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The true role of art and literature

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By Justice Markandey Katju

In poor countries such as India, art for art’s sake amounts to escapism. The people are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about their problems, it will be popular.

India faces gigantic problems today. In some states, farmers and weavers are committing suicide. Prices of essential commodities are skyrocketing. Unemployment has become massive and chronic. Water and electricity shortage is widespread. Corruption and fraud are everywhere. Medical treatment has become prohibitively expensive. Housing is scarce. The educational system has gone haywire. Law and order has collapsed in many areas, where criminals call the shots.

 

What has all this to do with art and literature?

There are broadly two schools in art and literature. The first is ‘art for art’s sake’. The second is ‘art for social purpose’.

In the firstschool, art and literature are only meant to create beautiful or entertaining works to please and entertain people and artists themselves. They are not meant to propagate social ideas. If art and literature are used to propagate social ideas, they become propaganda. Some of the proponents of this view are Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot in English literature; Edgar Allan Poe in American; Agyeya and the ‘Reetikal’ and ‘Chayavadi’ poets in Hindi; JigarMoradabadi in Urdu; and Tagore in Bengali.

The other theory is that art and literature should serve the people, and help them in their struggle for a better life, by arousing people’s emotions against oppression and injustice and increasing their sensitivity to suffering. Proponents of this school are Dickens and Bernard Shaw in English literature; Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck in American literature; Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert and Victor Hugo in French; Goethe, Schiller and Enrich Maria Remarque in German; Cervantes in Spanish; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Gorky in Russian; Premchand and Kabir in Hindi; Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and KaziNazrul Islam in Bengali, and Nazir, Faiz, Josh, and Manto in Urdu.

Which of these paths should artists and writers in India follow? Before attempting to answer this question, it is necessary to clarify that there have been great artists and writers in both schools. Shakespeare and Kalidas can be broadly classified as belonging to the first school, of ‘art for art’s sake.’ Their plays serve no social purpose beyond providing entertainment and an understanding of human impulses and motivations. Though he was basically a realist, Shakespeare had no intention to reform society or combat social evils. Yet he is an artist of the highest rank. One is amazed by his insights and portrayal of human psychology and the springs of human action, whether it be his tragedies or histories or comedies. His characters are so full-blooded we can recognise them from our own experience as actual human beings.

Similarly, Kalidas’sMeghdoot is nature and love poetry at its highest level. Depictions of the countryside that Kalidas gives are astonishing in their beauty. Even Wordsworth cannot come anywhere near it. Nevertheless, Kalidas has no social purpose in his works.

On the other hand, Bernard Shaw writes his plays almost exclusively with a social purpose – to combat social evils and reform society. His plays are a powerful denunciation of social injustices and evils. Dickens in his novels attacks social evils in England in his time.

Shakespeare or Shaw, who is greater as an artist?The first represents ‘art for art’s sake’, the second ‘art for social purpose’.We shall attempt an answer, but a little later.

Literature – the art of the word, the art that is closest to thought – is distinguished from forms of art such as painting and music by the greater emphasis on thought content as compared with form. On the other hand, an art form such as classical music may be almost entirely devoted to creating a mood rather than arousing any thought.

For instance, the main form of serious North Indian classical music, which is called ‘Khayal, has hardly any thought content (since very few words are used in it). But it has an unbelievable power to create a mood and arouse aesthetic feelings — whether it is the raag of the rainy season called Malhar (there are many varieties of Malhars, the main one being MiankaMalhar; I am more fond of MeghMalhar), which can make one feel it is raining; or the morning raagslike Jaunpuri, Todi, Bhairav and so on, which gently wake you up; or night raags like Darbari or Malkauns (called Hindola in Carnatic music), which gently put you to sleep; or a raag like Bhairavi, which can be sung (or played) at any time and in any season and is astonishing for its sheer beauty. There is a large variety of other raags that create different moods.

There are other styles of North Indian classical music like Thumri in which there is more thought content, because they use more words than Khayal. However, there is no style or raagin North Indian or Carnatic classical music that arouses emotions to fight social injustices. It is purely art for art’s sake, yet it is undoubtedly great art.

Art critics often regard the two basic trends or tendencies in art and literature as realism and romanticism. The truthful, undistorted depiction of people and their social conditions is called realism. In romanticism, the emphasis is on flights of imagination, passion, and emotional intensity.

Both realism and romanticism can be passive or active. Passive realism usually aims at a truthful depiction of reality without preaching anything. The novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte Sisters are examples. In this sense it can be called socially neutral. However, sometimes passive realism preaches fatalism, passivity, non-resistance to evil, suffering, humility, and so on. An example is Tolstoy’s depiction of the meek peasant PlatonKaratayev in War and Peace, who humbly and cheerfully accepts his fate. Some writers were initially active but later became passive. Dostoyevsky is an example. On the other hand, Tolstoy was a fatalist in War and Peace but became a social reformer later in Resurrection.

Dickens, Victor Hugo, Gorky, and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya belong to the school of active realists. They oppose fatalism, passivity, and non-resistance to evil. They inspire people to fight against social evils. In the stories and novels of Sharat Chandra, we find powerful attacks against oppression of women and the caste system.

The strength of passive realism lay in its exposure of human motivations and social evils, and its weakness in its lack of positive principles or ideals. This literature was valuable because of its truthful approach to reality, concentrating on the meticulous description of the visible and the real. But it showed no way out to the people. It criticised everything and asserted nothing. And it often viewed man from a fatalistic point of view, as a mere passive product of his surroundings, helpless and incapable of changing his social conditions.

Passive and active realism can both serve a social purpose. But passive realism often preaches fatalism, pessimism, and uselessness of endeavours to improve society. Active realism, by contrast, is optimistic, characterised by its solicitude and concern for the people — inspiring them to strive against their plight and improve their social conditions.

In writers such as Shakespeare, Balzac, Tolstoy, and MirzaGhalib, it is often difficult to define with sufficient accuracy whether they are romantics or realists. Both trends merge in their works. In fact, the highest art is often a combination of the two.

Romanticism, like realism, can be either passive or active. Passive romanticism attempts to divert people from reality into a world of fantasy or illusions; or to a fruitless preoccupation with one’s own inner world, with thoughts about the ‘fatal riddle of life’ or about dreams of love and death. Its characters may be knights, princes, demons, or fairies who exist in a world of make-believe. Much of the Reetikal Hindi poetry, mainly written to please kings and princes, and dealing with subjects like beauty (shringar) and love, belongs to this category. Passive romanticism hardly serves any social purpose.

Active romanticism, on the other hand, attempts to arouse man against social evils. It clearly serves a social purpose. Active romanticism rises above reality, not by ignoring it but by seeking to transform it. It regards literature as having a greater purpose than merely to reflect reality and depict existing things. Rousseau’s novels Emile and New Heloise are examples.

‘Art for social purpose’ may be expressed not always in a direct way, but also sometimes in an indirect, roundabout, or obscure way, for example, by satire.

Much of Urdu poetry, which mostly serves a social purpose (as it attacks oppressive customs and practices, as in Kabir’s poetry), is expressed in an indirect way. ‘Art for social purpose’ can come in a religious garb: much of Bhakti poetry in Hindi is in this genre.

Now, back to the question: should artists and writers in India follow ‘art for art’s sake’ or ‘art for social purpose’? Which would be more beneficial to the country today? The question, ‘who is greater as an artist, Shakespeare or Shaw?’ is not very relevant here.

In a poor country like India, it is the second path (‘art for social purpose’) alone can be acceptable today. Artists and writers must join the ranks of those who are struggling for a better India. They must inspire the people through their writings against oppression and injustice.

However, today there is hardly any good art and literature. Where is the Sharat Chandra or Premchand or Faiz of today? Where is the Kabir or Dickens of today? There seems to be an artistic and literary vacuum. Everything seems to have become commercialised. Writers write not to highlight the plight of the masses but to earn some money.

Some Hindi writers complain that Hindi magazines are closing down. Have these people wondered why? Evidently no one is interested in reading what he or she writes because they do not depict the people’s sufferings, and do not inspire people to struggle for a better life.

When Gorky stepped out on the streets of Russia, he would be mobbed. He was so loved by the people as he wrote about their lives and championed their cause. Can a Hindi writer today make a similar claim? When writers get out of touch with the people and live in a world of their own, no one will want to read them.

Today the people in India are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about the people’s problems, it will be popular. But are our writers doing this? Art and literature must serve the people. Writers must have genuine sympathy for the people and depict their sufferings. They must inspire people to struggle for a better life, a life that can be really called human existence, and to create a better world, free of injustices, social and economic. Only then will people respect them.

The concept of ‘art for social purpose’ in its active sense, that is, in the sense of using art and literature to reform society, is largely of recent origin. It could hardly arise prior to the Industrial Revolution because up to the feudal age the thought that men could improve or change their social conditions by their own effort was rare. The belief then was that whatever has existed or will exist in future is ordained by God or Destiny and man has no role in it. Now that the scientific age has dawned, and human beings can change their social condition by their own efforts, art, too, should help in the endeavour. In poor countries like India, art for art’s sake amounts to escapism.

Writers in Hindi, Urdu, and other Indian languages should use simple language. Hindi and Urdu should both come closer to Khariboli (or Hindustani), which is the people’s language. Some Hindi books are difficult to understand: they are written in difficult (klisht) language. The same is true of some Urdu writers. If what is being said or written is not comprehensible, what is the use of such literature? Great literature is in simple language, like the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill or the stories of Premchand and Sharat Chandra.


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Opinion

The Sri Lanka attacks: New front, old wounds

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By Mario Arulthas

The attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday for many brought back memories of the long ethnic war, which came to a bloody conclusion 10 years ago in May. Although the Sri Lankan authorities are yet to identify the perpetrators, it appears the attacks are of a different nature, one fuelled by global dynamics, rather than a response to local communal grievances. Despite this, the violence is bound to exacerbate already-deep ethnic and religious fault lines, increasing existing tensions and possibly fuelling further violence.

After 1948, newly independent Sri Lanka embedded a virulent form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the formation of the state. This ethos, in simple terms, holds that the entire island is home to Sinhala Theravada Buddhism and that minorities are invaders, who will be tolerated if they accept Sinhala hegemony. Any threats (perceived or real) to the Sinhala identity of the country are attacked resolutely.

 

This revealed itself in racially and linguistically discriminatory policies as constitutions were written, making non-Sinhala communities second-class citizens. To this day, Sri Lanka’s constitution places Buddhism above other religions, assigning the state the responsibility “to protect and foster” Buddhism.

The entrenched Sinhala Buddhist nature of the state manifests itself in its institutions, particularly those linked to security. For example, the military rank and file is almost entirely Sinhala Buddhist. Some of its units, like the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment, are named after ancient Sinhala kings, famed for defeating Tamil “invaders”.

Increasingly violent reprisals by the state against peaceful demands for autonomy and equal rights by Tamils from the 1950s to the 1970s eventually led the Tamil population to seek an independent homeland in the island’s northeast, home to the Tamil Hindu and Christian populations and the Tamil-speaking Muslim groups.
A low-level trench war escalated into a full-blown war in 1983, after the Black July pogroms, in which Sinhala mobs killed thousands of Tamils, looting and burning their properties in the Sinhala-majority south of the country.

During the war, the Sri Lankan military routinely targeted civilians, killing tens of thousands. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil group that emerged most prominently and enjoyed widespread support, deployed suicide bombers in the south of the country with devastating effects.

Meanwhile, tensions between Tamils and the Muslim Tamil-speaking community, who, in many cases, do not identify as ethnic Tamils, increased, marked by violence and massacres by both the LTTE and Muslim paramilitaries. In 1990, the LTTE expelled some 100,000 Muslims from the Northern Province, furthering the divide between the communities.

Throughout the war the Sri Lankan military repeatedly bombed churches and Hindu temples sheltering Tamil civilians; in 1995 an air attack on a church in Jaffna killed around 147 people. While those attacks were not religiously motivated per se, they portrayed the state’s willingness to attack places of worship.

After three decades, during which the LTTE was able to establish a de facto state, the Sri Lankan military crushed the movement, in a brutal crescendo of violence. The United Nations says there could have been over 40,000 deaths during this last phase, while some activists say the figure is closer to 140,000.

To this day, impunity reigns for the crimes committed during the war, despite international pressure for an accountability mechanism and demands by the Tamil community for an international war crimes tribunal. Hundreds of family members of Tamils forcibly disappeared during and after the war by state forces have been protesting and demanding answers. UN officials have warned that impunity may further increase violence in Sri Lanka.

Since 2009, the attention of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists turned to the minority Muslim and Christian communities. While the security forces maintained an iron grip on the Tamil population, Sinhala Buddhist mobs started attacking Muslim and Christian populations repeatedly. In 2018, there were anti-Muslim riots in Kandy and dozens of attacks against Christians. A report by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said extremist elements were able to influence entire communities and lead violent attacks against places of worship and people. Only last week, a church was attacked during Palm Sunday mass.

Muslim and Christian communities in Sri Lanka have responded with remarkable restraint to Sinhala nationalist violence in the past – also because they saw the potential repercussions to them in the brutality unleashed on Tamils by the state in response to their own resistance.

However, the attacks on Easter Sunday do not appear to be a response to past Sinhala Buddhist violence. The perpetrators did not target Sinhala Buddhist, but Christian institutions and tourism infrastructure.

While many Tamil Christians were supportive and sympathetic to the Tamil armed movement, as a whole, Christians as a religious community were not antagonistic to other communities. As such, to see this in the vein of an escalation of existing violence against the Christian community in Sri Lanka would be a mistake. These attacks are likely a hitherto unseen dimension to tensions, a new front of violence in Sri Lanka.

After the Sunday attacks, the tensions that already exist are likely to deepen. Already hate speech is circulating on Sinhala-language social media. There are also reports of reprisals against Muslims, as a number of Sri Lankan officials have said that a little known Muslim fighter group might be responsible for the attacks.

Relations between Tamils and Muslims are also likely to suffer. The choice to conduct an attack in Batticaloa, a Tamil-majority town on the east coast, far from Colombo, may not be a coincidence. The town, and the district it is located in, saw some of the worst Tamil-Muslim violence during the war years. The St Anthony church in Colombo is also one that is frequented by a large Tamil congregation. Consequently, there are serious concerns among Tamil and Muslim civil society in Batticaloa of a flare-up of violence.

While tensions are high in the aftermath of the attack, the propensity of the state to respond with repression must be prevented. The existing draconian counterterrorism legislation has been used to violently repress communities, while journalists and activists continue to face harassment and surveillance. On April 22, President MaithripalaSirisena also declared national emergency, which gives the military sweeping powers.

While those responsible must face justice, a similar crackdown and harassment of minority populations in response to the attacks must be avoided. Otherwise, Sri Lanka risks furthering existing divides and paving the path to renewed violence.

In order for sustainable peace to be established on the island, the underlying reasons for the discrimination against minority communities must be confronted by the majority. In the absence of that, a whole 10 years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s future continues to look bleak and minority communities will continue to live on the edge.

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Opinion

Is Election Commission Toothless or Timid?

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By Kalyani Shankar

It was left to the Supreme Court to prod the Election Commission to realise the extent of its powers recently.

After the court pulled up the commission for its inaction against political hate speeches, the commission told the court, “We found we have powers!”

 

After the court reprimand, the EC wielded its powers this week and enforced campaign bans as a punishment on four leaders in UP, including Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, union minister Maneka Gandhi, BSP chief Mayawati and Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party for different periods, for the offensive remarks they made in the last few days.

For some time now, the role of the Election Commission has come under scanner. There is a debate on its perceived failure to check violations of the Model Code of Conduct and ensure a level playing field for the ruling and opposition parties.

It raises the question whether the EC has no teeth or is the EC being timid? It is significant to note that ahead of the ongoing LokSabha polls, 66 former bureaucrats, in a letter to the President on April 8, had expressed concern over the working of the Commission. They wrote that the EC’s independence, fairness, impartiality and efficiency are perceived to be compromised today.

The evolution of the poll panel has been quite fascinating. While until 1989, it was a single-member commission, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made it into a multi -member one on October 16, 1989, as he was not quite happy with the then Chief Election Commissioner and wanted to clip his powers.

This had given the government enough space to put its own nominees but they had a very short tenure only till January 1, 1990.

Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao again made it into a three-member commission on October 1, 1993 and since then the multi-member panel has been in operation.

Looking back, it is clear that if the EC decides, it has adequate powers to curb the money power, muscle power and other irregularities as demonstrated by its tenth Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan. Pleading for electoral reforms, some of his successors like SY Quereshi and Linghdo have also demonstrated their determination to act.

Seshan proved to be the greatest ringmaster of the great Indian electoral circus in a country where nearly 90 crore voters will exercise their franchise this year. He made the EC powerful within the existing laws.

Appointed by Prime Minister Chandrashekhar, he served as a dreaded CEC from 1990 to 1996. Even today, Seshan is cited as a shining example of what a CEC should be.

Even the Supreme Court once told the Commission to aspire for the kind of credibility it enjoyed during Seshan’s days.

Why do people remember a CEC who was being described as a maverick? Seshan’s story is indeed fascinating.

An IAS topper of the 1955 batch, he had once told an interviewer. “I had never conducted an election. I went with two principles: zero delay and zero deficiency.”

He followed both throughout his tenure. He wielded the big stick and implemented the election manual in letter and spirit. Due to his strict policies he was even called “Al Seshan.”

Some of his major achievements include implementation of the election process and the Model Code of Conduct, introduction of voter ID cards, enforcing limits on poll expenses, and elimination of several malpractices like distribution of liquor, bribing voters, ban on wall writing, use of loud speakers, use of religion in election speeches etc.

He introduced election observers and also forced the candidates to keep accurate accounts of campaign expenses.

Seshan took many bold measures. For instance, under his strict watch, a serving Governor who campaigned for his son had to resign. The Chief Secretary of UP was taken to task for issuing an advertisement in a newspaper at the cost of public exchequer.

He recommended to Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to sack two of his ministers – SitaramKesri and KalpanathRai – for allegedly influencing the voters, but Rao did not act. In 1992, the Left parties even called for his impeachment.

The question then that arises is – has the EC performed well in the past seven decades?

While the successes have not been consistent or uniform, the EC has conducted 16 general elections in a free and fair manner. However, it is clear that there is need for more electoral reforms and more transparency.

Even during this elections, political parties all across the country have been brazenly violating the poll code, whether it is using religion to seek votes, or Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh’s campaign to support the Prime Minister or UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s describing the army as ‘Modijikesena.’ These seem to indicate the ineffectiveness of the EC to contain the political class.

While we have to wait for a full assessment of the EC’s role in 2019, as of now Supreme Court’s prodding might help the EC to wield its powers more frequently. Undoubtedly, the EC has an unenviable job of not only organising the massive exercise but also ensure that it is held in a free and fair manner.

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Opinion

Heritage of hex and curse

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By Jawed Naqvi

Puting a curse on people and on ancient gods is a human heritage that straddled civilisations and underpinned their mythologies. This unreason has somehow survived in 21st-century India to be propagated by tantrics often with official patronage on TV — not very different from voodoo-practising witch doctors holding sway in swathes of Africa.

Saffron-robed Pragya Thakur says she killed HemantKarkare with her curse because the late policeman tortured her for alleged terrorism. There are two ways this could have come about. First, the official version of how the head of Mumbai’s anti-terrorist squad was laid low on the fateful night of the terror attack on the city in 2008. AjmalKasab shot the heroic officer from close range for which he was hanged.

 

In other words, Thakur’s angry hex on Karkare induced the young terrorist to travel by sea and, like a heat-seeking missile colliding with its target, he was guided by a force beyond his knowledge to fulfil the mandate of a distant curse.

The other view, albeit discussed mostly in whispers, is the claim by the former inspector general of Maharashtra police S.M. Mushrif. He has questioned the official narrative in his book, Who Killed Karkare? Mushrif suggested instead that powerful enemies, led by fans of NathuramGodse, lured Karkare into an ambush since he was investigating their communally inspired acts of terror. They used the cover of the carnage and contrived a parallel plot to get rid of Karkare in the chaos.

In either case, Thakur’s curse would seem to have homed in on its target, promptly and accurately. It is another matter that the veracity of Thakur’s belief would not hold before India’s constitutional mandate, which nudges citizens to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.

Hindu mythology like other mythologies is replete with examples of curses by myriad gods and sages that transform humans into stones, and so on. Such stories appeared in all major civilisations, but their people now treat mythologies as mythologies, nothing less nothing more.

Celebrated documentary-maker AnandPatwardhan has created a riveting TV serial (available on YouTube) on the subject. It’s called Vivek or Reason, which focuses on the grim battle between obscurantism and rational reasoning in India. Pragya Thakur like Godse-hugging Hindutva colleagues in the documentary subscribes to one set of people while an amazing group of men and women have dedicated their lives to the eradication of superstition and blind faith from the Indian milieu.

It’s an old struggle though, one in which B.G. Tilak and M.G. Ranade, two feisty Brahmins, took opposite sides in the fight for reason. Tilak was the regressive icon, while Ranade was greatly respected by leading social reformer Ambedkar. Patwardhan has pegged his narrative to the cold-blooded murders of popular rationalists NarendraDabholkar, GovindPansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and journalist GauriLankesh by revivalist groups not dissimilar to the ones Pragya Thakur may be identified with.

A most useful tool is this documentary to grasp the fraught consequences for Indian democracy should people like Thakur and far too many others of her flock win the elections for parliament currently under way.

NajmanBua told us with certainty decades ago that Diwali was an occasion when people practised black magic to get even with their rivals. (‘Wokalajadujagaawathain’.) A method was to float a paper lantern with chilly powder, to fly to the targeted person, who would suffer great harm when the lantern landed. Of course, this sounds improbable, which it surely is, but thumb through the works of John Campbell Oman, the British Indologist from early 20th century. Oman has been usefully cited in a collection of essays in historian David Hardiman’s Histories of the Subordinated.

Another book by Hardiman, Feeding the Baniya, has disappeared from bookstores as books critical of wily business practices tend to. The moneylender was one of the most ardent practitioners of black magic and the widely prevalent institution of the hex. That was how he believed he could keep the peasants in constant need of his favours and thus of his greedy attention.

A reason that Indira Gandhi had banned the sharing of met forecasts for monsoons was to discourage this exploitation. Among the many tricks quoted by Hardiman of ways the baniyas, the usurers, would strive to stop rain to keep the fields parched is the one from Rajasthan. “In an interview in southern Rajasthan, I was told that the baniyas could stop rain by pouring hot water onto a small image which they kept for the purpose in the Jain temple.”

Oman recounts other ploys used to drive away rain clouds, in Punjab, for example. “They sometimes made chapattis which they then mistreated in such a way as to offend the gods, the logic being that grain from which the chapattis [were] made came from the bounty of the gods who provided the rain; the angry gods would consequently withhold the rain.”

A hex that would probably make even Pragya Thakur sit up is the one from Punjab. Says Oman: “At another time I learned that a baniya had recourse to a still more effectual method of keeping off rain. He had a charkha, or spinning wheel made out of bones of dead men. Such an article could only be made very secretly and for a large sum of money, but its action was most potent. Whenever the clouds were gathering the baniya set his virgin daughter to work the charkha the reverse way, and by that means unwound or unwove the clouds, as it were, thus driving away the rain….”

It is not whether hexes and curses work, it is what a growing number of Indians expect them to do that should worry a country struggling with subs-Saharan human development indicators, including 37 per cent of the world’s illiteracy.

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