Retrograde. Bamboozlement! More Bamboozlement!

A meeting with Allama Iqbal

In Hindustan Times dated 13th October - 2007, Grand Old man Khushwant Singh, in his weekly column “With Malice Towards One and All…” wonders about religious belief of men like APJ Abdul Kalam, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Sir Mohammad Iqbal, regarding Heaven and Hell, in a piece titled Dreaming of Paradise. A line by Iqbal surprises the prolific columnist. Khushwant Singh writes:

What came as a surprise to me was poet Sir Mohammad Iqbal: He was a devout Muslim and never questioned Islamic beliefs. How do you explain these lines?

“Koi ab tak na yeh samjha keh insaan, kahaan jaata hai, aata hai kaha say?” ( No one has yet understood where man goes to after he dies and from where he comes).

Will some knowledgeable reader please enlighten me?

No, I can’t enlightening him about these lines. But, his questioning reminded me of my little tryst with Iqbal in a little room of a shanty basti at the outer periphery of a big city.

Some years ago in Nagpur, a friend of mine invited me to meet someone who he called his “chacha”. The last time I accepted his invitation, it turned out to be one of my most memorable cultural adventure. So, I accepted his offer immediately. I got on the back of his bike and during the short drive, he told me about his chacha. He didn’t actually explain how he was related to the man but he did fill in some of the details. He told me that his chacha hailed from the city of Bhopal and that in his time he used to be a rich man who owned many industrial units. My friend told me that his chacha gave it all up and, after a Hajj to Mecca settled for a meager life in the city of Nagpur. My friend parked his bike in front of a newly constructed basti with blue polythene sheets on some houses and freshly whitewashed walls, a basti that seemed to have cropped around a newly constructed green mosque. I knew that on Fridays, my friend and some other Muslim students from my college used to go to a nearby mosque to offer jumma nimaz. I found myself in front of the basti that surrounded the mosque — identifiable from its high minaret. It is a very common phenomena in India, a mosque is built and soon the community, with it high minaret and its sound of periodical azan, becomes visible to others. If there is a temple nearby, then expect a little bit competition in making the sound reach the faithful and the God/gods. Technological tools like Loudspeakers, Amplifiers, Magnetic tapes and Optical CDs, are deployed to ping the respective heavenly servers and crash the systems of unbelievers and faithful late risers.

Anyway, that is the place where I found myself on that mild winter afternoon. My friend told me that his chacha is quite a scholar on Islam and is an authority on Iqbal. Suddenly, I realized the significance of the invitation. My frequent questioning about Islam, my smartness at answering my own questions, my bragging about knowledge of Islamic history and quipping of some famous lines of Iqbal in middle of normal talks,, had finally made my friend do something about it. Since, I made my friend believe that he could not answer my question, he decided to take me to meet someone, who would explain the deep stuff.

I didn’t know what to do. Growing up I had known a lot of Muslim kids…I had recently read some books on Islam. Iqbal — I certainly knew about “Saarey Jahan se acha Hindustan Hamara” everyone knows the lines. More recently, I knew Iqbal from songs of the Pakistani Sufi rock band — Junoon. I knew Iqbal’s “Khudi ko kar buland itna”, I also knew Iqbal’s and the band’s lesser known work “Zamane Ke Andaz”. I also remembered an old article, which I read in a local newspaper of Jammu region, about Kashmiri Pandit origins of Iqbal. Finally I remembered, “Lab pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri Zindgi shama ki surat ho Khudaya meri”, the school prayer of my father, a prayer that my father and his old friends still recount when they get together and talk about old times.

Armed with this minimum armory I entered the newly built basti. The entrance to the basti was narrow again a feature common to Muslim shanty mini townships and bastis. Protection during rioting, being one possible reason for the constricted entrance to their world. Young men were loafing around and girls were moving with their head covered in bright colored chunis. I didn’t have to walk much distance, his chacha’s house was in one of the outer cemented lanes.
As, we entered the house negotiating our way pass an old bike that stood at it’s entrance, a young man dressed in pyjamas and vest came out of the house on the inquiring call “Kaha hai sab?” of my friend. Both of them exchanged alaikum (sound crashing into my ears was walaykum) and as-salaamu alaikum. I just nodded my head and he replied with a nod. My friend introduced me as his friend from Kashmir. I again nodded my head and he nodded back. The young man asked my friend in jocular way, what happened to their deal. Why doesn’t he fix something for him? My friend replied that he would first ask chacha about the issue and proceed only after his approval. Laughing the boy went out of the house. I noticed that the room we had entered was low ceiling and dimly lit with no furniture to talk of. In Indian housing terminology popular in India, it was the Drawing Room. I was trying to figure out if the place would be cold or if it would be hot in brutal Nagpur summer, when the temperature reaches 49 degree Celsius. I couldn’t figure out, as my friend had already started speaking, “ He wants to join politics, wants to start something in this area and wants my help. I have to convince his father and then finally talk to my father to take him in. Idiot!”
My friend’s father is a minor political figure in one of the major state political party. But, he is one of the members representing the cities Muslim minority community. I had been to my friends place a few times and seen his fathers mini court sessions in progress. People coming in with complaints and ringing phones.

As we went deeper in to the house, I found his uncle, dressed in a lungi with suare prints and a hole ridden by white vest, seated on a wooden cot with a book in hand. My friend exchanged greetings alaikum and as-salaamu alaikum. I muttered out an Aadab. My friend introduced me saying, “ Aap ko bataya thana iskay baray may. Wohi hai ye. Bahut janta hai…aur jaanna Chahta hai. Iqbal...”
His uncle didn’t say anything. He picked up a thin book from a stack of books lying by his side on the cot. He opened the book, turned a few pages and began giving a feeble reading of lines written by Iqbal. At times, he would stop to explain the meaning and significance of words. At times, my friend would explain a word of Urdu that he thought I would not understand, but I kept telling him that I understood the word but I didn’t ask him to give he meaning of words that I did not understand. I was sure that we both understood the same bunch of words and not understood the same bunch of words. After a brief reading, his Uncle told us that the work of Iqbal that he was reading right now, was the one foe which Iqbal was changed with a fatawa of kufr (unbelief). I didn’t know this and was quite surprised that Iqbal could be changed with unbelief. I think the work that my friend’s uncle read out was: SHIKWA (Complaint).

He then proceeded to read Iqbal’s response to the charges titled: JAWAB-e-SHIKWA.
Questioning and Answering, I thought was not part of Islam.
After, the reading session, Chacha called aloud his “aspiring politician” son to get something to eat. While snacks were on the way, line about my Kashmir origin was repeated with me feeling a bit out of place again, and my friend and his uncle exchanged some family news. Soon my friend and me had our hands in cold samosas brought packaged in pages of old newspaper and some dried rasgullas, bought in a hurry from the nukkad ki shop. I gobbled by two samosas and two rasgullas. Rasgullas still in mouth, I rubbed fingers on my jeans to get rid of the sweet stickiness. Chacha noticed this, with a gentle gesture asked me to rinse my hands in the little bowl that earlier had rasgullas in it. He tipped a stainless steel glass held in his hand to pour water over my fingers while I had my right hand over the small stainless steel bowl.

We bid our farewells and salaams and on the way out, Chacha’s son reminded my friend of the deal. I got on my friends bike and was on my way out of that place.

Mao’s Marginal Notes to: Friedrich Paulsen's A System of Ethics

Mao Zedong Collage

“I am the universe, life is death and death is life, the present is the past and the future, the past and the future are the present, small is big, the yang is the yin, up is down, dirty is clean, male is female, and thick is thin”

Note made by young Mao in the margins of a copy of Fredrich Paulsen’s System of Ethics.

Patrick French writes in his book Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land

Patrick French gives the source as:

Stuart r. Schram (ed.) Mao’s Road to Power, Revolutionary Writings 1912 – 1949:
Volume 1 — The Pre-Marxist Period, 1912 – 1920, New York 1992

What is the source of Mao's marginal note to Friedrich Paulsen, A System of Ethics ?

Looking for the actual source of the note attributed to Mao when he was a 24-year-old young student, here is what I found:

Yang Changji, Mao’s high school teacher and future father-in-law, was versed in Kant, Rousseau, and Spencer. Professor Yang held a faculty position at Peking University. Yang Changji is credited with having introduced Mao to Fredrich Paulsen’s A System of Ethics.
Mao’s words are to be found on the copy of Ts’ai Yuan-p’ei’s translation of Fredrich Paulsen’s System of Ethics. It still exists( where? ) with 12, 000 words of marginal notes in Mao’s handwriting, which reveal Mao’s admiration of Paulsen’s emphasis on discipline, self- control, and will power.
( Ch’en, ibid, p.44)

~Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow, page 422

Ts'ai Y√ľan-p'ei was an educator and a revolutionary, who served as head of Peking University from 1916 to 1926.

India-China, a Temple and Tibet

tintin tibet akshardham templeBuilt on the banks of the Yamuna River, adjacent to the proposed Commonwealth Games village, the Akshardham Temple of Noida is famous for its laser show, musical fountains and also for being a suitable hang out place for lovelorn couples who are always running out of meeting places (a situation very unique to lovers in India). The Lord of the temple house is Bhagwan Swaminarayan, a god that not all its visitors know about of, or whose teachings they might religiously follow. He must be one among approximately (on last count) 330 million gods of Hinduism.

Nevertheless, the temple is a huge draw among tourists and the locals, a fact evident from it’s ever jam packed parking. In summers, bare footed people burn their feet on its graphite and marble floor, just to marvel at the 141 feet house of god.

None of this is surprising.

The thing that is really surprising is:

Communist, Godless/godless and “religion is poison” preaching People's Republic of China has invited the Swaminarayan Trust( the trust that runs Akshardham temples in Noida and in Gandhinagar ) to build a similar temple in China. A large piece of land in Fohsan state being marked as the site for the proposed temple, and it housing an Indian cultural center.

What is the link between a temple built on Yamuna and the People's Republic of China?

Yamuma, a river that some Hindus still regard as Holy (regardless of its ever increasing pollution level) enough to stop their ever fast-faster moving cars at a particular spot on a bridge over it. The railing of the bridge built up into high rising steel wired nets, to prevent people from littering the river water near the bridge. The particular spot being the carved out opening in the net, an opening carved out by the faithful, a hole that no government governing the Indian land, would dare to close. The people stop to drop coins into Yamuna, praying for their wishes to come true and they stop to drop some marigold flowers, carried in poythene bags, into the river as an offering to the river goddess. These are staple food of modern Indian gods — faith, easy growing marigold (not the pink lotus) and polythene: an offering that only a god can digest. Remember the story of Lord Shiva (had he not been a god, he would have been a Chinese citizen (or a Tibetan exilee, depending on the way governments would want us to believe), as his abode Mt. Kailash, is in Tibet) getting a NeelKanth (blue throat) after drinking the poison generated from the process of churning of the celestial sea (Sagar Manthan) in the name of process by the army of the gods and the demons using Vasuki Naag (the celestial serpent) as the rope and Mount Sumeru was the churning staff. I think God is about to get a big lump in his throat this time. Already, one of the minor but important Indian gods, The Holy Cow, keeps trying to digest our roadside offerings of plastic, churning it in its four stomachs and still failing to digest it; and paying a price for our plastic offering to it with swollen bellies and a painful death.

China, the land whose most charismatic leader — the man who made his country take one Great Leap based only on his self-faith — Mao Zedong, after a meeting in 1955 with twenty one year old Dalai Lama, leaned over and whispered to him, with a friendly smile, “ Of course, religion is poison.”

Tibet, the land of origin of one of the holy rivers of India — Indus.

Let’s us look into the history of Tibet and China.

The Fifth Dalai Lama(1617 – 1682), with the support of Mongol military leader Gushri Khan, unified Tibet under the control of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, after defeating the rival Kagyupa sect and a secular ruler, the prince of Tsang. He chose Lhasa as his capital and began to build a palace there, the potala. According to the Italian historian Luciano Petech:
“ The supremacy of the Dalai Lamas over Lamaism , and their temporal power are due to the life work of one of the greatest men Tibet ever produced: the Fifth Dalai Lama…He reached his goal through sheer diplomatic skill.” He expanded his authority through the performance of rituals…and the writing of biographies of his predecessors that stressed the reincarnate lineage.”
The Dalai Lama traveled to China to exchange titles with the emperor, The Shunzhi Emperor, who had recently come to power. With the Chinese empire weak and Tibet protected by Gusgri Khan, the visit was almost a meeting of equals. The emperor was from Qing dynasty that captured Beijing in 1644 and until 1616 was known as the Later Jin Dynasty. Shunzhi Emperor’s father, Huang Taiji changed the name of the dynasty from Later Jin to Qing in 1636 because of the fraternal struggles and skirmishes between brothers and half brothers for the throne. According to Taoist philosophy, the name Jin holds the meaning of metal and fire in its constituent, thereby igniting the tempers of the brothers of the Manchu Royal household into open conflicts and wars. Huang taiji therefore adopted the new name of Qing , the Chinese character of which has the water symbol [ 3 strokes ] on its left hand side. The name, which means clear and transparent, with its water symbol was hoped to put out the feud among the brothers of the Manchu Royal household.

Patrick French in his book, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, writes about the visit of the Tibetans delegation to China.

As Manchus, from the north, the Qing had close historical and cultural link with the Mongols.The Tibetan delegation gave the emperor a supply of holy water from the Ganges, sealed vases, which he took to keeping near him whether in his palace or on his travels. Tibetan Buddhism was incorporated into Qing courtly life, but not into the lives of the Confucian civil servants, the masters of Chinese continuity, who continued to look down on all foreign religions.

"Freedom" by Jayanta Mahapatra

At times, as I watch,

it seems as though my country’s body

floats down somewhere on the river.

Left alone, I grow into

a half-disembodied bamboo,

its lower part sunk

into itself on the bank.

Here, old widows and dying men

cherish their freedom,

bowing time after time in obstinate prayers.

While children scream

with this desire for freedom

to transform the world

without even laying hands on it.

In my blindness, at times I fear

I’d wander back to either of them.

In order for me not to lose face,

it is necessary for me to be alone.

Not to meet the woman and her child

in that remote village in the hills

who never had even a little rice

for their one daily meal these fifty years.

And not to see the uncaught, bloodied light

of sunsets cling to the tall white columns

of Parliament House.

In the new temple man has built nearby,

the priest is the one who knows freedom,

while God hides in the dark like an alien.

And each day I keep looking for the light

shadows find excuses to keep.

Trying to find the only freedom I know,

the freedom of the body when it’s alone.

The freedom of the silent shale, the moonless coal,

the beds of streams of the sleeping god.

I keep the ashes away,

try not to wear them on my forehead.

~Jayanta Mahapatra

Pakeezah: Making of a Classic

Meena Kumari in PazeezhaAfter the failure of the film Daeera (1953), Pakeezah as an idea took root in Kamal Amrohi’s mind. The concept was irretrievably fixated with his love for his wife. He hoped to create a film, which would be worthy of her as an actress, and worthy of the love he felt for her as a women. By 1960 Amrohi had written the script.

In 1961 when the camera was set in motion following had been signed: Joseph Wirsching as Cinematographer( the German cameraman of Amrohi’s first big success Mahal made in 1949 with Madhubala and Ashok Kumar), Gulam Mohammad as Music Director, Ashok Kumar as Hero ( later among others like Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt and the final choice Raj Kumar, Dharmendra was also shot listed, but his relation with Meena Kumari created problems), Meena Kumari as the Heroine, and a handful of Urdu writers as Lyricists.

Of all the artists, the speediest was Mr. Ghulam Mohammed, the music director. But, the going for the movie wasn't smooth. The film was started at a time when Meena Kumari’s marriage was breathing its last. Between 1961 and 1964 the work on the film continued but at a slow pace because dates for Meena Kumari were all booked (1964 she was still on top of the game). Also, Amrohi was a known perfectionist, he wasn’t satisfied with his own work and kept rewoking it. By early 1964 some work was complete at a cost of a whooping sum of 40 lakh rupees. Then Amrohi and Meena Kumari separated in 1964, bringing filming to an indefinite halt. Time moved on, but the work on the film almost died down and the relation between Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari kept getting worse. Vinod Mehta quotes in his book Meena Kumari , a letter that Amrohi wrote on 25th August 1968 to his estranged wife,

“…only Pakeezah’s completion remains unsettled. You have made a condition that unless I give you a divorce you will not complete Pakeezah. Even this knot can be untied…I will free you from your marital ties. After this if you wish to help complete ‘your Pakeezah’ I would be most happy to do so. This is my request, that Pakeezah on which the fortune of many people depends, and which has the good wishes of so many people should not be felt uncompleted if possible.
You have better means. You have power. You have box-office appeal, and most of all Pakeezah needs you personally…Pakeezah that is like a sinking ship will reach ashore under your care.”
Amrohi certainly was out of options for having written such a pleading letter. Amorhi was fortunate that in 1968 Meena Kumari, the film star instead of lead roles, was now playing the role of elder sister type roles. Also, her health was not keeping well (she shot Pakeezah in great physical pain). Not only Amorhi but Meena Kumari also needed this film. It is said that Nargis Dutt asked Meena if she would complete Kamal Amrohi’s film( Sunil Dutt is also said to have played a role).Meena said yes. But, probably, she had already made up her mind. On March 16th, 1969, five years and twelve days after she had left her husband, Meena Kumari reported for work on Pakeezah.

Between 1958 and 1972, a lot had happened. Twelve or fourteen years in making of a movie is a very long duration. Some of the original crew had grown old, some had quit, some retired and some had died.
Two of the people who died during this period were: Ghulam Mohammed the music director who had already composed the songs for the life and Joseph Wirsching (later V.K. Murthy got the job) the cameraman who was supposed to shot the film. When the film was resumed in 1968, several financiers asked Kamal Amrohi to replace the music with slightly trendier music. Amrohi said that he would have agreed, had Ghulam Mohammed lived on, but he could not betray a dead man who had given him twelve beautiful songs. In keeping with the times, though, he kept only six songs in the film.

Vinod Mehta in his book Meena Kumari tells us the story of Ghulam Mohammed,the composer of the beautiful songs of the movie Pakeezah.

Mr. Ghulam Mohammed died a pitiable and harrowing death. In the middle of 60s, the room in Hindi films for genuine Indian music had virtually disappeared. Cheap imitations of Rock-n-Roll were in vogue and the ‘Ya Hoo’ type of melody reigned supreme. Ghulam Mohammed was a classical musician. To him “Ya Hooo” was anathema and he continued to practise his type of music. Amrohi, recognizing talent, had signed him on but nobody else. Borrowing a tape-recorder, Mr. Mohammed made rounds to the producers. He played then his Pakeezah songs. “This is my quality of music,” he would say and ask for work.
The producers were unimpressed. This was no music they said. This was out of date. Could he produce something more contemporary, more jazzy? Poor Ghulam Mohammed would return with his tape-recorder.
In 1968 he was sick. He had no money to buy food. He had no money to buy medicine. Soon Ghulam Mohammed was dead, unmourned and unremembered. He had died in sickness and in poverty and in shame.
Next year when they are distributing the Filmfare Awards and Ghulam Mohammed gets his for Pakeezah, as I confidently expect him to, he will take little comfort in posthumous glory.

In 1972, the Filmfare for Best Music Award went to Shankar-Jaikishen for the film Be-Imaan (1972). Veteran actor Pran turned down his own Filmfare Award for Be-Imaan because he felt that Pakeezah and Ghulam Mohammed really deserved the prize. Gulam Mohammed didn’t get his dues even after death and Vinod Mehta’s confidence was misplaced.

Image: Screen Capture of Meena Kumari in the song Chalte Chalte
from the movie Pakeezah

Also read, Meena Kumari: A poetess and an Actress
And, Translation of lines penned by Meena Kumari

The book finally got re-published in August 2013.

Buy Vinod Mehta's Meena Kumari from

Dev Anand: The Oldman Who Kept Keeps On Driving

Dev Anand
I have to confess that Dev Anand was the first oldie star whose movies I truly enjoyed watching. As, I grew older and Dev Anand grew into “evergreen” oldman, his newer movies grew unbearable. Many years ago, I read an essay by film critic Maithili Rao. This is what she had to say about Dev Anand:

After the early straight dramatic roles, Dev Anand’s debonair narcissism degenerated into the Noddy land of toothy smiles and a body balanced at an acute, gravity – defying angle.

It’s true at times he is indefensible (aren’t we all), and at times he needs no defense. Either you accept him, or you don’t. Where is the need for an 84/85 old filmmaker to defend his movies(altleast he knows that the minds of remake directors are bankrupt), choice of actress (people forget that Tabu got her first big break with him) and even personal life? (I am saying this after reading the review of his book Romancing With Life: An Autobiography in Hindustan Times dated 30th September, 2007 )

I have even seen a lot of his later year movies too. They didn’t seem as bad at that time because I saw them in the 90s; those were the time when every second movie was a bad movie. He movie were still different…not the best at the production level. But then, at that time only Yash Raj and some other houses had the production standards and terms like that. I don’t know about marketing, but with right kind of people around, he could have certainly made better movies. When old production houses like RK Studios were making Aa Ab Laut Chalen with Aishwarya Rai, Dev Anand was making Main Solah Baras Ki with unknown actress like Shaista Usta . Frankly, I don’t see the difference between the two.
When younger people like Mansoor Khan, (who incidentally wasn’t making movies based on any original idea) got disillusioned with the process of making a Hindi movie and quit because of the toll it took on personal; when people like Mahesh Bhatt decided to stop making movies and proclaim that people weren’t ready for his kind of cinema. Older Dev Anand seems to be the only one having real passion for cinema.

Just enjoy his old classic movies and hope that at the age of 80, you are half as much passionate about something, as Dev Anand is about making movies.

Image: Dev Anand in the movie Taxi Driver(1954)
Courtesy: Wikimedia
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