A Different Viewpoint on a Much-Maligned Monarch

Aurangzeb book coverAurangzeb has been cast as an unmitigated villain by the British, a myth which has been enthusiastically adopted by Hindutva apologists to further their agenda of projecting Muslims as cruel bigots and ruthless killers. The truth, as usual, is much more nuanced.

The casual reader and scholar alike, however, should be wary of what constitutes historical evidence and a legitimate historical claim. Individuals that claim to present ‘evidence’ of Aurangzeb’s supposed barbarism couched in the suspiciously modern terms of Hindu-Muslim conflict often trade in falsehoods, including fabricated documents and blatantly wrong translations. Many who condemn Aurangzeb have no training in the discipline of history and lack even basic skills in reading premodern Persian. Be sceptical of communal visions that flood the popular sphere. This biography aims to deepen our remarkably thin knowledge about the historical man and king, Aurangzeb Alamgir.

Thus concludes Audrey Truschke the book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, and we would do well to heed her words. So much of what we have been taught as history have been infected by politics: originally by the designs of our colonial masters, then by the political outlook of the “brown sahibs” who took over our country from them, and lastly by the strident (if illogical) claims of our aggressive Hindu right. Unfortunately, all three found it expedient to demonise Aurangzeb – the British to create the myth of centuries-long Hindu-Muslim conflict, the Congress to prove their historical role in solving that conflict and the BJP to to sustain the myth of the marauding Muslim and the tolerant and long-suffering Hindu. This is the myth that most of us grew up with, and this is the myth which still proves remarkably resilient.

No person is uni-dimensional (other than comic book heroes and villains). This is why narratives which run counter to the popular one are important; why articles describing Gandhi’s racism and Mother Theresa’s religious fundamentalism need to be read (though not necessarily agreed with). Only when we try to look at historical personages in all their complexity shall we be able to see the past in all its multi-hued glory – which in turn, will illuminate the present.

Audrey Truschke has produced a very readable book (though rather short on substance) on the Emperor which does a laudable job of debunking the myth. Though one expects a more detailed analysis, this book should serve as a starting point for any interested reader on the controversial sovereign.

Equestrian_Portrait_of_Aurangzeb.The charges levied against Aurangzeb are mainly two: (1) he was a bloodthirsty monster who treated his enemies savagely and murdered his kin to gain the throne and (2) he was a religious bigot who relentlessly persecuted Hindus and destroyed temples. The author shows that both of these charges are rooted in half-truths which are more dangerous than lies, because they can so easily fool the gullible.

As to the first charge: yes, Aurangzeb did that – but it was no more than any other Mughal prince would do. Wars of succession for a vacant throne was the norm in the dynasty. There was no primogeniture – the popular saying was ya takht ya tabut (either the throne or the grave). Although Dara Shukoh, Shah Jahan’s eldest and favourite son has been treated very kindly by history, in the matter of squabbling for the throne, he was as good (or as bad) as the other three; Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad. All four wanted the kingship and were willing to do away with their brothers. Aurangzeb was the one who won out.

There have been many recorded instances of Aurangzeb treating his enemies cruelly (Shivaji’s son Sambaji is the example which immediately comes to mind) – but then, there are other instances when he proved lenient. Again, there is no evidence to prove that he was more savage than any average medieval king.

Now the biggest charge – that of the religious bigot who systematically tried to wipe out Hinduism – has to be examined. Ms. Truschke provides convincing evidence to illustrate that he was no bigot: only a strict and pious ruler, obsessed with an idea of justice. Obviously he would have considered Islam the true religion and all others as false, but it is clear that politics trumped faith on most occasions. The author quotes Richard Eaton, the leading authority on the subject, to establish that the number of confirmed temple destructions is just over a dozen . And many of those acts had political roots. (We must bear in mind that even Hindu kings sacked and pillaged the temples in rival’s domain – the Shaiva/ Vaishnava conflicts are obvious examples.)

F1996.1There are also ample examples of the emperor continuing the Mughal system of patronage of Hindu and Jain communities. Also, Aurangzeb had a number of Hindu officials under him, some of whom enjoyed very high ranks. Hardly to be expected of a fanatic Hindu-hater! However, it is clear that he was no Akbar, as he reimposed the Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) even though it is very doubtful whether the order was implemented in practice.

(Here I must say that I do not accept what the author says without a pinch of salt. I have read other believable sources, notably the Malayalam author Anand, who claim that Aurangzeb was more fanatical than most. Instead of swinging to one or other end of the pendulum, we must weigh the evidence and decide for ourselves.)

Ultimately, Aurangzeb was a strong king who ruled for more than five decades and who expanded the Mughal kingdom across a major part of the subcontinent. Instead of a cartoon villain, he was a complex character who was composed in parts of the good, the bad and the indifferent, much like all of us.

Aurangzeb nonetheless defies easy summarization. He was a man of studied contrasts and perplexing features. Aurangzeb was preoccupied with order – even fretting over the safety of the roads – but found no alternative to imprisoning his father, an action decried across much of Asia. He did not hesitate to slaughter family members, or rip apart enemies, literally, as was the case with Sambhaji. He also sewed prayer caps by hand and professed a desire to lead a pious life. he was angered by bad administrators, rotten mangoes, and unworthy sons. He was a connoisseur of music and even fell in love with the musician Hirabai, but, beginning in midlife, deprived himself of the pleasure of the musical arts. Nonetheless, he passed his later years in the company of another musician, Udaipuri. He built the largest mosque in the world but chose to be buried in an unmarked grave. He died having expanded the Mughal kingdom to its greatest extent in history and yet feared utter failure.

A complex character indeed – and one worthy of more attention than that which has been given.

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The Hated “Other”

On the night of 28 September 2015, a mob of Hindus attacked a Muslim family in Bisara Village, near Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. The middle-aged head of the family, Mohammed Akhlaq was beaten to death: his son was critically injured.

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Photo courtesy: The Hindustan Times

Instead of condemning the event immediately, the Prime Minister kept his silence. Encouraged by this kind of tacit acquiescence, leaders within the BJP began to make provocative statements.

Six Outrageous Things BJP Leaders Have Said About Dadri Murder Over Beef

Ever since the BJP government of Narendra Modi took office at the centre, Hindu fundamentalists of all sorts had been rattling their sabres with increasing ferocity, always finding some issue or the other to keep communal tensions alive. This murder seems have acted as a rallying point for them. Understandably, the other side – mostly left-wingers of varying colour from light pink to deep red, and the Indian National Congress – condemned the incident vehemently, accusing the BJP of direct complicity. The country went into emotional overdrive.

Confession: yours truly also reacted, dashing off angry posts on Facebook, and as usual drawing the ire of the conservatives. Over a period of days, however, after the initial heat has cooled down, I have started noticing a disturbing trend.

In olden days, such a dastardly act in India would have drawn universal condemnation from most Indians. But today, no BJP supporter is coming out to condemn the murder unconditionally. They always qualify it with statements about the sacredness of cows or how this is all a conspiracy to malign the BJP. Even the Prime Minister has made a roundabout speech, urging both Hindus and Muslims to preserve peace, as if both sides were equally faulty. On Facebook, even people from Kerala (where beef is eaten by the majority of Hindus) seem to take it as an “Us vs. Them” religious issue, with a pound of beef at the centre, rather than a straightforward question of the murder of an innocent man.

The polarisation of India on religious lines, which gained momentum during the 2002 Gujarat riots, seems to have attained new heights. The “otherness” of Muslims has been established.

Now, it only remains to eliminate them.

We have seen this happening on a grand scale once in history – in Germany and the countries it conquered, during the Third Reich. Traditional anti-Semitic sentiments in Europe were inflamed by Hitler to dangerous levels which led to the torture and extermination of six million Jews. Hitler did not do this alone: many people abetted him while the world stood by and watched. Why? Because in the minds of most Europeans, the Jews were the hated “other”.

***

220px-HumanzoodesIn this context, I recalled The Human Zoo, a book by the anthropologist Dr. Desmond Morris that I had read in the early eighties. In it, Dr. Morris says that the human species has grown too fast so that he “does not fit his primate boots” any more: anthropologically, he is still a tribe member, but his tribe has grown to a “super-tribe” – humanity – a huge entity he cannot identify with.

So what does he do? Create “in-groups” and “out-groups” – tribes within the super-tribe. These groups may be divided on national, religious or linguistic lines. The common factor is that we are part of one group, competing with the members of the other group in the bloody game of survival. It is “us” versus “them”. In Dr. Morris’s words:

What is it that makes a human individual one of ‘them’, to be destroyed like a verminous pest, rather than one of ‘us’, to be defended like a dearly beloved brother? What is it that puts him into an outgroup and keeps us in the in-group? How do we recognize ‘them’? It is easiest, of course, if they belong to an entirely separate super-tribe, with strange customs, a strange appearance and a strange language. Everything about them is so different from ‘us’ that it is a simple matter to make the gross over-simplification that they are all evil villains. The cohesive forces that helped to hold their group together as a clearly defined and efficiently organized society also serve to set them apart from us and to make them frightening by virtue of their unfamiliarity.  Like the Shakespearean dragon, they are ‘more often feared than seen’.

Such groups are the most obvious targets for the hostility of our group. But supposing we have attacked them and defeated them, what then? Supposing we dare not attack them? Supposing we are, for whatever reason, at peace with other super-tribes for the time being: what happens to our in-group aggression now? We may, if we are very lucky, remain at peace and continue to operate efficiently and constructively within our group. The internal cohesive forces, even without the assistance of an out-group threat, may be sufficiently strong to hold us together. But the pressures and stresses of the super-tribe will still be working on us, and if the internal dominance battle is fought too ruthlessly, with extreme subordinates experiencing too much suppression or poverty, then cracks will soon begin to show. If severe inequalities exist between the sub-groups that inevitably develop within the super-tribe, their normally healthy competition will erupt into violence. Pent-up sub-group aggression, if it cannot combine with the pent-up aggression of other sub-groups to attack a common, foreign enemy, will vent itself in the form of riots, persecutions and rebellions.

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In times of intense group rivalry, the subgroups start wearing their tribal colours aggressively, to mark them out from the others (think of our religious symbols or even, football club logos!). Usually, these groupings are temporary and artificial, and are taken off once the populace settles back into peace. However:

An entirely different situation exists, however, when a sub-group possesses distinctive physical characteristics. If it happens to exhibit, say, dark skin or yellow skin, fuzzy hair or slant eyes, then these are badges that cannot be taken off, no matter how peaceful their owners. If they are in a minority in a super-tribe they are automatically looked upon as a sub-group behaving as an active ‘them’. Even if they are a passive ‘them’ it seems to make no difference. Countless hair-straightening sessions and countless eye-skin-fold operations fail to get the message across, the message that says, ‘We are not deliberately, aggressively setting ourselves apart.’ There are too many conspicuous physical clues left.

Rationally, the rest of the super-tribe knows perfectly well that these physical ‘badges’ have not been put there on purpose, but the response is not a rational one. It is a deep-seated in-group reaction, and when pent-up aggression seeks a target, the physical badge-wearers are there, literally ready-made to take the scapegoat role.

The author is here talking about racial prejudice. But it is my contention that it can be religious too, especially in India – because in a caste-ridden society like ours, it is difficult to separate the individual from the faith which he or she was born into. For a religious minority, this provides a permanent sense of insecurity. What to do – disown the badges of religion and risk losing oneself in the mainstream, or wear them proudly and be the object of suspicion and hatred? It seems that the Muslim minority in India, for the major part, has taken the second route.

Unfortunately, this has pushed Hindus more and more into aggressive tribal displays. In the past few years, the Hindu religion which had been relatively private and individualised has moved into the public sphere. The symbols of religion (the vermillion spot on the forehead, the rakhee on the wrist) are brandished as objects of pride.

Maybe it’s only natural that, with the increased conviction of their religious identity, Hindus have started regarding Muslims as hostile to their very existence – aided by selected readings of history, carefully orchestrated by unscrupulous political ideologues. In such a situation,

A vicious circle soon develops. If the physical badge-wearers are treated, through no fault of their own, as a hostile sub-group, they will all too soon begin to behave like one. Sociologists have called this a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

It is at this point in the book that Dr. Morris sets out the fictitious example of the “Green-haired Man” who is racially profiled and targeted. This example has stayed with me for more than three decades now, so vivid was it: it was this which made me remember this book in the current situation.

Let me illustrate what happens, using an imaginary example. These are the stages:

  1. Look at that green-haired man hitting a child. That green-haired man is vicious.
  2. All green-haired men are vicious.
  3. Green-haired men will attack anyone.
  4. There’s another green-haired man – hit him before he hits you.
  5. (The green-haired man, who has done nothing to provoke aggression,
  6. hits back to defend himself.)
  7. There you arc – that proves it: green-haired men are vicious.
  8. Hit all green-haired men.

This progression of violence sounds ridiculous when expressed in such an elementary manner. It is, of course, ridiculous, but nevertheless it represents a very real way of thinking.  Even a dimwit can spot the fallacies in the seven deadly stages of mounting group prejudice that I have listed, but this does not stop them becoming a reality.

After the green-haired men have been hit for no reason for long enough, they do, rather naturally, become vicious. The original false prophecy has fulfilled itself and become a true prophecy.

Just meditate on the above passage, and think about the demonisation of Islam in today’s world – does anything ring a bell?

227355-gujarat-riots

A Review of “Look Who’s Back” by Timur Vermes

Image courtesy: Cartoonstock

This book has been criticised severely (mostly by people who had not read it) for committing the sin of laughing at Hitler.  Since I love satire (coming from Kerala, the land of the Chakkiar Koothu, how can one not?), I found this argument ridiculous.Subsequently, I searched for similar instances of making fun of Hitler, and came across the book Dead Funny by Rudolph Herzog, where the author had posed the question of satire and the Third Reich.

One quote from that book stuck in my memory:

Is it permissible to laugh at Hitler? Is a comedy like Mel Brooks’s The Producers immoral? The respective answers are yes and no. Brooks’s film does not decrease the significance of the Holocaust; it reduces Hitler to human dimensions so that people can see him as something other than the evil demon promoted by the historiography of the 1950s. Germans in the Third Reich were neither possessed by an evil spirit nor collectively “hypnotized” by their Führer. They have no claim upon either mitigating circumstance. When we laugh at Hitler, we dismiss the metaphysical, demonic capabilities accorded to him by postwar apologists. All the more pertinent is the question of how the empty trickery of the Nazis, which was already all too well exposed by critics in the late 1920s and 1930s, could have ended in the Holocaust.

A very valid question (the portion I have highlighted).

Well, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes attempts to answer this question: and in my opinion, succeeds to a certain extent.  However, the answer is not at all palatable.  This may be one of the reasons why the book aroused such strong passions.

————————————————–

9780857052926This book is cutting satire which pulls no punches, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift – many a time you will flinch while reading it.  This is the way I believe that satire should work: while making one laugh, it should also make one uncomfortable, and make one question the very basis of one’s fondly held beliefs.  It did this for me.  I laughed out loud in very few places – but all the while, my inner demon was seething with evil laughter.

The premise of the novel is simple to the point of silliness.  Hitler is deposited into the middle of modern-day Germany (without any explanation whatsoever).  People take him for a flawless impersonator, while he is very sincere in his motives – to set Germany “right”.  While the country sees him as a comedian par excellence on TV, Adolf is using it as a means of propaganda to re-establish his philosophy in the minds of the Volk.  As the show and the showman become a runaway hit, he is wooed by different parties and gets a book contract – and at the end of the novel we realise with a shudder that Hitler is slowly re-emerging.

The juxtaposition of a historical figure with modern society is a common trope used in many satirical plays in India: it is a useful tool to satirise modern society in the light of age-old values.  However, here we find modern society evaluated in the light of Nazi values (celebrity culture and the ethics of journalism, for example), and we sometimes find ourselves agreeing with Hitler!  This is deeply disturbing, and forces us to question the values which we have become accustomed to – which is good, IMO, but which I suspect may get a lot of people pissed off.  A mirror is sometimes very difficult to look into.

Another disturbing fact Hitler’s popularity.  In the guise of “humour” (only for the audience-the Fuhrer is in dead earnest), so much of hatred for the “other” is tolerated, nay, even encouraged.  It made me question the limits of satire itself – for example, in a joke aimed at a particular community, are we laughing at the issue or the target community?  (For example, do we see a magazine such as “Charlie Hebdo” satirising society or insulting religion?) So while applauding Hitler as a comedian, is society tacitly putting the seal of approval on his dangerously eccentric ideas – due to its own ingrained racism?  Continuing in the same vein: is this what happened originally, when a little man with a ridiculous moustache was able take centre stage in German politics, after spending a long time on the fringes (frightening thought, that).

The novel is brilliantly written, in Hitler’s unreadable prose (I could recall my experience of reading <I>Mein Kampf</I>) which shows him up for what he was – a pompous ass with murderous ideas.  (I think this is the root of the criticism that the novel makes Hitler likeable.  It doesn’t.  It makes him silly.)  Such a man could not come to power, and commit murder on such a grand scale, without the active collusion of the majority – at least sins of omission if not those of commission.  In fact, Hitler only cleverly exploited European anti-Semitism to come to power, IMO.  By the time the world realised the depths of the depravity of this madman, it was too late.  The novel warns us that it is all the more possible in modern society, with the vastly improved means of propaganda at its disposal.

Finally: does this novel trivialise the holocaust and put Hitler in a favourable light?  In my opinion, it doesn’t.  What it does is that it diminishes Hitler.  It says: “Look, guys, this kooky idiot rode to power on your shoulders and once there, tightened his grip like a vice.  Such monkeys will come in future also.  Please don’t lift them to your shoulders and allow them to put a chokehold on you.”

Which is not a bad message, when one comes to think about it.

The Debt Trap

During the nineties, I procured my first credit card. Being a cautious socialist who distrusted private banks on principle, the card was from the State Bank of India. Initially I didn’t do much with it, but use it to shop at our local supermarket: the novelty was in taking it out and flashing it instead of a bunch of dirty notes. So things went on satisfactorily for a few months.

1-1204463487cJKyThen, the temptation of buying beyond my means was too much – I purchased something (I don’t exactly remember what) through my card which could not be paid off immediately. In addition to this, I took some cash advance on my card to take care of the expenses of my father’s sixtieth birthday celebrations.

Suddenly, the card had me by the throat. All that was left of my salary after monthly expenses was going towards the minimum payment on my card; however, the outstanding amount was decreasing only minimally. To put it simply, I was paying out interest while the principal remained largely untouched. Moreover, my card had become useless because the credit limit had been reached.

Well, I am glad to say that I caught on to the danger after only a few months, and took out a non-refundable loan from my provident fund to settle the amount on the card in full. After that incident, I started using a credit card only after I came to the Middle East in 2004 – and I am extremely careful settle the outstanding amount in full each month.

I had experienced the nightmare of the never-ending debt loop.

Usury

Matsys_the_moneylenderMoneylenders have always been a despised lot in history until modern times. Usury, the business of lending money at high interest rates so as to make a profit is condemned in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (though Jews are allowed to do so to non-Jews). Christ reportedly drove away usurers from the church with a whip: Islam even now practices a special type of banking without interest. Due to widespread anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, usury was the only profession allowed for Jews, thus giving rise to caricature of the covetous Jew a la Shylock: ironically, this became a vicious circle of hatred.

In India too, the moneylender (often caricatured in movies as a ‘Bania’ with his characteristic cap and strongbox, sitting cross-legged in his tiny office and fleecing villagers) was not a liked figure. Many people have been fleeced of their life savings and domicile by these rapacious characters. Debt bondage was also common in India, where people were forced work free of cost for generations in the service of the person who lent them money – the debt and interests keep on accumulating.Christ_drives_the_Usurers_out_of_the_Temple

It must have been with the rise of industry, banking and international finance that charging interest on loans lost its stigma as a malpractice. When the borrowed money is used to generate more money on its own, it seems only fair that the lender is compensated – after all, theoretically the profit would have been his, had he used it the way the borrower did. Anyway, except in the Islamic world, lending money on interest is no longer a shameful activity: rather, it is the backbone of the current market economy-driven world. If one is to listen to the bards who sing the praises of capitalism, this is the only sustainable model.

But is it? Since the recession of 2008, I have begun to have serious doubts.

Virtual Money

I am not an economist. In fact, even though I have taken a Post-Graduate Diploma in Financial Management, I am very weak in understanding the vagaries of international finance. Other than the basics of balance sheets, discounted cash flow and future value, I am lost.

However, there is one aspect of modern finance which I am sure is an ultimate recipe for disaster – virtual money, symbolised by the ubiquitous credit card.

Just think about how we do finance nowadays. Most of the money is just numbers on a computer system in a bank’s server. When you buy or sell something, the numbers are adjusted accordingly. And when you buy something on credit, the numbers readjust based on the assumption that you will be able to pay back. If you are not able to, the bank will come after you.

This system will work as long as the majority of the people play by the rules. But when the majority starts defaulting, that’s when things start to come unstuck.

Exploitation and the Myth of Infinite Consumption

“Exploitation” is the cornerstone of the capitalist world we live in today. Even communist ideology is dependent on the “exploitation” of natural resources. Now this is a key word: it creates the impression that exploiting anything and everything for one’s benefit is the natural way of things. This, coupled with the myth that there are infinite resources to go around, has created a covetous, rapacious, dog-eat-dog society where the aim is to get ahead, even by trampling down the one beneath you, paying scarce heed to the voices of reason saying that the current pace and direction of humanity is unsustainable. Social Darwinism, as promoted by Ayn Rand, has become the norm. Is somebody living a miserable life? Well, he deserves it for being too lazy to do better for himself! This is blaming the victim with a vengeance.

Socially conditioned rapacity coupled with the ability to consume beyond means – it was only a question when whole thing would collapse. Well, it has happened. Starting in 2008, we are seeing the beginning of modern society’s one-way roller-coaster ride to disaster.

Greece

Greek-Communist-Party-pro-005Greece is a fine example of what will happen when a government becomes beholden to moneylenders. When a country’s money is invested in “securities” provided by international financiers who know that they are based on subprime mortgages, and later, when these instruments fail and the money vanishes, the same financial vultures force the government to pay back huge amounts – this is nothing short of debt bondage. And the price to be paid? Austerity! Increased privatisation and reduction of government funding on public amenities. To quote a colourful metaphor from the website, http://www.filmsforaction.org:

If you are a fan of mafia movies, you know how the mafia would take over a popular restaurant. First, they would do something to disrupt the business – stage a murder at the restaurant or start a fire. When the business starts to suffer, the Godfather would generously offer some money as a token of friendship. In return, Greasy Thumb takes over the restaurant’s accounting, Big Joey is put in charge of procurement, and so on. Needless to say, it’s a journey down a spiral of misery for the owner who will soon be broke and, if lucky, alive.

(Read the full article, here.)

This is financial extortion on an international scale. Ironically, we find mainstream media blaming the Greek people for this catastrophe.

Even though Greece has voted emphatically against austerity, there is little hope that the vultures will leave off. The country will be squeezed and people pushed into unbelievable misery until these corporate bloodsuckers get their pound of flesh.

***

Unfortunately, we are all cogs in the wheel, and cannot escape the mammoth capitalist behemoth which controls society nowadays. We cannot do away with investments and virtual money. This is why leftists like me are called hypocrites many a time by conservatives, and they are right. All of us are culpable.

But is there nothing we can do? I believe there is.

At this point, I would like to quote the story of the squirrel, from the Indian epic Ramayana.

Legend has it that Lord Rama built a causeway across the ocean to connect India to Sri Lanka, to go over there with his monkey army to fight the demon king Ravana and recover his wife Sita, whom Ravana had abducted. As the mighty monkeys were throwing rocks into the sea, Rama spotted a squirrel running into the water, running back to the beach and rolling in the sand, then running into the water again. When asked the reason for this strange behaviour, the squirrel replied: “I am participating in the building of the causeway. The few grains of sand which stick to my back will also contribute, no?” It is said that Rama became extremely happy and blessed the squirrel.

The moral of the story is simple – nothing is too little. We all can contribute our mite to bringing down this corrupt edifice. Blood-soaked revolutions are not required, nor are they essential.

The first step is control our appetites. It will not be easy – but we can do it. Start slowly and in a limited fashion. Do you need to buy all those consumer products advertised in the TV? Is it required to use your petrol –drinking monster of a car for going that one kilometre? Is air-conditioning absolutely necessary in all rooms of your house?

The second step is to see ways of becoming self-sufficient and promoting self-sufficiency. Do you need to visit that international retail chain for buying vegetables, when your neighbourhood grocer may be able to supply the same? Can you not try to cultivate at least some vegetables in your backyard, or terrace garden? When equivalent brands are available, can you not choose a local one over an international one?

The most important step, in my humble opinion, is to never borrow beyond one’s means.

These are all suggestions and not diktats. I am also a person who is struggling to find ways of escaping from the clutches of the faceless corporations who have no caste, creed, colour or nationality. If we do not, I am afraid that soon sovereign governments may become history, and the world would be divided up among the financial Leviathans.

A Subaltern Narrative

When I was a small girl at the St. Francis Boarding School, the Catholic sisters would take a buggy whip to us for what they called “disobedience. ” At age ten I could drink and hold a pint of whiskey. At age twelve the nuns beat me for “being too free with my body.” All I had been doing was holding hands with a boy. At age fifteen I was raped. If you plan to be born, make sure you are born white and male.

The above paragraph appears on the very second page of Mary Crow Dog’s memoir, Lakota Woman. In a sense, it encapsulates the whole tale.

I do not know when I came across the term ‘subaltern’: most probably it was in the eighties, in a book dealing with Dalit issues in India. This term, popularised by the Subaltern Studies Group of South Asian scholars, is derived from the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Wikipedia says “In critical theory and postcolonialism, subaltern refers the populations that are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland.” In simple terms, they are people on the margins of the book which describes great colonial epic of civilisation.

We have many such people scattered all over the world: people who have been choked by a much more powerful occupier, pushed along to the fringes of society, and forced to eke out a meagre existence. The American Indians (or Native Americans, as they are called now) are such a people. Until fairly recently, the world as a whole did not know much about them, other than as bloodthirsty savages who rode about with painted faces, let out bloodcurdling shrieks, kidnapped and raped women and tortured men to death – a fiction perpetrated by Western movies and novels. They were the demons – the ‘Injuns’ – whom the ‘brave’ cowboys killed.

I awoke from this myth engendered by the Spaghetti Westerns once I started reading history, and learnt reality was the opposite of what was shown in the movies – the red man was brave, honourable and peaceful; the white man was cowardly, cunning and rapacious. The creation of America was actually a tragedy of gargantuan proportions for the original inhabitants of the continent. For them, the so-called ‘American Dream’ is a never-ending nightmare.

***

Mary Crow Dog was born piss-poor on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. As with many Indian families, her father was a wastrel who did not take care of his family: she was raised by her grandparents. Mary grew up experiencing racism in its every form. The Indians were openly despised by the white people, and in those days, they did not need to hide it. Their traditional style of living destroyed, their men caught in the vicious circle of drink and despondency, and their women open to exploitation of all forms, the original inhabitants of the land were on a fast downward spiral to oblivion.

The ‘civilising’ forces were at work on all fronts. Denied land and justice, Indians were supplied with the one thing that the white man had in abundance – religion. The traditional religions were all but outlawed, and Christianity was being forced down the throats of the natives. Mary too was born a Catholic; she had the ‘fortune’ to attend a boarding school run by nuns, whose motto was “civilise them with a stick”.

It is almost impossible to explain to a sympathetic white person what a typical old Indian boarding school was like; how it affected the Indian child suddenly dumped into it like a small creature from another world, helpless, defenseless, bewildered, trying desperately and instinctively to survive and sometimes not surviving at all. I think such children were like the victims of Nazi concentration camps trying to tell average, middle-class Americans what their experience had been like…

…The kids were taken away from their villages and pueblos, in their blankets and moccasins, kept completely isolated from their families-sometimes for as long as ten years-suddenly coming back, their short hair slick with pomade, their necks raw from stiff, high collars, their thick jackets always short in the sleeves and pinching under the arms, their tight patent leather shoes giving them corns, the girls in starched white blouses and clumsy, high-buttoned boots-caricatures of white people. When they found out-and they found out quickly-that they were neither wanted by whites nor by Indians, they got good and drunk, many of them staying drunk for the rest of their lives.

In the school, the Indian children were submerged into a world dominated by guilt and sin. They were made to feel guilty about their bodies and bodily cravings – everything was viewed through the red lens of sin (maybe because the sisters were so steeped in it, to hear it the way Mary tells it) and even the smallest digressions invited severe chastisements.

The kids tried to run away, frequently: they were almost always immediately caught and brought back to the school, and subjected to corporeal punishment. The nuns thought nothing of bending teenaged girls over chairs, lifting their skirts, and whipping them mercilessly with straps – the same treatment was meted out to boys by the male teachers.

Spirited Mary (and many others like her, including her sister Barbara) rebelled. Mary left without completing her course, after punching a priest in the face. Like countless times in history, the desire of the authorities to enforce discipline without justice had created a revolutionary.

***

People talk about the “Indian drinking problem, ” but we say that it is a white problem. White men invented whiskey and brought it to America. They manufacture, advertise, and sell it to us. They make the profit on it and cause the conditions that make Indians drink in the first place.

A dropout from school with no aim in life, Mary started drinking and hanging out with similar shiftless youths. A lot of her time was spent in fighting: because, according to her, drinking does not help one forget; rather one remembers “all the old insults and hatreds, real and imagined”. So the next thing to do is pick a fight – and there are always white rednecks who oblige. And the fights are often violent.

I have often thought that given an extreme situation, I’d have it in me to kill, if that was the only way. I think if one gets into an “either me or you” situation, that feeling is instinctive. The average white person seldom gets into such a corner, but that corner is where the Indian lives, whether he wants to or not.

Mary recounts various crimes against Indians, often repeatedly, in her memoir. Her aunt, the powerful ‘turtle woman’, who was found beaten to death in her home, face down with weeds in her hair; Annie Mae Aquash, an activist who was raped and murdered and whose death was reported as natural, from exposure; Indian men were killed and women were raped by white men with impunity, while even the smallest protest by an Indian resulted in arrest and incarceration. The system thus succeeded in criminalising a peaceful people; then prosecuting them for their criminal activities.

The thing to keep in mind is that laws are framed by those who happen to be in power and for the purpose of keeping them in power. That goes for the U. S. A. as well as for Russia or any other country in the world .

Ultimately, the alleged criminality of Indians became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mistreated by a monstrous system whom they could not confront head on, Native American youth became spit-and-run warriors: a spot of vandalism here, an incident of shoplifting there… Mary says that they did not consider pilferage from shops as theft, because they were only re-appropriating what is theirs by right. And so it would have gone on, unless she had discovered AIM (the American Indian Movement) and literally found an aim in life.

***

The major part of this memoir is structured around a specific event in the history of Native American awakening – the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee town by a group of AIM members, and their subsequent standoff with the FBI and US Marshalls. This is significant to Mary for two reasons, one political and the other personal – this was the first Indian movement which received massive media coverage and broadcast the condition of the Native American population to the world: and this was where Mary met her husband, Leonard Crow Dog, and gave birth to her first child among the flying bullets.

Wounded Knee, to the American Indian, is a sacred place. It holds the same place of awed reverence that Jallianwala Bagh holds in the mind of Indians. It was here that the U. S. Cavalry massacred over 200 people including children, Lakota Indians who had gathered there to perform the “Ghost Dance” that the government had outlawed. Here’s one telling image from the massacre, as told to Mary by her grandfather:

It was only two miles or so from where Grandfather Fool Bull stood that almost three hundred Sioux men, women, and children were slaughtered. Later grandpa saw the bodies of the slain, all frozen in ghostly attitudes , thrown into a ditch like dogs. And he saw a tiny baby sucking at his dead mother’s breast.

Woundedknee1891
The second time around, however, the activists who occupied Wounded Knee were not so many lambs to the slaughter – they were a people who were slowly awakening to their essential mythic roots.

“Our most sacred altar is this hemisphere, this earth we’re standing on, this land we’re defending. It is our holy place, our green carpet. Our night light is the moon and our director, our Great Spirit, is the sun.”

The words above are from a prayer by Leonard Crow Dog, and pretty much sums up what motivated the Indians.

The Wounded Knee incident had its beginnings during the “Trail of Broken Treaties protests in the autumn of 1972, when Native Americans from all over the U.S. A converged on Washington to protest against injustices done to their community. But President Nixon refused to talk; as Mary says sarcastically, maybe he had more important things to do like planning Watergate. So what in effect was planned as a peaceful protest became a full-fledged uprising, and the Indians occupied the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). There was standoff with government forces, forcing a negotiated settlement which was subsequently ignored – predictably. But it was huge moral victory for the Indians. And it indirectly led to the more acrimonious one at Wounded Knee.

Since 1934, Native Americans were governed by titular “tribal” governments – who were virtual lackeys of the bureaucrats at the BIA. This system lead to the creation of tribal presidents who were corrupt and tyrannical, and who staffed their governments with friends and lackeys. According to Mary, President Dicky Wilson of Pine Ridge was one of the worst.

Following the explosive situation created after the killing of an Indian by a white man in Rapid City, AIM teamed up with OSCRO (Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization). One of the AIM leaders, Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux, was the political enemy of President Wilson, who once had him severely beaten up. AIM members from all over America travelled to Pine Ridge to help OSCRO against Wilson’s goons, and after a time, all of them wound up at Wounded Knee. It was time for the Great Symbolic Act.

“Finally, on February 27 , 1973 , we stood on the hill where the fate of the old Sioux Nation, Sitting Bull’s and Crazy Horse’s nation, had been decided, and where we, ourselves, came face to face with our fate. We stood silently, some of uswrapped in our blankets, separated by our personal thoughts and feelings, and yet united, shivering a little with excitement and the chill of a fading winter. You could almost hear our heartbeats.

…Altogether we had twenty-six firearms-not much compared to what the other side would bring up against us. None of us had any illusions that we could take over Wounded Knee unopposed. Our message to the government was: “Come and discuss our demands or kill us!” Somebody called someone on the outside from a telephone inside the trading post. I could hear him yelling proudly again and again, “We hold the Knee!”

The siege went on for seventy-one days, and left behind two dead Indians. Nothing much again was achieved in concrete terms: but what it achieved in metaphorical terms was enormous. The wide media coverage turned the spotlight on Native American issues; more importantly, it allowed the Indian to look inside, and see himself for what he really was.

Mary says, “I was then white outside and red inside, just the opposite of an apple.” This was the case with most Indians. The Wounded Knee incident brought the redness out. Leonard Crow Dog was not a political leader, but a spiritual one: for this reason, he was feared more by the authorities, and persecuted.

He could not understand why the government was after him. He did not consider himself a radical. He was not interested in politics. He never carried a gun. He thought himself strictly a religious leader, a medicine man. But that was exactly why he was dangerous. The young city Indians talking about revolution and waving guns find no echo among the full-bloods in the back country. But they will listen to a medicine man, telling them in their own language: “Don’t sell your land, don’t sell Grandmother Earth to the strip-mining outfits and the uranium companies. Don’t sell your water.” That kind of advice is a threat to the system and gets you into the penitentiary.

This was the reason why the British Raj feared Gandhi and the South African apartheid establishment feared Mandela.

***

In the memoir, the most effective part is where Mary describes her awakening into her religion. The smoking of the peyote, a hallucinogenic plant which is an integral part of Native American Rituals; the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce themselves but feel no pain; the music which is derived from nature, which the Indian is almost part of… these are described in words which are almost poetry.

The words we put into our songs are an echo of the sacred root, the voices of the little pebbles inside the gourd rattle, the voices of the magpie and scissortail feathers which make up the peyote fan, the voice from inside the water drum, the cry of the water bird. Peyote will give you a voice, a song of understanding, a prayer for good health or for your people’s survival.

The peyote staff is a man. It is alive. It is, as my husband says, a “hot line” to the Great Spirit. Thoughts travel up the staff, and messages travel down. The gourd is a brain, a skull, a spirit voice. The water drum is the water of life. It is the Indians’ heartbeat. Its skin is our skin. It talks in two voices-one high and clear, the other deep and reverberating. The drum is round like the sacred hoop which has no beginning and no end. The cedar’s smoke is the breath of all green, living things, and it purifies, making everything it touches holy. The fire, too, is alive and eternal. It is the flame passed from one generation to the next. The feather fan is a war bonnet. It catches songs out of the air.

And it is in a Peyote dream that the past comes alive for Mary.

In my dream I had been going back into another life. I saw tipis and Indians camping, huddling around a fire, smiling and cooking buffalo meat, and then, suddenly, I saw white soldiers riding into camp, killing women and children, raping, cutting throats. It was so real, much more real than a movie sights and sounds and smells: sights I did not want to see, but had to see against my will; the screaming of children that I did not want to hear, but had to all the same. And the only thing I could do was cry. There was an old woman in my dream. She had a pack on her back-I could see that it was heavy. She was singing an ancient song. It sounded so sad, it seemed to have another dimension to it, beautiful but not of this earth, and she was moaning while she was singing it. And the soldiers came up and killed her. Her blood was soaked up by the grass which was turning red. All the Indians lay dead on the ground and the soldiers left. I could hear the wind and the hoofbeats of the soldiers’ horses, and the voices of the spirits of the dead trying to tell me something. I must have dreamed for hours. I do not know why I dreamed this but I think that the knowledge will come to me some day. I truly believe that this dream came to me through the spiritual power of peyote.

This awakening is dangerous: because it cannot be lulled back to sleep with the promise of material comforts. No intoxication provided by alcohol will match the intoxication of the spirit connected to its origin across space and time. For the Native American religion is live: its myth is forever being re-enacted on the temporal as well as spiritual plane.

The hostility of the Christian churches to the Sun Dance was not very logical. After all, they worship Christ because he suffered for the people, and a similar religious concept lies behind the Sun Dance, where the participants pierce their flesh with skewers to help someone dear to them. The main difference, as Lame Deer used to say, is that Christians are content to let Jesus do all the suffering for them whereas Indians give of their own flesh, year after year, to help others. The missionaries never saw this side of the picture, or maybe they saw it only too well and fought the Sun Dance because it competed with their own Sun Dance pole-the Cross.

The Church is afraid with good reason, it seems.

Mary Crow Dog, who symbolically gave birth on the battlefield of Wounded Knee and married the medicine man behind that uprising is no longer with us here on earth. However, I do not think people like her will ever die, as long as the magpie cries in the forest or the brook runs, with her gentle laughter, over the plains.

Ghost_Dance_at_Pine_Ridge

I pierced too, together with many other women. One of Leonard’s sisters pierced from two spots above her collarbone. Leonard and Rod Skenandore pierced me with two pins through my arms. I did not feel any pain because I was in the power. I was looking into the clouds, into the sun. Brightness filled my mind. The sun seemed to speak: “I am the Eye of Life. I am the Soul of the Eye. I am the Life Giver! ” In the almost unbearable brightness, in the clouds, I saw people. I could see those who had died. I could see Pedro Bissonette standing by the arbor and, above me, the face of Buddy Lamont, killed at Wounded Knee, looking at me with ghostly eyes. I saw the face of my friend Annie Mae Aquash, smiling at me. I could hear the spirits speaking to me through the eagle-bone whistles. I heard no sound but the shrill cry of the eagle bones. I felt nothing and, at the same time, everything. It was at that moment that I, a white educated half-blood, became wholly Indian. I experienced a great rush of happiness. I heard a cry coming from my lips:

Ho Uway Tinkte.
A Voice I will send .
Throughout the Universe,
Maka Sitomniye,
My Voice you shall hear:
I will live!

Charlie Hebdo and the Freedom of Expression

“I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

France is seen as the seat of European culture, the temple of free speech: so when the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris was attacked by armed gunmen on the seventh of January and four famous cartoonists murdered in cold blood, international outrage was instantaneous. People took to the streets with placards bearing the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) as a mark of solidarity: international leaders condemned the atrocity: and a massive rally was taken out in Paris on eleventh January where the leaders from forty nations participated. The attack was seen, rightly, as an assault against freedom of expression.

Charlie Hebdo rally

(Image courtesy: The Guardian)

The attackers were Islamic terrorists, and the reason for the attack was Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons purportedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. The responsibility was claimed by Al Qaeda immediately. And predictably, the “Islam versus the West” debate started.

Most of the Islamic nations condemned the attack: some leaders even participated in the rally. However, the West’s tired old saw of “Muslims not doing enough to condemn and combat terrorism” started coming out in print, visual and social media. Muslims as a people were immediately placed in the dock and Islam as a religion was once again accused of fomenting terrorist ideas in its basic tenets.

Then, some interesting viewpoints started coming to light – interestingly enough from the liberal West, questioning the very sincerity of the protests. The first of this kind of article I read was about the “pencil cartoons”, a host of which appeared after the carnage. Many of them showed pencils regenerating after getting cut: pens and pencils in combat against guns and swords: and coming up trumps while weighed against guns and bombs. While these were not very offensive (though repetitive), there were others showing Islamic terrorists being bombarded with pencils, pens and brushes. The political theme of the second set was clear: “enlightened Western intellectual power” against the violent firepower of the “uneducated” Middle East. And in many of the cartoons, the terrorist was shown as a hawk-nosed, turbaned, scowling Arab – a familiar caricature in the West since the colonial times.

pencils

(Image courtesy: http://www.redflag.org.au)

Soon, another set of criticisms came up, about the participants in the Paris rally. Many of the nations expressed solidarity with Charlie Hebdo had notorious track records on free speech: Israel had jailed journalists in Gaza, Saudi Arabia had jailed and lashed a blogger for alleged blasphemy, and Egypt, Bahrain, Russia etc. also had less than pristine records on the right to free speech. Even USA had tried to bomb the offices of Al Jazeera and the case of Julian Assange is still alive as a huge embarrassment for America and Britain.

The third set of criticisms was about the magnitude of the outrage. The murder of twelve people in France created such a huge outcry, while the killing of around 2000 people in Nigeria by the Boko Haram was largely ignored. Inevitably, the Third World claimed that the skin colour of the victims was in direct proportion to the furore – that the killing of black and brown people did not matter.

The final set of criticisms was against the cartoons themselves. Charlie’s cartoons were meant to shock and disgust; they were grossly insulting religious figures and the religions themselves. Many people think that there is a limit to free speech, and that Charlie Hebdo crossed it long back.

***

I personally was also shocked to hear about the attack, and condemned it immediately in my own small way by posting a review on the Goodreads website.

I am usually not in favour of anything which purposefully harms religious sentiments. In India, we have so many religions so sometimes we have to walk on eggshells: and respect for all religions is taught from a very tender age. So when the purportedly anti-Islam cartoons were first published, I never paid much attention, except remarking privately it was in bad taste.

But now things are different. When the guns of intolerance are trained on artists, it is time for all of us who are interested in art and literature to take up arms – and by that I do not mean guns. The written word packs more power than a thousand guns – and when it is combined with laughter, the power increases hundredfold.

So let’s join in solidarity with the slain cartoonists, and ridicule these extremists and their dictatorial version of religion to death.

I have since then had the chance to view many of the cartoons. Most are in extremely poor taste; many are overtly sexual; and almost all of them are insulting to some degree to some group. But I have to say one thing – they are impartial. Charlie Hebdo has no sacred cows. They were not a Western institution insulting the East – they were irresponsible and arrogant mavericks making irreverent fun of anything and everything – including the French government.

I do not consider that Islam or Muslims in general are responsible for the terrorist attacks, any more than Jews in general are responsible for Israel’s war on Gaza or Christians for George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” in Iraq.  I also do not agree that it is a question of “the intellectual West” against the “extremist Arab” – this is a simplified viewpoint which ignores the complex ground realities in the Middle East.

I do not endorse the French claim that their country is the centre of the freedom of expression – according to me, the French law prohibiting Islamic women to wear the veil is as restrictive as the one forcing all women to wear the abaya in Saudi Arabia. Racism and intolerance are not the sole province of the so-called theocracies and dictatorships; they are present in democracies also. However, the main difference is that in democracies, one has the freedom to criticise everything, including the powers that be – this is all the more true in Europe, and France is in the forefront of this freedom. And Charlie Hebdo is the shining example of that.

As a member of a democracy which leaves a lot to be desired in the department of the freedom of expression, I salute Charlie Hebdo.

As a member of a multi-religious nation, brought up on the sanctity of all religions and the importance of not insulting any religion, I condemn the cartoons insulting religious figures.

I do not agree to what Charlie Hebdo is saying, many a time: but I will defend to death, their right to say it.

The Darkest Chapter in the History of Secular India

A word of warning: if you are an adherent of the Hindutva philosophy espoused by the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, the following review will disturb you.

The book: “Gujarat – Irakalkku Vendi Oru Porattam” (“Gujarat – a Fight for the Victims”) should be read by all secular Indians to learn how government machinery and police were ruthlessly used for ethnic cleansing – written by a former Police Chief himself.

On 27 February, 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from the city of Ayodhya was allegedly set alight by Muslim rioters in the Godhra railway station in Gujarat state in western India, resulting in the death of 59 people. Over the next three days, crazed mobs of Hindu right-wing fanatics went on a rampage all over Gujarat, mainly the city of Ahmedabad. The police stood by impotently while Muslims were slaughtered mercilessly. It was the vilest incident of a sectarian attack, after the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984.

R. B. Sreekumar was Additional Director General of Police in Gujarat at the time. In this book, he comes up with the shocking revelation that the riots were systematically engineered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the hard-core Hindu component of the BJP, and they were blessed and abetted by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who allegedly told the police chiefs that “there would be Hindu backlash, and they were not to interfere”.

The carnage that followed boggles the mind. From Wikipedia:

It is estimated that at least 250 girls and women had been gang raped and then burned to death. Children were killed by being burnt alive and those digging mass graves described the bodies as “burned and butchered beyond recognition”. Children were force fed petrol and then set on fire, pregnant women were gutted and their unborn child’s body then shown to the women. In the Naroda Patiya mass grave of 96 bodies 46 were women. The murderers also flooded homes and electrocuted entire families inside. Violence against women also included their being stripped naked, objects being forced into their bodies and then their being killed. According to Kalpana Kannabiran the rapes were part of a well organized, deliberate and pre-planned strategy, and that this puts the violence in the area of a political pogrom and genocide. Other acts of violence against women were acid attacks, beatings and the killing of women who were pregnant. Children were also killed in front of their parents…

…Children and infants were speared and held aloft before being thrown into fires. Describing the sexual violence perpetrated against Muslim women and girls, Renu Khanna writes that the survivors reported “that sexual violence consisted of forced nudity, mass rapes, gang-rapes, mutilation, insertion of objects into bodies, cutting of breasts, slitting the stomach and reproductive organs, and carving of Hindu religious symbols on women’s body parts…

…Dionne Bunsha, writing on the Gulbarg Society massacre and murder of Ehsan Jafri, has said that Jafri begged the crowd to spare the women, he was dragged into the street and forced to parade naked for refusing to say “Jai Shri Ram”. He was then beheaded and thrown onto a fire, following this the rioters returned and burned Jafri’s family, including two small boys, to death. After the massacre Gulbarg burned for a week.



Sreekumar also had to stand by while the violence went on – he could not intervene without instructions from his superiors – but later on, he decided to go on a one-man mission to see that justice was done. Against the advice of his colleagues and superiors, he began filing honest reports. When the Justice Nanavati commission was set up to probe the riots, Sreekumar submitted an affidavit which proved to be political dynamite. The commission published the report. The Gujarat government tried to pressurise Sreekumar into disowning it. He refused, and submitted a second affidavit.

However, even with all this activism, nothing happened – the UPA government (whose main component was the Indian National Congress) at the centre, even though theoretically in the opposite camp of the BJP, was hesitant to take decisive action. The reaction of the Gujarat government was as expected: Sreekumar was harassed and punished – transferred to a sinecure post and his deserved promotion denied. But he did not stop, and along with the help of human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, succeeded in bringing many of the perpetrators of violence to justice: but due to interference from the state government (controlled by Modi) and lack of will-power of the Central Government, only the lowest level of the criminals – the one who actually carried out the rape, murder and pillage – were brought to justice. Those who gave the orders at the top could use their clout to escape.

The picture Sreekumar paints of Gujarat is less than edifying, to say the least. Government machinery is used regularly to destroy evidence and subvert justice. The cops who side with the government – even convicted and jailed in some cases – are regularly rewarded, while the honest ones are punished mercilessly. Muslims are forced to live in abject terror as second-class citizens. Muslim youth are regularly done away with in “police encounters” which are little more than cold-blooded murders. The government – any government – is powerless as all the key posts in the bureaucracy are filled with Hindu right-wing sympathisers.

The million-dollar question: is it a true memoir, or is the author a paid lackey of the opposition Indian National Congress as the BJP alleges?

As far as I am concerned, the book absolutely exudes honesty. Also, if Sreekumar is a Congress lackey as the BJP portrays him to be, why was he not “blessed” by the powers that be who was in power at the centre from 2004 to 2014? His battles seem to be lone affairs, with help from only a group of mavericks like himself.

I do not know whether Modi is the veritable monster that Sreekumar makes him out to be – we are all human, and there can be prejudices – but there is no doubt that his government stood by and allowed Hindu fanatics to murder Muslims. In my book, this indictment of Narendra Modi is enough.

Well, that person has gone through and image makeover and is currently the Prime Minister of India. Promising good governance, Modi seems to be subdued nowadays on the Hindutva (hard-core Hindu right wing) rhetoric. He has made all the right moves since occupying the highest seat in the Indian polity. But the experience of history teaches us that the tiger does not change his stripes.

I am keeping my fingers crossed.

A Review of “In Search of Fatima”

May 1book cover5, 1948. The world (at large) knows of it as the Israeli Independence Day. But the Palestinians call it by another name: Yawm-an Nakba (“Day of Catastrophe”) – for what name is more fitting for a day when daylight robbery was legitimised?

It is true that history is always written by the victors. So the “heroes” always win, and the “villains” always get defeated. This is the story we hear. But what about the narrative of the defeated? Who are the heroes and villains in that tale?

The formation of Israel is one of the most romanticised historic events, more so in the West. The tale of a homeless people, wandering around for centuries, endlessly persecuted, ultimately almost wiped out in the most horrific incident of planned and scientific genocide known in history; finally returning back to their mythic homeland and carving out a nation for themselves in the midst of hostile neighbours is the stuff of mythical sagas. What is sad is, the other side of this story, the tale of a people uprooted from their homeland and thrown out to become the flotsam of the modern world is largely unknown on misunderstood.

Yes, I am talking about the Palestinians. Those crazed terrorists as depicted in Western media, who take pleasure in killing women and angelic Israeli children. A race which has been so marginalised and demonised that they have lost all common decency accorded to human beings, and are on the way to becoming a footnote people in history.

It is in this context that I believe books like In Search of Fatima by Dr. Ghada Karmi becomes relevant. Because she gives a face to these “terrorist demons”. And we find with a shock that it is a human face, not very different from ours.

History

Palestinian_refugeesThe country called “Palestine” has never existed as a sovereign state (but then, never has Israel). “Palestine” is more a name of an area than a country. The birthplace of three of the world’s biggest religions, the area has been claimed exclusively by all three (although Christianity has relinquished its exclusive rights recently, I think). And it has resulted in contests and counter-conquests to capture the holiest of all holy cities – Jerusalem.

Palestine and the nearby areas had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire since the early sixteenth century: a rule which was to end only after the First World War, when the Ottomans picked the losing horse. Britain, getting control of all of the Middle East with the help of Arabs by promising them a Pan-Arabic state, did their usual job betrayal after the war was won. Palestine came under the British mandate in 1922.

Jews, who had been displaced from their homeland in prehistoric times, had been meanwhile returning since the late nineteenth century. Even though mistrust existed between them and the Arabs in the region, both religions managed to exist side-by-side in relative harmony. Of course, there were uprisings against the British, and also in-fighting between various Arab groups (some things don’t change in the Middle East, it seems). However, as the years went by, Jewish immigration to the area became alarming, and the immigrants became more and more aggressive. In the period of 1936 to 1939, there was general uprising against Britain, which was suppressed: however, Britain was forced to go back from its intent to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

After the Second World War, the immigration of European Jews to Palestine increased tremendously in numbers, and the Zionist lobby grew in power all over the Western world. Britain tried to restrict these numbers, but by then the Zionist lobby was physically and financially strong. Right-wing Zionist groups like the Irgun openly warring against the occupiers. So the British Empire went back to its time-tested formula: leave a colony which had become a losing proposition. Accordingly, the English withdrew, and the immigrants settled down clinically to the task of driving the Palestinians out. The Arabs were too disunited and lacked the will- and muscle-power to fight them. Ultimately, on 29th November 1947, the UN General Council passed a resolution legitimising the formation of independent Arab and Jewish states. And on 15th of May the following year, the state of Israel came into being.

The Book

The book is divided into three parts: Palestine, England and In Search of Fatima. In the first part, the author describes her early childhood in a relatively peaceful country ending with the ultimate violent uprooting; in the second, her coming of age in England and the realisation that she is an unfortunate hybrid, English in upbringing and Arab in spirit, belonging neither here nor there; and in the third, her return to Palestine to find her roots, symbolised by her childhood nurse, Fatima.

Ghada Karmi was born (possibly -because in those days, Arabs did not keep any note of birthdays) on the 19th of November, 1939, into a world at war and a country passing through the final stages of a violent uprising. She says her mother never wanted to have her, because it was no world to bring a child into. However, soon after Ghada’s birth, the country entered a stage of peace between the Jews, Christians and Muslims in Palestine. Her childhood memories are peaceful, almost idyllic.

Ghada’s mother was from Damascus and her father was from the small village of Tulkarm. They were typical upper middle class people, and Mr. Karmi was a literate man with a collection of books. Ghada’s mother was relatively advanced in her views and socialised extensively. The children were more or less left to the nurse-cum-housekeeper, Fatima, a peasant woman whom little Ghada idolised. They lived in the prosperous neighbourhood of Qatamon in Jerusalem. One could say that little Ghada had a fortunate life in turbulent times.

However, all that was to change as the Zionist lobby gained strength, and the fights between Jews and Muslims escalated. But the author’s family, it seems, lived in the fools’ paradise that most of us live in (“This cannot happen in MY country!”) and did not see the writing on the wall until it was too late, even when their neighbourhood was rocked by extreme violence. Even if they had foreseen their eviction from their homeland, it is doubtful whether they could have done anything, because the hopelessly divided Arab lobby was anything but capable of standing up to Zionist power. So finally, in April 1948, they had to evacuate to Syria, to the house Ghada’s maternal grandparents.

Ghada’s mother, unable to accept permanent exile and always maintaining until the end of her life that they would return to Palestine one day, gave the key of her house to Fatima for “safekeeping”. They moved away in a rickety taxi to the music of exploding bombs. It is at this point, when the author realised that she had to leave her dog Rex behind, the force of loss struck her in its enormity for the first time. This is captured poignantly in the book’s prologue:

Another explosion. The taxi, which had seen better days, revved loudly and started to move off. But through the back window, a terrible sight which only she could see. Rex had somehow got out, was standing in the middle of the road. He was still and silent, staring after their retreating car, his tail stiff, his ears pointing forward.

With utter clarity, the little girl saw in that moment that he knew what she knew, that they would never meet again.

This is the first wake-up call which signifies the death of childhood for ever – the harsh reality of permanent loss.

They stayed for a year in Syria, but by the time Ghada’s father had realised that there was no future for him there; and he was realistic enough to accept that an immediate return to Palestine was out of the question. Post-war England beckoned. Against his wife’s protests, he took a job in the Arabic service of the BBC and moved to London. He ultimately succeeded in coaxing his reluctant wife to join him, along with her children. So at nine years of age, Ghada set foot on English soil for the first time, the country which was to be her adoptive motherland.

Little Ghada was not at all unhappy to leave the house of her grandparents in Damascus, which was crowded with members of the joint family. The situation was further exacerbated due to the influx of more and more refugee members. Also, the country and the household was fairly traditional, more so than the relatively cosmopolitan Jerusalem. Girls were supposed to be subordinate, women had to cover their hair and one had to pray five times a day. So it must have been something of a relief to relocate to city like London.

However, Mrs. Karmi refused to accept it as home. In their small apartment in Golders Green, she “created a little Palestine” (in Ghada’s words). Their house became a centre for all displaced Arabic people. Ghada’s mother staunchly refused to learn English and to go out and socialise with the locals. She built a cocoon around herself and became totally insular. The author says this embittered her and from her expression in the photographs in the book, one would tend to agree with her.

Ghada’s elder sister, Siham, was marked out to be a doctor: however, due to the subtle racial prejudice prevalent in British society, she could not get admission and ultimately chose chemistry as her vocation. Her brother Ziyad chose engineering, so Ghada was instructed to become a doctor by her father, even though her talent was more in literature and the humanities. But in an Arab family, you did not argue with the father – so a doctor she had to be.

Ghada talks of her school years in England as pleasant enough: racism, even though present, was basically an undercurrent. In fact, among the Arab Muslim and the Jew, the inherent racist bias was more against the latter. However, Egyptian president Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956 changed all that. Overnight, Arabs became barbarian aggressors in the minds of the British.

In school, Ghada began to be isolated more and more. One incident of outright bullying by a Jewish classmate, Zoe Steiner, almost ended in an incident of physical violence. Incidentally, it succeeded in sowing the seed of a crucial existential question in the author’s mind: was she Arab or English?

This dilemma persisted throughout her teens and twenties. On the one side, she was enjoying the freedom of a liberated woman, unthinkable in the Middle East: on the other, Arab nationalism and pride were being ground into dust by Israel and her Western allies. Ghada says that at this time, the existence of a country such as Palestine was unknown in England, and she had to lie about her nationality when questioned to avoid confusion.

At this time, a Pan-Arab movement was taking shape under the charismatic leadership of Nasser, watched warily by Israel. But Ghada had no time for politics because of two important events in her life – she graduated from medical school, and married a classmate (an Englishman) against her family’s wishes.

The marriage was doomed from the start. Ghada’s family (especially her mother) was unvaryingly hostile to John, her husband – all placatory efforts from his side proved futile. And Ghada’s slowly emerging nationalism as an Arab distanced them even more. But what brought things to a head was the six-day war of 1967 between Egypt and Israel which Israel won with ridiculous ease. This foreshadowed the shape of things to come in the area – unlimited expansion of Israeli borders with impunity. Naturally, Ghada was outraged but her husband was on the side of “plucky” Israel who won against enormous odds. She felt totally betrayed, and the rickety marriage collapsed a year later.

Now, in the final part of the book, we see a new Ghada Karmi: a proud Palestinian who has embraced her identity. After the collapse of her marriage, she continued working as a doctor, feeling more and more isolated from fellow Britons when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation entered the scene, under the charismatic leadership of Yasser Arafat. Their tactics of hijacking, bombing and isolated acts of violence against Israelites helped to bring international attention to the plight of Palestinians – it also dubbed them forever as terrorists. And being unabashedly Palestinian, Ghada was automatically stamped with the label.

After a frightening encounter with a group of Jewish doctors in 1971, Ghada decided to embrace the Palestinian Cause – and the PLO – fully. She established “Palestine Action” in England with a group of sympathisers and began to travel all over the Arab world, visiting Palestinian refugee camps and meeting leaders of the PLO. She also participated in protests and political action in England. Ghada describes the magical moment when she met Yasser Arafat, the legend, face-to-face. It seemed as though she had finally found herself.

However, by 1978, the PLO had been recognised by the world at large, and Arafat was seen as the leader in exile of the Palestinian nation. Ghada says she saw no need of continuing her organisation, as it had become redundant. She felt, like many other Palestinians, that the birth of a legitimate Palestine was only a matter of time.

But Israel had other ideas: it invaded Lebanon in 1978 and forced the PLO out of its Beirut headquarters. From then on, the organisation was always on its back foot, pressurised time and again by Israel until Arafat was forced to sign the Oslo Agreements of 1993 – in the eyes of Palestinians, a shameful capitulation. On the personal front, Ghada found it difficult to adjust to Arab society, especially women’s role in it – she says that as a divorcee, she was seen as fair game by men. The most she could hope for was to be a second wife to somebody, or secret liaisons with married men. By the 1980’s Ghada began to see that

…in effect, I had no natural social home in England or any other place. Did we all feel the same?…. When and where was their (her siblings’ and hers) real home?

To get to the root of the question, she had to

…go to the source, the origin, the very place, shunned fearfully for years, where it all began…

…that is, Israel.

The book concludes with Ghada’s 14 day visit to Israel in August 1991 (something denied to most Palestinians), which she could do because of her British passport. She was helped by her Israeli friends. Ghada was shocked at what she saw in “her” country: in her opinion, nothing short of apartheid practised by Jews on Arabs, a minority without voice in what had once been their country. Even though Ghada ultimately located her house (now occupied by strangers), it was “dead, like Fatima, like poor Rex, like us.”

The book ends on a positive note, however, as Ghada lies on her hotel bed in Jerusalem. Suddenly the call to prayer comes floating in through the window. The author says:

I closed my eyes in awe and relief. The story had not ended, after all – not for them, at least, the people who lived there, though they were herded into reservations of a fraction of what had been Palestine. They would remain and multiply and one day return and overtake. Their exile was material and temporary.

Ghada feels however that her personal exile is “undefined by space and time”, from where “there would be no return.”

***

Is this a great book? I cannot honestly answer in the affirmative. Ghada Karmi’s style is rambling, and one feels the book would have benefited from the services of a good editor. The author rushes off on tangents many a time without returning to where she started from.

The memoirs are so steeped in her feeling for Palestine and the outrage that they have suffered that the human touch is missing in many areas (especially where she is discussing relationships). Sometimes, one feels that she has to pigeonhole people (“my Jew friend”, “my Catholic colleague”) racially just to put things in perspective. Even her relationship with her husband and subsequent breakup is only superficially treated, other than as confirmation of her growing Arab identity and its incompatibility with the normal English milieu.

Most importantly, the metaphor of Fatima, as a symbol for the lost Palestine, never takes hold in the mind of the reader.

Still, this is a book which deserves to be read.

map

In 1969, Golda Meir said: “It was not as though there were a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” This was the fate of the Palestinians before the PLO entered the scene with their isolated acts of terrorism – total oblivion. The PLO made them crazed terrorists in the Western mind, which was better – at least they existed!

Of late, with the increasing demonisation of Islam and Muslims in general in the West, the Palestinians have been added to those evil beings like the Al Queida who deserve to exterminated, to make the world safe for democracy. One almost feels that the crusades never ended.

Well, my friends, Palestinians are neither mythical beings nor devils in human guise. They are a people who have been unjustly expelled from their home country to wander the earth as waifs, much like the Jews in previous centuries. They are human beings like you and me, who laugh, cry, eat, drink, love, hate, live and die. They do not get the justice they deserve: let them at least have a voice.

Ghada Karmi provides that voice. Listen to it. Even if it evokes a single tear from you for the suffering of fellow human beings, she would not have spoken in vain.

“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!

A Review of “Holy Hell” by Gail Tredwell

Mata Amritanandamayi is a household name in Kerala. Her devotees adore her: her detractors hate her: and the general public, even if they hold neutral views, cannot help being overwhelmed by the multimillion dollar industry that she has become: hospitals, engineering colleges, software companies – her empire spans a huge area. Devotees cross the seven seas regularly to sit at her feet; she crosses the seven seas to meet them at their homes across the world. And she hugs all and one who come to her – known as the “Hugging Saint”, she is Amma (“Mother”) to all her devotees.

The rationalists, leftists and radical Islamic groups hate her with a fervour matching the love of the devotees – because Amma is a magnet who is often used by Hindu groups to further their ends, as a “Bhakti” movement is always a potential political goldmine. There have been determined efforts to dethrone her from her lofty perch, allegations of financial and other misdeeds at her ashrams, but so far none have been proven. It is hardly surprising, because in a multicultural democracy where religion is always a touchy subject, no government will foolishly go against such an institution without solid evidence.

So one can imagine all the hell which would have broken loose by the publishing of the potentially incendiary memoir, Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness by Gail Tredwell (aka Gayatri), an Australian national and former devotee and inmate of Amma’s Ashram for twenty years, in which she claims that she was physically and mentally abused and sexually exploited by her so-called guru during her tenure. She also makes serious allegations against the saint like financial misappropriations and sex with many male followers. Kerala has gone into verbal overdrive with shrill accusations from both sides flying across the media and the internet. As with all such cases, there is very little rational analysis of the book since the emotional barometer is near the breaking point.

This is why I decided to read the book, to find out for myself what the hell (!) this was all about.

***

A disclaimer in the beginning: I am a sceptic. I do not believe in god as a concrete entity, but only as a human concept: a valid concept, but a concept all the same. So for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not hold any brief for the so-called “godmen” or “god women” – as far as I am concerned, they are making a living on a gullible public. All the so-called “miracles” I consider to be outright lies or cheap magic tricks. So my loyalties are firmly fixed on one side of the debate. Just so that you know.

That said, I do not mind somebody constructing an ashram and attracting devotees. Good luck to them, I say. The people who flock to these gods on earth are mostly educated people gifted with rational minds to think things out. The fact they do not do so means that deep down, they want to believe – it is a strong spiritual need. As long it is fulfilled by anything, and gives them happiness, why should I bother?

While reading this book, however, I was adamant that my prejudices should not inform my view. Whether I agree with the author or not, the review should be impartial, analysing the book on its own merits. Gail Tredwell has already been almost deified by the anti-Amrita group (John Brittas of Kairali TV, a channel sponsored by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), flew over
to the US to interview her!) and vilified as an agent of atheist-Christian-Islamic mafia by the Hindu right-wingers. Both views are informed more by the political leanings of the proponents than the merits of the book, I’m sure – as is always the case with such issues.

Well, onto the book.

The Story

Thousands of Westerners came to India in the seventies. I still remember seeing a lot of white men and women, dressed in what could be termed rags, walking around with backpacks. When asked, my mother told me that they were “hippies”, her mouth turndown in disgust at the word. For the average Keralite, a hippie meant a person who did not wash, smoked pot, and indulged in loose sex: however, now I feel that many of them were searching for something which was unavailable in their country, and which they (erroneously) believed was abundantly present in the “mystic” East – a way to the realisation of God. Gail Tredwell was such a naïve teenager.

After spending a relatively peaceful time at Tiruvannamalai at the Ramanashram of Ramana Maharshi, Gail’s quest for a personal guru brought her to Vallikkavu near Kollam in Kerala, where a young girl named Sudhamoni was earning a name for herself as a saint and miracle worker. She immediately took up the post of “Amma”‘s personal assistant (and going by the account of the things she did, valet and slave), attaching herself to the self-proclaimed godwoman for the next twenty years.

According to Gail’s account, the relationship was a totally sick one. Amma treated her as personal property, working her to death and verbally and physically abusing her whenever the mood for a tantrum came upon her. The control she exerted over the young Australian was not physical but emotional: the slightest hint of disagreement, and Gail would be dismissed from her guru’s presence for an unspecified amount of time, with the threat of permanent dismissal always hanging like a Damocles’ sword over her head. At this time, Gail was footloose in India without a penny to her name: no contact with her family in Australia (hints of some serious problem back there, though not elaborated): and also, she had undergo a hysterectomy to remove a massive tumour from her uterus. It is easy to see her being preyed upon.

Well, all of us know the history of Mata Amritanandamayi. The ashram grew and expanded at tremendous speed, becoming the multimillion dollar corporate behemoth it is today. A lot of men and women joined as Brahmacharis and Brahmacharinis (meaning to be in a state of celibacy – a sick joke in the light of Gail’s later revelations). Gail got elevated to the position of manager, and was accompanying Amma constantly on her trips. Soon, she was officially ordained and became Swamini Amritaparna.

However, during this temporal ascent, Gail was on a downward spiral spiritually – because she was discovering that her idol had feet of clay.

Being Amritanandamayi’s personal assistant, Gail was in her room constantly. Once during a visit to the US, she was asked to stay in a closet in Amma’s room, from where she witnessed a shocking incident: the guru having sex with Balu, one of the chief Swamis. This soon became a commonplace affair, and the disillusioned acolyte began putting two-and-two together: Amma’s partiality to males and the hours she spent cloistered with them. The lie Amritanandamayi perpetuated – that she was free from the “curse” of monthly periods – Gail already knew to be false. So the truth finally dawned – the guru was nothing but commonplace woman, carrying out a massive spiritual fraud on a gullible public. The amount of ashram donation money she smuggled out to her family in iceboxes did nothing to enhance her reputation in the eyes of her disciple.

Added to these facts was the personal trauma Gail suffered, because she was repeatedly raped by Balu, the sex-maniac swami.

So one day, the worm turned. During a trip to the US, Gail finally burst her spiritual shackles and absconded.

Analysis

Holy Hell is not a well-written book; moreover, it writes of disgusting things. I would not have touched had it not been for the controversy – and I believe it is the same with a thousand other people. So no doubt it is the sensationalism which sells the book. Now comes the million-dollar question: is it a true account?

As far as I am concerned, there are three possibilities:

  1. Whatever Gail writes is the gospel truth, and Mata Amritanandamayi is the charlatan monster she is made out to be.
  2. Gail is a seasoned liar, perhaps on the payroll of a Christian-Muslim nexus, and this is a deliberate attempt to discredit a saint.
  3. Gail is a disillusioned woman, who was once caught up in a cult and bears the spiritual scars of the same: whatever she writes is true from her point of view, which is necessarily relative.

I find myself plumbing for the third.

Throughout the memoir, Gail’s voice comes across with great veracity: it is clear she believes what she says. And it is frighteningly similar to what I have heard and read of other guru-cults, where the guru exerts total control over the disciple. It is typically a dominant-submissive relationship, sometimes with sex involved. From the beginning, it is clear that Gail suffers from an extremely negative self-image: she is a dog waiting to be kicked. The fact that she chose of her own volition to stay in practically what was a hovel (initially) and defecate into the canal while perched on a pair of wooden planks, just to be near her guru, speaks volumes for her mental state. There is obviously some deep-seated trauma in her childhood which forced her to leave her home country and come to India, I am sure.

And this is why I say her viewpoint is relative. For I am very sure Gail was not fully rational (initially, at least) while she was with Amma. Her periodic rapes by Balu smacks more of consensual sex while she was not in full faculty of mind, rather than forcible. As she grew older, her vision cleared and she saw the ashram for what it was: a money-making enterprise. This disillusionment caused her to leave. The trauma she suffered while in the ashram may have coloured her vision, so she might not be a wholly reliable narrator – but the gist of what she says, I think, she believes to be true. And I concur.

All said and done, this memoir will not change anything. The Amritanandamayi Ashram will go on minting money. Sceptics will go on scoffing, while believers will go on believing. This storm in teacup will die away as soon as the media gets fresher scandals. However, if this book forces future fence-sitters on spiritualism to have a rethink, it will have more than served its purpose.

Lastly, let me quote from the Upanishads as Gail herself does, on the Guru – Shishya relationship according to Indian culture:

Let us together be protected, and let us together be nourished by God’s blessings. Let us together join our mental forces in strength for the benefit of humanity. Let our efforts at learning be luminous and filled with joy, endowed with the force of purpose. Let us never be poisoned with the seeds of hatred for anyone. Let there be Peace in me! Let there be Peace in my environment! Let there be Peace in the forces that act on me!

Here, the guru is a fellow-traveller and guide, not a dictator who demands absolute surrender. This is the lofty concept of the Indian guru. Please do not be fooled by charlatans who twist Indian culture and the Hindu religion for their own ends.