Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Quite a day

I had quite a hectic day today...

In the morning, Kanak Mani Dixit, editor and publisher of the acclaimed South Asian magazine, Himal, published from Kathmandu, came over for breakfast.

I met Kanak yesterday evening at the valedictory dinner of the Calcutta Research Group's Sixth Winter Course on Forced Migration. He knew my mother, Gomathy Venkateswar, when she was the first Principal of the Malpi International School, in Panauti, Nepal. But I had never met him. At the dinner, overhearing a conversation on Nepal, I figured out that the person must be Kanak and introduced myself. Over breakfast we had a nice conversation on various things; about the situation in Nepal, about Nepal's Maoists, about the CPI(M) in West Bengal, among other things.

At noon, I was in the Raj Bhavan, Calcutta. I had been invited by the Governor of West Bengal, Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

In August 2007, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of India's independence, I had written a essay titled "In Search of Ramrajya". As the essay alluded to Mahatma Gandhi, the Governor's grandfather, and as it was about my experience of working since 1996 in a Muslim slum in Howrah, in the state of West Bengal, of which the Governor was the constitutional head, I sent him a copy of my essay early this year. He wrote me a letter saying he would like to meet me. And so we met, in May. But Mr Gandhi was somewhat preoccupied and disturbed when we met, perhaps on account of the situation he was in then, being abused and vilified by the ruling party in West Bengal. We spoke for a while and Mr Gandhi said we would meet at a later juncture. Last Friday I got a call from his office, asking me whether I could come on Tuesday. We had a nice conversation, on various matters. He asked me about my children and thus learned that his children had also studied at the Rishi Valley School. He told me how difficult it was for parents to send their young children away from home, something I too knew well. We spoke about Mahatma Gandhi's idea of swaraj. And I suggested that persons in power, those responsibe for decision-making, should make a visit to places like Priya Manna Basti so that they could have an image of this place and the people living there in their mind whenever they took a decision. Like Mahatma Gandhi's talisman.

In the afternoon, I met Mireille Fanon Mendes France, daughter of the celebrated thinker and revolutionary activist Frantz Fanon.

Mireille is an eminent human rights activist in Paris, France, working for the rights of immigrants, of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, and for the abolition of the death penalty. Mireille was in Calcutta to deliver a lecture on "Racism, Immigration & Xenophobia in the World today" and to participate in the seminar on "Reading Frantz Fanon in Calcutta". We went to the community centre of Howrah Pilot Project, in Priya Manna Basti, Howrah, where she met my colleagues, the volunteer teachers of Talimi Haq School and also some of our ex-students. My dear friend and associate, Hasnain Imam, had also came over and on my request tried to explain to Mireille what being Muslim in India / Calcutta meant. We went for a tour of PM Basti and Mireille said the place reminded her a lot of the Palestinian refugee camps. I then took Mireille to a gift shop in Calcutta, where she picked up some beautiful things for her children and friends. We talked and talked, about so many things. It was such a wonderful and moving experience. Late evening, on the way back to her hotel, Mireille asked, "If all the poor people of the world stand up, the world will be turned upside down. Do you think I will see that in my life time?" I replied, "Yes, we WILL see it in our life time, for we are now living in a time of transformations!"

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