Twenty-one brilliant things only Margaret Atwood could say – and she did

Twenty-one brilliant things only Margaret Atwood could say – and she did
Photo Credit: Jaipur Literature Festival
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At 76, Author, poet, and all-around rockstar Margaret Atwood seems unstoppable. She was unfailingly sharp and wickedly funny through all her public appearances in India, at the Jaipur Literature Festival and then in Delhi. Here are some of our favourite things from all that Atwood said:

On writers being “cheap dates”
All of us authors descend from the village storyteller. As Canadian writer Robertson Davies used to characterise this function, “Give me a silver penny, and I will tell you a golden tale.” Note that it’s only one penny. As I said, [writers are] cheap dates.

On stories and growing older
Your romantic tragedy when you were nineteen becomes a funny anecdote by the time you’re forty five. And then, thirty years later, you can’t remember their name.

On the unfreedom of speech and expression
In an age that persecutes deviants, you can yet lose your life for being the possessor of a dangerous or unacceptable story. Words are powerful, which means that words can also be fatal.

On readers and writers
… For writers and readers are joined at the hip. Every act of writing presupposes a reader, even if it’s your own secret journal that you are writing, and the future reader is you.

On writing being an optimistic act
If you have publication in mind, you are looking at the great unknown. The sea, the ocean, the vast universe of readers into which you plan to throw your tiny bottle of a book, with your very tiny story or poetry enclosed within it. Will anyone ever find it? Will anyone ever read it? If so, will they like it? Will anyone hear your voice telling them a story? You hope so.

What writing can do
Writing is also the primary way in which the unknown, the obscure, the undervalued, and the neglected can become known. All over the world, writing has been the means by which light is shed on darkness. Whether the darkness of oppressive regimes, of lives lived in poverty, of the oppression of women, of discrimination of so many kinds.

On Harper and Trudeau in Canada
I was describing what had happened to Canada during the zombie apocalypse [as part of a guest appearance on the Zombies Run game]. The entire government had become zombified… this was under the Harper regime. It’s come back to life. In fact, we have a Prime Minister that is so cool we can’t get used to it.

On setting her latest dystopia in the USA
Canada’s too difficult a place to set real dystopias, because as we have just seen, Canada’s too shrieking nice to go all the way. When it looked as though we were heading that way, all sorts of Canadians formed citizens’ groups and dis-elected the former government.

There are a lot of areas of Canadian life in which you don’t see this fabled niceness, but I think the previous government had gone a step too far in the other direction for the average Canadian.

On utopia and the US
The United States itself, in its beginning, was a utopian experiment, done by the Puritans. They thought they were going to set up the kingdom of god on earth, they were going to be better than everybody else, they were going to be a city upon a hill, a light to all nations. Has that worked out? Not entirely, although in some areas such as Coca Cola, it kind of has.

On dots
I’m of the generation where there were a lot of dots [in place of sex scenes]. I mourn their passing. We’ve had to become much more explicit since those days. Once upon a time we could say, in romantic novels [and magazines], “And then they were one. Dot dot, dot dot dot.” You didn’t have to go into any details, so it left a lot to the reader’s imagination. And what imaginations they were.

On the future, and on inequality
On the one hand, things are going to get so much better, because think of all the astonishing discoveries we are making. On the other hand, things are going to get a lot worse because think of climate change, food shortages, and all the other things. Which is going to get there first? The utopian or the dystopian? Or is it going to be a mix, utopian for some, dystopian for others – as it is at the moment.

On pushback from her publishers
Either they want me to write agreeable 19th century historical fiction, which we find comforting, because it is in the past. I understand it, right now I’m stuck into Wolf Hall the TV version, and what nice clothing they had in the Renaissance to be sure, but it was unevenly distributed. Or they want me to write social realism, but I don’t see why one can’t write both [realist and speculative fiction].

On being a cat person
I’ve always been a cat person, it was my longing in my youth to have one, but I was not allowed to have one because we lived up in the woods so often. But I finally got my hands on one, immediately dressed it up in a bonnet. I’ve had them through the years.

On Angel Catbird, her new comic book superhero
He has an identity crisis. Half cat, half bird, do I save this, or do I eat it? He’s gotten involved with other people who’re also mutant, some of them having inherited it. One of them is called Count Catula, who is a combination of a cat, a bat, and a vampire. We like him.

On women writers in the 19th century
The novel wasn’t considered an art then, it was a low form. That’s why women wrote novels with impunity. It wasn’t considered too high for them. But there are very few women poets in the 19th century. Poetry was considered too much for our tiny brains.

On women’s empowerment, and writing about women (in response to an audience question)
Looked at as a whole, I would by no means say that the push for better treatment of women has been a failure. I don’t think it has been a total success, but my view of human beings is that these things go by stages and cycles.

I do point out to you where I have one whole novel where the narrator is a man. I wrote that because I keep getting questions like yours – why do you keep writing about women? People don’t notice Oryx and Crake.

On genre
Genres are useful for bookstores so they know what shelf to put them on. People who dismiss books based on the shelf they’re on are not serious readers, in my opinion.

On prisons for profit
There is a long human history of prisons for profit. There is incentive to criminalise more people so you can make more profit, is it not? Yes it is.

On human ingenuity
We’re going to have to invent ourselves out of our own inventions. We’re going to need to be ingenious in order to overcome problems caused by our own ingenuity.

On the origins of The Handmaid’s Tale
(This was in response to Patrick French asking her whether her travels in Afghanistan, Iran and India contributed to her writing the classic The Handmaid’s Tale).

People jump to that conclusion quickly, because they have not gone into the American and European history of the treatment of women. Nobody has a monopoly on the mistreatment of women. Things actually went backward for women in 19th century Europe, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was because at the time, they wanted women back in the home in the USA. They hadn’t figured out how yet, so I did it for them.

On the coffeehouse movement
The one in Canada was called the Bohemian Embassy. Some people thought it was a real embassy, and used to write to it, asking for visas. […] I was twenty. I was there. That was where I first read my rather awful poetry of those days, and learned how to deal with emergencies, such as electrical failures and other poets who were drunk.


Maharashtra’s deradicalisation plan could just replace one kind of propaganda with another

The Daily Fix: Maharashtra's deradicalisation plan could just replace one kind of propaganda with another
Photo Credit: Reuters
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The Latest: Top stories of the day
1. A Tanzanian student in Bangalore was allegedly stripped and beaten by a mob, and her car torched, while the police looked on.
2. Union Minister Rajnath Singh says the Indian government will stand by Pakistan if it takes decisive action against terror.
3. Ten soldiers go missing after an avalanche hits the Siachen region in Kashmir.

The Big Story: Anti-radicalisation

Maharashtra is going to fight them in the textbooks, fight them in the schools. Under instructions from the Union home ministry to draw up a comprehensive strategy to counter the spread of the Islamic State, the state government has rolled out itsderadicalisation programme. It includes opening up vyayamshalas in minority areas, making the National Cadet Corps as well as the Bharat Scouts and Guides compulsory in minority schools, and having a media outlet to pour “mainstream thoughts and values” into minority youth. This is accompanied by a socio-economic strategy to bring minority communities into the mainstream.

Better opportunities might go a long way in countering the appeal of extremist ideology; material deprivations and social exclusion have been known to drive youth to terror. But the rest of the deradicalisation programme raises a question: in its aggressive mainstreaming of the minority, is the government merely replacing one kind of propaganda with another? The alternative to religious extremism seems to be a muscular nationalism. This is to be laced with some yoga – the Bharatiya Janata Party’s magic cure to all problems.

Maharashtra could take some lessons from Britain’s misadventure with counter terrorism. “Prevent”, the David Cameron government’s programme to fight radicalisation, has only alienated the country’s Muslims, who constantly feel their Britishness called into question. Researcher Aminul Hoque notes how one of the major sites of tension is the school, where the government has bullishly gone about teaching “British values”.

The Maharashtra government also seems to ignore other major causes for resentment among minorities: entrenched biases that prompt the police to indiscriminately round up and arrest Muslim youth every time there is a terror attack, the slurs and prejudices that have forced the community into ghettos of deprivation. The state government’s programme asks the Muslim community to reinvent itself, but it leaves out other communities that play a part in the process of radicalisation.

The Big Scroll: on the day’s big story
Ann Aly of the Conversation asks whether “lone wolves” are terrorists or simply gunmen.
Aminul Hoque of the Conversation on how young British Muslims are alienated by the rhetoric of counter-terrorism.
TK Devasia on how a Muslim outfit in Kerala campaigns against the IS ideology.

Politicking and policying
1. In Jammu and Kashmir, a questionnaire distributed by the police, seeking details about the sects to which citizens belong and their links to militancy or separatism, sparks widespread anger.
2. Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar is reportedly planning a mahagatbandhan against the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Uttar Pradesh elections next year.
3. The Congress plans a Dalit meet later this month, with vice president Rahul Gandhi as one of the speakers.

1. In the Indian Express, K Satyanarayana argues that Rohith Vemula’s death should focus attention on the rites of exclusion on college campuses.
2. In the Hindu, Suhas Palshikar on how the BJP has combined middle class anxieties and media excitement to stay in power.
3. In the Business Standard, AV Rajwade on the problem with inflation targeting.

Don’t miss…

Reema Omer on how military courts in Pakistan cannot be a quick fix solution to terror:

The operation of military courts has come at great cost to human rights and the judiciary’s independence, which has been argued in detail on these pages. The promised “quick results”, however, are yet to be seen. This is not surprising, as the very rationale behind the establishment of military courts is flawed, if not deliberately deceptive.

The premise of the 21st Amendment was a hastily constructed narrative that “civilian courts have failed”. This claim was supported by assertions that civilian anti-terrorism courts have high rates of acquittal and judges deliberately let “terrorists” off the hook, either because of fear or sympathy.

Notwithstanding the fact that equating justice with the rate of convictions is abhorrent to the rule of law (only in authoritarian regimes lacking an independent judiciary are there no acquittals), curiously, none of the advocates of military courts, whether in parliament or in the media, presented any evidence to demonstrate why the civilian judiciary is incapable of bringing perpetrators of terrorism to justice.

We welcome your comments at [email protected]

Delighted, charmed and horrified: Steve McCurry’s vibrant photos of India (and Indians)

Delighted, charmed and horrified: Steve McCurry's vibrant photos of India (and Indians)
Photo Credit: Photograph by Steve McCurry (courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
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“There’s a lot of people here.”

This was Steve McCurry’s first thought when he arrived in India for the first time in 1978 with just a few clothes and a bag of film. Over the next three decades, the celebrated American photographer returned more than 80 times to the country that would steadily “delight, charm and horrify” him.

McCurry is best known for his portrait of a green-eyed Afghan refugee girl with a fierce gaze that made it to the cover of the National Geographic magazine in 1985. The photo changed his life, he says.

This time, the award-winning photographer is back with Steve McCurry: India, an exquisitely-produced book of photographs of the multitudes who so overwhelmed him during his first visit. The photographs span decades. One, taken in 1994, captures Mumbai’s milling masses with the moon rising over the city. In another, crowds walk on pontoon bridges built across the Ganges during the 2001 Kumbh Mela.

Crowds gather for the Kumbh Mela, 2001. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Crowds gather for the Kumbh Mela, 2001. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

McCurry has travelled across India – from Kashmir to Kerala – capturing the extremes in culture, class and landscape that make up this vast country.

“Perhaps the most stark among the extremes McCurry illustrates are those between India’s rich and poor,” writes author and historian William Dalrymple in the book’s introduction, referring to McCurry’s ability to throw light on India’s “extraordinary contradictions”.

The contradictions are evident. On one page is a 1993 photograph of a homeless boy trying to sell roses at a traffic signal in Mumbai, while in another taken in 1996, Harshvardhan Singh, the “yuvraj” of the erstwhile state of Dungarpur, sits regally amid a collection of snarling heads topping tiger skins rolled neatly into rugs, and several deer and other animal heads mounted on the wall.

Young boy sells flowers, 1993. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Young boy sells flowers, 1993. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Harshvardhan Singh of Dungarpur at home, 1996. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Harshvardhan Singh of Dungarpur at home, 1996. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Steam engine passes in front of the Taj Mahal, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Steam engine passes in front of the Taj Mahal, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

Each photograph captures people as they go about their daily lives – a boy with a sand boa coiled around his neck, a gnarled old man with Holi colours settled on the wrinkles on his face and a figure draped in a pink tarpaulin for protection from the Mumbai rain.

Man covered in gulal during Holi, the festival of colours, 2009. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Man covered in gulal during Holi, the festival of colours, 2009. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Woman and child on the Howrah Mail train en route to Kolkata, West Bengal, 1982. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Woman and child on the Howrah Mail train en route to Kolkata, West Bengal, 1982. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

The photographer says he consciously gave ‘regular’ people pride of place in his book. “During my time in India I met Amitabh Bachchan, the Dalai Lama and Indira Gandhi, but they are not in the book,” he said. “I have never really gravitated towards celebrities. The book is about ordinary people – those living in villages or working in the city. It’s about a million stories or situations of certain kindnesses, of people opening up their homes and lives.”

He added: “The book is more like a poem – expressions and moments with the people I thought were some of the most interesting encounters I had had here.”

Couple wades through monsoon waters, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Couple wades through monsoon waters, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

It is difficult to visit India without getting a sense of the importance religion plays in people’s lives, and McCurry hasn’t missed this. A scene from 1996 shows a Sikh devotee praying with the Golden Temple glowing in the background, while another captures devotees carrying a statue of Ganesha into the sea at Mumbai’s Chowpatty beach. Yet another is a portrait of a blue-skinned child dressed as Shiva seeking alms.

Young child, dressed as Lord Shiva, seeks alms, 1998. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Young child, dressed as Lord Shiva, seeks alms, 1998. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

McCurry has covered war and conflict during his career. In such areas, he says, many people simply want their stories to be told. “That is what I’m basically doing in most cases,” he said. “Letting them know that their story matters.”

He equates photography to writing: “Things that interest or fascinate you – could be a person or a place you want to explore or write about – inspire you. Pictures, like words, are just another way to describe the world we live in.”

Father and daughter on Dal Lake, 1996. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Father and daughter on Dal Lake, 1996. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

But he admits that photographers always suffer from a bit of self-doubt about whether they have managed to get everything they needed from a shoot. “Photographers deal with something like a blank canvas,” he said. “Sometimes you think you’ve taken a great picture but nobody responds to it. You’re never quite sure you have everything, but at some point you have to stop shooting because otherwise you never will.”

And what does he think of that bane of the smartphone generation, selfies? “I wish I had taken more selfies,” said McCurry who, over the decades, made the transition from analog to digital cameras.

He appreciates how technology has allowed almost everyone to take photographs. But he is careful to differentiate it from art. “Technology is now small and easy,” he said. “It’s just an inevitable progression like the typewriter to the laptop. All the selfies in the world are great but it doesn’t count as great art. It is the same as sending a text to a friend. A text is not great literature. Your text to a friend about getting lunch won’t bring a reader to tears. Similarly, a selfie won’t move a viewer.”

Agra Fort train station at dusk, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Agra Fort train station at dusk, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)


2008 Malegaon blasts: NIA under fire from former prosecutor as it seeks to drop MCOCA charges

2008 Malegaon blasts: NIA under fire from former prosecutor as it seeks to drop MCOCA charges
Photo Credit: IANS
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“It is a political move,” former special counsel for National Investigation Agency, Rohini Salian said, when asked for a response to the NIA informing a special court that it intended to drop charges under the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act against the 11 accused in the 2008 Malegaon blasts.

The NIA requested the court on Tuesday that the framing of charges against the accused, including Lt Col Srikant Purohit and Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, be deferred until it receives an opinion from the Attorney General whether charges under MCOCA could be dropped.

“How can they ask the Attorney General? How is he concerned with the case? The matter is sub judice (pending in court) and the case is at framing of charges. The court should decide the charges now. This is all politics. I have disassociated myself from the case now. They are cheating everyone (the society),” Salian said.

Salian, however, added that even if the stringent MCOCA charges were to be dropped, the case will not collapse and will stand on the basis of witnesses who have spoken of various conspiracy meetings.

Salian had charged last year that she had been under pressure from the NIA to go “soft” in the case since “the new government came to power” in May 2014.

‘Hindu terror group’

This was the first case where a “Hindu terror group” had been named. It pertains to a blast that took place in Bhiku Chowk, Malegaon, Maharashtra, on September 29, 2008, leaving four dead and injuring more than 70 people.

The case was first investigated by the Maharashtra Anti-terrorism Squad under the late Hemant Karkare. The trail led first to Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur after a golden LML Freedom bike parked outside the blast site was found to have been allegedly registered under her name. Her arrest was followed by the arrest of Colonel Purohit, who was alleged to have provided the RDX for the blasts, and retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay.

The NIA took over the case on the direction of Home Ministry on April 13, 2011. Fourteen people were chargesheeted in the case including Pragya Singh Thakur, Major Ramesh Upadhyay, Lt Col Prasad Purohit, Sameer Kulkarni, Rakesh Dhawade, Sudhakar Dwivedi aka Dayanand Pandey, Sudhakar Chaturvedi, Pravin Takalki, Shivnarayan Kalsangra, Shyam Sahu, Ajay Rahirkar, Jagdish Mhatre. Two accused – Ramchandra Kalsangra and Sandeep Dange – are still absconding. The trial is yet to begin.

In April 2015, the Supreme Court said that the application of MCOCA for most of the accused, including Thakur and Purohit, in the case was “doubtful” as there was not enough evidence to show their involvement in the blasts, apart from the Malegaon one. The Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad had applied MCOCA in the case on the basis of “continuing unlawful activity” of accused Rakesh Dhawade, a Pune-based antique arms collector, who was also arrested for two prior terror plots in Prabhani (bomb explosion in Mohmedia Masjid, Nanalpeth, Parbhani in 2003) and Jalna (bomb explosion in Kederia masjid in 2004).

The Supreme Court ordered the special judge to consider bail applications on the merits of the case and pass appropriate orders. While three accused – Shivnarayan Kalsangra, Shyam Sahu, Ajay Rahirkar, and Jagdish Mhatre – were given bail, the trial court refused bail to the main accused, including Purohit and Thakur.

Crucial witnesses

The NIA move puts a question mark on the confessions of three accused – Sudhakar Dwivedi aka Dayanand Pandey, Pravin Takalki, and Rakesh Dhanwade – recorded under MCOCA that support the case.

“We have judgements which say that now confessions can be used even in cases under Indian Penal Code. So I think we can use them still,” said Salian. But observers point to the legal troubles ahead as the case is based mostly on circumstantial evidence, with little direct evidence to implicate the accused.

To make matters worse, the alleged bombers in the case, Ramachandra Kalsangra and Pravin Dange, still remain at large. So, while the paper trail speaks of meetings for conspiracy, there is little information about the nuts and bolts of the case – the actual bombing.

“If MCOCA goes, the benefit of confessions go away,” rued special NIA counsel, Avinash Rasal. “Since I took over, we have disposed of 24 applications of bail or discharge,” he said. “Despite the Supreme Court judgement, we argued that MCOCA is applicable. And the court accepted it. We have given our 100%”.

The NIA’s legal cell, Rasal said, was not sure about the applicability of MCOCA. With the accused being acquitted from the Jalna blasts case in 2012, it becomes more difficult for the prosecution to argue about “continuing illegal activity”, on the basis of which MCOCA had been applied, he pointed out.

But Rasal hopes that the witnesses will support the case, unlike the 2007 Ajmer and Samjhauta Express blasts case, where many witnesses turned hostile. “The witnesses have to come and speak before the court,” he said. “We can lead the horse to the water, but you cannot make it drink.”

Defence lawyers point to the lack of evidence. “There is only evidence of the meetings which were all public meetings,” said Shrikant Shivade, who is representing Purohit. “None of them were closed door meetings. Besides, they were all unconnected with the blasts.”

Political move?

Naveen Chomal, the lawyer for many of the accused in the case, said that the arrested accused feel “cheated” by the right wing Bharatiya Janta Party government. In 2008, when the accused were arrested, some of them had written to LK Advani, one of the seniormost BJP leaders, about the injustice meted out to them. They had pointed out that the accused had been tortured and had been kept in illegal custody before arrest, Chomal said. “But, he (Advani) disappointed us. He mentioned our problems in one line before Parliament and let it go. He should have done something then,” Chomal said. “We do not want any favours from the government,” Chomal added. “We just want them to go by the law.”

Prashant Maggu, one of the other defence lawyers in the case, who appears for three accused in the case, said that it was in the interest of the Congress government to “bring out Hindu terror.” “This was a star case for the earlier government to bring out a pattern in the country. They tried to implicate Hindu accused in Samjhauta and Ajmer blasts cases,” Maggu said. “The government wanted some angle. They wanted all these cases to be interwoven, so that they can bring out Hindu terror. They started hammering all saffron clothed Sadhus and Sadhvis. The other side was pleased. But there was no factual material.”

The entire case, the defence counsel allege, was a political move. “The NIA is the same agency that withdrew the case against the 2006 Malegaon blasts case,” said Shivade. In 2011, after the NIA did not object to the bail applications of seven accused in the 2006 Malegaon blasts case, they were released on bail. The NIA had told the court that the confession of the 2007 Mecca Masjid bomb blast accused, Swami Aseemanand, had led them to review the evidence collected by the previous investigating agencies, namely the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad and the Central Bureau of Investigation.

“They follow different standards for different sets of accused,” said Sanjiv Punalekar, who appears for Sudhakar Dwivedi and Pravin Takalki. “They have been dishonest throughout. We are being used to politically please the government.”

Maggu agreed with Punalekar. “We term the witnesses hostile – like in the Ajmer and Samjhauta blasts cases. But, the statements themselves were recorded wrongly. Obviously, then they will turn hostile,” he added.