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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

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Picture credit: The Hindu thREAD

[First published in The Hindu thREAD on August 3, 2016]

Though the writer is no more in the corporeal sense, her words, her thoughts, and the lives of those she touched will ensure she continues to live on in our midst.

I can’t recall the exact date anymore. But it was for sure in the month of March in 2010, soon after I had quit my full-time job as a journalist, that I had met Mahasweta Devi in Kolkata. Ahead of a holiday visit to the city, I looked up Kolkata’s telephone directory from the BSNL website and typed in Mahasweta Devi in the name search bar and voila! The great writer’s residence landline number appeared right before my eyes. When I dialled the number and enquired, in the broken Bengali that I’d picked up during my childhood days in the city, if this was the residence of Mahasweta Devi, the writer herself answered the phone, uttering in crisp English, “Yes, speaking.”

“Ma’am, I am a great admirer of your works. I have read several of your plays while in college. Can I meet you in Kolkata when I am there?” I asked, thrilled to bits.

“Yes, sure. Please come. You’re most welcome,” she said kindly.

At that time I was seeking renewed inspiration to continue writing about the struggles of the poor and the marginalised in the country. Three years in a newspaper job had left me thoroughly disillusioned as stories of poverty and development were rarely treated as important by the editors. Meeting Devi fired me up.

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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 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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Voice of silence

TWENTY-TWO years ago, six young Indian women living in the United States – Radha Sharma Hegde, Shashi Jain, Rashmi Jaipal, Vibha Jha, Shamita Das Dasgupta, and Kavery Dutta – founded ‘Manavi’ to support victims of domestic violence. They were jolted into action after the story of Amita Vadlamudi, a battered Indian immigrant woman who killed her husband unable to tolerate his abuse, brought the issue of violence within homes out in the open.

When ‘Manavi’ was born in 1985, it became the first South Asian women’s organisation seeking to address this issue in the U.S. Based in New Jersey, the non-profit and non-governmental organisation (NGO) handles the cases of an average of 300 women victims of domestic violence annually.

shamitaFrontline caught up with Shamita Das Dasgupta recently while she was on a visit to India. Quoting from a study, she described the disturbing pattern of domestic violence in the nearly two-million-strong Indian immigrant community in the U.S. The study, conducted among 160 highly educated South Asian women by A. Raj and J. Silverman and published in the Journal of American Medical Women’s Association in 2002 showed that 40.8 percent of the respondents had been physically and/or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners; 36.9 percent of this number reported that the victimisation happened one year before the study. However, only 3.1 percent of the abused South Asian women in the study had ever obtained a restraining order against an abusive partner. The study says this rate is substantially lower than that reported in a study of women in Massachusetts, in which over 33 percent of women who reported intimate partner violence in the past five years had obtained a restraining order.

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