. Cutting through Hiriyadka, Hebri and around 20 hairpin curves of the Ghats we had arrived at Agumbe, the Cherrapunji of the south. Because the sun was nowhere near the horizon we did not stop at the famous Sunset Point but drove ahead. We were just a few meters ahead from the Sunset Point and Sandy taking a deep breath asked Veeru, who was driving the car, to stop. Smell of some food item being fried in oil was in the air!

I turned to my right and saw a small canteen kind of set up over a push-cart which had become a permanent structure. The canteen had tea too. I joined my voice with Sandy saying, “Yeah stop stop.” By then Deepu and Veeru too had taken a deep breath to enjoy the smell of the fried item. Veeru stopped the car.

With high expectations about some good food we parked the car and got down.

IMG_8889As we slowly walked towards the canteen we saw a few customers already seated there. The owner and cook of the canteen asked us what we wanted. “Chattambadey” we said. Serving some chattambadey to the other customers he said, “You will have to wait for a while.” We were ready to wait but still couldn’t wait. “Fine. Till then serve us some tea,” I said. “You will have to wait for that too,” he said. “Ok,” I said and stood by to see his preparation of chattambadey.

As I stood there my eyes fell on a set of books kept in the side, along with some spoons and cups. One novel, one book on criticism, one collection of essays and one autobiography! All in Kannada. I was surprised to see those books next to spoons and cups, above the sugar container! Out of great curiosity I asked whose books were they. “Some customer who was here few days ago kept it here while having tea and forgot to take it,” he said all set to let fresh chattambadey raw material into the oil. “Oh!” I exclaimed browsing through the book. The chattambadeywas making noise in the oil. Hesitantly I asked him, “What will you do of these books?” and ask though reading my next question in the pipeline he asked, “Do you want them?” “Well if nobody is going to read it here I will take it,” I said. Immediately he asked me what was he to do if the owners of the book came back asking for the book. And I did not have an answer. I kept the book back and saying, “Oh yeah. Let it be.”

I turned to my friends who were trying to make rings out of smoke. Their attempts in rings making and my observing of it was broken by the voice, “Here is chattambadey. Take it.” Throwing off the cigarettes the three walked towards the push-cart while I took my plate of chattambadey. As I was taking a first bite of chattambadeya question came to me. “Who is your favourite author?” The chattambadey stopped just a few millimeters away from my mouth as I looked at the vendor busy making chai. The milk was boiling and he was adding sugar to it. Suddenly I got the answer to my first question to him. “So, they are your books!” I said and the man looking at the boiling milk on the stove said, “I am a book worm.”

Without looking at me in the same breath he reiterated the question- “Who is your favourite author?” When I told him that it is a difficult question to answer he narrowed down the question by asking in Kannada authors who I liked the most. “Shivaram Karanth,” I said and immediately he asked me if I was from the coastal part of Karnataka. When I asked him what gave him that impression he said that usually the ones in the coastal part of Karnataka tend to like Shivaram Karanth and the ones from the Malnad region tend to like Kuvempu. “It is not regional favoritism. It is just that one can relate more. When you can relate to the story it becomes a personal experience,” he said. I was floored! He then asked me what I think of Kuvempu and I said I hadn’t read his novels and hence I am cannot say much. He suggested I read them and asked me if I had read Kuvempu’s poems. I nodded my head to indicate I had. “Who else do you like?” he asked me and I took Devanoor Mahadeva’s name. “He is a different world all together,” he said and laughed. I was astounded by the conversation I was having and so was Veeru who could follow the conversation unlike Sandy and Deepu.

By then the tea was ready. Handing over the tea he asked me which author I liked outside Kannada. As I took the name of Tagore he said, “Don’t tell me you loved Geetanjali. It is nice but he has written things better than Geetanjali.” I couldn’t agree more with him. When I said Gorky he had something similar to say. He said, “Almost everyone speaks of his novel Mother. But his short stories and his autobiographical writings are equally interesting profound and important according to me.” I told him I had read some short stories but hadn’t read his autobiographical writings. Immediately he asked, “Who else?” There was some kind of restlessness that one could see in him. Observing his restless and sipping tea I said I like Chinua Achebe. As I uttered the name of Achebe he said that he had recently read an interview of Achebe by U.R. Ananthamurthy in a book which has several interviews conducted by Ananthamurthy. “Hattu Samasthara Jotey,” I said the title is and “Yes that is the book,” he exclaimed.

IMG_8897Now I was curious to know more about the man and hence asked him where he is from. “Perdoor” he said. I said its close to my hometown Manipal. He said he has been in Agumbe from a long time. He asked us what we were all doing. We introduced ourselves and when Deepu said he was into filmmaking our man said, “Oh I have acted in a few episodes of the serial Malgudi Days.” Our eyes flowered even the more. “Have you seen Malgudi Days that was directed by Shankar Nag?” he asked and while we were nodding our head he said, out of great affection, “Shankar Nag is our boss!!” Without halting much over Malgudi Days he told us that he had featured in an episode of Discovery Channel too which was on King Cobra in the Western Ghats. “Wildlife is my other love,” he said and added, “My first love is literature.”

Our tea glasses were empty by now. We were handing over the empty glasses back to him and he asked how the tea was. When we said we loved it he came with a gem of a sentence. He said, “Literature is also like chai. Once you have tasted something of superior quality it is difficult to go back to something mediocre.” A smile spread itself on my face.

Veeru insisted we take some pics with him. We took some, while he was busy making some more chattambadey and chai for some more customers who had come, some of them being the officials from the check post which is at a walkable distance from his canteen. We paid the bill and were all set to leave. While saying bye I asked him for his name. “Padiyar,” he said and got back to his work.

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Rebuilding Not Just Lives But Hope And Trust

November 25, 2013 at 9:15 AMNov (Activism, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

Kniefall by Willy Brandt. 1970.

Though only 41%, in the Der Spiegel survey, said that the gesture was “appropriate” in opposition to 48% considering it “excessive” (the remaining 11% had no opinion) the kniefall marks as a gesture of great humbleness and apology.

Kniefall by Willy Brandt. 1970.

Kniefall by Willy Brandt. 1970.

Willy Brandt had escaped to Norway from Germany in early 1933. He escaped to escape the Nazi harassment. It is during those days that he took the name Willy Brandt while his real name was Herbert Frahm. In 1946 he got back to Berlin and also joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany. He became the Chanellor of West Germany in 1969. In 1970 during his visit to Poland his visit coincided with the commemoration to the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. Brandt participated in the commemoration and there he fell on his knees. In his autobiography later he wrote, “Carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them.”

A similar act of apology which drew the attention of the world was Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister apologized to the Aborigines, while speaking at the Parliament. He had apologized for having, “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss,” on “our fellow Australians.” The case in reference for Kevin Rudd was the policy that was in effect till the 1970 that made way for the adoption of aboriginal children by white families with the hope of breeding out the colour.

In both case of reference the Government (officials) have apologized for a mistake done by the institute of which they are part though as individuals have not been direct party to the mistake.

In the year 2007 J.S. Bandukwala wrote a moving article in The Indian Express where he said, “Clearly, reconciliation will only occur if the aggressor displays genuine remorse and the victims of the carnage forgive them. It is for this reason that we have, over the last six years, repeatedly urged Gujarati Hindu religious leaders, intellectuals and business tycoons to come forward and apologize for the events of February/March 2002 so that the process of uniting both communities can begin. By and large the response has been just stark silence.” In the same article later he went on to say, “Given this, it is time for Muslims to consider unilateral forgiveness; such forgiveness by victims conforms to the highest traditions of Islam.” This invited criticism from many, most of them being the progressive and human right activists. Harsh Mander responded saying, “To close the past without looking back must not be imposed on the people who live not only with the memories of the trauma of unspeakable loss and violence, but the daily realities of continued persecution fear and hate. The survivors of Gujarat should not feel coerced in a spurious amnesia, imposed on them by those who did not suffer and by their absence of remorse and compassion.” He wrote so because, in his own words, “True healing cannot come from (such a) gesture of great dignity but hopelessness. There is no short-cut to a genuine meeting of hearts, except to persist with finding ways of truth, remorse, reparation and justice to emerge and pave the way for rebuilding not just lives but also hope and trust.” He proposes that “any authentic process of reconciliation requires at least four mandatory components: acknowledgement, remorse, reparation and justice.”

In the case of Willy Brandt and Kevin Rudd there was acknowledgement, remorse and an attempt to reparation and justice. They belonged to the Government institution and held the power to ensure reparation and justice. But in the case of Gujarat the request made by Mr. Bandukwala requests not the Government but common men, the aggressors to apologize so that there can be a proper reconciliation and a proper process to unite the Hindu and Muslim communities can begin. This act of public apology becomes important, more than for justice, to rebuild hope and trust for those are the pillars on which social relationships are built. It is to give an assurance to the victim that history can be undone only by creating new history and that those who wrote this history of violence are willing to redirect the course of history hereafter. . After all the victims are to live, on a daily basis, not with the Government officials but with fellow humans. That is why the acts of remorse and to rebuild hope and trust gains great significance.

I quoted the above examples, international and national, to draw the attention of readers to something very local which has moved me deeply.

Every year in Kundapur, a twon located in coastal Karnataka, an organization named Sahamata, organizes ‘Sauharda Deepaawali’ around the agrarian festival of Diwali. This year the event was held 2013, on 1 Nov where along with Peer Basha, Hayavadana Moodasagri, Gerald Isaac Lobo the President of Gangolli gram panchayat Saakamma and her husband Rajesh were one of the chief guests. The President of Gangolli gram panchayat and her husband were guests not for their position held in the local gram panchayat but for other reason.


5 June 2013: At the Annappaiah Sabha Bhavana, Trasi (Kundapur Taluq) the wedding of Saakamma is scheduled with Rajesh. The owner of the hall, Sridhar Ganiga, had agreed to make arrangements for the wedding which included making arrangements for the priest, food and other requirements. As the priest is all set for the wedding the wedding procession arrives. The loud music of the traditional drum is heard in distance and it alerts the priest Srinivas Bhat. He realizes the caste of the bride and the groom. On realizing that the bride and groom are from the Koraga community, an untouchable caste, he refuses to conduct the wedding and walks off. On realizing that the wedding is of Koraga community, like the priest, even the cleaning staff refuses to cooperate and walk off.With police intervention the wedding takes place, with some delay, on the very same day.

Eshwar, brother of Saakamma, filed a complaint in the local police station under atrocities act. The priest and the owner of the hall were booked and then granted a conditional bail.

End of flashback.

Saakamma and Rajesh at Souhaarda Deepawali-2013

Saakamma and Rajesh at Souhaarda Deepawali-2013

On November 1st when Sahamata invited Saakamma and Rajesh for the Souharda Deepaawali programme it was to apologize. On behalf of Sahamata and all like-minded people, Shashidhar Hemmady, while gifting Saakamma and Rajesh new clothes, like new bride and groom, said, “We, as a part of the that very society which discriminated you and harassed you, apologize for what has been done to you.”

To have the heart to apologize for a mistake not done by us but by the society of which we too are a part, is not just extraordinary but also a necessity for establishing an egalitarian society.

In the end, a complete recovery can occur only when the victim has an option to not forgive. Without that level playing ground apologies and forgiveness will provide us with a result which, because of unequal power system, favors the aggressor and not the victim.

Still remorse is a revolutionary emotion and when expressed in the form of public apology following public acknowledgement, makes the aggressors more humane and to that extent it breaks, though slightly, the chain of violence and oppression. And at the same time gives hope by reestablishing trust!

After apologizing to the Jewish community on 29 Sep 2005, the President of Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS, Dutch Railways), for the railways transported the Ducth Jews to the transit camp on German orders, explained the reason for apologies as this:

“By defining our role at that time, we can close a painful chapter in our history. We can now face each other in a better way and with renewed confidence. Furthermore we want, together with the Dutch Jewish community, to focus on the future of our community. For instance, to warn Dutch youngsters about the hatred and fascism that continually reappear in new forms. In this way our experiences from the past find a meaningful place in the present. Clarity and transparency provide one with equilibrium. It typifies a mature organization, with an important public role at the center of society.”

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My Tryst With Hindustani

November 23, 2013 at 9:15 AMNov (Cinema, Friends, Literature, Media, Music, Musings, Poetry, Slice Of Life)

Quite often I am asked by friends how is it that I know Urdu. A boy who was born and brought up in coastal Karnataka choosing Urdu as a language of poetic expression surprises many. Every time I am asked this question I want to correct them as “The language I use is not Urdu but Hindustani,” for I am not so good with the language that my language can be called Urdu. It can be called Hindustani, it appears to me.  But I stop myself because to get started about the Hindi-Urdu politics and the usage of ‘Hindustani’ would become a never ending discussion!

Initially when people would ask me about my connection with “Urdu” I too dint know how I had picked up the language. Just because I never bothered to think about it. But then I thought a bit and then traced the roots of “Urdu” in my heart. That appeared like an interesting journey. Hence, decided to share it here.


Like many in India I too grew up listening to Hindustani film music which we all know and refer  to as Hindi film songs. My sister used to be a tv addict. Like any younger one in the family, at one particular age, I followed the path of elder sibling. Every Sunday she would get up and switch on the TV to watch Rangoli and I would sit with her. Every Wednesday she would watch Chitrahaar and I would sit with her and watch TV. Those days I did not follow a single word of Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani. Yet I listened to all the songs for its music and to see the film stars! I learnt some songs by-heart without understanding a single word of it. The first song that I leant by-heart, all by myself, was Kisi Ki Muskuraahaton Pe Ho Nisaar from the film Anari. I had just loved that song for some mysterious reason. Similarly I learnt a few lines from few more songs here and there. The love for songs got cultivated those days. “Hindi film songs” became a part of me, like it has been a part of innumerable people in this country. With continuously listening to “Hindi film songs” I started understanding the meaning of some words and some parts of the song. Word by word I started understanding some of the simple Hindi, though not the Urdu words in those songs.

Then when I graduated to class Five I had to compulsorily learn Hindi. I was excited about it. It meant understanding film songs better. Learning alphabets were all exciting but somehow the poems in the text book, which our the then teacher Sunita Kaul taught us in some film song tunes, did not appeal the way Hindustani film songs did. No. The poems like gaay hamaari maatha hai did not have the charm of the songs that I loved! Even the lessons in the text book did not make an impact on me the way film songs and dialogues did. After compulsory learning of Hindi for three years in class five, six and seven, when I came to class eight I opted out of Hindi.

Those days I was too young to understand that the difference between the “Hindi songs” I heard and the Hindi poems I was made to learn were different at the level of language. The earlier being the language of the people for years together a lingua-franca in this country and the latter being a Sanskritized version of the language which was a result of the Hindu nationalistic politics. The charm of the Hindustani which had borrowed from both the Persian influenced Urdu and the khadi-boli, avadh influenced Hindi was missing in the Sanskritized Hindi taught to us in the text books. When I could learn the film songs quickly I would struggle to learn poems in the text book! To me the latter was not as attractive as the earlier. My parents wouldn’t understand that. To them I was taking more interest in film songs and not in studies. They could not understand and probably still wouldn’t understand why “Hindi” of the “Hindi film songs” have a charm of their own and the sarkaari Hindi doesn’t have! In any case when I reached class Eight I opted out of Hindi.

But I fell into something more boring than the sarkaari Hindi that I was being taught in those text books. That was also the age when most of us- classmates- were getting that thread ceremony done. We were all being initiated into some Sanskrit chanting and some priest would say how Sanskrit is the language of the God and the mother of all languages etc etc. Those were also the days when many of our classmates went for the RSS shaakha and were under complete influence of the Hindutva politics. They would speak to us, along with many other things, of the supremacy of Sanskrit. Then yeah for having been born in a Sanskrtized community which always felt the need to be more brahminical than all the Brahmins I was suggested, though not forced, to opt Sanskrit as the first language. I chose Sanskrit as first language and threw Hindi out of the window.

Thanks to all my poor performances in academics, we never got cable connection at home! Doordarshan was the only channel. Those days of late 90s were something! People have studied the serial Ramayan coinciding with the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement. But someone should also study how during the BJP regime and Hindutva regime DD had a Hindu mythological serials everyday! Jai Ganga MaiyyaShri KrishnaJai HanumanOm Namah Shivaayaand what not! Out of no choice I used to watch them because dinner without TV was unimaginable for me those days. The language used in those serials were like a higher version of those Hindi text books we had to read and at the same time it had echoes of the Sanskrit I was learning! My God. Dryness meets dryness! Ramanand Sagar and the trend he set proved it to us that language is a weapon using which you can kill. I wondered if anyone ever spoke such a language! I still wonder. Now if you ask do people speak the way the characters in Mughal-E-Azam speak I don’t have an answer but I can bet my life and say the dialogues of Mughal-E-Azam had elegance and were beautiful! Your heart beats and skips a beat for something like “Shehanshaah Kay Inn Behisaab Bakshishon Kay Badle Ek Kaneez Mohammad Jalaluddin Akbar Ko Apna Khoon Maaf Karti Hai.” But dialogues like, “Humein gurudev kay pooja kay liye kuch pushp chaahiye. Agar aapki aagya ho toh aap ke pushpvaatika se le le?” can only make you pull your hair! The earlier was close to the songs that were close to my heart and the latter was close to the text book Hindi and the Sanskrit that I had then started learning.

Learning Sanksrit, to me, was no less difficult than learning Mathematics! Raama Raamou Raamaah Hey Raama Hey Raamou Hey Raamaah was a language equivalent to learning tables in Mathematics class! And thosesubaashitas like which were a part of the text book. I did like the meaning of some of it but somehow the language seemed to have no magic for me! Finally when three years of High School came to an end with great difficulty I had managed to pass in Sanskrit. So when I completed my class ten one of the great satisfaction was that I was done for once and for all with Sanskrit. I was not sure if I would pass in Maths and Science but even if I dint I would have to give only those papers and not repeat Sanskrit! What a relief it was.

In all those years of Ramanand Sagar Hindi and Sanskrit in the times of Hindutva, where I couldn’t digest both I went to film songs more and more and enjoyed them thoroughly. During the last days of my high school I had also started writing some Hindi couplets and had started fancying myself as some great poet! With that my engagement with language became more serious.

After my class ten board exams I visited my cousin at Londa. In all years prior to that my cousins would come down from Londa. But that year I decided to go visit them and come back along with them. I spent more than 15 days in Londa, a small town located in the Karnataka-Goa-Maharashtra border.

Londa is a small town that is built around the railway station. It is a major railway station. Londa Junction. It was a major station even during the days of meter-gauge. It was also the station which was connection the North and South part of the nation.

My cousin who works for the railways would go for work. I would be at home with my aunt. The language spoken by almost everyone in the town is Marathi. So there were no friends I could make who were of my age. I would just sit at home and watch TV- movies- for the initial few days. But evenings I would go to the railway station and just sit there. There at times my cousin would come and sit with me if he is at the station. On one such day when he was free and at the railway station he wanted to buy a newspaper and we walked to the book stall at the railway station. The shop owned by Narendar who happens to be my cousin’s friend. While buying the newspaper my cousin introduced me to Naru. That is how Narendar is known among his friends. We did not exchange much word on that day.

Next evening when I was alone walking in the railway station without my cousin Naru saw me and greeted me with a warm smile and initiated a conversation. I stood by his shop and kept talking to him. That is when my eyes fell on a small 65 page book titled ‘Ghalib Ki Shayari’. Those small pocket size books meant for railway passengers. It was there in Londa railway station because this station was a major station from years together connection the north and south. Else in Karnataka no one would have Hindi/Hindustani/Urdu books except for text books. I just casually picked up the book, when our conversation had exhausted all the possible general introduction kind of questions in a first meeting. I picked up the book and opened a random page and read the couplet:

Ishq Ne Ghalib Nikamma Kar Diya, 
Warna Hum Bhi Aadmi Tey Kaam Kay.

I dint understand it because I did not know what Nikamma meant. There was a star mark over the word Nikamma and I wondered what that was for. Then I realized that at the bottom of the page they had given meaning of that word. Nikamma= naalayak (useless). That made me understand the couplet. I was thrilled by the ease in which Ghalib had written! Plus it felt close to the songs that I had heard and loved until then. The language was similar and the textures of the words were similar. It immediately hooked me. I read a couple of more couplets and left thinking about them. I was also reiterating to myself the Urdu words that I had learnt and their meaning.

Next evening I got back the railway station not just for a change from closed environment but because of Urdu poetry. I picked up the book again and went through a few more couplets and learnt few more Urdu words. Now it was getting difficult to remember every new word I was learning. So I bought the book and took it home. Next day onward reading Urdu poetry became a routine and watching movies took a backseat.

After having completed Ghalib Ki Shayari I went on to buy another 65 page book of Urdu couplets titledRangarang Shayari! The poetry was giving me an experience which was similar to the film songs but because some of these couplets were written before all these film songs I started realizing that most of the songs that I have been singing- written by Shailendar, Sahir, Kaifi, Gulzar- were all belonging to this tradition of Urdu poetry. During the second book more than poetry it was the language which started leaving a greater impact on me. Words like firdaustabassumtaskeenfaraamosh, were fascinating me. I bought a notebook and started making note of all the new words I was learning and their meaning. I made my own learning dictionary! After Rangarang Shayari I got hold of Dard Bhari Shayari! After that it was Ustaadon Ki Shayari which had poems of eleven Urdu poets from Meer Taki Meer to Majrooh Sultanpuri. This book was slightly different because it had poems which were more Persian words unlike the previous books I had read which were more of Hindustani. But from Hindustani I had moved to proper Urdu. Not that I followed it much but it was more of a language learning exercise. But with this collection my idea of poetry and the possibilities of it expanded.

Now with this new interest in Urdu poetry I started listening to ghazals. Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh, Talat Aziz, Mehdi Hassan all came home through cassettes. This time while listening to them I was able to follow most of it and also some of the Urdu words too for I had my own dictionary. In the years to come I started reading more and more of Urdu poetry. Ghalib, Zauk, Jafar, Faiz, Sahir, Kaifi, Javed Akthar, Gulzar, Meer, Majaaz, Iqbal, Faraaz, Sahkeel, Makhdoom etc. All of these readings went on expanding my world of Urdu words. Though I stopped adding words to that personal dictionary of mine, I would go through that dictionary once in a while and those words, along with the words I was reading, started seeping into my poetry without even me realizing it. Those words became a part of my diction. Slowly Urdu became my language of expression.

None of the books of Urdu poetry, which can be referred to as Hindustani, that I read in my initial days would be available in any book store. They were exclusive railway station books. Now come to think about it I feel the best two representatives of India and its nature would be the language Hindustani and its railways. Both have such rustic and elegant nature and both have such diversity held within themselves.

For long my mother didn’t know that I was writing poems in Hindustani which to her was and still is Urdu. When she got to know she was a bit upset/angry. She was upset/ angry because I had taken interest in “Muslim language” after having shown no interest in “language of the Gods” (Sanskrit).Those days I myself did not know the history of and politics around Urdu. But now even after having read a bit on it I find it difficult to explain it to my mother and many others too that Urdu is not a Muslim language but language of the people. It takes too much time and patience to narrate how Hindi nationalism and Hindu nationalism strategically portrayed Urdu as “Muslim language” and how it went deep down into the collective mindset and how these two nationalism pushed the language of people Urdu into a corner and edge. One of the ways in which Urdu survived in the mainstream, though in the form of Hindustani, in spite of Hindustani as a language being eliminated from the census in 1961, and has stayed among people is through the Bombay cinema songs which we all call as “Hindi film songs”!

Well, isn’t it there that this boy while growing up in saffron 90s got attracted to the beautiful language Hindustani?

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He Who Walks Barefoot…

November 19, 2013 at 9:15 AMNov (Activism, Cinema, Literature, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life)

Harsh ManderIn his book on Gujarat Fear and Forgiveness: The aftermath of massacre Harsh Mander quotes Horward Zinn as, “Human history is not just a history of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will define our lives.” For Harsh Mander the complex nature of history is clear but to him emphasizing on both becomes important for they are inseparable and all these qualities, though opposing, are coexisting in our daily lives and are a part of this very world.

In his article Cry, The Beloved Country written immediately after the 2002 Gujarat genocide he makes a mention of the water bottles carried, to quench their thirst, by those who attacked. Those who attacked were, like you and me, flesh and blood with drives of hunger and thirst. Hate politics is what turned these men in flesh and blood into blood thirsty devils. This is how complicated human history is! Harsh Mander in all his writings, in wanting to disclose the violence of our times, which he condemns, doesn’t close his eyes to this complexity.

At the same time his writings while celebrating the strength of marginal humans don’t simplify the fight they are fighting against the system for their survival. In his article on Gajalachmi, a lady from the Madiga Dalit caste who died of hunger, he writes, “She quietly surrendered in her brave but unequal battle with hunger.” He emphasizes on both qualities of this battle which is ‘brave’ and ‘unequal’. While upholding the brave struggle of Gajalachmi against hunger he doesn’t forget and doesn’t let us forget that this battle was an unequal one and that its battle fought because of the unequal nature of the human society.

It is this unequal violent and oppressive system which makes Gajalachmi die of hunger and those water consuming people in flesh and blood take up arms against humans. This is clear for Harsh Mander.

To speak of this narrative of an oppressive violent system and the strength of human will Harsh Mander chooses small actors of life. More than often the protagonists of his narratives are invisible humans and more than often the villain is also the invisible violence. While speaking about Gajalachmi and similar humans who are fighting against hunger he strongly says that every hunger death is an assassination.  Hunger is not written on their forehead by an invisible almighty but written in their fate by the unequal system and this is not visible to naked eyes. This invisible villain gains strength with another invisible villain about which Harsh Mander speaks with an example. He writes in his book Ash In The Belly: As special commissioner of Supreme Court, I have investigated many alleged starvation deaths across the length and breadth of the country (too many indeed for several lifetimes). One of these was in a village in Telangana in Andhra Pradesh. An aged destitute man had pleaded before a television crew, which visited his village, to be saved from death by starvation. This was aired on television, but no official was moved to act. Three months later, he actually did die. This was to me indisputably an assassination of a powerless dispossessed citizen, by a weapon more deadly than any firearm- Indifference.

Because Harsh Mander walks barefoot with these invisible humans he can see the invisible violence and also the banality of evil and the pulse of the marginalized small actors of history. When the film Slumdog Millionaire was released there were many objecting to the outsider’s depiction of the native. But who is the insider? Does every Indian become an insider just because the filmmaker was not of Indian origin? During those days Harsh Mander took slum kids to a movie theater and made them watch the film and wrote in his column on what those kids had to say of the film. Those kids are the real insiders to the world that was depicted. Harsh Mander cared enough to know what these kids had to say. He walks with them barefoot and that is why these invisible humans open their hearts out to him. Because he walks barefoot with the invisible humans he knows the soil, thorns, stones, cow dung, flowers, grass, scorching sunlight and shades of the trees nearby.

Because he walks barefoot with these small actors of the world, he knows these small actors of the world in flesh and blood he doesn’t turn them into statistics. He speaks of them with great respect and brings them to us as humans. And yes, statistics don’t bleed the way language does.

Though he walks barefoot with these small actors he is skeptical about him being able to capture their reality in its flesh and blood. In the book Ash In The Belly he says in the very beginning itself that he has not experienced involuntary hunger anytime in his life which he sees as a limitation to understand involuntary hunger in its complete senses. But through compassion he is able to cross, to a great extent, this border. This can be seen in the absence, unless necessary, the usage of ‘I’ in his articles. There is an absence of the author. It comes through the author yes, but who speak to the readers are the small actors of the world.

Cover page of 'asamaanateya baNNagaLu'. Cover photo: Archana Ghangrekar. Cover design: Apaara. Back page photo of Hash Mander: Ashwin N.

Cover page of ‘asamaanateya baNNagaLu’. Cover photo: Archana Ghangrekar. Cover design: Apaara. Back page photo of Hash Mander: Ashwin N.

This absence of the author should not be mistaken for a kind of distancing from the subject. There is great involvement. A compassionate involvement. His articles don’t fancy being neutral. As a student of journalism, teacher of journalism and practitioner of journalism (for some time) I have seen many classmates, students and colleagues subscribing to this belief that reports should not take sides. I have always failed to understand this. It is but commonsense, for me, that taking side is not equal to being biased. The latter is a state where an issue is approached with a conclusion while the earlier is just the opposite where you take a position after having seen, smelt and felt the issue with great proximity. Given this only an apolitical person can afford to be neutral and not take sides. S/he who has a sense of history will not make such mistakes. Harsh Mander clearly takes sides, after having seen the reality in all its complexities, even when making himself invisible in his writings.

Because Harsh Mander takes sides and approaches to his subjects with great compassion his writings have a humanizing factor. I am of the strong belief that there is nothing called as conscience inside us which keeps us awake. It has always been outside us and inside somebody else. We all are censors of each other. What we all have inside us is a sense of shame and a sense of guilt which needs some beating from the hammer of conscience which comes from outside. That makes us more and more humane. That is why rebels, as a dear friend once said, are important for the society as they keep society in check. Harsh Mander’s writings are our conscience keepers and thus humanizing factors.

It is important for every society to have conscience keepers so that the invisible humans can be given justice and the indifference of the large middle class can be fought. That is why Noam Chomsky said that power knows the truth and it is not to the power that truth needs to be spoken but to the people. He had said this in response to the Edward Said who believed that a true intellect is the one who speaks the truth to the power.

Truth. Gandhi in his early life believed that God is truth. But in his later life he came to believe that truth is God. These are not just play of words. There is a great shift of philosophy. That apart there is an interesting correlation between God and truth, at least in the south Asian cultures i.e. both truth and God is ‘bahuroopi’. There is no single truth. There are multiple truths and all of them need not be contradicting each other. Truth that is seen, truth that is made to see, truth that is seen through that which is visible etc. Harsh Mander’s writings capture these various kinds of truths. In his writing on the demolition of Babri Masjid after examining the factors that lead to Dec 6 he says under the rubble of the broken mosque lies the idea of India itself. Mosque, the politics, the idea of a democratic India all of this are truths that coexist and Mander draws our attention to all of this in one sentence. In his article on the winters of Delhi where several people die every year during winter he speaks of the violence of nature and also the violence of the system where these people are homeless. Along with all incidents of great violence he makes sure in his book on Gujarat that the voice of a small girl named Shaheen finds space. Shaheen tells a fact finding team of what she lost during the riots- toys. “Ek cycle thi” she says and adds, “Doosri cycle bhi thi. Ek kursi, ek vimaan. Ek choolha bhi tha, Choolhe pe roti banaate tey. Gudiya bhi thi.” (I had a cycle. I also had another cycle. One chair, one aeroplane, one stove. I used to make rotis on my stove. I also had a doll.) The truth of the child’s loss is a loss to Harsh Mander which needs to be documented because the truth of a child’s imagination and world is as true as the blood running the veins of the humans, the house, the shops which were all, like these toys, got burnt in the riots.

Amidst all the invisible violence of the system Harsh Mander is able to see hope and that is because he is aware, through his barefoot walking with the small actors of life, that humans have the strength to fight which makes him see hope in between all the mind boggling tragedies. One of the last chapters of his book Fear and Forgiveness is titled Love in the Times of Fear and Hate where he speaks of Dhuraji and Babuben who sheltered more than 100 “mortally afraid Muslims” during the 2002 attacks. He dedicates his book Fear and Forgiveness to people like Dhuraji and Babuben “who resisted the storms of hate and divide with compassion and courage.” He adds to it, “Because of them I can still hope.” Because he finds hope in such stories he speaks of it and gives us the hope that there is scope for humanizing this system too by fighting the violent system with compassion and love.

[L to R] Bhanutej, V.S. Sridhar, K. Phaniraj, Samvartha 'Sahil'

Releasing the book. [L to R] Bhanutej, V.S. Sridhar, K. Phaniraj, Samvartha ‘Sahil’

Because he can see both the oppressive violent system and the strength of human will that he calls dissent a virtue and disobedience a duty. He speaks of this with civil servants in his mind. But it applies to all who dream for a better tomorrow. Harsh Mander is one among them. His act of dissent came in the form of his resignation in 2002 after the Gujarat riots. During his resignation to civil services, he mentioned that the failure of system was responsible for the massacre in Gujarat. His active involvement in social work and social movements after his resignation shows his commitment for making a better tomorrow happen.

To make this better tomorrow happen he speaks to the people, not by standing in the balcony and addressing the people on the street, but by walking with them and being their conscience keeper. At the same time he has been continuously speaking to the power too for he realizes that what both Chomsky said and what Said said is important and essential for the creation of the better tomorrow. In this battle he has been continuously speaking to the power as a member of the National Advisory Council, a special commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food case and also as the Director of the Centre for Equity Studies and being founder of the campaigns Aman Biradari (for secularism, peace and justice) Nyayagrah (for legal justice and reconciliation for the survivors of communal violence) and Dil Se (for street children and homeless people)

Because he has been speaking the truth to both people and power and has been effective on both sides the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Bharateeya Janata Party Mr. Narendra Modi feels threatened by Harsh Mander and hence unleashes a hate campaign against Harsh Mander. This is an attempt by Mr. Modi to silence Harsh Mander. The cunningly smart Mr. Modi realizes that to silence Harsh Mander is to silence all the unheard voices which keep coming out through Harsh Mander. So this battle for the right to speech and expression of Harsh Mander is entwined with the right to livelihood of the invisible humans who are marginalized in this society. More than often we think of them as voiceless people. But no. They have voice. But we never care to hear them and so does the power. That is exactly why Harsh Mander titles one of his books as Unheard Voices.

This battle of the right against the might must be guided by a methodology which must be based on the principles which Harsh Mander names as: empathy and respect (Ash In The Belly). That is what makes him walk barefoot with the invisible humans. That is what makes him understand the invisible violence. The empathetic affection for life and world makes him dream and battle for a better tomorrow.

One personal anecdote to end my speech: When Harsh Mander wrote the article Selling One’s Child I had expressed great disgust to Harsh Sir about our system and legality too which was responsible for the death of a child. In response to my anger Harsh Sir had said, “Love has to become also our politics.”

[Speech prepared for the release function of the Kannada translation of Harsh Mander’s writings- asamaanatteya baNNagaLu (Edited by G. Rajshekhar and K. Phaniraj. Publisher: Aharnishi Prakashana)- in Hassan on 16 November 2013. The book was released by independent journalist Bhanutej and the function was presided over by V.S. Sridhar.]

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