Xenophobia and religious intolerance

It’s not only UKIP. In Greece, France, Spain, Australia and elsewhere, a hardening of opinion against immigrants, of whatever hue, and people who are in some way ‘other’ is taking place and fills the airwaves and the print media with the unpleasant stench of scapegoating. I’m not writing about the UK or the Anglo-Saxon countries. Or about Europe and the legacy of the first and second World Wars. I’m writing about India. Strange how many of the issues seem – as I read the media’s screeching – to be remarkably similar to the fictional universe I’m inhabiting in my mind as I write. Here’s a small sample. Comments are very welcome, by the way:

From Chapter 32:
‘There was a curfew; those who violated it, well…we were not the troublemakers. But people came out in self-defence: shops, houses, temples… Jhiski lathi, usiki bhains, brother. The one with the biggest stick will get the buffalo. We have to show our strength.’ The pandit rubbed his bald head. ‘What brings you here from Delhi?’
‘Cousin, I came from Ahmedabad.’
‘Is that so?’ The head rubbing grew fiercer. Vijay wondered if it was why his cousin’s pate shone like a copper pan.
‘I was trapped in a hotel by the riots. The place was full of injured victims, like a hospital. No good at all. I would not have been there except that I was following a tip-off about an ancient artefact, probably stolen. Now I am on my way to talk to its rightful owner, the Maharawal of Jaisalmer.’
The pandit looked impressed. ‘Stolen?’ he said.’The Maharawal?’ Vijay glanced at the rubbing hands. Could they go faster?
‘Some Britisher, thinking to take it as a trophy.’
The fingers went wild, moving down to the ears as well as across the scalp.
‘Haven’t they pillaged enough? They’re like mosquitoes after blood…’ The pandit began to rub his arms as well, and then to scratch. Vijay reached up and pressed his broad thumb into a large insect that burst against the wall, leaving a smear of red, and smiled.”


Reviews and poems

There must be something about October… It’s been a whole year since I wrote here. However, inspired by my writer friend, the lovely Isha Crowe who blogs at http://ishacrowe.wordpress.com/author/icrowe/ I thought I should start again.

Instead of blogging, or novel writing, for the last year I have been writing reviews, mostly for a great little online magazine or ezine for writers, called Words With Jam. Words With Jam produces a themed issue six times a year covering publishing, writing technique, fiction and poetry, and running great competitions as well as reviews. It also has a regular review-based blog at http://www.bookmuse.co.uk. I have reviewed Negotiating With The Dead, a book by Margaret Atwood on the strange beast known as a writer, and what it means to be one; The Bastard Pleasure, a ‘Belfast Noir’ novel by  philosophy prof. Sean McGrady, a short but dense and lyrical read full of violence and questions of identity; Sightlines, a book of essays by poet Kathleen Jamie, about her various journeys in Scotland and further north looking at our relationships with the natural world, and A God In Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie, a novel set in World War I examining the role Indian soldiers played and how their experiences fed into the independence movement. Right now I’m contemplating what my next review should be as I need to produce another by the end of October. It will have to be short – the book, not necessarily the review – as I plan to try once again to tackle National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) again this November – to finish that *&^!!* novel!

This year has been a year for setting goals. Another writerly-readerly related one has been the 50 book pledge (based at a canadian website) in which I have committed to read 50 books this year. That’s almost one a week. Simple! I hear you cry… except not at the pace I read, and not when you have the attention span of a gnat, as is currently the case here. As things stand I’m behind… not way way behind, but behind enough to make it hard to reach my goal unless I read 15 “Mr Men” books in the next 3 months to achieve it. Needless to say, I have already been reading quite a lot of short books – mostly poetry – to hit my target, regardless of what I might otherwise have wanted to read. However, this has had the strange effect of a) making me realise how little poetry I read normally, a situation that will henceforth be rectified; and – and this is even more unexpected – b) inspiring me to start writing more poetry of my own. If only I’d known that before – to write, you need to read. Sounds obvious now.

Well. So I reach October having added around 10 poems I’m quite pleased with to my lifetime tally. More poems in a year than ever before. Possibly more poems in a year (in fact in about 2 months) than I have written before altogether. I’m not claiming they’re good, mind, just that I am more satisfied with them – the little knotty puzzle of putting words together in a pattern that flows and negotiates a single idea with many metaphors – than anything I’ve done previously. I feel as if I’m beginning to crack that thing called poetry that once seemed so mysterious and elusive. I only wish I could say the same about short stories. I would post a couple of poems here, but that would be publishing and would invalidate their appearance anywhere else (I keep hoping).

The third writing-related activity I’ve been involved in this year – one which I gifted to myself as self-development after two years of promising myself – was an Arvon course in August at the beautiful and very isolated Arvon centre in Devon. Totleigh Barton is an ancient farmhouse (16th Century) and barn with martins nesting in the eves and broad oak-strewn meadows all around. This is the second time I’ve been to a course there, and the place continues to inspire, as do the other course students who attend – this time a wonderful international group who worked brilliantly together – and the teachers. We were lucky to have Clare Allan, author of Poppy Shakespeare, and Tash Aw, author of Five Star Billionaire, to teach us, both of whom were complete stars and hugely inspiring and encouraging. We spent a lot of time laughing as well as writing. I would recommend an Arvon course to anyone.

The flower of the pomegranate tree

A quick word about my pen-name.

Anarkali means pomegranate flower, a beautiful pom-pom-like delicate deep orange blossom on a graceful tree. Pomegranates have featured in the myths and legends of every culture, very often symbolising fertility. Anarkali was also the name of a probably fictional dancing slave girl, immortalised in the 1960 Indian film Mughal e-Azam as the illicit lover of crown-prince Saleem, later Emperor Jahangir, and a bazaar in Lahore is now named after her.


You probably know the Greek (and Roman) myth of Persephone daughter of Zeus and Demeter (in Roman times their names were Proserpine, Jupiter and Ceres the harvest goddess).  Persephone is abducted by Hades (Pluto) to be his wife and confined to the underworld.  Demeter neglects the earth in her despair, so that it does not grow or produce fruit. Seeing this, Zeus persuades Hades to let Persephone return,  but Hades tricks her into eating just six seeds of the pomegranate, and thus – having symbolically tasted death –  she can only return for half the year, and must spend the other six months in the underworld, creating the seasons of winter and spring.

But this is not the only pomegranate myth. In Judeo-Christian mythology, the pomegranate is sometimes considered to be the ‘apple’ of temptation in Eden, symbol of eternal life as well as forbidden desire. It often appears in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child. To early Hebrews, pomegranates symbolised their faith. It was believed they contained exactly 613 seeds: the number of commandments in the Torah, and pomegranate images were woven into priestly robes and decorated the Temple of Solomon. It is one of the seven sacred plants mentioned in the Bible.

In Islam, pomegranates grow in the gardens of Paradise. They are mentioned in the Qur’an as signs of the goodness and generosity of God and are seen as the symbol of wealth and well-being. Pomegranate as a medicinal food and as a symbolic plant is interwoven in Islamic belief systems. It is said that eating pomegranate cleanses the eater of evil aspirations and that the light of God will be in the heart of whoever eats the fruit. 

Its abundant seeds also represent fertility, and feature in ancient and modern wedding rites  and feast days in countries such as Greece, Iran, China, Armenia and some Arab cultures to signify long life, fecundity and abundance. In ancient Persia pomegranates were believed to bring invincibility in battle.

But the pomegranate is also associated with blood and death. In Buddhism, the pomegranate is one of three sacred fruits, and in legend it was used to persuade a demoness, Hariti, outof her habit of eating children. In Japan, Kishimojin, ‘mother goddess of the demons’, is called upon to cure women of infertility, and represented as suckling a child and holding a pomegranate. In Hindu mythology Kali/Durga’s teeth were said to be like pomegranate flowers (red with blood) after devouring demons. They also appear in funeral rites, including in ancient Egypt.

The pomegranate also appears to ‘bleed’ when cut, associating it with menstruation in many tales. The wife of Orion, in Greek myth, tried to compete with Hera in beauty and was punished, being made to believe she had caused the death of her own children. She threw herself from a rock and the first pomegranate tree grew from the place where her blood spilled on the ground.

So. Death, forbidden love, light, life, blood, fecundity, seduction and temptation. Not much to live up to.


Dilip Kumar and Madhubala as Prince Saleem and Anarkali in K. Asif’s Mughal e-Azam.

ps: I have done my best to check out these myths but take no responsibility for the accuracy of things I may have found out via Google.