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  OBITUARY  
   
   
     
   
  By A.J. Philip  
     
  IT is nearly a decade since I had my first encounter with Dr Anil Wilson, who was then Principal of St. Stephen's College, Delhi. My ward -- daughter of a friend -- had applied for admission to BA History (Honours) course.

Since her father was posted in the US, I was her local guardian. But to my surprise, she was not called for interview. She had secured more than 90 per cent marks in Arts in the qualifying examination.

It was difficult to meet the Principal but I managed to get into his room. When I told him about the problem, he looked at the certificate and asked me to get it "authenticated" by Delhi University. We got it done in a few minutes.

When I showed Dr Wilson the "attested certificate," her name was included among those called for interview. On the interview day, I accompanied her to the college. A brilliant student, she could answer all the questions except one relating to Indian history as she had not studied the subject in the US.

But when the list of selected candidates was put on the notice board, my ward's name was at the bottom of the waiting list. Everybody, including some insiders, told us that there was no likelihood of her getting admission. Unfortunately, we had not applied elsewhere.

A little probe revealed that she had the highest marks among all the applicants. She was the daughter of a Christian priest (I mention this as Christians get some concession in the college!). In other words, all those selected by the college had lower marks than her. We could not reconcile ourselves to the rejection.

We decided to fight it out in a court of law and approached my former colleague at the Hindustan Times, Mr Krishan Mahajan, who had started practice in the Supreme Court. Everybody told me that it was pointless to fight against the college, which enjoyed enormous clout. My friend and former UNI editor, Mr E.C. Thomas, had a bitter experience in this regard.

But that did not dissuade us. Mr Mahajan told us that we could file a writ petition only if we could make Delhi University a party to it. He advised us to give a representation to the Vice-Chancellor. We met the VC who was aghast that such a brilliant girl was rejected. He promised that he would get her admission in any college under Delhi University, other than St. Stephen's and the Hindu.

In our presence, he dictated a show-cause notice to the Principal asking him why action should not be taken against him. He was frank enough to tell us that since it was a minority institution, he could do little if the Principal chose to ignore his notice. In any case, Mr Mahajan had already drafted a writ petition.

On the next working day, I got a telephone call from the college asking us to deposit fees and take admission. With that, the case became infructuous. On the day the college opened, she was called by the Principal and told that he cared two hoots for the letters of protest that I had written to him.

Incidentally, my ward, who is now settled in the US, won the most coveted prize the college offers from the hands of the Principal. She was also the editor of the College magazine.

Till today, I have not been able to understand why my ward was rejected in the first place. Was it because I had accidentally hurt his ego? Soon, Dr Wilson and I were members of a committee to choose the head of the journalism department at the New Delhi YMCA. He managed not to speak to me while interviewing candidates. The ice was finally broken when he joined Himachal Pradesh University as Vice-Chancellor. I was with The Tribune in Chandigarh at that time.

He would occasionally send articles to me for publication. He considered me so close that he would even forward to me humorous SMSs he received.

Whatever may be my personal experience, Dr Anil Wilson, who died of pancreatic cancer on June 25, was considered one of the most competent principals St. Stephen's College ever had. Countless are the students who will speak about his greatness as a teacher and administrator.
 
   
     
   
  By A.J. Philip  
     
  EARLY last week, India lost a writer of indomitable courage in the death of Kamala Surayya (1931-2009). As she had been ailing for long, her death could only be described as natural. There was a massive turnout of people wherever her body was kept for public homage – Thrisoor, Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram. They all seemed to miss Amy as those who knew her well fondly called her.

I never met her but I never missed an opportunity to read her. It was her Ente Katha (My Story) that I read first. I was at college when S.K. Nair’s weekly Malayalanadu, edited by V.B.C. Nair, began serialising her “autobiographical” work.

My Story was a path-breaking literary event in that she bared her heart like no other writer of eminence had ever done in Malayalam. It shocked the cultural sensibilities of the Malayali like her grandfather Nalappad Narayana Menon's Ratisamrajyam, a treatise on the science of sex, did because it was from the same pen that Chakravalam (Horizon) that established the height of his philosophical vision had emerged.

The circulation of Malayalanadu increased manifold as readers like me lapped up her story. Unknown to us then, her husband Madhava Das had made a vain attempt to stop publication of My Story. However, Madhavikutty, as she was known then, put her foot down on the suggestion.

Daughter of one of Kerala's leading poetesses, Balamani Amma, and V.M. Nair of the Mathrubhoomi, she wrote about her lovers and how they made it out. Until then I had only read about pure love like between Nala and Dhamayanti, Dushyanta and Shakuntala, Salim and Anarkali and Romeo and Juliet.

But in My Story she wrote about physical unions that were bereft of love. She seemed to have a disenchantment with notions of romantic love as when she wrote in the poem The Stone Age, "Ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake/ Before it clasps my pubis/ Ask me why like a great tree, felled, he slumps against my breasts/ And sleeps".

It did not matter to her that she was referred to as a nymphomaniac at that time. In fact, I learnt this word when someone used it against her. She did not use the word "love", instead she used the word "lust" as in the poem In Love: "Of what does the burning mouth/ Of sun, burning in today’s/ Sky remind me… oh, yes, his/ Mouth/ And the sad lie/ Of my unending lust".

In another instance, she wrote, "In him… the hungry haste/ Of rivers, in me… the oceans' tireless Waiting". That set her apart as an iconoclast, an image she lived up to till the very end.

She was unconventional and unpredictable as when Antara Dev Sen, editor of the not-so-little The Little Magazine, found herself being praised to the skies at an award function in New Delhi a few years ago.

Only Kamala Das could have said in public, "Antara is so good that I wish she was my own daughter", causing enormous embarrassment to her target of encomium. Some people believed that she made controversial statements for the heck of it and for the publicity they caused. But to believe them would be to do a great injustice to her.

Kamala Das was one of the most truthful writers, though when the controversy about My Story did not die down, she said the incidents were all a figment of her imagination. For a reader like me, it was immaterial whether the encounters described in the book actually took place or not. As long as they took place in her mind, it was sufficient to rejoice in them.

Though Kamala Das lived most of her adult life in cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Ernakulam, her descriptions of the Kerala village life are spectacular. She wrote about the Hindu tharavad (joint family) that was home to petty jealousies, little incest and full-blown romances. Yet, she also had the courage to say that beauty was preserved better in urban homes. "It is romantic to describe the pleasures of walking on meadows but it does terrible harm to your feet".

As poetry editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India for some time, she published poems that were bold in experimentation. Her own poems defied the stereotype and she was recognised as one of the best Indian writers in English. She was a master storyteller.

Kamala Das disheartened her readers and admirers when she launched a political party and contested elections. Everyone except her knew that she would lose her deposit. In later life, it was her conversion to Islam that caused the biggest of all controversies.

The exact circumstances in which she decided to convert are not in the public domain. It is believed that she fell in love with a young Muslim politician, a speaker of exceptional brilliance who could quote the Bhagawad Gita as he could quote with dexterity the Quran and the Bible.

Whatever be the provocation, it was comparable to the conversion of Rama Varma, heir to the Kochi throne, who embraced Christianity in 1835 and became the first indigenous missionary. Today Rev Yakob Rama Varma, who helped Hermann Gundert in compiling the first Malayalam dictionary, is remembered for his autobiography, the first in Malayalam, which he read out at his ordination in 1856.

Kamala Das' conversion evoked reactions ranging from a congratulatory telegram sent by the PDP leader, Abdul Madani, from his prison cell in Tamil Nadu to threats to liquidate her and burn the cinema theatre at Punnayoorkulam, her native village where a documentary on her, Malayalathinte Madhavikutty (Madhavikutty of Malayalam), was being shown.

While a few writers like the late O.V. Vijayan and Paul Zachariah praised her courage of conviction, most others called her decision crazy. But then crazy people do not convert when they are three score and seven and that too in such a brazen manner! Craziness was, perhaps, the easiest explanation for her conduct.

It is a different matter that those who called her crazy did not do so when she celebrated the explosion at Pokharan by preparing payasam (sweetened rice) and distributing it in Kochi. It was the time when she, like Bhagat Singh, who was an atheist and a Communist to boot, was being appropriated by the Hindutvadis.

I was one of the first in the mainstream English media to write an article on her conversion hailing it as "Celebration of freedom" (Indian Express). I received a lot of flak for the article, particularly from some venom-spewing letter writers.

I saw Kamala Das' conversion as a slap in the face of all those who had raked up the issue of conversion to pit communities against communities and thereby reap political dividends. What was, unfortunately, overlooked was her spiritual yearning over a period of 27 years, which was at the root of her conversion. It was the Indian citizen's right to convert that she had exercised. And it is a right that is increasingly being questioned in the country.
Come to think of it, if the Freedom of Religion Bill, now in force in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh was passed and extended to Kerala, all her Muslim friends who influenced her directly or indirectly, could have been arraigned in a court of law.
She would have had a tough time convincing the court that her conversion was absolutely voluntary. Endowed as she was with talent, material and intellectual, she might have succeeded but not a poor man, who too might want salvation like her in a religion other than in which he was born and share the joy with others. He might have ended up in jail, instead.

Writers like Arun Shourie have argued that what the Constitution proclaims is the right to preach and not any right to convert (Harvesting Our Souls, ASA) and often refer to the restrictions imposed on such rights by the special laws that exist in some states.

They also refer to the fact that such laws were upheld by the Supreme Court. But this is what then Law Minister Ram Jethmalani had said in Bombay on March 18, 1979: "It is the Supreme Court of the Emergency period which sustained the constitutional validity of those measures. As a student of law, without committing contempt of court, I am free to say that the Supreme Court is wrong. I have no doubt that some day the Supreme Court, more properly and adequately informed about the legal provisions, will reverse that decision".

In the debate on conversion, it is Mahatma Gandhi who is often quoted by those who want to curtail the freedom to convert. It is true that he had strong views on conversions but it should be seen against the backdrop of the distress and shock he had when his second son Manilal fell in love with a married Hindu woman in 1926 and his eldest son Harilal became a Muslim and wrote articles berating him using a pseudonym "Abdulla".

Gandhi called Harilal a "ne'er-do-well who had sold himself to the highest bidder". Gandhiji is undoubtedly the man of the millennium but some of his views were indeed retrograde as when he disapproved of inoculation against smallpox and described the devastating Bihar earthquake in 1934 as a divine punishment for the "untouchability" practised in the state just as many a Christian evangelist sees the Orissa Super Cyclone of 1999 as a divine punishment for the killing of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his children.

Yet, the very same Gandhi wrote to Samuel Evans Stokes, an American missionary, when he became a Hindu, "What a joy it would be when people realise that religion consists not in outward ceremonial but an ever-growing inward response to the highest impulses that man is capable of..."

His Christian friends who felt traumatised at that time did not know that Stokes was at least fifty years ahead of his time for the Indian church later found merit in all the reform measures he had suggested and implemented them one by one. I concluded my article, "While every conversion is a lesson, to impute motive and to characterise it as violence is to foment trouble. Eminent journalist P. Sainath who visited Meenakshipuram has found that not one of the Scheduled Castes who converted to Islam in 1981 did it for considerations of money as propagated. They are all happy in their new religion. One can only wish the same to Kamala Surayya."

Anto Akkara’s Kandhamal: A Blot on Indian Secularism (Media House) exposes the claim that the Christians there were induced by money to convert. He has narrated instance after instance of the so-called "Rice Christians" defending their newfound faith against coercions of the worst kind, including threat to life.

When I wrote this article I had a huge argument with a lady colleague who questioned not her decision to convert but her decision to seek protection in the burkha. "It is not mandatory for Muslims to wear the veil. Millions of Muslim women the world over have chosen not to wear this obnoxious garb. Why did Kamala Surayya feel the need to wear one," she asked in righteous indignation. I did not have an answer to her question.

An American academic, who knew Kamala Das, wondered whether her conversion was the beginning of a complete reversal of choices from total freedom to total repression. When the academic went to meet "a black veiled woman of totalitarian inhibitions", she found her wearing a burkha, which was in the most brilliant shade of pink. She had subverted one of the most austere of garments. That was Kamala Surayya who was beyond straightjacketing.

Courtesy: Indian Currents


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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