Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Celebrating the memory of BR Ambedkar

Photos: The poster of the documentary; Somnath Waghmare; the Ambedkar museum in Dadar

Celebrating the memory of BR Ambedkar

Filmmaker Somnath Waghmare has made a moving documentary on Chaityabhumi, the cremation site of BR Ambedkar, the legendary leader of the Dalits. His death anniversary is on December 6

By Shevlin Sebastian

The documentary film ‘Chaityabhumi’ by filmmaker Somnath Waghmare opens with a painting of BR Ambedkar’s wife Ramabai hanging on a wall. It pans to a wooden desk. On top of a folder, you can see the spectacles worn by Ambedkar. Behind and on the sides are bookshelves which contain books.
The camera focuses on the different photographs that highlight the career of the noted social reformer, lawyer, and political leader of the Dalits. Suddenly, Ambedkar’s high-pitched, and intense voice can be heard on the soundtrack.

“Our difficulty is how to convince the heterogenous mass that we have to take a decision today in common and march in a co-operative way on that road which is bound to lead us to unity.”

This is the heritage museum on the ground floor of Ambedkar’s bungalow in Dadar. It is called Rajgruha. Ambedkar’s descendants stay on the upper floors. Visitors come from all over India and the world. Entry is free.

The film soon tracks the lakhs of people as they came, on December 6, to celebrate the death anniversary of their beloved leader. The cremation location, the Chaityabhumi, a Buddhist chaitya or temple, is next to the Dadar Chowpatty beach.

Many people wear the colour blue, which signifies the Dalit movement. One theory is that the blue represents the sky. Under the sky, everybody is equal. Ambedkar’s trademark suit was in blue.

In the documentary, Rahul Telgote, a blind musician, sitting cross-legged on the ground, hits a drum with both hands and sings:

“Oh Bhima, be born again for the oppressed, troubled and tired
Their hearts are longing for your arrival.
Oh Bhima, behold your 90 million people
The ones who are ready to die at a word from you
You are their guiding light.”

A little distance away, a young man shouts,

Emancipator of women

A group of young men in white shirts and pointed caps shout in unison: Babasaheb (this is the nickname for Ambedkar, which means respected father).

River Linking Projects




And the young man enumerates the achievements of Ambedkar: Equality/Fraternity/Economist/The only ruler/Your ruler, our ruler/Constitution maker/The lawgiver/Bodhisattva/Crown of the world.

The action continued.

The Samata Sainik Dal (The Equality Squad), in khaki trousers, does a march past, with beating drums and flutes. One can see bald-headed Buddhist monks in yellow robes. One held a placard stating they were from the Bhikkhu Sangh of North-East Mumbai. “They are mostly Dalits who converted to Buddhism,” says Somnath. “But for the Chaityabhumi, monks had also come from Myanmar and other South-East Asian countries.”

Amidst the chanting of Buddhist prayers, people placed garlands on the statue of Ambedkar.
In 1956, to get away from the oppression of the caste system, Ambedkar adopted Buddhism, along with five lakh compatriots.

“This was more a political act, and less to do with spirituality,” says Somnath. Today, the Dalits continue to follow Buddhism.

Charan Jadhav, a singer and actor, with a blue bandana tied across his forehead, sings a song in praise of two kings: Chhatrapati Shivaji (1630-80) and Ambedkar. On the skin of Charan’s drum, the words Jai Bhim, the Dalit greeting, has been painted in blue.

“King Shivaji’s courts brought justice to the people,” sang Charan.

Adds Somnath, “The Dalits hold Shivaji in high esteem. He was a progressive ruler. He treated all classes and castes of people equally. There was no discrimination. This has been elaborated in [rationalist] Govind Pansare’s best-selling book, ‘Who was Shivaji?’.”

There are Dalit intellectual voices in the documentary. One of them is Dr. Rahul Sonpimple, scholar, President, All India Independent Schedule Caste Association.

“Ambedkar is part of my emotional and spiritual life,” he says. “When I visited Chaityabhumi, I cried. But the Indian state is the replica of the society that practises untouchability. Ambedkar was never part of public memory. Most of the monuments or the memories we have about Ambedkar are community-created.”

Commonwealth Scholar Pranjal Kureel added, “Academia and media have erased or appropriated the ideas of Babasaheb, but when you go to Chaityabhumi, you realise his ideas are still being taken forward. The fire is still burning, and the wheel is moving. The emancipation from the framework of caste is necessary for everybody, not just Dalit people. There is an assertion through art, culture and music. That is very overwhelming. Freedom of mind is the biggest thing.”

The scene then moves to the sprawling Shivaji Park grounds where hundreds of vendors have set up stalls selling many books on Ambedkar and his movement. You can find these in English, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, and other languages. The other items on sale include photo frames, magazines, booklets, calendars, and paintings. There is Dalit literature and anti-caste treatises.

“Apparently, sales of Rs 10 crore were achieved on that day,” says Somnath. That comes as no surprise because lakhs of people were present.

At night, the family of Babasaheb paid their tributes inside the stupa. They placed garlands on the shining bronze statue. The members included Babasaheb’s great grandchildren, Sujat and Ritika, and grandson Bhimrao Ambedkar and his wife. Visitors sang hymns in praise of Lord Buddha.

At a public meeting, Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Babasaheb, and president of the Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi, said, “I do not want to lose again the battle that we have long since won.”

Somnath decided to make a film on the Chaityabhumi because he felt that there were few stories about Dalits in the mainstream.

“Whenever people from non-Dalit backgrounds make a film on us, it is incomplete,” he says. “The Dalit cultural assertion was missing. Most stories in industries like Bollywood are only about the dominant castes. I wanted to tell the story from the Dalit viewpoint.”

Somnath shot for four years before he made the film.

Asked about the state of the Dalits in India, Somnath says, “We know who owns the resources in India. We know who owns all the land, and the cultural capital. We know who has power. We know who controls the media. In the Indian Institute of Technology, the directors are upper-caste. In the official records, the upper-castes continue to dominate in all aspects of life. This is not what I am saying. It is all there in the data.”

Since Ambedkar had done his doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1916, Somnath had a screening at the LSE on October 24. “The audience liked the film,” says Somnath.
As quoted in ‘The Guardian,’ Shakuntala Banaji, a professor of social change at LSE, said she was deeply moved after viewing the film. “After generations of misrepresentation in, or exclusion from, mainstream Indian cinemas and media, Dalit directors and producers have started to tell the stories of their communities in original and exciting ways,” she says.

Somnath said he wanted to show the real Indian society. “For most outsiders when they watch Bollywood films, they think it is the accurate picture of Indian society,” he says. “Many people are not aware of the caste system. But with films like [Marathi director] Nagraj Manjule’s ‘Fandry’ (2013) and mine, they are slowly becoming aware.”

Somnath said that after ‘Fandry’ was screened at Columbia University on April 18, 2014, the next Dalit film that was screened was ‘Chaityabhumi’ on December 3, 2023. Ambedkar had also studied at Columbia University.

Asked whether the caste system would ever be eradicated, Somnath says that it depends on the privileged castes. “Only they can dismantle it,” he says. “Maybe some powerful revolutionary might arise and do it.”

But the good news, he says, is that a lot of Dalits are in higher education. Somnath is doing his doctoral thesis in the social sciences at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “Until my graduation, I studied in a Marathi medium school,” he says.

As to whether he faced discrimination in his college life, he says, “Discrimination is part of a Dalit’s life. But nowadays, it is subtle. They insult me indirectly.”

Somnath got interested in a film career when he began learning media studies while doing his masters at Pune University. As for the directors who inspired him, Somnath mentions the name of the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016), Nagraj and Tamil director Pa. Ranjith.

Some of Somnath’s earlier films include ‘I am Not a Witch’ (2015) and ‘The Battle of Bhima Koregaon: An Unending Journey’ (2017). He is now working on ‘Gail and Bharat’. This is a documentary biopic of the activist couple Dr. Gail Omvedt and Dr. Bharat Patankar, who have worked for long on behalf of the Dalits..

“I want to make films from the Dalit viewpoint,” he says. “This is my life's mission.”

Thursday, November 23, 2023

A scintillating parade

Photos: Translator AJ Thomas; Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Lalithambika Antharjanam and M. Mukundan

Translator and Editor Dr. AJ Thomas talks about the anthology he has curated titled 'The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told'

By Shevlin Sebastian

One afternoon in November, 2018, Aienla Ozukum, the Publishing Director at Aleph Book Company, walked into the Delhi office of AJ Thomas, the editor of ‘Indian Literature’, a bi-monthly literary journal which is brought out by the Sahitya Akademi.

She told Thomas Aleph was planning to bring out a ‘Greatest Stories Ever Told’ series from all the regional languages. “Since Malayalam is one of the major literatures in India, Aienla wanted me to select and translate the stories into English,” says Thomas.

Immediately, Thomas realised it was a daunting task. But for Thomas, the Malayalam short story was his forte. His M. Phil and PhD dissertations were on the subject. And he has done several translations of notable books throughout his career.

Thomas won the Katha award for his translation of a story of author Paul Zacharia called Salam America. He translated Ujjaini, based on the life of Kalidasa by ONV Kurup, the legendary Malayalam poet. Thomas also translated noted Malayalam writer M. Mukundan’s novel, Keshavan’s Lamentations. This won the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2007.

The bespectacled Aienla asked him whether he could deliver the manuscript by January, 2020. Thomas agreed.

The span of selection was 50 years, from the 1950s to 2000s. The first Malayalam short story, ‘Vasana Vikriti’ (Strange Stirrings), was written by essayist Kesari Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar in 1891. It appeared in the literary magazine ‘Vidya Vinodini’. “But the serious, well-formed short stories began to appear in the 1930s,” says Thomas.

He based most of his selection on two books. The first one was ‘100 Varsham 100 Kadha’ (Hundred Years, Hundred Stories), which came out in 1991, to celebrate the centenary of the Malayalam short story. Professor KS Ravi Kumar, the former Pro Vice Chancellor of the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, curated the stories. The second was author NS Madhavan’s ‘60 Kathakal’ (Sixty Stories). This came out in 2017, commemorating the 60th year of the birth of the state of Kerala. Thomas also relied on several notable previous anthologies, and literary periodicals of the past several decades as well.

The Aleph anthology comprises 50 stories. All the great authors are represented. They include P Keshavadev, Ponkunnam Varkey, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, SK Pottekkatt, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Uroob, MT Vasudevan Nair, OV Vijayan, T. Padmanabhan, M. Mukundan, Kakkanadan, Paul Zacharia and several others. Expectedly, the quality remains superb throughout.

Some of the female writers include Lalithambika Antharjanam, K. Saraswathi Amma, Rajalakshmi, Madhavikutty, Sara Joseph, and Manasi.

Lalithambika’s stunning story, ‘Dhirendu Majumdar’s Mother’ is about Shanti Majumdar, the mother of a revolutionary, who herself becomes a heroine during the partition of Bengal and India in 1947, and the Bangladesh Liberation war of 1971.

OV Vijayan’s story, ‘The Hanging’, talks about a father visiting his son in a prison a day before he was hanged.

Here is an excerpt:

‘An intense keening issued from Kandunni, a wail so high-pitched and shrill, it was on the edge of auditory perception.

“Appa, don’t let them hang me.”

“Time’s up, Sir. Please come out.”

Vellaayiappan walked out of the cell and the door clanged shut. When he looked back, he saw his son looking at him from behind the bars as a stranger might from behind the barred window of a train hurtling past.’

P Padmarajan is known for his novels and films. But he has written a short story called Choonda (The Hook). It is about an old man sitting by the side of a pond trying to hook a varal (murrel). He has a 38-year-old daughter who is not married. She goes on cursing him for going to the pond daily and returning empty-handed. One day, the old man finally catches a murrel. The story ends with these lines: ‘A thought gave him great relief. That day, for the first time in the last five days, he could sleep without listening to cursing.’

“It’s a fantastic story,” says Thomas. “There is a superb creation of atmosphere.”

Asked whether there is a difference between the older and current writers, Thomas says, “There is no difference. There are only different ways of story-telling. I selected stories that read well.”

Thomas had interesting experiences while dealing with the writers or their heirs to get their permission.

Thomas called up the multiple award-winning writer T. Padmanabhan, who is 92.

“What will I gain?” said Padmanabhan in a playful tone. “Will I be around when the book comes out? What is the use? What am I worth?”

Thomas said, “You are the greatest living Malayalam short story writer.”

Padmanabhan said, “Who says that?”

“Sir, I am saying it,” replied Thomas.

Padmanabhan laughed.

“His clarity of mind was amazing,” said Thomas.

Most were happy that they were selected for an English edition.

But many writers remained in obscurity during their lifetimes. They include writers like TR (T Ramachandran), Victor Leenus and Thomas Joseph. “They set a different tone,” says Thomas. “You read their stories and you become aware of other realms. Thomas Joseph is a surreal painter with words.”

Joseph had high blood pressure. On September 15, 2018, Joseph suffered a stroke while asleep at his home in Keezhmad, Aluva. The family took him to the Rajagiri Hospital. Since they could not afford to pay the medical expenses, his literary friends, including the writers Paul Zacharia, AK Hassan Koya, and others, including Thomas, pooled their resources. After being released, Joseph spent three years in a coma before he passed away, on July 29, 2021, at the age of 67.

The tragedy, says Thomas, is that when society loses a great writer, nobody is bothered. “Everybody goes after celebrated authors like MT Vasudevan Nair and ONV Kurup,” he says. “I have nothing against these great writers, only admiration. In music, people will celebrate singers like Yesudas. But there are also superb writers like TR and Victor Leenus, whom the public is not aware of. These are the people who, like the great Irish writer James Joyce, worked on the margins. That is why I took pains to include these immortals in this collection.”

The public is no longer bothered about the aesthetic quality of a literary work. “Earlier generations valued art and literature,” says Thomas. “Literature no longer touches people. They seem to be in another world. They are going ahead at a fast pace. The common man does not have the time to stop and look around. They regard literature and the arts as a luxury. To appreciate art, you need time and a meditative mood. Those things are no longer there. Having said that, there is also a minority which is deeply interested in these subjects.”

As to why so many Malayalam writers are being translated into English, Thomas says, “The quality of the writing is very good. This is widely known now. The opening for Malayalam literature into the wider world through English translation happened when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for ‘The God of Small Things’ in 1997, even though it was an English book set in Kerala.”

Thomas also mentioned that the quality of translators has increased significantly. “Translators like Jayasree Kalathil, EV Fathima, Ministhy S and many others are of international standard,” says Thomas. “This has helped create a market for Malayalam books in translation.”

As for the modernist style in Malayalam fiction, Thomas says, “The earliest model of Modernism existed till the early 1970s. Thereafter, there was the Post-Modern period and After Post-Modernism. These are subjective descriptions.”

From the 1990s, the scope of the story changed, says Thomas. “After the liberalisation of the Indian economy, the advent of the information superhighway, the rise of the Internet and social media, these are the new experiences,” he says. “All this is expressed in the writing these days.”

Asked what elements have to be there in a story to make it timeless, Thomas says, “It should be life-affirming. It cannot be a story glorifying Hitler, for instance, or genocide. There should be aesthetic appeal. It should appeal to the intellect. There should be an original voice and fresh experiences. The narrative style is important. It should be tight and competent.”

Thomas is working on a companion volume of stories by writers mainly from the 1990s till the present. He mentions the names of K P Ramanunni, S. Hareesh, Benyamin, KR Meera, B. Murali, Unni R, VJ James, Vinoy Thomas, Subhash Chandran, Santhosh Aechikkanam, VR Sudheesh, E Santhosh Kumar, and a few others.

“They belong to the New Wave of Malayalam short story writers,” says Thomas.

(An edited version was published in The Federal)

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

At Death’s Final Stop

Manikarnika Ghat. Photo by Dennis Jarvis

Radhika Iyengar’s debut non-fiction work, ‘Fire on the Ganges: Life Among the Dead in Banaras’, takes an in-depth look at the much-maligned community of the Doms. They have been cremating the dead for centuries

By Shevlin Sebastian

As Radhika Iyengar walked through the narrow lane leading to the Manikarnika Ghat in Banaras, she heard a rhythmic chant. It rose and fell. The people were chanting ‘Ram Naam Satya Hai’ (God’s name is the truth).

She stood at one side of the ghat. It is one of the oldest burning ghats on the banks of the Ganges. An inscription about the ghat dating from the 5th century AD Gupta Empire has been found.

Radhika saw several pyres burning at the same time. A few brown-skinned men were lighting other pyres. They were, of course, the Doms. Smoke rose in the air. On the ground, she saw a lot of ash. At one side, a barber was shaving the face of a mourner. On another side, there was a tea stall.

Some men, with bent backs, brought logs into the area. Every few minutes, pall bearers brought bodies on bamboo biers. Stray dogs wandered about. Several men sat on their haunches and watched the proceedings. Out on the surface of the Ganges, Radhika could see marigold garlands floating.

“It was a spell-binding experience,” she said. In 2015, she had come to Banaras to do a report on the Dom community for her thesis project. At the time, Radhika was doing her Masters in Journalism at Columbia University.

Little did she know then that she would come many times, as the idea crystallised to do a book on the community of Doms. They belong to the Dalit community. Society considers them as an untouchable caste. For centuries, their primary job has been the cremation of bodies. There is a belief Doms should cremate upper-caste Hindus if they are to attain moksha (relief from the cycle of rebirth).

“A Dom’s work is highly skilled,” said Radhika. “It is also dangerous and underpaid. Since it is a profession that is anchored in the caste system, the work is passed down from father to son. For many Dom families, there are no alternative work opportunities.”

What pained Radhika was the humiliating way the upper castes treated them.

A few children from the community sometimes accompanied Radhika to the ghat. They would avoid a route that had a small temple. Instead, they would request Radhika to take another way. Later, she realised the children avoided that alley, because the priest would shoo them away. They could not be near the temple premises. “It was unsettling to learn that,” she said.

Radhika also perceived the huge psychological effect this had on the children. “They had no means to cope and no language to express their angst,” she said.

The children also saw dead bodies from an early age. One boy told Radhika that he was only five years old when he saw a corpse. After that, for weeks, the dead man’s face would haunt him in his dreams.

Even the adult Doms went through trying times. The labour was very hard. On summer days, with the heat from the pyre and the climatic heat, it took a toll on their health. Radhika said they could not afford proper medical care. Their burns and wounds went untreated. To see a doctor, they sometimes borrowed money to pay the bills. This led them into debt.

And to cope, they consumed large amounts of alcohol, gutka and ganja. “They do it to forget the stark reality of the work they do, and the lives they lead,” said Radhika.

It took courage and determination by Radhika to befriend the members of the community. She found it easier to talk to the women. “My frequent visits to Chand Ghat made me a familiar face,” she said. “The more time I spent with them, the more they realised I was serious about my work.”

The men were not forthcoming initially. “I was a stranger from a different city. They were also not used to having a woman asking questions about their work or their lives.”

But Radhika persisted. She began writing the book in 2019 and completed it in 2023.

And interacting with the Doms affected Radhika. “Some stories they shared with me were raw and emotional,” she said. “It’s impossible not to be affected. But I tried to ensure that my opinions did not seep into the process of storytelling.”

The book, ‘Fire on the Ganges: Life Among the Dead in Banaras’ (HarperCollins Publishers) is an absorbing read. Radhika delves into the struggles, the sufferings, and the agonies of the Dom community.

The intense politics between family members, the jealousies, the anger, and the hate. Radhika described the financial hardships they faced and their problems with addiction. She also spoke about the difficulties of the new generation in moving away from this strenuous life and to try something new.

There is a youngster called Bhola. He had a great desire to study but was forced to stop in 2001 when he was seven years old because of poverty. In 2006 film-maker Vikram Mathur made a documentary on the Manikarnika Ghat and focused on the boys who ran around collecting the shrouds from the dead bodies. In 2009, an American named George Grey saw the premiere in New York. He felt he had to do something.

George and Vikram came to Banaras and offered to fund the education of the boys. The parents demurred saying they preferred their children work to earn some money. In the end, George agreed to pay Rs 1500 a month to the parents to make up for the loss of income the boys would have earned. And the boys, including Bhola, were enrolled in a school in Cholapur. It was a few hours away from Banaras. Later, Bhola graduated from a college in Ludhiana, and managed to get a job in Chennai. To his relief, nobody knows he belongs to the Dom community.

There is a story of Komal, a Brahmin girl, who fell in love with Lakshaya, a youngster of the Dom community. Lakshaya was studying in a school. Soon, neighbours came to know. Expectedly, there was fierce opposition from both families. But they ran through the gauntlet of fire for a few years before they got married.

The death of one male member, Sekond Lal, the husband of Dolly, had a searing impact on the community for several years. There was suspicion that two neighbours, Gopi and Bunty, had murdered him. But the family members said the police told them it was an accident.

Here is an excerpt:

‘In 2019, even though some years have passed since his death, a strange disquiet continues to linger in Dolly’s body. It makes its presence known whenever she speaks of Sekond Lal’s death or of those who she believes are his murderers. The disquiet manifests in the form of dry grunts, a widening of her eyes, and incessant name calling. Tired and alone, Dolly is consumed by feelings of anger, sadness, betrayal, and vengeance. She slings accusations at Gopi and Bunty routinely, and at times, she issues roaring threats. “I say this: those who have murdered my husband — the way they have stolen my youth, the same way their youth will be ruined.”

After you finish reading the book, you will look at the Dom community with new eyes. You would have seen them from the inside.

A possible future Hindi translation, available at Banaras, might remove the scales of prejudice from the eyes of the higher castes. At Manikarnika Ghat, they might even treat this much-maligned community with sympathy, respect and kindness.

(Published in The Federal)

Monday, October 30, 2023

‘I don’t know how long India will hold together’

Human rights activist, Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, while on a recent visit to Kochi speaks about the rising acceptance of Hindutva among the people, the fear of the minorities and the inroads the Sangh Parivar has made in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At 7 am., on August 9, Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, went down the stairs of his apartment building in Santa Cruz, Mumbai.

He was on his way to commemorate the Quit India Day at August Kranti Maidan in Tardeo. It was the day the Mahatma asked the British to Quit India with the slogan ‘Do or die’. This day is also celebrated as a tribute to the sacrifices made by the Indian people during their struggle for independence.

When he reached the compound, a group of men came up to him. Tushar recognised two men as police officers, although they were all in plainclothes.

“Where are you going?” said one officer.

“You know where I am going,” said Tushar. “That is why you have come to stop me.”

“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” said one officer. “Our senior inspector [Rajendra Kane] would like to speak to you.”

“Connect me on the phone,” said Tushar.

“No, no,” he said. “Come with us to the [Santa Cruz] police station.”

“I am not coming to the station,” said Tushar. “I have to reach Chowpatty at 8.30 a.m. Give him my phone number and let him speak to him while I am travelling.”

After a to-and-fro conversation, they gently coerced Tushar to go to the station. They took him to the senior inspector’s office.

Rajendra said, “The DCP [Krishna Kant Upadhyay] is coming. You need to wait.”

Tushar again urged the police to release him, but they did not agree.

The DCP came and there was a friendly conversation, which lasted for an hour. They asked about Tushar’s ancestry and they expressed their admiration and respect for Mahatma Gandhi.

When asked about the police's political leanings, Tushar stated they were adept at concealing them. “They are like chameleons. Whoever is in power, they will align with them.”

As they spoke, the police were monitoring the television. There was an official function at August Kranti Maidan. The Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, Deputy Chief Ministers Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar and other ministers were taking part. They were launching the ‘Mera Mati, Mera Desh’ campaign during the Quit India celebrations.

During this time, the police also prevented the noted human rights activist Teesta Setalvad from going out. “The police told her that if she tried to leave, they would arrest her,” said Tushar.

Teesta is out on bail for the many cases the central government has filed against her. She messaged Tushar about what to do. He replied, “Please don’t force the issue. It is not worth risking your freedom.” The police detained a couple of other activists at Lamington Road station.

At 11.15 am, the function concluded. Tushar was told he could leave. This was the first time in his life the police had detained him, although nothing was recorded officially. “Apparently, they were afraid we would stage a demonstration in front of the Chief Minister,” he said. “Why should we? We Gandhians are a peaceful group.”

Thereafter, Tushar went to August Kranti Maidan. Around twenty other activists turned up. Among them was the oldest freedom fighter, GG Parekh, 99, as well as Teesta. They sang songs and hymns and saluted the Indian flag.

Tushar came to Kochi on October 21 on a two-day visit. He took part in a ‘Secular Indian Movement Conference’ and inaugurated a museum on Tibet set up by the Friends of Tibet Foundation.

On Saturday afternoon, Tushar leaned against a sofa in the sixth floor room of the Government Guest House, and smiled kindly. He was a seasoned interviewee. As soon as I asked a question, the answer flowed out immediately, in long and steady sentences, spoken in a calm voice.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

What is your purpose in life?

To speak about the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, and the necessity to preserve the soul of India. It keeps me engaged and active. But the negative aspect is that my family is always worried about my safety [Tushar’s family includes wife Sonal Desai, a retired banker, son Vivan, who works with the legal department of the UK government in London, and daughter Kasturi who works with an NGO, Dasra Foundation, Mumbai].

There is talk that Mahatma Gandhi is being erased. Do you agree?

What is being attempted is to erase the ideas of Gandhi: truth, ahimsa, inclusiveness and equality. These are the cornerstones on which man has built civilisations. The hate campaign against him is systematically orchestrated and conducted. The government has created a Gandhi, which is convenient: the Gandhi of his spectacles and of cleanliness.

They don’t want a Gandhi who is pointing a finger and saying ‘You are wrong’. They have erased him from textbooks. But they are also erasing whole chunks of history, which is not acceptable to their viewpoint.

Do you detect a pervasive fear in your travels around the country?

I do. The liberal and secular-minded people feel they are in a minority. They are feeling intimidated. The minorities are always fearful. There is a concerted campaign to terrorise the Muslims and Christians: the mob lynching, the economic boycotts, and hate speeches. They also target the lower castes.

The Bahujans, Adivasis and Dalits may be over 60 percent of the population. Which is why the Centre does not want to conduct a national census. The upper-castes have conducted a genocide on the lower castes for over 5000 years. There was a viral video of an upper-caste politician [BJP worker Pravesh Shukla] in Madhya Pradesh peeing on a lower-caste man [Dashmat Rawat]. But it did not evoke widespread horror or anguish among the majority community. However, that did not surprise me.

Is the Hindutva ideology here to stay?

Yes. People in South India have largely accepted it as well. It is now a popular choice of the people. Earlier, the upper castes supported it and it remained on the fringes. Now it is mainstream. In North India, the people of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and parts of Bihar have embraced it whole-heartedly.

Do you believe the Sangh Parivar has made inroads into Kerala?

I do. In the last five years, they have been publicly present in Kerala and made a deep penetration into society. I made a speech a year ago at the Sabarmati Library in the Congress office in Kochi. I stated the RSS was complicit in the murder of Bapu. After that, I got legal notices of defamation from three RSS members in Kerala. That’s how strongly they are present now. Earlier, this would not have happened.

Unfortunately, there is an acceptance of Hindutva in Kerala, especially among the upper castes. On August 15, the RSS took out many marches in Kerala. Yes, they are pumping in a lot of money. If the RSS succeeds electorally in Kerala, we will lose all hope.

Your message to the people of Kerala?

As in many parts of India, people are unaware of the dangers posed by an extreme right-wing ideology that could harm the country in the long run.

Is there a danger the country will be Balkanised?

Yes, there is a danger. The fabric of society which unites us has weakened. I don’t know how long India will hold together. The destructive forces sow the seeds of their own destruction in their campaign of divisiveness. They have created so many cracks in this edifice called India that it is going to break. But we don’t know how many pieces it is going to break into?

Will the Bharat Jodo Yatra by Rahul Gandhi have an impact on the 2024 elections?

Too much time has passed since the yatra. Rahul gave them a head-start for 2024, but the Congress could not capitalise on it in the manner they should have.

So, will the NDA win again?

I will be happy if the margin of victory of the NDA goes down. If that happens, the daggers for Modi in his party would be out. He has a lot of enemies within. He has kept them subdued because of electoral wins. The reduced margin in 2024 will become unbearable for the party. Of course, if the INDIA alliance is able to defeat them, I will be ecstatic.

There is always a suspicion that the EVM machines are being tampered with. What is your opinion?

If the voting percentage is beyond 70, it will be difficult to tamper with the vote. When voting is less, it is easy to manipulate. In the Gujarat elections, that was what happened. The voter turnout was less. I mentioned this in my meeting with the Secular Indian people. On election day we have to work hard to bring out the people. Many believe their vote doesn’t matter. But it does.

Will secularism make a comeback?

We should embrace atheism. We should have a religion-less nation. Religion in India has caused most of the evils that we see today. The oppression, the segregation, and the caste system have the sanction of religion. The government should disassociate itself from any religion. Secularism is not working. I know nobody will accept my idea. The problem is that wherever there is a religious identity it results in radicalisation.

Talking of radicalisation, is Israel committing genocide in Palestine?

There is no doubt about it. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government has set up an apartheid system in Palestine. He and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are cut from the same cloth. Under the pretext of obliterating Hamas, they are obliterating the people.

The future looks bleak for the Palestinian people. Do you agree?

The present is bleak, but the Palestinians can always change the future. Even during the darkest moments, the people should keep hoping. Only then they can be resolute in their defiance of the oppressor. If they give up, they are saying it is beyond them. But freedom is never beyond human possibility. You should always work towards freedom by influencing world opinion and by continuously defying the oppressor.

Was Hamas right in slaughtering Israeli civilians?

Violence is never right. Violence always begets violence.

(Published in The Federal)

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Thoughts while looking at a photograph

Photos: With Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi; Mountaineer Edmund Hillary with his wife Jane; Sethu Das, founder of the Friends of Tibet Foundation and Kathakali legend Kalamanadalam Gopi 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sethu Das, founder of the Friends of Tibet Foundation, sent me a photograph on WhatsApp. It was of me interviewing Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. As I gazed at the image, my thoughts went back decades.

One day, at 9 am, in the 1980s, I interviewed Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest. This was in the dining hall of the Sinclairs Hotel in Darjeeling. Sitting next to him was his second wife Jane, looking tall but nowhere near Hillary’s height of 6 feet 5 inches.

Hillary’s first wife Louise and daughter Belinda died in a plane crash near Kathmandu on March 31, 1975. It was a tragedy from which Hillary never completely recovered.

Like I did with Tushar, I pointed a dictaphone at Hillary. During interviews, I always hold the dictaphone up, instead of placing it on the sofa or at a table nearby. I fear that otherwise, I will not get good audio reception.

I also lean forward and encroach on the other’s space. With men, it is fine. But with women, I always say, “Madam, I am sorry I have to come closer, because of the dictaphone.” Thereafter, the women are fine.

One benefit of holding the dictaphone is that I can always check whether the red light, which shows a recording is taking place, is flashing. In a few interviews over the years, I have forgotten to press on the recording button. But within minutes, I can detect the mistake. Then I press the button, offer my apologies, and restart the interview from the beginning.

Today, I keep the same habits from three decades ago.

To prepare for my interview with Hillary, I went to the library of Ananda Bazar Publications (ABP) at Kolkata and asked for the clippings file on him. I was working for Sportsworld magazine, an ABP publication.

This was during the pre-Internet era. So I read up all that I could about Hillary. And then as I prepared the questions, I asked myself this question: ‘What is it I want to know?’

In Hilary’s case, I realised I wanted to know whether he was aware of death during his ascent to the peak of Mount Everest. When I put this question to Hillary, his eyes widened. This was not something he was expecting a young man to ask.

This was what he replied: “I was frightened. I knew one mistake would result in me plunging to my death. So, the triumph is not only over the mountain, but over all the fears and anxieties that are raging inside you.”

It was a memorable answer.

For Tushar, it was a simple decision about what I wanted to know. The state of India at present. But this was what most people, especially liberals like me, would ask him. But as I did my research on Tushar, I came across an interesting item.

The police had detained him on August 9. He was about to take part in the Quit India celebration at Kranti Maidan in Mumbai. I wondered what it would be like when the police detained you. So, I asked him about this experience in depth. And that became the beginning of my article.

After the interviews, the process was the same. I would transcribe the conversation, make it an article, and file it. And the years went by with no major hiccups.

Except once.

In July, 2009, I travelled to Mundur, near Thrissur to do an interview with Kathakali legend Kalamandalam Gopi. This was for my column, ‘Turning Points in Life’ for the ‘New Indian Express’. I had an enjoyable meeting with him.

I returned to Kochi by train, rucksack on my back, and took a bus to the office. Although there was no seating space, there were few standing passengers. When I got down, something prompted me to check the pocket of the rucksack. And the unthinkable had happened. A pickpocket had filched the dictaphone. It was the first time I experienced the meaning of the term, pole-axed. Something similar would be to have a hollow feeling at the pit of my stomach. Or rather, I felt I had no stomach. ‘How did it happen when the bus was not crowded?’ I asked myself.

I did not know how I would write the article. I was so dependent on the dictaphone that I hardly remembered the conversation. Through a crime reporter colleague, I filed a police complaint. But, of course, nothing happened. Why should cops bother about a lowly scribe and his silly dictaphone?

So, this is what I did. The first half of the article was a mood piece about my encounter with the maestro and his wife inside the house.

Here it is:

‘At Mundur, near Thrissur, Kathakali legend Kalamandalam Gopi welcomes me with a smile to his home, ‘Guru Kripa’. He is wearing a maroon shirt and white mundu.

We settle down on a sofa and soon the interview begins. About twenty minutes into the conversation I tell him I am unable to follow what he has said. Irritated, Gopiyasan says, “There is nothing more I have to say. I have a sore throat and feel tired.”

It is at this delicate moment that I mention the name of my former colleague, Sreevalsan Menon, a passionate Kathakali fan. He has known Gopiyasan from his childhood.

A few weeks ago, Sreevalsan sent me a wake-up SMS at 4.45 a.m. He was keen to introduce a neophyte like me to the power and magic of kathakali.

There is a Gopiyasan dance being telecast at 5 a.m. And so, with sleep-laden eyes and a stiff body, I switch on the television.

For the next one hour Sreevalsan is on the mobile phone explaining every nuance, mudra, gesture and facial expression. Thanks to this class I am able to appreciate Gopiyasan’s genius.

When Gopiyasan hears this anecdote, he bursts out laughing. His equilibrium restored, the interview resumes once again. He talks with an infectious enthusiasm and joy, and poses for photographs, with his dazzling smile. And so, it is with a grateful shake of his hand that I take his leave and return.’

For the second half, I tried to recall whatever I could. Then I took some material from Wikipedia and completed the article.

As for the thief, I think about him even today. Was he able to sell the dictaphone? It was an old one. How much would he have got for it? It is now 13 years since the theft happened. Is he still getting on buses and stealing from unsuspecting passengers? He could be married now, with children. What would the children think of him, if they come to know their father is a pickpocket?

And one day, surely, his luck would run out, as alert passengers might catch him in the act and get him arrested. Has he spent time in jail? Did he have moments when he felt he should leave thieving and try something respectful? Who knows?

People make choices and pay the price for it. The dictaphone has probably outlived its usefulness and must be lying on some trash heap.

That is life. We do things to survive and if the actions are positive, there are no repercussions.

At the end of the interview with Tushar, as if on cue, the waiter arrived. He had a look of awe on his face. ‘The Mahatma’s mystique remains,’ I thought.

The waiter served black coffee and banana fritters. We ate and drank and talked about a variety of subjects including his recent chat with Uddhav Thackeray, the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra.

I felt thankful when I bid goodbye. Thanks to my work as a journalist, I have interacted with so many well-known people. Many of them were high-achievers. Some were geniuses. All pulsated with vibrant energy and infectious enthusiasm. Every day was a joy and a miracle for them.

As for me, the excitement of journalism has not waned. I know of reporters, who have been on a daily deadline for decades, who have burnt out. I may have escaped that fate because I was in feature writing all along. I managed to avoid doing hack work, which can be soul-sapping.

And I thank God for that.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

A touch of Tibet in Kochi

Photos: Sethu Das (in blue shirt), founder of the Friends of Tibet Foundation shows the Zenith Radio to the Dalai Lama; the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Photo by Jaqueline Meier of Switzerland; A father, mother and 12-year-old son who had arrived at the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre in Kathmandu, Nepal, after trekking over the Himalayas. Photo by Angel Lopez Soto from Spain; a thangka painting

The Friends of Tibet Foundation has set up a museum and a library about Tibet. Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, and human rights activist inaugurated it on October 22
By Shevlin Sebastian
It is a cloudy Sunday afternoon. Panorama Nagar in Kochi is deserted. There are bungalows lining the road. Most houses have grassy lawns, gardens with roses, sunflowers, and marigolds, apart from mango and coconut trees. Silence abounds. Only the chirp of sparrows can be heard. Everybody is taking their afternoon siesta. In front of one bungalow, set at quite some distance from the road, white, red, blue, green and orange flags are fluttering on a wire.
This is the first hint that there is something different about the bungalow.
And, indeed, it is different. The bungalow houses a museum which is dedicated to showcasing the life and times of the people of Tibet.
According to their history, the Chinese invaded and captured Tibet in 1950. Thousands of Tibetans died. Many fled, trekking over their Himalayas, and took refuge in India. In 1959, the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama sought political asylum in India. It was granted to him. He fled from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and trekked over the Himalayan mountain passes and reached Mussoorie. According to government data, there are 85,000 Tibetans living in India today.
Inside the museum, one of the first things that catches the eye is Zenith Royal 1000-1 Wavemagnet Transistor Radio. The current Dalai Lama used it when he lived in the Potala Palace in Lhasa. He took it with him when he came to India and established a government-in-exile in Mussoorie, in the state of Uttarakhand in northern India. In 1960, it was shifted to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh.
“The Zenith Corporation made it for the exclusive use of the Dalai Lama,” said Sethu Das, the founder of the Friends of Tibet Foundation. “It was one of the most powerful radios built at that time.”
Sethu pulled out its very long antenna. “This was how the Dalai Lama kept in touch with all the happenings in the world,” he said.
On November 25, 2012, the Dalai Lama visited Kochi.
Sethu said, “Your Holiness, do you remember this radio?”
The Dalai Lama shook his head.
Sethu said, “This is your radio.”
The Dalai Lama laughed heartily, as he hadn’t expected to see the radio in Kochi. The Dalai Lama’s sister, Jetsun Pema, had gifted it to the Friends of Tibet several years ago.
On October 22, Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and a noted human rights activist, inaugurated the museum.
When Tushar saw the radio, he said, “I feel nostalgic when I see the Dalai Lama’s radio. It reminds me of the clandestine radio broadcasts by the courageous Congress worker Usha Mehta in Mumbai 75 years ago."
Usha had set up the Secret Congress Radio, an underground radio station. She broadcasted the communications of the leaders, many of whom were in prison. It functioned for eight months during the Quit India Movement of 1942.
“Today, the Tibetan movement symbolises the battle of right against might,” said Tushar. “The world must sympathise with the Tibetan people. We Indians must make the battle to regain the homeland of Tibet for the Tibetans our own. We must help to achieve this dream during the lifetime of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. I affirm my solidarity with the people.”
At the museum, next to the radio, in a framed photo, are images of Tibetan currency. You can see paper notes like 25 and 100 Sang notes. They were in circulation till 1959.
There is a long-distance shot, by Jaqueline Meier of Switzerland, of the magnificent Potala Palace. It is located high up on the Red Hill. In the massive courtyard in front, there is a group of Chinese police officers standing around. This is a stark reminder of the invasion. Thousands of Tibetans died at the hands of the Chinese troops.
One of India’s greatest spiritual teachers, Osho, said, in a speech at Pune, in 1988, “Tibet has fallen into darkness. Its monasteries have been closed. The Chinese have forced its seekers of truth to work in labour camps. Nowhere in the world has there been such a concentrated effort to discover man’s inner being. But the communist regime has destroyed everything that the people had built in the past two thousand years.”
In another image, taken by Angel Lopez Soto from Spain, a father, mother and 12-year-old son had arrived at the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre in Kathmandu, Nepal, after trekking over the Himalayas.
They are sitting on a bench and having soup, their eyes cast downwards towards the bowls. They looked weather-bitten and hungry. The father has placed his foot in a basin of warm water.
“He may have suffered from frostbite,” said Sethu. “This is a scene from the 1960s.” A young woman, in a white top and floor-length skirt, stood on one side and watched them with a solicitous look on her face.
On another wall hangs a thangka. It is a Tibetan Buddhist painting which is painted on cloth. It depicts Lord Buddha, who is sitting crossed-legged inside a lotus. “They make the paints from natural plants,” said musician Nirmal Anthony, a member of the Friends of Tibet. “The lotus is a flower that grows in the mud but is untouched by it. Buddha’s message is: ‘You should live in the world but remain unaffected by its vicissitudes.’ The thousand-petalled lotus symbolises the enlightened state of human consciousness.”
There is also a photo, taken by Mumbai-based photographer Suresh Natarajan, of a smiling Dalai Lama, sitting on an armchair in his office in Dharamshala. The Dalai Lama radiates positive energy because of his twinkling eyes. He looked to be in his fifties. A copy of the American magazine, Newsweek, is lying on a low table in front of him. Today, the Dalai Lama is 88 years old.
Other photos show the vistas of the Tibetan landscape with its blue skies and high mountain ranges.
Some items have been placed on a table. These include the first Tibetan passport used by the Finance Secretary Tsepong Wangchuk Dedhen Shakabpa; the 1934 September edition of the National Geographic magazine carrying the image of the Tibetan National Flag in the ‘National Flags of the World’; Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’, and a uniform worn by the Chinese soldiers during the invasion of Tibet.
A visitor’s view
Sudheer Nath is a Delhi-based journalist cum cartoonist. Once or twice a month, he comes to Kerala to visit his family. He dropped in to view the museum.
“If you visit the museum without knowing the history of Tibet, you will not get an idea of the pain and despair behind the photos,” he said. “It will be ordinary photos for those who are ignorant. But for me, it was a deeply moving experience.”
Sudheer has been a keen follower of the Tibetan issue for 25 years and has attended many functions of the Friends of Tibet. He has visited the Tibetan refugee colony called Majnu Ka Tila near Kashmere Gate in Delhi. “I am a supporter of Tibetan independence,” he said.
There is also a library which houses hundreds of books about Tibet. You can see ‘A Journey in Ladakh: Encounters with Buddhism’, by spiritual teacher Andrew Harvey; ‘Tibet: Reports from Exile’ by Tibetan author Thupten Samphel, and ‘The Definitive Account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet’, written by American journalist John F Avedon. There is a book by the Dalai Lama, called ‘Awakening the mind: Lightening the heart.’
Attracted to Tibet
Sethu was working as a graphic designer with the ‘Economic Times’ newspaper in Mumbai. During a vacation, he landed in Dharamshala with a photographer friend. That was when he encountered Tibetan monks with their distinctive maroon cloaks. He got curious and did interviews to know more about them.
When some of them refused to speak, he realised later the Chinese had cut off their tongues. He felt an ache in his heart. “I discovered my life’s work and passion in Dharamshala,” he said. Soon, he gave up his job. Thereafter, he set up the Friends of Tibet at Mumbai in 1999. This was followed, in the same year, by the setting up of the Friends of Tibet Foundation in his hometown of Kochi.
The Foundation works to safeguard and advance Tibetan heritage, including their healing traditions.
“We are conducting research on the unique heritage, legacy and history of Tibet,” said Sethu. The Foundation works with scholars, scientists, health experts, and sociologists to publish research papers.
During the Kochi International Art Biennale, in December, 2022, the Foundation set up ‘Shadow Circus: A Personal Archive of Tibetan Resistance (1957-74)’. Activist film-makers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam curated it.
Karma Yeshi is a former finance minister of the Tibetan Government in Exile. He said that the Friends of Tibet are doing wonderful work, mainly in South India and Mumbai. ‘They have made the people aware of the sufferings of the Tibetan people,” he said. “All this has happened because of the immense dedication and sincerity of Sethu and his team, Suku, his brother, and their father CJ Yesudasan (1938-2021), one of Kerala's well-known cartoonists. Because of them, many other people have joined the group. All of them are so sincere.”
Tibetan Medical Camp
Next to the museum is a doctor’s chamber. Dr. Dorjee Rapten Neshar conducts a three-day medical camp once every two months.
“Sowa Rigpa, or the Science of Healing, is one of the world’s oldest known medical traditions dating back to the 4th Century AD,” said Dr. Neshar. “The Indian healing system of Ayurveda has influenced Tibetan medicine. We use pulse and urinalysis. Our medicines are composed of herbs and minerals. We have physical therapies like acupuncture.”
Around 100 patients come to seek treatment.
One of them is Sreelal. He is an artist and teaches art at the Emmanuel College at Vazhichal, 43 kms from the capital of Thiruvananthapuram. On the evening of February 4, 2022, after returning from college, he complained of a headache to his wife, Chitra. So, he lay down on the bed. Suddenly, there were tremors on his face and blood shot out from his mouth. Chitra took him to the hospital. The hospital could not diagnose whether it was a stroke or a fit.
“Since it was during Covid, the doctor put him on a ventilator,” said Chitra, who works in a government office. After 15 days, the doctor took him off the ventilator and Sreelal became normal after a month.
“Through the next year, now and then he would have fits,” said Chitra. ‘Sreelal began slurring on some words. The hospital kept increasing the dosage. Sreelal became bedridden and slept a lot. He became absent-minded.”
Mathew, a friend, suggested that they consult Dr. Neshar.
“We were hesitant to bring him,” said Chitra. “I had not heard of Tibetan medicine earlier.”
But on July 5, this year, Chitra brought Sreelal to the medical camp in Kochi. When Dr Nasher inspected Sreelal, he was shocked at the high dosage of medicine that he had been taking. He reduced the dose and also provided Tibetan medicines. The tablets have to be grounded and immersed in warm water. Sreelal took the liquid three times a day.
Within days, there was a marked improvement. Sreelal is also doing physiotherapy. He can walk now. “He is eating with his left hand, even though he is right-handed,” said Chitra. “I don’t know what it is, but Tibetan medicine is amazing. I am sure Sreelal will make a complete recovery.”

Monday, October 23, 2023

Chronicling the Cochin Jews

Pramila Venkateswaran’s book of poems, ‘We are not a museum’, has won the best poetry award at the New York Book Festival
By Shevlin Sebastian
(Published in
On the morning of July 26, when Pramila Venkateswaran opened her eyes, she saw it was dark outside the window of her house in Long Island. There was a steady pitter-patter of the rain. Pramila was glad that because of the summer holidays, she did not have to go to work. She is Professor, English and Women and Gender Studies at Nassau Community College 58 kms away.
She went to the kitchen and made herself a cup of coffee.
After a while, her husband IV Ramakrishnan came in, carrying a black briefcase. He was wearing a blue shirt and black trousers. Pramila liked the way he kept his white beard so trim and proper. Ramakrishnan is Professor and Associate Dean in the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook university. It was a five-minute drive away.
“Happy birthday,” he said, as he gave Pramila a peck on her cheek.
“Let’s go out for dinner today.”
“Okay,” said Pramila. “Hopefully, the rain will stop by then.”
“I think it will,” he said, as he headed towards the door.
Carrying her cup of coffee, Pramila went to her study, opened her laptop and checked her mails.
One email said she had won an award. She thought, ‘What is this? I don’t remember applying. This can’t be true.’
Anyway, Pramila clicked on the link. She realised she had won the first prize for poetry for her book, ‘We are not a museum’. This was in the competition held by the New York Book Festival.
Pramila had sent an entry over ten months ago. So she had forgotten about the event. Immediately Pramila thought, ‘What a perfect birthday gift!’
She sent the link to her daughters living in different parts of America and to her husband. She also posted the link of the award online. Soon, congratulatory messages rolled in.
The book is about the life and times of the Cochin Jews, a declining community. There are less than 15 members left. As a child, she spent a few years in Jew Town.
“I would run in and out of the Paradesi Synagogue,” she said.

Her father, R Venkateswaran, worked as a manager in Canara Bank. The management had transferred him to the Fort Kochi branch. “He became close to the Jewish community,” she said. “And especially with Satu Koder, a leading entrepreneur, who was the warden of the synagogue for over 40 years.”
Both worked together, in 1968, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the synagogue. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the chief guest. For several years after that, in her parents’ house, there hung a large black-and-white photograph. This comprised Indira Gandhi, Venkateswaran, his wife, Kausalya, and Satu Koder standing together.
What Pramila remembered was how entranced she was by the inside of the synagogue. She recollects the memory in this excerpt from her poem, ‘I was seven’ from her book.
there is so much gold and red in this temple,
the tall lamps are lit and multicoloured glass dance
their hues on the windows. How strange
the objects in the room—the tall table, the big book,
the writing on the walls. I do not even know
what building we’re in until Amma explains,
“It is a synagogue, a Jewish temple.” I carry the sound
of my light steps, velvet in my eyes.
For the past 20 years, Pramila had been writing poems about her childhood. Inevitably, she wrote about her time in the synagogue.
She had no plans to write a book about the Cochin Jews, but as she reflected on the rich syncretic tradition in Kerala, where the mosque, church and the synagogue stood side by side and in harmony, Pramila felt she should do so.
In 2009, when she visited the synagogue, she saw tourists from all over the world. Pramila said, “I thought, ‘Oh my God, people are coming there to view it. But there are actual Jews who are living there.’ Hence, the title of the book came up, ‘We are not a museum’.”
And here is the poem:
We are Not a Museum
The whole world seems to have landed on our doorstep.
How did this happen? Yesterday a woman was peeping
into my bedroom. Now I close my doors and windows
to keep out nosy tourists creeping around Mattancherry.
A journalist called asking me about my life in Kochi.
I said it is like any other woman’s. I have a huge load
of laundry to wash, dishes to scrub, chickens
to pluck. I’ll rest only in the grave. So goodbye.
I don’t care if they think we are strange or important.
It is absurd. We’re like any other Indian in this town
struggling to make life better for our children. I want
the lot of them out of this town and out of our lives.
Pramila began researching the history of the Cochin Jews. She read books about anthropology, history, sociology and ethnographies related to Jewish women from Cochin and people who moved to Israel from Cochin.
When Pramila was studying at Bombay University, she came in touch with the Bene Israel Jews. Her English Professor, Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004), one of India’s well-known poets, was a Bene Israel Jew. “He was my mentor,” she said. “So, I felt very close to the community.” In New York, Pramila has befriended other Bene Israel Jews like the poet Zilka Joseph.
Not surprisingly, Pramila wrote about Anti-Semitism in ‘The Face of the Other’:
the face speaks to me and thereby
invites me to a relation…
Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Totality and Infinity’
Why do some see yellow stars
instead of faces, their marauding pens
marking the city’s walls with swastikas?
Hate clouds barrel down the ages
from the Black Sea and Ararat, from the Nile
and Babylon. It storms in
among starched shirts and rags.
Why is a Jewish child selected
to be erased? Philosophers say
to love is to see the other in oneself. But
the other blends into the unknowable.
I ask, doesn’t a child crying for his mom
on any street around the globe
make you wince?
Asked about the themes, Pramila said it was an emotional experience of what it is like to be a Jew in Cochin. “I was putting my imagination into the writing,” she said. So Pramila imagined the first immigrants coming to the Kerala coast.
One poem looked at the paintings of the Cochin Synagogue. A few poems talked about how persecuted Jews embarked on perilous journeys from Iraq and modern-day Palestine to India.
Another poem described the impact of the presence of the Portuguese, the Spanish and the English from the 15th to the 18th centuries.
“There was fighting between these European colonists,” said Pramila. “The Jewish community was caught in between. The Portuguese torched their synagogues in Cranganore and they fled by boat to the Cochin harbour.”
Pramila wrote a poem about the generosity of the King of Travancore.
Chorus: At the Palace of the Raja of Cochin
Rajadi Raja, your royal highness Ramavarma Kulashekara Perumal,
we bow before your blessed feet. The morning breezes bring
tidings of something new to our Keral coast. Men
and women with children arrive in boats, speaking a
tongue we have not heard before. They look like merchants
from Arabia, but are different. The men wear caps
on their heads and the women wear long, pale skirts,
have dark eyes like the apsaras in your court,
wear no ornaments in their dark brown and black hair,
and walk with a firm gait beside their men.
Rajadi Raja, the men are at the palace gates and ask
to pay their respects to you. They bear baskets of dried
fruit, dates, almonds, pistachios, apricots and olives,
saplings of plants that may or may not grow here,
seeds and coins. Their hands that bear the stain of labour,
lovingly hold their children. They speak words we
don’t understand, but there is grace in their speech
and beauty in the treasures they bear for your majesty.
We will open the gates for their visit, so they gather
in the shade of the palace courtyard and await your presence.
We bow to you, sire, lord of the Keral coast, master of our
blessed land of Parasurama who continues to bless us.
The King looked at them with sympathy.
“He felt they were worthwhile people who needed help,” said Pramila. “So, he gave them land to settle down. He allowed them to build a synagogue. And the Jews prospered. It was a very different engagement for the Jews with the outsider. It was so different from what happened in Jewish history in other countries.”
The surrounding communities were so varied. The Jews interacted with Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, members of the Gujarati community and the Konkanis from Goa. “I have written poems that bring out this varied culture,” said Pramila. “I also wanted to distil the historical record through poetry.”
There are 35 poems. And the book has been well received.
‘This is a sensitive and well-crafted collection. ‘We are not a Museum’ skillfully and thoughtfully blends two cultures into one with its unique juxtaposition of the two,’ wrote poet Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca. ‘The closeness and the shared bonds between the poet’s community and the Cochin Jewish community in her hometown in India become a timeless fabric of personal and universal history. The poet’s knowledge of the Jewish community is evident in each poem. I can almost smell the aroma of spices as the Jewish immigrants make their way to the Zamorin’s palace.’
Another poet Marjorie Agosin said, “An exquisite collection of poems, where history and lyricism dwell in the memory of the Jews of Cochin, where time and centuries of persecution have tried to erase them. Pramila Venkateswaran is a poet of resilience and of hope.
"Each of these poems engages the reader in the sensual landscape of Cochin, the smell of oranges and pomegranates as well as the poignant stories of those that lived in these places and those that return through memory and poetry. A poetry that moves your soul and enchants your heart.”
Pramila is an established poet. Her other books include ‘Thirtha’ (2002), ‘Behind Dark Waters’ (2008), ‘Draw Me Inmost’ (2009), ‘Trace’ (2011), ‘Thirteen Days to Let Go’ (2015), ‘Slow Ripening’ (2016) and ‘The Singer of Alleppey’ (2018).
Of course, the road to publishing has been difficult, because poetry has no market. For her first book, she approached around 50 publishers before she got Yuganta Press to publish it. The same thing happened for ‘Behind Dark Waters’, her next book. She approached publishers on three different continents. Finally, a publisher in Texas, Plain View Press, published it.
“The third and fourth were not that hard,” she said. “But my latest manuscript, tentatively titled ‘Walls’, I have been trying for the last two years, and have made no headway.”
Pramila said her win will not make any impact on the chances of publishing. “You are back to the drawing board all the time,” she said.
Asked about the poetry reading public in the US, Pramila said, “It is miniscule, when compared to the readers of the novel and short stories. This is the case with most countries, including India.”
Incidentally, the rain did stop and the couple enjoyed a celebratory dinner at Sagar Indian restaurant on Long Island.