'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Indoctrinations - 1

During the recent BJP regime, there was plenty talk among the Indian Intelligentia about how History textbooks were being rewritten to propagate a narrow 'Hindutwa' perspective of our culture and identity. I have heard from very reliable sources that the NCERT textbooks of those days were indeed severaly biased. But, I am not really outraged - this manipulative rewriting of history is nothing new and BJP can be blamed only for continuing or at most aggravating a very old trend. Here I wish to talk about some older personal experiences with 'doctored' histories.


I need to begin with the Amar Chitra Kathas. One finds very few serious studies online on how these illustrated comic-format fortnightly volumes, for all their undeniable merits, have, over a span of nearly 40 years, propagated a very warped picture of Indian culture. In the earlier issues of these comics, The Mughals and all other Muslim rulers of Delhi (and other Muslims who ruled other parts of the country, like the Deccan Sultans or the Bengal Nawabs) were shown as simply foreign invaders and oppressors and anyone from Hindu or Sikh background (from Shivaji and Rana Pratap and Guru Gobind Singh to comparatively less significant characters like Chhatrasal and Veer Hamir and Banda Bahadur and the fictional Sadhus of Anand Math) who fought any Muslim ruler was a patriot and freedom fighter. The only Muslim ruler who was 'acceptable' in ACK's reading of history was Sher Shah - more because he drove out the Mughal Humayun (shown in this volume as a bungling fool) than for his far-reaching fiscal and other reforms. Moreover, some of these early volumes (first published in the early 1970s) were quite communal (sometimes rabidly so) in their dialog and illustrations - the volume on the Maratha hero Tanaji in which Muslim rulers complain bitterly about "Maratha rats!" and "crafty Kafirs!" comes to the mind. And some volumes were so regressive that they just about stopped short of glorifying the custom of Sati!

To ACK's credit, their ideological base did evolve over the years and individual volumes on all prominent Mughals (except Aurangzeb, I guess) did come out (as did volumes on Sultana Raziya, Balban and Tipu Sultan). An illustration of this evolution is the case of Akbar. For 10 years - and thru half a dozen volumes - Akbar the Great appeared purely as the benign but rather daft boss to 'chatur' Birbal (a very marginal figure in most serious renderings of Mughal history) before finally getting a 'proper' volume for himself. Interestingly, In the volume on Humayun, Sher Shah appears as a somewhat shady guy, thus providing a telling illustration of the sheer subjectivity that permeates historical narratives.

And here, let me note that the volume on Kabir was fairly even-handed in its depiction of the Master's criticism of Hindu and Muslim orthodoxies; and the volume on Ambedkar *does not* whitewash the ill-treatment suffered by the great man from 'high-born' Hindus. But the overall 'contribution' of Amar Chitra towards perpetuating a strongly Hindu-biased (their definition of Hindu conveniently included the Sikhs and even Buddha) view of Indian history and identity was very real and very massive and I myself took several years to grow out of such a view.

To give a some more subtle and sometimes devious examples, ACK refers to Vishnu Sharma, the legendary author of the (justifiably famous) Panchatantra as a 'great Hindu scholar' and buys into the 'Akhand Bharat' picture of India by locating Jamrud, which just inside Pakistan from Afghanistan, in 'at northwestern border of this country'. In 'Ram Shastri', the ruthless killers of Peshwa Narayan Rao are drawn to look very Muslim (they were really mercenaries led by one 'Sumer Singh' according to most accounts). In 'Tipu Sultan', someone reports to the hero that the Sarada temple at Sringeri has been "ransacked by some miscreants" and he expresses some lofty sentiments on religious harmony - the hint there is that that the villains were Muslims and the noble Sultan was lamenting that. In reality, the 'miscreants' were Marathas and that was totally camouflaged! And to this day, they have not bothered to 'tone down' the earlier volumes (I would suggest some of them to be entirely rewritten, if not withdrawn altogether) which continue to sell strongly for their highly impressive artwork and patriotic flavor, laced with (and sometimes steeped in) communalism.


On the other hand, I also feel that allegations of 'pseudo-secularism' levelled against the 'mainstream' writings on Indian history do have some substance. I could pick out several examples from textbooks which I got to study as a schooler in Kerala. These textbooks were quite detailed about the flaws in Hindu society - caste practices, untouchability ... While talking about the great social reform movements of Kerala, genuinely morbid traditional Kerala Hindu practices such as 'Pulappedi', 'Sambandham' and 'Smarta Vicharam' were not merely mentioned but *described*; indeed, the graphic descriptions in texts of these (long extinct)caste practices often used to lead to abusive arguments and even fist-fights among students of the late 20th century.

But the same texts were silent on similar ills that could well have possibly plagued the Muslim and Christian sections of the population. The one and only mention (in my memory) of a Muslim social dysfunction was when Sir Syed Ahmed Khan objected to 'evil practices'(sic) such as 'Pardah'. The bias of these textbooks was such that even 'morally neutral' Hindu practices such as idol-worship and polytheism(*) were projected as serious limitations - indeed, their content was often sufficient to make one feel rather awkward about being from a Hindu background.

A most telling instance of such selective historiography was a biography of Dr. Ambedkar which we studied in 10th class. After decades of trying to make 'Savarnas' see reason, Ambedkar gives up ("but despite all his efforts, Hindus (sic) did not want to change, their minds had been totally corrupted by caste") and declares his decision to leave Hinduism. Representatives of all major faiths - Islam, Christianity,...- meet him and invite him to their respective folds. And here is Ambedkar's decision: "Ambedkar kept Islam and Christianity aside because they were not of Indian origin. He decided against joining Sikhism because Sikhs were a forward community and his followers would lose the benefits of reservation. That left Buddhism. Buddha preached compassion and equality of all men; and Buddhism is also Indian."

As far as I know, Ambedkar decided against joining Islam or Christianity *not* because of their (very dubious) 'foreign' nature but because of the less than exemplary Human Rights record of practitioners of these faiths (White Christians were arguably the worst practitioners of slavery and imperialism; and Arab Muslims were among the biggest slave traders). Our textbook probably did not *dare* to quote Ambedkar fully.

And to conclude this post, here are some extracts from a Junior College (Pre Degree) 'Indian History' Textbook published by Kerala Bhasha Institute, a State Government run agency, in around 1980, long before BJP became a serious force. These are near literal translations from the original Malayalam. I find these sentences interesting not for the information content therein but for the choice of words and general tone:

1. "Over the next few years, *he* acquired a large chunk of territory and several strategic hill-forts - by brute force, bribery and deceit"

2. "Although *his* policies are difficult to fully justify, it is but a simple fact that he is being abused undeservedly. There are several historians who totally ignore his abundant qualities and highlight only what they perceive as his flaws.... To sum up, one could say, he possessed several attributes worthy of high admiration; and a few weaknesses"

(Quote 1 is on Shivaji and quote 2, on Aurangzeb).

Tailpiece: Another aspect of the doctored history in textbooks of our times (an aspect they shared with Amar Chitra Kathas!) was hyper-nationalism. For example, we had to study a play based on the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar - more specifically, the 'trial' he was subjected to after the failure of the 1857 rising. The Brit prosecution officer demands the deposed Emperor to be "summarily hanged at the Red Fort gate for daring to rise against the Honorable East India company". In his defence, an ageing but fiery Zafar refers to the Company as "a pack of blood thirsty wolves" and "a mob of white savages" and reminds the prosecution officer how just a century previously, his (the prosecutor's) ancestors would grovel before his own ancestors (the then Mughal emperors), begging for minor trade concessions, "rubbing to a shine the emperor's shoes with their brown hair."

And here is a gem: "Soon after we became a free nation (1947), India was in the forefront of countries supporting China's bid to join the UN Security Council.... ... in 1962, China invaded our North-Eastern states and Ladakh... Our foreign policy has always been a principled one and always formulated with the larger picture in mind. As we noted above, even when China committed aggression against us, we supported its bid to obtain a Security Council membership."

(*) I am not too sure if polytheism is morally neutral; it has serious claims to being an improvement over exclusive monotheism.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Hi Readers,

'Anamika' was launched on April 14th 2005. Three full years - and over 150 posts -later, I feel sort of pleasantly surprised that it has lasted so long. In hindsight, a main reason why this blog is still up and running is probably the posting frequency (of around a post a week) I settled into right from the beginning, a frequency that while perhaps not sufficient to retain the interest of individual readers for long, was gentle enough for me to have maintained.

I need to thank all of you, Readers, for keeping me motivated with your comments; indeed a very salient feature of Anamika's history has been a very high *consistency* in readership - for the last two years, this blog has received a very steady average of about a thousand visits a month (including mine which average well less than a hundred a month).

As has been the case whenever I tried to look back and take stock, the feelings are decidedly mixed. Yes, Anamika (and its spinoff 'Tech Musings') has been an important part of the last three years - years, which, personally speaking, could have been a lot better than they were, but were nevertheless better than many others I have seen and which have left me still hoping - for instance that I get to find/think and write about more (and more interesting) subjects and to keep this blog running for some more time. And with about half a dozen postable ideas on the anvil as of now, ... well, let's get on with it!

Monday, April 07, 2008

A Writer's Odyssey

*Some* visitors to this blog would remember, I posted here, sometime in December 2005 two parts of a play which I had been working on; they were generally well-liked and I seriously expanded those fragments into a proper novella of over 100 pages (still retaining the fully dialog driven format, thus making it continue to look like a play). This activity has been running in the background all these years and over the last year and more, I have also been engaged in an effort to get it critically evaluated and published. This longish post is a summary of some of the episodes in this quest. And parts of it are (appropriately enough) in dialog form.

1. There is a fairly well established writer who was well-known to self. I rang him up and asked if he could take a critical look at my work. He said fine. I promptly sent a soft copy of the story by email. Next week, I called him up again and asked if the doc reached. Then he asked me if I could send him a printout of the thing and gave me his postal address. I couriered the printout. Two weeks down the line, I called him up again. He said: "I have just started reading your story." I asked him whether he had my email address so he could send his comments across. He said "Yes". I said "Thanks in advance" and hung up. And that was that.

2. I tried to approach several publishers. Most of them make you fill up elaborate questionnaires on their websites; and each has a different format in which to send the work - some want word docs, some want pdfs, some want 30 percent of the work some want 50 percent, most want a synopsis and so on. And most do not reply. Those who do tend to reply on these lines: "Our publishing list is full till ----- (a date, variable but always beyond 2008 December). Hope you find another publisher" (yes, their wish that I find someone else reminded me of how American universities used to respond to applications for Graduate study. "Hope some other university accepts you").

3. I came to know that most publishers do not directly take works for consideration - although their websites fervently assert that they do. One has apparently to go through 'literary agents'. I wrote to a certain firm that claimed to be the one and only literary agents in this country. There was zilch response. They had someone in their editorial team who was resident in my city. So, I wrote to this person seeking an appointment. The 'daemon' bounced the mail back saying the mailbox was full.

4. Then I saw an article in a leading magazine about how Indian writers (even beginners) have begun to receive hefty advances from big publishers. One story went: There was this first time author. He just googled and contacted a certain foreign literary agent (name provided) with his *book plan* who in turn triggered off a major bidding war between the major publishing houses in the country, which left the author richer by something like a million rupees - even before he had drafted the book! Great! I did not need to google since the agent was named in the story; and my work was ready as well. I wrote to them. Silence.

5. I decided to search locally. Someone gave me this advice: "simply make a trip around the leading booksellers in the city and ask them for contacts with publishers/printers. Then decide." I asked around and came to a bookshop which apparently also had a publishing division and a printing press. An old man sat at the desk:

The Old Man: What did you write?

Self: A Novella, it looks like a play, fully dialog driven...

TOM: And do you want to publish it yourself?

Self: Yes, if required.

TOM: But nobody reads dramas. Here is a catalog. See...

(short pause; I silently leaf thru the booklet which lists the firms publications, mostly in vernacular, a few in English, on palmistry, astrology, nature cure,...; I finally look up at face TOM)

TOM: And then, printing 500 copies could cost something like ten thousand rupees, maybe twenty thousand, maybe...

Self: Guess that should be okay.

TOM: Actually, go to Delhi. There are plenty publishers there.

Self: But,...

TOM: Nobody reads dramas. And there is no point in publishing things which nobody will read.

Self: But as I said, if I publish it myself...

TOM: See, you will have to empty your pockets; that is all.

(short pause)

TOM: Okay, come after two weeks. Now is the festival season... yes, come after two weeks!

(I quit; end of the episode)

6. I used to know someone who had a wide circle of contacts, several of whom were *apparently* into publishing booklets, pamphlets etc.. One fine day, I called up this someone and told him about the problem I need to solve and asked him if he could find out about some good printers etc. thru his acquaintances. He asked for two days time. I called him up again two days down the line.

Self: Any information regarding presses?

Someone: Well, no.

Self: Your friends do not know anybody...

Someone: Actually, I did not ask them...

Self: I see.... You may need some more time...

Someone: Is the thing urgent?

Self: Hmm, what do I say? Since I have been searching for quite a while...

Someone: You sound rather desperate!

Self: To a good approximation, that is indeed the case.

Someone: Give me some more time.

Self: Okay. Maybe if you do find something from your friends, you could send me an email, so I don't need to call you up and ... disturb you.

Someone: Fine.

(End of the episode)

7. Continuing my quest for printers, I searched and found a press in the core city. The place appeared to be big and well established. I met another old man at the counter.

TOM2: Okay, so you want to publish this novel. How many copies?

Self: At least 500 to begin with.

TOM2: Do you have a copy of it with you?

Self: Not rightaway. It is about 100 pages of A4 size paper...

TOM2: But books wont be in A4. They could be this ... or this... (shows two books apparently printed out by his firm, both very grimy).

Self: Okay, it is about 30,000 words. That would give a better idea.

TOM2: No. That is not sufficient either. Get me a printout. I will give you a precise quote of the cost, based on the paper, the format,...

Self: This format would be okay ( showing one of the grimy books) Can you give an approximate figure...

TOM2: Not possible. I could say 10,000 to 20,000. That won't be useful. Get me the printout.

Self: Okay.

(I leave, search and find a cyber cafe in the area, download and print the document and get back. The operation takes an hour or so)

Self: Here is the printout.

TOM2: Actually I need to go for a meeting now.

(short pause)

TOM2: Leave those papers here and come tomorrow. I will do some setting and tell you...

Self: But can you not give an estimate?

TOM2: No. It depends. Maybe it will be 4 pages for 3 A4 sheets. Maybe 3 pages for 2 A4 sheets. ... (leafs thru the printout). One needs to set the thing...

Self: As I said, there are 30,000 words. That could...

TOM2: I told you that won't matter! Anyways, I am getting late for the meeting. Come today evening or tomorrow. If you want you can leave the doc here, otherwise,...

Self: Okay. I will come later

(I quit with the doc; end of the episode)

8. (This is the last bit!)
I heard the other day from a friend: "Know what? Leading publishers and literary agents are seriously scouting in blogspace for fresh writing talent! So, who knows, you may just hear from somebody, just like that!"