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Budhini Mejhan – ‘The woman who persevered’

The story of  Budhini Mejhan is a nexus of several socio-political strcutures. She was ostrasized by her village and lost her job for an innocent gesture, which was seen as a violation of Santhal traditions. Through Sangeetha Srinivasan’s beautiful translation, Sarah Joseph’s literary sketch of Budhini Mejhan is vivacious, hopeful and endearing. Here is an excerpt:

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Let us begin with the woman who persevered. Not how she recaptured the dancing ground, but how she ran incessantly without knowing whose land to set foot in. Waking up in the fourth phase of the night, she lit her stove and boiled some water. If she had a pinch of tea leaves or rice, she would have made some tea or gruel.

Front Cover of Budhini
Budhini || Sarah Joseph, Sangeetha Sreenivasan (Translator)

‘Oye, Ratni, wake up! We have to be there straight away. Please don’t wake your baba. The moment he’s up he will start whining, “Why toil over something in vain, Ratni’s ma? You have been running for a long time now, haven’t you? Will your complaints reach their ears? Better get back to sleep than wear off the soles of your feet.” But, Ratni, it doesn’t work like that; we should barge in and vex them as often as not. In the end, they will be forced to make a decision. Your baba is depressed, but could we endure more than this! Put your blankets over those boys, Ratni. Poor kids, they have been cold all night. Here, take this hot water. It’s not likely that Jauna Marandi will wait for us. His tongue has no bones. And if we don’t make it on time, he will go on grumbling about it till we get there.’

Languorous but still on her feet, Ratni staggered out of the house. Could this shack covered with asbestos sheets, tattered burlaps and rags, sandwiched between the walls of two multi-storeyed buildings, be called a home? Shoving the ragged fabric covering the back of the house aside, the child squatted on the ground and peed. From the mud kanda on the ground, she diligently filled water in a coconut shell and rinsed her mouth and face. She shuddered because of the cold.

‘Ratni Mei!’ Hearing her mother call out in a hushed voice, she went inside without delay. A little black dog followed her into the room, squeezed itself to make space between the sleeping boys and then curled up on the floor. Looking into her eyes, it wagged its tail in concern.

…‘We are very late, Ratni Mei. It seems Jauna Marandi has already left.’ Ratni’s mother was dejected. Loosening the knot at the end of her pallu, she took out some coins and counted. ‘Jauna had promised to take us for free. What should we do now! I saved these coins to buy medicine for your baba, but now we will have to spend them on bus tickets. But if you can walk, Ratni, there is a shorter route through the forest.’

Ratni didn’t say whether she could walk or not. Her teeth chattered, thanks to the cold.

While life saunters, the sun might as well rise in the west one day, marking the end of order. Then daybreak will turn into the hour of darkness. Like time suspended, nothing will be understood. Not everyone will overcome the bewilderment that is yet to come.

As Jauna’s jeep climbed up the road from Asansol to Dhanbad, an arm adorned with thick silver bangles suddenly appeared right in front of his vehicle. A strong arm! Nothing else was visible in the fog. Jauna forced his weight down on the brake pedal.

‘Get in,’ he bawled.

The DVC workers noticed the woman and child get into the jeep through the impenetrable fog. The woman wore a mud- coloured sari with a green border and the girl a crimson sweater. The child carried a bundle of clothes which she hugged close in a bid to protect herself from the insufferable cold. She looked not more than seven or eight. The woman had a grey shaded shawl wrapped around her and a lengthy red fabric bag on her shoulder. There was no seat. They hunkered down on the floor.

It was only the next day that Jauna Marandi realized, much to his shock, that the woman and child had boarded his jeep and alighted at the gates of the DVC to commit suicide.

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Budhini is an exploration not only of the social laws of identity through the story of Budhini Mejhan but also the imbalanced burden that modernization and urbanization places on communities reliant on ecological methods of sustenance.

 

 

Lighten your soul—Love, forgive, bless

With our birth begins our life cycle and it ends with our death. We all are transitory beings. We can own nothing on Earth on a permanent basis. When we understand that all relationships, situations, sufferings, and emotions are perishable, we realise that the only conquest useful to us is our own mind. The real and only worthwhile journey is into our selves and our soul, for our soul is our greatest guru. When we understand our own soul, we understand all souls. They are all one. The Power of Purity aims to familiarise us with the nuances of our lives and to remind us to steer away from the illusions that the world offers.

Here’s an excerpt from the book in which the author introduces us to a way of life that will help us become aware of ourselves and elevate our soul.

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Front Cover of The Power of Purity
The Power of Purity || Mohanji

Bless all. It will make you serene and light. Blessing expands you. It makes you light. When we bless all the people we like and all the people we do not like, we truly become the perfect expression of the Almighty. His true expression is unconditional love. When we remove all hatred and fear from our mind, we become an embodiment of love. Love expands. Love makes our life enjoyable. When we express sincere gratitude to all the objects and beings that helped our existence on Earth, we become universal. Once we understand the true relevance of the food that we have consumed so far, the houses that sheltered us, the books that gave us knowledge, our parents and our teachers, and, above all, the element of divinity that sustained us, we will be filled with humility and deep gratitude. Most of our vital functions, including respiration, circulation, digestion, heartbeat and even sleep, for that matter, are controlled by our subconscious mind. All these things are working in perfect synchronization because our conscious mind has nothing to do with it. We are given the time, space, intellect and situation to act out our inherent traits. What do we have in our control? Why do we blame others? Why do we entertain guilt at all? What is there to be afraid of? All experiences have been lessons. We could not have changed anything. So what else can we do, except express unconditional love and compassion? What else can we do but bless everybody and everything? When we realize that we are not really the one who does everything, we will see our ego getting nullified and our doership getting dissolved. We will then operate in perfect awareness and gratitude.

God is within us. God is to be loved, not feared. The soul element that fuels our existence is the God within all of us. God, the one who generates, operates and dissolves. Hence, all of us possess the same god element. No one is inferior nor superior to anyone. Some evolved higher through rigorous practices, contemplation and meditation. Through lifetimes of efforts, they attained higher awareness. That’s all. In principle, all are one and the same. The same soul element fuels the existence of all living beings, which includes plants and animals. Just like the same electricity is used to operate various equipment, the same soul operates various bodies, and some of them are human.

All of us are temporary custodians of a body, of money and possessions. It is the same with relationships. Everything is temporary. Everything has a definite longevity. There is no room for egocentric expressions, if we digest this truth. All we can do is forgive everything. Bless everything.

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To understand your consciousness, the meaning of life, and the various facets of existence, read Mohanji’s The Power of Purity.

A diving holiday, disturbing discovery, and kidnapping

Far out in the Arabian Sea, where the waters plunge many thousands of metres to the ocean floor, lies a chain of bewitching coral atolls – the Lakshadweep Islands. Vikram and Aditya dive into lagoons with crystal-clear water and reefs that are deep and shrouded in mystery. But when they stumble upon a devious kidnapping plot, their idyllic holiday turns into a desperate struggle for survival.

Here is an excerpt from Deepak Dalal’s new book, Lakshadweep Adventure where Faisal – the boy who’s care Vikram and Aditya are left in – makes a disturbing discovery.

Front Cover A Vikram–Aditya Story: Lakshadweep Adventure
A Vikram–Aditya Story: Lakshadweep Adventure

Faisal was in a bad mood. His uncle’s impending arrival hovered like a dark cloud above him. And his friends’ decision to abandon him for the day only made things worse.

Faisal had noticed the wind the moment he had strolled out on to the beach, and his mood had soured even further when he saw his friends enjoying themselves. He wished he had accepted Aditya’s offer as he watched them speed their boards across the lagoon. But it was too late now. His uncle would be arriving shortly.

Faisal sat under a palm tree. He passed time drawing figures in the sand. Above him, palm fronds shook and fluttered as the wind whistled through them. The sun shone brightly. The sand intensified its glare, forcing Faisal to shut his eyes. It was pleasant under the tree and the wind was crisp and enjoyable. The rustling of the palms overhead soothed him and he soon fell asleep.

The tide slowly crept up the beach and finally washed over Faisal’s feet, waking him with a start. He looked at his watch, muttering softly to himself. It was past midday.

Basheer uncle would have arrived by now. He dusted sand from his clothes and rose hurriedly to his feet.

Faisal heard raised voices from the living room window when he entered the yard. He crept forward till he was below the window and peeped in.

His uncle was standing in the centre of the room, facing a group of men.

Basheer Koya was a copy of Faisal’s father, except that he was fatter and there was hardly any hair on his head. But unlike his brother, whose manner was calm and collected, Basheer Koya’s face was contorted with rage. His cheeks were dark and red and he was shouting like a man possessed.

‘Fools!’ thundered Basheer Koya in Malayalam. ‘Monkeys have more brains than you lot. Idiots. I thought you had ears. But obviously you don’t. You weren’t to set foot in Kalpeni. How many times did I tell you not to come here? Yet, not only do you come to the island, but even more brainlessly, you visit my home.’

A bearded man with big, wide shoulders spoke. ‘Sir,’ he began. ‘Sir—’

Basheer Koya ranted on, cutting off the man. ‘I travelled all the way to Kochi to make certain that no suspicion fell on me and I returned only after the operation was over. And you? I come home and see you fools sitting in my house. I take all these precautions and now everyone on this island can link me to you and from there to the operation.’

‘But, sir—’

‘You were under orders to head to Tinakara Island. What are you doing here?’

‘Sir. I was trying to explain just that, sir. We were headed for Tinakara. But we had engine trouble, sir. A terrible rattling noise came from the engine and we were forced to head for the nearest island. You can speak to the mechanic, sir. He looked at our boat and said we were lucky to make it here to Kalpeni.’

The explanation diminished Basheer Koya’s rage, yet he continued to glare at the bearded man. ‘Kumar. Where is Kumar?’ he barked.

‘Kumar is safely on board, sir. There’s no need to worry about him. He is in the lower cabin and one of our men is with him all the time. He can’t make a sound or do anything. He won’t be able to alert the mechanics.’

Faisal froze. This was not for his ears. It was wrong of him to eavesdrop. He wondered if he should leave, but who was Kumar and what was his uncle up to?

‘No one is to know that we have a prisoner on board,’ growled Basheer Koya. ‘Even Allah will not be able to help you if he is discovered. I make no allowances for mistakes.’ Basheer Koya stared at his men, shifting his gaze from one to the other. ‘Do you understand?’

There was silence in the room.

Faisal understood full well what his uncle meant. He shuddered.

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Journey through these breath-taking islands with a tale of scuba diving and sabotage, set in one of India’s most splendid destinations.

Different perspectives of the same time and story

The Language of History by Audrey Trushchke analyses a hitherto overlooked group of histories on Indo-Muslim or Indo-Persian political events, namely a few dozen Sanskrit texts that date from the 1190s until 1721. This book seeks, for the first time, to collect, examine and theorize Sanskrit histories on Muslim-led and, later, as Muslims became an integral part of Indian cultural and political worlds, Indo-Muslim rule as a body of historical materials. This archive lends insight and perspectives into formulations and expressions of premodern political, social, cultural and religious identities.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter titled Local Stories in Fourteenth-Century Gujarat and Fifteenth-Century Kashmir.

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Different perspectives, different storytellers, always complicate the narrative; that’s good because what we are trying to make sense of is complex.

—Githa Hariharan, 2016 interview

As Indo-Muslim rulers made further inroads into parts of the Indian subcontinent from the fourteenth century onwards, authors developed locally based traditions of Sanskrit historical writing that detailed this political trend. In this chapter, I investigate and compare two regional traditions that took off in the fourteenth century and fifteenth century, respectively: Gujarati prabandhas and Kashmiri rajataranginis. Gujarat and Kashmir had both witnessed Muslim-led military activities and, at least in parts, Muslim- led rule for centuries prior to the inauguration of these respective bodies of Sanskrit texts. Both sets of materials narrate some of that history as relevant to their region. Additionally, because they are plural rather than single texts, these materials allow me to compare authorial choices and see trends and exceptions within a deepening interest in Indo-Muslim history among premodern Sanskrit intellectuals.

Front cover of The Language of History
The Language of History || Audrey Trushke

The Gujarati and Kashmiri materials that I discuss here differ from each other in numerous ways. Four Gujarati texts were composed within a tight time-frame, dating between 1301 and 1349. A trio of Kashmiri works stretch across more than three centuries, with Kalhana penning his Rājataraṅgiṇī (River of Kings) in 1149 and two successors writing in 1459 and 1486, respectively. The two series of texts were authored by men belonging to different religious communities: Shvetambara Jains (prabandhas) and Kashmiri Brahmins (rajataranginis). They exhibit distinct styles and foci. Nonetheless, both constitute regionally based Sanskrit traditions of history writing in areas shaped, relatively early on, by Muslim-led political activities. I consider Gujarati prabandhas and Kashmiri rajataranginis together here, not as two sides of the same coin but rather as two distinct local traditions. When read against each other, these series of texts enable us to sketch out the increasingly complex contours of Sanskrit historical writing on Muslim-led incursions and rule in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

 

Pairing Difference in Gujarati and Kashmiri Materials

The Gujarati and Kashmiri works both addressed local audiences, although delineated in rather different ways. Jain monks envisioned the four prabandhas I discuss below as being inspirational to the Jain faithful. Two authors, Merutunga and Rajashekhara, penned collections of stories about Jain ascetics and laymen. The other authors—Kakka, Jinaprabha and Vidyatilaka (Jinaprabha’s continuer)—structured their narratives around Jain pilgrimage destinations. Extant manuscript evidence indicates that the four prabandhas were often read in and around Gujarat. In contrast, Kashmiri Brahmins penned the first three rajataranginis for a more politically defined audience. Kalhana, who completed the inaugural Rājataraṅgiṇī in 1149, claimed to write for others who lived through the vicissitudes of sovereignty. For Kalhana, this was a personal subject since his father had been ousted from the court of King Harsha (r. 1089–1101), leaving Kalhana unemployed. Kalhana’s chronicle found a reception, a bit ironically, among those who enjoyed royal patronage, and Jonaraja and Shrivara, the authors of the next two rajataranginis—who imitated Kalhana in style and focus—were court poets of the Shah Miri dynasty. The Rājataraṅgiṇīs of Jonaraja and Shrivara doubled as extensions of Kalhana’s text and as official court chronicles for an Indo-Persian polity.

Despite the distinct origins of these two bodies of historical materials, the founding authors of both local traditions envisioned the same key antecedent: the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Kalhana alludes to the Mahabharata throughout his work and also assigns his chronicle the same unusual aesthetic goal attributed to the epic in the Kashmiri thought of his time, namely, inducing quiescence (śāntarasa) in the reader who would shun the world after perusing the monstrous cycle of politics. Merutunga, who penned the earliest prabandha work I discuss here, was more direct. In an opening verse, he billed his Prabandhacintāmaṇi (Wishing-Stone of Narratives, 1305) as ‘pleasing like the Mahabharata’. Neither Kalhana nor Merutunga refer to any of the historical materials that I have dealt with earlier in this book, which accords with the generally fractious nature of Sanskrit historical writing on Indo-Muslim political events. But neither did these authors posit their works as clean breaks with the Sanskrit literary tradition. Rather, the authors imagined themselves as updating established ways of writing about past events in Sanskrit, modernizing (or early modernizing?) them for new times and in response to new occurrences. Analysing the prabandhas and rajataranginis together here underscores the self-proclaimed continuity of both sets of authors as well as their differences in interpreting what it meant to write political history in Sanskrit.

Kalhana and Merutunga headline focusing on the present as a crux of their innovation. Again, Merutunga is more forthcoming. In an opening verse, he claims that his work narrates recent history (vṛttaistadāsannasatāṃ), which sets it apart from old stories (kathāḥ purāṇāḥ). Kalhana indicates his emphasis on recent history by becoming more precise and verbose as he comes closer to his present day, such that his later chapters, on events increasingly close to his own time, are far longer and denser than his earlier ones.9 More than half of Kalhana’s Rājataraṅgiṇī concerns the sixty years prior to the text’s composition. In this emphasis on recent history, Kalhana’s Rājataraṅgiṇī is a far cry from the Mahabharata epic that was always, even in its own internal frameworks, about times and people that were long gone. More generally, the prabandhas and rajataranginis I discuss here concentrate on the lives of real, historical people and sometimes include specific dates and citations of sources. Their authors coupled these historiographical innovations with an incorporation of stories about how Indo-Muslim political actors were shaping the contemporary political and social realities of Gujarat and Kashmir, respectively. By reading these two bodies of works side by side, we can see both their shared similarities and substantial divergences that added texture and depth to the growing tradition of Sanskrit historical writing.

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The quest for an egalitarian society

It all began in the late-nineteenth-century Kerala, with a Dalit man flamboyantly riding a bullock cart along a road. What might sound mundane was actually a defiant form of protest, as riding animal-pulled vehicles was a privilege reserved for the upper castes.

Featuring several such inspiring accounts from the lives of individuals who tirelessly battled divisive forces all their lives, Makers of Modern Dalit History seeks to enhance the present-day Indian’s understanding of the Dalit community.

Backed with thorough research on historical and contemporary figures such as B.R. Ambedkar, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Gurram Jashuva, K.R. Narayanan, Ayyankali, Soyarabai and Rani Jhalkaribai, among many others, this book promises to be a significant addition to the Dalit discourse. It opens a path to initiating an overdue discussion centred around Dalit identity, history and politics.

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Makers of Modern Dalit History cover
Makers of Modern Dalit History||Sudarshan Ramabadran, Guru Prakash

Bhagwan Das, author of In Pursuit of Ambedkar, says:

 

The newspaper used to publish a lot of things about Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Azad, Subhas Chandra Bose and Jinnah but hardly a thing about the untouchable communities. I used to wonder, ‘Who is our leader?’ I asked Abba this, and he replied,

‘Umeedkar, the one who brings hope,’

which is how Abba saw Babasaheb Ambedkar.1

 

Original thinker, scholar, jurist, legislator, economist, public policy leader, development practitioner and chief architect of the Indian Constitution, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was all this and more.

His thoughts were crisp, his views precise and clear, and words unabashed and unapologetic on every platform he spoke from. The more one reads about Ambedkar, the more one admires his unique intellect and understands his significance, the circumstances under which he jolted the status quo and truly sought disruption in calling for complete annihilation of the caste system.

Ambedkar saw society like no one else from the prism of brute force and caste-based discrimination. Thus, he stood for the cause of all-round empowerment of the socially disadvantaged till his very last breath. Even when he was on his way to England for the first roundtable conference in 1930, it is recorded that he wrote in a letter to ‘Dadasaheb’ Bhaurao Gaikwad how the people there were sympathetic towards him and that he was happy to see them inclined to favour the demands of the untouchables.2

As a child, Ambedkar, a Mahar, was made to sit separately in primary school because of his caste.3 When someone served him water, it was from a height to avoid physical contact with him; he was even denied a haircut because he hailed from the Mahar community.4 All this is just a glimpse of the treacherous  discrimination that a six-year-old Dalit child had to go through.

Who would have thought then that this child, born on 14 April 1891 in the tiny military village of Mhow, would one day establish himself as one of the founding fathers of independent India? Ambedkar came from a financially stable family, which enabled him to have a primary school education. However, this access never could remove the ‘untouchable’ tag from his consciousness. The thought of being ‘untouchable’ plagued his mind, especially when he was denied the services of a barber or a

driver because of it.

During his primary-school days, he was treated differently and ridiculed solely because he was a Mahar. This left a huge impact on him. However, Babasaheb took the fight to the orthodoxy, and at no point did he give up. For it is these very incidents that made him realize that the fight for the dignity of Dalits had to begin and be a constant one, until his very last breath. He recorded the experiences of untouchability faced by him in the newspaper Janata, which he founded in 1929.5 Dhananjay Keer’s biography, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Life and Mission, published in 1954, also recounted all of Babasaheb’s experiences.6

While his journey to educate himself was excruciating, he was determined to venture into the unknown. His secondary education was funded by the Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the erstwhile ruler of Baroda (now Vadodara), and he studied at the Elphinstone High School in Bombay. Ambedkar’s quest to arm himself with education never ceased, be it when he was in Columbia University, the London School of Economics or Gray’s Inn, where he excelled in academics. The years spent in Europe and America made him feel the stark difference in the treatment he received there and the treatment meted out to him in India.

In 1942, when he founded the All India Scheduled Castes Federation (AISCF), which he later dissolved to found the Republican Party of India, he also initiated scholarships for Dalit

students to study abroad.7

Ambedkar was always a firm advocate of education. He believed that if this revolution for the marginalized was to be won, access to quality education was crucial. He was never violent in his methods. He knew that equipping oneself with education would ensure a battle of dignity for the Dalits that could be fought and won. It was only after education that he felt empowered, for he believed only power could defeat power. Ambedkar being elected to the Bombay Legislative Council in 1926 and him founding the Independent Labour Party in 1936 are testimony to how crucial political representation was for Dalits.8

This focus on education was inculcated in him by his teacher at Columbia University, Professor John Dewey. Ambedkar has often said that he owes his intellectual life to Dewey, who was an American philosopher and psychologist but, above all, a reformer of education. Dewey was also one of the central figures associated with functional psychology, philosophy and progressive education.9

Very few Indian leaders have been educated in America. Ambedkar studied with the best minds at Columbia University in the three years he spent there. When he enrolled, he took a number of courses, including railroad economics. He was keen to learn from the top-ranking professors at the university.

All his life, Ambedkar sought the complete eradication of caste, for only this, he believed, would lead to an honourable society. As Bhalchandra Mungekar writes in his introduction to The Essential Ambedkar, ‘Ambedkar’s basic arguments were against institutionalization of caste-based isolation and discrimination

prevalent in the Hindu mind.’10

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Makers of Modern Dalit History is a essential read for anyone who wishes to understand the Indian experience in its totality.

Yet another unjust ritual

 

On the third day after the death of Bangaravva, a solemn procession that made its way towards the graveyard encountered a strange obstacle. A blast of wind rose up in revolt, the embers flared and the sacred ritual fire fell to the ground. The ceremony was ruined because custom demanded that the ritual fire never touch the ground.

What followed was chaos and confusion. The people sought a sacrifice to bear the blame for things going awry, and a solution to set it all right. The division between castes and communities came to the fore as the panchayat struggled to pronounce justice.

A poetic work calling for change in our casteist society, Karya unfurls a kaleidoscope of perspectives. Studded with symbols drawn from nature and myth, this small but significant novel explores the politics and power embedded within a Dalit community.

Here’s a peek into the main action of the book.

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Front cover of Karya
Karya||Aravind Malagatti

The men on the way to the karya stopped suddenly at the boundary stone as they reached the limits of the village. The women in the third group were still some distance away.

A buffalo was swimming in a tank within the bounds of the village. Akkavva, from among the women going to the karya, stopped in her tracks to gawk at it, even as she handed over her pitcher of water to another. Her face, screwed tight with weeping, filled out suddenly like a pumpkin, beaming. It was three months since she had lost that buffalo while grazing it and she had been fretting. Now, she recognized it by the ornamental tipcovers on its horns. For a moment, she thought of the dead Bangaravva and turned back to get her buffalo. Who

knows if it would come home on its own or not? Some of the women who had seen her, turned up their noses at her and walked on.

The men had the, ‘ask them to hurry up’ expression, aimed at no one in particular but as if surely meant for the one particular group that was lingering. Just that no one said it aloud. The women stepped up their pace. The woman who had taken the pot from Akkavva walked briskly, ahead of them all. The men stood facing the village, with their back to the boundary stone. Once water was poured over the stone, they continued on their way facing the graveyard. All of men had the same solemn expressions. The women followed them, matching their strides.

That was when they removed the fresh white cloth covering the kavala mora. Their faces perked up to see the crows that had followed them, thanks to the aroma.

The wind picked up as soon as they crossed the village. Even before this, smoke from the smouldering kullaggi in Mallappa’s right hand had touched the dung cakes in his left; turning some of them too to ash. Once they crossed the boundary stone, the front wind caused the smoking kullaggi to catch fire. To keep his fingers from burning, Mallappa kept moving them to safer spots on the berani and screaming for fresh ones, ‘Ei, this is hot! Give me some more.’

Their feet swallowed the distance. All at once, the men opened their mouths; they murmured:

‘Ei, don’t let the kullaggi fall.’

‘It shouldn’t touch the ground.’

‘It’s bad luck if it does.’

‘Don’t let it fall. Come what may. Control the blaze; don’t let it burn so bright.’

Some even tried to put it down. But the flame would not be subdued. A boy picked up a fistful of mud to throw at it.

‘Ei, into whose mouth are you trying to throw mud?’ shouted Shivappa, Bangaravva’s husband. The fingers of the fist that held the mud loosened slowly, on their own. Mud dribbled through as flour from a flourmill, all along the way. They were getting closer to the graveyard. Mallayya tried his

best to press the dung cakes against one another to control the fire. But the headwind was too strong.

‘Chikkappa, kullu!’ he shouted for dry dung cakes to his uncle, Chandappa.

His uncle had fallen behind. All eyes turned towards him even as their strides quickened. Chandappa, feeling their eyes, darted towards Mallappa.

‘Why, didn’t you bring enough?’ he asked.

‘I did . . . but they’re over . . . You said you’d bring some, didn’t you?’

‘I? When did I say that?’

Mallappa went cold. He broke out in a sweat. His mouth went dry.

‘What do we do now?’

‘We’ll do whatever. But don’t drop it.’

‘Chikkappa?’

‘Chikkappa, he says, Chikkappa,’ Chandappa muttered to himself. And then to the men around, ‘Ei, go and gather some kullu drying in the fields.’

Even before he could finish, a few youngsters jumped the fence and entered the field with a standing crop. But none of them returned. Everyone scolded Mallappa. Everyone cautioned him from letting the ritual fire touch the ground. More than anyone else, Chandappa kept at it. Mallappa’s hands trembled as the heat touched them.

‘Chikkappa—at least fetch a flat stone to place under the burning cakes,’ Mallappa screamed but his uncle showed no concern. He was waiting for those who had gone to get some dry dung cakes from the field. When Shivappa brought a flat stone to help Mallappa, he shouted at him,

‘Why, do you want to snuff out your progeny by blocking the fire with stone?’

‘Not just his offspring,’ added another elder, ‘Looks as if he wants to burn down his whole house.’ Then Shivappa remembered his only son, Suryakantha, the fruit of many vows to many gods. He was already nearly chest-high. Not willing to lose him, Shivappa did not let the stone fall gently

to the ground; he dropped it with a thud. It fell on his big toe and . . . blood flowed.

Mallappa, caught amid the words of caution from everyone, tried his best to put out the fire with his hands but in vain. Already the hair on his hands was singed. The flame was trying to burn them. He gasped, helpless. Tears ran down his cheeks. And, finally, when the burning dung cake scorched his iron-like hands, he screamed and let go of the kullaggi! He looked at his hands, sobbing. They were covered with blisters. He looked around at the others.

Their looks were like knives. Those who had gone to fetch dry dung returned with some. They looked from Mallappa to the burning kullu on the ground. The ash was blown away by the wind and sparks of fire flew from them, happy to have won!

Everyone stood silent for a while. The wind had lost its gusto. All those who had come to attend the karya felt the whole world had come to a standstill. They had even forgotten they were alive.

All this happened in just a few moments.

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Karya is a depiction of the unfairness of certain customs and how they discriminate harshly, even in dangerous, but easily remedied situations against one section of individuals, the Dalit community.

‘Please, don’t. I am scared’ – The painful world of IVF clinics

Detailing the difficulty of undergoing infertility treatments, What’s a Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina is a nuanced, heart-breaking and heart-warming work on the indignities of medical procedures, the precariousness of motherhood, and what this means to women. In this excerpt, Rohini Rajagopal talks about one of her Intrauterine insemination sessions.

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I heard of ‘artificial insemination’ for the first time in a Malayalam movie when I was eight or nine years old. It was Malayalam cinema’s cult classic Dasharatham (1989), which was so ahead of its time that even now I am not sure if its time has come. A leading mainstream actor, Mohanlal, plays a rich, spoilt man-child who decides to act on a whim and have a child through surrogacy. He finds a desperate woman who needs money for her ailing footballer husband’s medical treatment and agrees to rent her womb. They draw up a contract, turn up for the procedure, and fifteen days later she is pregnant! No failed attempts, cancelled cycles or any other complications. With this movie lodged in my brain for reference, I thought fertility treatments were an easy-peasy lemon-squeezy affair. To be fair to the movie, it is not about infertility. It’s about a healthy, fertile couple who use artificial insemination for conception. It may well have happened that quickly and effortlessly in real life too. But the movie glosses over the unseemliness and hardships of the treatment. For those who have seen the movie, I hate to burst your bubble. Welcome to the world of ART.

Front cover What's A Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina
What’s A Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina||Rohini S. Rajagopal

I began our first IUI in July 2011 with the earnestness of a debutant, expecting early and prompt success… The procedure itself was relatively simple with only a few key steps. The first step was pills to stimulate my ovaries to release multiple eggs. The second was follicular study. Follicles are tiny fluid-filled balloons in the ovaries that function as the home of the egg. They may expand from the size of a sesame seed (2 millimetres) to the size of a large kidney bean (18 mm to 25 mm) during the course of the menstrual cycle, eventually bursting to push the egg out. The follicles are measured at regular intervals during a cycle to ascertain if they have matured and are ready to release the egg. This is done through a transvaginal ultrasound (TVS).

I was not a big fan of TVS. It involved insertion of a long, slim plastic probe into my vagina and twisting it around to get a close look at the uterus. Magnified images of the uterus appeared on a computer screen. I was appalled the first time when the doctor covered the transducer with a condom and dipped it in lubricating gel, indicating that it had to enter an orifice in my body. I thought that scans, by definition, were non-invasive. It caused some discomfort, but it was not very painful. Eventually, I learnt to relax my muscles and spread my legs far apart to make things easier. I wished I didn’t have to get a TVS, but if I had to then I could tolerate it.

The cycle got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. The first ultrasound showed only one big-enough follicular blob (at 13 mm). The other four or five follicles were too small, indicating they might not reach maturity. This meant I might have only one egg despite taking drugs to stimulate the release of many.

…It was a busy day at the hospital for Dr Leela, who was swamped with several emergency C-sections. I sat alone in the deserted waiting hall of the IVF clinic, biding my time. Other patients had left after their ultrasounds in the morning. No one else was lined up for a procedure.

…Finally, at around one, Dr Leela came and apologized for the delay. I was taken to the operating room, asked to remove my leggings and empty my bladder. I lay down on the bed and pulled a sheet over my naked legs. A tray of surgical instrument kits was placed on a stand next to the bed. I kept my fingers crossed, hoping there would be no speculum.

Dr Leela began briskly tearing the kits open one by one and getting ready for action. When she pulled out the speculum, I lost my nerve. The thin mask of composure I was wearing until then crumbled. I sprang up and held back her hand desperately.

‘Please, don’t. I am scared.’

As soon as I said it, I regretted it. What was I thinking? It was a meaningless request. And Dr Leela had no patience for such trembling and dithering. She was not known to offer empty, placatory words, ‘It’s okay. Just relax. It will not hurt you.’ My protest was an annoying interruption and she reacted sternly.

‘Take your hand off. I don’t need it here.’
The room became tense.

…The ninety seconds it must have taken to fix the speculum and inject the semen were excruciating, and not just because of the physical hostility of the act. Not just because it felt raw or sore or I was bleeding. But because it was a breach of my already fragile self. It tore through the membranes of my defences, leaving me exposed and helpless.

In a few minutes, it was over and the doctor left. The stainless-steel tools were taken out by the nurses. The housekeeping staff cleaned the floor. The room became empty again. The pounding in my heart ceased. I rested in the metallic stillness of the operating room for thirty minutes, drove home, ate my lunch and went to sleep.

That IUI was an eye-and-mind-opener of the path ahead. An IVF clinic is a cold place to walk into. It doesn’t matter which IVF clinic you go to. There might be a difference in degree, but the air is still chilly and biting. You must shed your inhibitions, modesty and fears quickly because the most crucial part of fertility treatment involves lying on your back, knees bent, legs wide open, while probes, catheters and lemon squeezers are thrust inside your vagina by professionals whose day job this is. What you need is the stance of a warrior, not the long-suffering bearing of a patient.

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Years later, I am just a few weeks away from going into labour. Ranjith’s mother and I are alone at home. We are having a woman-to-woman conversation about the trials and tribulations of bringing a human into this world. We discuss pregnancy scans and the improvements in technology since her time. She speaks about her own repulsion and discomfort during an internal examination, which was necessary in her days when ultrasounds were not as prevalent.

She asks casually, only half-asking, but mostly reconfirming, ‘You’ve never had an internal examination, alle?’

I gasp and mumble something to the effect of, ‘Yes, I have.’ But the truth is, there was no short answer to that question.

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What’s a Lemon Squeezer Doing In My Vagina opens up a discussion that we are hardly willing to have, sensitising us to the physical and emotional toll that medical procedures and social scrutiny take on women.

 

 

A slip and a fall in search of the grey ghost of the Himalayas

In Deepak Dalal’s new book, The Snow Leopard Adventure, Vikram and Aditya are back in magnificent Ladakh. Having finally freed their young friend Tsering from the hands of dangerous men, they’ve set themselves up for an even greater challenge: to track down the grey ghost of the Himalayas, the snow leopard.

But things don’t always go according to the plan during their trek. Here is an excerpt from the book that highlights one of the more challenging events of the trek.

Front Cover The Snow Leopard Adventure
The Snow Leopard Adventure||Deepak Dalal

I didn’t see exactly what happened because I was looking down at the gravel-strewn track as I ran. I heard a scream, and when I looked up, I saw a pair of hands grabbing desperately at the edge of the outcrop. I wasn’t far behind Caroline and scarcely a few seconds must have elapsed between her falling and my flinging myself to the ground and locking my fingers around her wrists. I had barely grasped them when her scrabbling fingers slipped, and her entire weight was transferred on to me. I was dragged forward and my chest hit the rock at the edge of the cliff with a thud.

We were both stuck, Caroline dangling from my hands and I pressed against the cliff edge, pinned down by her weight. Caroline is three inches taller than my 5 feet 7 inches and also heavier than me (sixty-five kilos to my sixty, she told me later). I could feel myself being pulled towards the edge. Disaster appeared to be a certainty, but Tsering intervened, saving us by clinging to my thighs and adding his weight to mine.

Now, on reflection, I don’t think any of us would have died if we had gone over. The cliff we clung to was not a large one. The fall was only a few metres. But the area at the base of the cliff was not flat, it sloped downwards at an alarming angle. Our injuries could have been serious. We would have broken several bones, but we would have survived.

My breath came in rapid gulps and sweat must have flowed from my every pore. Yet, even though I was terrified, a part of my mind admired the vista that spread before me. I could see the river valley below and the mountain slopes opposite. I spotted flecks of colour in the distance—our camp mates. I wondered if they could see us.

I am ashamed to admit that I lost control of myself up there. My hands shook and my chest hurt terribly. My heart kicked and pummelled my chest, and my senses swam about me. I kept assuring myself that there was no reason to panic and that nobody would go over.

I had no idea then that I was speaking my thoughts aloud (Caroline and Tsering informed me later). I told myself that we only had to wait it out. Somebody would come . . . Tina and Kathy would return and untangle us.

Luckily, a heaven-sent determination infused Caroline as she dangled in the sparse Ladakh air. While I was rambling, she spotted fissures and cracks on the rock face she was suspended against. She willed her legs to grope beneath her and she found secure anchors in the stony crevices. Her fingers and palms gripped rock at the cliff edge. With me still holding on to her wrists, she pulled herself up a few inches.

I heard her breathing. She was gasping and panting far louder than I was. Soon her face was level with mine and our eyes met. Hers glittered with cold determination. There was a vacant expression in mine, she told me later. She was probably right, because she had to shout several times before I paid attention to what she was saying. She wanted me to release her wrists, which I did mechanically. Now sure of herself, Caroline dragged herself up and without further incident she flopped beside me. We lay inert on the rock, Tsering looking down on us.

After a long time we continued our walk to the crest. The rest of the morning was a blur. None of us were in any state to look for bharal or search for leopards. Kathy, Tina and Yuan turned up, exhausted, after an hour. They had found more sign of the leopard they were following but had not been able to locate it. We turned back for camp shortly thereafter. Caroline had extracted a promise from

Tsering and me not to speak about the morning’s drama to anybody. She smiled gratefully when it became clear that we were not going to say a word, and she turned distinctly friendly when we maintained our silence at camp too.

Aditya was aghast when he learnt that I had not pursued the leopard with the others. ‘How could you let such an opportunity go?’ he wanted to know. ‘You were so close to the leopard!’

Does Aditya eventually see the Snow Leopard? Grab your copy for Snow Leopard Adventure to find out!

The rise and fall of Yes Bank

The Yes Bank fiasco had several layers of financial misconduct. Furquan Moharkan’s meticulously researched work The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds takes a long look into the role of Rana Kapoor and his hand in the fall of Yes Bank. Here is an excerpt:

By January 2020, when it was clear that things were clearly headed south, Uttam Prakash Agarwal, the then chairman of the audit committee, resigned. But the way he resigned led to a lot of muck surfacing. In his resignation letter to then chairman of the bank, Brahm Dutt, Agarwal said, ‘There are serious concerns as regards deteriorating standards of the corporate governance, failure of compliance, management practices and the manner in which the state of affairs of the company are being conducted by Ravneet Gill — MD/CEO, Rajiv Uberoi — Senior Group President Governance & Controls, Sanjay Nambiar — Legal Head and Board of Directors.’

While informing the public about the exit of the director, the bank said that it was reviewing a ‘fit and proper case’ against Agarwal. ‘In this respect, the bank had obtained legal opinions from eminent jurists. These opinions were to be considered by the Nomination and Remuneration Committee of the board (NRC)/ the board of the bank in their meetings scheduled for today, i.e. January 10, 2020. However, prior to the commencement of the proceedings of these meetings, the bank received the resignation of Agarwal,’ the bank said.

Front Cover The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds
The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds||Furquan Moharkan

The bank was indeed asked by the central bank to review Agrawal’s directorship. The RBI had asked YES Bank to re-examine the ‘fit and proper’ status of the lender’s audit committee chairman after it was found that he had failed to disclose details of criminal cases filed against him, Livemint had reported on 24 November.

In fact, some of the bank insiders told me that Agarwal was allegedly doing this on Rana Kapoor’s behest. In one such conversation, he said, ‘The bank’s management is deliberately doing it so that they can sell the bank to Uday Kotak.’ This struck a chord with the blame-game technique YES Bank, in Rana Kapoor’s last days of leadership, had adopted.

Amid this saga, an executive of one of the institutional investors at the bank told me that it was board-room muck playing out in public as everyone was trying to steer clear of what would be known as India’s biggest banking failure till date. ‘You see, everyone is trying to save themselves. And in all this we are seeing dirty linen being washed in public.’

Interestingly, this was not the only letter by Agarwal that alleged malpractices by the bank. The other letter that was shot out on that day was addressed to RBI governor Shaktikanta Das. The letter alleged that the bank was misleading everyone on the capital raising, governance lapses, evergreening of loans and misrepresentation of facts. But one allegation that brings the role of the RBI an as administrator into question is that the letter alleged a 25 per cent erosion in the deposit base in the December 2019 quarter — information which was sent out to me by one of the bank’s executives. Incidentally, in her press conference after the fall of YES Bank, on 6 March, the finance minister did mention these letters.

Internal red flags were raised by Agarwal in his letters to Brahm Dutt in the beginning of January. By the end of the month, Agarwal had shot out a letter to the then Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) secretary, alleging that the bank was staring at incremental bad loans worth Rs 45,000 crore in the next eighteen months based on an assessment of IDFC Securities. A report compiled by the brokerage was also shared with the DEA secretary. Despite this, on 24 January, a senior finance ministry official quipped in an off-the-record conversation that ‘YES Bank woes were just journalistic imagination. The government didn’t see any problems.’

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Wading through the difficult details of the banking failure, The Banker Who Crushed His Diamonds is a financial thriller that has us at the edge of our seats.

COVID-19 : The past and the future

Anirban Mahapatra’s COVID-19 is a meticulous dive into the pandemic that changed the 21st century world. In this excerpt, he delves into what the future could look like, and what kind of a situation we’re likely to have on our hands in the near future:

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Envisioning what the future holds in store is like imagining what dry land is like while in a storm in the middle of the ocean. Even in the best of times, predicting the future is a risky enterprise. A devastating pandemic of this scale and severity imposes additional challenges because we have no reference point in the modern era for something like this. Off-the-cuff comments may be forgotten but writing tends to stick around and haunt the writer. If you’re too certain with your pronouncements, you’re almost certain to be wrong. If you’re too vague, no one will read what you have to say.

We are only coming to terms with the direct fallout of the pandemic, but what will be the ramifications for long-term health and planning? What will be the implications for travel, for immigration and for commerce? Will countries continue to look inward once the pandemic is over?

Certain aspects of human life and society have changed due to the immediate effects of the pandemic. It is possible, therefore, to make short-term predictions. What will happen five, ten, or fifteen years down the road because of the ongoing, cataclysmic event and our responses to it are more difficult to say.

Will there be more public interest in interest in infectious diseases and medicine? Will it become a field that attracts more of the brightest minds as engineering, information technology, finance and business management have in preceding decades? Will physicians take up more active roles in framing public policy? Will economists stress-test catastrophic economic events of this nature?

Human societies are designed to maximize connections. Over the course of a day, most of us have dozens of close interactions with other people. The design of cities, buildings, jobs, transportation and commerce keeps the human need for connection in mind more than the rare threat of a disease that spreads by human-to- human interaction.

Front cover COVID-19 Separating Fact from Fiction
COVID-19||Anirban Mahapatra

What can we say looking at the past? Based on a study of the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1918, the historian Nancy Bristow writes, ‘If history is any guide, not much will change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.’4 Yet, it is impossible to use history as guide, because the world has changed immensely in a century. In 1918, viruses had not been characterized. Colonial powers ruled the world and were in the middle of World War I. Commercial airline travel was non-existent. There was no Internet to allow the lay public to read research articles immediately and view daily statistics on illness and death.

… We can assume that the pandemic will irrevocably change some business practices. There will be more people working from home permanently and less business travel to meet clients and for conferences. Technological solutions that were embraced perhaps with a bit of trepidation during the pandemic will become wider habits.

Distancing is challenging in factories, warehouses, prisons, airplanes, dormitories and ships where space is maximized. Due to a premium being put on space in cities and the density of population, buildings have grown vertically. Property values have risen globally since the Great Recession. Gentrification had led to a return to economically disadvantaged areas. It is possible that there will be a reshaping of how urban spaces are used, with more people now moving outward instead of flocking to New York, Mumbai or London. But the experience of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tokyo in the first year of the pandemic has demonstrated that even within densely populated cities, measures can be taken to keep infections low. There may be a reshaping of urban societies, but it is still too early to tell. People tend to go where there are economic opportunities.

More broadly, will humans finally address the pressing problems of the day which the pandemic brought into stark relief?

Problems of inequality, poor access to healthcare and economic opportunities, and lack of equal rights are prevalent globally.

The pandemic allows humans to face difficult challenges that we have been ignoring, instead of denying or downplaying them. It gives us a chance to reframe priorities and reimagine society.

As humans we tend to focus on immediate problems. Our ancestors were good at hiding from tigers and other dangerous animals, finding caves to sleep in when it was raining, and building a fire when it was cold. Longer-term planning for problems does not come easily. This is applicable to both people individually and to us as a species.

… We keep asking ourselves, ‘When will the pandemic end?’ But we can’t mark the end as the date when it is over only for those of us who are privileged. We know that the biological pandemic will end one day. What we must also ensure is that there is an end to the social one.

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COVID-19 is an excellent and insightful read. Anyone can read this book, and everyone should read this book.