Sunday, April 05, 2020

Mexican Arjuna - Francisco Madero

Francisco Madero, who was President of Mexico in the period 1911-13, was a spiritualist since his younger days seeking wisdom from many sources including Bhagwat Gita. He wrote articles with a pseudonym Arjuna. In his “Commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, Madero wrote that the paradox of action-inaction was solved by the key word: duty. “‘Renouncing the fruit of our actions’ should be understood to mean that we should not perform any meritorious action in view of the reward we expect from it but because we consider it to be our duty”. He was inspired by Krishna’s advice, “Hear my words, O prince! in truth I tell you that whoever acts according to dharma [the proper order of the world, the duties of one’s station in life], without desire for the fruit of his action, renounces his action at the same time as he performs it”.

Madero presented himself as a heroic Arjuna in the struggle for democracy, being guided and given courage by the wisdom of Gita. Some of his readers such as Jose Vasconcelos (famous philosopher politician), referred to him as “ Arjuna of Mexico”.

What was Madero's Arjuna dilemma? He was a liberal and progressive fighting against injustice and dictatorship. But the conservatives on the other side who were supporting dictatorship and maintaining their wealth and position were from the same oligarchic families to which he belonged. After becoming President he had dilemmas between punishing and pardoning the conservative conspirators. His choice of pardoning of General Huerta was a fatal mistake. The General turned against him, overthrew him and got him killed.

Madero's commentary on Gita written in 1910 was published in the Mexican Spiritual magazine Helios in 1912, while he was serving as President. It was later reprinted in the Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelo’s book “Estudios Indostanicos”.

In a letter to his wife, Madero said that he had come to identify even more with Arjuna, his pseudonym, and went on: I have the feeling that my life is not in danger. But if something happens, I will go to my grave satisfied that I have done my duty. I send you my Bhagavad Gita. Guard it carefully along with the notes I drew from it. 

In 1911, Madero changed his pseudonynm to “Bhima” and wrote a Spiritualist Manual in which he discussed politics purely as a product of morality: “There can be no doubt that if all good men were to cast off their egoism and get involved in public affairs, the people would be governed wisely and the most worthy and virtuous men would be those occupying the highest posts”.

In 1913, President Madero was overthrown in a military coup in which the American ambassador Henry Lane Wilson had a crucial role. While being taken to jail, he was assassinated. An unconfirmed legend says that when he left the Presidential Palace, Madero was carrying his “Commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita.” 

Madero is known in Mexican history as “ the apostle of democracy” who put an end to the long dictatorship of President Porfirio Dias from 1877 to 1911.  When Madero stood in the 1910 elections against Diaz, he was arrested and put in jail. Madero escaped from the prison to US and lead a succcessful uprising against the fraudulent election of Diaz who was forced to resign in May 2011.  Madero won the October 2011 election and became the youngest president, at the age of 38. 

Madero was an unusual politician. Born in one of the five wealthiest families, he got education from US and France. He had studied courses in agriculture and in business management. He was a benign and enlightened landlord, businessman and philonthrophist. He was the first Mexican President to legalize labour unions and the right to strikes. He took to spiritualism and heard the voices including those of his dead brother. He was a vegetarian and teetotaler. He practised homeopathy.

This Mexican connection to Mahabharat is brought out in the book “ Mexico: Biography of power” written by the Mexican scholar Enrique Krauze. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

Searching for Modern Mexico - book

The title of the book is "Searching for Modern Mexico: Dispatches from the front lines of the new global economy", written by Nathaniel Parish Flannery

Flannery gives a first hand account of three Mexican states Chiapas, Oaxaca and Michoacan which are marginalized in the globalized economy of the country. He has stayed in these states and observed the economies of coffee in Chiapas, mezcal in Oaxaca and avocados in Michoacan. 

The indigenous people, who account for over one fifth of the total population Mexico, continue to suffer from poverty, backwardness and inequality. This is the main problem in Chiapas and Oaxaca, which have the second and third largest indigenous population. 

One should, of course, give credit to the government’s conditional cash transfer programme “prospera” which provides real relief to many poor families. Mexico was, in fact, a pioneer in Latin America, with the conditional cash transfer program started in 1997, much before the famous Bolsa Familia scheme started by President Lula in 2003.

Tancitaro in Michoacan, is the avocado capital of the world, exporting a million dollars of avocado to US every day. Obviously, the cartels want a share of this revenue and attack the growers and the business owners. The Federal, state and municipal police have not been able to provide safety to the avocado growers or the citizens. So, the avocado growers have  organized their own militias who have managed to beat the cartels and keep them away. 

To protect themselves from the cartels, the Tancitaro militias have acquired arms which are as powerful as the military grade weapons of the cartels. The author has omitted to mention that these arms have been smuggled into Mexico from US where the gun shops in the border states do a roaring business of arms sales. The US, which publicizes the Mexican drug trafficking, does nothing to stop the trafficking of guns which kill more Mexicans than the drugs kill Americans.

Flannery has highlighted the following challenges for modernization: monopolies existing in different sectors (examples:Telecom, banking, beer, bread, and TV) keep prices high while at the same time preventing competition from new entrants into the business; the teachers union which is fighting a fierce battle to keep up its corrupt system of ghost teachers and poor teaching practices and evaluation; the cartels which hold the whole country to ransom by its brutal criminal violence.

The book is one more useful source to understand Mexico which is in the process of modernization, struggling against the traditional and new challenges. Instead of a macro approach, the author has chosen to tell the stories of people at the bottom selling tacos and beer and growing coffee and avocados. Flannery, an expert on Mexico and Latin America, has written many articles and books. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Macondo to MacOndo

Macondo stands for Magical Realism genre of the Boom writers such as Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar and Carlos Fuentes. These titans dominated the Latin American literary world in the last century. But in the post-Boom period, there is a new crop of writers who have embraced a neorealistic style of portrayal of the Latin American culture. These writers are said to be part of the MacOndo movement in the new era of MacDonalds globalisation.

Rio Fugitivo is the name of the fictional Bolivian town in Soldano's stories just as Macondo was in Marquez's novels.
In his blog, also titled as Rio Fugitivo, Soldano introduces himself saying, " I was born in the same country and year (1967) in which Che Guevara died". 

Edmundo Paz Soldan, the Bolivian writer, is a prominent name in the MacOndo genre. After having read “Turing’s Delirium”, I have just finished reading another one “ The Matter of Desire”. I found this one even more interesting and delightful than the first one.

The Matter of Desire is the story of Pedro from Bolivia, whose father, a revolutionary dies while fighting against the dictatorship. Pedro follows in his father’s footsteps to study in Berkeley and tries to decipher the coded messages in his father’s book titled Berkeley. After graduating in political science, Pedro teaches in a university in New York where he falls in love with Ashley an American student.
Soldan has produced a thrilling story, combining the political reality of Bolivia and the academic culture in the university campus of US in an insightful way.
Soldan studied in Berkeley and is teaching Latin American Literature at Cornell University since 1997
I am going to look for more books of Soldan, for sure…

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Turing’s Delirium – Bolivian novel

Turing’s Delirium by Edmundo Paz Soldan, a Bolivian author, is the story of a cryptographer Miguel Saenz, nicknamed Turing. The inspiration is Alan Turing, the famous British crypto analyst and mathematician. Miguel works for the Bolivian government secret service. He has taken to cryptography inspired by his girl friend Ruth who was a child prodigy in mathematics and codes. After marriage, she gets a job for Miguel in the intelligence department of the Interior Ministry which intercepts communications of opposition political parties and dissident groups. She teaches crypto analysis in the university. The couple live and breathe cryptography seeing secrets behind words, numbers and patterns even in the simple and mundane things of daily life. Everything is a symbol, a metaphor, enigma or a code, inviting to be deciphered. Eventually they become enigmas to themselves overtaken by a delirium of their obsession. Miguel is totally lost in the labyrinth of codes that he does not realize the consequences of his work which is used and misused by the intelligence agency to eliminate dissident intellectuals and student rebels. The couple’s rebellious teenage daughter Flavia is into hacking and follows the hackers’s world in online chat rooms and games played with various avatars.

The story is absorbing with lots of twists and turns with some unforgettable characters. There are elaborate descriptions of the techniques, events and history of communication codes especially during the world wars. 

Soldan gives a vivid portrayal of Bolivia which is one of the most politically volatile countries in Latin America with numerous military coups and dictatorship. The corrupt oligarchic governments had privatised utility services and let foreign multinational companies to make huge profit margins, as part of the neoliberalistic policies. The indigenous poor and the urban middle class rose against the political oppression and economic misery. The farmers protested against eradication of coca leaf farms. The millennials of the digital age joined the protests by hacking and attacking the sites of the governments and corporations. In Soldano’s words,” In Bolivia one faces problems that are premodern, modern and postmodern”.

The theme of the novel is a familiar one. It is yet another Latin American story of dictatorship, oppression and revolt. But for me, this is the first Bolivian novel and this is my introduction to Soldan, the Bolivian author. Soldan teaches Latin American literature in Cornell University, US. He belongs to the new generation of post-Boom Macondo writers who are part of the MacOndo movement. He has written more than a dozen novels and short story collections. Rio Fugitivo is the fictional Bolivian town in his novels, like Macondo in the novels of Garcia Marquez.

In the story, Miguel’s old boss Alberto turns out to be originally a German cryptologist, captured and used by CIA before being sent to Bolivia. His new boss Ramirez-Graham had worked in the NSA in US. The reality of today’s Bolivia trumps this fiction. Erick Foronda, who had worked as consultant to the US embassy in Bolivia for 25 years as a CIA agent, is now the private secretary to the interim President of Bolivia Jeanine Áñez. He was in Washington DC during the first two years of Trumps' presidency. It is alleged that he was part of the internal and external conspiracy which has overthrown the leftist President Evo Morales and has brought back to power a right wing pro-US oligarchic regime. Morales made history by becoming the first native Indian to be elected as president in South America in 2006. Till then, the native Indians who form sixty percent of the population, were kept marginalized and poor in the last five hundred years by the oligarchic regimes of European origin. The American ambassador had campaigned against Morales in Bolivian presidential elections in 2005. President Morales expelled the US ambassador and DEA in 2008 accusing them of conspiring to destabilize his government. He also recalled the Bolivian ambassador to US. There were no ambassadors for eleven years. It is only in 2020 that the two countries have appointed ambassadors. And it is back to business as usual, as in the bad old days. 

In the Latin American world of Magical Realism, the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred. Bolivia is back to the bad old days of Turing’s Delirium.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Diplomats, Presidents and Revolutionaries of Latin American literature

I have just finished reading the book “ Modern Latin American Literature – A very short introduction” by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, a formidable scholar with encyclopaedic knowledge of the writers of the region

What fascinates me is the link of Latin American literature with diplomacy and politics. Some of the poets and writers were honoured with postings as diplomats by the Latin American governments. A few got elected as Presidents while many suffered death, imprisonment, torture and exile. Not surprisingly, dictators, caudillos, disappearances, violence, exile, and suffering were the dominant themes in the poems and novels.


Pablo Neruda was Chilean Consul in Rangoon, Barcelona and Madrid, Consul General in Mexico City and Ambassador in Paris. Gabriela Mistral, another Chilean poet, was appointed as Consul in Naples, Madrid and Lisbon. 

Octavio Paz was a junior diplomat in Paris and Delhi and later posted as ambassador in India. Carlos Fuentes, son of a Mexican diplomat, was ambassador to France. 

Miguel Angel Asturias, the Guatemalan writer, who was the first Latin American novelist to win the Nobel prize in 1967, was ambassador in Paris. 

Ruben Dario, the Nicaraguan poet and hailed as the Father of Modernismo in Latin American literature, was ambassador in Paris. Interestingly he was a kind of honorary consul of Colombia in Buenos Aires for some time.

Vinicius de Moraes, the Brazilian poet famous for the international hit song " The girl from Ipanema" was a career diplomat of Brazil. His postings include Los Angeles, Paris and Rome. 

Jorge Carrera Andrade, the Ecuadorian poet, was a diplomat. He served as Ecuadorian Consul in Peru, France, Japan and US. Later he became Ambassador to Venezuela, UK, Nicaragua, France, Belgium and Netherlands. 

Besides these, there have been some other lesser known poets and writers who got diplomatic postings.

Romulo Gallegos (1884-1969), the Venezuelan author of the famous novel “Dona Barbara”, was forced into exile in US and Mexico by the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez. Later he came back and got elected as the President of Venezuela in 1948. But he was deposed within a year by a military coup which forced him into exile again.

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Bartolome Mitre, the Argentine writers were elected as Presidents in the second half of the nineteenth century. Both had suffered exile and had to live in the neighbouring countries for some years. 

Daniel Ortega, the poet who wrote the famous poem “I Never Saw Managua When Miniskirts Were in Fashion”, when he was a political prisoner at the young age of 23 is the current President of Nicaragua.  While in jail, he received visits from Rosario Murillo, a poet. The prisoner and visitor fell in love; Murillo became Ortega's wife. She has published several books of poems. One of them is called as ¨Amar es combatir ¨- to love is to combat. Many members of the Sandinista government were poets and writers. Ernesto Cardinal, the poet priest who was a Sandinista revolutionary wrote, “the triumph of the revolution is the triumph of poetry”. But the Ortega power couple are now strangulating freedom of expression with their family dictatorship.
Mario Vargas Llosa ran in the Peruvian Presidential elections but got defeated by Fujimori.  Huidobro ran for presidency of Chile but did not make it.


The Latin American literature has been shaped by the politics of the individual countries, the region and the world. The major political events which influenced the writers were: Independence of Latin American countries in the 1820s, The Soviet revolution in 1917, Spanish civil war (1936-39), Cuban revolution (1959), Sandinista revolution (1979) and the right wing military dictatorships of the sixties and seventies. Many writers were Leftists and Communists while a few became critics of Communism and Castro and Ortega authoritarianism. It is a pity that Luis Borges of Argentina, one of the greatest writers, missed the Nobel prize because of his right wing sympathies.
Because of exile, many writers  worked from outside their home countries in places like Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Buenos Aires and Mexico City. Havana was the hub of Latin American literature after the Cuban revolution. Casa de las Americas of Havana brought together Latin American writers, held symposia and gave literary prizes. But later when the Castro regime became a dictatorship allied with Soviet Union, Havana lost its appeal. Many Cuban writers fled into exile.

Many Latin American writers along with those from Europe and North America took part  in the Spanish civil war supporting the republicans against the fascist dictator Franco. 
Pablo Neruda, the leading poet of twentieth century Latin America, organized a congress of antifascist intellectuals in Spain in 1937 and wrote a book of political poems “Espana en el Corazon”. This was read even in the in the battlefronts of Republicans during the war. It was called as a poet's war, since there were so many poets from Spain and other countries participating in the war. In 1939, as consul in Paris Neruda helped repatriation of thousands of Spanish refugees by ship to Chile. In 1944, he was elected as Senator and the next year joined the Communist Party. He was a roving cultural ambassador for the communist party.  He wrote Cancion de Gesta in praise of the Cuban revolution. But later he had conflicts with the Castro regime.

The Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen (1902-89) wrote political poetry and participated in the Spanish Civil war and was a communist. He joined the Castro government and served as president of the Writers Union.

Paz had Marxist leanings and joined the Spanish civil war. But later he broke with the Mexican Left after the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. He remained as a critic of Communism for the rest of his life. He resigned his ambassadorship in India to protest against the Mexican government’s killing of student agitators in 1968.
Jose Marti (1853-95), the Cuban poet, lead the war of independence of Cuba. From New York, he mobilised Cuban exiles and lead an armed liberation group into eastern Cuba in 1895. He died as a martyr felled by the bullets of Spanish at the age of 42 . Marti has since then become the icon for Cuban and Latin American revolutionaries.

Miguel Angel Asturias, the Guatemalan author wrote about the dictatorship of Estrada Cabrera in his novel “ El senor President”. He was stripped of Guatemalan citizenship and forced into exile during rightwing dictatorships. Roa Bastos’s novel "Yo el supremo” (I, the supreme) was about Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship of Paragauay. Bastos spent his years of exile in Buenos Aires and Paris. 

Isabel Allende and Julia Alvarez have written several poignant novels on the dictatorship of Pinochet and Trujillo.

Twenty first century

The region has become free from military dictatorships in the new century and there have been no major revolutions and wars. After the collapse of Berlin Wall and the mutation of Cuban and Sandinista revolutions into authoritarianism, Communism has lost its appeal. 

The region has not yet produced any literary titans in this century, after having captivated the world with its unique Magical Realism in the sixties with celebrity writers of the “Boom” such as Luis Borges, Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. 

Some new writers of this century have rebelled against the Macondo old guards with their own  counter movement of MacOndo, in the era of MacDonald culture of globalization of the region. Other groups such as Nueva Onda (new wave) and Crack reject the exoticism of Garcia Marquez. These young writers are less concerned with a cultural identity and are more preoccupied with individual identity. 


Shimone Jaini, a young Indian researcher has written a thesis La Encrucijada: Where Literature and Politics meet in Latin America. A short version of this is in this link

Abhay Kumar, an Indian diplomat-poet's article on poet diplomats

Abhay Kumar has written a book " The alphabet of Latin America- a carnival of poems". The book, to be launched in the second half of 2020, contains poems on Latin American cities, culture, writers and history.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Bolivar: The epic life of the man who liberated South America – book by Marie Arana

This is the second biographical book I have read on Simon Bolivar, my Latin American hero. Marie Arana, an American author of Peruvian origin, has made the biography more as an interesting story with her skills as writer of novels. It is different from the biographies written by historians. Arana’s portrayal of the real life of Bolivar in a magical way fits in with the tradition of Magical Realism of Latin America. The colourful and eventful life of Bolivar has come out vividly in the literary style of Arana. 

The book starts with the arrival of Bolivar on the afternoon of 10 August 1819, after having spent thirty six days of traversing the flooded plains of Venezuela, six days marching over the vertiginous snows of the Andes and after crossing the icy pass at thirteen thousand feet at Paramo de Pisba. In this risky and most arduous journey, he had lost a third of his troops to frost and starvation. Bolivar had shown extraordinary stamina to withstand hunger, sleep deprivation and suffering in the battlefield. He had traversed 75000 miles of hard terrain during all his campaigns with his legendary capacity for endurance. He was called as Iron Ass for his capacity to withstand long horse rides. He had suffered defeats, betrayals and setbacks many times in his military and political ventures. There were many attempts on his life. But he managed to bounce back with strong determination, inimitable courage and strong resilience of spirit.

Bolivar had a personal magnetism around him and aroused his troops with inspiring oratory and made them follow him blindly. Besides showing courage in leading his troops in battles he was equally comfortable in ball rooms as a dancer and spirited conversationalist quoting Rousseau in French and Julius Caesar in Latin.

He had single handedly conceived, organized and lead the liberation of five (Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador  and Bolivia) South American nations.  He dreamed of  a united Latin America based on democracy, development and justice. But his vision was far ahead of his times and was not shared by others.
Despite coming from a rich family with assets and after having become the president of the five countries he had liberated, he died as  a pauper. He did not have the money even to buy a passage by ship to Europe or proper medical treatment and recovery.

Bolivar was a hero of convictions and high moral principles. He gave speeches, drafted documents and  wrote letters in a fiery, lyrical and moving way. At the same time, he was a man of contradictions with serious flaws. He was dictatorial, impulsive, ruthless and a womanizer.  His talent as a brilliant war-time commander was not useful to build democracy during peace time.

In the end, Bolivar died as a frustrated, betrayed, disappointed, disgruntled and sick man disowned and unwanted by the countries he had liberated. During the end of his life, he made bitter statements such as “America is ungovernable”, “He who serves a revolution ploughs the sea”. 

Eventually Bolivar was forced into exile, the eternal theme in real life and the literature of Latin America whose history is filled with the exile of many presidents, poets and revolutionaries. 

Many years after his unceremonious death in a remote corner of Colombia, he was reinstated by Venezuelan presidents as an icon and glorified as Liberator. Chavez immortalized Bolivar by renaming the country as Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. He tried to imitate Bolivar with his own brand of Twenty First  Century Socialism and made a mess of Venezuela pushing the country from democracy to dictatorship and from prosperity to poverty.

Besides Bolivar, the colourful character of Manuela Saenz has also come out well in the book. Manuelita deserves the title “ La Libertadora del Libertador” with her audacious bravery and uncompromising commitment and unconditional love to Bolivar. She had inspired Bolivar when he was depressed and saved him from an assassination  attempt. She added more colour to the life of Bolivar with her boisterous parties, wearing of military uniform and uncommon courage while standing up to her critics. When she heard about the death of Bolivar, she said, “ I loved the Liberator when he was alive. Now that he is dead, I worship him”
Arana’s book is a useful addition to understanding Bolivar and Latin America.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

"The Alphabets of Latin America - a carnival of poems" - by Abhay Kumar

Abhay, the poet diplomat, has published a book of 108 poems with Latin American themes in an alphabetic way..

A for Amazon, B for Bahia, C for Caipirinha...
T for Tango Y for Yemanja and Z for Zocalo

Here is the blurb I wrote for his book

"Abhay K. is India’s counterpart to Octavio Paz, the Mexican diplomat- writer whose poems on Indian cities, monuments, gods and culture introduced India to the Latin Americans. Abhay gives a poetic perspective of the vibrant Latin American spirit, their colorful culture, magical realism of the writers and motivates Indians with ‘Oh, do not say no...Let’s go to Rio’."

During his posting in Brasilia, he travelled extensively in Brazil and Latin America to have a feel of the region, meet poets and writers, participate in Book Fairs and recite his poems in various cities . He used to organise a monthly meeting " Cha com Letras - tea with literature" with Brazilian writers in the embassy. 

The book has been published by Bloomsbury India

Here are some of his poems and excerpts


Looking for Borges
I came to Argentina I found him nowhere

I searched all the libraries and cafes
all the labyrinthine streets of Buenos Aires he was not even at La Recoleta

I found merely a mirror and a face staring
at me in disbelief

it’s hard to believe everyone told me
Borges lived in Argentina


Brasilia is the last utopia Brasilia is Sylvia Plath’s dystopia Brasilia is a landscape ectopia
Brasilia is an oasis of migratory birds Brasilia is an oracle’s prophetic words Brasilia is a page from Harry Potter
Brasilia is a shifting mirage in the desert Brasilia is a vision gone pale, blurred Brasilia is a nail yet to be hammered.


I asked a bartender in Brasilia for a drink she said nothing, just offered me a caipirinha
I drank it happily and asked—what is it? She said—Brazil is body, caipirinha—its soul
Drink whiskey when in Scotland, rum in
the Caribbean, when in Brazil drink caipirinha

Curious, I asked—how is this magic potion made? Her face blossomed like a sunflower, and she said—
pour cachaca of your choice, squeeze— a lemon, mix it with crushed sugar and ice. ‘And love?’
She smiled,put a gentle kiss on my cheeks and said—a great drink must have in it—love distilled.

Eduardo Galeano

A Letter to Eduardo Galeano Dear Eduardo,
The open veins of Latin America
have been cut open wider
since your departure,
new veins are being cut open every day,
the number of workers in the vein opening industry has multiplied,

unemployment rate has significantly dropped,
inflation has also come down,
isn’t it development? What else would you call development? There are new vampires on the horizon with globalization, their hunger for blood and wealth has exponentially grown Amazon has many veins. Amazon is burning.
It will open many veins instantaneously.

Hope you’re well and not turning in your grave. Please do not. There is hardly anyone left who can fix damaged graves these days.
Everyone is employed in the vein opening industry. Therefore, please rest in peace.
Yours sincerely, The Poet

Jorge Amado

I saw the captains of sands
in Salvador, Bahia of all the saint,

kicking football
on the Porto da Barra beach

I asked them if they knew Jorge Amado, the writer
– they asked me – ‘Jorge who?’ I said loudly – Jorge Amado
they looked at the football and kicked it hard,
it fell in Amado’s house
there I found an old typewriter

which bore his fingerprints, his colourful shirts
smelling of sea, women, cinnamon and clove,
on the wall
Marx, Lenin, Ganesha,

a Maithuna couple, dancing to the sound
of Condomble rituals, books waiting to be opened.

Victoria Ocampo

An ailing poet, sheltered in her home, her heart
she—his Vijaya, his poetry, his life
Victoria and Tagore,
two souls dancing in ecstasy

as Purabi blows incessantly between India and Argentina.

Friday, February 21, 2020

A long petal of the sea – novel by Isabel Allende

This latest novel by Isabel Allende is about dictatorship, persecution and exile, familiar themes in her novels. This story starts with the civil war in Spain and the Franco dictatorship which cause death, destruction and exodus of people. Roser and Victor from the Dalmau family from Spain escape first to France and then to Chile. They are nostalgic about their home in Catalonia while trying to establish roots in Chile. But their misfortune follows to Chile which falls under Pinochet dictatorship. The Chilean regime detains and tortures Victor for his leftist sympathies. Roser manages to get Victor released with the help of Venezuelan embassy and takes him to Venezuela. But in Venezuela they miss their home in Chile. Eventually they return to Chile when democracy is restored after Pinochet loses the plebiscite in 1990. 

I was curious and puzzled about the scale and intensity of inhuman tortures and killings by the Pinochet’s military goons against their own people who were also white Christians like the rulers. It seems that it is in their Spanish blood. Franco was much more ruthless in Spain in killing, torturing and persecuting the leftists. Pinochet and other Latino dictators looks like a pale imitation in comparison to the monstrous atrocities of Franco.

Isabel Allende has weaved into the story themes of love, survival, relationship, valour, ideologies, sacrifice and old age through the many characters and their experience from  Catalonia, Spain, France, Germany and Chile who are caught in the deadly battle between fascism and socialism. Allende has brought out the conviction and courage of so many foreigners from US, Europe and Latin America who fought for Republicans in Spain voluntarily and sacrificed their lives for the cause of freedom and democracy. 

The title of the novel “ A long petal of the sea” is from one of the poems of Neruda which describes Chile. Allende has quoted Neruda’s poems in the covers of each chapter. The novel is based on the real life story of Neruda’s rescue of thousands of Spaniards through ships organized by him from France to Chile. He did it much against the resistance from right wing elements in the government and in the Chilean embassy in Paris where he was posted at the time of the Spanish civil war. Neruda had personally interviewed and selected those for rescue. The government wanted only those with skills for which there was shortage in Chile and did not want writers, artists, communists and other potential trouble makers. But Neruda managed to include some of those such as Victor and Roser.

Of course, Neruda, who was a communist, himself had to flee the Chilean dictatorship in 1948 seeking refuge in Argentina. There is suspicion that his death in 1973 was actually a  murder by Pinochet dictatorship.

Dictatorship, persecution and exile are the dominant themes in the novels and poems of many Latin American writers who were also among the victims. Isabel Allende herself suffered exile from Chile to Venezuela from where she emigrated to US. 

The themes which influenced Allende’s novel are replaying now in Latin America but in reverse. In the past, Venezuela had provided asylum to many Latin American political exiles and economic immigrants. But now, over three million Venezuelans have taken asylum in the other Latin American countries including Chile to escape the Chavista dictatorship and economic misery in Venezuela. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Mayor, it is a sin not to have fun in Carnival

The annual carnival in Rio de Janeiro starts on 21 February and thousands of Samba dancers are already practicing their dance steps feverishly to the specially composed theme songs for this year. Besides the official parade at the purpose-built Sambadrome starts, there are the usual street parties which have already got the Cariocas (residents of Rio city) getting into the mode of celebration with beer and caipirinha. 

But there is one important dignitary of the city who not only refuses to join the party but is also opposed to the joyful carnival activities. It is the Mayor of Rio City Marcelo Crivella. 

Yes.. The Mayor of the city which gets over a billion dollars of income from the Carnival tourism season every year. During his term as Mayor in the last four years, Crivella never attended the Sambadrome’s parade. He has refused to participate in the traditional ceremony in which the Mayor hands over key of the city to King Momo of Carnival. He has cut the traditional city budget for samba schools. He is putting out all kinds of bureaucratic obstacles to make the life of samba schools and associations which hold carnival parades more difficult.

The reason for Crivella’s antipathy to Carnival is the fact that he is a “holy” evangelical priest of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God who considers Carnival as “unholy”. He prefers his own evangelical song, “I am crazy for Jesus”. He organized on 15 February a mega evangelical event in the city to show the strength of his supporters vis-à-vis, the samba revelers. He even got President Bolsonaro, a supporter of evangelicals, to address the event. In May 2016, Bolsonaro was baptized in the Jordan River in Israel by Pastor Everaldo, a prominent leader of the Assembly of God. Bolsonaro has promised to take the country to “Jewish-Christian tradition” and place “God above all”. 

Crivella’s position is not an isolated case. It is a reflection of the change being done to Brazilian culture by the Evangelicals who have converted almost one fourth of the population of Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world. The entrepreneurial evangelical bishops  have succeeded in marketing their Prosperity Theology. In return for the divine help, the followers are made to contribute (tithe) a part of their income to the Industry of Faith of the pastors some of whom have become multimillionaires and charismatic pop-stars. Edir Macedo, the uncle of Crivella is the richest pastor with a wealth of more than a billion dollars and private jet costing 45 million dollars. His Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has over five million members and 13,000 temples across Brazil, as well as presence in several other countries, including the United States. This church owns the second-largest TV station in Brazil, Rede Record, as well as newspapers and radio stations across 27 states. Macedo has been accused of money laundering and other illegal activities for which he spent a few days in jail. The Evangelicals use the entertainment industry to spread their message across Brazil. There are 128 Evangelical record labels and more than 600 radio stations dedicated exclusively to gospel programming.

These evangelical churches are politically active and advise their members to vote for evangelical candidates and sympathisers with the slogan “Brother votes for Brother”. The Biblical caucus in the Congress is said to be near 200 (out of the total of 513) proactive on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

It is important to note that Catholic priests in poverty stricken areas had worked for the poor and against the oppression of the military dictatorship during the days of  “Liberation theology” in the past. In contrast, Bolsonaro, the patron of evangelicals and their “Prosperity Theology” praises the military dictatorship and is cutting the budget for the welfare of the poor. 

So the Samba schools are counter attacking the evangelical mayor and the pro-evangelical president with their critical theme songs and floats. 

                   the write up of the float says “Mayor, it’s a sin not to to have fun in Carnival'

The Mangueira Samba school  is going to have a float of Favela (slum) Jesus with a black face, Indian blood and the body of a woman and the son of an unemployed carpenter and Mary of Sorrows Brazil. The song says “Favela, get the vision/ There’s no future without sharing/ And no Messiah with a gun in his hand,” an allusion to President Jair Bolsonaro’s promises of loosening gun control legislation and of reducing punishment for police who kill suspected criminals. Bolsonaro’s middle name is Messias.

The poor people of favelas and poor Jesus are thus caught in the cultural clash between Carnival loving Cariocas and the Carnival hating Evangelical priests. While Carnival helps the poor to forget their miseries temporarily and celebrate life for a few weeks during the parades, the Evangelical Church promises entry to paradise for their followers. 

During my recent visit to Brazil, I saw for myself the cultural changes. Some taxi drivers have stopped listening to samba music and instead play evangelical music. Many of them voted for Bolsonaro and told me that they would vote again for him. They did not see any future for Lula nor did they share my admiration for Lula. A young Brazilian girl, sitting next to me in the flight from Sao Paulo to Curitiba shocked me when she told me that she has chosen to be a religious worker and was not interested in any career in IT or business. 

So watch out Galera… The Triple C spirit (Copacabana, Caipirinha and Carnival) which defined the cheerful and colourful Cariocas are in for changes…

The Cariocas are caught between the Carnival lovers who say it is sin not to have fun and the evangelicals who consider fun as sin

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Smoking Snake of Brazil

Smoking snake.. Sounds funny? It was the emblem used by the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (Fuerza Expedicionaria de Brazil-FEB) which participated in the liberation of Italy in the Second World War.

When he heard that Brazil was joining the Allies in the war, Hitler had made a contemptuous remark “ If snakes could smoke, Brazilians wouldl also fight in the battlefield”. In response to this insulting taunt, the FEB decided to use the smoking snake as their emblem.

The Brazilian snake had managed to smoke out Germans in the battlefield in Italy, as a revenge against Hitler’s insulting remark. The FEB defeated and captured as prisoners of war a large contingent of 20573 German soldiers and Italian Fascists including 2 Generals, 892 officers, 5000 vehicles and 4000 horses. This is extraordinary since the Brazilian contingent itself was almost equivalent to the number captured as prisoners. 

I found this and some other interesting information from reading the book, “The campaign of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force for the liberation of Italy” written by my Brazilian amigo Durval de Noronha Goyos Jr, head of the law firm Noronha Advogados. 

Noronha is a prolific writer, besides running law offices in UK, US, Argentina and China, besides the major cities in Brazil. He has written dozens of books and hundreds of articles on international law and related issues. He is at present the President of the Brazilian Writers Union. He has given many lectures around the world including in India.

Here are some highlights from his book

-In the beginning of World War II, the Brazilian government kept up relations with both sides and tried to take advantage from Germany as well as US which were the largest trading partners of Brazil at that time. In 1935, Brazil had signed preferential trade agreements with both partners. 

-Brazil sourced military hardware from Germany and some from Italy, when US refused to supply weapons to Brazil. Later, under the US’s Lend Lease Agreement, Brazil got 200 million dollars of arms and ammunition.

- In 1937 Getulio Vargas did a coup, dissolved Congress, closed political parties and established a New State (Novo Estado) with a new constituition drafted by his Fascist advisors. The Novo Estado put the rights of the society as paramount. The individuals had only duties and no rights. The only differences with the German and Italian Fascism were that (a) the Brazilian dictator did not have political parties like the Nazi and Fascist parties of Germany and Italy and (b) Brazil did not pursue racist policies. Vargas had in fact banned  the Brazilian Fascist party Acao Integralista. But the party tried in 1938 a counter coup which was suppressed successfully. The leaders of the party escaped to Italy with the help of the Italian ambassador.

- Hitler and Mussolini liked the fascist regime of Brazil which had large numbers of Germans( about 800,000) and Italian immigrants ( about 4 million). At that time there were about 400 Italian schools  and over 1000 German schools in Brazil. Sao Paulo state alone had 360 Italian newspapers. The German and Italian governments started to influence their communities in Brazil with propaganda and material help. 

-Brazil had a large Japanese population of around 650,000 in 1940. Between 1924 and 1941 about 130,000 Japanese had immigrated to Brazil under a governmental agreement. The recruitment of the immigrants was done by a Japanese state company Kaigai Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha (KKKK). The Brazilian government closed Japanese newspapers and banned public use of the language during the war.

- The German government dreamed of an Antarctic Germany through separation of the three southern states of Brazil, where the German descendants had settled. Hitler had eyes on Brazil and had said,” we shall build a New Germany in Brazil”. He had contempt for the “absurd South American democracies ruled by mestizos”. 

- After seeing the possibility of danger from immigrants supported by Nazi Germany, the Vargas government banned public use of foreign languages, closed down all foreign newspapers and nationalized the schools. 

-The Brazilian government put under detention about 5000 descendants of Axis powers out of their total population of about 6 million. This is much small compared to the 110,000 descendants of Axis powers detained by US which had put pressure on Brazil to do the same. But the Brazilian government resisted it.

-After the war broke out, Vargas broke relations with the Axis powers and joined the Allies. - During the war, Brazil could not use its four submarines since they were made in Italy and faced the danger of being mistaken as submarines of Italy. Thirty four Brazilian warships and merchant vessels were sunk by German and Italian submarines.The Brazilian navy managed to sink 9 German U Boats.

FEB, created in August 1943 and sent to Italy, consisted of 25334 persons including 20 women who were nurses. FEB suffered death of 467 and around 2700 wounded.

- FEB was racially integrated unlike the US forces which were segregated according to races. The black US soldiers were excluded from honour guards and were given inferior equipments. The Afro-American newspaper of Baltimore published a photo of the racially integrated Brazilian contingent with the headline “Blacks and whites fight together for Brazil, why not for the US?”.

Noronha's book has a detailed account of the evolution of fascism in Europe and in Brazil and the similarities and contrasts between the continental and tropical varieties.