Sunday, 15 March 2015

'हिंदुस्तान' 15 मार्च 2015

The Illiterate Democratic Women of Rajasthan

When the literacy drive was in full force, I happened to visit a village in Ajmer district with a friend who was a civil servant. There was bold graffiti on a prominent school wall, which said: 'Saksharta ki kya pehchan? Upar chaddi, niche baniyan (How do you recognise literacy? The shorts above and the vest below).'

My puzzled officer-friend asked the villagers what prompted the graffiti. They replied, “You don’t run schools for our children; teachers are absent because they don’t want to stay in the village. Your transport system does not function. Our eager children remain illiterate. But later when we are tired and worn out, you come to teach us literacy. Please run our schools.”
Successive Rajasthan governments did not listen to these voices, perhaps because the children of the ruling elite study in expensive private schools. But the present government topped them all when it decided to shut down 17,000 schools, almost all in remote villages. As people protested and demanded that they be reopened, they were told that those who never got an opportunity to go to school will now be debarred from standing for elections.
[Beelan (right) with the author and activist Aruna Roy. Photo: Gauri Gill]
This fiat through ordinance that requires passing class 8 and 10 as eligibility criteria for standing for elections came just days before the elections for sarpanch and panchayat samiti members. It has shocked and angered most of rural Rajasthan, including supporters of the ruling party. This decision will disqualify 95 per cent of rural women and 80 per cent of the electorate from standing for election. This arbitrary step has raised many questions.
Perhaps the answer to all of them is that this is a deliberate move to ensure elite capture of grass-roots democracy. In one stroke, this decision lays the blame and burden of education on the people and ensures the continuance of power in the hands of a few. Governments need to take all voices into consideration. The punishment for failure of delivery cannot be inflicted once again on the victim. Women, Dalits and tribals, who are at the bottom of the pile, will be the most affected.
I have been trained for 40 years of my life, particularly in democracy, ethics, and governance, by illiterate but highly educated people in rural India. We have traded skills. Naurti, now Sarpanch of Harmara (Ajmer district), is “illiterate,” but learnt to use the computer at the age of 50 and teaches middle and high school dropouts how to use the computer. She has no class 8 certificate, but uses the website of the Ministry of Rural Development. Who is more skilled between us is debatable. I would not advocate that Naurti head the Ministry of Human Resource Development or that she teach me Shakespeare, but in matters of governance in the panchayat she is heaps better.
My informal learning about the invention of scientific thought, of Galileo and Kalidasa, have provided a worldview worth the learning. But I am not equipped like Naurti to understand the nitty-gritty of getting a panchayat quorum to take a difficult and just decision when faced with a contentious issue. I do not know if I could face the ire and possibility of violence for standing against sati, without caste or money on my side, as she did. She will not be trapped into a situation by unethical, unjust people; nor will she be trapped by the writing on a paper that she cannot understand.
Illiteracy is not merely from lack of schooling. It can come from ignorance of highly specialised modes of governance which even an M.A. degree cannot address. But governance in rural Rajasthan needs ethics and guts — values not determined by class 8 certificates — which, incidentally, can often be obtained illegally, especially by the ruling elite in the area.
Of course literacy is an essential tool, which is why the state has a responsibility to ensure that people have the right to education. But literacy cannot be made more important than intelligence and ethics, which are native to the human species. A quick review of unintelligent and violent acts that have travelled out of Rajasthan, or the renewal of traditional methods of feudal control, have actually been led by literate individuals. Promoters of sati were highly literate men who led a massive demonstration by drawing on caste loyalties and values of the feudal elite. Rape, corruption, cheating and injustice have not occurred because of illiteracy.
Honour killings, the revival of witch hunting, the development of modern methods of corruption, together with primitive public punishments such as stripping and parading women have not come from illiteracy; they have come from the misuse of traditional and official power to retain elite control — a deadly combination. Protests against such acts have come from ordinary people who are brave enough to take cudgels. Many of them are illiterate, but they are courageous and ethical. It is frightening because this is not a result of tradition or lack of exposure alone, but of impunity from accountability. Literacy has not changed the balance of power. It is unquestioned power that flouts ‘good governance.’
I remember Beelan, 65, scoffing at me 35 years ago saying I had nakal (copying by writing) whereas she had akal (mind). I could not remember figures and money spent, but many of my illiterate friends remembered details to the last paisa. A weaver of Ikat in Odisha is a mathematician — not only in simple arithmetic but in the intricate art of dividing numbers to form patterns. There are different kinds of literacy required at different times. Passing class 8, in this case, is more for show than substance. The bureaucratic system needs to be reformed to ensure accountability so that there is a proper balance of power between the technocratic executive and the elected representative.
We need schools for democratic literacy, which will encourage accountability in leaders and bolster courage to face oppression and inequality. Citizens need opportunities to spend time understanding governance; of being able to identify loopholes and how they can be plugged. The requirement of a class 8 certificate will further deny access to power for those who are likely to demand universal equality of access. Or may be that is the intention.
The cherry on the cake is that the State government as well as the Centre proudly tout formal learning as an unnecessary criterion for choosing Ministers. In reality, 90 per cent of their work is through the written word, unlike that of the sarpanch who deals with the human condition.
This can only prompt us to say with irony, “Democracy is dead but long live literacy.”
(A version of this article first appeared in The Hindu on 5 January 2015 and can be accessed here.)

पाश्‍चात्‍य सार्वभौमिकता को भारतीय चुनौती

लेखक-राजीव मल्‍होत्रा, 
अनुवादक- देवेन्‍द्र सिंह, हिन्‍दी यूएसए, सुरेश चपिलूनकर. 
हार्परकॉलिंस पब्‍लिशर्स इंडिया से प्रकाशित. 
पश्‍चिमी सार्वभौमिकता भारतीय धार्मिक संस्‍कृति से क्‍यों मेल नहीं खाती? अपनी अद्वितीय धार्मिक संस्‍कृति को सुरक्षित रखना क्‍यों आवश्‍यक है? सन्‍निहित एकता बनावटी एकता से अधिक चिरस्‍थाई क्‍यों है? भारत की विविधता और सतही अव्‍यवस्‍था को पश्‍चिम में गलत क्‍यों दिखाया जाता है? संस्‍कृत शब्‍दों को बचाए रखना क्‍यों आवश्‍यक है? इन सभी प्रश्‍नों के उत्‍तर पढिए इस पुस्‍तक में.
इस पुस्‍तक में चिन्‍तक और विचारक राजीव मल्‍होत्रा विभिन्‍न्‍ताओं के सीधे और सच्‍चे मुकाबले में आने वाली चुनौतियों के बारे में बताते है। वे ऐसा भारत के प्रति किए जाने वाले अवलोकन को उलट कर अवलोकन करने वाले की तरह स्‍थापित करके और पश्‍चिम को धार्मिक दृष्‍टिकोण से देख कर करते है। वे विशिष्‍ट रूप से दर्शाते है कि जहॉं अद्वितीय ऐतिहासिक रहस्‍योदघाटन पश्‍चिम मतों का आधार है वहीं भारतीय धर्म शरीर में यहीं और इसी समय आत्‍मबोध प्राप्‍त करने पर देते है। वे भारतीय धर्म की तत्‍वमीमांसा को थामने वाली अभिन्‍न एकता की ओर भी इंगित करते हैं और इसकी तुलना कृत्रिम एकता वाले पश्‍चिम विचार और इतिहास से करते हैं।
‘विभिन्‍नता’ एक विदुषी एवं आकर्षक पुस्‍तक है जो प्रचलित न्‍यूनकारी रूपान्‍तरणों की समीक्षा करती है ओर भिन्‍न के प्रति पश्‍चिम की व्‍यग्रता तथा व्‍यवस्‍था से असाधारण आसक्‍ति का विश्‍लेषण करती है। यह विविध-सभ्‍यता के विश्‍वदर्शन कीवकालत कर पश्‍चिम सार्वभौमिकता के दावे का खण्‍डन करके समाप्‍त होती है।

Ten years later, Shantaram is back in a new novel/Chandrima Pal

A breath of Bombay hope, in the first glimpse of the sea, on Marine Drive, filled my heart, if not my head. I turned away from the red shadow. I stopped thinking of that pyramid of killers, and Sanjay’s recklessness. I stopped thinking about my own part in the madness. And I rode, with my friends, into the end of everything.

Ten years in the making, The Mountain Shadow is the sequel to the best selling Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It begins two years after he leaves Mumbai to look for love and redemption in Sri Lanka.

It is tough to pick up the strands of a conversation you left a decade back. But for Roberts’ fans, it is just a turn of the page away.

Shantaram and me

So there I was in a Mumbai cab, my suitcases secured with a blue rope on the top of the frail Premier Padmini, waiting for the landlord to hand over the house keys somewhere in the belly of Versova, a suburban neighbourhood famous for its star residents, stench and star-struck film aspirants. I held in my arms two books that would define my relationship with the city upon my arrival – Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, and Shantaram. Both intimidating for their the sheer girth, and promising in their premises, written by two very different storytellers.

Maximum City has been hailed has one of the finest pieces of narrative non-fiction to capture the essence of the city, its people. Shantaram became what it did by virtue of the author's audacity of imagination and ambition that struck a chord with its millions of readers, me included.

Could Shantaram have been set in any other city and been as powerful a piece of writing? As impactful, as loved? Perhaps not. The story of an Australian fugitive who lands in the city on a whim is sucked into its underbelly, a man who comes dangerously close to falling apart but is held together by the tenuous thread we call hope – scattered on its streets and in the cavernous slums, in the shadow of the towering sky scrapers, in the eyes of the hundreds of Bollywood aspirants and extras – had to be set in Maximum City.

Fact or fiction?

Shantaram’s story is compelling and yet fantastic. Over the years, many of Davis’s claims were contested by some of the characters who he wrote about. In an interview he later said: “It is not an autobiography, it’s a novel. If the book reads like an autobiography, I take that as a very high compliment, because I structured the created narrative to read like fiction but feel like fact. I wanted the novel to have the page-turning drive of a work of fiction but to be informed by such a powerful stream of real experience that it had the authentic feel of fact.”

So, how much of Shantaram was factual?

At one of his earliest book readings in SoBo, Roberts put on a fine performance. He was yet to become the phenomenon that he is today. But still quite the star. Attendance was thin. But Roberts was in his element.

He was talking about his days at the Arthur Road Prison, where he was tortured by the jailers, an experience he shares with his readers in the book. “And there I was, face down on the floor, flayed, brutalised,” said Roberts, an imposing figure with his scars, braided hair, and limp (all of which are explained in the book), “And I was telling myself, if ever I got out of this alive, this would make for a bloody good story!”

Roberts’ Mumbai

A month later, I was chatting with him at his favourite hangout, Cafe Leopold (also made famous by the 26/11 attack) for a story I had been commissioned by a fledgling city tabloid. He was already famous then. And his book was doing to Colaba what Dan Brown was to do to the Louvre years later.

We walked the neighbourhood, the places he would supposedly frequent in his days as Shantaram – a man on the run from the law, sheltered by the city's lawless but generous inhabitant. He was evidently a familiar face there, and a popular one. We visited a gym tucked away in an alley, where the equipment hung from mossed walls and blue tarpaulin sheets kept the rain away. We made our way through the fishermen's colony near the Radio Club, where he nodded at women cooking and watching TV in their tenements, and they smiled back.

He was charming alright. He also used a ball point pen to demonstrate how I could defend myself if I ever got into a street fight. Such was his sincerity that for a moment I thought was Uma Thurman.

And like so many of his fans, I did not for a moment have the heart to question the veracity of what he wrote about some characters, incidents. To quote an ad filmmaker who often hung out with him at Leopold before his book was published: “His scars were full of stories. You knew here was a man who has seen things you don't wanna know.”

A sensational success

Perhaps this is why Shantaram became such a sensation. It flirts with reality and make-believe, takes such audacious artistic liberties with so much flair that the reader cannot help but hold on to his cape and take that huge leap of faith. So it did not really matter when some of his claims  – like that of running a free medical camp in the SoBo slum (which is for real) or buying a cab for his friend Prabhaker (who was for real) or selling arms in Afghanistan – were disputed by those alive, and real. The author and his creation may have led separate, conflicting lives, but for the world, they were one.

For those unfamiliar with Mumbai, it was essentially a story that grabs them by the cuff and drags them into a netherworld of slum dogs, drug lords, terrorists, arms dealers, artists, con artists, illegal expats, film stars, the abandoned, the affluent, samaritans and villains and lovers. It takes every cliché, every stereotype that Mumbai has been known for, and pumps them liberally with adrenalin and empathy.

Even when Shantaram is beaten, broken, pushing needles and sinking deeper and deeper into the cesspool of despair, he does it with such swagger that it you could have reading the biography of a 1960s rock star or a Quentin Tarantino script starring Johnny Depp (if only!).

But it is more than that. The reason why Shantaram has been mentioned as one of the greatest novels of recent times is that it is not just a story of a convict who comes to India and never goes back. It is because Roberts himself has probably been through at least half the things that he writes about, and has lived to tell the tale.

And because, more than anything else, he is essentially a romantic, who may have robbed banks, done drugs and joined a terrorist outfit, but one who lets love and faith pull him back from the brink every time he stood there. And that, he is always high on that curious drug he calls “Bombay Hope.”

So, the sequel…

The end of the 1980s was the beginning of everything. The Berlin Wall fell on an empire, and the Taliban took Afghanistan. Lin, on the run after escaping from prison in Australia, working as a passport forger for a Mumbai mafia gang, finds himself standing on a tattered corner of a bloody carpet that would soon cover most of the world. But he can’t leave the Island City: not without Karla.