Category Archives: India

‘One Part Woman’: A Book review of a heartbreaking book and some impressions on the pain of dissent in India

I really have to work on those long titles.

Dissent is not dead in India. It exists and is robust. It pops up often like a hard to remove carbuncle on a vain person’s nose, in the middle of summer. However, dissent in India is painful. Kind of like that carbuncle. Some would argue that it should be. Would dissent really be dissent if it was convenient? But we shall return to this theme later. Right now I want to tell you about ‘One part woman’.

‘One Part Woman’ is a book written by author Perumal Murugan, a well known Tamil writer and poet. The reason I ordered this book, was that I wanted to take my own personal revenge on fundamentalists.But the book came to mean much more to me.

You see, Perumal Murugan was hounded by fundamentalist groups who protested his portrayal of certain practices that took place in relation to the Ardhanareeshwar temple in Tiruchengode. For my non-Indian readers, Ardhanareeswar is an androgynous form of the God Shiva and the Goddess Parvati. Ardhanareeswar is depicted as half-male and half-female, spit down the middle, and can be considered to be the ‘perfect being’ due to the balance of the male and female elements. The ancient practice, described in the book, that stirred up a hornet’s nest was that of ‘Gods’  having sex with women who desired to have a child. This practice took place on the 14th day of a famed Chariot festival in Thiruchengode. Of course, there were no ‘Gods’ that were impregnating the women, but the mere mortals from that area. But the practice, in the guise of divinity, had everyone’s approval.

The protests by the fundamentalist groups, who were incensed at the portrayal of the practice, were successful. The author decided to not write anymore.

“Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone,”  He said.

In those words I can sense his pique and anger. But it is a pity that Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. Because his book is breathtaking. I bought this book as my own personal act of dissent, sitting in faraway South Bend, Indiana (unsure of what it would be like and what it was about).

The book tells the story of a childless couple Kali and Ponna, who are deeply in love. But they are constantly reminded of what they lack, by everyone around them. Ponna is considered barren and inauspicious, while Kali’s manhood is doubted on every occasion.  Things go on this way, till Ponna is pressured to go to the festival on the fourteenth day, to get the gift of a child from Gods. Does she agree? I will not giveaway anything here, because that is not really the point of a review.

What is remarkable about the book, is that despite its piercing and acute social commentary, on gender, women’s rights, caste, and masculinity, it remains a book about love. Murugan provides insights about a love that can only be born of years of knowing each other, burrowing into one another’s bodies. He describes longing and desperation in a couple in far away Thiruchengode with a universality that can touch cords in people everywhere. He describes in painstaking detail all the things that the couple do to please the Gods. The endless sacrifices, the penances, the sinking feeling when Ponna’s period comes with clockwork regularity every month.

Kali and Ponna could be any other couple, in another context, trying to attain what is unattainable.  And haven’t we all been there. Running after a scorecard, or a waistline, a salary, or love (depending on what your poison is). We have all had the crippling anxiety that makes us forget to live in the moment, and be prepared to make sacrifices before an unyielding idol. We have all allowed others to determine what makes us happy. That cruel master: social approval.

The author also uses a portia tree as a beautiful metaphor for the relationship between the couple. The tree is a source of cool shade, support, and when times are bad, a sinister menacing presence. As we turn a page we hope that the couple will find peace, will be able to live in the bubble of their love, without worrying about not having a child. Out of every page in the book there emerges a sort of lyricism, that enchants you and ultimately leaves you heartbroken.

But what left me more heartbroken was the fact that ultimately, a bunch of people who do not have any appreciation of art won. What sort of a person does it take, to read something so delightful and heart wrenching and then say that I shall have it banned? What left me the saddest was Perumal Murugan ‘the author’ is dead, though P Murugan the man lives. I always had an idea of my country in my head, and it was never one where fundamentalists thrive and authors hide.

I was asked at a dinner party in the United States, to name the one thing I loved and hated the most about America. I made up some polite sounding bullshit. But what I took away from living there was a sense of freedom. I know that not everyone enjoys that freedom to the same extent, and America (like any other nation) has insidious divisions. But I remembered the sense of freedom with which I could express myself there, and think. Nuance, that elusive thing, hovered in and out of discussions. Perhaps it was the university environment, but the sense of freedom was like coming up for air. Now I feel that I shall have to spend my entire life, unlearning that. That every expression of a contrarian view will be a struggle. The recent spate of bans does not make me any more confident. But I may be wrong. Are most of our universities still centers of intellectual curiosity (I know some are)? Is a divergence of views respected? Have you, dear reader, enjoyed an academic and cultural environment where you learnt to dissent, to question? Can we be a nation where authors can thrive, and fundamentalists respect their space to do so? ( In their defense, they would not be very good fundamentalists if they did so). Leave your views in comments below, and don’t forget to read this book.

For the love of the Blue one: or an unlikely girl writing about faith

Dear Reader,

I am writing a story here. But then, it is not really a story. Because nothing quite happens, and you do most of the work. But you can stay you know. I can promise it will be good. The veracity of the promise?

I don’t know.

(Also, Kiran Nagarkar has used the phrase ‘the blue one’ for Krishna in his Novel Cuckold, but that is the only similarity here. Just wanted to make sure I was clear on where the name came from.)

So she was curled up in a fetal position, in the pitch dark of the night. Utterly and completely alone. Was she crying? Well, from the dirt on her face, and the quietness in her body, you could imagine that she had just finished crying for a long long time.

What was wrong with her?

Whatever you want. She is your mirror today. Your insecurities. Your deep feeling of loss. Your sense of inadequacy. Your fear of rejection.

That traumatic incident which happened many years ago. That broken home. Violence. That flaming row. The loss of a loved one. That insensitive friend. Those jungles cut down. All the things that burn you like spent embers not yet quite cold. The fierce force of a life that  will not quit.

Project that on to her. That was what was wrong.

She is all of us in that moment, anyone and everyone.

The night is pitch dark, and the walls a pleasant cream. Funny, you would think the walls would be a more depressing color. The ceiling flat. Like pain. Boxed in, all of us. Unable at that moment to escape the prison of our lives, and box-like apartments.

She remembered a story from long a ago.. A story of a boy who used to be afraid of setting out in the dark forest. Was the forest dangerous? Or was it just his imagination? I don’t know. But he had to cross the forest to get to school. He was one of those boys you find in fables like these. (and this is a real fable from my childhood, mind you. This is not something I made up, though I am taking liberties with the retelling.) He was good, and poor. And always listened to his mother.

So he told his mother that he was afraid of the dark forest, and asked for her help. The mother was widowed, and had her own work to do. She could not really chaperon her son. So she said, if you are ever afraid in the forest, call Madhusudan. (for non-Indians, Madhusudan is another name for the Hindu God Krishna). He lives there. He will help you get across the darkness.

Now this story would be much less exciting if she had said Hanuman (or more exciting, depending on your perspective). Hanuman would probably just uproot the school and move it over to near his home. Anyway, she said Madhusudan. So that is that.

The next day our nameless protagonist went into the forest, he called out to Madhusudan. “Madhusudan Dada (brother in Bengali), where are you?”.  Lo and behold, there were soft footfalls behind him. There stood a man so marvelously blue. So delightedly, wholeheartedly committed to his blueness. With curly kinky hair, and a peacock feather tucked in behind his ears. He was wearing something yellow that certainly could not be found in Big Bazaar’s mega sale. And in his hand was a flute.

You are a musician? The boy asked? Madhusudan Dada smiled, and put the flute to his lips and played sound. He played color. He played the first song the first Koel would have sung. He played the feeling that you get when you smell the fresh earth. He played melancholy, and affection (he did not play love, because few have survived to tell the tale). As he played, he moved, swaying with the wind. He was the darkness, but luminously so. This was the Krishna of Vrindavan. The Krishna on whom Radha had staked her claim. The God, who was so Godly because he was possessed and owned by his devotees. Is there not real Godliness in being claimed? In playing along with mortals the eternal game of love, while you juggle planets on the side?

Well so the ritual was. They would meet in the forest, and Madhusudan Dada would escort him to school everyday. Playing the flute sometimes. Sometimes walking in peace. Sometimes speaking the language of the birds.

Needless to say, no adults in this story figured out that a God had come down to chaperon our dear protagonist. The mother, probably attributed her son’s ramblings about the blue one to white-lies of childhood. And the son, did not quite understand he was dealing with a God here. Kids are like that.

But one day, there was  a feast in the school, and each child had to bring one item of food for the whole school. (A rather unreasonable request, but then perhaps it was a small school.) When the protagonist went to his mother, and said “well mother, I have to take yogurt for the whole school tomorrow”, the mother panicked (because they barely managed to put two square meals together), and did what panicked people often do. Deflect. She said, “why don’t you ask Madhusudan Dada”.

So on the day of the feast, he asks the blue one for some yogurt to feed the entire school. Krishna, took out a small pot of yogurt and gave it to the boy. The boy took it with a sinking heart, because there was no way it would feed the entire school. But he took it because it was better than going empty handed.

Of course the yogurt was magic! When the people at the school, who made fun of him for only bringing so little, tried to pour the yogurt out into something else, there was a tiny problem. You see the yogurt never finished. It went on and on. No matter how much people ate. (And might I say Krishna has done this sort of stuff before, with Draupadi’s sari). Someone needs to speak to him about overkill.

Of course the boy was asked where he got it from, and replied with a straight face that his blue colored, flute playing, peacock feather wearing friend had given him the magic yogurt. Of course everyone rushed to find Krishna in the forest. But they din’t, did they? Because he never lived in the forest. Where was he? Go figure.

But our unhappy lady, on her floor, utterly alone, in the dark night thought of this. The corners of the mouth twitched in a smile. She understood why Radha, Meera and countless Gopis had longed for Krishna. He was the only God who switched places with the devotee. He took the pain, and the hardship, and you became divine. For a moment, you became unreal.

She called out. Softly. Very softly to the carpeted floor. Madhusudan!

The night descended on her.

Our ‘beef’ with secularism

The Indian state of Maharashtra has, in a new law, banned the possession and sale of beef. This has been made punishable with up to 5 years imprisonment and a fine. I think this development merits some discussion. It also requires a reflection on what secularism is, and why we need it.

But before I go on, it will be important to define what I mean by secularism. This phrase has a lot of meanings and confusion is easy. So for the purposes of this blog, secularism is a view or a framework which requires the state to treat all religions equally, and to promote religious tolerance in public life. Be aware that I have chosen this definition because the kind of strict Church state separation that is often associated with secularism, is very hard to maintain in India. Religion, all religions, are so important to the Indian people that they bleed into public life. Sometimes, religion is culture. And lest the Hinduta-vadis (i.e Hindu fundamentalists) get too smug at this, I think in India there is a tendency for all religions to expand and take cultural significance. We have seen this with Christmas, which the young in India celebrate with gusto. We see it with Eid, which though not as culturally mainstream as Christmas, is seen often as an occasion to  celebrate some wonderful cuisine. I know that when I was in school, irrespective of what religion we belonged to, we would hug and say Eid Mubarak, just like we said happy Holi. That was not a sanitized secular environment, but it was a secular environment.

These days, when I speak to some people on the Hindu right wing, they say that secularism is the pet of the upper class liberals, with no resonance for the common man. Of course the people making this statement often happen to be N.R.Is or those working in high paying jobs in Indian metropolis. I lack their perspicacity, but I have never been able to figure out how they get the right to speak for the ‘real India’ (whatever that means). But I don’t buy this argument that secularism, as I have defined, is something only the elites believe in. Yes, India is peopled with those who are deeply religious. But the same people often live in harmony with each other. Despite the importance of religion to Indians, it took a long time for a Hindu right wing party to form a Government in India, and even longer for them to get a decisive majority. And while instances riots and intolerance get publicity, instances of Hindu and Muslim girls getting together to celebrate Durga Puja (and Eid and Christmas) are not publicized. This lets people get away with the lie that secularism is the pet of the liberal elite. Sure, some versions are. But to say that Indian masses have been tricked into accepting the idea of secularism which they don’t believe in, is to say that the people are idiots. And no, that is just not true. Further, to think that the ‘masses’ represent one entity, with no difference of opinions, that thinks with one mind, is the height of condescension.

My mind goes back to a time, when religion really interested me. Not just my religion, all religions. I had heard of the incredible sense of peace that comes from praying in a Mosque, and I decided to try and enter one. So one day, while I was walking around in a small town in Orissa, that I shall not name, I chanced upon a small mosque, really a room against a wall. I wanted to go in. However, I felt that I should (in all fairness) tell the caretaker of the mosque that I was Hindu. When I mentioned it to him, his reaction was to laugh. We don’t discriminate between people, he said, and let me in to the mosque. This man may not have traveled much, but he showed a wisdom so many of our political leaders lacked. He was not a part of the liberal media nexus, just a man who was incredibly secure in his faith. So that makes me ask, isn’t his Islam and my Hinduism, versions that seek harmony with each other, as real as the chest beating of the fundamentalists?

We have a richness few countries are endowed with. We have diverse languages and religions that co-exist without crushing ethnic strife. This is a gift for a country to cherish. And if we are to cherish this gift, doesn’t the idea that the State should not play favorites, make a lot of sense?

Now, speaking of playing favorites, I want to deal with the issue of cow slaughter. Legally speaking, I don’t think a ban on cow slaughter is necessarily bad. Given the fact that even the Constitution, in the Directive Principles of State Policy, mentions the prohibition of cow slaughter. My problem is, however, with the provisions of this particular Act. Up to Five years imprisonment for cow slaughter, is disproportionate punishment. This, combined with the fact that the people caught under the ambit of this law are going to be poor, given that beef is often a meat eaten by the poor. I don’t even want to talk about the fact that making beef akin to contraband is going to make it out of reach for the poor, diminishing their nutritional status. There is a more fundamental problem. If you begin prosecutions under this law, the poor (you know, those guys that can’t afford good lawyers), are going to be caught in its net. Given the deplorable state of our prisons, do we want people to spend 2, 3, 4 or even 5 years in jail for possessing and selling beef?

But that does not begin to address the problems with this ‘cow slaughter is criminal’ political discourse. Imagine if passions are whipped up about this, and someone floats a rumor that there is cow meat being sold in ‘so and so’ locality. Does that not seem to be a fertile ground for a riot to spring up. If you need evidence on what the politics of polarization does, just have a look at what his going on in Uttar Pradesh.

So here is a small request to our policy makers. If cows mean a lot to you, then work on building shelters for them. Take them off the roads, where they imperil themselves and people. Improve their nutritional status. Crack down on the leather industry. Convince people that cow slaughter is not a good idea. If you must ban it, then have fines. But whatever you do, don’t impose disproportionate punishments for things that are really, well, religious crimes. This is not too different from bans on apostasy or blasphemy (and those who will make the argument that it is about helping all animals, well… note the fate of the water buffalo). We do not want to be a nation where state power backs one religion over all others. Because the people who lose are not just the minorities. We all lose a bit of ourselves.