A PLACE CALLED HAPPINESS

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The early October moment is filled with joy and serenity and golden light. But a mere 20 meters away, between their communal pergola and their four-storey Soviet block of flats, a fresh artillery crater recalls the heavy shelling that took Schastia by surprise on 30 August. It killed their young neighbour as she ran to hide her son in the cellar.

It also brings back memories: One of the four women had lost her daughter to a heart attack when bombs fell on the village in , the year warfare broke out in eastern Ukraine; others say they can tell by the sound whether to expect incoming artillery fire, and how many seconds it takes for the shell to arrive.

In a revealing illustration of how complex the Ukraine problem is, the old ladies, like others in Schastia, are not sure who to blame for the attacks. A Ukrainian army officer I meet there confides he has an uphill struggle to convince ordinary people that the Ukrainian army is not trying to harm them as a ploy to attract Western attention and support - something they say they hear from the Russian media.

Along the line of separation, levels of trust in any public authority, and in any actor in the two-year-long conflict, are now extremely low.

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The propaganda war has been a vitriolic part of the ongoing conflict, and most people on both sides of the line of separation between the Ukraine-controlled parts and the separatist-controlled parts of Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts provinces only have access to Russian TV channels. The Ukrainian side has not been able to repair transmission infrastructure in all places, and the result is that in places like Schastia, once part of Lugansk, Ukrainian news is only available to the few who have satellite TV.

The parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts controlled by Kyiv are governed by civilian-military administrations from de facto new centres in Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk, respectively. In theory, the civilian-military administrations have a strong political and security mandate from Kyiv to drive stabilisation and reform.

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Real life is much more complicated. Political strings, and people's loyalties, are often in the hands of local strongmen, typically affiliated with former President Viktor Yanukovych's former Party of the Regions and mostly now in the Opposition Bloc. These old cadres have enormous local influence and convening power - especially with the older generations.

As a local activist explained, "if you own a factory, and promise jobs or a few hundred hryvna to your voter, or pledge to repair the local school, your voter will not only give you his vote, he will be very loyal because this is the system he knows, and he can navigate". In towns where introducing civilian-military administrations would have been too controversial or from which they have been phased out after local elections in , the struggle for influence takes place in city councils.

Severodonetsk, 75 km from Schastia, was only briefly occupied by the Russia-backed separatists and had Kyiv-organised local elections in But a majority of the city council members come from these old elites, even if some swapped parties. The eastern Ukraine problem thus has multiple layers, going beyond Russia's military and other support for the separatist entities in Donetsk and Lugansk.

As in other war-hit areas, the allegiances of people living in places near the front lines, or in the grey zones in between, are localised and split as people focus on physical and economic survival. A civilian-military official for a district near Schastia is in despair over cases of local old corrupt strongmen set free thanks to decisions made in Kyiv that it was politically expedient.

When a close-run vote comes up in the Kyiv Rada Parliament , diplomats and reform-minded civil society leaders say, parliamentarians can be swayed with a promise that central authorities will turn a blind eye to old elites' local influence. Many in the civilian-military administrations seem to have brought new energy and a hands-on approach that values accountability and rule of law. But they are fighting an uphill struggle against a corrupt old Soviet-style system of thinking, values and patronage. Since they are centrally appointed, not elected, building trust - not just among people living across the conflict divide, but also between people and the state in Ukraine - will take a long time.

If the Kyiv authorities are to win the loyalty of those living under their control - let alone attract those living in the Russian-backed separatist enclaves - they will have to eradicate corruption at highest levels and regionally.

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Otherwise local people will just go on believing that one set of corrupt elites has been replaced with another. The line of contact to the east of Schastia is where three disengagement zones were defined in September, the latest step toward withdrawals and the implementation of security provisions of the Minsk agreement that was supposed to bring peace to the region. But security remains precarious along the length of the separation line with frequent cases of shelling reported. UN monitoring of civilian casualties counted dead and injured between 16 February and 30 September There were also numerous military and security fatalities, but the numbers are difficult to establish.

In addition to the politics of the conflict, the reason that agreed troop withdrawals are not taking place as planned becomes clear some 50 km by road to the east of Schastia, at the town of Stanitsa Luganska, where there is a crossing point between Kyiv-controlled territory and the so-called 'Lugansk People's Republic' LPR. When it comes to control of key points like this, mutual trust is completely absent.

Heavy shelling was reported on 9 October, and withdrawal plans were postponed.

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Though security is volatile in many areas and non-existent in several villages along the line of separation, mostly with the so-called Donetsk People's Republic DPR , it is not hopeless to believe that the peoples of the two rival territories could live together again. The links across the divide are still very strong, and this is what Kyiv should capitalise on.


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In the summer, up to 7, people crossed daily through Stanitsa Luganska. Conditions at the crossings are bad, and it takes about seven hours to get in and out of the LPR. Facilities provided by international donors are scant and the heat has caused sun strokes and heart failures. Now English readers will be able to read the slow, dimly-lit, scrupulously observed fictions that have made his such a distinctive voice in modern Hindi writing.

I suspect, however, that this will have interesting and unpredictable consequences for his reputation.

In the Hindi literary world, Verma is considered a modernist. Not for him the propagandist modes of social realism. His is very much a post-war European sensibility, steeped in the grey betrayals of the apres guerre , the despair with ideologies, the sad and lyrical celebration of the mundane heroism of utterly ordinary lives.

More accurately, they only carried the generalised cosmopolitan whiff of an airport lounge, the shiny promise of duty-free delights. And poor Verma had to carry this albatross, too, in addition to his own impressive collection of dead, feathered things.

Now, however, freed from the prison of adulatory misunderstanding, Verma can be recognised for what he really is - an accomplished exponent of that delicate, minor mode which is code-named 'Chekhovian'. He is not a modernist iconoclast, a playful subverter of classical norms, or an intrepidly experimentalist Captain Kirk. His is essentially a lyrical talent, his genius lies in noticing significant particularity, not merely the old faithfuls like the pause-too-long, the phrase left hanging in awkward air but also "the strong rich aroma of roasted meat which hung in the wet, fragrant air" in the eateries behind Odeon.

No one, but no one, was out there waiting for him. A sickle moon had risen over the mound behind the trees. Shadows sprawled eater-corner across the grounds, blurring the distances.


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  4. The boy hurried across, pursued by the girl's laughter like some rapacious creature just a heartbeat away. He pulled over to the side of the lawn. He ran his hand over his face, his fingers through his hair, his tongue against his chattering teeth - where chunks of the girl's kisses still stuck. He felt her fevered voice tug at his fevered body. What he heard though wasn't a human voice, was it? It sounded more like the deep breath of a bush when a bird in it takes to its wings in the dark. But the bushes and the trees stood still. No one had followed him out there.


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    Verma's narrator is a small Allahabad boy who follows his cousin to the Delhi of the late '60s and the early 70s. The Allahabad that they have left behind is as much a place as a concept.

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