Sunday, December 23, 2018

ART OF THE BRIBE


Like many Indians,  I try to have as little personal contact with our bureaucracy. Keeping them at digital arm’s length works best for me. They’re disembodied, like my tax man or woman, whom I never have to set eyes on or sit across the table. I don’t have the necessary crores to perk up their interest.

Unfortunately, for something legal, I had to break my aversion for personal contacts. I need a piece of paper signed by someone. I visit the authority closest to my address. It’s  a neglected building set in an unkempt compound; a few stray dogs wander around, two women sit by the gate, well endowed ones too in lovely sarees. They have a stack of forms for sale and offered me one.  The entrance is crowded with many women, clutching papers, the currency to enter. Here is humanity pressing to beseech the inhumanity of our state for a favour. There is no gate keeper. Inside, stacked against the walls are large bales, piled high to ceiling, leaving a narrow passage for suplicants to pass. I ask for directions and as pointed up the stairs. Here too are these bales; they flow into the office of the man I need to see. A narrow gap leads to the chair opposite him. He is immaculate in a safari suit, princely at a vacant desk. I tell him my simple needs; he understands and asks for 5,000 to do the needful. I didn’t have it. I invoke the name of our PM Narender Modi as a mantra but it fails to have the desired affect with the official. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll have the paper ready. I return to same press of humanity milling around, he presenteds me with the paper; I reluctantly pass him the bribe for it. It turns out, he is the wrong man in the wrong office and refuses to return the money. He promises to help me with my quest, however.

I discovered the city is divided into minor kingdoms, and you have to know where the palace of your needs lies. My palace is on a busy main road, not far from home, with three tea kadais lined up outside, taking up the pavement space, as guardians. At one of them, a young man sells single cigarettes, teas and biscuits. More humanity mills here and at least the office looks recently built and maintained. Here too are bales and curiosity breaks through - they are filled with dhotis and sarees as pongal gifts for ration card holders only, I’m informed. There is a minor fortune of freebees along the walls. I wander down a corridor to the left of the entrance. One side, a large space, glassed in, furnished with rows of desks. On each desk, files a foot high, all held together by a grey ribbon. At the last desk, a man is diligently tearing strips off a grey nylon sack and using that to bind the files.So much for red tape; I am in a world of grey ones.  On the right are the closed doors with the titles of the many princes who rule this kingdom.

The official I need sits at a desk behind the glass divider. He’s slim, in a bush shirt, trousers, a look of infinite patience. He is the direct connect with those pressing for needs and not protected by the closed doors of his princes. Yes, I am in the right office for what I need. It will take some days; fill in the form, proof of identity and wait.  He has to visit me at home to confirm I am who I said I am and live at that address. But, as always, there is a price for his services. The paper I needed was free, gratis of a generous government, but his services need some gratification. There is no point invoking our PM eradicating corruption. There is no fear for the demand, matter-of-fact, well rehearsed. Either or at the end of his sentence.  I have a legal right to the paper I want, it makes no difference; he’s a busy man, the files piled high on his desk too, and over flowing from cupboards behind him. Demonetisation be damned, my weekly pocket money from my account for the week is below his demand. He’ll wait for me to accumulate enough. I am now a fellow corrupter; it’s not a role I want. For him, like the majority of our bureaucrats, corruption is genetic. It is his legal right to demand it for performing a legal act. It’s not only him, it’s in all our psyches – politicians, business person, even the poorest farmer, labourer. We conspire together to feed the insatiable appetites of those demanding payments, over and above their safe salaries, lifelong employment while we, outside this privileged circle, have to meet their hunger for black money. But he’ll start the work. Stay at home, I’ll come he says, not saying which day. Tomorrow, maybe.

He comes mid-afternoon, riding pillion on a scooter, driven by the man who sells cigarettes and biscuits. They are an inseparable duo, I discover. Questions asked are answered and noted; identity confirmed, aadhar, but no ration card. That disappoints him; it looks serious from the dour look. He loves ration cards, and not new fangled ones like passports. It will have to do, as he gathers more evidence, meticulous as detective accumulating evidence against me. I may be found guilty of not enough paper to fill the government requires, reams more needed it turns out over the days. The tea kadai is the go-between when my official isn’t to be found. He knows his whereabouts, has his cell number, and reports to me his exact movements, like a good GPS.

Finally, the day comes – the paper I want is ready. I have the money, the official holds the paper. He wants the money first, I want the paper first. We have a Mexican stand of. He is aggrieved – you don’t trust me. I have to smile at his plaintive tone, here he is demanding money, committing a crime, and I am to trust an amoral man. And I am one too, so we’re at stand still. Tea Kadai intervenes, it is his role. He will take the money, and I am given a copy of my paper. Tea man tells my official he has it, the official hands over my paper. It’s what I needed, it has all the stamps, looking as authentic are new 2000 rupee note, I think. He’s richer; I’m poorer as I leave the office. I hope I never have to visit another office again. I just can’t afford it.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

TAJ A story of Mughal India.


blurb as on Goodreads……….

When his queen, Arjumand Banu – Mumtaz-i-Mahal, the Chosen One of the Palace – died, Shah Jahan wanted to build a monument that was the image of his perfect love for her. For twenty-two years, twenty thousand men labored day and night to fulfill the emperor’s obsession. The result was the Taj Mahal, a marble mausoleum lined with gold, silver and precious jewels.

This powerful novel narrates the story of the Taj on two parallel levels. The first one tells the passionate love story of Shah Jahan and Arjumand till her death through the voices of three main characters – Arjumand, Shah Jahan and Isa, Arjumand’s favorite eunuch. The second recounts the later years of Shah Jahan’s reign, the building of the Taj Mahal and the bloody pursuit of the fabled Peacock Throne by his sons. Intertwined with the narrative about the building of the Taj is the story of Murthi, the Hindu craftsman sent as a gift to the emperor to carve the famous marble jali around Arjumands sarcophagus.

In this complex and fascinating book, Murari has written much more than a historical romance. He has skillfully recreated the period against which the story is set: the opulence of the palace and the grinding poverty of seventeenth-century India, the vicissitudes of Shah Jahan’s reign and the often bitter conflict between men of different faiths.

review………….

The mask is off- the charm is wrought-

And Seh Jehan to his heart has caught,

His Mumtaz Mahal, his Haram’s Light!

And well do vanish’d frowns enhance

The charm of every brighten’d glance,

And dearer seems each dawning smile

For having lost its light awhile,

And, happier now, for all her sighs,

As on his arm, her head reposes,

She whispers to him, with laughing eyes,

“Remember, love, the Feast of Roses.”

With a flair and enthusiasm for history and culture, Murari creates a story full of rich details that bring the reader deep into the world of the lives of Indian emperors and their struggles for power and consequence.

While Galileo suffered under house arrest at the hands of Pope Urban VIII, the Thirty Years War ruined Europe, and the Pilgrims struggled to survive in the New World, work began on what would become one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Taj Mahal. Built by the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, its flawless symmetry and gleaming presence have for centuries dazzled everyone who has seen it, and the story of its creation is a fascinating blend of cultural and architectural heritage. Yet, as Timeri Murari vividly convey in the first narrative history of the Taj, it also reflects the magnificent history of the Moghul Empire itself, for it turned out to mark the high point of the Empire’s glory at the same time as it became a tipping point in Moghul fortunes.

The roots of the Moghul Empire lie with the legendary warriors Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine; at its height, it contained 100 million people, from Afghanistan in the north and present-day Pakistan in the west, to Bengal in the east and southwards deep into central India… With the storytelling skills that characterize his previous books, Murari brings alive both the grand sweep of Moghul history and the details that make it memorable: the battles and dynastic rivalries that forged the Empire alongside an intimate chronicle of daily life within the imperial palace. A tale of overwhelming passion, the story of the Taj has the cadences of Greek tragedy and the ripe emotion of grand opera and puts a memorable human face on the marble masterpiece.

In 1631, the heartbroken Moghul Emperor, Shah Jahan, ordered the construction of a monument of unsurpassed splendor and majesty in memory of his beloved wife. Theirs was an extraordinary story of passionate love: although almost constantly pregnant – she bore him fourteen children – Mumtaz Mahal followed her husband on every military campaign, in order that they might never be apart.

But then Mumtaz died in childbirth. Blinded by grief, Shah Jahan created an exquisite and extravagant memorial for her on the banks of the river Jumna. A gleaming mausoleum of flawless symmetry, the Taj Mahal was built from milk-white marble and rose sandstone, and studded with a fortune in precious jewels. It took twenty years to complete and involved over 20,000 laborers, depleting the Moghul treasuries. But Shah Jahan was to pay a greater price for his obsession. He ended his days imprisoned by his own son in Agra Fort, gazing across the river at the monument to his love. The building of the Taj Mahal had set brother against brother and son against father in a savage conflict that pushed the seventeenth century’s most powerful empire into irreversible decline.

The story behind the Taj Mahal has the cadences of Greek tragedy, the carnage of a Jacobean revenge play and the ripe emotion of grand opera. With the storytelling skills that characterize their previous books, in this compelling narrative history, Timeri Murari succeeds in putting a revealing human face on the famous marble masterpiece.

Skillfully blending the textures of historical reality with the rich and sensual imaginings of a timeless fairy tale, Taj sweeps readers up in the emotional pageant of Khurram and Arjumand’s embattled love. First-time novelist Timeri Murari charts his heroine’s enthralling journey through the years, from an ill-fated first marriage through motherhood and into a dangerous maze of power struggles and political machinations. Through it, all, Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan long with fiery intensity for the true, redemptive love they’ve never known — and their mutual quest ultimately take them, and the vast empire that hangs in the balance, to places they never dreamed possible.

Shot through with wonder and suspense, Taj is at once a fascinating portrait of one woman’s convention-defying life behind the veil and a transporting saga of the astonishing potency of love.

The Moghul emperors are still bloodthirsty and entirely ruthless; they control a quarter of the world’s population and have wealth beyond imagining. But this is the final flowering of a doomed empire and, while Shah Jahan mourns his dead wife and obsesses over the Taj Mahal, her monument, his son Aurangzeb is planning to take his father’s throne, by any means necessary.

Critically acclaimed author Murari picks up where he left off, returning to seventeenth-century India as two princesses struggle for supremacy of their father’s kingdom.

Trapped in the shadow of the magnificent tomb their grief-stricken father is building for his beloved deceased wife, the emperor’s daughters compete for everything: control over the imperial harem, their father’s affection, and the future of their country. They are forbidden to marry and instead choose to back different brothers in the fight for ultimate power over the throne. But only one of the sisters will succeed. With an enthusiasm for history and a flair for rich detail, Timeri Murari brings readers deep into the complicated lives of Indian women of the time period and highlights the profound history of one of the most celebrated works of architecture in the world, the Taj Mahal.

The daughters of Emperor Jahangir, Jahanara and Roshanara, plot and scheme against one another in an attempt to gain power over their father’s harem. As royal princesses, they are confined in the imperial harem and not allowed to marry. However, this does not stop them from having illicit affairs or plotting the next heir to the throne. These royal sisters are in competition for everything: power over the harem, their father’s affection (still focused on his dead wife), and the future of their country. Unfortunately, only one of them can succeed. And, despite their best efforts to affect the future, their schemes are eclipsed, both during their lives and in posterity, as they live in the shadow of the greatest monument in Indian history, the Taj Mahal.

In Taj, we meet the great Mumtaz Mahal, known for both her beauty and the beauty that stood for her and in her respect- taj mahal. the author beautifully explains the story of Mumtaz Mahal as a wife of Shah Jahan and the mother of his sons and daughters, and the royal, imperial and remarkable character of the power of jahanara begum – the only Mughal woman to write a spiritual treatise on Sufism, the sister of Aurangzeb and the padshah begum after Mumtaz’s era and Shah Jahan’s favourite child, owner of the most lucrative port in medieval India and patron of one of its finest cities, Shahjahanabad.

Ever since I have started reading Murari’s books – the first of which is this book itself- but only a sample chapter on my kindle, I have become a fan of her. history is a critical subject and more critical is it’s retelling as if you do not know the tale properly and cannot narrate it in a gripping way then the reader would not find it interesting. I feel it is just a cup of tea for Timeri Murari for retelling history.

the best part of the book is its beauty in the simplicity of language and the complex and gripping narrative. I felt that the beauty of the enchanting narration makes the book truly a “masterpiece”. one cannot put down the book in the middle if you have started once. Through the characters of Arjuman and Jahanara, Murari beautifully captures the epitome of a heroine and a “veiled” warrior and rebel, and even a perfect daughter and a sacrificing queen. The qualities of this particular character, the way she handles both her brain and beauty, the way her words and tactics slash through people will truly make you enter into hero worshipping for Jahanara and Mumtaz.
for the narration, it is just mind-boggling. the way he captures each character and emotions in their pen would leave you enthralled.

the author even beautifully sketches out the backdrops and the intricate and intense scenes of both Mumtaz and Jahanara’s turbulent and powerful life, of her journey from the royal power and politics of the empire to her house arrest along with her father, will leave you mesmerized even after you complete the book. the book truly captures your mind and leaves a mark on your heart.

the book is a fiction and it totally stands for its genre. you would read new tales like the tales of some characters and some fights, scenes and dialogues. still, you would never ever feel that the book deviates from the real story, it does not, it just adds up more spice to the real story framed in the Luminous Tomb and Padshahnama.
the book is even very intensely researched for there is a lot of details about how the Mughals lived, walked, talked and even what they wore and ate. the book would give you every detail about the Mughal empire under the period of Shah Jahan. the book even gives a great note on the power play and political instability and intrigue during that turbulent times.

another perk of the book is its philosophy. you would see a lot of beautiful ideas of philosophy hidden within tales. the way the fight scenes are explained truly captures the full attention of the reader. The action scenes of how the armies fought and how each step is taken will keep you riveted till the end.

the book is very meticulously researched and this intense work is very well channeled through their extraordinary narration and captivating plot. the intense research which even includes English translated quoted lines from the Mughal texts like The History of Hindostan, Storia do Mogor, Padshahnama, and others.

The very first attempt to chronicle the woman who played a vital role in building the Mughal empire, Taj is an illuminating and gripping history of a little-known aspect of the most magnificent dynasty the world has ever known.

An enchanting historical epic of grand passion and adventure, this novel tells the captivating story of one of India’s most unknown and hidden empresses — a woman whose brilliance and determination trumped myriad obstacles, and whose love shaped the course of the Mughal Empire. Skillfully blending the textures of historical reality with the rich and sensual imaginings of a timeless fairy tale, Taj sweeps readers up in Mumtaz’s precious love and Jahanara’s embattled and hidden love and her powerplay and politics, and in the bedazzling destiny of a woman — a legend in her own time — who was all but lost to history until now.

 
the book totally is worth reading. and if you have not read it, it is totally your huge loss. overall the book is in simple words a “masterpiece”.a perfect tapestry of history and imagination. the book is such a perfect piece of the whole bloody and imperial Mughal history that I would declare it truly as a “legend in the field of history.”
imaginative. intrigue. intense.
I would recommend the book to all the history lovers and to everyone who loves fiction and I am sure they would love the gripping story.

 

Monday, September 4, 2017

A visit to Kumbakonam


To promote my YA Axxiss trilogy novels and Children’s' books, Children of the Enchanted Jungle, my publisher, Scholastic, has me visit schools. This to both promote reading among the children and, of course, plug my novels. The most exhausting schedule was the one to Hyderabad – ten schools in three days. The routine is the introduction by the older kids, 14 years old, who have scoured the internet for every scrap of digital information on me. Sometimes, they do print up the covers of a few, and read out a short biography of me to the audience. Then my ten to fifteen minute talk - on the importance of reading – followed by a Q&A. The teachers want me on the stage for this, I prefer to roam the hall with the mic to interact with the children. They enjoy asking questions, though some are repetitious. Some googlies though which need careful thought before I answer.
 On Wednesday, I catch the night train to a Kumbakonam, 200 miles south of here.  The principal of Dr. G.S Kalyanasundram Memorial School, Ms Bhavana Shankar, has invited me down. I met her earlier when she was a school principal in Chennai. Froze to death in the sleeper car, 16 decrees C, so was groggy when I got there. The town has 1800 temples and is a major pilgrimage destination for the believers. I managed to see only two of them as we drove to the school a bit out of the town. I am used to some welcomes, this was a major one.
The school band was lined up at the gate and started playing when, like royalty, I descended from the auto rickshaw with the Scholastic person. There was a large display of me, with the titles of my novels before the school entrance and the principal came to greet me. Children gave me roses. Ms Shankar told me that the majority of children come from the surrounding villages. She added that they think differently from those in Chennai schools. How different? They think out of the box, she tells me. After the chat with her, the hall was packed with children, and some parents at the back, and even more photos and a projection of me on the screen. Two girls danced a short Bharatanatyam, two had a singing duet, a dozen sang ‘We shall Overcome’, in English, then a debate between the kids on e-learning or classroom learning. They were articulate, talking without notes.
Then of course I had to talk to them, rapt silence as the great writer spoke words of wisdom – the importance of reading books.  After other speeches, there was a Q&A with the kids, usually happens. The school tried to get me on the stage but I prefer moving among the kids with a mic to close the gap. These were good questions, out of the ordinary other kids asked and I was impressed. A smart boy handed me a box of sweets and pointed to the cover. ‘Murari’ sweets. It was thoughtful of him to have found it, somewhere. Two girls came to compliment me. They expected someone to wearing a suit and not be friendly. But they said 'you are simple, and also the way you dress'. Wasn't sure how to take that.  By that time exhausted so needed a siesta in the guest house and lunch. The school hadn't warned me that I had to talk to the teachers on how to teach. How would I know?  So I have 40, all women, waiting for my lessons. One teacher, dutifully put up her hand to ask me a question. ‘How do you keep a child quiet for ten minutes?’ I hadn’t the faintest idea, and winged it that she should read or sing to them. Apart from that, the teachers were less curious then the kids. Then I had to catch the night train back to Chennai, didn't freeze this time but can never sleep well. I used to in my school days but age has caught up.
 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

WE'RE NIGGERS ALL, MAN

Years ago, I spent an evening with the American comedian/activist Dick Gregory. He died a few years back. WHat he said then is still so pertinent to America today. Tragically!
 
WE’RE NIGGERS ALL, MAN.

The thin cop is looking worried. He keeps adjusting his glasses as he hovers behind Dick Gregory’sbroad back at the post Frost on Friday studio party. A plump Zapata-moustached producer hovers behind the cop. Dick stops talking to find out what is happening. ‘Evening sir, local police. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave by the back as we’ve had word some blokes are coming to have a rumble with you.’ The producer relaxes as Dick nods, unsmiling, and says he’ll leave. David ambles over, anaemic with make-up, to arrange for the next show.  ‘You were lovely Dick, really lovely. Now tomorrow...’ Ten minutes later, the cops have multiplied to three and all are nervous.

David disappears and Dick wishes goodbye to Malcolm X and an entourage of flowing robed black men.  You go down with him to the waiting car, flanked by cops, feeling very much like a train robber or a presidential candidate. A cop opens the door and says ‘Sorry sir but...’ Dick pats him and says “ Yeah man. You’re just doin’ your jobs.’ His wife sits beside him.

Dick Gregory has changed since you last saw him. Two years back he was an American comic, dressed in an expensive suit spieling prussic acid satire for the late show.  Two years! He’s done some suffering. A couple of spells in goal, a couple of fasts, a couple of “whuppings” by cops. Now he’s dressed in very casual clothes and has a beard. He’s grown too, and you watched it happening. From comic to semi-statesman for Black America. He has...dignity in him and he’s more relaxed, as though he knows what he wants and where he’s going. ‘You do a load of thinking in goal man. A load of it...’

The driver wants to know if violence is the only answer.  ‘Violence is no asnwer man but it’s the only way you got when you’ve examined every legal and moral ground on the subject,’ Dick says, ‘and get no where.’  He’s a non-violent man so you want to know what he’s going to tell the ghetto. ‘I’ll tell him my way of life and let him choose. But if the cat decided to get a gun...’ he looks out of the window. The driver’s been waiting to ask him about Tariq Ali, the British leftist. ‘Yeah. I dig him. He’d leading a revolution in this country and what they don’t understand is that they think they’re dealing ith a bunch of hoolgans. It’s the same back home.’

Either Chicago or the driver makes him slump deeper into his seat. He tells his wife he’s tired and gets back to Chicago. ‘It didn’t surprise me. The syndicate has killed over 1,000 people there.  In 1896, 2,000 draft resisters were gunned down in...’ He asks his wife, she shakes her head. ‘’...somewhere of Michigan Avenue. And you’re asking me to be surprised by Chicago. One cat told me it was becoming a poh-lice state. He’s wrong. It is a poh-lice state and it only proved a beautiful point to every black cat in Amrica. That him and the young white cat better get together fast. And the white cat knows it now.’

There’s a crowd waiting for his midnight show at the Arts Laboroatory.  They sit him atop a piano and listen.  He philosophises on America and answers questions.  There’s less bitterness and just an.... immense sadness.  His humour is gentler now and there’s no talk of hte.  He’s a change from the passionate rhetoric of Jimmy Baldwin and the hysteria of Sammy Davis.  It’s a calm man talking to a crowd of young people... a few black.... and a lot of white.  The tragedy is that they are the young and already understand.  The only elder is a sun-tanned sporty type who wants to know why there are no great black swimmers.

“You can’t blame the cops for what happened in Chicago.  They were just doing their job ... protecting the system.  They’re like my mom.  She’d whup me if I didn’t behave myself.  She was tryin’ to keep me in the system.  And the cop is the keeper of the hosue and he’s doing his best.  Sure he gets scared.  The administration offers him $20,000 if he dies ....”   He shrugs.  His chain-smoked, two-hour monologue is given in a total silence.  He’s done a lot of reading in gaol too for historical facts shore his philosophy.   “When Rap (Brown) says get a gun .... he’s not being original.  What do you think Paul Revere said when he saw the British coming?  America needs a nigger.  We’ve only made the scene lately.  Before that the Southern red–neck had the Jew for his nigger and even then you had to tell the dumb bastard what a Jew was.  Now he’s got me ... and you can see me comin’ from three blocks away.  There are other niggers in America.  You found them in Chicago.  The hippies and the yippies ... and the cops.  We’re niggers all, man.  The hippies and yippies are trying to break out of the system and work their way down, we’re trying to break in and work up.  And when we meet ... American will die.  It will die in eighteen months.  I don’t give my country more time than that.  She’s reached the point of no return.  Britan stole enough wisdom from all them countries she colonised and may ... may save herself.  But America is too dumb and too stupid.”

He stops talking, and the room is quiet.  The questions, American and British accented, only want to know how to be saved.   “You young are the only ones’s who can save the world.  Either the Government deals with you ... or you with the Government.   Yours is a moral revolution, not a political one.”  When questioned he mentions his write-in presidential efforts.  “All I will do is try to tie a tourniquet.”  You spot his wife at the other end sitting with the impassivity of a Masai warrior’s woman watching the lion hunt and the inevitable end.  The black men in the audience ask no questions and sit silent as if ... as if they already know the answers and need no more telling.   You leave at 3.30 with a non hippy-yippy white American. He’d never liked Gregory before.   Now he’s enthusiastic.  He’s going to write him in and get his friends to do the same. “Wouldn’t it be great,” you naively say.   “If he became President with all the hippy, yippy and black votes?  He laughs. “Man, if they thought he had a one per cent chance of making it they’d wipe him out as they did the others.  They’d get him in thirty seconds even if it meant dropping an H-bomb on him.”  You bow to a 21-year old infected with the frightening fatalism of America.  “In fact,” he adds, “Gregory is already a dead man.  It’s only time now.“

 

WE'RE ALL NIGGERS, MAN

I spent an evening with the comedian/activist years ago when I was writing for The Guardian newspaper. Gregory died three days back. What he said then is so pertinent, tragically, to America today. Nothing changes!

WE’RE NIGGER ALL, MAN.

The thin cop is looking worried. He keeps adjusting his glasses as he hovers behind Dick Gregory’sbroad back at the post Frost on Friday studio party. A plump Zapata-moustached producer hovers behind the cop. Dick stops talking to find out what is happening. ‘Evening sir, local police. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave by the back as we’ve had word some blokes are coming to have a rumble with you.’ The producer relaxes as Dick nods, unsmiling, and says he’ll leave. David ambles over, anaemic with make-up, to arrange for the next show.  ‘You were lovely Dick, really lovely. Now tomorrow...’ Ten minutes later, the cops have multiplied to three and all are nervous.

David disappears and Dick wishes goodbye to Malcolm X and an entourage of flowing robed black men.  You go down with him to the waiting car, flanked by cops, feeling very much like a train robber or a presidential candidate. A cop opens the door and says ‘Sorry sir but...’ Dick pats him and says “ Yeah man. You’re just doin’ your jobs.’ His wife sits beside him.

Dick Gregory has changed since you last saw him. Two years back he was an American comic, dressed in an expensive suit spieling prussic acid satire for the late show.  Two years! He’s done some suffering. A couple of spells in goal, a couple of fasts, a couple of “whuppings” by cops. Now he’s dressed in very casual clothes and has a beard. He’s grown too, and you watched it happening. From comic to semi-statesman for Black America. He has...dignity in him and he’s more relaxed, as though he knows what he wants and where he’s going. ‘You do a load of thinking in goal man. A load of it...’

The driver wants to know if violence is the only answer.  ‘Violence is no asnwer man but it’s the only way you got when you’ve examined every legal and moral ground on the subject,’ Dick says, ‘and get no where.’  He’s a non-violent man so you want to know what he’s going to tell the ghetto. ‘I’ll tell him my way of life and let him choose. But if the cat decided to get a gun...’ he looks out of the window. The driver’s been waiting to ask him about Tariq Ali, the British leftist. ‘Yeah. I dig him. He’d leading a revolution in this country and what they don’t understand is that they think they’re dealing ith a bunch of hoolgans. It’s the same back home.’

Either Chicago or the driver makes him slump deeper into his seat. He tells his wife he’s tired and gets back to Chicago. ‘It didn’t surprise me. The syndicate has killed over 1,000 people there.  In 1896, 2,000 draft resisters were gunned down in...’ He asks his wife, she shakes her head. ‘’...somewhere of Michigan Avenue. And you’re asking me to be surprised by Chicago. One cat told me it was becoming a poh-lice state. He’s wrong. It is a poh-lice state and it only proved a beautiful point to every black cat in Amrica. That him and the young white cat better get together fast. And the white cat knows it now.’

There’s a crowd waiting for his midnight show at the Arts Laboroatory.  They sit him atop a piano and listen.  He philosophises on America and answers questions.  There’s less bitterness and just an.... immense sadness.  His humour is gentler now and there’s no talk of hte.  He’s a change from the passionate rhetoric of Jimmy Baldwin and the hysteria of Sammy Davis.  It’s a calm man talking to a crowd of young people... a few black.... and a lot of white.  The tragedy is that they are the young and already understand.  The only elder is a sun-tanned sporty type who wants to know why there are no great black swimmers.

“You can’t blame the cops for what happened in Chicago.  They were just doing their job ... protecting the system.  They’re like my mom.  She’d whup me if I didn’t behave myself.  She was tryin’ to keep me in the system.  And the cop is the keeper of the hosue and he’s doing his best.  Sure he gets scared.  The administration offers him $20,000 if he dies ....”   He shrugs.  His chain-smoked, two-hour monologue is given in a total silence.  He’s done a lot of reading in gaol too for historical facts shore his philosophy.   “When Rap (Brown) says get a gun .... he’s not being original.  What do you think Paul Revere said when he saw the British coming?  America needs a nigger.  We’ve only made the scene lately.  Before that the Southern red–neck had the Jew for his nigger and even then you had to tell the dumb bastard what a Jew was.  Now he’s got me ... and you can see me comin’ from three blocks away.  There are other niggers in America.  You found them in Chicago.  The hippies and the yippies ... and the cops.  We’re niggers all, man.  The hippies and yippies are trying to break out of the system and work their way down, we’re trying to break in and work up.  And when we meet ... American will die.  It will die in eighteen months.  I don’t give my country more time than that.  She’s reached the point of no return.  Britan stole enough wisdom from all them countries she colonised and may ... may save herself.  But America is too dumb and too stupid.”

He stops talking, and the room is quiet.  The questions, American and British accented, only want to know how to be saved.   “You young are the only ones’s who can save the world.  Either the Government deals with you ... or you with the Government.   Yours is a moral revolution, not a political one.”  When questioned he mentions his write-in presidential efforts.  “All I will do is try to tie a tourniquet.”  You spot his wife at the other end sitting with the impassivity of a Masai warrior’s woman watching the lion hunt and the inevitable end.  The black men in the audience ask no questions and sit silent as if ... as if they already know the answers and need no more telling.   You leave at 3.30 with a non hippy-yippy white American. He’d never liked Gregory before.   Now he’s enthusiastic.  He’s going to write him in and get his friends to do the same. “Wouldn’t it be great,” you naively say.   “If he became President with all the hippy, yippy and black votes?  He laughs. “Man, if they thought he had a one per cent chance of making it they’d wipe him out as they did the others.  They’d get him in thirty seconds even if it meant dropping an H-bomb on him.”  You bow to a 21-year old infected with the frightening fatalism of America.  “In fact,” he adds, “Gregory is already a dead man.  It’s only time now.“

 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

CAMELOT AMERICA


CAMELOT AMERICA by Timeri N. Murari.

Once upon a time America was a sunny country. By ‘sunny’ I mean its disposition towards the world. The reason I remember that sunny America is because a friend and I talked about those days. We’re both of that age when we were drawn to America – not to make money but because it seemed a magical place- and it does not seem that long ago. We both come from older civilisations, tired ones even then, and America then was a cool, seductive breeze blowing through our minds and hearts. Of course I saw America from a great distance too and I will try to remember what I saw that so drew me to that innocent country. America had the values of justice, goodness, ethics, morality, freedom, even happiness, that all men have cherished and searched for. No one had any ill-will towards America, with the exception of the USSR.

            It was a heroic country. There is little doubt that without America throwing its might in with the allies in WWII, the world would now be a different place. It wasn’t really America’s war, being fought in distant Europe, and it was safe behind the formidable barriers of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Of course I wasn’t there but my father was and he spoke affectionately of the American soldiers he had met on the battlefields. And of course when the war was over, we saw the Hollywood films with heroic Americans – John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Robert Mitchum, Errol Flynn- battling the enemy. Though I was later told that Hollywood did exaggerate when Errol Flynn won the Burmese front single-handedly and British soldiers duly protested. But that was to be expected, and we knew it was just a movie. Death in those movies wasn’t bloody and real, except for ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ but that was from WWI and the more realistic German view of the carnage. The American heroes were clean cut, always clean shaven, uniforms immaculate, they may have smoked, but they were always courteous and polite, even to the enemy, and treated their Prisoners of War strictly according to the Geneva Convention.

            Europe had been ravaged by the war, and America once more showed her generosity and kindness. The Marshall Plan helped re-built the destroyed cities. America pumped in $13 billions – on the conditions that the European nations acted as a single economic unit and that all the necessary material be bought from America on American ships- and by 1953 Europe was back on its feet.  Long before WWII, Mohandas Gandhi had been campaigning for Indian Independence and America had always supported his campaign.  America wanted an end to colonialism and the suppression in the colonised nations, as it did genuinely believe in both freedom and democracy.

            These were events of the past before I even became aware of this country. I suppose my introduction to America and its value came first through the magazines that entered my house. There was the Saturday Evening Post, a glossy, cheerful magazine about the American way of life. Often as not the covers were the paintings of an artist called Norman Rockwell. He painted a happy America – kids playing baseball or basketball, a cop with a kid in a soda parlour, a boy in a doctor’s surgery, a family in prayer over a thanksgiving dinner. His subjects were white as far I remember, and their world seemed seductive and serene. No other racial colours intruded, and because of that I wasn’t aware others existed in that America.  Life magazine was equally glossy with a vision not only of America but the world and it had a stark black and white reality that was powerful and moving. At times it revealed a darker side of the nation.

            American movies captivated not only me but the whole world – ‘Made in Hollywood’ was the end credit. In Madras we sat in darkened theatres – Roxy, Minerva, Midland, Elphinstone- and watched America unfold before our eyes. Cartoons, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, slapstick comedies Laurel & Hardy, Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, the great Marx Brothers movies and gentle comedies like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ with James Stewart, ‘High Society’ with Cary Grant, the most urbane sophisticated star. And if you were male those Hollywood Westerns – ‘Shane’, ‘High Noon’ and even the run-of-the-mill Cowboys and Indians- mesmerized us. No other nation could make Westerns like a John Ford.  And who can forget the sensual innocence of Marilyn Monroe. But it wasn’t all sunny in American movies. There was the dark underbelly of injustice on the screen. Henry Fonda in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (made before I was born but I caught it somewhere as it took a slow boat to India), ‘I was a Member of the Chain Gang’, and film noir gangster films ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘Double Indemnity’ to name a few that came to the city. And even such Westerns as ‘The Searchers’ were dark. The cult film of that time was ‘East Rider’ with its tragic finale. These films were in a different universe to the Saturday Evening Post and yet they still revealed the American heart that such films could be made. America wasn’t all apple pie.

            There was the music too reaching us across the radio – Sinatra, Crosby, Damone, Page- and the exciting jazz of Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, MJQ, Davis. The best novelists were American – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, O’Hara- writers to be emulated.

            When I finally arrived in America in the 60s, it was as I’d expected it to be. It was the age of the baby boomers, those 70 million teenagers conceived after WWII. They were changing America from its staid conservative past with their eager revolutionary idea on art, education, life styles and in politics.  What better definition of the age of innocence than the Barbie doll which was created in the 60s and swept America, and the world.  I decided to drive across this nation and took a car out of Detroit heading towards Seattle. It was a Pontiac Bonneville, powder blue convertible the size of a small ship with fins like a shark and it drank gas like an alcoholic booze. Pontiac is now as extinct as the dinosaur but it raced like a silken dream. America reeled out like her movies and magazines, the landscapes were so familiar, the music on the radio still evocative. The air was electric and heady with the wide open space and the freedom from time and identity.

I passed through small towns where ‘A Wonderful Life’ could have been shot and saw the buttes and plains of John Ford’s westerns. Wherever I stopped – to sleep or eat- I was met with both curiosity and kindness. There was a mood of calm and boundless optimism in the society. The Americans I met later in the suburbs and invited into their homes were boundlessly hospitable, contented, and if I can say so from this distance, happy with their lot.

The population was then around 177 million and the average salary around $4700 per annum. And of course they were the affluent society that Kenneth Galbraith wrote about. There wasn’t any greed and the measuring rod for wealth were the Rockefellers, (immortalised by Cole Porter in a song) worth a few hundred million dollars back then but it sounded astronomical. Only the American budget ran into a few billions. The people were quietly religious and respected other religions.  Billy Graham was the most popular preacher but he never breathed out brimstone or invectives.

It was the days when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, the first time seen live ever in America, and the ratings went through the roof. The Beatles even elbowed out Elvis Presley and other white singers like Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka and Jerry Lee Lewis. It would seem the true creators of the blues and rock would never be acknowledge but Motown Records introduced Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, the Supremes and other black artists who, for the first time, rocketed up the music charts. The drug culture changed the music again and America invented psychedelic rock and new bands like The Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Aeroplane pumped out high decibel music. And of course there was that legendary Woodstock a three-day festival that drew 400,000 young people to sing, dance, smoke pot and zonk out on acid. No, I never got to Woodstock. I had meant to but I was on the other side of the continent. This was counter culture age of the hippies who had originated in San Francisco and spread across the country. Long hair and beads and chanting mantra became popular and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi giggled his way to a fortune. I never followed him though I wrote about those charlatans.  In sports a young light middleweight boxer, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) won a gold in the 1960 Olympics and came to dominate the sport through the 60s and 70s and was the most famous man on the planet.

Eisenhower had finished his term in office and America had elected JFK. He was young, he had a sense of wit and purpose to make America a more just country with his plans for desegregation. He and his administration – ‘the best and the brightest’- were admired in America and around the world. All seemed right both in America and the World with his coming. Though we all lived under a nuclear nightmare than nearly came too real in the Cuban missile crisis.  One of my all time favourite novels ‘Catch-22’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, one satirising WWII and the other American society were published during this time. While on television ‘M*A*S*H’, a satire on the Korean War, was a hit series.  It was also the time of the Civil Rights movement and the black people invisible in those Norman Rockwell paintings were pushing their way onto the canvas. I was on the steps of my university hall when I heard of his assassination. And despite the mourning, America hadn’t yet lost its verve. But gradually, the Vietnam War, that original quagmire, began to take its toll on the American spirit. And changed the world’s perception of this marvellous country.  A protesting student in Kent State University was shot dead. The My Lai massacre and the napalming of children soured my perception of America. The war had it’s terrible toll – over 58,000 American, many of them conscripted through the draft, 230,000 South Vietnamese and between 1.5 to 3 million north Vietnamese died in that war. The countryside was devastated through Agent Orange and other chemicals. The American government was starting to flex its military might around the world, even invading tiny Grenada when a few American students were roughed up. In Chile, the CIA assassinated the legitimately elected president, Allende and replaced him with the monstrous Pinochet.

The moral compass that had guided America began to swing away. The first Gulf War may have been justifiable but the sanctions that followed on Iraq killed thousands of children. The Secretary of State under President Clinton, Madeline Albright, callously called that ‘collateral damage’. I suppose that was mild in comparison of what followed. America squandered all the world’s compassion after 9/1 with its reckless might. The reason for second invasion of Iraq was built on a quicksand of lies and deceptions of the American people as the War on Terror. Today, America is Kafka country – illegal detentions, torture, renditions, secret prisons, wire tapping, spying on its citizens, the Supreme Court perverted, rigged presidential elections. Any cheap dictator would be proud to exercise such powers. And America found one – Donald Trump.

My friend and I remembered that once upon a time America dreamt of Camelot.

(www.timerimurari.com)

Friday, May 5, 2017

Joy Of Reading