AN OPEN LETTER: THE USE AND ABUSE OF LANGUAGE

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Dear all,

A happy teachers day to you.

I request you to have patience if you choose to read this open letter.  I have been following several discussions across campuses regarding the use of language and appropriateness of language with animated interest.  This conversation follows my own interest in the relation between languages and societies, and about allowing the “grotesque” in languages and cultures. I hope I am not read as a “holier-than-thou” preacher or as a new advocate of a new censorship through this article. The use of slang and ‘cuss’ words in colleges is a part of the new found independence that as students we all treasure. We have the “IIT Lingo” that is a set of words and abbreviations that are unique to each IIT. They are interesting identity markers, but there is something that still lurks between the “official” and the “unofficial”. There are certain words and statements which are “allowed” and in fact encouraged in hostel premises, but we tend to leave those words and terms in hostels and in our individual chat rooms. This article emerges from anguish and from a concern for a society that we all intend to contribute to in our best possible capacity.

A couple of days ago I was about to start some discussions in my class on the white-board, and the moment I turned around to face the white-board, I encountered this statement clearly etched out: “Maths is Fucking Awesome”. I have been coming across the use of explicit in many other social and individual contexts as well. They seem to have defined the “freedom” and “autonomy” of students.  While I deeply admire and respect the sentiments of freedom of speech, of anonymity, and of creative dissent, I could not resist getting into an animated conversation with my class for a while regarding the appropriateness of ‘cuss’ words and if it is alright to be using these words as a part of public display of our emotions. Why not? That is also a part of language and a way of expressing our anger and frustration. Why not? It makes us sound bold and cool. Why not? After all, our movies Delhi Belly, No One Killed Jessica, Mardaani… all use words that are “fucking” awesome. While using the word “fucking” in this article (believe me I am doing this for the first time in any article I have written so far), I felt my adrenaline rush, it gave me a high as it perhaps does for other users. In fact, I have been wondering, does that make me sound “cool” and “sexy” as a Professor? Maybe to some extent or maybe not. This point reminds me of a conversation I had with a scholar years ago. The scholar insisted that in order to be called an “intellectual” you “should” be a social drinker. My rebuttal was “if I have to take to drinking as a personal choice, I might go for it but if I “have” to get a licence to be called an intellectual only through drinking, I rather refrain from being branded as an intellectual”.  Explicit language is one such intoxication. The more we use them, the more we want to use these words in both written and spoken forms. We never know at what point of time, the words that sounded “cool” during college days, might brand us as “abusers” in the long run, when we use the same words against our wife/husband, children, friends, or colleagues. At that point of time, we might regret the same words that once made us feel proud about ourselves and gave us a high.

As someone who teaches Literature and at times Language to students, this overwhelming use of explicit in college corridors, classrooms, television shows, sounds plain awkward to my ears. Maybe I come from an “old” school of thought, with an idea that if I have to kill someone, I have to know my language well and I have to write better so that my words themselves can kill. I do not subscribe to the view of language reaching the extent of profanity, and the formal reducing itself to the level of ludicrous without achieving any purpose.  At the risk of sounding too pedantic or exhibiting my knowledge, I beg to cite a few pieces of writing. In conventional British literature studies, there is an age called the “Age of Satire”, starts late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, led by people like John Dryden and Alexander Pope, with biting satirical pieces like “Absalom Achitophel” and “Rape of the Lock” that satirized the functioning of the British monarchy and other socio-cultural aspects of their time. However, there is not a single “fuck” or “f***” (whatever form you may chose) word in there. They shook the foundations of the British monarchy with just one or two long poetic pieces. Mahatma Gandhi’s writings can be looked at as pieces of high quality satire; Hind Swaraj shakes the foundation of the Empire in India. Gandhi can be “fucking awesome” or he can be “simply brilliant”. The choice of words and expressions is ours, but the reception of the reader or the listener is their own. Take another example of the poet named P. B. Shelly who was expelled from Oxford because of a 13 page pamphlet “Necessity of Atheism”. Legends say, Shelly scared “the s***” out of Oxford (or may we say “Shelly antagonised Oxford in an unprecedented example of satire”?), without using even one explicit, such that he had to be expelled from college. There is a thin line of demarcation between trivializing and critiquing, and sadly, I am getting the vibe of an abject trivializing through the use of explicit, than actually developing an “original” critique.  We are learning to acquire a few terms, a few theories, a few linguistic and cultural insights in bits and pieces, and instead of getting intrigued by the need for more, we land up being satiated by these crumbs and use them to our own sweet purposes. Why not do that? Our society needs par-blind intellectuals who can see only one side of the moon, so that generation after generation we live with similar intellectual and spiritual parasitic tendencies, depending on other parts of the world to provide us nourishment instead of developing our own path.

I have been a regular on social network sites (use it also for academic purposes), and when I perch on one or the other “that-which-shall-not-be-named” site, I enjoy reading the conversation against courses, “profs”, “admin” and so on. In fact, I feel elated that students can actually raise their voice in a fearless, uncensored manner and can actually help in changing systems. However, of late when I read the comments on some of these sites, they sound downright ‘popcorn-goonish’ to me. Social sites are places where our actions are observed by people who might “covet” for the place and the time that we are living in.  Responsible networking is also a part of social ethics and sadly when I perch on certain pages, I feel quashed to pulp, not by the brilliance, but by the abjection of language. In the medieval times in European theory, we studied a beautiful phenomenon called the “grotesque”. However, the “grotesque” was allowed only in the carnival square not in the “officialdom” of even the medieval world.

Indians have been a victim of linguistic imperialism for centuries, in the nineteenth and twentieth century by British-English and in the twenty-first century by Americanization of English language. As someone who observes these phenomena at an academic level, I feel helpless as a mute spectator watching the changes of our times and their times.

If I have taught any of my classes at any point in time, the use of cuss words and explicit language as a way of sounding “cool”, kindly accept my public apology.

(This article is slated to be published by the alumni magazine of IIT Bombay in one of its forthcoming issues)

Great Expectations

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As someone who has been on both sides of the table, there are a few interesting expectations from literary studies that I have encountered as a student and as a teacher in the journey so far.

There are some people who expect us to have read all possible texts (novels and poems) that have been classified under ‘literary’ studies; to recite poems verbatim, to quote exact words, to define ‘story’, ‘plot’, ‘character’, as if literature is all about rote learning. As I look back, I realize I haven’t read even half of those ‘classic’ texts. I do not remember my own poems, forget memorizing the poems of Keats or Shelly or Whitman. Seniors from engineering disciplines at IIT tested me by asking if I had read a certain ‘remote’ ‘less-known’ Kant, Wittgenstein, Tagore, Dickens, Hardy. They could actually cite the exact page numbers. I usually had a puzzled look as a response. I have not been an avid reader, just been a focused reader.

There are another set of people who expect that students of literature can write love-letters and are ‘romantic’ by default. As I reflect back, I feel love and romance was not my profession, literature was. I perceived an “ideal” world that came alive only in my imagination and only through the characters in the texts that I read. I have written just one love-letter in life and that was during a love-letter writing competition of PG cult; but never won the prize.:) I realized that there were far more intense love-letter writers from other disciplines than I could ever be.

There are a third set of people who expect us to be experts in CV analysis or to be great editors. As I read through some of my own writings, I realize how much I needed a CV analyst and a soft-skills trainer to train me in the art of marketing my work. So, what do students of literature actually do? If there are better ‘thinkers’, ‘writers’, ‘analysts’, ‘reviewers’, ‘soft-skills’ trainers or even ‘lovers’ than us, what have we been doing so far? A little something of everything or ‘much ado about nothing’? Living under borrowed titles? Or living as parasites/adjuncts in a robust tree of an institution? I hope the profession of literary experts is not getting limited to being bad critics or worse reviewers? I hope we are not an endangered profession like the clock-keepers or ‘Ghadi-babus’ of the 19th century, who dwindled away with the turn of the century after the invention of automatic clocks?

Well, I am in quest for the answers myself. Help me out, if you can.

Until then…. This piece of writing is in the ‘confessional’ literary vein.

Is this the Beginning to an End? My Experience of Nabakalebara 2015

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I have been a distant and dispassionate observer of local, national, and international events. Unless there is some aspect that grossly affects lives of people, I refrain from commenting or posting about these events on open media platforms. However, my experience of the Nabakalebara of Shree Jagannath is different. Shree Jagannath is an inseparable part of our cultural identity as Odias. The common people, or the bureaucrats,or the who’s who of the state, or the diplomats who visit Odisha are all deeply connected to the Jagannath temple at Puri and to the deities. For the common Odia people, their lives, their time, and their work revolve around Shree Jagannath temple’s rituals. The Panji (almanac) and the Mukti Mandap of Shree Jagannath define the movement of the life of the people of Odisha. There is something strongly native and deeply folkloric about the festivals of Shree Jagannath temple; the folkloric character being so strong that not many outside Odisha understand the nature of these rituals. The Nabakalebara is one such event. This year I got to witness in the span of my own life the Nabakalebara of Shree Jagannath for the second time. Instead of using my office and my official identity or seeking favour from the high and mighty in Odisha, I chose to explore and observe the event myself and look at it from the perspective of the common people of Odisha.
The aspect that I am writing about today does not come directly under my academic purview. I consider the observation that I am sharing in this post, as a part of my ethical and moral responsibility towards my identity as an Odia.
The significance of Shree Jagannath’s Nabakalebara has been immense in any Odia’s life. In a universal sense too, the “death” rituals of the gods reflect a deep philosophical engagement with life and death, and fertility tales. It takes a lot of serious Darshanika understanding to appreciate this age old tradition of the birth-death-rebirth of the gods. The core ideas in the ritual is that it is meant to be “Gupta” (secret), and that there is a change in the life-force of the deities from one idol to another. I will not get into the historical, mythological, or religious significance of the event (this is the matter for another article). My concern in this article is the experience of Nabakalebara 2015.

The Nabakalebara happens once somewhere between 12-19 years. In the 20th century there were six Nabakalebaras (first one of the century being 1912 and the last being 1996). The sandhi-vela of Monday and Tuesday (15th June 2015) after midnight was chosen as the first Nabakalebara of the 21st century. Tradition has it that the rituals of “Ghata-parivaratana” roughly translated as transmigration of the souls from the old deities to the new ones is a highly secret and dense ritual shrouded under clouds of mystery and faith. Describing those rituals in language is a futile exercise because of the limitations of the written word and also because the occasion is a part of the rich oral tradition of Odisha. Language can only diminish the density of the experience. However, it may suffice to say that the number of people who know and witness Ghata-parivartana is very few. A handful of a special category of Shree Jagannath’s sevakas called Daitapatis are the only blind-folded (they are said to be literally blind-folded) witnesses of the event.
When I look back at 1996 and Nabakalebara of that year, I remember the event from the perspective of a high-school student. That was the first Nabakalebara of my life and it was a day of reflection, spiritualism, and stories and legends that grandparents told us; some of those legends meant willing suspension of disbelief. There was an apprehension about the magnitude of events that were scheduled to happen during the course of that one night. During those days we had no other source of information about the progress of the rituals other than the news in Doordarshan Odia channel and journals like Nirmalaya or newspapers like Samaj and Sambad. The mystery that surrounded this event was dense, bordering on fear and superstitions. It was only through the newspapers that we came to know that Nabakalebara had safely been accomplished and that no major problem arose during and after the Ghataparivartana. The event was reported post-facto and there were no major publicity campaigns or tourist attraction announcements to draw people to Puri. The event passed like any other major ritual of Shree Jagannath in Odisha sans the fan-fare associated with it.
This year it was different. The government had taken a lot of steps to market the event as an international tourist attraction. There were constant advertisements under “Incredible Odisha” campaigns under the Ministry of Tourism and Culture about the Nabakalebara. The moment you got into an Air India flight, you were welcomed with magazines having pictures of the mega idols blinking at you from within colourful glossy pages. After coming to Odisha, I watched my parents and relatives glued to the television screen 24×7 listening to the gory updates of the rituals by the priests and Daitapatis. Each time I enquired, “was it not supposed to be Gupta-neeti (secret rituals)?” The answer was “it is all gods’ will”. I joined the fray of frenzied devotees of Shree Jagannath spending days and hours adding the Arghaya of TRP to the mega yajna of Odia channels.
Finally, the day of Nabakalebara 2015 approached and my curiosity took over my better judgment. The announcement made by various agencies was that the secret rituals would start by midnight and the temple and its periphery would get into darkness after midnight. I pleaded my uncle (he is a police officer himself) to drive us to Puri so that we could witness the spectacle of the end of an era and the beginning of the new era in and around Shree Jagannath temple. He very kindly obliged and drove me and my mother to Puri. We reached around 10.30 pm and the atmosphere was indeed somber. The temple was about to close and we were the last devotees to visit the Lakshmi temple within the temple complex. This being the Anasara (fever of Shree Jagannath) time, we can only get the darshan of the deities in the form of Pattachitras (called Pattidians in Odia). The temple was under a pall of gloom, the usual animated conversations about the gods was absent, and people were mourning the last few hours before the deities could be laid to rest forever in Koilibaikuntha (the burial grounds of the temple deities) after nineteen years of their existence. I was taken aback by the extent of human tendencies that are attributed to the gods. Outside the temple, media houses fought tooth and nail to get news-bites about the goings-on within the premises.
We left the temple around 11.40pm and there was no sign of any ritual beginning anywhere close to the vicinity of the temple. The media groups stationed outside were discussing that it will get very late to start the event and that the construction of the deities was still not complete. After spending an hour or so in the Grand Road talking to people and gathering information about the event, we decided to leave for Bhubaneswar. There were hundreds of people waiting outside the temple for the “lights off” moment (this is a very unique moment, since there is never complete darkness in and around the temple complex at Puri) with deeyas in hand, fasting and waiting for the Ghataparivartan moment. We reached Bhubaneswar at around 1.45 am. My mother lighted an Akhanda Deeya in our pooja room as a mark of respect to the significant moment. She was already cooking special food since morning to pay her respect to the deities. However, when I switched on the television set, there was no information about the events and all that was being discussed was the inordinate delay. The worst fear of people had come true, age old tradition of Ghata parivartana had been broken and instead of a nocturnal ritual, news agencies announced that the ritual was held in broad daylight between 1pm and 3pm the following day, in the presence of hundreds of sebayats. This is not the first instance of trouble during Nabakalebara; history states that the Nabakalebara of 1977 was a disaster too . The discipline of the temple and its adherence to tradition is once again under question. Time is an important thing and it seems that time is the major disruption in the temple.
I am wondering had this break in tradition happened in Tirupati temple, what would be the reaction in international and national circles? Why is Shree Jagannath hidden under clouds of mystery, deliberate isolation, and mismanagement? In Odisha we have a tendency to give the praise and blame directly to the Lord; “sabu se Jagannathanka iccha” (“it’s all the will of Jagannath”). Some devotees have been telling on camera: “may be the gods wanted to spend more time with us”. Really? The entire creation runs along a sense of discipline and time; sun rises and sets along fixed time, and if we take the same logic into consideration, then a sense of commitment and discipline specified for the smooth functioning of a major turn in the history of the gods is equally important.
Was this event and its mismanagement an important symptom of the beginning to an end of a great cultural icon? I hope not.

Where is our Heritage? Notes from a Visit to the Asiatic Society

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Dear readers,

A very warm hello from Anne de Plume. My apologies for being so regularly irregular on ‘Iris’. However, life and time sometimes take very abrupt twists and it becomes difficult to catch up with the closest friends and well-wishers. I really hope I do better in the years to come with Iris. However, today is not meant to be a mourning or trip through nostalgia. I am here to introduce a guest post by Dr. Amit Arora on Iris today. Dr. Amit is a Material Scientist by training and a keen enthusiast in cultures and politics. Today he writes for us about his experiences of a visit to The Asiatic Society at Kolkata and about his impressions from this visit.

Do write back your comments and share your thoughts.

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The Asiatic Society at Park Street Kolkata

The Asiatic Society at Park Street Kolkata

We pay regular visits to temples, churches, and mosques. In fact, we make our children visit religious places diligently. However, how many of us actually encourage our children to go and visit a library or a museum? It’s not our fault either. The libraries and museums in India are in such state that their existence and efficiency need serious debate.

Amid all the controversial statements about our ancient knowledge in astrology, astronomy, physics, nuclear science, plastic surgery and what not, today we visited the library and museum of The Asiatic Society (est. 1784) in Kolkata. I had a lot of mixed feelings; pride in our knowledge and history, pity on the condition of the library and museum (when compared to other countries, it drove me angry the way we treat our national heritage), disgust at our political system (as usual) and despair at the future. If you have any interest at all in our history and our heritage, you have to visit the place once! We saw old manuscripts from 17th and 18th century preserved and kept very diligently (note the missing adjective “Beautifully”).

The staff of both library and museum were more than wonderful and were really happy to see someone with genuine interest in the books and history. They took us around the library and museum for hours and helped us see very-very ancient manuscripts.

Here are some things which we saw:

In the Library: The journals, many of which now have fortunately been scanned and placed online too. The original paintings of Robert Home called Ruins of Mahabalipuram. The conference hall, the podium where great speakers have given discourses. The lab where they restore and give new life to old manuscripts (it’s a wonderful lab with many different means to protect books from decaying).

In the Museum: The original handwritten Vol. 1 of The Asiatic Society, announcing the formation of the society and its founding members. The original letters by C.V. Raman, J.C. Bose, Mahatma Gandhi, William Jones, Meghnad Saha, S.N. Banerjee. The original manuscripts of Badshahnama, Persian translation of Mahabharat, Ain-i-Akbari, Many other 16th-17th-18th century original manuscripts of Persian, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Assamese, Siamese, Chinese, Prakrit, Hieroglyphics, Nepalese, Rajasthani, Bengali, Odia, and many other languages. Edict in Prakrit on Stone by Ashoka, original painting of Cleopatra by Guido; and many other gems of human history.

The sad part of the whole trip was that we were treated as very special visitors just because we had interest in the books and in the history. If only our govt could promote it, there would be hundreds like us and we will be happy to remain anonymous. Towards the end, the staff member from museum told us that there are hundreds of old manuscripts in medicine which have never been opened and might reveal many secrets of our ancient science if read and translated. I hope with the govt being proud of our history and the talk of the town being focus on our own culture, we will be able to read a few of them soon. I have some specific requests to the govt:

1. Give an initial 100 crore grant to the museum for overhaul of their establishment and better facilities.
2. Start 100 fellowships at the library for study and translation of the old manuscripts. The Sanskrit scholars should be encouraged to take up reading and research on these historical gems.
3. Promote the museum and the library among the scholars as well as the common public. Give schools, and colleges special funds to organize visits to such places.

If you agree with my views, please share it with your friends to raise awareness about our heritage.

Amit Arora

Announcing ‘Devi:A Journey through Photo-Poetry’


“I do wonder sometimes…
What if wonderlands were to come true?”

(From “Wonderlands”, Devi: A Journey through Photo-Poetry)

Dear all,

You have loved the writings of Annede Plume over the years. We have laughed, cried, and celebrated life together. Sometimes it was as though Anne lived through you all. This post is an appeal to all the dedicated readers of Iris, who have come back year after year, post after post in spite of long spells of silence on Iris and from Anne for months, and who have openly egged Anne in comments to ‘write a book’.

Today, Anne has the pleasure of announcing the publication of a book by her alter-ego Arnapurna Rath.  The book titled “Devi: A Journey through Photo-poetry” celebrates the internal landscape of women’s soul. There are three poems in the book which were first added to Iris, before being put back under wraps for the book.  The book is written in the genre of “photo-poetry” and is co-authored with a talented Chemical Engineering Undergraduate of IIT Gandhinagar, Bhaskarjyoti Das (currently a M.Des student at NID Ahmedabad). The Foreword to Devi: A Journey Through Photo-Poetry is written by one of the foremost Indian poets writing in English of the post-Nissim Eizekel and Dilip Chitre generation, Sri Bibhu Padhi (his collections of poems like Going to the Temple, Lines from a Legend, and many other ccollectionsave been highly acclaimed in the literary world in India and abroad)Authorspress, New Delhi has published Devi.

There are 45 poems and 45 images that map  the life of a woman from birth to old age in Devi. The photographs taken by Bhaskar mark his hard-work and his passion for field photography, and his interest in capturing various shades of emotions in women.

We do hope that you enjoy reading ‘Devi’ and return back with comments, feedback, or criticism on this space. Following are the online retailers of the book:

Flipkart: http://goo.gl/u3VAMC
Amazon India: http://goo.gl/u1sZH7
HomeShop18
: http://goo.gl/sHkMEL

Authorspress India: http://authorspressbooks.com/book_detail.php?preference=371 

NCBA: http://www.ncbaglobal.in/MMDetailView.aspx?id=Nawk0THFXWM=&url=MMGridView.aspx?Cid=RSYEEsF4Exc=&PID=1&ST=0

Ebay: http://www.ebay.in/itm/Devi-A-Journey-Through-Photo-Poetry-/261548896861

02 Devi Poetry New 02

Coverpage of Devi:A Journey through Photo-Poetry. Coverart Courtesy: Suguresh Sultanpur

Acts of Kindness

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I am amazed when people tell me ‘god is nowhere’. Sometimes, I too start speculating about the truth of the statement ‘god is nowhere’ when things do not go my way. Yesterday, an incident happened with us that shook us up from the ‘nowhere’ mode. After a long time, the adage that ‘god is now-here’ and not ‘nowhere’ got reinforced for me. With this event, it feels you just have to have the eyes to know and find the little acts of kindness that make human beings equivalent to god. Or perhaps, was it god in a human form?

Yesterday, we were meeting some of our students who are interning at College Station, Texas A&M. We all planned for a small party at Sonic. We all got into the car, planning to take pictures and drive around the college station area. The moment we came on the main street from their apartments, our car hit a bump and immediately the entire oil pan on the lower shaft of the body got damaged and started leaking all over. We could barely manage to drive for a few steps from Sonic (where we all were chilling out) to reach an automobile parts center called O’Reilley Auto Parts’ (they only sell parts, do not repair cars). The sales group went out of their way to find us a repair garage. They called up several numbers, but since it was already 6 PM on a Sunday and that too on a long weekend, every auto garage was closed in the town. We desperately needed to get back home. But, home (Denton) was a 4 hours drive from College Station. With the serious leaks in the car, it was near impossible to drive back. As visitors in a foreign land, we are usually very careful about keeping ourselves safe. We had a group of four students along with us and seriously did not want to trouble them with our woes. Needless, to say that they were inadvertently dragged along with us into the eye of the chaos. We both breathed deep and shared a look at each other which meant, “god if you are around, please help”. It was then that we all witnessed an immensely extraordinary act of kindness. The young sales person (a college student himself), stepped up to help us. We had a drive of four and half hours back from College Station to Denton. When he saw that we were helpless, needed to get back immediately, since Monday was a work day for us, he himself took to helping us out and got down to help mending the leaks. He checked the store shelves trying to find some way to give us a temporary mend that would last us home. He could only find metal seal patches and two gallons of engine oil to refill. From 6 PM until 9.30 PM he stayed with us, repairing, checking and adding metal seal patches time and again. It took 4 attempts to seal that big crack with 15 minutes of wait time for each attempt. Not only that, he allowed us (we were a group of five people) to wait inside the shop in air conditioning even after the shop had officially closed down at 8 PM. He asked us to wait inside and come out through the back door while the front glass entrance was locked up. However, the story does not end there. The greatest surprise was waiting for us for the end. He tried mending whatever he could in the oil pan, even while it had got dark, and instructed us to keep checking every half an hour if the engine oil was leaking or there was any fume in the engine. He asked us to refill the engine oil without letting the crank overflow, and finally after warning us not to continue driving at night if it was still leaking heavily, he packed up his ruck-sack and gave everyone (our students and Amit a hug), wished us to drive safe, and turned on the ignition keys of his Harley. Amit stopped him and offered him money, he denied! Just gave a smile, and rode off. We all were left staring at him in surprise.

I held my breath and later told Amit, “I did not know god rides a Harley”! We started driving back at 10.30 PM and reached back at 2 AM (our students were worried and did not want us to leave their place. But we needed to be back home because of the commitments here). We fogot to ask his name in our anxiety and he never told us his name. Just vanished riding his Harley into the dusk.

On retrospect, Amit says: “He looked as if he was on a mission to help us get home”.

A Conversation Between a Mother and a Daughter


I called up my mother at 12 midnight (IST) today. She was in deep sleep and mumbled a few words that basically meant, “come back later”. But, I am a stubborn individual when it comes to the need for conversation and I said emphatically to her, “no I think we must talk today”. She woke up realizing that it was important and told me, “the last time you woke me up was when you wanted to get married. So what is it tonight? Tell me”. I could hear her switching on the lights of her bedroom.

Before I narrate the conversation, just a prelude to the nature of my conversation with my mother. From my childhood, I have been usually very scared of waking my mother up . Her afternoon siesta’s were always a guarded space and she would not like any one (including her children) to disturb her during that one hour. In my high school years, I would laugh and tell friends that I often picture a lioness sleeping when I see my mother during her afternoon siesta. Basically, we learnt very early in our lives to be guarded against disturbing our mother or transgress her personal space when she was sleeping or working on something. I was especially very peevish! As we grew up, we kept the tradition alive of not waking her up or disturbing her during her work hours. However, the lioness in her has long since vanished. The conversation that we have/had as mother-daughter were very different than the usual conversations which I have observed between my mother and her mother and many others. I would usually talk for long hours with her only when I was in trouble, or when I had an important announcement to make, or when I needed professional advice. Our conversations would otherwise be limited to things that I might need in the hostel, work related discussions, or people who needed our help in some ways. We never discussed people and their nature, property, dresses or jewelry, because these did not interest us much. I would wear anything that was brought for me and I really had no choices or judgments regarding people. I found everyone “nice” , and if I asked, she would hardly share any opinion about a person. Perhaps, she wanted us to figure out people and the world on our own.

But, invariably I would approach my mother whenever I was in trouble or whenever I needed to take a decision in life.

Here is the excerpt of my conversation with her tonight. Though it is a private conversation, I thought of sharing it because it might be of interest to people who are struggling or are at a crossroad of life.

Me: Ma, I want to ask you something.

Ma: Yes, tell me.

Me: What would you say if I shifted out of the country forever? What if I moved to the United States forever? Life here seems to be good. People are nice to me and I think my work is better appreciated here.

Ma: It is your choice. But what about your students? Your work here and your plans and projects? What about your family commitments?

Me: I don’t have any commitment and no one has any commitment towards me. I am not sure if anyone will ever recognize my efforts, my work. I might die trying to prove myself and not be recognized by anyone.

Ma: But I do recognize your work and so does your father. How many more would you need? But, I am coming to know one thing about my daughter. She is shying away from work and shying from people and commitments because she needs recognition. That is news to me as a mother.

Me: Alright. If you recognize me, I will come back. I am not work shy nor am I running away from people. I just feel lost, nameless, misunderstood, lacking credibility, just a face in the crowd. That scares me sometimes.

Ma: If you can work for long by remaining nameless, faceless, and unrecognized, it will be the toughest and perhaps a very important achievement. To work well while remaining ordinary, is a tough decision. Have you seen our electricians and plumbers? We cannot live without them, yet no one gives them Nobel prizes.

Me: Okay. Got the point. What if someday I come to you and say that you have given me enough, I have given you back enough. You have given me your property, your money, good education and I have given you love, respect and kindness in return. Now our deal is done. You go your way and I go mine.

Ma (her voice choked): I might die of shock that day. This is something which I would never expect you to say.

Me: Do not worry. I will never say that and give you heart-attacks. I got the answers to my questions. Thanks a lot. Go back to sleep.

Ma: Promise me, you will never say the words you just spoke to me, ever to your father at any point of your life.

Me: I promise.

She was awake for the rest of the night.

Review of Rekha Bhardwaj Concert at Dallas

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Dallas, 20 June 2014:

Hello friends, I have not been on Iris for ages. I really wanted to come back to Iris when I get something meaningful to share. Writing appears like empty rhetoric and meaningless blabber when writing is just for the sake of writing.

Today I really felt deeply motivated to share the experience with you and that is the reason Anne is back here. This post is for my music lover friends.

Friends, if you really like Sufi, Ghazals, Thumri and Folk, and if Rekha Bharadwaj’s concert is in town, please be sure never to miss it! She has a voice that is similar to red velvet, red vintage wine (I had already written about the red vintage wine comparison once before when I had posted her song “Humri Atariya Pe” in Facebook months ago), and perhaps she should be considered in the lineage of Begum Akhtar, Shamshad Begum or Noor Jehanji (if you have ever heard them) combined with a punch of the postmodern tech savvy compositions of the twenty-first century.

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She goes into a trance in matter of seconds and the smile on her face when she does the whirling Darvish, is what they call in Urdu “Roohani”.  Check out this video of her songs:

The noteworthy aspect about Rekha’s vocal style is that she can also pull you in her trance with a “Damadam Mast Qalandar” or “Kabira” or “Tere Bin Nahin Lag Da Dil Mera Dholna” on stage. The other remarkable quality about her singing is that she sings! We live in a world where we have more of performances, dancing and showbiz than core singing. Rekha takes you into the world of live orchestra of the last century when singers sang on stage as well in the background with the help of musicians and instrumentalists not simply with Karaoke. She is a class different from the other singers of our times and it is not easy to categorize her in the mainstream noise of our generation. She doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to be called the singing diva, yet she is carving a niche quietly as one of the most eclectic voices of our country. The smell of the rain dampened earth, the call of the ‘local’ flavour of villages, and the tinkle of the temple bells combined with the Azan of the early morning in the mosque seem to influence her style of singing. No doubt, such a voice is mentored and promoted by Gulzar sahab.

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Vishal Bharadwaj landing at Dallas and coming straight to attend the concert and singing from his own compositions “Pani pani re” and “kaminey” was like a bonus, getting something more than you expect.

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As a couple, their vision of life and aesthetic choices seem strikingly in sync with one another on stage and in their professional choices. Spiritualism, a connection with the soul, and cinema and music that are meaningful seem to be the life-force that connect them. Check out the “Kaminey” title song:

The other thing which struck me during this concert is how impatient and restless our countrymen and women are. It is difficult to keep us Desis quiet and in control. We need samosas, chat, chai, gossip, kids shouting and playing, and songs all at one go. Everything is important. However, I also observed that the only thing that can silence us Desis is great music straight from the soul. When Rekha entered and sang “Tere Ishq Mein” and “Ho gayee thi jo humse bhool kya kije…Phir le aaya dile majboor kya kije”, the noisy auditorium fell into absolute pin drop silence. Two hours and a half passed away like two minutes. Perhaps, this is what we can call relativity in music.

Spirit of Humanity Against Nature’s Fury: Experiencing Cyclone Phailin

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A guest post from Satyanarayan who was a part of a relief team after the cyclone Phailin spelled a trail of havoc in Odisha. Not only crops and people were affected, but also animals and properties were ruthlessly damaged. Satya recounts his experience of being a part of a team that was completely managed by women activists.Image

Visiting the villages hit by cyclone Phailin and seeing fellow human beings suffer through nature’s calamity has been one of the most poignant experiences of my life until date (P.N: The photographs in this post are taken by me and may be reproduced with a link back to Anne de Plume’s blog ‘Iris’) . The Cyclonic storm named “Phailin” derived from the thai word called sapphire has caused massive devastation in and around costal belt of Odisha, leaving lakhs of people homeless and in distress. Needless to say, the rosy-sounding name of Phailin was not that rosy for the people of Odisha that hit the coasts on 12 October 2013. The devastation was massive as it has brought flood along with it.

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The cyclonic storm struck Gopalpur at midnight with a gushing speed of about 220 kmph and  moved in same south west direction to costal belt of Andhra Pradesh namely Srikakulam, Ichapuram, Jharkhand, Bihar. Unlike 1999 cyclone, this time at least there was accurate and timely prediction done by Indian Meteorological Department leaving State Government authorities to plan and execute proper plan of action to deal with the cyclone. There was timely deployment of ODRAF, NDRAF (National Disaster Relief Action Force), Air force, Army and Navy. Yet, there was a lot more to be done and achieved than what was being done for people.

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However, while the preventive measures were great and the media coverage of the event was extensive, television channels and national media completely forgot to cover the aftermath of the cyclone which was excessively damaging in the form of floods. The aftermath of the cyclone was massive flood, extensive damage to kutcha houses, large scale disruption of electrical and communication lines, disruption of rail and road traffic and of course potential threat of flying debris. Soon people started to commute with boats inside the city of Berhampur as no other mode of communication was possible. The massive devastation has paralyzed the entire rescue operation.

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Coverage by local media like OTV and ETV played the only key role in understanding the aftermath of the cyclone and in developing plan of action to deal with such crisis.

Seeing the situation first hand along with a relief team, I kept on imagining that it is “far beyond human mind to comprehend the act of nature’s fury”.

I made a choice to be associated with the Sailashree Vihar Women’s Association, a voluntary organization to support the cause and stand up with those people caught in this tragedy. The reason being that a group of twenty-two homemakers, all women, were uniting in their efforts to collect relief materials and also spread sensitivity about the situation in Odisha by visiting homes and generating awareness. The enthusiasm and energy in this group was huge. The group planned meticulously and resolved to deliver the collected relief material to the appropriate places. They wanted to go to ground zero and work there even if for a day.

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The ladies spread the message in the neighbourhood and started collecting relief materials from the local residents. Items were collected in form of clothes, biscuits, mixtures, poha mixed with gur, candle, match box, water pouch etc.  They took the help of Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation in identifying the most impactful place of Ganjam district. Khalikote is the place that was chosen for distribution of relief material. They decided to travel to Sana Ghati and Badagora villages, some of the highly affected localities in Phailin. The relief material was to be distributed among 150 families in two villages.

Before traveling to the villages, all the ladies of the association sat together till midnight to make small packets, so as to streamline the distribution process and ensure that each family gets proper share of relief.

On the D-Day that is on 27 October 2013 early morning around 0630 AM around 8 women and a small group of 5-6 men assembled together to drive to our destination in two cars and one relief truck carrying the materials collected. On the way the relief van got some problem with its engine and it could not move further, there was immediate need of another relief van so that material could be shifted and reaching final destination. We were afraid because of many news pieces which reported that relief material were being looted on the way. By the time we reached Khalikote it was 0230 PM.

It was raining and the cloud was dense. There was absolute silence and the impact of devastation was felt. After reaching Khalikhote, we met with Mr Mishra, IIC (Inspector In-charge). The police advised us to first take appropriate permission from the Collector he advised us to meet with Mr Hanuman, Block Development Office. Someone advised us to leave the relief materials in the police station or with the village sarpanch who would ensure that the material are duly distributed. However, the women in our group protested and said that they would themselves like to distribute the material to the people who needed and would ensure that the relief reached those who are affected. We were advised to take police help in order to avoid any untoward situation. Mr. Hanuman took the permission of the Collector and he agreed to the distribution of relief and assigned a platoon of police force for smooth coordination and to control any kind of unforeseen situation if they arise. The situation was clearly tensed in the villages, because people were living in utter darkness (without electricity) for days now.

The police van with a loud-speaker announced the relief distribution program to villagers who slowly came out of their homes near the van. It was probably one of the most intense and heart-touching experiences of our life. Entire villages were under water and there were neither roads nor any other amenity available, paddy cultivation completely ripe and ready to be harvested were destroyed, and the anger and frustration on the faces of people were clearly visible. A place that they called their home, was washed away by the fury of nature. I wondered, “why god, why has it to be my people for years and years?”

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On seeing women activists leading the relief vans, District Officials and Police force, villagers were extremely happy and sigh of relief could be seen in their eyes and similarly we could realize their agony and helplessness in dealing with the crisis. There was an instinctive understanding and a deeper connection that these villagers shared with women in our group, almost like mother-child relationship, which perhaps was beyond the comprehension of men like us. There was only one prayer on everyone’s lips “Oh God give them the Courage to fight”.There was one thing which was clear to us. The people whom we met were not taking the relief materials out of their choice, rather it was because of the circumstances that they were bound to accept help and aid from people. There was a look of suspicion and in fact hatred initially because it appears when a relief team reaches from the city that they are there to do ‘charity’ and not empathize with the condition of the affected.

At last the relief material were duly distributed and we came back home. The food we had packed as lunch remained untouched because we had seen much more than what we could absorb….

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How safe is Women’s Safety?

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A version of this article is published in India Today (March 4th edition)

The Delhi gang-rape case sparked unprecedented anger from citizens, media, and political classes alike. Our society has been forced to review issues concerning women’s safety across the country, including the question of capital punishment for crimes against women. Gaps in Indian socio-economic fabric came out in the open, and the number of cases reported in the media shot-up meteorically during and after those fateful days of December unrest. There were candlelight marches, slogans, hunger strikes, throughout a nation that was screaming for a safe haven for women. However, we all know that Delhi is not an isolated case. Just that it opens the Pandora’s Box of our concerns for women’s safety across different cities in India.

Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar have been leading the surveys as the safest places for women to work and live. When I walk-out into the streets of Ahmedabad late at night, I do observe women casually dressed in jeans and tees or nightwear, strolling around, and enjoying the breeze. In any other city, with the exception of perhaps Mumbai, this is a rare sight to behold. The number of two-wheelers being driven around by women is also high as compared to many Indian cities. During festivals like Kite-flying or Navratra, old Ahmedabad is studded with brightly dressed girls with multicolored manjaas or garba-sticks going out late in the night.

Gandhinagar is also a highly-planned locality. The landscape of the city is such that the maximum density of government offices, high-profile residents, public sector buildings, and wide-roads, provide better scope as a secure zone. Thus, Gandhinagar is high on police patrolling and has an active women’s cell. Being the epicenter of political and governmental activities ensures that these zones remain on the high-security radar. Compared to the national indices, Gujarat is undoubtedly low on crime rates against women.

However, stating that women can stroll around late in the night, or that the number of vehicles being driven by women are higher, would be a gross simplification and an injustice towards those women who have been victims of some or the other form of physical or mental violence. While there are many cases that are reported in cities, there is double the number which might go unreported. A survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry states that nearly 82% of 2,500 women in cities across India are scared to be working in office after dark (Courtesy: Wall Street Journal http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/01/04/after-rape-women-employees-scared-to-work-late/?mod=e2tw).

Offensive remarks or comments on social networking sites, stalking, sexually explicit content in forwarded messages over phone, an over-imposing neighbour or colleague, are as much security concerns as are eve-teasing or other threats. These instances are the subtle indicators towards “what might happen”. However, the position and respect that women have in a largely patriarchal ‘Indian’ society is such, that it gets difficult to define ‘what is acceptable’ until someone is raped or killed. Centuries of oppression of women have also curtailed not only their freedom of expression, but also their own consciousness that a particular act or word is unacceptable or ‘improper’. Just not being raped should not become the definition or watermark of safety of our cities.

Safety is contingent as much on prevention as on post-facto action. Constant observation of the symptoms of human behavior would be helpful in avoiding some of these unfortunate incidents rather than waiting for the sensation generated by their occurrence. Active research on the nature of socio-cultural and economic changes coming-in alongside neo-urbanization of cultures could help analyze the status of Indian women in cities. Until then, the issue of women’s safety remains unsafe in the fluid, volatile urbanscapes. How ‘safe’ is safety in our country still remains a matter of concern.

 

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