Vacation is here!

Yahoo!

After a wait of one year, I am going to India on vacation today: leaving the sweltering heat of the desert for monsoon-drenched Kerala.

Vacation 2013 061 Vacation 2013 066 Vacation 2013 063

I may not be able to keep up the activity for a month.  However, I will update when possible.

All my friends who make regular visits here, please don’t go away… the updates will return to their weekly schedule definitely by end of August, I promise.

Cheers!

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“The Hindus – An Alternative History” – Controversy and Truth

The Controversy

In 2011, Mr. Dinanath Batra, head of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samithi (“Committee for the Struggle to Save Education”) in India brought a case against the book The Hindus – An Alternative History by the American Indologist and scholar Wendy Doniger. The lawsuit was filed under Section 295A of Indian Penal Code (a leftover of the colonial era) which punishes deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the feelings of any religious community. The case went to litigation in February 2014. Rather than fight it out, Penguin decided to withdraw the book from publication in a phased manner in six months and pulp the remaining copies.

There was widespread outrage from freethinkers and intellectuals: concerns were raised that free speech was under threat in India. While this is hardly a unique incident – any book, play or movie which was likely to “wound religious sentiments” gets an immediate ban in India: The Satanic Verses is the most prominent example – the fact that it happened to a book by a recognised scholar justified the misgivings to a certain extent. If the trend caught on, any kind of interpretation of myth, history or literature than the officially sanctioned version would become impossible. From this to theocracy is only a small step.

Of course, with all the hullabaloo, I simply had to read the book! (I suspect many others also felt the same. According to reports, the book was being sold clandestinely in many places in India. And it is available on the net. On the whole, Mr. Batra seems to have acted as Ms. Doniger’s publicist, unwittingly.) Fortunately people have uploaded PDF copies all over the web, and locating one was not very difficult.

A Parallel History

Wendy Doniger is a scholar – but her book is not scholarly. It is aimed at the general reader. The style is chatty with a lot of sarcastic humour (actually a drawback – we will get to it later). The author has not proceeded like a conventional historian, rather her attempt has been to “set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a linga (an emblem of the god Shiva, often representing his erect phallus) is set in a yoni (the symbol of Shiva’s consort, or the female sexual organ), or any statue of a Hindu god in its base or plinth (pitha).” That is, she concentrates on the religious and social narrative within the framework of history, rather than the “hard and true” facts which have been proved by archaeology.

And so this is a history not of what the British used to call maps and chaps (geography and biography) but of the stories in hi-story. It’s a kind of narrative quilt made of scraps of religion sewn in next to scraps of social history, a quilt like those storytelling cloths that Indian narrators use as mnemonic devices to help them and the audience keep track of the plot. The narrator assembles the story from the quilt pieces much as the French rag-and-bones man, the bricoleur, makes new objects out of the broken-off pieces of old objects (bricolage).

Ms. Doniger uses two metaphors for the way she has interpreted the history of Hinduism. The first is a common optical illusion, reproduced below:

With a little effort, one can see both the rabbit and the bird. This is a common property of optical illusions – our eyes pick up a pattern of markings and impose an image on them. According to Wendy, this is equally true in the case the craters on the moon, which Westerners have interpreted as the face of a man, and Indians, as a rabbit. She says:

The image of the man in the moon who is also a rabbit in the moon, or the duck who is also a rabbit, will serve as a metaphor for the double visions of the Hindus that this book will strive to present.

Whatever we currently accept as part of “Hinduism” (a problematic concept in itself) has been garnered from the “official” versions, the Sanskrit texts written down by the persons who had the power and the privilege. However, this forms only a very small part of the culture of India. Most of the narrative of Hinduism is spread along a multitude of people belonging to various castes and regions: the tales of the so-called “subaltern” groups who have had no voice in the major part of the history of this great subcontinent. The author analyses these submerged histories along with the well-known ones so a kind of double-vision is also required on part of the reader – now seeing the rabbit, now seeing the bird.

Available Light

The second metaphor is a Sufi parable about Mulla Nasrudin.

Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground. “What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked. “My key,” said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it. After a time the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?” “In my own house.” “Then why are you looking here?” “There is more light here than inside my own house.”

One could take this as just a funny story or a profound vignette on searching for the truth in the correct (or incorrect) place. Wendy Doniger adapts it to the analysis of Indian history in the following manner:

This Sufi parable could stand as a cautionary tale for anyone searching for the keys (let alone the one key) to the history of the Hindus. It suggests that we may look for our own keys, our own understandings, outside our own houses, our own cultures, beyond the light of the familiar sources.

That is, we may be searching entirely in the wrong place, for the wrong key: even if we find it, it may be different for each person, depending upon his or her background. Also, one can only search where light is available – and many areas of Indian history are still shrouded in darkness.

A Detailed Analysis of Indian History and Culture

Ms. Doniger analyses the Indian civilisation by dividing it into recognisable periods. Starting with the Indus Valley Civilisation, it moves down in time through the nomadic Aryans and their Vedas; as the Aryans get civilised, the Vedas give rise to the more philosophical Upanishads – religion moves away from ritual to introspection. Then as the cities rise up and urbanisation kicks in, the beliefs get codified into “Dharma Shastras” (as exemplified by the code of Manu), and religion becomes more organised and rigid – the four “Varnas” (colours) or castes are born and a large group of people are marginalised as being outside the system (at the same times, money and love also get their own shastras!). Buddhism rises and declines and Hinduism resurges in the South under the Bhakti movement. In some parts of India, an esoteric discipline called “Tantra” is born.

It was into this dynamic civilisation that Islam entered: first as the so-called “Slave” dynasty of Muhammad Ghori and later, as the Mughal dynasty established by Babur. However, far from the Islamisation of India, Hindus and Muslims traded cultural elements across religious boundaries which enriched both religions. Then the Western powers came as traders and established themselves as colonialists, Britain winning out over the others in India. Yet even though their main aim was the assimilation of lucre, India changed them also – and Hinduism also underwent yet another transformation, absorbing modern values and adapting to the changing world, which has been its strength all through history.

I will not undertake a detailed analysis of Ms. Doniger’s book here. It will be a Herculean task (or in the current context, a “Bhageeratha Prayatna“), and I doubt whether I have the time and expertise. Rather, I will record here what I liked (and disliked) about the book.

First, the positives:

  1. Doniger’s scholarship. The sheer amount of books which have been read (and analysed) by this lady is breath-taking. It does not involve Sanskrit texts alone, but many narratives in the vernacular across the length and breadth of India.
  2. The impartiality of her analysis. Across these 700 – odd pages, the author has been at pains to present both sides of the question. For example, she does not present the Muslim conqueror as a fanatical religious marauder, neither does she picture him as a benign ruler – rather, he is in search of loot when he pillages temples. Similarly, the British rulers are shown as mainly interested in making money: governance is only incidental. Also, she does not picture the upper-caste Hindu as an epitome of evil out to destroy Buddhists and harass Pariahs, but rather as a pluralist who is however, not without his prejudice.
  3. Doniger has analysed the epics and myths of India in detail, pulling no punches. Kudos to her for recognising that The Mahabharata is, in its heart of hearts, an anti-war document: also for mentioning the many Ramayanas which are scattered across India (contesting the Hindu Right’s picturisation of Rama as the “Maryada Purushottama” which is derived from Tulsidas’s interpretation and not from Valmiki). Some of her contentions, like the undercurrent of sexual attraction between Lakshmana and Sita may disturb traditional Hindus, but she always provides documentary evidence for her conclusions.
  4. The largely marginalised status of women and the Dalits are forcefully etched out by the author, at the same time highlighting that all was not darkness. Like much else to do with Hinduism, here also a multitude of narratives intermingle and intersect.

The negatives (I could find only one – but that, I believe, have contributed seriously to the book’s controversial status):

  1. The author’s tone. The snarky humour she pokes at everything must have done a lot, I am sure, to put people off. It is not always edifying to be made fun of, especially about something which one considers sacred.

It is easy to see why “The Hindus – An Alternative History” angers conservative Hindus. Of late, they have been at pains to present Hinduism as a monolithic religion: the Sanatana Dharma, or “Eternal Law”, going against the teeth of all evidence. Indian literature talks of four methods of coercion: Sama (peaceful verbal coercion), Dana (bribery), Bheda (threats) and Danda (physical abuse). All four have been tried against the intellectuals and academics who have disputed this view. In his complaint against the book, Mr. Dinanath Batra has said that it is “riddled with heresies”. This is the height of tragic irony, as there is nothing in Hinduism called heresy – its very strength is its pluralism, the ability to assimilate anything into its fold.

America calls its culture the “Melting Pot”, where various nationalities are fused together to form a single culture. In contrast, Canada calls itsel the “Salad Bowl” – where all cultures are mixed together, yet each keeps its own identity. In the case of India, the cultures fuse together, yet also maintain their identity.

In Kerala, we have a tasty curry called “Avial“. It is made from bits and pieces of all kinds of vegetables and roots. Legend has it that Bhima invented this curry during his stint disguised as a cook in King Virata’s palace. The Avial has its own distinct taste – but if you savour it slowly, you can distinguish the different vegetables.

Hinduism is the world’s Avial.

Enjoy it!

Nostalgia and the Malayali

It seems that as I grow old, nostalgia becomes more and more of a permanent companion, a sort of chronic condition which is not debilitating. It is the province of the Malayali: mostly forced to live as an expatriate, he pines for a time and a place unattainable. It may not be coincidental that the usually the term for homesickness is used for nostalgia too in Malayalam (“gruhaturatvam”). For the Malayali, separation across time and space from loved surroundings is the grim reality in life.

Many of the beloved songs of popular Malayalam cinema are about nostalgia and homesickness:

“Maamalakalkkappurathu Marathakappattuduthu

Malayalamennoru Naadundu…”

 

(Across the mountain ranges, wearing a dress of emerald green

Is the land called “Malayalam”…)

 

“Naalikerathinte Naattilenikkoru

Nazhiyidangazhi Mannundu…

Athil Narayanakkili Koodupolulloru

Naalukaalolappurayundu…”

 

(In the land of the coconut palm,

I have a handful of earth in my name…

On that, like a sparrow’s nest

There is a ramshackle thatched house…)

 

“Oru vattam koodiyen Ormakal meyunna

Thirumuttathethuvaan Moham…”

 

(Once again, I wish to go back to that

Sacred courtyard where memories graze…)

 

The last song, by our beloved poet Prof. O. N. V. Kurup, was the defining song of my generation. It came out in the Eighties. In simple terms, it talks about a pastoral childhood which was becoming a distant memory even then: what children used to do when VCD players, computers and play station were not available. Eating bitter gooseberries, drinking cool well-water immediately afterwards to convert that bitterness to sweetness, having a cooing match with the koel… but what really packed the punch was the last line:

“Verutheyee Mohangal Ennariyumbozhum

Veruthe Mohikkuvaan Moham…”

 

(Even though I know that all these wishes are futile,

I wish to wish, just for the sake of wishing…)

 

Thus the song defines two things – a pastoral life which is fast disappearing and a futile wish to go back to it, knowing fully well it is impossible. It is about thirty-four years since O. N. V penned that song, but the sentiment has not altered.

It must be noted that diaspora is hardly unique to the Malayali. The most famous one historically is that of the Jews (“By the rivers of Babylon…”): it has culminated ultimately in them obtaining a country of their own and creating another diaspora – that of the Palestinians – in the process. It seems that displacement and the longing to return is part of our humanity, and it shall remain. What makes the Keralite different from others is that his separation is voluntary.

Keralites are proud of their small state: unlike the majority of India, it is green and clean. Mother Nature has been kind to Kerala. The tourist brochures call it “God’s Own Country”, and even though this is boasting at its zenith, many tourists may agree. Even at the height of urbanisation – there is hardly a “village” worthy of the definition in Kerala any more – the state still manages to maintain its green image. I have posted below a random sample from my “vacation” photographs to illustrate the point (one gets to appreciate all the more, gazing on concrete and desert sand for eleven months of the year).




However, the state has very few avenues for making a living for its highly educated population: there are very few industries and very little infrastructure. For making a living, most Malayalis are forced to go out. The separation is thus not entirely a matter of choice. Also, the rapid pace of urbanisation – even though heartily embraced by the people – does not prevent them from remembering a past when everything was blissful.

This futile longing for a lost golden age and paradise – a sort of Atlantis of memory – defines much of Malayalam popular art, literature and culture. It is doubtful whether it ever existed: it may be as mythical as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But that is not relevant. In the realm of the spirit, mythical truth is more powerful than mundane reality.

Our most famous festival, Onam, is in the memory of a golden era when Kerala was ruled by the mythical king Mahabali (this could only be a later interpolation – because according to another myth, Kerala came out of the sea when Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, threw his axe from Gokarna in the north to Kanyakumari in the south – and Bali predates Parasurama in mythical chronology). In the actual myth, Mahabali was an Asura king who has defeated all the Devas, and was tricked by Lord Vishnu in the guise of a dwarf Brahmin (“Vamana”) into giving up his kingdom. However, because Bali was just and devout, Vishnu set him up as the ruler of a region called Sutala.

In the Kerala version of the myth, Mahabali (or “Maveli”, as we Malayalis call him) was the ruler of Kerala. He was the quintessential perfect monarch: popular ballads sing about his reign when all people were equal, there were no deceit and trickery, and people never told lies. Vishnu as Vamana kicked this kind ruler down to the netherworld (“Patalam”) where he lives now: however, the god granted him one boon. Every year he could return to visit his people on Onam day. So to keep the monarch happy, the people of Kerala make a great show of prosperity with splendour and feasting (even if one is living in abject poverty), so that Maveli goes back satisfied that all is well.

Maveli is the original expatriate from Kerala, pining eternally for a homeland he can never come back to.

We celebrate Onam with great gusto wherever in the world we are. In the Middle East, this has become the festival of the Great Nostalgia: in effect, we all share part of King Maveli’s angst.

O.N.V was right – even if the longing is futile, we will still do it.

It is such a sweet pain.

The Realm of Faerie

And you love take my right hand,

Come join the faery folks’ last dance;

Then we’ll sleep and dream of Elfland,

Her wizardry and wild romance.

Wheldrake,

The Elvish Rune,

1877

 

I am currently going through the Harry Potter series (yes, I know I’m terribly late!) and I have been marvelling at J. K. Rowling’s mastery in the mixing of the traditional British school story and Celtic fairy-lore. For kids of my generation who grew up on Enid Blyton, fairy-folk like pixies and brownies were childhood playmates; there was something fascinating about the enchanted woods just over the hedge, populated by these fascinating creatures. Blyton purposefully avoided the disturbing and frightening aspects of these creatures, and they were transformed into something like mischievous little children with magical powers. The illustrations also helped.

Running in parallel to these stories were narratives of a different kind of woodland beings. These inhabited not the calm and peaceful copses of temperate England, but the shadowy forests of tropical Kerala. Consequently I think, they were more frightening and violent. The Yakshi who enticed you in the form of a beautiful lady, only to eat you up; the Gandharvan who bewitched young ladies with beautiful music; the Thendan who followed you on dark, deserted paths and hit you if you looked back… What separated these stories from Enid Blyton’s tales were the fact that they were real, in the here and the now. These beings inhabited your backyard.

As I grew up, these magical beings were relegated to the attic of my mind; stowed away, but never discarded and never entirely forgotten. I had more pressing concerns now like studies and the angst of growing up (partial differential equations were more terrifying than any Yakshi). However, my yearning for magical lands and fantastic beings survived in the form of a deep love of fantasy and science fiction, and a growing interest in mythology. And when I discovered Joseph Campbell, it was as though a kindred spirit was calling to me across the ages. I understood that mythology is not just beautiful stories: it is an integral part of our psyche.

The faerie folk lives within us.

***

I found this entry on “fairy” in The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan.

Once they were divine; the TUATHA DE DANANN, the children or the people of the goddess DANU. According to the mythological history of Ireland, the BOOK OF INVASIONS, the Tuatha De were the penultimate invaders of the island, wresting control from the sturdy dark FIR BOLG and the fierce FOMORIANS. When the final invaders came, the Tuatha De went the way of their enemies, being defeated in the great battle of TAILTIU by the Sons of Mil or MILESIANS.

The Milesians did not evict the defeated race from Ireland; instead, a deal was made that the Tuatha De would take the underside of the world while the Milesians ruled the surface. Through this curious treaty the ancient race remained within the hills, under the bogs, and in other liminal areas of Ireland, where they transformed into fairy people. Sometimes the story of their fall from power was connected to the Christian story of the angels’ fall from heaven, and the fairies were thus described as fallen angels.

One can immediately see the similarity to theory that the Asuras and Rakshasas of Indian myth were actually earlier inhabitants of India, vanquished by the invading Aryans. Similarly, the Devil is nothing but a fallen angel. So it seems that the protagonists of myth are always the beings of light who dwell on the surface; the antagonists, the beings of darkness beneath. Traditionally, according to the historical analysis of myth, the winners are thought to have written history with themselves as the gods and the conquered race as demons.

In my opinion, even though there may be some historical background to these legends, the roots run much deeper – all the way down into our subconscious.

Note that in ancient myths, even though the gods win, the demons are never fully vanquished. They only retreat temporarily, to come back with renewed vigour. In the same vein, the fairies have retreated to the “underside” – they dwell there in an uneasy truce with the ordinary beings “on the surface”. However, one has to be very careful never to cross into the no-man’s land, the twilight zone between the worlds. There are bloodcurdling tales.

Kidnappings by fairies are quite common: they steal the souls of brides, who waste away in real life, while the soul is made to spend its time continuously dancing in the fairy kingdom (a legend used to great effect by Susanna Clarke in the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel). There is also the terrifying story of the changeling, the fairy child swapped with a human child – a common trope in many fantasy and horror stories. There is the irritating goblin who can turn outright malevolent on occasion. There are also helpful fairies like the brownies and mischievous spirits like the pixies – the so-called little people – who also may turn nasty if not properly treated.

Back home in Kerala, the legends are even more blood-curdling. The Yakshi waylays unsuspecting males in the guise of a nubile young girl and entices them up the palm tree where she lives; for the unfortunate soul, it seems like he is entering a palatial mansion. As soon as the light goes off, the ogress changes back into her terrifying form and eats the would-be Romeo up. The Thendan follows you on deserted pathways; if you turn to look at him, he gives you such a slap that you fall down unconscious. If you are lucky, you will wake up with a fever. The Gandharvan is handsome and sings beautifully so that girls are easy meat for him – however, once a girl is in a Gandharvan‘s clutches, woe betide any male who goes near her.

Sarpakkavu (image courtesy: http://www.karmakerala.com)

Many of the houses in rural Kerala used to have what is called a Sarpakkavu (“Snake Grove”). This is a wooded area on the grounds which is set aside for the divine snakes, who partakes of offerings and drinks milk left for them. They are the protectors of the family; but if you cross them, the whole dynasty will be cursed, especially the children.

Most our temples in Kerala still have “gods” who cannot be accommodated inside, as their character is not wholly beyond reproach. They are accommodated outside under the banyan tree (which is a standard fixture for any temple) or at the back of the temple. The Thendan I mentioned earlier sits under the banyan tree of our local temple – I can still remember the twinge of fear as I used to pass its idol in the night. (By the way, my wife’s family house had four gods in the backyard until recently – so the concept is still not dated!)

The feeling one gets from these legends are of a world in an uneasy balance. Unlike Christian mythology, where God is unconditionally good and the Devil incorrigibly Evil, the faerie folk are somewhere in-between – like us humans. They have been pushed “beneath”, but they can come up any time and drag us down if we are not careful.

***

Humanity started out in the jungles: the race memories of a dark and frightening past hide inside the collective unconscious and still haunt us. These are what Joe Campbell calls the “Inherited Image” – like the image of the hawk that the chickens will run away from, even when they have never seen a hawk in life. These are the symbols which lie deep inside the psyche and provide fodder for much of our art, literature and myth.

And the prevalence of the faerie folk inside the enchanted forests all over the globe assures us that underneath we are all the same.

A Review of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

There are some books which literally sweep you of your feet and leave you gasping for breath. As one grows older and the reading palate more jaded, the chance of finding such a book becomes rarer and rarer; so the actual discovery of one is all the more delightful.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is such a book.

By all means, the story ought to have been a cliché: it explores the hackneyed dystopian theme of a group of people moving across a blasted landscape. The fact that it turns out to be one of the most powerful reading experiences instead, is due to McCarthy’s narrative power, and the story’s focus on the father-son bond rather than the horrors of the road.

The unnamed protagonists are moving south across an America of the future in search of warmth and food; a land which has been destroyed by a massive cataclysm which is never described. Some kind of deflagration is suggested (maybe nuclear). There are no animals left, and dead and charred trees dot the landscape. The sun is seldom seen, and it rains ash almost constantly. Nightmare people populate this nightmare landscape: cannibals who keep people penned up in basements for meat and roast infants on spits.

The strength of the novel is that most of this information is incidental. McCarthy does not dwell on the horrors, but mentions them in passing and moves ahead. The focus is always on the man and the boy, and their stubborn will to survive.

The cataclysm has occurred suddenly: the man remembers a time when everything was “normal” (in our everyday sense of the word). For the boy, this is “normal”. Both father and son have adapted to their dismal environment seamlessly. Their lives are reduced to the basics of any living organism: food, shelter and the avoidance of death. As the story unfolds, we find the man slowly moving towards an animalistic state of existence; all vestiges of altruism, of “humanity”, are stripped away. He will do anything to survive, even if he destroys other human beings in the process. The only person he cares about, other than himself, is his son.

As the story moves towards its resolution, the mood of quiet desperation mounts uncontrollably, reaching a crescendo on the father’s death: however, the author does not let us down. The small flame of hope kept alight throughout the novel is left burning at the end, so that The Road ultimately proves redemptive.

There are no chapters in this novel. It is written in short sections, and perfectly parallels the endless procession of nights and days of the journey. The dialogue is staccato, repetitive and Hemingway-esque. I found McCarthy’s signature way of writing without punctuation apt for the subject matter. The many dialogues between father and son, mostly consisting of the word “okay” repeated many times (when things are definitely not “okay”-nice bit of tragic irony here) revolve around a single theme: the father assuring the son that they are not going to die, and they will find the “good” people. Instead of being boring, the repeated theme is strangely effective.

The man’s sense of nostalgia for a time irrevocably lost and his love for his son comes across with an emotional force which is almost painful. In fact, the child is almost deified. Consider the following passage (which is sheer poetry):

In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a travelling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.

The boy takes on mythical overtones here (Krishna with his flute or Pan with his pipes): a remnant of a pastoral idyll which has been sadly burnt away. We know instinctively that the child will survive. Because, as the man says in his dying speech, he is the carrier of the fire…

You’re going to be okay, Papa. You have to.

No I’m not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find good guys but you can’t take any chances. No chances. Do you hear?

I want to be with you.

You cant.

Please.

You cant. You have to carry the fire.

Is it real? The fire?

Yes it is.

Where is it? I dont know where it is.

Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

This is the true Promethean fire, burning forever inside mankind’s heart, even while suffering eternal punishment at the behest of gods. This is the fire which is passed down from generation to generation, igniting the mind of the scientist, the artist, the writer and the revolutionary. As long as one knows one has passed it on, one can die peacefully.

This novel is an emotional onslaught which will rip you apart, will shatter your world so that it can never be reassembled together in the same way again (I was in tears by the end). Very highly recommended.