Tag Archives: Independence

Audacity to Hope

I sat in my backyard reading Becoming by Michelle Obama on a hot Saturday afternoon. It was the 4th of July, and I had pages to go before I slept. During the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, I resolved to read more about the life of minorities, racism, civil disobedience, and much more. The children & I had painstakingly collated a list after reading several lists online, suggestions from friends, teachers, colleagues, and the companies we worked for:

While I sat reading, there was faint niggling guilt to the apparent normalcy of it all. Was it alright to be sitting calmly and reading in one’s backyard while the world around us was still reeling?  

I read as the sun overhead appeared to move towards the west and finally got up to take a long walk. If anything, I had several things to think about in the book. There was a section in the book where Michelle Obama writes about failure being a feeling that sets in long before the failure itself. She writes about this in the context to the South Side in Chicago, and how the ‘ghetto’ label slowly portended its decline long before the city did. Families fled the place in search of suburbs, the neighborhood changed in small, but perceptible ways at first, and then at an accelerated pace. Doubt is a potent potion, and when fed in small portions can quickly shadow everything.

The limitations of dreams are seeds planted in our subconscious slowly and surely so that we may fulfill what society thinks we ought to do, no more and no less. Minorities the world over know the feeling well enough.

Trevor Noah, in his book, Born a Crime, writes about the ability to dream being limited to what a person knows. If all people know is the ghetto, they can truly not think beyond that.

“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.” – Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

The largest section of the population to know these limitations must be women.

In the Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates writes in her very first introductory chapter, “All we need to uplift women is to stop pulling them down.” 

It was, therefore, in a somber mood that I set out for the walk.

I walked on taking in the setting sun at a fast pace. My mask was hoisted on my face and I felt sweaty. Every now and then on the trail when there weren’t people nearby, I slipped it down to take a deep breath of the summer air. I was walking by the waterside, and feeling the calm strength of the waters. My thoughts were slowly lifting as the sun was setting, and the full moon rose in the opposite direction. Out in the distance, the sound of Fourth of July fireworks was providing an orchestra of sorts to the accompanying bird sounds, and the sound of water sloshing gently against the shores of the lake. 

“Bring the kids – sunset and moonrise marvelous and fireworks everywhere!” I texted the husband, and off we went in the approximate direction of the fireworks. We parked on a side road to take in the revels of the night. To stand there with the full moon behind us, and an array of fireworks going off in front of us in a largely residential neighborhood was marvelous. 

Later, as we drove on, we listened to songs chosen with special regard to the 4th of July. The children had aced the list, and we drove on through the moonlight, lilting and dancing to the tunes.

Behind the Clouds, the sun is shi—ii—ning. “ – What has to be one of our favorite Disney songs, rang through the car, as we pulled into the garage. 

I read the final section of Michelle Obama’s Becoming later that night, I found the audacity of hope (pun intended) stirring and this too felt different; worth examining. Politics is a dirty game, but Barack & Michelle Obama have shown us what is possible.

Dare we hope?  

Maybe hopes can translate to positive outcomes long before they happen…

Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.

Gandhi by Naatak: the Man Behind the Legend

“No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try and find one’s way to the heart of the man…”

Thus begins Richard Attenborough’s epic 1982 film Gandhi with the extraordinary Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. The much-lauded film, a deeply moving homage, was made by an Englishman, for an international audience. Every word spoken in that film is in English. Even Gandhi’s unforgettable words on being shot, “He Ram!” known to every Indian, are spoken as “Oh God!” in the film.

In pleasing contrast, Naatak’s play, Gandhi, musical theater in the tradition of Naatak’s own “Mahabharat,” is multilingual, capturing India’s vibrancy in its many tongues. Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil are spoken, Bengali is sung along with Hindi and Gujarati, and we even see a couple of signs in Malayalam. Supertitles in English make the languages accessible to all. I watched it on September 20 at the Cubberley auditorium in Palo Alto.

In writer and director Sujit Saraf’s telling, the story begins with Mahatma Gandhi‘s journey to England, where he went to study law.

He returned to Bombay as a barrister, and after an unsuccessful 2-year stint, left for Durban, South Africa for work. Armed with his legal degree, he successfully represented oppressed Indian laborers, and gained stature and respect, both in South Africa, and in India. On returning to India as a well-known figure, he took on his historic role in India’s independence movement, transforming in time to “the little brown man in a loincloth who led his country to freedom” in the words of American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow at Gandhi’s funeral.

Attenborough’s film has been criticized by some as hagiography. as it unquestionably and admiringly portrays the saintly qualities of the man. Gandhi also had his eccentricities and odd, extreme behaviors. Sujit Saraf’s telling paints a more balanced portrait of the man, with his idiosyncrasies. He was not born, after all, as the Father of the Nation. In a few clever scenes, Naatak shows Gandhi’s foibles. He stops drinking cow’s milk, believing that the milk meant for calves is taken forcibly from a mother. When asked why it was OK to drink goat’s milk, and why he didn’t have the same reservations, he smiles and shrugs.

Then, the experiments with celibacy. As asked in the play, “Shouldn’t his wife have a say in the matter?” The play shows his early life and career in great detail, and humanizes the legend. Listen to more about this portrayal at KQED radio, where Sujit Saraf spoke with Michael Krasny on Forum earlier this month.

Naatak presents with fitting respect, Gandhi’s coining the term Satyagraha, the force of truth: the term for peaceful protests and civil resistance that are among his greatest contributions to society. Gandhi emerges as a man of conviction, a believer in fairness and justice, a calm, skilled negotiator in the face of racist opposition.

What runs most deeply through the play, as in his life, is Gandhi’s deep desire to unite Hindus and Muslims. On being told that “there is too much bad blood” in Noakhali, Bangladesh, he responded movingly “It is the same blood, good or bad.”

One of the most egregious and dishonorable attacks by Britain on Indian soil, the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, is depicted with tremendous artistry and power. As General Dyer commands his troops “Take your positions!” and continues with “Fire!”, the dancers fall to the ground, one by one, until none are standing. This, for me, was the most powerful scene in the play.

It was on the anniversary of this day that Gandhi planned to peacefully protest British oppression by marching to the coastline and making salt from the Indian Ocean. With civil resistance, he broke the British resolve.

In addition to NehruJinnahMaulana Azad, and Sardar Patel, Naatak’s play is inclusive of more of the major historical figures and freedom fighters of the time:  Bhagat SinghRabindranath TagoreSarojini Naidu, and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.  Soon after Tagore appears, we hear one of his most famous patriotic songs “Ekla Chalo Re” (“If no one comes when you call, then go on alone”).

Then independence and the bloodbath following Partition, was shown with a stage lit in blood-red.

The play ends with Gandhi’s assassination, the shock of the nation and the heartbreak of his loss permeating the audience. He fell to the volatile religious sentiment and animosity that he worked so hard to quench.

The play focuses much time on the making of the man. I wondered if a trade-off could have been made with more time devoted to the independence movement.

The acting overall is impressive and moving, even though some attempts to show his culture shock when he arrived in England to study law, being taught how to dance and play the violin, were a little slapstick.

The set is made of newspaper reports from Gandhi’s times: a period of extraordinary historic importance, World War II, India’s independence and Partition. The mood and import of the scenes are accentuated by the changing lighting that one sees through the set pieces.

The inclusion of live music and dance continues to enrich Naatak’s impressive productions. The dances are colorful and engaging, complementing the seriousness of the lyrics, set in South Africa in the early 19th century, and pre-Independence India. The music was extraordinary. Music director Nachiketa Yakkundi and his troupe are jewels at the edge of the stage.

Performances continue for the next two weekends, with a special performance on Oct 2, 2019, the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Tickets are available (if any are left!) at www.naatak.org.

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: Kyle Adler

Finding Sindhusthan

I remember Sapna Bhavnani from party circles in Mumbai in the mid 2000s. Her salon Mad- O-Wat was quite the rage among my pink-haired, mohawked girlfriends who made heads turn! When I saw her on a common internet group wanting to make a film on Sindhis I was fascinated. Turned out not only did she start the process of interviews and  filming, but true to her character she stuck to it, and made it see the light of day. Her documentary Sindhusthan has now made history. It is the winner of the Griffith Film School Award in Doedge Kolkata, Best Feature Documentary( NYIIF), Excellence in Cinema Award( AIFF), Honorable Mention Documentary (IFF Stutgart), and Best Documentary( MISAFF) and she has many international screenings scheduled as well.

So how did a westernized Indian, educated in America become interested in Sindh?

Sindhusthan documents the stories of the Sindhis and their exodus from Sindh. It shares stories of her family (which was the starting point of the film), herself and many amazing people that she started to connect with. “I tweeted to Dada Vaswani and was surprised to get a ‘yes’ right away. He is surely my favourite interview.”

What makes Sindhusthan so interesting and timely is that the narrative of  Partition stories has been heavily represented by Punjabi stories. Popular media – books like the famous Train to Pakistan, films like Garam Hawa and the Tamas series – have depicted the violent stories from Punjab. The Sindhi story was less violent and less resistant. Sapna points out that this is because they left silently, influenced by the Sufi philosophical outlook, which in itself is a lesser known fact about Sindh. Afterwards Sindhis spent their lives focused on assimilating into India relying on their strong work ethic.

“So now it’s up to the younger generation to give their stories a voice, in a  language that the world can understand.That’s what I am doing with my film. My film is my Sindh, but it will encourage the younger generation to find their Sindh. I am also refraining from giving history lessons that can be found on google,” she chuckles.

With loaded subjects like history, the Partition, and displacement of a community, what was the best feedback that she received? “The fact that the film tackles so many issues so gently is the best feedback I have received. It is very subliminal in its approach and there is no hammer to hit on any issue. It is not so much for people who want a history lesson but  for those who want to understand the Sindhis because SIndh is not a piece of land , it is its people.”

As Sapna looks toward more screenings and awards, she continues to dream about going to Sindh one day. In spite of political tensions between the nations, she hopes that telling real stories through art will win in the end.

Preeti Hay is the Managing Editor of India Currents.

The Meaning of Swaraj on Independence Day

Independence Day fireworks and parades aside, many young friends and family members express their despair and disappointment in the moral bankruptcy of those elected to lead the world’s democracies by asking me, “Why vote?”

I open with a Gandhian quote: “The very essence of democracy is that every person represents all the varied interests which compose the nation.”

And then I follow-up with a little history from Amartya Sen, and then a little “my-story,” and finally a clarification that without Gandhiji’s sense of swaraj, independence would be meaningless.

In his wonderful book The Argumentative Indian, Sen writes: “Democracy is intimately connected with public discussion and interactive reasoning.  Traditions of public discussion exist across the world, not just the West… The Greek and Roman heritage on public discussion is, of course, rightly celebrated, but the importance attached to public deliberation also has a remarkable history in India… In the history of public reasoning in India, considerable credit must be given to the early Indian Buddhists, who had a great commitment to discussion as a means of social progress… ”

From Ashoka to Obama, from Akbar to Trump, we’ve had the opportunity to give voice to what matters. In 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy seemingly took away hope from many American voices.  When my parents brought my siblings and me to the United States a year later, I was too young to lose hope. Indeed, I looked to the moon landing and could see only possibility. More than three decades later, I lost my voice in the aftermath of 9/11. I felt that I couldn’t speak up in public about racial profiling or write letters to the editor about a shameful war. Although I resided in a country that constitutionally ensured its citizens the freedom of speech, I lived in fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night. So I became careful about what I said and what I wrote. Enough. It’s time to represent our “varied interests which compose the nation” by voting with our ballots, our pencils, our voices. That’s what happened in the United States in 2008, and the pendulum swung from McCain to Obama. And then again it happened in 2016, and the pendulum swung from Clinton to Trump. The 2020 elections will take place a mere 13 months after Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary, and the outcome is far from certain. Will the pendulum swing further right, over to the left, or a stabilizing center?

So why vote? If one considers Gandhiji’s concept of swaraj in its fullness, one realizes that political swaraj means self-government in a sovereign state, and individual swaraj means self-mastery in a private space. Voting is a wonderfully expressive means of conflating the public and the private, of integrating political and individual swaraj.

In honor of Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary, Dr. Rajesh C. Oza recently published “Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas” which  is available on Amazon or at www.satyalogue.com.

Cover photo credit: A Creative Commons image by Eduardo Francisco Vazquez Murillo.

Coming Round The Mountain

“That was the age of inkwells and penholders with nibs that could be replaced. The fountain pen had only recently been invented, and it made quite a mess; biros, or ballpoint pens, were still in the future. What an antiquated lot we were! But then, Dickens wrote all his novels with a quill pen, and so did other great authors, and I was already something of a bookworm, reading Dickens and Stevenson and even Agatha Christie and P G Wodehouse.

There was no television in those days and, of course, no computers, but we could go to the cinema once a month. Everyone read comics—Batman and Superman and Green Lantern—but not many were reading books. We had to borrow one from the library every week, but these books usually went unread. I suppose it’s much the same today.”

It was 1947, and 13-year old Ruskin Bond was studying at a British public school—the Bishop Cotton School, Simla. In the wake of Independence, it’s the year when life was about to change quite dramatically for everyone. 

“It had been a momentous year—a year full of incident, of friendships won and lost, of memorable hockey and football matches, of tunnels and canings, of the coming of Independence, Partition and of the school in turmoil.”

To mark his 85th birthday, Bond launched this third part of his bestselling memoir Coming Round the Mountain. The book chronicles episodes of Bond’s days at boarding school, complete with visits to the tuck shop, pillow fights in dormitories, compulsory early morning PT, sticky lumpy rice, masters in academic gowns, short haircuts, floggings and canings, and grace before meals. 

Previous books in the series include Looking for the Rainbow‘ and Till the Clouds Roll By. The first describes the two years (1941-42) Bond spent with his father when he was nine years old. His father, Flt Lt A A Bond, served in the RAF during World War II. A happy time for Bond, it however ended abruptly with the loss of his father during the war. The incident left quite an impression on him as a young boy (“Do wars solve anything, or do they just lead to more wars?”). The second book elaborates further on the sudden change in Bond’s circumstances, and the effort he had to make to adjust to a new and very different life with his mother and stepfather. His closest friends at the time were a Muslim, a Parsi and a Christian. Each were completely uninterested in each other’s regional backgrounds, and friendship and loyalty were all that mattered to them—as was eating jalebis and figuring out how to beat their rival team, The Lawrence School, Sanawar, in a hockey match.

Against this innocent backdrop, the reader gets to perceive India’s independence from the children’s point of view. In pre-Independence days, writes Bond, there was a lot of uncertainty. Some of their foreign teachers were going back to their countries, and rumours were rife that all English-medium schools would be closing down. In a poignant scene, Bond talks to his friend Azhar who belongs to Peshawar, about the country being cut into two. “People are different, I suppose—unless they love each other. Friends must remain friends,” responds a naïve Bond. 

On the 15th of August, 1947, the students are treated to laddoos, halwa and samosas, along with a flag-raising ceremony and the singing of the national anthem. The changes that followed were “fast and frightening”—comprising everything from maps to postage stamps and railway timetables. Bond further recalls some of the horrors of Partition, particularly in Simla:

“There was a riot in Lower Bazaar, and another in Chhota Simla, the area close to our school. One of the school bearers failed to turn up for work one morning; his mutilated body was found in a gully near the bazaar. Another fled to Kalka to see if his family was all right; he did not return.”

As parents of students from what is now Pakistan got increasingly worried about their children’s safety, it was decided that the Muslim children would be evacuated—roughly one-third of the school’s strength. A few army trucks were provided by the government and manned by Indian and British soldiers. The convoy left at midnight. Bond tearfully bids goodbye to his friend Azhar, hoping to see him again.

A collector’s edition, the book has lovely illustrations by Mihir Joglekar. An evocative trip down memory lane, it’s a must-have for every Bond fan!

‘Coming Round the Mountain’ by Ruskin Bond. Publisher: Puffin Books

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com