Villains and heroes
The galleries of villains and heroes are rather overdone in the West these days. In the former, there hang the usual suspects: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Lenin. In the latter, there hang some odd figures: like old cigar-chewing Winston Churchill.
I grew up thinking of Churchill as an admirable figure too, until I read that bit in one of his books where he basically justifies shelling unarmed Africans. There were other nuggets like that too. These are not usually discussed in the West, which needs its heroes just as desperately as it needs its villains. Madhusree Mukerjee’s Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, published by Tranquebar Press in India, is a necessary corrective to this kind of myth-making.
Cynical? Winston Churchill.
Using records released recently, Mukerjee convincingly and disturbingly shows how Churchill and his government were directly responsible for millions of deaths by starvation in India during the 1940s—by cynically, brutally and knowingly diverting grain stock from India, among other things. It was the same Churchill who had this to say about the devastating famines of (British-controlled) 19th century India: “A philosopher may watch unmoved the destruction of some of these superfluous millions.”
Lenin, at least, wrote strongly against the colonization of non-European peoples by European powers. He was the first European head of state to do so. Sometimes I wonder whether he is not, in effect, the only.
In the illuminating introduction to Nidaa Khoury’s Book of Sins (translated by Betsy Rosenberg), Yair Huri notes that in traditional Arabic aesthetics, the poet (al-Sha’ir) is “the one who senses” or, as defined by the celebrated poet-critic Ibn Rashiq, “the poet is someone who perceives things that other people cannot”. This is a view that, Huri notes, prompted classical Arab critics to assign greater credit to innate poetry (Matbu) than to artificial poetry (Masnu). He places Khoury somewhere in between.
Khoury is in between in many other ways too, as a Palestinian poet who has studied in Israeli universities and teaches in one now. A talented and established Arab poet, she is the author of seven books and the subject of the award-winning film, Nidaa through Silence. Interestingly, the edition I have in hand is a trilingual one (Arabic, Hebrew and English), published by the small but vibrant House of Nehesi Publishers from the island of St Martin in the Caribbean.
Another trilingual volume of poetry (English, French and Spanish) by the same publishers is Lasana M. Sekou’s Nativity-Nativité-Natividad. Sekou is St Martin’s leading poet, and a brilliant performer of his own poems, which resonate with the speech rhythms of a trilingual island (colonized, half-and-half, by the French and the Dutch, but where English is used as the main language of creativity).
Both are collections worth reading, and prove why small presses are the life-blood of poetry: It is unlikely that commercial houses would risk publishing such trilingual collections today.
Edited by Urvashi Butalia and Anita Roy, Women Changing India is a heartening and necessary book. Six writers write the stories that six photographers capture. This covers the world of women working with microcredit, participating in grass-roots governance, moving into new jobs, working behind the scenes in the male world of the Mumbai film industry, making their individual contributions in varied fields and imagining a new future for themselves and their sisters.
Tabish Khair is the Denmark-based author of The Thing about Thugs.
Write to Tabish at firstname.lastname@example.org