Friday, March 28, 2014

When There Is A God In Every Stone

By John Cheeran

Will reading a Pakistani writer’s novel be sedition in Narendra Modi’s India? Not yet. Reading Pakistan-born British writer Kamila Shamsie’s brilliant novel A God In Every Stone may help you know how to remove your blindfold and see your place in this world. Shamsie excavates memories of a terrible massacre on April 23, 1930 in the Storyteller’s Street in Peshawar and brings alive Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi, who urged Pashtuns in NWFP to break their addiction to violence and revenge and hold on to righteousness and patience, instead of embarking on jihad.

In an interview with John Cheeran, Shamsie says space between dreams and reality is more contingent on economics than geography. Excerpts:

Q: Is the title--A God In Every Stone- provocative, and blasphemous? You write “In an age when the people of this region had the vision to find the god in every stone.”

No, neither, it's metaphorical. The idea is that things of beauty and terror can be found everywhere. And of course it also gestures to Peshawar's ancient (Gandhara) past which is an important part of the novel via the story of the archaeologists.
Q: What is this book about--love, loyalty, pride, honour or nationalism?
It's about characters and place, primarily. All these other ideas are layered in--the question of loyalty is probably the idea that runs most deeply through the book.
Q: You write so touchingly about Peshawar. When was the last time you were in the Story Teller’s Street?

Two years ago, which is also the only time I've ever been there. The Peshawar of the early 20th century is one I discovered primarily through books, photographs and archive material.
Q: Does it alarm you that people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are still migrating to the UK and the West?

Why would that alarm me? As someone who lives in London I'm reassured to know that the people who are the life blood institutions such as the National Health Service are continuing to migrate there.
Q: You write: ”The space between dreams and reality was wider in India than anywhere else in the world.” Is it still so, in India as well as in Pakistan?

It's a line from Viv Spencer who sees Peshawar through an Imperialist glow and generally says things I would never say or think myself. I think the space between dreams and reality is more contingent on economics than geography.

Q: What’s more dearer to you now—the British Passport or the original one, the Pakistani Passport?

The blessing of being a citizen of two nations that allow dual citizenship is that you don't have to think in those terms. One passport stands in for what I was born in to and have known and been my whole life; the other stands in for what I've chosen to acquire. And at the end of the day, they're travel documents which are primarily to be viewed in a practical rather than emotional light.

Q: Of course, you didn’t think about the Peshawar massacre at Camden Hall, the other day….

Ha. I had a flicker of such a thought at the start of proceedings when a photographer handed me a Union Jack. But looking around the room of people from around the world who were there to become citizens was also a reminder of how much Britain has changed since its days of Empire.

Q: Do you think, there will come a day when an Indian writer can settle in Karachi and a Pakistani author in Mumbai to pursue their careers?
You do already have a handful of people who cross that border and make a new life - usually via marriage rather than for any other reason. So it's not something we have to look to the future to imagine. But my understanding is it's a position fraught with insecurity and red tape. I'd like to say that will disappear - and that there will be routes in other than marriage - but I don't see it happening any time soon. Still, history has a way of surprising us.

Q: How difficult was excavating memories about April 23, 1930?

The British were meticulous record keepers and those records are now in the British Library. So all the official correspondence is there, along with the official enquiry report (including verbatim transcripts of witness statements). Additionally there's the Congress enquiry report with its hundreds of eye witness testimonies. It took a fair amount of work to read through all that material and try to piece together, as far as possible, what really happened - but actually finding the material involved no difficulty at all.
Q: Frontier Gandhi Abdul Ghaffar Khan makes only a brief appearance in A God In Every Stone though his presence is strongly felt. In what has become Pakistan now, what relevance has he?
He appears for about a page, when Qayyum goes in search of him. I wanted to ensure he wasn't an absence in the book. In KP (the former NWFP) he's still widely revered - the most visible reminder of that was when Malala referred to him as one of her heroes while addressing the UN. In other parts of Pakistan, though, he's largely absent from the collective imagination.
But of course he's very relevant as a heroic figure who stood for non-violence, education for both men and women, and a resistance to damaging ideologies.
Q: Do you think reading a Pakistani-origin author’s novel will be considered sedition in Narendra Modi’s India? Recently, Kashmiri students at a private university in Meerut were charged with sedition after they cheered Pakistan during a cricket match, which India lost.
That's a really bleak picture you're painting there. I've been in India a handful of days so it would be silly of me to try and make any kind of political predictions - I certainly hope you're wrong.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Comrades, don’t bury the idea of revolution

By John Cheeran
A mandatory period of mourning follows when an idea gets buried, given that it was an idea, and not petty posturing for selfish ends. What does the silence in the V S Achuthanandan camp signify after the leader has accepted the inevitable that there is no life after CPM and outside of it? Is it an endorsement of the last of the communists' meek surrender? Or is the betrayal too shocking that his faithful have lost the will to react and fight on their own?
It is important that after VS disowned his populist political positions within the party favouring Pinarayi Vijayan, no one has come forward to expose the hollow nature of the veteran leader’s botched revolution. T P Chandrasekharan’s wife Rema has said she will not disown Achuthanandan despite his opportunistic shift. Does she have a choice?
It is quite understandable that CPM and its official mouthpiece can’t stomach a critical column directed against the party and its new poster boy and take refuge in preaching what media should do or not. The taming of Achuthanandan is the lone victory that CPM can boast of in recent times and it suits Deshabhimani’s agenda. Defending the reformed leader is CPM’s duty but is this dirge, rage, relief or glee?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

VS or the art of having a happy funeral

By John Cheeran

V S Achuthanandan has seen the writing on the wall. It’s every man’s right to have an honourable funeral. And there is no harm in trying to ensure that it takes place appropriately. The veteran CPM leader’s recent rethink on his position within the party and, largely, in Kerala civil society makes it clear that he wants to say his farewell as a good, disciplined CPM member, if not as politburo member, and not as a good communist, an epithet he used to describe the slain rebel T P Chandrasekharan. Those who were waiting all these years for VS to leave the CPM fold and lead the revolutionary charge have been left disappointed. The unkindest cut has been in describing Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) as the tail of the Congress.
But how can VS be blamed for realizing that there is little time left for grand posturing and giving shape to the perfect communist party in the world? It’s remarkable that VS has revisited his controversial positions regarding the party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan’s “incorruptibility” at a time when an even greater ex-communist came knocking at the CPM door, almost pleading for re-entry. K R Gowri, when she was expelled from CPM, was even a bigger star in 1994 than VS is now. 

Read the full story 

John Cheeran at Blogged