Monday, January 16, 2012

Sreeja of St Xavier's College, Mumbai

Sreeja Ravindranathan, a bright final year student of Arts at Mumbai's prestigious college St Xavier's interviewed me. The interview was a part of her application to Universities that would let her study journalism.

I enjoyed meeting her and being interviewed by her. Below is the extract. And all the best Sreeja!
Seated in the snug settings of the staffroom at St. Xavier’s college, clad in a turtleneck and trousers, Mini Nair looks more like one of the students waiting around than a mother of two.
“Let’s begin!” she says, her enthusiasm beating that of any teenager around the premises.
Mini Nair is a first-time author of the recently published novel ‘The Fourth Passenger’ that delves into the sensitive topic of the ’92 Bombay communal riots, religious fundamentalism and the omnipresent fear used to control an entire populace. She has also authored a children’s book and the biography of a noted pharmaceutical scientist. A postgraduate in chemistry she always had an abiding love for literature and writing. She currently works for a German MNC and resides with her family in Mumbai: a city she is passionate about.
Her carefree air and candid demeanour belies the intense themes that thread through the fabric of her narrative. Set against the background of the religious and political unrest and riots that pervaded the city of Mumbai in the 1992 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid Mosque, ‘The Fourth Passenger’ portrays the lives of four women who have made the city their home and their discovery of their true selves as well as that of a city and Nation torn by religious fundamentalism.
These women have been denied a voice both within the family and society at large. However, the four friends decide to steer the course of their lives and extend their friendship that supplies them with emotional support into a business partnership by setting up a food stall/restaurant thus securing them financially. The rest of the novel traverses their triumphs over the multitude of hurdles in the form of corruption, religious extremism and blatant sexism that impede their progress and test their friendship’s mettle.
“At the end of the day, no matter what kind of crisis a community faces it’s the women who bear the brunt of it all.” says Nair emphasising the position of women within the Indian society. Whether inflation due to economic crisis or a curfew due to a strike the women have to keep their households running and despite such a pivotal influence have no right to dissent.
She highlights how subjugation is a direct product of social conditioning, “It begins at home and since most know no other way of life we accept the one we’re served with.”
She also drives home the fact that in times of social turmoil the women of any community, considered to represent the honour and dignity of their clan are the first to be assaulted and end up being pawns in the power play of an inherently patriarchal society.
“Take for example the genocides in Rwanda or in Mumbai”, she says “women were raped and murdered brutally to bring shame to their community.” She talks about this systematic objectification of women both in media, history and culture which is ironical in a nation where women are revered as the mother, Bharat Mata (the mother land),Stree Shakti (the Goddess).

Did these ideas guide her to intentionally name their establishment ‘Stree’, the Sanskrit word for woman with its many empowering connotations?
“The protagonists in my book are just regular women who lead too much of a prosaic existence to come up with such an inspired name.” Nonetheless as an author she admits to have subconsciously implied the dichotomy between the doctrine about women we maintain and the treatment meted out to them.
So has the scenario changed today?
“Has it?” she questions playfully. “We’re still fighting for an equal footing with men on numerous avenues. As a country we’re still developing. We’ll reach the zenith of progress when we have an egalitarian society.”
Despite being a staunch advocate of female empowerment, she is quick to reject the label of a feminist.
“I’m not a man hating radical”, she says with a wry smile. “I celebrate and revel in my femininity.” This is why Nair, an avid cook herself, subverts cooking; traditionally viewed as a woman’s chore in her novel to function as a source of empowerment. She feels that every woman should be allowed to do so and this is where education according to her plays a crucial role. Her views regarding education are lucidly outlined through her characters who deem it as a form of social escape.
“Awareness is the solution to most of these problems. Education, I feel, is the doorway to awareness and self sufficiency.”
And is it the function of artists and authors to open up such doors?
She smiles thoughtfully, “It is. Since, we can reach out to a large section of the populace than most can, we should exert our influence positively.”
But didacticism isn’t the sole purpose of art and literature, she feels. At the end of the day it’s narrating an aesthetically rich story that she finds satisfying.

On asking what motivated her to revisit the long forgotten gory episode from Mumbai’s past almost 2 decades later, she talks about how it took her all that time to garner the courage to put in words the horrors every Mumbaikar experienced and accept the magnitude of what occurred.
“It took me time like everyone else. But now, I can confidently say I’m much braver.” she says assertively. Nair opines that we have conveniently buried an unwelcome memory which is a counterproductive exercise.
“Are we allowed to forget the holocaust? We shouldn’t, because in forgetting history we are condemned to repeat its follies”, the fervour evident in her eyes. Her science background she feels has helped her adopt a practical approach in her search for truth about the communal riots of 92. “What is science? But a search for truth” she adds reflectively.
Like any regular Mumbaikar she feared political opposition and backlash. Especially, since she was mindful of the perverse right-wing political interests that fuelled the riots and berates the same in her novel. The result is hate mails that slam her as a Muslim aficionado flooding her inbox.
“Thankfully, no death threats so far”, she bursts out laughing, making light of the malice people generate.
Nair feels that religious extremism manifesting in the form of internal terrorism is proportional to the decreasing levels of our tolerance as a city. Freedom is curbed in artistic expression as well as the right to choose a way of life. She cites examples of public burning of the works of Rohinton Mistry and M.F Hussain . And as such she defies all forms of intolerance in her novel, even homophobia. She rues over the fact that such intolerance thrives in Mumbai- a city of perpetual adjustment, a theme she picks up from the local trains and employ as the title.
“We always make space for a 4th passenger on a seat meant for 3. It’s sad that this allowance doesn’t extend to other aspects of life in Mumbai.”
The city she mentions features as the 5th character in the novel. The eternal magic of Mumbai and its indestructible spirit of survival and humanity is what she reveals despite accentuating the ugly undercurrents of violence it harbours.
“This city is a victim at the hands of the hideous side of its populace. I portray it in a sympathetic tone.”
Just like Mumbai recovers every time it’s dealt a debilitating blow she believes that the people of the city too can recuperate from the bitter memories they live with.
She confesses, “I am eternal optimist”,

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