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A 900-carat plot


The Great Mogul

Rajeev Jacob

Lancers Book


‘The Great Mogul’ is a story of the “sparkling stone, for which men have died”. Na, not the Kohinoor or the mountain of light, but the “Great Mogul”, the greatest of diamonds the world has seen, which when uncut weights 900 carats.

 A few pages into the book, the plot hovering around the elusive trail of the diamond set in timelines from pre Independence era to now really grips the reader. The narrative too is compelling because the writer does manage to get into the skin of the characters, David Washerby to be precise. The travels of the English mercenary, his quest for the diamond and the humane yet ruthless aspects of his personality paint a picture of India before Independence — quaint yet volatile, cultured yet barbaric, and stoic yet very profoundly sensitive.

 Lot of research seems to have gone into the book. The listings of the turns of history and of the ancientness of places where civilization thrives with an upmarket economy now, seen more through the eyes of two researchers in trail of not only the story of the diamond but also of their ancestors, renders a touch of academic seriousness. It is precisely why this book will be relished y a serious enthusiast of history and how times have changed the face of country.

 White Moghul, an almost name-sake by William Dalrymple, did also go on a similar search into the past of India. It was not for a diamond and army men or poetess of course but for the delicate ties that a Nawab progeny shared with a British resident. It isn’t very good to compare, yet Great Mogul does have a plot that almost matches up to the Dalrymple masterpiece. What it could have had is an easiness of narrative, an inherent lucidity. Because a story when told in the language of the heart endears it more to the reader.

 Words do have limits; they cannot actually explain the depth of emotions humans have. What best can be done is let the thoughts speak for themselves as much as they want and as long as they want. The best writers cannot write, for silence is the way to explain thoughts. The second best writers are children who can give words to the most obtuse of thoughts just because they say it simple and from the heart.

 Rajeev Jacob’s very rich plot could have gone more places than it has had he let his heart feel the varied hues of the characters and tell a very captivating story than allow his stock of information and his literary mind speak.


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Femininity isn’t physical; it’s the trait of the soul

By Aparna Nair

Narthaki’s angst was visible in her kajal-laden eyes. Shakthi was
beside her, sitting coy, and silently agreeing, as she has always
done. Together, they dispelled a silent camaraderie, something that
helped them tide over storms since their birth as transgenders.
Something that helped them create a world of their own, a world of
dance, of constant learning. It is this camaraderie that even now
helps them dance away the odds that greet them day in and day out.

Their well-kept flat in Mylapore in Chennai is a newly procured one.
Sans much furniture, it is mildly decorated with a few antique pieces.
“It is on a loan. We had to do our share of fighting for this, too,”
Narthaki says.

Their rebellion isn’t new. It began when instead of love, they found
coldness even in their mothers; instead of care, it was those accusing
looks. Instead of friendship, they got ridicule, scolding, even
stoning. They were born into well-to-do families in Anupanadi village
of Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district. “I was born a Pillai, and Shakthi is
from a wealthy Mudaliar household that even now owns a flourishing
textile business in Madurai,” Narthaki says.

The real ordeal began when they realised they were different from the
other boys. They were ostracised, and often, temple premises or
abandoned buildings were their refuge. “Shakthi would be my audience.
I could sense the femininity growing in me, and terribly wanted an
outlet. There was this mobile theatre in our village that featured
films of Vyjayanthimala. Remember Parthiban Kanavu, in which she has
that long dance sequence with Padmini?” Narthaki asks Shakthi. “We
wanted to become disciples of Guru Kittappa Pillai, who trained
Vyjayanthimala. We used to go to his programmes and plead to be taken
as his disciples,” Narthaki says.

Kittappa Pillai, of the famed Tanjore Quartet lineage, was guru to
dancers like Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Sucheta Chapekar and Padmini
Rao. After a year of pleading, he agreed, and Narthaki began her
lessons under him. Learning for 14 years under a maestro like Kittappa
Pillai was quite an ordeal. “He would be harsh with me. But as I
progressed, he taught me all that he knew. It is he who gave me the
name Narthaki after my arangetram. (She was known as Natraj till
then.) He also took me as his assistant when he went to lecture on
dance at the Thanjavur Tamil University,” she says.

This was also the time when the two friends left home, and began
living on their own. “The days were very difficult. There was the
question of sustenance; there was the angst of love; there was the
tussle of values. Transgenders usually take to begging or end up as
prostitutes. We live in an odd society, where divine transgenders
[Lord Krishna’s form as a transgender is revered] are worshipped, but
their flesh-and-blood counterparts are insulted. There were times when
I wanted to give up, but Shakthi kept reminding me that we can brave
all odds and live a life of our choice,” Narthaki says.

Life is different for the duo now as they are respected artistes.
Their days are busy with dance performances and classes. Their free
time is to revive the memories of Madurai, its ethnicity and
literature, and cuisine. “We try out ethnic Madurai preparations
sometimes,” Shakthi says. Books, too, are their partners, with a
formidable collection of ancient works.

They live in the lanes where, two decades ago, mamis (Brahmin women)
frowned upon anything untraditional. Even now, the place retains its
old worldliness, immune to the upbeat of the modern Chennai. Yet the
duo remains. How? “We begin our day at four in the morning with dance
practices and morning walks. There are suppressed whispers; there are
those controlled chuckles, but we do not care any more,” Narthaki

Though they maintain good relations with their relatives, for Narthaki
and Shakthi, it is their disciples who are family (students help them
with PR and the new Compaq laptop). Says Nandini Krishnan, senior
producer with NewsX: “We share a mother-child relationship rather than
the austere guru-shishya bond. I met Narthaki as a documentary
filmmaker, but ended up being her disciple. She is what she is-a
sensitive human being. They guide me not just in dance, but in other
aspects of life. I am a lot calmer now, after meeting them.”

They have come a long way; a reason why Narthaki says she doesn’t want
to harp on her past. “We want to be remembered for our work. My guru
taught me dance, the way it is described in the bhakti scriptures as
one of the 16 forms of worship. It was simplified post the various
invasions and cultural mix-ups, and given the present format by gurus
who belonged to the Tanjore Quartet. For example, there was no
Thillana, the quick and agile item in Bharatanatyam performances, in
the earlier days. It was incorporated post the Mughal invasion,” she

These apart, there are rare ragas and unique items, which have almost
been lost to oblivion. “Navasandhi Kautuvams (which follow vaastu
concepts) and Panchamurthi Kautuvams (which worships nature’s forces)
are some of them,” she says. Narthaki is also working on adaptations
from ancient texts like Thevaram, Thirupugazh, Thiruvasakam and
Divyaprabandham and also on the works of poets like Bharathiar and

But what she longs to is to work for the transgenders, for whom
begging or prostitution is still the only means to survival. “NGOs
have brought some awareness, but still, a lot needs to be done, for
which proper investment is needed,” she says.

With dance, Narthaki and Shakthi have travelled far. For preserving
the original form of Bharatanatyam, Narthaki received the Sangeet
Natak Akademi fellowship for 2003-2005. The Tamil Nadu government has
bestowed its prestigious Kalaimamani award on her. She receives prime
slots in leading sabhas during the much-awaited Marghazi music season
in December. There are also corporate shows and the regular
performances in festivals. “But what is most satisfying is performing
before a rural audience,” she says.

Narthaki is a treat to watch, as she becomes the love-lorn heroine or
the desperate God-seeker on stage. For her, nayaki bhava is the way
she connects with her self. “Prakriti, or nature, is essentially
feminine. Every jeevatma (mortal soul) is feminine, striving to merge
with the paramatma (the Supreme), which, in essence, is the only
Purusha. This is nayaki bhava in a nutshell, the emotion a woman has
towards her lover, extolled in Indian philosophy as the human-divine
relation. I have made it my life breath. For I am Thirunangai, the
Supreme Woman,” she says.

(Published in The WEEK on May 31, 2009)
All copyrights reserved with Malayala Manorama Group

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Human life is precious                                                      Irom Chanu Sharmila
Before life comes to an end                                        
Let me be light of darkness                                    
Nectar will be sown
A tree of immortality will be planted.

Before that, she was a poet, hidden from the world, yet with a heart that knew how to love. Her love was not only for the ones she was born to, but also for the spirit that sustained life. And anything which shattered that spirit made her sensitive heart bleed.

Her quiet work in Manipur among the underprivileged since her youth was something that spoke tonnes of her free yet deep mind.

Her calling was then in poetry, and she poured her angst out in words not only about the pangs of life but also about the spirit in beings that lay battered by the onslaughts of brute power.

So, it was not much of a surprise that she was haunted by the plight of people under the clutches of the AFSPA. Passed by parliament for just six months in 1958, the law is in place for over five decades, to be used to mute struggles for justice.

Sharmila had seen dark faces of the draconian Act; she was very moved by an incident when a woman was raped in front of her father-in-law by the security forces.

The law routed the spirit of the land unbridled; it couldn’t be stopped legally, with the supreme court allowing it and all UN recommendations to review it falling on deaf ears.

Sharmila silently saw all this, being a part of the human rights brigade in the state that had come out with an inquiry report on the extent to which the Act hit life.

The report was out on October 25, 2000, and on November 2 the same year, at a bus station in Malom, soldiers of Assam Rifles took aim at 10 people, including women and children, killing them on the spot in the aftermath of an attack against the forces.

Manipur was aghast at the incident. To Sharmila, the only way out was a protest that required her to lay at the altar, her life, her heart, and above all her soul. Silently, she began her fast on Nov 2, though she had to break it later.

But so much hurt was in the air around her that Sharmila could not help willing herself again to give up food and water on Nov 4, from when till date, her fast continues unhindered.

Since then, not a drop of water has gone down her throat nor has she eaten anything. Sharmila was arrested on Nov 5, 2000, on charges of attempt to suicide. Since then, a tube has remained an integral part of her body, through which she is fed for life to remain in her frail, pale yellow-skinned body.


And while her health takes a beating, her spirit soars high above the real world that celebrates her fast. Her systems have gone awry; yet so steadfast is her resolve, that she cleans her teeth with a swab of cotton and moistens her lips with spirit, lest drops of water go in.

But otherwise, her life is a flow of time, four hours of which everyday she devotes to yoga and the rest to books on spirituality and deep study of religion.

“She was a blue-eyed girl when she began her fast. Now she bears a serene calm on her face,” says Babloo Loithougbam, a close associate and head of Human Rights Alert, an activist forum. Poetry is still with her, her zest for beauty only multiplying despite being under arrest.

Sharmila’s life has been influenced by Gandhi, yet she is a prisoner of a government that swears on the Mahatma and his satyagraha. Her fame has spread, and she is now quite a youth icon in her state.

To express solidarity with her, a group of Manipuri women have formed the Sharmila Kanba Lub (Save Sharmila Forum) and have been going on relay fasts since 2008.

World over, too, her struggle has been noticed, with the South Korean city of Gwangju conferring the ‘Gwangju Prize for Human Rights’ on her in 2007.

Manipur is now gearing up to observe the 10th year of her fast, organising weeklong seminars, art exhibitions, plays and even commemorative fasts.

Across the world, the week is being observed by groups such as the Ireland-based Solidarity Frontline and Fourm Asia. Nobel Laureates are also coming together in her support.

There are allegations of lobbying, too, on Sharmila’s fast. She, at times, gets a Che-like aura, with T-shirts and posters done up to promote her and high melodrama over her fast and persona.

The AFSPA remains though her protest has helped loosen its grip. Any bad show of Act is now quick to hit headlines. “But we only hope that the government withdraws the Act. Time may be running out for Sharmila,” Dr Monisha Behl, chairperson of Northeast Network, says.

Yet the woman, herself, remains untouched by the popularity, immersed in her silent grit, with which she hopes for the day when Manipur will be free of the AFSPA.

And when that day dawns, she will return to her simplicity, start a family and write poetry, she recently told a Swedish journalist. But till then she will fast, probably telling herself — is there anything more beautiful than hope?

Aparna Nair


(Published in the DH on November 3, 2010)

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