Finding Phule when Savarkar is ascendant: January at Navayana


Finding Phule when Savarkar is ascendant
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January 2016

Dear Reader

The new year leaves us cold, and we still have to reconsider the cow.

In a basement in Delhi in February 2012, right below CSDS where Ashis Nandy was perhaps reading V.D. Savarkar sympathetically, Navayana launched A Gardener in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty—the product of a collaboration between artist Aparajita Ninan and writer Srividya Natarajan—but without grand speeches, panels or inauguratory ribbons. Yet statements were made without them having to be uttered. A kebab-wala from Jama Masjid was asked to set up a stall and guests were served buff kebabs (an accepted euphemism for beef in the city, where cow slaughter stands banned since 1994). No apology was offered to vegetarians who anyway never feel sorry for assuming that this nation survives on lentils and rice. Free sanitary napkins were distributed to menstruating men: after all, Phule had wondered if Brahmans emerged from the Brahma’s head, Kshatriyas from the chest and so forth, the great god surely must have had vaginas all over and menstruated endlessly. There was an installation of a menstruating Brahma, busy handling toilet paper.

Very rarely does any book outgrow its paperback-dom and seek the reassurance of a hardback. But four years hence, and special as A Gardener in the Wasteland is, it now returns as a hardback—ready to trade punches. After all, the reviewer in the Indian Express
called this book “A declaration of war… against Brahmanism, ignorance, injustice”. Surely we need to harden our resolve against lunatics who think drinking cow’s piss and dung will solve all our problems. Recently, one of our blog posts looked at how cow pee and dung were being used to make face-packs and shampoos that are sold in malls. At a time like this, reading Phule makes more sense than ever before. It is a testimony to how poorly India has made progress if a book written in 1873 seems so desperately and radically relevant in 2016. Each book we make is a labour of love, and this was no exception.

Watch Aparajita show us how the book came about in this selfie video

book1 Such are the times we live in that even distracting yourself with Raga Bhoop may prove to be ineffective, like the poet and publisher Asad Zaidi found out recently and came up with this:

The day happily drags itself behind Raga Bhoop
full of recurrent phrases slowing down the heart’s beat
Grief takes a pentatonic taan; a tolerant gāndhār
absorbs the bitterness of the present hour
Virtues of tolerance, it is said, are many
Savarkar should be read with sympathy
I was told this by a Lohiaite journalist in 1986 CE
In 2015 CE he again had the same advice
Read Sarvarkar sympathetically, and
Ashis Nandy too.
In my mind I heard again ga, re, sa-dha-sa-re-ga, pa-ha
dha-pa-ga, re-sa…
While Phule sought to make common cause with abolitionists and those fighting slavery in the US in the 1870s, throughout his stay on South African soil since 1893, Mohandas Gandhi distanced himself from the indentured labourers who ended up in the mines and plantations of far-off shores to escape the slavery of caste here—not to speak of his undisguised contempt for blacks. Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed document the many shades of the indentured’s struggle in The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, but Delhi University’s street art project continues to peddle the myth that Gandhi was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid when all he did was inveigle favours for elite passenger Indians with the whites.

Among the new titles you could look forward to in 2016, there’s Lal Singh Dil’s poetry, who sees each tree dancing, translated with grace and passion by S.K. Ghai. Until then, here’s something to whet your appetite:



Can’t you see!
Each tree is dancing
The dust on the pathways breathing
The water from the wells spilling out
The water in the canal raging
The peasants are on the move
and the pathways are stamped
with the footprints of warriors
The moon is no longer on the wane

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