South Asian realities

Print edition : January 25, 2013

THIS is a book that should find a place on the shelf of anyone interested in South Asia as a region, the pulls and pressures that have influenced it over time, the social realities that are often contained within individual countries and societies, and the nationalism that guides many perceptions vis-a-vis geopolitics, bilateral relations and shared history and culture. The essays in this collection are part reportage and part opinions and reflections on various aspects of the South Asian identity. They have been culled from the archives of Himal magazine, which has been coming out from Kathmandu for the last 25 years thanks to the effort and dedication of its editor, Kanak Mani Dixit, and his team.

To use a rather popish expression, you could call this compilation the Best of Himal. And it is a good reader to dip into. Even those who may have been following the magazine are likely to discover an article they had missed or an essay that is compelling enough to read again after all those years. I, for one, could spot a few pieces that fell into both categories. It must be noted here that an issue of Himal might have come and gone bypassing you simply because the vendor ran out of stock or the copy of the magazine that comes to the office was not returned by someone who took it home to read.

Flipping through the 336-page compilation, I came across the filmmaker Tenzing Sonam’s “A Tibet of the Mind” published in the December 2010 issue. Now, Tenzing is someone I know fairly well and we have discussed the Tibetan refugee community in India and its problems. But I did not know he had written about a subject that he has known so closely and he is certainly not the kind of person who will send you a text message asking you to take a look at his piece in Himal. So his contribution to the magazine came as a pleasant and revealing surprise.

Unexposed truths

The compilation opens with Mani Dixit’s “The dragon bites its tail”, which examines some of the largely unexposed truths about south Bhutan where the Lhotshampas eke out a miserable existence as nobody’s children. This Nepalese-speaking people have suffered much repression at the hands of the royal family, which has cultivated a democratic and idyllic image of itself, a PR effort that still continues unabated. Very little is known about the Lhotshampas or the humiliation that they have suffered for decades and how their right to self-determination and independence has “not been allowed to leak into the world media”.

I first read Dixit simply because a friend from a Gujarati newspaper in Mumbai (where I used to work at that point) sent me a photocopy of the piece—in 1992 no one sent you a link of a story by e-mail! Anyway, that was also the first piece I read in Himal and after that I would pick up a copy whenever I sighted one on the stands. It was great to read Dixit once again now that I am more worldly-wise, having reported out of Kashmir and observed closely the struggle for independence and autonomy that is going on in that part of the world.

Some 20 years ago, Dixit had been sharp enough to observe and record the great myth about Bhutan that was spread worldwide by several vested interests, including international aid agencies. To quote: “Aid agencies love Bhutan because, here in the eastern Himalayas, at last, they have found the one country that might yet prove that the ‘development’ they propagate can work. Here is a land that is exotic, backward, under-populated but with ample resources, with a benevolent monarch and a Westernised bureaucratic elite…. In the absence of resident embassies in Thimphu [Bhutan’s capital] and the extremely controlled access to malleable media, the aid agencies are the world’s ears and eyes to Bhutan. Unfortunately, they are as good as deaf and blind. Too busy praising the activities of the government, their influence on events in the south has been near zero.”

Equally engrossing is the well-researched “Axing Chipko” by Manisha Ariyal, who worked at one point with Himal. Her story, in part funded by a fellowship from the Panos Institute in London, lays bare the truth behind the “save the trees” Chipko movement and how its ownership was fiercely contested by two social activists, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna, who later became the international face of the movement and who caused it to migrate from the “hills of its origins to seminars and conference halls…to university courses and academic tomes…”.

From Pakistan to Sri Lanka, from Kashmir to Gujarat, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar the book has engrossing accounts and insights that perhaps no magazine that falls into the general interest category can offer. When the list of contributors include Ramchandra Guha, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Eqbal Ahmad, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Thant Myint-U, Sanjoy Hazarika and Dilip Simeon, be prepared for some serious reading that stimulates the thinking process.

I re-read with immense pleasure Sirivayan Anand’s “Eating with our fingers, watching Hindi cinema and consuming cricket”. To my mind, this must be the best take on the “gentleman’s game” in the backdrop of Aamir Khan’s widely acclaimed film Lagaan. Anand sets out by saying that he feels “weighed down by addressing the [liberal?] readers of Himal on the regressiveness of a film such as Lagaan and even more weighed down by the prospect of convincing them that cricket in India has become a truly casteist game—a game best suited to Hinduism. Burdened because even those critical of overriding nationalism jump with joy when their national team wins. In fact, as a friend points out, ‘apart from eating with our fingers, unfortunately both cricket and Hindi films unite South Asians’. For a subcontinent that so obsessively watches cricket and Hindi cinema, Lagaan offers cinema-as-cricket and cricket-as-cinema.”

Having worked with Anand at Outlook magazine, I can vouch for the fact that the piece was written from his heart. Much the same can be said of the other essays in this compilation. Also, I know for a fact that Anand’s critique, which runs counter to popular notions and euphoria in the mainstream media following Lagaan’s release, would not have been carried by most publications (at least in India) and given the sort of space he got in Himal. But then the willingness to publish contrarian views has always been the USP of the magazine. Take Afsan Chowdhury’s “A Bangladeshi looks for his country”, which looks at a nation grappling to find its identity after it became independent following the 1971 India-Pakistan war. Written 25 years later, the writer’s analysis comes from deep within. “And whose identity are we talking about?” he asks. “We mostly discuss elite notions of uniqueness. The vast millions are too hungry to bother. As late as 1971, when the peasants responded, it was to the perception of the violated village rather than to calls for a nationalist war. A village was bigger than any country, and desh meant home, not much more. The identity angst is mostly reserved for the intellectual or activist, who, in classrooms and tea stalls, wants to discover whether he is Bengalee or Bangladeshi. The angst is also strong among those overseas in self-exile, made melancholy by myth and memory, weeping for a land to which they will never return.”

A tragedy called Gujarat

Prashant Jha’s “Gujarat as another country” is a hard and realistic look at Narendra Modi’s “fascist” state. Borders are everywhere. Observes Jha: “A patch of road, a wall, a turn across a street corner, a divider in the middle of the road—this is all it takes to polarise and segregate communities throughout Gujarat.” According to Jha, the story of Gujarat’s sorry state is pride and prejudice versus victimhood and alienation. This is what is reinforced by the state machinery under Modi’s chief ministership. Writes Jha: “The everyday tragedy of Gujarat, often invisible, is in many ways more telling than the state-sponsored pogrom of 2002. The high degree of alienation among Muslims, the stereotypes and discrimination they face, the fact that a substantial section of society is committed to the Hindutva agenda, the absence of justice and accountability and the continued secession of the state from its basic constitutional obligation—these are all elements that go into making Gujarat, in the very words of the Hindu Right, its laboratory.”

What Jha has written rings true even today—reports from the ground speak of this very same alienation and the increasing assertiveness of the Hindu Right. In fact, Modi, following his hat-trick of wins in the Assembly elections, now sees himself as India’s future Prime Minister, a prospect which many look at with a high degree of fear. What strikes one the most while going through the best of Himal is the relevance of these essays to our times. Perhaps they do so because the realities they present to the reader impact our politics, society and culture some 15-20 years later.