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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Sunday Long Reads: Republic Day in Delhi, happiness as an illusion in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, and more

Here's your Sunday reading list!

New Delhi |
Updated: January 24, 2021 1:50:31 pm
A view of Delhi India Gate. (Express Photo by Amit Mehra/Courtesy: Renuka Puri)

What would a Republic Day jhanki of Delhi look like?

It is a national festival which does not move around like Diwali or Eid-ul-Fitr. It is fixed in the Gregorian calendar, so much so that it is not referred to by the clunky Gantantra Divas but as Chhabees Janvari. My generation will remember the cold morning of January 26, 1951, when we were wakened to the sound, then the sight of villagers walking barefoot to Rajpath, shoes prudently carried on their heads to save them from the harsh tarred roads. Which explains the déjà vu feeling in late March 2020 — but with a difference: unlike their grandparents, the endless line of people were walking away from the city.

Republic Day echoes to other footsteps, too — the marching feet of soldiers and of children in the parade, the abandon of folk-dances, familiar but always impressive and strangely moving. Variety comes in the form of jhankis (tableau) presented by different states with the same pride as school children presenting “projects”.

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Tamil writer Salma on chronicling the claustrophobia of home

Everything i never told you: Salma

The pandemic home might be a novel experience of confinement. But for a vast majority of women, lockdown is less metaphor, more the solid mesh of rules and restrictions that has always held them back. That is certainly true of the characters we meet in the fiction of Tamil writer Salma. In the opening story of The Curse: Stories (Speaking Tiger), a new collection of her stories, three women get into a car. But even as they journey away from their home, the claustrophobia of their shared lives pursues them. The story is told from the point of view of a young woman, who is acutely attuned – in a way that women are burdened by the weight of others’ emotions — to the rift between the two elderly women. The ceaseless complaining, their unsaid rage twisted into tussles over little things is a language that only the women hear and respond to – the male relative in the driver’s seat is impervious to what’s going on. Though about nothing calamitous, the narration unsettles the reader with a persistent nervous anxiety.

Like other stories in this stellar collection of short fiction translated by N Kalyan Raman, ‘On the Edge’ is an exposition of the power of family ties to bind and incarcerate. “The condition of being forced to live in a very cramped place, of leading a life of restriction and subordination, creates a certain neurosis. It makes the women play this game of one-upmanship. The story is the expression of this neurosis,” says Salma, 52, over a video call from Chennai.”

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Why the annual speech by the President is an integral part of Republic Day celebrations

The Republic Day celebration in 1953. (Courtesy: Rashtrapati Bhavan)

Occasionally, a televised event can cause a lump to rise in the throat, due to an overwhelming feeling of national pride, like when our cricket team wins a major tournament overseas. But something that occurs more predictably is the president’s annual address on the eve of Republic Day. We watch it on our televisions, not merely as spectators but as participants in the exercise of nation building that we embarked upon collectively in 1950.

Many nations around the world claim to be republics, although some are so only in name. What sets us apart is that our claim to being the Republic of India is renewed and tested each year by our head of state through a televised address. Other heads of state also give televised speeches, the most famous, perhaps, being the annual Christmas address by the British monarch, a tradition since 1932, or the US President’s state of union address. But these are more in the form of personal reflections or accounts of actions taken during the year. The address by our president, on the other hand, is an occasion for collective introspection, a mirror held up to our conscience by our first citizen.

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The USA’s moment of reckoning speaks to all of us

Illustration by Suvir Saran.

Science tells us about the dopamine rush we experience when we process information that supports our beliefs, no matter how fake that information might be. Most of us tire easily and choose to remain in the comforting confines of sameness, where our misguided thoughts go unchecked and we feel good about ourselves and the world as we choose to see it.

But reason demands more from us. Reason challenges us to evolve and grow.

Modern School, Vasant Vihar in New Delhi, was originally conceived as an alternative to the missionary schools operating through the prism of Christianity and the colonisers’’ sensibilities about education and childhood development. My father was educated at Modern while my mother is a product of Irish Catholic convent education. I consider it my good luck to have benefited from a mix of their two educational sensibilities. From age six to 18, I was made aware of India’s challenges, its cultural wealth and societal issues, its rich diversity and fragile secular dreams. My parents came of age with a colonial background from which they gleaned light and growth. I came of age in an India gluing itself into a mosaic, where plurality was valued and our many Indian faces and forms connected us to our common humanity. The challenge of this immense task, the communal riots and vexing polarisations fomented by recklessly self-serving and vote-hungry politicians, was ours to observe, study and discuss with our teachers and parents. I grew up watching India go from strength to strength while occasionally being brought to its knees through human folly.

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Completing Le Corbusier’s architectural vision for Chandigarh

The wall of the Martyrs’ Monument with the symbol of wheel; with the symbol of Swastika. (Photo: Chandigarh administration)

Chandigarh was born out of the trauma of India’s Partition. A new city “unfettered by the traditions of the past” was to be created, both to act as the new capital city of Punjab and to settle the vast number of refugees. Though a provincial project, it became a national symbol of India’s new beginning and pride in its resurgent nationhood.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the patron-in-chief of the project, didn’t want any pseudo-revivalist style mimicking the historic monuments of India. So, he invited the iconic modernist Swiss-French planner-architect Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh. Starting on a greenfield panoramic site, Corbusier placed the city’s crowning glory, the Capitol Complex, at the head of the town, with the Shivalik hills in the backdrop. Conceived as a cosmic ensemble of buildings, piazzas, monuments, earth forms and water bodies — placed amidst a pastoral landscape — it was to be detached from the main city, like a later-day Acropolis that echoed the timelessness of Indian civilisation.

The Capitol Complex comprises the assembly, secretariat and high court and the (unbuilt) “governor’s palace”. A vast esplanade between the assembly and the high court was conceived as a pedestrian plaza and was interspersed with monuments, sculptures and symbols. Besides a giant peace sculpture called the Open Hand, there was the Tower of Shadows, Geometric Hill and some other monuments. However, the most enigmatic of all is the Martyrs’ Monument, which remained incomplete. The suggestion to adorn the piazza with signs and symbols, in fact, came from the British architect Jane Drew who, along with her husband Maxwell Fry and Corbusier’s cousin-cum-partner from Paris, Pierre Jeanneret, formed the core of the European team that worked on the Chandigarh project.

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The tiny terrors and big bullies of the animal kingdom

Dark lord: The crow is the master of mobilising a snatch-and-grab

It’s often thought that animal lovers go gaga over every living creature, but for me, there’s a whole bunch of them whose company I abhor and try to avoid wherever possible. Starting from the smallest and most insidious, we’ll proceed to the big goons.

First on the list has to be mosquitoes, especially those soprano sirens that hover around your ear early in the morning, wailing “Malaria!” Then, of course, flies with big belligerent eyes that will sit on something sickening, suck up muck and land on your fresh piece of toast and have a wash-up. This has to be followed by ticks — the big bulbous kind that will burrow deep in your dog’s ear, sucking blood till they’re like barrage balloons and leaving their heads behind if you take liberties with them. We used to remove them (once in hordes) from our poor Boxer and with vicious delight dump them into a can of kerosene watching them sink and drown. Oh yes, sure they have a role to play in the bigger scheme of things, but not with my dog, thank you! Leeches, too, are a big turn-off – especially the way they scent the air for a blood meal (yours, of course), and then leave the bite site bleeding because of all the anti-coagulants they have injected. Yes, at least they have the courtesy of giving you an anaesthetic as they saw their way through your blood vessels, but they do get into places they have absolutely no right to know about!

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Is happily-ever-after an illusion?

What makes the older film so interesting is how pared down it is.

Two people falling apart is as natural as two people falling in love. It’s funny how we spend considerable time and emotion in searching for the perfect partner, and consider ourselves lucky when it happens. But we forget that we are changeable creatures. Couples do grow out of each other, and a marriage can and, sadly, does break.

Noah Baumbach’s 2019 Marriage Story, about an actress and a stage director drifting apart, shows us how painful breakdowns can be: the characters played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson were joined at the hip not so long back; now they can’t bear to look at each other. Therapy doesn’t work. Neither do well-meant interventions from friends and family. In an explosive argument, Charlie yells at Nicole that he wishes she would die. And you know, just as they do, that that’s the end. Furious people do say stuff they don’t mean, but something as final as this is hard to dial back from.

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The fascinating world of illustrator Rajiv Eipe, winner of this year’s Big Little Book Award

Working to a writer’s narrative is not always the easiest of tasks, but Eipe, who has written a few picture books himself, including Anand and the popular Ammachi series, prefers it to writing his own stories.

The handful of illustrations on Rajiv Eipe’s dormant Instagram page are somewhat different from his vivid artwork for children’s picture books. Dating back to the 2019 protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, these stark monochromatic pen/pencil sketches offer a satiric commentary on contemporary politics. In contrast, his illustrations for children are more elaborate — popping with unusual colours, like a purple-skinned, curly-haired book-loving little girl, bursting with exuberance, like the anticipation writ large on a boy’s face as he helps his Ammachi make coconut barfis. But there’s one thread that binds both — a deep awareness of the milieu and a sparkling sense of humour.

The Bengaluru-based artist himself has never distinguished between the two. “I am not sure if illustrating for children is any different from doing it for an adult. An image is unlike a story because we all notice different things in it. That’s what makes it interesting,” says Eipe, 37, winner of this year’s Big Little Book Award (BLBA) in the illustration category, an annual award to celebrate excellence in children’s literature.

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