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Interview with Fahim Irshad

Interview by Sneha Krishnan

When I first saw Aani Maani at the International Film Festival Kerala 2019, I was hooked. The director, Fahim Irshad introduced his film to the audience saying, “This film was made with friends, and not funds, so give it all your love.” I was struck by the simplicity of the filmmaker and the story he narrated his film, fraught along socio-political fault lines in an unnamed town in Uttar Pradesh. It begins with a girl, her family members gradually joining in. The girl is playing a game locally called Aani Maani, twirling and reciting the rhyme Aani Maani, Aani Maani, nani ammi badi sayani peeti doodh batati paani. Aani maani aani maani raat ko mahke raat kee rani (Aani maani, aani maani, my dear grandmother you are innocent, you drink milk but call it water. aani maani aani maani, the night jasmine blossoms during the night”. We follow the story of Bhutto, who runs a food joint where people throng to buy meat kebabs.

The film is as much a story of Tarannum, his wife, as much as it is about Bhutto. They are recently married after Bhutto is released from prison after seven years for a crime he did not commit. It is the story of his daily struggle for his family’s upkeep, and how a seemingly inconsequential political decision fractures the fragility of relationships and precious lives. The film premiered at the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) Film Festival in 2019 and went on to win the International feature film award at International Film Festival Kerala 2019. I caught up with the director, Fahim Irshad when the film was screened at the 11th Indian Film Festival in Bhubaneshwar in January 2020. This conversation is part of an interview series with talented filmmakers, both emerging and subaltern, belonging to different parts of India and narrating stories which are set apart from the mainstream.

Tell us about yourself, Fahim. What’s the meaning of your name? How has your journey been, from a boy from Azamgarh to making your first feature length film?

My name means intelligent, in Persian-Arabic with the root in Faham, which means understanding, and Fahim means knowledgeable. My father was very fond of Persian, so he gave his children Persian names. My life in Azamgarh was fairly simple, growing up.

Azamgarh is infamous for being politically active and for its ‘goondagardi’ (gang wars), but I felt that this is the picture that I saw painted in the media and the films. In our childhood, we hardly had any access to films, but we were exposed to several thinkers and writers emerging from Azamgarh like Kaifi Azmi, Rahul Sankrityayan, Hariaudh Singh Upadhyay and Shibli Nomani. They were traditional keepers of knowledge in Azamgarh but somehow the wider world hardly knew about them, besides few scholars of Urdu and Hindi literature.

When I went to Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi, the world cinema to which I was exposed opened up a new portal for me. I realized the potential and power that human stories had to touch people’s hearts and I wanted to create that magic as well – to evoke emotions in the audience.

Your debut film premiered at MAMI in 2019 and won the best film award at IFFK. You also won the best director award. Yet the film is not open to the general audience. How can the general public view the film?

If people call me, I will take my film to their home, all they need is a DVD player. If they cook and invite me for food, I will go and show them the film. Because, releasing the film is not in my hands. I was able to write it, and somehow make the film, along with my team. Now, where possible, we are screening the film at various festivals such as New York Film Festival 2021, where we participated virtually. Usually that generates word of mouth publicity. We screened at various campuses such as IIT Bombay, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Calicut University and Kozhikode College. The reception was really good. However, since COVID-19 halted all our plans, the producers thought of getting the film on an OTT platform which would get a wider audience, but that process is taking up a lot of time.

Aani Maani is a love story, but at the same time it’s also a deeply political film. It doesn’t comment on it but depicts it as a matter of fact. Was it a conscious decision for you?

Firstly, we belong to a community that has become depoliticized, and secondly you feel responsible towards those who suffer from hardships and are marginalized, in fact those whose lives are rarely shown in films. Hence, I make a conscious decision to tell those stories, to show their humanity. But at the same time, it need not be propaganda, or preachy. Even if I cannot be objective, while writing it’s necessary to show these stories in a way that connect with the audience’s experiences. I hardly saw people like me or my family in popular films. Tell me how many Muslim friends or colleagues do you have? How do the films you watch represent their lives? I feel mainstream films hardly show stories from our communities, and when they do, they are just stereotyping us and present a vilified version of our lives.

What is your process of writing, scripting and film making?

For writing, I follow characters that grow within me, based on what I have seen, or who I have met. Then I think of what the opening and closing scenes of the story would be. If I hold these two strands, then I feel the urge to write the story through the screenplay, along with dialogues. There is no need to write a 4 or 8 page summary. If you have the screenplay, these summaries can be developed later on. I just go with the flow. If it’s written in the first instance, then you have the material which you either like or you do not like. That’s what happened with Aani Maani. Everybody was keen to shoot the film once they read the script. I didn’t get any feedback on what further work was required on any aspect of the script to make it better. I will be careful here onwards to not get carried away by my emotions and will rework my script and improve it further. I am in no hurry. For my second film, I want to ask questions, be more assured, become aware of traditional rules and techniques while rewriting to avoid becoming an amateur, but also retain my story’s innocence. I have learnt to appreciate to take it slow and be patient with the painful process of pre-production.

That’s my process. Of course, there are also constraints that an independent filmmaker has to work with, as financial and other resources are required to produce a film.

I am interested to know how much of yourself and your life experiences are included in the characters of the film.

Films have inspired me a lot. Sometimes, I am lazy. It takes a lot of effort to make a film. Then I become lenient with myself, and think that I don’t have to push myself too hard. That’s when I indulge and watch other films. Then, I feel I can also make such films. I see a classic like Andrei Rublev by Tarkovsky and wonder if I have the capabilities to make such films. In recent years, I saw the film Marghe and her Mother by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and I think if I had worked a bit harder on Aani Maani, and watched this film, I could have made a more powerful film. I just don’t feel content after winning the best debut award, I also want to win the Golden Peacock, maybe open my film at Cannes one day. I like watching films on the Second World War. I saw Jojo Rabbit last month, I feel in my past life I must have been a Jew. I love every film which has been made on the Holocaust, it leaves me with this feeling of connection and inspiration. There’s something there, maybe we all get bullied, and fear confrontation, so when I see films that show taking up a stand against oppression, sometimes without violent confrontation, I connect with them.

In Aani Maani you show that love and compassion could counteract oppression in its own way. That’s how you take the fight forward.

To cleanse anything, you can use clear and clean water, you cannot use dirty water to wash away the dirt. That’s the fundamental thing, people are compassionate. Society operates on that, maybe people show themselves to be something else in the exterior, but compassion is inherent within us, so films should speak about these aspects. When people see such films, then there is an impact.

Will you be tackling such political issues in your next film? Will there be a sequel to this one?

There is not going to be a sequel. The films that I will direct will always be political. Even if the films are not political upfront, there are political connotations in the work that I am interested in, there is no escaping it. I am not an escapist, I would like to depict the issues we all face in my films. I want to make films with innocence but which retain a political color in them.

What were your inspirations in creating the various relationships in your film?

My focus was not on showing equal relationships. I wanted to show how these familial relationships are important and visible. When you find concepts such as better halves, it’s always about husbands and wives. It’s not about a man chasing a woman or the other way around. I was interested in the idea of love after marriage. That’s what I wanted to show: how do better halves make sense of the world together? In our society, we have not seen married couples showing love for each other. I haven’t seen my parents getting romantic, or holding hands, and saying ‘I love you’. The current generation is not like that. They are expressive. Love before marriage is still not easily acceptable, people do not favor it much, especially in North Indian communities and families. Then I felt at least it should be alright to love openly after marriage. That’s also missing in our society. So, I went looking for examples of such love in religion and scriptures. I found inspirations of love between husband and wife in our religious texts. The morality that we have constructed has only caused us more harm, and if you make claims that these moral standards gain credibility in religion, it’s not all true. Helping out in the kitchen, cooking together and men doing household tasks, we hardly see these examples in our homes. My father never helped out my mother in those days, but nowadays I see men making some effort to help their wives.

In the case of Bhutto, there was an economic aspect as well. He cannot afford another cook for his kebab shop, so his wife helps him out, and that’s how they both prepare for the shop together.

The film is an excellent portrayal of love, and the performances of the cast are gaining much appreciation. How was the process of working with a new cast, and since they are also your friends, how instrumental have they been to the creative process?

After scripting, I narrated the film to my friends – Farrukh Seyer, and my cameraman, Shailendra Sahu. When we were casting for the wife’s role, we were doubtful about Priyanka who plays the female lead. We knew she had to work hard on her performance and getting her Urdu diction right. Finally, I took the call, because both Farrukh and Priyanka had a good chemistry between them, having known each for several years. We did some acting workshops and they both enhanced their craft. To improve her diction, we had someone coach her. Even Neha, who played the sister, comes from a different background but she was able to get a good grip on the nuances of living in a village and playing her character. I am thankful that the right set of people and team came together to make this small yet important film.

Lastly, what drives you Fahim? What do you want to be known for?

I think the crises we face today – be it social, economic or political – we all are looking for relief. For me, I find respite when I write, when I develop an alternative world with my characters. I believe we are facing these crises because our current system has turned people to become greedy. I want to fight that – let’s just be content with where we are, like Tracy Chapman warns us all in her songs, ‘Don’t be tempted with the shiny apple’. The more examples we see of people who are resisting this temptation, maybe through my films or writing, the more I will be able to see it as my small contribution.

Dr. Sneha Krishnan is a researcher, poet and writer. Her poetry, essays and stories have been published in The Conversation, Helter Skelter, Analogies and Allegories, Indian Poetry Review, Gulmohar Quarterly, Belongg, Jaggery Lit, Feminism in India, Medium and The Wire. She teaches Environmental Studies at Jindal Global University, India.

The Year that Was: Life, Art and Feminist Axioms

Simran Chadha

Perhaps not as furiously as the raging pandemic and certainly not as demurely as the silent passing-on of Aishwarya Reddy – the young woman who went into the dark night without as much as a whimper[1]— but talk regarding the unsuitability of Meera Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s magnum opus certainly prevails, in chat-rooms and otherwise, across the country. Literati expressed surprise that a sensibility that gave the planet a movie of the stature of a Salaam Bombay could produce something as frivolous as Nair’s adaptation of Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Furthermore, the babble iterated that Nair’s portrayal of India and Indians seemed rather extreme, false and completely cut off from reality. What was missing in these discussions was the fact that when Seth’s novel first appeared in print, more than a decade ago, it was celebrated more for its resuscitation of the canon of Indian-English literature, and Nair’s movie, in 2020, had given it a new lease on life. Clearly there appears to be a disconnect between the India of the fifties as set in word by Seth and Nair’s 2020 viewers.

As per the verdict, Nair was declared her guilty of racial prejudice and also an obnoxious aping of western accents by the characters of her adaptation. These moreover were seen as liberties that she as director had taken with the novel. Now while ‘fidelity’ to the original has long been discarded as criterion for judging cinema or at-least following NYU professor Robert Stam’s dismissal of its efficacy, the same does not hold true for audience-reaction, which evidently continues to hold sway. In this regard none would dispute the jubilatory reception awarded to Satyajit Ray’s depictions of the India of the fifties particularly the Indian/Bengal village in some of his films. While this earned Ray pride of place with the masters of world cinema – Godard, Fellini, Orson Wells and such like and also rescued Hindi cinema from being subsumed by a consumerist Bollywood tag it also offered to the western eyes at Cannes an India they were most comfortable with –one that agreed with discourses facilitating colonization. Not that Ray was on the side of the gooras but his films offer a voyeuristic display of the grueling poverty of rural India while the absolutely brilliant cinematic aesthetic renders palpable the inhumanity therein. Decades down the line such versions of India continue to prevail, take for instance Danny Boyle’s long-shot of the opening sequence of Dharavi in SlumDog Millionaire or the much-acclaimed class-divide thematic as touted to acclaim by Arvind Adiga in The White Tiger.

Seth’s A Suitable Boy on the other hand is contextualized against a lesser known India- the India of the Brown Sahibs – a class of upper-class Indians reared as per Macaulay’s A Minute on Indian Education – a class, British in all matters except the color of their skin. Nair faithfully adheres to this and hence the British accents! For instance, Lata’s brother intones a perfectly clipped, anglicized version as the Queens lingua franca as would be the case with most of his ilk but has never set foot beyond Indian soil. His embarrassment when he admits this to Harish— who in the final instance is the suitable boy— accrues not on account of intonations alien to the local landscape but on having to admit the absence of an Oxford pedigree. The contemporary critic as audience appears to have missed this point altogether confronted as they are on a daily basis with a variety of accents by Gen X through internet forays into distant lands.

As regards the charge of racial prejudice levied against Nair on account of her portrayal of Lata’s mother’s muslim-hating predilections, need we be reminded that this was a generation who had witnessed Partition firsthand, an event where women were mercilessly pilloried on account of their religious affiliations? Even as much as a cursory glance at the research of scholars such as Urvashi Butalia and/or Ritu Menon would testify the veracity of this understanding. Lata’s mother, however tutored be the affability of her inculcated social mannerisms clearly carries the scars of Partition and while this does not justify her rudeness towards Kabir it is in keeping with the realist frame deployed by Seth for the telling of this story. We have here the portrayal of human nature with all its possible flaws and fallible imperfections; and so, in the final instance Lata chooses Harish, over Kabir – clearly a soulmate !! To many this affords fresh insight into the character of the fictional Lata or rather into the deceptive cunning cleverly cloaked under what now stood exposed as but a façade of innocence. But then, the act of choosing in itself does appear to be a progressive step for Indian womanhood considering choices are normally dictated to Indian women and their compliance taken for granted, particularly in matters such as marriage which involves the carrying forward of lineage. The educated and liberal-minded Lata treds the path well traversed and does not split hair regarding the irrationality of her mother’s Kabir/muslim paranoia. In a volte face, she just chooses Harish, and it appears that all has ended well. But then, has it really?

In the final instance, Lata has been an obedient daughter after all and it is with this that Seth presents before his readers and Nair before her viewers the crux of the problem besetting Indian womanhood. Obedience, submission and compliance, as represented by the fictional Lata of the fifties continue to be the hallmark of well-bred India womanhood and Lata, in the eventual count has proven her mettle regarding these traits. My contention is that this investment in obedience, submission and compliance continue to exist in an unbroken continuum from Seth’s fictional Lata to the flesh and blood, real-life character of Aishwariya Reddy — the second year BSc (Mathematics) student who took her life for sadly she was way too obedient, way too submissive and way too compliant. Snuffing out her existence was the only recourse this young lady could fathom, given her situation – poverty, a pressing loan procured by her father- a motorcycle mechanic in Bangalore- for her education and bleak chances of repaying it following the economic backslide caused by the pandemic. Guilt regarding the financial burden her family was enduring on her account was augmented on receiving the dictate issued by the college authorities to vacate the subsidized student accommodation. Aishwarya knew that she could not possibly afford board and lodging in the city. The choice before her now was to drop out of college and procure gainful employment. However, for a stellar mathematician such as herself this was a fate worse than death and she chose the latter. Speaking up for herself, questioning the unfairness of the demand to vacate the hostel room did not even present themselves as viable courses of action to this young lady reared as she was under the tutelage of respectable Indian womanhood as defined by obedience, submission and compliance.

Aishwarya played by the rules; she believed the myth to be the reality— the reality of a patriarchal world wherein patriarchy is determined not by gender alone but the conduct of those in authority. The learned professors of her institution failed to take this into account forgetting that compliance with authority is the first myth that feminism shatters. Had they applied this textbook awareness to the young lives coping with the reality of a pandemic perhaps Aishwarya’s tragedy could have been averted.

  1. A sophomore pursuing a degree in mathematics at the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College for women in New Delhi, Aishwarya’s body was discovered hanging by a ceiling fan in her parent’s two-room apartment in Bangalore city. Her suicide note read: “If I cannot study, I don’t want to live”, referring to the bankruptcy the family faced on account of the pandemic. ?

Dr Simran Chadha is an Assistant Professor with a Delhi University college. She curates, publishes on and teaches courses in postcolonial south Asian literatures in English, Film theory including adaptation of classical texts into Hindi cinema and Women Studies. Her most recent publications include an article entitled “Refugees and Three Short Stories from Sri Lanka” for Rodopoi, Amsterdam and a short story “Autumnal Leaves” for Muse India. Dr Chadha lives in New Delhi with her three children, two daughters and Pepper.

Foreigner

Rachael Bates

‘DON’T WANNA BE AN AMERICAN IDIOT!’ A bullish boy chants loud in my face. I am older than him, but we are at that age when boys, overnight, grow taller than girls. His thick cheeks spread into a smirk. I try to ignore him but he can tell I am fazed.

I am one of the few American kids in an international school in south India. The majority of students are Indian, but there are Koreans too, plenty of Australians and New Zealanders, a few Ethiopians and Nigerians, a girl from Kyrgyzstan, people from Thailand and Japan, even a boy from Qatar. I must not forget Brazil, Nepal, Bangladesh, Germany, and the Philippines. Since the school was founded by a group of English missionaries, there is an ample number of Brits too. The boy keeps singing, belting out Green Day’s lyrics to a tune of his own.

‘I’m not even American!’ I say in my American accent and stomp away to join a game of British Bulldogs convening on the flat school roof.

But I am American. My passport tells me so. I was born in Georgia, Peachtree City. I am told that my parents planted a peach tree in the garden behind the house to commemorate my birth. I do not remember the house or the garden or the tree –my family moved to India when I was three years old. Every so often, I wonder if the tree grew tall and strong and blossomed green and orange with fruit, or if it withered when we left, without anyone to tend it. Or perhaps it neither flourished nor failed, but managed to eke out an unlikely existence, developing into an odd shrub or merging with the foliage around it, becoming something else entirely. Unrecognizable.

A friend and I hunker down into our seats at the back of the history classroom. She is half-half, as we used to say. Her father is an Indian man from Andhra Pradesh, and her mother, a full-blooded American. My friend, caramel-eyed and chocolate-skinned, murmurs low into my ear, ‘I’d say it happens to me at least once a day.’

‘Same here,’ I say.

We are whispering about how often we are made fun of for being American. The teacher reprimands us for talking and we turn our attention towards the blackboard and begin taking notes on the Industrial Revolution in England.

I learn about European history, and I learn about the World Wars, and Gandhi and Indian independence. But I am taught very little about America—I am in an English pioneered school in India after all, and what country is concerned with history that is not its own? I know little about the country that people shame me for belonging to.

Small hands, small upturned faces, we are small vessels to be filled. My siblings and I smother our grandmother with hugs. We adore her and cannot wait until she shows us what she has brought from the land across the sea. America is packed into her suitcase, and we do not taste America very often. We settle in the living room, kneeling around her floral hard-case like miniature devotees. The suitcase is unzipped and sweets are piled out. M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces, chocolate chips and marshmallows. We eat them slowly, over the next couple of months, savoring every piece, letting the chocolate melt on our tongues. We hide them from our mother who has an insatiable sweet tooth. We act like the sweet things are sacred.

When I am young, America is a mythic land of milk and honey. We leave India to visit relatives every other summer. Stepping off the airplane feels like stepping into another world. The electricity stays on all day and all night. Clean drinking water gushes from every faucet in a house. People follow traffic rules and the roads are clean and smooth. No one honks their horns unless they are very angry. I look for stray dogs and cows and goats, but there are none roaming the streets like there are in India. The supermarkets are most wonderful of all with their endless aisles of food. A land of plenty. Sane. Clean. Put together.

I am seasoned to India’s chaos, the caterwauling horns, the maddening smells that make me scrunch my face against a waft of sewage one moment and fill my lungs with tandoori chicken the next. I am used to waking up at night when the electricity fails and draping damp towels on my hot skin to cool off. I am used to potholes, stray mongrels, and open-air markets where whole carcasses of animals hang dripping in the sun. I am used to eating with my hands rather than a knife and fork.

I live in India for fifteen years. Wherever I go, locals ask if I am enjoying my visit. I always say that I like India very much, but I live here, I’m not a visitor. Few white people make their home in India, unless they work for the army, the consulate, or as missionaries—like my parents. Indian culture and society are knit together so closely that there is little room for outsiders to fill. In the markets, in the streets, in the movie theatre and the shops, I am always referred to as ‘ferengi’: foreigner.

After I graduate high school I leave to go to college in America. No one stares anymore, there are white people everywhere. But I seem to have little in common with them save the color of my skin. People eat M&M’s here with abandon. Though every candy I once desired is but a dollar or two away, I realize sugar is sinister despite its sweetness. The burgeoning girths of Americans mark an overindulgence that is wildly out of place in my conception of the world. The sweet tooth of my youth vanishes. I remember watching an old woman scrape rice off the platform of a train station in India, her gnarled fingers placing the grimed kernels in her mouth. I watch American students fill up their plates with food in the university dining hall, eat a bite and throw the rest away. Wasting food in India is forbidden. I feel like a ferengi more than ever.

I become a theatre major because I am good at being other people. I am good at accents, especially Indian ones. I am drawn to the art of becoming someone I am not. Surely, this is the way to thrive: to have the skill set to adopt whatever persona is most appropriate or beneficial to any given scenario. After six months of college life in America, I begin to feel an emptiness and a craving for India and the person I was before I left. Now I don’t know who I am or what I want because I am so many things and therefore, so few.

Rehearsing for a show one day, a friend on the set says she would do anything for a Twinkie.

‘What’s a Twinkie?’ I ask.

Her eyes widen and her mouth opens. She has a sort of feline beauty about her, with slanting eyes, and full lips laminated red with lipstick. She wears a fur coat that collars her neck in its softness and her hair is dark and piled high on her head. I think of her as a poster child for the Roaring Twenties, she has the flaunting air of a flapper in the way she moves. Her face is the painted mask of astonishment that so many people wear before and after her when I let my ignorance show.  She laughs and I laugh along with her, half-hearted.

‘Everyone knows what a Twinkie is! It’s made out of…well, I don’t know, but it’s gotta be the most iconic American treat ever,’ she looks around the room, and others nod their agreement.

‘It’s sort of spongy, and it has cream inside,’ someone pipes up.

‘You still have a lot to learn about America, huh?’ she asks me, knowing a little about my background. My shoulders lift into a shrug and I smile, but not with my eyes.

I visit my grandparents for a weekend and I make Indian food all day. I let the cumin seeds pop and sizzle with crushed garlic. I add garam masala, a mixture of coriander, fennel, cinnamon, cloves, and chili. Turmeric stains my fingertips bright yellow. The heat of the spices catches the back of my throat making me close my eyes and cough. For a moment, the aroma takes me back home.

Back to the hullabaloo of India. Back to the afternoons my mother and I spent wandering through the marketplace, pressing mangoes and guavas between our fingers to feel for soft spots. After filling our bags with fresh fruit and vegetables we would venture forth to the meat aisles, holding our breath when we passed the fish stalls steaming putrid in the sun. Sometimes our grocery bags became so heavy that my mother decided we needed a break before ferrying our burdens back to the car. We would make our way along the muddy walkways until we found the coconut wallah. He would hack open a swollen coconut with his machete and hand us a straw. Taking turns, we would drain the cool, clear liquid.

While the chicken curry bubbles fragrant on the stove, I ask my grandmother if she has any methi. a pungent spice used in many Indian dishes. She raises an eyebrow, “what’s methi?”

‘I only know the Hindi word,’ I say.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines foreigner as a person born in or coming from a country other than one’s own. I was born in America, a country not my own, and I come from India, a country other than my own. Outsider, alien, stranger, outlander.

Ferengi. Though it is a slightly derogatory word, its utterance moves my mouth into a smile. I burn sweet-smelling incense that loops lotus and jasmine into the air, while I listen to my favorite American artists sing songs with their lilting voices. Emmylou Harris, Tracy Chapman, and Patty Griffin never felt far away, even when oceans swelled between us. The shelves in my kitchen are lined with Indian spices and a vibrancy of non-Indian ones too. Call me ferengi, it is my name.

Rachael Bates was born in America but grew up in India. She recently graduated from Berea College with a degree in English Literature. She currently lives in Exeter, England with her husband. Her work has been published by Glass Mountain, Stove Leg Media, and The Preservation Foundation.

Interview with Wanphrang Diengdoh

Interview by Sneha Krishnan

‘Lorni – The Flaneur’ is a noir detective thriller, with overtones of mystery, urbanism and conflict. It revolves around Shem (Adil Hussain), an out of work, self-styled detective with a sharp sense of the streets of small town Shillong who is asked to investigate the disappearance of cultural artefacts from a rich and wealthy household in the neighbourhood. Navigating narrow streets and dark alleys, Shem embarks on an emotional and mental journey reflective of his present reality, a painful past interwoven with the tapestry of Shillong. Shillong, capital of Meghalaya in North-East India, hosts diverse multi-cultural identities which has also resulted in tensions and conflicts over the years. Like the quintessential flaneur, Shem manoeuvres reality as it unfolds, while being haunted by his loss in the past, navigating a complex interplay of the personal, the political and the emotional narratives. This film takes you on a journey, while also alluding to important conversations on ethnonationalism and cultural and ethnic identities central to the politics in the region. Shem himself is a dkhar – half Khasi, an indigenous tribe and half from somewhere else. Shem is addressed as shi-piah, a derogatory term for someone who is born from a tribal parent and a non-tribal parent.

Director Wanphrang Diengdoh. Photo credit Pratyush Satpathy.

The film screened at the 11th Indian Film Festival in Bhubaneshwar (IFFB) in January 2020 and was recently part of New York Indian Film Festival in August 2020. It was also screened at Pimedate Ööde filmifestival and Talinn Film Festival in December 2019. This is the first full length fiction feature film that Wanphrang has directed. The other films were non-fictional: ‘Where the Clouds End (2014)’ documents the Khasis’ struggle to claim an authentic ethnicity, racial purity and right to land. It challenges stereotypical notions portrayed by the media of the unwanted ‘outsider’ who threatens traditions, social structures and moral values, while ‘Because We Did Not Choose’ (2017) looked at the First World War and the involvement of indigenous labour communities in war efforts in Shillong and northeast. His other films have also revolved around questions of identity and belonging.

Your debut feature film, Lorni asked some valid questions about identities. It strikes a delicate balance in its portrayal of a combination of political issues in Shillong, the corrosion of folk traditions and heritage, along with the personal and emotional journeys of the people who lived there for years. How did you find a thread to connect everything?

The one common link throughout the course of the film was Shillong. That’s the landscape, premise and the bedrock of the entire film. Having grown up here and lived outside for a long time, perhaps I notice these subtle differences and transitions much more evidently. Lorni attempts to explore this cultural and geographical landscape of Shillong – how the city is and the lives of people – without taking a moral stance on the events and the people’s actions. It’s an understanding and a knowledge that has stemmed from the documentary films that I have indulged in so far as well as the countless hours of interactions with family here and the people around me.

This film was originally conceived in the form of a graphic novel you wrote 10 years ago. How did you decide to make it into a feature film?

I had just finished my Masters from Jamia at that time, and obviously one is not always blessed to start work on their own film right after they finish film school. But I had these ideas in my head. I sketched them and they took the shape of a graphic novel. That idea eventually got shelved because I got involved in the documentary form, which I love doing. That took centerstage for the longest time. It was only after I finished my documentary film ‘Because We Did Not Choose’ (2017) on the First World War and participation of indigenous labourers from the Northeast, that I told myself I want to take a break from the documentary form. I had spent 4 years researching and filming the subject matter and I was given a book deal at the end of it. I declined the offer. There were a lot of ideas for a fiction project I had in mind. Lorni felt quite appropriate at that point of time and was the most appealing. I felt this would be a story that will be relevant in today’s times and needed to be told.

What are some of the works that inspire you? Have films always been your calling?

My foray into films was through music. The other corridor, or entry point were the family stories and folktales my grandmother used to tell me. They served as a portal into the past, and into another universe. As a child with an impressionable mind it caught my imagination and stayed with me. The joy of these folktales is that depending on which point of time in our lives we look into them they resonate differently. That’s the beauty of the folk, this fluidity and this refusal to be confined and bound by meaning or even time and space for that matter. Indeed, these stories can romanticize a past or herald the pastoral but some of them are also quite critical of the environments that they are situated in. Whatever the case maybe, they spark off a certain part of my imagination that fuels a lot of my creative work. Back in the day when my grandparents narrated them to me, we didn’t have cable tv and the national broadcaster was really limited in terms of relevant content that they aired for us in the north-east. It was only in the 90s, when cable TV arrived that media consumption became a big industry. Eventually, there was a shift, the center of the conversations was no longer the fireplace or the hearth. We now sat glued watching whatever was shown on the screen.

Another inspiration as I mentioned is also the musical tradition of the Khasis. Similarly, this folk form refuses to confine itself in a time and space and over the years has seen a huge revival after the missionaries deemed it barbaric. I only studied film much later in life, but I was always tuned into the happenings of where I come from, which is evident from the films, music, poetry and installations that form my body of work.

The sound of your film speaks to this medium of oral stories. How much of these rich cultural oral traditions does your film reflect?

There is a multiplicity and a pluralism in opinions and stories of these spaces. That’s the joy of these oral traditions. When you go about documenting it to try and find the most authentic version, it ceases to become liberating, the process then becomes a sort of an antithesis to these traditions. This constant search of authenticity means that these ideas which in essence are very fluid enter a realm that attempts to make them rigid.

At one point of time, the photography and documentation by the colonial gaze of subjects in these spaces was obviously that of anthropological delight. What I noticed over the passage of time and have also addressed in my work and research is that even the indigenous persons themselves have resorted to a gaze, which is also very colonial. The same subjects are now presenting themselves as touristic or exotic and further romanticize or fetishize their indigeneity. So, I find it interesting how the insiders continuously create their own myths and sometime reassert a colonial stereotype. These are some of the issues one deals with while watching Lorni, as reality gets presented or recreated differently for the characters in the film.

You are also a sound artist, you have a music project Ñion, how did you retain these influences in your film?

I have always been fascinated by how psychoacoustics connect or alter emotions and your perceptions of a situation. Music makes us react in a very similar way. I try to incorporate this use of sound to express the mood and sentiment that the scene requires – the things that you do not see on the screen but make you feel and respond in a certain way. For some sequences I did not even direct Adil in the conventional sense. I made sure he listened to a piece of music for a while and then took the shot after the music was over. I wouldn’t say he was hypnotized but it has more to do with putting a person in a certain state of being. In the film, the character he plays has also internalized the happenings in the town over the 30-40 years. I remember while we were conducting the acting workshops, a curfew was imposed in Shillong for a few days. The streets were dead quiet and it was reminiscent of the troubled days when we were growing up. Adil walked back to his hotel by himself one evening just for him to also internalize the sounds that are also part of the city’s aural landscape. In fact, most of the music or the songs I do, are also snippets of everyday realities that one would come across here in town. I like to imagine that they sometimes function as repositories of a time and space that once was.

What kind of challenges did you face amongst curfews and clashes in Shillong while you were shooting? How did you overcome these?

I had a ready script; everything was well thought of and well planned. We were shooting guerilla so it was imperative for us, that the first take should be the only take and the best. This was the case in most instances when we were filming outside. If we had to have multiple takes, it was very obvious that we would have a crowd gathered around which would just make things counterproductive for all of us. Thankfully, we did not have any curfews during the shoot.

Do share about your main leads. How did Adil Hussain come about playing the lead role? Even the femme fatale is played by your cousin Dawiat Syiem, who is making her debut. How was the experience of working with them?

I was keen on casting an entire set of local actors who had never acted before, so I had an audition. Meghalaya has a really small nascent film industry and there isn’t a theatre or an acting scene either. I wanted a fresh set of faces that looked a certain way and also ones that could really speak for themselves without needing to say much. I wanted to make a film which was reflective of people’s everyday realities with absolutely relatable characters. I wanted people in Shillong to watch the film and say “Hey, I know someone just like that.” I managed to find a really good set of actors in Shillong but sadly could not find the face for the lead actor as yet. In fact, even Dawiat’s role in the film was not finalized until much later because the actor who was supposed to play the part had to leave the country at the last minute. In other words, I had the entire cast and extras sorted except for the lead roles. I was getting a little anxious because the shoot dates were approaching. In the meantime, I reached out to Adil to conduct an acting workshop. I met him briefly in Delhi and he agreed to do the workshop. It was a wonderful meeting and he asked me if I could send him the screenplay so he could go through it before coming to Shillong. I didn’t hear from him for a long time and told myself that he’s probably shelved the idea. Eventually, I got a call from him about a week later and he said he wanted to play the lead in the film.

Dawiat is a PhD scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, and she happened to be in town around that time. I asked her if she would be keen to come for the workshop. I remember her walking in the first morning to the workshop space. For a fraction of a second, I saw her and Adil together in the film. I knew she would fit the part instantly. We carried on with the workshops and slowly noticed the confidence, the presence and the grace which the film would require from her. She did an absolutely fantastic job and I don’t think anyone else could have played the part so well.

Can you describe your role and sensibilities in today’s socio-political times? There is an anti-Citizenship movement across India and the stance for people in the northeast is particularly interesting. What’s your position in these ideologies?

When we were growing up in Shillong, we witnessed several clashes between various ethnic communities that lived here. This meant that our society was extremely polarized. And when you are that age, you ask yourself and others a lot of questions, which perhaps were never answered at that point of time. These experiences and encounters and the atmosphere that nourishes them firmly inform your works and your politics. When I went to study at Jamia Milia Islamia University in Delhi, I witnessed and experienced things as an outsider now. I was a minority within a minority, but this also allowed me to understand the politics of belonging, race, identity at a very participatory level. I encountered racism and abuse but that also goes into strengthening one’s artistic and political sensibilities. I vividly remember the media witch hunt that occurred during the Batla House encounter and the fear and paranoia that gripped the area. It’s scary and upsetting to imagine that this is the everyday reality for a lot of people there. The last place I lived while I was in Delhi was at an Afghan refugee neighbourhood which was also quite an interesting experience altogether.

I’ve soaked up all these experiences and complexities which I now choose to address through my art. I try to not put myself in the usual checkbox categories of left, right, liberal because in an era of political co-opting and correctness, we are quite aware of how problematic these positions are.

But yes we are living in a time where we are constantly demanded to prove our love and desire for this country. That proof has to come through the religion that you need to practice, the food habits that you should subscribe to and a certain kind of consciousness that seeks to demonize others who do not subscribe to your ideas. Here in the North-East, it is even more complex taking into consideration the national and international borders, the trans-national communities and societies that exist and the importance of clinging onto your indigenous identity first before any other concept of nationhood. And then of course that does not mean that everything that is indigenous is also ideal and progressive. But yes, to cut a long conversation short, I find this political and fascists climate hugely distressing. Perhaps, these are times when the insurrectionary capacity of art should be put to the test.

What next? Is there any project you are working on currently?

I am currently filming my next piece amidst all this corona madness. It’s rather different from the subjects that I usually deal with. But filming has been challenging because of the numerous health and safety regulations one needs to keep in mind. I am also involved in some music work related to this project which is a nice break because it allows me to take time off from filming project yet still address the concept through music.

Thanks for your time.

Dr. Sneha Krishnan (b.1987) trained to be a researcher in the interstices of development, health and disasters. One day she grew tired of the world of research that converted people’s life stories into data and evidence, and instead dived deep into the world of telling stories with prose, poetry and photographs. Her poetry, essays and stories have been published in The Conversation, Helter Skelter, Belongg, Medium and The Wire. She also organises the Indian Film Festival of Bhubaneswar (IFFB) and Indian Documentary Film Festival of Bhubaneswar (IDFFB). She has a PhD in Environment Engineering from University College London and Professor of Environmental Studies at Jindal Global University

The Untaken Frame

Ricky Toledano

It was the picture I chose not to take: that of a little girl walking on a make-shift, not-so-tight rope, two meters above the ground. Swinging to the music while standing on the rope, I expect her to tumble downwards in a frightful break dance, but she balances with a cane of bamboo as if motionless, completely secure, even when ticking through the air from side to side as the fastest of pendulums. It is a feat so incredible that I order our car to halt as our necks crane backward not to lose sight of her out of the grimy window. We had almost arrived at our destination in the Old City and could easily walk the rest of the way, so I simply had to see the street-side act and contribute to the money pot placed on the dusty ground, just below what seems to me to be a flying six-year-old with the fluttering poise of a hummingbird.

When we get out of the car, her swinging stops and she is already walking backwards on the rope and then forwards, artfully stepping a bicycle tire frame across the rope, as if she were cycling. Like antenna on each side of her head, I am quite certain the black braids of her pigtails help her balance, much like her bamboo cane. Her face appears absent in concentration, but it is hard to see her behind the oversized sunglasses and sequin-studded ball cap that is also too big for her head, shading her face in the bright, midday light. Her t-shirt and jeans do not have the same theatrically smart attitude of her hat; they are very grubby, just like her little chapped feet, which are all that attach her to a perilous world in her act of balance.

“They are doing this for food, bhai. Let’s help them,” said my friend, leaning into my ear among the crowd we have already joined.  His prompt was unnecessary; I had already been digging in my pocket for my wallet, while awestruck by her performance. My dropped jaw surprised my friend, “You mean to tell me you’ve never seen this before?”

“Never! I’ve never seen anything like this before—anywhere!”

“But they also have them in Delhi. You’ve never seen them in Chandni Chowk on Sundays?” He asked me, incredulous.

The girl’s instructor must be a teen-age relative, who is just as casually dressed as she is, except that he wears a Muslim taqiyah . There is another, older youth standing in full white kurta-pajama and skull cap, operating what we called in my day a boom box. Changing songs for the little girl’s acts, the starkness of his white dress against the backdrop canvass of cement and terra cotta would also have been a handsome photograph, but nothing like the spectacle of the little girl, who at such a very young age has an astounding control of breath, mind and body that every motorcycle passing by stops and leans over to drop coins into the pot. On the other side of the street, a small crowd of all ages has gathered, from which I take my turn to shyly dash across the busy lane between breaks in the cars and motorbikes to deposit money in the pot.

It is impossible that she can concentrate with all this movement around her! I think. Not for the most split of seconds could she allow her concentration to quiver, hearing the sounds of the coins in the pot, much less seeing who dropped money or how much. Her mind must not follow the eagles soaring overhead; the wafts of rose, chandan and urine; the little cows meandering the street; the children giggling. Much less could she have noticed the curious firangi, dressed in light-blue kurta, jumping from a car to take her picture.

Firmly retaining her senses, her attention is impenetrable. At such a young age she has already conquered more mastery of body, breath and mind than I will ever have, even after years of practicing yoga—if, that is, that is all that is meant to be accomplished by yoga.

It isn’t. Or the discipline of every gymnast or athlete would be all that is needed to be the greatest of souls.

And that is why the spectacle was a delightfully humbling reminder of how everyone is born not only with their own unseen challenges, but with the tools to overcome them. It also produced another inevitable yet unspeakable thought: What if she falls?

“These kids are all over India, bhai. They have so much talent! I wish I could take them all, have them trained professionally. No one could stop them! They would fly!”

“Just like you, bhai?” I smiled, arriving at our destination after having spied the old lanes, already guessing in which one to hunt for the homemade halwa and bhujia that has been disappearing as customers have opted for gleaming packaged goods to eat away from the old cities of India. For someone planning as eagerly as my friend is to fly away to the US and leave his country, I am lucky that he still has the nostalgia for the old India of his childhood, because it is a taste we both share. He had also rejected shopping malls and foods packaged like pharmaceuticals long ago—and he taught me how to navigate confusing streets well. Teaching me pursuit the old way, I learned to use my nose, instinct and espionage, watching where people conglomerate and what they carry on the busy streets. We look like two mongooses hunting on the sly; very little can escape our desires in a traditional bazaar.

“You don’t want me to go to the US,” he countered.

“No! Of course not! It is an opportunity you cannot refuse. What I don’t want is for you to think you are going to some place better,” I retorted, never losing the opportunity to remind him that my country is not the paradise he imagines; whereas my young friend doubts there could be anything displeasing in the world’s richest and most powerful nation, a place without the street-side circus acts, a place where everything works.

Or so he thinks.

I sucked my teeth as I tried to find where to begin to offer an explanation – if I even had one – while sitting in a very humble restaurant of walls less white than the white butter it served with bajra roti on reasonably clean thalis with the hottest of catnis.

In the lane, an old woman set up her cart to sell traditional clay diyas. Monkeys prowled across wires to follow a vendor of carrots, radishes and bananas. A policeman talked to boys on motorbikes in the shadows brightened by the vivid colours of a sari shop. People spoke loudly, in a volume and tone that Americans might mistake for hostility in the absence of smiles, but there seemed to be a shy exchange of laughter among pedestrians who looked and talked to each other. Everywhere you glanced, the faces were those of contentment or unmasked emotions. No one was alone, because everyone looked at everyone, everywhere – their eyes connecting with either formality or familiarity, as if the simple act of walking the street was conspiring in a game together.

The exchanges could be repeated in more than one country I know, including Brazil, my home for more than twenty years, but it was one that cannot be found in the US—something that would have been very difficult to explain until I turned my head around to call the waiter.

It was a natural gesture to have my eyes meet those of other patrons who also took advantage of my movement to see mine. And it was in the serendipity of looking into strangers’ eyes that I realized I might be able to offer an explanation to my younger friend.

“When I was growing up, I remember looking at everyone on the subway and no one ever looking back. I remember clearly thinking that something was wrong; it was impossible that people couldn’t see me. I saw all of them.”

“What are you talking about?” he snapped.

“You’ll see when you arrive there. They pretend not to see each other. It is hard for me to describe and for you to imagine, but they don’t look at each other; they avoid touching one another; they keep a distance, maintaining a ring of privacy. You will feel it immediately: no one will look at you, but everyone will see you and move out of your way. It is the one thing I find nerve-racking whenever I go back.”

“Hmmm,” sighed my friend, whose list of nerve-racking gestures was composed of the opposite: the way his fellow countrymen always bumped into him or cut him off without any regard. Sitting on the other side of the table, he was trying to imagine a world on the other side of the planet, a place of opportunities he feels he doesn’t have in his homeland; a place where people respect the rights of others; a place where individuals actually have rights.  It is a place, he imagines, where everything is safe, clean, beautiful and organized.

Or so he thinks.

It is everything he wants. But it is also a place where people are not only walking around with walls around them, they are building real walls, barricades that are far uglier and more pernicious than the ancient remnants of the walled city around us, with its great barriers that had been built and rebuilt over the centuries, more times than there were cups on our thalis. The separation of space may be the futile endeavour of mankind since time immemorial, erecting dividers to keep the undesirables out, but I have the opposite impression while walking the streets of the Old City: the remnants of those ancient walls seem to stand unsuccessfully to hide people in, especially people like the flying family circus troupe.

“I sat next to a Punjabi man on a plane. He was an immigrant to the US; he had lived there many more years than I ever had. He owned a petrol station and raised a family there. He is probably the man who you want to be some day. He had dealt with all the prejudice against him over the years: the rejections; his children bullied; the police that refused to help him when his business was robbed. He told me something I will never forget: ‘America is a funny place: the rich aren’t happy; the poor aren’t happy; nobody is happy. They are so aggressive. It’s like there is no love in their hearts’. Naturally it was a gross generalization, but it struck me. Somehow I knew exactly what he was talking about – which might say even more about a place like your country than mine.”

“Which is also a gross generalization!” he retorted.

I swallowed cchaacch, not only with cumin seeds but with the seeds of a thought: I suppose that is the risk of a photograph, capturing people within the four limits of a frame. In contemplation, my mind wandered sinuously back down the road to the picture I didn’t take, refusing to frame the little performer.

Pausing before comically raising my voice with authority to imitate the patriarch of his family, I aimed my finger right between his eyes, “Now you listen to me young man…” My friend smiled, almost spitting his water before receiving the sermon: “I will miss you. Please remember that you may travel to the other side of the world, you may try to run to the corners of this universe, but you will never escape from yourself. We take ourselves wherever we go, together with all our personal demons. There is no place to run and hide and there is nothing we can consume to make us happy, to make us complete. We are already complete. This is the message of the very Upanishads, and it is said that it is the very mission of life to realize that there is nothing missing.”

Falling silent and looking away from me and at the people around us in the neighboring tables, it was his turn to suck his teeth and think. The sermon had hit its target, but he is a clever and agile young man who was not about to let me get away with lecturing him with wisdom easier said than done. He returned to me, sharply and in the ambush of analogy, “So, according to you, there is ‘nothing missing’ from that little girl’s life?”

“I’m sure there are many things,” I swallowed, “But I am also sure her concentration on what she has—and not what she doesn’t have—will always make her wealthier than people like us, who always need more—catni—to be happy.” I slurped the delicacy from my fingers, “I will ask for more.”

After having consumed more sugar and salt in one day than I am capable of in one month, it was in the evening that my friend’s mother made me a gallon of nimbu pani with neither of the white poisons to wash away my sins. I was more than satiated by the spoils of a day in the Old City, but not by its visions, which I unpacked during my silent time as the sun went down. In my mind, I revisited the little girl on the rope, looking at her through the black frame of my lens, remembering how it was not only difficult to find a harmonizing angle for a moving subject, but that there was something disturbing about confining her within the limitation of four borders without knowing anything about her story. It would be committing a kind of insincerity. A real photographer cannot vacillate like that.

But what had really stopped me from pulling the trigger, placing my camera back in its holster, forfeiting what might have been that perfect shot, a time capsule, was a sensation similar to that which occurs just before picking a flower, when doubt shades the choice to possess beauty by destroying it. My forbearance had also become my own balancing act: I was also walking a rope, one I have fallen off many times in my life when choosing between capturing an object and learning to let it go.

There was more beauty in beholding a picture of her that had no frame, a portrait of duality: the individual that is at the same time limited and limitless. She blended into a seamless world around her in every direction, from the cerulean infinity above her to the road below her, which could even lead me home, across the world. Then, there were the walls.

Walls do not separate space; they exist in space; therefore, they separate nothing. I contemplated the Vedic maxim that had first sent me to India with more than just an intellectual curiosity so many years ago. They were the words pronounced in just the right moment that changed my trajectory, leading me into the unimagined direction of studying Vedanta, an interest not at all shared by my friend, an engineer who might even be too intelligent for his own good, the way he hastily sought holes in arguments, even ones not fully comprehended.

About to embark for the US, he was more interested in the tradition of many other Indians who have gone abroad than on the Tradition—a body of knowledge for which he had no use. Regardless, I delivered the words of wisdom, even if clumsily over lunch, because much as I had chosen another culture, extending a cord ambitiously far from home, I saw my friend was already high above, starting on that familiar, treacherous rope. That is why I ran to pad the ground below him with words, so that they would be there for him to cushion the inevitable falls that land us the disappointments needed to comprehend that happiness cannot be acquired; it can only be revealed, because it is not a place at the end of a rope; it is located in a place so close one can’t see it; it is a place that isn’t a place.

And just like my friend, I am quite certain the frame of a photograph would no more define the little girl any more than walls will contain her in the future. She will jump them. I won’t be there to applaud that day in her life, the way we did standing at the roadside, but I know she will do it, after learning all there is to know about rules before breaking them, like studying gravity to learn to fly.

That is when I opened my eyes, returning to the day’s last beams of light around me, and not those that glimmer in my head. I smiled as I could not help but contemplate that I might break an old rule upon discovering its opposite: it may very well be that a few words are worth a thousand pictures.

Originally from Chicago, Ricky Toledano lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he has worked as an English-Spanish-Portuguese translator and English language instructor for over twenty years. He is the translator of Padma Shri award-winning author and Vedanta teacher Gloria Arieira’s the Bhagavadgita (Motilal Banarsidass). He is the creator and curator of the multi-lingual platform for the humanities, amultiplicity.com.

The Lost Danavas: India to Ireland

Brishti Guha

The Danavas were a group of “not quite human” beings (with very human characteristics) that featured prominently in Indian folklore, myths, and early Sanskrit literature. I argue here that there is a case for believing that the Danavas could have been real. I show that literary and archaeological sources indicate a fascinating story of migration and cultural transmission between India and Ireland, with the Danavas disappearing from India with the decay of the Indus valley civilization, only to show up at the other end of the known world, in Ireland. 

Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, had much to say about evolution. We tend to think that modern humans – homo sapiens – evolved in a linear chain of descent from a sequence of more primitive hominid ancestors. What most of us don’t realize is that five or six different species of humans – including homo sapiens – actually coexisted during an extended period of time, between 60,000 and 10,000 years ago. There is also evidence that people from these different human species met and interbred every now and then, successfully producing children who would pass on their mixed genetic heritage.  

Recent scientific evidence backs Harari’s claims. Archaeologists’ ability to isolate ancient DNA from very old skeletal remains and fossils has made it possible for them to compare the DNA of human species other than homo sapiens – like that of the Neanderthals or the Denisovans (whose bones and teeth were found in a cave in Siberia) – with the DNA of people who are alive today. The National Geographic and Nature both cite studies that show that modern Europeans have about 2% of Neanderthal DNA in their genes, implying that their ancestors had at a point in the distant past interbred with Neanderthals. According to archaeologists, such episodes of interbreeding could have occurred between a group of homo sapiens leaving Africa for Eurasia, and a group of Neanderthals who lived in the near east (Kuhlwilm et al 2016). (While homo sapiens originated in Africa, Neanderthals were living in Europe and the near and middle east. The two species crossed paths when sapiens left Africa). There is also evidence that homo sapiens interbred with another hominid species, the Denisovans. Melanesians, particularly from Papua New Guinea, Tibetans, and East Asians all have Denisovan DNA in their genetic makeup. A paper published in Nature in 2018 was about a skeleton, estimated to be that of a teenager who lived 90,000 years agowho was shown to have had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father (Slon et al 2018). Scientists keep uncovering new “interbreeding episodes”, some suggesting the existence of as yet undiscovered ancient human species, who left distinct genetic markers behind in the DNA of their presumed descendants. 

While reading about this abundance of scientific evidence, I began to think about strange things I had gleaned from myths and folklore. The myths of different countries speak of many species of creatures, not quite human, but not so different from human beings as to exclude possibilities of sex or reproduction. For example, polytheistic religions had pantheons of gods. These included the Hindu pantheon, the ancient Greek and Roman gods, and the Norse gods. Some also had demons, giants, or semi-divine beings like the Indian apsaras or gandharvasIn all the associated myths, humans, demons, and gods, for instance, recognize their differences from one another, yet occasional episodes of mating and procreation occur between them. As one example, the heroes of the Indian epic Mahabharata – a band of five brothers, the Pandavas – all had human mothers but their fathers were different devas (divine beings). As another, the Nordic god Freyr married and had children with a giantessGerd. Greek myths mention demigods, fathered by Zeus on various mortal women. Indra, the chief Vedic god, married Saci, the daughter of the demon Puloma, and the two had a son. I began to think about whether these myths could have a common origin, based in a period when humans did recognize other species of hominids, and occasionally interbred with them. Could the demons and gods of myth have been real after all? 

One species of these beings were the danavasThe Danavas were the enemies of the “devas” – or gods – in the Indian Vedic pantheon. Their name derived from that of their mother, Danu: the word “Danavas” meant “children of Danu. Although the Danavas opposed the gods, Sanskrit literature recognized them for their special abilities. They were acknowledged masters of illusion, and experts at architecture and mechanical inventions. The Indian epics – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – are both full of the engineering feats of one danava in particular, named Maya. Maya designed a palace for the Pandavas – the protagonists of the Mahabharata – which was full of optical illusions and whose splendor left visiting dignitaries speechless. He is also credited with maintaining the flying chariot used by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka (the antagonist in the Ramayana). In fact, the Ramayana also mentions that the Danavas in general were adept at operating mechanical devices of various kinds, many of which were used in warfare. For instance, they had installed machines at their gates which could fire bolts and arrows at invading armies. They also operated giant catapults.  

By the time that Sanskrit literature records the existence of the Danavas, human species other than homo sapiens had died out. However, some humans, who had interbred with other hominid species, would have high amounts of the other species’ genetic material in their DNA, and would be easy to distinguish from other humans, whose ancestors hadn’t experienced interbreeding. Fu et al (2015) finds that homo sapiens from relatively ancient times, whose ancestors had interbred with other hominid species only some generations back, had a much higher proportion of DNA from these other species than do present-day homo sapiens. Plausibly, the Danavas of literature were distinguishable from other humans because of a high percentage of DNA from related hominid species.  

At the time of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), which flourished in the third millennium BC, two Danava dynasties were living peacefully in Bahlika (Baluchistan), surrounded by non-Danava humans belonging to the IVC. The IVC is associated with what narrative historian John Keay describes as “the world’s first planned cities and townships”. It featured a number of large, well-planned cities dating from the third millennium BC (including Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, DholaviraLothal and Rakhigarhi).  

Could the people of the Indus Valley have hired the Danavas to build the world’s first planned cities? Unlike other ancient cities, the cities of the IVC had an exceptionally high standard of hygiene, convenience and safety. Archaeologist Rita Wright writes that the building of the cities involved large-scale planning and the “construction of engineering works of a kind unprecedented for their time” and an approach which focused on rearranging and transforming the natural landscape, particularly flows of water. Houses were built with bricks of standardized dimensions (sun-baked and kiln-fired bricks of such high quality that the first archaeologist to see Mohenjo Daro mistakenly thought the bricks must be of a “modern type” indicating a city at most 200 years old, rather than 5,000!). Roads were wide – to accommodate what may well have been the world’s oldest wheeled transport, ox-drawn carts – and laid out in a grid from north to south or east to west: major arteries, main streets and side alleys had widths in the ratio 4:2:1. (A latter-day example of this grid system is the rectangular grid on which Manhattan lies). The towns had thick brick walls and sophisticated drainage systems. A main sewer connected with many north-south and east-west sewers: all kept watertight by expert masonry. Each house had its own drains that emptied into the sewer system. This was a system which remained unrivalled, in its technical excellence, until the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. 

The uniformity in the way the cities were laid out suggests that the same group of builders might have been used over a large geographical area. Given their engineering skills, were the Danavas the group employed to build the cities? Unfortunately, our inability to decipher the Indus valley script till date has severely hampered our knowledge of these builders’ identity by making it impossible for us to refer to written records. 

Between 2000 and 1900 BC, the prosperous Indus valley civilization disintegrated. The Danavas could no longer find employment there, and appear to have mysteriously disappeared from the regionWe know that a few of them went to the northeast of India, while some others went to the south. What about the rest? 

For a long time, I had thought that the Danavas only featured in Indian references. Picture my shock when one day, while reading a mystery series set in ancient Ireland (the “Sister Fidelma” series by historian Peter Tremayne) I came across a mention of the “children of Danu” – apparently, beings who had come to Ireland in ancient times and stayed on. This unexpected mention of the Danavas – who were, also, the children of Danu – prompted me to do some research. Did the Danavas leave India only to resurface in a country which was at the westernmost limit of the known world at that time – Ireland? 

The Danavas in Ireland 

According to Irish historical sources – the Book of Invasions (or Lebor Gabala Erenn) and Annals of the Four Masters – a band of foreigners, a race of beings with supernatural powers, came to Ireland around 1900 BC. This band called themselves the “Children of Danu” – just like the “Danavas” in India didSome Irish legends say that they arrived in flying ships – like those that Indian legends credit Maya Danava with discovering (indeed, the Irish maintain that one of the Children of Danu was Manannan, a master of illusion and invention – an Irish parallel to Maya Danava). Others say that they came in ships which they burned so as not to be able to retrace their steps.  

The local residents were in awe of these foreigners because of their superior knowledge of a multitude of subjects. Unlike the locals (but like the residents of the Indus valley civilization) the foreigners could write, and they were wonderful inventors and builders. Their knowledge of medicine was so good that the locals attributed their skills to magic. The Book of Invasions mentions that when Nuada, a leader of the Children of Danu, lost an arm in battle, his arm was replaced by a silver prosthesis. Interestingly enough, the Indian Rig Veda also mentions accounts of artificial limbs (a woman warrior, Vishpala, who lost a leg in battle was given an artificial metal leg). The artificial leg worked so well that Vishpala was able to resume fighting. In Nuada’s case, his artificial limb enabled him to get reinstated as the king of the tribe: when he had first lost his arm, he had been replaced by another ruler, who later turned out to be a tyrant. Irish locals also admired the metallurgical skills of the Children of Danu, who, over a period of 200 years, ruled Ireland while coexisting peacefully with other tribes and teaching them some skills, notably, writing (giving rise to the primitive Ogham script, which, unlike the Indus valley script, was deciphered) 

The Book of Invasions recounts how, after two centuries, another band of invaders, the Milesians, reached Irish shores and defeated the Children of Danu. Initially, the children of Danu had been able to keep them at bay by creating illusions that prevented the invaders from finding the island. Eventually, however, the invaders landed, and defeated them in battle. Instead of dying out, the Children of Danu simply literally moved underground, dwelling in subterranean vaults and cavesThis brings to mind Indian legends about the Danavas of India having been at home underground. Celts and Druids claim the Children of Danu as their ancestors. 

Besides these literary sources, archaeological evidence also points to a link between India’s Danavas – who disappeared with the decline of the IVC – and the Children of Danu who appeared at the same time in Ireland. Among the objects that the Children of Danu brought with them from their native land is the “Lia Fail” – a giant stone which still stands on the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland. This stone looks strikingly like a Shiva-lingaa symbol associated with the Indian deity Shiva, and all Indian sources attest that Shiva was worshipped by the Danavas.

Even more interesting is the work done by academics on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Timothy Taylor, a popular British archaeologist and art historian, pointed out in a 1992 Scientific American article that the cauldron connects the Irish Celtic and Indus valley cultures: it showed not only Celtic gods but also images resembling those inscribed on the Pashupati” seals of Mohenjo DaroBoth show a deity seated in a yogic pose, wearing horned headgear and surrounded by Indian animals like lions and elephants. 

Literary and archaeological sources paint a picture of physical and cultural migration, pointing to an ancient connection between Ireland and India. The Danavas may have disappeared from India along with the Indus valley civilization, only to reappear at the western limit of the known worldIs it a coincidence that their disappearance from India marked the end of high quality urban planning until very recent times? And do the Danavas live on in today’s Celts? At present, we only have pieces of the puzzle, but enough to open doors to very intriguing possibilities. 

References 

  • Fu etal (2015): An early modern human from Romania with a recent Neanderthal ancestor, Nature 524, 216-219. 
  • Harari, Yuval Noah (2014): Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Random House. 
  • Keay, John (2000): India: a History from the Earliest Civilisations to the Boom of the Twenty-First Century. Harper Collins. 
  • Kuhlwilm et al(2016): Ancient gene flow from early modern humans into Eastern Neanderthals, Nature 530, 429-433. 
  • Slon et al (2018): The genome of the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father, Nature 561, 113-116. 
  • Taylor, T. (1992) : The Gundestrup Cauldron, Scientific American266, 84-89. 
  • Tremayne, Peter (2010): The Leper’s Bell. Hachette UK. 
  • Wei-Hass, Maya “Ancient Girl’s Parents were two different human species”, National Geographichttps://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2018/08/news-denisovan-neanderthal-hominin-hybrid-ancient-human/ 
  • Wright, Rita (2010): The Ancient Indus: Urbanism, Economy and Society. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 

 

Brishti Guha has a PhD from Princeton and is an associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is an economist in love with literature. Besides publishing in international academic journals, she publishes nonfiction in the popular press. She enjoys translating from Sanskrit. Her translations and retellings have appeared in the Sci-Phi Journal, Eye to the Telescope, Empty Mirror, and the Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and are forthcoming in Ezra and The Mercurian.

In conversation with Saima Afreen on Sin of Semantics

Interview by Poornima Laxmeshwar

Saima Afreen is an award-winning poet who also works as Deputy City Editor with The New Indian Express. Her poems have appeared in several Indian and international journalsShe received ‘Writer of the Year Award, 2016’ from Nassau Community College (the State University of New York). She has been part of several literary festivals and platformsShe’s been awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship (2019) in Creative Writing at the University of Kent, United Kingdom. In the autumn of 2017, she was awarded the Villa Sarkia Writers’ Residency (Finland), where she completed the manuscript of Sin of Semantics. This is her début poetry collection.  

Saima spoke to Poornima about this collection of poems, the socio-cultural events that became reasons for the poems and the personal narrative that describes the journey of writing. 

For a Child of Kashmir– This poem is excruciating. Why did you choose a child in the poem? Is it because to think of children suffering is unbearable or because you feel helpless about their failed dreams?? 

I wrote that poem after the 2010 Kashmir unrest which saw the crackdown on unarmed civilians who were protesting. Most, among the brutally killed, were youngsters. Now, after 72 years of conflict, the right-wing extremists and citizens with ‘similar tendencies’ are blindly celebrating the brutal decision of scrapping Article 370, bifurcating the state, and making it a Union Territory. This is coupled with the unimaginable communication blackout (rightly called collective punishment of the people of Jammy & Kashmir by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council) in the valley. The blinding pellets shot at children weren’t enough already! How does a little child of five make sense of this tyranny? To see thousands of children suffering like this. How agonizingly disturbed their childhood dreams must be! What must be happening to their tender minds? The unborn witnessing the ghastly events unfolding from a womb face the worst! Kashmir is bleeding! Its children are being erased and denied a happy future! No poem is enough to pen their pain!??? 

Tell us more about this poem Are You the Wolf Who Stood at the Edge of a Fairy Tale. I am so fantasized by this title, that I wanted to prompt you to share more about it.

In this, the only life (to rephrase Kathleen Jamie a bit differently), we all are standing at an edge overlooking the bottomless pool of dark twinkling water waiting for a goblin, a winged creature or that furry animal to hold our hands, uproot our feet and take us to their land through the creases of a pulsating map. We forget that we are the fairy tales in flesh. Each moment adds a new vowel, a new semicolon. As a child, I often found myself in those Russian books of Princess Vasilisa and mysterious forests. My father had bought the illustrated collections for my elder sisters. Later they were passed on to me and younger siblings. It all looks so distant, so dreamy. As an adult you are secretively more in need of those stories; during sleep you search for that wolf, perhaps from the North, to stand by ‘your fairy tale’ and guard everything that whispers under your skin. The night watch begins. The tale within tale spins. 

When I read your poems, I feel like I am reading a prayer. I sense that your style has a rich blend of gorgeous images and social issues with such an easy duality. Do you consciously choose the images and arrange them, or it all comes with the flow? 

I believe that whatever we speak, think, and write derives its sap from the said and unsaid floating between the layers of socio-political undercurrents. That’s the grammar underneath. An artist/poet sees what others can’t. A poet holds eternal apprenticeship to Life and its endless ledgers, filling the unmarked boxes with lilt and light. What spills over is poetry. And in this bright pool images find their way as do the direct and indirect experiences culminating into a concoction–a mix of elements which surprises you. 

As a journalist, I get to meet several people, hear their stories, get acquainted with the environments both gory and pleasant, surprising and damning. I filter information and what remains as residue finds companionship in what I think as a poet. 

The photograph of the dead body of the three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi found on seashore still haunts me as does the 2018 report by a monitoring group on death count in Syria which says that 367,965 Syrians are dead, leaving out the 192,035 people who have been missing! Combine the two and it’s a big number! Back home many civilians in Kashmir are missing or presumed dead, and we don’t even have the exact numbers! 

This book of poems is your work spread across the years. How do you think your writing has evolved over time? 

We are all works-in-progress, and poetry as our accomplice experiences everything that the mind and body go through. ‘Sin of Semantics’ is my debut poetry collection. The poems in the book encompass the timeline of more than ten years. I re-write, edit, rethink a lot allowing myself to soak in the words, their arrangements, placements, and context. If an idea doesn’t magnify itself or loses its connection with me, I let it fly. If it comes back with something more to tell, I welcome it to my notebook otherwise I set it free forever.

The poems A Coupletand The Charpoy My Grandma Leftis all about roots. Please tell us what makes you go back to them? 

Both the poems tell tales seen from the eyes of elderly family members. The images summon you to explore the wide, wild jungle of times gone by which have altered the topography of hearts and lands and every related conversation is a revisit to these months, years, decades. A rendezvous to what was, reintroduction to where you come from. The timbre in the stanzas calls to the roots coiled within you… It summons the courage to turn back to see that no song can repair the wrongs of history. 
The grandfather and the grandmother in ‘A Couplet’ and ‘The Charpoy…’ aren’t related to me though during Partition and the 1971 liberation war in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) my family lost members, land, property and more. The stories in the poems are of other people with similar or worse losses which have overlapped with my family history. I can sometimes hear the swish of my grandmother’s sari when she had to run out of her haveli at midnight as communal riots broke out. Or how the birds she released from the cages would always come back to the giant courtyard for food not realising that they were set free from a divided land to be forcibly forsaken by its denizens. 

There are cities in your poems and the reader is shifted into a different space altogether which is a beautiful experience. Do you carry these cityscapes with you even after moving and turn them into poems? 

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears,” wrote Italo Calvino. And we carry them in our bloodstreamwitness their rise as their glassy moulds hold our silhouettes, secretly smuggling a part of us in the plank of a staircase, a rusted gate or in the reflections captured in the windows of a tram. The left-behind parts of us live and breathe on their own. The cities claim the lacunae as miniature versions of their own deposits. Their walls, sounds, scents, chill, streets, teacups, bridges along with everything else inhabit the landscape of our language. Without them, you feel you are carrying an empty river. They walk with you to more cities, new countries making colonies within your words growing as lush harvest. It’s the result of the mutual exchange between you and the cities. The equation keeps growing. 

Do you ever feel that a poem you’ve written is complete? 

Never. Paul Valery didn’t say for nothing: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” The published poems haunt you; their shadows knock at the door of the editor within you. You don’t allow entry and feel suffocated. Virgil wanted to rise from his deathbed and burn his epic poem ‘Aeneid’. Nikolai Gogol had burnt the part of his masterpiece ‘Dead Souls’. We all want to destroy what we have created thanks to perfectionism, the need to edit and re-edit is a never-ending temptation! 

Then there are poems on lilies, tea, rivers, smell and everything so ordinary. Do you think as a poet anything and anyone could become a muse? 

Everything, in its entirety, lives and breathes. I am talking about the energy an atom contains whilst it’s a part of red brick, a wooden banister or just a knife holding an eclipse in its silver. Even the inanimate get awoken to soak in everything around it. And no, it’s not Morse Code. It all opens up, blooms right in front of you ready to be dissected, studied, connected with. One just needs to feel it. The air then smells of the season, the object, which catches your attention ready to invest itself in words. Then comes the open anthology of everything alive and growing–they magnify themselves, almost imprinting on the mind. If you see a single green clothespin on a coloured string under a rain spell, it becomes an enigmatic canvas holding so many possibilities. Flowers, water bodies and birds are already complete works of art; poets just pilfer from them. 

What do you suggest is important for aspiring poets to know? 

That you shouldn’t run after finding ‘your voice’. Instead, your craft demands more of your time, more finesse. As you progress in your writing, the words tend to set to a pattern and that definitely isn’t a voice. One needs to sit amidst words and interact with them gently observing their structure, placement, and volume. Haste just destroys it all even if you are writing an angry poem or a proud one.

Poornima Laxmeshwar resides in Bangalore and works as a content writer for a living. Her poems have been published in national and international journals of repute. Her first poetry collection “Anything but Poetry” was published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata, a chapbook of her prose poems “Thirteen” was published by Yavanika Press and her full-length poetry collection ‘Strings Attached’ was recently published by Red River.

What It Means to be a Pakistani, in Ithaca and the Indian Subcontinent – An Interview with Raza Rumi

Interview by Daneesh Majid

The interviewer, Daneesh Majid (second from left) with the author Raza Rumi (at the center, fourth from left).

A man who has donned many hats and still continues to do so, Raza Rumi has always viewed not just his homeland Pakistan, but also its Siamese twin India through various lenses. As a policy analyst, journalist, civil servant, development expert, or literary connoisseur, he has quite the grasp on regional political and cultural dynamics. His first book Delhi By Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller reminds various South Asians how certain cities in “hostile” lands are not exactly a long way from “home.” In 2014, Rumi moved to the United States after a tragic, failed assassination attempt (in Pakistan) on him due to his overt stance against rapidly proliferating Islamist fundamentalist elements. Yet, he continued to wield his pen as Editor of The Friday Times, teach at various universities like Ithaca College, Cornell, NYU, and contributed his diverse expertise at United States Institute of Peace, and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as a Visiting Fellow in Washington, DC. While at NED, his collection of essays for Pakistani weekly The News on Sunday were compiled in his sophomore release The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition and Identity.

Rumi’s latest book Being Pakistani: Society, Culture, and Arts is in certain ways, a continuation of his third offering Identity, Faith and Conflict: Essays on Pakistan and Beyond. Not only do they contain academic, personal, and long-form journalistic insight into South Asia before AND after he transplanted himself onto American soil, but they also remind us of the ties that bind South Asians. Currently, he is based in Ithaca, New York where he is the Director of Ithaca College’s Park Center for Independent Media. He also teaches at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs. Until recently, he was the editor of the English-language newspaper Daily Times. In 2018, he visited his native land nearly 5 years after the assassination attempt.  This was also when his new book, Being Pakistani: Society, Culture, and Arts was released. He also founded a bi-lingual digital initiative Nayadaur Media that intends to challenge the mainstream narratives in Pakistani media and is a youth run platform. conversation with Rumi attunes us to his trajectory from a native as well as a diaspora perspective.

Born and bought up in Lahore, you also spent certain intervals of your life in India, and your current abode of sorts, the United States. There is a chapter in your book called “The Enigma of Dual Belonging: Qurratulain Hyder’s Enduring Popularity in Pakistan”. Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya has a Muslim character who is a staunch Indian nationalist during independence/partition. He then migrates to Pakistan after facing discrimination despite his above educational and family background. Yet he comes to Karachi where other North Indians like him still feel like they belong to Karachi just as much as UP or Bihar.  

Barring certain differences, would it be safe to infer that like one your favourite wordsmiths, Annie Apa, you have a dual belonging?  

 I would not call it dual belonging but rather multiple belongings. As I have grown older and lived in different countries, I began to realize that it is too limiting to identify yourself with one place and one home. In my case, I initially moved away for work to Kosovo and then the Philippines but returned to the homeland. In 2014, I decided to move out once again to the US, but this was more of an existential response to unfortunate events. Obviously my core identity is that of a Pakistani and Lahori in particular. However, at the same time I’m increasingly convinced of our global interconnectedness and what we see today in terms of the challenges posed by climate change and common problems all over the world. We belong everywhere. If we start belonging and limiting ourselves to one country or one village, then we are denying ourselves of the entire expanse—even in terms of identity—that the world offers.  

 You are proud of your Pakistani identity, yet I believe that you have had the dubious honour of being deemed an Indian Agent like Fahmida Riaz who is featured in your book. Like her you also returned to Pakistan, albeit temporarily. What was it like going back? Do you consider yourself an overseas Pakistani or just a Pakistani? I ask this because in India, if you spend certain amount of years abroad, you are termed a Non Resident Indian (NRI) and thereby a different socio-economic entity for better or worse.  

 Well, this is a very difficult and complex question. Twice I worked abroad but always chose to return. I will have to bore your readers with a bit of my story. I was once a civil servant you know. I joined the Pakistan Administrative Service when I was in my early 20s. I worked for many years with the government, learned a lot, and experienced the real feel of rural Punjab and the rest of Pakistan. This has formed my world view. It is here that I gained experiential knowledge of the colonial state structures that still exist and the disparate communities that inhabit Pakistan. Then I moved and worked for the UN in Kosovo. Later I was with the Asian Development Bank and was based in the Philippines for some time. After traveling all over Southeast Asia, I returned to Pakistan because that is home at the end of the day. Hence, there is always this pull that you want to be home and that you want to contribute and engage. Within six years or so of my return, I had to leave again. As for going back that is a story in itself.   

 So I have accepted this nomadic existence of sorts. Perhaps that is my calling and I guess this is where I belong, which is basically everywhere or nowhere. On the issue of being called an Indian Agent, unfortunately there is an ultra-hawkish contingent in Pakistan that believes if you speak of peace with India or just a peaceful South Asia, you must be an agent of the enemy. The same holds true for India where so many people challenging the mainstream view are labeled as “anti-national”, anti-India, or simply traitors. That is the price one has to pay in questioning the jingoistic narratives. The problem in South Asia, in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh too, is that we are essentially following and living through a colonial moment. The whole notion of a nation-state and Western nationalism are also colonial legacies in our region. We adhere to them and we end up limiting ourselves only to move towards jingoism. Why? Just to prove we are superior to the “other” or the enemy. While in reality, we are a very diverse and complex region with a shared history of over a thousand years. Any adaptation of nationalism or the nation-state simply cannot overlook this shared history and culture that spans centuries. Bringing out our shared past and attributes is quite the task. These were the themes I wanted to bring out when writing my first book. As a Pakistani I identified with Delhi  a city with a rich Muslim past. So I got into hot waters I suppose. But I still think that we have to continue attuning people to our shared history and culture.  

 

 Now you can call me a Non-Resident Pakistani because I have been living in the US for the last five years. This is where I guess I will be for some time, as I’m working here as well. This is a totally different experience and state of being for me. I’ve lived abroad. Travelled a lot. But being a resident elsewhere while your mind, your personal history, and your cultural affinities are in another place; it is a really unique experience. I don’t mind it. I’m also trying to make sense of it. Yet, I have simply experienced what all migrants and immigrants have gone through. So I’m not the first to whom this experience is unique and I’m surely not the last.  

 Your first book was a travelogue and you were definitely not a “diaspora” South Asian then. Unlike many Indians and Pakistanis, entering the “enemy” country for you was easy as your high-profile employer vouched for you during the visa application process. Plus, you didn’t have a European/North American passport that lets consulates/embassies overlook your Indian/Pakistani origins—at least early on in the visa application process.  What was it like having that “Kya Dilli Kya Lahore” (What’s Delhi, What’s Lahore) luxury to traverse boundaries? 

 This exciting traversing of boundaries and the ability, at least for a short time, to subvert them was very exciting. That is how Delhi By Heart came into existence. Initially, I was in Delhi for work during my Asian Development Bank (ADB) days. Without the ADB affiliation, I might not have even gotten a visa. That was also the time when I began to write. I found an audience in India, and in Pakistan too. Soon enough, I found myself returning again and again to conferences and literary circuits. I met so many people and made such good friends. 

 Unfortunately, for the past six years I haven’t been to India. I don’t know when I can go next. I am rather sad that travel has become so difficult and what is happening within India is so worrisome. A dear friend is fighting cancer and I need to give her my support. As they say in the Sufi lore, I am waiting for the Delhi saints to intervene! 

 Coming back to your question, crossing certain man-made borders makes you realize the hollowness of these official definitions of nationalism, boundaries, and identities at the end of the day. Given that you know I’m from Punjab, there is such commonality between the Indian and Pakistani Punjabi. It is completely crazy to see how an iron curtain has been built over the years. Part of our struggle through writing and activism is to actually somehow dent these walls and move towards a rational and sensible future for our future generations.  

 The Fractious Path was a collection of your columns that spanned and examined the period of Pakistan between 2008 and 2013, which were basically transition years from a military regime to a civilian one. This era is looked at through the angles of its democratic transition, domestic security, extremism, governance, foreign policy, and media in the country. Granted those articles were written prior to your departure from Pakistan, but did the sheer distance away from home grant you a unique prism to retrospectively view this period? 

 The Fractious Path actually came out because these were longer pieces written for a newspaper magazine that publishes articles longer than standard op-eds. As you may have noticed, most of these commentaries weren’t the standard op-eds. This was when I was regularly contributing and commenting on a variety of affairs. I had signed a contract before I came to the US. When I came here, I started revisiting some of these pieces and eventually updating them. Distance definitely makes you think about those issues and reflect a little more. In a way, this collection was a humble attempt at documenting five years of civilian rule after General Musharraf.  

 An interesting time, 2008 was when nearly a decade of military rule came to an end, ushering in a newly elected civilian government. There was of course a lot of bloodshed and violence with the killing of Benazir Bhutto. Certainly, the political elites tried to reset the playbook by amending the constitution and bringing in civilian democratic features to Pakistan’s governance. I was writing commentaries on these changes once, sometimes twice, a week. I looked at those commentaries and the publishers thought that it might be a good idea to present and pitch it as a popular history of sorts.  

 Being Pakistani contains evocative long-form features and semi-academic write-ups, which straddle the sensitive line between political and personal regarding Pakistan’s seven decade long soul-searching journey. On a broad level, secularism and gender are recurring themes. The Fractious Path delved beyond looking at these two through the perspective of the American security establishment. Your recent book is replete with vestiges of an ethnolinguistic/religious syncretic past that includes Hinduism, rebel poets (be it Bulleh Shah or Jalib) and the feminism of Saadat Hasan Manto. How have these literary symbols of resistance helped you and others straddle this line between the personal and political? 

 Being Pakistani as you rightly say is a collection of much longer and relatively more serious pieces. Many were published but a few of them were unpublished. Some were just papers presented at conferences. This was kind of a collection of these pieces, as I have been writing on various issues of culture for more than a decade. I thought this was a good way to collate all of that. That is how the book came into being. 

 The themes of gender and secularism, which you have rightly identified, include the idea of there being no singular definition about what exactly is Pakistani culture. It is diverse since Pakistan is home to many languages, ethnicities, political opinions, and even different (re)-conceptions of Pakistan. That is the common theme that you may have noticed. The second most important part of these essays and the reason I put them together was also to present an alternative idea about Pakistan. In mainstream Indian media or even Western media, Pakistan is seen as a country where everybody is a mullah out to annihilate the West and/or the Hindu. In reality, there is a whole history of resistance, dissent, and struggle in Pakistan for a more democratic and inclusive society. It is still ongoing and this straddling of personal and political hasn’t always been new. Some of the essays revolve around those themes like resistance literature through which stalwarts like MantoFahmida Riaz, and others who dreamt and wrote about an alternative Pakistan. Exploring their works will simply attune us to how Pakistan continues to delicately straddle the personal and political.  

 There are different terms used to describe those who forgo their birthplace for another. Depending on various circumstances, they can be refugees, exiles, migrants in search of better social/economic opportunities, or broadly just another member of a diaspora. In the Arts section” of your latest offering, you talk about some talented Pakistani artists who were trained at the premier institution, National College of Arts, Lahore but who have only honed their craft and made their mark in the US, kind of like an artistic brain drain. What category of immigrants are they?  

 You see this whole problem of looking at brain drain, whether it is artistic brain drain or technological brain drainthe reality is that since the end of the twentieth century, the world has become a different place. What we understand as globalization along with all its caveats has enabled the movement of people, skills, ideas, and technologies. So there were waves of immigration since the latter part of the twentieth century, especially to North America, where a lot of professionals settled down. For example, when I was a student at Aitchison College Lahore, the majority of my class went to pursue higher education in America. Most of them stayed back in America. It is basically the market forces at work. I think that is one part.  

 Another reason is that the migrant experience acquires and assumes a life of its own. It becomes a story and an inspiration in itself. The artists that I have mentioned in some of the essays are similarly inspired by their move, their adjustments, and interface with the new country and a new reality. I think it is very complicated to be honest. There is no straightforward way of looking at what happens to a migrant, and whether migrant artists are better or those at home are better. Both categories are excellent and deserved to be celebrated.   

 In Being Pakistani you briefly mention Annie Apa’s book Chandni Begum which talks about the dynamics between Muslim families that migrated to Pakistan while some of their relatives remained in India during partition. I have elder relatives who moved to Pakistan. Only in two scenarios have reunions been possible with them1) If they move to the Europe/North America/the Gulf and I happened to be living there or 2) They visited India during more peaceful times when it was relatively easy to get a visa. I don’t know if you have any “Indian” family anywhere but what have your interactions been like with NRIs on American soil?  

 No. I don’t have any relatives that I can call “Indian” because my mother’s family was in Amritsar and they all moved when Pakistan was created. My father’s family is from Old Lahore and they had been living there for centuries. In that sense I don’t have that split family syndrome that Annie Apa has written about or which your personal experience shows. But at the same time whenever me meet, I do feel that all over everyone is a relative of mine, whether it is a Bangladeshi, Indian, Nepalese, or Sri Lankan. We are tied by bonds of history, environment, culture, and climate, not to mention the DNA! Of course, since we are at some level creatures of the colonial era, the toxic bonds of colonialism have continued to bind us as well. That was the most recent, profound, and in some ways barbaric transformational time of our region. So if we are dealing with police in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or Bangladesh, we are dealing with the same toxicity. If we are faced with a corrupt and slow bureaucrat or judge, it is the same reality. If we are fighting for water as well as natural resources, looking for sifarish (connections) to get something done, it is a shared reality. I know it is perverse but that is what ties us together. I have a clear perspective about my South Asian identity. I feel that I am a citizen of the globe, a Pakistani, and a Lahori of course. But I’m also a South Asian. The real art of living is negotiating your multiple identities and being comfortable with them.  

 There was a time when parochial, patriarchal Indian TV shows were popular among Pakistanis. You examine this deeply in an early chapter. However, like Bollywood to some extent, Pakistani dramas are very progressive in their portrayals of women. Unless you were an Indian abroad who saw how popular Humsafar was among Pakistanis in 2012, Indians only got to enjoy HUM TV and GEO TV dramas were shown on this side of the border from 2014-2016. Despite two paradoxical forces (women and mullahs) rising in the country as Intizar Hussain observed, why has Pakistani television managed to depict such strong female characters in its TV shows?  

 Pakistan’s popular culture, especially TV, short films, and music, have been outstanding in the past few decades. That is again, a story much less known to the world outside which associates Pakistan with war and violence alone. Conversely, look at the case of the music artist collaborations on Coke Studio. While I have problems with the commodification cum corporatization of culture and music, the kind of talent it continues to showcase is phenomenal. Similarly, Pakistani art practitioners who are emerging out of Pakistani art schools, Pakistani writers who write in English and local languages, or just the overall creativity in new media wave of cinema and TV is quite remarkable. This itself is a testament to the fact that for all its problems, Pakistan is a very vibrant country. There are perennial debates about what this country should be and the direction it takes.  

 Also, don’t forget the civil society movement. Only a decade ago, Pakistani society stood up against General Musharraf’s rule and paved the way for his ouster. It was a handful of lawyers who started it and then the entire civil society joined. That was quite a dramatic phase of our recent history. And in recent years new social movements led by students, women and youth in tribal districts are shaping public discourses. 

 All these events are precursors to why this TV culture is thriving. Of course, I will say that Pakistani TV, not unlike its Indian neighbour, has imbibed a lot of negative trends of patriarchy and the general mistreatment of women that subordinates them to stereotypical gender roles. This is something that Pakistan is following unfortunately. But there are many other plays that have strong female characters and bold themes being presented. There have been plays in the Islamic Republic that have dealt with issues such as sexuality, mental health, transpeople, and the excessive use of religion in the public sphere. All of this is happening in a country where radicals find prominence too. I think all of this shows in Initzar Hussain’s interview that I conducted where he talks about the role of women. I have mentioned in my book what Intizar Hussain told me about how in Pakistan he witnessed the rise of women and MullahsI have seen this in my own lifetime. There are more and more women in the Parliament, bureaucracy, public life, the private sector, bus stations, and departmental stores. This is certainly unlike the Zia Ul-Haq era that I grew up in. Things were far more conservative. I think it is the urbanization and the economic dynamics resulting in a different kind of society we are witnessing. At the same time, radicalization has also grown thereby making it most complicated and I guess dynamic too.  

 Clearly Pakistan is in the midst of a seven decade long soul-searching process with the country being multi-layered, and of course questioning its boundaries and definitionSome commentators use the term “Pakistanization of India given the situation there. To what degree, if any, do you see “Pakistanization” happening in India? Because Faiz, Manto, and Jalib—icons of dissent evoked during Bhutto’s and Zia’s time—are also being elicited to resist the Modi regime in India. 

As for this Pakistanization of India or Indianization of Pakistan, a few years ago I wrote a piece on this in a slim volume called Identity Faith and Conflict before these terms became popular. In that piece, I looked at how some of the toxic trends of Pakistani history and attempts at engineering the state were being replicated in India.  

 While it superficially seems that the Pakistanization or Indianization might be happening, the truth of the matter is that both the societies are in a huge flux. In India there has been a resurgence of pride in Hindu identity. The RSS-BJP narrative claims that Hindus have been conquered, undermined, and humiliated. The call to action from this narrative is that it is time to reclaim its hyper-masculine nationalistic strength. All of that is very problematic. It is very similar to how nationalism evolved in Western Europe and how it too acquired a hyper-masculine nature. Countless Germans were slaughtered over the definition of what constitutes being a ‘true’ German of pure blood. We also know how the Holocaust against the Jewish minority panned out. But India and Pakistan are different as well. They are responding to their colonial experience for it only ended seven decades ago. The process of detoxification is a long one.  

 The truth is that we need to de-colonize ourselves. We need to de-colonize the way we think about ourselves because this whole notion of a Hindu-India and a Muslim-Pakistan is very much a colonial construct after all. Look at the case of the Urdu and Hindi languages. The former is thought of as a Muslim language whereas the latter is considered as a Hindu one. In reality, Urdu and Hindi are more or less the same. A few hundred years ago, Urdu wasn’t referred to as Urdu; it was referred to as Hindavi. It was only with time and politics and how identities shaped in nineteenth century colonial India that Urdu became a Muslim language. The textbooks I grew up reading spoke of this Hindi-Urdu divide and how Pakistani nationalism predicates itself on Urdu. Now we are seeing a mirror image in India where Urdu is being spurned on the grounds of it being a Muslim language implanted by the so-called “invaders.” Though the reality is that it was born in that same Hindustan. So if somebody wants to expel it, it can’t be expelled, as it is part of that culture and lived reality.  

 How would we go about this process of de-colonizing ourselves? 

Oh we have a long agenda ahead of de-colonization. The most important part of de-colonization is not just changing the names of your roads, cosmetic rebranding of civil service institutions or ‘tinkering’ with the various colonial era laws. It is about changing the way we think, produce and disseminate knowledge. It is how we perceive ourselves. In Pakistan, we think, rather unthinkingly, that the English language is sort of superior to our local languages. Being published in the West is seen as somehow more prestigious than being published in our homelands, and “foreign” goods/culture are superior to our native ones. These are all issues that surface in the political and economic system. Both countries are mired in neo-liberal economic structures. The rise of Modi and to some extent Imran Khan are somewhat representative of the aspirational middle classes seeking authoritarian leaders who can deliver economic miracles. It is a South Asian reaction to the neo-liberal global order.  

Could you tell us about forthcoming projects of yours 

I have been working on a book that is a linear documentation of the year 2007 when Pakistan’s lawyers and civil society stood up against our military dictator Gen. Musharraf. Hopefully, that will be completed this year. Another project that is still a work in progress is memoir – a personal narrative of transitions of transplanting oneself from one place to another and this perpetual state of homelessness which has more or less come to define my trajectory. Like the song goes, Musafir hoon yaaronna ghar hain na thikana mujhe chalte jaana hai (Friends I am a wonderer and traveler, I don’t have have home and address) 

But it is a tough project for emotional reasons. I am too overwhelmed by the sense of loss of being away from my country. Therefore, have been rewriting what I initially penned mainly to find my real voice.   

Works Cited

  • Rumi, Raza. Delhi By Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller. Harper Collins, 2013. 
  •  Rumi, Raza. The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition. Harper Collins, 2016.  
  •  Rumi, Raza. Being Pakistani: Society, Culture, and the Arts, 2016.  
  •  Rumi, Raza. Identity, Faith, and Conflict: Essays on Pakistan and Beyond , 2018.  
  •  MajidDaneesh. “Reading Qurratulain Hyder’s ‘Aag Ka Darya’ in Contemporary India.” The Wire IndiaAugust 21, 2019.   
  • Haqqani, Husain, & IsphahaniFarhanaz. “We are seeing a Pakistanisation of India: Husain Haqqani.” You Tube, uploaded by The Print, February 21, 2018.  
     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSv6GObndHk 

Daneesh Majid is freelance writer from Hyderabad, India with an MA in South Asian Area Studies from the School of Oriental African Studies, University of London. His work has been featured in the regions’ prominent outlets including The Wire IndiaThe Express Tribune and The Hindu Business Line—Ink. He enjoys reading and writing about Urdu poetry/literature as well as South Asian security/cultural/political dynamics. He tweets at @MajidDan. For more of his work, head to his website 

Interview with Tishani Doshi

Interview by Mariyam Haider  

Poet and dancer, Tishani Doshi’s latest book, Small Days and Nights, released April 2019, narrates the story of Grace (half-Italian, half-Indian), who moves from the US to India, owing to the passing away of her mother. Her life unravels when a house is bequeathed to her, in a village by the sea, and she meets Lucia, a sister, she never knew she had. While Doshi’s last book, Girls are Coming Out Of The Woods, was a poetry collection that evoked feelings of resilience, fear, pain and wonder, her latest novel takes the reader deeper into the realms of familial relationships, loss, endearment and rebirth of emotions that get buried through time and distance.  

Tishani Doshi spoke with Mariyam Haider about her latest book, the journey authors make with their characters, and what it means to be a writer in times of shifting identities, displacements and finding stillness through it all. Excerpts from the interview: 

In Small Days and Nights, the protagonist, Grace, returns home after spending years away, only to realize that the idea of home was never a place, rather a feeling she had not made peace with, her journey unfolds back from where it started. What is your idea of home? 

That idea of home is always a fragile one. People who are born in a place and believe strongly in the idea of birthright are often against the idea of people coming from outside. This idea of the other has always been very strong and potent in human beings, who are inherently territorial. I have always identified in some ways as an outsider and relished observing the behavior of people on the inside. It is an interesting interplay. In the novel, it is on a very particular scale, of a woman who finds herself having to navigate a space that is not really hers. There is no precedent for Grace, who has to find her balance between, new adventures and acclimatizing to a city, she did not grow up in.  

You said that you feel an outsider in particular places, do feel that way about India as well.

I think of no other place than India as home, but it is such a large country, you can journey from Delhi to Madras, nobody speaks Hindi and you feel like you have landed in another country.  

It is not rare to feel like an outsider in your own home. Likewise, you can experience a sense of belonging outside of home too. 

Perhaps in a foreign city even without understanding the language, you could feel a connection with a person. It restores your faith in interconnectedness and in what humans can offer to each other. I think that question of belonging is very fluid and is always changing. 

That is precisely the beauty of being human. Being able to observe, look at things from both outside and inside, and find the connecting threads. Then there are those distinctions that make us unique in our own way. 

Yes. In fact, there are certain moments in the novel, where Grace is in the city with her friends, and still feels lonely in their company. She is disappointed, as she tries so hard to get rid of that feeling. In that moment I recollected Rilke’s words, who is a favorite poet. In his Letters To A Young Poet, he talks about how important it is for writers to befriend their solitude; how sometimes we tend to feel lonelier even when we are surrounded by people. I think we have all experienced that to some degree. Sometimes the companionship we seek, in reality does not match our expectations and we are left disappointed. 

As a performing artist, you take poetry and dance to produce a piece that is etched in the memory of your audience and readers. How different is the process of performance from the process of writing?

It is interesting. I started writing well before I began dancing. These two things have moved in parallel tracks, with conversation between them. Their coexistence is recent, it is interesting to work with one form, a poem, from which you create a completely separate thing, and yet it remains the poem. 

Poetry is very elastic and allows different expressions. I want to do a lot more of it.  

I start with the image, a line and then explore which poems are open enough or can lend themselves to reinterpretation. I do not want to let go this experience live interaction between an artist and an audience, since it is so powerful. The idea of theatre helps us suspend belief, despite technology you think, oh my god, on a stage, a single person with a single spotlight can do simple things, offer a story or a poem, and it moves you. I am i interested in that power. 

Do your poems often end up surprising yourself? 

My poems constantly surprise me. Writing has always been a way of resolving inexplicable mysteries. I cannot explain where a poem comes from, a first line or the story. Except through the act of writing, I arrive at an idea from my thoughts. Therefore, many times, I begin a poem at a point, but it moves and ends up where it confirms my intentions, in retrospect. 

The poem is like a connector from the first point to the second and sometimes it maybe to fifth or eighth, And you realize these little synapses are similar to looking into your brain and trying to imagine what’s going on in there, it’s very hard to do. Through the very act of writing, certain things become evident and that is the wonder of it. The impulse is never to start with an agenda, Multitude things layer within the body and mind, they express themselves in different ways, and the poem has that transformative power. 

Did you experience that element of surprise while you were writing Grace’s story in Small Days and Nights

It changed a lot as I was writing it. When I started, I did not realize that I wanted to emphasize the feeling of unsettlement and tension as much. The journey truly began at a place of beauty, the idea of this beautiful landscape, this place. In  fiction though, it is good to play up drama and tension. I spent a lot of time there by myself to experience excessive solitude and understand its effects. The nature of fear can be in a woman’s mind, particularly when she is alone. You get a little paranoid sometimes and the fear is very real. All these things factored more and more into the story as it progressed, the Characters got morally ambiguous, even the teacher, who is identifiably a good character. There is a strong undercurrent of ambiguity pulsing through the novel. It did not start that way, but when you write something over years, the work is reflective of the changes within you that happens over time. 

Grief plays a major role in Grace’s life, her relationship with her mother, her sister, and grief brings out immense vulnerability. How much of a personal process did it become, to write about grief for characters that are almost autobiographical?

Grace is not autobiographical but a vessel for a lot of my ideas and thoughts. The story itself has inputs from my experiences.  

The question of grief is interesting as it is tied to vulnerability. We are told the right way is to stay strong, the paradox is that if you are very resilient and unemotional, you are unable to experience grief properly because you are blocking it.  

I believe you should embrace your vulnerability, be open, and let life in. It would be a sad way of being in the world. Experience the beauty while acknowledging that there are dangers.  

The process of grief never truly stops. When grief enters your life, rather than trying to banish it, accept it and know that it is still possible to see beauty and joy. The idea of love and grief, beauty and darkness exists dichotomously. That is the human conundrum and to allow it in is the way to be, but everybody has to find their own balance.  

You are active on Instagram, keeping your followers engaged, allowing them to follow your progress on your writing and performances. As an artist how useful, do you find social media? 

I spent many years off social media. It coincided with the time when I started to live in Paramankeni, in this isolated village. It was a strange coincidence, I moved there partly to get away from things; I wanted to immerse myself in writing, thought and reading. I just cut off, physically and virtually and it increased the sense of isolation. At some point I thought, let me just get back onto some social media, if it is horrible, I will switch off. Instead, I discovered it changed in five years; there was a way to create a community. This was great, because it removed the need for writers and artists to be located at the capital be well known and have your work recognized. With technology you could be anywhere, living your life, and you work is still reachable. It is a wonderful way to meet readers, other writers, and to present your work.  

The one issue I have with social media is that it takes up a lot of time and designed to be addictive, you have to resist that. It interrupts your energy. 

I like the ability to be in the middle of nowhere and to be able to connect with people. I have had some wonderful things come out of it, so I would advise to proceed with caution; to be well aware that the real work comes from a different place.  

What is your writing routine between working towards a manuscript deadline versus writing as a discipline and part of everyday life? 

I work best in the morning, if I manage 4-5 hours; I get the best out of my day in terms of writing. There are obviously optimal situations for writing; a quiet room works best for me. It helps to create a ritual around it. Everybody has their little fetishes and rituals. I try to keep it simple.  

Travel is the only thing in my life that is directly in conflict with writing. I find myself in a nomadic mode quite frequently and it is difficult to have that discipline, stamina and ritual when you are moving because you are not in your space and there are too many variables. The exciting thing about travel is that ideas flow and I am inspired to go back to do the writing. I make sure I make time to write and to be still.  

From the time when you studied creative writing, to being published and now teaching creative writing, what would be your three main points of advice for emerging artists? 

The first one is to read. Read widely, deeply, and curiously. It is interesting to discover that so many people feel the need to share their story, they strongly feel that they have something to say that the world needs to know, but do not think it important to read anything else. This is essentially elementary. These are the tools of the trade: you need to develop the ear, the tongue, develop the eye, develop all the senses to understand what makes a sentence work, what makes a poem work.  

The second is, open up to different forms. Go to museums, go to dance performances, watch films, do things that do not come necessarily into your line of work. The idea is to understand that this is all about making connections.  

Lastly and quite importantly, discipline. Nothing happens without discipline and stamina. There are no quick ways to doing things. I emphasize the importance of perseverance to my students and you have to make time, to devote to writing. Structure your life such that you can find the energy to do what you want to do. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Mariyam Haider is a writer and poet, based in Singapore. She is the researcher of the book The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age written by James Crabtree. Her writing has appeared in Hindustan Times, Livemint, Feminism In India, New Asian Writing, Kitaab, and Asian Review of Books. A journalist by training, Mariyam holds a Masters in Public Policy, from the National University of Singapore. She tweets @mariyamraza and her work can be read on mariyamrazahaider.com
 

 

 

Eight Months in Andhra Pradesh

Emma S. Marcos

Killing the Demon

When it rains, the tall, thin palm trees blur in the horizon. At five in the morning, the single florescent light in the hostel room flickers on. An ant crawls across my laptop screen. Hundreds of dragonflies hover in the air above the flower market. A white cow, ears like a puppy dog, trots languidly beside the road.

I learn how to scrub laundry against a stone and how to eat with my right hand. Bats swarm in the purple evening. Machetes. Motorcycles. Cane sugar, sweet corn, coconuts. The auto-rickshaw which I ride every day for ten rupees per kilometer. Inside: glossy photographs of 80’s Bollywood actors in opaque sunglasses, decals with Ganesha, and Saibaba, Bob Marley, and “Jesus saves.”

The temple and its combined odors of incense, manure, and blossoms. Mounted ceiling fans rotating over the family portrait of Shiva and Parvati. I walk through the rooms: a ceremonial fire burning, a pair of shirtless Brahmins building a small mountain of chrysanthemums. A handful of fragrant lemon rice, a pewter bowl filled with camphor, a man singing along to an electronic recording of a Telugu mantra. Durga lying in oleander, her face black, eyes spots of ochre, and along her tarred neck, a garland of raw, whole carrots. On the road immediately outside the temple, a dead cat lies splayed, blood and brain matter emerging from a wound along its face.

Strange, to think I came to this country, at least partially, to understand my Rajasthani father and have found so little here that reminds me of him. Sometimes I do think I notice him, in the taste of raw tamarind, which is midway between citrus and brine, or in the expression of a child who could have been him half a century ago. But most days I am a stranger among strangers.

Moonlight, bruised, crests over the hills as my friend Niharika, whose name means “morning dew,” pauses at a roadside stall to buy chicken pakora. Mangled clusters of chicken breast, dense with bones thin as strands of hair, chickpea flour, and spices in dissolution are deep-fried in flaxen oil, and then adorned with circlets of lilac-white onion and lemon slices. The process is quickly and nimbly performed, and we watch it unfold under the light of a single buzzing fluorescent bulb. The street vendor, identified as a devotee of Ayyappa by the smear of red between his eyes, pours the mixture into a newspaper cone with uncommon deftness and delicacy, as though arranging long-stemmed lilies.

A laminated print-out affixed to the stall informs us that “PayTM,” a sort of Indian PayPal mobile app for micro-transactions, is accepted in lieu of cash. Across Andhra Pradesh I’ve been noticing this new millennium spin on everyday tradition: Facebook pages for temple sites, color televisions in distant villages fenced in by slim coconut trees. This union of the digital and the ordinary feels intentional, but natural, somehow: a marriage of wild and wireless. I imagine an appearance of the goddess Durga, astride a collared lion, her many arms wielding a trident, thunderbolt, lotus, sword, and cellphone. The father, the son, and the semiconductor.

Niharika and I, chicken pakora in hand, make our way up the hillside for a nighttime walk. Though I quickly find myself straining to climb, the change in topography does not seem to have daunted the locals. Along the incline their many houses rise like segments of a labyrinth from the darker Grecian myths. That mood particular to twilight, sulky and foreboding, has descended. Add in a few gray clouds, a scattering of English wildflowers, and this could be King Lear’s cliffs of Dover.

For me this is a journey through memory. Looking for my father, I peer briefly through an alleyway and am instead reminded a different place entirely: Gion, in Kyoto, where slim, forest green wood-paneled streets would terminate in urns of veined marble, or with a sliding door, opened noiselessly by a silent geisha. Here, the gaps between houses are lit by ochre-toned bulbs, and feature pools of filthy, yet luminous, water encircling sleeping dogs. The occasional woman, barefoot and wearing a sari of patterned cotton that reveals the midriff but conceals the shoulders (a contradiction in modesty that I like to call “the paradox of the Indian crop top”) leans out of a window to look at me with a blend of curiosity, restraint and a third quality I have not yet been able to name.

The color palette of the houses is dilapidated peaches-and-cream: exterior walls in coral pink, white-hued green, with the paint blistered in several places from floor to roof. But it is the kind of decay that suggests not death but the necessary experience of life. I feel an expansiveness, as I stand atop a cascade of stairs, that brings to mind walking through soft yellow Ohioan wheat fields with my father at dusk, a recollection from early childhood I’ve not had in years but that emerges now, fully formed. A sense of distance being eclipsed, and of time acquiring the viscosity of a gelatinous physical solid. When I focus again on my surroundings, it takes a moment to locate Niharika, resting against a building a few steps above me.

Halfway up the hill, we come across a tiny temple, shuttered closed for the night. To the immediate right is a mural of Durga killing the demon and sticking her tongue out. The temple is labeled on Google Maps, a revelation which does not faze Niharika in the slightest but leaves me feeling intensely incredulous. But, then again, if Notre Dame, Giza’s pyramids, and Mount Everest are on the web, then why not this Perhaps it is only appropriate that this be the way to achieve modern godhood.

Niharika pulls out her cellphone and plays a song from a popular Telugu movie that she knows I love. We listen in companionable silence, sitting by the temple in a darkness broken only by the yellow-orange lights from the city below. After a few moments, she rises, brushes the dust off her jeans, and begins the descent back to the main road below.

My mind suddenly travels to the poem by Li-Young Lee, “Visions and Interpretations,” which starts: “Because this graveyard is a hill / I must climb to see my dead, / stopping once midway to rest / beside this tree. / It was here, between the anticipation / of exhaustion, and exhaustion / between vale and peak, / my father came down to me / and we climbed arm in arm to the top.” But if my own father were here, I know he’d be two steps ahead of me, walking in short but quick, unflagging strides; he always did move at a pace that was difficult to match.

Lessons from the Serpent King

The moon over the dam is brick red and pockmarked with deep scarlet indentations. But as we make our way back towards the main road, I look up during a conversational lull to find its color totally altered.

“Hey,” I say, turning from the window to Sasanka’s profile, “how’d the moon turn so yellow?”

If he notices the perplexed tone of my voice, he gives no indication. He barely glances at the moon. Instead, he shrugs, unperturbed, as though nothing unusual has transpired. “You’ve never seen anything like that before ” he asks.

We continue driving by the river, which is visible only through the reflections of moonlight that pattern its surface in crenulations. On a different evening, we are returning from a day at the lake and, as Sasanka pulls into the gas station to refuel, I notice a fire on the horizon. The dark silhouettes of palm trees are outlined against the growing blaze. The nighttime, like crushed velvet, is nestled around it, soft and eerie. Again, Sasanka is nowhere near as mesmerized as I. He coolly points out that, during this time of year, it is not unusual for farmers to burn their excess hay to fertilize the ground for the coming year.

I think back to a story Satya, whose name means “truth,” told me, featuring Lord Rama and his disciple, the monkey god, Hanuman. Rama is approaching the natural end of his life, but the god of death will not come as long as Hanuman guards the lord. To distract Hanuman, Lord Rama drops his ring deep into the earth and sends him to recover it; Hanuman arrives at the tunnel’s end only to discover a whole mountain of rings identical to the one that was dropped. When he asks aloud which ring belongs to his Lord Rama, the voice of the serpent king materializes from the darkness to respond: “which Rama “

The serpent king goes on to tell Hanuman that every generation a ring falls from above, and, when a monkey comes to retrieve it, on Earth, one Lord Rama dies. When I remember this story, I think of myself one week ago, and that state of mind that allowed me, capriciously, arrogantly, to trust in permanence. But the truth is, my memories of those ninety-degree noons, the peach and cherry-colored clouds casting jagged shadows over the hills, are already beginning to fade. Even the images of Satya and Sasanka have started to wilt under the weight of an encroaching season of mangoes and new obligations of emotion that no longer include my presence.

“Which Rama ” is meant to be a lesson on reincarnation, but, for me, it is most applicable as a lesson on letting go.


Emma S. Marcos is a graduate student living in Tokyo.

The Dignity of an Unheralded Artist on the Streets of Bangalore

Richard Rose

For two consecutive days when returning to my accommodation after an early morning walk I cursed my ill-fortune at having missed an opportunity. Determined to make amends, on the third morning I started my promenade of the streets of Jayanagar in Bangalore forty minutes earlier than usual, and stepped out with greater purpose than before. 5.30 am is a good time to explore the lanes of the city on foot.  It is only at this point in the day the pedestrian is afforded a rare opportunity to walk in relative safety, before the chaos that constitutes the traffic of this vast metropolis has bludgeoned every walker with the least regard for personal safety into submission. It was therefore with some confidence that I made my way through the labyrinth of lanes which spread like tentacles from the main thoroughfare through the urban sprawl of Jayanagar. 

Usually on these dawn excursions my wanderings are fairly aimless, following no regular pattern and having the sole objective of exploring the area in order to gain my bearings and take some exercise before the commencement of a day’s work. But on this particular occasion I was more focused and set out on a quest; hopeful of discovering an artist at work and with any luck to witness creation in progress, rather than simply viewing the results of the creator’s labours. Whilst I had every confidence of locating the venue where today’s masterpiece was likely to be found, I was less assured that my timing would enable me to view the artist whilst engaged in the act of producing her work of art. But, as is the case with many journeys, I set out full of hope if not expectation. 

Rangoli patterns comprising a series of flowing whirls and geometric motifs are a common enough sight on the pavements and thresholds to be found in the backstreets of Bangalore, as they are in other parts of India. On many occasions I had stopped to admire the intricate swirls and interweaving patterns produced by the women who fashion these elaborate designs. There had been instances when I had caught a glimpse of an artist, bent double from the waist putting the final touches to her work, but as yet I had failed to observe the whole process, from the first outlines made precisely with the delicate placing of the red ochre sindoor stained flour, to the completed geometric shapes flowing from the delicately placed utswdhermita, which signify a conclusion to the process. Wishing to address this omission in my experience of Rangoli production and knowing that these skilful women work quickly, I made my way to the narrow lane where I had on the previous two mornings found elaborate examples of these intricate but ephemeral works of art. Timing is critical to those who wish to find these pavement Rangoli designs, which within a few hours of their production are inevitably be swept from the streets by the passing of many feet as local pedestrians go about their business. Hopeful that I would arrive before the artist began her labours I took up my position and waited. 

There are many myths and legends surrounding the production of Rangoli, some associated with the deity Mahalakshmi, of whom it is said that she will bring good fortune to the house outside which a woman makes a pattern whilst chanting sacred mantras. I have noticed that during festivals such as Dusshera, celebrated at the end of Navatri each year in Bangalore, there seems to be a small increase in the number of Rangoli patterns to be found on the streets. As is fitting for a festival closely associated with a celebration of the bounties of harvest, during this festival these incorporate natural materials often incorporate flowers, seed pods and leaves within the design. During this period it is possible to make a circuit of the district and to see several variations in design, colour and texture amongst these traditional patterns. 

But today I was in pursuit of observing a single artist at work. One whose finished design I had seen on both previous mornings, and whose intricate patterns had held my attention and fascinated me by their complexity.  For this reason I arrived early at the venue and took up position across the narrow road from the house from which I hoped the lady would emerge. After ten minutes I began to feel concerned that my mission was in vain, there was no sign of an artist and I began to curse my own stupidity for having missed an opportunity to see an artist in action, which would clearly have presented itself had I arrived earlier during my previous visits to this site. But just as pessimism began to gain the upper hand a lady emerged through a gateway carrying a large metal bowl, the contents of which I could not at first discern. As she took up her position on the path outside of her house I indicated to her that I wished to observe her at work and checked that she was comfortable with my presence. Her English was marginally better than my Kannada and I was therefore grateful when she smiled and indicated that she was quite undisturbed by my interest in her morning ritual. 

As I watched she began by creating an almost perfect circle of bright vermillion. This was done quickly filling her hands with powder from the large bowl which was delicately balanced on her hip and turning herself about, until every part of the circle was filled to present an even canvas upon which she could work.  At this point she removed a smaller pot from within the large bowl and commenced to create an elaborate pattern using what looked to my uneducated eye, to be either sand or salt. The whiteness of this medium stood out boldly from the background red as she utilised her finger tips as a delicate channel through which to feed the powdery substance. From my vantage point some five metres away, I could see how with a simple flick of her wrist and rubbing together of her fingers she was able to vary the flow of the powder, occasionally doubling back along a line to add thickness or emphasise a shape.  

Within five minutes the whole process was completed and standing upright the artist offered only the briefest of glances at her creation before gathering her bowls together and making to re-enter her house. I felt that I wanted to applaud, but was unsure whether this might be seen as disrespectful of an activity, which clearly had significance and a deeper meaning for the artist than I might be able to understand. In saying thank you, I was aware that this hardly seemed sufficient reward for the opportunity I had experienced to observe the creation of something so beautiful in its simplicity. Having heard my far from adequate thanks, the lady smiled and with a simple shake of her head, a gesture that has so many meanings here in South India, she turned and was gone. 

In watching this artist at work a number of thoughts went through my mind. Firstly, I suspect that the woman I had seen create this beautiful and clearly to her, significant image, would not apply the nomenclature of artist to herself. I would imagine that the creation that she laid upon the pavement today was similar to many others that she has produced over a number of years, and that her skills had possibly been learned from her mother and may well have been passed down through many generations. Who might define the artist I wondered? In my eyes she was the creator of a fine, if ephemeral work of art and therefore deserving of being seen as an artist. Others, including the lady herself I imagine might be surprised that I refer to her in this way, though I believe that I am fully justified in asserting that what I witnessed this morning was true artistic endeavour from an individual with skills and understanding that the majority of us could not replicate. For this reason I will not be dissuaded from the terminology that I have applied. 

The nature of her work was of course ephemeral. I have no doubt that a return to the gallery in which she created her Rangoli pattern a few hours later, would have found the image if not wholly erased, certainly smudged and distorted. Does this devalue the work which she so lovingly made upon the pavement? There are many instances of artists who have produced work knowing it to be ephemeral and temporary in nature. A few years ago my wife and I attended an exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park of work from the British artist Andy Goldsworthy. This included images and sculptures made from a range of natural materials including flower petals, stones, twigs and leaves, all cleverly arranged to provoke discussion from the viewers of this eclectic mixture, used to produce what were most certainly works of art. Other artists such as Richard Long, Leonie Barton and James Brunt have created images in the landscape using the resources that come immediately to hand, such as pebbles on a beach, or pine cones and leaves, which will be erased by an incoming tide or scattered on the wind. For many such artists the beauty is as much in the act of creation as it is in the finished work, but this does not lessen the aesthetic of their efforts. 

In India there is a long tradition of artists creating work which sits comfortably in the environment for a time before eventually fading away. The lively images of the Madhubani paintings traditionally produced by the women of the Mithila region of Bihar, or the wall paintings of the Warli tribes in Maharashtra State were never originally intended to have the permanency that we tend to hope for in much western art. In recent years the introduction of methods and materials to assist artists from these communities to place their art on a commercial footing, has begun to change the ways in which these images are regarded. This has resulted in new opportunities for today’s Indian artists such as Ratna Raghia Dhusalda, Bhuri Baï and Balu Mashe who, whilst maintaining traditional tribal approaches have gained recognition from a much wider audience.  In the past the influence of such work extended to some European artists such as Picasso, Brancusi and Matisse who recognised that what others saw as simplicity in tribal works was often far more complex and imbued with meaning, and possessed an ability to communicate in ways that were largely misunderstood. 

Whilst I would never suggest that the lady who granted me an audience this morning, as she produced her beautiful Rangoli could be compared directly to Picasso, I am prepared to say that they walk along a similar continuum of artistic endeavour. Both Picasso and this unheralded lady artist, recognise the value of art as a means of communication and have developed a set of skills and knowledge, which enable them to command the attention and admiration of those who care to stop and stare. Only the narrowest of minds would deny that the act of creation should not be only the preserve of those who receive formal recognition for their work. 

On one final note; whilst watching the lady artist at work this morning a further impression came to my mind. As I tracked her graceful movements around the pattern that she was so deftly creating on the ground. I noted that rather than getting close to the earth by flexing her knees, all of her work was performed by bending at the waist. This image remained with me throughout the day until I suddenly realised where I had seen it before. At the first opportunity I turned to a book which catalogued much of the work of Vincent Van Gogh and searched for the series of drawings that he produced whilst living in Nuenen between 1883 and 1885. Here in Van Gogh’s work I was able to refer to the collection of pictures, which honour the dignity of the peasants who lived in this Netherlands village. Many of the drawings depict women working in the fields, some of whom, just like today’s Bangalorian artist are bending from the waist to work close to the ground with their hands. An image of a woman planting potatoes and another simply described as “peasant woman bending down” from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo could easily have been a representation of the Bangalore street artist at work on a Rangoli design. 

Here then is the true value of art. In observing what many would undoubtedly regard as a simple domestic task on the streets of Bangalore, I have had the pleasure of seeing an act of creation by a lady artist whose movements have led me on a journey to consider the nature of the created image. This has included a reflection upon the coming together of western and eastern influences and the relationship between labour and beauty. Now, who will dare to tell me that the lady who I was privileged to see at work this morning is not an artist whose work deserves to be celebrated alongside that of others who assume this title?   

Richard Rose is a writer and university professor based in the UK. He has been working regularly in India for the past 20 years. His short fiction has appeared in international literary magazine, including Spadina Review, Indian Review and Muse India, and his non-fiction has been published in Coldnoon Spark and the Bangalore Review for whom he writes a regular column. His play Letters to Lucia celebrating the life of James Joyce’s daughter was first performed in 2018 by the Triskellion Irish Theatre Company. 

 

Adventures in Nose Piercing

Lakshmi Jagad

I married my husband in December 2003.

I was in a bit of an existential funk at that time. I had just returned home from a year-long work assignment in Cairo, exhausted and drained. Work wasn’t fun or fulfilling any more. I yearned for meaning, a sense of purpose. But I lacked clarity and confidence, and marriage felt like a good move. I thought I could just stay in there and marinate in all the complex emotions I was experiencing, hoping they’d sort themselves out eventually.

I never liked “wife” or “daughter-in-law” much. But then I didn’t like “girlfriend” either, and I had happily inhabited that space for a good five years before marriage was proposed. I think I have a basic issue with labels, period. I do love “daughter,” “sister,” “cousin” and “friend,” though. I know, I know… all these are labels. Some feel natural, fit closer to the skin, and are harder to peel off. Some others I reluctantly pinned on, and they dangled awkwardly off my bony shoulders like ill-fitting necklines. “Wife” and “daughter-in-law” felt very burdensome. I didn’t feel up to the work involved, or the hidden expectations. But I figured, I was going to marry my best friend, and together we could make “wife” and “husband” work.

I enlisted the help of a little diamond in this effort. A few weeks before the wedding, I went to a local jeweler and got my nose pierced. I was marrying into a Gujarati family, and many Gujarati women have their left nostrils pierced. It felt like a good fit, and I felt like a good fit. My mother-in-law was delighted too. She gifted me one of her own diamond nose pins, and it sparkled on my young bride face.

Off I went and got married, and flew to the United States. I had thought that the tiny stone would cement my relationship as “wife” and “daughter-in-law,” that it would help me inhabit these roles in a more fluent and comfortable way. But it didn’t work out that way. Here in the United States, the nose pin felt like an appendage. It looked and felt loud, fake. Neither was it going to help me find my niche as a married woman. I’d have to figure that out on my own. And I was progressing nicely on that front. My husband and I were discovering what it meant to be married, to be living together. In our particular dynamic, he was no husband and I was no wife. He was P, and I was A. “Husband” and “wife” felt artificial, and we were reluctant to use those terms with reference to each other.

I tried to be “wife” and “daughter-in-law” but “girl” was whom I felt like. She resurfaced quickly enough and pushed all other ideas and identities away. Long story short, the diamond nose pin came off.

Two years passed. I was introduced to yoga and meditation, thanks to an introductory workshop I attended locally. These practices gave me a new lease on life. I felt myself energized, inside and out. I started helping with organizing similar workshops. I dreamed I’d become a meditation instructor, someday. Come 2006, and we headed to India to attend an international cultural event celebrating yoga and its many benefits. We landed in Bengaluru, and I got a glimpse of the yoga-meditation community in India. I saw young women, so beautiful and hip, dressed in sparkling saris and silver jewelry. I saw older women resplendent in elegant silks, diamonds and bindis aglitter. I saw jasmine flowers woven into long hair, top knots with jeweled hair ornaments, halter necks and crop tops masquerading as sari blouses, skinny jeans and colorful embroidered kurti tops, toe rings, et al.

I was entranced. I had forgotten how hip and attractive Indian style could be, especially when it incorporated Western elements. Cotton handloom sari with a crop top and a navel piercing? Skinny jeans with a traditional Bagh print top and a nose piercing? I wanted it all.

I wanted to be that Indian girl/woman who freely expressed her Indian self in the United States, but in a way that felt contemporary, relevant. I wanted to be “mod,” as we called it in Mumbai. I wanted to be equal parts Indian beauty and young Atlanta native. I wanted the sooty kajal and vibrant kurtis, silver jewelry and silk sarees, but I also wanted the skinny jeans and boots and trench coats. I wanted to be able to switch flawlessly between Hindi and Malayalam and English, to enunciate very clearly the difference between “v” and “w,” to achieve a softness to my vowels and consonants. I wanted to be the person who switched identities seamlessly, flawlessly. I wanted to be beautiful in a way that was unmistakably Indian, yet universal and modern. And I thought a diamond nose pin could help me achieve that.

Back I went to the same jeweler. He showed no sign of recognition, asked me no questions. I returned to the United States, shiny bauble glittering in my left nostril yet again.

This time it stayed on a little longer. Then it began to feel fake again. Perhaps it was too traditional, not sufficiently young or hip. Perhaps I started to resent the trappings of this so-called Indianness. Or maybe I started to feel at odds with the notions and expectations of Indian identity in the United States, as I perceived it. I wasn’t one to perform a Pooja during Navaratri or cook deep-fried goodies during Diwali. I wasn’t one to invite older Indian uncles and aunts for tea/lunch/dinner every time they visited. I wasn’t the consummate hostess, effortlessly whipping up batches of idlis or making vats of chutney/sambar or happily inviting all and sundry home, the person who goes “drop in any time!”

Maybe I was less Indian than I thought.

The diamond nose pin came off a few weeks later. What remained was a tiny mark on my left nostril, proof that I’d tried to fit in. And so on it continued for many years. Periodically, I’d experience a mild sense of relief that I had removed the nose pin. I didn’t want to come across as “too” Indian. I wanted to keep my ethnicity indeterminate, as much as I could. I didn’t want to be typecast as Indian, South Asian, whatever.

Ten years passed. One day, I noticed a young Indian woman at my workplace, sporting a gold nose pin in her right nostril. It looked perfect; she looked beautiful.

I was smitten. I had to get it done myself.

I hastened to an Indian salon, got pierced again… the right nostril this time. It was a large, fake diamond, and it was perfect.

I loved it, and I loved how I looked in it. So I got myself a genuine (albeit tiny) diamond nose pin. It glows like a little flame, catching the light as I move, sparkling in low light and dark places. I wear it all the time, only taking it off when I am getting a facial massage.

Needless to say, I have zero reservations or mixed feelings about it. I intend to keep it on.

What’s different this time? Does it matter that it’s on the right side of my face? Perhaps that is a nicer profile for me? Perhaps I simply like this look more.

Or maybe what it is is that I am not trying to fit in anywhere. I just want to look pretty, and that seems like a reasonable aim for a diamond to fulfill. I like the tiny invisibility of this diamond. It feels more girl, less woman. It feels naive, hopeful in the best way possible. It makes me think I can write my own roles, play them the way I think fit, discard at will, and move on.

I wonder: What if I had gone with the left nostril again? Would it have mattered?

Lakshmi Jagad is a freelance writer, editor, and blogger based in Atlanta. She has a Master’s in Mass Communication from Georgia State University. An ideal day for Lakshmi includes a hike, meditation, writing, and a steaming cup of masala chai. She is a vegan food enthusiast, lover of slow travel, and counts dates+almond butter as dessert. She blogs at The Rich Vegetarian.