07 February, 2010

The pen is mightier

The Kathmandu Post, 2010/02/07

I was slouching along the road one day, my face swollen with a root canal treatment, my articles unwritten, when I came upon the ever-inspiring poet Manjul. “Here is one of our beloved writers!” said Manjul enthusiastically to his friend. Reeling from a family party in which I had been attacked over my writing the night before, I grouched: “You don’t know how popular. You should read the hate mail I get.”

Manjul Dai, who used to teach at the Campus of International Languages during the time my mother worked there, and who is kind of an uncle figure, proceeded to give me a pep talk. “When people give you that sort of response, that means you are making an impact. When people tell you your writing is nice, it’s good, that doesn’t mean as much as when they yell at you. Abuse is a sign people take you seriously.” Maybe, I conceded, slightly mollified.

Manjul then proceeded, in his usual poetic way, to tell me: “The power of the pen is mighty. Don’t ever underestimate it. And we don’t write for any politicians, any political party. We write for the people. That’s our life’s work and we must continue to fight with the pen as other people fight with the gun. The pen is our sword, and we will win our battles with it!”

This line struck a chord. Only the day before, I’d received a call from Ashok Darnal, a young journalist and colleague who’d told me that COCAP was co-coordinating a countrywide pressure campaign to get the Constitution Assembly to write the constitution on time. “We don’t have a lot of time left,” he’d said. “The deadline is May 28. If the CA doesn’t write the constitution on time, the country will plunge into a state of Emergency. We must move our pens to pressure the Assembly.” Ah, that pen again. Why did people have so much faith in the power of the pen?

But then, come to think about it, we are asking our 601 CA members to move their pens. We are asking them, before all else, to do that radical act — to write. Despite their reluctance, despite their foot-dragging, we are asking them to do what is difficult even in the most ordinary of circumstances (writing is never easy), but which must be so much more difficult when you’re shaping an entire nation-to take up their pens, and write their part.

The constitution will be written with pens, not with guns. The letters that make up this most important document will be formed with ink, not with gunpowder (or tea, or TV visuals with Rishi Dhamala in the background — although possibly in the constitution there should be a Rishi Dhamala appendix so he doesn’t feel too left out. Inclusion, as we know, is the mantra of the day.)

But the constitution is not just formed with pen and ink. It’s made up of strong consensus — with room for disagreement — as to what’s best for the nation as a whole. It’s made up of a vision broad enough, and powerful enough, to unite and make at home all 26 million. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, where I picked up an extraordinary series of books titled WORDS OF FREEDOM: Ideas of a Nation, and featuring 14 of India’s foremost leaders who were responsible for writing the Indian constitution, I was moved and stirred by the power and poetry of their thinking. I was moved, most of all, by the generosity of their spirit. Despite sometimes radically opposing views, all of them have something to contribute to shaping this giant nation.

Sarojini Naidu, India’s “nightingale”, poet and freedom fighter, talks about the vision of patriotism in extraordinary poetry. For her, patriotism ranks along visions of love and faith. But her patriotism is never parochial — she also reminds her people: “I beg of you, my brothers, not to limit your love only to India, because it is better to aim at the sky, it is better that your ideals of patriotism should extend to the welfare of the world and not be limited to the prosperity of India...”

Her vision of Hindu-Muslim unity is vast in its generosity. The Hindus contributed “mystical genius” and “spiritual passion” to the world, but the Mussalmans contributed Democracy. “But the first secret of this great world-wide Democracy was laid in the desert sands of Arabia by a dreamer of the desert and it is the peculiar privilege of his spiritual children to bring to this mystic India of spiritual value the human sense of Democracy that makes the king and the beggar equal.” She goes on to critique the Hindu system of caste exclusion which limits its capacity to fundamental equality. She goes on to talk about the “mutual reverence for each other’s creed, mutual love for each other’s civilisation, and mutual trust in your common good intention and… equal responsibilities in the evolution of your great national life of tomorrow.” That, she says, is true Hindu-Muslim Unity.

Chastising the British for the Jallianwalla Bagh tragedy (where the guns, to our shame, were fired by quiescent Gurkha mercenaries who followed orders with great alacrity), and talking about the women dishonoured in this ugly chapter of imperial British history, she asks the British: “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lost his own soul? You deserve no Empire. You today have lost your soul… what is your plea for reprieve?”

Talking about the Brahmin-Brahmin issue, she is equally impartial in her chastisement of Brahmins, and of the non-Brahmins. “Have we not made our culture a sword with which to destroy the intelligence and liberty of those who were disinherited from our caste?” she questions the Brahmins. Equally, she questions: “And you, non-Brahmins… shall you who for centuries let slide your human rights, today with beginnings of your conscience and consciousness to free yourselves turn your finger of scorn and hate to the Brahmin and penalise him to this generation for the sins of his forefathers?.. throw in your minds and spirit into that great ideal of culture, freedom and equality that originally should have been your inalienable birthright.”

At the end, she graciously thanks not just Mahatma Gandhi but also “the scholars of Europe who have restored to us our pride and ancient culture, to the antiquarian and the archaeologist who has discovered for us our own ruined cities, to the missionaries of all countries who chose the life of poverty in far-off villages and served the poor and the needy and the desolate. To all we owe thanks.”

Naidu sings India into being. Where are our freedom fighters who can infuse the same patriotism and fire into their poetry and let that shape the new constitution?

Perhaps what is lacking in Nepal is not pen and ink, nor even the willingness and motivation to move the pen to write (or speak) the document. Perhaps what is missing is the poetry of spirit that shapes a great nation, the generosity of heart to include everyone from princes to paupers, and the transcending of the self for a higher purpose.


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