Sunday, May 24, 2015

Do you want to die? Not if Mr De Grey Has His Way!

About 10 minutes ago, I read an article on a scientific quest for immortality. It's about one Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper De Grey, "a gerontologist and co-author of Ending Aging" --I'm quoting straight from the article--who seems to think he can give us the secret to glorious immortality (insert evil sounding manic laughter).
Well,not quite that way, but a rather sci-fi kind of method by which he would develop "therapies for various kinds of damage" in the human body and his SENS Research Foundation (please get your facts and stuff from Wiki. I'm not doing your dirty work) is actually working toward "changing the genetic composition of people who are already alive" ---which somehow sounds like an effort to change us all into BT Brinjal--and so people who will be healthy will stay younger longer and, naturally, stay alive that much longer.
The gist of the whole long-winded interview is that this man thinks that stopping or delaying ageing will mean a corresponding delay in death. Naturally, because I lost the healthiest, tallest, strappingest, fittest and handsomest member of my family at the age of 41--my father--in a car accident, where a nine-year-old me, my two-year-old sister and delicate mom, all frail and far too weak by comparison, survived-- I know for sure that death is as much related to aging as disease is related to the evil eye. (Okay, exaggeration. Still.) My father's Life Insurance people were probably as shocked as we were because they never expected to have to pay up so soon, considering his excellent health. Point being, there are accidents, tragedies, natural disasters, and all sorts of wierd stuff including fires and floods and riots and wars and murders, that kill a giant lot more people than aging does.
So Mr de Grey, I can say this with grim-faced certainty, you will certainly not be able to defeat death.Sure, you may be able to increase average longevity through increasing the quality of life. And in that, I would be your cheerleader.
But this is not the reason why I felt the urge to pen my thoughts. The writer of this article posed an introspective question at the very end: Do I really wish to die?
Hmmm.........................DO I? I don't know.
I have never thought of immortality, because I always considered death as a given. In fact, humans do want to die. Freud described it as 'thanatos' that subconscious death drive in humans that competes with 'eros'--the urge to live. Freud actually considered the death drive to be behind our aggressive instincts and the urge to go indulge in life-risking adventure sports... the urge to want to break your back or your neck. Erm... sorry, he didn't say those words, at least.
Coming back to me, I still can't decide whether I want to die. I do know what I DON'T want: to outlive everyone else that I love. Meaning, yes, I want to die--before anyone else in my family does.
But then that also means there would be someone else who doesn't want me to die. I suppose, it's not death that scares us so much, but the death of our loved ones.
And I can talk with great clarity about the pull of the endless hereafter--like it says in the Quran and other religious books--an endless life. It's not so much the endless life we seek but that we'd get to be forever with the people we love. Not just that "I won't die" but that "none of the good people will die" and that we'll all be "happy forever." After all, we only wish for death when we are sad beyond measure. Nobody wants to die when they're feeling top of the world!
And that again, brings me to an important point.
I love the idea of the endless afterlife, because it would be (supposedly) a world free of strife. Free of not just ageing but also wars, fires, floods, murders, rapes, sexism, racism, casteism, treachery, trickery and all the rotten stuff in this world. I don't know about you, but for me, there's not much point in living forever in a world that stinks beyond measure, where so much is going wrong and nothing of it can I fix.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not a pessimist or a doom-monger. I still think I have a beautiful life and that this world offers joys gallore. It's just that if I would wish for a very, very long life, I'd like it to be in
a world that's worth living in. And not just for a privileged handful. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Zikr through Mugham: Tunes from Azerbaijan --The Alim Qasimov Ensemble

Sounds and tunes from around the globe are an inseparable part of the charged atmosphere at the Jaipur Literature Fest. Spiritual notes wafting from Azerbaijan were an unusual, savory addition this time. In the quest to bring you exclusive interactions with authors and performers across the world, Financial Chronicle got up close and personal with the Alim Qasimov Ensemble—winner of the UNESCO International Music Prize for Performers— that cast a spell on all of Jaipur.
Relaxing in the lobby of the Clarks Amer, Qasimov explains that though his music is classical in nature, it is a form of spiritual expression, which comes from a “deeper place inside him”. It’s not just a performance; it is a way of doing “zikr”, much like the Sufi tradition in India. “Earlier I was a performer,” he says. “But over the years, performing and performing, the meanings have changed for me. Now it is a way of seeking communion with the almighty… it’s my way of doing zikr. The music goes from me to god, and becomes a source of spiritual cleansing. The audience feels it, too. It creates an aura of spiritual energy around them.”
Qasimov answers all questions through hand-gestures and sparse words, even as Fargana, his daughter, conveys his meaning—and her own— in English. Language is a problem here, since their preferred one is Azeri—a language closely related to modern Turkish. Qasimov chides his daughter mildly, telling her to improve her English so she can handle interviews better! Fargana and Qasimov are the lead vocalists in the Ensemble, with the other 3 members—Rauf, Zaki and Rafael— playing the Kaman, the tar and the balaban, traditional instruments of Azerbaijan. Rafael sits with us now, his fingers unceasingly rotating prayer beads on a rosary. Is he praying? “No, no!” he laughs, and says something in Azeri. “It’s his habit…just his way of passing time,” Fargana translates.
Fargana explains that their performance is steeped in the Mugham tradition— an ancient Azerbaijani folk tradition— where they sing old poems by famous poets, improvising the rendition. Mugham is, in fact, a highly complex art form recognized in 2003 by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It combines classical poetry and musical improvisation in specific local modes associated not only with scales but with an orally transmitted collection of melodies and melodic fragments. The dramatic unfolding in performance is typically associated with increasing intensity and rising pitches.
“Our first lady Mehriban Aliyera is providing a lot of impetus to the promotion of Mugham,” Fargana says, “Not many people paid attention to this several years ago, but due to her support, more and more people are moving towards it. Especially young people, who used to be more interested in modern pop music.” Fargana herself  was initiated into Mugham as a child, and joined her father in stage performances at the age of 16. Qasimov is an acclaimed performer in his country since the age of 23.
Improvisation in music is an important part of their performance, and Qasimov says they now also combine elements of Indian music with their original sounds. Fargana says they greatly appreciate the music of “Hind”.  “When you go deeper, the music of Hind, Iran and Azerbaijan, all have the same roots. We have much in common.” So would we see any fusion performances? Qasimov enthusiastically expresses a desire to meet Anoushka Shankar and perform in collaboration with her. “If you meet her, please convey my message to her!”

Chills and Thrills of Crime Fiction: Hakan Nesser

Swedish and tall, armed with crisp, succinct remarks and a ready sense of humour. That’s Hakan Nesser, with all the essential qualities for an immensely popular crime fiction writer— three times winner of Best Swedish Crime Novel Award. Addressing a session titled ‘Nordic Noir: The Mind’s Eye’ along with Nils Nordberg, Norwegian crime writer, at day one of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Nesser spoke candidly about the commercial pull of crime fiction. In a brief stroll-and-chat with this reporter, he waxed eloquent on how books become a binding force globally.

“The greatest discovery in my journey so far has been the truth that readers are the same everywhere,” he replied thoughtfully when asked about his discoveries through writing. “I went to the US where I had to do a lot of readings, and I thought, oh, the readers would be so different here. But I found that we all think alike. We’re all the same in the way we receive books. And it’s a good discovery. It’s good, because you see that books connect us all. Whether you’re from Sweden or India or the US, every reader gets the same…well, message.”

Nesser, whose work has been translated into various different languages, pointed out that the reason there was such a great increase in crime fiction was because that was the genre that brought in the money. He goes on to narrate an episode where a bookseller in Sweden actually put a yellow dot on one of Dostoyevsky’s books—indicating crime fiction. “Well, Dostoyevsky started selling then,” he laughs out loud. And then he tells you that his very first story was a “beautiful, existential love story which got great reviews but sold about 75 copies worldwide.” From then onward, of course, it was crime writing all the way—creating his much loved characters—detective Van Veeteren and the more recent Inspector Barbarotti.

Nesser charms you with his ability to laugh at himself, and to create mirth around things such as murders. And incidentally, he can identify with the murderers in his books, too. Well, not quite in the way that it sounds. “I’m not keen on a black and white way of thinking. The question “why” is more important than “who”. You want to know why a person did such thing. So you get to identify a little with the murderers, too… like in my novel Woman With A Birth Mark,  the woman is out to get four men, and you wish, oh I do hope she gets this one!”

At the end of the day, though, it’s all about telling a good story. “My colleague used to say there’s nothing as bad as a bad crime story, but nothing as good as a good crime story! When I’m writing a story, a good one is the kind that I’d like to read,” he pauses and adds with a twinkling eye, “Only thing is, I’ve got to write it before I can read it!” 

Healing the Wounds of Abuse: Esther Austin

Even amid the riot of colours and the storm of human forms surrounding you at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, Esther Austin is easy to spot. Dressed in traditional African attire in the brightest shades of orange and red, complete with turban-like headgear, she is a tall woman of African origin with a bright and ready smile. A resident of the UK and originally from Nigeria, she gets even more interesting when you find out she’s a ‘spiritual’ healer and her book titled ‘Wounded Lives, Wounded Healers’ is going to be out in the stands very soon—February 2015 to be precise.
So how exactly does a spiritual healer work, you might want to know. “A spiritual healer is able to feel and sense a person’s pain and see what’s going on inside a person’s body,” Austin explains.
She talks about her book which explores all forms of pain in a person’s life. “In my book I've interviewed a lot of different people about pain and handling it. The people who help others to handle what’s inside them. So I’ve interviewed counsellors, shamans… people doing lots of spiritual work… they share their journey about their own emotional pain and also how they used t
hat pain in the work they did with their clients.”
Her own clients are a lot of people who have dealt with sexual abuse and physical violence. And she also reveals the abuse she has been subjected to. “The book in a way also reflects my life story because I’ve been through emotional abuse and maybe some physical abuse as well. Pretty painful expereinces. But I’ve come thru it and it’s a very powerful place to stand, and it empowers other people to say I can stand strong in my place too.”
It’s how we deal with the pain in our lives, she says, that creates the kind of person we are.
Her interviews are spread across 5 different countries in 3 different continents. “There are people from the States, then there’s a gentleman from India who practices laughter yoga, and there’s a lady who’s a shaman , so she deals with a lot of emotional pain people. In fact talking to the guy who does laughter yoga was a learning experience, you learn how laughter is a very cathartic and healing activity. The idea is to get a good mix— this whole eclectic view of different experiences from people with different capacities, a mixture of men and women and their experiences with pain.

So you can also find in there a lady from the US who practices Tantra to heal people, a lady who was emotionally abused as a child. Not to mention an activist for whales, who also works with human beings. Austin feels this book would prove to be pivotal in her life, and that it is a book for everyone “who is searching for peace, for freedom and liberty—who wants to say to life, I’m ready to explore and enjoy you. The thing is to be able to out your pain down somewhere, instead of having to carry it around. And that is what liberates you.”

Helon Habila: Stories Make The World Less Chaotic

His writing has won multiple awards including the Caine Prize and Commonwealth Writers Prize, his latest novel Oil on Water being shortlisted for three different awards, too. Celebrated Nigerian novelist and poet Helon Habila talks about the commonalities between Indian and African writing and how African literature is the ‘new Indian literature’ in an exclusive interaction with Zehra Naqvi at the Jaipur Literature Festival:

How would you describe the ‘African novel’ if such a categorization can be made?
The African novel is a hybrid form. It is a combination of the African folkloric tradition with the western novel form. The novel is a western creation; it came to Africa through colonisation. The Africans had an oral storytelling tradition. So the African novel is a new entity created by the fusion. It uses the structure of the novel, in terms of character, the dialogue and the setting and the folkloric such as proverbs, songs, morality tales. You put them in the western novel and you have the Afrcian novel.
What is your greatest inspiration to write?
It’s been the stories I was told while I was growing up, the folktales from my mother, the women in my compound where I grew up. See, what a story does to you, it explains the world to you. It makes the world less chaotic, less formless. The idea of novel is structure; you can’t have a story without structure, because there are so many things to talk about. So a story makes the world more structured, it becomes manageable. That’s the reason why writing appeals to me.
You’ve earlier said that when you were writing a ‘nice, apolitical’ novel, it seemed irrelevant in the face of the conflict around you. In a conflict-ridden region, is there certain compulsion to write political novels?
Conflict is good for novels, it makes stories exciting! Actually, this pressure is more internal, it’s not like someone is forcing you to do it. It’s just me—who I am as a person. I can’t keep quiet while all this is happening around me. But I cannot respond by going there to actively fight. So I respond through what I know best, which is art. This is how I protest.
Do you read Indian authors? Who are your favorites among them?
The one I like the most is White Tiger by Arvind Adiga ! It’s almost as if he’s writing about Africa, you know! I see the same bureaucracy, corruption, the same injustice. He’s writing about the things I write about, the things that concern me. I relate to it.
What other commonalities do you perceive between Indian and African literature?
We both have post-colonial identities. We have the same history—being subjugated , wanting to protest.  And we want to show the world that we are not what you think we are. We have our own culture and our distinct identity—so you show that through your writing. There’s a very strong historical sense in the fiction of both.
Is there a predominant message in your writing?
It varies from book to book.  I am influenced by different things at different times. I’m sure some reader who would read all my books would say, oh, this is the thing you’re trying to say! But I don’t look for unity. I always come to each new book thinking this is something I haven’t done before. I try to challenge myself. What I really want to do is to create more convincing characters, get better with the craft itself. It’s not just about the message. It’s about the art, the aesthetics—what I make the reader feel.
Do you think African literature is coming more into focus now?
Yes, it’s definitely on the rise. African literature is the ‘new Indian literature’! Earlier Indian writers were all the rage, now it is African writers. It’s good for us! And it’s also good for everyone else to see that the world is complex and diverse. This is a good moment to be an African writer. But it’s not going to last forever! So the thing is to be a good writer, period.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Down the Dark Lane: The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

It’s not a thriller if it doesn’t keep you up all night. The Girl On The Train passes that test well. Paula Hawkins uses the same little trick so successfully utilized in The Hangover series: getting drunk and waking up the next day without the faintest knowledge of what mayhem you might have unleashed. Just bits and pieces that surface here and there, aiming clever little punches at your gut, turning you crazy with their cryptic revelations.
Except, the important distinguishing factor here is that the protagonist is an incurable alcoholic, whose life is marred by such blind spots of the memory. The black outs are the thread that strings the entire mystery together. And the execution is almost perfect. Everything is revealed bit by bit, in a strangely hypnotising backward-forward rhythm. Hawkins certainly deserves credit for the setting and the introduction to the story. Particularly the opening scene with the faded, discarded clothes lying by the railway track. In accordance with the title, Rachel commutes to office everyday on the same train, and as coincidences go, the train stops for a few minutes every day on the same broken signal, in front of the very same house. As is wont for unhappy people, Rachel sketches a fictional, happily-married existence for the couple whose everyday life she glimpses from the train window-- like a movie on a screen. And then one day, she has a fleeting glimpse of something that enrages her, unravelling the happy narrative in her mind, creating a pitiful parallel with her own broken existence. This house whose story she becomes entangled with is just four doors away from her ex-husband’s house: the house that used to be hers. Little does she know how deeply she is connected with this ‘on-screen’ couple, how her life’s edges would unravel in the desire to unravel another person’s mysterious disappearance.
The plot and the pace keep you hooked. Hawkins’ style is clear and crisp, vividly descriptive and moving between the consciousness of Rachel, the protagonist, Megan—the woman from the house by the tracks and Anna—current wife of Rachel’s ex-husband. But here’s the thing—the whole novel is too dark. Rachel is a perennially unhappy woman, obsessed with her ex-husband, unable to emerge from the quagmire of alcohol, unable to get a hold onto her life. You can pity her, but how do you sympathise with her? You don’t see her growing or evolving over the course of the story—until the very end when it all comes back to her. And her constant break downs do drag occasionally. Megan is perhaps the one you can sympathise with, because she at least found the courage to stand up to something in life.

The motherhood instinct is a strong undercurrent to the story, with the three women somehow connected through it. One woman with a child she tries fiercely to protect, the second whose unfulfilled longing for motherhood pushes her over the edge, and the third who, devastatingly, loses a child through her own fault. The three women are also connected in other, more sinister ways, but I’d be giving away too much if I told you what. As far as mystery and curiosity go, Hawkins knows her stuff, for sure. The twists and turns are dexterously executed. to say the least, and the snatches of memory grasped at and slipping again make for riveting reading. This isn’t a happy read, though—looking inside the minds of so many disturbed human beings. It remains bleak and desolate to the end—like a chilly grey winter morn that sends shiver after shiver down your spine.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

On militant Buddhism and speaking for the voiceless: Samanth Subramanian

My interview with Romesh had spilled over, above the stipulated time. Samanth, who was next, came up to him and said-"Hey, if you say everything about Sri Lanka, what will I talk about?" At which point I couldnt help but cut in--"Don't worry, I'll have a whole new set of questions to ask you."

Journalist turned author Samanth Subramanian talks at the Jaipur Literary Festival about his book on Sri Lanka, This Divided Island, and what he calls the ‘fiendishly tough’ experience of gathering stories in this exclusive interview with Zehra Naqvi:

Me:Your book contains a multitude of stories chased across the globe. What was the experience like?
Samanth: The war ended in 2009 so going there in 2011 was dangerous because it was a time of great flux, the government was not willing to open itself to the scrutiny of journalists and human rights activists and so I had to go there under false pretenses. There were various reasons why people wouldn’t or couldn’t talk to me. They were cautious about what will happen if they are outspoken or honest. I was told that my phone was being tapped and it was—but I was more concerned about the safety of the people talking to me, their lives were in much more peril.

Me:Would you say that your Tamil roots prompted you to write this book?
Samanth: Yes, it has a little to do with my roots as I knew a lot about the war. But it was primarily the curiosity of the journalist. When the war ended my first thought was—maybe an opportunistic one –that it’s a great time to do stories.

Me: Is it possible for people living in Sri Lanka to do a direct, open book like this?
Samanth: I can’t think of a Sri Lanka living in Sri lanka who has written non-fiction like this. It’s difficult to do newspaper articles even—journalists are abducted and arrested … so a book… almost out of the question.

Me:Your book ends with an image of a soldier with a dove perched on his gun. What are your thoughts on the future of Sri lanka?
Samanth:Till last year I would’ve been very pessimistic but now after the elections I am less so. The new President is not as much of a tyrant as the last one. But then he too has similar allegiances to Buddhist right wing groups. Still, its heartening that Rajapaksa lost and also cleanly departed.

Me: Rajapaksa was a hero of sorts in Sri Lanka.
Samanth: Was. Not any more. He did a lot of abuses of power in the last five years and turned increasingly authoritarian, several human rights problems emerged—not just towards Tamils but also Sinhalese and the Muslims. There was a whole climate of uncertainty. He isn't the hero he was considered.

Me:What about the common people. Is there better integration among them now?
Samanth: Colombo was always cosmopolitan city even at the peak of the war, and that hasn’t changed. There is more interaction now in terms of Siunhalese people travelling from the south to the north, areas they never visited for the last three decades. But then that’s also a bad sort of integration. There are stories of how Sinahlese people have been given incentives to travel to the north and set up farms. So the next time a Sinhalese person stands for election in the north, he has a better chance of winning, because of the changed demographic. That kind of integration isn’t good for anybody because it builds resentment.

Me: Do you think that conflict is inevitable in multicultural, multireligion societies?
Samanth: Well, no. India has survived fairly well. I mean we’ve had riots and problems of intolerance but at least not full scale civil war. When I went to Sri lanka I thought you have just two languages it’s so easy to solve! India’s an example right here! 

Me:Perhaps just two adversaries fight harder…rather than multiple groups fighting!
Samanth: Absolutely, this is what I figured out later, theorized on my own. In India there is a certain balance. No single group is predominant.

Me: You’ve said that Indians wear their problems on their sleeve but with Sri Lanka you need to peel off the “beautiful polished skin to find the toxic bloodstream within”. What do you mean by that?
Samanth:India’s problems are out there in the open. We debate about religious tolerance, freedom of expression, there’s a certain messy openness to India. In Sri Lanka this isn’t there. On the surface it seems extremely peaceful. Nobody talks about the problems. They fester under the surface, simmering. And then all of a sudden it explodes. (Pauses) I’m thinking on my feet now…Perhaps its because Sri Lanka has always been presented to the world as this beautiful Island nation… they feel the pressure to keep up that image of beauty and serenity… but under the surface all sorts of tension boil.

Me:Your book talks about militant Buddhism—militant monks even—which is a surprising image. Could you talk more about that?
Samanth: The clergy has always been influential in Sri Lanka, and they were empowered by the war. In fact there was this very rabid monk who you read about in the late 19th century whose writings are still studied by right wing Buddhist monks… about a pure Buddhist nation. And now there are a number of right wing groups that you could call the equivalent of RSS or the Bajrang Dal. They have money and muscle power and connections to government and make life miserable for the minorities.

Me: Your book seems to have more Tamil voices than Sinhala ones. Is that deliberate?
Samanth: Sure. The job of a writer such as myself is to give voice to the people that don’t have a voice. And that is always the minorities. The Sinhalese by virtue ofbeing majority have always spoken out.
 There’s very little room for the Tamils to express themselves even now. But do note that the Tamils don’t talk about sufferings at the hands of the Sinhalese only, but also at the hands of the Tigers. The Muslims too have suffered  at the hands of both. But I was careful to include the Sinhalese voices because it’s interesting for me to see what their rationale is, behind their actions.