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Archive for November, 2018

cigarette-butt-on-pavementI was a cigarette butt lying on the street
When you came across me
And while you could have walked past,
Crushing me under your feet,

You didn’t.

You stopped, you stooped and you picked me up,
Blowing the dust away gently.
Then you lit me up again
And I flickered back to life.

You puffed on me happily
Until you burnt your fingers on me.
Now I am back again on the streets,
An ugly, burnt-out speck,
Hoping that someone else who walks me past next time
Would be kind enough
To crush me under their feet…

[Republished here from old blog. Originally written in 2010]

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(First published in The Hindu Sunday magazine dated Nov. 18, 2018)

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Her hazel eyes have witnessed utmost suffering. Yet Kholoud Waleed remains stoic as she narrates the story of how her world turned upside down in March 2011, when the Syrian people started an uprising against the country’s dictatorial regime led by Bashar al-Assad. An English teacher in a high school in Darayya, near Damascus, at that time, Waleed witnessed the school being shut down as the regime saw the children studying there as a threat.

“The boys from our school used to hold demonstrations against the government. They wrote graffiti on the school walls demanding the fall of the government. After shutting the school down, many of the children were arrested and tortured by the Army,” she recounts calmly. Her youngest brother, who was a student there, had to drop out as a result. But what happened at the same time in Dara’a, in southwestern Syria, near the Jordan border, jolted her completely. “Twelve children, all under the age of 13, were tortured and two of them killed by the regime for writing wall graffiti against the regime. One of them, 12-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, was falsely accused of raping the Army General’s wife and shot dead,” she continues, anger welling in her eyes.

This was the precise moment when public rage exploded in Syria. In the city of Hama, for instance, half a million citizens demonstrated on the streets demanding change. In May, 2012, Waleed’s brother was picked up by the Army for voicing opinions in favour of the Arab Spring in college.

“They arrested my brother-in-law as well for holding opinions against the regime. As of today, there is no way for us to confirm whether they are dead or alive…”

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[First published in The Hindu dated May 21, 2017]

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

– William Shakespeare

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Cover of the book. Picture credit: Amazon.in

While reading the “unconventional” biography of Indira Gandhi — Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature — one cannot help but wonder if the mantle of her father and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was thrust upon her after all. For, in more than one instance, the author of the book, Congress leader and former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh presents private correspondences of Mrs. Gandhi with her friends to show how the ‘Iron Lady of India’ had a softer side to her personality that yearned for the mountains and proximity to nature.

“I get a tremendous urge to leave everything and retire to a far far place high in the mountains.” Mrs. Gandhi is quoted as writing to her friend American photographer Dorothy Norman in 1958. In 1959, when she became Congress President, she is quoted as writing to a friend: “This heavy responsibility and hard work has descended on me just when I was planning for a quiet and peaceful year…”

Ramesh defends his decision to singularly portray the environmentalist in Indira Gandhi in his book: “A naturalist is who Indira Gandhi really was, who she thought she was. She got sucked into the whirlpool of politics but the real Indira Gandhi was the person who loved the mountains, cared deeply for wildlife, was passionate about birds, stones, trees and forests, and was worried deeply about the environmental consequences of urbanization and industrialization.”

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[First published in The Hindu dated Jan. 15, 2015]

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The Charlie Hebdo Jan 14, 2015 cartoon. Picture credit: Wikipedia

Back with a Prophet Mohammed cartoon on its cover, Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, has resolved to take on Islamic fundamentalists, after a terror attack on its office premises in Paris last Wednesday claimed the lives of 10 staff members including that of its editor, Stephane Charbonnier. In an interview to Vidya Venkat, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, author of ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror’, explained the difference between critiquing a religion and ridiculing it, and why it is one thing to oppose censorship and quite another thing to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons in solidarity. Edited excerpts:

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, there is widespread condemnation of Islam itself. George Packer, in his New Yorker article, for example, had held Islam and its tenets and those believing in them responsible for the attacks. Are we misdiagnosing the problem here?

In my view, George Packer’s is a knee-jerk response. It fails to recognise what is new about the Charlie Hebdo killings. The information we have so far suggests that it was a paramilitary operation. Though carried out by a local unit, decentralised in both planning and execution, the attack was strategised and sanctioned from headquarters. The killings need to be seen as a strategic and organised military attack. As such, it is different from the kind of grassroots demonstrations we have seen in the past, such as in responses to the Danish Cartoons.

Proponents of the Charlie Hebdo brand of humour and satire see the need to share and endorse the culture of “free speech”. Your view?

I support the right to free speech as part of a right of dissent. But that does not mean that I support every particular exercise of free speech or dissent.

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[This is a republished version of an old blog I wrote in 2005 as a five-part series]

Kolkata skyline

The Kolkata skyline. Picture credit: Wikipedia

 

Before the gulf between Calcutta experienced and Calcutta remembered widens, I’d like to ink down whatever my heart longs to say with regards to my recent visit to the city. This particular piece of writing is less an account of my week-long stay at the place from Dec 24 to Dec 30, 2005, and more about my childhood association with this city.

I was brought up in this city of large-heartedness, this city that puts on a façade of joy to hide the sorrow beneath…Five years ago separation came when my family moved to Chennai as dad had got a job transfer. But this December, when I’d the opportunity to visit Calcutta all by myself, the experience was thoroughly refreshing and provided ample scope for personal reflection on the years that had been spent here. The city in itself was redolent of my childhood and early adolescent years, a rather impressionable phase of one’s life.

I could somehow relate this experience of going back to Calcutta to meeting an old intimate lover. A string of memories was my sole possession and almost no physical evidence remained to testify the relevance of the relationship that had once been. I had lost the love with the lover when I left it. Time’s axe had rendered such a strong blow that only bits and pieces of the past remained, and I had to bend low to gather them all…

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