Nandita Das Delights at Stanford

Born in British India, Manto migrated from his beloved Bombay to Lahore, Pakistan after Partition. Many of his stories reflect his heartbreak and disaffection at the violence and inhumanity that ensued on both sides of the British-imposed border.

I had watched the film “Manto” on Netflix a few days earlier, and was deeply moved and impressed by the directorial choices, acting, and Manto’s integrity which shone through every scene.

Das was introduced by Jisha Menon, Associate Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford.

Menon remarked that 20 years ago, when she was still a student a Stanford, she saw Das debut in Deepa Mehta’s film 1988 “Earth” based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel “Cracking India.” Das was “luminous” in that role, she said, and 20 years later, is still luminous.

Other panelists were Usha Iyer, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies, and Asha Jadeja Motwani, an investor who was one of the producers.

Das showed video clips of several scenes throughout the event. The first was the Irani Café scene, where Manto sits with other writers, members of the Progressive Writers’ Association: his dear friend Ismat Chughtai, Kishan Chander, and Manto’s wife Safia. Das mentioned that Manto himself never joined PWA, he resisted anything organized.

Their very first court case was a joint trial: Manto for “Boo” (“Smell”), and Chugtai for “Lihaaf” (“Quilt”). At that time they were filled with optimism, bravado. By Manto’s sixth trial for “Thanda Gosht” (“Cold Meat”), he had lost a lot of that bravado.

He was a prolific writer. He died at 42 with 300 short stories and hundreds of plays and poems to his name. Das had originally thought to cover the period from 1942 to 1952 in her film. In the 4 years it took her to write the script, she had to make many choices on what to depict. This film was her attempt to humanize Manto.

Manto was interested in individuals, “the other.” In the Irani Café scene he says to his friends, “If you cannot tolerate my stories, then you can’t cannot tolerate the world: we live in unbearable times.”

Das spoke of how she got close to Manto’s family. She learned more from them than from any other source.  At this point, Jadeja asked her what was the most interesting thing she had learned from the family. Das mentioned that Safia developed a rash that went away only after Manto died. Sometimes stress comes out in strange ways. Then Jadeja asked if Safia was “passive-aggressive.”  An odd and somewhat disruptive question. Das calmly responded that she shows some of the steel in Safia in one of the scenes, in the next video clip, of Manto and his family at dinner. Manto says to Safia, “I will write enough so you never go hungry.” And she responds immediately, “That’s my worry, that we will go hungry because of your writing.” Das remarked that Manto’s daughters gave her those lines.

His nephew Hamid Jalal (whose daughter Ayesha Jalal is Professor of History at Tufts University) wrote an essay called Uncle Manto. And he was very sad that Manto died before it was complete, concluding the essay in words to that effect.

In the film, scenes from Manto’s stories are juxtaposed with accounts of his life, and it is sometimes hard to tell when a story begins. Das shared that she uses a small device. Manto’s character looks into the camera when a story starts. A few minutes of “100 watt bulb” were shown—a scene with increasing tension ending with startling violence. The woman depicted simply wanted to sleep. Das’s direction brings out Manto’s deep compassion for his disadvantaged subjects.

Das spoke of the element of surprise without manipulation in his stories: he is not sentimental.

Usha Iyer asked about the Raftaar rap song used to market the film. Das interjected that she had nothing to do with it.

There are certain fictional elements to bring in things that were important to Das. For example nothing was written of Manto’s response to Gandhi’s killing. But she felt it important to include.

She talked of “Manto-esque” people. If you have conviction, courage will follow. We all have the will to be more courageous, more open-minded. Manto said “Don’t say one lakh Hindus have died and one lakh Muslims have died, say two lakh human beings have died.”

Jadeja, to whom the professors had politely handed over the microphone, proceeded to ask a puzzling question about Puritanism in the film (it was not clear to me what she was asking), and followed it up inexplicably with “Do you not like Faiz?” “I have the greatest respect,” Das immediately responded, saying she has included two of Faiz’s poems in the film. Shortly thereafter, Jisha Menon took the mic back, to my great relief.

When Das comes to an NRI audience, she’s asked why are you showing the bad side of India? It is all about intention, she said. Do you milk it, or do you say this is my country: here is the good and the bad. You can know the intention of the maker, whether they wish to titillate, manipulate or genuinely show the reality.

She spoke of the conversation between Manto and his beloved friend Shyam. Shyam was lamenting the attacks on his uncle’s family in Pakistan. Angry at Manto for his seemingly high-handed literary references, he exclaimed that they were real people. Manto responded that either everyone’s life counts or no one’s.

An interesting piece of information she shared is that no Indian or international film that is set in Lahore has ever been shot in Lahore. Das was determined to but couldn’t, she was stopped. She looked for a place resembling Lahore in India, and found a place in Gujarat.

Jadeja talked about dinner with a friend at whose house she met Nandita Das.  The director had mentioned that she was raising money for a film.  While the topic was interesting to Jadeja, she said, “As a VC, I thought I won’t make any money on this.” Das exclaimed to the audience with humor and wisdom, “Those who have a lot of money want to make more money!”

In the next video clip, of Manto and Safia in the garden, we see the rash on her arm, and her distress at the alcohol in his breath on which even their little daughter commented.

Next, we see Manto’s statement in court that his controversial story “Thanda Gosht (“Cold Meat”) is literature. In that scene, he talks of Flaubert and Joyce and how they faced charges for their “Madame Bovary” and Ulysses” respectively. “My stories are the mirrors for society to see itself,” he said, “If someone has a problem with what they see, how am I to blame?”, adding “Neem leaves are bitter, but they purify the blood.”

The first question in the audience Q&A session was about the casting of Nawaz Siddiqui. Das said he was in “Firaaq”, her directorial debut, 10 years ago, and when Das mentioned to him that she was going to make a film on Manto, he said “I’ll give you two years! I’ll give you however long you need.” But by the time the she was ready to start the film, he had become a star! He was acting in “Munna Michael”. He did not have a lot of time to inhabit the role of Manto and deferred to her direction. But, she added, “he brought his authenticity and his beautiful eyes.”

The next question was about the form of the film, and questioner went on to ask about the meta-fictional aspect of the film. Das asked, to my delight, what does that mean? On hearing the questioner clarify that it was about the stories within a story, Das responded that she hasn’t studied film, it was quite organic. She decided to start the film with Manto’s story “Das rupiya” (“10 rupees”). The 14 your old girl seems happy and also you see the beauty of Bombay but it also makes you uncomfortable. There is a sense of foreboding. The girl is laughing but as the three men try to grab her, you think something is going to happen. So, to answer the question on form, it all came about very organically. For example, she did not do auditions, she just talked to the actors. She spoke with a wide range of actors, some very experienced and others, novices.

Who were some current fearless storytellers that she could name? She answered that she doesn’t like to name names, as it undermines those who are not named.

The next question was about how she balances artistic merit with commercial needs. Das responded that she is tried to make the film she wanted to make. No one knows the formula for commercial success! It is not a science; film is part of the arts because there is this alchemy,

She was asked about the production history. In her response, she mentioned Hewlett-Packard, and HP’s Satjiv Chahal, Vikrant Batra, and Jean-Pierre le Calvez (whose role at this event was primarily starting and stopping the video clips from a laptop by the podium.) HP was the official partner for Cannes. There she met Batra and mentioned that she was raising money for a film about a writer. He replied that there was alignment with HP’s tagline: “Power of Ink!” Viacom 18, the film studio was also a producer, better known for huge productions like Padmavat. Das ended up being producer, which was very demanding on top of everything else. In her next project, se declared, she will first look for a producer. Of course, art needs patrons. What it also needs is faith. (“Asha, are you listening?” she quipped to Jadeja.)

She was once asked what does the director do? She said a film like an orchestra and the director is the conductor. You have a vision and you share it. She took her driver to see the film and his reaction was as she had hoped.

A sophomore from Pakistan asked why Das hadn’t shown more of Faiz or something else. Das explained that it’s a two-hour film, you have to make choices.

The event ended with a video clip of Toba Tek Singh, one of Manto’s most celebrated stories.

Naatak, the Bay Area’s Indian Theatre company had put on a distinguished stage production of Toba Tek Singh in 2017, which I reviewed earlier. I noticed some Naatak members sprinkled in the audience—kindred spirits.

In the end Manto himself becomes Toba Tek Singh: in between India and Pakistan, on a piece of land with no name, lay Toba Tek Singh, and Manto.

Das thanked the audience with folded hands, and invited everyone for the screening of “Manto” in San Jose the following day.  If you can’t make it, she added, you can watch it on Netflix.

“This article was originally published at www.rajiwrites.com and is included here with permission.” 

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

Cover photo credit: Geetika Pathania Jain

An Immigrant Story

India Currents publisher, Vandana Kumar, was a guest on Bolly 92.3FM from 10-11am on The Power Hour with Yogi Chugh and Dharminder Dewan this weekend.

As a new immigrant, Vandana Kumar co-founded India Currents magazine in 1987 and published an award-winning print magazine for 32 years. She has stewarded India Currents to flourishing readership over decades, winning multiple awards for her cultural and business leadership.

Her immigrant story is an inspiring one and it was a great dialogue about her own story and the origin of India Currents and its successes over the years.

It was broadcast live on www.bolly923FM.com

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    IC Exclusive Interview With Nandita Das

     

    With more than forty films in her rich and lengthy resumé, Nandita Das can rightfully claim the status of a bona fide Indian and global film star and bask in the warm glow of klieg lights and the heady aura of celebrity. As the translation of her name from Hindi to English suggests, she could just be “happy.” But, despite her glamorous looks and storied career, Das has always used her talent and status to pursue higher ground, to strive toward making the world a better place through art.

    San Jose’s  Cinequest Film Festival opens with Nandita Das receiving the prestigious Maverick Spirit Award and presenting her sweeping biopic, Manto.

    Here is IndiaCurrents writer Mona Shah in conversation with Das about her inspiration and art.

    IC: Manto is a moving and gorgeously crafted look at the work and life of India’s beloved and controversial writer, Saadat Hasan Manto. What was your inspiration for taking up this biographical project? Did you envision it unfolding the way it did?

    ND: Thank you! What drew me to Manto was his free spirit and his courage to stand up to orthodoxy of all kinds. I was struck by his simple yet profound narratives and the way he insightfully captured the people, politics and times he lived in. He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters. I had read Manto in college but it was only in 2012, his centenary year, when so much was being written about him; that encouraged me to delve deeper. For the first time I read his essays, and that helped me hit upon the idea of expanding beyond his stories to telling his story, which was just as interesting and powerful. It took me 5 years to feel equipped, both emotionally and creatively, to tell this story that so needed to be told.

    There are a hundred factors that impact the process of filmmaking so it can never be what one had envisioned. All I can say is that it was the most challenging thing I have ever done and I gave it all I had. It has been a huge learning experience and therefore I have no regrets.

    IC: It took you over 4 years to research the film, what pitfalls did you encounter? How did you go about doing the research?

    ND: Once I knew I wanted to make a film on the life and works of Manto, I began reading his works quite extensively and also read what others had to say about him. He was a very prolific writer, so it was not possible to be fully exhaustive. I did not grow up in an Urdu-speaking household, so it was harder for me to read him in the original language. I took the help of many, in particular, Mir Ali Hussain, who lives in New York and Saeed Ahmed, who lives in Lahore. I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to meet and speak at length with Manto’s daughters and his grand-niece, the eminent historian Ayesha Jalal. Ayesha’s book, ‘Pity of Partition – Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide’, and the one she wrote on Manto’s centenary along with Manto’s youngest daughter, Nusrat Jalal, were some of the first gifts I got from the family. Manto died young, at 42, so there are very few people that are living who actually met him. Manto’s sister-in-law, Zakia Jalal, who also features in the film, is in her late 70s and was a big help. She and his daughters told me things I could never have found in any book. Through the process of the film, I became very close to the family. Manto, the husband, the father, the friend – these relationships I could only understand through the important nuggets shared with me. The whole process of researching and writing the script was time consuming and hectic but that is what formed the backbone of the film. It took 4 long years of research, many books and others’ inputs, working through several drafts of the script, for me to tell this story.

    IC: Manto is being showcased as the opening night film at Cinequest, do you consider it a mainstream movie? 

    ND: I do not like to label films as mainstream or art. Every filmmaker wants their film to be viewed by the widest audience possible and every investor wants his or her money back. Having said that, some films like Manto, are not driven by commercial success and are independent in their thinking and in the telling of their stories. And therefore, they are termed niche, parallel, art-house and independent cinema. Also, the producers and distributors have pre-conceived notions about it and therefore often don’t give it a fair chance at the box office. When there is no level playing field, how will we know if the film failed because it was too niche or because it was badly marketed and distributed. This is clear to me – seeing the overwhelming feedback we have been getting from people who are watching it on Netflix. I think people in our country and globally, are connecting to the story because in the end, it is a human story of struggle and courage and the will to speak out and to be your own self – something we all struggle with.

    IC: How do you think a diverse, non-Indian audience will relate to him and to the subject and will they walk away with something to think about?

    ND: Many of the issues that Manto grappled with – freedom of expression and dangers of identity politics, the question of who belongs where and the need to be free-spirited,  are not limited to any region or language. When a film is true to its context, but universal in its emotion, it crosses national boundaries. The reaction to the film at the screenings at various film festivals, be it at Cannes, Busan, Toronto or Sydney has only strengthened my belief that Manto’s story resonates across countries and cultures.

    IC: What do you want audiences to take away from the movie?

    ND: For me, making Manto was not just about telling people about the man and his works but to invoke the Mantoiyat (‘Mantoness’) – the desire to be outspoken and free-spirited. I believe all of us have it, whether dormant or awakened. I think people will see themselves more honestly and ask questions about their own morality, fears, convictions and courage. It will make them uncomfortable in a way that hopefully they would want to do something about. After all we all want to be more truthful, courageous, empathetic and free-spirited. And Manto inspires us to be that, without being put on a pedestal.

    IC: You wrote Manto keeping Nawazuddin Siddiqui in mind. What about him drew you to him?

    ND: I always had Nawaz in mind while writing Manto. Firaaq, my directorial debut was Nawaz’s first significant role in a feature film. It is said if you get the casting right, 70% of your job is done, and with Nawaz that’s exactly what happened. He looks and feels the part. He has an incredible range as an actor, but intrinsically Manto lies somewhere in his eyes – it was an obvious choice for me. I brought in my research and script and Nawaz brought with him his life experiences and his talent. Together, I think we managed to bring many subtleties and nuances to the character of Manto. Nawaz has many traits that are similar to Manto –  a deep sensitivity and intensity, vulnerability, and a dry, deadpan sense of humor. These innate qualities in Nawaz helped him transition into Manto on screen quite effortlessly. I feel that our actor-director relationship struck the right chord.

    IC: Manto’s stories and the film’s narrative blend into each other’s worlds. Whose viewpoint are we seeing the movie from?

    ND:  The film showcases Manto’s journey as well as a glimpse into some of his best fiction writing. The line between his fact and fiction are often blurred; and so, in the film too, his narrative is interspersed with stories that he wrote, almost seamlessly. This form allows the audience to enter his state of mind, both as a person and a writer. We will get to see, through his work, what makes him so uniquely empathetic and truthful. This was not easy to do, as selecting 5 stories from close to 300 was a mammoth task. But it was an idea I had right from the beginning of the project, even before I wrote a word of the script. Finally, the point of view of the film is always the writer’s and the filmmaker’s. So, while you see the story that I want to tell, I have tried to be as close to reality and as close to Manto’s being. As the film progresses, it gets more and more intimate.

    IC: It’s a male-centric biopic, yet the women play nuanced roles in it. Is this a reflection of how Manto views women? His relationship with Ismat is of particular interest. Did you envision it playing out as it did?

    ND:  Manto’s view of women is one of the most important aspects of his work. And that has definitely interested me. The women in his stories were complex and richly developed, but he reserved his most nuanced and sympathetic gaze for the marginalized, such as the sex workers. He turned them from objects of scorn to people that have agency and made them the protagonists of many of his stories. Whilst Manto didn’t want to be labeled as a feminist,’ he was, in more ways than one. He was surrounded by women he loved and cared for – his mother, sister, wife and three daughters. At home he ironed his wife’s sari, made pickle, cleaned the house, read stories to his wife and sister and was an engaged father. A rarity for South Asian men, even today!

    I have always believed that gender sensitive films do not necessarily have to be women-centric.  It is more important that the representation of women reflects the diverse reality. I have often been asked that given all my engagement with issues of gender, why are Firaaq and Manto not women-centric? For one, women are impacted by all things in the world just as men are. And therefore, I have chosen to respond to issues that concern me. Secondly, in both films, the characters of women need to be judged not by their screen time but by their layered portrayals.

    Ismat Chughtai, was a very important part of Manto life in Bombay and he missed her in Lahore. Seldom does one see such camaraderie, especially in those times. But as there were many threads to his life, I could not dedicate more time to Ismat. A whole film can be made just on their relationship.

    IC: What about Manto resonated with you? What was the most challenging part about making the movie?

    ND:  It is Manto’s fearlessness and deep concern for the human condition that I have always felt most deeply connected to. No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him no matter how controversial. For him, the only identity that mattered was that of being a human. Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of that hopeful legacy! Through him, I feel I am able to kindle my own conviction for a more liberal and compassionate world. Every aspect of the journey was challenging but also provided a learning experience. I am not a trained filmmaker or haven’t worked from within the film industry, so while not knowing the grammar freed me, it also posed challenges that I struggled with; getting the right cast and crew, raising funds and finally marketing and distributing it.

    IC: You’ve played all three roles, that of an actor, director, activist – do you find that they are intertwined? How so?

    ND: Yes, for me, they are deeply intertwined. They are different means to express and share my concerns and interests. I wear different hats at different times, depending on what I want to convey and depending on which medium is the best for it. I also wrote a monthly column for 8 years in an Indian magazine, The Week, and from time to time, in other publications. That too gave me an opportunity to express myself and to connect with people. For me, art and social activism are not so different. I see myself more as a social advocate who at times uses art as a medium to reach out. Art has the ability to subtly enter the subconscious and impact how we feel, think and respond.

    Both the films I directed, Firaaq and Manto, happened because I felt compelled to tell the story; because they provided me with a language to respond to what was of deep concern. Films and social advocacy are not that different for me, rather just different means to the same end.

    IC: You resent being called “dusky,” and have been a champion for women to “Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful.” Tell us more about why your skin tone should not define who you are.

    ND: While I was aware of the prejudice against dark skin and spoke about it in some of my talks, I never thought of it as a stand-alone issue. It was only in 2013 when the NGO Women of Worth approached me to support their campaign that I got more involved with the issue. I became the face of the campaign by default as most “dusky” actresses progressively were getting lighter and lighter! The “Dark is Beautiful” campaign urges you to be comfortable in your skin. I am so glad that such a campaign was launched and that I was able to add my voice to it. The issue impacts so many people, young girls in particular.

    The response to Dark is Beautiful has been truly overwhelming. I think the time had come to react to this fairness obsession. When I had supported this campaign, I didn’t realize that it would resonate with so many and touch a raw nerve. I continue to receive so many emails, from mostly women, who share their stories of discrimination and feel more empowered by this campaign.

    Cinequest Opening Night Film and Maverick Spirit Award

    Manto

    Tue, Mar 5 7:15 PM, California Theatre, 345 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95113.

    Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter, Facebook for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news and magazines. 

     

     

    No Censor Board for Made in Heaven’s Co-Director

    An exclusive interview with Alankrita Shrivastava, whose last film, Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) was promptly banned in India for its frank portrayal of female desire. Now, with other female film-makers, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, who have co-written the series, she has found a platform on Amazon that circumvents the fusty genteel sensibility of the Indian Censor Board. She spoke to Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain of India Currents about how the series Made in Heaven (2019) challenges not just the norms of society but also, with the help of technology, its institutions.

    So many women I know are bingeing on Made in Heaven (2019), just released in March, a fast-paced, highly entertaining and thoughtful series that takes on the chhee-chhhee (ewww) topics of homosexuality, adultery, sexual abuse, #metoo, and also women’s rights, ageism, and the Big Fat Indian Wedding.

    Tina Fey wondered aloud at the Oscars 2019 if microwave ovens would soon begin to make movies, a nod to how Hollywood studios are now routinely jostling on the red carpet with technology upstarts like Netflix and Amazon. Alankrita Shrivastava explains how streaming services like Amazon help film-makers circumvent the Indian Censor Board, patriarchy, and hetero-normativity.

    “There is a subconscious self-censorship that always happens. So that is the conditioning that will take many years to break down. So in India I feel we are kind of conditioned… in the case of Lipstick Under My Burkha, they didn’t know what to do with it — they just banned it. So you have to pass that test, and anything can happen with the Censor board. So it’s very freeing to write stuff, shoot it and then just the way you intended it to be, it played out like that… but having said that, I don’t feel that just because we can tell stories on the digital platform, free from censorship, that we should give up our fight to resist censorship in the theatrical space, or in the broadcast space.”

    Hear the full interview below:

     

    Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D., is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.

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    Movement Magic: Akram Khan

    I walked out of the auditorium as the applause started. I couldn’t bear to have anything disturb that quiet contemplative state my mind had entered after watching Akram Khan in Xenos at the Zellerbach Hall on March 3rd Sunday.

    Where do I begin to describe the magic that he created?

    To describe dance using words poses a unique challenge – my mind absorbs movement in such complexity that when I start to describe it, the words seem reductionist and oddly wanting. The movement that made my heart quicken is so subtle that i can never quite explain it fully  – was it just the angle of the cheek as he/she turned backwards? Was it the use of the upturned chin gazing upwards? What was it? You only know that the totality of the movement from head to toe conveyed meaning so powerful that something shifted within you.

    The promo that accompanied Khan’s performance had the following words – “A powerful work that reveals the beauty and horrors of the human condition through the myth of Prometheus, it is told from the perspective of an Indian soldier recruited to fight in the trenches of World War I for the British Crown. “Xenos” means “stranger” or “alien” in Greek, and Khan’s work bravely explores the soldier’s alienation as he is trapped between two cultures in the colonial system.” One and a half million Indian soldiers died fighting for the British crown during the First World War and his solo work was a homage to those forgotten soldiers and was directed at the isolation of a soldier drawn from any time in history bearing a cross for the rest of society.

    Lighting, music, sets and the voice over created a spellbinding effect in narrowing my attention on the solo dancer Akram Khan on stage. Now writhing, twirling, striving, falling and rising again – his body became all at once an outward symbol for the questions and thoughts that plague the human mind about the very meaning of existence. What is the value of a human life, especially when you think of a soldier fighting a war that he does not fully understand? Questions that every human generation asks and fails to answer. From time immemorial, a country’s borders have always been created by spilling blood and are protected to this day by the spilling of more blood. To take a topic such as this – heavy in its import and abstract in its telling – to the stage and to give those questions meaning is a stupendous task. His classical training in kathak came through in the predictable use of lightning fast chakkars, but, more mesmerizingly in the use of his fingers. Seated far from the stage, I could still see his fingers used so effectively stretching sinuously upwards and outwards leaving a mark on the mind.

    Akram Khan was supported by a veritable “royal” cast of experts in various fields who came together to tell this remarkable story.

    Dramaturg Ruth Little, Lighting Designer Michael Hulls, Original Music Score and Sound Design by Vincenzo Lamagna,  with the Set Designer being Mirella Weingarten, while the Costume Designer was Kimie Nakano. It was written by Jordan Tannahill with Rehearsal Directors being Mavin Khoo and Nicola Monaco. Live musicians included Nina Harries (double bass and vocals), BC Manjunath (percussion and konnakol), Tamar Osborn (baritone saxophone), Aditya Prakash (vocals), and Clarice Rarity (violin).

    A performance that has yielded short moving vignettes in the mind that these words fails to capture at some level – an unforgettable experience.

    Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents magazine. A classically trained Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer, she continues to find movement ever magical and transformative. 

     

    Whose English Is It Anyway?

    Life is full of surprises of every kind. The pain of being frequently corrected by your young child as you hold normal everyday conversations is hard to overcome. The corrections I am talking about involve simple conversational English. “Papa,” my daughter often says, “this is not how you say this..” 

    Granted English is not my first language; it is not even my second, third, or even fourth language. I grew up in the ancient city of Pataliputra – modern day Patna.  Before I was exposed to any English, I learnt Hindi and Bhojpuri in my neighborhood, Magahi from my mom and her side of the family, and Maithili from my dad and his side of the family. Sanskrit was a requirement to receive a high school (10th grade) diploma. I learnt English as a foreign language in India and never used it on a daily basis until I landed one day in a remote campus town surrounded by cornfields called Champaign, Illinois.

    Learning English was not a pain-free exercise for me. Understanding the grammar, memorizing all those irregular verb patterns, SVO word order, pronunciation – you get the idea. But I did just fine and got my degrees from accredited American universities. Yet, after living here for almost a quarter century, I have not been able to reconcile the differences between my “Indian” English and “American” English. So, I am still faced with the question — who is right? — me whose English is Indian at best, or the teenager at the checkout counter of the local grocery store who looks at me every once in a while as if I have just landed from Mars? Or the clerk at the Secretary of State’s office whose face oozes with disgust every time I either open my mouth or she has to pronounce my first name?

    But before you make up your mind, let us dig a little deeper into the subject. In an era of rapidly growing technology, where the entire world rests on your palm and a veritable sea of knowledge is only a tap away, this old Indian saying वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम (the entire world is truly just a family) is as modern as the technology itself. As we keep expanding our “global village,” with giant leaps in the fields of science and technology, the world keeps getting smaller and smaller. In our “village,” we come in contact with others across the length and breadth of the globe and conduct business with millions of people who are of different colors and races, speak thousands of different languages, and follow a number of different religious and cultural beliefs. Because of this socially, culturally, and linguistically diverse population, the task of communicating effectively has become increasingly challenging. Much time, energy, and resources is devoted to achieving what is referred to as “effective communication.”

    But effective communication may not, and in most cases does not, come easy. The root cause of ineffective communication, which can lead to misunderstandings and confusion, is that all human languages are inherently ambiguous. It requires much experience, context, and other background information to clarify the ambiguity in all languages. The problem of communication is doubly compounded in English because of its status as a “world language.” English is spoken all around the world and it serves as the common language in almost all fields. From American sales executives to Indian software programmers, from Peruvian air pilots to African entrepreneurs— everyone needs and uses English in their day-to-day lives.

    English has many varieties. It’s native varieties include British, American, Australian to just name a few variants. English has non-native varieties as well, such as Indian, Nigerian, Singapore, and Chinese to name a few others. The number of non-native speakers of English is much higher than native speakers. Considering all these varieties, the problem of clarity in the English language becomes acute. Each of these varieties of English, native or non-native, from all over the world, carry with it not only the language, but also layers of social, cultural, and political values. It is imperative to at least be aware of and try to grasp these differences in order to be a successful communicator in this global village. Differences in accent or choice of words are more obvious to the listener. However, the differences at the level of discourse are subtle and therefore are much more difficult and complex. When, as a child, I first read Cecil Frances Alexander’s poem “All things bright and beautiful,” I could never understand how the summer sun could be described as being “pleasant.” Similarly, when I first told my students here at the University of Illinois that India has several festivals celebrating the rainy (monsoon) season, I got looks that seemed to say –  “You’ve got to be kidding!”

    Communication problems are not only confined to the level of miscommunication, but without the appropriate linguistic-cultural awareness, it may even be incommunicable. Additionally, a native speaker of English may feel that his or her linguistic norms have been violated. The real issue, however, is that many native speakers may consider such differences deviant at best and possibly altogether incomprehensible and inferior. However, in many of these non-native varieties of English, it is actually in the deviation that language acquires its contextual appropriateness. So, next time you hear someone say, “I have preponed my India visit by a week” or “We will be shifting to our new house next month,” pause for a moment before you pass your judgment on his or her English!

    Afters spending several years in IT, Avatans Kumar now works as a Columnist and PR professional.  Avatans frequently writes on the topics of Indic Knowledge Tradition, Language, Culture, and Current Affairs in several media outlets. Despite being in America for about a quarter century and having earned graduate degrees in Linguistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where he also taught Hindi) and the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Avatans frequently gets called out by his daughter for stressing the wrong syllable ), and overgeneralizing the use of the indefinite article ‘the’ (‘Did you finish the homework?) Twitter: @avatans

     

    Early Morning Routine Ayurveda Style

    Just as a city dweller looks after his city; just as a charioteer maintains his chariot; so too should a wise man be vigilant in the care of his own body.

    Thus, Guru Punarvasu Atreya sums up the importance of a healthy daily regimen in Charaka Samhita, a 3,000-year-old treatise on Ayurveda.

    Lifestyles have changed considerably in the last three millennia. So a daily regimen recommended in Ayurvedic literature may seem dated now. On the other hand, it may serve as a reminder of what we have lost over time and may want to reclaim to take better care of ourselves. With that in mind, an abridged version of the Ayurvedic morning regimen is presented below.

    Waking Up
    A healthy person should wake up at Brahma muhurta, or at the crack of dawn. At this early peaceful hour the body and mind are well rested and refreshed. Also, waking up early gives one time to perform the morning rituals and get ready for the day.

    Self Checkup
    Do a quick checkup of yourself. Examine your face in the mirror. Ask yourself, “Do I feel well rested?” If you have had adequate sleep you would have woken up spontaneously without an alarm feeling refreshed. “Was the last meal well digested?” If not, you need some more sleep.

    Evacuating Waste Matter
    Now sit at the toilet to pass urine, flatus, and feces. Timely evacuation of waste matter alleviates constipation, abdominal distension, and a feeling of heaviness; and ultimately increases longevity. But remember that each individual has a different constitution and different bowel action. So if the urge to evacuate is not there, don’t sit at the toilet for too long, and don’t try to force it. A healthy and regular diet and lifestyle will help you achieve a regular bowel routine.

    Brushing Teeth
    Twigs of trees like neem, karanja, and khadira, which are bitter, pungent, and astringent in taste are recommended in ayurveda for brushing teeth. Not only do they cleanse the mouth, they also remove any bad taste or odor, and balance the doshas. In modern times soft toothbrushes are available which are convenient for brushing teeth and gently massaging the gums, so we have stopped using twigs. Use toothpaste or toothpowder made from bitter, pungent, or astringent plants for better oral hygiene.

    Cleaning the Tongue
    Using a metal tongue cleaner (made of silver, copper, or stainless steel, and without any sharp edge that may cut the tongue) scrape the top surface of the tongue clean. This removes any deposit on the tongue, improves oral hygiene, eliminates bad breath, enhances relish for food, and gives a sense of lightness of body.

    Gargling
    Two types of gargling are described in ayurveda-gandusha and kavala. Gandusha is filling the mouth fully with a liquid and holding it. In kavala the mouth is filled only partially so that the liquid can be swished around. Do one of these gargles until the eyes start watering and the nose starts running. Phlegm or excess mucus may flow into the mouth. Then spit it out and take a fresh dose. Repeat a few times until the mouth feels light and clean. Gargling like this can be done with warm water daily.

    Washing the Face
    Splash cool water on your face. This prevents pitta disorders like nose bleeds, discoloration of skin, and boils, and improves vision. Or use lukewarm water to balance kapha and vata.

    Drinking Water
    Drinking water first thing in the morning has many benefits. It balances all the three doshas-vata, pitta, and kapha; and improves the digestive agni too. Warm water is particularly helpful for the throat, runny nose, cough, bodyache, and constipation; and for flushing the urinary tract.

    Oil Massage
    Next, apply warm oil on the skin and massage gently along the direction of body hair. Massage the whole body, giving particular attention to the scalp, ears, and feet. This is called abhyanga. You may use sesame oil, or a medicated oil (mahanarayan taila, dhanvantara taila). Done regularly, abhyanga calms vata dosha, slows aging, and removes fatigue. It brings clarity of vision, good sleep and longevity. It nourishes the skin, makes it supple and reduces wrinkles. Abhyanga should not be done if there is indigestion, fever, increased kapha dosha or fat.

    Udvartana
    Those who have excess of kapha dosha or fat will benefit from a different body rub called udvartana. Take coarse dry powder of triphala, barley, or chickpea. Warm it to slightly more than body temperature. If your skin is dry, you may add some mustard oil or sesame oil. Now, rub the mixture on your skin on the arms, legs, and trunk against the direction of body hair for 15 minutes.

    Exercise
    Regular exercise is most important to maintain good health. Follow a routine that you enjoy. Walking is one of the best exercises. Yoga asana and pranayama strengthen both body and mind and prepare one for spiritual pursuits. You may choose to play your favorite sport, or do weights, swimming, jogging, martial arts, tai chi, or dance. When you exercise, pay attention to yourself-feel the muscles working, the flexibility of joints, your breath going in and out, the body warming up, and beads of sweat forming on your forehead. You may observe a feeling of exhilaration due to a rush of endorphins as you exert yourself.

    Exercise has many benefits. It tones the muscles, builds strength, improves agni, reduces fat, gives a feeling of lightness of body, and enhances one’s ability to undertake difficult tasks. How much should you exercise? Up to half of your endurance, according to ayurveda. Who should not exercise? If you are suffering from a vata or pitta ailment, you should avoid exercise. Don’t exercise for a couple of hours after a meal or if you have indigestion. Children and the elderly should not do heavy exercise.

    Shower
    After exercising, wait to cool down before taking a shower with warm water. Then rub yourself dry with a towel. This removes dirt, sweat, itching, fatigue, thirst, and any burning sensation. After a shower the digestive agni becomes stronger. A shower also enhances libido, strength, and longevity.

    Clothes, Perfume, Ornaments, Gems
    Apply naturally fragrant body lotion, or fragrance-free products. Similarly, applying a natural perfume (sandalwood, henna, khas) dispels odors, and promotes self-confidence and libido. Ornaments of precious metals, particularly gold, are auspicious. They may be studded with gems selected to counter the ill effects of planets.

    Personal Grooming
    Keep your nails clipped, and facial and body hair trimmed.
    Now you are ready for your morning meal. Diet is another important topic that we will discuss in detail later.

    Try it Yourself
    The ayurvedic morning regimen detailed above probably includes practices that you perform already. Yet, some may be unfamiliar to you. Choose one new practice that intrigues you most and try it out. Do it daily for three weeks. If you feel any adverse effect, it may not be suitable for you, and you should stop. Observe any changes in how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally. Some changes may be subtle, but you may be surprised by the sense of wellbeing they bring to your life. Make the timeless wisdom of ayurveda work for you.n

    Ashok Jethanandani, B.A.M.S., and Silvia Müller, B.A.M.S., were classmates at the Gujarat Ayurved University, Jamnagar. The concepts presented here are based on classical ayurveda texts. Illustrations are original works by Silvia Müller. Dr. Jethanandani practices ayurveda in San Jose, Calif. www.classical-ayurveda.com.

    First published in December 2013.

    Where Ras Leela Happens Every Night

     

    Before you get ready to see Lord Krishna at Brindavan, you have to watch out for the monkeys! They snatch your cell phone and glasses. At every corner, vigilant citizens shout out to visitors to take off their glasses and to hide their phones. What use is a cell phone to these cheeky imps – I wonder; naughtiness fills the air of Brindavan thanks to these monkeys.

    It is also the place where Krishna and the gopis still dance every night!

    Frozen into dancing forms, the trees of Nidhivan come alive every night. It is believed that as the sun dips beneath the horizon, Krishna enters the Rang Mahal in the Nidhivan gardens, and dresses his favorite gopi, Radharani. The garden closes at 5 p.m. every day for the Lord to make his way to the garden where gopis await him. The trees come alive unfurling their twisted limbs to dance with him as his gopis. Not even the monkeys dare enter Nidhivan after dark where this nightly divine dance occurs.

    After the Raas Leela dance, the duo Radha and Krishna rest on the sandalwood bed in the Rang Mahal. It is found unmade every morning, the sheets askance. The water in the silver jar placed by the bedside is gone as is the pan (betel leaf with areca nut) and the neem datun (herbal tooth-brush). The tour guide narrates this as he sings his way down the path of the garden watched keenly by the monkeys. Red color streaks some of the trees. Holi, the festival of colors, is still more than a month away and already the gods are sprinkling fun upon the city. The guide asks us to twirl, clap our hands and laugh in happiness. It is the place to dance!

    In Nidhivan, Krishna and Radha had once appeared before Swami Harisen, guru of Tansen, Emperor Akbar’s court singer.  Swami Harisen was singing when Krishna and Radha appeared before him and became one form, it is believed. The resulting statue of Krishna bent in a sensual “S” shape, curving at the waist and neck, was named Banke Bihari.

    We head to Banke Bihari temple where this statue is now established. As we peer at the statue of the Lord, every few minutes the priest draws a curtain breaking our gaze. Staring continuously at the beauty of the dark idol of Bankey Bihari Ji is not recommended. The curtain breaks the spell that Bihariji’s beauty casts on the devotee. It ensures that the devotees cannot look at the Lord for a long time at a stretch and be overpowered by divine love.

    The bells toll for the evening worship. Unlike other temples where the loud bells of the morning service or mangal aarti, wake up the lord sometimes as early as 4 am, in the temple of Bankey Bihari he sleeps in late. Shayan Sewa, the evening service aarti prepares him for the night.

    We had entered the temple just as the evening service or aarti was starting. The beauty of the temple, with a central courtyard and Rajasthani palace design overwhelms us. The priest distributes sweet, milky pedas and draws a streak of red on our foreheads.

    A small commotion ensues as we exit onto the street. I had forgotten to take off my glasses as I fiddled with taking a picture. Before I knew it a monkey had swiped them off my face. All the boys in the neighboring lanes started shouting at the same time. One chased the monkey and the other ran to me. “He took your glasses! Two hundred rupees and we can get you your glasses back,” they shouted urgently as I groped blindly. “Yes. Yes!” I affirmed, and quickly struck a deal. Just as I was thinking about what the Brindavan monkeys wanted with my Warby Parkers – voila! – the boys threw a fruity drink at him. He caught the drink and dropped the glasses. Rs. 40 for the fruity drink, Rs. 160 for the quick thinking boys and Warby Parkers for me, a bargain deal. I heaved a sigh of relief as I stuffed them into my pocket. It was time for a snack.

    We headed to the shop of Titu Cheele wala, steps down from the Banke Bihari temple. Titu folded yummy cottage cheese filling into mouth-watering crispy savory chickpea-flour pancake and spooned some mint chutney over it. “How much do you reckon I could sell the cheela for in the US?” asked Titu. When I demurred, he confessed that he was in talks with a franchisee in London who had said the pancake would easily sell for 8 to 10 pounds a pop. I nodded in assent, and left the business planner behind to head back to the hotel. Lord Krishna stepped into Nidhivan with other things in mind.

    The ISKCON temple I learnt wasn’t that indulgent about the nighttime activities of the Lord. They still woke him up at 4 a.m. with the morning service or mangal arti. Devotees were swaying to the chants of Hare Krishna when we entered the temple at 4 a.m. A line of dhoti-clad young boys sang gustily to the lord. The gentleness of the linen clad congregation harmonized with the wisps of fragrant smoke that filled the soft dawn light. Magic filled the air. Sounds of conch shells trumpeted through the air. The doors opened and the Lord made His appearance. A bright light illuminated his being. The girls gathered around the tulsi plant to offer their prayers and the men formed a circle in the courtyard. A sweet-smelling flower passed through the congregation. We inhaled its fragrance. The soft light of the lamp washed us with its promise of enlightenment. Soon it was time to leave for the Radha Valabh temple that woke the Lord at 7a.m.

    The Radha Valabh temple is special as the devotees  present marijuana or hashish to the Lord. The story goes that a very diligent priest who served the Lord had one failing – he loved to smoke marijuana. When the temple authorities threw him out of his job, the Lord appeared in the dreams of the other priests looking very sad. On enquiry, “I’m not getting any hashish these days,” said the Lord.  On hearing this, the temple authorities realized the mistake they had made and instantly reinstated the priest.

    We entered the Radha Valabh temple. A number of women were singing softly as they sat in the little marble square in front of the garba griya or the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. The singing, starting gentle, picked up rhythm and as the time approached to open the doors to the deity, a frenzy of singing erupted.  Loud shouts and gusty hailing ushered the Lord into a new day. Thrusting hands were warned that the prashad would only be given to those who waited patiently for the blessing. We emerged from the temple clutching a packet of sweet powder, our reward for good behavior.

    A trip to Brindavan is incomplete without a visit to Prem Mandir, the latest addition to the temple tour. Inaugurated in February 2012, the 54-acre site on the outskirts of Brindavan is dedicated to Lord Radha Krishna and Sita Ram. It took about $23 million, 30,000 tons of Italian marble, and 1000 artists toiled for about 12 years to build the complex. Tableaus that recreate scenes from Krishna’s life surround the marble temple. As evening approaches, the white marble façade is lit up. Awash in many shades of changing lights, the temple is a beautiful sight. Spiritual master Kripalu Maharaj conceived and established the temple. Shimmering green, red, and purple lights signal the end of our day.

    It is time to retire for the night. Outside the Prem Mandir, on the wall above the fruit vendor, sits a monkey clutching a green woolen cap. A grey haired man below tosses him an orange. The exchange is completed as we head to our hotel.

    It is now time to leave the city to Krishna and his gopis.

    How to get to Brindavan

    By Road : Brindavan is situated on Delhi-Agra NH-2. Another road that leads there is the new Yamuna Expressway. Delhi is about 200 Km away. It can take about 4 hours to traverse this distance.

    By Train : The major railway station nearby is Mathura on the Delhi-Chennai and Delhi-Mumbai main line. Several express and passenger trains connect Mathura from other major cities of India like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Calcutta, Gwalior, Dehradun, Indore, and Agra. A rail bus runs between Brindavan and Mathura station 5 times a day. Vrindavan or Brindavan itself is a railway station.

    By Air: The nearest airport Agra is 67 km away. The nearest international airport is Delhi.

    Ritu Marwah’s travel tales reflect her deep interest in history. Her well-researched articles are informative while making for interesting reading. 

     

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