Wednesday, December 28, 2005


We were a handful. Mud-laden our feet and hands, we would play under the gray skies till our parents would shout from the mound in anger and ask us to return to home. There was something about the way the earth smelled then. It just won't let us leave the fields. Though Ammu would shriek at the sight of an earthworm,


And Paltu would pick it up and thrust it in her horrified face, I would hate this bit, but we would still continue playing in the fields.

Ammu was buck-toothed. She had unhealthy, lice-ridden brownish hair. Dark and skinny she looked unclean even after a bath. Often, Uncle & Aunt joked that she wasn't their daughter. A chamaar was about to throw her on a garbage heap when they took pity on her and bought her for five paise. Ammu's big innocent eyes behind the specs would well up with tears. Her voice choked she would not know what to say. Then one of the ladies of the house would take pity on her and hug her.

"No Sweetheart! You are our daughter! These are all lies to tease you up. These are evil people. Do not listen to them!"

A smile would immediately break upon her face.

She wasn't the eldest among we cousins though she was the eldest girl. Paltu was the eldest. He had his skinny legs dangling out of his unfitting pair of shorts. Rains always brought in hordes of those yucky open sores on his skin. He constantly had his nose dripping. Grayish mucus just peeping out of his nostrils and would often be scolded for this. Paltu was funny. He was a joker. He would contort his body in unusual ways and had a talent of speaking in a nasal voice. His jokes were silly but the way he told them to us; it was so funny that we would laugh till our stomachs would hurt. But Cheenu was too young to understand our jokes. He was four. So he would just imitate us laugh.

All four of us would normally meet once a year for summer vacations. The end of the summer vacation would see rains coming in and the last couple of weeks of our vacation were one mud-filled adventure. We would chase frogs. I was very afraid of them. But it was fun aiming at them and hitting them with little stones. Then we had these helicopter like insects flying all around. Initially, we were very afraid but Paltu showed us that there was nothing to be afraid of them. They were not like those horrible yellow wasps that stung hard. Then it became fun to hold these tiny things from their tails and see them attempt hard to fly-off. Their wings buzzing hard. We would catch them and then drown them in the pond water. But the best were jugnus. They would just lit up the whole hedge near the pond in the night. We would go catching them. And then put them in a glass jar and then compare as to whose jar lit most. It was a sight to see four sparkling jars in the pitch darkness of the night. But we often got beating from our parents for this adventure.

"Idiots! One day one of these will get bitten by a snake and that will be the end of all their adventures!"


Adjoining our house lived our family cousins. They were two brothers – Dulaare & Pyaare. One was 15 and the other 14 respectively. Our lives were knotted together. Though we would hate them but somehow we could never break free from their hold. It was very frustrating at times. However hard we tried we only found ourselves held firmer in their grip.

Toilet and bathroom were two separate entities in villages. Bathrooms were normally a space cordoned off by a mud wall at the edge of a courtyard – the corner where the kitchen garden will be. Though, it was a kitchen garden but one seldom grew anything there. It only had wild bushes, weed and few odd trees. A perfect hideout for us. Toilets were normally shacks away from the house towards the fields.

Once we were playing some ball game. And the ball landed in Dulaare & Pyaare’s back garden. Paltu went to fetch it but he heard their sister taking a bath. She was 16. He became curious. He started scaling the walls to peep in. However, Dulaare caught him. Both the brothers dragged him out to the fields. Intimidated him, beat him, threatened him. Paltu was terrified. He was afraid of the beating he would get if people at home get to know. Paltu begged them to leave him. Both brothers smiled at each other. Finally they had this worm under their thumb.

“All right! We will! Only if you agree to follow everything that we say from today!”

Paltu didn’t have a choice. He gave in. And thus began his tale of woes.

Once Grandpa was taking his afternoon nap. Dulaare sneaked in and poured some water in his fancy plastic jootis (shoes). When he got up and slid his feet in his shoes he was surprised. The shoes squelched.


It was a scorching June afternoon. He was bemused.

“It hasn’t even rained!”

Then Pyaare meekly uttered.

“I saw Paltu going past your bed with a lota brimming with water.”


That was it. Paltu thrashing time. Then once while Grandpa was sleeping Pyaare came and tied his foot to the bedpost. Such similar mischief continued and Paltu always had to take this blame. We all knew he was innocent but we didn’t dare speak against the two brothers.

They didn’t even spare Ammu. They would make her work like a servant. They would order her to make tea or fetch water for them. And Ammu would quietly do what was told to her. Once while she was sleeping the two brothers collected a handful of cockroaches and released them in her hair. She felt something crawling on her face and woke up shrieking. It was a sight seeing Ammu run around the courtyard, her head moving violently trying to shake off all the cockroaches. When Ammu’s mother took this us with Dulaare & Pyaare’s mother – an ugly screeching woman – she retorted,

Mere rajkumaaron ko kuch mat kaho! Unhone kuch nahin kya! Paltu ki harkat hogi! Wahi yeah sab karta hai!”

And given how Paltu used to thrust earthworms in Ammu’s face, it was very plausible. Paltu thrashing time again.


But there were times when peace reigned in. We would all sleep outside in the courtyard next to Grandpa and he would regale us with fancy tales. These tales took us to lands and times we could only imagine.

So, on one such similar night we were pestering Grandpa for a tale. We’ve had a hard day. Paltu was again victim to our cousins’ wily pranks. We’ve had people shouting all over the place – people shouting within home, people shouting across homes. Acrimony. We were all tired. And perhaps wanted to escape the day. We were pestering Grandpa for a tale.

“Please Dada! Please!”

Even Dulaare and Pyaare joined the chorus.

Dada smiled, “Ok! The here it is!”

“Once upon a time, when our world was very different, only the birds lived here. Once they were summoned by the great bird-god, the Simurgh. He sent his special messenger the hoopoe to the birds. Simurgh lived at this legendary circular mountain, Qaf, circling the earth.

It was an honor to be summoned by Simurgh himself but the journey was filled with dangers. There were chasms and forest of fires, where flames went up to the sky, to cross. Then there was the Dead Sea. It was a desert of salt stretching till eternity. No bird could fly across it. And even if they managed the thirst would kill them. Finally, there were these monster birds – flying reptiles – that looked out for soft fleshy birds to feed upon.

Most birds on hearing the invitation chickened out. They spoke of prior engagements and being busy. They were petrified of undertaking such a journey. Hoopoe was disappointed.

“Well! I didn’t know Simurgh had such cowardly followers! I thought everyone would be willing to go!”

The birds bowed their heads in shame. The chief bird looked hard at the assembled crowd.

“It’s a matter of shame. Will we let down The Great Simurgh? If none would go then I would go alone!”

On hearing this some courageous birds step forward.

“Chief we would go with you!”

Finally, 30 birds embarked on this perilous journey. They encountered all the dangers they had heard of but they were prepared. They flew hard almost till their strength gave away. But they flew.

However, when they reached Qaf they found nothing. There was no Simurgh. It was just a desolate mountaintop. No God, no fancy palatial mansion, no breathtaking scenes. They were disappointed. They turned towards hoopoe and asked,
“Where is The Great Simurgh? There is nothing here? Did we undertake this perilous journey for nothing?”

Hoopoe smiled.

“You are The Simurgh!”

The birds were confused. They looked at him befuddled.

“Simurgh! Means ‘Si’ – thirty – and ‘Murgh’ – birds! By undertaking this dangerous journey and overcoming the obstacles you’ve become what you came looking for! You are The God that you sought!”

We were enchanted by this tale. Our eyes lit up. Something inside got triggered that night and we slept with smiles on our faces.

A few weeks later a story started doing the rounds that there was a ghost in the mango orchard. Few people had seen a white apparition glide through the orchard late in the night and when someone approaches the orchard it vanishes. Everyone was excited about this ghost business.

One afternoon while we were playing pithoo, Paltu aimed the ball at Pyaare and it hit him hard. He took offence and caught him by the scruff.

Kechue! Saale! Just because this is a game you think you can hit hard!”

Arre! I don’t need to hit you under a game’s pretext!”

Chup be! Kutta zabaan ladaata hai!

Main nahin darta kisi se!

Dulaare hits Paltu hard against his face. We could see blood drop at the corner of his lips.

Itna hi bahadur hai to raat mein Aam ke Baagh mein jaake dikhla!

Haan! Wahan bhi jaa sakta hoon!

And they both burst out laughing.

Geedad! Saala! Kahta hai wahan jaa sakta hai!

We all just stood mute as Paltu held on to his bravado.

Theekh hai Kechue! Aaj raat dekhte hain tu kitna bahadur hai!

And thus our fate was sealed.

We spent the whole evening discussing how will we do it. We decided to leave Cheenu out of this. At night when every one will be asleep we’ll take three sticks and two lanterns and walk down the mound towards the mango orchard. The plan was that first we’ll hid the lanterns behind the bushes and just watch the orchard from the mound. Once, we spot the ghost Paltu with a lantern and a stick in his hand walk towards the orchard while we will stand on the mound and watch. If anything untoward happens, we will shout. The ghost perhaps may get scared and run away.

At night we made sure everyone was asleep and sneaked towards the edge of the mountain. The air had a nip. The faint aroma of a freshly washed earth was in our nostrils. We were nervous. We held each other’s hands and moved forward. Our senses were heightened and even the wind rustling would make us alert. We slowly reached the edge of the mound. Our lantern flickering at bare minimum. We kept them behind the bushes, huddled and kept staring at the orchard.

Suddenly, we saw something white moving within the trees. Ammu almost screamed but Paltu covered her mouth. I was shaking. I clasped tight Paltu’s arm. Paltu stood up like a warrior. His hair blowing in the wind with a lantern in one hand and the stick in the other. He was nervous too. His legs were shaking. But he hid his nervousness and instructed,

“Stay here! And if you see something unusual – SCREAM!”

We sat there holding each other tightly as we saw Paltu walk nervously towards the orchard. Finally, Paltu was at the edge of the orchard. The flickering light from his lantern rooted at a spot. Then the light moved again. Now the light would appear intermittently as Paltu walked amidst the trees. Suddenly, we saw something white stealthily creep up towards the light. And then…

We sat trembling. The flickering light titled and then burst brighter. We saw Paltu entangled with a figure. Ammu was transfixed. She forgot to scream. I stood there watching nervously. A heap of dry leaves caught the flame from the lantern. We could see now. Paltu had pulled the sheet off the figure.


I shook Ammu.


Ammu broke out of her daze.



By now Pyaare has stepped out of the shadows and they were beating Paltu with his stick only. One brother was kicking him while the other was thrashing him with the stick. Paltu was valiantly fighting them. But he was losing. He looked towards us and shouted,


And then Ammu yelled. Her voice piercing the dark night.


Ammu picked up her stick and ran towards the orchard. Ammu’s war cry startled the two brothers. For a minute they stopped beating Paltu and looked towards us. Ammu, brandishing her stick, was running down the mound towards them.


They both were bemused. Paltu took advantage of this and hit one of the brothers in his crotch. He went rolling on to the ground. Before the other brother could react Ammu had reached there. She swung her stick and hit him on his head. He staggered. By now Paltu kicked him and he too was reeling on the ground. Paltu was kicking one brother while Ammu thrashed the other with the stick. They were writhing in pain.

By now people had started stirring. They’ve heard our screaming. I was still standing at the edge as everyone came running towards me and saw the spectacular scene of Paltu and Ammu thrashing the two brothers.

They were amazed to hear that Dulaare was the ghost and both brothers have been stealing mangoes from the orchards. They rushed towards the orchards.

Grandpa stood next to me. He put his hand on my shoulders, smiled and said,

“So, you’ve finally stepped across the line in your mind! In the effort to find the ghost, you’ve found yourself!”

I looked up and smiled back.

© Dan Husain
September 26, 2005

Friday, December 16, 2005


In the merciless summers here, temperatures often touch 48º C. The parched earth cracks and searing winds blow across barren fields, mango orchards, and clusters of mud-built huts gathering dust and coating everything with an ash-yellow sheen. The wind howls, ululating as it blows. Afternoons are like death – a corpse with eyes open.
But home is home, compelling us to leave the luxuries of the city and proceed to the village to spend our summer vacations. As our jeep turned on the road to our village the hot wind was like a mother’s embrace, its howl a welcome song.
However people dread the loo – the hot summer winds - causing many a heatstroke death. The natives have constructed discouraging fables, folklores and horror stories around the loo to stop people, especially children, from venturing out. Like - Satan gets free reign in the summer heat and his breath is what we know as loo. Or witches creep out and beckon young children from desolate alleys and deserted buildings so they could boil them and feast on their soup, or that they allegedly deployed the most ingenious methods of luring children, appearing as doppelgängers of people the children knew, luring them into desolate spots where once safe from others they’d reveal their true selves.
We marveled at these stories, huddled in our cots under star-lit skies, they became a canvas for our fertile imagination as we listened, in awe, to Grandpa’s all-pervading voice. But when the whiff of morning breeze hit our nostrils and we opened our eyes to an orangish sky, we knew these stories were as untrue as the earth being the center of our universe.
So afternoons were always about escaping either to the pond for dips in it or whiling time in the mango orchards adjacent to the deserted mosque. We always had to time our escapades such that adults, stirring from their afternoon siestas, would find us in the outermost courtyard under the neem tree. Anything beyond was sacrilege.
One afternoon, when we were still at the swings under the neem tree, scheming about our next mid-day adventure, a cousin of mine picked a fight with me. He accused me of being an opportunist, a two-bit scheming bastard and snatched the Mexican hat that Dad had gifted me for my birthday a few days ago. I loved sporting it in this heat. I was furious. Soon we had fisticuffs. The cousins were split in two warring camps. Each camp pitching for its candidate. My hat was with a cousin who was supporting the one I was fighting. They dared me to take back my hat. Soon my cousin was losing out. He was reeling under my blows. But before I could knock him down two others grabbed him and dragged him away shouting, “Run! Run Brother Run! We still have the hat! Let him chase us for his hat!”
Our house was in a cluster of houses on a mound. A huge pond adjoined the mound on the west side. There were two smaller ponds on the north and the south side. Dense vegetation of wild bush bordered the east side. The east side also had the only road connecting the mound with the main highway, about a kilometer away. But before the highway, almost midway between the mound and the highway, was a mango orchard shrouding an old, dilapidated and deserted mosque. The mosque looked eerie and people generally kept away. They’d avoid the shortcut through the orchards in favor of a longer road circumventing the mosque, especially in the later hours of the day.
The cousins, shouting insults at me, ran off with my hat in the pond’s direction. I shouted at the rest, left standing, “Let’s catch the bastards! What are you all staring at? Let’s go!” And we all ran toward the same direction. But we soon realized we were just running around the cluster of houses on the mound. We spread ourselves over the mound, flanking all directions. We were hunting them at the three ponds and the wild bushes on the east side but they weren’t to be found anywhere. We were rummaging through the bushes with bruised arms and legs. Where could have they gone?
Suddenly, one of us shouted, “Look! There he goes!”

We turned to look. The cousin who had picked the fight was wearing my hat and running on the dusty trail leading to the mosque. I instantly gave chase. But, after few steps, realized no one was following me.
"Why? What happened? Why aren’t you guys running with me?”
"Well! We’ve been ordered to stick to the outermost courtyard! At mostthe mound! Not beyond!”
"Damn! We need to get that hat! Come on!”
"We can’t! We don’t want another scolding later!”
"Oh! Fuck you! Eunuchs!”
And with this I took off, alone. He was fast. I had run a few hundred yards and could feel the singeing sun. My throat was dry and I was panting. But he was still running. I couldn’t give up now. It would’ve been humiliating. I could see him at the edge of the orchard, then near the dilapidated steps of the mosque. He was climbing up. And - swoosh - he was gone behind the broken wall that enclosed the mosque’s courtyard. With grave effort I reached the edge of the orchard. I dragged myself to the steps and sat there to catch my breath. I knew I had him. He was inside unless he had jumped off from the other side and ran back into the fields. In either case I’d find him as the fields were barren and one could see as far as the mound. I had the perfect vision of emerging victorious. I’d tie his hands with his shirt, smear his face with mud, spit and drag him like a trophy, my Mexican hat adorning my head. With a smile I got up and entered the courtyard and THERE SHE WAS.
She stood against the wall facing me. Barefoot, in a long black shirt, with disheveled, white hair partly hiding her haggish face. Her wrinkles - like a palimpsest – layers of tales. I was transfixed. So this is what it was. I had been tricked. And now I faced the witch.
She opened her mouth and I saw two front teeth dangling. Slobber dribbling at the corners of her lips. A sheen of ash-yellow dust on our faces as we held each other’s gaze.
"So, you’ve come Boy!”
I opened my mouth but NOTHING CAME OUT. Where’s my voice? Why couldn’t I speak? How did she know I was coming? I mustered all my courage and uttered,
What? Yes? Why am I confirming? Am I under a spell?
"I am hungry!”
My blood froze. So all this time Grandpa had been truthful while we mocked at his stories. They did exist and I had been tricked today, it was my turn. My evil deeds had caught up with me. All this bullying and showing off had finally landed me here. Had I been nice to my siblings and cousins this wouldn’t have happened. Too late now. I couldn’t even repent. I stared at death.
I stuck my hand in my short’s pocket. I don’t know why. Why was I putting my hand in my pocket? Oh yes! The sling! But I felt something sticky in my hand. WHAT? THE SLING HAD MELTED. What spell was this woman casting on me? I pulled out whatever it was. Ahhh! A melting peanut brittle.
"What do you have there?”
Without thinking, I threw it at her. It fell a few yards short. She groveled and picked it up. Her slavering tongue licking at it.
"So what do you think? Am I a witch?”
Her croaky slurpy laughter boomed across the mosque’s courtyard. I could feel the hair on my skin rising. My throat was parched and my eyes filled with morbid fear as I measured the distance between us. If I turned now and ran she couldn’t possibly catch me unless she flew. I HAD TO RUN NOW.
And I ran as fast as I could, not looking back until I’d neared the mound.
© Dan Husain
June 16, 2005

PS: This incident is true except the witch bit, which is my imagination. I did pick up a fight and saw my cousin’s doppelgänger running across the field towards the mosque. However, the real me didn’t chase him. I thought it wasn’t worth the effort. An hour later they surfaced from the western side of the mound where the huge pond lay. They all confirmed that they had been hid there on the other side of the pond in the weeds at the edge of the pond and my cousin never went in the direction of the mosque. People living in the hutment across the pond independently corroborated this fact. Till date we do not know whom did we see running across the field on the eastern side towards the mosque.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Saul Bellow: 1915-2005

It was a fading Nagpur evening in October, 1993 when aboard a bus to Latur my friend, Chetan Ghate, turned towards me and asked, “Have you ever read anything by Saul Bellow?”

I shrugged my shoulders, “No! Never heard of him! Who is he?”

His expression turned into disbelief, an expression that I have oft-repeated when posing the same question to others, when he heard my response.

“How could you not know Saul Bellow far worse than not reading him ever? He is the greatest American novelist post WWII. He ended the great American famine for a Nobel in Literature when he won the same in 1976 – fourteen years after any other American -John Steinbeck - had won it.”

I felt like an ignorant fool. He yanked a Bellow novel, Herzog – perhaps his finest, from his knapsack and thrusted it in my face. The cover had a sketch of a crumbling face of a white middle-aged man. When I looked at Bellow’s photograph at the back cover, the sketch in the front seemed like his only. The yellow-orange tint on the cover made the Penguin paperback look arresting. I stared at the recommendation below at the right-hand corner – ‘A Masterpiece – The New York Times Book Review’.

The musty rough-textured yellow pages were drawing me towards the world folded within them. I must admit I started reading books initially for the musty smell emanating from them. Whenever my uncle, who fortunately worked for Penguins, would get a new book for me, I’d snuggle in a corner stare at the cover and keep smelling the book. It’s only when I’d get over with the smell I’d start reading it. Even today often when I am reading a book and I need a break I pause, smell the book, stare at the images floating and then return back to the book.

So, once back in Delhi I bought the book. Herzog is a story of a middle-aged English Professor in an American university. His personal life is in doldrums and he is slipping professionally too. The very opening line is perhaps one of the most quoted lines in American literature.

“If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me.” (from Herzog, 1964)

Couple of pages later I run into a paragraph, which forever haunts me when I reflect on my life.

“Resuming his self-examination, he admitted that he had been a bad husband – twice. Daisy, his first wife, he had treated miserably. Madeline, his second, had tried to do him in. To his son and his daughter he was a loving but bad father. To his own parents he had been an ungrateful child. To his country, an indifferent citizen. To his brothers and his sister, affectionate but remote. With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness, dull. With power, passive. With his own soul, evasive.” (from Herzog, 1964)

The unabashed frankness of these lines shook me. And this had been a characteristic of most protagonists in Saul Bellow’s novels. His characters were in pursuit of truth and dignity, as opposed to success. In some sense they reflected his personal voice. Though Bellow’s stories were seldom autobiographical but many of his characters share his biographical details like his childhood in Canada, his Jewish heritage and his many divorces. His characters whether Augie March, Moses E. Herzog, Arthur Sammler or Charlie Citrine, in words of a critic , were ‘a superb gallery of self-doubting, funny, charming, disillusioned, neurotic, and intelligent observers of the modern American way of life.’

This is best illustrated by Augie March in The Adventures of Augie March, 1953.

"I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent." (from The Adventures of Augie March, 1953)

Saul Bellow was born as Solomon Bellows in Montreal, Canada in 1915. His parents had moved from St. Petersburg, Russia to Canada in 1913. His father was an importer of Turkish figs and Egyptian onions there – some exotica! His childhood was spent in a rough shanty neighborhood. Once his father was beaten up in a brawl for bootlegging and that led them to shift to Chicago.

Bellow joined the University of Chicago in 1933 but was soon transferred to the Northwestern University from where he graduated in anthropology and sociology in 1937. He spent most of his life in Chicago and it has been central in most of his novels. He unsuccessfully tried to join army however; he did manage a stint with the US Merchant Marine. While with the Marines he wrote his first novel The Dangling Man, 1944, which has shades of his early years in Canada. But the novel that brought him to center stage was The Adventures of Augie March, 1956. Seize The Day, 1956 and Herzog, 1964 only established his reputation as the foremost writer of his age. It seems funny in this context that his professor, Melville J. Herskovits, wanted him to give up his pursuit for language as he thought, "No Jew could really grasp the tradition of English literature." He wanted him to be a pianist instead.

His most novels began with his protagonists at crossroads. Inflicted with crises – moral, financial, emotional, spiritual, etc. – they had to chart the graph of their lives from there onwards. The characters were extremely human and often at margins of what may be hip-hop in their lives. The struggles were mainly inwards and as they would grapple with circumstances and people in their lives, Bellow would paint most gripping tales of human survival. His characters offered hope. They fought with grit and common sense. In this respect he followed a blueprint that was very different from many authors: he Americanized the idiom of the novel and made it uniquely American.

His influences ranged from Dostoevsky, Trotsky, Nietzsche, Oedipal conflicts, popular culture to Russian-Jewish heritage. His voice altered and evolved over the years and this is distinct in his writings. Charles Simic comments the following on Bellow.

"Bellow, too, is convinced that to have a conscience is, after a certain age, to live permanently in an epistemological hell. The reason his and Dostoevsky's heroes are incapable of ever arriving at any closure is that they love their own suffering above everything else. They refuse to exchange their inner torment for the peace of mind that comes with bourgeois propriety or some kind of religious belief. In fact, they see their suffering as perhaps the last outpost of the heroic in our day and age." (Charles Simic in New York Review of Books, May 31, 2001)

Twelve years later as I sit and write this obituary I am thankful to Chetan Ghate for introducing Saul Bellow to me. His is a voice that remains within to haunt and gives strength and serves as a beacon amidst the cacophony that shuts our senses.

Saul Bellow died on April 05, 2005.

© Murtaza Danish Husain
April 10, 2005
PS: This obituary was published in Tehelka, April 2005.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Faces, Masks, Democracy & A Voice Clambering over Din

One of the failings of a literary dilettante like me is that I have nothing to say. I feel. But most of the time my angst is groping to find a voice, struggling for words. Words that I have grown to mistrust. They are so much like lovers, they often betray. So, the sum total of all the effort is still a voiceless angst.

Once in a while when I do muster words, my problem is compounded by the fact that I do not have influential friends like Bachchans or Ambanis. I do not have a dynasty to show for my credentials. I am not an iron man with a malleable tongue. I do not head a band of zealous sainiks or pracharaks who would lap up at any community/region specific claptrap or firebrand jingoism I throw at them. I am neither spiritual nor a new age guru. And of course I do not drop my pants for money (for love, yes). So even if I do find an opinion, does it matter?

Yes, it does. Because I am the vision that collective human effort envisaged over centuries while dreaming a civic society enshrined in the ideals of liberty and democracy. A mass of citizens educated, liberated, working for an honest wage, paying their taxes, complying with law, preventing abuse of power and ensuring that the political institutions that govern us fulfill their obligations to the civic society (read “us” – “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” is mere sloganism, an oft-repeated platitude used world over to divert masses from real agenda and whip up false nationalistic passions) and strengthen the moral sinews that hold our system together. Thus it is imperative for me to find my voice to ensure my bit in not letting this collective dream slither in to a socio-political recidivistic existence.

And I guess that was the reason why when one wintry afternoon as I sailed past shops at Khan Market, glowing in the afternoon sun, here in the moment and yet not here, I agreed to pay advanced subscription for Tehelka’s forthcoming weekly venture to a stranger. Though I didn’t think so deeply then of my karmic responsibilities as a citizen of a free world. It was more of an impulse reaction. Like those split moments when the angst suddenly finds a voice. I looked at the tantalizing red chilly and I decided to pop it in. Maybe a tongue set on fire; it will find a voice for itself too.

The same afternoon I bought a book Hermit In Paris – a collection of autobiographical writings of Italo Calvino. As I sat in a coffee shop nearby and browsed through the book I found Calvino’s writings filled with references to writers and littérateur who suffered for their anti-fascist stance during the war periods - writers like Elio Vittorini, Carlo Levi, Piero Gobetti, etc. One more name came to my mind, Arthur Koestler. Except for Koestler, I haven’t read any of the previously mentioned authors’ works. Their travails and tribulations unbound a common theme. Goebetti died at a tender age of 25 from the after effects of a fascist beating. Levi was exiled for anti-fascist activities in 1935 and Koestler almost found himself facing the hangman’s noose under Franco before the British came to his rescue. That power when coupled with a backdoor agenda metamorphoses in to brutality in face of any criticism or danger of being unmasked. The justification that it is legal, attained through official channels of universal franchise and democratic elections is a sham. When was the majority opinion a benchmark for a moral bulwark for any society? If that were the case then there never would have been any revolution. The script is the same. Bruised collective identity, a tale of historical injustice inflicted on national pride, and the hard selling of a prosperous dream - the feel good factor and a shining future.

I book marked Calvino with the Tehelka receipt I got. An Italian angst ticked off by an indignant Indian voice. Many thoughts were swarming my head then and I can only pick a few now. I wonder what dulls a rational educated sense in to a lackadaisical compliance? I don’t understand what Mr. Mahajan means when he says he wants to table a bill that prevents not only people with foreign origin but also their children from contesting for the highest offices in the land? Frankly, if Sonia Gandhi had been an ordinary foreigner who had acquired Indian nationality and moved up the political hierarchy, I would have completely endorsed her candidature. I think a bill like this is completely undemocratic and discriminatory in nature. Why block any privilege to any person whom we have accepted in our folds? Isn’t this what democracy and universal suffrage stand for? I think the quintessential ideal of democracy is to eschew discrimination in any form. Wonder what Mr. Mahajan’s opinion is about Bobby Jindal’s candidature for Louisiana governor’s post? Will he endorse a similar bill in US Congress that prevents M. Night Shyamalan’s children contesting for US Presidency? I see this as a clear case of rationality lulled in to some sort of malfunctioning ideological compliance. How glossy advertisements fudge our moral values and sense of judgement? Is a rising BSE Sensex a panacea for all social evils? Does it conveniently iron out the rough edges of the moral philosophy that the status quo is trying hard to sell? Can hard economic growth conveniently walk over our sense of righteousness? And then the growth itself is suspect.

I wonder what conscience sits with the corporate glitterati when they invite Narendra Modi to speak at a function weeks after the Gujarat mayhem. And didn’t their soul stir when Jairus Banaji(1) stood up and shouted, “Why is the CII lending credibility to political forces that have blood on their hands?” I heard many a silent angst resonating in that question that Banaji raised. I recall few lines from an article Raj Kamal Jha(2) wrote, “I wanted to pick Mr Modi’s pocket for his handkerchief. And smell, in the warm dankness of his Hindu sweat, the Muslim tears he’s wiped.” Did he find the moist patch left by these tears any different from those of Hindu tears?

I wonder where is India shining when acid gets thrown at women in a local Mumbai train. I wonder whether we still shine when a man lies bleeding on a Mumbai platform while people alight and board the train with utmost apathy.

But who has not lost
A face in deep thoughts
Standing next a bleeding man
The city offers million excuses
To leave the dying on the pavement.

I wonder what is shining when cotton farmers driven with abject poverty and debt commit suicide in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. I wonder who is shining when a whistle blower in National Highway Project is ruthlessly murdered for exposing corruption. Next time I drive on the four-lane stretch in Greater Noida, I know Mr. Dubey I am on the asphalt laden with your blood. I wonder how vandalizing the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune by Sambhaji Brigade resurrects the Maratha pride. Who shone in the end – Shivaji, Maharashtra, India?

I wonder whether Mr. George Fernandes found himself shining when he saw a foreign hand behind Graham Steins murder. By the way, I do suspect that there is a foreign hand involved when I see MIG21s falling off the sky like bird droppings, didn’t it occur to you Mr. Fernandes? Or was it Mr. L.K. Advani shining when he summarily dismissed the charge by saying that he knew these organizations well and that they were incapable of performing such acts. I wonder if he can say the same with such surety about the various constituents of Hurriyat. I wonder how blinded with his sheen are Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s powerful friends that they have nothing to say when he openly defends Amarmani Tripathi, the proclaimed murderer of poetess Madhumita Shukla. And last but not the least; Mayawati definitely stole the sheen from Taj Mahal. Hope she is glowing now. Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to India Shining!

An English noble wrote once to his son in a letter, “Son, you’d be amazed by how little sense rule the world!” Ok! I am willing to put up with a senseless brain but what to do with an insensitive heart? And together, they do form a lethal cocktail – complete apathy for human life, dignity and justice. A senseless brain will be foolish but an insensitive heart smacks of contempt and utter disregard for others. I am reminded of a speech Arunadhati Roy(3) gave in New York City last year. She quotes Mr. George W. Bush Senior’s reaction when U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger airliner in Persian Gulf on 3rd July 1988 killing all 290 people on board. He said, “I will never apologize for the United States. I don't care what the facts are." That’s the kind of danger democracy is fraught with when confused ideologies mixed with fascist tendency work their way up the corridors of power. That’s what we will be doled out if we do not stand up and stop this politico-ideological juggernaut. I see a parallel between the newfound organized evangelist American zeal to proselytize(4) and the RSS-VHP agenda in collusion with BJP here at home.

Thus we must pull ourselves out of this contemplative dulled soporific ideological existence we have lulled in to and thrust forward in a realm of action, as Tarun Tejpal says. We must stop this urge to deify and keep alive the temptation to question the obvious. Because behind all this gloss of India shining, I see an ugly face lurking. But didn’t we already know that? After all Mr. Vajpayee is just a mask.

Murtaza Danish Husain
February 2004

(1)Jairus Banaji is a peace activist who was thrown out of a CII summit where Mr. Modi was wooing investors back to Gujarat after the communal violence and the dip in the investments in its aftermath for raising this question. Unfortunately, Banaji’s article that I refer to does not give the date or venue of the CII summit. For more details please follow the link

(2)The article is titled ‘John Brown and a Dog called Chum’. I do not know where it was published. Amitava Kumar forwarded it to me. For a fuller version you may send me a mail at

(4)For details read the cover story in Tehelka’s weekly newspaper’s debut on January 31, 2004.

PS: This article was published in Tehelka in one of the April, 2004 issues.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Amitava & I and The Demons We Fight

I think I had a slick opening line a few minutes back but it has slipped away as I await my PC to open a new word document file. Anyway, it saves me from the embarrassment to sound erudite.

I first heard of Amitava when I saw (saw not read!) a review of his first book ‘Passport Photos’ almost three years back. I had no clue who he was and the review, I think it was India Today, was not very generous (or was it generous? Critics are seldom generous to first time writers). Later, over a meeting with a common friend, I came to know how Amitava was her elder brother’s classmate and her first crush. I could see her eyes glittering with that teenage soft look and I felt a pang of envy. After so many years she still harbors a soft corner for him. I didn’t say anything. I normally don’t have anything to say. I like listening. It is cathartic. I just smiled. She asked can I get her a copy of this book and I said sure. Some days later I walked in to a book store and bought two copies of Passport Photos, one for her and one for me. It still lies on my bookshelf gathering dust.

A few days after this chance conversation, she informed me that Amitava would be in town to launch his second book titled ‘Bombay-London-New York’. She asked me if I be interested in attending the book launch and I readily jumped at the invitation. In the run-up to the book launch, I bought his second book and this time I started reading it too (small redemption for Amitava). The very opening lines drew me to the book. The humor of them and how instantly they demarcate, delineate us from the others - the notion of who we are and who the others are and why the two are different. Amitava writes,

“ This book is about recent Indian fiction in English, but it is also, I have found out, about how and why we read.

In my childhood home, paper, of any kind, was to be touched only by hand. If you stepped on a book by accident, you were to pick it up and raise it respectfully to your forehead. I am not from a culture, although that seems the wrong word here for any number of reasons, where you rubbed paper on your arse.”

Well it hurts both my Muslim and Indian sensibilities to wipe my arse with a paper and not rinse it with water. I feel uncomfortable using five star hotel toilets as they seldom have a tap and a mug next to it and I would wonder why they don’t have one. This is New Delhi and not New York. But reading Amitava made it evident that for all the comfort with the English language we’re far from English. Thats why we are inevitably drawn to V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitava Ghosh, Romesh Gunesekera, et al more than James Joyce, William Burroughs or A.S. Byatt when we wish to read. (Ok! I make a correction… I feel inevitably drawn when I wish to read). How culture moulds not just our culinary and music tastes but also our reading habits.

A couple of years back or maybe more Edward Said came out with his autobiography titled ‘Out of Place’. I had read Said in bits and pieces and was drawn to his succinct, intelligently argued, clear style of writing. I didn’t wish to miss an opportunity to peep in to the man’s personal life. The book also had few photographs slipped in between the pages. There were two photographs that caught my imagination. One was young school going Said with his sister. Both in school uniforms, arms around each other gleefully staring in to the camera. I had a similar photograph with my sister. The pose was strikingly similar. If you’d ignore the faces, you’d think they are the same photograph - one in black & white and the other in color. The other one had young Said as a Harvard graduate in a pair of black goggles placed in some exotic Greek locale. The young Said much resembled Amitava in his photograph at the back cover of his first book Passport Photos. The resemblance in both the photos is coincidental and I do not see any karmic design here. But it struck me how varied cultures thrust similar emotions in visual imagery.

‘Out of Place’ was universal in terms of being a voice of someone displaced and brought up as a minority in another country. In the same breath you belong and you do not belong. You live with this permanent notion of being at home and yet displaced. I have grown up hearing tales of how I am a progeny of the Prophet, a progeny of the survivors of the Battle of Karbala. My ancestors had come to India in the 13th century from Arabia via Central Asia. One of my ancestors was a cavalry in-charge in Muhammad bin Tughlak’s army and had vanquished the local king, Chakwa Mandhata, around Ghazipur region in eastern Uttar Pradesh. His name was Masood and after this victory he was christened as “Ghazi” or “The Victorious One”. The erstwhile kingdom of the Hindu king was given to him as jagir and the area was christened Ghazipur after his title. In some sense this personal history resounded V.S. Naipual’s words in ‘Among the Believers’ that all non-Arab Muslims were tied to a notion of being and from elsewhere. They were mainly converts and had a false sense of history. My ideas of an identity were further shattered when while chatting to a distant granduncle, he is working on the genealogical history of our family; I was told that none of us, or most of us, were not pure descendants of the Prophet. Our ancestors had come as cavalrymen, mostly single or separated and had married local girls and had settled down here. Even if they had come with families, it was quite prevalent to marry more than once and many of these second wives were maids of local origin. For all my repulsion to this dilution of my genealogy I could not but see a reason in his argument. After all, if I was a pure direct descendant there must be a tinge of that gene in me but no matter how hard I stared at my face, I looked like an average brown skinned Indian. There was not a trace of an Arab being.

But in the same vein I disagree with Naipual. Not for an academic or emotional reason but purely based on a first-hand experience. Though I find my personal sense of history rooted in the desert of Arabia, I identify myself with India. I feel closer to a dhoti clad, tilak smeared Hindu than a beard-sporting skullcap wearing Arab. I identify more with Hindi and Urdu than Arabic though a muezzin’s call for namaaz does enchant me. Or to put it in Amitava’s words, ‘it is necessary to see how communities have grown historically in dialogue with each other. Their influences are mixed and shared. They have long standing histories in the places they have flourished.’ The sufi and bhakti movement in India and the Indonesian culture are syncretic products of such historical mixing of cultures. Surely, an Indian Muslim is very different from an Iranian or an Arab Muslim. If we ‘go far back in time, surely all of us are converts’. What were my ancestors before the Prophet? However, as Edward Said says, ‘it took me about fifty years to become accustomed to, or, more exactly, to feel less comfortable with, “Edward”, a foolishly English name yoked forcibly to the unmistakably Arabic family name Said’, I have become accustomed to an Arabic-Persian name labeled across my south Asian face now. I see no conflict, no dichotomy here Mr. Naipaul and my past like my present is true.

However, this sense of being at home and being displaced from a home that I do not identify with anymore creates a chasm in my personal identity and I see myself on both sides but more than that I am comfortable being on both sides. It is like you have just put one foot across the chasm while the other foot still entrenched and you do not feel the urge to either step forward or backward. You wish to ride the chasm astride like a cowboy riding in a Clint Eastwood movie - at once a part of the landscape and yet a lone rider.

I remember in one of the articles that Amitava wrote, he mentions it in his latest book ‘Husband of a Fanatic’ too, he reminisces his interaction with a Pakistani taxi driver. The driver said something about Americans, though not being Muslims, practice Islamic teachings in their social and civil behavior more. They give fair wages. I recall my mother echoing same sentiments after her first visit to the US though she didn’t speak about fair wages specifically. My apologies if I have hurt the sensibilities of non-Muslim readers. The idea is not to monopolize civil behavior as Islamic but understand our perceived realities. What I realized when I read about the taxi driver and heard my mother was how contact between diverse set of people change their perceived realities about each other. Prolonged non-contact leads us to look for stories elsewhere and we fall prey to media, stereotypes and our self-created demons. We construct our realities not on first hand experience but on heresy. And thus the enemy loses his or her face. The enemy becomes a perpetual demonic entity epitomizing everything evil that we are not. It becomes easier to hate the enemy, to fight him, to decimate him once he loses the face. In Amitava’s words we have a textbook enemy at hand. Easy to comprehend and perpetuate hatred against. And once this has been achieved even if textbook enemy surfaces as a face in real life, it is easier to ram a cricket stump up her vagina or chop off his body in six pieces even when he is dead. It becomes easier to lob a bomb in a shanty settlement as people sleep or walk in to a worship place and fire indiscriminately. (For details read Amitava’s first-hand reports in his book ‘Husband of A Fanatic’)

A friend chuckled and said one of the reviews said Amitava has overdone it this time. He is playing it to the galleries. No madam! Amitava has not overdone it this time. He is only highlighting the imminent danger if we do not fight this hate factory churning out textbook enemies. He is only giving a face to the enemy, making him or her more human through his personal interactions and in the process perhaps exorcising the ghost of textbook enemy. The demon is this ability of ours to create stereotypical enemies of chimerical proportions. Let us make the enemy more human. Perhaps, we will have fewer reasons to hate then.

So, Amitava and I finally meet. I sit through the book release listening intently to whatever is being spoken. One constant observation by many readers was Amitava’s intimate writing style. How he shifts from a general commentary on a political or a literary issue to a personal experience thus vacillating between an essay and a memoir. Readers found it hard to classify his work. Is it an essay, a personal memoir or may be a part fiction? I could feel their discomfort. And I amusedly wondered why such an issue over his writing style. Why this urge, instinct, imminent need to classify, categorize, catalogue one’s work? A writer only speaks his or her mind whether it is a hard-hitting analysis or a personal experience or a fictitious tale. He or she knows no barriers. He or she will transcend them, flow lucidly through genres, keep writing till the myriads of emotions welled inside flow out as words on paper. This urge to classify is similar to our primal instinct to seek security, to draw the unknown in to the known. This insistence to adhere to the known, to conventions, to the practiced is a reflection of how we have become a stickler for nomenclature, systems, dogma, etc. We ought to be somebody – an essayist, a novelist, a critic, a Muslim, a Hindu, a South Asian, an American – any of this but how can we assume plural identities. And the moment we do this there is a violation. It is the same instinct that engenders an appetite to create textbook enemies. A writer strives to fight this. He or she strives for a borderless world where our identities don’t define us, our humanity does.

Murtaza Danish Husain
September 18, 2004
New Delhi