Thursday, 26 February 2015

Book review: Revenge of the Naked Princess

Revenge of the Naked Princess: A Dark Tale on Forced Conversions
Oswald Pereira
Leadstart Publishing 2013

Based on his grandmother's tale related to him during his childhood, Pereira weaves a bizarre tale of religious intolerance and revenge.  It begins well with a vivid description of the raid of the tribal palace in Yehoor Hills, a remote jungle area in coastal Maharashtra.  The Portuguese, having made Goa their base of religious and political activities, are looking for fresh converts to their religion.  At the behest of their king, who wants to expand trade routes across the region, the military and religious leaders head off on a quest of finding, subduing and converting the heathen masses.  

Aiding them in this particular venture, is a recent native convert, who betrays the very kingdom and its people that had provided for his welfare in the past.  There are gory descriptions of torture - rape, body parts being dismembered, people being threatened, persecuted and killed - only to encourage them into accepting the 'religion of peace'.  While the military leader is direct in his approach of torture, the Father in charge of showing the tribal people the light, is more docile, but equally fanatical and bigoted in his mindset.  So much so, that when the dead princess of the kingdom comes back as a spirit to avenge her rape and death, he sides with the devil himself to annihilate her spirit! 

Up until the death of the princess and the brutal conversion of the tribal people, the story is engaging.  However, when the revenge bit starts, it meanders along, with the princess' spirit vacillating between seeking revenge and pardoning the perpetrators.  The revenge itself, one can't help feeling, is inadequate given the heinousness of the crime committed, and moreover, unsuccessful!  The princess is impaled on a huge spiky cactus by the Bishop and the spirit of her spirit (!) is condemned to a bottomless pit.  

The gods sitting on Cloud 1777333999 - no, its not a phone number - hug each other and vow that the princess would return to seek her revenge!  What was she doing until now?!?  Is this an attempt at keeping the options open for a sequel?  As though getting your head round things such as supplicating lions, human bodied 'spirits', sexual romps, a wheel-less flying chariot driven by lions, gods joining hands on clouds, and pagan exorcism rituals was not enough!  

If however, you are into fantasy, able to suspend disbelief, and willing to accept the workings of the writer's fervid imagination, you may well enjoy the tale.

The narrative is punctuated (or not!) by several grammatical and spelling errors.  There is generous use of the 'f-word', which makes one wonder if the sixteenth century Portuguese were aware of the word, or had an equivalent of it in their language.  There are also plenty of annoying compound phrases, such as 'subjects-of-conversion', 'one-day-humans' and 'fighting-colonel-turned-fighting-brigadier', which mar the narrative.

Having said that, the real winner in this work is the theme on which it is based.  It must have taken a lot of guts and gumption on the part of Pereira - himself a Christian - to write a story on the brutal nature of conversions in sixteenth century India.  In today's pseudo-secular environment, when every wrong doing of those not of the majority faith of the land - whether in the past or the present - is brushed under the carpet, here is a story that exposes the hypocrisy, bigotry, and fundamental nature of early Christian evangelism.  

As this issue has been overlooked for so long, it continues even today, though the means of achieving it has changed from brutal force and persecution to covert influence and temporal allurements.  Full credit to Pereira for bringing this issue out into the public domain, at the risk of inviting wrath from the upholders of proselytism and conversions. 

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Book review: Angarey

Angarey: 9 Stories and a Play
Translators: Vibha S Chauhan & Khalid Alvi
Rupa Publications 2014

1932 was the year in which Angarey was first published by a group of liberal Muslim intellectuals.  Even though they did anticipate some trouble before they published the book, they were probably unprepared for the furore this book generated.  It was banned by the then British government, at the behest of a few individuals who took deep offence at the contents of the book.  Some, it seems, did not even bother to go through the contents of the book, as most often happens when any piece of art is proscribed, ostensibly for hurting the religious sentiments of a few.  However, the banning of the book did pave the way for the formation of the Progressive Writers' Movement.

It was only in the 1980s, after much water had flowed under the bridge, that the collection was put together again with great difficulty; so much so that they writers had to get the microfilm of the stories from that repository of colonialists' souvenir collections - the British Museum.  This Urdu version was utilised by Chauhan and Alvi, professors of English and Urdu respectively at the Zakir Husain Delhi College, to translate it into English. 

All through the reading, I was monitoring the content to spot anything that might have been objectionable to religious leaders of the 1930s India.  I could hardly find any.  Perhaps what was objectionable then, has with time, become more acceptable to pubic and pundits alike.  The original authors make use of the 'stream of consciousness' technique - a type of literary style that reveals the character's free-flowing thoughts, and jumps from one theme to another with scant regard for appropriate punctuation.  This is combined, in these short stores, with the prevailing social, religious (mostly Islamic), cultural and class issues of the time. 

The first five stories are by Sajjad Zahir, father of Nadira Z Babbar who has written the preface for the book.  The author's Left-leaning is obvious in these stories of class struggle, femininity, sarcasm poverty, agnosticism, and religious cynicism.  Perhaps the one story that might have ruffled quite a few religious feathers is that of the Maulvi who, unable to keep up his holy night vigil, falls asleep and dreams of his entry to heaven where he is greeted by naked houris.  Dripping with tongue-in-cheek humour and sarcasm, passages from Heaven Assured! might have been quoted quite a few times by those who sought a ban on the book.  

The two stories by Ahmed Ali are an exercise in free-wheeling outpouring of thoughts - the stream of consciousness in action - but there is hardly any blasphemous content in either of the stories.  The only female author of the group, Rashid Jahan provides a story and a play that highlight women's issues - their status in a patriarchal society, their woes, their coping mechanisms, and the manipulations that they resort to, in a hope of leading a better life.  Perhaps for this reason, and the fact that she was a woman, Jahan was targeted the most by the Puritans of 1930s India.  Her husband, Mahmuduzzafar, provides the sole story of self-deprecating Masculinity, which once again throws light on the plight of women vis-a-vis the male ego.

The translators provide a lengthy introduction to the book, which while it enlightens one on the making of Angarey and the controversy it generated, keeps one away from the actual content; the stories that one is itching to read, and from finding out why they were deemed 'objectionable' by some.  One wishes that the actual points and opinions raised in protest against the book were revealed explicitly, along with the reactions from the individual authors.

Nevertheless, one has to applaud the original authors, and the efforts of Chauhan, Alvi and their publishers, for undertaking the onerous task of upholding free speech in today's world.  A world, which even after 83 years of Angarey, is still marred by religious hypersensitivity, intolerance, protests in the form of vandalism, and unjustified proscriptions.        

Friday, 13 February 2015

Book review: Tongue of the Slip

Tongue of the Slip: Looking Back on Life with Humour
C. P. Belliappa
Rupa Publications 2013

This one is a light, easy read, which takes a light hearted view of life's gaffes and struggles.  Mostly drawing from his own life experiences, Belliappa recounts engaging and witty tales involving his family, relatives, friends, and himself.  

Whether it is his prankster friend, his golf adventures, his overeating hostel mate, his attempts to name a rare flower after himself, his building society's solutions to prevent spitting in building corners, or his umbrella that just would not let him lose it, these stories go to show that there could a humorous side to every story, and if taken in the right spirit, even difficult situations would seem easy to handle.

The last section of the book, Part 5, is all about Belliappa fantasising or dreaming about things such as going on a space flight, meeting God who is a golf lover, and receiving a clock tower as a gift.  Since these are not based in reality, they are not as engaging as the other tales, and remain his flights of fancy.  Having said that, his take on the changing power status of the thumb and the index finger since the pre-historic times to modern age, is interesting and thought provoking. 

By far the stories that I found most touching and interesting were that of the Italian family and the Tamil-French youth, respectively.  In the former, Belliappa finds himself in a newly opened pizza place, where the family running the place keep staring at him till the end.  It is only when he hands the one Dollar note to settle the bill does he realise that they were eager to get their hands on their first earning since opening the place.  The note is promptly framed and put up on the wall!

In the latter story, Belliappa and his wife find themselves stranded in a large Paris metro station.  They approach a couple of Indian looking men who look bewildered when addressed in English.  It turns out that since they were born in France, they know only French and their mother tongue, Tamil.  Hence when he asks them if they speak Tamil, they reply, "oui, oui, aama, aama"!  What's that called?  Framil, perhaps?

Since Belliappa is a Coorgi, there is a Coorg flavour throughout the book.  Coffee estates, dogs, winding roads, rain, and guns seem to be main ingredients of Coorgi life, and that's brought out in these anecdotes.  

And I know what to say to a Coorgi the next time I meet one: "ningga daada?" - 'which family do you belong to?'!

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Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Book review: Losing My Religion

Losing My Religion
Vishwas Mudagal
Fingerprint! 2014

Swear words, mushy romance, smoking, pot/hash, gaming, hippie lifestyle.  Sorry, not my cup of tea.  But I decided to take a chance with this one, looking at the glowing reviews it had received. 

Mudagal weaves a story loosely based on his own experiences in the corporate/technical world.  And it is not a bad one.  It is, of course, highly contrived and far fetched.  It conjures up images of Q&A by Vikas Swarup (which later became Slumdog Millionaire).  But if you are willing and able to suspend disbelief, you have an exciting read in store for you.  

The story, peopled by characters who would appeal to the young, carefree and restless, moves quickly from one significant twist to another.  The twists are all connected, and this is revealed in the climax of the story, which I do not want to give away for those of you who have not read the book yet.  The characters, when they are not high on cannabis, are also street smart, intelligent, and excellent entrepreneurs - a rare combination indeed!

In the post-story interview with the author, Mudagal states, when asked about his writing: "that's my style - entertainment with substance."  He probably forgot to add grammar to his style.  The book is riddled with grammatical gaffes, and one has to pinch oneself to believe that it is American characters that are mouthing dialogues that syntactically sound Indian. 

Further, the writing really improves, and the narrative becomes gripping, only when The Apprenticeship bit begins in the latter part of the story.  It is almost as if this part has been written by another person.  Or perhaps this part was better thought out than the other bits by Mudagal and his team.  

The blurb and the first three inner pages are full of high praise for the book from the likes of The New Indian Express, The Pioneer and  Perhaps they overlooked the grammatical errors in lieu of the exciting plot. 

If it is entertainment you are looking for, go for it.    

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Saturday, 7 February 2015

Time for Swachh Teerthsthal Abhiyan

There was an eye-opening article in The Hindu Magazine of 1st February 2015 by Malathi Ramachandran.  Titled 'Unholy mess', it highlighted the deterioration of discipline and cleanliness in our so-called holy places.  She lists scenarios from temples such as Ramanathalingam at Rameshwaram, Jagannath at Puri, Kamakhya at Guwahati, and Mahakaleshwar at Ujjain, which are but a few examples of utter disdain shown towards maintaining decorum and bhakti - both by the keepers of these places, as well as the throngs of people visiting them.

I am reminded of my own trip to Tirupati, the richest temple in the world.  We were allotted time slots to wait in the queue, which went well to begin with.  After the entry slots, given in the form of wristbands, were checked by the authorities, there was a complete breakdown of the queue.  People starting jostling and shoving each other.  Every one rushed, as though afraid that the Lord inside would be leaving the place shortly.  Some broke the barrier and created short-cuts for themselves.

When I was about to enter the sanctum sanctorum, a man and a woman who were standing behind me, started verbally abusing each other loudly.  By the time I looked behind and turned around, I was already in front of the Deity, and was being shoved towards the exit by the volunteer sevaks.  In about two seconds, the darshan - something that we had waited for hours for - was over, and that too in a less than divine atmosphere.

Cut to Pandharpur - the place where the greatest of great saints of Maharashtra frequented, to make it the prime centre of the bhakti movement.  The Chandrabhaga, the holy river coursing through Pandharpur, was littered with discarded pooja items, plastic covers and filth.  Reluctant to 'purify' ourselves in its waters, we dipped our toes in the water tentatively and made for the temple.  After fighting for a place in the queue, and after much shoving and squeezing through narrow entry points, we were fortunate enough to be allowed to touch the feet of the Lord when we got to the sanctum.

The priests and authorities were shouting out instructions that only the feet of the Lord were to be touched, and not the upper torso.  A woman - a villager by the looks of her - made the mistake of touching the upper part of the Lord.  The security man who was in the sanctum, gave a resounding thwack on her back, which startled the woman so much that she retreated, roundly castigated.  I couldn't help wondering what the Lord thought of the whole incident.  What a change in human behaviour He would have witnessed from the days of Namdev and Chokhamela to now!  

How is one to maintain bhakti in such environments?  What is the point in scrubbing yourself clean from head to toe, if you only end up dirtying the premises of holy places?  Why is it that we pray inside the temple, and spit outside it?  Why do some people find it appropriate to relieve themselves on temple compound walls?  What is the point in designating these temple towns as holy, if stench, cesspools, beggars, stray animals fill their streets?  What is the solution?

Ramachandran offers the example of the Vaishno Devi temple, which has made the whole process of visiting the shrine a divine experience.  Apparently, even beggars are employed here in the development works of the temple.  There is also the example of langars and gurudwaras, where the pilgrims themselves are involved in the upkeep of the shrine.  In addition to contributing to the cleanliness and decorum of the place, this practice can also instil a sense of service, duty and humility in the pilgrim.

It is high time that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is extended to cover Swachh Teerthsthal Abhiyan as well.  I wish the Prime Minister, in addition to cleaning the Ganga, also considers uplifting our pilgrimage places as well.  

It is also up to us, as devotees visiting these places, to maintain discipline and civic sense, and if possible, to volunteer for the cause.       

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Sunday, 1 February 2015

Book recommendation: Light on Life

Light on Life: The Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace and Ultimate Freedom
B.K.S. Iyengar
(With John J. Evans & Douglas Abrams)
Rodale Books, 2005

This is meant to be a book on Yoga, but it might as well be taken as a book on life itself.  Rather, it is the way one should live life, from the yogic viewpoint.  Iyengar, with commendable help from his Western friends - Evans and Abrams, draws from him immense reserve of yogic sadhana to help us understand the real purpose of doing yoga.  

For most of us, yoga has been reduced to a 'new age' fad, a necessity that has come back to us vicariously because the West has taken a fancy to it.  'Whatever they do, it must be good for us too' seems to be the thought process in the revival of yoga in our society.  But neither the West nor us seem to have understood the true purpose of yoga; neither has gone beyond its usage as a physical exercise at the superficial level, and as a mind calming exercise at the deeper level.  Iyengar shows that it is much more than that.  It is a way to your - and our - Inner Self itself.  It is, among several other spiritual means of reaching the indivisible One, a simple, practical and accessible method of reaching Kaivalya - the ultimate goal of emancipation.  

For the ease of understanding, Iyengar divides the book into chapters corresponding to the five sheaths of being: the annamaya kosa (physical body), pranamaya kosa (breath or vital energy), manomaya kosa (mind), vijnanamaya kosa (intellect) and anandamaya kosa (bliss).  As one can glean from this, it progresses from the gross to the subtle; from the body to the soul, with the mind and intellect in between.  

He enlightens us on the eight constituent limbs of the ashtanga yoga: yama (ethical disciplines - not to be confused with the Lord of Death), niyama (internal ethical observances), asana (bodily yogic postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), pratyahara (sensory control and withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (blissful union), in that order.  

Of these, yama comprises of ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), brahmacharya (controlling senses and celibacy), asteya (non-stealing) and aparigraha (non-covetousness).  Niyama is further divided into soucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity/heat), swadhyaya (self-study) and ishvara pranidhana (devotional surrender to God).  

Iyengar says he is a hatha yogi (ha = sun, tha = moon); the sun referring to the soul that one aspires to find on the yogic journey.  He was also a guru to many (gu = darkness, ru = light); or a person who leads from darkness to light.  He also was a married man, which he reiterates throughout the book to drive home the point that one does not have to become a sanyasin to become a yogi.  Further, as Iyengar points out, you do not need to be religious, or even a Hindu to start practising yoga; it is a truly universal spiritual practice.   

There is a beautiful metaphor of the river used in the book to highlight the meaning of the purusarthas of human life: dharma (rightful duty) and moksa (ultimate emancipation, or as Iyengar puts it, freedom from desires) that form the two banks of the river.  The flow of the river is formed by the other two purusarthas; artha (money/work) and kama (love/sensuous pleasure).  Iyengar points out that artha, which may lead to greed, and kama, which may lead to lust, should never overflow the two banks.  Lyrical, and illustrates the point brilliantly.

My only critique of the book is to do with the fact that sometimes the reading can be dry and esoteric.  You do need a lot of dharana to read and understand the concepts of yogic practice.  Illustrations are confined to the last pages, and comprise of yogic postures to relieve mental agony.  More anecdotes from Iyengar's rich life, more stories, and more examples of students benefiting from the practice  of yoga might have enlivened the narrative.  Nevertheless, if you can put yourself through the tapas of reading the book itself, you will reach the goal of realising the true potential of yoga, which can then be used to redirect your yogic practice more meaningfully.

Highly recommended reading for aspirants, yogis, non-yogis and human beings in general.     

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