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Known Turf: Book Review

Posted on 05 July 2012 by admin


Bhupinder Singh

During the last twenty years, there has been a parallel discourse on the economic and social developments in India. On one hand, the votaries of economic ‘reform’ do not tire of singing paeans to what they perceive to be an economic miracle that has transformed India into an economic power. This hunky dory narrative has been consistently challenged by numerous counter narratives, in the shape of numerous studies and in a more accessible manner, by journalists, activists and writers who have reported heart wrenching stories from the ground- P. Sainath’sEveryone Loves a Good Drought (1996), Siddhartha Dube’sWords without Freedom (1998), my friend Rahul Banerjee’s ‘A Romantic among the Bhils‘ (2009) readily come to mind.  To this literature Annie Zaidi’sKnownTurfis a welcome addition. The book has seven sections, dealing with bandits in Chambal, chai, poverty in Madhya Pradesh and UP, contemporary Punjab, Sufism, the writer’s ruminations on what it means to be a Muslim in contemporary India and ending with the writer’s activism with an urban feminist group and an understanding of what feminism means for her. It is interesting that the book should begin with fiction- the story of the Chambal dacoits, take the readers from fiction to fact as it were and end with the author’s discovery of her what she calls her turf.

The first section, Bantering with Bandits, is undoubtedly the finest part of the book. The author starts with her perception about Indian bandits- shaped largely by films and family folktales. She goes on to meet some of the survivors of the last generation of the Chambal dacoits and concludes:

There is a difference between Harshad Mehta and Phoolan Devi: both looted and both did so for personal reasons. but when a love of money is rooted in nothing but itself and a lack of respect for the law, it is called greed; when a lack of respect for the law is rooted in a sense of honor and the conviction that society will fail you again and again, and this is combined with money and guns, it is called rebellion.

The stories recounted in the third section are familiar, though anyone who lives amid the visible poverty in South Asia for some time learns to get desensitized to them. Yet, one shares the sense of appalling wonder when the author visits places named Patalgarh and comes across people named Ghamandi, who is the mother of a girl child Priti and according to the records of one anganwadi, gave birth to the same child seven times in a little more than a year! Just as the discovery of what the term ‘primitive tribe’ means and a visit to the weavers of Benares, now living on the verge of hunger brings a sense of sad wonder.

“I hadn’t seen fireflies before, not in such glory. Nor in such proximity. here, in this village where there was no electricity, where my own step on wet mud sounded loud, I had stepped bang into the center of shimmering web of pin- pointed, wimmy light. Like restless, warm diamonds. Like crystals of live poetry. It was like having the stars laid out at my feet.

“Much later, as I thought about their magical web, in the same instant I thought of the old weaver’s tears. Shining deep into the night. Even today, I shut my eyes and memory fills me with quiet.”

Zaidi’s discovery of Punjab is also fascinating as she manages to capture a number of facts of the state that are generally not so well known outside the region. There is the tale of Bant Singh, dalit oppression and resistance, the rise of deras, ‘kabootarbaazi’ and the corruption at Punjab State Industrial Development Corporation. Most of these topics have incidentally been covered on this blog, and the last one about PSIDC brought back memories of a study that this blogger had done at Punjab State Financial Corporation for their computerization program in the mid- nineties. It’s a murky state of affairs, to cut a long story short.

The author’s take on religion has a sufianatinge to it, indeed, Sufism seems to have, for better or worse, replaced marxism as the religion of the educated and restless generation in India. She states:

“My personal faith is a selfish one. It is tender and delicate but also, somehow, unbreakable. It is plastic and so solid that I feel it tangibly. My beliefs are marked ‘Kafir because the core of my faith is questioning, or dissent, which is what Kafiri means.”

That is pretty much what Marx statedde omnibus dubitandum, but well, that was in Latin, and in another era.

The last section deals with the state of the girl child that subsequently the 2011 census brought into sharp focus, women activists and ends with the author’s personal experiences as a young woman reporter. It is here that she also sees glimmer of hope- in the actions of Blank Noise and among the women panchayat and block officials invited to a meeting in Dehradun.

There is an air of freshness about all these stories. This has to do not only with the literary flourish with which the stories have been recounted, but also the fact that it provides a woman’s perspective on pertinent issues and also tells an honest story about the coming of age of a young woman reporter traveling to what for her till then was an unknown turf. The reader realizes that while some of what appears in the book might be familiar and some of it will never be fully known, it is the process of knowing that matters, and in the hands of a deft writer, it can be an exhilarating journey.

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The Beauty of Humanity Movement: A review

Posted on 05 April 2012 by admin

Angelique Manchanda-Peres


The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb takes its fictional name from an actual group of idealistic communist writers and artists in Hanoi. In the early 1950s, this group wrote and spoke out against the excesses of Ho Chi Minh’s policies, in particular, the Land Reform Act in which hundreds of thousands of people (peasants mostly) accused of being landlords were executed or tortured and starved in prison.

Because they were vocal in their denouncement of this “land reform,” and also because they refused to act as a mouth-speaker for government propaganda, the artists and writers of the Beauty of Humanity Movement suffered a fate similar to the unfortunate peasantry. Sent to so-called re-education camps, they were tortured, indoctrinated, killed or maimed. Punishments meted out were cruel and usually specific to the occupation of the prisoner. Artists lost their hands, poets their tongues. 

 The pivotal character in this novel is Old Man Hung, who formerly owned a restaurant famous for its pho and frequented by some of the country’s leading poets and visual artists (this while the French were in power). After angering the newly-formed Communist regime (the French were defeated in the early ’50’s), who withheld a restaurant license from him he was forced to operate outside of the law, selling pho illegally from a cart he pushed around the city. He’d have to find a new spot almost every other day and yet the crowds would throng his stall, bringing their own bowls for a taste of his magnificent Pho. Among his customers were Binh and Tu, the son and grandson of his best friend, Dao, a poet and member of the artist group the Beauty of Humanity Movement who was killed by the Communists on his way to a re-education camp.

Pho may just be a humble soup made from beef broth, but it is the blood that flows in the veins of the streets of Vietnam. Infact, Old Man Hung says that the history of Vietnam can be found in a bowl of Pho bac(the pho that Hanoi is famous for). The rice noodles it contains is symbolic of the thousand years of Chinese occupations and the beef is symbolic of the French occupation that came later (the taste for beef was introduced by the French who turned the people’s cows away from ploughs and into ‘bifteck” and pot-au-feu.) The clever Vietnamese took the best the occupiers had to offer and made something uniquely Vietnamese from it.

One day a Vietnamese-American curator, Maggie, visits Old Man Hung at one of his mobile stands. Maggie was five years old when she was rescued by the Americans at Saigon airport (after the fall of Saigon) . She wants to learn more about her artist father, who also disappeared during the war. She asks Hung if he can help her (after all when Hung had his Pho shop in the ’50’s it was the meeting place for a lot of radical artists and writers) . Hung’s memories are the perfect vehicle to take the reader through Vietnam’s past – from the intellectual age of the 1930’s when Hung was sent to the city to work in his uncle’s pho shop (he was an unwanted child…the ninth child…so unwanted his parents didn’t even give him a name, calling him simply, Nine), through to French colonization, Japanese occupation and, of course, the Vietnam War.      

While Hung provides a look back into Vietnam’s past, a 22-year-old tour guide named Tu offers readers a glimpse into the country’s current era of economic freedom and its entrepreneurial youth, so many of which were born after the war, so it’s not a direct memory in their lifetimes. Tu’ specializes in offering guilt-ridden American veterans “war tours” through his city, but he soon starts to realize their version of his country’s history is deeply flawed. There is an encounter with Tu’ and an American Vet at a Buddhist temple which is especially poignant. 

Camilla Gibb’s novels fall in the sub-genre of literary fiction that I like to call Anthropological fiction (her previous novel was “Sweetness in the Belly” which was set in Ethiopia.). These are novels set in different countries and whose readers relish learning about foreign cultures (their history, diet, traditions, rituals and so on) in a fictional setting.  Reading novels like these makes one realize how different and yet how similar we all are. No matter where the characters come from or are based, there are certain human traits that are universally recognizable and this is why these books resonate with us so much. 

Gibb’s writing is very clear, clean and precise. In this novel she explores both,present-day Vietnam and the forces that shaped it. Many novels on Vietnam focus mostly on the war and the aftermath but in doing so one neglects the vibrant, bustling Vietnam of today. I think Gibb’s novel gives the reader a very balanced and overall view of the country and I appreciate that.

To sum up, the book plunges the reader into the borderlands between opposing forces: youth and age, exclusion and privilege, war and peace.

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