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Losing Umrao Jaan

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By Harris Khalique

Usually, the crassness of politics and power agitates you and the refinement in art and literature soothes. But then there are works of art and literature that fill you with anxiety, disquiet, pain and a deep sense of loss. There is an intense stirring of the soul inside, but you feel numb, not agitated.

The inevitability of what has happened and what is happening at present in a person’s life, or the latent predictability in the collective experience of a community of people, is best understood by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master storyteller of our times. The awareness of this inevitability also helps find ways of wresting moments of happiness and love from the clutches of eternal grief. The threads of agony and joy, satire and seriousness are finely interwoven in some of Marquez’s novellas and long short-stories such as Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Of Love and Other Demons, ‘Big Mama’s Funeral’ and Memories of My Melancholy Whores.

 

Memories of My Melancholy Whores is the story of an old man who pursued a teaching and writing career, stayed single, paid for casual sex and frequented brothels before finally falling in love at the age of 90 with an adolescent girl. The experience is transformative, invigorating his writing and pacifying his soul in ways he has never known before. Marquez’s description of the red light area in his town and how it changed over time resonates with what Chowk in Lucknow was in the past and how different it has become now. His depiction of Rosa Cabercas brings back memories of Khanum — the otherwise shrewd brothel-keeper who kept in touch with her innate humanity — in Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s classic Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada, first published in 1899.

Ruswa’s slim novel about the sad and eventful life of a nautch girl remains one of the best known and most read in our part of the world. It has been translated into several languages. Over the years, it has been perhaps the only Urdu novel that motivated the making of four films by top notch directors — one in Pakistan and three in India — with leading actresses such as Rani, Rekha and Aishwarya Rai playing the role of Umrao Jaan. It has also been dramatised for television, besides inspiring films and plays on similar subjects.

For a contemporary writer to hinge her or his narration in Ruswa’s novel and characters is, in some ways, easy, even if the job is only half well done. One can bask in the glory of a classic. But it is a challenge to use the story of Umrao Jaan Ada as a recurring metaphor and to take it beyond its themes and situations by developing an original, expansive narrative. This challenge is ably met by Anis Ashfaq in Khwaab Saraab [The Dream, The Mirage], published in 2017 from Lucknow. Spread over 450 pages, Ashfaq’s novel is an ode to a city that still exists but where the civilisation it once embodied has withered away. There is a celebration of the chaste language and particular idiom of Lucknow with the novel itself being written in the same colloquial, and poetry naturally quoted in the dialogues.

An elaborate description of the culture of mourning in Muharram — so unique to the city and its residents belonging to any faith or sect — is also woven into the story. A subtle but meaningful introduction to the arts of singing and recitation involved informs the reader as well. The history attached to the monuments in old Lucknow is explained through ordinary characters. There is a pride inherent in describing the cuisine and flavours. In this backdrop, the narrator keeps discovering the life and times of Umrao Jaan Ada and searching for those other versions of the same story written by Ruswa that never came to light. The past meets the present through the narrator’s own life.

Ashfaq’s novel is a heartfelt tribute to his city for — to quote Marquez — “the good character of its people and the purity of its light.” He has understood the inevitability of what happened in the past and what is happening now.

 


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Opinion

Not in the Mahatma’s name

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By Apoorvanand

The recent uproar over the glorification of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, NathuramGodse, by the BharatiyaJanata Party’s Bhopal candidate Pragya Singh Thakur has forced her party to tick her off. It should be a solace for us that there is at least one non-negotiable in Indian politics, that the political cost of the celebration of the murder of the Mahatma is formidably high! But now we would be told to let the matter rest as she has been chided even by her mentors.

Let us look at the implication of this approach, that Ms. Thakur, sans this statement, should be acceptable to us as a potential representative in Parliament. She continues to be the ‘symbol of Hinduism’, as she claimed Prime Minister NarendraModi had said of her. Our satisfaction over the condemnation of Ms. Thakur makes us forget that she is being audaciously presented as the most fitting answer to secular politics, which holds that a person accused of attacks on Muslims cannot be a people’s representative in India.

 

The idea that a Hindu can never indulge in a terror act is, in fact, another way of saying that terror acts are always committed by non-Hindus. Or, by Pakistan, which for BJP leaders is a proxy for Muslims. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, while talking about the Samjhauta Express blast case acquittals, claimed that it was unimaginable to accept that Hindus could be involved in such acts, and that he believed that in all such crimes there was the hand of Pakistan. A crime has been committed, and since the Hindu suspects cannot (being Hindus) do it, it can only be Muslims even if they are not caught — this is the underlying assumption.

It is this theory which is being thrown at us by the BJP by presenting Ms. Thakur as its choice for the electorate of Bhopal. It has another sinister aspect. She was selected knowing well that she could not be a choice for Muslims. Her selection is therefore a message to Muslims that by not voting for her, they disregard the sentiments of Hindus, thus showing intolerance towards the majority.

By supporting her, the ‘symbol of Hinduism’, they have a chance to endear themselves to the Hindus. If they don’t, they would always be a suspect.

This argument is not new. Many pundits, while accepting that Mr.Modi was a divisive figure, urged Indians to choose him as he was the best bet for the economic development of India. So, can Muslims be so sectarian as to think only about themselves while the greater national interest is at stake?

The swift and determined move by the BJP to reject her statement on Godse is a clever ploy to make this issue irrelevant while judging her. It is as if we are asked to judge Godse, setting aside the act of murder of Gandhi by him. There are ‘respectable’ people who feel that Godse spoilt his case by murdering the Mahatma. They regret this folly as they believe that there was strong merit in his ideological stance. According to them, he rightly opposed the Muslim appeasement of Gandhi, his anger at the dangerous friendliness of Gandhi towards Pakistan is correct, and his impatience with the unwise and impractical pacifism of Gandhi is to be understood if we want to make India strong.

We are asked to understand that there was a reason Godse was forced to kill Gandhi. We are asked to not treat him as a simple criminal. He was driven by high ideas. To make him a man of ideas, he is constantly humanised. We have seen over the years people talking about his childhood, his education, his editorship. Gandhi must have done something really horrible to provoke a thoughtful human being to turn into an assassin. If anything, they imply, he was a just assassin!

So, we are asked to move away from the trivia, that is the act of the murder, to the substantive, the issues raised by Nathuram in his ‘brave defence’ in the court, which had moved people to tears even then.

The RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS), unlike the Islamic State and the Maoists, understands it well that an individual and identifiable act of violence makes it abhorrent and repulsive for the masses, whereas anonymous acts of violence are always more palatable. It was therefore important for Savarkar to distance himself from his disciple, Godse, to remain respectable. For the RSS it was necessary to disown Godse to be able to keep working on the majoritarian ideas he shared with or had learnt from Savarkar and the RSS. No known RSS hand soils his hands with blood; yet it is the politics of the RSS, not at all different from Godse’s, which makes blood flow.

Gandhi had said again and again that it would be better for him to die if India were to become inhospitable to Muslims. He was talking to those who were objecting to the recitation from the Koran at his prayer meetings. Death he could accept but not the narrowing of his heart! Neither bowing to threats or force! In the same invocation, he said, if you ask me to recite the Gita at gun point, I would refuse to obey you.

Gandhi told his audience, your heart is also large. Don’t constrict it. It is this challenge which needs to be accepted. It requires immense bravery of intelligence and humanity to be able to hear Gandhi. This intelligence would tell us that the distancing from the murder of the Mahatma by the co-travellers of Godse is in fact a strategy to enlarge the space for majoritarian ideas and draw more and more Hindus towards them, thus making Gandhi irrelevant while keeping his facade decorated.

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Opinion

Why I want Pragya Thakur to win

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By Saba Naqvi

Regardless of whether NarendraModi remains Prime Minister or not I want terror accused Pragya Thakur to win from Bhopal. The esteemed leadership of India’s pre-eminent political party chose a terror accused as a candidate and they must endure her tenure as MP.

Pragya may be a poisonous vendor of hate and violence but she is not a hypocrite. Ever since she spoke her mind on describing NathuramGodse, the individual who shot MK Gandhi to death, as a patriot, the BJP national leadership has claimed to be disturbed. The Prime Minister spoke up after her statement, saying, he would never forgive her for what she had said and the party stated that it had initiated disciplinary action against her.

 

But by the time the party took this position, many members of the BJP had come up with twisted arguments somehow justifying Pragya’s validation of the assassin of a figure many revere as a Mahatma or Great Soul. Party members exposed their own problematic ideological heritage that included non-participation in the freedom movement led by Gandhi. Some of them could not help but reveal their own natural impulse to drop the veneer of falsehood and come clean on how they do indeed believe that Godse was a patriot despite having killed Gandhi.

The Godse remark in just two days exposed the ideological underbelly of the ruling party that does indeed have members who believe that Gandhi was a villain who loved Muslims and Pakistan. That’s why Godse, by his own account in a famous trial, shot him. A must-read for those who wish to engage with this debate is the book titled “The Men Who Killed Gandhi” by ManoharMalgonkar.

Seventy-one years after that crime on January 30, 1948, we have come to the point where a candidate contesting in an election for Parliament embraces the Godse world view. What’s more, a member of Modi’s council of ministers, AnantkumarHegde, endorsed her position. The MP from Karnataka had earlier kicked up a storm when he had said that “we are here to change the Constitution”. Yes, the same Constitution he took an oath to protect.

Hegde’s also received a show-cause notice to explain his position and on May 17 BJP president Amit Shah said the party’s disciplinary committee would submit a report on the matter in 10 days, after the election verdict, that is. There was more: the BJP media cell chief in Madhya Pradesh, the state from where Pragya is contesting, was brazen enough to say that Gandhi was the father of the nation of Pakistan. The BJP suspended him.

So how do we read the ideological contortions ever since Pragya uttered the “Godse is a patriot” words? One could say that the BJP is trying to occupy the space of both extreme and moderate in a national ideological pendulum that has shifted right-wards. It’s not a bad ploy—the ideological family plays to the more core beliefs, that are to be revealed step by step, and just in case some voters find them unpalatable, there are the “reasonable” elements as well.

And, voila! Modi becomes a moderate who is being stern with the fringe! That is a useful projection at a time when there is the possibility of needing some allies post-23 May. The BJP has made this ideological journey before, of being all things to all men. Earlier, former Prime Minister AtalBihari Vajpayee was offered up as the moderate to LK Advani, the architect of the Ram temple movement, who brought the BJP to national prominence. Today Modi today is the moderate who is speaking up against the hardliners, who are called “fringe” by those who believe it’s all part of a great national purpose.

It’s not. The “fringe” has been mainstream for some years now. Much before Pragya was presented to the nation as a candidate for parliament, the BJP leadership chose an unabashed Muslim-hating monk of a religious order to be the chief minister of India’s most populous state. All these debates about ‘moderate’ and ‘hardliner’ are a farce designed to make the BJP constituency feel better about themselves. It’s part of the good cop/ bad cop tactic.

To conclude, therefore, I want a terror accused to win, just so that we can, as a nation, get a reality check on where we have landed up. And just in case someone wants to ask me about whether I am afraid, here is my reply: I am so certain about the courage of my convictions, that there is no fear, although I do feel some shame for those who have tied themselves into knots over something about which there should have been no ambiguity. Bring on Pragya and let’s see what happens next.

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Opinion

The ‘unpeople’ of India

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By Abdul Khaliq

Muslims now have to live with the bleak truth that the most powerful political party and its ideological parent, with tentacles spread across the country, are pathologically hostile to Muslims.

I fear for our future as a secular, multicultural country that once celebrated a richness of culture and tradition. Till not long ago we affirmed our common humanity even as we celebrated our differences. Our nation represented diversity, kindness, compassion and a revulsion of extremist views. But, over time, our collective souls have been deadened by violence, deepening communal and caste divides and the most perverse thinking. The cosmopolitan spirit has been throttled by hyper nationalism, populism and a deep distrust of the liberal values of tolerance and inclusion. A creeping majoritarianism is spreading across the land.

 

In this overheated, protracted election season, Muslims are up against it, caught between a rock and a hard place. Theirs is an Orwellian world where they are the “unpeople”— a term coined by George Orwell in his scary masterpiece 1984, to define those whose names and existence had been erased because they had incurred “Big Brother’s” ire. Muslims now have to live with the bleak truth that the most powerful political party and its ideological parent, with tentacles spread across the country, are pathologically hostile to Muslims. What makes their plight infinitely worse, is the fact that even the major allegedly secular party has consigned Muslims to social invisibility. Can one trust a party that is afraid to even allude to the Muslims’ problems, let alone address them?

When the PM evoked the 1984 mass slaughter of Sikhs and quoted Rajiv Gandhi’s infamous justification about the inevitable effect of the falling of a big tree, why did the Congress president not hit back by recalling the 2002 Gujarat riots and Modi’s Newtonian observation justifying the killing of hundreds of Muslims as a reaction to an action? He refrained, not for any ethical reason, but simply for fear of being seen as empathetic to Muslims and their problems and of equating the two tragedies. Caught between the flagrant hostility of the right-wing and the fraudulent concern of the secular front, Muslims are India’s outcasts.

In today’s India, where all issues across the political spectrum are seen through the lens of identity politics, Muslims are vilified for their custom, dress and tradition. They are physically attacked for the food they eat, discriminated against in employment, housing, and even civic amenities, and, they are routinely victimised by law-enforcement authorities simply for being Muslim. Social media is awash with the most hateful, stereotypical portrayal of Muslims as terrorist sympathisers, baby producing factories and worse. Although India has been the home of Islam and its adherents for much more than a millennium, Muslims today are constantly pilloried about their loyalty to the nation.

All assessments about Muslims are universalised, in black and white and deeply problematic. In a conversation with two CRPF sub-inspectors who have recently returned from Kashmir (I did not reveal that I was Muslim), I was told that “these Muslims are a nuisance as even their women throw stones at us.” Please note that the stone-throwing by the disgruntled Kashmiris is perceived as a common trait of Muslims — all 190 million of them. Their other complaints were that Muslims support Pakistan and insist on eating only halal meat. When I asked how the civil unrest in Kashmir could be resolved, I got an answer that stunned me: “Make sure that the police force in Kashmir is recruited only from the Shia community and they will teach these Sunnis a lesson!” How well have the British taught us the art of “divide and rule” and of polarising communities! The conversation filled me with anguish at the gratuitous distrust and hatred for Muslims. The animosity runs deep and is expressed by ordinary citizens in a matter-of-fact tone that is unnerving.

I recall clearly the sense of cautious optimism among Muslims when NarendraModi assumed power in 2014. His swearing-in was a strikingly symbolic moment, epitomised by the presence of the Pakistani PM that signalled hope of rapprochement with Pakistan (Indian Muslims know through experience that their well-being is linked to this crucial relationship). The PM represented a more decisive polity that promised an equitable social order expressed most eloquently in the Socratic slogan, “Sabkasaathsabkavikas”. This slogan encapsulated this nation’s foremost mission of fostering social solidarity based on the principle that every human being matters. Minorities felt reassured by the PM’s emphatic assertion in 2015 that “my government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly.” He repeatedly made appeals to preserve our core values of diversity, tolerance and plurality, calling on Hindus and Muslims to work together to fight poverty instead of fighting one another. His stunning embrace of Nawaz Sharif on Christmas Day 2015 filled everyone with hope.

On the ground, however, India began witnessing a deepening cultural mutation as vigilante squads terrorised and lynched Muslims in the name of protecting the cow, launched “gharwapsi” campaigns that have all but ended the freedom to choose one’s faith and used “love jihad” to stifle any kind of solidarity between the two communities. Minorities began to believe that the present dispensation’s aim is to convert India into the Hindu Rashtra of Hindutva where Muslims and Christians would live as second-class citizens. The current election rhetoric has only exacerbated those fears. The BJP LokSabha candidate for Barabanki boasted that “NarendraModi has made attempts to break the morale of Muslims. Vote for Modi if you want to destroy the breed of Muslims.”

We are on the cusp of having a new government at the Centre. Opinion polls and the most reliable — the bookies — predict victory for the NDA, but with a reduced majority. Ironically, the return of Modi as PM is the best hope for peace within the country and the neighbourhood. Imran Khan was right when he said that only Modi could help resolve Kashmir. He is the only leader with the power to rein in the lunatics whose purpose in life is to polarise communities and engage in eternal war with Pakistan. In any case, the new government’s first task would be to combat the overpowering atmosphere of distrust and hate bedevilling society which constitutes the foremost threat to the nation, more so than terrorism. The creation of a truly secular society free of prejudice and discrimination must be the prime mission.

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