& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, June 30, 2014

Kabir and Ramanand

Recently, I had a lively debate with my nephew (Karpur Shukla) about the supremacy of western discourse in understanding and interpreting non-western thoughts.  

We tend to be highly critical of the “Orientalists” but the fact is that most of our understanding of our culture, society, people, heritage, religions, spiritualism, and atheism, etc. is through English. And a lot of their original work was truly path-breaking.

Mahipati’s (1715-1790) Bhaktivijaya is considered a classic of Marathi literature. I have a translation of the book (Stories of Indian Saints) by Dr. Justine E. Abbott and Pandit Narhar R. Godbole, originally published in 1931 and reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass in the 1980s.

My introduction to the predominance of the Bhakti-Sufi way of thinking across the subcontinent has been through books such as this one.

Here’s an anecdote from the book about Kabir and his guru Ramanand.

He (Kabir) said to himself one day as his mind was thinking about it. “If one does not have a guru while in this earthly existence, he should be called a man without life…”

So I must go with feelings of reverence as a suppliant to the sannyasi swami Ramanand. Having decided this in his mind, he remained with that determination.

When after seeing many kings with her own eyes, and carefully considering the matter, Sita saw the form of Sri Ram, her heart chose him at once.

When the daughter of king Bhimaka (Rukmini) heard of the beautiful form of Shri Krishna, she sought to win him as her husband. So it was that Kabir held the desire for the dust of Ramanand’s feet.

Finding himself alone one day, he at once arose and went to the hermitage of Ramanand and loving embraced his feet.

Standing first at a distance, Kabir besought Ramanand saying, “Your greatness must show me compassion.”

When Ramanand heard Kabir’s voice, he put his fingers in his ears, went into a cave and sat alone on his mat.

Kabir stood outside and said in his soft sweet voice, “A lowly and helpless one, I stand at your door. Give me your assurances and satisfy my desire.”

Ramanand said to Kabir, “You were born in a Muhammadan family. I have, therefore, no authority whatever to give you instructions.”

Ramanand continues…

All wise men recognize that seed should be sown in a field after the examination of its soil. In making a gift, one should first seek someone worthy of it. When giving daughter in marriage one must choose the proper bridegroom.

Kabir replied, “I have determined to come to your feet. I have not spared body, speech or mind in doing so.

The moon loves the chakor bird but even if the love may not be exclusive, yet God in His pleasure rains nectar on it for its devotion.

Should the sun not express its intense love for the lotus by rising, still it will not open by an attachment for something else.

In the making of an earthen image of Dron, the reverence of the Koli (Ekalavya) bore fruit. So I have embraced the swami’s feet with body, speech and mind.

Thus speaking, Kabir again with love prostrated himself on the ground before the Swami. 

He then hastened back to his home with his mind full of intense love.

The story then goes on to describe how Kabir overcomes Ramanand’s resistance and accepts him as his disciple.

Here's a combination that is clearly made in heaven: Kabir, Abida Parveen, Gulzar:

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Goetel & Gandhi

Polish writer Ferdynand Goetel’s encounter with Gandhi

Guest Post by Aleksandra Skiba

Ferdynand Goetel (1890-1960)
A hotel owner was surprised and perhaps dismayed when he asked the route to the meeting. 

A policeman shrugged his shoulders and showed him the way. He realized that the event he was so keen to witness wasn’t one that interested these sections of the society.

When he reached the venue, he also realized that his presence there wasn’t entirely welcome. The crowd glanced at him with a mix of suspicion and caution. He could sense tension, but he was determined to see Gandhi. 

The Polish journalist Ferdynand Goetel’s passion for travelling definitely shaped his writing. However, it is difficult to imagine when and how it all started.  As an Austrian citizen living in Warsaw, Ferdynand, a young architect then, was interned by the Russian authorities to Tashkent at the beginning of WWI. He worked there for four years but after the Bolshevik Revolution he decided to escape.

Returning to Poland was not easy.

With his wife, a new-born baby, and a group of desperate Poles, he travelled through Persia, Afghanistan, India and England to reach Poland after a fourteen-month journey. The experiences of that journey resulted in a memoir – Przez płonący Wshód (Across the Blazing East) released in 1922.

The readers loved it. Encouraged by the success of his book, he continued to write and soon became an editor of a travel magazine, a novelist and the President of Polish PEN.

Despite his busy schedule, he continued to travel extensively and had a prolific output of travelogues. In 1930, he visited India again, and three years later Podróż do Indyj (Journey to India) appeared in the bookshops.

In writing that book, Ferdynand observed India through the eyes of the common people. In an interview, he explained that he wrote for his Polish readers who had no access to India in Polish language.

Ferdynand’s simple style of writing was sharp and without adulation. It succeeded in altering the impressions about India and created a more realistic impression about the land.

Of course, one has to look at his writing from the perspective of early 20th century European prism. This perspective is evident in the description of his meeting with Gandhi in Allahabad in 1930.

Neither an Englishman nor an Indian, Ferdynand’s observations of Gandhi are unexpectedly different.

Waiting for Gandhi to arrive, he minutely observed the members of the Congress leadership, comparing their postures and dresses to Roman senators.

That characterization was to prepare the readers for Gandhi’s appearance at the meeting, which the Polish visitor discovered, was in a sharp contrast to the other Congress members. However, Ferdynand was unimpressed. Gandhi seemed like an ordinary clerk or a teacher, a bit weary and looking around absently.

He was objective in his observations, and had the courage to express inconvenient and unpalatable opinions.

He was unfamiliar with Gandhi’s low-key style. He had imagined that he was attending an archetypal political meeting – where other politicians were awaiting their leader, and the presence of a large and restive crowd.

But Gandhi was nothing like a politician. His monotonous and dry voice disappointed Ferdynand. Also, while he was speaking, the loudspeaker broke down, and Gandhi quietly began to spin the wheel.

At this, he couldn’t stop himself from loudly expressing his displeasure. “Madman,” he muttered loudly, in Polish.  Even when Gandhi spoke, Ferdynand observed that the crowd wasn’t attentive.

Ferdynand’s admiration for Gandhi swiftly turned to disillusionment, and he eventually left meeting mixed feelings. His description of Gandhi’s public meeting conveys the disappointment: “I imagined that moment totally different…” or “…and there things which were incomprehensible for me…”

However, there was one fact which could bring his readers a warm feeling of recognizing something well known. The Poles, who regained their freedom after a long break in 1918, noticed the similarity of Indian struggle and sympathized with that.

It is hard to say how much of the writer is contained in that description. He definitely appreciated “the genius of India” and Gandhi’s role but perhaps his European perspective clouded his judgement.

Interesting is his reflection at the end of the book: “I don’t know if I understand the East but I understood and learnt to appreciate Europe. This is the most important result of my journey.”

It seems that the initial aim of his exploration was redirected but finally it brought the knowledge and...understanding.


Ferdynand Goetel, Pisma podróżnicze, edition and preface Ida Sakowska, Kraków, Arcana, 2004.

Antologia polskiego reportażu XX wieku. T. 1, 1901-1965, edition Mariusz Szczygieł, Wołowiec, Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2014.

  • Aleksandra Skiba is a librarian at Pomeranian Library (The Central Library of the West Pomeranian Province) in the Polish city of Szczecin

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Chalees Baba Aik Chor: Jawaid Danish

Jawaid Danish is Canada-based Urdu playwright, poet and filmmaker

Jawaid Danish is cultural gadfly who believes in raising uncomfortable questions through his plays and poems. He is also a filmmaker, having made a critically acclaimed and successful film – Bara Shayer Chota Aadmi. As the artistic director of Rangmanch Canada, Jawaid organizes an annual South Asian drama festival where plays in different languages of the subcontinent are staged.

With over three decades of creative work, Jawaid has been the recipient of innumerable awards such as the prestigious Civic Arts Award (Canada), the Shiromani Sahitya Award (India), the South Asian Theatre Festival Award (USA).

Author of 12 books of plays and poems, his works have been translated into English, Swedish, Hindi, Bengali and Kannada. Last week, the Writers’ Forum organized a book launch of Jawaid’s Chalees Baba Aik Chor (book of plays) that deals with the pleasures and problems of Indian immigrants in Canada.

“It’s a sequel to my previous book of plays Hijrat ke Tamashey, in which I depicted the issues newcomers face when settling down in this new land – issues such as cultural shock, the adjustments to be made in married lives, peculiar difficulties we face in something as simple as celebrating our cultural festivals,” Jawaid says.

The new book takes the journey forward. Two decades have passed, the immigrants are settled, bread and butter is not as pressing an issue as it was back then. But new issues have emerged, now the issues are psychological – issues such as divorces and single mothers. “And once these types of issues arise, every ones tries to become a BABA,” Jawaid says.

The book has seven plays. “The subjects I have selected are new and hardly ever discussed,” he adds. The plays are on AIDS ( Mukti), on divorce and arrange marriages (Jeewan Sathi Clinic), on mercy killing (Cancer) on Jewish and Palestinian problem (Nayee Shakh Zaitun Ki), transgender issues (Picky Baba Ka Chilla) and lastly on the sexual assault case of Nirbhaya of Delhi (Aik thi Roohi).

These plays have already proved to be a massive draw among the theatre-going public. The book is being translated in Hindi and Bengali.

“Both of my books of plays have been selected by Delhi University for research program; a student is doing M. Phil on them,” Jawaid adds.

This is a rare honour for any Indian writer settled in the West. It is for the first time that any diaspora plays have been selected for such a research program.

In a post-launch chat, Jawaid answered a few questions:

What inspires you to write?

Basically people, especially immigrants and their problems and pleasures inspires me to write.

Is writing dependent upon creative inspiration or is it a discipline that comes with practice?

Although writing needs some discipline, I am not disciplined as a writer.  I write on inspiration. I write plays, it require a lot of patience and discipline. When I start a play, I continue to write from the start to the end.  Sometime I create a character or change the character while I’m in the process of writing.  Then, during rehearsals, I may completely change the climax, and make it a different play from what I plotted in the beginning.

For someone who is comfortable in both Hindi and Urdu, you occupy a unique position in contemporary South Asian literature in Canada. How do you see the literary scene in both languages in present-day Canada?

I am fortunate to know both Hindi and Urdu. I’m from Lucknow, and spent school days in Kolkata. I am comfortable in Urdu Hindi Bengali and English. I also know a little bit of Gujarati, Punjabi and Tamil.  For a Nautanki guy, a theatre person, it’s helpful to know a vernacular language, and I also know the spirit of local variations to ethnic dialects (described in Urdu as Boli Tholi). I have command over many Indian dialects whether it is Tapori slang of Mumbai or the sophisticated seasoned Urdu of Lucknow.

As you know, there is a lot created here in the name of diaspora writings, in terms of poetry and fiction, but in the field of drama not much has happened, especially in terms of diaspora plays, dealing with the immigrants’ matters.  

My Urdu my book Hijrat Ke Tamashey was published in 1990, since than no other Urdu or Hindi collection of plays has been published.   This book went into three editions in Urdu, and then it was translated into Bengali, and was published in two editions with a third in the process. It has also been translated into Kannada and is being translated into English.

40 Baba Aik Chor came after some 24 years, but no book of plays has been published during that time in Urdu, Hindi or any other South Asian language except in English. I myself published 12 other book, travelogues and translations of world’s best revolutionary plays.

Briefly describe your best work...and why you consider it to be your best

My best work is Hijrat Ke Tamashey, plays of migrations.  It’s a first of its kind, Prof. M. Hasan of JNU in Delhi says about the work, “First time, plays on immigrant pains and pleasures have surfaced in Urdu, Danish can write such experimental plays, as he himself is an immigrant and have firsthand experience of such problems.”

This book has gained much attention, recognition and awards, and finally Delhi University has conducted research work (M. Phil) on this collection of plays together with Chalees Baba Aik Chor.

A  serial of 13 episodes was broadcasted on Omni T.V 2, in 2007 with several reruns  on the plays of Hijrat Ke Tamashey, and I have produced a 100 minutes telefilm on one of its play Bara Shayer Chota Aadmi in 2013.

Photographs: Provided by Jawaid Danish

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Access India - Murli Nedungadi

The forces of globalization have fundamentally changed the way we do business. It wasn’t so long ago that our clients were in nearby cities or maybe other provinces or states. Now they can be across the world in unfamiliar markets. These emerging markets are the main sources of economic growth. To succeed, Canadian entrepreneurs have to be there.

Among the most important of these bourgeoning economies is India. Over the last two decades, India has been one of the fastest growing large economies in the world. Despite the tremendous opportunity this presents, India can be a daunting destination for the uninitiated. Its 28 states, 7 territories, 15 major languages, hundreds of dialects, several major religions, tribes, castes and sub-castes make up a country that is tremendously diverse and complex.

That is why Murli Nedungadi's book is a must read for any entrepreneur looking to venture to India. Written with a clear love for his native country, Access India is rich with practical advice and informed insight about the people and culture of India. And with Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently stating that "the Government is putting India at the centre of Canada's Asia policy," Murli's book is timely and even more significant. Murli has generously share his knowledge and experience about how to do business in India.

Read it from cover to cover or use it as a handy reference guide to answer questions as they arise. The richness of the material is in the way Murli has integrated the key things you need to know about travelling and doing business in India. It is an excellent base of knowledge, one that could only come from someone who has experienced India from inside and out. I am certain that it will save you time, money and effort.

As India evolves and its story gets written, Canadian business can be a valuable contributor. Opportunities abound in this immense country that is transforming due to economic liberalization, technology and a growing urban middle class. Canadian entrepreneurs have the capacity to participate. Access India makes taking that step a little easier.


Postcard from India

It is not unusual for Indo-Canadians to promise their Canadian friends that their friends or relatives in India will do them a favour. In the case if my client, George, his friend had, in all good faith, asked his cousin if he could help. Turning down a request, especially from family, is a no-no and so the cousin had agreed to help to make his relative happy and to save him face. If the relative is also an entrepreneur, he will also hope there might be a business opportunity in it for him. Of course, when the time comes for the relative to deliver, he may decide he has neither the time nor contacts as promised.

It is quite typical in India, where families are large and share common interests, to refer business to relatives, even when they are not really up to the job. While the Canadian businessperson should be appreciative of the contacts, he or she should avoid being completely dependent. If you want service, you need to pay for it. A network of contacts is important but developing it takes an investment of time, money or both