Sunday, January 31, 2021

Looking back


There’s much that is fascinating about Kerala. What I find — or should I say used to find — especially captivating though is how many of the state’s traditional retail spaces were designed.
Visiting Kerala in the 1970s and early 80s, and living in Trivandrum from the mid-1980s, it was refreshing to see these unfussy, classic buildings. With their tiled roofs and verandahs that offered protection from the sun and the rain, and often a place to pass the unrelenting hour, these buildings brought a certain character to their neighbourhood.
Not all were old, tiled buildings — there were more recent, art deco-ish structures that sprouted among the more traditional-looking ones. But they all radiated a certain charm, despite the odd monstrosity.

Especially alluring were the doors that some of these buildings had: Numbered planks of wood that were — at closing time — slotted into a groove and pushed along till they clicked into place and formed a wall of timber. All held together by an iron rod or bar, secured with a padlock.
But change is almost inevitable; arguably the only constant in life. And by the late 1990s, there was much more concrete and mirrored glass across Kerala’s retail landscape.
Today, many familiar names remain, but in new clothes and sometimes in new locations. And here and there some holdouts linger, with their tiled roofs, jigsaw-puzzle doors and glass jars, enveloped in the faint aroma of time.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Inside the novel factory

A version of this was in Outlook

For over half a century, the ‘Gulf’ has been Eldorado for the people of South Asia, particularly Kerala. As the narrator in Al Arabian Novel Factory reflects, “God blesses some small Arab country with petrol dollars. And then a tiny sliver of land far away gets to enjoy some of those blessings… There was a long and lonely road between the two lands, and it could tell many stories of sacrifice.
It is these stories of sacrifice, toil, humiliation, deprivation, loneliness, despair and alienation of the ‘Gulf Malayali’, and the wider immigrant community, that Benny Daniel — who writes as Benyamin — chronicles in much of his writing.
Over the years, especially in Malayalam, there have been books and films on the Gulf immigrant experience. But few of these capture the granular details of immigrant life in the region with authenticity. And it’s these granular details that Benyamin writes about with authority, perhaps because he was, himself, a Gulf Malayali for over two decades.
With almost a score of books across genres to his name, Benyamin explores a world that is familiar to Kerala, but also alien, especially the darker side of that world. He received widespread recognition with his award-winning 2008 Malayalam novel Aadujeevitham, translated into English as Goat Days, and soon to be a Malayalam film. Since then, he’s returned regularly to his known turf  — facets of immigrant life in the Gulf and the complicated relationships that entwine the locals and the ‘guest’ workers who keep Arab nations ticking.
At first glance, Al Arabian Novel Factory seems to have a simple narrative. Pratap, an Indian-Canadian journalist, travels to a West Asian country known only as the ‘City’, ruled by an authoritarian regime. He’s ostensibly there to helm a research project. But his real objective is to reconnect with Jasmine, his onetime lover, who lives in the City and is an elusive but constant presence through the book. In the City, his life tangles with the lives of his team members and also with the tortuous journey of A Spring Without Fragrance, a mysterious manuscript written by Sameera Parvin, a radio jockey who once lived there.
But appearances can be deceptive: Though a standalone novel, Al Arabian Novel Factory is also a companion volume to Benyamin’s Jasmine Days (Mullappoo Niramulla Pakalukal in Malayalam). Positioned as Jasmine Days’ sequel, it could just as easily be a ‘prequel-sequel’ hybrid. So intensely interwoven are the narrative strands and devices that connect the books that it does get a little convoluted at times.
Both novels though, are set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, with this one focusing on the period immediately after. It captures the immigrant experience, but the immigrant here is mostly the comfortably off one. The sort who sings praise songs for the City’s despotic ruler while hosting a workshop on ‘socialism-driven freedom in Kerala’; the immigrant who is a ‘socialist’ at heart, but lives a capitalist life. 
Translated from the Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib, the book also tackles other themes including freedom of speech, thought and action; minority rights; and women’s rights. And looming over everything that happens is the all-seeing City, a character in itself. Habib’s translation is always competent and occasionally exquisite, capturing the nuances and cadences of the original; I must confess that I could occasionally visualise the original Malayalam line as I read the English version.
Sometimes, in factories, things can go out of kilter and so do things in this novel factory — not seriously awry, though. The narrative tends to meander occasionally. Also puzzling are some sections, particularly those in which Pratap behaves somewhat naively despite his journalistic experience. You could attribute it to the pangs of love, but one method he explores to trace Jasmine is far-fetched, stupid even, if not downright dangerous. Perhaps it was intended as a narrative device, but it seemed rather off. 
What is disconcerting is the depiction of some female characters. They’re portrayed as unaware of and uninterested in little beyond their immediate surroundings and passions. Knowing the many informed, opinionated and worldly-wise women around us, even among the demographics presented in the novel, this characterisation seems baffling. This, even as several male characters, at times, appear misogynistic.
Perhaps, it is all a pointer towards one of the book’s takeaways — that we are all flawed beings. Or that glittering facades often hide messy secrets and disguise dreary, grasping lives where self-interest reigns supreme. As Pratap says: “I have always been curious about the City, how it rose out of dust like an enchanted land in a fairy tale.” More than anything else, Al Arabian Novel Factory reminds us that there are no fairy tales.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The bells of St Clement’s

It seemed appropriate. Commemorate the anniversary of my father’s passing in a place associated with aviation — something he devoted much of his adult life to, while in the Indian Air Force (IAF) — that was also a place of reflection and spirituality. St Clement Danes, the central church of the Royal Air Force (RAF), in London was the perfect spot to be in.
I stumbled across St Clement Danes several months earlier, on the website of the RAF Museum, and realised that I’d passed the church several times without noticing it. Perhaps I’d overlooked it because of the scaffolding that cocooned it then. Or perhaps it was its location on an island, buffeted by streams of vehicles, just where the Strand and Fleet Street meet.  
Inside, though, the sounds of modern-day London fade and the hush enfolds you. On a sunny early spring morning, it’s a glorious sight — light pouring in through the windows, including the magnificent stained glass one behind the altar; the white vaulted ceiling with its gilded flourishes; the radiant golden ceiling of the apse; the slate floor inlaid with several hundred unit, squadron and other formation badges stretching up the nave to the altar; colours and squadron standards displayed in various places; and the gleaming pews with cartouches (of various Chiefs of the Air Staff) fixed at their ends.
A church has stood on the site for centuries; with the first one reportedly established by Danes living in the area. The present building, by Sir Christopher Wren, was completed in 1682, but was terribly damaged during the Blitz. By the late 1950s, St Clement Danes was restored and became the RAF’s central church. It is also believed to be the church referred to in the English nursery rhyme “Oranges and lemons/ Say the bells of St Clement's.” And indeed, the church’s bells do ring the tune through the day.
On the floor, as you enter the nave, is a ring of badges of eight Commonwealth air forces around the insignia of the RAF. And one of those eight badges is of the Indian Air Force. Other references to India can be found across St Clement Danes, especially in the unit badges laid into the floor. There is, for instance, the 152 ‘Hyderabad’ Squadron, with a turban in its insignia. According to the squadron’s tribute website, 152 was the gift squadron of Hyderabad and took as its badge the headdress of the erstwhile Nizam of Hyderabad. Formed in 1918, the squadron was disbanded in 1919, but reformed in 1939 and operated in India between 1943 and 1947.
St Clement Danes also remembers those who lost their lives while serving in the RAF through the Books of Remembrance that start from 1912 and continue to the present. Around the church are memorial boards for RAF personnel who have died on various operations and plaques with the names of those who have won the Victoria and George Crosses.
As I emerged from the church, to the rhythms of the Strand, it was impossible to miss the statue of William Gladstone, flanked by those of Arthur Harris and Hugh Dowding, wartime leaders of the RAF. Pausing for a moment in Gladstone’s shadow, I told myself that I needed to ask my mother if she and my dad had ever been to St Clement Danes when they lived in the UK. I never did. And seven months later, she too was but a memory.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Celebrating Tree Walk

An early memory is of scrambling halfway up the guava tree in the backyard of our house in Bangalore. And of the joy and sense of accomplishment that came from making it that far up. I didn’t realise it then, but I was fortunate to belong to a generation of urban Indian children who had unfettered access to trees, yards and the outdoors.
Trees are especially on my mind because Tree Walk Thiruvananthapuram celebrated its eighth birthday last week. It was on 12 May 2012 that the first tree walk was held along the city’s Vanchiyoor ‘green corridor’.
Exploring the city's Museum complex
While it’s often described as an “environmental collective,” I’ve always seen Tree Walk as a group of people who are interested in and care about trees. A group that comes together to observe, understand, protect and document Thiruvananthapuram’s tree cover. 
Membership of Tree Walk is largely informal, and sometimes transient, but at its core is a committed group helmed by Anitha Sharma and her sister Santhi. Set up in memory of botanist and tree-lover Dr C. Thankam, who was also Anitha’s and Santhi’s mother, Tree Walk traces its roots to Harithakootayama, a group that was formed in 2008 to discover how people in the city viewed trees and the equation between trees and road development. For in the early 2000s, Thiruvananthapuram — like many cities across the country — embarked on a ‘development’ journey focused on bolstering built infrastructure; a journey that often hinged on cutting down trees.
Early on, Tree Walk was largely about walks to understand and explore trees in different parts of Thiruvananthapuram. Most of these walks — over a hundred till now — were on Sunday mornings in the city’s public green spaces such as parks and along roads, but also in semi-private areas, including school and college campuses.
Preserving the city’s green pockets has always been a part of Tree Walk’s raison d’etre. But this aspect took on a special urgency in 2013 when the city authorities decided to take over a large part of the Attakulangara Central High School campus in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram to construct a bus terminal and shops. A project that would require scores of trees to be axed.
Handout from a walk in the East Fort Heritage Zone
This action saw Tree Walk evolving into a pressure group that worked with other civil society groups on a spirited campaign to save the school — established in the late 1880s — and its green campus. Across several months, the group organised various activities, including several walks and a tree survey to create awareness about how the planned bus terminal would obliterate a significant slice of the city’s irreplaceable natural heritage.
Ultimately, sense prevailed within the State Government. The bus station project was redesigned and the decision to use the school’s land was scrapped.
Alongside, Tree Walk also embarked on several other projects — a butterfly garden on the premises of the State Central Library or Public Library, special walks for school students, collaborating with nature clubs in the city’s schools to document the biodiversity on school campuses and, just a few months ago, an intervention to ‘heal’ a badly mutilated jasmine tree that stands outside the Saphalyam Complex on the city’s arterial MG Road.
Early this year, during the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters, Tree Walk held a series of walks designed to introduce the lit-fest’s authors and speakers to some of the city’s special trees. A friend I’d recommended the walks to declared, “It was a fabulous experience.”
Thiruvananthapuram's natural and built heritage harmonise in East Fort
And that’s a sentiment I can relate to. As I wrote in National Geographic Traveller some years ago, I’ve found these freewheeling walks to be a great way to discover facets of the city that would otherwise pass right by us.
As Tree Walk embarks on its ninth year, it is a period of uncertainty; a time when humanity is facing an existential crisis of the sort that no living person has experienced. Even in the midst of this gloom, I can’t help but hope that this crisis we face will give us all at least a sliver of understanding about how vital the natural world’s health is to our own health and wellbeing.
And since I haven’t been on a tree walk for many months now, I look forward to a Sunday — any day for that matter — when we can embark on one. For Tree Walk is quite simply one of my city’s gems; not always in the public eye, but a gem nonetheless.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Exiting the lockdown

A version of this article was in Outlook’s online edition in early April. This piece was written in collaboration with Dr M.I. Sahadulla, Chairman and Managing Director, KIMS Healthcare Group and the author of Vital Signs: Reflections on a Life in Medicine and Management.

Pandemics are not particularly new. In fact, Covid-19 is simply the latest in a long line of pandemics. But this one has a rather modern streak. For the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 has used the connectedness of our globalised world to spread. And spread with such speed and stealth, that containment — keeping the virus out — has proved to be almost impossible.
Clouds of uncertainty, but rays of hope in the distance...
Most nations have largely turned to variations of a shutdown — what Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, evocatively called “a circuit breaker” — to reduce the spread of Covid-19. The intention behind these shutdowns is to try and prevent, or at least curtail, the spread of the virus by limiting social interactions. This is because social interaction typically influences the rate at which a pandemic, especially a respiratory virus pandemic, spreads.
In India, the 21-day shutdown that began at midnight on 24 March has involved closing workplaces, shutting most public transport systems, shutting educational institutions, severely curtailing movements and gatherings of people and asking everyone to stay at home. But effectively implementing a shutdown in a country of over 1.2 billion people, from diverse socio-economic conditions, comes with its own set of challenges. Overcoming these challenges calls for coordinated, empathetic action by governments across the country, even as we throw everything we have at controlling the virus.
Yet, we also need to think about the future — not just medium or long term, but also the next few weeks and months. We need an exit strategy or post-shutdown plan that protects our wellbeing even as it bolsters our economy. Here are some options to consider:
Continue mobilising public health resources: Over the coming weeks — during the lockdown and even after it’s eased — we must use all our public health resources, including more testing, to curtail the spread of Covid-19 and ensure that the infection rate stays very low. At the same time, we need to recognise that the virus could probably linger in pockets for some time to come. Therefore, we must be part of the global effort to develop preventive vaccines or medicines that treat Covid-19. 
Launch a massive education campaign: It’s not easy to change our behaviour in the best of times. But at this moment, behavioural changes such as adopting basic hygiene practices or staying away from one another are vital to control the spread of Covid-19. Of course, given the conditions that large sections of our population live in, adopting these practices isn’t easy; so we need to create alternatives where possible. But adopt them we must.
This is why we need to invest more in campaigns to advocate responsible practices — cleaning hands, physical distancing from other people, staying at home when asked to and so on. Such behaviour needs to become second nature; something we all do on our own, without any coercion. While governments have already launched such campaigns fronted by celebrities, perhaps it’s time we considered innovative options including applying behavioural insights to these initiatives.  
Gradual easing of the shutdown: India’s national lockdown is scheduled to end on 14 April. Even if all goes well and the number of Covid-19 cases in the country stays relatively low, it makes better sense for the government to lift restrictions only gradually and cautiously. This is important to ensure there is no immediate resurgence of the virus from increased social interactions.
Controlled resumption of economic activity: The pandemic’s impact on the global economy is already being felt. Some of us can work from home. But India has millions of people who do not have that option. So in the weeks ahead, it’s important to consider ‘reopening’ key sectors of the economy ­—with strict physical distancing, hygiene norms and other controls in place. This reopening has to be carefully planned and even more carefully executed.
Make public health a focus area: Any investment in public health helps to prevent diseases and leads to the improved overall health of the population. But in India, healthcare, and public health in particular, has not received the governmental attention and financial support it merits. This must change immediately. India needs to view public health not as crisis management, but as a long-term priority.
We also need to make the ‘one health’ approach an integral part of our public health strategy. This involves recognising that our health is connected to the health of animals, plants and the environment that we all share. It, therefore, emphasises that efforts to prevent disease should focus not just on human, but also on animal, plant and environmental health. We really can’t afford to ignore this idea, given that SARS-CoV-2 is believed to have animal origins.
Pay special attention to mental health: The upheavals caused by Covid-19 are affecting every aspect of our lives. All of us are, understandably, beset by worries about money and about our own health and that of our loved ones. Bereft of our usual coping mechanisms such as social gatherings or even regular work routines, this anxiety could very easily spiral into mental health issues. So we need to allocate resources to mental wellness programmes.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Portrait of a servant leader

A version of this was in Outlook

In the final weeks of 2019, as protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act swept India, I found myself wondering how Lal Bahadur Shastri would have managed the situation. Would it have been a muscular, combative, shape shifting response or would it have been considered, inclusive and humane, geared towards reconciling differing perspectives. Chances are it would have been the latter. For Sandeep Shastri’s new book, Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Beyond, quotes India’s second Prime Minister as saying: “I can carry everyone along with me. That is much better… This approach may delay decisions a little, but that does not bother me at all. It is a price worth paying.
Positioned as an attempt to assess Shastri’s political career and legacy, the book is fuelled by the author’s conviction that the former Prime Minister has not received his due. And that it is a disservice to India if leaders like him are not given their rightful place in the national narrative. The author possibly has a point when he declares that Shastri, unlike some of his contemporaries, does not capture the Indian imagination. While some of his contributions, including his decisive leadership in the 1965 war against Pakistan, the Tashkent Declaration of 1966 and the evocative ‘jai jawan, jai kisan’ slogan are occasionally referred to, their true worth is seldom recognised in the country.
A political scientist, writer and political commentator, Sandeep Shastri is currently the Pro Vice Chancellor of Jain University and Director of its Centre for Research in Social Sciences and Education. In his introduction to the book, he writes that he has long been fascinated by Shastri’s leadership.
Shastri was — as Sandeep shows, drawing on newspaper articles and books — a leader cast in a different mould, with an unshakable faith in democracy and the importance of individual freedom. Humility, sincerity and inclusiveness were his hallmark, as was a belief in secularism and the fundamental goodness of all religions.
Shastri’s approach to solving problems and making decisions was to calmly consider and understand all points of view, before arriving at a resolution based on consultation and consensus. He chose his words carefully and spoke in simple language, with no hyperbole, no theatrics. He possessed the rare ability to bring people together, rather than divide them. And as Sandeep emphasises, Shastri was known for his strong personal integrity and high ethical standards. Not for him, the trappings of power for he viewed them as a sign of arrogance.
This, of course, isn’t to say that Shastri was naive or untutored in the intricacies of politics. But as the book explains, the challenges of his early years, including the death of his father, ensured that he was grounded, down to earth and rooted in Indian realities. This shaped his values and vision and laid the foundation for his later years as a leader.
As I travelled with Shastri, from his early years in Mughalsarai to his sudden death in 1966 — about which doubts still linger — I often found myself wondering where the book’s editor had disappeared. For one, there’s too much repetition; Shastri’s qualities are hammered into the reader’s mind when a few deft taps would have been enough. Then, there are issues of syntax, typos and a couple of factual errors. There is, for instance, on page 76 a reference to “Madras state (now Chennai),” which is incorrect. For Madras state became Tamil Nadu, while it’s the city of Madras that is “now Chennai.”
Such wrinkles apart, Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Beyond certainly adds to existing literature on this unassuming leader. It throws up interesting nuggets of information about Shastri and about the times he lived in; details that may not quite figure in our collective consciousness today. For instance, his rather contemporary perspective on business and its ‘social responsibility’ from a speech delivered in 1965, in which he said that businessmen had an “even greater role than that of an economist and the politician. Too often, the community views the businessman’s aim as selfish gain… (That) impression can be removed only when (a) business becomes fully alive to its social responsibilities.”
The book, in a sense, distils the essence of Shastri’s qualities as a leader and a human. Reading its final section, on his legacy, I was struck by how much he resembles the present-day idea of a ‘servant leader’ anchored in ideas of compassion, passion, equality, inclusivity and consultation. Shastri’s approach to life and leadership was not about flamboyance, wordplay or spin, but centred on humility, earnestness and a commitment to principles. It is a reminder that leadership does not always have to be of the ‘in your face’ variety and that nice people can also be great leaders.
Admittedly, Shastri lived in a different India but perhaps India itself would have been a different place had he lived longer. We can but wonder.