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Last weekend, the Four Quarters Magazine organized a lovely event, themed “Bordering, Translations” at the Attic in Delhi. I had a beautiful afternoon moderating the panel “Post-Memory, Commemoration, and Trauma: The Partition Retold.” It was one of those magical afternoons when I heard panelists listen to and build upon one another’s ideas, have real conversations rather than a series of monologues, and invite in the audience not just to ask questions but also to offer responses.

Despite a bad cold and being heavily crocin-ed, I learned a lot, particularly about the Eastern Partition and the many ways in which those big historical events continue to play out in contemporary India in particular and South Asia in general. So much so that, in my opening remarks, I renamed the session “The PartitionS Retold” because the previous panels had made it so clear that there is no singular way to talk about such diverse phenomena.

Here’s more about the event, as covered by the Sunday Guardian (in the section “Young and Restless,” no less! ;) ).

Speaking from the Borderlines

Spring arrives in my garden

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When my mother and I moved to my grandfather’s house 2 years ago, there was a shriveled up tree in one corner that we were advised to cut down. It was a peach tree my grandfather had planted perhaps a decade earlier, but it had never borne flowers or fruit. It had gotten too little sun, its roots had been badly damaged by rats, and the nearby wall of a tank my grandfather had once built was keeping it from growing further.

Neither Mum nor I had any experience gardening — this was the first time in our lives we had a garden — but for some reason, we believed in that little tree. For some reason, we were sure it was stronger than that. I kept telling Mum, “I don’t believe that life is that fragile.” So we refused to cut down the tree. Instead we broke the tank wall so as to free up space for the roots, got the garden treated for rodents, and pruned nearby trees to give it more sunshine. And then, we gave the little tree lots of love (for the only time in my life, I even prayed for a tree).

Sure enough, the little tree grew big and strong. Within months of our decision not to cut the tree, we came out into the garden one day to see its first blossoms. That summer, we plucked and ate the most delicious homegrown peaches. In the monsoon, the tree shot up, doubled to over twice its size, like it had just been hungry to grow and was so excited to have this space now.

Now 2 1/2 years later, it is among the first things to bloom in the garden, these gorgeous, delicate flowers heralding the arrival of Spring. In ways that these photos can express much better than words can, my grandfather’s garden will always be a reminder of springs following winters, of life outlasting death, of love begetting beauty, of the deep joy of belief.IMG_2779

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Friendships Across Borders

This Valentine’s Day, a few of us on both sides of the India-Pakistan border decided to flood our social media spaces with a deeper, less commercial love — a love for the people we have long been told to fear, but who feel like friends and even family. “Friendships Across Borders: Aao, Dosti Karein” was born as Chintan Girish Modi’s dream, which he explains beautifully in this article: Friendships Across Borders: Valentine’s Day RedefinedIn part, the article says “There is a lot of hate speech out there. Instead of  feeling bogged down by it or confronting it,  should we not flood the social media with love speech instead? Let us reclaim the word ‘love’ and not be embarrassed by it, laugh at it, or call it naive. Let us speak of a love that enables Indians and Pakistanis to see other aspects of themselves and each other, beyond the nationality they were born into or identify with. Friendships Across Borders  will build on the power of personal friendships to transform the long-standing hostility between India and Pakistan.”As part if this initiative I wrote this lyric essay for my friend Sadiqa Ali Sultan, from Quetta in Pakistan. Sadiqa runs a community TV channel that seeks to be a voice of the Hazara community, and she is passionate about standing in solidarity with movements of non-violent resistance across the world. She and I met in December 2013 at CONTACT-South Asia, a training program in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding, organized in Kathmandu by the School of International Training, Vermont.

In this one, you are sitting across from me in the hotel lobby, long after everyone else has gone to their rooms for the night. It is a cold Kathmandu night, and the receptionist won’t turn the heater on for us because he claims he is out of matches. The heater does not need matches. He leaves, and we continue to talk. I want to move to a corner of the room, but you don’t want to give up the comfortable rexine sofa chairs in the middle of the room. You tell me they are warmer because we’ve been sitting in them for some time, and I laugh. I suppose corners mean less when there are no other people around.

As the night deepens, so does our conversation. You are talking animatedly, and your chadar slips. You fix it a few times, then get too engrossed in the conversation to bother any longer. I see, for the first time, how beautiful your hair is. I cannot help thinking of this as a metaphor for the intimacies our cultures only allow between women, the possibility of letting a covering slip.

We talk about men and marriage. We will return to this topic again in the days to come, more than once. You will be present in the moment that I discover love; I will name it to you before he and I even talk about it, and you will be more excited about this relationship than he or I are. But that will be later. Tonight, as we sink deeply onto these red rexine sofas, we are talking about you, about the past and the future, about your disappointments and your dreams. I am moved as I watch that covering slip too.

You and I come from different worlds. You tell me that I am too urban for your understanding — angrez ki aulaad, you like to call me. I admit to you how little I relate to your growing up among nine siblings, to your laying bricks, to your people’s genocide. I tell you about growing up with a single mother, and you tell me about your mother’s early death. You tell me how much you admire my struggle against disability, even tell me how you wish you could pledge your eyes to me. I tell you how much I respect your deft balancing between the contrasting worlds you inhabit: mera culture mere liye bahut important hai, you tell me, magar mein thodi international bhi hoon na. You ask me for courage, and I tell you that you are the most courageous person I know.

We snuggle into our shawls, gently rolling our shoulders that are stiff from the cold. From the corner of our eyes, we see a friend approach, and you are quick to resume the hijab. He sits on my sofa armrest for a bit, showing us a book we have all been curious about. After a few minutes, I tell him he came in just when you were at a cliffhanger in your story. He laughs, apologizes, leaves. Your eyes smile as you ask if it’s polite to ask someone to leave. I tell you he’s a close enough friend for it to be okay, and I know you are not convinced, but you smile and resume your story.

When we are back in our countries, Skyping across one of the world’s most contested borders, we greet each other in a common language. I introduce you to my mother. You tell me about your father’s sheep and the grounds they graze in. Suddenly, we long to be able to visit each-other’s homes. We are saddened by the difficulty of that visit, at least for now, at least until our countries learn to embrace each other. After we hang up, you leave me a Facebook message: “Talking to you is talking to myself.” My eyes fill with tears as I think of all the borders you and I have crossed to discover ourselves in each other.

Don't miss the serendipitous caption within the photo: "Boundary representation is not necessarily accurate"

With Daniel, the Dean of the School of International Training. Don’t miss the serendipitous caption within the photo: “Boundary representation is not necessarily accurate” :)

If you’d like to read more of these stories, or contribute one of your own, do visit the Friendships Across Borders facebook page

New Creative Writing Workshop starts 9th March

I’m winding down my current writing workshop and getting ready to start a new group on 9th March, 2014. We’ll run through the end of May 2014, and I’m looking forward to several new and several old faces as we form another beautiful community of readers, writers, and friends. For those of you interested in joining us, here are details :)

workshop flier March 2014

And before you shoot me an email, you might want to read these frequently asked questions :)

workshop FAQ

Independence Day Reminiscing

When I came home from graduate school for the first time after my grandfather’s death, my grandmother asked me to choose one of his possessions as a memento, something he owned that reminded me of him most fondly. I didn’t need a moment to think before asking for a giant (ok, 24 by 18 inches!) jute covered book with simple maroon lettering on its cover “India’s Struggle for Independence: Visuals and Documents”

I grew up with my grandfather’s stories about the independence movement. He was only a teenager when the British rule ended — 18, I think — but those were exciting times in which to have been a teenager. He was full of stories and passions, opinions and memories. I must have been 6 or 7 years old when he started taking me in his lap and opening out the giant (now you get why it feels giant!) book in front of us. The book contains some explanatory notes on various moments in the freedom struggle, but for the most part, it replicates newspaper articles, photographs, letters and maps. It is more scrapbook than textbook, more archive than commentary. In my grandfather’s lap and in the pages of that book, the independence movement wasn’t something that happened a long time ago; it was present, it was alive, it was playing out in front of my eyes.

As I grew a little older, he showed me another book. I forget the compiler and publishing house, and I gave up looking for it a long time ago, but this was a thick, hardbound light green book named “Martyrs of India.” There was a photo on the front cover, but I am no longer sure what the photograph depicted. A noose? Perhaps. I cannot remember. But I remember that book as my introduction to Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh (or Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, as he later called himself), the figures in Indian history who chose a different path from the Gandhis and Nehrus. It was my first introduction to how Chandra Shekhar Tiwari would only tell the magistrate that his last name was “Azad” (free) and thereby became Chandra Shekhar Azad. In years to come, I would read more, in school and out of school, about different parts of the Independence struggle, and I would learn to disagree with my grandfather about some of his idols. But early on, in his lap or in the chair by the window in his bedroom, I learned about the largeness of the struggle for independence, about the differences within it, about some of the complexities of representation and reportage.

As I graduated from school and went abroad to study at a college that prided itself on fostering “global citizens,” and as I created homes and families in different countries, I learned intuitively and academically to question the idea of “nationalism” on which so much of this Independence movement was based. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, an early 20th century Japanese educator, whose writings form the foundation upon which my university was built, talks about 3 levels of citizenship — the local, the national, and the global. He stresses the importance of identifying with the local and the global in order to avoid being swept away by the national (as someone who was imprisoned and ultimately killed in prison during World War 2 for being a “thought criminal,” he clearly understood nationalism’s dangers). Back home, as India moves aggressively towards becoming a stronger nuclear power and lapses periodically into the anti-Pakistan war rhetoric, I have learned to step aside from nationalist rhetoric. As I began working for an organization that talks about nation-building and “working for India,” I learned to identify for myself that I don’t work for India; I work for ideals like peace, justice, community, dignity, and freedom from want. I will work for them in India or anywhere with the same degree of love and commitment. And when I feel that India doesn’t stand for them, I will criticize it with the same anger that I would criticize it anywhere else. Nationalism, to that extent, lost meaning for me.

But yesterday, I became aware that I may have lost something else in this process of critical understanding, that I may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. When this year’s 15th August came and went without any surge of nostalgia or passion, I felt a little empty. Not because I felt unpatriotic but because I felt the absence of a history that had once coursed passionately through me. I felt the absence of my grandfather’s stories. I felt afraid that, with his death, I was allowing myself to forget how recent colonialism was, how recently my family (like so many Delhi families) had been refugees of one of the bloodiest population transfers in history. I felt, in some ways, story-less.

I don’t have to be nationalist to be proud of, and grateful for, the legacies handed down to me and my generation. I can recognize that it is because so many people in the generations before mine worked so hard to build this nation that I can choose not to be “nationalist,” that I can choose ideals over geography. I want my children to inherit that understanding, to know that the Independence struggle wasn’t about anonymous individuals from a forgotten era, or just about the Gandhis and Nehrus — that the freedoms they can take for granted were hard-won by countless individuals with loves and hurts and beliefs and sacrifices, individuals like their great-grandfather. And for the moments when I forget that, I am grateful I can reopen that book full of visuals and documents, reread Marx’s letter to Engels about how 1857 would come to be seen not as a revolt but as the first uprising for independence, reread the newspaper from the day that India won independence, and remember everything that those moments in history continue to mean in this one.