Star Stuff

In the years since Rohith Vemula opened my blind eyes and forced me to see my country through the lens of caste, I have found the blinders of caste almost everywhere I look, blocking the light of reason and fraternity from entering our lives. Through my readings of Dalit and Adivasi authors, and an insistence of reading the news while centering caste as an underlying structure, a more critical understanding of the Indian society has indeed developed.

However, as is the problem with an academic gaze of a novice, this understanding is focused on an ethnographic understanding of the conditions of the oppressed, and contingent upon a division of society into two halves, one half as purveyors, and the other half as recipients of a social code of exclusion. But like other systemic structures of oppression, caste holds the entire society hostage to its internal system of logic, oppressing even the privileged by smothering their liberty and natural tendencies through codes of self-harm and mutual exclusion. While we are made of the wondrous stardust, caste holds us captive to its fictitious constellations.

When I turn the ethnographic gaze onto circles of people around me, I see this play out in myriad ways. Take for example, the problem of littering on our roads. Why would we throw garbage outside while worrying to death about cleanliness and purity inside the four walls of our existence? Within the logic of caste, we are encumbered by the need to keep ourselves and our surroundings clean, but that cleansing is a deeply private act that doesn’t extend to the entirety of the world around us. This parallels the code of personal salvation inherent to the logic of caste, precluding the need for a collective wellbeing. The division of laborers manifests the code of personal salvation, and stops us from cleaning the space around us, because that’s not our job. This not just results in entrenched stratification of the people, but also a sense of radical loneliness of an individual wading in their own boat of purity in a river of filth. 

The lack of collective fraternity prevents the polity from demanding better public investments – the roads are unclean not because of the popular refrain of widespread corruption, rather due to insufficient infrastructure and public investments. The one way the logic of caste allows an individual to look outwards to the rest of society with benevolence is via charity, not empowerment. Caste engenders a society without mutual trust. Hence it is not surprising that strains of libertarian populism undercuts the supposed republican socialism of the Indian state. A system like reservation and affirmative action evokes such strong reaction because it challenges the axis of exclusion and charity. 

Looking inwards, it is painful to see how the logic of caste smothers the collective liberty of society, and provides a logical justification to the harm that we cause to others, and equally importantly, to ourselves. Its systemic manifestations create wells of willful ignorance that provides a sense of cosmic logic, at the cost of the joys of human existence. The walls of the well are especially steep for women and children.

Can we break these walls of radical loneliness? Can we break the chain of intergenerational exclusion and self-harm? Can we set our hearts free of the shackles of caste and purity? Can we remind ourselves of the wonders of starstuff that we, and everyone around us, are made of? 

We must. Because there are stars hidden in us. There are Rohiths within us.

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Waiting for a storm

In Maryland, the wind picked up speed earlier tonight. The tree in front of my house twisted and turned, gusts of heavy and humid wind blew. And then it calmed down. My laptop screen, in the meantime, remains glued to the satellite image of lower Bengal, with super-cyclone Amphan fast approaching the Bengal coast.

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K Plot, Patharpratima block, dawn of 20th May.

The wind can’t reach me through the electronic screen. But in my mind I am standing on the river boundary of Nagendrapur in Raidighi, Sundarban, where I was only a few months (what seems like a lifetime) ago. The elevated boundary usually separates the paddy fields from the mangrove shrubs and the brackish, voluminous river system of this estuarine land. Across the channel is an island with impenetrable forest. And beyond that, more water, river, ocean.

Photos on my screen confirm that the river is now in spate. Water has reached within inches of the height of the bund. Gushing, turbulent ocean water is only a few feet away from breaching the boundary. A few month’s labour worth of agriculture lays on the other side. To a land of the hungry tides, this is not unusual. But the tide and cyclone when synced can devastate the lands.

The whole evening, I am distracted, waiting for the storm to make a landfall. When cyclone Aila came in 2009, I was a middle school student in Kolkata, enamored by the speeding winds that brought a city to its knees, only hearing about the coastal lands from the news articles which were conveniently cloaked in words from an exotic land away from my middle class sensibilities. In reality Sundarban was only a 100 km away. When Fani and Bulbul came last year, I was in the US, simultaneously following and not following the news. Today I am halfway across the world, but Sundarban is all around me. The river boundary is just ahead of the suburban, mid-Atlantic townhouse that I live in. The mangroves are in the backyard. Evacuated people are all around me in my house, wearing masks, taking shelter in the flood relief centers away from their house, waiting out the storm. I am a voyeur in my own house, as we wait for the eye. It’s ironic how I needed to be so far away to feel this kinship.

The storm is personal. If the cyclone hits slightly to the west in the Midnapore coast, the eye will pass over Contai, where my grandfather lives, alone. If the eye passes through Sundarban on the east, the village I visited a few months ago could be on its route.

I see photos of people moving from their vulnerable houses, taking refuge in the flood relief centers made of concrete. Some have brought their animals. How does it feel to leave the house with perhaps only a bag, while knowing that the house may not exist when they return? Perhaps I will never know. Perhaps I’ll remain a voyeur.

Most farmers in the village depend on the agricultural produces not just to earn money, but to eat. The cyclone alert came a week ago. Were they able to salvage the produce? What about the organic vegetable plantation that many were so proud of? How do you leave your plants when you go to the relief center? Friends from the villages estimate that 90% of the season’s produce will be destroyed. What about the many Adivasi families who live in the village but are alienated to the most fallow, vulnerable lands? In the face of the supercyclone, will they be treated differently in the relief centers? Will Phulbasi Munda be able to take her chickens to the relief center?

The cyclone comes at the height of a pandemic and a nationwide lockdown. How do you wear a mask in the cyclone? How do you maintain physical distancing if you lose your house?

The sense of an impending climate loss is an everyday feeling now. Yes, climate change is making cyclones more likely to be whimsical and deadly. The problem is, climate is human. Climate is the people temporarily housed in flood relief centers, for the third time in the last year. Climate is the temporary people caught in the fault lines of an unequal, irrational world. We are waiting for a storm.

 

The right to fight

How does a politically conscious Indian, halfway across the world, cope with the onslaught of news about the breakdown of world order – political, social, and economic – in India and all over? In the face of the current global pandemic and an imminent (and already present) climate crisis, how do you keep your sanity and hope alive about fighting to make things better? 

I grapple with these questions constantly. On good days, I hunker down and convince myself that the ideals which are morally correct are worth fighting for and agitating over. But, on most days, a cold drip of cynicism floods my thoughts, and I resign myself to a world that seems to decidedly continue getting worse by the day.

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I started reading “The RTI Story: Power to the People”, written by Aruna Roy and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) collective, on such a day. It must have been a day when my thoughts circled around the questions of citizenship in India – and I must have been disillusioned and angered by the obvious evil in the Indian state’s idea of India. I left the book after reading a few pages. The issues addressed in the first few chapters brushed past me, without registering in my turbulent mind. A month passed, and the whole world got down to its knees because of a viral pandemic. Once the period of social distancing started, I decided to go back to the book again. In the couple days that I spent with the book, the feeling of optimism revived, and made me realize that the power of the people can and should be used for the good. The book reasserted the need to fight the fight, even though it might look bleak and hopeless. 

A few things that I learned from the book – 

  1. The MKSS’s struggle for the RTI act started with its grassroots activities that focused on identifying corruption in the development sector, specifically labourer employment in rural Rajasthan. While taking the nexus of politicians and bureaucrats on, MKSS realized that access to information was of paramount importance in holding the government responsible. This realization, and a decade of grassroots mobilization, finally resulted in the Right to Information act in the Indian constitution. This shows the importance of having a grassroots and participatory bottoms-up aspect to a law like the RTI that hopes to strengthen the people’s bond with the state. Furthermore, it shows the importance of identifying the true problem in any political issue while fighting for a cause – like the MKSS realized that the right to information was crucial in fighting against structural corruption. And like any good cause, the applicability of that idea went far beyond the original cause for which it was demanded.
  2. The journey from MKSS’s first grassroots mobilization demanding the right to information to the passing of the RTI law took over 10 years, during which time the movement built a coalition of principled bureaucrats, lawyers, journalists, judges, academics and politicians, as well as the common people represented by MKSS and its allies, that relentlessly pushed the state to pass the law. The importance of creating such a broad-based coalition uniting behind a cause proved to be crucial.
  3. The final victory of the movement, when the RTI  act was finally passed in 2005, showed that the fight for the truth, which looked unwinnable even a few years before, could and did end in victory. The journey was never easy, but smart campaigning and an unwavering conviction ensured that the difficulties and resistances were ultimately overcome. Also it showed that the state was never going to benevolently offer the citizens even the most obvious rights of democracy until they were pressured by the people’s will. This also shows the importance of fighting for the just cause – without agitation and protest, the right to information wouldn’t have been given to the people of India.
  4. It also shows that the true strength of the state lies in giving in to the people’s just demands, and not in resisting it in order to ensure that the state machinery is not ruffled. Especially in today’s world where authoritarianism is on the rise, the strength of a government is often mistaken to lie in the ability of an authoritarian figure in quashing protests and people’s demands. But a democratic state must be malleable and receptive to the people’s demands, and it is important to acknowledge a government that is willing to go that way as strong, and not weak and ineffectual.

I wish to remind myself of these points every time the mind gives in to an imminent sense of defeat. Hope springs eternal – and to fight for the right causes is the right thing to do.

Home, away.

Sometimes I wonder if there is a hint of oxymoron when we talk about inclusive culture. Culture is shaped and adorned with unique collective artistic expression, and the propagation of culture depends strongly on maintaining this status quo of exclusivity. A connoisseur might be able detect the common thread of universality binding disparate cultures together, but a practitioner of a particular art form must hone their art in almost a parochial manner,  otherwise, perhaps the cultural exercise loses its thrust.

However, in what is my sixth year living away from the geographic and cultural confines where I spent my childhood in, I have often been surprised at how fluid culture is, and how seamlessly it percolates beyond its place of origin.

madurga-big
Durga pujo – a quasi-religious festival for Bengalis. Durga, the Hindu goddess is worshipped in her demon-slayer avatar, with a backstory of her visiting her own home on Earth after a year in her heavenly abode. Its the biggest festival in Bengal, which celebrates the 5 day affair with a spectacular display of art and culture.

‘Probash’ in the Bengali language means living abroad, but its meaning is always peppered with a hint of guilt, and nostalgia. A ‘probashi’ Bengali needs to acknowledge their roots, and engage in collective nostalgia of the days that were. And this feeling reaches its crescendo when the time comes of the festival season, which, for the people of the Indian Bengali diaspora is during the time of Durga Pujo – a quasi-religious festival of homecoming and celebration.

Autumn in the Mid-Atlantic is quite different from it’s counter-part in the lower Gangetic plain in Bengal. The short, last gasp of summer before the trees shed their leaves to prepare for winter, arrival of the northern birds in search of homes, busy squirrels collecting all that they can before they go off hiding from the chill, Halloween, Thanksgiving.  Compare that to the moderate autumn in Bengal, clear skies at last after monsoon, wispy clouds resembling the Kaash flowers on the ground, joie de vivre of Durga Pujo, the sadness of an ending, Muharram.

Still, the differences lay forgotten when the expats celebrate the festival, thousands of miles and a few oceans away. Bengalis still dress up in a manner that makes sense in the autumn of India, and not the chilly fall in Maryland. Allusions are still made to the idyllic images of rural Bengal, painting a pretty picture of Dhaak sounds, homecoming and merriment. Desperate attempts are made to introduce the next generation of Bengalis, whose ties to the roots in Bengal are remembered only during festivals and their angst of rootlessness, to the elements of Bengali living.

Even though I am far away from home, the pictures from back home reach me through the filters of social media. The whole festival season is captured in the urban frame of Kolkata (the catch-all name, often wrongly, of the home city of Bengalis), resplendent in the adornments, beaming with pride. The pride often comes with a pinch of complex, the feeling of cultural superiority – of the Bengali way of celebration being a liberal panacea for the parochialism of the rest of India. Often the veneer of cultural pride hides the internal conflicts of identity and separatism. Does that not make many people celebrating the festival at home, ‘probashi’ in their own backyard?

My Uber driver to the Durga Pujo celebration in Gaithersburg High School in Maryland, was also a person living abroad, a ‘probashi’ of Namibia. He has been in the country for 7 years, and was complaining how this time of the year is warm and sunny in Namibia, as opposed to the cold here. He was curious to see us, and others in the destination, in traditional dresses. I allayed his confusion by saying that we were celebrating an Indian festival. His face contorted with pain, and he told me, ‘Oh, is that the one, during which 60 people were killed in a train accident in Punjab a couple days ago?’

The sky looked oddly familiar over the roof of Gaithersburg high school. Perhaps, the wispy clouds looked the same in Maryland and Namibia, as they did in Bengal.

 

Notes on Nehru’s Glimpses of World History 1

I recently got hooked onto “Glimpses of World History” by Jawaharlal Nehru, a gargantuan collection of letters on the history of human civilization that he sent to his teenaged daughter Indira from prison. It’s a veritable book to swallow and imbibe, so I’ve been taking notes, and will be posting the notes for posterity. The notes are distillates of Nehru’s writings, and are often his own quotes. Bold and Italics are mine.

| The importance of learning about the history of the whole world simultaneously. The modular version of history taught to us in school creates a mental picture of discontinuous stretches of time in discontinuous regions of the globe. The takeaway from history should be consciousness about the human world and civilization, so history as a subject for learning should be presented as a whole, with connections and comparisons. (teaching a subject as it is done versus a subject as should be learnt – think of science)‌

| History of the people

Real history should deal, not with a few individuals here and there, but with the people who make up a nation, who work and by their labour produce the necessaries and luxuries of life, and who in a thousand different ways act and react on each other. Such a history of man would really be a fascinating story.

Thus we see, as history progresses out of the dim past, people producing more and more and people specializing in different trades, exchanging their goods with each other, and in this way increasing trade. We see also new and better means of communication developing, especially during the last hundred years or so, after the steam engine came. As production grows, the wealth of the world increases, and some people at least have more leisure. And so what is called civilization develops.

| Where do the riches go to?

It is a strange thing that in spite of more and more wealth being produced, the poor have remained poor. They have made some little progress in certain countries, but it is very little compared to the new wealth produced. We can easily see, however, to whom this wealth largely goes. It goes to those who, usually being the managers or organizers, see to it that they get the lion’s share of everything good. And, stranger still, classes have grown up in society of people who do not even pretend to do any work, and yet who take this lion’s share of the work of others! And—would you believe it?—these classes are honoured; and some foolish people imagine that it is degrading to have to work for one’s living! Such is the topsy-turvy condition of our world. Is it surprising that the peasant in his field and the worker in his factory are poor, although they produce the food and wealth of the world? We talk of freedom for our country, but what will any freedom be worth unless it puts an end to this topsy-turvydom, and gives to the man who does the work the fruits of his toil? Big, fat books have been written on politics and the art of government, on economics and how the nation’s wealth should be distributed. Learned professors lecture on these subjects. But, while people talk and discuss, those who work suffer. Two hundred years ago a famous Frenchman, Voltaire, said of politicians and the like that “they have discovered in their fine politics the art of causing those to die of hunger who, cultivating the earth, give the means of life to others”.’

……

‘In the case of a larger group than the family, it is exactly the same—whether we take our neighbours, or the people of our city, or our countrymen, or the people of other countries even. So the growth of population resulted in more social life and more restraint and consideration for others. Culture and civilization are difficult to define, and I shall not try to define them. But among the many things that culture includes are certainly restraint over oneself and consideration for others. If a person has not got this self-restraint and has no consideration for others, one can certainly say that he is uncultured.

…..

It is the twilight of Capitalism, which has lorded it for so long over the world. And when it goes, as go it must, it will take many an evil thing with it.

|Buddhism and Hinduism in India

Contrast how Ashoka spread his religion Dharma (~Buddhism) across Asia to how the rest of the modern religions (Christianity, Islam) were proliferated. It wasn’t a despotic, imperialistic venture, rather a peaceful, rational, diplomatic approach. The then Hinduism’s reaction to Buddhism in India is also noteworthy. Hinduism went for tolerance and assimilation, which paved the way for the almost disappearance of Buddhism from India within a thousand years.

|North and South India

It is important to remember the coexistence of different dynasties in the different parts, something that I hadn’t paid much heed to before. (N) Maurya end, Kushana — (S) Andhra-desha/ Satavahana, (N) Gupta — (S) Pallava, Kadamba, Chalukya, later when North was disintegrated into smaller territories, Cholas flourished in the south. Interesting: Chola king Rajendra came up to Bengal and defeated the king there.

|Shankaracharya and what makes India a singular cultural unit

But a more remarkable man arose in the south, destined to play a more vital part in India’s life than all the kings and emperors. This young man is known as Shankaracharya. Probably he was born about the end of the eighth century. He seems to have been a person of amazing genius. He set about reviving Hinduism, or rather a special intellectual kind of Hinduism called Saivism—the worship of Shiva. He fought against Buddhism—fought with his intellect and arguments. He established an order of sanyasins open to all castes, like the Buddhist Sangha. He established four centres for this order of sanyasins, situated at the four corners of India, north, west, south, east. He travelled all over India, and wherever he went he triumphed. He came to Benares as a conqueror, but a conqueror of the mind and in argument. Ultimately he went to Kedarnath in the Himalayas, where the eternal snows begin, and he died there. And he was only thirty-two, or maybe a little more, when he died.

…..

It may interest you to know that among Hindu philosophers there was a man, named Charvaka, who preached atheism—that is, who said that there was no God. There are many people today, especially in Russia, who do not believe in God. We need not enter into that question here. But what is very interesting is the freedom of thought and writing in India in the olden days. There was what is known as freedom of conscience. This was not so in Europe till very recent times, and even now there are some disabilities.

…..

Another fact which Shankara’s brief but strenuous life brings out is the cultural unity of India. Right through ancient history this seems to have been acknowledged. Geographically, as you know, India is more or less of a unit. Politically she has often been split up, though occasionally, as we have seen, she has almost been under one central authority. But right from the beginning, culturally she has been one, because she had the same background, the same traditions, the same religions, the same heroes and heroines, the same old mythology, the same learned language (Sanskrit), the same places of worship spread out all over the country, the same village panchayats and the same ideology and polity.

…..

To the average Indian the whole of India was a kind of punya-bhumi—a holy land—while the rest of the world was largely peopled by mlechchhas and barbarians! Thus there rose a common Indian consciousness which triumphed over, and partly ignored, the political divisions of the country. Especially was this so as the village system of panchayat government continued, whatever the changes at the top might be.

Shankara’s choice of the four corners of India for his maths, or the headquarters of his order of sanyasins, shows how he regarded India as a cultural unit. And the great success which met his campaign all over the country in a very short time also shows how intellectual and cultural currents travelled rapidly from one end of the country to another.

 

| Some ironies when seen retrospectively

Nehru abstracts from Nitisara by Shukracharya, which was a book on law and polity in the middle ages in India as the Arthshastra was for the Mauryan period. A particularly ironic quote:

Another very interesting rule seems to have been that near relatives of members were disqualified from office. How excellent if this could be enforced now in all our councils and assemblies and municipalities!

Oh Indira!

| Contrast Islam and Christianity in the “Middle Ages”

One thing more and I shall finish this letter. The Arabs, especially at the beginning of their awakening, were full of enthusiasm for their faith. Yet they were a tolerant people and there are numerous instances of this toleration in religion. In Jerusalem the Khalifa Omar made a point of it. In Spain there was a large Christian population which had the fullest liberty of conscience. In India the Arabs never ruled except in Sindh, but there were frequent contacts, and the relations were friendly. Indeed, the most noticeable thing about this period of history is the contrast between the toleration of the Muslim Arab and the intolerance of the Christian in Europe.

Of the Purdah, Nehru claims that the early Arab expansion, which was fueled by Mohammad’s sermons, didn’t exclude women in their social and political life. It seems that the idea of Purdah was a late addition to the religious tenets of Islam, caused by assimilation of such practices in places that the Arab conquered, especially the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople and the Sassanid empire in Persia.

In fact the original teachings of Mohammad were diluted as the Arabian world became a rich empire. Still, it is quite amazing that a bunch nomadic people with hardly any expertise could run through the old empires and set up their own. Of course, Chengiz was still to come.

The Arabian empire had a brief sniff of conquering Europe. They came up to Constantinople from the east, and also ran through the Mediterranean coast of North Africa and the whole of Spain. They briefly held southern France, but were driven out in the battle of Tours. It would have changed the face of European history if they persevered and connected the two ends of their empire. As a matter of fact that became impossible only a short while later as the infighting among the leadership of the Caliphate broke apart the empire politically, as the western parts of Spain and the like remained with the Ommeyade Arabs, and the eastern part went to the Assadites. The Assadites shifted their gaze eastward instead, shifted their capital to Baghdad, and we got the tales of Arabian Nights.

| Arabian science

The Abbaside period is especially interesting for us because of the new interest in science which it started. Science, as you know, is a very big thing in the modern world, and we owe a great deal to it. Science does not simply sit down and pray for things to happen, but seeks to find out why things happen. It experiments and tries again and again, and sometimes fails and sometimes succeeds—and so bit by bit it adds to human knowledge. This modern world of ours is very different from the ancient world or the Middle Ages. This great difference is largely due to science, for the modern world has been made by science.

Among the ancients we do not find the scientific method in Egypt or China or India. We find just a bit of it in old Greece. In Rome again it was absent. But the Arabs had this scientific spirit of inquiry, and so they may be considered the fathers of modern science. In some subjects, like medicine and mathematics, they learnt much from India. Indian scholars and mathematicians came in large numbers to Baghdad. Many Arab students went to Takshashila in North India, which was still a great university, specializing in medicine. Sanskrit books on medical and other subjects were especially translated into Arabic. Many things—for example, paper-making—the Arabs learnt from China. But on the basis of the knowledge gained from others they made their own researches and made several important discoveries. They made the first telescope and the mariner’s compass. In medicine, Arab physicians and surgeons were famous all over Europe.

| Early Islamic influence in India

Islam came to the north with Mahmud. The south was not touched by Islamic conquest for a long time to come, and even Bengal was free from it for nearly 200 years more. In the north we find Chittor, which was to be so famous in after-history for its reckless gallantry, becoming a rallying-point for Rajput clans. But surely and inexorably the tide of Muslim conquest spread, and no amount of individual courage could stop it. There can be no doubt that the old Indo-Aryan India was on the decline.

Being unable to check the foreigner and the conqueror, Indo-Aryan culture adopted a defensive attitude. It retired into a shell in its endeavours to protect itself. It made its caste system, which till then had an element of flexibility in it, more rigid and fixed. It reduced the freedom of its womenfolk. Even the village panchayats underwent a slow change for the worse. And yet even as it declined before a more vigorous people, it sought to influence them and mould them to its own ways. And such was its power of absorption and assimilation that it succeeded in a measure in bringing about the cultural conquest of its conquerors.

You must remember that the contest was not between the Indo-Aryan civilization and the highly civilized Arab. The contest was between civilized but decadent India and the semi-civilized and occasionally nomadic people from Central Asia who had themselves recently been converted to Islam. Unhappily, India connected Islam with this lack of civilization and with the horrors of Mahmud’s raids, and bitterness grew.

 

Fandry (Pig)

Director: Nagraj Manjule (2013)

Fandry1

When Jabya and his father Kachru surrounded the pig near the compound of Jabya’s school and were ready to tie the noose around the animal, the school bell rang, and the school kids began singing the Indian national anthem. As the Sanskrit lyrics glorifying the deity of India filled the atmosphere, the animal made a run for its life as Jabya and Kachru stood paralysed, unable to choose their caste duty over national duty. They lost the animal, knowing fully well that if they can’t get the beast, they might not be able to afford Kachru’s daughter’s marriage on the next day.

This is probably the single most impactful scene that I have come across among all the films that I have seen. I’m lost for words here, but this Marathi film has touched some raw nerves in me. It has managed to simultaneously make me feel ignorant and removed from the pervasive social ills in India, and yet optimistic about the empowerment of the downtrodden. I was heartbroken, but Jabya knew how to throw a stone back.

It’s funny how a movie that I thought would be my Saturday night pastime could create such an impact.

May ’18 books

1. In Xanadu: A QuestIn Xanadu: A Quest by William Dalrymple
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was ironic that I chose to read this book, with all its peripatetic promise, on a lazy, supine, rainy Sunday. I hadn’t planned it in advance – one of my many internet breaks led me to it. I haven’t read many travelogues, and I was keen on entering this genre after I discovered the joy of Patrick Leigh Fermor last year.

I couldn’t have chosen a better book. William Dalrymple spent his summer vacation in senior year in Cambridge taking the terrestrial journey from Jerusalem to Xanadu in his quest to follow the trail of Marco Polo, who had taken the trip some 700 years ago in order to carry the promise of Christianity to the great Mongol leader of the time, Kubla Khan. Dalrymple follows this medieval trail in the backdrop of modern times, through disputed and war ravaged territories of Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and China, accompanied by two different friends from Britain in the two halves of his journey. In this journey spanning more than 12000 miles, he encounters a myriad cultures, ethnicity and people, and writes about them in the irreverent, witty, often politically incorrect diction of a young European ethnographer cum history buff. Part travelogue, part personal history, the book is interspersed with bits of medieval history, art and religion, and also tales of struggle of this long journey. It was a highly satisfying Sunday read.

April ’18 books

1. Human ActsHuman Acts by Han Kang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading the book felt like being on a roller coaster ride, except the journey was entirely downwards, towards a dark and distant abyss of a well, where humanity goes to die. Han Kang stitches together a historiographic piece of fiction on the Guangju uprising in South Korea in 1980, when an oppressive and conscienceless government brutally suppressed and massacred a pro-democratic civilian rebellion in Guangju. Told from seven unique points of view, spread over 4 decades, the story revolves around Dong-ho, a middle schooler in Guangju who gets sucked into the uprising while trying to locate his friend’s dead body. Motifs of guilt and debasement of human conscience appear repeatedly in the narrative, and so do the lifelong effects of experiencing brutality from close quarters. Disturbing, moving, and oddly enough, uplifting. As Han imagines in one of the latter chapters, she doesn’t think of the youngsters killed by the army as victims, because in the moment of their death, looking straight into the eyes of their killers with eyes full of conviction in their cause, they were anything but the victims, holding a mirror to the state’s massacre, torture and brutality – a human act of defiance against the inhuman acts of a repressive government.

March’18 books

1.

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An unsettling, uncomfortable read. Gidla’s family history tells a tale contradictory to the sparkling narrative of democracy in independent India. Her writing is an unsentimental memoir of her mother’s side of the family, especially focusing on the life of her uncle, K.G. Satyamurthy, who spearheaded the Telangana radical left movement in the 60-s. The book delves into the squalid details of caste system in India, describing the societal divisions into Mala, Madiga, Kamma, Paki and many other identities- a knowledge that is conveniently absent in an academic curriculum of a typical privileged Indian like me. Hence, an essential read.

Update: I later read a review of the book by a Dalit scholar, which criticises several aspects of the book: https://thewire.in/caste/how-not-to-write-a-dalit-memoir.

2.

The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories

The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories by Lavanya Sankaran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great collection of stories set in modern Bangalore, exploring the challenges, backgrounds and foibles of its residents. In these stories the urban, conflicted, young and old, poor and (mostly) rich, jostle for breath in this city which constantly vacillates between Malleshwaram and Lavelle Road, Yeshwanthpur and Electronic City. Loved it!

Science problems for Syrian kids

The way you educate kids must be modified depending on the context. The when and where of the knowledge that is disseminated must factor into the way we teach children. Teaching the topography of Alpine countries to children growing up in the tropical plains of India might broaden the horizon of their knowledge, but it’s fatuous if they don’t know about the geography of their own surrounding. Science, as a discipline, might claim to hover above the divisions due to culture, but science education must necessarily be made contextual – or so the science education experts tell us.

Hence, I have taken up the job of designing a few relevant school-level science and math problems for Syrian kids for our times. This is an attempt so that kids from places such as Aleppo, Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun aren’t left behind as the rest of the world trains their kids in science. The problems have been designed so that the children of Syria can relate to them readily.  The problems aren’t entirely non-universal, some might be suitable even for children in Yemen or the Rakhine state. I present a few sample questions below; they have not been ordered according to their difficulty level.

rohingyadream
The dreams of Rohingya children

1. Amena lost two-fifths of the fingers in her hand, while Joram lost 3 fingers in the most recent bombing in Tabqa. Who is left with more fingers?

~ Joram (7)

2. Akram and Zain just became friends with Haya, when she moved to their hospital in Aleppo after her house was bombed and her family died. Akram and Zain want to know when her house was bombed. Haya gives them a list of 10 possible dates:

May 15 16 19
June 17 18
July 14 16
August 14 15 17

Haya then tells Akram and Zain separately the month and the day when her house was bombed, respectively.

Akram: I don’t know when the bombing happened, but I know that Zain doesn’t know too.
Zain: At first I don’t know when it happened, but I know now.
Akram: Then I also know when Haya’s house was bombed.
So when was Haya’s house bombed?

~ July 16

3. The common gases that are lighter than air are hydrogen, helium, carbon monoxide, ammonia. The common gases that are heavier than air are oxygen, carbon dioxide, chlorine. Gases that can be fatal to human beings on inhalation include carbon monoxide and chlorine.

a. Which gas among these can be used as a chemical weapon if the bomb is to be detonated above ground?

~ Chlorine

b. If you are outside when a bomb with that gas has been detonated very near you, and you happen to have a blue litmus paper, what colour will it become?

~ White, bleaching due to chlorine

4. A Russian fighter plane is flying at 1000 metres above ground, at a speed of 200m/s. It intends to drop an un-directed bomb on a purported enemy camp in Ghouta, but it misses the camp and instead hits a hospital that is 1500 metres ahead. How late was the pilot in dropping the bomb? Take g=10 m/s^2.

~ 7.5 s

 

 

I sincerely believe that with efforts such as these we can revolutionize school education in Syria in these testing times.