Friday, December 30, 2016

(Far) across the table

Have you ever measured a table in miles?
Or minutes, in uncomfortable silences?
They say a lot of things can happen over coffee
- they don't tell you a lot of things unhappen too.
In the incessant shaking of your leg
Or my excessive attention to the decor
In the checking of our phones
(which had no new notifications)
There was certainly a new story
but this time, of a dismantling
Was it the flavour of love, that was amiss in my cup,
Or did an infusion of blame make your tea bitter?
Were you really critiquing the cafe's bad service,
Or was it a roster of plaints of your heart?
For last evening I saw us measuring
a table in miles
and minutes in uncomfortable silences.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Sleeping beauty heart

Come boy, you need some straddling,
some kissing, some fondling
oh, that sleeping beauty of a heart
come boy, it needs some waking

Allow my words into your arms
I bring gifts of chains and whips
If you will let me bind you right
I promise you phantasmagorical trips

Come boy, look me in the eye
you need to be reminded of love
not the sweet and gentle kind
but one that is unsparingly rough

For gentleness is your bane, boy
the opium to your brain, boy
come, let me remind you
of the taste of turmoil, boy

Come boy, let me strip you,
break you, rip you apart 
until all you are left with
are dancing shoes and a naked heart

Friday, July 01, 2016

Book review: Ramayana - Stolen Hope (Part III) by Shubha Vilas

Two things have changed since I read the first two installments of Shubha Vilas' Ramayana series. Firstly, I've realised that the author in question is a man - his name being Shubh(a) and not ShubhA as I'd previously thought; and secondly, my interest in the epic has peaked. The Ramayana has, for some reason, assumed an important place in my life and therefore, the author's request for a review was more than welcome. However, because my last review wasn't exactly kind, I was surprised when the author asked me for a second. As an author-in-the-making, one understands that it cannot be an easy task to place one's hard work at the altar of someone's opinion. But it is rather flattering as a critic because you know that your words are being taken seriously and objectively.  

That said, my opinions haven't much changed since the last time. While I still admire the author's crisp manner of writing, I also still find his 'moral footnotes' unnecessary, and sometimes even  mildly hilarious. I mean, how does one react to a line like this?

"Instead of tea, if one drinks a cup of responsibili-tea, the struggle to remain awake would be a happy one."

With an #smh, right? A little condescending laughter, maybe? Or just plain wonder at how Jaico's editors let these things pass? 

But then that's the author's USP. Perhaps there will be some readers who will appreciate this 'humour' (if that's what it is supposed to be), and his tendency to preach. Sometimes, there are pages where he explains the significance of certain actions of certain characters. Some of the reasons cited seem plausible; while some others seem quite preposterous. Then again, there's no contesting interpretations in mythology/religion and it is best left to the discretion of his readers. 

I, for one, ignore these explanatory sections and footnotes and read the book as one would a simple rendition of the Ramayana in prose. For those who are familiar with the epic, it helps jog one's memory pertaining to its various myths and sub-plots; and for those who are reading the Ramayana for the first time, it is a great 'starter pack'. It is a true version of the epic with no fictionalisation, as many current authors are wont to do. Don't let that strange cover illustration of what looks like Rama attacking for Jatayu mislead you.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Book Review: Being Hindu

Title: Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You
Author: Hindol Sengupta
Publisher: Penguin India
Genre: Non fiction/ Religion
ISBN: 978-0-143-42532-8
Pages: 192
Date of release: December, 2015
Binding: Paperback


Let me be honest. I started this book a little warily. In the perilous ride that is religion in India right now, I prefer to sit at the centre, leaning a little towards the Left. I watch with trepidation the loud voices coming from the Right side of things and fear that 'Hinduism' is turning into a dirty word. Therefore, I approach anything with 'Hindu' written on it with suspicion. In the strictly academic pursuit of subjects like ancient Indian History, Culture, Mythology and Mysticism, my skepticism is only heightened.

Yet like many of my generation, I'm drawn like moth to flame to anything with 'Hindu' written on it – even titles that sound like fashion labels of unscrupulous film stars. It comes from a deep, even perverted need to understand; to understand my roots, my place in the ever-changing world, and the volatile interplay between social, economic, political, and religious forces.

Neti, neti (not this, not this)

In his latest offering, Being Hindu, Hindol Sengupta tries to throw light on some of these issues. The apparent intent is to address some questions about identity and the relevance of religion in the life of a young Indian. But Sengupta does not do a convincing job. Let me explain why.

The author in question is not a cultural commentator, not a historian, nor a expert of religion. He is a journalist, and a good one at that, but he lacks the depth of an academic. And the result is that his book ends up reading like one long op-ed. He generalises and trivialises. His research sample seems to comprise only of his cosy elite Delhi circle. “...I noticed a general ennui and hesitance about declaring themselves Hindu, especially among the general youth, as well as my colleagues and friends. I felt it too.” “It was almost like we were asking for the responsibility of spiritual choice to be taken away from us...”, he says. We? Us? Speak for yourself, maybe? I know this India he's talking about – the one in high rises with glass facades, the one with the luxury of doubt and contemplation. 

But he doesn't seem to take into account the other greater India, where the people practice simple faith and have very little doubt, if any, about their religious identity. When one deems to delve into the sticky territory of religion, one ought to drink deeper than that.

In a commentary about the machinations of religion and society, his personal influences show up very jarringly again and again. One of his personal set of beliefs imposed all over the book is derived from the Ramakrishna Mission. He incessantly quotes their teachings and philosophy throughout the book. As great as Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Vivekananda were, it cannot be the only lens through which Hinduism can or should be understood.

The second point I find hard to accept is his singularly Vedantic view of things. Yes, a large part of Hindu philosophy is inspired by the ideas of the Upanishads and Shankaracharya's Uttar Mimansika school, but that's not all there is to Hinduism. There are other schools of thought and other ways of spiritual understanding that he completely overlooks. In the mien of Vivekandanda, Gandhi and Ambedkar, he labels Hinduism's ritualistic aspect as regressive and repressive. But he forgets the cultural implications of these rites and rituals and the fact that they represent the living religion; not of course in the India of glass facade high rises. You cannot write a book about being a Hindu without writing about its daily manifestations.

Finally, he seems especially influenced/scarred by his American Christian schooling. Despite himself, he keeps trying to refute the Catholic idea of sinners. “None of us is a heathen. None of us is an infidel... you and me, we are not sinners. We are the divine. We just don't know it yet.” Too many negations a positive make, Mr. Sengupta. It seems like deep down he believes in the ideas of evil and sin and tries hard to persuade himself and his readers otherwise. It also makes him compulsively and excessively compare Hinduism with Christianity, reducing the scope of pure theology.

Right gone wrong

So he swings the other way, he goes Right. He joins this new band of people who, clad in saffron, their chests excessively puffed, proclaim their pride in Hinduism. Nothing wrong with being proud of one's religion, but everyone knows where this jingoism is headed. Perhaps those who swear by the Vedic culture would do well to remind themselves that our greatest works were anonymously composed.

The quest for knowledge through different paths, the Brahman, was sought in all humility. Greatness comes from doing, not saying. And here we have some of these puffy-chested creatures decrying any and all other differing points of view. Names are called, mockery is made and ultimately there is a subscription to the very tropes they claim to be rejecting. They're so ashamed of Hindu apologists that they become apologists for apologists. Heh. Case in point. Wendy Doniger, the Indic scholar everyone loves to hate. In trashing Wendy's children*, they become Dinanath Batra's children, or Rajeev Malhotra's. Every scholar who doesn't sing the glories of Hinduism, or reads it differently, is branded ignorant. The only 'good' Indologists are the ones like Diana Eck (Sengupta's favourite), who say what is desirable to these Hindu ears, hungry for validation. Only selective references, no place  or tark or vivaad. Yes, let's all scratch each others' backs over a tea party called 'How Great We Are'. 

Speaking of references, Sengupta loves to use them. Most of all, himself. Why else would someone reproduce an entire article published elsewhere in a new book? He must think his essay, 'How to write about Hindus with the Left Hand' – a tribute to Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay, 'How To Write About Africa' – is particularly funny and/or brilliant. I am hard pressed to agree. In that essay he mocks foreign Indic scholars for using pictures of gods as cover images for their books among other things. Too stereotypical, he says. Wonder where he was looking when they picked the cover for his book.

At one point Sengupta laments how we don't consider our religious legacy worthy until some firang tells us so. So you would think that someone with this complaint would always eagerly turn to indigenous sources of knowledge. But, no. Here is a Hindu, trying to tell us how to understand Hinduism, while throwing all possible foreign sources at us. He quotes everyone from Schrodinger to Bohm to Capra to Dawkins to Jung to drive home his point, especially when using science as his fulcrum. Thankfully, he quotes a few Indian scholars too and manages to keep a semblance of balance. 

Being confused

As a reader, I find Mr. Sengupta lost. He doesn't seem to know where he belongs or wants to belong. His Anglicised, Christianised education and his station in life places him, like many of us, in that class of people with Hindu identities (or lack thereof) and Western aspirations. Having become financially comfortable, we can now indulge in some soul searching while we slave away at multinationals, eating global cuisine, tapping away at our foreign brand phones. In this time of global strife surrounding religion, finding one's place in the larger scheme of things is important.

Questions are many, and the answers are not simple. The author embarks on a personal journey of defining his Hindu identity with this book and assumes that his readers share and understand these real (and imagined) conflicts. He rambles about all sorts of issues – from the idea of the 'One True God', to 'Religion and Science' to 'Vegetarianism', never quite getting to the point. At one point he writes about Vedanta, quantum physics and the principle of singularity, and then decides to talk about homosexuality and then again, rural economy. Here he is giving us a litany of ancient Indian geniuses and their treatises before suddenly jumping to technology and loneliness and then again, the need for religious reform. By the seventh chapter, which ia on Vegetarianism, he completely loses the plot. The complexities of the subject inundate him.

Saving (spiritual) grace

The author may not know or understand the larger cultural import of Hinduism, but he knows well his spirituality – at least the Vedantic variety. The book has its moments of clarity, and they're lovely. My favourite parts are where he talks about the unity of the self and the universe, the need for stillness and the Avatar Syndrome. Sample these:

“Just by being alive, at every single moment, you are not just part of the universe, you are the universe.”

“...Hinduism survives because it sets people free.. The only truth that exists is inside oneself – not in a book.”

“We are the ones we have been waiting for. This waiting for a messiah goes against the very essence
of the philosophy of Hinduism.”

The book, then, is really about the author's own philosophical and spiritual inquiry of Hinduism, and not everything else that he tries to throw into the mix. It won't give you much meat (vegetables if you prefer) on Being Hindu as the title of the book claims. Sure, in his introduction the author says this view of Hinduism is based on his personal understanding of the religion, but then a more appropriate title would have been Being Hindol.


*A term used to denote the school of scholars who are inspired by Doniger's writings.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Seance

Read that note that has just been slipped under your door
it says, in a dark, cursive, Gothic font.
I'm holding a seance tonight to awaken lost loves.
Don't come alone; bring your broken heart along.
Tonight we celebrate what could have been, what never was.
I have an Ouija board with 3 questions:
"Do you still love me?"
Did you ever love me?"
"Would you love me again?"
And the answer can only be YES.


Ah, you've come. Nice perfume.
Sit down, hold hands, close your eyes.
Focus on this burning candle.
Yes, it's your heart. Burning, burning, burning all over again.
I race to the past to pluck your lover's spirit,
and place it upon your lap.
Ask them what you will, do what you want.
Tonight there will be no denials, betrayals or unexplained goodbyes.
Kiss them if you want
Touch and make tremble.
Let your souls lie together and make love
like you always wanted to, like you never could.


Hurry now, the candle is burning out
the past must return where it belongs.
Clocks must be turned back, and graves sealed shut.
I put the lights back on
and see what I need to see.
This is the only payment I seek.
A hundred tears shed 
and one heart healed.