Thursday, September 17, 2015

I donated to Ambai's SPARROW. And Will Do So Again.

C.S. Lakshmi, better known as Ambai in the Tamil literary world, was unwittingly thrust into the eye of an ugly controversy by her bete-noire Jeyamohan. Ambai's name has been besmirched by Jeyamohan in what was patently a slander. A completely avoidable spectacle has unfolded and brought to the fore, yet again, questions that have always dogged Jeyamohan.

The night before Jeyamohan's unfortunate blog was published I was reading Prabanjan's "Mahabharata", a collection of essays on principal characters of the epic. The foreword by actor Sivakumar should be mercilessly torn from the book and discarded. It is disappointing that a writer like Prabanjan needed such a foreword. I read a couple of the essays and particularly the essay titled 'Ambai'. Ambai is a colorful character in Mahabharata which has, itself, no dearth of colorful characters. Jeyamohan's much lauded and popular series 'Venmurasu', his magnum opus, a re-telling or re-creation of Mahabharata, is not my cup of tea. Incidentally the confrontation between Ambai and Bhishma was one of the much talked about episodes in Venmurasu. Prabanjan's character analysis of Ambai was shallow, pedestrian, trite and cliched. As I finished the chapter I wondered "if Jeyamohan had written this chapter it would've been a multi-layered wooly exposition that would've been a tour-de-force". And then I paused. I chuckled to myself thinking how I had become a fan of Jeyamohan, more importantly, a fan of his prose.

During my recent visit to India I went to Discovery Book Palace, one of the few places one could  go for a well stocked selection of Tamil books. The shelf with Jeyamohan's books is adjacent to a shelf that had Charu Nivedita's books. I bought several of Jeyamohan's books (in addition to what I had bought in an earlier trip) and then I wondered how come I did not even have a curiosity to check out Charu Nivedita's books. I had read his 'Zero Degree' and tried to read 'Exile'. The torture of suffering through 'Exile', a potpourri of internet posts has ensured that I dare not touch another book by Charu even as a cursory glance. I had bought Ambai's short story collection at the same store several months back.

C.S. Lakshmi (aka Ambai)
Jeyamohan's body of work spans many genres that range from fiction, varieties of fiction, literary criticism, essays, philosophy to biographies and more. He has fashioned for himself, through his works and more recently, through internet, a wide audience. Agree with him or curse him but what is undeniable is that he cannot be ignored. While I've violently disagreed with several of non-fiction writings, especially where it concerns minorities and the Church, I've also relished his writings on Gandhi, Ramasamy Naicker, parts of Indian history etc. While all of that is wonderful there is a side of Jeyamohan that has puzzled and angered his friends and foes alike. Jeyamohan's penchant to engage in less than edifying politics of personal destruction.

During Jeyamohan's recent visit to US we spent some time together. One day when we returned after a visit to Philadelphia and en-route to give an address at New Jersey Tamil Sangam while chatting on some topic he mentioned about a gossip he had heard. Jeyamohan said that he had heard from his Boston friends that a senior Tamil woman writer had visited US recently and raised funds by fraudulently claiming to be poverty stricken despite being personally rich and owning a nice apartment in Mumbai. I guessed he was referring to Ambai. Now, I had no idea of whether Ambai was affluent or not but all other descriptions matched her.

Ambai had visited US in 2014 and delivered a talk on women's issues in New Jersey. I attended the event along with a few friends. It was lively. We then had lunch with Ambai at an Italian restaurant where Ambai cheerfully enjoyed a glass of wine with her. I told her that when a Tamil writer visited California and imbibed liquor a friend of mine clicked a photo but was told to erase the photo by an ardent admirer lest the writer's 'image' was spoiled. Ambai happily posed for a photo with the wine glass.

Jeyamohan (in Texas. 2015). Really Could not resist using this photo :-)
Ambai runs an NGO called SPARROW for which she assiduously raises funds. She asked for donations during the talk and thereafter by email. SPARROW's work in recording oral histories of women across various sections of India impressed me much and it is the kind of work that I often lament does not happen in India or does not get support. I've listened to such projects in American media. When Ambai emailed and followed up for donations I consented and donated to her organization. I then promised to do so annually. This year bang on the first anniversary she emailed me again. I was about to reply to her that I'll send a check when Jeyamohan's blog landed with a thud.

When Jeyamohan spoke to me in New Jersey he did not mention Ambai by name. I kept silent due to several reasons. One, I did not want to pick any unnecessary fights since I was hosting him. I felt it was an unnecessary fight since it was only a private chat and was spoken of more as gossip than as serious allegation. It was a tiring day and we were headed to another event and I was not at all inclined  to get into any serious wrangling. Also his mention of a Boston friend intrigued me since the only person I knew had actually donated to Ambai already leaving me wondering why would he spread such a canard after donating money. Of course, till today the Boston friend remains unnamed and unknown. I wish I had spoken up and explicitly stamped out the gossip.

Another inhibiting factor was Jeyamohan's adamance in believing some conspiracy theories. I have argued with him over characterizing Will Durant as a typical imperious westerner who looks down on Eastern philosophy. I've written to him how Durant cherishes India and Indian philosophy including authoring a book titled "Case for India", arguing for India's independence. Interestingly Jeyamohan brought it up again this trip and said "No, Aravindan I went back to some sources I'll send you the references of how Durant was forced to give India it's due in his 'Story of Civilization' after many writers sent him a protest letter over omitting India". I still disagreed since I've read Durant. When it comes to Ambai there is patently a personal animosity between her and Jeyamohan, for no fault of Ambai.

Just days before Jeyamohan came to US I had written a blog about Abhilash's diatribe against Ambai. Jeyamohan asked me with a chuckle "so did your blog make Ambai happy?". I was surprised that he even read that blog. Unlike what some like Othisaivu Ramasamy think I have no illusions about me being a writer or any such thing. I am just a regular IT cyber coolie blogging in my spare time. Jeyamohan also said that several of his opponents actually use my blogs that criticized him. I was not happy hearing that. I wrote to him later that I write only on topics that I feel passionate about and to share what I think. It is never my intention to be somebody's Shikandi. In fact that was when I decided to tone down my criticisms because people don't realize that there are parts of Jeyamohan that I truly respect and admire. And that goes for other topics like India bashing too. I wrote to Jeyamohan that I don't write to warm the cockles of anybody's heart or more importantly I don't bash anybody so that somebody else would feel happy or would use it. And frankly I've nothing to gain personally from anything.

When my father passed away recently a cousin posted an old speech of my father on Facebook. My dad often used to say that even a unicellular organism like amoeba reacts to external stimuli and we human beings must react to any injustice. In another family related context when I stood up on behalf of one set of relatives I realized how deeply that lesson is ingrained me. Many times I'd have had a more peaceful existence if only I had learned to shut up but nothing provokes me more than unjust insinuations. If I feel even a whiff of insinuation or unjust excoriation I react instinctively and forcefully. It is possible that I could be wrong but what will be undeniable is I am motivated by nothing other than a quest for justice to be done. Whether it is relatives or some speaker mudslinging Gandhi or Nehru my instincts and reactions remain the same. That is why I always feel compelled to write rebuttals more often.

I wish I had immediately told Jeyamohan that Ambai's fund raising was straight forward and open. Maybe this mess would not have happened. Being in the US I am aware of the many discussions on the quality of philanthropy. Whether it is Red Cross or Bill Clinton's foundation or the many charity organizations that seek money there are always discussions on how much goes to the cause and how much administrative overheads are there etc. What is never a factor in philanthropy is how rich the seeker is. Be it Clinton or Bill Gates their personal affluence does not matter in philanthropy. People donate for the cause not to the person. Also, it is unfair to expect a person to pledge their personal wealth for a cause. Yes, it is done but it is not a pre-requisite. As long as the cause is worthy and the person has integrity in handling the funds one should freely donate. Again, whether it is Clinton or Ambai, it is undeniable that a certain 'image' about the fund raiser drives the ability to draw funds. Ambai, has earned the regard of many thanks to her literature and more importantly thanks to her activism.

Jeyamohan has always nurtured an unhealthy skepticism towards NGOs, particularly towards those that raise funds from foreign sources. His blogs on Ford Foundation rival the conspiracy theories about the illuminati. He belabors under the unwarranted suspicion that the entire world is set out to 'break India'. I'd like to say 'please be rest assured that India and Hinduism are unbreakable'.

This entire shenanigan was set in motion by a reader sending Jeyamohan an email about a Facebook posting. The Facebook posting, by a Muslim, alleged that one Narain defrauded some Muslims of their money by raising funds thanks to his activism against Modi's government on social media. Incidentally I've known Narain on Facebook (and nothing more). The reader asked Jeyamohan, in all seriousness, if Muslims donated to Narain to undertake a anti-Hinduism campaign. I am not sure if the reader confused Jeyamohan for some private investigator or a government investigative officer. Sigh.

Another person who used to be close to Jeyamohan but is now estranged, according to him, wondered (in his comment to my Facebook on this Ambai issue) why do readers dish out such conspiracies and gossip to Jeyamohan. Sadly, as I've said in my blog on Gandhi and Godse, this is a Frankenstein unleashed by Jeyamohan. Jeyamohan has an ideological axe to grind, not entirely unjustified, with minorities who are critical of India and it's heritage. Even I have come under such a scanner from those in his circle. Thankfully he has dampened it when he came to know me better.

Jeyamohan pointed out to the reader that there are such fraudulent fund raisers amongst Hindus too. I wish he had stopped right there. Unfortunately he chose to voice in public almost verbatim the gossip he heard in Boston. The comments became outright deplorable and condemnable when he included the word 'மடிப் பிச்சை' in the quote he heard from his friend. That word, when applied to a woman, is, to put it charitably, a pathetic choice.

My reaction was swift and I posted that I donated for Ambai's organization and that I'll continue to do so. Apparently being an obsessive reader of Jeyamohan it is I who noticed it first. For once many, including his ardent readers and even grudging admirers, joined me in calling the remarks objectionable. It is possible that Jeyamohan could argue he did not refer to Ambai. But the reference was unmistakable to the point I am yet to see anybody offer any other name as the intended target.

In that same blog Jeyamohan had expressed anguish about a writer wallowing in penury and ill-health. Jeyamohan is anguished that the once famous writer's ardent readers do not support him economically and that such support should be offered as a token of gratitude. I disagree. No writer sacrifices himself for the sake of the society or with some hazy notions of "I need to write in order to earn readers and make them better". A writer writes because that is all he or she thinks can do. An uncompromising writer may indeed wallow in poverty but that is his choice and he makes that choice to honor his own soul and craft. Jeyakanthan faced money problems in the twilight of his life but he had also earned good once upon a time. If some reader felt like he owes Jeyakanthan a token of gratitude well and good but it is not mandatory or a pre-requisite to be a reader.

I take this occasion to say that if Jeyamohan raises funds for Vishnupuram awards or his annual retreat at Ooty I'd gladly contribute. Once Jeyamohan selects a recipient to be honored with Vishnupuram award he undertakes writing a booklet of articles about the author and his (there has never been a 'her' I think) works. As Charu Nivedita once wrote, this is work on the scale of what a University should be doing. Jeyamohan often writes that he raises funds only amongst a tight circle of friends. If the fund raising becomes a more professional and open venture I'd certainly contribute.

I hope reason prevails and he withdraws this blog that casts an aspersion on Ambai and expresses regret. I beseech Jeyamohan to do the right thing. Also I wish he introspects on why the climate of suspicion that he engenders encourages mischief mongers.

Jeyamohan's blog is at