The Lives She Saved

 

Emily

She was supposed to die.

Emily Kessler was the mouse. The Nazis were the cats. The chase went on for two years. The mouse was scared and starving. The cat was agile and ferocious. But the cat didn’t know there were other players in the game. This is their story.

When the sun blinked through the winter skies of Khmelnik, Ukraine on Jan. 9, 1942, Emily Kessler didn’t know it would be the last day she would ever be home. The war had taken her husband the year before and she was living with her parents and her brother Sasha, along with her two-year-old son.

The town was swarming with SS death squads and Wehrmacht combat units whose mission was the liquidation of Jews, day after day, without restraint or compromise, with the help of local collaborators. Since the Nazis had marched in, Jews were all made to wear the yellow Star of David, first on their sleeves, then on their chests and on backs. The Jews were all assigned backbreaking and humiliating work, which was the least bad thing they had to do. They were not allowed on the sidewalks of their hometown. They were not allowed to buy food. They were not allowed to see a doctor. They were beaten or killed on the whims of the Nazis.

At 6:00 a.m. on that frigid January morning, several Nazis burst in into Kessler’s home and started beating her. One of them pointed his gun at Kessler’s brother Sasha. During Stalin’s homegrown famine in the 1930s, Sasha had fainted on the road from hunger, was hit by a bus and had lost both his legs in the accident.

Nazis were not known for their kindness to the physically challenged.

Kessler stood between the gun and her brother but the soldier pushed her away and killed Sasha in front of her eyes. Too numb to process what she had just seen, she forgot to put clothes on her two-year-old son, Valeriy, when she was pushed and prodded out on the cold street. There were more Jews lined outside and Nazis on horses herding them towards the nearby forest. When they entered the forest Kessler saw a large pit.

Quickly enough, Nazi horsemen started screaming at people to strip naked and then shot and pushed them into the pit. Kessler saw them throwing down babies in the pit over their dead parents. She saw them breaking the babies into two on their knees. She saw a friend walking towards the pit with dead eyes and no will to fight.

Kessler wanted to live for three reasons. She didn’t want to die young, she didn’t want her son to die and she wanted to bear witness to what she had seen. She started darting from one line of captives to another on the frosty forest floor in her summer dress, undeterred by the guards who were beating her.

When her turn at the edge of the pit came, a strange thing happened. A German officer looked at her and decided she was not a Jew. He told her to run away. She ran but was caught and brought back to the pit by the local policemen. Again, the German officer looked at her and told her to run away.

Kessler later heard that thousands of Jews – men, women and children – were killed in the mass shooting that she had escaped. Those alive, like Kessler, were rounded up and marched to the prison where they were kept for four days without food or water.

She fed her hungry baby boy the snow frozen on the windowsill of her cell. Kessler saw her parents through the prison window once and they saw her. Only once in those four days, a local policeman tore off a piece of bread and threw it at the prisoners. A hundred fifty pairs of hands rushed to catch the bread. Kessler caught a tiny piece.

The Jews were soon ordered to move into a ghetto where 200 of them were crammed together on cold floors. A week after she saw her brother’s death, Kessler witnessed rows and rows of Jews sentenced to death. Among them were her parents, embracing each other, dawdling to their death. Some of the Jews, unhinged or truly happy, were dancing while they moved to the grave.

In the ghetto, those “fit” were made to work. Like many, Kessler washed the lavatories used by Nazis with bare hands, carried bricks for construction and ploughed the snow from the roads. Her hands, tiny and delicate, that once strummed the mandolin were always busy scraping and scrubbing dirt. She grew weaker and weaker and knew she wouldn’t pass the medical test that sent the unfit Jews to the graves. It was forbidden to treat sick Jews or even those dying of starvation. The labor camp was a factory for making people sick and then dead. Then she heard whispers in the camp that all the children were to be killed the next night. She did the unthinkable. She slipped out of the ghetto in the dark of night.

Kessler roamed the town for days, looking for places to spend the nights. She hid in abandoned buildings and cellars while avoiding the soldiers and their search dogs. One night, she knocked on the door of a woman named Vera Shchupova. She was the sister one of a Ukrainian policemen in the ghetto. She was also Kessler’s classmate when they were children.

Vera

It was a rainy night when Vera Shchupova opened her doors and found Emily Kessler with Valeriy at her step, barefoot and drenched. Her brother’s position meant Shchupova had the freedom to go inside the fenced area without restrictions. Her brother didn’t know that she had been going to the ghetto to slip food to Kessler and few others. She told Kessler that, as she feared, the Nazis had carried off the children’s Aktion — mass killings of sick, disabled and children “unworthy of life” started by Hitler in 1939. She let Kessler in and hid her in the basement for a month. During the time Kessler was hiding in Shchupova’s basement, her brother often visited her sister’s home with his fellow officers.

American cartoonist Art Spiegelman once asked his psychiatrist Pavel, a Czech Jew and survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz, how it felt to be in the camp, to live under the shadows of Nazis and SS officers.

“What Auschwitz felt like?” Pavel said, “How can I explain?”

“BOO!” He startled Spiegelman with the loud sound.

“It felt a little like THAT,” Pavel said. “But ALWAYS. From the moment you got to the gate until the very end.”

Kessler lived in Shchupova’s basement hearing the Nazi collaborators and policemen coming and going. Frightened of her own baby’s cries, she finally asked Shchupova if there was a way she could leave the town. Shchupova thought of Yekaterina (Katya) Surovova.

Katya

Yekaterina (Katya) Surovova was a Gentile woman who had been widowed at a young age, much like Emily Kessler. She was raising a daughter and a son on her own with her job in a coat factory in Khmelnik. She saw the Nazis march into her town, where most of the non-Jewish population was very pro-German. It was no surprise that they had found so many collaborators so quickly. In these times, there was a thin line between collaborators and bystanders. Surovova fell in neither of these comfortable categories. When her friend Shchupova sought Surovova and asked her if she would give her passport to help Kessler flee, she thought of Kessler and her baby boy. She thought of her own children. The passport had her face, her name, her address on it. Kessler’s arrest would have meant death, not just for her but for her children too. All she had to do was lower her head and carry on with her life like many around her were doing. Why risk her life, the life of her children for a Jew with SS guards on her heels? She had all the reasons not to help Kessler. She decided to help her.

With her new passport, Kessler was now Katya Surovova. She left town with her son and another Aktion survivor, 13-year-old Fira Milkis whom Kessler had found hiding in a cellar. They walked through the day, and slept in the shade of haystacks when the night fell. After days of walking and they came upon the border zone, patrolled by frontier-guards who killed anyone trying to cross the line. Kessler waded through a river that was running up to her neck, carrying her son over her head and Milkis in tow. Somehow the frontier-guards missed them. She eventually came to the town of Zhmerinka in Central Ukraine, which was under Romanian control. But she was still was not safe, not if anyone took too close a look at her passport. So she kept running and running until the country was liberated in March of 1944.

Home 

While Kessler was still in the labor camp, the local policemen had allowed a few people to bring bedding from their now abandoned houses. When Kessler had made her way back to her home, she had found all the windows and doors broken. The house stood silent and plundered, covered with blood and feathers. And in the middle lay the frozen corpse of her brother. Kessler had just stood there, staring at her brother. She couldn’t cry, for fear her cries might be heard. In the end, she couldn’t bring herself to take anything from the house, not even her baby’s clothes.

Instead of returning home to Ukraine after the war, Kessler decided instead to go to Moscow and that was where she remained for another 30 years. Every October, however, she returned to Khmelnik for the memorial service of those perished in Holocaust. She also visited her saviors, Shchupova and Surovova. Finally, in 1977, she and her grown son left the Soviet Union for America. But life in New York was difficult for Kessler. She knew no one and spoke little English.

It wasn’t until 1985 that she caught a glimpse of home. She was walking past a music shop window in Manhattan when she spotted a mandolin, an instrument whose song was the song of home. She had somehow forgotten in the midst of all the noisy, bloody memories that she knew how to play mandolin. The lyrics of all the Ukrainian songs she had once sung came rushing back to her.

Now, Emily Kessler has a map of wrinkles on her face and eyes that still twinkle with intelligence. She won’t talk without clasping her pearl necklace around her neck. She most probably will comment about the lack of grey in her chestnut hair. And she is always translating English to Russian and Russian to English with the help of an old withering dictionary. She has battled depression and memories her whole life.

But she’s home when she plays her mandolin.

Post Script

Through Emily Kessler’s story I wanted to know the answer to one question – why do people show remarkable courage in extremely difficult times when they have a choice to look the other way?

I knew the story was all about memories – reliving them, corroborating them and looking at one remembrance from different vantage points. When I went to meet 98-year-old Emily Kessler in her Upper West Side apartment, she had forgotten that we had an appointment but then she scrubbed her face clean, creamed it, clasped her pearl necklace around her neck and sat down on her sofa to talk to me. She told me as much as she could. We spoke about her life after the liberation, her days in the camp, her rescuers and their family. She told me she still sends three hundred dollars, every three months, to Kolya Surovova – the grandson of her rescuer Katya Surovova. She told me how she had even helped and was in touch with another inmate of the same labor camp Sophia Karpovich, now living in New York.

So, I contacted Sophia Karpovich, now 77-years-old, to know her side of the story. Her memories (including what she had heard from her elder brother, also an inmate in the camp) matched Kessler’s.

The next step was to contact the Surovovas in Ukraine. They were pleased to corroborate Kessler’s story. Kolya said something to the effect that their grandmother’s one good deed was now rescuing his family with the money Kessler sends them. The economic conditions of Ukraine are at their worst and the only earning member in Kolya’s family of four is his wife Tatiana.

Then I asked him – why did she do it? Why did Katya help Kessler?

She was a mother too, Kolya said. They must have connected, she saw the baby. But the answer really was this – she just did.

I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact someone could risk her own life and that of their family to save someone she hardly knew. I myself have witnessed how easy it is to do otherwise, and it had been to a question that has been haunting me since childhood. I had witnessed sectarian riots in my native India. I had seen my own neighbors turn into bystanders; I had seen people who were kind to those utterly helpless and at the mercy of the mob. I had always wanted to know the difference between those who acted well, and those who did not.

So I contacted Kristen Renwick Monroe, Director of University of California Irvine’s Ethics Center. She has written three books analyzing altruism and ethics in the age of terror. She gave me the psychological answers to my question based on her extensive research and years of interviews with people who fell in three categories: rescuers, silent bystanders and the tormentors.

She told me that altruists see the world as one and believe they have no choice but to save other people. Bystanders, by contrast, see themselves as weak and unable to change the fate of anyone, so they remain uninvolved – looking the other way. Tormentors (in Kessler’s case, the Nazis) believe they are under attack, and so have a rationale for inflicting pain.

Her research suggested a thin line between those who rescued Jews and those who didn’t. It is clear from the quotes of those Monroe interviewed and included in her book “Ethics in the Age of Terror:”

“But what else could I do? They were human beings like you and me.” ~ Rescuers of Jews during Holocaust

But what could I do? I was one person, alone against the Nazis.” ~ Bystanders, World War II.

I then contacted Yad Vashem – an organization that was established in 1953 as the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. They sent me links to the records and accounts of these two women – Vera and Katya – who had saved Kessler and Valeriy’s life. Yad Vashem also honors those non-Jews who had aided Jews during World War II. Since 1960s, the title of “Righteous Amongst the Nations” has been awarded to 24,355 people from over 47 countries. Vera and Katya are among them.

I went on the website of Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. to find any references of Kessler and got a hit. Apparently in 1993, with the help of someone in New York Public Library, Kessler had written a memoir of her ordeals in Khmelnik under German occupation. That is how I came to find Kessler’s memoir.

Now, I had the pieces of Kessler’s story, from many sources including her own words, written when she was young.

During the interview Kessler said something that made me think about the masks we all wear over our scars everyday.

“I smile,” Kessler. “People know me only smiling. People find me beautiful. How can I be beautiful after what I have seen?”

***

 

First published in projectwordsworth.com on March 201, 2016:

The Lives She Saved

Malala Yousafzai – A Polarizing Figure in Pakistani Media

 

On Feb. 7, 2016, Dr. Danish, the host of Pakistan’s popular Urdu-language talk show “Ye Sawal Hai” (The Question is), was in full shouting form.

“This is the photograph of Waleed Khan who took eight bullets,” he yelled, pointing at the split screen flashing the photographs of a 14-year-old boy alongside Malala Yousafzai. Khan is a survivor of the Pakistani Taliban’s Dec. 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan. He was in the headlines for his ambitions to join the army to avenge his friends.

“And this,” he screamed, “is the photograph of Malala Yousafzai, who took one bullet and is living out of the country, and her account has $68 billion.”

Dr. Danish’s rant opened an hour-long discussion of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and her father, who were labeled “traitor” and “kafir” (a derogatory term for non-believers) multiple times by his three talk show guests. The group implied Malala was an agent of Pakistan’s enemies, who were using her to attack Islam and the Pakistani military

That part of the story is not unusual. Though Malala enjoys widespread admiration around the world, within Pakistan she is a divisive figure – revered by some, but aggressively targeted by others.

What is unusual was the reaction of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Shortly after the broadcast, the agency censured ARY News network – which airs Ye Sawal Hai, one of the top five Urdu-language talk shows, according to Gallup media research. The charge was “hate speech.”

“The host and guests used such words about Malala Yousafzai and her family that undoubtedly fall under hate speech and use of such words are strictly banned under the law and constitution,” PEMRA’s notice said.

“Accusations of blasphemy could endanger lives,” PEMRA further noted.

The strong language and formal action against ARY News were surprising moves by an agency that has traditionally reserved such censure orders for media attacks on the Pakistan army. For example, the license of Geo News, Pakistan’s leading television channel was suspended in 2014 for 15 days with a hefty fine for charges of defaming the army and Pakistan’s intelligence agency.

So what would explain an aggressive new approach from PEMRA to protect Malala, a controversial figure within Pakistan?

Usman Ghani, a blogger and engineer, suggests the answer lies in the October appointment of a new chief, Absar Alam, by PEMRA President Mamnoon Hussain on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recommendation.

Alam has deep ties to the current ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

“That may be one of the reasons for PEMRA’s aggressiveness,” Ghani said, in an email interview from Lahore. “The other probable reason is Pak government’s decision to move forward with its war against terror.”

The new anti-terror effort, said Ghani, has made PML-N and the Pakistani military more aggressive in opposing “any hate speech or action in media that might help the terrorists.”

Will it matter? 

PEMRA’s action may have been bold, but it’s not clear it will make much difference.

Soon after the censured broadcast, “Dr. Danish tweeted Malala’s name with Salman Rushdie and Tasleema Nasreen – controversial names in Pakistan because of their books and subject of hatred for the masses,” said Ghani. “It is an effective way of suggesting that Malala is as controversial as they are.”

The tweet also indicated that Dr. Danish – with 200,000 followers on Twitter — was unfazed by the PEMRA censure, said Ghani.

Ghani said public opinions about Malala reflect public anger at what is seen at western interventionism in Pakistan.

“The average people are not religious fanatics. They watch Hollywood movies and have mild ideology. But they hate anyone who is recognized by the West,” he said. “The anti-Malala sentiment is piggybacking on this anti-West sentiment.”

Cyril Almeida, a journalist at the leading English-language newspaper Dawn, said that many Pakistanis also feel resentful of the shame that the Taliban attack on Malala, and the subsequent international media coverage, brought to the country.

“There is also envy among the people,” Almeida said. “She got shot and got out, while most of the countrymen are stuck with their children in a situation where every day brings the possibility of death.”

Roots of polarization

The complex opinions about Malala have been reflected in Pakistani media coverage of her ever since a Taliban gunman shot her in 2012 as she was riding a bus home from a school exam.

Pakistani liberals were horrified, but some Pakistanis never believed the attack even took place, said Raza Ahmad Rumi, a columnist and policy analyst who was attacked by a Taliban affiliate in 2014 and now lives in upstate New York.

“There was a third category that believed that she was working as a pawn or a spy for the West, because she had met [U.S.] Ambassador Richard Holbrooke,” Rumi said in a phone interview.

Almeida, the Dawn journalist, said that the media divisions are far more complex than liberal versus conservative, or English-language versus Urdu media. “Even in the same news organizations, whether Urdu or English, some speak for her and some against her,” he said.

 

For instance, when Malala received honorary citizenship from Bethlehem, a Palestinian town in the West Bank in January, photographs of Malala and her father appeared in some news publications like Express News Pakistan and Channel 24 News, reporting that she is now a British citizen — which was not true. Even when it became clear that the honorary passports (with similar cover colors of a British passport) that Malala and her father had received were not British, none of these reports were corrected and led to a fresh wave of vitriol on social media, which has become a vicious echo of mainstream media.

 

Effects of Media Polarization

“One can’t actually divide opinions about Malala by language [of the media], class or even by type of leader because it is defying all categorization,” said Bilal Lakhani, a columnist forExpress Tribune, an English-language daily newspaper.

“I am currently focusing a lot of my writing on education and personally I am a big fan of Malala,” said Lakhani. “But I have stopped mentioning her in my articles. My message is getting crowded out due to her polarized standing in society.”

 

***

 

First published in globalnewsroom.org on March 15, 2016:

Malala Yousafzai – A polarizing figure in Pakistani Media

 

 

Journalism in India: In all seriousness

The nation watched in horror as the son-in-law of a political party, high on arrogance and drunk on power, brutally attacked a reporter with words so vicious they made the hair on virtuous necks stand up – “Are you serious? Are you nuts?”

It was remarkable how all the major Indian news channels wasted no time to stand in solidarity with a fellow journalist, just like they stood with the lady who was sexually assaulted by a famous editor last year. Such harmony is always heartening to see, especially when all the channels have a common goal. (We band of brothers!)

This issue was grave enough that the channels dedicated all their resources and prime time slots, for the next two days to rip apart every angle of and motivation behind this one damning remark “Are you serious?” And, rightly so. Horrible news such as this demands sensible coverage and no less is expected from top journalists who leave no stone unturned to report what is important and relevant for the country.

This incident stood out like an eyesore especially since the country has gotten quite used to the flood of enthralling news reportage post May 16th. The media is so accustomed to having all their questions answered by the new and charismatic Prime Minister and the easy access that they are enjoying into the going-ons of his government and cabinet members, that an unanswered question took the whole media industry completely by surprise. They were shocked by this sinister attack on their Camelot.

Even the social arm of the media, which is usually so calm and level headed, couldn’t stay quiet. It’s not everyday that the Indian side of the Internet wakes up and starts opining on just about anything! Twitter all but cracked into two halves with defenders of both side rising like Roman warriors – muscled with opinions, armed with righteousness. Imagine the effort it must have taken to announce and denounce views from the typically hard-working and busy denizens who only come online in emergency situations like #KursiKiPeti or #FoodPorn

But let’s not take away all the credit from where it belongs. No one knows the steel-spined, unforgiving, adversarial attitude in covering anybody who takes residence in 7RCR, more than the Indian news media. They were fearlessly critical of the previous government when it did nothing for the country, and they are still fearlessly critical of the previous government while it’s doing nothing for the country. That does not mean they have not covered the follies, lies and scandals of the otherwise flawless cabinet ministers. Their in-depth coverage to unearth the source of the money spent by the HRD minister on the 15,000 “Diwali saris” to Amethi constituency, was so encompassing, it can qualify as a case study for journalism students. The price of these “gifts”, was plastered all over the news channels and was repeated over and over quite like “Are you serious” till every taxpayer was standing in barely controlled rage with questions of their own. Such is the power of news!

No wonder, the world stood enraptured by the brave display of unyielding integrity by the entire Indian media, its social siblings, and especially the unlikely hero who went to cover the inauguration of a gymnasium and faced the impudent son-in-law who dared to question the seriousness and sanctity of journalism.

We should all be proud. Journalism was never this serious in our country.

Journalism is dead, serious.

***

 

First published in twocircles.net on Nov. 7, 2014:

http://twocircles.net/2014nov07/1415382347.html#.VKA_wMAAEM

 

How Do You Say Papa is Dead?

He stopped breathing. I was chanting in my head – not on my watch, not on my watch, my hand on his knees. He was opening his mouth like he wanted to say something, which was impossible as his tongue was swollen. He hadn’t said a word in two weeks. Just that afternoon we were playing a ‘help us guess what you want Papa’ game. He was flailing around like he was having a spasm attack. He was having a heart attack. I was holding his knees. Ma was sleeping on the cold bench on that cold night. December 13. It was 2.40 am when his eyes glazed over and I ran like mad to the doctors. Cancer had crept up on him and swallowed him whole.

My soul walked out of my body and stood a little away from it all, watching the doctors give him injections and oxygen, splashing light on his light brown pupils. Mom was awake. He went still. Soon the lady doctor declared my father dead. It was like she was declaring a part of me dead.

I am now an old person. My Father just died on my watch. Mom whimpered, “So soon?” caressing his near-bald head of salt-pepper, before breaking down. He must really be dead. My Ma never cries. I moved and closed his eyes with my two fingers. Perhaps the most important task my fingers had ever performed. Closing the eyes of my dead father.

There was a scream trapped somewhere in my chest, in my throat. Hold Mamma’s shoulders. Find your voice. Make some calls. Call one sister. Call sister’s husband. Call someone. How do you say Papa is dead? What combination of words is the most dignified? Do I say it in English? Do I say it Hindi? What do you do when your father dies? Right after he dies? Don’t look at the pitying eyes of the nurses. Don’t cry. Check his pulse again. Maybe they are wrong. He’d smiled that evening, didn’t he, his first in months.

Look at his long nose. I have his nose. Look at his beautiful, beautiful light brown eyes. Baby sister has his eyes. Look at his body. Hardly any flesh left. All bones. A sinkhole of blood and platelets and glucose vanishing at lightning speed to someplace mysterious in his body. His long fingers, his hands. They couldn’t find his veins, in the end, something to do with his smoking. He needed us to turn him over to the other side. He needed two of us to take him to the toilet. When he soiled his clothes one day, baby sister had made him wear her sweater. She is a size 6.

I must have called someone and said the right thing because of my sister’s husband, his father and brother arrived. It was a full cold, weepy moon. I was frozen. I found Naina, my niece crying on the stairs back at home, my sister had left her alone and she’d woken up scared. I picked her up, took her to my bed and hugged her. I was in the hospital for two days straight with no sleep. I needed to sleep. It was 4 a.m. I slept and woke up at 7 a.m. Fatherless.

I woke up with a start because I wanted to kiss him before others would descend and tell me I can’t. I kissed his forehead, his nose. What and who is squeezing my heart? Who is strangling my throat? How do you breathe? How do you grieve? I don’t know the ropes.

Three long days of crowded rooms and weeping relatives, my eyes just moved over them lifelessly. Did I stop breathing too when he did? I need to scream, I need to scream. The scream is rattling my rib cage, trapped. No voice is coming out. These tears aren’t even ruffling the surface of what is buried inside me. What if I had come a month sooner? He would have died a month sooner. What if I had never left for New York? He would have died sooner. He was waiting for me.

Elder sister is grumbling about something in the kitchen, and I snap back (nothing matters but the loud, deafening scream that I haven’t yet let loose. I want to scream, I want to scream. Half blind, half deaf, half dead, I snapped. She slapped me. I tried to hit her back like a blind person would. She didn’t expect that. I don’t do that. I never did that. But Papa wasn’t dead then. Eldest sister is pulling me off. You don’t understand, I am chanting. Nobody understands. Apologize. I have to apologize.

I am sorry I hit you. I am sorry I snapped. I am sorry I didn’t come sooner from my selfish trip to New York. I am sorry I let him die on my watch. I am sorry I didn’t run fast enough to the doctors. I am sorry I didn’t run sooner to the doctors. I am so glad you guys weren’t there. The scream, like a child ready to be born, is gurgling in my throat. I scream. I scream. I scream. Mindlessly. Madly.

He’s not dead. I am dead. I am dead. He didn’t love me like I wanted him to. He didn’t love me as much as I wanted him to. But it doesn’t matter, I loved him. And he’s dead. And he has my first silly poem in his drawer. And he has all the imperfect paintings I tore to pieces in his files.

Can’t I dig him back out of the grave? Breathe life into him somehow? Kiss him one more time? Start over? Be a child again? And not this old person his death has made me?

There are no five stages of grief. There is just one stage that stretches on like a rubber band. It is the offspring of pain and disbelief. I go limp. I stay in fetal position for three months. I stop sleeping at nights. Start sleeping at dawn. I wake up in the afternoons, I eat. And I curl up in bed again. He’s vanishing. His clothes aren’t on the clothesline anymore. I don’t have to fight with him for the remote. His side of the bed is empty. I roam the house like a ghost. Where is he? Where am I?

I haunt social media sites. It’s a whole new realm. A parallel universe. Everything is sunny, and normal and nice there. No one knows I am ill for weeks, wearing my Papa’s sweater because he’s dead and his fragrance is still trapped in the wool. I put on masks. I don’t lie. I don’t announce my grief either. People see you in a different light. Go easy on you. I don’t need their pity. My Papa gave me a strong spine. He was the chiropractor of our spines. I was lifting and carrying his weight on mine, wasn’t I? I just need to hide for a while. I can do that. I can live two lives. At least I am alive somewhere, and not dead because he’s dead.

With a memory like mine, there is no detail I can’t pull out to sketch him back again. Drop by reverse drop. Just the way we lost him. In tiny painful drops. Enough to lose hope. Not enough to lose all hope. I can still recall his voice, by the way. They are wrong. Their voice isn’t the first thing you forget. I can’t forget how he just slept under the effect of morphine all day, so I cry when I see some man lying down in a movie, I cry when I see a hospital in a TV series. I can’t watch “Grey’s Anatomy” anymore. Too many oxygen tubes.

Someone snores, it feels like Papa is wheezing. His lungs’ desperate attempts to draw some breath. I cry when his favorite movie comes on. I pre-ordered Dilip Kumar’s autobiography. He would have made me. I watch cricket now. Or try to. I cry. But I am still not grieving. I haven’t reached that stage yet. I am stuck somewhere on that cold night of December 13, 2013, while the world is whizzing around.

There are still people who don’t know he’s no more.

The phone is ringing.

Hello?

Hello, beta, is Papa around?

Yes, he is.

***

 

First published in Rediff.com on June 15, 2014:

http://www.rediff.com/news/special/how-do-you-say-papa-is-dead/20140615.htm

 

 

Lok Sabha Elections: The Sweet Hereafter

 

I wonder if you understand that all of us, that we’re all citizens of a different town now. A place with its own special rules and its own special laws. A town of people living in the sweet hereafter.” ~ Russell Banks  *The Sweet hereafter*

 

Doesn’t this election feel like the hereafter of a head-on car crash?

Some of us are bleeding, some of us are in daze, some have lost friends, and some have lost courage while staring blankly into unrepentant eyes of strangers.

After May 16, we all will carry on with our lives. We will go to work and the movies, laugh at parties, argue with strangers, and talk with friends. On the surface, the sweet hereafter will look much like the familiar everything before. But try as hard as we might, we won’t be able to shake the feeling that something has changed inside us. Like we lost something, or someone.

Like there was a death in the family.

It isn’t like bigotry, sexism, pettiness, victimhood, and bullying didn’t exist before these elections. We saw them in the drawn curtains of our neighbors during riots, we saw them in honest unguarded comments by our friends and colleagues, we saw them in the eyes of strangers and acquaintances, but we chose not to acknowledge them. They chose to keep these hidden under the wraps of civility, and we chose to live our lives around these unacknowledged blobs of ugliness. We compromised for the sake of decency, the everyday practicalities and our regard for camaraderie.

Then everybody got swept up in these elections, even those who weren’t interested in making comments or taking sides. We all felt that there was something different about this moment. It wasn’t the glitzy campaigns, their dubious claims, the incompetent politicians, the yearning for the new and brave. It wasn’t also our harsh realities, our photo-shopped illusions, or our compromised media eager to smother, silence and suspend those with differing opinions.

What these extremely polarizing elections did was all but drag and pull down the curtains of all our concealed hypocrisies. What we hid in our like-minded agreeable huddled whispers, all the snickers and snarky comments, all the clawing prejudices of clenched teeth, all the unacknowledged flaws, all the controlled bile of blame, all the blood oozing from the still-fresh wounds, these elections have forcibly unleashed it all in full public sight.

And we’ve seen the true faces of each other. No masks of civility. No regard for camaraderie. With all our beliefs and views and unvarnished thoughts, we went to battle. Every day, each day we fought – hurling abuse, blame, accusation, hatred, prejudice. We argued sanely at first, then angrily, and finally with viciousness. Even this taught us something about ourselves. We changed as individuals, as a community as a country.

Now most everybody around us is feeling this smear on their souls. Whatever surface emotion we will feel on May 16, deep down it will feel dirty. More importantly, it feels like we have lost a part of ourselves. Some part that was bright and light and decent. The joyful part that sat in our social media living room watching India win the world cup together, the curious part that listened without interrupting wise minds who brought different point of views to the table, the friendly part that reached out from the farthest corners of the internet and touched hearts, the Indian part that filled us with pride – all that has gone cold. Blank. As though we are mourning the innocence that we have all lost.

We can’t be friends with some anymore, because as it happens we were never friends with them in the truest sense. We all are hurt, merely by each other’s true faces. Shocked and disappointed and a little scared. Moreover, we are surprised by our own aggressive individuality, that which was chiseled in these polarizing elections by our true characters.

We can’t un-see the true faces of each other that we have seen. We can’t un-look, un-acknowledge, or deny what is staring us right in our eyes.

We can’t put the spilt milk back in the bottle.

How will we put together our pieces after this crash? How will we glue together these gaping cracks?

Maybe we should let the pieces be for now and like a shaken kaleidoscope yields new patterns of shattered glass, we will find ourselves a new compact. As long as the kaleidoscope doesn’t break, we will be okay. We will rearrange ourselves, our friends, our lives, and we will move on.

But we have lost the previous pictures and patterns. From here we can only go forward. As TS Eliot wrote: “So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna on the field of battle. Not fare well, but fare forward, voyagers.”

And for those who are willing to reach out to one another, we must remember that our hands alone cannot reach some of the wounds. We will need the very hands that have inflicted these wounds to slap the bandage on.

Be those hands.

 

***

India’s liberal Muslims: A minority within a minority

 

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

– Dylan Thomas

 

Sisters, do not stop your husbands. It is your duty to make them happy. Allow them to take up other wives if you are ill. They will be your sisters.

At this point, my mother – attending a women’s seminar where noted female Islamic scholars and historians were supposed to speak – had enough of this preacher who had literally hijacked the event.

She stood up – the only one in the room to do so – and said, “This is wrong. We didn’t come here to listen to this.” She later told me how she liked the shocked silence at her walking out of that room, with a few others behind her. She was so livid, she also filed a complaint with the organizers.

“He likely didn’t stop, Mamma,” I said to her, my blood boiling, “Even when you and the others walked out.”

“I didn’t speak up to stop him,” my mother said. “I said it because I couldn’t stay quiet any longer.”

_________________

Since well before the campaigning for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections even began, Muslims have become a focus of discussion for a party that proudly demonizes them and another that cynically manipulates them. This discussion inevitably involves the alleged “appeasement” of Muslims, the “special privileges” they supposedly receive, their failure to merge into the “mainstream”, their “unwillingness” to be treated as any other citizen and, the most important question, thrown like a wet fish on the face of every liberal Muslim: why are Muslims silent about the demons inside the walls their community has pulled up around itself. Why don’t they speak out against things like fatwas against books, performing the surya namaskar, and even against singing Vande Mataram?

My mother surely wasn’t silent nor was she an isolated example of someone standing up and calling a spade a spade. Many of us stand up to such forces in our own little ways every day.

Admittedly, this liberal protest is a stream rather than a raging river – voices of liberal Muslims who are a minority within a besieged minority. But it exists.

_________________

Those who accuse liberal Muslims of silence have fixed beliefs and closed minds. Nothing I say can make them see that there exist Muslims who do much of these things every single day: the Hijabi yoga instructor, my niece leading the morning choir, my mother standing up to that preacher, me standing up for Indian democracy to “concerned” Pakistanis in New York.

Muslims are standing up to the social demons in their own community. They don’t do this to somehow prove that they are liberal or modern. They do this because they have not yet given in to the shadows of a comforting silence. People are vocal but no one appears to be listening. Not every incident makes it to social media platforms or the newspapers.

Even those who choose to remain silent don’t do so necessarily because they approve of everything they see around them. They are silent because they are tired of being attacked for things they have no hand or say in (for instance Imran Masood’s speech, attacks on Hindus in Pakistan, or even that Muslim rulers reigned for 700 years in India). They are tired that nobody believes them when they speak out. They are tired of being called “Babur ki aulaadein”. They know no one will protect them if something goes wrong, not “their” people and certainly not the law. Most importantly, they think their speaking out won’t make any difference.

Liberal Indian Muslims are too grey to fit into the black and white narratives of the Right and the Left. They are the visible tip of their community, taking the brunt of accusations, attacks and insults on social media, political debates in parties, and in the main stream media. In the current polarized political climate, they have been painted as villains even when they have done nothing wrong at all, and indicted for not speaking enough to satisfy strangers who sit in judgment over them.

I have been told repeatedly that liberal Muslims aren’t taken seriously. A minority within a minority, they might as well be ghosts. When others come across them, they are looked at with the same old lens of prejudice. They are required to publicly take sides and to constantly prove who and what they are to people on two sides: to their community, liberal Muslims feel forced to prove they are “Muslim enough”, and to everyone else, that they are “modern enough”.

Being held to account for things others do is an undeserved burden, while speaking up about our beliefs sometimes feels futile. Some get tired of this constant scrutiny, at being told “prove it” and “you have failed”.

It’s not surprising then that many prefer silence because, when under siege, humans circle their wagons and huddle with those who are similarly under attack or those who might just give them the benefit of the doubt.

But, no matter how difficult or futile this is, right now, many more Muslims must speak up, not because it will make any difference to the election or even their community, but because it will make a difference inside their own conscience.

More Muslims need to speak up because, if they remain silent, others will speak for them. When intellectuals, politicians, and academics talk about “root causes” that somehow drive terrorists to murder and maim Indians, when they talk about a “Muslim veto” in Indian politics, when they stereotype Indian Muslims in the language of victimhood and dependency, they are doing the community no favors.

It is time though that Muslims stand up against everyone and everything that is pulling them down, within their own community and outside of it. The day they start thinking about themselves – instead of letting patronizing do-gooders, cynical politicians, communal demagogues, and fundamentalist Imams speak for them – is the day they will stop being a part of a “vote herd” that is bartered for a price. In this election cycle, especially, where they are being demonized as traitors and courted as a vote bank, they need to speak up and their voices should be heard before canny journalists or vote-herd shepherds hijack it.

And when they speak, others should open their mind and ears to listen without shaking their heads in disapproval, without squinting their eyes in disbelief, without cross-examining their truth, without suspecting their motives, without patronizing them or trying to twist their narrative to pit them against the walls of solid bigoted thoughts . It takes two to speak the truth: one to say it, the other to believe it.

Liberal Muslims have been speaking. Have you been listening?

 

***

First published in DNAIndia.com on April 4, 2014:

http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-india-s-liberal-muslims-a-minority-within-a-minority-1975131

In the battle of victimhoods, the real victims are forgotten

Certainly we struggle as victims of other people’s unkindness. We have been sinned against. But we cannot excuse our sinful responses to others on the grounds of their mistreatment of us. We are responsible for what we do. We are both strugglers and sinners, victims and agents, people who hurt and people who harm.

– Larry Crabb

_________________

On the anniversary of the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, I tweeted an excerpt from Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots. The immediate response was tweets about continuing atrocities on Kashmiri Muslims. Even as I reeled from how it feels to pack a lifetime in a suitcase and to flee one’s own home like a thief at night, I was abruptly dragged across the other side to a competing victimhood.

On the anniversary of the Kunan Poshpora gang rapes, I mourned the unspeakable horror of a raped pregnant sixteen year old who subsequently gave birth to a baby with a broken arm. A friend speculated that the story was likely an exaggeration, if not outright fabrication.

In fact, he went on, every account that comes from “separatists” was to be suspected, that the “ripped fetus” incident from Gujarat is a myth, and that Muslim victimhood hurts secularism as it is “context-free” angst. Same goes for Hindu victimhood, he added.

_________________

Sandhya Jain, editor of Vijayvaani, writes, Hindu victims of the (Muzaffarnagar) riots were cold-shouldered and compensation was offered to Muslims only.

In his essay “The value of Hindu Life”, Rajiv Srinivasan writes, A Hindu’s life is without value as far as politicians and the government are concerned. But a Christian man’s life and a Muslim man’s eye are of great value.

Dalit rights activist Kancha Ilaiah in an interview to DNA said, “Backward caste students are generally discriminated against in these premier institutes. Instead of providing them a leg-up, they are made to feel unwanted.”

If you go looking for it, victimhood is everywhere in India.

_________________

As I reflected on my friend’s views, it occurred to me that he was speaking about victimhood as a political act while I was hurting for the victims as a human gesture.

Amidst the clanging of arguments over victimhood, we so often lose sight of the victims crouched in shadows. By dismissing victimhood, with good intent and sharp intellect, we forcibly erase the memory of victims. In the process of championing victimhood, somehow the victims are left far behind.

The Pandit leaping from the window of his burning house, the baby born with a fractured arm because the mother was raped brutally, the elderly widow struggling on behalf of her lynched husband, the frightened Kar Sevak trapped in the Sabarmati Express, the refugees trembling beneath the merciless winter sky in Muzaffarnagar. They are all individuals and their suffering should matter more than as fodder for collective victimhood.

Headlines in the newspapers, poignant photographs, screeching political debates on primetime seldom turn to look at the victim, who is as she was. And where she was.

Victimhood is born of inferiority, insecurity, and paranoia. When you step back and stare at it, victimhood sounds like a pathetic attempt to show whose scar is uglier, whose wound is deeper, and whose bruises are blacker and bluer. When you come closer, all you can smell is fear.

Those who scream hoarse about victimhood and those who smirk at it are seldom victims themselves. They merely reduce the suffering of others to clever arguments and the victims to forgotten afterthoughts, dismissing them as whiny.

Justice is a headless puppet in this country. When it is served, more often than not it is a political statement in the name of “appeasing the collective conscience”. Where the security forces should be the first circle of protection for victims and justice the next, both have been rendered powerless in the face of cold political calculation.

The struggle of man against power, Milan Kundera wrote, is the struggle of memory against forgetting. The debate over victimhood is a means of forgetting.

We must acknowledge the trauma of the victims, we must not forget them. Because it is likely memory is the only justice they will ever get.

_________________

The saddest fact is that competing victimhoods desperately try to prove that the “other” victims are not really victims. They are impostors. They are a political conspiracy. They are a fabrication.

They are everything except real human beings with names.

They are liars.

Vasudev “Vasu Toth” in the Mishriwala refugee camp for Kashmiri Pandits is a liar.

Satish Kumar Mishra, survivor of the Sabarmati express burning in Godhra, is a liar.

Vibha Sethii, who lost her son and husband in the 1984 riots, is a liar.

Zakia Jafri is a liar.

Victims are liars. Victimhood is standing strong and true.

 

***

 

First published in DNAIndia.com on March 5, 2014:

http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-in-the-battle-of-victimhoods-the-real-victims-are-forgotten-1967004