a boy in a delhi refugee camp

from the photograph by Margaret Bourke-White - from July 2017

 Photo by Margaret Bourke-White / Roli Books

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White / Roli Books

you have my eyes, large and oval,

you strain away from the camera,  

charred by the ashes of the past,

 

staring with rapture at nothing.

you have my nose, wide and crooked,

you are suffocating on the

 

young country’s old air. you survived:

a stranger among ancestors,

born on the wrong side of a new

 

imaginary line, riding

trains with fifteen million strangers –

ancestors. you sit with bare feet

 

below your folded legs, hands pressed

against your head, you search for home.

and if you could look back through that

 

lens to the other side across

time, would you still stare at nothing?

that camp is now a capital

 

of my independent nation

with highways and underpasses

and bullet trains.

To fill up a page

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with words is a natural instinct. To create text where there is nothing. To fill up empty spaces with thought, even when emptiness would be apt, when rumination would be subtraction by addition. It's part bad-editing, part insecurity. My feeling that I won't be adequately understood unless I wrote everything, until I maximise the moment instead of sharpening and honing it for accuracy. Until I feel that everything that needs to be said has been said. Until it opens up avenues to infinities of other ideas, of other tangents and connections, so much so that the original point has been lost altogether, so much so that the existence of all thought around the "point" is the point in itself. Sometimes, in such a space, I may not even get to that "point" at all, and instead, leave a point-shaped hole around a dense cloud of trash. Sometimes it means nothing at all. Sometimes, it means everything. To fill up a silent room with audio, with music always playing in the background, a shuffled playlist of all the music I've ever owned, bombarding the present with the past with the planned randomness of an iTunes algorithm. Sometimes, when silence is better than noise, I choose noise. The chaos calms me. It creates distractions, arrows pointing at every direction except my own. It leaps over that same silence that, mulled over for too long, can expose a hollow abyss, a haunting nothingness in space. Sounds that cloud around what I actually have to say - or have to think - leaving nothing but a thought-shaped empty wisp in the middle. To fill up a day with chores and schedules and tasks. Brushing teeth for x number of minutes before a breakfast before a tea or a coffee before y hours of work and z pages of a book and the next meal, and the next block of work, and the next ordered segment of reading. Each block must be sealed close, shut without breathing room between one to the next, so that there is no free time for emptiness, no gaps in the page. And the whole day passes without a pause between the margins, and so comes bedtime and the abc number of minutes streaming a show before the day ends, and there have been no gaps, except the gap that can only be seen when zoomed out and away from the page. The gap formed without space and time. The gap of life itself.

Amrit Lal Ishrat and the Urdu ghazals of self-consolation

The Late Dr. Amrit Lal Ishrat was a renowned poet of Urdu ghazals. He was my grandfather. Two years ago, I translated his poetry into English for the first time, for a project for my Literary Translation seminar under Professor David Keplinger at the American University.

Over the next few months, many of my English translations will be published in various literary journals. Here is the preface I wrote about Ishrat, his ghazals, and my approach to the translations for my original project in December 2016.

No two poems by Amrit Lal “Ishrat” were the same. But no two were so different, either.  Throughout his career, the Indian Urdu poet was a man of constant conversation and contradiction with himself. Ishrat’s Urdu poems – emulations of the “sher-o-shayari” and ghazal traditions of poetry in Urdu, Persian, and Hindi – mastered the complicated performative rhyme schemes of the format. In each ghazal, Ishrat added his own signature wink, conversing with the poet and artist within himself as a form of self-consolation in his odes to heartbreak, nature, and addiction.

Ishrat was my grandfather, and the first years of my life were the last years of his. Although I didn’t get an opportunity to know him better, I grew up with the knowledge of his accomplishments and his stories, gleefully shared by our family and friends. A few years after his death, my father – Deepak Madhok – helped publish a collection of Ishrat’s poetry, along with a biographical introduction by the Urdu research scholar Abdus Salam about Ishrat’s life, under the title Yaadgar-E-Ishrat. My knowledge of Ishrat has since been collated with the help of this valuable biography and our shared family folklore.

Ishrat was born Amrit Lal Madhok, and only adopted what many Urdu poets call a takhallus – a pen name – when he began to submit his poetry later in life. His birth was in Lahore – now in Pakistan – on November 2, 1930 and he grew up in the nearby town of Gujranwala. His father was a popular lawyer in the Lahore High Court. But the Madhoks were a Hindu family, and thus, when India and Pakistan partitioned at the country’s Independences from the British Empire in August 1947, his family was among the millions of Hindus and Sikhs that crossed the border to India, while millions of Muslims drifted the other way to Pakistan and to the country that has since become Bangladesh. Estimates say a million people died in the riots and genocide on all sides of the border during the year that followed Independence; a teenage Ishrat and his family, however, survived to make it to the Indian mountain town of Kandaghat to start their displaced lives all over again.

The spirit of freedom, the weight of violence and survival, and the start of a new life as a stranger in a new republic could have been part of Ishrat’s early influences, but Ishrat rebelled from the heavier weights of his memory and gave himself a fresh start. His takhallus “Ishrat” translates as “joy” or “delight”. He immersed himself into the finer pleasures of life, and his addictions became both the art that lifted him and the burdens that were bared in his verses.

Amril Lal Ishrat Madhok (author).jpg

Even as he left Lahore and Gujranwala, Ishrat never allowed himself to leave behind the artistic influence of Islamic culture that he had experienced as a youth. His household was enriched with sher-o-shayari performances from childhood and he carried the love of wordplay with him his whole life. Later, the poetic tradition influenced his academic and professional decisions too: he studied the Persian language, Urdu, and Persian History in the 1950s and was eventually sent to Tehran (Iran) to learn and teach Persian. Upon his return to India in the 60s, Ishrat, his wife, and children, moved to the city of Varanasi (also known as Banaras) where he received a PhD at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and became a professor of Persian, Persian History and Urdu.

It was in Varanasi, the holiest of cities of the Hindu religion, but a town also rich in the Muslim population and a deep endorsement of Muslim arts and literature, that eventually became Ishrat’s home until his death. A city on the banks of the holy Ganga river, Varanasi is revered as one of the oldest continuously-living cities in the world. It is the mecca of the Hindu religion, the most-visited tourist destination in India, mostly flocked by domestic tourists seeking spiritual enlightenment. The confluence of spirituality is heightened as the Buddha is said to have given his first sermon near Varanasi, too.

As a Hindu, Ishrat was an outsider to the artistic tradition of shayari, but his work was able to make him a prominent part of the community at the local and national stage. Ishrat regularly performed his ghazals at mushairas – Urdu poetry expositions performances – during his lifetime.

Ishrat published nearly a dozen books on his lifetime on Iranian history, literary criticism, and Urdu shayari. Outside of his academic work, he published several of his ghazals in Urdu literary magazines, most prominent of which was a magazine called Bisawi Sadi. A collection of his most popular ghazals – written roughly in the period between 1955 – 1975 – was published in both the Urdu and Devanagari scripts in the collection entitled Yaadgar-E-Ishrat (“Memories of Ishrat”) in 1994. I have translated a sampling of his best poems from this collection spanning the productive twenty-year period.

 

There are many different forms of Urdu poetry, but Ishrat’s speciality was sher-o-shayari, which can be referred to as only sher or shayari. Each sher is a rhyming couplet that must strictly be kept within its predefined meters per line. The couplet usually relies on a simple set-up, question, or condition in the first line, with a witty or emotional response. A number of these couplets can be formed together to be made into longer poems, which are called ghazals, which usually continue the same rhyme and metric scheme throughout in exploration of a common theme. Most ghazals have a common phrase or word as refrain that is often repeated with various modifiers at the end of many lines as the constant rhyming scheme.

In public performances of sher-o-shayari and at the larger mushairas, the opening line of each sher couplet is repeated twice to amplify the listeners’ interests and anticipations, with the second, “response” line added once with emphasis in the form of a punch-line. A series of rhyming shers running consistently exercises the poet’s (shayar’s) ability to keep the rhyme scheme going while making the poetic language more complicated and effective. The purpose of each sher is to give a deeper resonance to a relatively simpler opening emotion, to evoke emotion, feelings of love, spirituality, amusement, and often in Ishrat’s case, of self-consolation. 

The ghazal is a strict format, whose value and aesthetic quality depend almost entirely on its formal structure. The repetition of key words adds a rhythm to the recitation of the ghazal, and prepares the listeners – or readers – to focus not just on the word that is repeated, but the rhyming word that precedes it in the rhyming lines. It is through this language of repetition and cleverly-placed emphasis that the reciter – or the writer – is able to reach his audience.

But it is this strict, formal adherence to format that eventually also proves to be the biggest challenge in translating the ghazal to the English language. Like many languages stemming from Arabic and Sanskrit roots, in Urdu, the verb in a sentence often comes at the very end. The common English grammatical structure of [object + verb + subject] will be translated in Urdu as [object + subject + verb]. Ishrat stuck closely to this structure in his poetry, and most of his sentences that ended in his repetitive words and sounds were his verbs.  For example, one of his simple rhyming couplets in ‘You and I have a friendship’ in Urdu is:

اپکا ہمسے دوستانہ ہے

یہ بھی کیا دن کیا زمانہ ہے

Apka humse dostana hai

Yeh bhi kya din hai, kya zamana hai

Which roughly translates as

You with me friendship have

This great day is, great time is

To make sentences in Urdu comprehensible for English readers, a translator will freely restructure the parts of speech such as:

You and I have a friendship

This is a great day, a great time.

This restructuring would work well for prose, but in poetry – particularly Ishrat’s strict work where the twist and turn of every ghazal hinged on the repetition of the last word, a literal translation loses the essential musicality of the formal. The ghazal ceases to be a ghazal.

A fully formal translation of these ghazals, if of course, possible, but not without experimenting with the language or tinkering with the content. Instead of verbs, other parts of speech, which make sense at the end of an English sentence, can be used as the repeating or rhyming words. A faithful formal translator will have to decide on words and rhymes that may not fit the literal meaning in each one of Ishrat’s lines to add to the end of their English translations. For example, for the same couplet given above, my more ‘formal’ translation, sticking closer to Ishrat’s musicality, was:

There’s a friendship between you and I now

What a time to be alive now!

I adopted ‘now’ as my rhyming word, applying it in the opening couplet and then at the end of every even-numbered line to adhere with Ishrat’s formal structure. Furthermore, I adopted a new rhyming sound for this ghazal – ‘I now’ – straying from Ishrat’s original ‘aana hai’. These changes, along with some semblance of adherence to the syllables and inner rhyme schemes of each line, were only possible by sacrificing the exact literal meanings of the ghazals.

So, in translating the poems from Urdu to English, I faced this crucial dilemma: which version of Ishrat should be maintained, and which one should be sacrificed? Do I stay true to the strict codes of the sher and ghazal format and modify the content to re-imagine the poems’ musicality? Or do I adhere closely to Ishrat’s literal meanings of the poetry, even if it meant that I would lose the truest essence of the ghazal in doing so? To my knowledge, Ishrat never considered a translation of his work, and thus, never faced the potential complications that would accompany the rules of another language during his lifetime. I, however, believe that, I can only translate his truest artistic intentions by staying true to both content and form.

To arrive at my answer, I also challenged myself to discover my own theory of translation. Translation to me isn’t simply the transference of words from one language to another. Language isn’t simply a means of communication, it’s the vehicle that drives cultures. To lose the intricate differences in language would mean to lose the important differences in culture, which are as important to the entire process of translation as the literal meanings of the words themselves. In her essay “Translation: The Biography of an Artform”, Alice Kaplan quoted Antoine Berman’s view on ‘bad translation’ as (1):

I call bad translation any translation which, using the pretext of transmissibility/communication, works towards a systematic negation of the foreignness of the foreign work. (70)

I agree with Berman here. Even as a translated work should not ‘feel’ translated, the translator should also be careful in not losing the ‘foreignness’ of the work. In Ishrat’s case, the ghazal form was his inherent ‘foreignness’ from the English language. In converting the experience of reading or hearing a ghazal in English, its essential not to lose that quality, to transfer its musicality, but also, to stay true to the ‘soul’ in the content of each piece.

It is in confronting this challenge that I was reminded of the French phrase décalage, which I first came across while reading Brent Hayes Edwards’ “Prologue” from the book The Practice of Diaspora. Edwards describes it as (2):

Décalage is one of the many French words that resists translation into English… It can be translated as “gap”, “discrepancy”, “time-lag”, or “interval” … In other words, a décalage is either a difference or gap in time… or in space…

(…)

Décalage indicates the reestablishment of a prior unevenness or diversity; it alludes to the taking away of something that was added in the first place, something artificial, a stone or a piece of wood that served to fill some gap or to rectify some imbalance. (13-14)

There is no perfect way to rectify that imbalance, to fill the décalage between the Urdu ghazal format and the grammatical form of the work translated into English. For the English reader, the beauty of the Urdu poetry will have to arise from within that imbalance.

The larger question for me, then, was if my intention with this translation was to whether to take the ghazal closer to the English-speaking reader, or bring the English-speaking reader closer to the ghazal? My answer was to embrace the décalage; why can’t both forms exist? Translation is not a monologue, it’s a two-way conversation. It’s important to both reinvent the work to fit the language – and hence the culture – of a new readership, just as it is important to retain the foreignness of the foreign work. There is beauty of the poetry to be found in both the literal and formal translations of Ishrat’s ghazals.

So, instead of creating a forced unification between the East and the West, I decided to celebrate the unique differences in each form. As someone who has grown up with a healthy dose of both cultures, I refuse to believe that there is a singular, definite audience who can resonate with these ghazals, in any language. Literature can be globally egalitarian, without the borders of linguistic rules that constrain it.

My translations present two forms of each of Ishrat’s most famous works, a literal translation – The Poem – to bring the ghazal to the English reader, and a formal translation – The Ghazal – to take the English reader closer to the original Urdu. In this way, I hope to transfer over the cultural aspects of Urdu even as the poems are read in English.

           

My memories of my grandfather are scarce and hazy. I remember him sitting with his friends, wearing a karakul over his dead, while he sang some of his ghazals. I remember him petting his Labradors as he got older and slower. And I remember his adorned, lifeless body on a wooden platform before it was carried to the cremation ghat. My parents and uncles gave me second-hand accounts of his life and personality as I grew older, but it was never enough for me to understand his true nature. Even when a collection of his poetry and a music album by ghazal artists Ahmed and Mohammed Hussain was released after his death, his words held no meaning for me, untranslatable into the limited understanding of my young mind.

So, nearly three decades after his death, I approached him again, not as Amrit Lal Madhok, my grandfather, but as Amrit Lal “Ishrat”, a scholar of Urdu and Persian and a noted poet of sher-shayari and ghazals. By reading his poetry and hearing his written voice, I was able to finally encounter the grandfather I never knew. These ghazals, written over twenty years while he moved from Iran back to India and eventually found stability in Varanasi, gave me an insight that no family albums or anecdotes about Ishrat ever could. They give me a direct conversation with him, where the public figure poured out the most personal meditations of his heart in formal Urdu poetry, and where I replied to him with my interpretations of those meditations in English. Through his poetry, I learnt of Ishrat’s loves, his insecurities, and the particular lense with which he saw the world.

Ishrat’s ghazals are primarily meditations of his insecurities and of unrequited love. He often describes himself as “distressed”, a broken heart that doesn’t deserve even the attentions of his muse. It is in this distress that Ishrat often turns to his two constant companions of self-consolation: alcohol and poetry. He recognises and is often afflicted by alcohol as a mere temporary relief, but in his verses, he is able to find the means to communicate his anxieties. Ishrat addresses his listeners, his lover, his muses, even the moon and the stars in his poetry, but he ends every ghazal with a nod to self, a sher where he shifts the conversation away to face himself. The last rhyming couplet of almost every ghazal by Ishrat is a direct address to himself, where he consoles or encourages himself after stating his previous anguishes and anxieties. At the end of “In my heart I still believe your promises are true”, a poem about losing favour with the loved one, he writes:

Don’t know anything Ishrat, except that there exists

A poet, a smiling face, and my youth – so let it be!  

It is common for shayars to end their ghazals with a couplet that incorporate their penname, their poetic takhallus. The word takhallus, deriving from the Arabic, means ending. Ishrat rarely let a poem end without this wink to himself.

True to his penname, Ishrat had joy in his poetry, too, joy that often contradicted or clashed with his sorrow. He encouraged drinking, the company of friends, and the celebration of beauty. Often, he would also lament the pain that the same beauty could bring him. In the poem ‘What is life for the desperate?’ he writes:

In the happiest smile of the spring,

What is life for the scattered thorns?

(…)

If we didn’t worship flowers, Ishrat,

What is life for the faces that bloom?

Ishrat’s fascination with Urdu seemed to stretch much beyond the language. He was a Hindu who had broken culture barriers by mastering in what was essentially an Islamic art-form. Then, and now, these barriers of religion have often been volatile, between groups of people who worship different gods and follow different customs. Ishrat picked and chose what he felt deserved celebration on each end of the spectrum, and became more famously-known for his Islamic-sounding takhallus. To honour his legacy decades after his death, an interfaith mushaira is now held with some of the country’s best shayars in Varanasi every year.

It was with an intent to keep alive Ishrat’s spirit of breaking barriers between communities that I felt it necessary to translate his work in English. For decades, the English language has both been a source of pride and controversy for Indians. It is the language that was taught by the colonists, who indoctrinated it as one of country’s national languages. Now, even while the mastery of English is helping Indians succeed at home and abroad, nationalist movements have criticised the elevation of the ‘foreign’ language and pushed local and state governments in India to revert the primary medium of instruction and communication to local languages like Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, and others.

I believe that there is merit in celebrating all languages and cultures, and by translating Ishrat’s Urdu work in English, I hope to confront these thorny complications of language by bridging more cultural gaps, like he did.

In 1987, Ishrat suffered from a tumour in his brain and passed away in Varanasi on May 18, 1989, at age 58. Even after death, however, Ishrat’s poetry has helped keep his spirit alive for another generation. While he was constrained within the boundaries of his academics in his professional life, Ishrat allowed his poetry to become the true expression of his fears, insecurities, loves, and addictions. In the ghazals translated here, he often comes out as astonishingly vulnerable, bearing his weaknesses and the pessimism of his romantic life. But there was joy and a celebration of life and beauty in his work, too. In Ishrat’s work, no flower came without thorns. That was eventually his consolation, that for every winter, there was a potential of spring to follow.

 

Notes

 

1. Kaplan, Alice. “Translation: The Biography of an Artform.” In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Columbia University Press, New York, 2013.

 

2. Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2003.

 

Stacks on stacks on stacks (of books)

I like books and I like bookshops and I like taking photographs and I like taking photographs of stacks of books in bookshops and sometimes stacks of books in other places that are not bookshops. Anyways, here are some of those photos.

 Bahrisons, Delhi

Bahrisons, Delhi

 Delhi Book Fair 2017

Delhi Book Fair 2017

 stacks on stacks at home

stacks on stacks at home

 The Sci-Fi Wall at Idle Time Books

The Sci-Fi Wall at Idle Time Books

 Capitol Hill Books

Capitol Hill Books

 Ajmeri Gate reads

Ajmeri Gate reads

 Delhi platform reading life

Delhi platform reading life

 The eternally-amazing Cambridge Book Store in Mussoorie

The eternally-amazing Cambridge Book Store in Mussoorie

 More home; more shelf

More home; more shelf

 Capitol Hill Books: The Sequel from the Poetry Room

Capitol Hill Books: The Sequel from the Poetry Room

Sip

 

Unpublished Fiction - from May 2016

We have a system in this cabin, theekhai? A system. There must be an order to things. Rules. Otherwise we’ll all end up in the narak Dryness that took Mummy. Daddy isn’t doing theekhai, either, and still that little thief Tinu thinks this is a joke. That he can take anyone’s sip and gulpgulpgulp into his little mouth. That tattiboy is going to kill us all.

Nightsleep ends when I hear knocks from the Outside door. Then pleas. A girl’s voice, like Chhoti. Water, please! Water. Chhoti? It can’t be! The knocks turn to thumps and the pleas to screams and her voice gets louder for Water! Water! Water!

I wake with a gasp, my throat dry, itching, my head heavy, forehead throbbing in pain, I gasp again, Water. I need water.

But the knocking is real. It continues steadily tip tip tip. Every few tips, there is a scream Water! and then again, back to the tip tip tip which gets louder into a thud thud thudr Help!

I growl and reach under the bed for my leather flask. I unlock the cap, and I bring it to my mouth for my morning sip, and I envision all the pain of the night dissolve away, and I taste it on my tongue before the flask even touches my dry lips, and I shiver from imagining how it’s going to prickle down my throat and the pain will go and I’ll be theekhai and…

It’s empty. My flask is empty. Water. Where in Utanifark’s name is my water? I shake it into my mouth. Nothing. I squint one eye and look inside. No water. It’s bilkul, all dry.

No! I shout out loud. Who drank my water? Utanifark curse you all. My water!

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Tinu. It had to be Tinu. He isn’t in bed by my side so I call for him. You bastard, Tinu!

The knocking Outside stops. Whoever it was, Chhoti maybe, maybe not, must have left. But Tinu, where in narak is Tinu?

I jump off the bed and rush to the Central Safety Room and there he is, one finger inside his nostril like always, one side of his cheek smiling, eyes on the television screen watching a visual from the Lost Time.

I pounce towards him. Tinu you little bastard I’ll kill you! I’ll throw you down into the shitpit with all the tatti, you bastard.

He jumps off his seat when he sees me, and I’m roaring because a good tamacha time is exactly what he needs. I punch his thin, sharp face, so bony that it even stings my knuckles a little. He screams “Ow! Auntie, help!” and I slap him across his other cheek. “I didn’t drink it! I didn’t drink your water, Montu!” One punch over his eye, it starts bleeding, and with my other hand, a good one under his chin.

The last one probably hurt the little tattiboy the most because he falls to the ground and starts crying. I shout over his cries. My water you stole my water you stole you thief!

“Montu! Tinu! Stop it!” Auntie comes to save him, otherwise I could kill him today and send him to the same narak that took Mummy and Chhoti. I stop and step away.

He drank my water Auntie, I say, I want water.

Auntie has to hold her red bathrobe tight over her chest; the knot around it can never close together. “Calm down,” she commands, and we obey, and she moves her heavy body towards us. “Tinu, don’t drink your brother’s sips. Montu, you’ll have to wait until after daysleep. It’ll be theekhai, don’t worry.”

But Auntie, I complain.

Tip Tip Thud Thudr Water Help Water.

The knocking begins again. 

 

I only ever see Auntie and Daddy’s bedroom from the outside, through the thin gaps of the unclosed door. The inside, I’ve seen it before, that was before Mummy got the Dryness. But Auntie never keeps the door completely open now.

Auntie leaves us in the Central Safety Room, walks past the room that Tinu and I share, and into Daddy’s bedroom. On the bed is Daddy, I see him. Only a small glance. He’s asleep, of course, but he’s fine, he’ll be fine. From her bedside somewhere behind something I can’t see, she scoops out the key for our Nutri Safe and comes back outside. She closes the door behind her and Daddy stays asleep.

Looking all serious type, she opens the small door behind our dining table that leads down to our basement and the tunnels. She goes down the stairs thukthukthuk, I hear her turn the key, then I hear the screeching yawn of the metallic Nutri Safe open, a flurry of plasticy pills tinkling against glass, the screech of the Safe again, and then Auntie’s steps back up thukthukthuk.

“FirstMeal,” she says and hands Tinu and I our NutriPills. I get two because I’m older. I look at Tinu and smile and for a brief moment I forget that tattiboy robbed me of my morning sip.

“Sit,” Auntie announces, and Tinu and I follow her to the dining table. Auntie lights an incense stick and places it on the table between us. She bows down in front of it, closes her eyes, and murmurs to herself. I bow down after her to pray, too. Tinu, of course, keeps his rotten eyes open, one finger in his nose, ready to pounce on his NutriPill. She pulls her neck up and bilkul slow, she opens her eyes to finish. 

I am patient with my pills. I place each one on the bilkul flat top of my index finger, peel off the plastic layer, and slowly, only slowly, put the little orange pills into my mouth. I chew on each one, tasting some of my saliva as I eat, which is much theekhai. Tinu swallows his pill quickly and then, because he looks like he’s asking for more tamachas, he brings out his own leather bottle of water for his morning sip. 

I grunt under my breath. I want to jump on this table and push aside Auntie’s dusty pill-bowls and smack him. He has the liquid going down his mouth, down to his body, and he must instantly feel better.

He drinks the water and he’s happy.

Thudr Thudr Help! Just one sip of water please. Just one sip! Help!

Now, Tinu hears it too. “What is that? That sounds like…”

Chhoti, I finish for him.

“Yes! Just like Chhoti!”

It is unmistakable. I remember I used to laugh at Chhoti when she cried or complained, because she always sounded like she was crying or complaining. She wahwahwah when she was happy, when she read those picture-books, when she watched Lost Time visuals or when she wanted water or when Mummy died. Her voice came less from her throat and more from the nose. Her voice was the cabin’s alarm each morning. I remember Daddy used to say it was bilkul, high frequency, so the Well Soldiers could use it for sonar, he said.

This voice today sounds just like Chhoti. 

Auntie looks up at me first, and then at Tinu, and her eyes squint into ours, threatening tamacha.

“But what if it’s her?” Tinu complains.

“It’s not,” Auntie says. “Chhoti is gone.”

“But what if...?”

Auntie sits up from her seat and crosses over to Tinu. I see it now that he’s shivering, even sobbing, and I cannot decide if it’s my tamaches that have tattiboy freezing in his own sweat or if he’s wondering what narak is the voice outside. He should still be smiling I think, after all, he’s had two sips of water and I’m here drying up my bones. 

Auntie stands behind Tinu and bilkul, gently, she brings his face into her stomach. He responds quickly, folds into her body and embraces his arms around her lower back. He sobs louder now.

It could be Chhoti, I say. We don’t know if she’s gone, bilkul, forever gone. I shift my chair back over the wooden floor, away from the table, and stand up. I need to check.

“Sit down!” Auntie commands, “Do not test the Outside, Montu. Outside is Lost Time. You remember what happened with Chhoti, don’t you?”

Just one sip!

I should check, I say. Even if it’s not Chhoti, I should just check. I tell Auntie that I will give the voice, the girl Outside the main door, Tinu’s night sip. He deserves it for being a tattiboy thief.

Auntie disengages from Tinu, reaches across the table, and grabs me by my shirt. “You sit down. Chhoti has been gone one year, two years. Do not expose yourself to the Lost Timers, Montu.”

I wiggle my shirt free and step back from her.

“Who will take care of us if something happens to you?” she asks now. “Who will go down to the Well for water? Your brother isn’t strong enough, Montu. Do you want us to just wait here, drying to our deaths? Don’t you want Daddy to get better?”

Her eyes are wet with desperate tears. I don’t answer her, because she’s Auntie, and she’s right. Yes, I think to myself, I want Daddy to get better. I remember Mummy, too. Two weeks ago, Auntie said that a stone the size of a NutriPill came out with Daddy’s peepee, almost bilkul same happened to Mummy. Mummy, too, was in bed a lot, bilkul, no movement. She couldn’t even recognize me! But Tinu, I remember, she smiled at Tinu.

Daddy needs his rest to get better, Auntie has said, to be alone. Last I saw him – when did I see him last? – his face had shrivelled, waves of deep lines underneath his eyes, more lines across his forehead like running tracks. More skin than face.

Thudr thudr.

But what if it’s really Chhoti up there? What if she’s back? Two days ago was the four hundredth day since she went Outside, and if Auntie and me and even little Tinu have been alive for four hundred and two days, then why not Chhoti? There have been knocks from the Lost Timers on our door before. Knocks and thuds and screams and shouts. If they survived the Dryness, maybe she did, too?

“It’s 10 hours of the day now, Montu,” Auntie breaks me out of my trance. “Time for you to go.”

But the voice Outside?

“I’ll deal with the voice Outside. Get our WetBox, and later, you have to clean out the shitpit, too.”

Theekhai theekhai Auntie, I nod and Auntie smiles because she is now happy.

 

Tinu must think this is all a joke. That little tattiboy, he sits and reads Chhoti’s old books and watches the television and swallows his pills. He must think this is all a joke, like it’s easy for me to crawl down the tunnels to the Well and crawl back with the WetBox. I want to see him do it. I want to see him do it without a morning sip and with an itching thumping pain in his head. He won’t even make it all the way down. He won’t even be able to talk to the Well Soldiers. He must think this is all a joke. And I still have to keep him alive because we’re brothers and that’s what Daddy said brothers must do. 

I’m taller now, much taller than my first trips to the Well, so I have to crouch lower, and maybe that’s the one thing tattiboy could be good for. At least he would have no problem fitting his little body inside the tunnels. I have to bend down and fold my knees when I crawl. My shoulders scrape against the black stones on both sides. After some time, my knees begin to burn even hotter than my throat does. Theekhai theekhai I repeat loudly to myself, only twenty more minutes, theekhai.

The tunnel is dark, bilkul, only black. But I can see. Theekhai, not fully see, but see bilkul because I’ve been down here now more than a hundred times and I know which part has the sharp rocks on the left side, where there will be bumps below my feet, where the tunnel changes directions, where it falls into the opening.

I can feel the opening now, because I see some yellow lights, and there are sounds of others tunnelling in and out to the Well. Then I hear those splashes! Water splashing into more water. Buckets dipping into water. Water dripping. Water falling. Water getting scooped up. I feel a buzzing in my head, a good type buzzing, and, Utanifark swear, it gets my whole body to feel a ring. Now, I’m not tired anymore.

In front of me are the Well Soldiers, and all around them are other tunnels like mine falling down onto the cave floor. When I land on the floor, I bounce up and let my limbs flay out, relieved to finally have room to stretch.

“Montu my boy,” one of the Soldiers says. “You’re looking dry.”

I don’t recognise him under the dark, red hood over his face at first. All of the Well Soldiers are under those hoods, and like the rest of them, he carries an electric-mankiller as he approaches me. But I’ve heard his voice before. He laughs and takes his hood down to reveal the short, grey spikes of hair growing on his head. Ah, I know him. His name is Aryun, or Ayalu, or something. I show him my WetBox slip.

Yes, today is dry, I say. No morning sip for me, Sir, on account of little brother being a tattiboy thief.

The soldier laughs, and his laughter makes me smile too. This is what a laugh should be like, like this soldier, his whole face and his neck and parts of his shoulders are laughing with him. Hahaha he is only happy.

Aryun or Ayalu asks me to wait and he goes down to the Well to prepare this week’s WetBox for me. A small bottle of water, Nutri Pills, and paper books of Utanifark prayers for Auntie. There are hundreds of WetBoxes like mine waiting by the splishingsplashing well for each tunneler down there. Two of the Well Soldiers with electric-mankillers pass a flask of water from one to another, and each one takes a big sip. No, a big gulp. And some of the water – I count four drops – even spills down to the ground. I lick my lips. But thank Utanifark it’s damp down here, much cooler, so much that I shiver. I even forget about missing the morning sip – just being near the Well can cure Dryness.

Aryun or Ayalu returns and shows me my WetBox, but he holds it back.

“How’s the Doctor, Montu?” he asks, “Still down with the Dryness?”

Yes, Daddy is still sick. But Auntie says he’s getting better. 

“Your Auntie,” the soldier laughs again, but then his voice turns bilkul, serious. “We must keep your father alive, Montu,” He shows me his eyes now, brown, almost black. “You have to make sure the Doctor is getting his WetBox. His water. He must be kept alive. We need him back down here.”

Yes, Daddy must be kept alive, I agree. Yes, I think about this, I know how lucky we are that the Well Soldiers give us WetBoxes. You’ll be Outside with the other Lost Timers without your Daddy, they always say, it is only for Daddy. Theekhai, I know this. Only for his Agricultural bilkul Science of the Lost Time. Not everyone gets the WetBoxes, they always say.

I’m thirsty, but I don’t drink from the WetBox when I crawl back up the tunnel. My arms, bilkul feel not so strong anymore. I look ahead and even the darkness is blurry. There are squeaks somewhere, maybe mice or those monster superrats the Well Soldiers cook on Splash Day Festivals. I don’t know that my mouth is wide open until something starts to drip out and I cough and shout. I stop moving. There’s another loud sound now, really close, heavy air, like Daddy with his Dryness. That tattiboy thinks this is all a joke, stealing my morning sip. That sound again, I pay attention, and it’s only my own breathing. Water. I lick my lips with my tongue but it stings.

I keep crawling. That Well Soldier is right. Daddy must be kept alive. I must get this to Auntie. And maybe I’ll ask her again to give a sip to that thudthudthudr girl from the Outside. Not my sip, I’ll give her Tinu’s, yes, Tinu’s. I smile to myself. Maybe it’s little Chhoti up there. Why not?

 

Somebody is crying, it’s loud, with a throat screaming for help, wasting all those tears. The girl outside? Chhoti?

I climb up the tunnel door into our basement and pull the WetBox in with me. The crying and screaming gets louder and it’s not from the Outside, it’s from here. From inside our cabin.

It’s Tinu.

I rush up the stairs and into the Central Safety Room after the sound, but nobody’s there. A crash in Daddy and Auntie’s room. The door is wide open.

I see Daddy, lying on his bed, still stiff from the Dryness. Eyes closed, no expression, his face gone paler, greyer, whiter. I see Tinu on the floor beside Daddy’s bed, down on all his limbs, crawling like I crawl down the tunnel. He faces me and he’s crying, and not just dry crying, crying with bilkul, liquid tears. I see Auntie behind Tinu, one hand holding on to the middle of her red bathrobe, holding it together over her chest, other hand falling with force over the back of Tinu’s head.

I hear the smack when she gives a good tamacha on the back of his neck. Another cry from him. I hear him shuffle on all fours further forward till a thud follows, a kick from Auntie to push him down flat.

I smell something rotting, like the smell of Lost Timers Outside, or the smell from the other tunnels near the Well, but more ferocious than all that, something that knocks me dull, like the smell of dead superrat at Splash Day. 

“Montu!” Auntie says between gasps, “Montu, your brother tried to steal my Nutri Safe key. To steal your Daddy’s water.”

Tinu screams and Auntie kicks him down again.

“He’s a little thief, your brother,” her voice quivers, she spits liquid somewhere in front of her. “He stole from you, Montu. Now, he’s stealing from your Daddy.”

He stole from me. He took my sip, and now I bring more water for him and Daddy and Auntie and little tattiboy just couldn’t wait, could he? I race up to him, now ignore Daddy lying there next to us, and I land a kick on Tinu’s face. The shoe sole, all metal, meets him somewhere below his eye and there’s a satisfying small crunch and Tinu cries some more.

I kick him again, a good one on his forehead. He lifts his upper body up in reflex and my third kick is splat on the middle of his chest. “Owww” he whelps.

“Kill that little thief,” Auntie says, she shouts. She jumps a little, angrier than I’ve ever seen her before except that one time before Mummy’s death. She’s holds her bathrobe but it opens up below her neck and her babas bounce up together so I stare back down and kick Tinu again.

“Montu!” it’s Tinu. “Montu, I came to see Daddy. Daddy doesn’t move anymore, Montu. Daddy doesn’t move!”

From behind, Auntie steps forward and now aims another kick under him, her metal sole clobbers his chest.

“Montu!” Tinu, again.

Now, I stomp him to silence. Now he’s as noiseless as Daddy on the bed.

“Get him out,” Auntie screams close to my face, “Get him out of this house Montu. Leave him Outside with the Lost Timers.”

He is light, surprisingly, much lighter than I could have imagined when I lift him off the floor. There is a bruise under his left eye, turning his light-brown skin pink and red. The rest of his body is limp, and I cradle him in both arms and walk out of Daddy and Auntie’s room, through the Central Safety Room, and out the corridor to the main door. I will need to turn three separate knobs to unlock the door to the Outside and I haven’t done it for four hundred days plus two more.

I move Tinu and place him over one shoulder, with his head hanging over behind me and the rest of his body sagging down in front. I turn the first knob.

Tinu feels heavier. I lift him higher up my shoulder, beside my head, to balance him evenly on my front and my back. I turn the second knob.

I stagger back under his dead weight. Tattiboy. I shrug him off my shoulder so his body falls with a thump on the floor by my feet. Third knob.

And then I push, and my arms go weaker, as if the door is pushing back into me. The thirst returns. I have no thoughts but pushpushpush get Tinu Outside like Auntie said. Get him out, get the thief out. I have to close my eyes because my eyelids feel heavier and it’s all blurry. Push.

The door pops open and I open my eyes, too.

Bright. So bright. Why is it so bright? Time, oh it’s daytime of the Lost Time. Sun Skylight is still turned on, bright, it screams into my eyes. White and yellow. I close my eyes again.

Hot. Like Auntie’s kitchen fire but hotter and closer and the fire splashes over all of me like a wave.

I don’t want to see him lying there, bilkul, lifeless, so with my eyes still closed, I feel for his arms, pick up his body, and using all my power, fling my little brother outside the door. I hear a thud when he lands and before turning back inside, I open my eyes very careful way, just squinting to see where he landed, and there he is, a few feet on the dusty ground on the Outside and right next to him is the small girl body about the same size as him and her face looks, bilkul, like Chhoti, but by Utanifark, it isn’t her, it’s not her.

I close the door and lock all the knobs.

 

Incense wafts through the air, inside all the rooms: the dining room, the shitpit, Auntie and Daddy’s room, mine and Tinu’s room which now is only my room. Auntie is away, next to Daddy, her door half-open, and I can hear her murmuring to herself. She hears my footsteps and steps outside, bathrobe fastened tightly over her body, and I get one more glance at Daddy before she closes the door behind her.

“More water for the two of us now, Montu,” she says. Her voice is back to normal, bilkul, soft.

And what about Daddy, I ask.

“Yes, him too. Your Daddy is fine. He will be fine.”

That evening, Auntie lets me have two sips because I am extra thirsty from missing the morning sip and the visit to the well and Tinu stomping and cleaning the shitpit. I gulp it all down.

Let’s play, ‘Let’s sensationalise a new enemy to get people worried because the elections are coming up’…

For 1.324 billion players, ages whenever-you-start-suffering and up

 

Components and Setup

 

Welcome to India! This list of rules was conceived to allow you to play the game as fast as possible, or at least before the 2019 elections. After reading it, you will be able to explain and play the game.

 

To begin, we need to learn about the set up the game, something that has taken about 71 years in the game in its present form, and about 5,200 years of stone age civilizations, Indus Valley and the Harrapans, and the Vedic periods, and the Magadh dynasties, and Alexander the Not-So-Great, and the Mauryas and Guptas and Kadambas and a couple of religious offshoots, and the Rajputs, and the Mughals, and the British Raj and Independence.

 

Before you begin playing ‘Let’s sensationalise a new enemy to get people worried because the elections are coming up’, familiarise yourself with the Constitution of India. This might take a few weeks, or even a few months to complete. This is a very important document that will determine your freedoms as a “Citizen” (player) of this game. All the rules of this document must be followed, unless the ruling party decides that the rules are not important, in which case, you will be arrested for following them.

 

The gameboard is a detailed interior sketch of the Indian Parliament. Citizens begin outside the building, and, depending on units earned, move inside and towards the front of the House.

 

A pack of “Real Issues” cards (discussed further below).

 

IMG_5453.JPG

Overview and goal of the game

 

The goal of ‘Let’s sensationalise a new enemy to get people worried because the elections are coming up’ as a Citizen is to ensure that a majority of other Citizens remain unsettled enough, so that, by the time of the 2019 Indian General Election in April/May 2019, the country is scared into re-electing an authoritarian power.

 

Gameplay

 

Not all Citizens are equal. Some Citizens will have more turns in each turn than others. Read the Appendix Ranking of Citizens further below. 

 

Starting with the highest-ranking Citizen, the current Citizen does the following actions in any order, and after following the allocated number of turns mentioned in the Ranking of Citizens, it will be the next Citizen’s turn, and so on and so forth. The actions for each turn are:

 

1.     Play a “Real Issues” Card: Citizen in turn must play a “Real Issues” card that must be successfully distracted away from. Some examples of these cards include:

a.     Failing economy: rising prices of fuel and vegetables, slowing GDP rate, suffering value of the local currency vs. the US Dollar.

b.     Debilitating Poverty, Hunger, and Economic Imbalance: This is a permanent issue and a card that will always return to the game no matter how many times it is played.

c.     Climate Change: Easily debunked, however, when the Supreme Leader says: “Climate has not changed. We have changed.”

d.     Pollution: Finally reaching number one on the global charts.

e.     Rising Intolerance between communities of different religions and castes: Some Citizens might consider this to be a strength of the gameboard.

f.      Treatment of Women: Female foeticide, denial of education, rape, forced marriage, more rape, more molestation, domestic abuse, domestic rape, lack of employment, income disparity, forced divorce, forced to live a suppressed widowed life, and rape.

g.     Illiteracy / failing education system

h.     Overpopulation: There are too many people complaining about too many people because there are too many people.

i.      Political corruption

j.      Hygiene and sanitation: Not “swachh” enough yet.

 

2.     Create a new Outrage: Outrages are the main driving component of the game. A successful outrage is one that doesn’t exist in the usual day-to-day gameplay of the Citizens, but can be manifested to create turmoil on the gameboard. The best Outrages work in antithesis to the Citizen’s intellectual common sense (but then again, you’d be playing ‘Let’s create a functioning society’ if you wanted to apply common sense to your actions). Some example successful Outrages include:

a.     Anything that offends a cow. Bovine creatures are obviously the most important beings in the game, ranking higher than gods, humans, and minorities. Cheeseburgers and steaks and beef momos and gaumas kebabs are offensive. Leather belts and sandals and jackets are offensive. The disregard of cow urine is offensive. However, player may not mention common facts about the beef economy, such as India being the highest beef exporter in the world. Any such intellectualisation will result in a skipped turn. 

b.     A film or book or piece of art (mainstream or niche) that supposedly insults a small subsection of society for religious reasons. Don’t worry if your chosen piece of art is actually insulting; in game-play, all that matters is if you convince the other Citizens to make up their minds before they have a chance of watching/reading/experiencing the art for themselves.

c.     Anything that invokes historical wrong to those unaffected in modern times. A basic rule of thumb here is: the more ancient this invocation, the more unremarkable its modern effects, the more effective this Outrage will be. Think in the lines of “Emperor Babur took ordered a village woman to be his courtesan in 1527, so I have a right to kill everyone who has read a book about him in 2018.”

d.     Anything that involves people of different religions, castes, or social strata getting married to each other.

e.     Anything that involves people of the same gender having relations with each other.

f.      Anything that involves a gender choice that makes any other unaffected subsection of Citizens irrationally uncomfortably.

g.     Anyone who interprets millennia old books/teachings on religion differently than the official interpretation by the Citizen holding the ‘Spiritual Card’. Read more about the ‘Spiritual Card Citizen’ in the Ranking of Citizens below.

h.     Anyone that rejects religion altogether.

 

3.     Stoking the flame: After Citizen has chosen the appropriate Outrage, the next step is to “stoke the flame”, like one would on a chulha cooking stove. Citizen in play must ensure maximum over-stimulation of their chosen Outrage based on their Access Cards. With this move, the Outrage can be shared as gossip in local communities, on WhatsApp to go viral online, or make it to the evening debate with Arnab Goswami.

 

The most successful “stokes” will be the ones that are faked. This is a special level achieved by skilled players to turn untruths into truths and still ensure an Outrage with maximum emotional/physical violence.

 

4.     New Enemy Sensationalised: Now that the flame has been stoked, it is time for the Citizen to create a New Enemy on the game-board that distracts other Citizens from their ‘Real Issues’ card. New Enemy brackets are on the side of the game-board, and include entities such as:

a.     Pakistan

b.     Kashmir

c.     JNU Students

d.     Naxals

e.     Pakistan

f.      Intellectuals

g.     Anyone who reads books about Naxals

h.     Anyone who reads any books

i.      China

j.      Muslims who marrying Hindus

k.     Pakistan

l.      Low-caste Hindus marrying high-caste Hindus

m.   Bangladeshi migrants

n.     Liberal Media

o.     NGOs

p.     Comedians

q.     Beef Eaters

r.      Pakistan

 

Game points are earned when any of the above ‘Enemies’ are stoked in the forms detailed in Part 3 above (WhatsApp, Arnab, etc.). The discrepancy between “Real Issue” vs. “New Enemy” will be the Worry Quotient in the game, and will reflect directly on the number of points that the Citizen will earn per turn. This will be the unit that the Citizen will move per turn—higher and closer towards the ultimate goal of higher political office.

 

Game end and final scoring

 

The object of the game is to move seats closer to the front of the house, one by one, earning more power and influence in the game. Citizens move up to local MLAs, to chief ministers, to cabinet positions, all the way to the Prime Ministerial seat!

 

The player highest up in the House has the ability to cause the most Worry Quotient, and thus, ensure that a new enemy has been sensationalised before the next elections!

 

Appendix: Ranking of Citizens

 

Cows

Rich Hindus

Godmen (‘Spiritual Card Citizen’)

Actual Gods

Brahmins (‘Spiritual Card Citizen’)

Rich Everyone Else

Other ‘touchable’ Hindu castes

Sikhs

Buddhists

Christians

Other religions

North-Easterners

Real Naxals

Urban Naxals

Dalits

Muslims

Tribals

Kashmiri Muslims

Terrorists

Anti-Nationals

Beef eaters

 

Enjoy ‘Let’s sensationalise a new enemy to get people worried because the elections are coming up’! But don’t enjoy too much because the game will be banned. Make it a sanskari enjoyment, you know?

 

ultra sound beam

we needed more proof, more to place faith

in something we couldn't see hear or touch.

you were an abstract, like god. or love.

Laila.jpg

the big bang could make something exist

out of nothing. a culmination of

evolution from us to you. your mother's

queasiness could've been anything

at all: a flu, a hangover, a little

disturbance. we feared failure, fear of a seed

unfruited, of realising the dreams we

hadn't yet begun to have. the ultrasound,

however, brought vision to our heathen

minds, and then it brought sound, a fast-paced

bravura more intoxicating than

religious chants invented by mankind;

womankind's finest invention, author

of another of her own self, a woman.

and when i saw there was life, humbled

by biology, it confirmed to me

that love isn’t just an impossible

abstract like bearded white men in the sky,

but our mortality on a printed

sonogram: precise and magnified

and alive.

Khamba was the first to understand

A little flash fiction... written December 2017

 

Pulkit saw it first from outside the hut. Past the open door, there was a blue shape of somebody’s leg. A human leg.  

“It’s a person!”

“Bullshit,” AJ said.

Khamba, who was the slowest to climb up into the clearing behind them, had already smelled it: a putrid mixture of dung cakes and rotten eggs. A dead body.

“It’s a person.” Pulkit repeated.   

“No, idiot,” AJ slapped him on the back of his neck. “It’s just a piece of wood or something. Wipe your glasses.”

“It’s a person, dude.”

“It’s a person,” Khamba confirmed. “He’s dead.”

DSCN5309.JPG

AJ turned back to Khamba and waved his staff at him. “And how do you know it’s a ‘he’, bastard. Dead people can be women, too.”

“Fine,” Khamba nodded. “She’s dead.”

Three years ago, it had taken Khamba’s father sixteen full days to talk to him about his mother’s death. “Don’t worry, this just happens sometimes,” his father had said with an arm over Khamba’s shoulders in a warm embrace. “People think death is an accident, but no, son, life… life is the accident.

“Where are we?” Pulkit walked around the hut to see if there was anyone else to witness their discovery. The hut was thin and long, the shape of a train bogie somehow displaced in the middle of the Himalayas. Tall shrubs of green grass had overgrown around it. Its roof was a corrugated metal sheet, and the surface of the metal was folded into hundreds of smaller drains on both sides of the rooftop.

AJ decided to terminate his disbelief and take charge of the moment. He was, after all, the first to turn thirteen this year. It had been his idea to follow the trail snaking up this hill. “It’s fucking dead,” he said. “Someone should go in.”

“Are you wacko?” Pulkit pointed at the door. “It’s someone’s dead body. Smells so gross, man.”

“Khamba, you go,” AJ turned to his left and said. “You have smelled worse, haven’t you? Have you smelled Khamba’s socks, Pulkit? It’s a rotten gas chamber. Khamba: touch the dead He-She.” 

What are the chances of a planet supporting life in this empty universe? And for thousands of forefathers to carry her genes, and one sperm being chosen among a million, and then, for her to become something that never existed before?

AJ and Pulkit had invited Khamba on the trip to Dhanaulti with both of their parents, but Khamba was there without his father. The other parents had been extra cautious with him: they admonished their sons when the group played Chor-Police too late into the night, but let Khamba go easy. Khamba knew he would have to answer to his friends when the grown-ups weren’t around.

“Khamba, AJ’s right,” Pulkit added, but his voice grew sombre. “It has to be you. You are the only one who has touched a dead body before. If you do it once, you have the curse forever.”

“Yes, yes,” AJ giggled. “You’re already a cursed gas chamber, Khamba. Don’t give us your deadfuck curse.”

“Shut up, AJ,” Pulkit said seriously, “It was his mother.”

“So, what? He isn’t scared. Are you, Khamba?”

Khamba took a few steps on the grass towards the door. The shapes became a little clearer inside. The leg was folded on its knee, as if the person had been kneeling down before the body fell backwards. She wore blue pyjamas, and the closer Khamba got, the more he saw how much her limbs had bloated to fill up her loose garments.

What else was she destined to do after she was born, but die?

Khamba was close enough to the door to see the leathery skin sagging off her face, and her grey hair, and an army of unidentifiable small insects gorging over her.

Just then, there was a loud yelp, and he was pushed forward through the dark doorway. AJ closed the wooden door behind him and bolted it.

AJ and Pulkit laughed outside. “Let him out, dude,” Pulkit said, giggling

“Just give him one minute!” AJ pleaded. They waited for Khamba to plead or knock or cry or scream, but there was no sound.

It was pitch dark inside the hut, and Khamba couldn’t even see dead woman beside him. He sighed and waited, patiently, hoping someone would soon let him out. He inhaled her stench. He didn’t flinch when it rushed up his nostrils.

A Hanumanic Leap: We have to let India's mythological epics evolve beyond religion

Ten years ago, a friend recommended me Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series. I hadn’t heard of Banker’s work until then, but my friend sold me on this series (written in English) by describing it as a ‘Lord-of-the-Rings-esque’ retelling of one of India’s greatest epics.

Like most Indian kids growing up in the Doordarshan era, I was familiar with the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata through those ubiquitous 80s TV series. I had stood roadside by crowded markets to watch folk re-enactments—The Ramlilaof episodes from the epic, which are performed annually in my ancient hometown of Varanasi. I was familiar with simplified retellings (in Hindi and English) of the Ramayana in primary school textbooks or the Amar Chitra Katha comic strips.

As I grew older, I expanded my horizons to other mythologies from other cultures. To Homer and his Odyssey and Iliad. To stories of other Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, or tales of the Vikings, and Beowulf, and King Arthur, and to the more modern era fantasies like Star Wars, DC/Marvel superheroes, Hogwarts attendees, and of course, Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Banker’s series mixed the best of both worlds: a new, accessible adaption of a familiar Indian story. Over the next few years, I read the entire eight-part series. They weren’t written as well as LOTR of course (Banker is a good writer, but like most of us, he isn’t Tolkien!), but they were a fun read. Banker’s presented his expert knowledge of the epics in a refreshing, new way. He dealt with the demigods—Ram, Lakshman, Sita, Hanuman etc.—as they were: characters with shades of grey, with super-heroic traits as well as flaws, with a human consciousness that made them assess their decisions, feel guilt, love, hate, jealousy, loyalty, and more. In Banker’s telling, they were complex characters whom we could study, analyse, and understand. They were more than unimpeachable overlords with whom we only engaged with as idols in temples.

In the decade that followed, mythological fiction grew in immense popularity. Banker himself wrote a Krishna series and started one on the Mahabharata. His spiritual successors in this realm—authors like Amish Tripathi, Devdutt Pattanaik, and many more—turned this into the most-profitable genre of fiction writing in the country.

However, religious sensitivity and caution has forced many authors to tip-toe around the ‘human’ characteristics of the heroic characters in these stories, as if any flaw in them would be a blot on the religion itself.

DSCN3929.JPG

The popularity of mythological-fiction can be somewhat attributed to a new generation of English-educated Indians yearning for spiritual meaning or in reading exciting tales with familiar, household characters. I believe that our love for our epics is mostly a healthy obsession. But I say that knowing full well that I read these Hindu epics differently than many others.

For many, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata aren’t just stories—they are continuing frameworks for how to view the country’s present-day spiritual and political life. I am not one of those people. Despite being raised in a Hindu household in Varanasi—the city which is arguably the global capital of Hinduism—I am an atheist. I view India’s rich history of Hinduism and other religions from a cultural lens rather than a spiritual one. As I have understood it, Hinduism—in its truest form—was always more of a philosophy or a way of life rather than a set of strict religious practices. I don’t believe in any of the religion’s divinity or supernatural aspects, but I respect its positive cultural contributions to our community.

In Varanasi, I saw the India at its peak Indianess. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously-living cities in the world, and the banks of the Ganga here have been inhabited for millennia without interruption. Civilisations around the world have come and perished, new religions and new messiahs have been imagined, global maps have been changed, colonialism has come and gone, and the age of tech has arrived, and yet the city has continued unabated.

It’s in Varanasi’s timelessness that I see a small microcosm of a larger Indian disposition. For us, history has never been the past. It’s always around us, ever-present in the way we eat, travel, pray, and interact with each other.

Because the history has never left us, we have never stopped thinking of our epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—with continued relevance. These epics may have been conceived by oral tradition two to three thousand years ago, but these and other Hindu texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, and more continue to spiritually and politically pertinent in India. Even as a nonbeliever, I can’t help but marvel at the staying-power and adaptability of this ancient religion, and be fascinated by many of its philosophical interpretations of reality.

Unfortunately, not letting go of this history—this past—can often hurt our present and our future. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are two of the greatest epics imagined in any culture in human history, but their literary and cultural value is wasted by religious fervour. Religious sensitivity is hindering scholars and artists from reinterpreting these epics and pushing them forward in more creative ways.

In my opinion, our epics—the stories, the characters, the legends—need to be made a part of mainstream global pop-culture like stories from the ancient Greek, Roman, Nordic traditions. For a long time, Ancient Greek was a religion and Zeus was its overlord. But time passed, science explained the attributes of Zeus (sky and thunder) and he graduated into a realm of mythology, rather than religion. This allowed literary and modern cultural interpretations of these Greek gods to exist in today’s world, with everyone understanding their significance but not treating their stories as gospel.

Ah, that word: gospel. When the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) replaced many pagan ones of the past, they insisted on gospel truths, on strict interpretations of books written by men. Sky and thunder had been explained, so perhaps those gods weren’t needed anymore. But these new gods were here to explain mankind’s other questions that science and philosophy hadn’t tackled yet.

Sometime funny happened over the past two millennia: even after science did tackle and explain a large percentage of our questions (including evolution), a majority of the world refused to stop believing. The Abrahamic religions, then, have remained in the mainstream, and their gospels continue to be interpreted in a wide variety of ways by believers and scholars. For example, some of the wildest stories in the Old Testament (six-day creation, Noah’s Ark, Jonah in the big whale, etc.) are understood as allegorical by some, but as fact/literate truth by others. The same can be said for many extreme interpretations of the Quran.

Having a uniform scripture (Bible, Quran, Torah) helped to limit the rules of each religion and thus make it easier for the followers to subscribe. Everything you need to do to be a Muslim is written in the Quran, and nothing more.

But what tenants do Hindus follow? Hinduism is considered the oldest-surviving religious tradition in the world, but it’s closer to the Ancient Greeks in its polytheistic/henotheistic ways than to the newer Abrahamic religions. Putting faces and names to Gods was itself a newer way of uncomplicating deeper cosmic ideas. In strict Hindu philosophy, the enlightenment of understanding the Maya (the illusory world) vs. the Atman (the deeper soul itself) is of greater significance than the idols in the temples. The religion isn’t limited by the idols worshipped in temples or tenants passed on by Brahminic Gurus. All enlightened people then—Krishna, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Guru Gobind Singh, etc.—are enlightened with the same knowledge, but they naturally interpreted this enlightenment in different ways by being borne in different circumstances during different places and times in world history. Inadvertently, they created different religions—albeit, all under the same cosmic philosophy.

Even within Hinduism, there is no one ‘truth’, but different cultural interpretations of a wave of similar beliefs. The most famous example, of course, is of the Ramayana’s Raavan, who is considered a villainous demon in some cultures, while he is an enlightened monk in others. Some interpretations view Ram and Raavan as polar opposites; some as two sides of the same coin.

Hindu culture isn’t a monolith like the Abrahamic religions: there are different types of Hinduism for mainstream North Indians, people from southern regions, tribes tucked away in Himalayan heights, in Sri Lanka, in Indonesia, and Thailand, and beyond.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been space for this nuanced appreciation of the religion in modern times. Mainstream Hinduism today has leaned too far into the political realm—as has every mainstream religion in the world—and many right-leaning groups are attempting to generalise a Hindu code to make it easier for the masses, a code like the one that exists for Christians in the Bible or Muslims in the Quran. This code is trying to shackle a freely interpreted religion into a set of rigid rules; rules that say that Hindus shouldn’t eat beef, that they shouldn’t inter-marry with other religions, that they should worship Shiva on Monday and Ganesh on Wednesday. The code divided Hindus up into different castes pitting the scholars—who wrote the code—on the very top.

It is this same code that has deified Ram and Lakshman, and the Pandavs and Krishna, instead of letting them exist in the mythological realm. The fanaticism of these beliefs has led many right-wing Hindutva groups to place unreasonable sentiment on fiction, such as the Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya and the Ram Setu bridge connecting to Sri Lanka. Every religion has its imagined sacred entities, but increasingly, these entities are being exploited for political needs. Today, more people are sensitive about what a translated interpretation of Ram means, rather than being interested in the actual (fictional) character of Ram himself.

There have been many unfortunate consequences of religious sensitivity in India and beyond. For the sake of fictional interpretations, it has become more difficult for those who wish to make more creative adaptations or to present the mythological characters in unconventional and modern ways. Last year, violence and protests broke out around the country following the film adaption of the epic poem Padmavaat. One of Bollywood’s biggest actors, Aamir Khan, mentioned that he was now reconsidering his idea of a Mahabharata film because of the possible repercussions it could face in a country that has become more intolerant over the past few years.

(It’s a good thing nobody threatened Tulsidas when he wrote the Ramcharitmanas 400 years ago, a radical adaptation of Ram’s story for its time, which only turned out to be one of the greatest-ever works of Awadhi/Hindi literature).

Ram probably didn’t exist. But even if he did, even if he indeed was one of the avatars of god Vishnu, a supreme Being, a warrior with heavenly skills, would he really require regular 21st-century men to fight his battles for him? Would his legacy, enlightened beyond the realm of our illusory Earth, be so fragile as to be hurt by mere land-disputes? Would he, a symbol of compassion, ever approve of his so-called followers to taint his name with violence in his “honour”?

The questions above can be asked of any religion and the deity in whose name its followers lose their grasp of basic human goodness. In Ram’s case specifically, the fervour over religion is actually harming his real story. The heroes, villains, and everyone-in-between in the Ramayana and Mahabharata are truly some of the greatest characters ever envisioned. It might be a leap across hundreds of yojanas like Hanuman, but for the sake of preserving the authentic characteristics or our epics, it’s imperative that we see their complexities; that we resist the urge to limit them as one-dimensional idols or reflections of bhakti TV serials. I believe that by fully admitting their place in the realm of mythology, allegory, and imagination, they can become even ‘realer’ for the future generations.

We need more Bankers, more Pattanaiks, more versions of India’s mythological tales that fit the storytelling medium of our time, just like Tulsidas translated the Ramayana from Sanskrit to make it more accessible to a changing audience in his time. New adaptations will undoubtedly release new visions of the story, and allow the intended purpose of these epics to flourish. Just like the Hindu religion, the epics are not a neatly-packaged truth, but a wave, open to interpretation by all.

 

Nani

This Independence day, I wanna give a special shout-out to my Nani (maternal grandma), Raj Chawla (centre). In 1947, when she was just 8-years-old, she was displaced along with millions of others in the Partition. She was separated from her family coming from northwest frontier in Pakistan, had to spend time in an orphanage for a few months, before she was finally reunited with her parents in a refugee colony in Faridabad. Millions died in the senseless violence and the journey in 1947-48, but at least she survived, and her family got the chance to rebuild their lived in an independent India. 

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She had four children - including my mother on the right of her, and my mama and mausis - and had to raise them alone when my Nana passed away in his early 40s. 

This year, she turned 80, and continues to be amazing! She has no shortage of "nani advice" (solicited & unsolicited!) on everything from dental care to the national economy. 


My father's side migrated during Partition, too, from Gujranwala in Pakistan to Shimla in India. Like my nani's family, my Dada (paternal grandpa) and Par-Dada-Dadi (great-grandparents) lost almost everything they were worth and had to start a new life in India from scratch. 


I'm proud both these sides converged for both my parents and for me to be born in India. Our ancestors went through a lot, and so many of us are fortunate enough to be living comfortably thanks to what they suffered & survived. Their stories are a reminder that, somewhere along the line, we are all drifters, refugees, immigrants.

transit

pram riding dirty.jpg

July 2017

i dont remember being pushed
in a stroller around manhattan,
or getting lost in transit
at the atlanta airport,
when my parents faced the worst
dread
for fifteen agonising minutes.
 
but i remember returning from america
with a best friend:
a cotton mickey mouse from disneyland
in a red vest and red shorts, and arms
that could embrace me almost
as warmly as my mother. 
i have kept him for twenty-three years.

i will give him to the girl I will marry.
i will give her my mother’s old ring, too. 
i will embrace her
and continue in transit together
in a different america,

while twelve thousand five hundred and eighty kilometres away
i will leave behind
the ones
who pushed me.