Indian Writers Speak Out on Parental Abuse, Maoist Insurrection and Radical Spirituality

Chicago, IL: The 2013 Eye on India Festival (EIF) featured a symposium entitled Words on Water on Sun., June 29 hosted by the downtown Dance Center of Columbia College. Flown in from India were chronicler of Maoist insurrection, Sudeep Chakravarti, and banker turned best-selling novelist, Amish Tripathi. They were joined by Chicago-based psychiatrist Bulbul Bahuguna. Each speaker was interviewed by a knowledgeable local host and the audience responded to all three authors with wide ranging questions. They read out select passages from their books and spoke their minds candidly.

Interviewed by Valerie Lewis, Bahuguna described how exposure to the secrets of her trauma patients have been fictionalized into her first novel The Ghosts That Come Between Us, which is about illness, parental abuse in early childhood, love, and coping with the past. The protagonist Nargis is brutally honest in her inner dialogue that we eavesdrop upon through her psychiatrist-author, which is largely why her story is told in the first person. Bahuguna’s own early experiences in India have been projected into the depravity of recently independent third-world nation. Characterizing Nargis’ father as a larger than life showman with an outsized ego, she clarified his hold over victims by pointing out that a serial abuser can be outwardly very engaging and even a community leader viewed as a model family man, etc. Mechanisms of denial were explored also through Nargis’ enigmatic mother who remains silent and unsupportive even after the father’s death and despite the daughter’s strenuous attempts to win mom’s approval and understanding.

Though such victims are predisposed to repeating the cycle becoming perpetrators themselves, Nargis makes some good choices. The key issue to address is guilt: the body gets naturally aroused through the abuse and the child feels responsible and unable to speak to others. The psychiatrist advised talking to some elder in the family or community. Equating psychiatry to “narrative therapy,” Bahuguna wished for the book to be read in high schools by 14–15 year olds, at the moment of budding sexuality and for parents to read it first. Though “parents had dismissed my desire to be a writer and pressed for a more serious profession,” here she was telling stories after all. Entire family dynamics are distorted by the disruption of a single link, but this novel is ultimately about recovery, moving on, forgiveness, and God (despite Nargis being an atheist).

Sudeep Chakravarti was interviewed by Torey Malatia CEO and President of Board of Directors of Chicago Public Media on his bestselling non-fiction narratives, especially Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. This travelogue in diary format restores face and place to individual stories in affected villages. Having published extensively with leading business journals, Chakravarti spoke with authority from perspectives of both capitalist exploiters and victims of development. He described himself as a “practicing schizophrenic” who is “also an Indian, seeing his country at war with itself.” In telling this story of how India needs to confront itself, he assimilated his role to the (classical) stage-manager (sutradhara) trying to break through the denial and consumerist “mall-stupor” plaguing the growing middleclass. He dumped the usual clichés and was especially harsh on policy makers in the capital cut off from the living reality of the people they govern.

Except for a few ideologues at the top, few rebels are committed to Maoism, for the real problem is poor governance, failure of justice system, and lack of dignity for the poor. The Indian Army has categorically declined to participate in warfare against the Naxalites, whose agenda is not separatism but legitimate livelihood. Commanding few parliamentary seats, they remain outside Center’s radar. He denounced the forces of “globalization” working through a corrupt comprador class (e.g. mining).

Democracy makes little sense without the informed consent of the governed, where the state becomes an extension of corporate will and plays into the hands of Maoists. Chakravarti read out a passage expressed the dilemma of an aboriginal whose village was translocated into “concentration camps.” The cooption of the acquiescent into vigilante squads (Salwar Jhulum) to be turned against their tribal fellows is a cynical exercise in genocide. He concluded that we need an “Indian Spring.”

“People’s author,” Amish Tripathi is an overnight publishing phenomenon. Released in March 2010, Amish’s Shiva Trilogy, of which Immortals of Meluha and Secret of the Nagas have been published, has over 350,000 copies in print. Tripathi was gently prodded into revealing himself by President and CEO of Chicago’s Field Museum, Richard Lariviere, Sanskritist familiar with Indian classical traditions, who commended the sound historical detail in depicting the backdrop of Indus Valley Civilization.

Though his grandfather and religious mentor was a pandit at Banaras Hindu University, Tripathi went through an atheist phase before recovering his ancestral faith. He invoked the philosophical doubt of the Rigvedic “Hymn of Creation” that even questions the omniscience of the ultimate creator. “We are still living this Nāsadīya Sūkta though we don’t know it. Skepticism remains at the heart of the Indian way of life,” Tripathi declared, advocating a return to such “religious liberalism” shared by the silent majority, the ability to entertain and navigate opposing views that would serve as antidote to “extremism” of both fundamentalist and secularist strains.
Tripathi responded to Lariviere’s praise of his “contemporary Shiva-Purāṇa and brilliant continuation of local temple mythology (sthala-purana),” stating “such innovation is intrinsic to Hindu tradition” as exemplified by the dominating role of Sita in the Adbhuta Ramayanan and the Gond-version where Lakṣhmaṇa, kidnapped for love, is rescued by the (submissive) heroine of Tulsidas. “This innovative tradition has been lost over the last 2-3 centuries. Religious scriptures can be reinterpreted,” he declared quoting Krishna “having heard me, do as you deem fit” (Bhagavad Gita).

Tripathi also recounted his unprecedented self-publishing and marketing, humbly attributing many of his brainwaves to others. He also minimized concerns about his movie deal with Karan Johar’s Dharma Production, for he has heard little criticism of the liberties taken from “reactionary” forces. The ultimate “outsider” figure of Shiva, who appeals especially to rebellious youth like himself, is the ideal protagonist for deconstructing the caste-system, “a corruption of the Vedic way of life.”

Captions for 3 photos of Words on Water interviews at The Dance Theater of Columbia College:
1) Amish Tripathi interviewed by Richard Lariviere