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Friday, 30 March 2012

Romancing Tagore -- A Review

Romancing Tagore: A Collection of over 100 Tagore Poems in Urdu Nazm, Transcreated by Indira Varma and Rehman Musawwir, published by Visva Bharati and Basu Media, pp. 272.
For far too long the poetry of RabindranathTagore has been treated like a shibboleth, as a test to distinguish the true-blue Rabindra-sangeet-loving Bengali from the non-Bangla-speaking ‘other’. What is more, it is like a sacred space where non-Bengalis fear to tread. A new book corrects an old wrong. Appropriately enough, it is called Romancing Tagore; for, instead of the awe and veneration usually reserved for the Bard’s immortal verses, here we find a refreshing mix of pleasure and passion. Transcreated into Urdu by Indira Varma and Rehman Musawwir, this collection infuses a new zest into these ageless poems of love and longing.

Indira Varma, a connoisseur of the Urdu ghazal and an established poet with two published volumes of poetry behind her, has been in love with Tagore for decades. As she writes in her Preface: ‘...Tagore has left us with one of the best repositories of love to be found anywhere in any language. This love has multiple forms – it is divine, it is patriotic, and it is romantic ... Tagore sees romance exuding from the mundane, from the rites and rituals of everyday life.’ Varma has culled poems from Tagore’s vast repertory with painstaking exactitude, poems that speak of small joys and sorrows, of the Monsoon cloud heavy with rain, a glimmer of love in the beloved’s eye. And she has clothed them in the many-splendoured robes that only a language as seductively sweet as Urdu can provide. For instance, a poem such as Aami chini go chini tomare that is brimful with an aching love for a distant beloved has been translated as:
            Tum se shanasa dil hua, us paar ke sanam
            Sagar ke paar rehte ho us paar ke sanam
            (I know you, know you, O lady from foreign land
            You live across the ocean, O lady from foreign land)
And elsewhere,
            Apne qadmon tale
            Mujh ko bijh jaane do
            Ik mukammal khushi ke liye
            Apne paon ki dhool se
            Surkh ho jaane do
            Meri poshak ko.

And, my personal favourite:
            Agar mere gham ke ghanere andhere
            Teri rehmaton ke ujalon se chamkein
            Chamakne de unko,
            Chamakne de maula
            Tumhari muhabbat bhari ye nigahein
            Agar chashm-e-tar par meri tik rahi hain
            To ankhon mein aansu hi rehne de maula.
Tagore has been translated into Urdu before, most notably by Firaq Gorakhpuri under the title Ek Sau ek Nazmein. Niaz Fatehpuri translated fragments from Gitanjali and Qamar Jalalabadi published a selection titled Tagore ki Nazmein. These, however, have been lost in the mists of time and only stray references to the translations survive. 
Being twice removed from the Bangla originals (the transcreations were done from English translations), Indira Varma and Rehman Musawwir’s efforts went through a rigorous scrutiny. Noted Tagore scholar, Supriya Roy, examined each version, explained the intricacies and subtleties of both the original and the English versions ensuring that meaning was not lost through the gaps in languages. A stamp of approval, as it were, was given by Visva Bharati, the university founded by the Bard, a university that has hitherto guarded Tagore’s works with zealous protectiveness. Once the world met at the unique melting pot that Tagore had created among the sylvan surroundings of Shanti Niketan; now, with this book, Visva Bharati is reaching out to the world.
Designed by Suneet Varma, the immensely talented fashion designer and son of Mrs Indira Varma, this handsomely produced book is a series of minutely etched cameos that combine to make it a collector’s edition. Exquisite Jaamdaani patterns from antique saris, fragments of Kantha embroidery, intricate motifs and borders make the reader linger over every page. Each set of facing pages carries an English translation, the transcreated Urdu version in Urdu script as well as Devnagari and in Roman English, thus making these translations available to a wider audience. Interspersed with the Urdu transcreations are Tagore’s paintings, opening yet another dimension to the immense creativity of our national poet.
Accompanying the book, is a cd containing ten of these Urdu nazms set to music by Debajyoti Misra. Just as the book has crossed the barriers of language chauvinism, the music attempts to do so with nationalities making this something of a pan-South Asian tribute to Gurudev, the bard of  Shanti Niketan. While four are recitations by Indira Varma, the rest are sung by the Pakistani singer Najam Sheraz and Shubha Mudgal and Kamalini Mukherji. Reminiscent of Tagore’s own compositions, Debajyoti Misra’s music shows how poetry travels across the barriers of language. In its Urdu version, it has all the sweet melodiousness that my Bengali friends swear by.
Coming at the close of the 150th-year celebrations of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Romancing Tagore is a loving tribute and an apt one too; for, it tells its readers and listeners how and why Tagore’s songs have echoed the heartbeats of countless Bengalis.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Poetry Reading by Zehra Nigah, 29 March, 6.30 pm

Dear Readers,

I run a small organisation called Hindustani Awaaz. On Thursday, 29 March, I am organising a poetry reading in collaboration with The Attic. The poet is Zehra Nigah, an outstanding woman poet from Pakistan.

Do come. The Attic is located in the Regal Building in Connaught Place. The reading will begin at 6.30 pm.
Rakhshanda Jalil

Friday, 23 March 2012

Review of Saeed Mirza's The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun

Saeed Mirza ko Gussa Kyon Aaata hai?

The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun, by Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Fourth Estate, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 247, Rs450.

There is a slow-burning anger in Saeed Mirza. We have seen sparks of it in films such as Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aaata Hai and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and in television serials such as Nukkad. But the dark disquiet about the underbelly of cosmopolitan India and a weary sympathy for the flotsam and jetsam of humanity tossed out by an unfeeling society is now replaced by something sharper and stronger, something far more tensile. In his new book, we see this new anger: it is seething, simmering, unrelieved by the flashes of dark, sotto voce humour that lit up his cinematic ouvre.

The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun is stylistically and thematically linked to his maiden book Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother and shows how Mirza has creatively re-invented the genre of the novel itself. (Both books, incidentally, had stunning covers designed by the talented Moonis Ijlal.) If the first book was a mosaic of memoir, travelogue and script depicting the clash of civilizations, this seeks to expose past injustices and uncover hidden truths. Intersecting narratives, located in different times and places; a host of characters, both real and fictionalised; a fund of stories, some anecdotal others historical – come together to denounce the myth of European hegemony. But the denouement is secondary to Mirza’s real purpose. His primary aim is to expose the willful misreading of history, the deliberate demonizing of Islamic culture and civilization, and the consequent valorization of the west. His anger is directed at those who believe modern learning grew, fully formed, in the crucible of Europe. He invokes a miscellany of sources to demonstrate how, all through the ages, people have fought with each other, traded with each other and also learnt from each other. No learning, Mirza repeats, is possible without help from others. Successive civilizations are building blocks for the great edifice that is modern society. Yet, for 300-odd years the west has ‘set an agenda’ for the rest of the world; it has split the world into dichotomies of its own making: good guys vs. the bad, civilized vs. uncivilized nations, backward vs. modern peoples, colonizers vs. colonized, and so on.

Mirza takes the example of Dante’s The Divine Comedy to make a larger point. Most of us who have had the (dubious) distinction of an English-medium education in a half-way decent school, know of Dante’s iconic work that depicts a journey to Hell, Purgatory and Paradise and the people – real and mythical – that he meets. Yet how many of us would know, or even be willing to accept, that this great work was actually a plagiarized concept and the inspiration for Dante’s seminal work were actually pieces of literature that were written much earlier, literatures that not only did the great Dante Alighieri freely copy from but did not deign to even acknowledge? Mirza unearths ancient texts to prove that the Arabic version of the Prophet’s journey to heaven and hell was translated in the town of Toledo, which was fast emerging as a hub of frenetic translation activities, in the year 1264. Dante embarked upon his The Divine Comedy in 1305; by then King Alfonso of Spain had already had the Book of the Ascent translated into Castilian in 1264 by a Jewish scholar named Abraham of Toledo. A Signor Bonaventura translated it into French and Latin in the same year and it travelled further into Europe through Brunetto Latini, a travelling scholar who, in turn, knew Dante! What did, however, was use this concept – of a guided journey described as a vision or a dream -- but with small significant changes; in the Kitab al-Miraj or The Book of the Ascent, the guide is the angel Gabriel whereas in Dante’s poem, the guide is a poet. What is more, he had the audacity to slip in several derogatory references to the Prophet of Islam who incurred the especial ire of the crusaders.

 The role of translations in the spread of ideas is seldom acknowledged, especially in opening up the Arab world to the west. Mirza traces how Islam entered Europe through Spain at the beginning of the eighth century and how, within 150 years, Europe was privy to the vast knowledge that the Muslims had accumulated. While early European scholars acknowledged this debt, later generations merely appended their name to translated texts and passed them off as original:

‘By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the multicultural roots of the European sciences, mathematics, medicine, literature, poetry and music would begin to be severed. By the end of the nineteenth century, the unshackling and cutting away of the non-European past would be complete and European civilization would only acknowledge its Greek and Roman ancestry and it believed it owed nothing to anybody.’

Drawing upon a reservoir of eclectic and varied reading, Mirza lists the many contributions of Arab scholars, scientists and philosophers. In this complicated tale involving a monk, a moor and a Jewish scholar who met in Toledo to embark upon an ambitious translation project in the year 1265; Rehana and her teacher al-Beruni who lived in Ghazna in the eleventh century; and four American students in the run-up to Obama’s election, Mirza makes a compelling case for ending the conspiracy of silence and willful effacement. Written partly like a racy detective mystery in the whodunit mode and partly as an erudite dip into history, The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun ends with a tribute to all those who contributed to the vast body of knowledge that modern man can boast of: to al-Khwarizmi, al-Haytham, ibn Araby, al-Beruni, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun, al-Tusi, iIbn Shatir, Ibn Yunis and the countless scholars, poets and scientists from among the ancient Greets, Egyptians, Sumerians, Indians, Persian, and Chinese. He also raises a toast to all those scholars and amateurs who are engaged in scrutinizing the past.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

On the UP elections: A sher by Waseem Barelvi

A sher by Waseem Barelvi which, by his own admission (see The Hindu, 22 March 2012), is about the recent elections in UP:

 Laga ke dekh lo jo bhi hisaab aata ho
Mujhe ghata ke woh ginti mein nahi reh sakta.

It's time the Muslims of India consolidated their strength.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Reviving Hindustani Awaaz -- A Platform for Promoting Hindustani

Dear Friends & Lovers of Literatures,
I am reviving Hindustani Awaaz -- an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Hindi-Urdu, that I had set up in 2002 and that was active till a few years ago. Its next programme, in collaboration with the The Attic, will be a reading by Zehra Nigah, a distinguished poet from Karachi.
Date: Thursday, 29 March 2012
Time: 6.30 pm
Venue: The Attic, Regal Building, Connaught Place, New Delhi

After her reading, Zehra Apa will be in conversation with blogger Mayank Austen Soofi.

All are invited. 
Readers of this blog are are also welcome to give suggestions for future programmes under the banner of Hindustani Awaaz. I am keen to use HA as a platform to promote the cause of Hindustani zubaan and tehzeeb. Some information about Hindustani Awaaz is given below.



Aims and Scope: Hindustani Awaaz is an organization for the promotion of Hindustani literature and its rich oral tradition. It seeks to publish, position and popularize various elements culled from the different genres of Urdu and Hindi language and literature. In the broadest sense, it endeavours to provide a platform for scholarly and non-scholarly views and voices in Hindustani on Hindustani.

As in the past, it will continue to organise poetry recitations, book readings, plays, dramatic re-enactments, book launches, seminars, discussions, talks, etc.

Future Activities: Hindustani Awaaz hopes to publish an annual journal of Hindustani studies. Its aim would be to publish articles, translations, interviews and views on Urdu and Hindi literature. Called “Hindustani”, the journal would also include book reviews from both languages, an inventory of significant Indian and Western publications in the field, research, notices and information on events of interest common to readers from both languages.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Review of Two Books on Delhi: Asar-us Sanadid & Dilli ki Akhri Shama

Asar-us-Sanadid by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, New Delhi, Urdu Akademi, 2006 (reprint), Rs. 230, ISBN: 81-7121-128-3

Dehli ki Akhri Shama by Mirza Farhatullah beg, edited by Salahuddin, New Delhi, Urdu Akademi, 2009 (reprint), Rs. 45, ISBN: 81-7121-060-0

For the middle of the nineteenth century, it could be well said: ‘Those were the best of times; those were the worst of times.’ One way of life was coming to an inexorable end; the other was still waiting to be born. The Rebellion of 1857, considered by many as the First War of Independence, did not merely mark the end of a way of life; it also, in a sense, marked a departure in a way of seeing things. While the Muslim response(s) to the events of 1857, the effect on Muslims in general and Muslim intelligentsia in particular and the changes ushered in their life and literature as a direct result of this cataclysmic event have been studied by scholars and historians, perhaps no one can fully enunciate the effect of these changes than those who lived who through these trying times and were directly affected by these events. Also, given the close relationship between social reality and literary texts, it is important to re-visit and re-examine the literature(s) produced during times of great social upheaval. Doing so can provide a far more nuanced understanding of historical events than official records and documents. The two books under review are, therefore, important and useful.

The first, Asar-us Sanadid (meaning ‘remains of the past’) was originally written in 1847 and subsequently revised and published by the Asiatic Society in 1862. In its first edition, the six hundred pages of text were illustrated with over a hundred lithographic illustrations. It listed not just the monuments that lay scattered across the many ‘Delhis’, but also described the city’s fairs, festivals, and included a lengthy account of the city’s vibrant cultural life. Compiled at real physical risk to life and limb (for its compilation required the venerable and lugubriously well-built Sir Syed to be dexterously raised and lowered by an ingenious pulley), the four-volume work can be regarded as a lasting monument not only to the author’s industry but also to his sense of culture and history and his realization, well ahead of his times, of the need to record and preserve the monuments of Delhi and their inscriptions. The first edition also contained a large section on the sufis, men of learning, and poets and artists of contemporary Delhi. Divided under ten headings, it also included a listing of 118 eminent citizens of Delhi. Its French translation by Garcin de Tassy was brought out in 1861. Its second edition in 1854 deleted the cultural references and retained only the descriptions of the historical monuments, translations of the epitaphs and plaques as well as measurements and architectural details of the actual building and some pen portraits. Scholars such as David Lelyveld and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi have remarked upon this curious deletion from the second edition and attributed it to Syed Ahmad’s pragmatic re-assessment of the significance of ‘culture’ in the life of Indian Muslims. It is noteworthy that Syed Ahmad undertook this ‘reassessment’ well before the Uprising. C. M. Naim, in ‘Syed Ahmad and His Two Books called Asar-al-Sanadid’ published in Modern Asian Studies, views the two versions as two separate books.

What we have with us is the revised second edition: its first chapter contains brief descriptions of the monuments of Delhi; the second has descriptions of the construction of forts and palaces in the various cities of Delhi; the third about the different kinds of building activity undertaken by the various emperors and nobility of Delhi; the last is about the people of Shahjahanabad – noblemen, poets, writers, scholars, hakims. To my mind, it is the last chapter that is the most evocative, brimful as it is with delightful pen portraits of real people. It brings to life a city and a whole way of life that is gone forever.

* * *

Like the candle that burns brightest at dawn before being snuffed out, so did the city of Delhi just before it was ravaged by the Mutiny. And it is this city poised on the brink of disaster, its culture, its poets and above all its language, the zaban-e-Dehli, threatened by extinction that Farhatullah Beg captures in his book, Dehli Ki Aakhri Shama. Born in 1883 Farhatullah Beg felt sufficiently close in time to attempt a fictional-historical account of what might have been the last mushaira of its kind held in Delhi. Rather ingeniously he makes the narrator a certain Maulvi Karimuddin Maghfoor who wrote a florid account of a mushaira that is said to have taken place in 1841.  “My name is Karimuddin. I am a native of Panipat,” begins Farhatullah Beg’s narrative. “As the mullah heads for the masjid, so scholars flocked to Delhi,” he says. Like so many others, Maulvi Karimuddin too came to Delhi with stars in his eyes, set up a printing press but when that floundered decided to organize a mushaira, publish its proceedings and make some money. What follows is entirely conjecture on the part of a man who has the gift of a brilliant imagination but certainly no proof that a mushaira, said to be the last of its kind, was held at a particular place on a particular date where a certain number of poets were present who recited a particular set of ghazals.

Fact and fiction blend seamlessly in a narrative that is not only a highly entertaining account of historical personages and their distinctive literary styles but is also a valuable document of a society, its morals and manners. Farhatullah Beg’s book transports us to an age when everyone – from the Mughal emperor Bahadurshah Zafar to the poorest beggar – cherished and adored Urdu. Polished and perfected by Delhi Ustads such as Mir, Sauda and Dard, it shone like burnished gold by the time of Karimuddin’s (fictional) mushaira. And like gold it could be fashioned into exquisitely delicate qhazals that could be light as gossamer yet fulsome with metaphysical import. The Mughal emperors and salatin, many of whom fancied themselves as the arbiters of good taste, often wrote tolerably good poetry themselves and organized mushairas in the Diwan-e-Aam. Later, as they became steadily more impoverished mushairas and mehfils came to be organized in different parts of the city such as Ghaziuddin Khan’s madarssa and the homes of the nobility.

Farhatullah Beg’s book has a vivid account of the development of not just the Urdu ghazal but the Urdu language itself. His narrative is studded with lively pen portraits of the ustads Zauq, Ghalib, Momin, Dagh, Sheftah, Azurdah as well as their shagirds who were popular figures on the mushaira circuit, such as: the French army captain Alexander Heatherley Azad who always came to Delhi whenever he heard of a mushaira being organized; hakim Sakhanand Raqam who was an ardent devotee of Momin; and the colourful Nazneen who wrote in the women’s dialect rekhti, using women’s idiom and slang and recited with great coquetry and coy playfulness wearing an odhni. The masters of rekhta would listen in stony silence as the crowd went into raptures over Nazneen’s histrionics. Then there was the mystical Tashnah who arrived at mushairas not only drunk but also completely undressed. In Beg’s account, he absent-mindedly snuffs out the shama placed before him before reading a ghazal that carries the only portent of disaster in its refrain of the nothingness that awaits.  Tashnah and Zauq sound the only note of sadness in this assembly of greats that is otherwise complacent in its sense of wellbeing.

A mushaira such as the one described by Beg (comprising 59 poets) usually began after the Isha prayer, say about nine or ten and went on till dawn. The patron, in this case Mirza Arif, welcomed the poets and tactfully handled the ticklish issues of  seating the poets and the order in which they would be invited to recite according to a complicated system governed by etiquette, seniority and affiliation. Touchy and temperamental, the poets could take offense at the smallest misdemeanour; it could well be the daad or ovation given sparingly or too well!  The readings would be interspersed with wit and repartee, both personal and poetic. Ordinarily, the patron would announce the Tarah or rhyme pattern at the time of extending the invitation. Beg’s mushaira is be-tarah and thus free from the vexing issue that caused many squabbles to break out among rival literary camps. A lit shama would be placed before each poet, beginning with the younger and less-known ones and ending with Zauq, the emperor’s ustad. The ustads lavished generous praise on their own shagird as well as genuinely talented younger poets such as Dagh but remained silent when they wished to show either disapproval or disappointment. Mirza Fakhru, the presiding poet in Beg’s mushaira, was not just the emperor’s son and representative but a fine poet himself. As the last poet, Ustad Zauq, begins reading his qata, the call for Fajir prayer is heard, and the mushaira ends with the assembly once again raising its hand in prayer. Thus ends Beg’s account of what has come to be called the last mushaira of Delhi for never has the city witnessed such a coming together of great poets.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

In Memory of the Victims of the Gujarat Carnage: Shah Alam Camp ki Roohein

Shah Alam Camp ki Roohein

My Translations from the Hindi Original written by Asghar Wajahat, eminent Hindi Writer


The days pass somehow in Shah Alam Camp, but the nights are an endless nightmare. God alone can save one from that hellish torment. And what a terrible, terrible cacophony! You can barely hear your own voice. Such shouting and screaming, raving and ranting, moaning and groaning, sighing and sobbing…
The spirits come to meet their children late at night. They caress their orphans, stroke their heads and gaze into their lifeless eyes with their own wasted and vacant eyes as though trying to convey something. Then they clasp their children to their breasts and the air is rent with the same gut-wrenching screams that had escaped from them when they were being burnt alive like so much kindling wood.

The children stay wide awake when the rest of the camp has gone to sleep. They are waiting to see their mothers…to have dinner with their fathers.

“How are you, Siraj,” the mother’s spirit asks, fondling his hair and caressing him.

“How are you, Amma?”

The mother looks visibly happy. She says, “ I am a spirit now, Siraj…no one can burn me alive any more.”

“Amma, can I become like you?”


One night a woman’s nervous, agitated spirit reaches Shah Alam Camp well past midnight. She is looking for her son who’s nowhere to be found – neither in the other world, not here. The mother’s heart is close to breaking with grief and terror. Other women help her in looking for her son. They look all over the camp then they go to the mother’s old neighbourhood. The whole street is up in flames -- houses are burning like stacks of fuelwood. Since they are spirits now and able to come and go as they please, they enter these raging infernos with complete ease. They search every nook and smoke-filled cranny but they cannot find the mother’s little boy.

In despair the spirits go to the homes of the rioters. The lumpens are sitting there making petrol bombs, cleaning their guns and polishing their arms. When the mother asks them about her missing son, they laugh and say, “You mad woman, when scores upon scores of people are being burnt alive, who can keep track of one little boy. He must be lying buried under some mound of ash and rubble.”

The mother says, “No, no, I have looked all over…I can’t find him anywhere!”

Then one of the rioters remembers, “Hey, is she the mother of that boy we left dangling from the trishul?”


The spirits come to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. They bring food, water, clothes and medicines from heaven. That is why you will not find any sick, naked, hungry or thirsty children in Shah Alam Camp. And that is also why Shah Alam Camp has become so famous. Its fame has spread far and wide among the dead. A certain dignitary from New Delhi who had come to inspect the camp was so pleased at what he saw that he announced: “This is a very fine place…all the Muslim children from all over India should be brought here.”


The spirits come to visit Shah Alam Camp after midnight. All night long they stay with their children, gazing at them with love and longing, worrying about them, fretting over their future, talking to them…

“Siraj, you should go home now,” a mother’s spirit says to her son.

“Home?” Siraj whispers with dread and his eyes glaze over with terror.

“Yes, home. After all, how long can you stay here? I promise, I will come and meet you every night.”

“I won’t go home, never, never, never.” Smoke. Fire. Screams. Noise.

“Amma, I will live with you and Abba.”

“Darling Sikku, how can you live with us…”

“But Bhaijaan and Aapa live with you.”

“That’s because they were also burnt alive along with us.”

“Then I will return home, Amma.”


A child’s spirit comes to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. The child looks like a firefly burning brightly in a dark night. He flits and flies all over the camp, scampers and gambols, plays small, mischievous tricks on everyone. But he does not lisp; he speaks clearly. He runs and hides in his mother’s clothes. He holds his father’s finger and traipses along.

Unlike all the other children in Shah Alam Camp, this child looks amazingly happy.

Someone asks, “Why are you so happy?”

“Don’t you know… I thought everyone knew.”

“Know what?”

“That I am The Proof.”

“Proof? Proof of what?”

“I am The Proof of Bravery.”

“Whose bravery are you proof of?”

“Of those who ripped open my mother’s womb, tore me out and hacked me in two.”


The spirits come to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. A mother’s spirit comes to meet her son. The son is amazed at the sight of his mother.

“Ma, why do you look so happy today?”

“Siraj, I met your grandfather in heaven today. He introduced me to his father, who took me to meet his father, even his grandfather and great-grandfather. Imagine, Siraj, I met your great-great-great-grandfather!” The mother speaks in a voice lilting with happiness.

“Siraj, your great-great-great grandfather was a Hindu… a Hindu, do you understand? Siraj, be sure to tell every one about this.”


The spirits come to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. A sister’s spirit comes one night. She is looking for her brother. She looks everywhere till she finally spots him sitting on a staircase. The sister is delighted and runs to meet him. “Bhaiyya,” she cries out. The brother hears but pretends as though he doesn’t. He just sits there, mute and unmoving like a stone statue.

The sister speaks again, “Bhaiyya, listen to me.”

Again, the brother gives no sign of hearing her, nor does he look towards her.

“Why won’t you listen to me, Bhaiyya?” the sister speaks loudly. This time the brother’s face flames like fire. His eyes shoot sparks. He rises in a fury and begins beating his sister mercilessly. A crowd gathers and someone asks the girl what she has said to so enrage her brother.

The sister says, “I only called out to him, ‘Bhaiyya’.”

An old man speaks up, “No, Salima, that was very wrong of you. Why did you say that? That was absolutely the wrong thing to say.” And the old man starts crying like a baby.

The brother starts beating his head against a wall.


The spirits come to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. One night an old man’s spirit comes along with all the other spirits. The old man’s body is naked save for a skimpy loincloth. He wears chappals on his feet and holds a wooden staff in his hand. An old-fashioned fob watch peeps from the folds of his loincloth.

Someone asks the old man, “Are you too looking for a relative here in this camp?”

The old man replies, “Yes, and no.”

The others leave him alone, taking him for a senile old man. The old man walks round and round the camp.

Someone again asks the old man, “Baba, whom are you looking for?”

The old man says, “I am looking for someone who can kill me.”


“I was killed fifty years ago by a bullet. Now I want the rioters to burn me alive.”

“But, why do you want that, Baba?”

“Simply to tell the world, that I was not killed by their bullet, nor will I die if they burn me alive.”


A political leader asks a spirit who has come to visit Shah Alam Camp:

“Do you have a father and mother?”

“No, they were both killed.”

“What about brothers and sisters?”


“Any other living relatives?’

“No, all are dead.”

“Are you comfortable here?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Do you get enough to eat?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you have clothes on your back?”

“I do.”

“Do you need anything else?”

“No, nothing.”



The leader is pleased. He says to himself, “The lad is bright. Not like other Muslims.”


The spirits come to Shah Alam Camp after midnight. One night the Devil’s spirit comes along with all the others. He looks around and is consumed with acute embarrassment, even shame, at what he sees. He can barely hold his head up and look the others in the eye. Sheepishly, he averts his gaze, ducks his head, and furtively looks for an escape route where he is least likely to meet another soul. Intrigued by this strange creature, people catch hold of him by the scruff of his neck and shake him.

Wilting with shame, he bleats, “I have no hand in all this… all this that has happened, truly I don’t… I swear on Allah, I have nothing to do with any of this.”

People say, “Yes, yes, we know. You couldn’t have done this. You have your own standard to think of.”

The Devil sighs with relief and says, “You don’t know what a weight has lifted from my heart! So, you good people know the truth.”

They say, “Allah Miyan had come a few days ago and He was saying the same thing.”

First published in its Hindi original in Rashtriya Sahara, 9 June, 2002.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Review of Pavan Varma's When Loss is Gain

When Loss is Gain, Pavan K. Varma, Rain Tree, 2012, Rs 395, pp.206

How many of us get a second chance in life? More importantly, what would we want to do were we to get the near-magical chance to start over? Would we fall back into the old pattern of habit and custom? Or, would we do all those things that we ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t?  Pavan K. Varma captures this fleeting idea and teases out a tale of frailty and courage, defeat and victory, loss and gain.  In this, his debut attempt at fiction after a dozen published works including meditations on the Kamasutra and the middle class, the Urdu poet Ghalib and the havelis of Delhi as well as translations of Kaifi Azmi and Gulzar, he displays once again his uncanny ability to seize an idea, a moment, and make it come alive to the fullest. Carpe dieme, the ancients called it; in Varma’s lexicon, it is called When Loss is Gain.

Does that make Varma’s book a novel of ideas… the sort that, in Aldous Huxley’s famous words, deals with ‘the drama implicit in an idea which becomes explicit when it is shown as a point of view'? When Loss is Gain is definitely a deeply philosophical work insofar as it looks at ethical and moral questions related to everyday life in the light of principles culled from Hinduism and Buddhism. And, yes, it has plenty of drama of ideas, too. Yet, in another sense, it moves away from its philosophical underpinnings and becomes a bildungsroman, a sort of coming of age novel dealing with the moral and psychological growth of its protagonist.

To flesh out the drama of ideas, Varma employs a series of dichotomies: life and death, loss and gain, happiness and fulfillment, physical and spiritual, rational and irrational. A dialogue between dukkha and ananda -- sorrow and its conjoined twin happiness -- lies at the heart of this drama which moves from cosmopolitan Delhi to the majestic mountains of Bhutan. And, all along, the weft of poetry runs through the woof of plot and character to create a tapestry that is as jewel bright as it is richly textured. An eclectic mix of verses from sources as diverse as Bulle Shah, Basavanna, Nida Fazli, Hairat Allahabadi, Amir Khusro, Kabir, and of course, Varma’s old favourite, Ghalib leavens the narrative with the yeast of a robust, full-bodied flavour. Readings from Shankaraachaya’s Nirvana Shatakam as well as recitations from the Isa Upanishad fit in seamlessly.

A cataclysmic turning point, a moment of epiphany – usually reserved for the climax --happens early in the novel. Anand, a hard-drinking, a hard-working, ambitious lawyer, is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Within hours of the doctor’s pronouncement that he has only few months to live, his carefully constructed life unravels: his wife leaves him for his best friend, who also happens to be his boss. Faced with the prospect of death, Anand realizes how wrong all his priorities had been all his life: ‘I’d had the gift of life, and I had treated it so utterly, utterly shabbily.’ Only when he is condemned to die, does he realize ‘the sheer waste of it all and no time to make amends’. ‘So much had been heaped on my plate, and I had but nibbled at it,’ he rues.

However, the prognosis of cancer turns out to be wrong. This entirely unexpected reprieve causes Anand to review the wreckage that was his life and do all the things a high-powered life as a Delhi lawyer enmeshed in petty office politics had not allowed him to do. He decides to ‘just hang out, to live from day to day, to float without direction, to immerse (himself) in the natural eddies and pools of existence, to live for a whim rather than a goal.’ To live this life, he invests his life’s savings to maintain a modest lifestyle, travels to watch the sunrise on the Ganga in Varanasi and the sunset on a sand-dune in Jaisalmer before finally taking off for a retreat in the remote mountains of Bhutan. Here, Anand meets Chimi who teaches him he cannot just sit by the river bank of life; he must wade in. Chimi, with her vigorous love for life, makes him wonder: ‘By sheltering myself from the possibility of pain, was I also building barriers to the possibility of joy?’ When he falls in love with the lovely but haunted Tara, who is training to become a nun, he realizes that the gift of life must not to be renounced. The bridge between dukkha and ananda is as narrow as it is precarious, but it must be walked. In the end, the novel is as much a celebration of life as it is a call to free oneself from ‘the tyranny of trivia’.

(This review appeared in The Hindu, 4 March, 2012)