Emily Kessler

Emily Kessler, 99, has led an incredible life. She escaped the clutches of Nazis multiple times in her hometown Khmelnik, Ukraine, where the SS Guards were ordered to exterminate Jews immediately and completely. With the help of two brave women, she escaped the Khmelnik ghettos with her son and kept running till the end of war. Having lost her entire family except her son, she decided to migrate first to Russia and eventually came to the United States.

She now lives in New York. Her mandolin keeps the light in her eyes alive.

India’s Banned Voices: Who Is The Real Target?

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” – George Orwell



Salman Rushdie. James Laine. AK Ramanujan. Caravan Magazine. Mekaal Hasan Band. Evam Entertainment’s play. Taslima Nasreen. Wendy Doniger.

The parade of smothered voices followed by fleeting outrage is endless.

The growing intolerance in India is hardly news. It’s no insight to note that this is regressive. It is further futile to point fingers at appeasing politicians, meek judges, and publishers or organisers willing to compromise and knuckle under to avoid chaos. They have no one covering their backs and no intention of standing up to this darkness.

Those who protest are few and quickly sidelined. Those who don’t care are many and everywhere.

Why should a hassled housewife trying to run her household, bring up her kids, and balance her budget care about Wendy Doniger? Why should a young professional trapped in his cage of business schedules care about the pulping? Why should a grandparent? Wendy? Wendy Who?


“Hope you are right about the samudra-manthan that is going on in our country,” a despairing friend said quietly, “I worry sometimes about the vish that will flow out of it.”

Who will drink that poison?


I want to speak directly to the hassled housewife, the business executive, the students, the teachers who must know about this poison.

When a group of people gets away with silencing a writer because “he/she hurt their religious sentiments”, and you nod in secret or in pride, you tell the world that this is alright. But tomorrow, who knows who might point to your beloved religious text or favourite writer and claim that these hurt their religious sentiments. You raising your voice in protest will not matter then, because you didn’t stop the storm when you had the chance.

Believe me, there is much in every religious text that can offend someone or the other. You often see these cited in the comments section of any publication.

What if those people said you cannot pass on to your children the stories you heard from your mother and grandmother, stories of gods and kings, because they are offensive to them? What if they said you are making up the story your mother told you when you were a child, like I was told, because they have neither heard that version nor does it fit into their interpretation?

What if the history you thought you knew was overturned overnight and your children were taught things in school that you know in your heart to be false?

Where will you go to fight, if you choose to fight at all?

This is not about Rushdie or Nasreen or Ramanujan or Doniger or Laine. Those who seek to silence them are not really after them. Their goal is something else.

You don’t need to know anything about these writers or care about what they have written. What you need to realise is that their voices were silenced because the mobs are interested in you.

They want you to practice their version of faith and share their understanding of history. They want to leave you no choice in this. No matter what your faith is or how you practice it, someone somewhere is plotting to impose their will on you. You should care, right now, right this minute because someone is writing a narrative for you without your permission, because they don’t think they need it. Nor will they wait for your permission to force their narrative on you.

They could tell you that the version of the Ramayana that you learned in your mother’s lap does not fit their grand narrative. They will come after the character you relate to the most in the Mahabharata because he/she is not of a certain pedigree or repute. The beauty of our timeless classics is in the spaces between their stories that allow us interpretation. But because these interpretations can offend someone, it won’t be long before they are stained by petitions and stopped by law.

You should raise your voice, right now, right this minute, because someone (perhaps sitting in America) is writing a history that will suit their ambition. A tweak here, a book pulped there, a movie withdrawn, a play squelched – that is all it takes. In small, barely noticed cuts, they are slashing away at your infinitely diverse history and treasured myths. And defending it in essays, even denying it.

There is a calculated thought behind their seemingly petty acts of intolerance. They have a belief, a misplaced pride, and an unhealthy determination to shape a grand narrative for India because every great power must have one. Any idea or interpretation that challenges this must be crushed.

Over time, they want to turn us all into closed-minded drones with pride in only carefully culled out aspects of history and rage over everything that dares to be different.

Civilisations thrive and minds expand when there is a constant, healthy exchange of ideas and interpretations. Great conversations are made of the exactly these ingredients.

All that we can really be sure of is what we don’t know. And that we can be easily wrong in what we do know. How then can these mobs come at us with the arrogant certainty that they know what is right, and everything else must be silenced? They even want to take away our right to be wrong. Their having an interpretation is acceptable, imposing it on us is not.

In their myopic attempt to control our understanding of our world they forget that India doesn’t need a plastic surgeon to sculpt a perfect past. Instead, its confidence should come from the vision of where it is going. By deleting tradition, history and ideas that differ from artificial grand narratives, they are hobbling us on the journey we are on.

We should all care. And we should be worried. Because someone else is writing an alternate narrative for us.



First published in DNAIndia.com on Feb. 16, 2014:  http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-india-s-banned-voices-who-is-the-real-target-1962617

Outsiders In Our Own Country

It has been a beautiful fight. It still is.

– Charles Bukowski

The invigilator stopped at my desk as I was scribbling speedily. It was my 6th standard Hindi exam, my favourite subject.

Ek Urdu-bhaashi ladki ki itni achchi Hindi dekhkar bohot achcha laga, beta (Glad to see someone whose mother tongue is Urdu writing such good Hindi),” he said, reading my name. I wasn’t sure whether to take it as a compliment or a reminder that Hindi is not “mine”. The hair on my neck rose with something that I couldn’t entirely understand.

That one comment suddenly made me feel miles away from the love that I was spilling out with my pen on the answer sheet.

And so it began.

Growing up, I went into a phase of denial about incidents like these. The very idea that I could be made to feel like an outsider in my own country was ridiculous to my India-loving mind. These things don’t exist. They must not exist. These things do not matter.


“I have to apply, can you imagine, for leave on Eid-ul-Fitr from among my 10 paid leaves. It hurts like hell”, a young woman said. “You can celebrate silly days like red shirt day, black skirt day but not Eid?”

“The Head of the Department was very happy that I was part of her class. She wanted me to be an honors student till she asked my full name. Then she made a face, right in front of me, and turned her back,” said a college student, with stubborn chin and trembling lips.

“My case is ironic,” said another student. “I was harshly treated by a Muslim professor who wanted to prove to all that she was unbiased. This affected my grades.”

The message that these young people are getting is one of exclusion. They are forever standing outside the circle of warmth. They can watch celebrations and lights from a distance, but somehow can’t be part of it.

Outcast – in the name of caution. Forgotten – because of numbers. Sidelined – due to prejudice.

Every Muslim youth I know approaches the corporate world with the single-minded determination of proving their worth and a hidden wish to wipe clean all prejudices against them.

“It is a layered battle,” a young Muslim woman said. “As a woman, I first want to be seen as a genderless asset for the company. But you have to butt your head with male counterparts who work on the assumption that all women workers are somehow lesser than them, except if they are their bosses. And just as important is to prove being Muslim does not have anything to do with doing your job.”

“It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist like me,” another said, “Faith is a label that does not come off.”


The political coup against a just, legal process in the Shah Bano verdict was the first cynical move to appease traditional Muslim voters. This only led to their seclusion from the rest of the population. The Kane and Abel of Hajj subsidies and temple taxes started digging a grave which, with time and mistrust and resentment of every political favor given to Muslims, only grew deeper.

Instead of providing better education that Muslims most needed, support was extended for religious issues. Where the law should have come to the aid of a helpless woman, statesmen cheered a clever political victory. “We merely reminded you of your religious law”, they exclaimed.

India’s “secular” polity that claims to be the savior of Muslims, in my opinion, has a rich understanding of what they are lacking to fulfill their dreams on education and employment. They use this understanding for customized cultivation of just the right mix of hunger, need and dashed opportunities so Muslims can be in made permanently dependent on patronage.

Take the example of minority-only schools, yet another idea that has the wonderful mask of special development but is terribly segregating. Instead of understanding why Muslims hesitate in enrolling their children or figuring out if there are communal biases in the education system, here is a plan that will exclude them further, rather than include.

This exclusion is the punch line for the next elections and not a concern. From Ayodhya to Gulbarg to Muzaffarnagar, the singular purpose appears to be making the minority feel they don’t belong in this country, and even their constitutional right to vote is challenged.

In the guise of current economic needs, the new wave of communal polity is making Muslim Indians afraid for their lives and for the fast fading illusion of the safety net that they think they have from secularism.

Their political choice is a party that exploits religious exclusion and one that takes pride in it.

While politicians play these clever games, young Muslims seeking education and employment are refused homes for rent and are abandoned or even hounded by the police. No wonder many end up in ghettos where they feel safe from lynch mobs and a prejudiced community that views them with constant suspicion. This dynamic is so finely sewn into the fabric of our society that we don’t even pay attention to it. Muslims dodge and work around these biases with humor and everyone else rationalizes them in the name of security. And who can blame them?

In political discussions, most people wait for Muslims to play the ‘victim’ card. If they do, they are sneered at. If they don’t, a backhanded compliment of being “liberal” is slapped on their foreheads.


Loving this country gnaws at one’s heart because, sometimes in a roomful of people, one is the only person who really does love it with all its flaws and is still asked to prove it.

Loving this country is looking up to everyone else and hoping the proud ink dot on their index finger is not plotting the next communal riot. That this time, they will consider pulling us in the circle.

Loving this country is like loving a father who has made it clear you are not his favorite child, in the hope that one day he will turn to you and say, I am proud of you.



First published in DNAIndia.com on Jan. 30, 2014: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-outsiders-in-our-own-country-1958299