Archive for July 6, 2013

A voice for Palestine

 A voice for Palestine – The HinduExcerpt from the interview

Michelle Cohen Corasanti, a Jewish-American writer, uses the Israel-Palestine conflict as the backdrop of her debut novel, The Almond Tree , which tells the inspiring story of a poor Palestinian boy called Ichmad, who despite living under the ruthless Israeli military rule, achieves great success in his life. In this interview, the author talks about herself, her book and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Excerpts:

What made you write The Almond Tree ?

As a Jewish American, I was taught that after the Holocaust the Jews found ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ and that Jews went to ‘the land of Israel’ (i.e., Palestine) and made the desert bloom. In high school, I went to Israel to study Hebrew and Judaism. I soon learned that Palestine had neither been a land without a people nor all desert. Palestine had been the home of a multi-religious society that had a high standard of living and a rich culture and heritage. I lived in Israel for seven years and witnessed the miserable life the Palestinians led there. Through my novel, I wanted to shine a light on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and show that there was a better way.

As a Jewish-American, wasn’t it difficult to write in the voice of a Palestinian?

I got the idea from a Palestinian man I met at Harvard. I met his family, saw where he came from and felt I knew who he was at the core. So, the voice of a Palestinian boy was a natural choice. I had many Palestinian friends in Jerusalem. I heard their stories. I bore witness to their lives — where they came from, how they were treated, what their dreams were.

Novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab once said, “Palestinians, in the West at least, lack a popular counter narrative. Palestinians are reported on, met only in the news.” Do you agree?

I definitely agree. After the Holocaust, the West was quite happy to give Palestine to the Jews and to buy into the fallacy that Palestine was a land waiting for a people.

The first Zionists were from the West and they spoke western languages, were well organised, had money and made the story they wished to tell the world whereas the Palestinians mostly spoke Arabic and didn’t have anyone to tell their story to the western audience. As time went on, the Zionist narrative was the only one heard.

How well has The Almond Tree been received in the U.S. and elsewhere?

I’ve been shocked to see that the book is being embraced by people on all sides of the conflict as well as those with no involvement whatsoever. I was expecting a backlash from Jewish readers, but I have found the opposite.

What do you wish to achieve through your writings?

I hope my writings can shine a light on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. I would like to debunk fallacies. I want to help the Palestinian narrative to be heard because I don’t believe one can solve a conflict if they only hear one side.

You have said that Zionism is actually harming Judaism. What is the difference?

Judaism is a monotheist religion. We follow the Ten Commandments and the Torah. Rabbi Hillel (an ancient Jewish saint) summed up the Torah thus: “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another. That is the whole Torah, the rest is just commentary.” Zionism is a concept of nationalism that arose as a result of the rise of anti-Semitism at the time. Zionists decided that the Jewish people needed their own country and set their sights on Palestine.

What, according to you, is the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict?

I believe there can be no peace without justice, which is based on the truth. The Palestinians need to be compensated for all that they have suffered just like the Jews were after the Holocaust. I believe in a secular democratic country where everyone lives with equality and freedom. I believe the Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return. The majority of Israelis in Israel came today from the Arab world. This way, not only will the Palestinians be free, but so will the Israelis. One can’t be free when oppressing another people.

What is your next project?

I hope to write another book that shows the benefits of peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

holy night


Photo: Vipin Chandran

The courage of love – The Hindu.

Social reformer and scholar Asghar Ali Engineer devoted most of his adult life heroically fighting not one but three battles. The first was against religious hatred and violence, for promoting peace and harmony among people of diverse faiths. The second was a painfully lonely lifelong struggle against the oppression of the leader of the Bohra sect into which he was born. And a third was to reclaim ideas of a humane, peaceful, tolerant, and gender-just Islam.

Over many decades, in times of strife and mass violence, his voice steadied us with its compassion and reason. For his beliefs, Engineer routinely suffered death threats, deathly attacks and social boycott. Yet he never wavered. In the years I was privileged to know him, I never heard a word of personal rancour or bitterness. With the passing of this man of extraordinary humanity, dignity, learning and courage of convictions, the country is much poorer.

Engineer inherited a long tradition of social reformers in India — which latterly includes also Gandhi and Maulana Azad — who were simultaneously deeply religious and deeply secular, and saw no contradiction between these two. Instead, Engineer believed that true religion could never teach you hatred, prejudice or violence against people of other faiths.

……………..Another influence was his encounter with Marxist writings, which moved him profoundly. He struggled to reconcile his new Marxist convictions with his religious faith, and found solace in poet Iqbal’s words that socialism along with God makes Islam. He concluded that it was not necessary to be an atheist to be a Marxist, and both Marx and his religious beliefs nourished his values of justice, equality and compassion for the suffering of others. Engineer’s interpretations of Islam, in over 70 books which he wrote, and his life-long practice, represent a creative construction of liberation theology in Indian Islam.

…………………………..The next major riots after Jabalpur were in Ahmedabad in 1969, from where he reported gruesome brutalities. The next year, Bhiwandi burned. Engineer took leave from the Bombay Municipal Corporation, and his friend, actor Balraj Sahni, from films, to spend 15 days in the May heat together touring Bhiwandi town and the countryside appealing for peace. They were devastated by the violence they saw in many villages, in which isolated Muslim families were killed and their bodies thrown into wells. Back in Bombay, actors and poets joined him in appeals for peace. This remained a recurring motif of Engineer’s life right until his death. I doubt if there is another like him, who tirelessly visited every site of communal violence in free India, to tell its story and to appeal for peace.

The second battle which consumed him was against the despotic tyranny of the high priest of the Bohras, the Syedna, who exercises absolute authority over all Bohras in religious as well as secular matters. The Syedna retaliated against Engineer’s calls for reform by declaring him a social pariah, commanding all Bohras to socially boycott him. He was barred even from attending the weddings or funerals of his closest friends or relatives. Even his mother, who could not bear to be cut off from her siblings, relatives and friends, finally moved into a separate house he bought for her and met him only in secret.

He was also assaulted half a dozen times; his face was once slashed, and his house looted and ransacked, including his beloved books. Even in his death, he was an exile: denied a resting place in the Bohra burial grounds. He was buried in a Sunni graveyard.

He spoke to me once about the loneliness of this cruel, lifelong boycott by his extended family and community. He regretted also that none of the country’s political leaders openly sided with his battle for fear of alienating the powerful Syedna. This could well have felled a lesser man. But not Engineer.

In his autobiography, Engineer quoted poet Rumi: “A heart without love is nothing but a handful of dust.” Engineer’s life was one devoted above all to the pursuit of love. Like the Sufis, he derived from his love for God the brave love of all humanity.


Moving Water

Veraiconica's Blog

When you do things
from your soul,
you feel a river
moving in you,
a joy.

When actions come
from another section,
the feeling disappears

Don’t let others lead you

They may be blind
or, worse, vultures.

Reach for the rope of God

And what is that?

Putting aside self-will.

Because of willfulness
people sit in jail,
the trapped bird’s wings are tied,
fish sizzle in the skillet.

The anger of police is willfulness.

You’ve seen a magistrate
inflict visible punishment

Now see the invisible.

If you could leave your selfishness,
you would see how
you’ve been torturing your soul

We are born and live inside
black water in a well.

How could we know
what an open field of sunlight is?

Don’t insist on going
where you think you want to go

Ask the way to the spring.

Your living pieces
will form a harmony.

There is a moving…

View original post 27 more words

A lake comes to life – The Hindu. Excerpt

Thousands of ordinary citizens pitching in to revive a 320-acre lake.

It feels like a carnival at Ukkadam, home to the Periyakulam Lake. It is the final Sunday of volunteering, as the monsoons are expected any time now. School children are shrill with excitement, college students jump out of buses laughing and shouting out greetings; picnic umbrellas dot the area. The CRPF, the police and people from the Armed Forces work together in precision, as if performing a drill. Three hundred NCC cadets take up position. A large group of employees from a cement factory talk animatedly, while nearby, the entire team from a Tamil daily has shown up. “Instead of being only the observers who write about events, we unanimously decided to pitch in with volunteer work,” says one of them.

…………….Mud is shovelled into shallow metal and plastic basins (in blue, green and red) and passed from hand to hand. Snatches of IPL talk and loud instructions fill the air. Musicians join the fun. The murasu, melam and thapattam set the pace, and as they vary their pace, from slow to brisk, the tempo of work also increases. There is clapping and dancing. When they are not digging, people are taking pictures on their smart phones. Tempo travellers carrying tea, coffee, biscuits and buttermilk serve free food to the volunteers. Coimbatore’s famous Annapoorna has sponsored upma, khichdi and sweets for everyone.

Periyakulam used to be one of Coimbatore’s biggest lakes – spanning 320 acres, with a catchment area of 63 sq km — but it was gradually asphyxiated by water hyacinth, raw sewage and garbage till it became mere shimmers of water in a sprawling, muddy area, with orange specks interrupting the brown expanse. Last year, Siruthuli, the NGO dealing with water bodies in Coimbatore, took up the matter with the Government. The permit to work on the lake came through at the end of April and on May 1, the de-silting operations began under the direction of Coimbatore Corporation, Siruthuli, Residents Awareness Association of Coimbatore (RAAC) and the Vijayalakshmi Charitable Trust. Corporates have also pitched in. And the people of Coimbatore have showed up every Sunday to lend a hand.

In a little over a month the landscape has changed. Where there was once just garbage and undergrowth, there is now clean and scrub-free ground. Round-the-clock work has cleared the humongous mess and made way for bunds. Five Poclain earth movers swing, dip, scoop and dump vast quantities of soil from one place to another. More than 8000 volunteers pour onto the bed of the lake and imitate those actions. Forming a human chain, they bend, scoop, pass and throw pots filled with soil on to a growing mound that is part of a 20-ft wide, six-and-a-half kilometre long bund around the lake. Four islands have been painstakingly created at the centre of the dry lake. Saplings will be planted on them and along the bund. Seventy per cent of the work is complete.The rejuvenated Mookaneri Lake in Salem. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

………………Why do they do it? “I know machines can do the same job we are doing and more efficiently, but the personal satisfaction we get is unmatched,” says N. Thulasidas, vice-president of the Indian National Cement Worker’s Federation, who has come with a 52-strong team. “We came prepared for more than just two hours of work. When people come together for a cause such as this, it will definitely succeed. We hope we will soon be able to boat on this lake.”

Lalit Mahesh, who has just graduated from school, has come here with friends from Pollachi. He says, “People can do what earthmovers cannot. They can inspire. To see the work happening firsthand is very satisfying.” Lalit is well aware of the water situation in Tamil Nadu and the world. “Tamil Nadu faces an 11 per cent water deficit,” he says. “By 2045, that deficit will increase dramatically. Already, one person out of three in the world has no access to potable water.”

For 51-year-old B. Ganesh, the lake represents livelihood. It provided his daily catch for 18 years. But it became progressively difficult for him and his fellow fishermen to eke out a living. “The lake used to be so beautiful in the mornings when I set out with my friends for my daily catch. We used to enjoy drinking the fresh water that was available in plenty even a decade ago.” The fishermen have volunteered with clean-up efforts in the past, and they welcome this drive wholeheartedly as well.

Coimbatore shows up: Volunteers included the CRPF, RAF, students, senior citizens and even newly weds. Photo: S. Siva Saravanan

Volunteers included the CRPF, RAF, students, senior citizens and even newly weds.

M. Lukman, a fruit vendor, has spent all his life near the lake. “It teemed with birds, and the greenery and water made it look like something out of an English travel channel,” he says. He hopes this initiative will improve the plight of other wetlands as well, as the livelihood of several fishermen has been severely affected. “Plenty more needs to be done, but I have faith that the lake will be restored to its original glory.”

Many people share this belief. What is happening at Periyakulam is more than just physical shramdaan , or donation of labour, as R. Raveendran of RAAC says. “When the lake comes alive, we will know we had something to do with it. This ownership will ensure that we will never let it come to such a pass again.”

‘It was not urban, or cool, or sexy’ – The HinduExcerpt from an Interview

  Indonesian author Andrea Hirata never dreamt that his debut novel would continue to make waves years after it was first published.


   In Indonesia, merely mentioning the name Andrea Hirata seems to transform everyone, from posh society ladies to taxi drivers, into shiny-eyed eulogists.

 ……….Hirata is certainly “nice,” but his greater claim to fame is as the best selling writer of all time in Indonesia, and the only one in recent history to enjoy international success. His 2005 debut novel, Laskar Pelangi (the Rainbow Troops ) has sold over five million copies and was made into a much-awarded movie in 2008, which became the biggest ever box office-hit in the country. Translated into 21 languages, the book is now available in 87 countries, including India.

The unassuming man, sitting in front of me sipping green tea, is thus responsible for having transformed Indonesia’s literary scene. His success has given succour to struggling local publishing houses and hope to other aspiring writers who have long been ignored by the wider world.  But even after seven years of triumph and acclaim, Hirata appears genuinely surprised by the literary twist his life — he was formerly a financial analyst for a telecommunications company — has taken. The Indonesian writer’s personal story — the early years of which form the basis for the autobiographical The Rainbow Troops — has the fairy-tale bookends of rags and riches, and is littered with inspirational characters and unexpected pivots.

Hirata was born in an obscure village on an island called Belitong, off the east coast of Sumatra. His family worked as labourers for the state-owned tin mining company that ruled the local roost and were too poor to send him to any school, save a free one, run by an Islamic charity. This school lacked even a toilet and its roof had leaks so large that students studied under umbrellas on rainy days. But it was here that Hirata became a member of the Rainbow Troops, a group of impoverished young village boys (and one girl) who were introduced to the pleasures of education by two dedicated teachers: the veteran Pak Harfan and the 15-year-old Ibu Muslimah.

Unlike his other classmates, most of whom never made it past elementary school, a combination of hard work and luck saw Hirata escape the poverty he was born into. He made it to university where he studied economics. A European Union scholarship led to further opportunities for study in France and the U.K.By 2005, Andrea was living in the city of Bandung, having made good with a middle-level job at a telecommunications company. He was largely satisfied with the direction of his life. But, then one day he heard from a former classmate that his teacher, the inspirational Ibu Muslimah, was very sick and childhood memories came flooding back. Amongst these was a promise that he’d made to his teacher as a fifth-grader, to one day write a book dedicated to her.Hirata began writing that very night and “before I knew it” he had 600 pages worth of memories down on paper. Bentang, an obscure publishing house on the brink of closure, decided to publish the manuscript. The editor liked the story, although he doubted it would sell.

“It was not urban, or cool, or sexy,” explains Hirata, “but about a 15-year-old teacher, the kind of students who had to cycle 80 kilometres every day, to make it to school and set in a place that no one could identify on a map.” For the publishers, the project was meant as a last hurrah. Their previous book, an Indonesian translation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood , had sold a sum total of 500 copies.

Two weeks after the initial 2,000 copy print run of The Rainbow Troops was in bookstores, Hirata received a late-night call from his editor. Against every expectation, the book had sold out. “That was the moment that my life changed forever,” he smiles. Another 2,000 copies sold out within a week. And on it went; the book a seemingly unstoppable force.

The Rainbow Troops is written simply with a straight-from-the-heart feel. As a result it is unpolished in places, but the rough edges almost enhance its emotional appeal. There are several important social and political themes that infuse its narrative but the book carries them lightly, never descending into the pedantic.These themes have a particular resonance for a country like India dealing as they do with a gamut of familiar issues from inequality and corporate rapaciousness, to diversity and syncretism. Hirata writes most touchingly about hope even in the midst of poverty and the tragedy of wasted talent.

The book’s most compelling character is the brilliant Lintang, the son of an illiterate fisherman whose passion for education sees him cycling an 80 kilometre-round trip journey to school every day, past crocodile-infested swamps. Despite his obvious mathematical genius, Lintang is forced to give up his education and take over the role as his family’s breadwinner when his father dies in an accident.

I ask Hirata what had become of Lintang in later life. He sighs, “Lintang is a truck driver. He was a genius, but this is life. This is life.”

Lintang’s story may not end on a happy note, but Hirata’s success has changed the fortunes of many others for the better. His once-nearly-bankrupt publishing company is now flourishing. His teacher, the indomitable Ibu Muslimah, has been awarded one of the Indonesian state’s highest honours for her service to education. As for the village of Belitong, the number of tourists visiting the place shot up by 1,800 per cent the year after the movie based on Hirata’s book was released in 2008.

Since The Rainbow Troops , Hirata has written several more novels, including three sequels to his debut. But it was only in 2011 that he finally quit his job as financial analyst to become a full-time writer. “It took me six novels before I felt confident of my voice as a writer,” he says earnestly and takes another sip of his tea.

In the red

Golden Bloom

Motivational by Gary Randall
Motivational, a photo by Gary Randall on Flickr.

Thought this was apt after reading the poem …..