Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Aryabhata Clan: The Background

The Aryabhata Clan is set against the backdrop of the Islamic State spreading its tentacles in India, penetrating stealthily into the country’s academia, media and politics. The mastermind is Shamsur Ali, a physicist from Bangladesh. He wants to create a sort of apocalypse, to destabilize India.

In a brazen attempt at legitimizing the demolition of one of the most prominent historical structures in India, someone – unbelievably, it could be both Hiranyagarbha Bharata, a radical Hindu outfit, and the Islamic State – resorts to a big deceit. Afsar Fareedi, a linguistic paleontologist, catches the fraud. In the melee, there are three gruesome murders, including that of her father, perhaps to eliminate all traces of a carpet which, Afsar discovers, has a lot hidden in its mysterious motifs. The motifs, Afsar learns, happen to be a few millennia old. Incidentally, Afsar’s father was associated with the making of the carpets with those mysterious motifs. Unknown to Afsar herself, her family seems to have preserved the carpet-motifs for generations, for thousands of years, but with a heavy price.

Spanning across India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the story involves deciphering more than 1,000-year-old manuscripts written in the Prakrit languages of the time, innumerable cryptic symbols, motifs and ancient scripts, using digital epigraphy, paleography and linguistic paleontology. At the center is a verse composed by the maverick mathematician, Aryabhata.
The Aryabhata Clan is also the poignant tale of the 20-year-old Kubha, who does everything humanly possible, to save her country from a big disaster and protect a beautiful monument, while enduring the most inhuman ordeal of her life. It’s the story of her courage, intelligence and fortitude.

Dealing deftly with the “good” and “bad” religion, the story also subtly delves deep into the origin of the Indian peoples, apparently divided by languages, religions, castes and politics, but at one level, united by a unique ancestry, creating the Great Indian Race.
That’s the synopsis of The Aryabhata Clan. The four main threads in the book are: the Islamic State penetrating into India; a carpet with its mysterious motifs; an interesting take on the history of the Indian peoples, languages and cultures; and finally, Aryabhata, the mathematician himself.

The seed idea of this book came from an article written by Thomas Cole, a private dealer who specializes in the art historical and ethnographic significance of the tribal weavings and textiles from Central Asia (http://www.tcoletribalrugs.comzarticles.html).
That the apparently simple but beautiful patterns in the Persian or Turkmen rugs could hide behind them such treasure trove of art and history was a revelation to me. The initial fascination and adoration for the topic soon turned into a full-fledged enquiry, which finally resulted into the present book.

While reading about the Persian carpets I suddenly chanced upon a trivia that a popular motif very widely used in many carpets from Central Asia till date derives from the ground plan of the four thousand years old temples discovered from norther Afghanistan, near a place called Dashly. The temples belong to what in the academic circle is known as the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex, commonly referred to as BMAC. It’s an ancient civilization that thrived in northern Afghanistan and southern Turkmenistan – between the present-day Balkh (ancient Bactria) province of Afghanistan and World Heritage site of the ancient city Merv (ancient Margiana) near the present-day Mary in Turkmenistan – four thousand years ago.

No one knew about the BMAC civilization for thousands of years till recently, few decades ago, when it was discovered after years of painstaking excavations. What amazed me is the realization that for many many years, when the BMAC civilization was buried under the soil, long forgotten by anyone on the earth, the only vestige of it – the ground plans of its temples – still existed in the carpet motifs.

History has unique ways of preserving itself, even if it’s not chronicled. The carpet motifs have preserved history for many millennia, unknown to anyone. Indians have been traditionally bad chroniclers of history – the reason why not much can be vouched for about India’s ancient history. But humanity finds their own unique ways to keep their mark on the soil they had trod many many years ago. A real seeker would leave no stone un-turned to look for these unique and unusual “carriers” of history, culture and tradition. Perhaps one of the main inspirations for me to write this book was to talk about some of these unusual ways and media which play a big role in informally chronicling the history of our country.

Like the carpets I talked about, a lot of history is also preserved in the names of the places, local traditions, rituals and languages, all of which play critical roles, in some way or other, in the book.

Talking about history, I’ve realized that the lacuna of chronicling our own history over the years is not that big a problem, in seeking the truth, as compared to the recent narratives, since the independence, which were one-sidedly dominated by the leftist ideology for many years and then bombarded with rightist counter narratives more recently. In the melee, the scattered truth, which somehow managed to stay put for millennia, suddenly got squeezed between the two extreme narratives, both of which, after a point, appear like cacophony. The former has the tendency to undermine anything glorious in the past, and the latter don’t even stop from propagating glorified but unrealistic myths about ancient India having airplanes and plastic surgery. The latter narrative is rather a late reaction to a prolonged abuse of the power by the former. But in all this the loser is the real seeker of truth, who doesn’t have any agenda either to propagate or conceal.

My second inspiration to write this novel is perhaps to make a humble attempt at retelling history as authentically as possible, without being driven by any agenda, either the leftist or rightist.

Let me cite an example each from both the sides – the leftist and the rightist – to show how irritating and misleading both could be.

The story of India is not just about the wars and the fights – son killing his father, brother killing his brother, invaders plundering temples and ravaging villages, as we generally read in our history books. Rabindranath had expressed his shock over this type of history which gives but a crooked and narrow idea of a civilization which has been existing for more than 5000 years. In Discovery of India Jawaharlal Nehru says – “India has had many distressful periods in the course of her long history, when she was ravaged by fire and sword or by famine, and internal order collapsed. Yet a broad survey of this history appears to indicate that she had a far more peaceful and orderly existence for long periods of time at a stretch than Europe has had”.

Having said that, it doesn’t make sense to make an agenda to selectively conceal some “distressful periods ravaged by sword” just to paint a picture more orderly and peaceful than it has been. The leftist narrative of India tends to do exactly that. For example, in order not to undermine the contribution of the Mughal Age in India’s culture and tradition, they have consistently concealed many facts which don’t fall in line with their narrative.

Something relevant here is what Irfan Habib said in a lecture in Aligarh Muslin University on October 7, 2015. “In the Mughal period,” he said, “patriotism turned into a more insistent assertion particularly with Akbar and Abul Fazl. They argued that India is a special country, India has a large number of religious communities, and so there must be tolerance, under the umbrella of Sulh-i-Kul i.e. absolute peace. It was argued that the King, like God, must favor all without discrimination. It was not only Akbar and Abul Fazl who made this assertion but even Aurangzeb (when a prince), in 1658.”

Such narrative of exemplary tolerance, peace and religious harmony during the Mughal Age is not restricted to Irfan Habib, but to many other historians from the same stable. These are facts, no doubt. But this is also a fact that Abdul Hamid Lahori’s Badshahnama, a biography of Shah Jahan, the grandson of Akbar and the creator of the Taj, says, “His Majesty [Shah Jahan], the defender of the faith, gave orders that at Benares, and throughout all his dominions in every place, all temples that had been begun should be cast down. It was now reported from the province of Allahabad that seventy-six temples had been destroyed in the district of Benares.”

You would rarely get any reference to this in any of Irfan Habib’s lectures. This tendency to hide things or present facts selectively raises suspicion about the intention of the historians.

On the other side, the rightist narrative is also equally parochial. The entire propaganda against beef eating, in the tailor-made context that the Hindus never ate beef, is as absurd as the unblemished record of tolerance and harmony of the Mughals, as claimed by the likes of Irfan Habib. There are enough evidences in various forms to assert that the ancient Indians – the Hindus in modern parlance – did consume beef very liberally. Here too, presenting facts with a predefined agenda poses a serious problem to the real seeker of truth.

This novel is an attempt at presenting a counter narrative to the either sides – the left and the right. The right claims that there is a very powerful, sustained and unrelenting cultural and intellectual attack on Hinduism everywhere. Writers such as Wendy Doniger, they point out, liken the ancient Hindus to the cowboys who had destroyed the Native Americans, and even to the Nazis who had persecuted the Jews in the Second World War. Hindus are being called prudes, nasty, militants and fundamentals, they fume, but the Muslims are always the victims. Their anger and frustration is catalyzed by the leftist narrative, where the Islamic State is always seen as the outcome of the US aggression in Iraq and the 26/11 Bombay massacre by Pakistani militants a mere reaction to things like India’s policy on Kashmir, the rise in Hindu extremism and the appalling state of poverty among the Muslims in India.

Rot creeps into every religion over the years. Irreligious things often become more important. The most logical solution to this is to have a system where some people (you may call them prophets) should be allowed to cleanse the religion of its rot, from time to time. India has always believed in such a system which has been sort of formalized through the famous verses – yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharatah… Buddha, Mahavira, Nanak, Chaitanya and most recently perhaps Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna have attempted, over the past two millennia, to cleanse various aspects of the prevailing religious practices and beliefs of the times.

There’s no doubt that certain ways of interpreting Islam and the Quran are, by construction, the root causes of lot of intolerance in the world. But the secularist and the leftist brigade somehow always try to dodge this aspect of Islam. They bit around the bush whenever the topic of Islamic intolerance pops up and what they do in turn is very ridiculous. They try to paint all other religions with a rude brush of intolerance, as though, saying someone is bad too absolves me of my being bad.

Writing this book has been an effort at presenting a brutally neutral narrative of the good and bad elements of religions with as much authentic facts and figures as possible, without sounding preachy and making the book seem like a documentary.

Ancient Indian history has been always very fascinating to me and when it comes to ancient India, it’s always the undivided Indian subcontinent, comprising not only the present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also Sri Lanka, which too is culturally and traditionally as much associated and connected to India as are Pakistan and Bangladesh. It’s only when we consider this entire region together, that we get a real and continuous history of the peoples, languages, and cultures over the past few millennia. It’s perhaps not a mere coincidence or the need of the plot, that my story spans across India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in a way that connects the entire region with an uninterrupted cultural and social heritage stretching few millennia in the past. The revelation that the Sri Lankans and the Tamils and the Bengalis have many things in common led to some very interesting and exciting findings, which eventually became a big motivation to include them in the overall narrative of the book.

Given the fact that the Rig Veda, the earliest book written by humanity and the most sacred scripture of the present-day Hindus, is more Pakistani in origin than anything else – it was composed entirely in the present-day Punjab part of Pakistan by sages whose successors are perhaps all Muslim now – it’s a serious dichotomy for the present-day India. Some parts of Pakistan could be the real Bethlehem and Jerusalem of the Hindus. They could be very well the golden Embryo, the Hiranya Garbha, from where originated the crux of ancient Indian wisdom, crystallized in the form of the Vedas, and the illustrious Indian way of life, more commonly known as the Hinduism. Pakistan is sprinkled with uncountable number of Hindu and Buddhist memorabilia, since times immemorial. It’s not surprising that Pakistan, given their identity rooted into Islam, has never attempted at highlighting its glorious pre-Islamic heritage and culture. I felt someone should write about that too. And, hence, Pakistan, not the one though we know of generally, plays a very big role in the book, perhaps as big as any other character.

Finally, I really wanted to write about Aryabhata, the enigmatic mathematician, whose entire life is shrouded in mystery. We don’t even know for sure when and where he was born. Few fragmented evidences point to his being a contemporary to Kalidasa, another enigmatic personality from the medieval India. In many ways Aryabhata is perhaps one of the earliest and greatest Indian exports to the world, in such a mammoth scale, in the global sense, per se. It may be matter of conjecture what would have become of mathematics and science in the world without him, and of course without his formalization of the Indian numerals – commonly known as the Hindu-Arabic Numerals – and the place value system. Without either of these, the modern science wouldn’t be the same. It can be argued that had it not been for him, someone else would have been born and done the same. But then, it’s like saying, without Newton, we might have still had the Laws of Gravitation.

The overall importance and influence of Aryabhata is best summed by the French Mathematician Laplace, when he said:
It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by the means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position, as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit, but its very simplicity, the great ease which it has lent to all computations, puts our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions, and we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest minds produced by antiquity

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Aryabhata Clan

“The Ekkos Clan” was set in the 90s and “The Aryabhata Clan” is set in the 2010s, almost 20 years later. It’s set against the backdrop of ISIS (the Islamic State) spreading its tentacles in India, penetrating stealthily into India’s academia, media, politics and the intellectual world. The mastermind is Shamsur Ali, a physicist from Bangladesh. He wants to create a sort of apocalypse, to destabilize India.

Someone resorts to a big deceit, in an effort to legitimizing the demolition of one of the most prominent historical structures, which a Hindu fanatic group believes has been constructed on the carcasses of an old Shiva temple and which, interestingly, is also in the hit list of the Islamic State. Afsar Fareedi, a linguistic paleontologist and the main protagonist of The Ekkos Clan, now in her mid-forties, catches the fraud. In the melee, there are three gruesome murders, including that of her father, in an attempt to eliminate all traces of a particular carpet which, Afsar discovers, has a lot hidden behind its mysterious motifs. The motifs, Afsar learns, happen to be a few millennia old. Incidentally Afsar’s father was associated with the making of the carpets with the mysterious motifs. Unknown to Afsar herself, her family seems to have preserved the carpet motifs for generations, for thousands of years, but with a heavy price.

Spanning across Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka the story involves deciphering more than thousand years old manuscripts written in the Prakrit languages of the time, innumerable cryptic symbols and ancient scripts, using digital epigraphy, paleography and linguistic paleontology. At the center is a verse composed by the maverick mathematician Aryabhata.

“The Aryabhata Clan” is also the poignant tale of the twenty year old Kubha, who does everything possible humanly, to save her country from a big disaster and protect a beautiful monument, while enduring the most inhuman ordeal of her life. It’s the story of her courage, intelligence and fortitude.

Dealing deftly with the “Good” and “Bad” religion, the story also subtly delves deep into the origin of the Indian peoples, apparently divided by languages, religions, castes and politics, but at one level, united by a unique ancestry, creating the Great Indian Race.

Praises for Sudipto Das

The Aryabhata Clan

“A very readable sequel to The Ekkos Clan. Sudipto Das is a gifted storyteller.” – Jug Suraiya, Times of India

“Intelligent narration and mindful suspense” – Deccan Chronicle

The Ekkos Clan

“A promising debut in the growing realm of modern Indian fiction” – Jug Suraiya, Times of India

“An Indian thriller inspired by Dan Brown & Harrison Ford!... fast-paced thriller, replete with murder and miraculous escapes” - Telegraph 

“If you are a history buff and a thriller aficionado, then [it] might just be the book for you” - The Hindu 

“A tale of the Indian civilization and culture... takes you on a roller coaster ride” - The New Indian Express 

“An interesting read for an afternoon... One feisty woman's partition story” - Bangalore Mirror 

“Should be read for its sheer aspiration and the intelligent handling of historical material” - The Sunday Guardian 

“Is essentially a mystery novel, but is grounded in a substantial base of research and exploration into our past” -

“Bindas writer…, a multi-talented personality” – Deccan Chronicle

Monday, October 17, 2016

Our Literature, Their Literature

Image result for bob dylan nobel prize 2016

At the very beginning I should admit that I’ve plagiarized the title of this article from Satyajit Ray’s anthology of film critique, Our Films, Their Films, where the legendary filmmaker, writer, composer and painter discusses Indian and foreign films. In the case of Ray, “Our” and “Their” are not used in the sense of any discrimination. But in the context of this article, the terms “Our” and “Their” do refer to discrimination, or rather a sense of dissociation. The context here is the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Hell broke loose in certain elite quarters with this announcement. It was, as though, the more than a century old legacy of giving the Nobel Prize to the “best” and the most “deserving” has been shattered.
There are a few common – and clich├ęd too – threads of criticism. The first one is of course the question about the eligibility of the winner. It has been loathly and scathingly said that Bob Dylan is a mere White American Folk and Rock singer. What does he have to do with literature? After all he is just a lyricist, who has written his own songs. It’s as though, he should have been disqualified on the ground of writing lyrics, similar to disqualifying athletes in the Olympics on the ground of using banned drugs. In the realm of “acceptable” literature, “lyrics” is perhaps a banned thing. How can Dylan be even considered for the award? As though it’s blasphemous to even consider the lyrics of rock music as an acceptable form of literature. Or, if I may paraphrase, lyrics is not “Our” literature.
Secondly, questions have been raised on the quality of the poetry in Dylan’s lyrics. It’s as though, a mere trapeze act of a circus is being compared to produnova. Or perhaps, if I may again paraphrase, a tribal music is being blasphemously placed in the same rung as that of a Mozart’s symphony. Again, it’s the same theme: how dare you drag “Their” lyrics into “Our” poetry?
The third criticism is rather overtly racist. It’s being touted as an award, given “again” to a White American. It’s as if, had Dylan been a black, everything would have been fine. I wouldn’t even talk about this.
The scathing attacks on Dylan turned out to be quite nasty, with The British Indian novelist Hari Kunzru twitting, “Is any previous Nobel laureate known to have incorporated so many other people’s words, unattributed, into his work?
Someone else said, “Times they are a-changin’ with Dylan’s win — but not in a good way.
The nadir was surely the comment that came from The Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley: A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president.
Now let’s examine each of the points on which the award is being criticized. First, let’s look into the point of giving the award to a lyricist. People would have forgotten that more than a hundred years ago Rabindranath Tagore had got the same Nobel Prize in Literature for Gitanjali, Song Offerings. Many of the critics may not know, but anyone who has read Tagore knows very well that each of the poems in Gitanjali was actually written for a song. Rabindra Sangeet, or the Tagore Songs, is an integral part of the rich and vast repository of Bengali music and the lyrics of the songs are held in very high esteem by the Bengalis, at par with Tagore’s non song poems. In fact many of us believe that Tagore’s lyrics are stronger than his poems. Some of his best creations are indeed in the form of songs.
Keeping aside Tagore and his Nobel Prize, we can get back to the topic of Dylan. So, as we can see, Dylan is in fact the second lyricist to have got the Nobel Prize in literature. It’s interesting though that in the case of Tagore, the Nobel committee had said that he was being given the award because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.” It never referred to his poetry as lyrics or part of any music. But in the case of Dylan, they said he is being awarded the Nobel “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
In fact, after the announcement, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, clarified the very point of Dylan’s eligibility, in spite of being a son writer. “He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards,” she said. “And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”
She had come to realize, Danius elaborated, that we still read Homer and Sappho from ancient Greece, and they were writing 2,500 years ago. “They were meant to be performed,” she added, “often together with instruments, but they have survived, and survived incredibly well, on the book page.”
Many critics, who are lamenting at the elevation of a lyricist to such a high pedestal, are missing a very important point which Danius has clarified quite explicitly. It’s really nice that the Nobel committee did bring it up. Most of the ancient literature in any civilization and culture was composed in the form of songs. The Rig Veda, the first book written by humanity some 3500 years ago was meant to be sung. The roots of the Indian classical music can be traced back to the ways in which the Rig Veda used to be sung. A later corpus of Vedic literature, the Sama Veda, is often referred to as the Sama Geeti, the Songs of the Sama Veda. The first ever poems to have been written were in the form of lyrics. It’s just a prejudice between “Our” superior poems against “Their” inferior lyrics that has resulted in the totally misplaced criticism of Dylan on the ground that he is a mere lyricist. If we want to discredit a lyricist, then the composers of the Rig Veda, along with Homer and Sappho and many other have to be denigrated too. That’s such a stupid proposition.
Now, let’s move on to the next point: the quality of Dylan’s poetry. It has been alleged that Dylan’s poetry is like the flickering of the stars in front of the bright light emanating from the likes of T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Ezra Pound, D H Lawrence et al. It’s like saying Hyderabadi Biryani is inferior to Risotto alla Milanese.
It’s true that Dylan’s poetry is much simple compared to that of the contemporary modernist and neorealist poets. But the same was true for the English translation of Tagore’s Gitanjali. Rabindranath wrote till the nineteen forties. By then the poetry in the west and also to some extent in India had shelved its simplicity and become quite elitist. Anyone with a basic knowledge of English would appreciate the simple lines of Keats and Wordsworth. The same is true for Tagore, even though he wrote much later than the former two. But the same is not true for the modernist poets. There was suddenly “Our” poetry and “Their” poetry. The elitist group became the guardians of “Our” art and literature, relegating anything non-elitist or populist to “Their”. The common people would find it extremely difficult to appreciate the more and more complicated forms of art unless they had the relevant background. The popular art forms survived in the movies and songs and the schism between “Our” and “Their” increased.
The elitists always have a tendency to look down upon anything that is popular. But does it always make sense? Irrespective of how deep or shallow the lyrics of Dylan are, they have inspired the youth, given voice to the voiceless and faceless revolutionaries, aroused the oppressed and given joy to people across the world. And, if a thing of beauty is a joy forever, doesn’t a line of Dylan, which has given joy to millions of people, qualify to be beautiful? Such is the influence of Dylan, that more than ten thousand miles away from his home, someone by the name Lou Majaw has been organizing a Bob Dylan festival in Shillong, in the northeastern part of India, every year since 1972 on 24th May, Dylan’s birthday. How many living people would have touched the heart and soul of so many, across the globe, like Dylan? How many songs would have transcended the boundaries of ethnicity and cultures, like Dylan’s songs? Paraphrasing perhaps the most popular song of Dylan, it can be aptly said,
Yes, how many songs must a man compose
Before you call him a poet?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind...
It can be argued that any popular form of art always has more receivers than a classical or elite form and hence associating the quality of the art to its popularity is not the right thing. It’s true that the YouTube video of Gangnam Style has more likes than that of a Mozart symphony, but it would be utter stupidity to say the former is superior to the latter. But, at the same time, not many would claim that the Gangnam Style has touched them, inspired them and brought light to their lives. Dylan’s songs have been doing exactly that, for more than fifty years now.
Tagore seems to be very relevant in this context. He had once lamented that simple things are not that simple to be spoken of. ‘I spent much money and visited many lands,’ he had said, ‘to see the mountains, to see the oceans. But I forgot to take the two steps from my home and behold with my wide open eyes, the drop of dew swinging from an ear of paddy.’
Dylan is like the “drop of dew swinging from an ear of paddy”, a very simple thing of beauty. He doesn’t have to be as grand as the mountains and the seas. Period.
Appreciation of art is always a very subjective matter, and it’s totally dependent on context and situation. The rustic and frivolous sounds of the tribal tumdak drum, played by a Santal, under the intoxicating spell of mohua, may not be palatable to the connoisseurs of the grandiose Dhrupad music who are rather used to the lofty rhythms of pakhwaj. But the simple and spontaneous Santal music is as dear to the Santals as is Dhrupad to its serious connoisseurs. It’s mere stupidity to compare the two. It’s rather sacrilegious to even attempt to demean the former on the ground of being simplistic and shallow, when pitted against the latter. Anyone who does that smacks of arrogance, and ignorance too. The tumdak player might not have practiced for sixteen hours a day under the tutelage of a legendary guru, but that doesn’t mean his music, his art is shallow. A nightingale’s voice is as untrained as might be the Santal drummer, but both are musicians without any parallel; both are natural, raw, spontaneous and simple, without any pretense, without any garb, without any artificial embellishment. It’s not for nothing that the folk music in India is called Loka Sangeet, the music of the people.
There are many other deserving lyricists, it may be argued. Why Dylan? That’s another stupid argument. It’s like two kids fighting, each claiming her mother is more beautiful than the others.
In Bengali there’s a saying, pagole ki na bole, chagole ki na khay, the mad says anything, and a goat eats anything. The critics often say anything. Let’s not get bugged with their histrionics. They may even fail to appreciate the beauty of the dactylic hexameter of Homer or the mandakranta feet of Kalidas, because neither is neorealism and expressionist.
It’s rather prophetic that Dylan had once said:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it's namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Qissa Khawani Bazar: The Story of Good & Bad Religion

Qissa Khawani Bazar, 1930

Nanda Ghosh is a fictitious character of indefinite origin in Bengali folk lore who is humorously seen as the root cause of all vices in the world. It’s said, “Joto dosh, Nanda Ghosh”, which implies, whatever be the problem, it’s always Nanda Ghosh who’s to be blamed!

Whenever it comes to things like Taliban, or Al-Qaida and presently the ISIS, US always makes for an easy Nanda Ghosh. It’s not that US has no role in the whole scheme of things, nevertheless, making them the Nanda Ghosh, always, smacks of something else, which is very well understandable. That it’s rather uneasy to talk about or accept certain things publicly has sort of legitimized the hypocrisy of always holding the US – add to it the terms like Western Power, the West, etc. – responsible for everything.

Yes my friends, I’m directly referring to the terrorism, in the name of religion, that has been a grave problem for quite some time. I would rather refrain from calling it an Islamic Terrorism. To be politically, historically, factually and theologically correct, it may be logical to call it “a bad interpretation of religion”, which for the sake of brevity may be referred to as “Bad Religion”. Applying the same logic, when we say “Good Religion”, we mean the good interpretation of religion. The definition of good and bad are relative things. But few things have been known to be good and bad universally. Killing innocent people is seen as bad in any culture and loving people is always good, whatever school of thought you may espouse. Our definition of good bad is also as simple as these universal concepts.

Before coming to the point I would rather like to retell a story, which would create a good premise. It’s the story of the Qissa Khawani Bazar, the Story Tellers’ Market of Peshawar. Not many people would know that it’s perhaps one of the oldest surviving markets in the world, having existed at the same place for at least two millennia, since the times of the Emperor Kanishka, in almost the same way it exists now.

It’s an irony that the Story Tellers’ Market has survived to tell the story of Good and also the Bad Religion.

Lately, Peshawar has been in the news for all the bad reasons. Interestingly Peshawar, the capital of the erstwhile North West Frontier Province, presently Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Indian subcontinent, with a very strong legacy in art, culture and religion that transcends the boundaries of Pakistan and India. Peshawar, and that entire region, also happens to be the karmabhoomi of Bacha (Badshah) Khan, the legendary Pashto leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an apostle of nonviolence and a close aid of Mahatma Gandhi.

Bacha Khan with Gandhi

The history of Peshawar, and especially that of Bacha Khan, who lends his name to the University where a recent attack happened, don’t seem to go hand in hand with the present state the entire region has got into. The glorious past and the legacy left behind by Bacha Khan were all indigenous to the region. It was not something that any external agency had created for them, unlike the thousand legacies left behind by the British on India. The cultural heritage of that region is very much rooted there, not anywhere else. So it shocks more when we see what it has degenerated into now. The most striking thing of that place is indeed Bacha Khan’s tryst with nonviolence, something the towering personality had started preaching and practicing totally independent of Gandhi. It could very well be a case study in itself, when seen in the context of Islam, or rather the Islam he believed in. It’s intriguing why his interpretations of Islam, which he used to justify his faith in nonviolence, doesn’t find any resonance now.

It’s paradoxical that, at a time when certain interpretations of Islam have been fuelling a sort of violence and terrorism not seen before, no one wants to talk about Bacha Khan’s nonviolence. It’s as though, the moment you talk about that, you indirectly accept Islam can also be interpreted in a different way, and thus, you would accept this too that the other interpretation is questionable, or rather wrong. That is where the problem lies – no one is ready say that the king is naked.
Let us go back and look into the history a bit. Peshawar had a famous dagaba (dhatu-garbha in Sanskrit meaning a receptacle for sacred ashes or relics) enshrining the begging pot of the Buddha. It was constructed by the Kushana Emperor Kanishka in the 2nd century AD. The sacred relic was taken to Vaishali, and then to Kandahar, where it’s still believed to be preserved and revered by the Muslims.
When the Chinese monk and traveler Fah Hien passed through the province in the 5th century he describes the dagaba at Peshawar as “more than 470 ft. in height, and decorated with every sort of precious substance, so that all who passed by, and saw the exquisite beauty and graceful proportions of the tower and the temple attached to it, exclaimed in delight that it was incomparable for beauty”. He adds, “Tradition says this was the highest tower in Jambudwipa.”
When Hiuen Tsang passed that way more than 200 years later, he reports the tower as having been 400 ft. high, but it was then ruined. It doesn’t exist now.
Kanishka is represented as a Buddhist, beyond all doubt. He held a convocation at which Nagarjuna was apparently the presiding genius. From about that time the Tibetans, Burmese, and Chinese date the first introduction of Buddhism into their countries. Nagarjuna essentially spread Buddhism, from Peshawar, over the whole of central and eastern Asia. It was precisely analogous to the revolution that took place in the Christian Church, about the same time after the death of its founder. Six hundred years after Christ, Gregory the Great established the hierarchical Roman Catholic system.
So the Sanskrit Purushapura, which Akbar Persianized to Peshawar, the Frontier Town, happens to be an epicenter for Buddhism. At Jamalgarhi, 36 miles NE of Peshawar, and Takht-i-Bahai, 8 miles further westward, the ancient monasteries exist till date.
Charsadda, where a recent attack happened, is identified with the ancient Pushkalavati, another important Buddhist site.
Peshawar stood at an important crossroad in the ancient Silk Route that connected India with China and the Europe through the Central Asia. Peshawar stands at a point from where, if you went to the east you would enter into India-proper, if you went north you would go to China and if you went to the west you would cross the Central Asia, finally leading to the European lands. It’s not for nothing that the qafilas have been bringing the Afghans, Persians, Turkomans, Uzbeks, Russians and many others from round the world to this place, for two thousand years, since the time of the great Kanishki Namworr, as was the Kushan Emperor Kanishka often referred to in the old inscriptions.

Peshawar still has the Qissa Khawani Bazar, the Story Teller’s Market. Everyone who came here had a story to share and that’s how this market came to be known as the Qissa Khawani Bazar, the Story Tellers’ Market. For thousands of years the people have listened to these stories of the world. If you went to the market, you might realize not much would have changed in the past so many years. The narrow lanes and by-lanes of the vibrant market would be bustling with activity the same way it perhaps did during the times of Kanishka. You might maneuver carefully through a crowd that would have always looked the same. The big bundle you might be carrying on your back would bump against the people, camels, horses and mules, all that have come from places near and far to this market. Making your way through the horde of men and animals and somehow managing not to get run over by the carts of various shapes and sizes, spilling with bazar paraphernalia and vying for space in the packed streets, you could very well dash against the counter of a shop and the colorful pyramids of figs, apricots and pomegranates could come crumbling down, scattering the fruits on the ground. A kid would run away in scare and collide with a man with an end of a pole on his shoulder, carrying wooden cages of squawking chickens. The pole could dislodge from his shoulder, throwing the cages on the ground. The cackling chickens, freed from the broken cages, would run helter-skelter all over the street. A commotion would ensue, overwhelming everyone with the series of comical acts. In the melee a baffled camel pulling an overloaded cart could start racing, running the cart over the feet of some people and throwing many others off the street…

Time seems to have stopped at this place.

Here, the followers of Bacha Khan created their own story on 23rd April, 1930. It was the story of the honesty and truthfulness of the Pashtuns, the story of sacrificing their wealth, life and comfort for the liberty of Hindustan, the story of their lives in accordance with the principles of adam tashaddud, nonviolence, preached by their leader, Bacha Khan.

With his affable but stupefying personality, as towering as his tall height, and the earnestness in his speech, Bacha Khan had hypnotized many young minds. Sometime back, he had given a mesmerizing speech at Utmanzai, his birthplace, not very far from Peshawar.
I’m going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you’re not aware of it. That weapon is sabr, patience, renunciation of all violent retaliation and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it. When you go back to villages, tell your brethren that there is an army of God, and its weapon is sabr. Ask your brethren to join the army of God. Endure all hardships. If you exercise sabr, victory will be yours…”

Bacha Khan had formed the Khudai Khidmadgar, Servants of God, the previous year. Such was the popularity of Abdul Gaffar Khan, anointed as Badshah Khan, the King of Khans, that even his reference would augur a feeling of reverence among his people. Such a level of acceptance among the Pashtuns was perhaps because he had instilled new vigor and honor into Pashtunwali, the Pashtun way of life, giving the violent people a new meaning to their lives which had been relegated to bad blood and savage killings.

He would say, “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca and it has since been followed by all those who wanted to throw off an oppressor’s yoke. A Muslim never hurts anyone by word or deed. Islam is amal, yakeen, muhabat, work and faith and love…”

Bacha Khan was essentially interpreting the 250th verse of the 2nd chapter of Quran. Rabbana, afrigh alayna sabran, Lord, pour sabr on us. Wa-thabbit aqdamana, and make firm our qadm, the steps we take. Wa-unsurna ala al-qawami al-kafirana, and help us against the people who are kafir, infidels. What’s interesting here is his interpretation of “kafir” which most commonly is taken as non-believers in Islam. But Bacha Khan interpreted that as enemies, the Angrez in his case. He decided to support the Peshawar Congress and participate in the Civil Disobedience Movement.

A picketing was planned at the Qissa Khawani Bazar on 23rd April, 1930, which soon turned out to be another Jallianwala Bagh. The police from the nearby Kabuli Thana fired indiscriminately at the nonviolent Pashtuns who ran for their lives in the narrow streets of the market and died, not even one turning violent.
What exactly happened on 23rd April may be well understood from the following two poems, one in Urdu and the other in Pashto.

Malakul maut ko khatir mein na lene wale
Goliyan taney huye seeno pe khane wale
Qabr tak sabr ko sehte huye jane wale
Sabat ka mujiza dunya ko dikhane wale
Not paying any heed to the Angel of Death,
Taking the bullets valiantly on their chest,
Till they go to their graves enduring the patience,
Showing the world the wonder of perseverance…
Dasey toye karhi hecha nadi da chargano winey
Laka toye karhi di angrez da mazlumano winey
Zaka likaley de Santis April harcha pa wino
Che pa de wradz bande werhia we da khwarano winey
Qissa Khana qasab-khana wah pa nazar da khalqo
Che ye bazar ke bahedalay da khwarano winey
 No one has shed the blood of the chickens in the way
The Angrez shed the blood of the oppressed, that day.
“Santis April” all have written in letters bloody red –
The day saw easy blood as the poor died and bled.
Qissa Khana became a slaughter’s house before our eyes;
In the bazar the poor’s blood was scattered under the sky.
It’s ironic that the Story Tellers’ Market survives to tell a totally different story now.
It’s very important now to talk about Bacha Khan and his “good” interpretation of Islam. It’s important to highlight his teachings, not only to inspire people, but also to point out that there indeed is a big issue in the way Islam can be interpreted otherwise.

Consider this: An ISIS manual available in the internet says, “You should rape the female captive. Allah the almighty said: Successful are the believers who guard their chastity, except from their wives or the captives that their right hands possess, for they are free from blame…

It is actually referring to the 5th verse of 23rd chapter to Quran, which says, “Wa-alladhina hum lifurujihim hafizunaAnd they who abstain from sex, except with their spouses or captives whom their right hands possess, are not to be blamed…”

Scanning the ISIS documents, it’s not hard to tumble upon the following quotes from the Quran which are being used rampantly to legitimize most of the atrocities ISIS have been involved in.

2nd verse from 191st chapter: Wa-uq’ tuluhum, and kill them, haythu thaqif’ tumuhum, wherever you find them, wa-akhrijuhum, and drive them out, min haythu akhrajukum, from wherever they drove you out, wal-fit’natu ashaddu mina al-qatli, and Fitna is worse than al-qatli, the killing… Fa-in qatalukum, then if they fight you, fa-uq’tuluhum, then kill them. Kadhalika jazau al-kafirina, such is the reward, jazau, of the non-believers, kafirs.

Yusuf Ali translates the verse as: And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; For tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter.

2nd verse of 193rd chapter: Waqatiluhum hatta la takuna fit’natun, and fight them until not there is Fitna, wayakuna al-dinu lillahi, and [everything] becomes the religion for Allah.

3rd verse of 56th chapter: Fa-amma alladhina kafaru, then as for those who disbelieve, the kafirs, fa-u`adhibuhum, then I will punish them, `adhaban shadidan fi al-dun’ya wal-akhirati, a punishment, severe in the world and Hereafter.

8th verse of 12th chapter:  Sa-ul’qi fi qulubi, I’ll cast in hearts, alladhina kafaru, of those who disbelieved, the kafirs, al-ru`’ba, the terror. Fa-id’ribu, so strike, fawqa al-a`naqi, above the necks, wa-id’ribu min’hum kulla bananin, and strike from them every fingertip.

There are many more. This is nothing by “Bad Religion”.

Often it’s said that Hitler was a Christian and Pol Pot was raised as a Buddhist and that they have killed more people than what the ISIS and Taliban and the Al-Qaida would have killed collectively. But what such a stupid reasoning always misses is that neither Hitler nor Pol Pot justified their atrocities or rather legitimized them, citing verses from the Bible or the Dhammapadas. But ISIS or the Taliban and Al-Qaida always use the “Bad Religion” to legitimize everything.

Problems do creep into the interpretation of every religion. It crept into Hinduism even 600 years before the birth of Christ. That was when Buddha emerged and re-interpreted Hinduism. What the Tagore family et-al tried to do, as late as 150 years ago, was to re-interpret Hinduism, perhaps for the last time. In between, in the two thousand years that have elapsed, a lot of people and movements have emerged to re-align Hinduism with the need of the time. A similar thing is totally missing in Islam.

What’s really curious is why no one wants to talk openly about the need to reorient Islam. All religions have gone through phases of revival and reorientation from time to time.  There’s nothing wrong or bad or sad about it. In turning a blind eye to it, the academia, media and intellectuals are actually doing more harm than good. That’s why Bacha Khan is important now because he did something that any religion needs from time to time – reinterpretation and reorientation.

The Qissa Khawani Bazar stands to tell the stories of both the Good and Bad Religion.

Saturday, September 3, 2016


Among 8000 global professionals surveyed by LinkedIn, only 30% were found to be doing their dream job. That is a terrible statistic. That’s almost 3 out of 4 people not getting to do something they had desired to do. So, what do they do then?  Live life in frustration and anger and be complacent about it? Absolutely NOT.

They can still live their passion, despite doing whatever they might have chosen to do, perhaps under duress.

You all would have heard a number of times people saying, “Guys, you have to follow your passion…” But how do you do that? How do you know what you are passionate about?

The first thing about passion is shiddat, intensity.

I’ve plagiarized the word shiddat from Minakshi, a friend of mine. I wasn’t finding publishers for my second book, which was not in fact a sequel to The Ekkos Clan. I gave up in between and started writing the sequel, as the publishers wanted a sequel.
Hearing that I’d given up on it, Minakshi smiled. “You’ll never get a publisher,” she said firmly.

“That’s quite rude,” I reacted.

“No, it’s not rude,” she asserted. “It’s the reality. Unless you think it will happen, it will never happen.  Remember that dialogue from Om Shanti Om? Itni shiddat se maine tumhe paane ki koshish ki hai ... ki har zarre ne mujhe tumse milane ki saazish ki hai.”

That’s the first thing about passion. If you want to do something, believe in it so strongly, so intensely, that you will transfer the energy within you to each and every particle of the universe; and the whole universe will conspire to make it happen for you.

When you have that shiddat, you know, you have a passion.

What’s next? It’s dard, pain. Again, Bollywood teaches us many a thing in unassuming ways. Do you remember that canteen-wala from Rockstar who told a very important thing to Ranbir Kapoor? In very simple words he taught perhaps the most important lesson about passion, that, “It’s the pang of separation that spreads throughout the world, And gives birth to shapes innumerable in the infinite sky.” What is this pain of separation I’m talking about here? It’s the pain we all face, due to the lack of fulfillment of our dreams. 

These lines are from Gitanjali, written by Tagore.

Pain is the force behind all creativity, any act of passion.

Newton, towards the end of his life, would sit in front of the sea and lament that he was just like a kid, playing with pebbles, while the vast ocean of truth was lying in front of him, unknown to him. His unfulfilledness stayed with him till he died.

Tagore, towards the end of his life, would feel insecure that people might not remember him after his death. He would ponder if his tanpura would lay at the corner, collecting dust. A feeling of unfulfilledness would haunt him, always.

Before I talk about something totally different, let me tell you what Ghalib had to say about passion:

fursat-ekar-o-bar-e shauq kise, zauq-e nazzarah-e jamal kahan
dil to dil who dimag bhi na raha, shor-e sauda-e khatt-o-khal kahan
thi who ik shakhs ke tasabbur se, ab woh ranai-e khayal kahan

Leisure for the workings of passion, who has it? An appreciation for the glance of beauty, where is it?
Not to speak of the heart, even that mind didn’t last, the tumult of the madness of a mole, where is it?
Was in the imagination of someone, but now, that gracefulness of thought, where is it?

If you really have to do things of passion, you’ve to do it leisurely. You’ve to have lot of fursat. You’ve to have all the time to appreciate the small mole on the face of your beloved, be in the imagination of your beloved, and remain engrossed in her thoughts. If you’re passionate about something, you would have all the fursat to be in the fantasies of it, however small or insignificant it may be to others.

The next thing about passion is chingari, the spark. Talking about it, I remember a story. I call it the story of Kutta Ki Maut, The Death of the Dog.

One day I was driving on the Outer Ring Road, in Bangalore. My friend Pankaj was with me. I was driving easily, rather leisurely, talking to Pankaj, enjoying his humor. Suddenly a speeding car hit a dog and we saw the dog die in front of us. I took the car to the side of the road and stopped. Few cars had to take a little detour to avoid further crushing the dying dog. The lump of flesh stopped writhing. That was the first time I’d seen a dog dying in front of me, like that. I was aghast. I was shocked, despite not having any especial love for dogs.

“Paaji,” I reacted, “aaj kutte ki maut dekha, pehli bar…”

Pankaj was silent, suddenly. “What” I asked.

“Mere dost,” he said in his characteristic style, with all his intonations, “we all will die one day, like that, like a dog…”

I was perhaps more aghast than I had been just a few moments earlier. “What are you saying?” I’d ignited the engine of the car and pressed the gas pedal.
“Just think about it… Will it be different when we die one day? Like the few cars stopped by, for a moment, few people may stop by our dead bodies, for some time, but then all will move on, even our families. Like the dog who will have no sign of its existence, we will also get lost…, unless we leave behind a mark…”

This set my mind into motion and I came back home and decided finally, I would start writing the novel I had been thinking about for a long time. That was my spark, chingari, which ignited the fire of passion in me.

Finally, you need some discipline, to connect the dots. Passion can manifest in numerous ways. You may want to do lot many things. But, you need to sit back, do some homework, be methodical, prioritize things, make a solid plan and implement it in a way so as to channelize your passion in the right direction, towards an outcome.