Saturday, April 30, 2005

Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's language of love

Some writers have a real feel for the conversations of lovers - playful, elliptical, given to flights of fancy. One of the protagonists of Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's novel Waiting For Rain (first published in 1986 in the original Bengali, and recently translated into English) is Manju, a young woman who narrates every alternate chapter in the novel. Here is the beginning of one of those chapters, in which we find Manju in conversation with her fiancee Adri, who works in another city and comes to visit her every two weeks. The chapter begins with Adri speaking:
'Not like that. Turn around a bit more. Don't turn your face away so far. Relax your body.'
'You're too finicky. Is this better?'
'Yes, much better.'
'Then tell me,"You're so beautiful".'
'You're so beautiful.'
'Hee, hee. Not like that. Say it with more feeling.'
'Why should I? I'm not Adri.'
'You're not? Then who are you?'
'I'm a mysterious and enigmatic man.'
With a teasing smile on my face, I said, 'Oh, is that so?'
'That's so. Now dance. Remember, you have to dance with such frenzy that your clothes fall off, okay?'
'You're so demanding. I'll try.'
I spread my arms in the air, arched my body backward, and put my right foot in front of me.
The silver bells on my feet jingled in rhythm.
I pirouetted once and stopped.
'You're doing great.'
I said, 'That wasn't any good - you couldn't really have liked it.'
'But isn't that the proper way to dance, the way of the purist?'
I said, 'It may be so, but it's not the kind of dance where the clothes fall off. There has to be something radical. Here, let me show you. There's a kind of dance that's as elemental, as wild, as passionate as a thunderstorm - like the cosmic dance of Shiva.'
'Isn't that dance bound by rules, too?'
'No way. Shiva's dance was immense, apocalyptic - after all, he was dancing to mourn his dead wife, Sati. How dare anybody rein him in with the measured beat of a tabla?'
'Are you Shiva, then?'
'No, but I, too, have a crazed, demonic dance hidden within me. Do you want to see it?'
'Go ahead.'
This is charming, but the import of this scene changes when we realise a little later that there is no one in the room besides Manju - the conversation is a make-believe one. It is not then a scene of light flirtation as it initially appeared, but of yearning, a way of expending time that feels empty without Adri. Indeed, one could read this scene through Ibn Arabi's notion - which I first came across in the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red - that "love is the ability to make the invisible visible and the desire always to feel the invisible in one's midst."

Adri does indeed appear a little later, weary from his journey and concerned because Manju has not written to him for days, and the lovers have a slight tiff. And the juxtaposition of the two scenes leads us to yet another insight: how radiant is love in the world of the imagination, when one can carry on a conversation from both sides, but how difficult it is to keep it up unbesmirched in real life, when there lies, waiting to be crossed, the gulf that separates even two spirits naturally attuned to each other.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Giovanni Verga's 'Rosso Malpelo'

The Italian writer Giovanni Verga (1840-1922 ) is not very well-known outside his own country, but he deserves to be. A couple of Verga's short stories are outstanding examples of just how much can be achieved with the form. His tales are mostly set in the harsh, barren landscapes of his native Sicily, and his characters belong to this world, know nothing else but its hardships and miseries, and have little or no possibility of escape even if they desire it. But that is not what is so special about Verga.

Here is the first paragraph from the story 'Rosso Malpelo' (translated into English as 'Nasty Foxfur') which introduces its protagonist, an ill-behaved, fatherless boy who works in the mines, and sets the reader's mind ticking and puzzling straightaway:

He was called Nasty Foxfur because he had red hair. And he had red hair because he was a bad, malicious boy, who gave every promise of ending up a complete villain. And so all the men at the red sand-pit called him Foxfur. And even his mother, hearing him called that so often, had almost forgotten the name he was baptised by.

Our hearts immediately leap out in defence of Foxfur. What absurd leaps of logic and injustices are these? And why doesn't the narrator be a little more even-handed in his portrayal of the character? But Verga understands that the best way to portray the plight of the boy is to look at him through the eyes of the community, instead of standing outside the common perceptions of Foxfur.

The community has given up Foxfur, and treats him like a brute unworthy of any kindness or concern. And how does Foxfur respond? Consider again the perverse but entirely believable logic of this:

Knowing that he was Foxfur, he was prepared to be as bad as he could be, and if an accident occurred, or if a workman mislaid his tools, or a donkey broke a leg, or part of the gallery fell away, they always knew it was his doing. And in fact he took all the blows without complaining, just like the donkeys, which take them and arch their backs but go on doing things in their own way.

The confusions and doubts created by this paragraph give us a real sense of what it means to be in Foxfur's place. On the one hand we know that he is ready 'to be as bad as he could be,' to create trouble whenever he can as a gesture of retaliation. Yet we also see that whenever something goes wrong in the mines, the men naturally fall upon Foxfur as the cause of it: 'they always knew it was his doing'.. And the metaphor of the donkey - the story is full of animal metaphors, comparing Foxfur to a donkey, or to 'those ferocious buffaloes which have to be held by an iron ring through the nose,' or saying he bit 'like a mad dog' - illustrates Foxfur's sullen intransigence, which has proceeded to the point where he does not even disclaim responsibility for those things he has really not done. (He confesses to a friend once, a boy younger to him: "'What's the good? I'm Foxfur!'")

The story of sullen, baleful, loveless Foxfur (true to the logic of the story, which locates the blame for most things in him, we are told that 'his mother had never received a caress from him, and so she never gave him one') and his life in the mines is deeply poignant not only by virtue of its material, but by the way in which Verga tells it, with a strategic complicity with the community's view of Foxfur that disturbs us deeply and drags us into the story.

'Rosso Malpelo' can be found, along with another brilliant story called 'Jeli the Herdboy', in a recent edition of Verga's stories called Life in the Country, published by the Hesperus Press. A list of Verga's works can be found here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

In memory of Bellow

Saul Bellow, who passed away in the first week of April, was a giant of American letters. One of the best places to get a sense of his work is the New York Times special page on him, which features reviews of all his novels from the years in which they first came out (beginning 1944), interviews by Times writers with Bellow spread over several decades, and several pieces by Bellow himself, including How I Wrote Augie March's Story and The Civilized Barbarian Reader. If you're fond of Bellow, you could easily spend a whole day trawling through this archive.

Bellow loved literature, and was savage in his contempt for the tendentious meanings imputed to literary works by some kinds of intellectuals, making the sharp observation that 'they prefer meaning to feeling'. In this piece from the late fifties, Bellow warns against various kinds of 'deep reading' of literature that were becoming fashionable in the universities:

Are you a Marxist? Then Herman Melville’s Pequod in “Moby Dick” can be a factory, Ahab the manager, the crew the working class. Is your point of view religious? The Pequod sailed on Christmas morning, a floating cathedral headed south. Do you follow Freud or Jung? Then your interpretations may be rich and multitudinous. I recently had a new explanation of “Moby Dick” from [a] young man. “Once and for all,” he said. “That whale is everybody’s mother wallowing in
her watery bed. Ahab has the Oedipus complex and wants to slay the hell out of her.”

Friday, April 22, 2005

Attia Hosain's lost world

A not-so-very-well-known Indian novel that I have great regard for is Attia Hosain's Sunlight on a Broken Column, first published in 1961. Hosain was born in Lucknow in 1913 into a prosperous landowning family in the old feudal order, received a liberal English education unusual for a girl of her time, was witness to the years of the independence movement, and left India with her family in 1947, just before independence, for England. In this new country she wrote a novel about the country she had left behind, India, and a world left behind in time, that of the feudal order broken up by the new political ideas of pre- and post-independence India and of a large family broken into two by partition.

Sunlight on a Broken Column is above all a novel of family life, of the nuances and complexities of three generations of men and women living in the same house in a time of disruption and change. The novel is narrated in the first person by Laila, an orphan who has been brought up in the great family home by her aunts, and who is a girl of fifteen, bookish and slightly introverted, when the novel begins. We quickly realise why the story of the family is best told by Laila: she is the only one who can sympathetically understand the troubles of people as far apart as the ailing Baba Jan, the aged patriarch now at the door of death, and the servant girl Nandi, who is humliated and expelled from the house for having an affair with the cleaner. In a world with many boundaries Laila is the only one capable of, and interested in, traversing these divides.

Hosain's great strength is her intimate knowledge of the world she is describing: she can nail down an entire way of life in one sentence. Of Baba Jan and the three friends, all members of the aristocracy, who come to visit him in the evenings, Laila says: "The four men loved the city to which they belonged, and they lived and behaved as if the city belonged to them." Of an aged female retainer who had taught her aunts Urdu, Persian and Arabic, she remarks: "She spoke the sweet tongue of the true Lucknavi - delicate, flexible, rich in imagery, pointed with wit, polished with courtesy." Hosain's burnished, finely tuned sentences often remind me of the work of Willa Cather, about whom I wrote in an earlier post.

Sunlight on a Broken Column is also structured with great intelligence. Hosain's management of time within the world of the novel - a span of about two decades - is very deft, and she reserves her greatest delicacy for the way in which Laila's love affair and subsequent marriage are treated. But I'll leave you to discover for yourself how she does this. This was the only novel Hosain wrote (she also published a collection of stories, Phoenix Fled), but it is as good a novel as any in Indian literature.

A long interview with Hosain can be found here. A biographical essay on Hosain by her niece, Muneeza Shamsie, is here. Hosain's great-niece is the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

On not having children

I was at a party recently when a couple who are friends of mine were asked by someone when they planned to start a family. “We don’t want to have any children,” the girl replied. Everybody (except me and her worse half) looked at her as if she was mad. “How unnatural,” their faces said. “How can you not want children? There must be something wrong with you?”

One of them, trying his best to hide his astonishment, asked politely, “But why not?” At that moment I wished that I had a deep stentorian voice, so I could spellbind them by reciting this poem by Philip Larkin:
This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Not having kids is a personal choice, but too many people I come across react as if it’s a perversion, as if it’s wrong to not have children. They make a common error: assuming that just because something is a ‘natural’ craving, as wanting to have children is, to not fulfil that ‘natural’ desire is wrong. If it is natural, they think, it must be right; they derive a value from a fact, an "ought" from an "is", which some philosophers would call committing the naturalistic fallacy.

This very fallacy was behind some of the controversies in science in the 70s and 80s. Those were the years when evolutionary biology reached a much wider audience through brilliant books such as Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene and EO Wilson’s Sociobiology. Some of these gentlemen’s conclusions were misinterpreted and ridiculed by the political left, their descriptions attacked as if they were prescriptions. If they described the natural differences between men and women, for example, they were attacked as if they had prescribed unequal treatment for them. And so on.

One of the reasons that it was politically incorrect to ascribe anything at all to nature rather than nurture was that biology had been misapplied to justify some abominable politics in the early part of the century, most particularly eugenics. (There's a fine account of this in Matt Ridley's Genome.) Through the middle years of the century the left sanctified the belief – now accepted to be utterly mistaken – that genes play no part at all in who we are, that everything is down to our environment.

This became dogma, and when a wellspring of knowledge exploded because of the work of evolutionary biologists like William Hamilton, George Williams, Robert Trivers and others in the 60s and 70s, and was popularised by the work of people like Dawkins and Wilson, it was attacked for political reasons, even by fellow evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, the Marxist in him overriding the scientist.

The right, meanwhile, had fears that nature could be used as an excuse to avoid resposibility. “I have a genetic predeliction towards alcoholism,” someone could say, “so you can’t blame me for it.” A promiscuous man could argue to his wife, “men have a natural tendency to sleep around, more so than women. I’ve been programmed this way, you can’t blame me for this.” What to say to arguments like this?

Just that they are fallacious, that no matter how we are “programmed”, we still have volition and free will, and are not slaves to our genes. As that great non-fiction writer, Steven Pinker, put it in How the Mind Works, while talking about his decision to (we come a full circle) not have any children: “By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic loser, not one iota less than if I were a card-carrying member of Queer Nation. But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don’t like it, they can go jump in the lake.” We make our own choices.

If the subject interests you, you will not find a better book to read than Pinker’s The Blank Slate, an authoritative, exhaustive and lucid account of how the battles over nature and nurture have affected every area of our lives, and how the advances of the last three or four decades have shattered so many age-old myths, such as that of the blank slate, the ghost in the machine and the noble savage.

But if it’s poetry you prefer, and you enjoyed that beautiful poem I quoted earlier, you can read some more of Larkin’s poems here. I don’t understand most modern poets, with their dense images and obscure allusions, but Larkin I love. You can buy his collected poems here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Waiting for Black Friday

The most exciting film I’ve seen in the last year is one that you, dear reader, have probably had no chance to see yet: Anurag Kashyap’s fictional reconstruction of the 1993 bomb blasts, Black Friday. The film was due to go on general release in January but was stayed by the Supreme Court and the High Court after some of the bomb blast accused, whose trial is still awaiting judgement, petitioned the court against its release. They argued that the release of the film, based on a book by S. Hussain Zaidi and promoted, following the title of Zaidi's book, as ‘The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts’, would prejudice the trial.

I will not comment here about the arguments for and against this decision, although I do agree that it was unwise for the film to have promoted itself as a 'true story' when there was no absolute need to, and when so much of the film so obviously delves in the realm of what we think of as 'the fictional'. What I'd like to comment on here is on the merits of the film as cinema, and as a vision of the city in which it is set, Mumbai, and of the image of man it proffers.

Briefly, Black Friday depicts the bomb blasts of 1993 as they were planned and executed, and the massive investigation that was launched in their aftermath, shifting continuously between a whole host of finely-etched characters of whom the main ones are Kay Kay Menon, playing a police inspector called Rakesh Maria, and Pawan Malhotra, whom I first saw in my childhood in the TV serial Nukkad, as Tiger Memon, the brain behind the blasts.

The great merit of the film is Kashyap's insight into character and his sympathy and understanding of human beings, who act from a variety of motives and, far from being simply bad or wicked, are sometimes simply confused or gullible or deluded by an impossible dream or unable to withstand the pressure of peers (this trait of Kashyap's work was seen memorably in the film Satya, which he co-wrote). Although the film deals with several very touchy issues, including Hindu-Muslim conflict and criminals against a system itself susceptible to corruption, each character of the many who appear before us is authentically a living, feeling human being rather than a mouthpiece who represents some community or some point of view. The police inspector, who is responsible for getting results, is seen at several stages to be suffering anguish at acts of torture, and the criminals on the run themselves go through self-doubt, guilt, and indecision.

In one of the film's most beautiful and impressive stretches, Kashyap follows one conspirator, Baadshah Khan, as he treks around the country trying to keep the police off his scent. Baadshah Khan is exasperated by his journeys, wishes only to go to his hometown and lie low, gets into a quarrel with his co-conspirators when he meets them, and at one stage runs out of money and sinks into deep despair. Finally he gives himself up to the police. Even though we know he is a criminal, we feel a deep sympathy with Badshah Khan's predicament, we feel his weariness in our bones. Although most of the film is shot on location in Mumbai - and Kashyap's intimate knowledge of the city and his feeling for place make for some of the most striking shot compositions I've seen - in the ten or fifteen minutes devoted to following Baadshah Khan on his travels he takes us on a virtual tour of India, and I remember watching this stretch in the darkened hall and thinking I would like it to go on forever. Baadshah Khan is played in the film by an outstanding actor, Aditya Srivastava, who also appeared in Satya, this time on the other side of the law as Inspector Khandilkar.

The acting is in fact uniformly high-class: Pawan Malhotra delivers the performance of a lifetime as Yakub Memon, and Vijay Maurya marvellously communicates menace and remoteness in his brief appearance as Dawood Ibrahim. As for the music, the band Indian Ocean have produced an incandescent soundtrack every bit as good as anything else in the film. Regardless of its current status, caught up in the real-life matter than stimulated its making, Black Friday has the immense revelatory power of great art and deserves to be seen as widely as possible.

Here are some related links. Kay Kay Menon dicusses the film and the role of Inspector Rakesh Maria here. Anurag Kashyap discusses the making of the film here, and the jinx surrounding him - his first film, Paanch, was held up by the censor board - here. And the Indian Express reporter Mohammed Wajihuddin makes, in my opinion, a baffling claim when he argues that the film is unworthy because it rehashes Bollywood stereotypes in its portrayal of Muslims.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Ryszard Kapuscinski reporting

“Suppose we were to launch a spacecraft with the intention of establishing literary contact with the residents of some remote part of the galaxy,” the writer Geoff Dyer says in an essay. “If we had room for only one contemporary writer, whom would we send? I'd vote for Ryszard Kapuscinski, because he has given the truest, least partial, most comprehensive and vivid account of what life is like on our planet.”

Here is the Kapuscinski story in brief: born in Poland in 1932, he joined the Polish Press Agency in his teens, and his first posting was to India. Over the next 30 years he was to travel the length and breadth of the world, accumulating a stock of experiences to rival that of any other man in history. In particular, he was witness to the massive wave of decolonization in Africa in the fifties and sixties, and often to the chaos and anarchy that followed; he had a reporter’s nose for trouble, and wherever in the world something was brewing – civil war in Angola, the revolution in Iran, the collapse of Soviet Russia – there he turned up to file his dispatches. Later he was to write up his experiences at greater length in a series of memorable books.

“Man is broad, too broad. I’d have him narrower,” laments Dmitri Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Kapuscinski has done as much as any great novelist to acquaint us with the divergent aspects of man’s nature, his basic goodness and decency as well as his capacity for wickedness and perversity, especially when in power. Here, in the book The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life, Kapuscinski recounts an incident he witnessed in Uganda under the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin:

One day I was walking around the market in Kampala. It was somewhat empty, many stalls were broken, abandoned. Amin had stripped and ruined the country. [...] Suddenly, a band of children came up the street that led up from the lake, calling, “Samaki! Samaki!” (fish in Swahili). People gathered, joyful at the prospect that there would be something to eat. The fishermen threw their catch onto a table, and when the onlookers saw it, they grew still and silent. The fish was fat, enormous. These waters never used to yield such monstrously proportioned, overfed specimens. Everyone knew that for a long time now Amin’s henchmen had been dumping the bodies of their victims into the lake, and that crocodiles and meat-eating fish must have been feasting on them. The crowd remained silent. Then, a military vehicle happened by. The soldiers saw the gathering, as well as the fish on the table, and stopped. They spoke for a moment among themselves, then backed up to the table, jumped down, and opened the tailgate. Those of us who were nearby could see the corpse of a man lying on the truck bed. We saw the soldiers heave the fish onto the truck, throw the dead, barefoot man onto the table for us, and quickly drive away. And we heard their coarse, lunatic laughter.

What could be more macabre than this: an enormous and dread-inducing fish, fattened on human corpses, is carried away by laughing soldiers who leave in its place a fresh kill of their own. And nor is this a story so far away from the world we live in: I am reminded of the story in the news some time ago of the Uttar Pradesh MLA who allegedly has a crocodile pond in his backyard where human remains were found, and of the riots in Gujarat three years ago in which mobs torched, raped, speared and pillaged with the apparent backing of the state. Barbarism, it seems, is always knocking ominously on the doors of civilization.

A long interview with Kapuscinski can be found here, and an extract from The Shadow of the Sun here. John Ryle offers some criticisms of Kapuscinski here.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Spring in Corfu

Sunday reading. Gerald Durrell, the legendary British naturalist, grew up on the little Greek island of Corfu with his mother, two brothers and a sister, and a plethora of indigenous flora and fauna, and his account of that existence, described in his book My Family and Other Animals, surpasses any other account of childhood I have read. Durrell was an exceptionally good writer - it may have been something in the genes, for his brother Lawrence went on to become a well-regarded novelist - and the descriptions of Corfu in of My Family and Other Animals are as heady as wine. A paragraph:

With March came the spring, and the island was flower-filled, scented, and a-flutter with new leaves. [...] Waxy yellow crocuses appeared in great clusters, bubbling out among the tree-roots and tumbling down the banks. [...] Vetch, marigold, asphodel and a hunded others flooded the fields and woods. Even the ancient olives, bent and hollowed by a thousand springs, decked themselves in clusters of minute creamy flowers, modest and yet decorative, as became their
great age. It was no half-hearted spring, this: the whole island vibrated with it as though a great, ringing chord had been struck. Everyone and everything heard it and responded. It was apparent in the gleam of flower-petals, the flash of bird wings and the sparkle in the dark, liquid eyes of peasant girls. It the water-filled ditches the frogs that looked newly enamelled snored rapturous chorus in the lush weeds. In the village coffee-shops the wine seemed redder and, somehow, more potent. Blunt, work-calloused fingers plucked at guitar strings with strange gentleness, and rich voices rose in lilting, haunting song.

Durrell wrote several other excellent books, including a couple of sequels to My Family... and several accounts of his expeditions to remote parts of South America and Africa; my favourite among these is Catch Me A Colobus.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Lush life in Mo Yan

The Chinese novelist Mo Yan – whose name is a pseudonym meaning Don’t Speak – writes big, robust, earthy novels, thick with incident and capering comedy. But often it is a most unusual and complex comedy. In a scene from his recent novel, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Chinese and Japanese soldiers fight for control of a village (the novel is set in the time of the Sino-Japanese war of 1936), and the clothes of a Chinese soldier catch fire in an explosion. To put out the flames he runs, screaming in agony, for a big puddle of water

…covered by a profusion of wild grasses and water plants, with thick red stems and fat, tender leaves the colour of goose down, and pink, cottony flower buds. The flaming man threw himself into the puddle, sending water splashing in all directions and a host of baby frogs leaping out of their hiding places. White egg-laying butterflies fluttered into the air and disappeared into the sunlight as if consumed by the heat. Now that the flames had sputtered out, the man lay there, black as coal, gobs of mud stuck to his head and face, a tiny worm wriggling on his cheek. […] “Mother, dear Mother, I’m going to die…” A golden loach accompanied the screams from his mouth.

What a curious scene this is. A man is dying, but everything else around him throbs with life. Despite the man’s tortured screams, and his lonely descent into death crying for his mother, what we register from these sentences in a sense of profusion, of life teeming and thriving. Is this passage tragic, as death scenes often are, or would one classify it as comic? It's hard to say.

This passage also illustrates another quality of Mo Yan’s work: his exquisite attention to the workings of the natural world. He grew up in rural China - in the introduction to one of his books, Shifu, You'll Do Anything For A Laugh, he writes that because of poverty 'I had been taken out of school at a very young age, so while other kids were sitting in classrooms, I was taking out cattle to graze' - and in his work it seems a given that animals, birds, plants and the rhythms of the seasons are just as significant as human beings. Indeed, the sights and sounds of the natural world are often summoned by him in the form of beautiful similes and metaphors. Injured men fall 'like harvested wheat'; the propellers of airplanes buzz 'like hornets circling the head of a cow'; a man thinks of a woman's waist as 'a sheaf of wheat tied with a string of lilies'.

To read Mo Yan is to sense that the world is far more alive than we think it is.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The world of Nazneen

The lead character of Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane is Nazneen, a girl who is suddenly transported in her teens from a village in Bangladesh to Tower Hamlets, London, after she is given in marriage to Chanu, a middle-aged emigrant now settled in England. Nazneen knows absolutely nothing about the ways of western life, or the language, and has to piece everything together bit by bit as she adapts to an unfamiliar and often disconcerting existence. In this passage early in the novel, she is seen going about her round of household duties when she is suddenly transfixed by something:

The television was on. Chanu liked to keep it on in the evenings, like a fire in the corner of the room. Sometimes he went over and stirred it by pressing the buttons so that the light flared and changed colors. Mostly he ignored it. Nazneen held a pile of the last dirty dishes to take into the kitchen, but the screen held her. A man in a very tight suit (so tight that it made his private parts stand out on display) and a woman in a skirt that did not even cover her bottom gripped each other as an invisible force hurtled them across an oval arena. The people in the audience clapped their hands together and then stopped. By some magic they all stopped at exactly the same time. The couple broke apart. They fled from each other and no sooner had they fled than they sought each other out. Every move they made was urgent, intense, a declaration. The woman raised one leg and rested her boot (Nazneen saw the thin blade for the first time) on the other thigh, making a triangular flag of their legs, and spun around until she would surely fall but didn't. She did not slow down. She stopped dead and flung her arms above her head with a look so triumphant that you knew she had conquered everything: her body, the laws of nature, and the heart of the tight-suited man who slid over on his knees, vowing to lay down his life for her.
"What's this called?" asked Nazneen.
Chanu glanced at the screen. "Ice skating," he said in English.

What is so good about this passage is the writer’s absolute fidelity to the character’s point of view. As readers, we may realise soon enough that Nazneen is looking at two ice-skaters, but that’s not the point of the passage – the point is to show us how this scene is understood by Nazneen, the cues from which she tries to decipher its significance. The satisfaction we feel at being allowed to experience Nazneen's misreading is the satisfaction of feeling in absolutely intimate contact with the worldview of another human being.

And indeed this is one of the paradoxes of fiction, one of the ways in which, while drawing from life, it sometimes actually improves upon life. As the writer William Boyd remarks in this essay:

Janet Malcolm […] says that "We never see people in life as clearly as we see the people in novels, stories and plays; there is a veil between ourselves and even our closest intimates, blurring us to each other." This, it seems to me, is the great and lasting allure of all fiction: if we want to know what other people are like we turn to the novel or the short story. In no other art form can we take up residence in other people's minds so effortlessly.

Monica Ali writes about her own early life in Bangladesh here. And John Mullan makes some very perceptive remarks about the language of Brick Lane here.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Constantine Cavafy's city

On days when I feel restless and dissatisfied, and find my speech given over mostly to irony and sarcasm, I sometimes turn, to indulge my mood, to the dark, brooding poetry of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), whose work I discovered when I was an undergraduate and have prized highly ever since.

Here is one of my favourite Cavafy poems, ‘The City’:

The City

You said, "I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, better than this.
Every effort of mine is condemned by fate;
and my heart is -- like a corpse -- buried.
How long in this wasteland will my mind remain.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see the black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years, and ruined and wasted."

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
in these same houses you will grow gray.
Always you will arrive in this city. To another land -- do not hope --
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have ruined your life here
in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.

Incidentally, one of the things I like most about art is how one artwork can sometimes amplify or illuminate the meanings of another. For me Cavafy’s poem finds many echoes in Gulzar’s song Ek akela is shaher main (for non-Hindi speakers, All alone in the city) for the film Gharaonda (1977), and brings to mind the image of the lonely, defeated Sudip, played in the film by Amol Palekar, drifting listlessly through the streets of Bombay after having lost the woman he loves to an older man. And in the film’s last scene, when Sudip, who has declared his intention of leaving the city, suddenly changes his mind and decides to stay on, I read this as Sudip’s realization of the truth expressed by the second speaker in Cavafy’s poem: that his flight is pointless, for wherever he goes, he will always arrive in this very same city.

Here’s an essay on Cavafy: C. P. Cavafy, a poet in history, by Joseph Epstein. And you can find several other Cavafy poems here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The magic of Cather

People sometimes ask me who my favourite woman writer is. It is not a distinction I particularly care to make, and I usually say so, but I can never pass up a chance to broadcast my enthusiasms either, and so I usually give an answer: the American novelist Willa Cather.

What's so striking about her work? Well, I'll present to you a passage from one of her books, and thereafter it's between you and Cather.

This is from one of Cather's late novels, My Antonia. Jim Burden is ten years old, has recently lost both his parents, and is being sent out by his relatives to stay with his grandparents, who live on a ranch out west in faraway Nebraska. Jim knows little about the place to which he is going, and nor does the escort who is taking him there. After several days on train coaches they reach their destination, where they are met by Otto Fuchs, an immigrant who works for Jim's grandfather. It is night; Fuchs has brought a wagon to take them to the farm; he says that the journey will be long, and that Jim should go off to sleep in the back of the carriage.

Jim dutifully lies down at the back, but cannot find sleep in the jolting wagon, and after a while he gets up and peers out at the land which will now be his home. This is his first vision of the vast, uncharted, unsettling American West, in what has been justly acclaimed as one of the great passages in world literature:

Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. […] I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

Cather's publishers in the UK are Virago, a wonderful press devoted to women's writing. Here's a fine essay on her most famous book, The Professor's House.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Boccaccio looks back

What is it that has led men and women from the dawn of history, all over the world, to build shrines - temples, mosques, churches, cathedrals, pagodas - in honour of the divine? Thousands of volumes have been written on the subject of the origins of the religious instinct in man, but some writers have the knack of saying in one paragraph that which would stretch to three hundred pages in another's book. Here is Giovanni Boccaccio, the Italian writer best known for his book The Decameron, writing in the fourteenth century on the wellsprings of the human religious imagination:

The first peoples in the first centuries, although they were very rough and uncivilised, were exceedingly eager to find out the truth by study, just as we now see everyone naturally desires this. Seeing the heavens moving continually in accordance with fixed laws, and earthly things with their fixed order and various functions at various times, they thought there must be something from which these things proceeded, and which, as a superior power, governed all other things and was not governed itself. And after diligent thought they imagined that this thing, which they called divinity or deity, was to be cultivated, venerated and honoured with more than human service. Therefore they built, in reverence to the name of this great power, large and distinguished edifices. They thought that these should be separated by name as they were in form from those in which people generally lived, and they called them temples.
Boccaccio lived in the same century as, and was a great admirer of, the poet Dante, author of the Divine Comedy, and this passage appears in his short book Life of Dante, sometimes considered the first modern literary biography. Boccaccio's meditative but supple sentences, heavy on clauses and commas because of all the different elements they gather up within their folds, present to the reader the sense of someone thinking slowly and carefully on a matter that stretches human intelligence to its limits. I like this book so much that in those idle moments when I think of which books I would take onto a desert island, or into the afterlife, if I could, it always appears on my list along with about three hundred others.

The translation of Life of Dante now available is published by the Hesperus Press, which brings out beautiful and distinctive paperback editions of little-known works, often no more than a hundred pages long, by great writers of the past. Hesperus's motto is the Latin phrase "Et remotissima prope" - to bring near what is far in space and time.

Ssh...Act Two's beginning

Hi all. My name is Chandrahas, I'm Amit's friend and cricket-writing colleague at Wisden Cricinfo, and now, at his invitation, his new co-blogger on The Middle Stage.

What will I be bringing to The Middle Stage? Well, when I joined Cricinfo straight out of university two years ago, I found that the desk that had been assigned to me was right in the centre of our little office, and just across me on the other side of the corridor running through office was Amit. We soon found out that we shared many interests in literature, film, politics, economics and philosophy; he brought to my attention many interesting things I didn't know about, and I managed to repay the compliment on the odd occasion. I'd like to think that, on The Middle Stage, we're now going to be directing those cross-corridor office conversations out into the great wide world of the blogosphere.

Enough, then, by way of introduction. My first post follows soon.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Middle Stage: Act Two

In the few months that I have been blogging, my primary blog has been India Uncut, my blog on India, and The Middle Stage has been somewhat ignored. Everything I have blogged on here has been close to my heart but I just haven't had the time to do enough of it, especially when I've been travelling. It was too much for one man – so I've got another one.

In just a couple of days, I shall have a co-blogger on this blog, a man who is both a close friend and a writer I admire. I shall then be both a contributor to the blog and an eager reader. Watch this space.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Hey, nice thighs

This was first posted on India Uncut.

Arun Simha has an answer to the thought experiment on cannibalism that I'd posed in my post, "Blogger's Beef". He says that Man One should be prosecuted, and gives his reasons; I give my counter in the only comment there so far. More importantly, Arun provides links to a couple of excellent essays taking different sides in this debate. Read "The Case for Cannibalism", by Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal. Also read "Cannibalism: why not?" by Roger Kimball in Armavirumque, the blog of the New Criterion. And if you wish to join in, leave a comment on his post.

Friday, April 08, 2005

God and Dice

In an excellent piece titled "One Hundred Years of Uncertainty", Brian Greene looks back on Einstein and quantum mechanics:
Quantum reality, in other words, remains ambiguous until measured. The reality of common perception is thus merely a definitive-looking veneer obscuring the internal workings of a highly uncertain cosmos. Which is where Einstein drew a line in the sand. A universe of this sort offended him; he could not accept, as he put it, that "the Old One" would so profoundly incorporate a hidden element of happenstance in the nature of reality. Einstein quipped to his quantum colleagues, "Do you really think the Moon is not there when you're not looking?" and set himself the Herculean task of reworking the laws of physics to resurrect conventional reality.

Read the full thing.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Compassion in a fossil

The New York Times reports that the discovery of the fossil of "an early human ancestor" has raised speculation that compassion may have existed 1.77 million years ago. The report says:
The well-preserved skull belonged to a male Homo erectus about 40 years old. All his teeth, except the left canine, were missing. The empty tooth sockets had been filled in by a regrowth of bone, the scientists said, indicating that the man had been toothless for at least two years before he died at what was then an old age. (The discoverers call him the "old man.")

In a report in today's issue of the journal Nature, the discovery team said the 1.77-million-year-old skull "raises questions about alternative subsistence strategies in early Homo."

Specifically, how could the man have survived that long, unable to chew the food of a mainly meat-eating society?

In interviews and the current issue of National Geographic, the paleoanthropologists said caring companions might have helped the toothless man in finding soft plant food and hammering raw meat with stone tools so he could "gum" his dinner. If so, they said, this was evidence of a kind of compassion that had been absent in the ancestral fossil record before the Neanderthals 60,000 years ago.

Well, maybe the gentleman – or gentle erectus – did its own mashing. "Damn, this mammoth meat is hard to mash," I can imagine it thinking. "Ah, there goes a brother of mine. And here's my club."

So much for compassion, then.

Floundering, not creating

James Suroweicki on how Sony joined the ranks of companies that become "victims of their own mythologies":
Sony’s track record of game-changing inventions—the transistor radio, the Walkman, the Trinitron—led it to believe that success lay in self-sufficiency and absolute control. Sony’s ideal future was one in which just about everything—TVs, DVD players, cameras, computers, stereos, handhelds, digital songs—bore the Sony brand. The company became an exemplar of what’s sometimes called the “Not Invented Here” syndrome: if it wasn’t invented at Sony, the company wanted nothing to do with it.

“Not Invented Here” is an old problem at Sony. The Betamax video tape recorder failed in part because the company refused to coƶperate with other companies. But in recent years the problem got worse. Sony was late in making flat-screen TVs and DVD recorders, because its engineers believed that, even though customers loved these devices, the available technologies were not up to Sony’s standards. Sony’s cameras and computers weren’t compatible with the most popular form of memory, because Sony wanted people to use its overpriced Memory Sticks. Sony’s online music service sold files in a Sony-only format. And Sony’s digital music players didn’t play MP3s, which is a big reason that the iPod became the Walkman’s true successor. Again and again, Sony’s desire to control everything kept it from controlling anything.

Read the full thing.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

The ideology of the internet

Daniel Henninger argues in the Wall Street Journal against free downloading and Grokster. He sums it up beautifully:
The Web isn't just a technology; it's become an ideology. The Web's birth as a "free" medium and the downloading ethic have engendered the belief that culture--songs, movies, fiction, journalism, photography--should be clickable into the public domain, for "everyone."

What a weird ethic. Some who will spend hundreds of dollars for iPods and home theater systems won't pay one thin dime for a song or movie. So Steve Jobs and the Silicon Valley geeks get richer while the new-music artists sweating through three sets in dim clubs get to live on Red Bull. Where's the justice in that?

Bang on. Read the full thing.

The curtains open again

I didn't blog at The Middle Stage for most of March because I was away travelling to cover the India-Pakistan Test series for the Guardian, and blogging about it at India Uncut. But, well, here I am, resuming. Thanks for sticking around.