रूठकर चाँद यूँ फलक में कहीं खो बैठा,
जैसे नादान परिंदे
छुपे रहते हैैं दरख्त शखों पर।
जितना भी कर लो जतन अब इन्हे रिझाने में,
पोशीदा रहना ही गुस्ताख चाँद की खूबी है।

© Vidya Venkat (2021)

The Invasion

On a January morn, news arrives
of an impending storm.
There could be snowfall too.
I lock the doors and windows tight
lest the cold blast creeps through.
I stock up on the groceries too.
It is all good, alright.

Last year when such a storm had passed by,
it caught me unawares.
The house was such a shabby mess
that I spent several nights
clearing the wilted leaves and grime,
the wind had delivered,
stuck stubbornly on the moist carpet
lining the wooden floor.

And forget leaving the house this time.
Once when I had ventured out into a snowstorm,
thinking it could be fun,
wellies on, and fur coat buttoned up till the chin,
I had returned home a war-ravaged civilian,
hair matted coarse, red-nosed, in a sneezing fit,
and spent hours scraping the mud,
mixed with snow and grass, off the bottom of my boots.

So this time, I stay tucked in my feather bed,
a handbound book of poems, and a steaming cup of hot chocolate
by my side,
waiting for the dreaded day to pass.
Until, the invasion starts…

First, I hear the front door creak
as the fierce gale presses against its surface,
trying its strength.
The glass windows rattle and squeak
as the icy shower grazes with its teeth.
I watch my cherubic neighbourhood kids squeal
as they leap into the storm, arms stretched out,
trying to catch the snowflakes.
Then, there is the never-ending whooshing of the wind,
circling above my head like an assault of uninvited memories,
all day long.
I cannot shut these out!

And lastly, the heating, is it ever enough?
Though I draw my Jaipuri satin quilt right up till my nose,
I tremble through the night…

 © Vidya Venkat (2021)

On the idea of ‘the people’

[First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, October-December, 2020]

am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.

The title of political theorist and anthropologist Partha Chatterjee’s latest book invokes an imagery of the masses as described by Sandburg’s poem of the same title. But the book is not about those people per se, but an exploration rather of the phrase. Summoned by many a political aspirant on the election campaign dais, ‘the people’ is an ambiguous construct after all, whose constituency keeps shifting depending on the expediency of the moment of its invocation.

What Chatterjee does in this book is to trace a history of the idea of “the people”, providing an overview of the rise of populist politics, focussing, largely on the Indian experience. He draws amply upon the works of theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Ernesto Laclau in the process, demonstrating the manner in which the meanings conveyed through the phrase have shifted since the end of the Second World War, and also prescribing ways in which a counterhegemonic strategy could be devised to address the current crisis of liberal democracy. Based on the Ruth Benedict lecture series he delivered at Columbia University in 2018, this book builds upon the academic’s previous oeuvre on nationalism and colonial history that foregrounded the postcolonial experience of southern nations. Chatterjee contends that “various features that are characteristic of democracies in Africa or Asia are now being seen in Europe and the United States because of underlying structural relations that have long tied metropolitan centers to their colonial and postcolonial peripheries” (preface). His central argument is that while in the West, populism emerged as a result of the contraction of the integral state, in India, it has been a survival tactic for political parties expanding along with the reach of the state.

Read the rest of the essay here: https://www.academia.edu/44754168/On_the_idea_of_the_people

India: why secrecy over Narendra Modi’s COVID-19 relief fund damages democracy

In late August, I filed an RTI application seeking various details of the charitable trust under which the PM-CARES Fund had been registered, and which state regulatory authority was monitoring the trust. But I was refused information on the grounds that the fund was not a public authority.

Vidya Venkat, SOAS, University of London

Since India overtook Brazil in September to become the country with the second largest number of coronavirus cases in the world (after the US), the response of the government of Narendra Modi has come under even tighter scrutiny.

In late March, Prime Minister Modi announced the formation of a special fund to address the emergency situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Called the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM-CARES Fund), it has attracted controversy right from the start.

According to its official website, the fund was set up to collect donations from India and abroad to “undertake and support relief or assistance of any kind relating to a public health emergency or any other kind of emergency”. The website says the fund will provide financial assistance and grants to affected populations.

But the prime minister’s office has refused to provide exact details of donations made to the fund or make public decisions about how the donations are being used.

Several information seekers, including me, have tried to use India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act, which facilitates access to government files and records, to find out more details about the fund. We have been blocked, with a number of requests for information turned down by Modi’s office on the grounds that the fund is a public charitable trust and not a “public authority” as defined under the RTI act.

Continue reading “India: why secrecy over Narendra Modi’s COVID-19 relief fund damages democracy”

आधा चाँद

बचपन में रात को रेल की खिड़की की ओर बैठकर

आसमान में आधा चाँद ताकना याद है मुझे.

आश्चर्य होता था, चाहे कितनी ही गति से क्यों न

रेल का चाक चल रहा हो, पटरियों को घिसते, चीखते,

रात को आकुल करते हुए, मगर वो आधा सा चाँद

वहीँ एक तस्वीर की तरह आसमान में चिपका रहता था.

तुम उस आधे चाँद की तरह हो. मेरी पृथ्वी भले ही तुमसे

दूर क्यों न हो मगर तुम्हारी स्मृति मेरी हर रात को

अपनी नर्म रौशनी से सहलाती रहती है…