CS Bhagya

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Interview: Maajid Nawaz

In an email interview with CS Bhagya, author Maajid Nawaz discusses themes from his book, including fluid identities and Islam in opposition to Islamism.



Tell us what you think is the dichotomy between Islam/Islamism.
Islamism is not Islam. Islam is a faith. Islamism is a modern political ideology that aspires to enforce any given interpretation of Islam over society by law. Islam started roughly 1,400 years ago. The first Islamist group was founded in 1928 in Egypt. Muslim history is full of power struggles seeking to officially establish one sect over another. However, away from sectarian struggles for dominance, the specific theo-political ambition to codify and enshrine the Muslim moral code — Shari’ah — as law using the power of the State was inspired by post-World War I European fascism. In this sense, Islamism is entirely modern, while Islam is ancient. Islam seeks moral guidance and social justice. Islamism seeks moral totalitarianism and social engineering. Islam seeks to enter the heart and govern the soul. Islamism seeks to enter the State and govern the limbs. Islam is one of the greatest religions of this planet. Islamism is the bastard child of colonialism.

Are you challenging Islamist narratives about Islam, Western narratives about Islam, or both?
The opposite of West is not Islam, but East. Western narratives about Islam include Islamist narratives, and non-Islamist narratives; they include Muslim and non-Muslim voices; they include positive and negative stereotypes, all in the ‘West’. Juxtaposing ‘West’ against Islam sounds as strange to my ears as juxtaposing the ‘East’ with Islam would sound to most. In modern times, and due to the rise of the citizenship model, the ‘West’ is merely a geographic location housing all of these opinions and more. In this debate, it’s better to compare competing phenomena of trans-national ideas than it is to compare geographical locations. A Muslim democrat should stand with a non-Muslim democratic to argue against a Muslim and non-Muslim fascist, and so on.

You have been participating in an anti-extremist conversation through your organisations Quilliam and Khudi. How is your book going to extend the conversation?
My autobiography Radical aims to turn ‘understanding extremism’ — hitherto an academic and policy fetish — into a popular story. Through the art of storytelling, in this case a true story, I’m hoping to be able to capture the imagination of the masses and popularise an understanding of what can go so horribly wrong, why it may do so, and how it can also be fixed. I’ve tried to write it in a way that pulls no punches: a mirror against society and against my own mistakes. I’ve tried to end it on a note of optimism and hope that people can see that there is also a positive way forward for us all. Now all that’s left is for us to achieve the positive together.

What sort of responses to Islam do you hope to evoke through your book?
I hope that people realise through reading Radical that the real conversations we need, as globalised citizens in a new age, are not conversations about Islam versus Christianity, or indeed around any religious theme, but around multiple identities, democratic culture, and transnational values. I hope people see that the real struggle is not between Islam and “the rest” but between democratic culture and undemocratic culture. This struggle is often shrouded in pseudo-religious garb, but underneath all the pious rhetoric and righteous indignation is a lust for power, a search for identity and a flawed response to modernity. My key aim is to discredit the modern ideology of Islamism, and to distinguish it from Islam. Once this is done, I hope to be able to help spark a theological reform conversation within Muslim religious circles about interpretation in a modern age.

What motivated you to transform your experiences into a book?
Putting my life story into a book format had been suggested to me as soon as I went public about my criticism of Islamism back in 2007. But something never felt right, and I hesitated for a long time. In a way I was waiting for closure with Egypt. Mubarak is now held in the same prison I was detained in, except of course he wasn’t tortured, thank God. I feel that the ideas I write about— that it is possible to create a democratic alternative to the old Middle-East conundrum of ‘security versus Islamism’ —have been demonstrated with a vengeance. Though the Arab uprisings eventually came to be hijacked by the same old forces, their initial spark came from liberal, young democratic youth, and it is these youth who are firmly the future.

When did you know you were ready to write a book? How difficult was it to find a voice for the book?
I wasn’t ready, but the timing of the Arab uprisings forced me to take the plunge. Initially I was perfectly happy for my co-writer Tom Bromley to interview me, write up the transcripts and order my story into a coherent piece. However, as we moved forward, both Tom and I realised that to truly engage with the culture of a 15-year-old B-Boy, a 20-year-old Islamist revolutionary and a 34-year-old counter-extremism activist isn’t that easy, for obvious reasons. I needed to genuinely revisit each stage of my life. This was a draining and exhaustive process, not to mention dangerous. Returning to traumatic experiences buried deep inside could have ended very differently, but I’m happy that with Radical at least, it seems to have borne fruit.

Upon completion, was the underlying emotion largely one of relief?
I oddly felt sadder than I had before. I had excavated certain memories, wrestled with them and then forced a voice onto them. Since doing so, these memories have started to argue back with me, and they refuse to go back to sleep. I also felt more of a sense of urgency. Writing Radical reminded me of just how much there is to do, and how little time there is to do it in.

Essex, Egypt, London, Pakistan. How have these diverse geographies affected your identity?
After everything that’s happened in my life, I find myself peculiarly comfortable among Essex wide-boys, hip-hop B-Boys, religious Muslims, Islamist agitators, Western policy experts and statesmen, disillusioned Pakistani youth and Arab revolutionaries. My language switches from colloquial Essex slang, grammar school English, the Egyptian vernacular, modern standard Arabic and anglicised Urdu. I feel enriched by my multiple identities: my very British political liberalism, my Pakistani passion, my African-American music influences, my South Asian heritage, my Arab experience and my Muslim culture and religious journey. Now all I need is a personality!


This interview appeared in the July 14th issue (no.28) of Tehelka magazine


Interview: Gulzar

He has a Padma Bhushan, a Sahitya Akademi award, an Oscar, a Grammy and innumerable Filmfare statuettes, yet he is humbled by children. His latest offering is a book called Magical Wishes: The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, where his version of the beloved children’s story has been retold in English. In an interview with CS Bhagya, the writer, poet, director, Gulzar refused to discuss his distinguished career arc, choosing instead to highlight the urgent need to revitalise children’s literature in India.


What draws you to children’s literature?
One of the reasons I left film direction was my work for children. I may not get a chance later. I wasn’t born with innumerable years and this is what I want to do with the years I have left. In India, we love our children, but we haven’t done enough for them. At least where literature’s concerned, we have only provided books and translations from the West, or adapted texts for them. These are not very good efforts. In fact, it lacks genuine affection and responsibility. You have to protect what you love, but we haven’t done enough to protect our children. We leave a lot of our responsibilities to teachers, maidservants, ayahs. In joint families, grandparents would come forward and take care of children; nanas and nanis, dadas and dadis would tell stories, hum folk songs and perform small mimes for them. Especially now, when parents are working and there are no joint families anymore, parents have to ask themselves if they are satisfied with the extent of their own involvement. What we do is, we make them sit in front of the television and watch Tom and Jerry and other inane shows. Inevitably, the child is becoming more and more lonely.

Has storytelling gone out of fashion?
Earlier children would gather under a Banyan tree where a Panditji would come to narrate stories with morals. After listening for a while, they’d get distracted and start talking to each other, eat little things — one child would be sucking a tamarind, one would be running off to dive into a river for a swim, others would be playing games. But the Panditji wouldn’t mind because the real education was in interacting with nature. One good trend that has started these days is that of interactive play schools — they’re more disciplined and allow children to mingle with each other. But the drawback is that children can’t relate directly with nature anymore. This gap has to be filled. The attitude towards stories and literature needs to change — someone has to tell them that when you present gifts on a birthday or an occasion, you need not just give them eatables and mithai; food for mind is equally important. The nature of our celebrations must change.

In your new book, you are retelling a story that is immensely popular in Bengal. How do you think it’ll reflect with children today?
Simply because these are stories — it entertains them, inspires them and boosts their imagination. That’s why stories have to be told and retold. I chose a story in Bangla because it is one of the richest languages for children’s literature in India, a language which has worked more for them than, perhaps, any other language in the country.

What about other languages and translations?
Two more languages have worked a lot for children —Marathi and Malayalam. Other than these, our major languages, for example, Hindi, is totally blank. There are no children’s writers in Hindi. Those who adapt from Western stories and translate are not writing. Or it’s writing left-handedly, as an afterthought. Children are more intelligent than what’s being written for them. Except in these three languages, there are no writers who write dedicatedly for children. Nobody’s translating from one language to another either. There may be some translations from Bangla, but nothing from Marathi or Malayalam.

Generations of children have grown up reading Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. When do you think the focus will shift to our own writers?
Only when writing for children is taken more seriously. One cannot assume that just because you’re a great writer, you are capable of writing for children. Vijay Tendulkar may be a great dramatist, but don’t expect him to write for children. It’s a different medium, a different skill that you have to learn, which is more difficult than writing for adults. In adult writing, you are writing to communicate with your age group, which is only one age group. When writing for children, you’re not as independent. You have to learn how to talk to a two-year old child and then you have to learn how to write to a six-year old. The languages of a two-year old and a six-year old are different, and when the child grows to nine or 12, the language has changed again. So, you have to learn those stages of language-writing, which is more difficult. It requires you to be specific, question yourself exactly what age-group the story that you’ve written is targeted towards. If you’re an adult writer, the age group question doesn’t arise. Children’s writers think it’s easy to just write for them nonchalantly, with hardly any intelligence, for a Sunday edition or a special issue.

You have written poetry all your life. What kind of poetry do you think is relevant for children?
Even with poetry, we have to indulge children. The kind of poems which we read in textbooks— “Dekho kitney patte hai, jitne hare bhare hai, peele hai aur neele hai aur teele hai aur theele hai” — those kinds of rhymes are so silly. They may learn a few sounds from it, but nothing more. Give them a poem to play with. A poem like “Lakdi ki kaathi, kaathi pe ghoda ghode ghode ki dum pe jo maara hathauda”, on the other hand, instigates their imagination. That’s the kind of poetry that stalwarts like Sukumar Ray wrote, which we have a serious dearth of these days.

When children seem to be spoken to and taught in English, do you think it’s becoming more difficult to direct them to stories in regional languages?
Our country has 28 languages with scripts. Every regional portion of the country writes and has stories to tell. With such a rich background, why squeeze them down to only one language? I’m not denying that English is important, they have to learn the language – it’s the instrument of communication, it connects them internationally. But if they know their mother tongue, if they know the riches of their own language, they’ll find their own medium of expressing their culture, which isn’t necessarily English. Parents teach their children to do namoh, namoh to Kishen, but when it comes to stories and they say “Kishen makkhan churaata hai”, the child doesn’t have a clue what makkhan is. He’ll sit at the dining table and ask you what makkhan is.

What did you read when you were younger?
I don’t know whether I read anything when I younger. I was a bad student. But I used to listen to lots of stories, indulge in all kinds of games. When I was younger, I remember people used to go round about and tell us the same tortoise-and-rabbit stories and songs.

Will you be writing more regularly for children?
There are two more projects in the pipeline — stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba, which I’m redescribing for children. These are popular stories, but they may not immediately become relevant to children and need to be revised to suit their needs. Tagore for children might al so be one of the books I’d be writing next year. We haven’t had poetry like the kind Tagore wrote to narrate to our children.


This interview appeared in the July 7th issue (no. 27) of Tehelka magazine.

Interview: Suman Sridhar

WHO Mumbai-based Sridhar is a singer, actor, songwriter and producer and one half of the contemporary music duo Sridhar/Thayil. She has appeared on independent albums Violet Samudra and Brown Circles, and sung soundtracks for Hindi films 404and Shaitan.

How has your family contributed to your music?
My mum would trick me into going for music class — alighting the BEST bus last minute, and leaving me to ride to class by myself. A rebel child, I could never study music as a discipline with my mother or any other teacher. However, it percolated into my life at all times. My parents would always be performing, teaching, attending concerts, in jam and recording sessions. I grew up with a 7 am aalap for an alarm.

Jazz, electro-pop and Hindustani classical. How do you fuse them?
Music happens in the silences and spaces between these categories. When musicians create, these genres are irrelevant. Genres are a product of our market-driven economy and record labels needing to slot your music into a shelf.

Who are you as a part of Sridhar/ Thayil? How are you different outside?
My material outside of Sridhar/Thayil tends to be more political and demands the audience to engage. Sridhar/Thayil, however, is deliberately more mainstream in content.

Tell us about your opera-noir.
The Flying Wallas: Opera Noir is a two-person minimalist contemporary opera; a conversation between a ghost and a soprano and the audience. Two lovers belong to the same flying trapeze company. One fails to catch the other, as the latter falls to his death. The opera opens with this death scene and a blood-curdling scream from the soprano. The story is a conversation about guilt, murder, love and loss. We deliberately used contemporary language sung in a classical operatic style; the ghost’s words were spoken in verse. The result was a being of its own — neither opera, nor drama, nor poetry, nor a concert.

How does travelling inspire your work?
Travelling means you wake up in a new place, anonymous, with few belongings, without a ringing phone. It is the natural state of being for a musician — the troubadour.


This interview appeared in the July 14th issue (no. 28) of Tehelka magazine. 

Interview: Tritha Sinha

WHO Kolkata-born Tritha Sinha juggles three musical outfits – the solo/ acoustic TRITHA, her ethnopunk band Tritha Electric, and her Hindustani trip-hop band SPACE. She shuttles between Delhi, Kolkata and Paris, experimenting with different kinds of music.


How has your family influenced your music?
We’re a typical Bengali family – we love eating fish and listening to music. My grandfather wanted a girl in the family to be a singer. When I was five my parents introduced me to an Indian classical music guru. I opted for music over medicine; my parents were persuaded because I was very serious about it. I’ve been supporting myself from the age of 17 doing music. I react almost physically to it, which propels me to sing and compose.

A childhood memory?
I sang Tagore in my own way, at the age of eight, in front of horrified aunties who’d been singing Rabindra Sangeet the way it’s been sung for 50 years.

What is ethno-punk?
Ethno comes from my Indian classical roots and baul influences. Punk is an expression of my struggles and frustrations looking for independence as a woman in India. I conceptualised this with Paul Schneiter, a French drummer and producer, for my new outfit Tritha Electric.

Instruments you play?
In Tritha Electric, I play the electric guitar; use a looper and a delay-effects voice processor. My electric tanpura, the mandira, and some percussion are a constant presence. I also picked up a kazoo from Paris — it’s my mini saxophone.

How has travelling influenced you?
Living in Paris, jamming with underground jazz musicians and travelling around Europe for the last seven summers has helped me integrate African beats, trip-hop and punk in my original songs. I go back to Kolkata to rejuvenate my knowledge of classical Indian music.

Tell us about your song Pagli.
A sound engineer in Paris wanted to hear me rap in Bengali. I imagined myself as a madwoman in the streets of Kolkata, took on that role and started singing like her. I’m going to make an album of it adding more songs. A new pagli song is a punk one called Fish Market.


This interview appeared in the June 30th issue (no. 26) of Tehelka magazine.