Archive for the Books Category

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

Posted in Books with tags , , , on October 8, 2012 by salaamreaders

It is not easy, for an Indian, not to be judgmental about anything Pakistani, even if it were a book. The reasons are not far to seek being rooted in sub-continental history. And ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’ does not help, either. It only reinforces the stereotype-religious fundamentalism, persecution of religious minorities, abject condition of women, buggery, and rape-it could not get worse. I would not go so far to say that Mohammed Hanif has knowingly tried to perpetuate the popular stereotype for commercial reasons. It may be that he is genuinely moved by what he has observed of his country. An author also has the right to choose the story that he needs to tell. And I have no quarrel with that. But I do wish that not all men in Pakistan are so depraved nor all women so utterly vulnerable.

Alice is not a muslim, a woman and worse-spirited. As a low caste Christian, she is suspected for her religious beliefs and even sent to jail for being ‘troublesome’ for defending them. As a woman she learns early to remain nondescript to avoid unwanted male attention. But that alone is no guarantee that she would not be molested. Her work as a nurse is a daily reminder of the fate of women-who land in her hospital- ‘shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive.’ It appears as if ‘most of life’s arguments, it seemed, got settled by doing various things to a woman’s body.’ It is then no surprise that her husband too should want to ‘protect his honour’ when he finds time from his ‘police work’ to suspect her fidelity.

However ordinary her life be, there is something special about Sister Alice. She can tell from your face how you would die. She can also bring dead infants alive, when she prays really hard. No wonder then her hospital is over run with the sick and the incurable.Would she then ascend the heavens with the Holy Mother, aided of course by half a litre of sulphuric acid poured on her by her loving husband? Would the Congregation for the causes of Saints recognize her as ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’?

Some may find it depressing. But the truth is often stark and bitter. It would have also called for a measure of courage for a Pakistani writer to delve into. The setting should be familiar to sub-continental readers, the pace is brisk, the narrative effortlessly moving back and forth in time and the prose is engaging. There is also that dash of dark and irreverent humour –‘all seems like wasted investment, halal money down the haram drain.’ All in all, a compelling read.


No Full Stops in India

Posted in Books, India, Travel with tags , , on February 15, 2011 by salaamreaders

What do you make of an Englishman who has stayed most of his adult life in contemporary India? As a professional journalist with BBC, Mark Tully is in an unique position to meet a diverse set of people-from the politicians to the ‘aam junta’. His book-No Full Stops in India- is based on his impressions of people and places during his many journeys around the country.

He tells their stories as a sympathetic outsider who has been long enough in the country not to perpetuate any western myths about them. They are easy to read and relate to, as his style is simple and unencumbered without any literary flourishes or pretences. Some of them are about ordinary folks living ordinary lives like that of Ram Chander, his servant. Mark’s visit to his village to attend his daughter’s wedding became an event in their lives. Roop Kunwar’s life was equally non-descript until she became a sati. The narrative, about what her family and her community feel about the unfortunate happening and what the feminists make of the same, explains the disconnect between the ordinary folk and the western educated lot in the country.Some stories like that of Operation Black Thunder are about momentous events which come but once in a nation’s life but change it forever. The Kumbh Mela and the Rewriting of the Ramayan tell us of the simple beliefs of countless people for whom religion is a way of life despite much tall talk of secularism in the country. The Typhoon in Ahmedabad is about ordinary people coping with communal riots and yet believing that only a few of the ‘other side’ were driven to murder at the behest of the politicians. There are other equally engrossing stories.

Mark has a theory about India. He believes that it “is a land dominated by foreign thinking.” Its ‘ruling elite’ have adopted western social, economic, scientific and political concepts in a bid to emulate their erstwhile colonial masters. They are looking for solutions to her problems without adapting western knowledge to her genius. The stories about the common man, however, prove that they are still rooted in their traditions and beliefs. Indian life is complex. It is not cut and dried according to any one formula.That is why he says that there are no full stops in India.

Though this book was first published in 1991, subsequent events have only underlined the accuracy of his diagnosis. We have, since then, embarked on a quest for a future based on the “trickle -down effect” of western economic philosophy which has widened the gulf between the richest and the poorest. It is, however, a moot issue whether we will be first overtaken by the wrath of the “have-nots” before the benefits trickle down to the last of them.

Jungle Lore-In Corbett’s Country

Posted in Books, Travel, Wild life with tags , , , , , on January 27, 2011 by salaamreaders

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The House of Blue Mangoes

Posted in Books, India with tags , on September 13, 2010 by salaamreaders

It is an interesting story, set in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century southern India, when the country was in the throes of a social and political upheaval. Power equations within the family were changing. The traditional village structures were crumbling with the deprived asserting themselves against the dominant castes. The British were being challenged by an increasingly assertive revolutionary-nationalist movement. It was, truly, a time of  momentous change.

It is against this backdrop that David Davidar weaves his story of three generations of Dorais- the traditional headmen of a village on the Coromandel Coast. Solomon, the grandfather- the archetypal headman- is confronted by an equally powerful rival. Inevitably, the clash of the titans leaves the village in ruins. It is left to his rather ‘effete’ son-Daniel- to don his mantle and repopulate the village while Aaron-the younger son, cast more in his mould, is caught up in the nationalist movement and dies as a result of torture in a British prison. Kannan- the grandson- estranges his father by marrying an Anglo-Indian girl and settles on a tea estate as a planter- a brown sahib. He, too, however cannot resist the call of his native soil and eventually returns to the village where his father had constructed a grand mansion- Neelam Illum or the house of blue mangoes.

The plot is simple. The characters, both Indian and British, appear real. Their relationships- of love, hate, rivalries, and politics- seem so familiar. The everyday incidents in their lives-births, marriages, feasts, deaths- happen in our lives too. The pace of the narrative is not frantic. Yet, the book is entertaining. Its effect lies in the extraordinary skill with which different strands of these lives have been woven into a coherent whole. The prose is charming and evocative. It vividly captures the beauty of the landscape and nuances of Indian life.

There is only one complaint that I have. The book could have been much shorter without compromising on its  value. Some of the incidents, for instance, the search for the best mangoes and the story about the man-eating tiger are wholly unnecessary. But, nevertheless, it is an engrossing story and recommended highly.

In Search of the Exotic and the Bizarre

Posted in Books, India, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on September 1, 2010 by salaamreaders

India has always drawn the foreigner to her shores. From Fa – Hien to William Dalrymple, many have made the journey, albeit for different reasons. But it has always been long and arduous-both literally and metaphorically. For India is neither easily nor quickly understood. Her reality is amazing but tenuous and her beliefs completely alien to the uninitiated. It is therefore not surprising that the sheer diversity of the Indian experience often makes the foreigner to focus attention on aspects which are in complete contrast to their own cultural sensibilities. All travelogues-whether of ancient, medieval or modern travellers- thus present India as a land very unlike their own-picturesque, exotic and often bizarre.

William Dalrymple is an acclaimed writer. His book, Nine Lives- In Search of the Sacred in Modern India,   is also a search for the exotic in modern India. The idea of the book occurred to him during a trek to Kedarnath where he met a naga sadhu who was formerly a ‘cosmopolitan’ corporate ‘high flyer’. The sheer incongruity of such a character in modern India set him in search of the place of spirituality in contemporary Indian society. His quest took him across India during which he discovered a Jain mataji or nun in Sravanbelgola, a dalit theyyam dancer in Kerala, a devdasi or a woman who is ‘dedicated’ to a goddess in Karnataka, a traditional Rajasthani singer or bhopa, a lady fakir at a sufi shrine in rural Sindh, a Tibetan lama or monk who was formerly a soldier, a south Indian sculptor, a Bengali lady tantric and a baul or Bengali folk singer. He does not tell us whether he just chanced upon them in his wanderings but one is left with a lingering feeling that the cast was carefully assembled to pander to a primarily Western readership.

He sets about ‘bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage’ as ‘the people I met were so extraordinary, and their own stories and voices so strong.’ He hoped ‘to avoid many of the clichés about Mystic India that blight so much of Western writing on Indian religion’ by just providing a ‘frame’  and ‘with each of the characters telling his or her own story.’ Unfortunately, he only ends up reinforcing the very stereotypes that he had hoped to avoid.

One may very well ask what makes these characters eligible for being included in this book. Are they unconventional? Yes-for they are a minority; and no, they are all a part of a long-standing tradition familiar to Indians. In fact, they are simply incongruous in modern India, a dying breed, exotic and bizarre at the same time. And that is why they are in the book.

The clichés about India abound in descriptions of the practice of sallekhana or death by starvation among the Jains and how Hari Das, the theyyam dancer is possessed and transformed into the god Vishnu. The same are perpetrated by references to women ‘married’ to a god and forced to prostitute themselves. The author reinforces them further by descriptions of a ‘huge, dark-skinned, red-clad woman of between fifty and sixty, dancing with an enormous wooden club’ at a sufi shrine and of a lady tantric sitting ‘amid smoking funerals of the cremation ground’ and exhorting him to ‘first find the right corpse’ before he drank from a skull. He pontificates on erotico-mystical rites including ‘oral ingestion of sexual fluids’, ‘forbidden substances and practices-alcohal, ganja and ritualized sex, sometimes with menstruating women’ and animal sacrifices in which the body ‘lay writhing on the ground.’

No doubt, the stories of these people would appear compelling to Dalrymple’s Western readers but to Indians neither the cast nor the setting is unfamiliar. This book is meant for the firangi, a good read before embarking on their own quest of the ‘mystical’. We don’t need a five-page glossary to understand aarti and agarbatti!

The Journeys of Ibn-Battuta

Posted in Books, History, India, Travel with tags , , , , on February 3, 2010 by salaamreaders

Sometimes even Hindi films may serve the cause of history! Gulzar’s song, Ibn-e-Battuta, bagal mein joota, has caught public imagination like anything. Hopefully, it may even generate some interest in the life and times of Ibn-Battuta who came to India in 1333 after travelling for eight years, having left his home in Tangiers, Morrocco in 1325, at the age of 21 years, to undertake Hajj at Mecca and Medina. He returned home only after 30 years, having completed 75000 miles all across Africa, Europe and Asia. It must have been some journey! His book “the Rihla” describes his voyage across much of the then known Muslim world most vividly and is fascinating to read.

He reached India when Muhammad Tuglak was the Sultan at Delhi. He favoured foreigners over Indians and most of his courtiers, officers, generals and relatives were foreigners. Battuta appears to have heard of this and came in the hope of benefitting from his largesse. He was not disappointed as the Sultan was pleased with him and appointed him the qazi of Delhi on an annual salary of 12000 dinaars and other gifts.

Battuta lived in Delhi for nine years, married several times and fathered many children. He admits in his book that he was perpetually in debt and the Sultan had to bail him out from time to time. He was generally well received by the Sultan, but feared for his life from his eccentricities. Battuta thought that the Sultan was generous, well read and religious but ruthless and blood-thirsty. He had people beheaded, quartered, trampled upon by elephants or even skinned alive routinely.  Battuta has described several incidents of his blood lust when many well-known and respected persons were killed at the slightest pretext. He served the Sultan for many years but still feared for his life. So he begged leave of the Sultan to go on Hajj, which was actually a polite way of running away. However, he was appointed ambassador to China and was ship wrecked at Calicut while on his way there. Having lost all the gifts that the Sultan had sent with him, he did not return to Delhi fearing his wrath and went to Maldives instead.

Battuta must have been a keen observer with a fantastic memory as he has commented minutely on what he saw or heard when he was in India.He marvelled at the excellent postal system then prevailing in India. It was of two kinds- through horse and on foot. Horses were provided by the Sultan and were changed every four kos or miles. For the other type, there were Dawah or stage posts every 1/3 Kos or mile where runners or Harkaras would be waiting. They carried bamboo poles, on one end of which were tied brass bells. They would start running the moment they received a letter and on reaching the next stage hand it over to the next person who having been alerted by the sound of bells, would carry the letter at full speed. This was even faster than sending post by horses and it reached the sultan at Delhi in five days from Multan. If it were true, it must be said that the system was quite efficient!

He recalled having seen a rhinoceros after crossing the Indus. This is quite remarkable as rhinoceros are now found only in north-eastern India. He has described Indian fruits like mango, jack-fruit, jamun, mahua and pomegranate; grains like rice, wheat, and barley; lentils like moong, moth, chana etc. He wrote that khichri with ghee was a popular dish and samosas, chapattis, pooris, and halwa were served at meals. The diet of the commoner was of coarse grains like barley and maize. Indians used to eat pickles and relishes also. They used to put mustard oil in their hair and offered betel leaves and nuts as mark of respect. Coal was unknown then, sati was prevalent, Ganga was revered and Hindus were obsessed with purity and pollution. He has described Indian coins, weights and measurements and a thousand other details about the daily lives of Indians which make for wonderful reading.

 Though Battuta wrote ( or rather dictated) his book in the fourteenth century, he remained generally obscure till the nineteenth century when he was rediscovered and translated in English and other languages. Now thanks to Gulzar he may gain another lease of life. Amen!

The Kitabul’ Hind-a Medieval Reality Check

Posted in Books, History, India with tags , , on February 1, 2010 by salaamreaders

It is often instructive, for people as well as races, to listen to what others have to say about them. In the absence of such a reality check, one is apt to be swayed by one’s own exaggerated notions of one’s own self. Precisely such a check was provided to the Hindu society, in the eleventh century, by an Iranian Muslim scholar, Al-Biruni, who was perhaps a hostage at the court of Mahmud of Ghazani. Now Mahmud needs no introduction as he had successfully raided India several times; killing, plundering, enslaving and desecrating all that was dear to Hindus.

Al-Biruni was a prolific writer, for it is mentioned that the weight of his books exceeded a camel’s load! Among the many books that he wrote, Kitabu’l Hind stands unparalleled in the range of topics that it examined concerning the Hindus. How and why did he get interested in their lives is not known, but he was deeply interested in mathematics and astronomy, subjects on which there was considerable Hindu literature. He must have had access to such literature and also contact with learned pundits who may have similarly been held hostage at Ghazani. Whatever may have been his motivation for studying Hindu society, his work provides a deep insight into those distant times.

His book digs deep into Hindu religion, science, literature, philosophy, social organization, geography, astronomy, life, customs, festivals etc. There is hardly a subject which he left untouched. His work was perhaps the first major exposition of Hindu thought and life by an Islamic scholar and it sheds great light on the then Hindu society which then was facing a challenge to its very existence from Muslim invaders. Though Islam came to India in the eighth century from the Arabian Peninsula, it was then limited to certain areas in Sindh only. Mahmud of Ghazani was the first to systematically exploit the fissures in the Hindu society and launch a sustained attack on Hindu kingdoms all over the north and the west.

Al-Biruni was aware of the deep differences between the Hindu and Islamic way of life. He observed that Hindus were so different in all aspects of their language, religion, manners, usages and customs from Muslims ‘as to frighten their children with us.’ Their aversion against Muslims increased with the conquest by Mahmud by whose exploits ‘the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions.’ He thought that ‘the Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self- conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course, from any foreigner. According to their belief, there is no other country on earth but theirs, no other race of man but theirs, and no created beings besides them have any knowledge or science whatsoever. Their haughtiness is such that, if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khurasan and Persis, they will think you to be both an ignoramus and a liar.’ He however acknowledged that ‘If they traveled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is …’

Though his views on Hindus need to be examined in the overall context of his work, there is no gainsaying the fact that eleventh century Hindu society was moribund, stagnant and inward looking for a variety of reasons. It had lost the glory that it once had and it seemed to want to wish away the foreigners by erecting mental walls against them. If only they had taken Al-Biruni’s seriously, their history might have been different!

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