LTTE: Letters to the Editor(s)

  • The adamantine exchange of letters - The Pioneer
  • Some unpublished Letters/Rants on Hussain's Sita: Pioneer | Outlook
  • Unpublished :Letter

    The adamantine exchange of letters - 
    The Pioneer

    January 20, 1997 (published on January 22, 1997) 

    To The Editor, 
    The Pioneer Books, 
    The Pioneer, 
    New Delhi.

    Dear Sir, Ref: Kitchen & Kitsch by Ira Pande (Review of Mistress of Spices) The Pioneer Books, January 18, 1997

    I have always enjoyed reading Ira Pande's reviews of books in your columns and was rather amused by her description of a "vicious desi critic," in her latest effusion, captioned above. To quote her again: "I wish I could be less cruel".

    I like the frank and forthright manner with which she says: "The only other time I ever read the word "adamantine" was in Milton's description of the chains that bind Satan in Paradise Lost." While it may be difficult to plumb the exact depths of Ms. Pande's ignorance, I am sure that even she must have read Swift's Gulliver's Travels ("Adamantine feet"). Or Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound ("Now drive the adamantine wedge's stubborn edge straight through his chest..") Or G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday ("Was this adamantine stare after all only the awful sneer of some threefold traitor"). Or William Blake ("Rattling the adamantine chains" AND "none but iron pens can write and adamantine leaves recieve").

    Admittedly, a book-reviewer may not have read -- or be expected to remember the occurrence of a word in -- the above very random listing and, in the time-honoured traditions of book-reviewing, perhaps it's legitimate to oh-so-magisterially pronounce an author to be lacking a "...certain level of maturity" and other such, but Ms. Pande seems to be certainly setting new standards in literary-criticism, if not starting a new genre itself, by faulting an author for using a, debatably, unusual phrase.

    The point is that even if the word in question had been rather obscure, which it is not, I fail to understand what that has to do with the, um, price of onions.

    It might, incidentally, surprise Ms. Pande that Dr. Sachchidananda Sinha, the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly of India, too, spoke of the "adamantine strength" of the constitution in his inaugural speech. Because I have always enjoyed reading Ms. Pande's reviews, I append, rather gratuitously, an excerpt from the great Sufi classic, "The Conference of the Birds" by Farid ud-Din Attar (Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis, trans., 1984, original 1177).

    Pedantically Yours,

    (Sundeep Dougal)


    The Stone Man
    A man in China has become a stone;
    He sits and mourns, and at each muffled groan
    Weeps melancholy tears, which then are found
    congealed as pebbles scattered on the ground
    (What misery the world would know, what pain,
    If clouds should shed such adamantine rain!).
    This man is Knowledge (sensible, devout;
    If you should go to China seek him out),
    But he has turned to stone from secret grief,
    From lack of zeal, indifference, unbelief.
    The world is dark, and Knowledge is a light,
    A sparkling jewel to lead you through the night -
    Without it you would wander mystified,
    Like Alexander lost without a guide;
    But if you trust its light too much, despair
    Will be the sequel of pedantic care,
    And if you underestimate this jewel
    Despair will mark you as a righteous fool
    (Ignore or overvalue this bright stone,
    And wretchedness will claim you for her own).
    If you can step outside the stage we know,
    The dark confusions of our life below,
    And reach man's proper state you will possess
    Wisdom at which the world can never guess.
    The path brings sorrow and bewildered fear,
    But venture on until the Way is clear,
    And neither sleep by night or drink by day,
    But give your life - completely - to the Way.


    Now on Jan 21, 1997, Somebody from The Pioneer called up to apparently ask for some blurred lines in the text, commented on how interesting it all was, and I of course provided him with all the details and talked to him about the Internet some, too. But that was all by the way.

    January 22, they publish the above letter. 

    January 23, they publish the following letter from Ira Pande:


    Read More, Surf Less

    I read with great interest the adamantine letter in response to my review. Impressed though I am at Mr. Sundeep Dougal's efforts (though I suspect his intention was to show off rather than defend the book), I have to tell you him that I have also found the net-site on 'adamantine' and that two can play this game. "If you read this, feel free to tell all your friends about how you have found everything you were looking for about adamantine on this page!" is the advice that net reference gives. This letter is not about one-upmanship, however, but about something more. One, that I have read the book: he hasn't and therefore, I have perhaps a better reason for writing what I did. And, two, that my pointing out 'adamantine' was not to assert a Miltonic copyright on the word, but that its use fits with the epic scale of Paradise Lost. My problem was not with Mr. Dougal's information about adamantine, which I enjoyed hugely, but that he has trivialised my remarks about the book. My advice to him is: "Read more. surf less."

    Ira Pande


    Sure enough, this needed responding to, and I shot off the following to them the same day, but they published it after editing out some of the lines, oh after about a week. But, it was fun anyway! 


    January 23, 1997

    With reference to Ira Pande's (oh-so-magisterial!) advice to me to "Read more, surf less", I guess I _should_ express gratitude. Or something.

    She _suspects_, she appends parenthetically, my intentions. I must admit I am _impressed_ at how right she is. Her suspicions are not misplaced on both the counts. _Yes_, it was to "show off" how utterly unprofessional and unnecessary the last paragraph in her review was. And yes, again, it was _not_ to "defend" the book under question. Perhaps I should _also_ show wonder and amazement at the fact that she "found" the web-site (to be a pedant, it cannot be called a "net-site", being only a listing of various search-engines) on adamantine. ("Wow! I am impressed. Was it difficult? Is it a big secret or something?") If only she had taken the trouble _before_ she wrote her review! I also can't help wondering if this is to be taken as an admission of the fact that she really hadn't read any of the books randomly listed by me? Uh, and where on this, or any other "net" or web-site for that matter, would you find the excerpt from the _Conference of the Birds?_

    (The aesthetic evils of a parenthetical aside are called for here. I actually did a fine-tuned search for it just now and though there are references to the book, I can assure her that she wouldn't find the verses quoted, even at Gutenberg. Incidentally, I had done a poster using this for my 8-year old nephew's school long back and have had it by my desk-site for more years than I care to remember and, _yes_, I have a copy of the book too! Ah, and by the way, even _he_ has known the word for quite some time now.)

    But I digress. The simple point I wanted to underline in what is now called the "adamantine letter" was merely the fact that all this has nothing to do with the price of onions. (Or the price of rice in China, for that matter.)

    Two can play this game, she thunders. _Game_? _What_ game? The game of _one-upmanship_? The one that she said her letter was not about? Or the game of _trying_ to save face? Classic diversionary tactics, if you want to know my view. (Since this is hardly the place for voicing one's suspicions).

    She has read the book, she goes on (I would certainly _hope_ so and happily take her word for it) but I wonder on what basis she can presume that I haven't? Ah, I forget that "vicious desi critics" have the blanket license to peddle their subjective interpretations of texts, transcending the stodgy old-fashioned dichotomy between fact and fiction, elevating the critic to power by demoting the text.

    _Where_ is the question of my trying to defend the book, if I may ask somewhat rhetorically? The point about _what_ she was trying to assert by saying that the author could not "get away with adamantine hands" is moot. I am sure she is more than capable of writing a vituperative, vicious and vacuous treatise on the adamantine subject, but all that is irrelevant (though necessary to point out, since she cast suspicions on my _intentions_!)

    All that was pointed out was that it was too bad that she had not "read the word adamantine" anywhere other than Milton's Paradise Lost. Her attempted anguished and righteous complain that her comments about the book have been _trivialised_ is, at best, trivially, fatuous. (And feeble, if I may add alliteratively.)

    To adopt her tone, all I can say to her is: "Check your facts. And too bad if you get them wrong." But to expect an adamantine critic to as much as admit a goof up is perhaps too much to ask. 

    Amused by all this, 

    (Sundeep Dougal)

    P.S: As regards reading and surfing, I cannot help adding that these are not exactly mutually-exclusive terms. In fact some of the best, informed book-reviews, and indeed the books I read, are thanks to my surfing.

    Hussain's Sita

    May 14, 1998

    To The Editor, 
    The Pioneer, 
    New Delhi. 


    Re: Sita is the centre of consciousness 
    Opinion / Sandhya Jain The Pioneer, May 14, 1998

    Ms. Sandhya Jain asserts that "Hindus cannot with equanimity countenance the thought of her [Sita] being depicted clinging to the tale of an adult monkey for the sake of artistic revelry!"

    I beg to submit that any Hindu well acquainted with our mythological traditions would - or, at least, should - have no trouble in countenancing any such image.

    Without having seen the impugned lithograph, and despite Ms. Jain's attempted lurid (and may I add, rather ludicrous) description, the image it conjures up in my mind is the scene in the Sundara-Kanda of Valmiki's Ramayana, where Hanuman after tracing Sita in Ashoka grove of Ravana's Lanka, suggests to her:

    (all quotes from the Ramayana of Valmiki, trans. P.Lal)

    "Climb on my back, devi, and I will take you back to Rama. I will fly over the ocean. No one in Lanka will dare pursue us."

    And Sita says:

    "I now see that you are indeed capable of carrying me away from here. But I must think of the consequences. I do not think that it is right that I should go with you. Supposing your wind-swift speed makes me giddy and I tumble off your back into the shark-and-crocodile-infested sea? I cannot go with you. You will be in danger. The rakshasas will rally and attack you, and when you engage in combat with them, what will happen to me? What will I do?"

    Now, is it not possible to view this painting under question as an apt illustration for this incident? Couldn't Sita be clutching onto the tail out of sheer, to use her words, giddiness?

    To interpret Hanuman's tail as a phallic symbol is absurd, and I dare say that it requires a rather well-developed prurient flight of fantasy to do so. However, even if it is indeed taken as a phallic symbol, I am sure devout Hindus, who worship Shiva's Phallus on a daily basis, should have no problem with it as Sita is an established Shiva bhagtin. Besides, Rama always carries a golden Shiva Lingam with him.

    And, Hanuman, at least as per Shiva Purana, is the simiesque incarnation of Shiva. [And while we are on Shiva Purana, may I point out that Hindus seem to have had no trouble with the depiction of Vishnu who, in the guise of Mohini the sensuous dancer arouses Shiva so much that he ejaculates the semen later used to produce Hanuman] Even for the conservative Hindu, isn't it a just validation that the phallus-worshipper is shown getting rescued by clinging to the tail, the alleged phallic symbol?

    Now, let's come to nudity. Even Ms. Jain's description makes this much clear that the painting does not show any frontal nudity (not that we Hindus are any strangers to it) and that perhaps is why far fetched, fantastical symbolism is being imputed. Wouldn't a Hindu recognise Sita's nudity as a portrayal of her helplessness and shame? (Shouldn't Hanuman devotees, which Bajrang Dal - named as it is after Bajrangbali - members all should be, instead take serious umbrage at this depraved description of Hanuman's tail as a phallic symbol?)

    On the other hand, Valmiki's Ramayana is quite, shall we say, racy and graphically descriptive on the abundant charms of Sita. Consider this sample passage, picked very much at random, from Aranya-Kanda:

    "Tapering and graceful are your thighs like an elephant's trunk,
    Rounded and ample are your hips, 
    Large and firm are your breasts touching each other, 
    Painted and prominent their nipples, 
    Two smooth,round fruits of the 
    Tala tree pretty with pearls." 
    Or consider this self-description by Sita in Yuddha Kanda:
    "My breasts, hands, feet, thighs, 
    Are all symmetrical, 
    My breasts touch each other 
    And have depressed nipples, 
    My navel is set deep In my shapely stomach,
    Well-fleshed are my breasts 
    And ample thighs, 
    My skin-hair is soft, My complexion pearl bright..." 

    What is this? Eroticism? Pornography? Sensuality? Celebration or prurient sexual objectification of the female form? Should the Bajrang Dal and their spokeswoman, Ms. Jain, not demand that all copies of Valmiki's Ramayan be banned? For, after all he seems to be having an "artistic revelry" alright, doesn't he?

    To pick up yet another random quote from her amazingly, nay, appallingly, revisionist account, "Sita could not be touched by another man, even one who addressed her as "mother," says Ms. Jain, "even Ravana, when he abducted her, is said to have done so by lifting the earth under her feet." Without getting into petty pedantries like how Hanuman is not a man but a god, or mentioning Luv-Kush, may I very respectfully point out that all Ramayana scholars are unanimous that this myth is a much later interpolation, perhaps by those patriarchal priests who wanted to project the chastity of the Ideal Indian Woman in such a fashion that it became that much easier for a husband to leave her if she had been as much as touched by another!

    It is clear in Valmiki (3.47) that Ravana did touch her. One doesn't have to go to obscure, scholarly texts to reach this conclusion. Two of the most popular, widely available and respected translations of Ramayana into English, P.Lal's and C.Rajagopalachari's explicitly mention Ravana picking Sita up and pulling her hair. Ms. Jain's version is the ploy introduced in Kamban's Tamil version perhaps because, as Rajaji points out, putting yet another spin on it, it is "less painful to our feelings." Valmiki's Ramayan is unambiguous on this score: "Quickly Ravana reached out and seized gentle Sita. He was inflamed by passion. His left hand pulled at lotus-eyed Sita's hair, his right grasped her thigh."

    Sacrilege! Blasphemy!! Shouldn't we ban the book? At least burn a few copies? Since we can't lynch the author, let's go for the translators, publishers and so on? Ah, so we are gonna apply the ancient Indian art of fudging here, are we? And argue, after Tulsi Das's Ramcharitmanas that this was not Sita but Chaya (shadow) Sita? Which is first mentioned, I think, in the Kurmapurana, where it is Agni who creates the shadow, while she is in heaven awaiting the outcome of the battle. But then, it could be argued, couldn't it, that if the Sita seized and carried off by Ravana wasn't the real Sita, it follows that the one clutching Hanuman's tail, in this disputed lithograph, is not the real Sita either? Couldn't she just be the Chaya or Maya Sita? Besides, Hanuman is not touching her, it is she who is holding on to his tail. Where is the problem?

    Indeed, many of the eastern Ramayanas in Bengali, Oriya and Assamese take a radically different approach by suggesting that it was Sita herself who arranged the abduction, such as Durgavara's Giti Ramayana, in which Rama tells Lakshmana that Sita sent him into the forest after the deer intentionally, so that she could "elope" with the demon. He then calls her-and, by extension, all women-"fickle" (sahaje cancala tiri jati) and accuses her of having a "devious heart" (kapata hridaya). The list goes on and on...

    Why, in Valmiki's Ramayan itself, Rama says to Sita: (Yuddha Kanda):

    "Ravana looked lustfully 
    At you, clutched you tight 
    In his arms... ...  
    Choose Lakshmana or Bharata, 
    Whoever you please, 
    Or Shatrughana, Sugriva, 
    Or the rakshasha Vibhishana.  
    The choice is yours, Sita.  
    You are so lovely, 
    So mind alluring, 
    How could Ravana
    Have controlled himself 
    And not enjoyed you?" 

    All of the above is presumably not indecent art and doesn't hurt religious sentiments? I wonder what does? Khajurao and Konark don't. Ajanta and Ellora don't.  Why, even Irawati Karve's Yuganta, Pratibha Ray's Yajnaseni or even the hilarious take off on Mahabharata in Kundan Shah's Jaane Bhi Do Yaro don't. But Hussain certainly seems to, each time he paints a Hindu goddess.

    I think it is disingenuous on the part of Ms. Jain to have us believe that because the Muslim community has distanced itself from the controversy, it follows that Hussain is not being singled out because of his merely being a Muslim. Sure, there may be other reasons. Like his having acquired a "secular" image till recently, and perhaps the fundamentalists, of any hue, do not like a successful Indian to project this image? Particularly, in Bombay, er, sorry, Mumbai.

    Otherwise, why did Bal Thackeray have to say: "If Husain can step into Hindustan, what is wrong if we enter his house?" I wonder. And our "secular, liberal" Prime Minister may have denounced the ransacking of Hussain's house, but the BJP chief Thakre was on national TV only yesterday to say that Hussain should stop painting "our" gods and goddesses. And that his paintings are insulting and that it is only natural for "our" people to get upset. 

    And all this after Hussain's statement in the current Frontline, where he was reported to have said, "Yes, I have offered to face an agni pariksha. I have made the suggestion earlier." As Frontline reported: "His suggestion envisages the setting up of a committee of three persons - an art critic, a lawyer and a representative of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad - which could go through his entire collection. Husain said that he was prepared to destroy immediately any work that the committee found objectionable."

    It is perhaps this attitude, which makes his case not analogous to the d'affaire Rushdie, regarding Satanic Verses. While I can understand Ms. Jain's justifiable ire against those who demanded a ban against the Rushdie book but seem to support Hussain and freedom of expression, I would like to point out that there are a substantial number in India and abroad who were upset at the undue haste with which the then Indian government had banned the Rushdie book, and who also do not think that Hussain's Draupadi or Saraswati or  "Rescued Sita" were "indecent art hurting religious sensibilities" but who are indeed "shocked and offended" at the recent attempts in Bombay, in particular, to curb freedom of expression. They are outraged. [Please read Outlook, May 18, for details]. What are they? Ignorable?

    It is not just the Hussain-affair, but everything that has become an "intra-Hindu" affair.  As for the prominent Muslims keeping away, remember what the noted historian Mushirul Hassan had to go through at the time of the Rushdie crisis? Does it occur to commentators like Ms. Jain who, by the way, do not even utter a token word against the taking of the law of the land in one's own hands, that perhaps some of the Muslim intelligentsia may just be weary of speaking up, lest it means swift reprisals against a whole community in general? 

    "One country, one culture."  The "culture" of Hindutava versus the "amoral Hindu intellectuals" and the 'double-tongued' secularists and liberalists. The criteria in view of the emerging recognition of "real, politik" seems simple: those for Hussain are the baddies and those against him, the good, even the "honourable" Muslims. Real Politik, someone had said?

    The point in the end  is that it is about the changing face of Bombay into Mumbai, of India into Hindu-staan, and it isn't the "this-side-of-Indus" definition of "Hindu" but a regressive, retrograde and repelling definition that seeks to snap our ties from the plurality of our tradition to the singularity of anti-seculars, as evidenced by the dropping of even the token prefix "pseudo" that used to be reserved for people who disagreed with the "Hinduttava" brand of politics from such effusions as Ms.  Jain's. Is this by design or accident? I wonder.

    Undoubtedlly, Sita is a powerful symbol in our mythology, but it is not just the image perpetuated by the patriarchal premium put on the chastity of "untouched by any but her husband" women. The concerns with Ramayana depicting the loss of female dignity and exculpating the misdemeanours in this field raise questions about promoting further humiliation and exploitation of women. Thanks to the oral traditions, various differing versions of Ramayana stories exist throughout the world, particularly in South East Asia, including the suggestion that Valmiki had borrowed from Homer's Odyssey and Iliad or the Buddhist "Dashratha Jataka" traditions where Rama and Sita are siblings and so on. Why, in some traditions, even some Quranic verses are echoed in the dialogues between Rama and Lakshmana in the Dandaka forest; and as shown above, Sita is also a sensuous and strong woman who, in some traditions is and slayer of the thousand-faced Ravana and saviour of Rama, which is why even he recites her thousand names (Sita-sahasrnama).

    We have lived with differing Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina and other versions. The legend has, as is inevitable, undergone many changes. "Like the Purusha's 1000 heads," as K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar writes, "or 1000 feet, equally defying enumeration or comrehension are the thematic changes, adaptations, elaborations, deviations, transmigrations and even Bottom-like 'translations' of the original Ramayana legend." Who is to know which one Hussain was inspired by?

    Besides, the painting was done 20 years ago. And the recent exhibition was in Delhi whereas the ransacking by Bajrang Dal took place in Bombay. Surely, they had not been to the exhibition in Delhi and outraged by the painting? Doesn't exactly take genius to conclude that they were incited and that it was a political stunt in keeping with later Thackeray and Thakre utterances. To support the Bajrang Dal's purported offended sensibility is to open a Pandora's box for anybody taking the law in one's own hand.  

    And lastly, the characters, icons or motifs of mythologies (Christain, Greek, or Indian or others) do not belong to any one religion. They are parts of our literary and other artistic traditions, our common heritage.

    Yours etc. Sundeep Dougal New Delhi -110017 India


    June 3, 1998

    The Editor, 
    New Delhi, 

    Kudos to Mr. Tejpal for bringing up the befitting story of the childhood traumas he undoubtedly suffered by watching execrable movies like Shaitaan, (Delhi Diary, Outlook, June 8, 1998)  and highlighting the need for censorship, in the same issue where you had a story on the praiseworthy efforts of Ms. Sushma Swaraj.

    It is indeed shocking and frightening the impact such movies have on impressionable minds, so much so that even the exact number of rape scenes are remembered. The frankness of a serious opinion-maker like him is indeed laudable, as it also helps explain the suggestions of erotic bestiality that he's able to conjure up in a painting inspired by our mytho-religio epic.

    Since there are different strokes for different folks, I'd be liberal and restrain myself from commenting on those who find a woman clutching the tail of a monkey erotic. Why, I know of some who even, sacriligious as it may sound, find The Ramayana very erotic. Consider these sample passages picked very much at random, from Aranya-Kanda (all quotes from the Ramayana of Valmiki trans. by P.Lal),

    "Tapering and graceful are your thighs like an elephant's trunk,
    Rounded and ample are your hips, 
    Large and firm are your breasts touching each other, 
    Painted and prominent their nipples, 
    Two smooth,round fruits of the 
    Tala tree pretty with pearls." 
    Oh, the lady in question, whose abundant charms are being rhapsodised
    about, happens to be Sita, of course.
    Or consider this self-description by Sita in Yuddha Kanda:
    "My breasts, hands, feet, thighs, 
    Are all symmetrical, 
    My breasts touch each other 
    And have depressed nipples, 
    My navel is set deep In my shapely stomach,
    Well-fleshed are my breasts 
    And ample thighs, 
    My skin-hair is soft, My complexion pearl bright..." 

    Since the author is long dead, I just dread to think what will happen to all those assorted translators, publishers, book-binders (y'see, lots of atleast those must be Muslims) et al of all existing editions of The Ramayana.

    May be some self-styled "die-hard liberal" with a bleeding heart and a concern for the upkeep of our collective conscience and morality will in due course demand that they all be made to apologise; all editions proscribed; and only sanitised, expurgated copies, appropriately vetted by Ms. Sushma Swaraj, be allowed into print.

    For it could be argued that such writings "have simply too much inflammatory potential" and one could justifiably be curious to know what the late Mr. Valmiki -- or, indeed, the translator Mr. P.Lal, in this case -- was thinking when he, um, fired it off.

    Sundeep Dougal 
    New Delhi - 110017

    Unpublished Letter

    The Editor
    New Delhi

     Congratulations on identifying yourselves as 'India's most  _existing_ weekly news magazine.' on your website.
    Also, thanks for being so disarmingly honest as to admit to having 'broken a number of _stores_' and that your 'journalists
    report and analyze quickly and incisively, _laboriously_.'

    Yours etcetera
    Sundeep Dougal

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    Sonny (Sundeep Dougal) Holden Caulfield, New Delhi, INDIA