Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

Anam means without name or without fame. If Tahmima's first novel is any indication, her name, her characters and her writing, will be recognized by generations to come. We live in an age where such tag-lines accompany every review we read, and we hardly see serious criticism of ordinary work. To fish out a book like A Golden Age from a stack of books, all claimed to be pathbreaking and brilliant, requires a dint of luck. The aim of my review is to suggest why Tahmima Anam's novel deserves more readership than it has received so far. Since the plot of the novel is tied to the birth of Bangladesh, it provides an alternative history of the birth of a nation; but this subplot is secondary, though necessary part of the novel's appeal.

Rehana is a young widow, whose life revolves around her son, Sohail and daughter, Maya. Rehana grew up in Calcutta, and is as conversant in Urdu as she in Bengali, and most of her relatives live in West Pakistan, while she lives in Dhaka. Without giving away any subplots and surprises that fill this novel, let me say that the story revolves around the relationship of these three and the effect of Bangladesh War of Independence on their life and the life of their neighbors, friends and relatives. The narrative flows with a lyrical beauty, exposing us to the fears and dreams of Rehana, as she deals with national and personal events. Heroic personal struggles of Rehana and other characters are described with a dignity and delicacy; but together these individual struggles translate into a national struggle for survival of their language and identity. The mother-son and mother-daughter relationships are presented with honesty, which presents a reader with an unadulterated sense of how families in Bangladesh and everywhere, stay together, in spite of forces that try to disturb this harmony. Generation gaps, differences in desires and dreams, education, upbringing, personalities are all apparent in this novel; and yet it is also apparent that humanity knows how to express these in the worst and the best possible manner.

Let us look at an exemplary passage, where Rehana wonders if she should attend a meeting comprising of the friends of her son/daughter; the meeting is about "resistance" or the fight for Bangladesh:
"... she did not have the proper trappings of a nationalist. She did not have the youth, the appearance or the words. The correct words, though by now, familiar to her, did not glide easily from her tongue: 'comrade', 'proletariat', 'revolution'. They were hard, precise words and did not capture Rehana's ambiguous feeling about the country she had adopted. She spoke, with fluency, the Urdu of the enemy." It continues: "She could not give up her love for Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat.
No, Rehana didnot have the exactness to become a revolutionary. But she had recognized a long ago that, while the children will remain fixed at the center of her life, she would gradually fade out of theirs. She wanted to hold on for as long as she could, especially now that their dreams had suddenly grown so spacious. She turned into the kitchen and wondered how she would feed all the hungry dreamers."

The birth of Bangladesh as a nation is a story that must be told again and again. After 1947, India was partioned, and a Muslim dominated nation was constituted, including present day Pakistan and an East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh after 1971. The events that lead to creation of both Pakistand and later Bangladesh are rooted in religious and historical contexts, which need to be understood for various reasons. The most immediate cause for this study should be as it provides perspective on the conflicts in the Middle-East as well as Afghanistan-Pakistan. Even though religion united East and West Pakistan, the Bangla people were treated as lesser citizens. Such tribal/lingual divisions exist everywhere, and lead to bloodbaths every so often, say in 1990s in Afghanistan. Bangladesh's struggle to break free led to a widespread genocide of Muslims by Muslims, (and the Hindus living in that territory faced the worst). This had created a huge refugee influx into India and one of the greatest humanitarian crisis of twentieth century. Let me include a telling excerpt from the novel, where Tikka Khan (called "The Butcher of Bengal" elsewhere in novel) heads Pakistan forces, Zia, leads the Bangla resistance:

"Throughout June, Tikka Khan's soldier's made their way across the summer plains of Bangladesh. They looted homes and burned roofs. They raped. They murdered. They lined up the men and shooted them into ponds. They practiced old and new forms of torture. They were explorers, pioneers of cruelty, everyday outdoing their own brutality, everyday feeling closer to divinity, because they were told they were saving Pakistan, and Islam, maybe even the Almighty himself, from the depravity of Bengalis; in this feverish, this godly journey, their resolve could know no bounds.
The Bengali resistance was sporadic and weak. General Zia relied on the youthful spirit of his soldiers, and they had small victories. A blown-up bridge here. An army-convoy ambush there. A captured railway station. They celebrated these victories with the broadcasters of the radio, who sent up cheers in the homes of their listeners, those city dwellers spending long, hot afternoons hugging their wireless radios."

The context here has personal connotations for the protagonists: Sohail has joined the resistance movement, Rehana listens to the radio, raped and murdered women include Maya's friends, and so on. For me, personally, the grand success of Tahmima as a novelist lies in creation of character like Rehana, one of the finest female characters to emerge in English novel in recent times. As a mother from Indian sub-continent, she presents all the foibles and strength of that universal character, she represents a character that carries the essence of millions of women; as a human being, she carries weight of all our virtues and vices. Again and again, her characterization goes from being matter of fact, to being sublime. The dilemmas that Rehana faces may be considered as a source of engaging drama in a literary critique of the book, but for me that drama, that detail, those dilemmas provide the stamp of authenticity to author's writing. The nuances of the emotional state of a woman, are easily missed or misrepresented; the craft helps you to construct sentences, but it is a deep sensitivity and familiarity with the character that helps an author to make a full-bodied, memorable woman like Rehana.

I cannot resist from quoting another favorite passage: "Rehana regarded the saris and the tried to recall the feelings the had given her, of being at once enveloped and set free, the tight revolution of material around her hips and legs limiting movement, the emty space between blouse and petticoat permitting unexpected sensations -- the thrill of a breeze that has strayed low, through an open window, the knowledge of heat in strange places, the back, the exposed belly. It was bringing together of night and day, the sari: as it concealed the skin, it also released it, so that one body, one woman, would know something of he complications of her sex."

To bridge such beauty into her wordplay seems to come naturally to Tahmima, for the novel is rich in such passages. Perhaps by showing you these passages, I provide a stronger substance to my argument than by any sentences I grafter in the praise of this novel. Herein lies the strength of Anam's writing: it evokes everything from itself, and no critic, no reader can present to you a flavor of this exceptional writing, without directly quoting from this book. Whether you read it as a story of Bangladesh, or of Rehana and her son & daughter, or you read it as an example of modern fiction done well, like me, you will be amazed at depth of feeling and lyrical beauty of this novel. Thank you Tahmima.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Gulzar's verse: Thodi si Zameen (Film: Sitara) (Lost in Translation)

(Female voice)
A fraction of earth, a portion of sky,

a love-nest of straws...

(Male voice)
A fraction of earth, a portion of sky,
a love-nest of straws...

A fraction of earth, a portion of sky,
a love-nest of straws...

What I have asked of you is not much...

I can give up my life, but I have not promised it..
Does anyone live off your promises, anywhere?
a love-nest of straws...
A fraction of earth, a portion of sky,
a love-nest of straws...
Thodi si zameen...

May there be a small swing-jhulaa in the courtyard of my house...
Soil will be aromatic, and oven-'chulhaa' be freshly coated...
A hint of fire, a glimpse of smoke...
a love-nest of straws...
A fraction of earth, a portion of sky,
a love-nest of straws...
Thodi si zameen...

The night shall pass, how will we pass the days?
We will go to the fields of Bajra, scare away crows
Like the Bajra stocks, may there be stout sons...
a love-nest of straws...
A fraction of earth, a portion of sky,
a love-nest of straws...
Thodi si zameen...

Question: Is it possible to translate a song like Thodi si Zameen?

'Thodi', is pronounced in a way that cannot be represented using English alphabet. In fact, if you ask any Englishman to say it, he will fail to pronounce it at first several attempts. 'Thoda 'means "not much", or "just a little bit"... Thodi is feminine for Thoda. Thodi Zameen (Earth is feminine). Zameen is earth, soil, fields, land. Why translate it as earth and not as land. 'A small holding of land' might be the best literal equivalent available for thodi si zameen... yet it does not capture the spirit of the words for me. In fact nothing in English really does. 'A fraction of earth' or 'a small field' or 'A small landholding' cannot have the ring of Thodi si Zameen. The cry for a small land holding can be heard or felt by the peasants of nineteenth century Russia or sixteenth century England, but not by the twenty-first century Americans or Europeans. So as a language, English fails me here, and Hindi, Urdu, Pahari, Panjabi, Bengali, Marathi, all will allow me to say this easily!

Gulzar's poem is situated in an Indian village. The whole diction, the choice of words, (Bajra, Sitte, Mitti, Zameen, Chulhaa, etc) the internal rhymes, the connotations, smells and sights that such a song inspires in me cannot be conveyed in English, even to an Indian, who has not experienced these smells and sights.

How can I explain what a 'chulhaa' means to someone who has never seen it or tasted meals cooked on it? "Lepa hua chulhaa" translated as freshly coated oven-chulhaa does not convey the difference in texture and color that this occassional event signifies for a person whose food is cooked on a chulhaa. 'Lepa hua chulhaa' is rare sight, maybe seen after a festival. To scare crows to pass time during the day also is an event that is associated with fond memories for a villager; the good harvest is preceded by a great deal of crow and parrot scaring (and I have done it myself, walking around fields, beating a tin drum).

I am always amazed at Westerners and Indian who claim to have translated old Indian Sanskrit poems, or Kabir's verses or Tagore into English, using their language courses and dictionaries. When I see the claim "authoritative translation", I feel cheated, and I feel a deep sorrow for my countrymen, for their lifestyles, their faith, their dreams and desires, are painted in unreal, unsympathetic colors, using 'words' that don't know anything about the culture they wish to represent. You might ask me, why does a simple translation lead me to these questions? I am also searching for my own "thodi si zameen, thoda aasmaan"... The ground beneath my feet, and a handful of sky... in a foreign land, in a foreign tongue, and I am lost, am lost in translation!

thodeesee jameen, thodaa aasamaan
tinakon kaa bas yek aashiyaan

maangaa hain jo tum se wo jyaadaa to naheen hai
dene ko to jaan de de, waadaa to naheen hai
koee tere waadon pe jeetaa hain kahaa

mere ghar ke aangan me, chhotaa saa zoolaa ho
saundhee saundhee mittee hogee, lepaa huaa choolhaa ho
thodee thodee aag hogee, thodaa saa dhuwaan

raat kat jaayegee to kaise din bitaayenge
baajare ke kheton mein kauae udayenge
baajare ke sitton jaise, bete ho jawaan

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Maaeri by Euphoria (Lost in Translation)

I've forgotten yours and mine,
forgotten of losses and wins,
Ma, what good is a victory
if there are no friends...
if there is no friend...

When she put on Bindi, those eyelashes fluttered, O Mother,
As she readjusted her Chunni, she forged promises for the next day, O Mother
Her hand was in my hands,
Her words were like honey drops,
O Ma, she used laugh on her own, cry on her own,
O Ma, I remember her, remember her.
She chatters Ma, her eyes fight battles Ma,
O Ma, I remember her, remember her.
O Maaeri!

Wrapped in monsoons, she used to come on foot, O Mother,
If she got delayed, she would softly sob, O Mother,
May I cry again, may she sing again,
Like cool breeze spring again,
O Ma she sings ballads, she dances Gidday,
O Ma I remember her, remember her.
She crosses heavens, she asks for blessings,
O Ma
I remember her, remember her.

What must I do now? Who must I talk to?
What must I do now? Who must I talk to?
Hey Maaeri...

Leave the world, come back,
Break the false vows, come back,
Swear to God, come back once,
If we meet this once, we will never part,
Never part... never part...

O she should come now, can someone bring her now
O Ma I remember her, remember her
She chatters Ma, her eyes fight battles Ma
O Ma I remember her, remember her

She forgot my love, Ma, it took her four months Ma
O Ma I remember her, remember her,
O Ma her memories come, she comes in my memories
I remember her, remember her.

What must I do now? Who must I talk to?
What must I do now? Who must I talk to?
Ay Maaeri!

Note on the translation:
The song opens with a sufi line. It is always hard to capture the sufi sentiments in English, for these talk of mother and father, beloved and friends as both their human manifestations and the universal mother, father or beloved, using subtle wordplay and duende. My translation aims at providing a lyrical transliteration of the song. I have tanslated Hiraan as ballads, which I think is the right equivalent, but Mannatta as Blessings is a mistranslation. Mannataa is "that wish expressed before Gods which exists in your Mann", and the concept of Mann is hard to translate (some call it mind, but that is unsatisfactory description). The video of the song provides tells the background story and also shows some of the expressions which are so Indian that English language fails to picturize them. Maeri or Maaeri is only used at the end of certain stanzas and not eslewhere, as the syllables and stresses in English imply that Maaeri has a "feminine ending" whereas many of the other sentences do not. Mother rhymes with remember, Ma expresses the notion, and so on.

Random fact: In my college days at Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, I once organized an event called Lehren, in Rendezvous 2000. Euphoria and KK performed that night, and what a night it was! The Open Air Theatre was packed, the prediction of rain was proved wrong, no major glitches happened, and when KK launched into the opening number "Where Streets have no Name" I was being hugged by all friends and co-organizers for making the show a success. So I have personally met each of the band members, fed them according to their preferences (like Palash wants a dozen bananas and lots of glucose water on stage), had them shout at me and curse me as lunch delivery was delayed, and after the show, I had my Event Head badge autographed from them. I have attended several concerts by Euphoria and others, before and after that, but that night in IIT was special. It showcased their songs, made possible by my sweat, with contributions from all those friends and co-organziners. And so Maaeri is special for me on so many counts... O Maaeri!

Teriyaan, meriyaan pul gaya
Pul gaya haar te jeet
Hey maaye ki karna main jeet nu
Howey na je meet, howey na je meet
Bindiya lagati thi to kaampti thi palkain meri
chunniyan sajaa ke woh deti waadein kal ke maaeri
Mere haathon main tha uska haath
Thi chaashni si har uski baat
Maaeri aap hi hansdi, maaeri aap hi rondi
Maaeri yaad vo yaad vo aaeri
Gallan o kardi, maaeri aakhan naal larhdi
Maaeri yaad vo yaad vo aaeri
He maaeri

Baarishon main lipatke maa aati thi vo chalke maaeri
Deriyaan ho jaye to roti halke halke maaeri
Phir se main roun, phir se vo gaye
Thandi hawaaen ban ke chhaye
Maaeri heeri o gaandi, maaeri gidde o paundi
Maaeri yaad vo yaad vo aaeri
Jannataa o longdi, maaeri mannatta o mangdi
Maaeri yaad vo yaad vo aaeri

Ab ka karoon, kaa se kahoon e maaeri
Ab ka karoon, kaa se kahoon e maaeri
Duniya paraaee chhod ke aajaa
Jhoote saare naate tod ke aajaa
Saun rab di tujhe ik baari aajaa
Ab ke milein to honge na judaa
Na judaa... Na judaa... ho...

Hoonte to aaye, koi te le aaye
Maaeri yaad vo yaad vo aaeri
Gallaan o kardi, maaeri akhiyan nal larhdi
Maaeri yaad vo yaad vo aaeri
Pull gayi mera pyaar maae, bas lage maheene char
Maaeri yaad vo yaad vo aaeri
Yaad vo aaeri, maaeri yaad vo aaeri
Maaeri yaad vo yaad vo aaeri

Ab ka karoon, ka se kahoon e maaeri
Ab ka karoon, ka se kahoon e maaeri.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Elections in India, 2009: Vote for moderation and maturity?

Elections in India or Bhaarat present outcomes which require an analysis encompassing divergent rationals that co-exist in our bouquet society. Each state, each constituency decides in its own way. The reasons are emotional, historical, economic, caste-based, and rooted in aspirations as well as fascinations of voters. Hence cricketers, movie and TV-stars get elected, sons and granddaughters of erstwhile Rajahs win, political dynasties win and lose, and occasionally you find a maverick rookie like writer/diplomat Shashi Tharoor win. I was not in India to vote this time, but I waited for the outcome. Here are my thoughts, random thoughts of a chaotic being, which show that I love and hate all the political parties. Yet, I am Indian, optimism never deserts me, and this election gives me hope.

In this election, we see an economist, academician, soft-spoken, PhD, the erudite but restrained Manmohan Singh return to the Prime Minister's chair. The policies and practicies of the Congress and its allies have their flaws, yet it is the ability to nurture men who have depth and substance, that allows this grand old party to stay in power at national and state level. With Manmohan at the helm, and Rahul's much publicized role in the 'victory' in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress party promises the next generation of reforms as well as next generation of leadership.

While BJP provides mercurial leaders of its own, who boast of no dynasties or grand births, leaders like Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee outlive their productive years, before they find themselves as potential candidates for the country's most important post. I am amazed that they have not realized it yet that unless they have leaders who are well-established by the age of forty-five or so, groomed to lead the country before they cross the age of sixty-five or so, they will always appear to be lead by old, power hungry leaders. I have enormous respect for these leaders and yet I cannot understand what logic tells them that leading a nation like India must be trusted to an eighty-one year old. Age brings wisdom, but grand old age brings senility, or atleast health problems, spiritual crisis and so on. In any case, India has far too few voters above the age of fifty, and I cannot see the justification for keeping middle-aged, mature and sensible leaders away from ministerial berth to accomodate people who used to be cult figures, much before many the voters were even born. If you had only read my satire on age based reservation, you'd know how skewed the age distribution in India is right now. The age of the leaders is a significant problem, it is only one of many problems that plagues BJP's pursuit for power.

The most promising outcome of this election was the defeat of parties and leaders with a caste-based agenda. The so called saviors of a certain caste or religion put every effort of Indian democracy towards harmony and progress in danger. I really envision a moral code, enforced strictly, that prevents leaders from making pro- or anti- caste remarks. If inciting people in name of religion violates the code of conduct, I see no reason why a castist remark be left out of the purview of this code of conduct. While the reservation of certain seats itself identifies the canditates as belonging to a certain community, everywhere else, the mention of caste must be made crime punishable by law. There must be no room for candidatures that rely on caste, color, creed, birth, and yet, it is easier said than done. My liberal view tells me that we need not make any new rules, for in time, the farces, the fallacies, the fascists, will self-destruct. Yet, the danger posed by these forces is real and too imminent to be ignored. The erection of statues and memorials of living leaders at the expense of state treasury must be dealt with strict penalties on the responsible party, no matter how ludicruous the leader looks in this enterprise, the joke must not be staged on public money.

There are a few questions on which I do not agree with many of my friends and so called liberals. I think religion has a role in politics, and religion itself is not a demon. A personalized belief system protects the leader from various corrupting influences. A personalized belief system, like that of Mahatma Gandhi, when practized properly, also serves as the lighthouse for the others. Do we need to build temples at particular sites? I don't know, but we need to ask those interested to at least look after and care for the temples that already exist. I will trust their devotion more, if it is used in providing help where the need exists. Also, I want my Ram back, I want my Lord back, I want my Ram back. I want him clean of every stain the politicians have inflicted in his name. I also want to see Mathura cleaner, Nashik, Haridvar and Varanasi made into properly managed, maintained, cities of pilgrimage. The filth there shows that the corruption of our within has spread into every street and public place, even the places where Gods once lived. Also, I believe that if in certains ways, Hindus or certain castes, exploit others, democracy allows minorities to exploit the rifts in the majority to their advantage as well. The Hindutva issue is not misplaced, some anger is justified, and need to be addressed. It is about time that equality of religion and caste in eyes of law provide neither discrimination nor reverse-discrimination to any sect, faith, group, community. Voters must see to it; in my ideal world, they will.

If any party believes that locals are not able to find jobs, I want those parties to help in education and employment efforts. If any community thinks their language is being ignored, I want to see great literature emerge from the mouths or pens of those who know only to burn others and not the hate within. If any leader makes his life's aim to get justice for his people, let him start by empowering his people with opportunities for education and enlightenment. If any party wants to distribute free televisions, sell rice that exceptionaly low price, distribute funds to families of terrorists while not caring for the lifes of armymen or jawans, let the politicians of these parties sit out of elections. If a man has murdered, raped and killed, has a criminal background, let us not judge him too harshly, and allow him to stand in elections only after he has done twelve years of community work, and shown to himself, and society, that 'every sinner has a future, every saint has a past.' No shortcuts to redemption exist, and even if the voter faults once or twice, over democratic system has to be mature enough to keep the criminals and the corrupt at bay.

Did India or Bhaarat vote for moderation? Yes, but not everywhere. Did we vote for harmony and maturity in places where religious and caste agendas were defeated by progress bandwagon? Yes, not everywhere. Has Indian democracy matured? Not yet, not quite, but the journey, it seems has taught it a few lessons, and will teach it many more. We have a lot of issues to resolve, economic hardships, coupled with terrorism and Naxal movement, religious and regional rifts, compounded by the pervasive hydra of caste system. Let us gather all forces together, hope next five years take us to a better socio-politico-economic situation. Let us applaud the peaceful comepletion of another election. Eventhough it is hard to know what everyone among the seven hundred million voters thought, lets assume that we saw the victory of moderation, maturity, progress, erudition and harmony.