Book Review (Colour of Gratitude is Green by Amit Sengupta)
Published in Combat Law - the human rights bi-monthly magazine
21 February 2010
Colour of Gratitude is Green presents a vivid, fascinating, multi-hued trajectory of the history, politics, and contradictory reality of the Indian subcontinent and beyond, from the lens of a scribe who has seen the ebb and flow of the business of journalism very closely.
Gifted with a deep political insight and passionate flare, Amit Sengupta’s writings serve to reveal, alarm, and touch the reader. Most of the selections in this book lay before you this pluralist, anti-pluralist, unified, fragmented, united, torn, breathing, choking mass that is India. But the author’s experiences are not limited just to India. He speaks as easily of the Tiananmen Square massacre as Nandigram, talks about Latin American revolutions with as much élan as the Maoist revolution in Nepal, describes Lhasa with as much passion as a market in the heart of Delhi, celebrates Brecht and Gramsci with as much fervour as Ritwick Ghatak and Maitreyi Pushpa. Who else can better capture the emotions of the death of an anonymous homeless person, the grief of tsunami survivors, the horror of farmer suicides, and the vacuity of fashion shows in a country of hunger. As he writes in one of his essays, “There are stories within stories. Eyes within lies. Wisdom outside knowledge.”
These are not the writings of a typical journalist who swallows the news — breaking or other — and spits it out in columns of reportage, regurgitated with whiffs of sensationalism, but someone who absorbs the paradoxes of life and its contemporary juxtapositions, internalises them with feeling, views them through a historical lens, and presents them to the reader with an intellectual analysis and poetic passion that’s hard to come across. In the end, the reader may not agree with what he says, may not like how he says it. It may hurt, anger, offend, and move. But the book forces the readers to think, to question, to reflect. That’s the point of Amit Sengupta’s writing, where he makes this transition from the page to the heart.
As the trajectory of the book unfolds, the reader witnesses essays, columns, reports, articles, conversations, and book reviews, all carefully selected and well laid.
On the one hand the author strips the glossy coating of the India Shining brigade but only to further reveal India Smiling. Beneath the tears, pain, oppression, marginalisation and suffering, he paints poetic images, of ordinary and extraordinary heroes, and celebrates love, poetry, passion and dreams.
The writings expose uncomfortable truths — the contradictions of the pseudo Left in India, the fundamentalist frenzy of the Hindu Right, the unbearable weight of the political silence over Nandigram, the pain of excluded dalits in Rajasthan, the failures of the State and its orchestrated violence, its systemic machinery of oppression and its tools of silencing.
Amit Sengupta takes up causes of dalits, the working class, women, but the people he celebrates are not just anonymous faces, but living heroes with real names and powerful stories. For instance, Bant Singh, the rebel dalit singer of Mansa, who brutally lost his arms and leg for organising landless farmers and speaking out against injustice; Phoolan Devi, the real feeling, breathing, abused woman behind the media that created sensation; poet Uday Prakash, who recreates the margins, and poignantly captures the reality of the poor as he says, “When they bulldoze the homes of the poor, the bulldozers can be Left or Right, it seems the same to me.” And Medha Patkar who the author calls St. Stamina, the relentless campaigner for justice, an icon of hope for the displaced and marginalised across the country.
The author writes about places unheard of, ignored, forgotten, such as Yazali in Arunachal Pradesh, Gwangju, South Korea, Kutch to name a few. He writes about the politics of struggle and creative rebellion; of radical poets and progressive writers and alternative voices.
The book is a compilation of Amit Sengupta’s sensitive writings which revolve around the passionate fervour of youth, the undercurrents of love, the overcurrents of violence, idealism of dreams, cynicism of reality, the harshness of the class divide, the ugliness of consumerism, the silence of suffering, the hypocrisy of the mainstream, the wind of revolution, the poetry of rain, and the colour of feelings.
The pieces I loved reading most are “Life is Like this Only” where the author writes, “The world is so full of itself that we miss the daily joy of life’s unfolding letters, written with dew drops on leaves…” and “God Lives Elsewhere” where he reveals the irony of the brutal eviction of thousands to make space for the phenomenal Akshardham temple, for a God who lives in our hearts? “So why does God needs this rolling-in-wealth real estate? And if he resides in the quietness of our hearts, in every bird, word, leaf and leaf storm…if he lives in the winter wind which we breathe and if he is formless and infinite, objective and ethereal, essence and presence, then why does he need a lavish place in concrete as his residence on earth? Whose god is this God?…. Days after the festival of lights, the diya still burns in this dark expanse under the Nizamuddin bridge, as if telling the dazzling Akshardham adorned with hundreds of lights, that yes, God lives elsewhere.”
I like how Sengupta writes, “Life beckons the subaltern and the mainstream with equal passion… it is that secret essence of intangible substances, which you must hold when such miracles of life meet you suddenly on the streets.” He reminisces on the loss of life’s deep simplicity in “Dal Fry at Mughalsarai” where he says “life was not so complicated – the air was not conditioned, water didn’t arrive in plastic, food had nothing to do with aluminum foils, and distances were never a big hurry.”
Conversations with intellectuals, thinkers and activists like Ashis Nandy, Arundhati Roy, Medha Patkar, Taslima Nasreen, and Dipankar Bhattacharya capture insightful revelations of the times we live in.
Another important characteristic of Amit Sengupta’s writing is anger. In some of the writings, there is pain, criticism and dry cynicism, but there is also hope. That is why he celebrates all men and women as intellectuals in his piece “The Necessity of Flowered Man.” He writes, “Revolutions move relentlessly in invisible spirals, of quiet, volcanic, unseen social unrest, in the daily struggles of survival and despair, when the radical turning point is waiting in the next by-lane of an unknown village” (The Train Stops at Nandigram).
The unquenching thirst of the author to explore, discover and rediscover, is visible in the chapter “Rediscover those Alphabets” where he urges, “Like children, let us rediscover those alphabets which we seem to have forgotten: the dialectic of enlightenment and the quest for a new dream”… “That is why the Sahir song comes back yet again: Woh subah kabhi to aayegi. Like the El Salvador slogan in the early 1980s: The Dawn is No Longer an Illusion.”
Prof. Avijit Pathak, in the introduction to the book, writes how Sengupta, a former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, “cherishes dreams, celebrates visions. Read his revelations and get enchanted.”
Read Colour of Gratitude is Green slowly to savour its poetry, feel its politics. Let its jarring questions and unpleasant truths rankle your conscience. And let its passion drench your soul with hope and dreams.
– The author is a human rights activist based in New Delhi