Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Some sad news

Terrible news. Desraj Kali is gone. Other people have written detailed obits, and friends like Shekhar have written personal accounts that show the sort of man he was, the instant acceptance, warmth and affection he offered even to strangers. I feel a bit numb and don't know where to begin. 

I have written about Kali (he referred to himself as Kali, and so I did too) in Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales. He was one of the doorways through which I encountered Punjab outside of the loud, Bollywood stereotype. And yet, paradoxically, he also inhabited and enlivened that stereotype. He was warm and generous and welcoming. When I first met him, it was through Ajay Bharadwaj whose film Kitte Mil Ve Mahi I had watched. I wanted to do a deeper dive into Sufism and the dera culture in Punjab and Ajay said there was no better guide than Kali. His family had attached itself to a dera but who himself was a writer and journalist and therefore understood the political and caste context in which faith is enacted. 

Kali introduced me to other professors and writers and traveled with me to many deras. He also insisted that I come home and introduced me to his own family, referring to his wife as 'your Bhabhi'. We met again, in Chandigarh a few times, while I was curating the Chandigarh Literature Festival. His Punjabi novel Shanti Parav had not yet been translated into English and I pestered him to get it published in the Hindi script at least, so I could read it. Eventually it was translated and published in English and he called me to say,  "There! Now you've no excuse not to read it!"

In recent years, he set up his own YouTube channel, BarqtanWebTv, where he discussed politics and culture in Punjabi. He also made appearances at various festivals and at online talks such as this one about the history of Jalandhar, where his personality and warmth are evident.  

I know one is supposed to say things like 'Go Well' and 'Rest in Peace' but I feel like saying, 'Don't go yet, Kali' even though he's already gone. Whenever he called, he asked me to come visit again, to eat the food 'your bhabhi' would cook. I always said that the taste of her cooking was still fresh on my tongue. He was unabashed in his expression of affection and sometimes when he called, he would admit that he was drunk and that he was ringing up all the people he loved. I kept saying I would visit next year, but there was always work and deadlines and new projects. I can't say how much I will miss someone like Desraj Kali. There are few people like him and the loss of his voice and his large heart will be felt by many. 

Tuesday, August 08, 2023

Book alert!

Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales (Aleph 2023) is just out. This is a new edition of Known Turf (2010), with a fresh Introduction chapter and a lot of footnotes that update the book's information with newer data, which lend it fresh context. 

This book of essays was nominated for the Crossword book prize in the non-fiction category when it first came out, and had a bunch of mostly good reviews when it first came out. It attempts to tell the story of our country in our times, with brief dips and detours into banditry, caste crimes, gender violence, displacement, hunger and malnourishment, faith and identity. All of these are, as I have learnt over the years, interlinked processes. I urge you to buy and read the book. 

Review links from 2010: 

"Annie Zaidi’s collection of essays, Known Turf, is arresting and unforgettable; about realities we prefer didn’t exist. Starvation deaths, female infanticide and communal intolerance step out of the anonymity of statistics to become people like us. They remind us of our defence mechanisms in the face of horror and sorrow; our efforts to stay sane and functional" - Karthika Nair in Tehelka

"Known Turf is a wonderfully engaging example of a puzzling trend in contemporary Indian writing in English. Despite the hype surrounding the novels-with-large-advances, the best writing today is happening in non-fiction." Alok Rai in Outlook

"Tragic and tender and brutal and funny." Known Turf covers a lot of turf.

"At its best, the book combines a reporter’s on-the-spot perception and a writer’s reflection and language to etch interesting, nuanced portraits of that half-mythical being in the throes of constant change: contemporary India. Known Turf is definitely worth reading, and not just for the sake of Gabbar Singh." Tabish Khair in Mint

"...anyone who has braved the railways without a confirmed reservation will get cathartic pleasure reading Zaidi’s graphic account of sitting on the corner of a seat, at a 45 degrees angle, with an RAC (Reservation against cancellation) ticket in a train to Lucknow" Alpana Chowdhury in DNA

"A book like this, written by someone who may once have been just as sheltered as they were, will resonate with Generation iPad in a way that a more world-weary account would bypass entirely." Manjula Padmanabhan in Outlook Traveller

"It’s a rare look into the lives of dacoits minus caricature.  Zaidi’s writing attempts to evoke an understanding of their reality.The Reporter and her Beat in Civil Society

"Among all the issues that Zaidi touches on, I find molestation to be the most moving. Though she puts in a lot of information on the other subjects she chooses, the whole force of her personality comes into play only when she starts speaking of molestation and eve teasing." From here

More reviews hereherehereherehere, and here.

Saturday, August 05, 2023

Kaise unhein dikhayein jo parvaane jal gaye - Ali Jawad Zaidi

Here is a transcription of one of my grandfather's ghazals, for those who are interested in poetry but can't read the script. I thought I'd make a valiant effort to translate the poem into English but after staring at the first couplet for fifteen minutes, I gave up. Here's the poem in Roman script anyway:

Ghazal: page 222 (Naseem-e-dasht-e-aarzu)

Kaise unhein dikhayein jo parvaane jal gaye
Shole hazaar phool ke saanche mein dhal gaye

Badla nahin hunooz yahi ik maqaam-e-shauq
Kitne nizaam chashm-e-zadan mein badal gaye

Kya keh diya naseem-e-bahaari ne kaan mein
Sahra navard sair-e-chaman ko nikal gaye

Yaad-e-vafa-e-yaar teri umr ho daraaz
Do chaar saa'aton ke liye dil behel gaye

Saaqi ki chashm-e-mast ka jaadu yahi to hai
Jo log ladkhadaane lage thhe, sambhal gaye

Thhe jin pe tana baar tunak zarf-e-tez rau
Ta aastaan-e-shauq vahi paa-e-shal gaye*

Izhaar-e-jurm-e-ishq khilaaf-e-mizaaj thha
Daar-o-rasan ke zikr pe lekin machal gaye

Ae dil yahi hai barhana paayi ka marhala
Is khaar-zaar mein to kayi sar ke bal gaye

Zaidi ne raat apni kahaani jo chhed di
Jo dil thhe na-shanaas-e-mohabbat dahal gaye.

- Ali jawad Zaidi

Many thanks to Saif Mahmood for clarifying some words that I couldn't decipher in nastaliq (Gah! when will I learn?) and for explaining the meaning of one of the more tricky couplets (sharing the meaning below since it may be a bit difficult even for Urdu speakers). 

*Thhe jin pe tana baar tunak zarf-e-tez rau
Ta aastaan-e-shauq vahi paa-e-shal gaye

They, who were taunted by fast-walking boors
Kept moving towards their goal on wounded feet
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