Ushering in 2023… with trepidation and hope
To mark the beginning of a new year, a bunch of creatively restless people coax the optimism of the will over the pessimism of the intellect
My mind dies anew
What can I possibly want now
Two days of sky and three days of sky
The crows cry caw and drizzle from the sky
What’s spread over my head is just hope
The water reaches my waist, who hopes against hope in water?
These words from the Bengali poet Joy Goswami seem apt as I reflect on the year gone by. I am reminded that in the Bangla original, the phrase “who hopes against hope” is both homage to and a riff on a line in a devotional song by the 18th century poet Ramprasad Sen. In Bangla, the line plays on the word asha, which, depending on how it is spelt, means ‘hope’ or ‘coming’, and roughly translates as “All that became of the hope of your coming was the coming of hope.”
Could hope be coming? Is hope becoming? When asked if I might write a piece that responded to these questions, I found myself looking into a void. The only place where hope glimmered was in the arts. And so, I reached out to people from whom I draw courage. Who resolutely—with creativity, integrity, even cussedness—continue to do what they do best, be it the making and preserving of films, the writing and publishing of books, the performing of theatre and dance, the studying of society and culture. From whom I learn to see citizenship as the responsible, empathetic, enraged—and engaged—thing it can be. And so, I offered them the question of hope that had felt like such an unstable element when I held it in my hands. Were they hopeful that 2023 might feature news that somehow counterpoises the bigotries and horrors that surround us? Not surprisingly, the instinctive and immediate response was “no!” But what you will find here goes beyond that instinctive, immediate, and dark response. Pushing past the easy answers to look at the difficult questions, finding new reasons to believe in old truths.
SAMPURNA CHATTARJI is a poet, novelist, translator and poetry editor.
The writer’s muse is sluggish, dormant. She is like the one who leaves a dozen missed calls unanswered. At the best of times, she parts with her largesse sparingly, making the writer earn every word and turn of phrase. But here, at year end, she is unusually unresponsive. The writer can only surmise this reticence forensically. The evidence is scattered, but pervasive. Here, a schoolteacher is booked as his young charges sing Allama Iqbal’s immortal ‘Bacche ki Dua’. There, a portly red effigy is readied to burn, with an unruly mob chanting ‘Santa Claus Murdabad’. Elsewhere, an elected representative asks her constituents to blunt consciences and sharpen knives. Each day, each event, attaches itself to a dung heap of othering, of hate, that the muse, like Sisyphus, has to push up the mountain of creativity, and it looks like she has let go midway. She shares with her writer a mental fatigue that fills the mind with thoughts and fears and leaves no possibility for new work. Each day, each event, makes for a thousand cuts that make the writer bleed, but does not kill. It’s the end of the year, and the writer cajoles the muse for grace in the new year. She smiles wryly back, blinks consolingly, but makes no promises.
MUSTANSIR DALVI is a poet, translator and editor. He teaches architecture in Mumbai
Over the last few years, we found out how fragile truths were. Across the world, we found ourselves led into a hall of mirrors. Every statement and its opposite was simultaneously true, every lie was put up on billboards, every diversion into loony-bin alternate history was entertained, ad-hominem attacks became routine, strange cults of personality unveiled themselves in throne rooms. But every tide turns, even one this destabilising. The fragile liberal institutions that were so easily overwhelmed are finding new roots and—when they are rebuilt—will be less hollow for having been tested. New voices from younger sources are being heard, and they are not as polite or compromised. For many of our problems, like climate change, there are no cheap and simple solutions, and the truth of this is slowly percolating its way into the consciousness. For the hatred and bigotry and callous disregard that characterised the Republic of India in 2022, there is a growing impatience. There is only so much in the way of poison that a people can be made to stomach.
SATYAJIT SARNA is a lawyer and writer
I am a natural born pessimist. The end is not nigh but upon us. The glass is half empty, never half full. In fact, my own is three-quarters empty. What to do with the remaining quarter? You cultivate your garden, bake your loaf. You live by the almanac, not the calendar. Next summer, I meet again with friends from China, in the full knowledge that nothing we say will mend relations between our countries. The dialogue of civilisations is bigger than us, and older; we speak our bit and exit the stage. The bigotries at home are painful; nothing in 2023 will shift them, but 2024 may. Today I discovered—my double-take was classic—a whole cellphone tower suddenly missing across the way. A horror lived with for twelve years, gone! Big things take care of themselves. Little things you can control (throw away that cellphone) and those are the province of soul-making. The waste and foulness that threaten the planet belong to our own times. A line was crossed in my own lifetime. I can’t replace the magnificent trees torn down to make room for a new highway through my town, but I can tend the chestnut seedling—self-sown and doomed—snaffled from under the parent in the botanical gardens. I believe it will outlive me. Pessimists are human. I do have a wish in my back pocket, but it’s not for next year, and it’s reserved for the whole earth, not just our country or our species.
IRWIN ALLAN SEALY is the author of The Trotter-Nama and other novels, most recently Asoca: A Sutra
Are we forever doomed to be depressed year after year? An eternal fin de siècle moment once every 365 days? There are issues on hand. First off, it’s nice to be rich, isn’t it? Like why do we even ask these questions regarding good or bad forecasts for the year, if we don’t really feel the pinch of the times/economy either way. Let’s face it. If you’re privileged, you survive. In fact, you thrive. There are no “bad times” per se, just times you eat a little bit less (maybe). But when you’re poor, you’re in a very bad place. Always. Always in a bad place. Another catastrophic recession looms over us. Most of us might suffer. And that really worries me. But again, I see it as a time to solidify our true strengths—community and liberty.
AVNER PARIAT is a budding politician. He has a keen interest in curatorship and literature and lives in Shillong
The bigotry, hatred, and jingoism that Tagore had been so prophetically critical of, the othering of certain sections of our society that has a long syncretic tradition, the weakening of constitutional rule, and the regular counterposing of law and justice reflected in many recent judgments, the reification of liberal spaces, the take-over by chauvinist forces of almost every institution built by Nehru for the development of the scientific temper, and historical and philosophical research, the disgraceful servitude of the media vis-a-vis the State and the consequent manipulation of popular consciousness, the dilution in environmental laws and the right to information, the promulgation of the new education policies and farming laws to help those in power and their corporate cronies, the suppression and silencing of all opposition by every possible means including surveillance made easy by new cyber-tech: all these seem to portend the end of the idea of India that my generation had grown up with. The weakening of the Congress party and the gradual retreat of the Left from the national scene have only worsened the scenario. Global capitalism, what thinkers like Hardt and Negri call the Empire, has almost succeeded in taking people of all countries for a ride, and technology, including AI, has almost become its handmaid. I have more doubts than certainties though I do wish to maintain the optimism of the will against the pessimism of the intellect. The only hope for India lies in a broad unity of all secular, federal and pro-Constitution forces and parties, even if their reasons to oppose the present regime vary from party to party. The emergence of such a coalition in India and the strengthening of anti-capitalist forces across the world are the two positive developments I look forward to against all odds.
K. SATCHIDANANDAN is a poet, critic, translator, currently also president, Kerala Sahitya Akademi. He lives in Thrissur
I look forward to a 2023 in which, magically, India will awake again to the light and freedom that have been in such tragically short supply in recent years. I pray that India will look itself in the face and recognise that the future cannot be premised on unremitting hatred and mutual suspicion. That the future cannot be built on the barbarous foundations of sectarian antagonism, ethnic dissension, caste violence and gender asymmetry. I would like the newspapers to tell us about the everyday kindnesses that still bind us together as people, rather than as representatives of various social groups. I would like to read about the songs we share—songs that begin in one voice and are completed by another that joins it in harmony. I would like to read about the diverse cultural expressions that we have produced over the centuries, melding impulses from South Asia, Central Asia, Persia, Arabia, South-east Asia, and the East African seaboard—expressions that have no singular author or owner, and which celebrate polyphony. I continue to place my hope, against the despair that surrounds us, in an India that will not submit to a single shrill and toxic voice that stirs up resentment and rage.
RANJIT HOSKOTE is a poet, translator, independent curator and cultural theorist whose latest book is Hunchprose (Penguin, 2021)
With hostile takeovers and a media run for profit and power, it is difficult to feel hopeful about mainstream media featuring news to counter the climate of hate that we are suffering. But the mainstream is only one part of our world and even as the acts of hate seem to have increased, there are still those who perform enormous acts of love. We can find these in the many smaller pockets of media online, we can find these in our everyday interactions—if we look beyond what scrolls up on our newsfeeds, if we seek out new interactions in unexplored spaces. Krista Tippett in her podcast, On Being, speaks of the need for us to look out for the generative stories of our time, particularly now. So it is up to us to examine our real-world experiences and to be attentive towards the stories we create and share. Individual choices may seem slight—to influence the algorithms and create pressure on media houses—but the discourse is also us, and in that there is always hope.
SAMINA MISHRA is a Delhi-based filmmaker, writer, teacher, and author of the award-winning Jamlo Walks
I doubt the news is going to be very different in 2023. I won’t be surprised if it gets even more biased in favour of those in power, so we are going to have to work to make—and access—the news we really need to hear. As an editor, I know I must publish books that add truth and plurality to the realm of ideas, promote the work of writers whose clear-eyed view of the present and possible futures has the capacity to change minds. No doubt there will be great cinema and art being produced. There may be extraordinary fightbacks in the social and political sphere, and there will also be the continual daily struggles of ‘regular people’ aided and documented by NGOs, journalists, and others. And this is how I think there could be counterpoints to the horrors of the daily news cycle: by focusing on what should truly matter and helping amplify that. If traditional media can’t—or won’t—do it, newer forms of social media and technology can help make it happen. It’s about what we choose to focus on, isn’t it? And I am going to hope against hope that a much-needed shift in our understanding of what constitutes news will make 2023 a more balanced year.
KARTHIKA V.K., Publisher, Westland Books
On the second Sunday in December 2022, I bobbed off to Kolkata’s Park Street, wearing a small rainbow upon my cheek, the way one might a country’s flag in times of war. But this, it turns out, this time of climate change and fault lines, of policing bodies and calling names, is also a time of—surprise, surprise—love. I admit that when a friend asked me to attend Kolkata Pride, I imagined a small cluster of folks with bedraggled posters, the best of intentions and a spray of eye glitter. When I got there, I realised how superbly my imagination had failed me. As I rounded the last corner, a soft sea of humans approached. Thousands and thousands bedecked in colour, surrounding a float upon which young men in minimal leather and massive feathers alternated between dancing to disco and reciting poetry. At the edges, I saw policemen and women in their sparkling white acting as surprisingly efficient guardians, directing traffic lithely, perhaps by proximity to a party that felt like history. Within seconds, I was enfolded by the crowd—a feeling I rarely associate with safety, but which in this instance made me feel gloriously protected. I could not take two steps in any direction without seeing a sign that spoke about consent. I fell in pace with the smiles, witnessing various members of the Bengal LQBTQIA+ community come together in a pulsing rhythm. To my left, a young boy; to my right, a group of trans women saying they’re no strangers to the streets but they’ve never seen the streets this way. Behind me, a cluster of grey-haired ladies in perfectly starched saris, there to support their children. I found myself pondering what the word “ally” means. Does it simply mean showing up? Just then, Rabindra Sangeet began to wind its way out the speakers, and try as I did, I could not stop the tears rolling down my face. To see those usually suffocating at the margins of a society come into the light, take centrestage, and colour it in just this way. Maybe allyship means acknowledging this dual privilege—of existing without fear, and being granted glimpses into what it means to shed it. All around me, voices rose in song together, and I cancelled the sentence I’d been forming in my head that said “this is like New York, or Berlin or London.” Because: This is like Kolkata. And maybe even like India. To fight for freedom, to call for equality, to dance in the streets for all kinds of love. But mostly, to not let our imaginations fail us.
KARUNA EZARA PARIKH is the author of the novel, The Heart Asks Pleasure First, and a book of poems, Where Stories Gather
I have always considered myself to be a person who trusts that through all ups and downs, good will finally win and justice will be done. Naïve? I wonder. In the early 1970s, when experimental plays such as Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Vaasana Kaand (produced by my theatre group, Aniket) were banned, my theatre colleagues and I took on the government in the courts and won. When my first film, Aakriet, was slashed with a huge number of cuts in the early 80s, we challenged the Censor Board’s decision and the cuts were reversed. Staunchly believing in the integrity of the arts and literature, I never stopped opposing bans or wanton interference in the realms of painting, books, theatre, films.
This resistance continues to determine my actions, even today. Above all, I strongly believe that all Indian Citizens are equal and should have every single right promised in our Constitution without any discrimination whatsoever. Hence, I started working for the LGBTQIA+ cause, not only as a citizen, but also as a parent to a lesbian daughter. Through advocacy, I tried to transform the attitudes of mainstream society towards this marginalised community. Legally, by signing the parents’ petition in the Supreme Court against section 377 of the IPC which criminalised the Queer community. When the Supreme Court, in 2013, struck down the Delhi High Court’s judgment and re-criminalised the Queer persons, I broke down. But I never gave up hope. With a few like-minded parents, I co-founded ‘Sweekar: The Rainbow Parents’, a group which provides a support system to help parents understand and accept their Queer children. And then, in 2018, section 377 was read down. LGBTQIA+ persons were no longer criminal! We had won!
But now, only four years later, I have had a hard time finding things to rejoice in. Especially in the year gone by, the voices of hatred have become increasingly shrill; the silencing and suppression of all dissent by the authorities has become the norm; minorities and marginalised communities are bearing the brunt; liberty, equality, diversity, non-discrimination, justice, acceptance seem to be just random words in the dictionary. In 2023, will these words remain, or will they be discarded altogether? I wonder.
And then I pull myself together and say, “No. I will not give up hope. I will keep faith in our constitution, democracy, judicial system and yes, in the basic goodness of human beings. I trust that all citizens will join, and we will go on fighting for equal rights for all. I trust that finally we shall overcome!” Yes. I confess. I am an optimist. And I will continue to be one, no matter what.
CHITRA PALEKAR is a filmmaker, a bilingual writer, and a Queer rights activist, based in Mumbai
I spent the last three years working on a book that began as a piece of life writing. I wanted to record my own experience of raising a child with dyslexia. It was a difficult book to write in many ways. I was forced to remember once again what a harsh place this world can be for those who learn differently. A certain kind of bigotry is built into our school systems. In the course of writing the book, I met persons with disabilities, their families and special educators. Gradually, what had begun as a personal search, grew to include their voices. I learnt the importance of community, of advocacy and of empathy, the importance of changing the lens through which one looks at life, at the idea of success. The people in my book and what they stand for are my reason for hope.
K. SRILATA is the author of This Kind of Child: The ‘Disability’ Story (Westland, December 2022)
There is always hopeful news in the worst of times ... little acts of kindness, of grace, of compassion, that demonstrate that all is not lost ... and restore our faith in humanity. I believe it is the responsibility of artists to create safe spaces, oases, where hope can be experienced, where sense can be made of this world gone off the rails. And we must be patient, and hold on to our belief that things will change for the better.
SUNIL SHANBAG is a Mumbai-based theatre director and producer
I feel hope when young classical dancers, often schooled in problematic notions and histories of Indian culture and heritage, pause and ask themselves—hey, what’s going on! But that hope dims when I see them unconsciously follow and reinforce what should change, only because it’s so much easier to toe the line.
I feel hope when I see Calcutta celebrate Durga Puja and Christmas with equal appetite, look forward to halim and biryani every Ramzan, and wax eloquent over succulent kebabs. I lose hope when I see the same individuals in their home settings, locked into ‘us and them’ terminologies, and domestic behaviour that sows distrust and discomfort.
I feel hope when I see and hear of activist friends taking the plunge into active electoral politics, campaigning tirelessly from door to door. That hope sighs heavily when I understand what they are up against.
I feel hope when I decide to take a stand to shift the status quo in my home city, and find people by my side. But that hope is coloured with frustration knowing that we take risks that we actually cannot afford, with no guarantee of anything changing at all.
I feel hope—and I do not. I am in between hope and the dulling of it. Let us not say despair; because once we do, there is truly no hope.
VIKRAM IYENGAR is a dancer-choreographer, curatorpresenter, arts researcher-writer based in Calcutta-Kolkata
I think bigotries and horrors have always been a part of our world, our history and society, some periods in time seeming darker than others. But, as has been said, there can be no light without darkness, and especially in the world today, when one is sometimes overwhelmed by the negativity and hate that seems to surround us, I have always believed that one must find the joy and the light in what you do, no matter what. Even if it appears that darkness looms, I know that you have to make your own light.
SHIVENDRA SINGH DUNGARPUR is a filmmaker, archivist and FounderDirector of the Film Heritage Foundation
I believe 2023 will be much like previous years and the news will continue to be about polarisation and rising tensions between communities. When you study socio-political processes as I do, you understand the causes for this unfortunate predicament in a more complex way, and that understanding produces the possibility of solutions that are not ordinarily visible. It is hard, though, to tear people away from the drug of daily sensationalism, or to look beyond the immediate and the obvious. As a writer, I find my challenge is to communicate a more thoughtful perspective to a public which shuns any exploration outside familiar binaries.
AMRITA SHAH is an independent scholar, and the author of Ahmedabad: A City in the World (Bloomsbury, 2015)
The year 2022 saw Bolsonaro voted out, so I guess there is reason to hope against fascists, change being the only constant and all that. There is increasing awareness internationally for environmental issues. It may not happen in 2023, but I do believe India will catch up too. 2022 also saw Anand Teltumbde get bail, and Umar Khalid get a temporary reprieve. Innocence and justice will prevail in the long run. The Iranian revolution has also shown us a remarkable aspiration for liberty, especially among women. How long can cruelty last?
Each arrest/may feel/like a death knell,/every baton wielded—the devil’s pitchfork,//I put down the paper,/look out, see a cloud,/even if this one/may not rain,/there is water enough, still,/for a fig to grow in my yard,/discard/its dry leaves,/its fruit to ripen,/there is hope yet,/this too may pass
MAAZ BIN BILAL is a poet, translator and academic