Mumbai Expressions Anju Makhija

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anju makhija

This year, the monsoons played truant at first, and then came in full swing. For an agricultural economy like India, the rains are an absolute necessity—inflation is presently at an all-time high. Now, the festive season of Diwali begins. Most people are familiar with this ‘Festival of Lights’ celebrated with great fervor in the cities and villages. Diyas dot streets and fire crackers go off everywhere to celebrate the victory of good over evil. Indian festivals are usually steeped in mythology and one wonders if the ideas apply in today’s scenario, where evil seems to win over good!


Gloom prevails in the hearts of city dwellers this year. Violence is on the increase in India and not a day passes without some incident of rape; even 5-year old children are not spared. Suicide is also rampant and Mumbai, often described as ‘Maximum City’, is now being termed ‘Suicide City’. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s spectacular victory in the last elections, and his eclectic foreign trips (recently, he spoke at Madison Square Garden, New York), the world applauds India’s progress. But, is this the price we pay for growth? The west has already dealt with many developmental issues such as violence, but till few years ago, these were practically unknown in Indian society.


In the past few years, consumerism has eroded practically all values, even in remote
places. In a global environment, young college kids seem to prefer McDonald hamburgers to idly sambar. Are the burgers better? Probably not, but the advertising for fast food, specially on TV, is more effective. Children are also facing harsh conditions in schools with teachers frequently beating them. The Right to Education Act, which came into effect in 2010, prohibits physical punishment and mental harassment. Despite this, studies show that many teachers feel that punishing children is a part of ‘normal’ upbringing. A study paper, released by the National Commission for Protection of the Child Rights (NCPCR), describes several justifications given by teachers—some actually believe that it will help youth achieve success and makes them better citizens!



Finally, some parents and enlightened educationists are coming to their rescue. The focus is to make young ones aware of violent activities and sexually advances. Some schools have introduced songs about rape even at the preschools level. The motto is: ‘spread awareness and teach kids to defend themselves.’ What a dreadful time we live in! Mary Kom, the boxer, who recently won a gold medal at the Asian Games, has become an icon. A film based on her life was made recently with popular Bollywood actor, Priyanka Chopra. Girls all over the country have been inspired by Ms. Kom, whose life represents struggle and triumph.


mary kom

At an interesting panel discussion at the Press Club, Mumbai on ‘The Role of Media,’ professionals were concerned that the news today is turning morbid, with crime and scams getting maximum coverage. There was a feeling that more space should be devoted to ‘sunshine stories’. Daan Utsav (formerly, the Joy of Giving Week) was launched on the occasion and the general public was encouraged to help in any way possible. A photography contest was organized by the Press Club for underprivileged children and other such fruitful efforts are taking place throughout the city.

Fortunately, the cultural scene keeps our spirits high. This season, one looks forward to literary festivals all over the country. In Mumbai, the major one is Tata Literature Live! with Anil Dharker as its director. This annual event attracts local and international personalities. Perhaps, what makes it different from the others is that it includes live performances based on literary texts. Last year, Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales was performed by well-known actor Naseerudin Shah. Children’s literature is often ignored but Literature Live gives it some importance. In the past decade, many publishers like Tulika, Scholastic and Duckbill, have entered the field and the quality of their books is top-notch. However, very few Indian poets write for youngsters and our school texts still include many ‘foreign’ poems, totally unrelated to the Indian’s environment. In the past, great figures like Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, created for children—thankfully, some senior contemporary poets like Adil Jussawalla and Keki Daruwalla are doing the same.


The Jaipur Literature Festival, (JLF), now recognized as the biggest and most prestigious in the region, is still a few months away (21025 Jan 2015) but the buzz is in the air. Heavy weights like Nobel Laureate, VS Naipaul, Man Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton, novelist Hanif Kureishi as well as travel writer Paul Theroux are scheduled to attend. Prominent Hindi poet, Kedarnath Singh, Booker Prize Nominee Neel Mukherjee, best-selling novelist, Amish Tripathi are other participants. This year, JLF will celebrate South Asia through all genres of writing. It will also showcase the rich literature of the seven, sister states of the North-East. The festival programme includes Hindi, Urdu, Rajasthani, Marathi, Manipuri, Kannadiga, Telugu, Tamil, Sanskrit, Punjabi and Pali writers. A new section has been year added: ‘Jaipur BookMark’, a B2B platform that offers a place for the global publishing community to come together and discuss issues and challenges faced by the industry. The country’s rapidly-changing digital and print publishing landscape is also part of panel discussions.


Mumbai also recently celebrated the 100 Thousand Poets for Change festival. This year, they collaborated with the National Streets for Performing Arts (NSPA), a non-profit initiative to revive the culture of public performances and support the livelihood of artists. It also associated with SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women). Jhelum Paranjape released the fourth edition of a five-volume series, titled If the Roof Leaks, Let it Leak, edited by Menka Shivdasani. This volume has 15 writers from different languages such as Sindhi and Dogri. The title is taken from Nirmala Putul’s poem included in the book. The evening reconfirmed that, despite India’s economic strength, the benefits are yet reach the rural areas. The occasion also included music; in a touching song, a rural singer referred to her husband’s suicide, wondering how she would continue as she had never been to school!


India recently lost one of its literary giants, Nabarun Bhattacharya, who redefined Bengali literature. He is known to have once said: ‘Never shut your eyes fully, even in meditation, always keep them half open. Keep in touch with the world in self-repose. Watch the Buddha, his eyes are half-open even in contemplation. Always retain a relationship to people, to reality…’


Irwin Allan Sealy’s eagerly-awaited, new novel has also been in the news. The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, is being hailed as yet another masterpiece in which the protagonists are three ordinary workmen. Sealy stated in an interview: this is a book about labour—the labour of building and the labour of writing. An old mali (gardener), one of the main characters in the story, embodies change and constancy. He went on to say, I hope to attain some of that equanimity someday. Sealy’s first novel, The Trotter-Nama, A Chronicle had won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (1989) for the best first book.


Anju Makhija is a Sahitya Akademi awardwinning poet, translator and playwright based in Mumbai. She recently co-edited To Catch A Poem: An Anthology for Young People.