Wednesday, August 28, 2013


A view of the large crowd that converged to listen to this
historic speech of Martin Luther King at Lincoln Memorial, Washington
on 28th August 1963
Photo courtesy:
Today is the 50th anniversary of the legendary ‘I have a Dream’ speech of the African-American clergyman and civil rights mass leader Martin Luther King Jr., (1929 –1968) which was delivered on 28th August 1963 to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Dream speech appears to be a poetic exposition on the basic rights of all human being to be free and equal and has been the inspirational song for anybody who has ever fought for the end of racism and socio-political and economic inequality and has provided moral and motivating support to gender, dalit, minority, regional, cultural, economic rights and struggles for a free, equal and non-discriminatory society. The tone and diction of the speech has been invariably called 'melodious and melancholy'. Literally, when he says, "...the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition", the language seems to be under a lot of strain to maintain the necessary grace to convey the angst of a community living a life, as it were, on its toes.  

I am re-producing the text of the speech, which has had some variations, but is now archived at by the Government of USA. We need to go back and look closely and carefully at this marvellous piece which had the audacity to dream aloud. What is more important is that the speech ends with a vision for a society in which all have equal space and opportunity and dignity, and that is something the most instructive part which we need to look at :
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"”
Aimé Césaire
Photo Courtesy:
How similar in idea and thought and vision it appears to the famous lines of Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), Francophone poet, author and politician from Martinique, considered to be one of the founders of the négritude movement in Francophone literature. These lines are quoted by Edward W. Said (1935-2003), the pioneering post-colonial theorist, in his Culture and Imperlialism:

            But the work of man is only just beginning
            And it remains to man to conquer all
The violence entrenched in the recesses of his                         passion

And no race possesses the monopoly of beauty
Of intelligence, of force, and there
Is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory

No wonder such a vision, which is essentially disturbing for the majoritarian, reactionary, racist, capitalist and imperialist forces, proved too much of a threat leading to the assassination of Martin Luther in 1968. It was all the more ironical because of all the rights leaders in the post-Second World War, he laid unambiguous emphasis on bringing about change through a non-violent mass struggle. In fact, coming from those fighting for the rights of the marginalised, such a vision, though romantic --as all visions and struggles for an equal and just society are essentially romantic--, is certainly not condescending and patronizing, and hence genuinely humanistic and realistically romantic. While Martin Luther King Jr., who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964,  has been invariably compared with Mahatma Gandhi, also for his own confessions about Gandhian inspirations, I think that considering the unique marginalised position which he and his black community were and are still placed in, it is most appropriate to compare him to the role, contribution and struggles of Baba Saheb Ambedkar (1891-1956), whose struggles for a caste-less society in Indian context are quite akin to what Martin Luther was trying to do in American context. In fact, Ambedkar should take precedence, because he was a senior contemporary.  

Dr. B R Ambedkar
Photo courtesy:
When Martin Luther King Jr. says in this speech, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character", we can not but remember what Ambedkar said to the Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference, 31st May 1936, Bombay, "Do not keep company with those who believe that the God is omnipresent, but treat men worse than animals. They are hypocrites. Do not keep contact with those who feed ants with sugar, but kill men by prohibiting them to drink water. Are you aware what effects their company has produced upon you? You have ceased to be respected. You have no status at all. To say that the Hindus alone do not pay you any respect is only a half-truth. Not only the Hindus, but the Muslims and the Christians too, consider you the lowliest of the lowly. In fact, the teachings of Islam and Christianity do not create the sense of high and low. Then why do the followers of these two religions treat you as low? Because the Hindus consider you as the lowest of the low, the Muslims and Christians also consider you likewise. They fear that if they treat you on par, the Hindus will treat them also as low. Thus we are not low in the eyes of the Hindus alone. We are the lowest in the whole of India, because of the treatment given [us] by the Hindus. If you have to get rid of this shameful condition, if you have to cleanse this filth and make use of this precious life, there is only one way--and that is to throw away the shackles of the Hindu religion and the Hindu society in which you are groaning. " (This Quotation courtesy:

Today, standing at the same place from where Dr. King spoke, President Barack Obama of USA, will be giving a 50th Year Anniversary speech to commemorate the 'I have a Dream' speech of Dr. King. President Obama does have genuine claims to speak, not only as the President of USA, but as the first Black President of the USA--the path for which was paved by the struggles of Dr. King and his contemporaries. We do not know when in India we will see a genuine Dalit or Minority Community or Woman Prime Minister taking up the mantle as a fruition of the struggles of Dr. Ambedkar and those who have shared his vision. 

In this context, a reading of Martin Luther King's vision of a society, which is still eluding us, may be the need of the hour, as it reminds of the struggles of all the marginalised in the contemporary world.  --Kumar Vikram

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Photo Courtesy:
In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
A poetic vision which is yet to have full poetic justice
Photo Courtesy: 
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "For Whites Only". We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
Dr. King at the historic speech
Photo Courtesy:

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
He was saying what we are getting concerned
about now in the consumerist Indian society
photo courtesy:

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"



 You can also watch the video of this speech at

Friday, August 23, 2013

'पिता की मृत्यु से एक संवाद': 'दोआबा' में प्रकाशित मेरी एक कविता

 मेरी यह लम्बी कविता दो अन्य कविताओं  ('एक वैश्विक गंवार के सपने' एवं 'पीठ पर गुदा हुआ  ब्लर्ब') के साथ श्री जाबिर हुसैन द्वारा संपादित एवं प्रकाशित पत्रिका 'दोआबा' के अंक १३ ( अक्टूबर 2012) में प्रकाशित हुयी थी. इधर कुछ दिनों से यूनिकोड के माध्यम से हिंदी टाइपिंग कर पा रहा हूँ और सच मानो एक अजीब स्वतंत्रता का अनुभव कर रहा हूँ. एक तरह से इस स्वतंत्रता को मनाने के लिए ही इस कविता को यहाँ प्रस्तुत कर रहा हूँ. आगे शायद अब कुछ पोस्ट्स हिंदी में भी कर पाऊंगा. यहाँ प्रस्तुत कविता और 'दोआबा' में प्रकाशित कविता के बीच कहीं कहीं वर्तनी आदि का कुछ फर्क आ गया हो--वो भी यूनिकोड के कारण ही शायद. खैर.  

पिता की मृत्यु से एक संवाद

मुझे तुम्हारी मृत्यू
अब बोर करने लगी है

जब थी यह नयी नवीली
तब नम व अश्रुपूर्ण आंखों से ही सही
हमने किया इसका स्वागत बड़ी गर्मजोशी से
साज-श्रृंगार, मान-सम्मान, आवभगत किया दिल खोलकर
दौड़-दौड़कर हमने इसके सारे नखरे उठाए
सर-आंखों पर बिठाया
पर अब धीरे-धीरे यह हो रहा है आभास
तुम्हारी मृत्यु को तुमसे नहीं है कोई सरोकार
हमने समझा जैसे हम तुम्हारे हैं
वैसे ही तुम्हारी मृत्यु भी तुम्हारी है
और हमारा उससे सीधा गहरा रिश्ता है
पर मृत्यु तो शाम में स्कूल में बजने वाली घंटी है
वहाँ के दिनभर की शिक्षा-दीक्षा, खेल-कूद
भविष्य के लिए बनाए गए सारे सपने
उसके लिए बेमायने हैं
मानो शरीर का कोई ऐसा अँग
जो शरीर से बाहर है, विमुख है
एक ऐसा हिस्सा जो शरीर के विलीन होने के बाद
अपना वजू़द जताने आता हो,

एक सूदखोर साहूकार की तरह बही-खाता लेकर
यह खड़ी हो गई है मेरे सामने
माँगती है पल-पल का हिसाब

तुम्हारी मृत्यु
आश्चर्य है
तुम्हें जानती-पहचानती नहीं!

उसे क्या पता कि
तुमने मुझे खुला छोड़ दिया था
खुद मुझे घोड़े पर बिठाकर जंगल की अनिश्चितताओं में
और तुम्हारी अदृश्य जोरदार तालिया पाशर्व से ही
मुझे और मेरे घोड़े का मार्गदर्शन करती रही
उत्साहित करती रहीं ?
ये सब बातें तुम्हारी मृत्यु को पता नहीं
वो तो कहती है जिस घोड़े पर बैठे हो
वो तुम्हारे पिता ने कर्ज लेकर खरीदा था
उसका हिसाब दो !
उनकी जिन तालियों पर इतना फक्र करते हो
उन्हीं हथेलियों से खून की लपटें निकलती थीं
आखिरकार काँटों के चप्पल पहनकर
तालियाँ बजाना कोई खेल तो नहीं
उन लपटों का मूल्य चुकाओ !

मैं अचंभित हूँ
कि कैसे तुम्हारी मत्यु को
तुम्हारी शांत प्रवृत्ति तुम्हारे आचार-विचार
तुम्हारे जीवन जीने की निष्काम प्रवृत्ति आदि की
कोई जानकारी नहीं
उसे तो पता ही नहीं कि जब घर में सैलाब आया था
और उसके साथ बहकर आए
कीड़े-मकौड़े, साँप-बिच्छु
जो तुम्हारे शरीर से चिपक गए थे
और तुम्हारा खून पी रहे थे
तब भी बिना किसी वैमनस्य के
तुम उन्हें वापस उनके घर पहुँचाने के रास्ते
ढूँढते रहे, मुस्कुराकर कहते रहे कि
ये अपने घर का रास्ता भूल गए हैं
इन्हें इनके दु:ख से मुक्त करना है

लेकिन मृत्यु खड़ी हो जाती है मेरे सामने
किसी रंगदार की तरह
जिसे हम सब डायन के रूप में जानते रहे
कमर पर एक हाथ रख
दूसरा हाथ मेरे सामने रखती है, कहती है
उन कीड़े-मकौड़ों, साँप-बिच्छुओं को
उनके घर वापिस पहुँचाने के लिए निकले तुम्हारे पिता
रास्ते भर कई रंगदारों को हफ्ता देते निकले थे -
वो पड़ोसियों-करीबियों के उलाहने
सगे-संबंधियों के ताने
अपने गिरते-पड़ते, टूटते बिखरते आदर्शों का शालीन बोझ
कई ऐसे लोग जिनके लिए वो अब अछूत थे
क्योंकि अब तुम्हारे पिता के बदन पर रेंगते थे कीट-पतंग
उन लोगों का पान की दुकान पर
अपनी बातचीत में मशगूल हो मुँह मोड़ना आदि
जैसे पलों की कीमत चुकाओ!

मैं ठिठकता हूँ, रूकता हूँ
सोचता हूँ
तुम्हारी मृत्यु तुमसे कितनी जुदा है
बचपन में पाई-पाई का हिसाब माँगने वाली दाई
माँ से लड़कर-झगड़कर
दो बार पोंछा लगाने
चार बार कटोरी-गिलास धोने
महीना में एक बार उनकी बदन की मालिश करने की
उलाहना देते हुए दस रुपया, बीस रुपया, पैंतीस रुपया
लेकर गली में बड़बड़ाते हुए जाने वाली
मकान खरीदते वक्त पिता के साथ घूमने वाला प्रॉपर्टी डीलर
अपने कमीशन के लिए खिचखिच करने वाला
जैसे कई चेहरे घूमते हैं मेरे सामने
याद आते हैं अमीर घरानों के गरीब रिश्तेदार
सुसंकृत, शिक्षित, संभ्रांत, यशस्वी पिताओं के
अनपढ़, क्रूर, बेवकूफ व दिग्भ्रमित संतान
बिजलीघरों की चमचमाती रोशनी के पीछे
अंधकार में डूबा हुआ, सोया हुआ गाँव
गंगनचुबी इमारतों के पाँवों पर रेंगती झोपड़पटि्यां
एक स्लार्इड शो की तरह मेरी जेहन में उभरते हैं
मैं सोचता हूँ
शायद कमीशनखोर परछाईं सी
पिता की मृत्यु
इतनी गरीब, भीखमंगी, क्रूर, बीमार और अंधकार में डूबी हुई सी
इसलिए दिखती है
क्योंकि पिता के जीवन की संघर्षों की दिलेर गाथाएँ
मूँछे ताने ताल ठोकते हुए
दिव्यदीपितमान से दमकते हुए खड़े दिखते हैं

मैं हतप्रभ हूँ
और धीरे-धीरे समझ पा रहा हूँ
बोरियत की परते कुछ हटाते हुए कि
तुम्हारी मृत्यु
मेरे और तुम्हारे बीच
आकर खड़ी हो जाने वाली कोई बिचौलिया नहीं
और न ही मृत्यु है कोई आखिरी पड़ाव
या फिर जीवन के कई पड़ावों में एक पड़ाव
बलिक एक पूर्ण जीवन की अपूर्ण लेकिन अभिन्न शर्त है
जो कदम-कदम पर, पल-पल पर घुली-मिली रहती है जीवन में
ठीक उसी तरह
जिस तरह जीवन की आकाँक्षाएँ पसरी रहती हैं
मृत्युरूपी, मृतप्राय, मरणासन्न परिसि्थतियों में
जैसे बीमार के साथ-साथ अस्पतालों में घूमता उसका स्वस्थ भाई
घर पर पड़े अपंग पिता का
रेस की मैदान में तेज-तेज कदमों से दौड़ती हुई उसकी धाविका पुत्री

मैं तुम्हारी मृत्यु के दावों को
अब सहसा सुनने लगा हूँ कुछ ध्यान से
जिसका एक अंश एक भाव एक रूप
खून-चूसते बिच्छुओं के रूप में
साथ-साथ रहा बसा तुम्हारे जीवन के पलों में
खिलखिलाती धूप में अचानक आए बादलों के अंधकार की तरह
उन संतानों की तरह
जिन्हें नदी की तरह पाल-पोसकर
मुहाने तक ला खड़े करने के बाद
जब समुद्र में कूदने को कहा गया
तब घबराकर उन्होंने वापस मुख कर लिया
और माँ-बाप के साथ डूबने-उपरने की ऊहापोह में कैद हो गये

सचमुच समझने लगा हूँ कि
हर रंगदार के बनने के पीछे
होती है एक लंबी दर्दनाक अनकही-अनसुनी कहानी
और अब मैं तैयार हो चुका हूँ
तुम्हारी असहाय रंगदार मृत्यु के सारे उलाहनों को समझने को
यह कहते हुए कि घोडे़ आदि का कर्ज तत्काल चुकाता हूँ

लेकिन घोड़े से उतरना नागवार है
क्योंकि इससे उतरना
पिता के मन से उतरना होगा
जो शायद उनकी असल मृत्यु होगी

कुमार विक्रम

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Musings at and on the India-Pakistan Partition Table

This table, where I am sitting in the photograph below, is not a usual one. It is kept at the museum of Rashtrapati Niwas of Simla, then Viceregal’s Lodge, which now houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. This is the historic and tragic table on which the papers related to the partition of India into two separate countries--India and Pakistan-- in 1947 were signed following the famous ‘Simla Conference’. I visited the place in December 2008, and looking at it, I did have conflicting emotions. In fact, I did wonder--so this was the table which decided the great game of ‘Chairs’.

I am reminded of the famous poem-- The Table and the Chair-of Edward Lear (1812-1888) in which the Table persuades the Chair to take a walk together. The first two paras go thus:

Said the Table to the Chair,
'You can hardly be aware,
'How I suffer from the heat,
'And from chilblains on my feet!
'If we took a little walk,
'We might have a little talk!
'Pray let us take the air!'
Said the Table to the Chair.

Said the Chair unto the Table,
'Now you know we are not able!
'How foolishly you talk,
'When you know we cannot walk!'
Said the Table, with a sigh,
'It can do no harm to try,
'I've as many legs as you,
'Why can't we walk on two?'

Unfortunately, Lear’s poem is about a couple in love, who want to break free, whereas the Partition Table at Simla can be likened to two such persons who want to break up to become free. Hence the comparison should end here. Considering the rather elaborate, tedious, painful nature of Simla Conference, one wonders if this table served the purpose of ‘coming to the table’ well despite the fact there were many instances when the competing sides did try their best to ‘turn the tables’ onto their opponents. 

In fact, table as the metaphor for dialogue and conversations has been part and parcel of human etymology. We can remember the poems like ‘Table Talk’ and ‘The Planet on the Table’ by the legendary American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-19555) in this context. In ‘The Planet on the Table’, written quite late in his life in 1954, the poet meditates upon the poetic imagination that can juxtapose and bring the entire world, as it were, on the table:  

The Planet on the Table

Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked. 

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed. 

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun. 

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character, 

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part. 
However, in the context of this Partition Table at Simla, it is more like that catastrophic act where not the planet really, but the entire Sub-continent, along with people, traditions, shared past, rivers, plants, mountains, roses were placed on the table for dissection. Birthday cakes are cut on tables, but it is on the operation table that a child is given birth and it is there where the umbilical cords are cut. And no other lines, but the opening ones from T S Eliot’s seminal poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrcok can aptly describe this operation at this table of Simla in the overall atmosphere of distrust, guilt and self-induced unconsciousness::
            Let us go then, you and I
            When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table
May be to see and meet that invisible patient, we need not visit Simla, because its uncured wounds would keep troubling us at our tables of learning and remembrances. 
In fact, we never realise how burdensome we make our tables, perhaps in order to make our chairs cosy and comfortable. No wonder, other than the meaning attached to furniture, table also implies information and database, and one of the first things we learn as a child is the periodic table, which has had its own music and rhyme chasing us and helping us out throughout our lives in difficult countable moments. I would, then, end with a fine poem titled Table, by a Turkish poet Edip Cansever (1928-1986), which tells a lot about how our lives are spent on bringing things on the table of expectations and disillusionment:
Edip Cansever, photo courtesy:
A man filled with the gladness of living
Put his keys on the table,
Put flowers in a copper bowl there.
He put his eggs and milk on the table.
He put there the light that came in through the window,
Sounds of a bicycle, sound of a spinning wheel.
The softness of bread and weather he put there.
On the table the man put
Things that happened in his mind.
What he wanted to do in life,
He put that there.
Those he loved, those he didn't love,
The man put them on the table too.
Three times three make nine:
The man put nine on the table.
He was next to the window next to the sky;
He reached out and placed on the table endlessness.
So many days he had wanted to drink a beer!
He put on the table the pouring of that beer.
He placed there his sleep and his wakefulness;
His hunger and his fullness he placed there.
Now that's what I call a table!
It didn't complain at all about the load.
It wobbled once or twice, then stood firm.
The man kept piling things on.
(Table by Edip Cansever is courtesy:, University of Michigan)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Gendered Book Covers: ‘End of Imagination’?

From Australia to the journals in USA, an interesting and disturbing discussion about the clichéd (and with boring regularity) portrayal of women, especially their back, on various book covers seems to have caught on.  In recent times, the issue was first highlighted in the journal The Australian by its literary editor Stephen Romei. In his article, “How too soft a sell can get a girl's back up” published on May 15, 2013, Romei wonders how books as different in themes as ‘silent movie era’ and ‘nazi obsession with fashion’ adorn similar image of back of a woman on their cover. He makes an insightful observation which should be of concern to and interest of all publishing professionals, especially book cover designers and editors (marketing people not the least):

“Both have the same elegant woman on the cover, draped in the same backless dress. The photograph is a stock image from a picture agency and is not inappropriate for either novel, but why it is on both is puzzling. The respective publishers, Serpent's Tail and Simon & Schuster, are about 800m apart in central London. An attentive staff member in either office might have spotted the potential double-up by looking out the window.”

Here the book covers in question are of Petite Mort, the debut novel of London filmmaker Beatrice Hitchman, and Black Roses, a thriller by British journalist and author Jane Thynne. Another important point which has been highlighted, before we start making presumptions, is that the trend is not limited to what we call bestsellers. The cover of Ancient Light, the latest novel by Booker Prize winner John Banville underlines that serious ‘stuff’ are also beaten by this bug.
Image of book covers with the article in The Australian
In fact, this point is underlined and emphasised to a greater degree in Chloe Schama’s essay ‘Show Some Spine’  in The New York Times published on June 20 2013. Her essay starting with the line, “A plague of women’s backs is upon us in the book cover world’, states:

“This cover cliché is not confined to pulp fiction or books that might be described as chick-lit. One of the proposed jackets for a literary novel written by a friend of mine had a woman sitting cross-legged on the beach, her back to us.”

However, it appears that through the title of her essay, Schama seems to be appealing to the large number of women who are employed in the publishing industry (of course she is writing from the perspective of the Western world) and who presumably approve these covers rather mindlessly or indiscriminately. In fact, while quoting “a 2010 Publishers Weekly survey determined that 85 percent of book industry employees with less than three years of experience were women”, Schama wonders if the feminists are only worried about ‘stilettos, shiny lips and fishnet stockings’, whereas the back of a woman is as much used with the intention to titillate the reader.   

Image of book covers published with the article in The New York Times
On the more serious level of gender 'typification,' the repeated use of the ‘face of the woman turned away from the reader’, as it has been put, also brings us to the issue of using a ‘soft’ cover for women writers and ‘hard’ cover for male writers. I would rather do well to quote from Romei’s article to show how deeply ingrained gender-prejudices work even in the world which feels itself to be the arbiter of intellectual modernity. To quote:

“In her speech at the inaugural Stella Prize last month, Helen Garner pined for a day when a prize for women's writing was no longer needed, when "doctors and lawyers no longer said to me, 'Pleased to meet you, Helen. My wife's read all your books'", when "designers no longer reflexively put a picture of a vase of flowers or a teacup on a woman's book cover, even when the book is about hypodermics and vomiting and rage and the longing to murder".
Garner's most recent novel, The Spare Room, about a woman dying of cancer and the friend who nurses her, has on its cover a blue and white coffee mug with red leaves sticking out of it.”

I think this is a debate that the publishing editors and book designers will have to settle with the marketing people because it is not really paying any dividend as the slip is showing. However, as the ‘Publisher Weekly’ data above shows, it may be that the women are not in the driver’s seat and mostly doing the job of lower staff (‘less than 3 years of experience as it says).

Just to substantiate and do a kind of personal experiment, I searched for my book shelves and found three books with such covers, one published abroad and two others in India: Brida by Paulo Coelho,  Alma Kabutari (English translation) by Maitreyi Pushpa and If You Are Afraid of Heights by Raj Kamal Jha. The fourth one Smell by Radhika Jha has the face of woman looking down--and not her back really.

I have flagged this issue and it needs more probing in the Indian context, because as the things stand now, in the globalised world when all ideas are having a trickling down effect, we may soon have many such back of women staring down at us readers...

Quotations and images from Stepehn Morei’s article are courtesy:

 Quotations and images from Chloe Schama’s article are courtesy:


Link to the Video Talk Literature And Psychology A Talk by Kumar Vikram (You are requested to Copy and Paste the below URL in your address b...