Friday, January 16, 2015

Political Rage: A review of Bhoj Raj Neupane's poetry collection "Chhuteko Jutta" छुटेको जुत्ता


This appeared in Republica on January 16, 2014.

Poetry is the expression of sensibilities. Emotions and ideas knock any sensible person but only a poet can express them in words. A poet´s success is measured by the ability ofhis/her poems to touch the readers´ sensibilities. By this yardstick, young poet Bhoj Raj Neupane can be called a successful poet.

Neupane´s poetry collection "Chhuteko Jutta" (Missed shoe) contains 37 simple poems with the general theme of the pains of common Nepalis. Ten years of insurgency, absurd politics, inhuman rituals, gender discrimination, and many other social evils have subjected the commoner to grief. The poems give voice to these commoners. In the poem "Kehi Sana Sapanaharu" (Some small dreams), a conflict victim addresses the poet and recounts the death of her daughter at the hands of militants. Other victims too pour out their pains to the poet and urge all not to engage in war again. Even if the poet calls it a dream vision, this unfolding of events used to be an everyday reality of the conflict-hit people whose cry for justice is still unheard.

That Neupane is a politically aware poet is clear by his choice of making politics the major subject of his poems. It is unfortunate that Nepali politics deserves only the scorn from all quarters because of its waywardness. The Maoists fought a bitter war against the state in the name of bringing revolutionary changes in the country. But once they got the power, they forgot all their ideals and became part of the same system they were supposed to change in the first place. Having made use of commoners to wage the war, the leaders conveniently forgot them after joining mainstream politics. Many combatants were left wounded and disabled.

"Chhuteko Jutta", the most powerful poem in the collection, paints the picture of a former Maoist combatant who lost his legs in combat and is now left behind to fend for himself in the streets. By showing the death of mobility of a commoner, the poem sharply satirizes the apathy of the leaders for their activists.

It is due to the directionless politics of Nepal that many youths choose to become migrant workers.

In "Bhagda Bhagdai: Ek Chintan" (Fleeing: A Thought), the speaker declares that he has become an anti-national person by trying to go abroad as nothing good can happen in this country. The speaker tried to stand on his own feet but the cartel and syndicate-dominated system brutally murdered his dream. The only alternative is going abroad. All the ideals of nationalism fail to retain a youth when the country is in such bleak conditions.

Similar is the emotion expressed in the poem "Maatoma" (Under the Soil) in which the speaker tells an interlocutor to put him under the soil as he cannot make proper use of his brain and brawn.

Not only are the current situations disappointing in Nepal but even the future seems murky as leaders are mulling over splitting the country along ethnic lines and thus preparing for a long strife.

In "Naakko Katha" (The Story of Noses), noses of different dimensions, signifying different ethnic groups, fight against each other and a situation arrives when all the noses are cut off. Later, in a twisted political decision, the entire noseless people are given capital punishment. Through this dystopian narrative, the poet warns the leaders of the perils of federalism along ethnic lines.

Whether it is the extension of his rage against the absurd politics of Nepal or his oversensitivity, Neupane appears misanthropic in some of his poems.

In "Dhunga" (Stone), the poet compares the heartless stone with duplicitous and conniving people and puts the stone on a higher pedestal.

Similarly in "Charaaharuko Bibek" (Birds´ Conscience), the poet praises birds for their freedom and borderless movement while humans are divided by the borders of castes, religions and nationalities.

The evil aspects of humans have been recorded in most of the poems which may lead the reader to think that the poet is an incorrigible pessimist.

Simplicity is the hallmark of Neupane´s poetry, but at times his poems appear simplistic. Many reactive poems—those written after reading a news piece—like "Lati Bishwakarma" (Mute Bishwakarma), "Aasuko Nadee" (River of Tears), "Kapilvastuki Amrita" (Amrita from Kapilvastu) appear to be mere structuring of words in verse, lacking depth. It appears as if Neupane´s journalistic past has superimposed his poetic sensibility. What he couldn´t react in the news dispatches gets expressed in the poems.

The above analysis has made it clear that Neupane writes realistic poems. The reflection of society´s ills is what his poems are all about.

A question can be raised here: Is the poet supposed to function like a mirror and merely show the society as it is or is s/he supposed to be a lamp and spread light in the darkness? Rather than complaining about society´s ills all the time, a poet can spread hope and become agent of change.

Contemporary Nepali poetry seems to have overlooked this fact and thus political poems have appeared in abundance these days. I hope Neupane doesn´t limit himself to writing these kinds of poems. It would be a waste of his poetic sensibility.

Tug of War : Charlie Hebdo killngs

This appeared in Republica on January 13, 2015.


The recent attack on Charlie Hebdo and killing of 12 journalists has provoked intense debate on the limits of freedom of expression. While a civilized society can never condone the taking of human lives, incident at Charlie Hebdo is not as simple as it appears.

That Charlie Hebdo lampooned one and all without discrimination is partially true. In recent years, the weekly was disproportionately irreverent against Muslims who comprise just seven percent of the French population. It misused the name of free expression to toe the French far-right party National Front’s line in ridiculing the minorities. It had been giving voice to the deep-seated fear of the majority against the surging number of immigrants. Some cartoons showed pregnant Muslim women crying for their welfare rights, the underlying meaning being that they drain French resources by producing many babies. This bordered on hate speech against the minority but French Muslims kept their silence.

Jacob Canfield in the Hooded Utilitarian minces no words in exposing Charlie Hebdo’s reality. He says, “Its cartoons often represent a certain virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally’, the cartoons they publish are intentionally ‘anti-Islam’ and frequently sexist and homophobic.” The cartoons were in bad taste and lacked satirical values. They were rather sketched to see how far the limits of the freedom of expression could be stretched.

Then there was the deliberate provocation of Muslim fury by producing crude cartoons on Prophet Mohammad. Despite knowing well that the Islamic faith prohibits the depiction of any images of the God and His prophet, the provocateurs at Charlie Hebdo sketched Mohammad’s naked body and exposure of his genitals. The faithful were naturally angered. This militant approach against religion was bound to invite militant response. The right to offend will inevitably entail the right to be offended.

But killing even a single person cannot be justified by any means. The Holy Koran condemns the loss of any innocent life. In fact, the attack suspects at Charlie Hebdo office spared female reporter Sigolene Vinson caught in the crossfire saying that their religion forbade them to take a woman’s life.

It is unfortunate that militant Islam’s barbarism has grown by the day with new and newer outfits trying to outdo the other by orchestrating gruesome murders in the name of the faith. Because the violence catches the headlines, many people have come to believe that Islam itself is an inherently violent religion. The imposition of medieval sharia laws and appalling treatment of women and people from other faiths in many Islamic countries too have fanned flames to the accusation. The peace-loving believers have not got as much prominence as necessary.
Some people have tried to portray this unfortunate episode as the clash between Islam and the West. This is too simplistic a binary to indulge in. The lunatic murderers in no way represent the whole Islamic faith, despite their claims to the contrary, and I don’t think Charlie Hebdo represents the whole West, which seeks to respect all faiths. If the latest statistics by the Pew Research is to be believed, French hold respect for Muslims more than other Europeans. It means Charlie Hebdo does not even represent the whole French. After all, secular values are all-embracing rather than alienating. This is a clash between two fanatics.

What then to make of overwhelming response to Charlie Hebdo massacre and the twitter-fare of Je Suis Charlie? I believe it’s the show of solidarity against the mode of response (taking lives) to affront in a civilized society. But this solidarity march should be viewed in a dispassionate manner. Why do the same bleeding hearts not gather when the powerful western countries kill thousands of innocent people in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan? No large-scale demonstration in support of the innocents killed in drone attacks has been observed.

Now that the terrorists have struck at the very heart of the west’s cultural center, all this show of solidarity has appeared. But has anyone thought about what French Muslims are going through? Having been ridiculed as economy-sapping leeches, their cultural dress being banned in the name of secularism and their deep-held faith being mercilessly lampooned, even a moderate Muslim feels cornered. But the majority French Muslims remained calm. The charge against Muslims that they all are squeamish holds no water.

The British and American responses to Charlie Hebdo incident expose their hypocrisy. These two countries don’t allow any offense against religion, de jure or de facto but rush to offer support to the irreverent newspaper in France. In 2006, the UK government promulgated Racial and Religious Hatred Act and introduced “incitement to religious hatred” as a penal offense, which not just incorporates the majority Christianity but all faiths. Many have been jailed for the offense. The US campuses where supposedly the discussion of all issues is held without discrimination don’t entertain radical figures who have challenged religious clerics. As The New York Times’s columnist David Brooks argues in his latest article, “Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.”

Many newspapers around the world showed their respect to Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by reproducing less provocative cartoons from the weekly. This can’t be interpreted as them being afraid of a terrorist attack. Rather, it is their respect for Muslims’ religious sensibilities which disallows depiction of religious figures in images. It is a case of responsible journalism rather than self-censorship.

While the loss of human lives shakes my conscience, we should also remember not to misuse the freedom of expression to hurt others’ faith. After all, freedom of expression is not absolute. I am certainly not Charlie Hebdo.
 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Rahul Pandita's "Our Moon Has Blood Clots"

Rahul Pandita's moving memoir "Our Moon Has Blood Clots" is one of the most powerful books I've read in recent times. The plights of Kashmiri Pandits, forcibly evacuated from the Valley in 1990 by Pakistan-backed Islamic militants has been faithfully recorded. Pandits had been historically suffering at the hands of Dogra and Islamic rulers but post-1990 violence against them crossed all limits. The writer himself belongs to the Pandit family and was threatened with dire consequences if his family remained in the Valley. Many of his acquaintances and relatives were mercilessly killed by militants. The refugee settlement in Jammu was appalling. Worryingly, the government was/is apathetic towards them. The writer compares Pandits' pains with that of Jews under Nazi regime. Written lucidly with philosophical insights, this moving account generates sympathy for poor Pandits who had/have to live under fear and persecution without no fault of their own.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

JM Coetzee's "Disgrace"



JM Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel “Disgrace” is a story of misplaced chivalry and its repercussions. The dynamics of traditional man-woman relationship is laid bare when the woman rejects man’s protective interest to assert her individuality.

Professor David Lurie’s loneliness and libido drives him to the arms of his pupil Melanie with devastating consequences. He chooses to be sacked from the university when Melanie files a complaint against him. Then he goes to his daughter Lucy’s place far away and during his stay Lucy is subjected to a horrific crime. Both Melanie and Lucy reject the protection offered by Lurie. Although Lurie is disgraced twice, Coetzee doesn’t make him a hateful figure, rather the reader’s sympathy lies with him.

Another entangled theme of the novel is that physical gratification can never relieve one of loneliness.    

The historic injustice to Africans and their revenge, women’s choice of abortion, euthanasia and many other issues too appear in the narrative, making it a serious literary fiction. Coetzee’s graceful use of language makes it a delightful read.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood”



I enjoyed Haruki Murakami’s sad novel “Norwegian Wood”. A confession first: I had avoided Murakami for a long time after hearing from many that his fractured narratives make a difficult read. I’m not fond of non-linear plot and all those mind games and magical realism stuff (Murakami’s signature style) don’t appeal me. But this novel is different. Toru’s loneliness and his meeting with strange characters like Storm Trooper, Nagasawa, Midori, Naoko, Reiko and others kept me hooked to the story. Sadness experienced by Toru and his non-attachment with people along with the death hanging over the narrative can subject the sensitive reader to gloom and can prove off-putting. However, Murakami’s spiritual commentary on anomie brought about by the modern time and space and the inadequacy of physical love (there is plenty of hardcore sex in the novel) to relieve one of boredom is excellent. Quirky characters make this novel interesting.  

Monday, December 22, 2014

Carlos Ruiz Zafón's "The Shadow of the Wind"

Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón's thrilling novel "The Shadow of the Wind" is one of the best reads. Translated into English by Lucia Graves, this novel of epic proportion pays homage to writing and creative process.

Daniel is a young bookkeeper who stumbles across a novel named "The Shadow of the Wind" by an obscure writer Julian Carax. After being fascinated by the novel, Daniel looks for other works by the writer but finds that someone has been destroying every copy of every novel the writer has written. Even Daniel's life  is put on edge various times during his search for the elusive writer. A fearsome police officer Xavier Fumero threatens Daniel's life as there is a history of hatred between Fumero and Carax. But the revelation of the book-destroyer towards the end comes as a shock to the reader .

The novel is not trapped into the conventions of the genre as its lyrical style and play with various emotions testify. Multiple stories are nested within one another and they unravel in a fascinating manner. Never does the reader come across a dull moment in the novel. Highly recommended!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Prashant Jha’s “Battles of the New Republic

Prashant Jha’s book “Battles of the New Republic” left me depressed; no, no the book is excellent but Nepali politics sucks. Throughout the book, Jha shows that all our political developments are at the mercy of our southern neighbor. This begs the question: Are we even independent?

As a political reporter, Jha had unparalleled access to key actors in Nepali politics and he was even in contact with Indian spooks who had greater hand in Nepali politics than imagined. All of them categorically confirm that Nepali politicians were/are mere puppets at the hands of Indian masters. However, by focusing on Indian hand so much, Jha may have missed the angle of Western intervention. 

Jha is all for change in current political dispensation. While Nepal certainly progressed from being a Hindu Kingdom to a secular republic but things have not changed much in the ground. The writer had pinned much hope in Maoists and Madheshi forces to usher in vital changes in the country but they too were splintered in several factions and were rather co-opted by the old system they were trying to change in the first place. He is a little disappointed with this.

Jha’s extensive analysis of the Madheshi movement helps gain the knowledge of pains and anger the community feels. But the narrow casteist politics of Madheshis as exposed by Jha makes the reader conclude that left to themselves, Madheshis will leave the region in lurch.

I was mesmerized by the lucid prose style of the writer in the book. Even if this book seems to be intended for the audience outside Nepal, even Nepali readers will get a clear perspective of our politics by reading it.