The Usawa Newsletter May ‘24

    Sneak Peek into Issue 11

    Olfactory Games

    By Satya Dash

    In the corridor on the ground
    floor, the dog smelling the orange

    to sniff out its intentions as if a shrunk
    planet had landed in sinister disguise

    on earth. Right above, on the first
    floor, the door snuck out of its loose latch

    letting a longitude of light ornament
    your shy calves. You rose, heaped up the medley

    of clothes lying on the floor like urchin stars
    banished from the ceiling and launched them

    into the laundry bin. And then suddenly
    remembering, you fumble through the pile

    to find a black vest, veil your face with it,
    smelling its fabric worn by your beloved last

    night. You’re hungry but your stomach is so
    full you can’t eat. You wear the black vest

    underneath a black shirt and go to work.
    You wait till sunset to have your breakfast.

    Commoditizing the Rainbow: Will Congress go beyond its manifesto to secure LGBT rights?

    By Kinshuk Gupta

    Managing Editor

    Are LGBTQ+ symbols commoditized amid corporate and political tokenism? Considering past actions and current realities, will political promises translate into genuine progress for queer communities?

    An acquaintance from upstate New York, one whom I had met only cursorily at a common friend’s marriage in Delhi, sent me a WhatsApp message out of the blue, after watching a beguiling double rainbow in the rain-slicked sky. All the best for your life, the white man with bulky biceps and brown hair had written. I quickly responded with thank you for thinking of me, topping it up with a couple of emojis, almost reflexively. I kept thinking about it, how words, phrases, symbols with their irrational and obsessive use, become vestigial, pigeonholed to a single, straight meaning. Rainbow has become one such symbol. I was bewildered even to notice how I had used me in response to the rainbow as if both of them can be used interchangeably, hand-in-glove. 

    Ahead of the Pride Month, when our screens will be bloated by rainbows, and capitalists will resort to clickbaits and cliches, tossing words like love, courage, identity like juggler’s balls and merchandise Pride, we should consider this as a moment to introspect. Recently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) of the US have cautioned queer people worldwide against holding pride marches: “Foreign terrorist organizations or supporters may seek to exploit increased gatherings associated with the upcoming June 2024 Pride Month.”

    All the more important for India, though, with this June colliding with the Janata mandate for the 15th Prime Minister of the country. If we go by the exit polls & political commentators – aided by the infectious fervor of the masses following the Ram Mandir installation  – the chances skew in favor of the current ruling party. The ruling party has an insipid approach towards LGBT rights, steeped in right-leaning policies of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as it envisions building a Hindu Rashtra. However, it is also predicted that the INDIA alliance standing strong, especially in Southern states, might not allow the party to mimic the 2019 clean sweep.

    At the centre of this alliance is Rahul Gandhi-led Congress which has, in its manifesto Nyaya Patra, promised to expand the scope of Articles 15 and 16 to do away with discrimination based on sexual orientation and also to recognise & legalize same-sex civil unions. The latter comes with an asterisk – T&C apply – “after wide consultation.” While Congress divulges no further, CPI(M) goes a step further to mention “legislations on similar lines as the Special Marriage Act, 1954, so that the partner can be listed as a dependent for inheritance and alimony in case of divorce etc.” This injects queer people with a sudden hope as they begin to picture an equal & just social democracy. 

    Not so soon, though. Let’s not forget that Congress maintained a studied, dead-rock silence last year when same-sex marriage petitions were being heard in the Supreme Court. The promise for Civil Unions, and not marriage, should be, at best, thought of as politics of othering. While I would happily tip over to civil unions if given a chance, where people in love, two or more, start from scratch to build the boundaries of their relationship, without banking on the patriarchal, regressive archetype of marriage, but that’s a different discussion and would hold value only if we were ever to become progressive enough to scrape off the deadlock of marriage. What shall be included in such a Civil Union law is unclear. Will it have all the rights available in marriage including adoption? Will it just be like a contract between two consenting adults with some inheritance and alimony rights thrown in? We have to wait for answers and they may take a long time to come. 

    Some of my friends would despise me for being ‘over-critical’ or ‘reading too much between the lines’, consoling me with quips such as something is better than nothing. Of course, but sometimes this snail’s pace can take many, many years before any palpable change can be seen. Generations can be wiped off during this time. Should those aspiring for equality settle for a second-class status as a first step towards the ultimate goal? The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, even though problematic, has visibly failed to even fulfil its basic promises despite being five years in function. In Delhi’s tertiary care hospital, where I worked, a gender-neutral washroom was constructed after the law’s provision—but only one, and that too, in an obscure corner, its entrance blocked by rusted bed rails, and absolutely nobody, not even us doctors, being aware of it. Not to mention the shuttlecocking of trans patients from a department to another as the doctors find themselves unable to develop a bond of trust. With the lack of gender-neutral wards, the in-charges couldn’t decide which ward to keep the patient in as the other patients would make a fuss. 

    Moreover, in this age of tweets & reels, manifestos are quickly losing their charm. Making a promise somewhere down in a long list, while mostly remaining quiet about it in your public life, should be squinted at. Like the vague promises of Congress, even BJP has vowed shelter, national ID cards, and access to public health insurance for transgenders. 

    What if all of this is just a gimmick, a curious case of pinkwashing—the way Israel has been using it as a pretext for years to unleash violence on Gaza & Palestine and even justify it. Last year, an Israeli Defence Forces soldier tweeted a picture of himself smiling at the camera while holding the Pride Flag with ‘in the name of love’ scribbled over it, and wrote, “despite the pain of war – the IDF is the only army in the Middle East that defends democratic values…And so I fully believe in the righteousness of our cause [Emphasis mine.]” 

    Keeping all my skepticism aside, let’s consider for a moment that everything goes as planned and party leaders are not doing lip service but consider the manifesto a living document as it was reported to be under Mayawati’s rule in UP. Let us rewind and go back to the Hindu Code Bill, drafted by Babasaheb Ambedkar to ensure equal rights of women. Its radical departure from the prevalent Hindu marriage, property, inheritance laws caused such furore that Sarojini Naidu threatened to go on a hunger strike. CM Mookerjee accused it of being Anti-Hindu questioning why Muslim Personal Law was not brought under its purview. While the bill aligned with both Nehru’s and Ambedkar’s vision of a secular India, where the state maintains a neutral stance towards all religions, the backlash not only soured their personal relations but eventually became the reason why Ambedkar decided to resign from the cabinet. 

    While no accurate data is available, the government database estimates 2.5 million gay voters in India. The actual number would be much higher than anybody would be able to guess. Attracting so many voters without 5 kg wheat, a packet of rice, a bottle of desi daru is not a joke. And when the country’s prime minister can change his statements to suit a particular audience, supply them with spurious information such as Alexander was defeated by Biharis or that he halted the Ukraine-Russia war, albeit temporarily, to airlift Indian students, should innocuous promises of queer rights count?

    Kabir Deb in Conversation with Anuradha Kumar

    Kabir Deb: Hey! It’s so nice to meet you, finally. So, at first, I would like to ask how are you doing? How is life treating you?

    Ups and downs, it’s always a rollercoaster. But it’s nice to see how things look whether one is up in a cloud or deep in the doldrums.

    Kabir Deb: As a short story writer and novelist, what, according to you, manifests better in a prose than a poem and vice-versa?

    Anuradha Kumar: I can’t write a poem to save my life and poets plumb immense depths, and the range they can encompass—from the minutiae of life to its very secrets—is inspiring. The poets I love, I do so because of their sense of style, their wisdom and unexpected humour.

    And if you want to step in with your readers into a different world, a different time, prose might work better, as in a work of historical fiction or a detective novel.

    Kabir Deb: In your collection of short stories, Coming Back to the City, you have a story on the mill-workers’ strike of the 1980s. I was reading Narayan Surve’s book of poems on the same theme a few days back. How do you find resonance with the incidents which happen but stay as a footnote in the history books? Also, how does Bombay or Mumbai resist the tremors of politics and the reality of hunger?

    Anuradha Kumar: That’s interesting. Bombay-Mumbai has always been a political city. I sometimes feel it resonates with the reality and change than most other places. It’s history – for it has always faced ‘outward’, to sea, I mean—has made it adaptable, receptive to new ideas, change, and always welcoming and accommodating (for the most part).

    Coming Back to the City is an interlinked collection of stories. The stories cover a period from the upheaval the mills experienced from the 1960s onward to the 2000s, when mill-land increasingly gave way to the high-rises you see now. Not just social scientists but filmmakers, writers and artists have evoked this period in lot of sensitive detail – Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar, Shanta Gokhale, Sudhir Patwardhan (his paintings, don’t you think?), Narayan Surve, whom you’ve mentioned, Dilip Chitre, Vilas Sarang, Jerry Pinto—among those I’ve read—and I am sure I’ve missed out many others. These stories have always been there, but somehow and unfortunately, have receded from our consciousness, but then it is such stories which have made Bombay the city it is now. 

    Kabir Deb: It is quite evident that through your prose works, you serve food of every kind to those who believe in restricting their diet. In your recent book, The Kidnapping of Mark Twain, the mystery is much more about how cold our existence is before the larger reality. The story is more about stitching many worlds for the readers. India started to find its soul through food and it became one of the markers of diversity. It also became extreme for the existence of a diversity of food. How do you manage to cook many individuals and their lives for the sake of a dish which we know as a novel?

    Anuradha Kumar:The Kidnapping of Mark Twain is a work that encompasses several genres, or so I feel. It’s a work of a) historical fiction, b) a mystery or detective fiction, c) a Bombay novel and d) even literary work, for the complexity of emotions it tries to explore.

    I read once that the mystery novel can be deceptive and all-encompassing. Writers have used the mystery novel to describe society, its ethos and past, and even the divisions and nuances that prevail.

    And since Bombay, the city, has mattered to me, and always will, I moved naturally to writing a book like this, with an emphasis on its cosmopolitan past. There have been so many different Bombay novels, diverse and evocative, and I came to writing this particular one in a way to belong to a city I once lived in for a long time. But the writing itself, how I came to do it, happened in a seamless way or so I feel. For I knew about Mark Twain’s visit, the book that he wrote, and I’ve, over the years, read books set in this period in this city and one day the idea came to me, and I decided to write it out. And I hope I could do more along such lines.

    Kabir Deb: You write about the visuals of Mumbai. With time we have imprisoned the sensation of a place where our first cry and smile bloomed. In a world where literature has to do justice to every geographical place to stay relevant and to not stay broke, how important is it to talk about the root or the core more than the branches visible to everyone?

    Anuradha Kumar: The Kidnapping of Mark Twain is set in Bombay of 1896, and I ‘used’ the central crux— ‘Mark Twain’s disappearance’—to reveal what the city and this period was like in the late 1890s. I wanted to bring the city alive, its streets, the way it looked then, the smells, the colours, and the noise, for the reader. Some reviewers of The Kidnapping of Mark Twain have said that Bombay itself is a character in the novel.

    I wanted to make this experience of reading a very visual one, so that it’d stay and remain with the reader for a long time after the very act of reading.

    Writing itself is a complex task these days, and writers have to do more to bring readers back from so many other distractions. For example, many writers tie-in their work with a movie deal, which is fine, and I wanted to evoke this experience within the act of reading itself.

    Kabir Deb: What are the perks of being a storyteller? Also, could you give us a little insight of the process of the telling you usually follow?

    Anuradha Kumar: I like the fact that one can sink into a different world, a different time, to live with a range of characters for days, weeks, months at a time. It’s not that as a writer one becomes omniscient, though this aspect is also there, but that you learn so much of life in the process. In the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you experience empathy, heartbreak, despair, envy, all the emotions you can think of. When you come up to the surface, you are transformed in mysterious, indescribable ways.

    Since you also ask about the process: I try and ‘see’ the scene and the setting in many a case. Sometimes that has an impact on the characters, right? In The Kidnapping of Mark Twain, it just doesn’t do to say Henry loves Maya, but I wanted to point to the little things that show how she gets under his skin, how every small memory of her niggles him, and here setting matters – the breeze that brushed a strand of hair onto her forehead, the light that plays on her face, things like that. 

    Kabir Deb: It’s a world governed by rules and trigger points. How should a writer write the characters of a story? Also should a writer appropriate the characters of a story for the society, or his/her vision towards all the characters be free of the readers to write a good story?

    Anuradha Kumar: I think what you say at the end is what should work. There are all kinds of people making up this world of ours and one should write of people in all their complexity, and variations to make the reader, hopefully, understand. One reads, I thought, to understand the world anew, and writing of people different from ‘people like us’ is one way.

    One has to start believing in his/her story. The characters take place in the world of the writer. So, it is very important for any writer to put trust in himself/herself. The build-up of a character is the work of the writer’s mind. Almost all the characters have the shade of the one who’s writing it. I have never believed in the fact that any writer will writer a character that s/he has not lived.

    Kabir Deb: In India, many poets are turning towards writing prose. Some prose writers like you still read and love poetry. A country which gave birth to poetry now has got publishers who are helpless but to only publish well-connected poets. What is the reason behind the creation of this trough in the realm of poetry and is prose free from it?

    Anuradha Kumar: When I was studying for an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, the writer Sigrid Nunez gave a reading. I remember something she said after the reading: that she began her writing day by reading a poem, and while I have always read poetry, I did so, after this with her words in mind. Poets have a concise, sharp, minute way of looking at the world. They hone into the things that really matter, and the reader can somehow figure out what are mere distractions and what must be heartfelt truths.

    I love what brave new independent publishers are doing in India. So many wonderful places giving voice to poets in places across the country – Copper Coin and Red River are publishers that come to mind, and there are magazines like yours that publish these young emerging poets. I am not sure of this ‘trough’ really. This is a period of change, and exploration, and all that we write must reflect and try and explain this. Sometimes, all one can do is act as observer, to notice everything with truth, for posterity’s sake.

    Anuradha Kumar was born in Odisha. She lived in various places in India, before moving to Singapore and later the US. She worked for the Economic and Political Weekly in Mumbai (1999-2007). She studied history at Delhi University and management (specializing in human resource management) at the XLRI School of Business, Jamshedpur. She has an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). Anu’s stories have won awards from the Commonwealth Foundation, UK, and The Little Magazine, India. She writes regularly for Her stories and essays have appeared in places like, the India Forum, The Missouri Review, Catamaran Literary Reader, The Common, Maine Literary Review, and other places. She has written for younger readers as well. As Adity Kay, she wrote three bestselling works of historical fiction published by Hachette India: Emperor Chandragupta, Emperor Vikramaditya and Emperor Harsha. The Kidnapping of Mark Twain (Speaking Tiger Books) is her 10th novel, and she hopes to write more about Henry Baker and Maya Barton. Anu now lives in New Jersey with her family.

    Excerpt: Unashamed

    Unashamed: Notes From the Diary of a Sex Therapist

    By Neha Bhat

    ‘I want to tell our son that I’m gay and

    that my wife knows.’

    On coming out to the family as a sixty-year-old queer Indian man

    An Indian father’s love isn’t something that’s easily translatable to words. Our urban Indian cultural mainstream is not a very verbose setting, unlike the white American TV sitcoms that so many of us have grown up watching. Even though young Indian people are increasingly seeking out the language for expressing emotional care and sorting out conflict, this is not really a society where we’ve been taught to sit at dinner tables and express, dissect or even process our innermost feelings for each other, especially when those feelings might be about our own biological family.

    Familial love here is assumed, expected and required—and is demonstrated in non-verbal ways in most normative Indian families. Many generations of Indians accept this unspoken rule without challenge. It is considered common knowledge that you aren’t supposed to question what is culturally assumed to be obviously given to you by your family. It is common to hear statements such as ‘Of course your mother loves you—how can you even doubt that?

    And why would she ever need to say it to you? You should already know it.’ And if, for whatever reason, you do happen to question this assumption—especially if, unfortunately, you were born to a not very loving Indian mother or father—you should expect to be seen as the problem for even daring to want more. ‘How dare you be so ungrateful?’ is a very common statement in many Indian families. Let’s look at it from the other side for a minute. Parenting in India, unlike its white-Western counterpart, is a socially approved twenty- five-year project. Culturally, Indian parents experience immense social ostracization and gossip, classism, caste-based oppression and more if their children don’t turn out to be successful in socially approved ways. Here, parents don’t expect that their children would move out of the family home at eighteen and then see them only once or twice a year. Nor is there an expectation that adult children would never take a loan from their families again. Instead, in India, parents—and in particular fathers—are expected to, and often do, express their love through a series of lifelong actions and cumulative acts of service for their children, even when they become legal adults. While buying school textbooks and financing other expenses for children below the age of eighteen is a parental expectation common around the world, in India this often extends to fathers buying college textbooks, the child’s first mobile phone and computer and perhaps even their first car. He may also file his children’s first tax returns and manage their first investments and bank accounts. The responsibility extends to even finding suitable marriage partners.

    These are some expected ways in which Indian fathers are expected to display love to their adult children. A statement like ‘I love you and I’m here for you’ is not commonly heard in this cultural context, simply because this is not a culture with a verbal orientation for emotional expression. Every culture has its normative ‘love language’—the primary way one is comfortable receiving or giving love—and ours doesn’t feature words of affirmation … yet.

    Many of us adult Indian ‘children’ are often starved of hearing the simple but loaded sentence: ‘I love you, I’m proud of you and I’m here for you.’ People are diverse in their needs, but more often than not adults like to hear expressions of vulnerability from their parents. ‘Beta, I’m struggling. I’m sad that I won’t be able to help you with money this month’—a statement that seems simple to one generation often creates anxiety, discomfort and shame for another generation.

    So, when Mr J—who was tall, lean, Maharashtrian and almost sixty—filled his nearly hour-long first therapy session with a monologue about his son, Rohan, his sadness and their disconnection, I could tell that he was slightly different from the average Indian man. Rohan was all Mr J spoke about during our first several sessions—he described him as a sweet boy in need of rescuing, or rather, his father’s help—despite me using all sorts of therapy tools to move his focus away from his son and towards himself.

    I tried active listening, passive listening, imagery, confrontation, the dramaturgical ‘empty chair’ technique and even invited him to use some art tools as a way for him to go deeper beyond his surface- level narratives, but to no avail. It seemed like he wanted to do his best to convince me that he was a very doting father, and it was really Rohan, the struggling twenty-something son, that we needed to analyse. Mr J absolutely would not and could not talk about his own self in those first sessions.

    Underneath Mr J’s strict control of his therapy narrative, the anxiety was palatable. He came across as a strict but kind-hearted gentleman and had come into therapy expressing disappointment over the lack of connection he felt with his twenty-six-year-old son, who was studying in an engineering college in Maharashtra. Mr J said that he felt sad Rohan was away from home and that he missed him.

    This wasn’t my typical distressed parent complaining about their son’s life choices. Even under severe mental distress, rarely do Indian parents of Mr J’s generation show up for therapy on their own— and that too with a queer Indian woman much younger than them. Something was unique about him, and I had to allow him to retain control until he felt safe enough to relax in my presence.

    At his eleventh therapy session, I placed a handheld mirror in front of Mr J and said, ‘Please look at your face in this mirror when you say your son’s name.’

    He looked shocked and said, ‘Huh?’

    I repeated, ‘Look at your face in this mirror when you say your son’s name. What do you see? Tell me.’

    ‘Umm … I don’t know … I just see my face.’ ‘Say your son’s name slowly, please.’

    Mr J mouthed ‘Rohan’ in the mirror. There was an awkward silence between us for a moment.

    ‘So, Rohan feels sad that his father is so far away from him,’ said Mr J, shifting to verbal processing. ‘And I need to tell Rohan that…’ The shock of looking at himself had been distressing.

    ‘J, let’s relax into this silence that is hanging between us. Please close your eyes with me and imagine your son’s face right now in your mind.’

    I gave him a minute to settle in. He seemed uncomfortable yet eager to take my instruction. ‘When you open your eyes, look at your face in the mirror and tell me exactly what you see. Don’t worry about being right or wrong—just observe.’

    Eventually, he said, ‘I see a person who looks just like Rohan, but not as young, not as agile, not as … honest.’


    ‘Yes, honest. I have not been honest.’ Mr J slowly looked away from his own mirror image and stared at me with a deadpan expression. We spent the next fifteen minutes in a comfortable, almost meditative quietude. He knew that I was waiting for him to share more about what he had just revealed. It was the first thing he had chosen to share about himself in eleven therapy sessions. My pauses helped affirm to him that he was still in control. I would not force him to tell me what was waiting to be told.

    ‘I am a gay man,’ he finally said. ‘I have a wife, I have a son, and I am a disappointment to them both. I had been dishonest with Ratna, my wife, for many, many years, but right from our wedding day, she knew that I was not fully interested in her. I was always a bright student and studied at the top engineering and management institutes of the country. Even though my father encouraged me to study, I had a big responsibility to provide for my family, because we did not come from money. Ratna is the one who pushed me to see a counsellor, because she knew. I have never said this out loud to anyone but her and my sister: I am gay. I am gay. I am gay. It is Rohan who does not deserve this.’

    ‘What does Rohan not deserve, J?’ ‘A sick baba like me.’

    The session ended abruptly there. He left with a quick nod. I wondered if he would return to therapy.

    Like every therapist, I believe that healing is inherently painful, but starting one’s healing journey without addressing the wound is often more traumatizing over time. Sometimes what surfaces in therapy with a safe, trusted and liked professional is so intense that the light is too blinding, and people retreat into the darkness. It is safer there, in the second identity that us queer people create to keep us accepted by wider society.

    Excerpted with permission from Unashamed: Notes From the Diary of a Sex Therapist by Neha Bhat to be published by HarperCollins.

    Excerpt: This Land We Call Home

    This Land We Call Home

    By Nusrat F. Jafri

    Hardayal Singh had finished his theology studies in 1911 at the Methodist Seminary in Bareilly. Kamlapur was his third ministerial posting, in the capacity of a deacon at the local church. For his Christian brothers, he was Reverend Hardayal Singh. The church was a twenty-minute cycle ride from his house. Hardayal switched on the large battery lamp on his bicycle and started pedalling on the dewy roads. The lamp barely cut through the thick fog, its feeble beam scarcely illuminating patches of the muddy path ahead. His only companions en route were an occasional farmer going towards the fields or a grouchy cock inspecting the earth for some early morning grub. The light in the sky was still bleak but a diffused orange glow was visible beyond the fields.

    Rev. Hardayal Singh was a tall man of Rajput descent. He was fair-complexioned but weather-worn inside out. He was known for his hair-trigger temper within the family. He was scrupulous and hardworking. Always in a white achkan, dhoti and pagdi, the Reverend had unique hunter skills that he had picked up from his father.

    That morning, on his way to the local Methodist Church, the Reverend was about to be ambushed by a group of vigilantes. His white clothes would get soiled with mud stains, an ironic reminder of an anxious past. The past he thought he had left behind.

    As the sun rose higher on the horizon, visibility improved. Hardayal had encountered no one for a vast stretch. Along a lonely path, just outside the boundary of his village, he was startled by hasty footsteps approaching him. A group of six men armed with wooden lathis, surrounded him menacingly. Evidently, they had been biding their time for his arrival. One of them let out an exultant sigh, screaming, ‘Mil gaya, Sultana (found you, Sultana).’ Some gazed at him with scepticism, while others stared at him with conviction. They were possessed by a collective hysteria, the kind of frenzy that is capable of causing mobs to forsake reason and succumb to the sheer muscle of rage.

    In a flash, Hardayal was thrown off his bicycle and he landed on the ground with a thud. Not one to be scared easily, he sprang back up to face his oppressors. A volley of questions was thrown at him. He was pushed around without a chance to speak. It was clear to Hardayal that the angry men were mistaking him for someone else. Amidst the thick village dialects thrown at him, he caught the word ‘Bhantu’, repeatedly. The word stung his ears like a sharp arrow cutting through the fog of memory, igniting a host of feelings that the Reverend didn’t want to visit ever again.

    Rev. Hardayal Singh was an ‘ex–Bhantu’. Even though he was now casteless in his new identity post-conversion, caste was difficult to disguise in India. It stuck to him like an invisible shadow, refusing to die and always finding a way to rise like a phoenix. Like any other nomadic tribe member, Hardayal had also heard the tales of Sultana. Sultana Daaku, the feared infamous dacoit, whom the vigilantes erroneously mistook Hardayal for. The only common thing between the Reverend and Sultana was their connection with the Bhantu tribe. Hardayal Singh towered at six feet, whereas Sultana Daaku was a foot shorter and dark-complexioned. Both, however, wore big Rajput-style curled moustaches. Any other physical resemblance between the two, if at all, was incidental.

    Occupational thieves, congenital robbers and habitual cons. That is what the other castes called the Bhantus. Ethnologically, the Bhantus were recognized as a tribe. Most members traced their lineage to Rajputs, from the army of Rana Pratap, but for decades now, they were reduced to a nomadic community, allowed only at the periphery of villages. With fewer avenues to explore in the face of extreme social stigma and poverty, many tribe members operated as a clan and carried out collective thefts and crimes for their survival. They usually looted government vehicles and goods trains, stealing grains and food. Most Bhantus were landless nomads and the British regarded them with equal suspicion.

    Sultana Daaku, whose full name was Sultan Singh, was a notorious dacoit. He lived in the thick jungles of Tehri. Gulphi, another famous ancestor of the Bhantus, was considered the most proficient of all thieves and Sultana’s grandfather, a thief of repute himself, was considered the Gulphi-incarnate by many.1 With this history, Sultana considered dacoity to be his destiny. Areas with ravines and forests like Tehri, Chambal and Chilpata were known for dacoits. Troubled by the escapades of these outlaws, between 1836 and 1848, the East India Company had established a series of legal acts called the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts.2

    As part of preventive measures, the so-called ‘suspicious tribes and inherently criminal individuals’ were camped in reformatory colonies. But in spite of rehabilitation programmes and government aid, it was observed that the men would return to their earlier way of life.3 Sometimes, the government programmes fell short of funds and they were abandoned. Therefore, the substantial task of the reformation and rehabilitation of criminal tribes was subcontracted to the Muktifauj or the Salvation Army. Sultana and his family were also living in a forted Salvation Army settlement.4

    However, suspicious of the army’s intentions to proselytize, he had escaped from the forted settlement and since then wreaked havoc in the neighbouring areas of Tehri. In principle, he stole only from the rich business class, the Bania community, and never attacked or robbed the Rajputs, for he considered himself one of them. Sultana had unwavering admiration for Rana Pratap; he is even believed to have named his horse Chetak after the warrior’s horse.

    Bhantu legend says that Sultana Daaku never kept the loot to himself but distributed it to the poor and needy in the community. The idea of a short man, an outcaste from an underprivileged background, standing up for the poor and against the atrocities of the upper castes and the British was romanticized by the Bhantus. Predictably, he was a wanted criminal in the eyes of the law and rumours of him hiding in disguise in the plain lands of the Central Province abounded.

    But on that cold, foggy morning in Sitapur, the tall man standing up for himself—in the face of yet another injustice— wasn’t, in fact, Sultana. He was my great-grandfather, Rev. Hardayal Singh. An ex-Bhantu, a man of another faith and a person in search of a new start.

    It is said bounds of caste are made of steel. Sometimes invisible but almost always inextricable.

    Excerpted with permission from This Land We Call Home by Nusrat F. Jafri published by Penguin Random House India, 2024

    Paul Auster - A primitive pen and a life haunted by chance

    By Shankar Mony

    Contributing Editori

    Paul Auster, a literary luminary, was renowned for his prolific nature—having authored thirty-four books in forty-two years—and his unwavering discipline. He wrote six hours a day, often seven days a week, for months until he completed his work, a testament to his unparalleled work ethic that can inspire any aspiring writer. The first draft was always by pen, then assiduously typed out. He needed and loved the tactile feeling of pen on paper. It could not be any other way. 

    The man’s legacy is secure, with some notable literary critics perhaps looking at Auster’s work and seeing only the holes, whether intended by the author or not. Reading his books, one comes across repeated tropes – the main protagonist is almost always male, often a writer or some intellectual. He lives a spartan life, coming to terms with a heartbreaking loss of some sort. The stories are filled with violent accidents and incredible coincidences. An established book by a revered writer also slips into the narrative. There is often a character named Paul Auster. As a boy, Auster was at camp when he saw the boy next to him struck by lightning and die. This fortune of fate has manifested itself in many ways in his works and, at times, disappointingly. Literary fiction abhors too many coincidences and leaves the device of fortune and chance to life. But at the same time, Auster is not the first or only one to use this device. Reading his interviews and response to some criticism, one realises he feels very strongly about and is also fully aware of it. Rarely is it a lazy excuse for connecting the dots. 

    Auster’s path to becoming the writer he is today needed to be more direct. After completing his BA and MA in Comparative Literature, he embarked on a journey to France, where he spent most of his time translating French literature. He was married to the writer Lydia Davis, whom he had met in Columbia, and they were making ends meet. Auster’s first book, The Invention of Solitude, was written as a response to his father’s death. The death was sudden and unforeseen and affected Auster deeply. The book profoundly reflected many themes reappearing in his subsequent writing – coincidence, fate, and solitude.   

    The Invention of Solitude put Auster on the map as a writer to watch out for. But his reputation as a writer was firmed by his 1985 novel City of Glass, a postmodern detective story. The book arose from an incident that happened to Auster when he was mistaken repeatedly on the phone for someone else. As was the case, Auster was able to turn a slight strand of unusuality in his life into literary gold. City of Glass was not a regular detective noir fiction; it was profoundly postmodern and addressed existential themes. And in some ways, Auster broke the form. He set the tone for an approach to criminal fiction, as written by Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon.

    City of Glass was quickly followed by Ghosts and The Locked Room, which made up the acclaimed New York Trilogy. Each book in the trilogy is short, intense, and cerebral, telling a page-turning story while engaging the mind. Through the rest of his career, this became Auster’s calling card. Easy to read, hard to forget and riches to mine whenever we thought of his books. Brooklyn was a big presence in his books. Indeed, Auster created a literary Brooklyn, similar to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, with the critical difference that Faulkner’s was made up. Eventually, Auster came to be seen as both an example and a defender of the rich literary culture of Brooklyn, a place he had always thought of as home, even though he was from New Jersey.

    The very books revered by many Auster fans are also shown as examples of his limitations by his critics. Auster came to be considered past his prime after the nineties. It was felt that he was using the existential dread of his characters as shorthand without it pointing to anything more profound; the plots were becoming repetitive, and the insights weren’t that insightful. Writing one of his last works, he tried to issue a corrective of sorts. 4 3 2 1 is his penultimate book, more than twice as long as any of his other books and an actual labour of love – he wrote it entirely in longhand, working on it seven days a week for three years. The main protagonist is pointedly born one month after Auster, a stand-in for the author but not himself. For a book of this height, 4 3 2 1 is surprisingly tiny in ambition. The novel is built on a trick of multiple narratives – Auster gives us four possible lives of the same protagonist, Ferguson. As we go through the book, each Ferguson’s fate splits from the others, meaning each chapter is divided into four parts, hence the title. One of the four dies relatively early in the book; therefore, we get a blank page after he dies. Auster’s point seems to be that life is governed by chance, a theory we know well after reading Auster’s early work. But there are no deeper insights in the book beyond this fortune cookie wisdom of needing to embrace every day as if it were your last. Structurally and craft-wise, Auster maintains supremacy, but when attempting to write a tome of a book, he shows the limitations of his philosophies. The book appears to have no ambition outside of being massive. Sometimes, slender books are slender for a reason.

    4 3 2 1 was very well received, especially in Europe, where Auster’s standing is higher than in his home country. The book was nominated for the 2017 Man Booker; Auster was even being mentioned as a possible Nobel candidate. Now, that will not happen; perhaps it was never going to.

    In The Invention of Solitude, Auster desperately tries to create a narrative about his father, whose life he felt an urgent need to save (“My father is gone. If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him.’’, he writes). As he explores his father’s life, he comes across a big thick leather album, stamped in gold with the words ‘This Is Our Life – the Austers’. But the book is empty. A photograph from his father’s childhood even has the image of Auster’s grandfather torn out. Something had to be done to remember his father and, by extension, his grandfather. Indeed, this is why his books are filled with the themes of loss and pain. 

    But life was not done in throwing curveballs at Auster. In a cruel mirror image of Auster’s limited relationships with his father and grandfather, he faced horrible tragedy with his son and grandson. In 2022, Auster’s son, Daniel, died of a drug overdose, aged 44. This happened ten days after Daniel had been charged with the death of his 10-month-old son. Tragedy upon tragedy, grief multiplying grief. One understand when Auster says, People who don’t like my work say that the connections seem too arbitrary. But that’s how life is. He knows better than most how wicked chance can be. 

    Unable to find any real connection from his father and grandfather,  and losing his son and grandson, all that Auster had was his books. The books remain. The critics will fade. The prose, the masterful craft, the ease of reading, and the inventiveness will ensure that at least one page can be added to ‘This Is Our Life—The Austers.’ 

    Cassandra: An Online Reading Circle

    Dear Usawa friends and readers,

    We are delighted to extend an invitation to our upcoming online reading group, Cassandra, a space dedicated to exploring the profound and visionary voices of international women writers, poets, and essayists, mostly from the global South. Named after the mythological figure Cassandra, who possessed the gift of prophecy yet was cursed to be ignored, our group seeks to amplify the often overlooked but profoundly insightful voices of women writers who foretell the future, imagine solutions, and shed light on the present.

    We are a group of writers, poets, and essayists meeting to delve into these remarkable authors’ narratives, illuminating their times’ struggles and triumphs, and resonating deeply with the pressing issues we face today. In our gatherings, we will explore carefully selected sections of these texts, bringing to light the intricate connections between their foresighted visions and our contemporary realities. From environmental justice and gender equity to cultural resilience and socio-political activism, the themes we will explore are as diverse and dynamic as the women who penned them.

    This group is more than just a reading circle; it is a vibrant community where we share our insights, experiences, and reflections. Our discussions include our personal reading histories and individual development processes as feminists. By sharing our unique journeys, we enrich our collective understanding and create a supportive environment for growth and learning. We are doing this to develop a more balanced and inclusive point of view, to share our visions, to be read and heard.

    Our reading list has been created with the intent to rediscover feminist ancestors and broaden the canon beyond the already-established writers from the West. By focusing on voices from the global South, we aim to bring to the forefront the diverse and powerful contributions of women whose stories and perspectives have often been marginalized.

    Currently, we are immersing ourselves in Marge Piercy’s groundbreaking novel, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). Marge Piercy is an acclaimed American poet, novelist, and social activist whose works often address issues of social justice, gender equality, and environmental sustainability. Woman on the Edge of Time explores themes of gender inequality, mental health, and the possibilities of alternative societies. Through the protagonist, Connie Ramos, Piercy delves into the struggles of marginalized women and envisions a future where equality and environmental harmony prevail. Our discussions on this novel have been thought-provoking and deeply relevant to contemporary issues of social justice and ecological sustainability.

    Following Woman on the Edge of Time, we will turn our attention to Gioconda Belli’s The Inhabited Woman (1988). Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan author, poet, and former revolutionary who has been a prominent voice in advocating for women’s rights and political change. This compelling novel intertwines the personal and the political as it tells the story of Lavinia, a woman who becomes involved in revolutionary activities in Central America. Through Lavinia’s journey, Belli explores themes of liberation, identity, and the interconnectedness of human and environmental struggles. The novel is a powerful testament to the resilience and agency of women in the face of oppression, and we anticipate rich discussions around its vivid portrayal of activism and transformation.

    Works we plan to read in the future include Gift in Green by Sarah Joseph,  Unbowed by Wangari Mathai, Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngoni Adichie.

    Participants are encouraged to suggest further readings, bring texts to read with them, or even write in dialogue with the readings we explore in the group. This collaborative approach ensures that our discussions are enriched by a wide array of perspectives and insights, fostering a deeper and more inclusive understanding of the texts.

    Our group meets online on the 2nd Tuesday of each month. Whether you are a long-time admirer of ecofeminist literature or new to these powerful works, we welcome you to join us in this journey of discovery and dialogue. Together, we will celebrate the strength and vision of women and uncover the timeless relevance of their contributions.

    We look forward to embarking on this inspiring exploration with you. Do feel free to write me and I will send you all the details.

    See you online next:
    Tuesday, June 11th
    IST 1400 to 1600 hrs
    CEST 10:30 to 12:30 hrs

    Viva feminista re-sista!

    Warm regards,

    Mandakini Pachauri