Thursday, September 10, 2009
Legacy of a name: Fatima Bhutto has lost much due to politics.
In an exclusive interview, Fatima Bhutto, granddaughter of the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, talks about her writing and why she stays away from the political furnace.
“My father wanted me to be a writer. He sent my poems to the publisher with his signature the night before he was killed. After he was killed, I kept writing in his memory.”
In a perfect world, Fatima Bhutto would have been behind a desk or with her laptop, putting together her next poem. Her father, the late Murtaza Bhutto, would have been around, lending a helping hand in drafting letters to publishers, just as he did when she was a teenager.
However, life is no fairytale, and hours after he put his signature of approval to her first book, he breathed his last.
Today, Fatima, from the illustrious clan of the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who would rather not use her surname to enter politics, writes books. Never mind, life has not been a bright book for her.
At 25, that age when you are neither too young nor too old, she still maintains good cheer. Moral cretins abound in her universe. But hers is a peculiar world, as one found out in the course of a discussion at the Jaipur Literature Week recently.
Ernest Hemingway, Sartre, Asma Jehangir and Mukhtar Mai occupy the same mindscape. And young Fatima, smart enough to be a politician, and wise enough to stay away from the crucible that took the lives of three of her family members — grandfather Zulfiqar, father Murtaza, and most recently aunt Benazir — would rather talk about her work, how she has been saved from great tragedies by a divine hand — she was in the U.S. on 9/11, in London on 7/7 — and the like. Yet her life has followed a tragic trajectory.
Sorrow and creativity
Angst and sorrow have stirred her creative juices: her poetry and the book on the Kashmir earthquake have both stemmed from sad events. Is it essential for a writer to experience the adversities of life rather than having only good things happening to her?
“I think what is essential for a writer is a strong and sensitive imagination. Certainly tragedies can enhance a writer’s creativity and ability to empathise, but it’s not essential. I think imagination and that ability to empathise are keys for creativity.”
Simply put. Just like her writing that has a simplicity, which makes it more identifiable to the common reader. Did her father specifically groom her to write simply in an age when children tend to flaunt their vocabulary? “I was raised to speak openly and honestly. I think that moved into my writing. When you write what is true to you and what is earnest, you write in a manner that people can identify with, whether they agree with you or not. I do have to thank my parents for instilling this in me, but as I started writing I found that when I wrote that way I loved the process of creating. It felt most natural.”
This “natural” writer started early, real early. She was just 15 when her first collection of poems was published. “I started writing for a school project. I have always enjoyed writing and my father wanted me to be a writer. After reading my poems, he made me write a covering letter and send it to publishers. He had sent the poems to the publisher with his signature the night before he was killed. He had even named the book, Whispers of the Desert. I asked him, why ‘desert’? He said, ‘Well, because you hail from a desert, Sindh’. After he was killed, I kept writing in his memory.”
Ask her to describe the poems in her book brought out by OUP in 1997, she simply says, “They reflect my relationship with my father. They are about loss, emptiness….”
Her speech still retains the memories of her father’s death. “He returned from Damascus in 1993. He won an election in exile. We campaigned for him. In 1996 Dad was killed, he was shot at point blank range. He was hit on the jaw, bled on the street for 45 minutes. The cops responsible for the investigation, and later trial, got double/triple promotions. One went on to head the commission on women.”
Her second book was about the earthquake victims, particularly children orphaned by the earthquake in Kashmir. “We had never had anything of that magnitude in our country. There were 80,000 deaths and an entire generation of children was lost because they were in school. I wanted to do something. People were living in tents even months after the tragedy. I did not want to send blankets and the like, as relief was pouring in from all quarters. We gave blood, medicines but I wanted to do something more lasting.
“I went to Balakot and other places. I went to hospitals where the affected were being treated. I met girls who wanted to be doctors. My mom went to a girl called Afira Zara Naaz. She had been amputated. She wanted to be a doctor too. She was a survivor. I said if kids want to write their stories, I will help them publish. I had almost forgotten about that when two weeks later, to my surprise I got an envelope with their stories. We published a book, 8.50 am, 8 October, 2005. The proceeds went to a charity.”
Natural too, that being a young woman with a mind of her own, she would write about women as well. As she has about Iran, where her work has been a bit of an eye-opener. Incidentally, Iranian women, according to her, have found their own niche, taken strides in the field of education. All in their hijab during the Islamic Revolution.
Women in Pakistan
But the situation in her own country, despite a brave unlettered woman like Mukhtar Mai, and even more intrepid Asma Jehangir, is far less impressive. They are not quite symbols of liberation yet. She agrees, “We are not yet in the same position that Iran is in regard to women — and I’m sure people will find that strange if they’ve never been to Iran and seen first hand the courage and strength that is the Iranian woman. But we have strong women role models. Fatima Jinnah was a political and public woman decades before her time. Asma Jehangir is another role model in terms of activism, and Mukhtar Mai is a brave symbol of dignity and struggle.”
Talking of struggle, her life has been one too. “I was brought up in Damascus. There was a military coup in 1977 by Gen. Zia ul Haq unseating my grandfather’s democratically elected Government. My father moved to Syria, raised me as a single parent. I got my own space to grow up there. I had a modest upbringing, doing my own laundry and the like. I had to learn, work, earn. Back in Pakistan I was like an outsider looking in. Pakistan was a dream, nostalgia, folk songs, ice-creams. I went to Karachi, Larkana… These were mythical things that only existed in my mind until then. I went to my grandfather’s grave too. I felt tall.”
So much for a girl looking for her roots! Soon the writer in her takes over as she describes her ancestral place. “Larkana is very close to Mohenjo Daro. A city of four million people, it is located in Sindh. Here rickshaws and cars compete for the same space. My house is an old haveli-like structure with a zenana and mardana — sections for ladies and men. Initially, it was frightening. There were people everywhere in the city. But once there I realised people were interested in my last name. In Damascus I was an individual. Here I was a Bhutto.”
Back in Pakistan, she discovered “feudalism is an attitude, not a lifestyle”. It is an attitude that does not suit her. “I don’t believe in birthright politics. I have lost too much in politics. My dad was 42 when he went away, my uncle 26, my grandfather 50… Benazir lived the longest at 54.
“I don’t have to be in dynasty politics to make a mark… my name does not prevent me or take me forward. Certain things I can say as a writer that I cannot as a politician. For instance, I can say that Mukhtar Mai changed the culture of silence. She is an illiterate woman who was punished for raising her voice after a gang-rape. But she stood up, and has now built a school for girls from the money that poured in for her… By writing we chronicle the injustices of our times."
Fair enough. But isn’t it a tool she has used with adeptness in her regular writing when talking of her father’s political adversary, her aunt, Benazir Bhutto, whom she calls “Wadi Bua”?
Memories of Benazir
“I don’t believe in dynasty. I don’t regret what I wrote about Benazir. It was never personal. It was political. People wrote to me in response to my articles, saying ‘Shame on you…your grandfather won’t have approved of it.’ I write what I believe in. My earliest memories of Benazir are very beautiful. I had great affection for her when I was very young. I loved her. A little later, I respected her for the fight she showed in the mid-1980s. She was struggling, fighting the State, the system, the dictatorship. But, with her, there was always that element of looking back to look forward.
“I regret she is not there anymore. If she were, she would have given me more ammunition. However, the manner of her violent death has to be stopped. If we have to foster democracy, violence has to be stopped. Politics in many places is like family business. Power does not change hands in my country. For instance, I have been told in Pakistan, 20 political families monopolise politics, 20 families monopolise the economy.”
So, what is the way out? “Spread power, make those in power accountable. And I am a great believer in people. They have to build bridges. Governments will do what they do. As citizens of India and Pakistan, we are like twins. We are like siblings who occasionally fight but still remain siblings. People want buses, trains, peace. It does not pay to wonder what would have been the condition of the subcontinent if there were no Partition. I would say, there would have been no Faiz without Pakistan!”
But isn’t she limiting the prospects of peace by writing in English alone? “I write in English but I am published in Urdu as well,” she says, adding, “I speak Arabic fluently. My Urdu is good, I know a bit of French, even a smattering of Sindhi.”
Is the purity of English being compromised in Pakistan too? “To a lesser extent I think it happens here. But rather, it’s the purity of Urdu and other vernacular languages that is most compromised here as everything has become Anglicised and made ‘foreign’. We don’t use our language as a primary one, it’s become secondary to English. That’s a great tragedy for such a beautiful language.”
Having lived in Syria, the U.S., the U.K. and, of course, in Pakistan, does she feel like a citizen of the world? “I am a proud Pakistani. I would like to remain in Pakistan,” is all she offers. Politician? Maybe. A young writer at ease with words? Certainly.
A family in politics
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (born on January 5, 1928) was the founder of Pakistan’s People’s Party and the President of Pakistan from 1971 to 1973. Deposed by a military coup he was executed on April 4, 1979 after a controversial trial for authorising the murder of a political opponent.
Benazir Bhutto (born on June 21, 1953) was the first woman to head a Muslim-majority state. She was elected as Prime Minister twice in 1988 and in 1993 but removed from office on corruption charges. She was killed at a rally in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007.
Mir Murtaza Bhutto (born on September 18, 1954) won a seat as an independent in the 1993 elections. In 1995, he led a breakway faction of the ruling Pakistan People’ Party. He was killed in an encounter with the police on September 20, 1996.
Shahnawaz Bhutto (born in 1958) was in Switzerland when his father was executed. He was believed to have links with Al-Zulfikar, a group dedicated to overthrowing Gen. Zia’s regime. He was found dead on July 18, 1985 at his home in Nice, France.
ZIYA US SALAM(170208)
Media claims that the Indian woman has arrived look only at partial realities. The full picture, with numbers to back it up, tells a different story.
Different realities: Not everyone has arrived.
When the media claims that the Indian woman has finally “arrived”, that there is a noticeable change in her status, and that she displays a new confidence, how should one react? Believe? Disbelieve? Applaud? Be cynical? Or conduct a reality check?
It is virtually impossible to generalise on the status of women in India. For every plus point showing an improvement, there are a dozen minus points indicating the reverse. Therefore, arriving at a mean between these two extremes becomes difficult.
Last month, the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) with two media houses, Indian Express and CNN-IBN, released the results of an interesting survey on the status of Indian women. The sample was small — 4,000 women in 20 states and across 160 locations — and the survey acknowledge that it had a decided urban skew. Yet, the results indicated some notable trends.
One of the interesting findings was that the majority of Indian women wanted to “work” outside the house in paid labour. Those not engaged in such work at the moment, wanted the chance to do so. They felt they got more respect if they worked outside the house. Yet, the majority also admitted that they were not paid equal wages to the men nor did they get the position they felt they deserved at their place of work. And a large number complained of harassment at work.
Work without pay
As many as 67 per cent of the women surveyed said they ought to be paid for the “work” they do inside the house. And that is not surprising given that both rural women, who are engaged in agricultural labour, and urban women, who work outside their homes, put in an average of a 10-hour day that includes the work inside and outside the house. In other words, the fact that they brought in an income did not absolve them of the primary responsibility for the unpaid work that they still had to do at home. Despite this, most women said they wanted to work for wages even if they did not need the money.
But how many of them could decide how to use that income? Only half the women surveyed said they could. Although most women said they were included in the decision making process, only a third said they had they could independently decide, for instance, whether to purchase a household item. In fact, most of the women said they could not make independent decisions on whether to pursue further education or to work. Even highly educated women said they did not have the right to decide independently on such issues.
Only one in five of the single women surveyed said that they could decide on their own on the question of marriage. The one area where they could decide was when it came to voting. Over half said that they were free to decide but clearly the other half still did not have that freedom.
So the picture that emerges is a mixed one. Women want to earn, want respect, want autonomy but still don’t really get it, not even on questions of further education and certainly not on the crucial issue of marriage. So the confidence in a few is not reflected in the absence of autonomy amongst the majority of women even in the context of this small survey.
While such surveys are interesting because they provoke discussion on this subject, the data from the National Family Health Survey III (NFHS III) is probably a far more reliable way to judge the progress made by Indian women as it has surveyed 1.25 lakh women across 29 States. Some of the facts that emerge from it are disturbing, particularly those relating to violence against women. The health data, such as the incidence of anaemia amongst married and pregnant women is another disturbing measure that reveals that all is not so well after all.
For example, 57.8 per cent or more than one in every two pregnant women in this country is anaemic. This is the consequence of lack of adequate nutrition and neglect of health problems. The worst State is Haryana, where an astounding 70 per cent of the pregnant women are anaemic. Amongst married women in the age group 15-49 years, the incidence of anaemia has increased from 51.89 per cent in 1998-99 to 56.1 per cent in 2005-06. That is an unacceptably high figure for a country claiming it is on the verge of becoming a global economic giant.
Take another measure, that of crimes against women. The National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) has figures for 2006 on its website. We find that the incidence of reported rapes has increased by 5.4 per cent while that of dowry deaths has gone up by 12.2 per cent. In fact, it is the figures on dowry-related crimes that are most disturbing. Apart from dowry deaths, the incidence of complaints filed under the Dowry Prohibition Act 1961 has increased by an astounding 40.6 per cent. Add to this the increase in the number of cases registered under Section 498 A of the Criminal Procedure Code that relate to violent acts by husband or another relative, and you get a very disturbing picture of what women face within their homes.
In fact, the NCRB site is interesting for a number of other reasons. For instance, Andhra Pradesh leads in the States with the highest number of crimes against women followed by Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. And the first five cities in terms of number of crimes against women are Delhi — no surprises there — followed by Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bangalore and Ahmedabad.
It is comforting to look at a partial reality, be content at what we see around us and believe that this represents the full picture. But a closer look exposes uncomfortable details, unsavoury realities that suggest that the struggle to really improve the status of women in this country cannot be cosmetic, cannot be fought only at one level, but must continue on many different fronts.
It took exceptional courage for Bilkis Bano to walk up to the police station and file a complaint, and persist with it.
Rare courage: Bilkis Bano at a press meet after the verdict.
It is one of those horror stories from the Gujarat carnage of 2002 that few can forget. A young Muslim woman, six months pregnant, runs for her life from her village when rampaging mobs attack it on February 28. She has with her a three-year-old daughter, her mother and other relatives. They move out of their village under cover of darkness and hide in a field hoping to escape. Instead, the next morning they are confronted with a mob of 20 to 30 men carrying swords and sickles who assault and gang rape the four women, including Bilkis and her mother, kill many of the others, and kill her three-year-old daughter by “smashing” her on the ground. Of the 17 who left the village, only three survived, the bodies of eight were found and six are still missing.
The horror does not end there. Bilkis pretends she is dead and waits till the mob leaves. Then with the help of a home guard, and with her six-year-old nephew and a three-year-old boy who have survived, she trudges to a police station to register a complaint. On the way she borrows some clothes from an Adivasi woman to cover herself.
At the police station she receives little sympathy. Instead the policeman on duty pretends to listen to what she is saying but writes something completely different in the First Information Report on which he gets the illiterate Bilkis’ thumb impression.
Two days later, local photographers find eight bodies of the massacred family. This forces the police to act and post-mortems are conducted. Again, instead of recording the truth, they conduct what has now been termed a “shoddy” post-mortem and bury the bodies. Some years later, when the bodies are exhumed as part of a fresh investigation, none of them have skulls. It appears that they were decapitated after the post-mortem to prevent identification. In addition, salt was sprinkled on the bodies so that they would disintegrate.
Need to intervene
The case of Bilkis Bano has all the elements of the worst kind of horror including the indifference and complicity of the State in covering up the truth. But it also illustrates the kind of intervention that is needed in such situations to ensure that some justice is done. For, it is now evident that the case would not have moved if it had been tried in Gujarat where it was first filed. In August 2004, the Supreme Court ordered that the case be tried in Mumbai. At this stage the CBI took over the investigation and ordered that the bodies of the eight people from Bilkis’ village be exhumed.
In just over a year after taking over the investigation, the CBI gathered enough evidence to arrest 20 people including six policemen. On February 21, 2006, the trial began in Mumbai. On January 18, 2007, the trial court held 12 of the 20 guilty including one policeman, sub-inspector Somabhai Gori, who “suppressed material facts and wrote a distorted and truncated version” of Bilkis’ complaint, according to the CBI. While Gori was given only two years imprisonment, the other 11 were given life sentences.
Apart from hearing the case in Mumbai, the decision to hold the trial in camera has also made a difference as it encouraged witnesses to testify without fear, something they would not have done in an open court. The policeman’s conviction, for instance, was made possible because three witnesses heard Bilkis give her report and what they said they heard differed substantially from what the policeman noted down.
Even today, fear dominates Radhikpur village. In anticipation of the judgment, the 60 Muslim families who still live there apparently quietly left the village as they feared a backlash from the families of those convicted, most of whom are from the same village.
But above all, it is Bilkis’ courage in going to the police station in the condition in which she was after a gang rape and after seeing her infant daughter being brutally murdered that clinched the case. Most women hesitate to go to the police. If you are poor, a Muslim, and living in a situation like the one that prevailed in Gujarat in 2002, the chances of turning to the police are even more remote. This is what makes Bilkis’ action so exceptional.
Even after filing the complaint, she could have given up, been intimidated, allowed herself to be bought off, decided it would be simpler to forget about it. Yet, she persisted even though the personal price she has paid is hard to imagine. Nor can we fully comprehend what is her future, whether she will ever be able to live in peace in her village, or whether she will forever be a refugee hiding from those waiting to teach her another lesson. But amazingly, she has gone on record to say that she will not give up and continue to pursue the case until the five policemen who were let off for lack of evidence are also convicted.
Seeing photographs of this diminutive woman, one wonders from where she got the courage at that terrible moment to make the journey to the police station. If she had not done so, the story would never have been told. This ordinary woman has to be saluted for her extraordinary courage
S. C. Bhargava: Professor of physics and integrity.
The best teacher furthers the life chances of his students without necessarily doing anything beneficial to his own.
I come from a family of teachers. My mother taught in a school through much of her adult life. My sister, a highly qualified doctor, chose to teach in a medical college rather than go into private practice. My father was a research scientist through whose hands passed numerous doctoral candidates. And the tradition goes back further. Three of my granduncles were teachers, as were two of my great grandfathers.
In this respect I am the black sheep of the family. Although I had the necessary qualifications, and opportunities, I chose a career that is in many respects diametrically opposed to that of teaching. To be a writer is to privilege your individual self, and (especially) signature. Your name is carried alongside all you say; the credit (and, it must be added, discredit) that the work brings is yours alone. Writing is a profoundly egoistical enterprise; and writers are indeed the most self-centred and self-absorbed of men (and, of course, women). On the other hand, to be a teacher is to subordinate your self and your ego, your needs and your ambitions, to the self and ego of others. The best teacher furthers the life chances of his students without necessarily doing anything beneficial to his own.
Writing is all about “me, mine, myself”; teaching about “his, hers, theirs”. It may be because of this conceptual (and moral) distance between my profession and theirs that I have always had a profound respect for caring and conscientious teachers. The teacher I most admired died in the last weeks of the year that has just ended. His name was Subhas Chandra Bhargava, and for more than three decades he taught physics and integrity at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.
I first got to know Bhargava Saab in the mid 1970s, while I was a student at Delhi University. I was registered for a degree in economics, so I was never in fact formally taught by him. But we had a common interest in the game of bridge (which he played brilliantly, and I no more than adequately); and a common physical affliction, bronchial asthma. Through exchanging bidding conventions and bronchodilators we forged a friendship that endured for 30 years.
Bhargava Saab was a tall, thin man with a shock of thick, dark hair. He was upright in his bearing, and even more so in his character. The physics students, naturally, adored him because he was an exemplary lecturer and because, unlike most other teachers, he did serious scientific research himself. But beyond his discipline and his college, he was known throughout Delhi University for his generosity and his integrity. Students who could not find a hostel room stayed with him for months on end; students in trouble with the (instinctively authoritarian) authorities found him an able interlocutor on their behalf. Ex-students visiting Delhi could always count on free board and lodging. I was one of those who extravagantly abused this privilege; over the years, I must have spent at least 300 days at his home, working in the archives in the day and discussing bridge and other matters with him at night. (His democratic instincts extended to his politics; he was an early critic of the Emergency, and also active in the civil liberties movement.)
I have spoken of the veneration we students had for Bhargava Saab; if anything, his fellow teachers admired him even more. As the physicist lay dying, one old colleague wrote to me of how “For 30 years he has been a kind of fixture in my moral universe. On all the ‘small’ things which constitute personal integrity and friendship, he was always a guide, and at important moments it has often been ‘What would Bhargava Sahib say?’”.
Just another Rahul
One day, in the mid 1980s, Bhargava Saab received a call from a high school student named Rahul, who wished to consult him as to which subject to study in college. An appointment was fixed for 9. 30 a.m. the next day. At 8. 30 Bhargava Saab went to the lab to set up some experiments. When he next looked at his watch it was 9. 20. He put down his instruments and rushed back to his apartment. The route from lab to home was normally leafy and quiet. But on this day it was swarming with policemen. About 50 yards from his house he was stopped and not allowed to proceed further. “Mujhe jaane do, ghar mein ek ladka mera intezar kar raha hai,” pleaded Bhargava Saab (“Let me go, there is a student waiting to meet me at home”). The cops would not relent; policemen and Professor argued, back and forth, until it finally dawned on the former that this was the man their boss’s son had come to meet.
Some credit in this story accrues to Rahul Gandhi’s advisers. They had done their homework, thus to find that the Delhi University teacher most likely to give the best, or most fair-minded, career advice was a man who did not carry an elevated title such as Dean or Vice Chancellor. But most of the credit must remain with Bhargava Saab. All Rahuls were akin to him, be one the son of the college chaprassi or another the son of the serving Prime Minister of India. (It is characteristic that he did not bother to ask the caller his surname.) We can be sure that for any other Rahul he would still have arrived on the dot.
Nobody has excelled in so many fields or dominated his culture to the extent that Tagore has.
It is genuinely difficult to explain to foreigners the scale of Rabindranath Tagore’s accomplishments. Some have made glib comparisons to Shakespeare and Goethe, but neither man, despite his undoubted greatness, excelled in as many fields as the Bengali Thakur, nor dominated his culture to the extent that Rabindranath has. Think of it: he was not merely an extraordinary poet, the only Indian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1913, for his Gitanjali). He was also a prose-writer and essayist of the first rank, whose articles, books and monographs commanded a wide readership around the world. As a philosopher and mystic, he was perhaps the first to develop a synthesis of Eastern and Western approaches, and he developed political ideas of great depth and humanity (of which more later). He was a great, if uneven, novelist and short-story writer who produced several masterpieces that continue to be read a century and a half after his birth. He was also a playwright of rare distinction: “The Post Office”, for instance, was one of the most popular plays in the world before the Second World War.
But, added to all that, were other talents: he was a painter of high quality and perceptiveness, an artist with a poet’s eye. He was a composer of over 2,000 immortal songs, of which he authored both the lyrics and the tunes, and through which he essentially founded his own branch of Indian music, known as “Rabindra Sangeet”. He is the only person to have created the national anthems of two different countries (India’s “Jana Gana Mana” and Bangladesh’s “Amar Sonar Bangla”), though both nations were born after his own death. (Even greater than both official anthems is his “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,” an inspirational poem that could serve as the anthem for any nation seeking freedom.) And he was an educator of great vision and courage, founding Vishwa Bharati at Santiniketan to offer an authentically Indian experience of higher education, following systems and approaches of his own devising. It educated the likes of Satyajit Ray and Indira Gandhi (not to mention offering a cradle to Amartya Sen, whose first name was given by Rabindranath — probably the only instance of a Nobel laureate baptising another!)
If all this were not more than enough — representing a level of achievement so towering that it is difficult to imagine an individual in any other culture who comes close — there is also the remarkable fact of Tagore’s huge worldwide impact, which even today’s Indians may have difficulty imagining. Tagore was a global giant before the era of globalisation. When he was to speak at New York’s 4,000-seat Carnegie Hall in 1930 (itself a rare enough honour, since the hall is usually reserved for concerts, not orations), more than 20,000 people were turned away from the sold-out event, creating a mass of humanity on the streets outside that blocked traffic for miles. No living writer on the planet had ever had something comparable happen, and what’s more, Tagore was handsomely paid for his speeches. One American critic, not without a tinge of jealousy, wrote acerbically that the Indian “scolds Americans at $700 per scold”. (By today’s standards that would be more like $7,00,000 in purchasing power terms.)
But the chauvinist glee with which I, as an Indian writer, am celebrating Rabindranath Tagore, would not particularly have appealed to him. Though his decision to return his British knighthood after the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre led Indians to regard him as a great hero of the nationalist struggle, Tagore did not really believe in nationalism but in the values of the human spirit, transcending all national boundaries. At the same time, he was not exactly an internationalist in the classic sense beloved of U.N. types like myself. He died before the United Nations was created, but he did not think highly of its forerunner organisation, the League of Nations. Tagore wrote of the League that it was well conceived in theory but not in practice, because it was an institution in which the world was represented by national Governments and nationalist political leaders. “It is,” he wrote, “like organising a band of robbers into a police department.” There is no reason to believe he would have felt any differently about today’s U.N., which is also an organisation of States rather than peoples.
The archetypal sage
With his long beard and his flowing white robe, Rabindranath Tagore epitomised for many the archetype of the Indian sage, the precursor of so many godmen and gurus who have followed his footsteps to the West. There is little doubt that his magisterial mind and his authoritative presence did a great deal to inspire admiration across the world, and to spark a revival of interest in Hinduism and in the teachings of Hindu spirituality. Tagore’s Hinduism had little to do with the Hindu-ness sought to be promoted by today’s Hindutva brigades; it was a faith free of the restrictive dogma of holy writ, untrammelled in its yearning for the divine, and universalist in its conception and its appeal. This is what made his ideas so attractive to non-Indians. When the great British poet Wilfred Owen (author of the greatest anti-war poem in the English language, “Dulce et Decorum Est”) was to return to the front to give his life in the futile First World War, he recited Tagore’s “When I Go From Hence” to his mother as his last goodbye. When he was so tragically and pointlessly killed, Owen’s mother found Tagore’s poem copied out in her son’s hand in his diary.
With his typical generosity, Tagore said of the artist William Rothenstein, “He had the vision to see truth and the heart to love it.” The same was true of himself. It is reason enough, today, to pay tribute to the greatest Indian who ever picked up a pen.
THE SHASHI THAROOR
In our quest for modernity, narrow streets and tiled houses with character in India’s smaller towns are losing out to a faceless mass of glass and concrete.
Meandering streets that organically weave their way into the natural topography. Row houses with tiled roofs and colonnaded verandahs. Waves gently lapping against fishing boats anchored alongside a towering lighthouse. What may seem like a nostalgic conjecture is in fact Bimilipatnam, a historic Dutch port settlement, 25 km from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Apart from being steeped in history and an extremely scenic locale, Bimilipatnam also harbours a sense of place with a social fabric where everyone seemingly knows everyone else and your neighbour is not someone you glance at on your way to work, but is almost extended family. Evolving lifestyles and new-age economics have, however, begun to affect irreversible changes in this quaint town. The tiled-roof and brick walls that once kept the house cool, today is seen as an element that cannot accommodate vertical expansion. The narrow winding street that once gave enclosure and character to the townscape today cannot accommodate a car. The first step towards overcoming these apparent shortcomings is to bring down the vernacular house and erect an apartment that can accommodate five times as many families or build a concrete independent house. Acquisition of a car demonstrates the unsuitability of the winding street and the family is driven to move to Visakhapatnam. This is not a dilemma that is specific to Bimilipatnam. It is a representation of hundreds of vernacular towns all over India.
The quasi ideal India of the picturesque postcard fame still lives in her villages. The real India has packed her bags and is making a beeline for the allure of modernity. With every passing day, more of our country is transforming into the faceless mass of glass and concrete we seem to have taken a fancy for. And the back-breaking brunt is borne by the generic Indian vernacular town. These towns are tangible seats of history, of experiences and images across time. They are a record of the evolutionary indigenous skills we have possessed and probably still do. While shifting to new technology does carry its share of convenience and makes practical sense, our ties with our roots are in danger of being severed with this shift. There are two categories of Indian historic towns that are threatening to become obsolete. The first, abandoned settlements stripped of continuity in time, hauntingly devoid of everyday life. The second, like Bimilipatnam, are palimpsests of sorts, trampled upon by the climb towards progress.
Examples of the former are the Chettinad villages in Tamil Nadu. Aesthetically resplendent and a contemporary exhibition of the lavish lifestyle of the Chettiyars, these villages are no doubt extraordinary examples of Indian architecture. But without the buzz of human activity, they are reduced to mere artifacts; visual treats with vivid imagery that lack soul. However, despite their quiescence, one can draw solace from the survival of these antiquities in the face of time. The settlements slotted in this category unfortunately belong to a disappointing minority. The reality of a larger percentage of small towns in India is harsher. Where once stood buildings firmly rooted to their context, that integrated climatic viability, social dictates, cultural content and aesthetic richness, today stand testimonies of our allegiance to an architecture, which albeit alien is now the norm. Humanity stacked one upon the other in apartments with their pretentious trimmings seemingly mocks at the 100-year-old, tile-roofed courtyard row house, valiantly fighting its losing battle. A parody is enacted through yet another set of buildings that masquerade as vernacular by merely sporting a pastiche tiled roof on a reinforced concrete slab.
What leads to the death of small towns? On the one hand are the economic and commercial angles like increasing land value, newer materials and techniques of construction available and new typologies of buildings that supersede traditional usage of space. When land is a scarce and highly valued commodity, it is not economically viable for a nuclear family of four to inhabit a house socially conceived for the joint family of 20. More efficient transport and communication no longer requires us to group ourselves into small, self-sustaining communities.
On the other hand there is a more philosophical angle. One that calls for an examination of our value systems as a people, our changing definitions of status and progress, our changing patterns of social interaction (or the lack of it), our aspirations for ourselves and our vision for our future. Thiruvaiyaru, a historic town 13 km from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu demonstrates one such change in ascribed values. The hometown of Saint Thyagaraja, an exponent and one of the Trinity of Carnatic music, is best known for the Thyagaraja Aradhana held in memory of the saint each year. The musical procession begins from the house that the saint was born in and lived and died. About a year ago, the simple original brick vaulted structure was brought down and a three-storey building erected in its place that neither conveyed the feel of the original house nor was representative of the Saint in anyway. The sanctity attached to the very space where hundreds of the Saint’s immortal compositions were born was negated by a desire to indulge in a show of status and wealth. Where is the room for even a debate on value when sanctity can be measured in rupees?
After having generalised up to this juncture, the decline and subsequent need for conservation of these towns personally affects me through different sensibilities. That of a student of architecture in terms of their architectural content, that of a humanist in terms of respect for the history embedded in them and that of a citizen in terms of the collective national identity. However, there also occurs a dichotomy of sorts in my personal conviction. A guilt that is not completely unfounded makes its way into my voracious lobbying for the cause of the small town. A guilt that stems from my being a part of the very city that is swallowing up these towns. A guilt that cautions me against being prescriptive of solutions to preserve the small town, but rather accept the reality as inevitable. The guilt of an urban dweller looking wistfully at the small town and hailing its virtues from afar, while revelling in the luxuries that the city affords. But I quell this guilt by reasoning that absence indeed makes the heart grow fonder. Value is often emphasized by void.
“To know where we are going, we need to understand where we come from”.
Our roots are an inseparable component of our identity. With the erasure of our heritage towns, we are losing far more than just heritage buildings. We are letting go of a way of life, one that maintains the harmony with nature and fellow beings, which we started out with.
Our native identity is degenerating as fast as our traditional settlements. It is time we bolstered nostalgia with a little more retrospection.