Seagull Books

Month: August, 2011

The Gaze of the Gazelle

Foreword by Paulo Ceolho

On 20 June 2009, a video clip was circulated all over the world. It showed the death of a unarmed young woman called Neda, shot in the chest while taking part in a protest in Tehran and bleeding to death on the street. Few images in the contemporary world have had such an instant and powerful impact. This footage was so intense that it forced the world’s attention on what was happening in Iran and prompted world leaders to condemn the way in which the Iranian government was treating its citizens.

For me, however, it was more personal. There was a young man in the video trying to save Neda. He was my friend, Arash. When I met him for the very first time, I could never have imagined that this slim young man would get caught in the crossroad of history 10 years later. Even if I had the power to look into the future and see that this passionate doctor-publisher-author was destined to be present in one of the most important documents of contemporary history, I couldn’t have imagined the way he would react to it. I couldn’t have imagined that he would have the courage to testify against an unspeakable crime and be prepared to forsake everything to expose the truth.

I met Arash in Tehran in 2000. Arash was the Iranian publisher who, despite the fact that Iran has not signed any of the international copyright agreements, had made the decision to publish my work with my authorization. I was in a state of confusion when I met him. Finally I was in Iran. While I had been looking forward to visiting Iran for some time, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know what the implications of my visit would be, or if Christina and I were in any kind of danger. However, I had made the decision to venture this visit; I already knew that I had thousands of readers waiting for me and I was ecstatic at the thought of seeing the land of Rumi, Saadi, Hafiz and Omar Khayyam.

A constant traveller, there is little to surprise me when I step into a new land. But every country has its own spirit; and until you understand that spirit, you remain a stranger. Be- friending this spirit, trying to understand it, trying to make it understand me and trying to find the inevitable bonds between this spirit and the universal soul has been my main objective whenever I visit a new place. The older the culture the stronger the bond; and the more difficult for it to open up to a new traveller passing through. Just like Sinbad, who travelled the seven seas and was forced, each time, to undertake impossible challenges before the island would open up and reveal to him that this small, simple mound was actually a whale of unspeakable power. It was only then that he could return home, trusting he knew the island’s secret.

Christina and I became friends with Arash and his family. While the officials were trying to control what I saw and where I went, Arash tried hard to show me the true Iranian spirit. We had long conversations about what Iran was about. He took me to the secret Sufi ceremonies, to passion plays, and he enabled my Iranian readers to approach me and share their thoughts with me. His love for his country and his high hopes for a better future appearing on the horizon made me realize that I had made the right decision. The true spirit of Iran was the passion for literature, love, sharing and a real mastery of the universal language.

Since 2000, Arash has been a very close friend. I invited him and his wife to visit Europe with me, and the companionship of these travels helped me understand him better. We were in Madrid in December 2000 when he, with tears in his eyes, told me the legend of Arash the Archer and how he hoped to live up to his name. Arash the Archer was an Iranian mythical hero who, in order to end the war between Iran and its invaders, put his life into his single arrow so that it could fly far enough to land on the original border between the two countries and restore peace.

Three years later in Berlin, he told me over dinner that he thought Berlin was the ‘city of hope’. During the Cold War, Berlin was at the crossroads between West and East. If anything happened, Berlin, rebuilt from the ashes of the Second World War, would be the first city to be destroyed. That was why the spirit of the city had realized that every day could be its last. And instead of living in constant fear, the Berliners discovered the true value of joy. They seized every moment while it lasted. Fortunately, the city lived long enough to witness the fall of the Wall and the birth of a new hope. Berlin gave Arash hope that one day happiness would be possible for the people of Iran and he believed that until then, they would need to seize every moment.

There is always a moment in your life when you have to make a decision. I have always said that God is the Lord of the valiant and real courage lies in making difficult decisions based on what you should do, not on what prudence recommends.

Did Arash live up to his name? I don’t know. But he did put his life into his single arrow, the arrow that has unified the aspirations of the Iranians under the image of a dying Neda.

But Arash’s story is not summed up in that moment: he has a story of a generation to tell. It came as no surprise when he produced an important and life-affirming memoir. In the Gaze of the Gazelle, Arash reveals the true spirit of Iran. He looks unflinchingly into the mirror and reflects on the recent past of his family and of Iran itself. More than many a historical textbook, this memoir illuminates the sense of nationhood and pride that keeps a society together despite the hardships that are thrown at it. A nation that can be stopped by nothing in its pursuit of happiness across thousands of years has learned that there is no tomorrow, there is no yesterday. There is only what you choose to do today, now, in this moment.

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Ganesha Dances

Salil Tripathi

In the India in which I grew up, my father burned incense daily at the idol of Ganesha, the elephant-headed one who vanquishes evil, and my mother would keep the municipal water tap turned on at night, so that she would know when water would ‘arrive’ in our flat. Ganesha may or may not ward off evil, but the family needed water, and she would not leave anything to chance. The municipality ostensibly provided water 24 hours, but didn’t tell us that it meant 24 hours in a week, or sometimes, in a fortnight. If she kept the tap on, she would know the moment it would start to whisper and cough, and water would splutter, first as a trickle, then as a waterfall, and those sounds would wake her up, and she’d fill up the pots before others did, to make sure we’d have enough water.

This was when India was the poster child for aid agencies. More Indians probably knew about the US law PL 480, than most Americans: it sent surplus US wheat to India, thus preventing mass starvation. We weren’t badly off; we weren’t well off either. We had a home but no refrigerator, no car, no scooter and no telephone for a long time. We bought our first television some five years after my city had television.

We lived in an India of scarcities, where food had to be bought from the ration shop, Coca-Cola was considered a luxury and at one time the company was even asked to leave the country. It was an India where you queued up to buy milk, and waited—in our case, four years—to get a telephone line because the government was laying down the cables at the pace of a bullock cart.

We were told this happened because of the British, or because we had too many people; the government’s slogan for family planning gradually changed from ‘Do Ya Teen Bas’ (two or three children are enough) to ‘Doosra abhi nahi, teesra kabhi nahi’ (second child—not now; third child—never). When people refused to listen, they suffered: during an Emergency, the government forcibly sterilised thousands of people.

It was an India in which we were told to dream small dreams, make sacrifices for those without much. Those who had some, didn’t have much; they sought little and got less. India ambled along, at an elephantine pace, growing at two percent a year, the so-called Hindu rate of growth.

Then, in the manner of Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis, celebrating 1963, India had its moment: 1991.

Economic freedom began in nineteen ninety-one.

It was too late for some.

After the Rushdie ban and before the mosque was torn.

The economy was opened to foreign investment. Indians got to choose: between Coke and Pepsi, Visa and Mastercard, Airtel and Reliance mobile, Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians, no longer only Fiat or Ambassador. And India got its swanky cars and blue jeans, microwave ovens and colour TV. For some, there was money for nothing—and chicks for free. Supermarkets opened. India had become the world’s biggest producer of milk; food overflowed in its granaries; there was bottled water for those who could buy; and women in Bhatinda told callers from London where they had to change trains to go from Peterborough to Portsmouth because of engineering works, or something like that; and men in Pune patiently helped Americans fix their laptops long distance. The Indian economy started to grow eight and nine percent a year. If India was an elephant, it had learned to dance; if it was a tiger, it was now un-caged.

And just as the Hindu rate of growth ceased being ‘Hindu’, India ceased being ‘India’ and increasingly became Hindu. As India jettisoned the socialism that Jawaharlal Nehru had bequeathed, and found no use for non-alignment—which had meant that India had kept what it thought was a neutral distance between the US and the USSR—Indians thought it was time to give up the third tenet that came with its independence: secularism.

For a deeply religious country like India, its secularism was different from the European version, where the state recognizes no religion, or the US version, where the state and the spiritual place—church, mosque, synagogue, or temple—are separate; India recognised all religions, worshipped every stone, as it were. And so the state allowed Hindus to divide property the way they wanted under Hindu personal law, and looked the other way while its feudal lords, the khaps, told lovelorn sons and daughters who they could marry; and India subsidised Muslims who wanted to go on the Hajj. Sikhs could carry little swords on an airplane, and even as irate academics wanted advertisements banned if they showed some skin, Jain priests could walk around naked if they wished. Assertive Hindus, who felt their identities were suppressed, wanted to change that. They objected to the state’s appeasement of minorities and wanted to rewrite history. They attacked mosques, killed those who got in their way, and destroyed art if they didn’t like what an artist did to their deities.

The world liked the new India that was open to business, but its rightward turn was not only economic. Hindu nationalists wanted a different India, an assertive, masculine, virile India, which would give up the pacifism of Gandhi and the poetry of Tagore, and embrace the martial valour of Shivaji and Subhas Chandra Bose.

As the world prepares to rearrange the furniture and seating order at the main table to make room for the newly-emerging powers—Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC)—in G20, the new global grouping of powerful nations, it is going to see a different India from the one it thought it knew. This is not only the India of Ravi Shankar’s sitar and Satyajit Ray’s cinema, or Sunil Gavaskar’s plodding 36 not out in 60 overs, or where RK Narayan writes about the sleepy village of Malgudi. Nor is it only the India of yoga and Hare Krishna, meditation and vegetarianism, the eternal Himalayas and the beaches of Goa. It is now the India of AR Rahman’s ‘Jai Ho’, which mixes Spanish beat with Bollywood thump; where Bollywood stars sell international brands and make films such as Love, Sex aur Dhokha; of Saurav Ganguly taking off his shirt at Lord’s after India records an improbably win against England; where Chetan Bhagat writes forgettable novels about urban angst in unreadable prose, and yet, like Dan Brown, laughs his way to the bank—come to think of it, he is a banker. It is a proud India, a can-do India. Its companies go about buying assets worldwide. The British came to India looking for tea, and the East India Company helped found an empire. Today, Tata owns Tetley Tea as well as Corus and Jaguar. And an Indian owns the East India Company. So there we are.

Over the next decades, this emergent India will be more visible. More jobs will fly out of Europe and the US to India. More stuff will be made in India and sold abroad. More Americans and Europeans will work under Indian managers, report to Indian companies. Even as the West recovers from the financial crisis, Indians ask, Crisis? What crisis?

More Indian films will be seen at multiplexes around the world; Hollywood will seek financing from India; Indian banks will mediate loans and transactions for companies worldwide. Mumbai and Shanghai stock exchanges will matter as much as London and New York.

What sort of an India will that be? Will it be an assertive nuclear power bullying its neighbours and threatening a stable international order? Will it try to become more Hindu and less Indian?

It’s easy to be pessimistic, but I feel otherwise. India’s genius has been its ability to synthesise. It blends things; it absorbs the foreign influence and makes it its own. It invents ‘American Chop Suey’ and ‘Gobi Manchurian’; it compels McDonald’s to offer alu tikki burgers in India. And it gets Starbucks to offer chai tea latte worldwide. It gets Madonna to sport a bindi and influences Julia Roberts, as the Beatles before her, to explore mysticism. It reminds the English that cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered in England.

Indians like being liked; some of them may say they want to be feared, but what they’ve sought is respect. Its economic might is earning India both in abundance. It will be fascinating to watch the trajectory India undertakes as it becomes economically even more powerful. Will its rightward tilt also mean a social and political rightward tilt? Or will its genius of synthesising and absorbing other influences prevail, making the whole world its family, or, as the father says in the UK television series Goodness Gracious Me, Indians discovered and invented everything?

If I knew the answer, I’d have been an astrologer. India has many of them. But India has many astronomers too; that’s what I like about India, and that India—of astronomers, not astrologers—is the one in which I place my faith. As the elephant dances, it might trip occasionally, and it might even slip, but it will find its feet. Ganesha, ultimately, preserves order and wishes the world well, as my father tells me. In a way, as several economic historians remind us, India is merely taking the place it had occupied in the world’s economy and politics some 600 years ago. It will be business as usual; we are returning to an older equilibrium. And India is an old country, at ease with its past even as it enjoys coexisting in several centuries.

Salil Tripathi is the author of Taking Offence: the Hindu Case in the Seagull series ‘Manifestos for the Twenty-first Century’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ganesha Dances
Digital Collage by Sunandini Banerjee from the exhibition Thieving Magpie >>>

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