The Wait is and is Not - Nitasha Kaul

You Don't Mess with Viru - Jayant Kripalani

The Last Journey Home - Siddhartha Gigoo

Family Trip - Mihir Vatsa

For the Longest Time - Mridula Koshy

The Tree's Passport - Sumana Roy

I Try to be so Buddhist - Robert Sugg

Oh God, My God - GB Prabhat

Stroke at Noon - KL Chowdhury
(personal narrative)

Unbroken Awareness - Tendair Mwanaka

Island of a Thousand Mirrors - Nayomi Munaweera

My Hungry Workers - Sourabh Gupta
(personal narrative)

The Stone - Anupam Choudhary

The Return - Shirani Rajapakse

The Unsent Email - Shyama Laxman

Poetry: Naseer Ahmed Nasir
(Translated by Bina Biswas)

Dr Bhikbab Changes His World - Sheela Jaywant

The Pillar of Society - Manju Kak

Book Reviews

Distant Traveller - Attia Hosain
(Mita Bose)

London Company - Farrukh Dhondy
(Rakhshanda Jalil)

The Cripple and His Talismans - Anosh Irani
(Mariam Karim)

Their Language of Love - Bapsi Sidhwa
(Arjun Raj Gaind)

Silk Fish Opium - Jaina Sanga
(Suneetha Balakrishnan)

The Blind Man's Garden - Nadeem Aslam
(Mariam Karim)

The Almond Tree - Michelle Corasanti
(Bina Biswas)

Nobody Can Love You More - Mayank Austen Soofi
(KG Sreenivas)

Along the Red River - Sabita Goswami
(Abdullah Khan)

Tales of a Journalist, Bureaucrat, Spy - Som Nath Dhar
(KG Sreenivas)

Che in Paona Bazaar - Kishalay Bhattacharjee
(S Ramesh)

Best from the Bookery


Tan Twan Eng
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni


Paintings: Donovan Roebert
Poetry: Priya Sarukkai Chabria


Dilip Bobb


Cultural Conflict Zones
- Dilip Bobb

Culture is what defines a people and a nation, according to the accepted theories on the evolution of man and of civilizations. In the battlefields of our times, there is an expanding conflict that is pointing in a different direction, to do with the clash of cultural beliefs. It's a clash between the past and the future, the traditionalists and the progressives, the fundamentalists and the secularists, artist and viewer, you and me, him and she. From Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari down south, the creative voice of India has been under attack as it comes in conflict with zealots and fringe elements looking to impose their views on the larger cultural community. Art, music, books, films – no creative arena has been spared. In Kashmir, a teenaged all-girl rock band had to withdraw in fear of a dubious fatwa and threats from medieval e-warriors. In Kanyakumari, quite literally, Muslim hardliners forced a ban on a Kamal Hassan film before an uneasy compromise was reached. In Jaipur, the exhilarative ambience of a literature festival is polluted with the knowledge that free speech now comes at a price. In the capital, Hindu fundamentalists disrupted an art exhibition featuring some of India's best known painters. In Kolkatta, India's intellectual capital, Salman Rushdie's visit to a book event was mysteriously cancelled. This is how fringe groups acquire legitimacy and power beyond their cause and numbers.

It is a cultural conflict that is fragmenting the idea of India. At its heart, it is to do with the climate of conservatism that India adopted as a badge of identity, now in conflict with the massive social and economic changes of the past decade. It mirrors the culture wars in America in the 1980s, when the religious right under a Ronald Reagan Presidency often took on academics and artists for works which they considered indecent, subversive and blasphemous. Sound familiar? In fact, this cultural conflict zone has also much to do with the emergence of the global village and the shrinking of physical boundaries because of modern technology. One woman in distant America, author/activist Eve Ensler, inspired others across the globe, including India, to join her in One Billion Rising on February 14, the movement to protest crimes against women. That too is a cultural conflict in that it was largely motivated, as Esner admitted, by the epochal gang-rape in Delhi that triggered sympathy and support from around the world and re-awakened India to the serious cultural flaws in our society.

Anna Hazare's revolution last year tapped into the national mood as long-held frustrations at official somnolence and corruption took over the streets. He is now an unknown soldier but the street remains the new battleground for those he awakened as they come to terms with people power. It's not quite VS Naipaul's "a million mutinies" but the growing sense of empowerment mirrors the theme of his seminal book; India: A Million Mutinies Now. Init, he spoke of "disruptive, lesser loyalties -- of region, caste, and clan-- now played on the surface of Indian life." Indeed, what social scientists call 'Conflict Theory' is based on the continual power struggle between social groups as they pursue their own interests. Essentially, the struggle for cultural hegemony has allowed fringe groups to try and occupy the space between artists and the public. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once commented that all happy families resemble each other, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique way. There are a lot of unhappy families out there now, protesting everything from rising prices to nuclear plants and mining rights, quotas for the disadvantaged in education and jobs, toothless legislations as in the proposed Lokpal Bill and anti-rape law, crimes against women as well as a broad range of localised issues.

They are the vanguard of a larger conflict, one where economics and ambition and aspiration plays an increasing role. This battle is symbolic of the revolution as defined by Fidel Castro, the great revolutionary himself. "A revolution," he said, "is a struggle between the future and the past." At its heart are deep-rooted social and economic insecurities. A patriarchal society, one that is deeply class and caste conscious, will offer fierce resistance to social change, gender equality or access to jobs, education and markets, and ultimately, power, by those they consider inferior because of birth. The singular ambition of interest groups is to preserve the status quo. It's a vicious circle but one that now faces break point, to use a tennis term.

The ongoing cultural conflict is a sordid example but the more significant battle is being waged by what can loosely be defined as civil society, mainly India's rapidly expanding middle class, as they take on the 'system', the all-embracing word for government, the bureaucracy and its adjuncts. They are becoming increasingly vocal, aggressive and unafraid to hit the streets, braving physical assaults from mindless cops, to have their voices heard. The gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi was a lightning rod moment; it gave voice and face to an emerging political class. The contours of this new army are still amorphous, but it is large enough to bring down existing battlements. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls it "a whole new political community" that he designates "India's virtual middle class." Its emergence, he writes, explains a lot about the rise of social protests in other parts of the world, Egypt, for instance. His basic thesis is that the rapid spread of technology like cellphones and tablets has lowered the costs of connectivity and education to the extent that India has a three hundred million strong middle class and a three hundred million 'virtual' middle class who, while still poor, "are increasingly demanding rights -- roads, electricity, uncorrupted police and good governance," demands usually associated with the middle class.

Similarly, America-based social cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai's book Fear of Small Numbers is about how the nation-state has grown ambivalent about minorities, while minorities, because of global communication technologies and migration flows, increasingly see themselves as part of powerful majorities. This empowerment is adopting political overtones that could prove significant when the Big Battle – the 2014 general elections – begins. Today's simmering frustrations are tomorrow's wars, bloodless perhaps but no less significant in terms of being catalysts for change. British journalist, Jason Burke, writing recently in the Guardian, analysed recent mass protests in India and concluded that they were "rooted not in the lack of change – but in the coming of change." He too talks of the mobilization of a new political force in search of conflict zones to vent their frustration with governments and systems that refuse to change.

The largely spontaneous protests across the country in recent months demonstrated the existence of large numbers of dissatisfied people, mostly young, but united in their battle plan: to being about change in an unaccountable, unresponsive political elite and bureaucracy. The spread of literacy and social mobilization is fuelling a revolution of rising expectations. As globalization improves the status of many at the lower levels of society, including women, it also, inevitably, incites a ferocious backlash against them. The emerging conflict zones are a classic case of the immovable object meeting the unstoppable force. It's a conflict that is largely to do with India's cultural moorings cast adrift in a fast-changing world.

Dilip Bobb is a well-known senior journalist. He works with the Indian Express based in Delhi, where he is Group Editor, Features & Special Projects.