AWF18: Why I am a Hindu – Shashi Tharoor

Why I am a Hindu: Shashi Tharoor 

‘In his new and controversial book Why I Am a Hindu, writer, Indian MP and former UN Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor offers a re-examination of one of the world’s oldest and greatest religions…’ In conversation with Michael Field.

AWF18 4 Shashi tharoor

Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black

Piece below, by Emma Johnson

Dr Shashi Tharoor – former UN Under Secretary, MP, writer and intellectual –  arrives at the lectern with no notes and a vast vocabulary. Back home he is a rock star; his fan base includes some 6.7 million followers on Twitter, and we soon understand why. Throughout the course of this sold-out session, he effuses a genteel scholarship.

Why I am a Hindu, he explains, was born out of the moral urgency he felt to write it, given the current climate of India, where Prime Minister Modi and his BJP party are in power. He rejects their reductive, dogmatic and politicised faith (part of the Hindutva movement) and seeks to reclaim the vast, all-encompassing pluralism of Hinduism – to take it back from the bigots who ‘betray the faith in whose name they purport to represent’. This prescriptive, and at times violent, brand of Hinduism is not present, he tell us, in the ancient texts, nor in the words of the mahatmas and gurus.

With a refined ease, an array of verbal accoutrements and ready knowledge of the ancient texts he makes his case. Shashi-ji has been writing about the Hindutva movement, which finds its origins in the 20s, since it reared its ugly head in the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque by a Hindu mob in Ayodhya. Today, Hindutva manifests in a manner similar to the ‘team identity of the British football hooligans’. It is reductive and far removed from the Hinduism that he knows, a Hinduism that is lived and practiced by the majority.

In the first pages of the book, which he reads from, he asks ‘What does being a Hindu mean?’ and examines the term ‘Hindu fundamentalist’. The term first appeared to Hindus when the foreign press used it in the 80s. ‘We needed to interrogate ourselves’ he reads, as ‘we didn’t consider ourselves fundamentalist’. Hinduism has no founder, no central text, no obligatory creed, no compulsory dogma and ‘no binding requirements, not even a belief in god’.

In fact, the word Hindu was a term applied by outsiders (it has no origin in any Indian language) to a vast range of eclectic practices, from pantheism to agnosticism. He takes us back to the Rig Veda, written (or received/heard) circa 1500 BC, and its Creation Verse (Nasadiya Sukta). He quotes its final verse (I have taken a translation from Wikipedia here): ‘Whence all creation had its origin/ he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not/ he, who surveys it all from highest heaven, / he knows – or maybe even he does not know’. He petitions us to consider the spiritual, metaphysical and philosophical tradition that would animate and nurture such an enquiring faith.

But the hooligans fashion things as they like, to political ends. Even his guru, Swami Vivekananda, who brought the Hindu philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world in the late nineteenth century, is not spared. He called on Hindus to be proud, but this was in no way a call to violence. Vivekananda often preached ‘There is only one truth but the sages call it by many names’; he advocated not for tolerance, but acceptance. And Shashi-ji makes this important distinction – acceptance is mutual respect, tolerance is patronising and implies that its bearer has unique access to the truth: ‘I will magnanimously indulge you in your right to be wrong’.

The Hindu, he explains, understands that no one knows what god is. And whether your imagining is an eight-armed goddess on a tiger (Durga) or a man bleeding on cross, that is accepted. Hinduism ‘has no desire to universalise itself, but it is universally applicable’. There is choice in practice, even in the form the formless might take.

Shashi-ji compares Hinduism to a vast library of books that never go out of print – within which are a few that are blood curdling misogynistic, but many more that are not. Religion is giving us a choice, he explains, and what ‘you choose to hang your prejudices on is your responsibility’.

Hinduism – void of absolutism, personal, democratic, unwieldly and alive. Perhaps, as Shashi-ji’s host quips, we should all join up.

Illustrated notes by Tara Black, extended notes by Emma Johnson

Shashi Tharoor will also appear in:

Inglorious Empires, in conversation with Michael Williams 
Saturday, 19 May 2:30pm – 3:30pm
ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre


Book Review: Tasting Stars, by Karen Mills

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Karen Mills grew up in Otara in Auckland in a household of abuse, so she writes from the heart in her first novel dedicated to inspiring young adults to believe they have the power to change their future.

Tasting Stars is the story of thirteen-year-old Rose Ann Dixon a Pakeha growing up in the 1960s in Otara. The eldest in the family of six children Rose tries to protect her siblings from her father’s abuse but she is often his target along with her mother.
Her teacher gifts Rose a gold fountain pen for her thirteenth birthday urging her to “Write me your dreams, Rose”.

After hearing Martin Luther King’s inspiring speech, Rose realizes that every child can have dreams and that what’s more they have a right to expect them to come true.
Rose begins a journey from Otara to Wellington and finally to India, after competing in a speech contest. Sustained by the love and wisdom of a recently deceased aunt and the kindness of her best friend’s family, Rose learns things that give her the strength she needs to save those she loves.

It is a gripping story about family violence with profound understanding and delightful humorous touches best suited for 11-18 years. I found it an easy read but also very moving and sad to think so many children live in similar circumstances. During her trip to India Rose realises, “When I go home I have to stop him. I don’t know how. But I will. I want my brothers and sisters to feel some of what I have felt over the last two weeks”.

Karen Mills left home at the age of fourteen to live with Jim and Kay Tichener, both teachers at her local school, before going on to teach for thirty years in South Auckland. She now volunteers for Destiny Rescue and has included an information page at the rear of the book as well as a website for further research.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Tasting Stars
by Karen Mills
Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473394974


Book Review: The World’s Best Street Food

World's-Best-Street-Food-1-(Mini)-9781760340650The World’s Best Street Food
celebrates the rich and wonderful cultures of the world through the flavours and colours of the food created for the everyday person on the street. Often sold by characters as vibrant as the food, it’s an experience not to be missed when you travel abroad.

You’ve either been recommended to try it, or warned to avoid it – street food stalls either pull people one way or sends them in the opposite direction. But sampling street food can give you lasting memories and a taste of the unique flavours of a city. It’s a chance to put your finger on the pulse of the people living there.

Many street food options have been cooked for centuries, and often have colourful histories. The World’s Best Street Food is essentially a recipe book of street foods from different countries, and each page has a snippet on the recipes’ origins which can be fascinating reading. For example, the Inca marinated raw fish to make ceviche centuries ago, but it was the Spanish Conquistadors who bought the limes to South America to flavour the bona fide ceviche that we know today.

The Malaysian and Singaporean murtabak (spiced lamb stuffed pancake) is believed to be invented in India in the Middle Ages, but was brought to South East Asia by Tamil Muslim traders in the 10th Century. Now you’ll find these tasty treats everywhere in night markets and outdoor food stalls.

The Tasting Notes on each page pitch you headfirst into the steaming, dusty, loud, colourful, zesty environs for where that particular street food is prepared and describes the flavours and how they fit into the experience. You’ll feel like you’re in Peru, the Caribbean, Malaysia, Bahamas, Mexico, Argentina, India, or that place you can’t recall but ate that amazing thing sold by that guy on the corner that blew your tastebuds away.

We tried making mohinga at home, a comforting noodle soup lemongrass, shallots, turmeric and freshwater fish – a national dish of Myanmar. It was less of a success than we’d hoped. The ingredients for the recipes will often need to be sourced from a specialist store – and you’ll be googling ‘substitute for gram flour’ for some of the more obscure ingredients. However this is a great book for the traveler and the creative cook, and if you can find the right ingredients, the results will be more satisfying.

If you’re worried about the safety of eating street food on that next trip to Thailand, the rule is to watch where the locals are eating and go there. They’ll often go there day after day and tend to know whether the food is safe or not. Also, if there are people waiting in line, it’s usually good food. With a copy of The World’s Best Street Food in your pocket, you won’t have to wait in line: impress your friends and make it yourself at home!

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

The World’s Best Street Food – where to find it and how to make it
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781742205939

Book Review: Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga, by Sarah-Kate Lynch

Available in bookstores nationwide.

What happens to women who have devoted themselves to their husbands and children cv_heavenly_hiranis_school_of_laughing_yogawhen those they have built their lives around no longer need them? This is the difficult, emotional question at the heart of Sarah-Kate Lynch’s latest novel Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga.

The answer, at least for our protagonist Annie, comes in a vibrant and unexpected package.

Annie is about to hit rock bottom – and with good reason. She almost never hears from her son Ben and her overindulged daughter Daisy only gets in touch when she wants to make a withdrawal from the bank of mum. Annie’s own gentle and loving mother has just passed away after a short battle with dementia and her husband Hugh has become more like a flatmate than a husband – he’s there but does he actually “see” her anymore? Just as Annie teeters on the brink of despair and depression, the disappearance of her beloved canine companion Bertie tips her over the edge.

When Hugh presents Annie with tickets to accompany him on a work trip to India, she cannot think of anything worse than a holiday in smelly, dirty, crowded, humid Mumbai. She has no intention of venturing past the gates of the hotel and every intention of staying in her air conditioned room ordering from room service. But fate has other plans and through a friendly waiter named Valren she is introduced to Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga.

It’s unlike any Yoga class you have ever heard of: held on the sands of Chowpatty Beach as the sun comes up on the frenetically paced city, the forced laughter exercises soon induce genuine mirth and joy. Despite her myriad of initial misgivings, Annie is drawn back each day to the embrace of this circle of men and women and their kind-hearted leader Heavenly Hirani. It also sparks off a chain reaction within Annie, and as she begins to explore the treasures of Mumbai aided by her devoted, unintentionally comical (and very wise) personal taxi driver Pinto, she learns all manner of things about herself.

This is Sarah-Kate Lynch at her funny, clever and insightful best. At times I wanted to shake her character of Annie as she curled up inside her timid shell, but by the end I wanted to hug her tight for the brave and honest transformation and self-discovery she had gone through, staring down empty nest syndrome and firmly kicking its butt. It’s a story younger women will connect with, perhaps having seen Annie’s dilemmas reflected in their own mums, while older readers will nod their heads sagely and with a wry smile think “yep, been there, done that, lived to tell the tale.”

And no matter what age you are, you’ll be captivated by the crazy, colourful, chaotic city of Mumbai brought vividly to life on the page by Sarah-Kate’s gorgeous descriptions. Like Annie (and the author), I have never had any desire to visit India but all that changed reading this novel – maybe Sarah-Kate needs to start charging the Indian ministry of tourism commission!

Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga is tender, big hearted story about a woman rediscovering herself and her place in the world, infused with all the wit and warmth we have come to know and love Sarah-Kate Lynch for.

Reviewed by Kelly Bold

Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga
by Sarah-Kate Lynch
Published by Black Swan NZ
ISBN 9781775537052