Monthly Archives: October 2017

How religions work: The Assam example

Critics of Islam write that the religion has been, historically, a vehicle for Arab imperialism, based on two important aspects: the prominence of Mecca and the insistence that the Quran must be studied in Arabic (I do not refer to Islamophobes here, who do not have the patience for even such a partially-nuanced argument). There may be some substance to this, although the rest of Islam, including its history, was created with considerable non-Arab influence.

However, such imperialisms are common to virtually all organized religions. When you have sacred geographies, and scriptural infallibility, you will have belief systems where the believers have to acknowledge the prominence of places and languages not their own. Hinduism is no different.

Suppose you are an old woman in a village in the far eastern part of Assam. All you have known or connected with in your life is your village community and the Brahmaputra, if it is next door. Then one day you die, and if your sons (it’s always sons, isn’t it?) can afford it, they cart your ashes to North India and immerse them in the Ganga, accompanied by hymns in a language you never knew. It is not much different from the Haj, structurally speaking, or rabbis insisting the Judaic Pentateuch can only be understood properly (that is, as Yahweh meant it to be) in Hebrew.

But when such structures cause the progressive disintegration of a society, one needs to be concerned.

Sacred stones in Meghalaya

‘Assamese society’ is a problematic term, and much hair has been split, and considerable blood spilt, because it is problematic. Broadly, it consists of people who speak Assamese as their first language. Over the centuries that this society was formed, it has been composed of Hindu caste elements and tribes. Of these, the Brahmins were said to have been descended from families out of Kanyakubja (modern Kannauj).

I will not go so far as to say that in the past this society was one long happy picnic in a still densely forested part of the world. No society has ever been like that, and in India, people never live with each other as much as near each other, in an ersatz community. But there was a semblance of fellow-feeling and not much overt falling out.

Of course there were religious influences from the rest of the country. This included appropriation of indigenous beliefs, and importing of others. The Kamakhya temple, which the scholar Banikanta Kakati concluded was built on an old sacred ground of the Garo tribal goddess ‘Kamekha’, was then fully integrated into the Puranic canon. Vaishnavism arrived in the Middle Ages, and songs were written about the ‘vrinda’ groves of far North India. This too, was inevitable.

For 600 of those years, from 1228 to 1826, and particularly for the last 250 years of this, Assamese society was under the political rule of the Ahoms, of Tai Shan extraction from northeastern Myanmar. They too were eventually Hinduised.

After the British came, however, the resulting Assamese middle class charted a course that I am deeply uncomfortable with. Finding themselves, for the first time in the history of the land, to be politically connected with the rest of India, they dug up the old gotras, the genealogies of their upper caste forebears. They looked west, seeking social legitimacy with the other middle classes of India, themselves composed of the upper castes. And in this process, there was a subterranean fracturing of Assamese society. Caste Assamese began to see themselves as different, as more connected to the great history of Indian (read Hindu) civilization than to their neighbours, the tribes.

Hindu beliefs and practices, rooted as they are in notions of ritual and genealogical purity, make it extremely difficult for truly multicultural, multiethnic social formations to emerge. Adherence to the caste system, or even the pale facsimile of it found in Assam, made it easy for caste Hindus in the 19th century to express disdain for ‘the tribal’, for ‘the hillman’, for the ‘Anarya’. These attitudes were gradually and easily internalized, until the fractures became profound.

And so the Nagas, with who Assamese society, particularly in East Assam, had such intimate connections, were estranged. So were the Garos and Khasis with West Assamese society. But that was just prologue. By the late 20th century, the Bodos asserted their difference, their separateness from Assamese society. A decade later, Misings, Tiwas and Rabhas, who speak Assamese at home, who celebrate Bihu (if a song and a dance can be the ultimate cultural identifier, which it can, in some cases), have periodically expressed intentions of going their separate way. Even the Ahoms, who gave so much to the land and its history, who created its true Golden Age, feel slighted enough to want their own space. This is unprecedented even by Indian standards.

How did Assamese society come to this? At the dawn of British rule, the emerging Assamese middle class had a choice. They could be true to their local heritage, or they could behave true to form and be what Hindu caste-based societies have mostly been: fractious, exclusivist, revisionist social formations that ignore existing realities for a mythic heritage.

Something similar happened in Manipur, although the Meiteis successfully held on to both Krishna and their local god, Pakhangba. But the Hinduisation of Manipur pushed away the tribes around them, a process worsened by the rise of the Meitei middle class during British rule. And therefore, lurking in the back of both the Meitei and Assamese mind has been the question — am I Hindu enough? And if I want to be more Hindu, what needs to be done?

So do not be surprised if the Hindu right makes even more inroads into Assamese society, and these fractures deepen. The process started a long time ago, and was waiting to happen in its current iteration. Because the imperialism inherent in Hindutva is also the imperialism inherent in similar organized religions and religion-based structures.

Basho and the art of travelling light

I have usually travelled alone, the erratic behaviour of my early companions on the road convincing me this was the better option. But a fellow-traveller on some journeys, particularly in explorations of eastern Bhutan, has been Matsuo Basho. In India, where I mainly journeyed by night and saw the sights by day, taking a book along appeared superfluous. But amid the clamour that any day on the road in the sub-continent brings, Basho can be a quiet voice of wonder and calmness, a voice delighting in the joy of discovery.

Basho was born to a bushi family of the then Iga province in central-eastern Honshu in 1644. With his master Todo Yoshitada, he began, as a child, to compose renka, a form of collaborative poetry in which individual verse components, called hokku, by alternating creators, could be linked into longer sequences. Individual hokkus would by the 19th century be called haiku. The way of the warrior, then, was not his calling (although prominent bushi have created notable hokku).

By his 30s, Basho’s poetry was famous in the land. But celebrity pushed him inward, and he turned to Zen meditation. In 1683, after two successive tragedies including the death of his mother, Basho set out on the first of his travels, to the foothills of Fuji.

‘I set out on a journey of a thousand leagues, packing no provisions. I leaned on the staff of an ancient who, it is said, entered into nothingness under the midnight moon,’ writes Basho in Nozarashi kiko (The Record of a Weather-exposed Skeleton), the journal that resulted from this travel.

In seeking the road, Basho sees himself on the footsteps of Buddhist and Confucian spiritual forebears, but does not find the philosophies adequate to the real world. He finds an abandoned baby on the way, and offers it some food, speculating on whether its parents hated it. Then he concludes: ‘This simply is from heaven, and you can only grieve over your fate.’ He chooses not to find solace in the Buddhist notion of the karmic cycle.

By the time he returned, Basho was determined to be back on the road as soon as possible:

‘Another year is gone

A traveller’s shade on my head,

Straw sandals on my feet.’

Back at home, Basho wrote what is considered his most famous hokku:

‘An old pond

A frog jumps in —

The splash of water.’

Apparently, the verse was so influential that it triggered a rash of frog-themed hokkus by other noted poets and by his disciples, who numbered in the dozens by then. And there is hardly a modern haiku writer who hasn’t made one on frogs. Back in the day, I remember writing one, too.

Basho, meanwhile, chafed at this further celebrity, and couldn’t wait to get away. He would make four more journeys, venturing up the length of Honshu, always looking for new roads. These resulted in journals like Oi no kobumi (Account of a Travel-Worn Satchel) and Kashima mode (Pilgrimage to Kashima Shrine).

In May of 1689, Basho left Edo (now Tokyo) again, accompanied by a student. Over five months, on foot as always, Basho journeyed to Ogaki, a distance of 380 km, but which must have been considerably longer because of his meandering route. The result would be Oku no hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North), his greatest work.

The hokku format, with the 5-7-5 syllabic structure, permits poets to use ideograms in original, innovative ways. Even though a lot of the fluidity of the Japanese ideograms’ arrangement is lost in translation into alphabet-based languages, some of the fluidity, particularly of the greats like Basho, is still retained.

The journal records his travel to various shrines he had heard of, and been meaning to visit. But it is also about his observations on human nature, on the seasons, and the local legends he hears along the way, and his impressions of the weather, and conversations with himself. The overall result is Oku no hosomichi is a long quiet conversation Basho has with himself while resolutely walking down country paths. The effect can be deeply calming. At the town of Sukagawa, thinking about a recent, particularly difficult stretch, he writes:

‘Imagination’s birth —

A song for planting rice

In the deep far north.’

At a place called Maruyama, Basho visits what used to be the mansion of a noted lord, Sato Shoji, and takes a look at the family cemetery. He remarks on the tombstones of two women ‘who left behind them such a name for courage. My sleeve was wet with tears. You do not have to go so very far away to find a tombstone that makes you weep.’

But Basho on the road is no mere philosopher on being and nothingness. Local traditions, myths and even the quaintness of names in the countryside are fodder for his hokkus. On crossing the villages of Minowa (raincoat) and Kasajima (umbrella) during a heavy shower, Basho quickly writes, tongue firmly in cheek:

‘So, whereabouts is

Rain-Hat isle? How far along

Muddy roads in June?’

Elsewhere, he sees great beauty in the everyday, and in small gestures. At the town of Sendai, his host, an artist, gives him straw sandals with straps painted blue, like an iris. Therefore:

‘I will bind iris

Blossoms round about my feet —

Straps for my sandals.’

Basho’s sleeve comes to his aid frequently when he is overwhelmed by emotions. After visiting a pilgrimage site at a place called Three Mountains, and being asked to write about his experience:

‘I cannot speak of

Mount Yudono — yet see how

Wet my sleeve is now.’

At Kisataka, near the sea, Basho pauses a while to contemplate silence:

‘Crossing of the tides;

A crane, its long legs splashing —

Ah how cool the sea.’

By 1694, Basho had retreated further from the world, although his celebrity had only risen. After more personal tragedies, he decided to set out on yet another journey. But this time, his health failing, he could not walk on his own and had to be carried, and eventually died on the road.

Basho’s poetry and his journals are perfect companions on journeys, particularly on foot. If there is one voice you want with you to interpret the deep silences that some places still have — or the deep silences within yourself — it has to be in his writings.

About a decade ago, on a secret road in the far east of Bhutan, I sat on a rock in the middle of a valley. It was two days after I saw a clouded leopard for the first time, and I was halfway into a 40 km walk to a village where I was to put up for the night. There was a mild wind, I remember, and the end of spring, and I had just passed a small roadside shrine, with a spire painted golden. This is what I read, from Oku no hosomichi:

‘So the rains of spring

Fall and fall, yet leave untouched

This bright hall of gold.’

It was a good day. With Basho, the road is always free of burden.

(I have not used phonetic notations in the transliteration of Japanese words here. Although Basho has been translated by several scholars, the most accessible, and fluid, version of his journals is by Nobuyuki Yuasa, himself a poet and writer)


Hard boiled: The awesomeness of the Continental Op

Detectives in hard-boiled crime fiction are as tough as they come. The genre is thematically quite distinct from noir, not just in the respective decades of their greatest prominence. Noir crime tales are to do with perpetually grey individuals, about personality types and interactions which blend the bleak with the cheerfully cynical, with very few illusions about human nature. The genre’s greatest period, the late 1940s and ‘50s, mirrored existential questions in American society, with the beginning of the Cold War and the McCarthy era’s general paranoia.

Hard-boiled fiction’s three greatest writers, by general consensus, are Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain and Raymond Chandler, of which the first two are qualitatively far superior to the third. The genre has survived and even prospered in the decades since — favourite hard-boiled characters from later years include Donald Westlake’s Parker, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall and the wonderful Raylan Givens by Elmore Leonard.

But the greatest hard-boiled characters are from the Depression Era. Unlike noir, hard-boiled crime stories are about a certain type of person taking on a thoroughly corrupt establishment, including civic bodies, the police, federal agencies, big business and journalists. The stories reflect society’s cynicism about structural solutions to their problems. So the solution had to Red Harvestcome from the proverbial outsider, a one-man response to corruption and failing institutions. And the protagonist had to be tough, perhaps even supernaturally so.

Of the early hard-boiled characters, the greatest, and the archetype, is the Continental Op, created by Dashiell Hammett. He works for the Continental Detective Agency, and we never get to know his real name. He is the actual ‘Man with No Name’ long before Eastwood (indeed, the latter’s character in A Fistful of Dollars, and the plot, are derived from the Op’s adventures). So he uses aliases everywhere. With this comes a chameleon-like ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

The Op listens to his boss, ‘The Old Man’, and uses his wits to solve problems as they come up, but at his core his experiences with humans and with compromised institutions have left him completely cynical and detached from the follies and foibles of mankind. He has no expectations of nobility from humans, and is sometimes surprised to find there are actually good people around. He also has a sense of irony, frequently manipulating the bad guys into neutralising one another to arrive at his own idea of justice.

On the move after his quarry, the Op is pretty much unstoppable, a force of nature, and always gets the job done, and then some more. Solving cases becomes secondary to fixing the system as he sees it, even if sometimes the Old Man disapproves.

The Op’s greatest story is Red Harvest, where he turns up in the town of Personville, called ‘Poisonville’ by many, perhaps as a mispronunciation. But the moniker is apt, because Poisonville has nothing good to recommend either to visitors or residents: a town whose institutions, and leading citizens, are thoroughly compromised. So when ‘the last honest man’ in town is murdered, and the Op finds himself in the thick of things, he decides to take on the whole town and fix things his way. As with the Op, so with the story: Red Harvest is the archetypical hard-boiled tale, and among the greatest crime novels ever written.

Hammett is unarguably the greatest noir and hard-boiled writer of them all, and many of his characters and plots became templates for later writers. Sam Spade and the highly-recommended private eye couple Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man) are prototypes for both genres, mainly tending towards noir. But the Op is a masterwork in character creation, and reinforces Hammett’s literary significance.

The Op has been hugely influential across literature and cinema in the years afterwards. There is an opinion that Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is a more than subtle nod to Red Harvest, although Kurosawa himself credited Hammett’s The Glass Key. But in terms of character, Sanjuro in Yojimbo is closer to the Op than to Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key. Besides, regardless of Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’, Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro is the closest any cinematic character has come to capturing the nuances of the Op’s character.

Hard-boiled plots frequently verge on the noir, and the greatest noir detectives are often close to the hard-boiled archetype. But never mind the Philip Marlowes and the Sam Spades. The Continental Op is the greatest of them all. And if you don’t agree, the Op will just shrug it off and walk away to have a drink. Pissing contests are not his line. Solving problems, and tearing down structures and demolishing people he doesn’t like, is. And he is the best at it.

What the newsroom taught me: Part II — Intellectual commensalism

Ladies and gentlemen, our next exhibit in the newsroom menagerie is the Echeneidae, a family of fish better known as the remora. An interesting fish it is, and I warmly recommend you to study it in some detail. The remora comes with suckers atop its head, by which it latches on to bigger organisms and derives sustenance from them. This sort of relationship is called commensalism in zoology. The larger organism derives neither benefit nor harm from the remora.

The average newsroom tends to have a large number of people with artistic, academic or intellectual inclinations. Several have genuine academic heft, and produce, sometimes in arcane fields, admirable scholarly works. Others write non-fiction, some very well-researched, either on current events or on subjects that bridge the newsroom-academia divide. Both types, as I have seen from personal experience, try their best to reconcile the everyday demands of the newsroom with their respective interests and pursuits. I am very fond of them, but they are rare, and tend to vanish from the newsroom quickly and go somewhere else.

The remora in the newsroom does not belong to these two categories. You will find him usually towards the top of the pecking order. Unlike the snark, you can’t ‘threaten his life with a railway-share’, because he has done well, financially, thank you very much. The remora considers himself an intellectual by virtue of having done well in the newsroom. It is a matter of ticking boxes for him. Top of the pecking order — check. Therefore, scholarship — check. Therefore, books — check.

The remora, you see, makes the error of equating an interest in words with an ability to write books, or even tell stories. The error of equating professional success with artistic merit, or proof of latent creative ability. A harmless inference, you may say. Print journalism is mainly toRemora do with words, after all. But there is a considerable difference in the contexts in which words are used. We know so many who are very well-read and have a remarkable vocabulary. Their minds are inclined towards the nature and combinations of letters and words. You can’t beat them at Scrabble any day of the week. But they may not be very good writers.

Yet others may have a considerable amount of independently-derived ideas, or gleanings from several afternoons with Messieurs Camus and Foucault. But they might not be good storytellers. These are disciplines which require different kinds of skill-sets and temperaments. An accountant and an applied mathematician both deal in numbers, but we can’t confuse one for the other. Nor can every competent graphic designer be an abstract artist.

The remora, however, does not make this connection, perhaps because it has not occurred to him, which in turn indicates a somewhat defective capacity for reasoning. Or perhaps the argument I mentioned above is incorrect, and the remora is right in believing he has merit. So he writes his book, and this is where the commensalism bit comes in. With the accumulated power of the newsroom, he can now get the book published, because people know him well. Successful man, must be creative too. He thus channelizes the power of the organization, and his place in the pecking order, to tick another box. This is classic commensalism.

Let us consider a hypothetical scenario. Suppose I write a small book of my own, perhaps a humble novel. Very kicked about it, I then hawk the MS around town, perhaps standing in line at a publisher or two, perhaps hoping somebody would find some merit in the work, and give me a chance. Scores of people live in hope this way. Some get a chance, others, perhaps not. But the remora, he goes straight to the top, and his book comes out. Once again commensalism kicks in, and there is no end of gushing admirers to vindicate his view about the merit of the book. Perhaps the book does have merit. But the playing field, for the people lined up outside the publisher’s, is not equal. So here we have commensalism and class working very well together.

Now, armed with the book, and the vindication, the remora is in a comfortable place indeed, to sit in judgment of others, perhaps even in the newsroom. Now his vindication of others’ tastes or ideas matters. It has always mattered, within the newsroom, but now he has the book to back him up. Now it becomes necessary to seek his intellectual approval, and perhaps engage in intellectual discussions with him. And thus the newsroom carries on.

‘Remora’ in Latin means ‘delay’, because the fish is supposed to act as a hindrance to large vessels. In the world outside the newsroom, the remora is mainly used by fishermen to lure tortoises. So I suppose that is what the remora is, in the larger scheme of things.


And by observing him, one learns a lot about the world and the ways of humans.

Klatchian coffee is highly recommended

Among the many delights of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is Klatch, the Disc’s cognate of our world’s Arabia. And one of Klatch’s best-known exports is their coffee.

Klatchian coffee is usually recommended to sober up the extremely drunk, and even then it is to be had in small doses. If imbibed by the sober, its effects can be catastrophic. Because the coffee is so strong that it sobers you up in an existential sense.

In the ordinary run of things, even a person who stays away from alcohol or narcotics nurtures some, shall we say, ‘existential stimulants’. Your spouse loves you just as much today as the first day you met. Your parents still find joy in your presence just as they did when they held your newborn form in their hands. Your children consider you with awe and affection. Your job matters. You make a difference to people’s lives.

Or stimulants bigger in magnitude. Cosmic stimulants. There is a point to looking forward to tomorrow, because you can hope for something better. Your life has meaning beyond the mundane concerns of animal survival. There is an invisible fellow with a personal interest in your existence. Or there is an invisible fellow (perhaps the same fellow?) with a stake in theCoffee continuation of the universe, for good or bad.

Or the ideological stimulants. All people are, or should be, equal (with you perhaps getting slightly more preferential treatment). What goes around comes around. The everyday absurdities are part of a larger pattern that will someday make sense to you, failing which some fellow wiser than you may parse it for you.

Klatchian coffee, if imbibed when sober, wipes out the effects of these existential stimulants, and shows the true bleakness of this world. And unlike the implied humour in finally understanding the nature of an absurd world, a human with even a small amount of this coffee sees the starkness that lies beyond the absurd.

This condition, Pratchett tells us, is being knurd, the point where you finally face the world without your preferred stimulants. It is said to be a very painful experience, and for the unprepared creates an immediate urge to be drunk, or stoned, as quickly as possible. In Men At Arms, Sam Vimes, a policeman who is already dour and cynical to begin with, is given a small sip of Klatchian coffee, and becomes instantly knurd, causing him to howl in despair. What he sees is not described, and is left to the imagination. Knurd, as you will observe, is ‘drunk’ spelt backward.

On the Disc, several noted philosophers are recorded to have belted out works of excruciating unbearability after substantial doses of Klatchian coffee.

On our more mundane Roundworld, to arrive at an equivalent state of knurdness, one will have to take the longer route, beginning with stripping oneself of the comforts of organized religion, and then the next convenient philosophy that claims to explain your situation, and the next (because they come in waves).

What one does after discovering one is finally knurd is, of course, a matter of individual choice.

The importance of the orphan

It is remarkable how many memorable fictional characters are orphans, and how integral the idea of orphanhood, or absence of parents from the stage, is to fiction.

We need not even consider the Dickens universe, populated as it is almost wholly with orphans. Here the idea of orphanhood is a plot device, as in the case of Oliver Twist and Pip. Great Expectations, let us not forget, is about not just one or two, but three alternatives to traditional parental figures, if I may put it that way: Joe Gargery, the parent one wishes for; Magwitch, the benefactor as parent, and Miss Havisham, the parent as imagined, or alternately, the parent as instigator of worldly ambition.

The whole of 19th century British literature, from Jane Eyre to Jude to Eppie, is a long line of Hewey Dewey Louieorphans. And there is Ishmael across the Atlantic, who caps the bleakness of Moby-Dick’s denouement with this: ‘On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.’

One may say the idea of absence of parental figures extends to an absence of the establishment too, particularly in espionage fiction. James Bond, as establishment a character as the Cold War produced, is an orphan, his parents’ deaths specifically mentioned. This may be held as a parallel to his former career in the Navy, another notable establishment for Fleming’s generation. George Smiley’s antecedents are wholly vague, and his family ties deliberately nebulous. But le Carre’s early characters as a whole are orphans too, orphans of empire. As Bill Haydon in Tinker Tailor says, (and I paraphrase): ‘Brought up to inherit empire, only to have it taken away.’

The entire Disney universe is populated with orphans, making it necessary for Huey, Dewey and Louie to go live with Uncle Donald, and eventually with granduncle Scrooge. Walt Disney took for his last film the ultimate orphan, Mowgli himself, not to mention Cinderella, and Snow White and all the entries in the Aarne-Thompson list. And Bambi. Only 101 Dalmatians does not feature orphans in the lead, but it comes close, with the plot based on a search to complete a family. But one also finds the incorrigible Beagle Boys, and guess what they have, in addition to a bunch of nefarious plans? A mother.

A paragraph for superheroes, too, because almost all of them are orphans, with the act of orphanhood being sometimes a founding principle, such as for Batman, or twice-orphaned (as in some canonical works) Clark Kent.

Meanwhile, in science fiction, you have the orphan as standard trope (Ender in Ender’s Game comes immediately to mind), while Theodore Sturgeon’s characters, male and female, are deliberately positioned outside social structures, most with no explained antecedents, nor do Moby-Dickhis plots require the necessity of such structures. These are orphans by idea, dexterously positioned to, as Sturgeon says ‘ask the next question’. Because antecedents are about asking the previous question, not the next.

And this might explain part of the enduring appeal of orphanhood in fiction. It leaves the character free to carry the plot forward either of her own volition, or by the author’s design, without the necessity of negotiating an additional set of restrictions. To put it in a different way, we wouldn’t have a Jungle Book if Mowgli was living in a village. He would have to go toil in a field the whole day.

It is not about deriving sympathy from the reader as an additional hook. Only a poor writer would angle for sympathy alone to make her character worthy of engaging with. It is about creating a certain structural vacuum around the character, thus creating several scenarios to further the plot. The orphan might need a family in the denouement, for one. Or the plot may have nothing to do with the necessity of a family, making orphanhood incidental to the plot. At the end of Moby-Dick, do we wish to see Ishmael safely at home on land, perhaps married with a child or two, in a regurgitation of the ‘new family as compensation for orphanhood’ trope? Hardly. We were there for the whale. And what about Moby-Dick himself? What do we know about his parents?

Incidentally, the ‘family as compensation for orphanhood’ trope can be elegantly (if I may use the word) turned out in a different kind of plot, such as in White Fang, another favourite. You want Fang to come home, and in just the way he finally does. That is good writing.

So, not to belabour the point, but why orphans? Perhaps because they are, in every sense of the word, free. Outside of fiction, imagine the character standing not at the end of a tree which may, or may not, be densely foliated. Instead, imagine the character standing at the beginning of a new story arc, left to her own devices, neither steered by the author (because this is the real world) nor by the birth-based compulsions of other humans. So this is the orphan as negotiator of her own future. This is her, contemplating eternity.

For the final word, I defer to Ishmael once again: ‘Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.’

The many wonders in Ivan Bilibin


Most of my childhood was illustrated by two persons. One was Arthur Rackham. The other was Ivan Bilibin.

Red Rider

The Red Rider

If Baba Yaga (and her chicken-legged hut) as you imagine her looks just that way, and no other, it is because of Bilibin. If Ilya of Murom in your head will always have a red shield and scabbard, it is because of Bilibin. The magical wolf that helps Prince Ivan in The Firebird, the firebird itself, Vasilisa the Fair, a long line of princes and princesses, the Three Riders, not to mention Koschei the Deathless. Every single memorable character in Slavic folktales becomes engraved in the reader’s eye because of Bilibin.

Ilya of Murom is among my favourite folktale characters, and many years after I first read of him, I was overjoyed to discover he could have been based on a real person. In Ilya’s first adventure, when he comes across Solovei the Whistler-Robber (such names they had!), the fearsome bandit asks: ‘Are you a boyar?’ and Ilya says: ‘Not a boyar. I am a bogatyr.’

Long before I understood the contextual difference between a boyar (nobleman) and a bogatyr (a knight-errant, but the term can’t be accurately translated, I am told) and long before I read anything about class struggle, Ilya became a man after my own heart. Not a boyar. A bogatyr. And Bilibin’s illustration of that fateful encounter was equally responsible for this.

His art is distinctive in its line-work, and the use of primary colours, attention to detail in architecture and clothing, even weapons. You only need to see the Red Rider bursting out of the trees: the vividness of his armour, the glow of his horse, contrasting with the leaves on the trees. Here is an artist telling a story of the human form, of an animal in motion, and of a landscape simultaneously. And scenes set indoors capture furniture, and fabric, and items of everyday use. Nobody quite drew thrones like Bilibin did, for instance. One of the reasons I like him is also why I like Herge: the distinctness of the shapes, the loyalty to form and structure, even though Bilibin’s is not ligne claire.

Maria morevna

The Wedding of Maria Morevna

A lot of his illustrations have a unique touch — borders with geometrical patterns and recurring shapes, or landscapes and architectural forms. Bilibin travelled extensively in the region west of the Urals, and studied traditional Slavic peasant architecture, particularly in the deep north, forms which even in his time were dying. These styles and forms would become a part of the signature Bilibin style. A lot of Alexander Afanasyev’s excellent folktale collection, for instance, is accompanied by Bilibin’s art. Homage to him usually involves art with these borders, such as in Bill Willingham’s Return to the Homelands story arc in Fables, where the part of the adventure in the fable version of Rus takes place entirely in panels drawn after Bilibin.

After 1917, Bilibin was not quite happy with the direction revolutionary Russia had taken, so he went into exile, returning in the mid-1930s. He died at 66 during the Siege of Leningrad, in 1942.

Illustrating folktales is not just a matter of creating memorable physical representations of characters which have survived for long in the popular imagination. It is also about understanding the nature of the people who created these stories. As Jack Haney writes in his excellent The Russian Folk Tale: ‘I am convinced that he (the Russian peasant) found deep moral significance in them, something that goes deeper than the mere surface meaning attributed to him by scholars who have never experienced the totality of peasant life’.

Bilibin gets it. His ethnographic, architecture and folklore studies were part of trying to devise a visual language to explain this ‘totality’, and it comes out in each of his works, even drawings of those nameless extras that populate folktales — the maids in waiting or men-at-arms who appear and vanish in the whirl of heroic events. Consider The Wedding of Maria Morevna, and examine the spearmen and ladies in attendance. In many ways, Bilibin’s art is truer to Russian tradition than, say, his contemporaries like Viktor Vasnetsov. They both drew Ilya of Murom, for instance. Vasnetsov drew the three great bogatyrs of Slavic folklore together in fact, and what a heroic image it is: Ilya of Murom, Dobrynya Nikitich and Alyosha Popovich, surveying the landscape, possibly looking out for the next great quest.

But Bilibin’s Ilya is just more… Russian.

The ‘I am a Hindu, but…’ argument is flawed

We live in a time when religion is increasingly being debated in the public sphere. Till some years ago, it was hoped by many (I among them) that discussions on faith would be largely relegated to the purely academic sphere, where I for one was perfectly willing to participate. That this has not, and that the discourse on faith in the public sphere would actually become more political in tone, should have occurred to us. Why this has happened, globally, is an interesting question, and will be dealt with separately.

But it has happened, across religions. Faith-based political ideologies now occupy a considerable part of the general discourse. Proponents run the usual gamut, from true believers to the mean of spirit which faith-based systems seem to attract in all historical periods, because there is a good deal of exclusivism attached. The joys of belonging to a select club, let’s say.

It is the opponents of such ideologies that I want to talk about here, specifically a certain type of opponent that I have been wary of, for a while. In India, this is the kind that feels the necessity to preface a critique of Hindutva and its adherents with: ‘I am a Hindu, but…’

Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, syntactically this phrase is problematic for Hinduism, because we will first need to define what Hinduism is, and my blog will become a multi-volume book which will end with me admitting the answer could be anything at all. Doctrinally, being a Hindu could mean any of a wide number of sometimes contradictory positions. Legally, the Supreme Court has very kindly laid down about half-a-dozen qualifiers. We are on no firmer ground in terms of practice, considering the diversity of the practiced faith. Of course, a Hindutva proponent would have a one-line definition of what being a Hindu means, and this is one of the principal flaws with that ideology: the intellectual dishonesty of the simplistic.

Let us just say that when someone writes ‘I am a Hindu, but…’, two possible thoughts are occurring simultaneously to the person. First, being a Hindu is whatever the person thinks it is. In other words, she might be talking about a specific practice, such as not eating cow meat (itself a common practice for others self-identifying, or being identified by the upper castes, as Hindus). Or, she might be referring to being a Hindu from the point of view of refuting a specific argument made by Hindutva proponents. Such as, Hindutva proponents say a good Hindu, or the true kind of Hindu, does not eat beef. The critic might be saying, ‘I am a Hindu in every way, but I eat beef.’ In this case, the prefacing phrase is being used to argue against a specific definition in Hindutva.

My main discomfort with the phrase is that it is not, essentially, an intellectual argument. That is, it seeks greater legitimacy for whatever argument the anti-Hindutva critic might be making by pointing out that she, too, is Hindu. This leads to the corollary: that an argument against Hindutva is more legitimate, or should be seen as such, if it is made by a Hindu.

This leads us to the compulsion of agreeing that only those arguments made by people within a faith are truly legitimate. That is, ‘I am a Muslim or Christian, and here are the problems I have against Hindutva’ becomes a less significant critique. This in turn runs the risk of compartmentalising the discourse into faith-based positions.

One may say my objection to the phrase is common sense, but if one takes a look around, one finds a large number of people arguing from this essentially emotional ground. As I was informed recently, a certain senior journalist, who is known not to be a practicing Hindu, has made it a point to preface his remarks on Hindutva by clarifying that he is, actually, a regular temple-goer. His internal reasoning might be that this somehow increases the legitimacy of his voice.

A critique of Hindutva should actually be done on purely intellectual grounds. As a former Hindu, I have as much legitimacy in the arguments I make against Hindutva provided my arguments are based on facts, on doctrine, on practices, on the scientific method of understanding history, in this case political history. My critique of Hindutva should be based on an understanding of what their ideologues say, in addition to a proper understanding of both Hindu doctrine and practice. This takes time, and some degree of reading, and a great degree of interaction with believers, but in the end, for any discourse about faith, it is the only intellectually honest one.

To qualify any discourse on faith by seeking legitimacy as a believer is a fatal weakness, and does not stand up to unbiased scrutiny.