Sunday, April 22, 2007

In Conversation with Raman Mundair

Ahmede: You were born in India and grew up in the UK, can you please tell us a bit about how this is so?

Raman Mundair: My father was an economic migrant to the UK in the fifties – a time when the British were short of labour and invited people from the 'Commonwealth' to come and work in the UK . He later married and my Mother and I joined him in Manchester (UK) when I was four. Consequently I lived in Manchester until I was fifteen and then Leicestershire for several years before I went away for my university studies in London . I currently live in Scotland.

Ahmede: You are a playwright and at the same time a poet ; while writing where do you draw your inspirations?

Raman Mundair: I draw my inspiration from anything that touches, moves or inspires me. Poetry is constant in my life – I believe if you are truly awake you are never far from poetry. I write for theatre because I'm passionate about the power of words and actions on stage: the dynamic synergy of text and actor in an empty space which, when it truly works, creates a sacred conduit between the text and the audience. Drama, like poetry, has the potential for revolution. In a world where poets are frequently marginalized, drama (when produced well) can reach out and engage in a dialogue with large numbers of people across society. I also write prose and I'm currently working on a novel and short stories.

Ahmede: Born into a South Asian family, how free do you feel as a woman and a writer?

Raman Mundair: What a huge question!

Yes I am a woman.

Yes I am South Asian.

All these things are aspects of me and I have many aspects. I am also human, artist, British, Sikh, Indian etc. I find it difficult to reduce myself to one singular identity. My strength is in my multiple identities. Of course I am painfully aware of the way that some people choose to reduce my identity and see me merely as 'a woman' or just another 'South Asian writer' etc. I feel very strongly rooted and grounded in my many identities and refuse to limit myself. I of course acknowledge and experience the challenges of negotiating a world where being female and/or South Asian brings with it a whole particular set of difficulties. I have had to fight to take up my right to be, to choose, to act independently and to create.

Ahmede: Will you share your reading of South Asian writing in English with our readers?

Raman Mundair: Recently I've been reading a lot of pre-partition writing in English - particularly Sadat Hasan Manto whose piercing short stories are unforgettable and Mulk Raj Anand whose journey from Anglophile to freedom activist is visible in his work. I'm always on the lookout for contemporary writing from South Asia and on my current sojourn in Delhi (where I am an Arts Council England International Fellow at the India International Centre) I've enjoyed meeting poets and writers and reading their work. I've particularly enjoyed reading the work of the following woman writers: Rachna Joshi, Sagari Chhabra, Mandira Ghosh and Sanjula Sharma. I'm keen to read work from Bangladeshi writers also – you must advise me on what to read! I'm not particularly enamoured with much of the South Asian writing from the west because I feel that the authors we get to read and hear about offer an 'acceptable' view of 'otherness' that is palatable to the publishing industry and western readership. What I'm interested in is a wider spectrum of South Asian writing that embodies the subtleties of the many South Asian experiences both at home and in diapsora.

Ahmede: In a way, your Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves is about alienation, how alienated do you feel as a person?

Raman Mundair: I don't think of my book 'Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves' as being about alienation. I think it's more about being an 'outsider' and 'unbelonging' but in a positive sense – let me explain: I don't feel alienated as a person mainly because the older I get the more I realíse that being an insider is not necessarily the best place to be for a writer, poet, artist or any creative person. I think that my outsider status allows me the possibility to transcend man-made boundaries. I am not confined by nationhood, religion or cultural expectations. I can choose to relate from the margins and observe. From this place I can start a dialogue – a conversation which I hope extends outwards to my readers.

My new collection of poems 'A Chorographer's Cartography' is actually all about the transcendence of boundaries and boundary crossing, from migration to language, and my play 'The Algebra of Freedom' (forthcoming - August 2007) continues these themes in the context of the western 'war on terror'.

An Appeal for Alan

Alan Johnston, a journalist working with the BBC in Gaza, has been kidnapped on March 12 this year.

On that fateful day, Alan, the only foreign journalist based in the Gaza strip entered the city from Jerusalem. His business card was found later in his abandoned car and Palestinian police have later claimed that they saw four armed men near to his car at the time of the abduction.

Alan was born in Lindi, Tanzania on May 17, 1962 to Scottish parents and was educated at Dundee University where he graduated with an MA in English in politics. After joining the BBC in 1991, he has spent eight years in Tashkent and Kabul; in fact, Alan was one of the few foreign journalists working in the Afghan capital during the Taliban rule.

It is not clear though as to which group has kidnapped Alan, but it can be said with perfect certainty that Alan's abduction is not going to help the Palestinian cause, neither will it help fight the preconceived notions that some in the west have about the relationship between Islam and freedom of speech. Such a barbaric and ghastly act will surely give the Palestinian freedom movement a bad name, and is going to put the nature of their struggle into question.

It is indeed deplorable the way some thugs in the Muslim-dominated regions across the world kill and maim journalists and writers in the name of the sacred religion. Islam in the hands of these goons is nothing but a tool that they use so blatantly and so thoughtlessly to bring about their own agenda that has very little, if anything, to do with the religion itself. The barbaric, heinous and dastardly use of the holy religion has to be stopped and Alan Johnston must be immediately freed.

It is deplorable that in South Asia and on the Middle East, journalists, particularly belonging to the western media, have deliberately been targeted, and those who indulge themselves in such tasteless act of violence cannot be called a friend of the people. These rapscallions who are abusing Islam to further their petty interest must be brought to the book, abduction and killing of journalists of the free media cannot be justified by any means. This senseless profane use of Islam and people's freedom struggle has to be stopped.

So far the Palestinian government has done very little to free Alan from his unknown abductors. The Palestinians should keep this in mind that Alan's abduction is a big blow to the Palestinian cause, and President Mahmud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya's government must act fast for the freedom of this journalist. The Palestinian society is going through a transitional period, it must now show political maturity to prove that it has come of age.

This article was first published in the Star Weekend Magazine on April 27, 2007

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Next Big Thing

Slowly but surely a silent revolution is taking a shape in Bangladesh. Several private radio stations in Dhaka have gone on-air a few years ago, now along with BBC and VOA on FM, stations like Radio Foorti and Radio Today are changing the country's entertainment scene.

Twenty-eight-year old Basma Gafur, a workingwoman and mother of a four-year-old, is in love with Radio Foorti. The programme she particularly likes is called Dhaka Calling, where celebrity couples as wide in variety as Ornob-Shahana and Tahsan-Mithila come and chat with radio jockey (RJ) Lubaina.

These stations have gained popularity not only among urban upper and middle class households like Basma's, masses have welcomed Foorti and Radio Today with open ears. Of them is: Md Shahjahan, a night-guard in the city's Rupnagar residential area; "Life would have become unbearable without music, and with my monthly salary all I can afford is a radio," he says. So be it a sultry summer night or a chilling wintry dawn, Shahjahan would be seen blowing his night-guard's whistle, and from around his neck would hang a pocket radio. He hums with the jazzy tune of Habib's latest hit, and declares, "I do not feel lonely any more".

While Lubaina's voice has earned her a feverish fan following in young Dhakaites, Radio Today has become popular for the old Bangla and Hindi songs, which it regularly airs. Basma says, "One does not get a chance of listening to old Muhammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar numbers that have been facing oblivion. My parents used to listen to Rafi and Lata on Ceylon Radio, though I grew up listening to them, all of a sudden these songs were replaced by Hindi film numbers." Like these songs, old Bangla film numbers, too, are going through a revival.

Most of the youngsters who listen to RnB and Rap in Dhaka would never have got a chance to listen to Kholo Akhai or Tumi Ki Dekecho Kobhu Jiboner Porajoy if these stations had not taken the initiative to orient them to these classics. Besides this, Radio Today also broadcasts news thrice daily, which makes it the only local private station to air its own news programme.

But when it comes to news, nothing can match the BBC, which in collaboration with Bangladesh Betar (BB), has started broadcasting on 100 FM in and around the capital in 1994. That has been a welcome change since the BB's FM programmes have never been popular; the BBC's 12-hour broadcast has opened the flow of information to the news-hungry listeners of the city. "BBC's daily dose of news and entertainment has become an essential for the Dhakaites," Basma says; BBC has always been popular in Bangladesh, but its transmission on 100 FM has gained phenomenal popularity among the ordinary citizens. Basma says, "Before this we had to tune in to Short Wave, which means buying of a big radio that you cannot always carry with you." Now listeners like Basma can listen to BBC in their cars while going to work. BBC's listeners over the years have increased manifold, this month, the station's Bangla service has introduced a new 30-minute programme at 7:30 in the morning. Apart from its flagship news programme, this early morning broadcast also includes a ten-minute summary of the day's newspapers with a guest analyst.

But what sets the local stations apart is its coverage of Bangladeshi music. These radio stations, Basma believes, is additionally fuelled by a revival of the country's traditional Folk music and fusion scène. Upcoming singer Elita Karim cannot agree more; she thinks these stations have created a platform where musicians can come together and share their talent. "Now singers and musicians in Dhaka can regularly listen to Non-resident Bangladeshi Hip-Hop sensation like Stoic Bliss or talented composer like Fuad," she says.

Now, after the advent of these stations, sales of music CDs have also increased, which has given the much-needed impetus to the country's fledgling music industry. "In the last two years the sales of Bangladeshi CDs have increased dramatically," says Mushtak Hossain, at Sonar Tari Music in Eastern Plaza. Mushtak attributes this to Foorti and Radio Today, who they believe in a tacit way are working as patrons to local music by regularly playing songs of talented newcomers.

Foorti's RJ Lubaina, too, believes private stations are instrumental in the revival of local music. "We have actually made it a point of playing songs of upcoming new talents, after hearing which listeners, if they like the songs, hit the stores to buy that particular CD," says Lubaina.

These two local stations, however, are not beyond criticism. As they lack professional training some RJ's Bangla and English accents sound fake and, at times, exaggerated. Apart from using English words unnecessarily in an otherwise simple Bangla sentence, some RJs, it seems, are in need of training in Bangla and English diction. It is true that a section of Dhaka's nouveau riche speak in this strange mixture of mangled Bangla, mispronounced English and Hindi-film ridden Urdu, but these stations will surely have to come down to earth to appeal to the senses of the masses.

There are other problems too. Voice modulation, one of the most crucial tools in radio jockeying, has also not been taken into account; the RJs in both the stations keep the tone and modulation of their voice unnecessarily chirpy and--at times-- noisy.

FM Radio has also been an unexplored medium. Foorti does not run any news programme; instead for news it relies on Bangladesh Betar. Radio Today does have its own news programmes, but they, sadly, lack professionalism. Even though radio stations abroad are famous for their talk shows and news analyses, these local stations have so far stuck to music only.

Basma complains that sometimes songs are just played one after the other often, it is not even mentioned which song they are playing, or who the singer or the composer is.

Even popular programmes like Dhaka-ar Chaka (The Wheel of Dhaka, which gives a minute update of traffic in the city), sometimes provide misinformation on the flow of traffic in busy hours. Listeners are generous enough to forgive the stations for these fallibilities; Basma says, "One day I was going to Panthapath, and according to Dhaka-ar Chaka the traffic was to be thin on the old airport road, but when I hit the road I found a long queue of cars and Mishuk awaiting me there." But she did not really mind, Basma says, as she does not expect everything in Bangladesh to work normally. "These stations have just started, " she says, "We cannot expect them to be as professional as, say, India's Radio City 91.1 FM or Radio Mirchi 98.3 FM."

Another problem that has been plaguing the medium is the absence of good FM receivers. There have been no FM radio sets in the electronic shops of the city that have a digital display; the cheap pocket radios that are sold in Boshundhara shopping mall or Baitul Mukarram are bad in quality, from Mirpur No-1 circle to Shaymali over bridge, these radio sets are always out of the network. This is particularly acute in Kalyanpur where while listening to BBC's World Today, one may have to hear a voice seemingly from faraway telling one not to take a particular road as there is going to be a big jam.

In spite of all this, there is some good news too; Radio Amar (RA) 101, a new station has started test transmission and is officially going to hit the airwaves soon. The primary aim of RA is to become popular among general people. Basma is enthusiastic; she thinks it will surely add a new colour to her life. "We live in an entertainment hungry environment, " Basma says, "Anything new in the radio scene is welcome."

In the West, or in the neighbouring countries every big city has, on an average, six to seven FM stations, while Dhaka has only two. If the government relaxes its frigid regulations, the country's radio industry can expect to witness a big boom, a little help from the government and FM Radio can become the next big thing.

Published in the Star Weekend Magazine on |February 23, 2007

The Good American

During Bangladesh's liberation war, when his government was actively supporting the occupying Pakistani junta, a US diplomat found it difficult not to answer to his conscience.

The United State's support for the butchers of Pindi during Bangladesh's Muktijuddo was blatant and went beyond routine diplomatic support. Richard M Nixon regime sent shiploads of arms and military logistics to the Pakistani army who in the month of March alone, according to a moderate estimate, killed 10,000 innocent Bangalis. It was in fact with US made guns that the Pak army launched a systematic genocide against an unarmed civilian population on the night of March 26 in 1971. The reason for such a reactionary foreign policy is not unfathomable though: With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and a popular communist insurgency plaguing the Malaccan Straights, right wing elements in the Capitol Hills like Henry Kissinger (the then Secretary of State) had every reason to feel so desperate. This desperation was evident when the Nixon regime vetoed numerous resolutions in the UN Security Council (UNSC) that were tabled by the Soviet Union to further Bangladesh's independence.

When the table was quickly turning against them, and the Muktibahini and the allied forces were gaining ground, Imperialist America tried to pass a resolution in the UNSC to stop the war in Bangladesh. Had not the Soviets vetoed the bill, Bangladesh would not have come about. The US's involvement against the birth of Bangladesh did not stop just there, on the eve of Bangladesh's independence, on December 12, the US sent its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal to help the losing Pakistani army, the Soviets, for their turn, decided to send their own fleet, and sensing its defeat the imperialist Nixon-Kissinger administration backed off and four days later Bangladesh became independent.

Amidst all this, Archer K (Kent) Blood, the last US Consul General to Dhaka, is an honourable exception. On the night of March 26, 1971 the occupying Pakistani regime launched a crackdown on its own citizens in the then East Pakistan; 10,000 innocent Bangalis died in the first four days alone. On April 6, Blood sent a telegram to his State Department, seeking his own administration's intervention to stop what he called "the selective genocide" in the East Pakistan. Signed by 29 Americans staying in Dhaka, the dispatch, known more as the Blood Telegram, read:

" Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak (West Pakistani) dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankrupt… "Here in Decca (Dhaka) we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak (Pakistani) Military. Evidence continues to mount that the MLA authorities have list of AWAMI League supporters whom they are systematically eliminating by seeking them out in their homes and shooting them down…"

Blood suffered heavily for sending this telegram. He was immediately recalled from his post, "Although," says his Washington Post obituary, " he had been scheduled for another 18-month tour in Pakistan after home leave, he never returned to his post. He was assigned to the State Department's personnel office. In 1982, Blood himself told the newspaper, "I paid a price for my dissent. But I had no choice, the line between right and wrong was just too clear-cut."

In Bangladesh, too, Blood has remained unknown and unrecognised. It is shameful indeed for us as a nation that we have not yet learnt to appreciate heroes like Archer K Blood, who had the courage to speak out against his government, knowing that he was risking his career.

Published in the Star Weekend Magazine on April 13, 2007

Shonar Bangla in Paris

In the west, Bangladesh's rich and multifaceted heritage has so far remained unappreciated and unrecognised. An exhibition, to be held at the end of October in Musëe National des Asiatiques Guimet, Paris, is going to change the situation, and will highlight the thousand year old glorious past of a country that otherwise hit the headlines of western media for all the wrong reasons.

Bangladesh's rich and colourful heritage caught the attention of the western eye last summer, when Bangladeshi and French archaeologists, in a joint excavation, unearthed a temple that dates back to the 800AD. This, however, did not come as news to veteran archaeologists as the country's civilisation is believed to be as old as the Aryan conquest of the South Asian sub-continent. In fact, the ancient city of Pundranagar, now situated in the village of Mahasthan (The Sacred Site) in Bogra, has been mentioned in the Vedas, and has remained one of the oldest urban settlements discovered in the eastern part of the sub-continent. The city, as the historians say, was the capital and most important city of Pundra Varendra Bhukti, one of the five Janapads (settlements) on the Ganges delta. It was also an important stop on trade routes leading to the east (Assam, Burma, Chinese Yunan) and to the Bay of Bengal to the south. The city lost its role of capital after the Muslim conquest of Bengal in the early 13th century.

French help in unearthing Bangladesh's forgotten and thus neglected past, is not new. After the Pundranagar was discovered in 1879 by Sir Alexander Cunningham, several excavation attempts were made throughout the last century, the most notable of which was led by Bangladeshi archaeologist Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed from 1961 to 1968. French archaeologists joined hands with their Bangladeshi counterparts in 1993 and have come up with a detailed stratigraphy from the late 4th century. B.C. to the 12th century A.D. and preliminary studies on different artefacts such as pottery coins and beads.

"Since 2001," says Shakhawat Hossain, Press Attachë of the French Embassy, "new excavations are being carried out in the Mazar area, near the south-eastern corner of the ancient city. New buildings have been brought to light, especially a large pillared room-- the function of which remains unknown, and beautiful defensive devices: two rampart-walls, a city gate with bastions, a paved access road, a protruding fortified bastion, etc. The latest discoveries provide evidence that there was a siege of the city, with sapping trenches by the attackers, probably at the end of the Pala-Sena (8th-13th century) period."

The most amazing aspect of Pundranagar is its rampart-wall, which is over 1.5 km long from the north to south axis and 1.3 km long on the west-east axis; in places the wall is 15 m tall, and several well-built gates are clearly visible in the site.

"Made exclusively of baked bricks, the rampart was re-built several times throughout the long history of the city; in its earlier phase, it was most probably built as a protection against floods," Hossain says.

From south to north, in the Mazar area there exist well-preserved public buildings and temples from the 14/15th century to earlier periods. Some other important discoveries include: the massive basalt threshold of a Hindu temple near Khodar Patar; a mosque at Mankalir Dhap; the Jiyat Kunda well, supposed to give new strength to men; the "Parasuram" building, which is thought to be a Mughul residence (16th century); the Hindu temples at Bairagir Bhita, the domestic area near the eastern rampart; the Munir Ghon bastion on the east side of the city-wall; the protruding buttress on the north-eastern rampart; and the restored Govinda Bhita temple outside the rampart to the north.

The country can also boast having the oldest Buddhist monastery in the world. Situated in Naogaon, Paharpur, has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Built by king Dharmapala in the 8th century, Paharpur Vihara was inhabited by Mahayana Buddhists and served as an important intellectual and cultural centre during the reign of the Pala dynasty. Its Buddhist architecture influenced building patterns throughout South Asia and it also has the ruins of Somapura Mahavihara, an important intellectual centre for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains.

The site bears the trademark quadrangular form of a traditional Buddhist stupa; it also has 177 cells, most of which were used by the monks for meditation.

The recent discoveries that Bangladesh has made of its past are no less than staggering; they include: a bronze Buddha measuring 1.33 metres (from Paharpur in 1982); a Gupta Buddha sculpted on both sides (from Mahasthan in 1992); a bronze Vajrasattva and an Avalokiteswara (both from Maintamati in 1995). All these artefacts will take their first journey abroad in the next autumn to be displayed in the French capital. The exhibition, primarily titled "The Collections of Bangladeshi Museums" aims to show, for the first time outside of Bangladesh, the unbelievably rich and complex heritage of this country. "Recent archaeological researches help us show works from the Maurya period and go on until the 19th century. Thus we are able to retrace history whilst emphasising on a certain number of major sites. As a matter of fact, one of the characteristics of this heritage is that a lot of the pieces are well documented and will enable us to situate the same in their precise historical and artistic context," Hossain says.

Most of the pieces to be showcased are from the 3rd century BC to 19th century AD. "As for the Hindu and Buddhist sculpture," says Hossain, "the iconographical variety of the two pantheons have been meticulously illustrated, and so remain representative of the larger tendencies. The exhibition has also had privileged pieces from the well-identified sites to present them as coherent ensembles."

Given the vast choice, he says, the museum has selected the most beautiful and impressive pieces. The grand bronze of Mainamati in particular is going to be a stunner. "It is interesting that even though some of these pieces have been published for an entirely scientific reader, these pieces are unknown to the larger public in the western world," Hossain adds.

In fact, Musëe National des asiatiques Guimet, the host of the exhibition, is one of the most prestigious and important museums in the world that exhibit oriental arts. "It regularly hosts international exhibitions, the latest being on the lost treasures of Afghanistan, especially gold artefacts, which is currently attracting thousands of persons daily," says Hossain.

The Musée Guimet is the brainchild of Emile Guimet (1836-1918), a Lyon industrialist who devised the grand project of opening a museum devoted to the religions of Ancient Egypt, Classical Antiquity, and Asia. The Museum came under the administrative control of the French Museums Directorate in 1927, since then under the able leadership of its directors (most notable of them are René Grousset and Jeannine Auboyer) Guimet has become the Mecca of classical Indian art. In 1996 the museum went through a major renovation that has made it a major hub of the Asian civilisations at the heart of Europe. Guimet has already played host to exhibitions of its kind to Chinese and Vietnamese artefacts, and a display of Afghanistan's cultural heritage is still going on.

Providing security for the invaluable treasures that are going to adorn Paris, the world's cultural capital, however, has remained an issue. But Hossain says that such exhibitions are held under the strictest international rules and never, not even once, has any artefact gone missing or failed to return to its home museum. In fact, since the pieces are cleaned and restored by the best specialists worldwide, they often return in a better state than when they were taken.

This will be the first ever exhibition of Bangladeshi artefacts abroad. In addition, paintings drawn by famous Bangladeshi artists, music, fashion shows, photo and film shows will be organised during the exhibition, first ever in France. "It will continue for four months in Paris, the most visited city in the world," Hossain says. During this period, posters advertising Bangladesh's culture will be all over the walls in Paris and reports will appear in both national and international media, "And on top of it all," Hossain says, "it will surely become a major international attraction, helping Bangladesh join the cultural world stage that its rich culture so rightly deserves."

The collections of Bangladesh's museums
(provisory title)
23rd October 2007 3rd March 2008
Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet
6, place d'Iéna 75116 Paris

A New Bangladesh?

After assuming power on January 11, the constitutionally mandated caretaker government has taken some bold steps to bring corrupt politicians and bureaucrats on the dock. Now that some former Ministers and MPs are on the run, where do politics stand in the "changed Bangladesh"? And what should the caretaker government do now to set the country back on track?

The Crown Prince and His Story

For Tarique Rahman, the day of reckoning came on the night of March 7 when the joint forces surrounded his mother's house in Shahid Mainul road in Dhaka cantonment. This 42-year-old son of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is believed to be the epicentre of unbridled corruption and nepotism that has plagued the country for the last five years. As he was whisked off to the nearby Police Station to be interrogated on numerous charges of extortion, the legacy that he had left behind in the country's politics is a curious one. Since his entrance into the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a party that his father, military dictator Gen Zia founded, Tarique has been deemed as the prince, the heir apparent. Though allegations of his unlawful influence and participation in several businesses as well as political manipulations have been rampant against him, Khaleda Zia, his mother, always turned a blind eye to it, calling them conspiracies to tarnish the future leadership of the "nationalist forces". It is interesting indeed that from the torn clothes in a broken suitcase that he had left behind for his sons when he was killed in a failed military coup in Chittagong, Gen Ziaur Rahman's two sons have become owners of a textile mill, numerous cargo ships, and a private television channel, not to mention investments worth millions of dollars that Tarique is believed to have secretly made in countries as diverse as Malaysia, Australia and South Africa. According to newspaper reports, Tarique has admitted to his interrogators to having bank accounts in five countries--Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, South Africa and Switzerland.

There was a time when reportedly not a single business deal would pass without Tarique's prior consent, and that would only happen if 10 percent of the deal went to his pocket. It was not only business transactions, Tarique's long hands had been at work in government tenders and recruitment in the civil service; even things as mundane as building of electric poles did not escape his clutches, Tarique Rahman did not spare anyone or anything. Worst still, Tarique and his cronies gave birth to a culture of improbity and degeneration where anyone could earn some quick bucks if he or she had the Crown Prince's 'blessings'. Armed with this, along with an ever-pervasive lumpen capitalism, some members of the BNP, in the last five years, unleashed a reign of unbridled corruption and mafia-like terror where it is justified to gobble up goods meant to be used for victims of flood or other natural disasters. We have witnessed the advent of a group of feudal lords, who live in palaces, and use an army of thugs and goons for their personal security. Now the Caretaker Government (CG), it seems, has opened a can of worms, an MP who used to be a mere student politician a few years ago, now alone owns over 40 flats in the capital. It's not only the ruling party faithful who have indulged themselves in a world of corruption, some opposition AL members, too, have joined hands with them to create an economy where trading is more profitable than setting up industries, and illegal trading has become even more lucrative.

How has it come to this?

How has the country arrived at such a deplorable situation 16 years after democracy has been established?

The subsequent governments, especially the last one led by the BNP, never understood the importance of good governance. Administration has been heavily politicised, flouting government rules BNP-men have been planted into different tiers of the civil administration to use it later to reap political dividend. Not only that, a nearly 60-member cabinet was formed, where to follow the wishes of the crown prince, deputy and state ministers were tagged along to almost all the ministries. The result was a dysfunctional government where corruption and mismanagement became the order of the day. The issue of proper functioning of the parliament has never been addressed either. Most of the time of the last government's reign the parliament could not function properly, it will not be an exaggeration to say that not a single constructive debate has ever been held in the parliament over issues as important as unemployment, attracting FDI or reducing illiteracy. Some MPs used the floor to abuse each other, their budget speeches at times turned into an elegy for their party leadership. And there came a time when the parliament could not attract even its own members which was followed by a severe quorum crisis. Partisanship of the Speaker has been more obvious this time round, the opposition's points of order were ignored, MPs made themselves more busy in "development works" in their areas than enacting laws for which they were elected. Not a single institution has been spared the blatant politicisation that has characterised the BNP-led government's tenure. Apart from a highly politicised bureaucracy the BNP-led Coalition government made sure that they have their people in every sphere of administration-- from the law enforcement agencies to the judiciary. Even the public universities, various cultural academies and institutes were plagued with political appointments and influences. It is ironic that the BNP, in the run up to the 2001 general elections made corruption a major issue, though the party promised to bring the corrupt into book, the party, after getting elected itself became the most corrupt political party in the history of Bangladesh.

For the country's dishonest amoral businessmen, national elections have become another source of earning a few millions; both the major political parties remain hostage to these corrupt persons who buy the BNP or AL's ticket at a price as high as 5-10 crores taka. Though in paper they both claim to profess democracy and transparency, the BNP and AL have remained a bastion of undemocratic behaviour. It is no less than tragic that 17 years after the two leaders (Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina) who had led a mass upsurge against military ruler Ershad's vile regime have themselves remained symbols of dictatorship in their own parties. There exists not a shred of internal democracy in the BNP, where party leader Khaleda Zia holds absolute power. The AL, on the other hand, regularly holds councils, and follows what the party-members call democracy, but from electing (choosing) presidium members to party general secretary, Sheikh Hasina’s wishes are command to party councillors. When it comes to party leadership both the parties have dictators as the party chief. How the parties fund themselves is a mystery. Whenever both the leaders are asked about the funding of their parties they name ghost benefactors who prefer to remain anonymous. Some of these ghost benefactors run an underground economy, and remain virtually untouched by the law in exchange of the loyalty that they show in the amount of cash given as donations to the BNP and AL. It is not at all surprising that though both the BNP and AL have been vocal about each other’s demonic rule, neither the BNP nor the AL has done anything substantial to try the other parties' leaders for corruption when each one of them was in power.

What is to be Done?

For a start both the major parties must set their own houses in order. Lack of democracy in the BNP and AL is one of the major reasons for the stalemate that has made the State of Emergency a necessity. Now that politcal activities of every kind have been suspended top leadership of both the parties should sit together to decide ways to reform themselves. Both the parties, especially the AL have played historic roles in our glorious past, now it is high time that the party leadership stands up to the occasion to pave the way for new dynamic leadership. The BNP and AL's future lies in reform, only time can tell if these parties will be able to rise up to the challenge that the new Bangladesh has thrown at them. The government, on the other hand, should probe into the funding of all the major political parties and their front organisations. No one-- not even the party chiefs- should be considered above the reach of law. All the previous cases of grafts against the politicians and bureaucrats should be reinvestigated; it is not understandable why the former prime minister cannot be charged with corruption when her office has given away corrugated tin sheets meant for the victims of natural disaster to the members of certain political parties. A major overhaul of the civil administration should be done immediately. Keeping the corrupt and partisan bureaucracy intact the recent government drive cannot establish a political environment free from corruption and nepotism. Along with its drive on corruption, the government has to focus on the building of democratic institutions, some of which have been rendered invalid by the last governments. Politics based on religion and hate preaching should be banned; a timid step towards this giant long march can start with restricting groups that in their constitution profess hate preaching. At the same time issues integral to the rise of fanaticism such as poverty and economic exploitation must be addressed to nip the zealots in the bud. Electoral laws need to be scrutinised to make sure no loan defaulters or corrupt politicians can compete for a seat in the legislature. Political party funding must be tightly monitored, and the Election Commission (EC) has to be given more power and necessary legal framework has to be built to empower the EC. This is a constitutionally mandated government, and its members, as its chief has already mentioned, must put more emphasis on building insttutions than going on one-time drives to nab the corrupt. While the corrupt must be brought before the law, a continuous and relentless process that it is, a healthy political and social environment has to be created where goodness and honesty is encouraged. All this cannot be done in a day, neither can the election be held in three months, as both the parties have so conspicuously demanded last month. Instead of going for a Voter Identity Card that will be used only once in five-years, it is time we think of a National Identity card which should be used from birth registration to the issuance of passports. The government’s recent drive to clean the street of encroachers is a commendable step but its decision to rehabilitate the hawkers into the so-called holiday markets has not picked up so far. The Agargaon Maat, which is now used only once a year during Dhaka International Trade Fair, can be allocated to genuine hawkers who can set up a Night Bazaar. The rights to housing and jobs are fundamental rights of the citizens of the republic, and denying them of these will be a gross violation of people’s basic human rights. Even after the arrest of Tarique Rahman and a crackdown on his infamous syndicate the prices of essentials like vegetable, baby food and cooking oil have not come down; putting the blame on the unseen forces of market capitalism (the way an adviser has lately put it) is not going to help Fakhruddin and Co to help win the hearts and minds of the toiling masses. Open Market Sale (OMS), in this case, is an option but the government under the OMS cannot sell perishable commodities like onion and aubergine. To solve our day-to-day problems, the government, however, has taken an array of steps--office and businesses are told to pull down their shutters after seven o’clock and the government, after many hiccups, has finally decided to import electricity from Bhutan. But decisions that will effect national interest like giving transit to India should be left to any future elected government; if the issue needs to be handled immediately, the government can call a plebiscite, where along with transit, the government can ask for the people’s mandate to run the government for two or three more years, if the situation demands so. Some advisers are complaining that the work they have on hand are too much for only 10 advisers to handle; and as the Constitution does not allow the membership of the advisory council to cross the 10 member threshold, a “national unity government” can be formed that will incorporate honest time-tested politicians, members of the civil society, former bureaucrats and military officials to run the government smoothly. Bangladesh's experience with past military governments, however, has not been a pleasant one; after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was murdered by some disgruntled members of the army in a bloody coup, the country has experienced military dictatorship of different colours and creeds.

There was a time when ordinary citizens dreaded to wake up to find someone in olive showing up on television to declare the seizure of power by his forces. The country’s last military despot Gen HM Ershad is a case in point: this vile person once launched a self-styled Jihad against corruption and once the front pages of different newspapers adorned Ershad’s photographs where the would-be tyrant was seen riding a bicycle (He wanted to save the government fuel). But history has taught us that morning does not necessarily show the day. After his grip on power became tight, Ershad, following Gen Zia's footsteps formed his own party; he did everything Zia had done: Ershad held a farce of a plebiscite where he got over 70 per cent of the total votes cast (Zia four years ago held his own plebiscite where he gave himself over 90 per cent); Ershad gave a 19 point proposal to solve all the problems the country had been facing (Zia, his predecessor, had an 18-point proposal to offer). But these are stories of the past. Since then our army has matured a lot and has shown respect for democracy.

So far the Emergency has worked well. The drive against corruption would not have gone as far as it did without the backing of the army. The mis-governance, the abuse of power and the nepotism that appeared to become the order of the day have been curbed dramatically. For this we all have to give credit of the army backed present government.

However, we have to end with a word of caution. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupt absolutely. It has proven to be true in the past. There is no reason why it should not prove true in the future. Therefore we must guard against this happening and do so right now. The State of Emergency that the government has imposed cannot be a permanent solution and is not healthy for the country's democratic polity either. Restoration of democracy is the ultimate answer, and the sooner this government comes up with a roadmap for democracy the better.

Published in the Star Weekend Magazine on March 16, 2007

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

In Conversation with Jayapriya Vasudevan

Ahmede: We know that yours is the only literary agency in South Asia, could you tell your readers a bit about the work it does?

Jayapriya Vasudevan: Jacaranda is India¹s first literary agency. We started in 1997 with a handful of books, and a dream to work with new writing. Ten years down the line, the love for the written word has helped us grow from strength to strength. While we have, over the years, worked with only a select list of books, we continue to seek and promote new writers and have grown from representing work nationally, into a company that now represents authors internationally as well, through our association with The Marsh Agency in the UK. We represent a list of authors from India and China, and have also received queries from the US, the UK and even Australia. Our Chinese list is small but interesting. Mostly non fiction.

Two works of fiction. Like any agency, we evaluate books, present them to appropriate

Publishers, negotiate contracts... The culture of using an agent is non existent in this part of the world. It's taken us a while to get where we are. We are extremely proud to have had Anita Nair and Shashi Warrier from the time we began. I guess authors need to see that we do make life easier in terms of the fact that they do their job, which is to write, and we do the rest.

In addition to the work at the agency, we also work in the area of promoting writing and the arts, through Writers' Block, our festival of writing. These have been held in Bangalore, Mumbai and Beijing. The next festival will be in Singapore. This is a very informal forum for writers to meet their readers. We work with a mix of writers from all over India, work with writers with translations, across different genres, with a mix of the arts (music and poetry, dance, theatre). It's an unpretentious event with great energy. The Singapore festival will have writers form South East Asia and again, work with a few languages.

Ahmede: There has been a flow of South Asian fiction into the world's literary scene lately; in the manuscripts you get what do you look for before you decide to represent a writer?

Jayapriya Vasudevan: We get several submissions every week, and we do guarantee that each manuscript gets a fair reading. We prefer that the manuscript is sent to us, based on our submission guidelines. We list submission details on our website: Our team of editors reviews each book that comes to us. If the editor is unsure about the book, a second editor reads it , and we finally discuss possibilities as a team. The book needs to grab our attention , to stand out , to speak to us...

I personally look for good `people' in manuscripts. That's my hook I guess. For representation, we just look for something that appeals. There are no rules. It's really an instinct that makes us take authors on. I do truly believe that good writing will sell, no matter how or when. It just will.

Ahmede: Of the young writers of South Asian descent will you name one or two writers whom you really liked?

Jayapriya Vasudevan: Anita Nair is a special favourite from India. Her new book Mistress remains one of my all time best books. I have been reading a great deal of Chinese and Japanese fiction recently. I must also admit to thoroughly enjoying Monica Ali's Brick Lane!

Ahmede: What is your next project about?

Jayapriya Vasudevan: Our latest project is 'Let's Kill Gandhi,' by Tushar A Gandhi. Published in English by Rupa and Co, it was released on the 30th of January, this year, in Delhi (on the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination). The book is already in its second print run, and scheduled to go into its third reprint. Tushar's sensational book on his great-grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi retraces the steps of his assassination, giving a detailed account of the murder, in a milieu that is both political and religious. Very few people are aware that there were several failed attempts. After the murder, the manner in which the trial of the conspirators was conducted, the judgement and the execution have long been shrouded in mystery. Tushar believes that the police, intelligentsia and politicians of the day had information on all the attempts, including that of the actual assassination, but did nothing to prevent them, thus conveniently placing the Mahatma in the line of fire.

The religious fundamentalism and political wrangling that led up to the partition of India is mirrored in today's world. The campaign of hate, the desensitising to human suffering, the acts of barbarism and terrorism are in the forefront. Gandhi died for a cause. He once said 'An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind.' Tushar uses the book to underscore the need to learn from history, and look at life with the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence.

The book is about 900 pages long and will be published in Marathi soon. Other

Indian language offers are also being reviewed.

Future projects include more non-fiction - an autobiography, a cookbook and two business-related books. There are a few titles in fiction as well. Black Tongue by Anjana Basu ( we represent her in the UK only) is just out. Shashi Warrier's Kashmir will be out this year. As will a book on an honest look at the call Centre Industry, from our non fiction list. As you can see, it's a mix. Of fiction and non fiction. Of Indian writers and Chinese writers ( I lived in Beijing for a few years).

We do very little Children's writing. We did an anthology for Teenagers in China late last year. We do not work with poetry.

In Conversation with Chris Abani

Ahmede: I heard that you wrote your first novel when you were 16, for which two years later you were imprisoned. How did that happen?

Chris Abani: I am sorry to say this, but I really don't like talking about that anymore. So much has been already written and talked about it that it has become the dominant narrative in discussing my work. I would rather just discuss my books.

Ahmede: We know that you are both a poet and a novelist. How do you walk between these two different forms of artistic expression?

Chris Abani: With great difficulty and an uneasy grace. Smile. Experience might be part of it. That when you do something like this as long as I have, you acquire a good sense of what will work best with what form. It also requires a certain surrender, the surrender of self, of the ego of the writer, to put that in service of the story or the narrative or the subject and let it determine what form allows it the most resonance. Of course, one often moves back and forth within one form and between forms to fully discover this. So in a way, it is a joy, this discovery.

Ahmede: In Africa, where many nations never had a scripture, how African can a novel get? Does African novel really exist or it's a Post-colonial fad?

Chris Abani:: If you mean that a literature cannot exist when there is not orthography or a developed and consistent way of writing in the indigenous languages then I would say the same applies to your culture. Much of what is considered your greatest works and epics, were oral for so long before they were written down. It also does not address what a full idea of colonialism is. Much of what used to be India (from which your country chose to break off) involved the subjugation of other people within those boundaries. Some would even say that the Ramayana is simply racist and nationalist propaganda that justified the invasion and conquering of what is now Sri Lanka.
But it is not true that writing didn't exist in "pre-colonial" Africa. The Vai of Ivory Coast, in Igboland we had Nsibidi and the Ethiopians have a long history of a written literature, so no, I don't think the novel in Africa is a post-colonial fad.

Ahmede: For our readers will you share your reading of novels written by South Asians in English?

Chris Abani: Chatterjee, Upamanyu, Desai, Anita, Deshpande, Shashi, Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee, Ghosh, Amitav, Kalidasa, Lahiri, Jhumpa, Mistry, Rohinton, Mukherjee, Bharati, Narayan, R. K., Roy, Arundhati, Rushdie, Salman, Seth, Vikram, Tagore, Rabindranath and Ved Mehta to mention a few.

Ahmede: Africa has its own languages, vibrant and rich as they are; why, then, do you write in English?

Chris Abani: Because there are 250 different languages in Nigeria alone. Writing in those languages would limit my audience severely. Also, English has become the unofficial lingua franca of the continent, so…

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

In Conversation with Kaiser Haq

Ahmede: You are Bangladesh's leading and (sadly) only English poet. Though Bangladesh has produced quite a few novelists who write in English, the country's poetry scene is somewhat barren. Why do you think the country's contribution to English poetry is so insignificant?

Kaiser Haq: That's something of an exaggeration. i belong to the second generation of Bangladeshi poets in English. in the previous generation there was Razia Khan Amin and Farida Majid. Razia Amin was my teacher at Dhaka University & later a colleague, & i have fond memories of how she encouraged me in my efforts at versifying when i was an undergraduate. Farida Majid was an important figure on the London poetry scene in the seventies. at her Chelsea flat she ran a Thursday evening salon that attracted both young and established poets and the marvellous polish artist Felix Topolski, who sat & listened to the poems being read out & discussed & drew the poets. the drawings & a selection of the poems was published by the Salamander Imprint, which Farida ran with great distinction. a couple of poets she published won poetry book society recommendations. her poems are fine specimens & lie scattered in various magazines & anthologies. They deserve to be garnered between two covers.

in my generation my old classmate Firoz Ahmed-ud-din published a promising collection from writers' workshop before slowly losing interest in writing poetry. Now there are a couple of my younger university colleagues who have published promising debut collections.

so you see, the situation isn't as dismal as it might seem. one reason why it seems more dismal than it really is may be that poetry is read by very few people, & fiction, especially the novel, gets all the publicity in the media.

i should hasten to add that this doesn't bother me at all. i don't think I'd much care if i had no readers. I'd be quite happy to have only half a dozen readers as long as they felt my work was worth engaging with.

I should also point out that when you say there is a sizeable number of Bangladeshi writers if fiction you are grossly exaggerating. And if you want to mention fiction writers who are worth reading, how many would you list? Two or three perhaps?

Ahmede: You actively fought in our Muktijuddo. What drove you, a budding poet to take up arms to liberate the country?

Kaiser Haq: Yes, I was one of the hundred thousand or so who took up arms against the occupation army in 1971. i was a second year undergraduate then. The crackdown by the Pakistan army & the terror of the occupation brought young people face to face with a existential choice: lie low or escape to another country or go and join the resistance. I made my choice & I'd repeat the choice if i had to relive my life all over again.

Ahmede: Do you remember the time when you penned your first poem?

Kaiser Haq: I have written about the experience of starting to write in an essay that i have appended to my collected poems. let me sum up. i wasn't a great poetry buff in school. i dutifully memorised poems because we were supposed to, but if i were asked to recite them they'd come out as sing-song, I'm afraid. i didn't feel at home in the traditional English metres. Then in class 10 brother Hobart, from whom i learnt more about literature and writing than from anyone else, took up D.H. Lawrence's poem 'snake'. At once I warmed to the sinuous free verse, the directness of treatment, the clarity of the images. But I didn't begin writing poetry just then. My first attempt at creative writing was a short story which can be called a prose poem & which I have included in my collected poems. it was written when I was sixteen. A year later I began scribbling verse in earnest. I have included a poem written early in 1968 in my new book. But even then & for some years after i didn't realize that my poems, such as they are, would turn out to be the chief form of my creative output. i thought that like most people with literary interests I'd switch to fiction. I thought the versifying was an exercise in handling language in a concentrated form, a preparation for novel writing. Now I realize that the novel requires a different type of sensibility, a different kind of discipline. A lucky few can manage both the novel and poetry; I am not one of them.

Ahmede: Unlike most of your contemporaries who write in Bengali your imageries are urban in nature. How does your muse come to you? Do you consider writing a spiritual process?

Kaiser Haq: My imagery is mostly urban because i was born & grew up in Dhaka city. But till the age of 13 i spent my school holidays in the village. Considering that, perhaps there should be more of the village in my poems. Maybe in future I'll be able to work more of village life & the landscape into my work.

As for those who write in Bengali, I don't think it is accurate to say that they do not use urban imagery. Among major figures, the urban world is at the centre of Shamsur Rahman's work, & this is even more true of Shaheed Quaderi, who was born in Calcutta & came to Dhaka when he was a young boy. Rafiq Azad too is full of urban imagery. i can't speak about younger poets, not having read much of them.

I'm not very comfortable with expressions like the muse coming to one. But i will try to tell you how my poems get written. Some get written at one go, some are revised a number of times, some come into being through a process of accretion: i may jot down an image or phrase & keep adding more, then rearrange them & revise the whole thing.

I don't know what it means to say that writing is a spiritual process. Some may take it to mean that writing poetry or creating art in general is one way of worshipping God. Others may equate writing poetry with a spiritual activity like meditating since both enable one to create a distance between oneself and the chaos of life. With Schopenhauer one might regard art as a means to achieve spiritual liberation. I am more sympathetic to the Nietzschean idea that it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that life has any meaning. Only I am not very happy with thet 'only', for different people may find meaning through different means. Besides, every means to find meaning, including art, is ultimately provisional. Anyway, if I may cut the pseudo-metaphysical cackle & call a poem a poem, i should perhaps end by saying that it's very pleasurable to write a poem that seems to work, i.e. one that i enjoy reading out & that one or two people say they have enjoyed reading.

Ahmede: You write in a language that has once been a tool of colonisation in this part of the world. Has English been your conscious choice?

Kaiser Haq: Yes, it's true that English was a tool of colonisation, but it was a double-edged tool, & so when the anti-colonial movement got going the English language & the ideas that were conveyed through it played a role. Then, when the colonisers left, the subcontinent didn't let go of the English language. There are wheels within wheels too. Recently the dalits in India celebrated Macaulay's birthday with great fanfare because they felt that learning English & being educated through English had enabled them to liberate themselves from the tyranny of upper caste Hindus.

By now of course in the subcontinent as a whole there is a thriving tradition of writing in English. But it isn't free of controversy. And that is a good thing. It is salutary that writers should question themselves & also be questioned by readers & others. a subcontinental who writes in English should keep on questioning his/her relationship with the language used.

But there is also a kind of criticism that is too ridiculous for words. When someone says that a Bangladeshi should not write poetry in English, the statement is nonsensical. let's analyse it to see why. One can ask if it is only poetry that should be put under a ban, or fiction and non-fictional prose as well? If it's only poetry that is under the interdiction & not the other two one can question why fiction shouldn't be under the interdiction as well. If both poetry & fiction are under the interdiction, because both are forms of creative writing & the critic in question believes authentic creative writing can only be done in one's mother tongue, the question arises whether, when a Bangladeshi writes non-fictional English prose he/she should deliberately write badly or, if he/she writes well enough for his/her work to be considered of literary merit, he/she should be condemned. if he/she isn't condemned & is praised instead, how is it that his/her work is authentic when a fiction writer's or a poet's is declared a priori to be inauthentic? Creative non-fiction is often little different from fiction; what if the successful non-fictionwriter now writes a novel: will it be condemned outright? & if fiction is considered to be ok, why not poetry, if the poetry deals with our situation successfully?

One could change tactics and argue that writing in English is bound to be a coterie affair in a country like Bangladesh & should therefore be discouraged. But why? why, if there is a coterie that enjoys writing in English & reading the stuff, should they not be allowed to enjoy themselves? Would we discourage a small ethnic community from writing in their language? Besides, even if we take writing in Bengali, it is not read by everyone in the country. Most poetry collections in Bengali sell a few hundred copies; should the poets stop writing on that account?

The upshot is that one can respond critically to a Bangladeshi poet (or novelist or creative non-fiction writer) in English, that is to say, read the work & comment on it, but one cannot say that a Bangladeshi should not write in English. If a language is used at all in a country one cannot prevent it from being used for literary purposes.

as to why i write in English, it was a conscious choice made against a certain background -- my English-medium educational background. But I am very conscious of my Bengali heritage, enjoy reading Bengali classics & i have translated some Bengali poetry & prose.

Ahmede: Many see South Asian poetry as a strand of Post-Colonial literature. Does Po-co really exist as a genre or is it just another term produced by some critics in the West for general convenience? Is it fair on the authors to be put together under one roof only because they were born into a particular part of the world?

Kaiser Haq: We live in an age of multiple labels & identities, or at least an age in which we are conscious of & deliberate on our multiple labels & identities. To be a south Asian writer is also to be an Asian writer, a commonwealth writer, a third world writer, a postcolonial writer or a postmodern postcolonial (pomo-poco) writer. Nobody will of course regard all these labels to be equally felicitous; you can have your pick. the postcolonial label covers both first world and third world writers, since Australians & Canadians & even the Scots may regard themselves as being postcolonial. But it's mainly Asian, African & Caribbean writers who have to who have to deal with this label. The label has its uses; it enables critics to focus on a body of writing that would otherwise have been in a limbo perhaps. but problems can arise if they start arguing that only certain 'postcolonial' issues should be privileged in postcolonial writing. that could stymie creativity. i don't let labels bother me. they come & go. i just want to keep on writing & if I'm lucky some of it will stay.

In Conversation with Ravinder Randhawa

Ahmede: Your first novel, A Wicked Old Woman, has been described by Susheila Nasta as "the first explicitly Asian British novel". Does Asian British novel actually exist as a genre?

Ravinder Randhawa: Yes. In terms of categorization. Particularly in the eyes of publishers, literary critics, academics, the ‘Identity’ industry and P.R. people who love niche marketing. In general, ‘British-Asian’ pertains to novels that are specifically about the Asian community, in terms of its everyday life, traditions, religion, immigration, racism, adaptation or non-adaptation to English culture, culture clash, generation gap and arranged marriages.

Novels are always for universal consumption. Through the chemistry of imagination, intellect and empathy, the stories of one place or people, can generally make sense to ‘outside’ readers. Often they serve as bridges or messengers, carrying information from one group to the other group, ‘explaining’ one group to the other group. This is what the Asian British novel, to a large extent, is still doing and still expected to do: carry ‘information’ from the minority Asian community to the majority English community.

However, I believe that this categorization of the ‘British-Asian’ novel can be a restrictive influence. To explain the ‘stranger,’ the ‘outsider’ to the majority community has always been a function of literature, whether that strangeness is in terms of race or beliefs i.e. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. British-Asian writers may traverse all the territory from fantasy to reality, chick-lit to crime novels, but, in general, if a novel is by a British Asian author and has Asian characters it is immediately placed in the category of British-Asian novel. Or, additionally acquires the embellishment of ‘a multi-cultural novel.’ Whatever that is! This tends to sideline style and substance, intellectual content and exploration of ideas.

Ahmede: In A Wicked Old Woman we see you dissect the idea of being marginalized in an alien, quasi-alien society. Will you share your idea of an individual's place in history for us, especially in the Asian British society where one's sense of belonging is meant to be somewhat fuzzy?

Ravinder Randhawa: This is a fascinating question and a real issue for our times, in terms of globalization and the rise of fundamentalism. I believe that free-will, exercised within the strict implementation of moral and ethical principles is the essence of an individual. Thus, the individual is required to examine all actions in terms of their impact on the self and others; to grapple with conflicting ideas and demands. Individuals should question traditions and values which cause unhappiness, suffering, and violence; whichever society they live in, whether western or eastern. We all live within a ‘pool of knowledge’ and we should all contribute to the development of this ‘pool’ so that humanity progresses for the benefit of the individual and everyone else.

British Asian society provides Asians with a particular opportunity to compare two types of societies and their many different values. Most British Asian’s talk about having a good mix of ‘eastern/western values’. I think it’s very healthy to have to examine ideas such as ‘belonging’ ‘identity’ ‘culture’ and not take them as immutable.

Was it George Eliot, who said that ‘convention is not morality.’ Neither is convention, belonging. History and race are definitely signifiers of belonging; British Asians are very proud of their backgrounds. Belonging is a very complex issue and should be seen as such.

Ahmede: You were born in India and grew up in England, what "role" (I am using this word grudgingly) do you think English plays in South Asia, where the language has once been a tool used by the ruling class?

Ravinder Randhawa: I understand what you mean. Perhaps the answer is in the word ‘tool’. If the globe is growing ‘smaller’, then we all need a language we can talk to each other in. It appears that English is taking on this role. So why not view it as a ‘tool’?

It’s not possible to detach it from its imperial past, but equally, just as Madonna constantly re-invents herself, perhaps it should be re-invented: seen as a tool for international commerce and inter-change; a tool to be employed for the benefit of South Asia.

It’s up to individual countries to encourage and promulgate their national languages. But all countries teach foreign languages, and English has a long history of being used in South Asia. Why not turn a disadvantage into an advantage?

What is really at the core of this question is how far will English, as a foreign language, as a ‘tool’ filter down? Or will it still only serve the needs of a particular class?

Ahmede: Your second novel Hari-jan's central character Harjinder is neither Asian nor does she belong to Britain. Where do you as a woman of South Asian descent stand in the British society?

Ravinder Randhawa: I stand as myself.

With my Asian background and gender. And I stand as an equal to anyone else. Whether Asian or English.

England is a secular democracy. However flawed and imperfect; however class-ridden. Through the sixties, seventies and eighties, England witnessed many social changes; to do with worker’s rights, feminism, anti-racism. All these movements left their mark, some for better, some for worse. Societies should never be dormant; they should always be ‘rippling’ with discussion and debate.

Immigration is nothing new. People have moved around the globe throughout the ages. And generally it’s been because of economic need or political persecution. This holds true now too. The migrant adapts, and over the generations achieves an accommodation, a partnership with the ‘host’ community.

I think it is essential to play a full role in the wider society that one’s living in, wherever that happens to be. It is important to take part in the political, educational and social issues. And also, to look after the society where one has made a home. To acknowledge and support all that is valuable in terms of its ideas and practices. Equally, it’s important to press for changes where necessary. Complexities and difficulties still exist in England, as do racism and poverty.

The South Asian elements of my life go hand in hand with everything I do. They’re not disconnected from anything else. Having a different cultural background shouldn’t mean having to be separate, whether that separation is advocated by the majority or the minority. The public and the private are what make an individual.

Whether it’s Diwali or Christmas both have a place in my life, as they do for most South Asians.

Ahmede: The question of belonging is indeed important. When diasporic writers handle a plot set in South Asia, many say, they do it with the eye of an outsider. In Shame and Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie has to resort to magic realism and unreliable narration…

Ravinder Randhawa: Desperate Diasporic Writers!! What creatures are these with their overseas liaisons, loyalties and disloyalties?

Distance inevitably changes the lens; however that doesn’t mean that what they see can be discounted.

I’m afraid I disagree with you about ‘magic realism’, and I’m not sure what you mean by ‘unreliable narration’. ‘Magic realism’, is a literary device; Rushdie could have used it, wherever he had been living. Fiction, as a whole, is not about being literal; it’s a tool, an artifice, a vehicle for touching every aspect of the human being, from the emotional, to the hidden, to the physical, spiritual or intellectual. Textbooks deal with facts and evidence. Fiction deals with the spaces between our heartbeats.

‘….the eye of the outsider.’ Yes and no. Those who spend a major part of their lives living away from South Asia and whose homes are beyond its boundaries cannot possibly have the day to day experience, the integral composition of living and being a South Asian. In this respect they can be considered as outsiders. But that is to interpret belonging merely in geographical terms. It discounts the commitment of South Asian communities and parents in the West who strive for cultural continuity, the bequeathing of South Asian traditions, values and social structures. Why else would there be so called ‘culture clashes’ in the west, between generations. Such a geographical view also reduces belonging merely to mass absorption, i.e. being part of a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time, and devalues the heritage of family and social history, of philosophy, art and religion; and further confines the person to the borders within which they live.

Inevitably there is the stranger/not stranger effect. Diasporic writers do come from a hybrid background; they will not have the ‘up close and personal’ knowledge that writers living in South Asia have. But equally they will have more knowledge than a writer from a completely different background; together with an active and inquiring relationship with South Asia, however they may choose to manifest it, interpret it, describe it. Isn’t that what’s interesting?

Ahmede: How important do you think class is to South Asian reality?

Ravinder Randhawa: Don’t we live with it all the time!

And not just class but caste!

And not just class and caste but a supposed hierarchy of religions.

A poisonous brew if ever there was one.

The world relives the same story over and over again, and its title is “Division”.

Division: along class lines, caste lines, religious lines, racial lines, gender lines, colour lines, age lines….etc. etc.

The South-Asians, who emigrated to the west, brought a lot of baggage with them. Along with their tightly packed suitcases, they brought tightly packed minds. Full of their sense of class, status, background, connections, and to a great extent replicated it here. However with the high educational attainments and professionalisation of young British Asians these class divisions have been blurred and diluted. But clearly not in South-Asia.

Recently I stopped at our local Pizza Hut take-away. While I was waiting for my order, I started chatting with the young people working there: mostly young South-Asian students. They all had a variety of views on their life in England, but the one at the till, said to me with a great air of grievance “you know, back home, I wouldn’t be doing this kind of work.”

Well, we all know where, or more precisely, what class that comment came from.

When I asked him, “what’s wrong with this work?” his response was to look away. There was nothing dangerous or hazardous in the work he was doing, nothing unhygienic or inappropriate. He was sitting in a warm environment, on a comfortable seat, working at an electronic till, and able to work hours that fitted around his studies. But, because of his class consciousness, he felt that this work was menial and beneath his dignity.

I think it’s fair to say, that such attitudes do not exist in the majority of young British-Asians.

Perpetuating divisive social systems has no social, economic or psychological benefit; and actively hinders the development of a country.

A country’s greatest natural resource is in the brains of its people.
Educate those brains, give them opportunities to train, treat them with respect, empower them to be creative, innovative, problem-solving, and you’ll have a population that’ll propel their country into growth, wealth, prosperity. And give it clout on the world stage.
A country should aim to empower all of its people, because the benefit to one, does translate into a benefit for all.

Ahmede: History is another important issue, isn’t it? It is rather murky in South Asia, where the first text book on South Asian history was written by an English School inspector…

Ravinder Randhawa: History. History! History?

It’s not the “who” but the “how” that matters.

Anyone can write a history of whoever-whatever, but it’s how they treat the material, what ‘spin’ they put on it, what interpretation they give it, what personal and political views they bring to it that matters. What’s important perhaps is to know the history of the historian, before we look at the history that the historian has written.

We do need to be aware when material has been presented from a biased or prejudiced viewpoint. The best kind of ‘history’ usually arises from a passionate interest, a spirit of discovery or intellectual inquiry.

In recent weeks, Asians in England have been gripped by a series on BBC 2, on the history of India, written and presented by the historian Michael Woods. His obvious passion and enthusiasm for the subject, for the truth, for the political, social and cultural issues has held us spellbound. Every Friday evening we’ve had a date with Michael Woods. The series is now finished, but Oliver-like we still want more. Everyone is now scrambling to see if we can get the series on DVD, to catch up on the episodes we missed, or to watch it all over again. Such was its professionalism and integrity. Infused with energy, intelligence and humanity; together with an awareness of the long march of time, the play of personalities, events and chance, an unflinching assessment of the role of his own people, the British, and concluding with a definition of the elements that make for great civilizations, and applying it to India.

The ability to look underneath the obvious, to analyse and make connections, to extract motives and strip subterfuges is what makes for good history.

In all the disciplines, from physics, to literature, to history, I believe there is an engagement, a thoughtfulness, a debate, as to best methods, perspectives, the validity or non-validity of received ideas.

South Asian history is being re-written by South-Asians, and sometimes by those whose intellectual reach is not compromised by their racial or national background, as well as by those who are interested in ‘hidden’ history, i.e. the history of ‘ordinary’ people. An interesting area is the ‘history of ideas,’ for ‘ideas’, whether hidden or overt, have been and continue to be the moving force.

History, like the sea, has depths still waiting to be plumbed, discoveries still waiting to beguile us.

Ahmede: Yet alienation has become a major issue among British-Asians. I know people who are calling Islamic extremism in Britain a deformed display of existentialist angst…

Ravinder Randhawa: ‘Asians have gone from the shop floor to the top floor!’ This is a quote from a recent documentary on British-Asians.

I don’t agree that alienation is a major issue among British-Asians. Just look at their academic and professional achievements, their role in every industry from the media to medicine, from law to local government, from education to the economy, from finance to fashion. Their businesses and earnings contribute to the overall prosperity of Britain. British-Asians actively participate in politics, community and social issues. They are significant contributors to all the arts from music, to theatre, to literature, to drama.

Local areas which have a large percentage of Asians have thriving shops, from grocery shops to estate agents, from jewellery shops to cafes, from newsagents to designer clothes.

The vast majority of British-Asians are confident and proud of who they are, hard working and aware of the sacrifices made by the older generation. British-Asians are as much go-getters as those of any other community. Just consider that each series of the programme ‘The Apprentice’ (in which candidates compete to win a high salaried, executive job in the Amstrad empire,) has always had British-Asian candidates in the competing group; and not just men, but highly motivated, ambitious young women too.

British-Asians believe that their lives do have purpose and meaning. Judge by their actions. They live, work, play, raise their families, go on holiday, attend the temple, enjoy fashion, music, sports, eating out etc.etc. This is hardly the stuff of ‘alienation and deformed existentialist angst.’

British-Asian radio stations, regularly have phone-ins and debates – in which listeners participate. There are newspapers and magazines, which are clearly being bought and read, else they wouldn’t survive. If a community is engaging in ‘talk-talk’ – to borrow a slogan, surely it demonstrates a lively and interested involvement in life.

‘Islamic Extremism,’ is an entity on its own.

If “Islamic extremism” in Britain is a deformed display of existentialist angst…” then what is it in other countries?

When we look at ‘islamic extremism,’ we’re looking at a very, very small group; definitely not the majority. Included in this ‘Islamic extremism’ are many people who are not from the British-Asian community, though it is clear that a few, young British-Asians are attracted to it.

I think there are all sorts of factors which contribute to a young person being attracted to ‘Islamic extremism’, to use a broad term. Some factors are international, some religious, some cultural and some are entirely personal. Also let us not forget the role of self-styled ‘Islamic’, preachers who believe it acceptable to preach violence. Again, they are very few, and definitely do not represent the majority.