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Rameswaram. And nostalgia.

This documentary film on the plight of the fishermen of Rameswaram (who are being fired at by the Sri Lankan navy) triggered memories of a trip to Rameswaram 10 years ago.  It was a trip to Madurai and Rameswaram actually, undertaken primarily because the spouse’s parents had been to Kaasi earlier in the year and needed to complete the cycle, i.e., holy water procured from the Ganga in Kaasi was to be ceremoniously let into the sea at Rameswaram. To appease the ancestors’ spirits or some such spooky beings. (All this water-mixing sounds mighty dubious and polluting, yes, but no matter. We held our tongues and stashed away the good karma.)

I’ve always loved train journeys, never tire of the charm, but this journey was particularly memorable because the train goes over a bridge (the Pamban bridge) across a brief stretch of the sea (Bay of Bengal)  en route to the conch-shaped island of Rameswaram from the mainland.  Being atop that bridge and staring down at the sea was both scary and breath-taking. (The Bandra-Worli sea-link just pales by comparison.)  Of course the other outstanding memory I have of that trip is that, as we left Rameswaram, everything — our bags, hair, clothes, we — stank of fish! Which can be difficult to stomach even for the fish-eating, I should think.

There is a keen atmosphere of nostalgia about Rameswaram, which anyone who’s been there has probably felt.  Maybe because of its mythological past. The place is a kind of museum for the Ramayana— the Rama Setu bridge; (there’s a Hanuman temple where you can see the stones supposedly used for this bridge; heavy stones that, inexplicably, float in water);  the Ramar Padam temple which contains stone imprints of Rama’s feet (supposedly) on the knoll atop which he is supposed to have sat and gazed across at Lanka.  And of course the Ramanathaswamy temple itself, which interestingly brings together Shaiva and Vaishnava devotees. An architectural marvel this, especially the pillared corridor, which is still etched in my memory. Then there’s the ghost town of Dhanushkodi, at the edge of the island, whose ruins eerily conjure up images of the bustling fishing hamlet that it was before the tragic cyclone of 1964.

I attribute the nostalgia to another reason as well.  For me Rameswaram is a place whose inhabitants have somehow been left behind in (or have chosen stay out of ) the inexorable march of time. These are people still eking out a livelihood through one of the oldest occupations of human civilization— fishing. Everything in Rameswaram has the air of a people caught in a time warp— the sand, the smell, the fishing, the friendly fisherfolk gawking at outsiders, the fishing nets and boats, the shops that sell just about every little trinket and curiosity rescued from the sea…One is sort of transported back in time…

Which makes the Sri Lankan navy seem that much more cruel.  As also the lack of protection from the mighty, modern Indian state. 

There’s a wizened old woman in the film I mentioned above, speaking of the cruelty of the Lankan navy, tears running down her weather-beaten face. She reminds me of Maurya, the indomitable protagonist of J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea. Like her, this woman too must have seen men lost at sea, to the fury of Nature. Like her, she too must have learned to weather such losses. It’s the price they pay for the profession they choose to be in.  But her tragedy is greater than Maurya’s. Because the Sri Lankan navy is not Fate. Nor can stoicism be a virtue here.

Perhaps the story of the fishermen of Rameswaram is not of national importance. Perhaps it’s much more than that… the right to life?


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Once upon a time…

… I used to blog.

Sigh. That’s how long it’s been, no? To the small but discerning readership of this blog, apologies. (The best compliments are mutual, yes?) Far too much happened over the last year for me to cope with and blog. A change of workplace, and therefore of residence, the discovery of a hidden ailment … suffice it to say we’re settled and resigned to our lot now. Nothing like a ‘medical condition’ to remind you that life is too short and sweet to be frittered away fretting.   Ergo I shall revive this blog.

While on the subject of revival, if I had to choose the best thing that happened to me last year,  it would be the revival of my vocal cords.  I was 8 and my sister 10 when we were force-fed sangeetham, classical Carnatic music . Thrice a week a dapper old man would calmly disrupt our evening playtime and patiently acquaint us with sarigamas, Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Diskshitar, Annamayya, etc. as we sat crossly-legged, our fingers tapping in time with his, our voices drowning out both him and his sonorous shruthi box.  Four years later he died, and we stopped learning. Thereafter, education, life, a career  silenced the music. Today, with a different teacher, as each geetham and varnam and krithi is quickly and effortlessly revived from deep within my subconscious, I’m awe-struck at how firmly that old man had drilled it all  in. 

But the music is no longer the same. Which is a twistedly metonymical way of saying that I’m not the same.  I find myself looking beyond and beneath the religious and patriarchal content (for which I’ve long held a deep distaste) of these compositions .  (Not that I’m turning religious – that rubicon once crossed is crossed for good.) Rendering Andal’s Thiruppavai,  through Devulapalli Venkata Krishna Sastry’s translation, I find myself trying to understand what it meant to be a woman writing poetry in  the 8th century, trying to look for something essentially feminine in her words, to see what love and devotion and poetry must have meant to her. . .

We never enter the same river twice.

A  great new year to y’all!

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The invisible nation*

(The following is an extract from an e-mail from a friend. Thanks, PK.)

My father, who was in the army, was in Nagaland in the 60s, in Kashmir at the end of the 40s. When I was a child I heard from him about the army trying to arrest the Naga “hostiles.” His unit was patrolling in the Naga hills (every one is scared–by the forests, by the guerrilla tactics, by the idea that the Nagas are different) and somebody stepped on bamboo.

Have you heard bamboo split?

A guy fired a mortar. This was near a village. He just fired, in no particular direction, at no particular enemy.

Nobody was hurt. My father, if I remember correctly, had to have his own colleague tried.

When I went to study in Delhi, I stayed with a Kashmiri student. A Naga used to live in the next room. The room was about 6 feet by 4 and this chap–a student, too–had a music system that occupied half the room. He was extremely shy. My roommate and I went to introduce ourselves. This extremely gentle man, very courteously asked us to sit down, beamed while showing us his music system, told us what he was studying, and went on to tell his story.

“When I came to India,” he began.

I do not remember much but I do remember the landlord. The man must have been about 60 years old. He used to walk up the stairs demanding the rent. He would wear a shirt for the occasion, otherwise he would be in his striped, knee-length underpants. Some students from the northeast, boys and girls, used to live together in one of the rooms on the second floor. The landlord found it easy to collect the rent from the first floor; the Kashmiri and I spoke Hindustani. He would sigh, though, while trudging up to the second floor. “These people all sit around half-naked,” he would mutter. He would stand outside the door, trying not to look inside.

I do remember some bras giggling. Happy laughter. I was young, and never cared to find out which state they were from.

My son has recently learnt in school about the “seven sisters,” the states of the northeast. He was asking me if they were clubbed together because the people look different.

I guess they have yet to get to the “two brothers” of Kashmir.

* From a twitter comment.

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Boycotts, writers, politics


So Amitav Ghosh has accepted the Dan David prize, from Israel. Despite this open letter from some “Indian intellectuals” and this one from various organizations supporting the Global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement for Palestine entreating him to turn it down. 

Ghosh has responded to both letters;  his response and his  joint acceptance speech with Margaret Atwood are both available at  Margaret Atwood’s blog

The issue has already been debated, hotly, at Kafila, here and here, to which I have little to add. But perhaps some readers here were expecting me to say something since my last post was on Ghosh’s refusal of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.  Some coincidence, no?  And yes, it was a refusal. It saddens me to read Ghosh’s ludicrous contention (in response to the reminder about his stance on the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize) that he had “withdrawn his book from the competition” and not refused the prize.

To view the Dan David prize as ‘merely’ literary, into which nothing political  need be read, is now untenable because  in his response Ghosh tackles head-on the political reasons for the demand that he reject the prize. He strives hard, and eloquently, to walk the tight-rope between condemning the atrocities against the Palestinians and respecting the legitimacy (of the historical origins) of Israel. Certainly, as he points out, this is a delicate dilemma faced the world over.  ‘Liberation movements’ versus the ‘rights/responsibilities’ of the State: who you support depends on which side of the line you’re on. I think he makes a very telling point about the hypocrisy that many intellectuals, and the privileged, practise in their discourse on this dilemma. Why should novelists be any exception?

The trouble is that the novelist in question here is neither Zionist nor Palestinian.  Ergo one expects objectivity from him. While his letter by and large tries to present both sides of the picture, he gives himself badly away in his statements about America (and Barack Obama) being the only hope for a solution to the crisis. So you know exactly where he’s coming from. Oh yes, Ghosh’s response is political all right!

I will not insult the man by talking about the prize money. But I will say that I am disappointed, deeply disappointed. Another fallen idol.

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“Casteing about”

“Before we have less of caste, we evidently must have more of it.”

Himal’s April issue on caste in modern India. Go read, folks.

While I grapple with term papers, assignments, question papers, evaluations and other such April delights…

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peeth kachchap ban jaati hai

There’s work and there’s work. And then there’s thinking about work. Thinking while working.

विचार आते हैं

लिखते समय नहीं

बोझ ढोते वक़्त पीठ पर

सिर पर उठाते समय भार

परिश्रम करते समय

चांद उगता है व

पानी में झलमलाने लगता है

हृदय के पानी में

विचार आते हैं

लिखते समय नहीं

…पत्थर ढोते वक़्त

पीठ पर उठाते वक़्त बोझ

साँप मारते समय पिछवाड़े

बच्चों की नेकर फचीटते वक़्त

पत्थर पहाड़ बन जाते हैं

नक्शे बनते हैं भौगोलिक

पीठ कच्छप बन जाती है

समय पृथ्वी बन जाता है…  

             – Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh

Thoughts arrive

not while writing

while hauling loads on the back

while carrying luggage on the head

While working hard

the moon comes up, and

begins to shimmer in the water

in the heart’s reservoir

Thoughts arrive

not while writing

. . . while heaving stones up

while hauling loads on the back 

while clearing snakes from the backyard

while scrubbing the children’s clothes

Stones turn into mountains

sketch-maps turn geographic

The back becomes a tortoise

Time becomes the Earth . . . .

(Trans. by a friend who’s a poet masquerading  as a tech. writer. )


I reorganize my living room

asking each piece

Where it would like to be placed.

I give a new spot to the sofa and the lamp,

Change the drapes, and

Replace the old rug with a wall-to-wall carpet.

When everything is just right

I begin to wonder:

Where among these

Should I place myself?

(Panna Naik. ‘The Living Room’ Journal of South Asian Literature. Vol 21, No.1, 1986.)

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Education matters (not?)


The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2009, the largest annual survey of rural children, carried out by Pratham,  is out. 575 districts, 16000 villages, and nearly 7000 children across the country were surveyed.  The report has  very little to be proud of and  plenty to be ashamed of on the eve of the 60th Republic Day.

Some findings that caught my eye:

Enrollments are much higher in government schools than in private schools.  Click here for the data on enrollments.  Not surprising, I suppose, given that it’s rural education the survey focusses on.

Here’s the state-wise performance in math and reading for children in classes I-II and III-V. The figures tell a dismal story. 

Reading ability in English of children in classes III through V is abysmally low, with the national average at 16.7%

The performance in math is reasonably better at 56.3 %, with Madhya Pradesh and some of the North-Eastern states doing surprisingly well.

 26.9% of children take private tuitions —  a matter of shame for teachers I should think. 

And the figures for AP. The percentages for ability in English and arithmetic for classes I through VIII stand at less than 40%. Depressing.  Perhaps those numbers will improve dramatically if the state is broken up into two or more smaller states?

Gah! I’m so not in the mood for dark humour.

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