“I am Gaza-returned.” The mail couldn't have been shorter. But it did what it was meant to do – arouse my curiosity. Fixing up an interview with A. Muthukrishnan was, however, not that easy. Ever since his return last month from the first ever “Asia to Gaza solidarity caravan”, his diary is chock-a-block with appointments, felicitation functions and invitations to deliver talks.
“It's amazing. Here, mostly youths want to know how we managed to reach, how we survived the bombings, how Gazians live in the strife-torn strip of land, how rest of the Islamic world unites with Palestine's fight for liberation of Gaza.... There, every country we passed through, young and old people came out on the streets to greet and bless us and hoped our visit will lead closer to breaking the suffocating Israeli siege,” says the 37-year-old writer and researcher.
Muthukrishnan was one of the 120 members, and the only one from Tamil Nadu, in this first pan-Asian convoy organized by “Asian People's Solidarity for Palestine”, an alliance of peoples' organizations, social movements, trade unions, and civil society institutions in Asia. They covered 8,000 km through 18 cities in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt before reaching Gaza by sea.
The group included 50 activists from India and the rest from 17 other Asian nations.
Carrying life-saving medical equipment and medicines, food, clothes, books and other aid worth one million USD, the month-long caravan was flagged off from Raj Ghat, Delhi, on December 2, 2010. “The idea was to cover more on land for the crucial people-to-people connect. Wherever we travelled, public meetings were organized and more activists joined us because they identified with the humanitarian struggle for peace, freedom and human dignity. Our march was for a cause and against all forms of discrimination and human rights abuse.”
How did this man from the small town of Madurai come to participate in the struggle for the democratic rights of Palestinians? Says Muthu, “I have been part of a network of friends floating around on the web and connecting proactively against fascist, Zionist and capitalist destructive agendas. For the last three years, we have been on facebook and twitter planning how to extend solidarity to the courageous people of Palestine in their struggle.”
Muthu regularly travels to conflict zones for fact-finding. “In the last 15 years, all my travels have had a social tag attached because I feel my duty as a writer is to record the history of the subalterns,” he says.
Citing the ongoing Posco struggle in Orissa as a living testimony of the spirit of ordinary people, Muthukrishnan believes it is his responsibility to bring the narratives of the periphery to the centre. “I have always found the villagers' fighting spirit against the odds of the State to be much higher than the organized middle class living in cities.”
“The madness of consumerism today,” notes Muthukrishnan agitatedly, “seeks more water, air, electricity, resources and to procure these Governments facilitate eviction of tribal and poor people from their ancestral land. Their pain can only be felt if you ever have the patience to go and live at least for a day with one of the millions of such displaced families in any part of the country.”
Having fed himself on the writings of Che Guevara, Arundhati Roy, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Medha Patkar and other activisits, this secularist perhaps takes naturally to understanding various cultural backgrounds. Describing himself as a “zero balance man” with no fear or fantasy,
Muthu says, “I have had unusual exposures and remain a wanderer not tied to any readymade ideology. Every travel is a learning process. My mind is people-oriented and I remain creatively committed to the cause of the dispossessed and the neglected, giving all my time and energy advocating protest, asking them to fight injustice and be their own leaders.”
Muthukrishnan grew up in Mumbai, Goa and Hyderabad and is conversant in Hindi, English, Marathi and Tamil. “I was a total bookworm and also an avid reader of newspapers from a young age. As a Class IV student in 1984, I started following every report on the Bhopal gas tragedy. Ask me today, I have any information about this horrendous environmental disaster at my fingertips.”
When his parents decided to shift back to Madurai, he experienced for the first time caste upheaval. “All these years, nobody ever asked me and neither was I bothered about which caste I belonged to. The rising caste factor whether in politics or every other mode of life and work was annoying. I saw so much scandal, corruption, even female foeticide in front of my eyes. Not even one per cent of the happenings got reported. I felt the urge to make a beginning by learning Tamil first.”
People now appreciate him for his chaste Tamil and the causes he espouses. “I have become a full-fledged Tamil writer and speaker,” he smiles. A leading Tamil publication has asked him to run a Gaza travelogue for a year, an assignment he has accepted both willingly and painfully. “I have returned with never-to-be-forgotten images of loss, despair and hopelessness of civilians in Gaza, in these last five years of Israeli blockade. During our journey, we faced several uncertain moments, but nothing compares with the sufferings of 15 lakh men, women and children trapped there.”
There were many low points in the journey. They were called a “terrorist caravan” by Israel, the ship carrying the humanitarian aid was not allowed to dock at the Al Arish port in Egypt, they were under constant threat of interception by Israeli forces, and they feared detention of the caravan members (the last European convoy was made to wait for 23 days). They were not allowed to interact with civil society upon their return to Egypt and were instead packed into a shabby bus for an overnight journey to Cairo airport. When the bus met with an accident and several members of the convoy were hurt, medical help came slowly. But the high point was clearly the peoples' and their leaders' reaction.
Says Muthu, “It is an international and intense agenda of the people who are united in this struggle. Among hundreds of commoners and notable citizens we were also personally welcomed by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.”
His priority now is to talk about and write the numerous untold stories of dehumanized Palestinians. Muthu's eyes gleam as he says, “I have a role and I think I am doing it right.”
Muthu and his highs:
*Has written books on globalization and secular values, a biography of Hugo Chavez and more than 100 articles in leading Tamil magazines and papers.
*Has translated works into Tamil: Gujarat 2002 (Tehelka Expose), Kuralin Valimay, Madhaveri and “Afzalay Thookilidathey” and “Tholargal Udan Oru Payanam” (both by Arundhati Roy)
*Has travelled to document the Godhra carnage in Gujarat, Vidarbha and Jaitapur farmer's suicide in Maharashtra, the Staines killing in Kandhamal and the Posco project in Gobindpur and Dhinkia, Orissa.
*Treasures his contact with people, the global network of friends he has developed over the years drawing inspiration from the likes of Arundhati Roy, Prashant Bhushan, Sandeep Pandey, and Asghar Ali Engineer.
*Is a regular debator on Vijay TV's popular talk show “Neeya Naana”.
*Formed Green Walk, an informal group of people who walk on roads less travelled to learn about neglected monuments. Muthu has so far identified about two dozen historical and archaeological hotspots in and around Madurai.