08 August 2019

Why do some stories seem more important than others?

On Wednesday, I spoke to the Book Club at Gyaan Adab about “Some complexities of depicting Partition in literature”. I recorded what I said so you can see it here if you like!
Saaz Aggarwal speaking at
the Book Club, Gyaan Adab
on 7 August 2019
While preparing the talk, I remembered that my very first foray into this subject had been on facebook. It was 14 August 2011, and I posted that I intended to spend Independence Day thinking about my grandparents who lost their homeland when Independence took place in 1947. I was bemused when some of the responses were argumentative if not actually hostile. I also received a private message:
Saaz, with all due respect, time we forgot those memories. They don’t let us go forward. It’s time we buried hate which is redundant.
This message I found quite annoying (if well-meaning). I hadn’t said a word about hatred or indicated anything like that – all I was doing was speaking with affection and admiration of my grandparents and thinking about a difficult time in their lives which they had faced with courage. It seemed clear that referring to Partition could get you into trouble. I’m not sure if this was the spark that actually set me off on my journey, but it certainly did give me an important insight.
I also looked through my books to see what I could refer to for the talk at Gyaan Adab, and found that they all seemed to have been written by people who had witnessed the horrors of Partition themselves. Some of them were personal accounts of trauma and tragedy. Along with this were indications that the accounts were not welcome by others: someone had even filed a petition to prevent the screening of the TV serial based on Bhisham Sahni’s Sahitya Akademi Award winning Tamas. It was 1988, more than forty years after Partition. The Supreme Court rejected the petition, and the serial ran. The Bombay High Court judgement said:
Tamas  takes us to a historical past – unpleasant times, when a human tragedy of great dimension took place in this subcontinent … Naked truth in all times will not be beneficial but truth in its proper light indicating the evils and the consequences of those evils is constructive and that message is there in Tamas*.
Even Manto, so beloved by lovers of literature today, was badly reviled in his time, twice prosecuted for obscenity, and once accused by a critic that he had “desecrated the dead and robbed them of their personal possessions to build a collection**.”
The stories I have collected about Partition do have trauma and tragedies but, being based on extensive interviews of people so many decades after the event, they give a more balanced view of what life was like before Partition, what happened during Partition, and the story after that. The most remarkable thing about these stories is not the horror of the event but the heroic rebuilding of lives that were disrupted. We have not done justice to these marvellous stories or given the people who lived them the appreciation they deserve. I feel very privileged to have interviewed so many of these exceptional people and heard about their lives, and they will always be role models to me on how to deal with adversity.
Since a very large majority of the people I have interviewed are Sindhis, a little more than half my talk presented aspects of the Sindh Partition story, including:
  • how they put aside their grief and confusion and worked hard to adapt to new places and succeed,
  • how this approach caused them to blend into new communities so seamlessly that nobody noticed that they were a people who had lost their land, their language, their culture and their past,
  • that they themselves did not really think they had a story worth telling,
and so many more that, towards the end of the interesting discussion that had ensued after my talk, someone stood up and said, a little puzzled, “but this talk was not about the REAL Partition”.
An audience of the book club regulars that day
I found it interesting to experience at first hand how it can sometimes be difficult to convey subtle messages; to change perspectives. It reminded me of something I’d spoken about earlier, in the course of that evening's talk, one of the most terrible things that happened during Partition. A huge number of women suffered rape, abduction, separation from their children, being used as instruments of torture, being forced to jump into wells to supposedly save the family ‘honour’ and more. And then, many who were rescued and returned to their families were rejected by their families. These things had been known all along but not considered significant. The first major work on this extremely important human history was The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia – in 1998, a full FIFTY years after it took place.
It has taken even longer for the Sindhi story to gradually emerge but even now, seventy-two years later, there are some who don’t think it is about ‘real’ Partition.
Saaz Aggarwal

*India Partitioned edited by Mushirul Hasan Vol 1 Roli Books p114 
**India Partitioned edited by Mushirul Hasan Vol 1 Roli Books p88 



22 July 2019

Afghan Hindus and Sikhs by Inderjeet Singh


A plea for recognition

Can a Hindu or a Sikh be a real Afghan? Or could it be possible that people left their homes in India to settle in a country where they would always lead challenging lives because of their religion?
This book is a systematic and earnest compiling of a wide range of information about the origin of this once strong and mainstream, but over the last few decades blighted, community. It is clearly structured, written in simple language and, an earnest and poignant plea for recognition, aims to prove once and for all that Afghan Hindus and Sikhs are an indigenous people and not recent settlers.
A superficial and prejudiced understanding denies native origin to Afghan Sikhs and Hindus by claiming that they were brought to Afghanistan as slaves by Mahmud Ghaznavi in the 11th century, or later when they fled Babur’s territory in the 13th century – or even to the influx of Sikh and Hindu traders in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Inderjeet Singh disputes this with a large number of written records, starting from the rule of Kabul by the Hindu Shahi kings which ended in the 10th century, all the way to the present. From his citing of these, the reader learns that Hindus worked in responsible positions under the Ghaznavi rulers in the 11th and 12th centuries, serving as physicians, important court officials, and even army generals. He exposes a trite understanding of history by underlining that Genghis Khan’s 75-year rule was the rule of an infidel: his name was Khan but he was not a Muslim. In fact, his was a period that introduced unfamiliar religious traditions along with non-Sharia taxation, non-Muslim personnel in high office and a liberal approach to all religious practice which reduced the status of Islam in the area. The book also has descriptions of Hindus during Timur’s 35-year rule. Then, in the 16th century, the Sikh religion emerged and spread as Guru Nanak travelled and preached, and the community developed in the area. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the migrations continued, supplementing the indigenous population. Lifestyles are seen through the eyes of the many travellers across this region. Inderjeet Singh also documents the gurudwaras of Afghanistan, providing important historical information and their present depleted condition. Some have proof of antiquity with dates on handwritten copies of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, as the beautiful landlocked country developed into a battlefield of international intrigue, the Hindu-Sikh community became a victim of internal as well as external attacks – denied of the freedom to eat, drink and perform their religious rituals; facing violent processions when they tried to cremate their dead; their real estate in peril; their children mocked in school and told to go ‘home’.
This book is largely a clean read, with little slips that a sharper proofreading eye could have caught. To extend the whines, I could also point out that it did not give me a sense of the difference between Afghan Hindus and Afghan Sikhs. I asked Inderjeet, and he said that in a way Afghan Hindus are similar to Sindhi Hindus. (Most Sindhi Hindus observe the tenets of Sikhism, their prayers are largely from the Guru Granth Sahib and their ceremonies at the gurudwara. However, mainstream Sikhs generally disapprove of their easy affinity with Hindu ways; neither do they classify themselves as Sikh.) Inderjeet specified that Hindu places of worship in Afghanistan do not keep Guru Granth Sahib; that Hindu and Sikh attend each other functions; that their numbers are approximately 2:3.
On 22 June 2019, when India played against Afghanistan in the World Cup Cricket match at Southampton, the stadium was packed with fans cheering loudly for India (and against Pakistan, not Afghanistan). There were Afghan fans too, and I was intrigued to see one box of Sikhs with flags of both countries. I messaged Inderjeet Singh asking if he was in the stadium. Silly question. He replied confirming that they must be Afghan Sikhs, of whom there were 10,000 in London. And 20,000 in Delhi – in contrast to just 8000 in Peshawar today, depleted to half over five years by kidnapping, extortion, and the murder of prominent Sikhs, which caused many to flee their homeland.

26 June 2019

The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Absurd comedy and grand horrors


I wanted something light and fulfilling to read on a journey, and picked The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian by Upamanyu Chatterjee from a teetering pile (a very patient teetering pile) on my bedside. It turned out to be the perfect choice because I thoroughly enjoyed every one of its well-chosen words. At the end, the jacket blurb included this sentence in the author description: “He spent over thirty calm and undistinguished years in the Indian Administrative Service; during that time, he wrote six novels – when no one was looking.”
That was inspiring – I got online looking for the other five. I remembered reading English, August when it was new and enjoying it thoroughly as a work of literature but being revolted by quite a bit of the story.
The description of The Assassination of Indira Gandhi said that “In the twelve long stories that comprise this volume, he investigates, as only he can, the absurd comedy and the grand horrors of the human condition.”
‘Absurd comedy’ and ‘grand horrors’ are indeed the fabric of what I’ve read of Upamanyu Chatterjee. Perhaps not entirely of the human condition, but certainly of a westernized IAS officer reigning supreme in rural India.
The Revenge of the Non-vegetarian is one of those books that evokes vivid images and transports the reader deep into its plot using tightly-packed and crisp prose. At one level it’s a grotesque story of vicious murder followed by a ludicrous implementation of justice. At another, it holds a mirror up to us as a people who exploit those weaker than ourselves, make the wretched even more wretched, and then accuse and incarcerate them of wretchedness. It is a brilliant parody of the truth that comprises India and its administration.

29 March 2019

Shillong Times by Nilanjan P Choudhury


Violence in paradise

I read this book because my daughter recommended it. It meant I was assured of a really good read; what I did not expect was that it would be so strewn with unhappiness. After all, the central character, Debu, is just 14.
Like most people who lead insular lives preoccupied with their own minutiae, I was unaware of the civil unrest in Shillong at around the same time that I was growing up in the peaceful Nilgiri Hills. When I read Murli Melwani’s book Ladders Against the Sky and interviewed him, he told me that his family had left Shillong at this time and on account of the strife. I did not ask for details, and barely sensed the pain of disruption his and so many other families experienced. Reading this book brought the situation starkly alive. I wasn't surprised to see Murli's name in the author's acknowledgements, and when I emailed this to Murli he replied saying that he had suggested people for Nilanjan P Choudhury to interview. Murli wrote a review too and you can read it on this link. He told me that the title of his review is a line from one of Bob Dylan's songs and that Dylan is very popular with the Khasis of Shillong. 
While this book skillfully presents social problems and human suffering caused by human greed and political vested interests through an interesting story, it is more than just a device to do so. One of the things I enjoyed most was the way it gripped me. It took me back to my younger self, bringing alive that old familiar feeling of resenting anything that came between me and what I was reading. Beyond the story, there are also passages of commentary which give context, sometimes in a thoroughly amusing way. And the excursion to Mawphlang had me admiring the poignant symbolism of violence erupting in paradise, as well as hoping that I would one day be able to visit the ancient sacred grove.

25 March 2019

The Women's Courtyard by Khadija Mastur


Zooming in on a microcosm

If a women’s courtyard is considered an enclosed inner space, this book is a canvas with streaks and splashes of unexpectedly vibrant colour and design. The women that inhabit the courtyard are strong and lifelike, and the qualities that each one epitomizes is perceived through her actions and speech. So while we never learn the given names of Amma (also known as ‘Mazhar’s Bride’) and Aunty, we experience them very clearly as real people.
This is a historical period and a segment of society where poets sing on the streets – but also where arrogance is native to wealth and privilege. Amma has been betrayed by her circumstances, and her constant taunts, bitter appraisals, never-ending self-pity and glorification are received with tolerance and even empathy simply because life has been cruel to someone who expected better. Her sister-in-law Najma, an MA in English and a working woman who in the 1940s arranges her own marriage (and later walks out of it), is vain and consistently demeaning of those she considers beneath her because they have not studied English. She flaunts elitist opinions such as, “Only people who are incapable of getting a job know Arabic and Farsi”. Najma’s sister-in-law, Aunty, on the other hand, is that loving and giving woman – one whose eyes can be seen ‘filled with centuries of grief’ – on whom every large household relies. Even when immersed in disappointment, loss and financial struggle, she  labours on, almost always emanating warmth and kindness. Young Chammi –  acknowledged as Shamima but once by the author – has the status of one whose mother died and whose father left to live elsewhere, his new life overrun by new wives and their offspring. Beautiful, unwanted Chammi, treated with love by Aunty, somehow became that wild, shrewish girl whose tantrums are feared to such an extent that when her marriage is arranged, no one dares to inform her. Kareeman Bua, who came with her mother in the mistress’s dowry, lives a life of domestic servitude, devoted to the family, oblivious to scars formed by disproportionate rage on her body.
This book is not just about women and their cloistered existence; it also shows how global events infiltrate the courtyard and shape their lives. It is set in a period of Indian history of which authentic details have been so obscured by political propaganda and regressive patriotism, that what remains in textbooks and the general mindset is a trite caricature of what once truly was. Khadija Mastur was known for her own underprivileged background and her political views, and the lives and conversations in this book open a window on the actual terrain of the era. Here is a Muslim household, steeped in tradition and piety, and the nationalist reality portrayed is complex. There is an overwhelming love for country, which leads to sacrifice of family life and personal comfort, imprisonment, suffering and death. There is also an irreparable rift between members of the family, some of whom follow the Muslim League while others consider them traitors, believing that party to be an instrument of further divisiveness and a fundamental cause of inciting violence and continuing strife.
The most enchanting voice in the book is of Aliya, the heroine, who shares her reality with the reader. Sensitive and thoughtful, Aliya feels the pain of the women – but just as much of the men and their inability to bring happiness to their families. The stories on which Aliya thrives mirror through romantic legend the lives of their characters, fueling their wellsprings of emotion and, more than once, resulting in ghastly tragedy. (Women would commit suicide for love and depart as examples of perfect fidelity, and then, some dark night, men would appear to momentarily light a lamp over the tomb, then leave, and that was that). Intertwined with the tradition of stories originating in Arabia runs a strong and persistent strain with the stories and symbols of Krishna and Rama making numerous appearances.
And the most beautiful scenes are as the book ends, in the newly-created Pakistan. The clamour and strife subside and wonderful fictional coincidences transpire, one bringing a tragic finality and another opening out onto a horizon of love and hope.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 23 March 2018. 

17 March 2019

The Sunlight Plane by Damini Kane


Coming of age, in Bombay

I started reading this book primarily from curiosity to learn what a 22-year-old who grew up in a home full of books, and with parents who are both writers, would produce. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a mature, well-written, entertaining story with strong characters. The extras that I enjoyed were its solid moral base and quite a few giggles along the way.
The Sunlight Plane is a book about a group of children and written in simple, engaging language. I emailed Damini to ask if she’d had a reader in mind while writing it, and she replied, “I imagined the reader to be anywhere above the age of 18.” Actually, while reading it I’d felt I’d recommend it to ‘young adults’, expecting them to enjoy and gain from it the way they would with books like Catcher in the Rye or The God of Small Things – or even Portnoy’s Complaint. This book does not have graphic and potentially controversial scenes as the last named, it does have a central issue which is quite horrific and it clearly outlines the trauma and the dilemmas of the children who encounter it from different angles.
Damini told me that she started writing this book when she was 19, when she was in college. She started with a clear idea of who the characters were, and how their interpersonal conflicts would further the plot. The first draft took six months, and after that it was just rewrites and editing. While this book will not have a sequel, Damini is working on monthly fantasy and science fiction short stories, just for practice. These she uploads on her blog www.everythingkane.wordpress.com.
In answer to my question about her advise to aspiring young writers, she replied:
Practice and read, read and practice! There's no short-cut around this. It's especially important to practice the things you're not as good at. Personally, I'm doing these monthly short stories because I'm not half as confident at writing short fiction. Working on what you're weaker at will only make you better.
Good advice for anyone doing anything, is what I thought, and it felt good to know that young people today aren’t all low-attention-span, low-hanging-fruit gimme-gimme type people as it quite often fearfully appears to be.

22 February 2019

Even Against all Odds by Sunder Advani



Looking back

On Tuesday, I attended a book launch at the US Consulate, an event held to honour an extraordinary person and his commitment to Indo-US relations.
When I first met Sunder Advani a few months ago through my research into pre-Partition Sindh, I had no idea who he was. His family’s story was fascinating, and I felt gratified when he liked the way I had presented it, and commissioned me to work with him on his memoirs. As we proceeded through the story of his life, I felt surprised and impressed to learn the extent of his contribution to the Indian hotel and hospitality industry. I have lived in India all my life, enjoyed the Taj and Oberoi in Bombay when I was young, and later hotels of the many international chains that entered in the 1990s. However, I had absolutely no idea that there was an individual, one sole person, and that too someone without family money or political connections or even a home of his own when he first came to live in Bombay – who had significantly shaped India’s hotel industry through his personal vision and efforts.
Edgard D Cagan, Consul General and Sunder Advani
Sunder had been just too busy working, and struggling to get things done, and his story had never been told until now. For a full fifty years, Sunder had also been committed to developing stronger ties between India and the US – starting long before the time when the two countries were considered natural allies, as they are today. It was a fitting tribute that the US Consulate launched his memoirs a few weeks after they were published on his eightieth birthday.
Sunder (seated, left) with his boss, economist Frank Piovia,
at EBS Consultants, Washington DC, 1968
In the 1960s, as a young man living in the USA, Sunder worked in a prestigious and well-paying job where he used his education and analytical abilities to provide information on the basis of which decisions important to that country would be taken. At his father’s urging, he left it behind and came to live in India – then still a developing nation, newly independent, overpopulated, rife with poverty, illiteracy and corruption. Every step of the next fifty years was fraught with peril – and bravely defended. He was badly let down by his partners and suffered a series of business betrayals, hostile takeovers and concept pirates. Through it all, he worked his way through the hardened maze of government bureaucracy with steadfast courtesy and tenacity, endlessly seeking and acquiring one permission after the other to conduct his business and grow it.
With Kemmons Wilson, Founder and Chairman of Holiday Inns Inc.
in his office in Memphis, Tennessee, 1970.
Sunder Advani was the first person to bring international standards to the hospitality industry in India, through the mature systems and processes of Holiday Inns Inc., USA. His visionary public issue in 1972 – preceding those of both Taj (Oriental Hotels) and Oberoi (EIH Limited) – was fully subscribed.
In the 1970s, when Bombay was serviced by just one domestic airline and just one airport for domestic and a few international flights, Sunder set up a flight kitchen, and India's first sound-proof airport hotel, Airport Plaza (later Orchid Hotel, after it was bought by Vithal Kamat). In 1978, a time before mobile phones, the hotel had the only discotheque in the Bombay suburbs and a pool with a jacuzzi.
Sunder Advani was among the first to see the potential in Goa and work single-mindedly to develop it for tourism and foreign-exchange earnings. In 1988, when Goa only had the infrastructure to attract backpackers, his was one of the earliest luxury hotels. It was viciously maligned and put under litigation, despite his having kept strictly within the limits of the law.
To extend tourist spend in Goa over the lean monsoon months, Sunder envisioned indoor entertainment in the form of casinos. His offshore Casino Caravela provided an elegant evening and attracted well-heeled spenders. When competition made the playing field murky, Sunder gracefully withdrew.
The Five-Star Caravela Resort, luxury living surrounded by
smiling faces and a beach of soft, powder-white sand.
One of the most interesting things I observed about Sunder is his commitment to a good life. He works hard, but his family is always at the centre of things. All through the years, he has travelled on work and taken them along with him on enjoyable holidays.
Today, at eighty just as much as when he was a young man, he continues to work hard, committed not just to his own Caravela Resort in Goa but also to his continuous campaigns to increase tourism in India. You can get a sense of his achievements in the glowing Foreword Amitabh Kant wrote to his book:

13 January 2019

Mappillai by Carlo Pizzati


Happily ever after

Carlo Pizzati, who suffers terribly from ‘the most interesting man in the world’ syndrome, came to India as a ‘yoga-person’, and stayed on. He married a woman who proposed to him in the course of their relationship. “I think you should marry me. Hello? I’m a caaatch!” she said, and he agreed. Many locals thought he wouldn’t last but, so far so good, he has. It can’t be easy because even the gated communities named Bella Rive and Calm Waters are ridden with mice and snakes, and when the tsunami comes it will wipe away your foundations.
This book is partly biographical, an account of the author’s life in India in a beach house with the woman he loves and their large family of stray dogs. His love for his wife, respect for her family, and admiration for her very cool chemical-engineer father are refrains so persistent that I wondered what exactly he was trying to sell. But Carlo also claims to grow luscious tomatoes and splendid roses on inhospitable beach sand so perhaps it was only good energy manifesting.
Besides a little about his earlier life, and what happens to him in village Paramankeni and environs, this book is also quite a lot about Carlo Pizzati’s conclusions about all kinds of things in an incredibly complex land! While he stoutly claims not to be Wendy Doniger, William Dalrymple, Patrick French, – or even Megasthenes, Xuanzang, Al Biruni (and so on) and therefore this CANNOT be ‘an India book’, he does have his own engaging theories about the way things work here. Arriving in ‘the watershed year of 2008’ he embraced ‘Mamma India’ in a period of exceptional cyclones, of Tata Nano, Premier League, an Indian winning the Booker Prize and 8% economic growth. Through his journey as a ‘yoga-person’, someone who made exceptional choices and landed up as a mapillai (Tamil for ‘son-in-law’) of Gujarati Jain in-laws in Besant Nagar, Chennai, Carlo’s narrative is strewn with interesting data and contextual information. He well understands the importance of the mango and its role in parochialism and identity across India. He has observed women staying married to violent mummy-spoiled brutish husbands, surrounded by friends and family members who may gossip but never intervene. He marvels at how Indian law allows a person named in a suicide note as psychologically responsible for the suicide, to be arrested, tried and at times convicted. When he muses on the auntie-uncle cultural nomenclature, it is to spot the auntie concealed within the hottie, the uncle germinating in the stud; to appreciate the stud nature in an aged uncle with a wild streak and the charming seduction of the hottie quietly inhabiting the auntie. Carlo Pizzati experiences India’s synthesis of religion, politics and commerce, and highlights one of the exceptional icons of this nexus: the best dressed poor people in the globe, with their multifarious saris, striped lungis and wrap-around turbans. In his relatively rare setting for ‘an India book’, he  approaches the ‘marvellous human experiment called India’ – from its outskirts, a location of limitless sea and sky where open defecation abounds. And the brave, sporting Carlo attempted open defecation too, but sadly found himself unable to perform.
In slow, contemplative sentences and in rapid exclamatory ones, his prose and his theme switch rapidly. Perhaps this is just a modern book, aimed at the sophisticated short-attention-span reader who delights in toying with new formats – but it is rather effervescent at times (like a stereotypical Italian?) Not surprisingly, Carlo has mastered and neatly documented Indian hand gestures. Fingers pointing inwards and then, suddenly swinging out an open hand to say ‘all!’. And the sudden twist with index finger pointing upwards for ‘wtf?’
The insight that most impressed me was the truth about why natives consider vellais (Tamil for ‘whiteys’) better than them. It’s not the scars of colonialism but because they are – SPOILER ALERT – mentally freer, with fewer social obligations to succeed, to marry, and behave as required.
And the claim that most annoyed me was that “Indian women are like Italian men”, indicating that the entire population of Indian women tends to encircle men, sniffing to select the delicacy they might savour. Was this supposed to be a compliment? An enticement? A joke? I don’t think so.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 12 Jan 2019.