May 11 is the day well-known poet Parul Khakhar posted a poem, Shav-vahini Ganga, on her Facebook page; it spread like wildfire on social media

Bodies buried in the sand near the banks of the Ganga in Allahabad. PTI

Perhaps it is the first time since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister that a poem written in his mother tongue Gujarati has not only criticised the government but also voiced the anguish of the common man at how the second coronavirus wave has ravaged us.

May 11 is the day well-known Gujarati poet Parul Khakhar posted a poem, Shav-vahini Ganga, on her Facebook page. It spread like wildfire on social media. Gujarati literati were left numb, they knew not how to react to it.

But common Gujaratis, many of who have nothing to do with literature, found it appealing and echoing their sentiments. They shared it widely. Within a day or two, the poem got translated into English, Hindi, Marathi and a few other Indian languages. Khakhar was praised for writing such a powerful and brave poem but also bombarded with abusive messages from troll armies.

Khakhar, 51, is essentially known for her romantic poetry; political issues are not something she had earlier touched. She started her literary journey comparatively very late in life, after getting married, having had children and settled.

Soon she earned herself a place of repute in Gujarati literary circles. She remains a normal Gujarati homemaker and seldom indulges in any political discourse. I have read poetry with her at several literary events in the past.

Right-wing opinion is furious because her latest poem came like an unexpected bolt to them; Khakhar was not meant to be writing such stuff. She has never been anti-establishment.

But the devastation around her because of the mismanagement of the second Covid wave and the catastrophic failure of the government completely shook her up from inside. This is what forced her to write such a political and radical poem. She has been trolled so heavily after she uploaded it that she has had to lock her Facebook profile.

I happened to speak to her over phone on Monday morning. I congratulated her for not deleting her poem from social media despite such pressure. She replied, laughing lightly: “Why should I delete when I have said nothing wrong.” Her voice was reassuring.

Her long-time admirers have turned their backs on her and distanced themselves from her and her poetry.

I can relate to what Khakhar is going through right now. In October 2015 when I decided to write a letter to the President of India (then, the late Pranab Mukherjee) regarding the increasing culture of intolerance in the country, I had requested well-known writers and artists from Gujarat for their signatures on the appeal. Most of them morally supported the cause but refused to put their names on the appeal. Nobody was ready to take the risk of speaking the truth.

Over recent years, they have acquired the habit of speaking in hushed tones for fear of being overheard. But I did receive support from artists, writers and filmmakers from outside Gujarat. They signed the appeal. One national newspaper put it on the front page and when that happened, Gujarati literati had gone numb.

Subsequently, my name was dropped from many literary events and award nominations. We started a movement named Dakshinayan along with scholar Ganesh Devy and a few other writers and activist friends later that year.

Khakhar’s poem has now galvanised the pro-establishment machinery into action. A well-known columnist from Gujarat dedicated her newspaper column to criticise the poem and questioned Khakhar’s intention. She said that it had now become a fashion to criticise the government. A few others have raised questions against the use of words like “fiddle” and “Billa-Ranga” in her poem.

Many have become literary critics overnight and are passing judgement on the literary merits of the poem. A few turned poets too and wrote poetic replies. The intention is very clear: no other poet or writer should get motivated to follow Khakhar’s path. A bunch of pro-government writers and columnists landed on social media to argue for the government.

Major Gujarati poets are silent. I do support Parul Khakhar’s poem and wrote about it openly on social media. I am getting calls from fellow Gujarati writers to step back.

The discourse kicked off by Khakhar’s poem is unprecedented in recent times in Gujarat. I have received many calls over the past few days from the Gujarati diaspora regarding her poem and her poetic journey. Many who had never heard her name are supporting her poem. This poem has crossed boundaries of languages. Nobody can stop its journey now. Not even the poet herself.

Mehul Devkala is a Baroda-based Gujarati poet and an award-winning filmmaker

courtesy : “The Telegraph”, 19 May 2021

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

A day of faith

Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Lessons from the death of two remarkable women

The grave of Valliamma R. Munuswamy Mudaliar, Johannesburg. [courtesy : Sharada Ramanathan]

‘Birthday’ is a standard word. But not ‘deathday’. Too inauspicious, perhaps. Too grim. But that is surely ahistorical. Some deathdays are to be celebrated for the persons who have died and the circumstances in which they have died bear out Donne’s famous lines: “Death be not proud… for those whom thou think’st thou doth overthrow die not.”

The 22nd of February — tomorrow — is the deathday of a woman who did her life proud by her death. Valliamma R. Munuswamy Mudaliar belonged to a Tamil family from the village of Thillaiyadi, now in the state’s Nagapattinam district. Her ancestors had been indentured, like several others from the Indian peninsula and even from ‘up North’, to work on plantations and in mines in South Africa.

In the early 1910s, these Indian labourers, poorly paid, uncivilly treated, without political or even civic rights, were riled by a racial poll tax — Three Pounds per head — that hurt their pride more than it hurt their purses. This, together with other disabilities like restrictions on movement between province and province and a requirement for getting registered on the basis of finger prints, was resisted by the affronted Indians who faced the consequences — stiff fines or jail. But when, on March 14, 1913, Justice Malcolm Searle, of the Cape Supreme Court, decreed every Indian marriage is invalid that is not registered before a Marriage Officer or celebrated according to Christian rites, more than pride was hurt. By a parallel order, Natal children of resident Indians or their parents were required to produce, if they needed admission in another province, certificates of birth. M.K. Gandhi memorialized the Minister for the Interior, General Smuts, to the effect that marriages celebrated according to Hindu, Muslim or Parsi rites were fully recognized by Indian law and that “it is a well-recognised fact that very few births are registered in India and it is practically impossible to produce certificates of birth except in rare cases.”

The collective selfhood of Indian-South Africans stood insulted, the honour of motherhood stood besmirched. Kasturba Gandhi asked her husband, “Then I am not your wife according to the laws of this country?” He said she was right, adding, “Our children are not our heirs.”

The community rose in a spontaneous protest. Indians, women leading, struck work and marched to break inter-province barriers to say, ‘We will not be humiliated thus.’ And they went on a great march, criss-crossing the border between the provinces of the Transvaal and Natal.

Valliamma, born in 1898 in Johannesburg, at 16 years of age, was among “the marching great” from the Transvaal side, Kasturba from the Natal side. Nearly 40,000 of them courted arrest, with nearly 10,000 being actually imprisoned, Valliamma among them. She went cheerfully and defiantly into the march and entered jail as a sense of duty to her motherland’s — India’s — greatness. Imprisoned in Maritzburg jail, she endured its rigours along with other women satyagrahis who included Kasturba. The sentence for ‘hard labour’ included the task of washing fellow prisoners’ clothes. Many fell ill, seriously ill. Valliamma, very seriously. Released when on the verge of death “with a fatal fever”, she just about managed to get back home where Gandhi came to see her. 

“She was confined to bed when I saw her,” he writes in his classic, Satyagraha in South Africa. “[H]er emaciated body was a terrible thing to behold.”

“‘Valliamma, you do not regret having gone to jail?’, I asked.

“‘Regret? I am even now ready to go to jail again if I am arrested,’ said Valliamma.

“‘But what if it results in your death?’ I pursued.

“‘I do not mind it. Who would not love to die for one’s motherland?’”

Thillaiyadi Valliamma died on February 22, 1914. Her remains are interred in Braamfontein Cemetery, Johannesburg. Gandhi writes: “Valliamma will live in the history of South African Satyagrahis as long as India lives.” Her deathday is a day of celebration, for India lives! A film on the life of this icon by Sharada Ramanathan is expected to be released shortly.

Thirty years later, her jail-mate was in prison again, this time in India. Kasturba had been permitted to join her husband, imprisoned in the Aga Khan’s Palace Prison in Poona, for having heralded the Quit India resolution, asking Britain to exit from India. And she was gravely ill.

A wedding anniversary occurred at this time — that of a fellow prisoner. Kasturba asked Gandhi, “How many years have we been married?” Gandhi looked at her and said, “Why, do you also want to celebrate your anniversary?” Everyone around them laughed, Kasturba too. She was 74 that year as was her husband. They had been married for sixty one years.

On January 6, 1944, Gandhi wrote to the prison authorities: “... the patient has got into very low spirits. She despairs of life... Her state is pitiful.” And he asked for permission to be given to near and dear ones to visit her. As also for an ayurvedic physician for she had faith in that system of medicine. Her health continued to deteriorate and on February 22, 1944, her husband’s hands clasping her, Kasturba died.

She was cremated in the grounds of the prison. A tulasi plant grows on the spot in Poona.

The House of Commons was told on March 2, 1944: “... She was receiving all possible medical care and attention...” Gratefully acknowledging the fact that the regular attendants did all they could, Gandhi responded by saying the help that was asked for, when at all given, was given after a long wait, and the ayurvedic physician was permitted to attend only after he had to tell the prison authorities that if he could not procure the help that she wanted he should be separated from her as he ought not to be made a helpless witness of the agonies she was passing through.

On the Valliamma-Kasturba Deathday, the following thoughts deserve reflection:

First, a prisoner is a prisoner but a woman prisoner is a whole family in prison by proxy because of those, especially minor children, who depend on her. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s report for 2019, of the 4.5 lakh prisoners in India today, about 3.3 lakh are ‘under-trial prisoners’. The overwhelming number of these are going to be found to be innocent. State governments which are in charge of this ‘state subject’ must, especially in our Covid-19 times, see to the urgent release of the women among the undertrials under the salutary Section 436-A of the Criminal Procedure Code introduced in the CrPC in 2005 as, essentially, a human right measure.

Second, recalling what Gandhi said in South Africa about the lack of the practice of paper documentation in Indian families, we must ask: what papers can families required to produce them to establish their citizenship in the Republic of India possibly produce? Is it right, is it fair, for some fellow-citizens to be asked to produce such paper proof?

Third, Indian women in 1913-1914 South Africa responded to the unravelling of the man-woman bond in terms of religion, a cause to which Valliamma martyred herself. Is the classification of marriages by religion, in the Republic of India, as is being sought in certain sections of our body politic, legally sound, morally right and, above all, civilizationally justifiable?

No politicians, no lawyers, no agitation-addicts but two Indian women, one from India’s western seaboard, another from its southeastern, gifted with a rare commitment and great clarity, ask for February 22, their shared deathday, to be, for Indian women in prison or in fear, to be their Faithday.

courtesy : “The Telegraph”; 21 February 2021

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features