Monday, December 25, 2006

Books of the Year 2006

Merry Christmas to all the readers of the Middle Stage, and before the year goes any further and more books arrive to confound my decisions, here are my choices for the best books of 2006, divided and subdivided into all kinds of categories.


The best, and funniest, novel I read this year was the nineteenth-century Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third (Penguin in India, University of California Press in the US). Translated into English for the first time, this story of life in a village under colonial rule presents a wealth of satiric detail filtered through the voice of a hilariously witty and nimble narrator, who like a village gossip often uses the plural "we" rather than the conventional "I". "People should be gagged and stopped from spreading rumours," declares the narrator, even as he gleefully broadcasts every rumour that reaches his ears. This is one of the foundational Indian novels.

Samrat Upadhyay's second collection of stories The Royal Ghosts (Mariner Books in the US, and Rupa Books in India) was a model of elegant and understated storytelling. Upadhyay's characters are shown living and loving in a Nepal in which tradition and modernity jostle uneasily, and political unrest casts a shadow over daily life. Stories like the title story and "Chintamani's Women" seemed to me to achieve a kind of perfection of craft.

The Algerian novelist Malika Mokeddem's Century of Locusts (University of Nebraska Press) tells the story of a wandering poet Mahmoud, himself accused of a crime, and his journey through the desert in search of his wife's murderer. Mokkedem's superbly incantatory prose ("A dream is the most vital of lies"; "Solitude becomes unbearable when filled with another's indifference" ) is saturated with striking imagery and a close attention to the rhythms of the natural world.

Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games (Penguin in India, Faber & Faber in the UK) conjured up in encyclopedic detail the sights, sounds and language of Bombay and the moral world of its denizens as seen through the eyes of the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde and the police inspector Sartaj Singh. I don't think I've read a better scene this year than the one in which Gaitonde, still a small-time crook, sells some stolen gold bars to a dealer for an enormous sum. Now Gaitonde does not know if he is being tailed or not: he has crossed the border into a new world. He does not know what to do now and takes refuge among devotees in a temple. The novel is perhaps two hundred pages too long, and the digressions called 'Insets' are tedious, but for most part Sacred Games has the kick of a good masala Coke.

Gaza Blues (Picador Australia), an unusual collaboration between the Israeli writer Etgar Keret and the Palestinian emigré writer Samir El-Youssef, brought together Keret's distinctively zany, minimalist stories with el-Youssef's beautiful long story, told in a more traditional style, "The Day The Beast Got Thirsty". Residents of a world in which politics is all-pervasive, both Keret and el-Youssef both want to clear a space, through the example of their work, where human beings can recognize each other from either side of the impasse through the commonality of their everyday concerns and desires. El-Youssef's debut novel The Illusion of Return is forthcoming in January.

The idea that literature "should allow us to see the individual rather than the general; to participate in some intimate way in other lives rather than melding them into shapeless abstractions" was also the shaping force behind Literature From The "Axis of Evil" (New Press), a compilation of stories, excerpts from novels, and poems from writers from so-called "rogue states" - Iraq, Sudan, Libya, North Korea and others - and featuring some first-rate works that readers around the world would otherwise never have got to see.

And the Japanese novelist Kobo Abe's profoundly unsettling The Face of Another (Penguin Modern Classics) tells the story of a scientist whose face is badly disfigured in a laboratory accident. With his face swathed permanently in bandages, he feels he is not a human being any more. A plastic surgeon explains to him that the face "is a roadway between oneself and others"; people cannot reach out to a man "without the passport of the face". The protagonist retreats to a quiet hideout and attempts to fashion himself a new face with the help of advanced technology. In Abe's hands the predicament of having no face and then a new face becomes the material of a drama more compelling than any detective novel or thriller. First published in 1964, this is a very worthy resissue.


"I will enjoy my beauty because it is given for a short time and joy is a short-lived thing." So said Amrita Sher-Gil, the great Indian painter whose life was tragically snuffed out in 1941 before she was even thirty. Yashodhara Dalmia's Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life (Penguin/Viking) was a splendid study of Sher-Gil's life and work, quoting at length from Sher-Gil's very rich notes and letters and lavishly illustrated with photographs and reproductions of paintings.

Talking India (Oxford University Press) was an enthralling book-length dialogue on Indian history, culture and politics between Ashis Nandy, one of India's finest intellectuals, and the Iranian scholar Ramin Jahanbegloo. If you want a perspective on how religious riots in India are also manifestations of "secular violence", on how the modern ideology of the nation-state obscures other deep-rooted continuities and traditions, or how globalisation "has created an enormous explosion of expectations, ambitions and greed", this is the book to go to. As enjoyable and stimulating as Amartya Sen's 2005 release The Argumentative Indian.

Another book which might just as well be called Talking India is In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (Little, Brown), by Edward Luce, the South Asia Bureau Chief for the Financial Times between 2001 and 2005. Only the title of this book is poor - I don't even see the need for that word 'strange'. From that point on, the book is a magisterial survey of modern India. Marrying lucid exposition to highly nuanced and trenchant arguments, Luce covers the character and idiosyncracies of the Indian state and the Indian economy, the place of caste in India, Hindu nationalism, and Indian Islam in a series of succulent forty-page chapters each as good as the other. This must rank among the very best books written by a visitor to India.

"For Flaubert, life began in Normandy and ended there….It was the landscape of his youth and all his seasons. It was the taste in his mouth and the verdant prison where he dreamed of deserts". From the very first sentences of Frederick Brown's sumptuous Flaubert: A Biography (Little, Brown) we know that we are reading a literary biography that itself aspires to be a work of literature.

A very different model of literary biography is to be found in Written Lives (Canongate), a collection of short and often whimsical essays by the Spanish novelist Javier Marias on Conrad and Kipling, Joyce and Faulkner, Turgenev and Nabokov. "The one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors," writes Marias, "is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals", and he has a fine time cataloguing these disasters. Of special note is "Perfect Artists", a lovely essay at the back of the book analysing the photographs of writers.

And another kind of literary conversation can be found in the writer Alberto Manguel's short and very beautiful memoir, With Borges (Telegram). The book recounts in loving detail Manguel's long association with the great Argentine writer, which began when he was chosen as a schoolboy by Borges to read to him in the evenings. Manguel writes that Borges's massive personal library was "like every other reader…also his autobiography" and that Borges believed "against all odds, that our moral duty was to be happy, and be believed that happiness could be found in books, even though he was unable to explain why this is so". Pure pleasure.

Climbing The Mango Trees (Alfred A. Knopf), the Indian actress and food writer Madhur Jaffrey's memoir of her idyllic childhood in the fold of a large joint family in Delhi and Kanpur, is a much better book than its hackneyed title suggests (There must be a ban from 2007 onwards on the words 'guava', 'mango' and 'cinnamon' in the title of any Indian writer's work.). Full of savoury reminiscences, Jaffrey's book is also an ode to a way of family life now on the wane in the age of the nuclear family, and to the syncretic culture of north India, with Muslim and British influences overlaid upon traditional Hindu life.

And two good nonfiction reissues were Sasthi Brata's anguished autobiography from the sixties My God Died Young (Penguin) and Pankaj Mishra's travel classic from the nineties Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (Picador).

But since good books are - like diamonds - forever, and in a manner of speaking all new books owe their existence to the schooling and influence of older books, no personal list of books of the year should be confined only to books published in that calendar year: they should also include older books read that year and surprising discoveries made that year. Of the many books about whose existence I learnt in secondhand bookshops this year, two stood out.

Renoir, My Father, which I found in a used-books store in Cambridge in June, is a luxuriant portrait of the Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir by his son, the filmmaker Jean Renoir. It is rich with the thoughts of both the illustrious painter ("I like painting best when it looks eternal without boasting about it: an everyday eternity, revealed on the street corner: a servant-girl pausing a moment as she scours a saucepan and becoming a Juno on Olympus") and his illustrious son ("A work of art is the candid, and often unconscious, expression of the personality of the artist who created it"). The book is available now in a new edition as a New York Review of Books classic.

And Faith and Frivolity, a collection of essays by the now-forgotten Indian writer Krishna Kripalani which I found in Bombay's excellent New & Secondhand Bookshop in Dhobi Talao, revealed a most agile and perceptive mind expressing itself in a sparkling epigrammatic style.

Readers are invited to name their own books of the year - but no more than three or four, please (books, that is, not readers). A happy New Year to you all, and may you have a 2007 free of Dan Brown and Paulo Coelho...

Monday, December 18, 2006

On the memoirs of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan

"At the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world," says Saleem Sinai in the first chapter of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, as he reveals that "thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country." In the prologue to his memoir In The Line of Fire, Pakistan's president General Pervez Musharraf, born four years before the creation of the state of Pakistan, sounds very much like a Pakistani Saleem: "The story of my life coincides almost from the beginning with the story of my country - so the chapters that follow are not only the biography of a man, but of Pakistan as well".

Saleem Sinai's claim is supposed to be interpreted by the reader as comic: Rushdie wants us to marvel at this fantastical linking of the destinies of man and nation, and Saleem himself always bemoans "that benighted moment" that robbed him, as it were, of his own independence as a sovereign individual. But the good General's claim is made in all seriousness. Providence has singled him out - the son of middle-class immigrants, reconciled at one stage to seeing out his career as a high-ranking military officer - for some reason for a special place in history, and, handcuffed to history, it is his duty now to carry out his role, responsibly if reluctantly, of commander of the ship of the Pakistani state.

"My autobiography," he says solemnly, "is my contribution to the history of our era." A simple, plainspeaking, moral man ("truthfulness is a sine qua non of good character" he tells us in a passage on moral development), he will along the way also tell us the real truth, obscured until now, about many things - the tussle in which he overthrew Pakistan's erstwhile prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the Kargil episode, Pakistan's role in the War on Terror and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. "I want the world to learn the truth." "It is time to lay bare what has been shrouded in mystery." This I-know-it-better-than-anybody-else air is the characteristic tenor of In The Line of Fire.

If In The Line of Fire reveals anything of interest about the president, it is the centrality of the army and the martial way of life to his worldview. "I was only eighteen when I entered the Pakistan Military Academy in 1961," he recounts in an chapter about his youth, one of the few which is low on rhetoric. Indeed, it is somehow symbolic that he has spent all his adult life as a soldier. In his book the word "army" is always associated with positive values: valour and heroism, commitment and sacrifice, integrity and intelligence. The army is a world within the world - a bastion of discipline and order to counterbalance the confused, disorganised sprawl of civilian life and of electoral politics.

When it comes to his beloved army, Musharraf is especially sensitive to insult and especially susceptible to grand posturing. What stung him most in the aftermath of what he sees as Sharif's ill-advised withdrawal from Kargil in 1999 is the sullying of the army's image by the country's own government: "I am ashamed to say, our political leadership insinuated that the achievements of our troops amounted to a 'debacle'. Some people even called the Pakistan Army a 'rogue army'."

The truth, he would have us know, is quite the opposite. "Considered purely in military terms, the Kargil operations were a landmark in the history of the Pakistan Army." Against all evidence he doggedly maintains that "whatever movement has taken place so far in the direction of finding a solution to Kashmir is due considerably to the Kargil conflict". This is a curious stand coming from a man who has, since coming to power, purported to taking the lead in resolving the Kashmir problem through dialogue.

For someone who considers himself "a soldier's man", the General also reveals himself to be an expert juggler with words. Although he agrees that he deposed Nawaz Sharif after the famous hijacking drama of October 12, 1999, he does not agree that it was a coup d'etat - instead it was "a countercoup". In the General's opinion it was Sharif who actually launched "a coup against the army and myself" by dismissing him as chief of the army while he was away in Sri Lanka and appointing another general in his place, and what the General did in reply was the countercoup - "for there can be no other word for it".

By refashioning the meaning of the word "coup", which my Shorter OED defines as "a violent and illegal change of government", the General carves out a kind of moral legitimacy for himself, even as he unintentionally demonstrates how in Pakistan, a country which has seen four military rulers in its short history, the army's self-image and functions often overlap with those of the state. To depose the chief of the army in such a country can also be a "coup".

The General drips with contempt for his two predecessors as the head of Pakistan's government, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif - particularly Sharif. For him the decade between 1988 and 1999, when Benazir and Sharif each spent two terms in power after winning elections, was a period of "sham democracy". Nor does he think very highly of Indian democracy, using quote marks always to show what he thinks of "the largest democracy in the world".

But democracy, through elections, confers legitimacy upon leaders, and every leader craves legitimacy. Musharraf had his own tryst with the electorate in the infamous yes-or-no referendum on his rule in 2002, in which he emerged with a staggering 97% yes vote. In a piece on this exercise called "The April Fool Referendum", the Pakistani human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir testified that "the rigging was so brazen that it will embarrass any foreign government to accept the exercise and its result as a democratic process". But while Musharraf himself admits that the exercise "ended in a near catastrophe", here is his wily attempt at explaining it:

The referendum went smoothly. There was a very high turnout, and the overall count was strongly in my favour. There were some irregularities, though. I found that in some places overenthusiastic administrative officials and bureaucrats had allowed people to vote more than once, and had even filled out ballot papers themselves. I also later found out that this absolutely unwarranted "support" was helped along by the opposition in certain areas where they have a hold and where they stuffed ballot boxes in my favor as to provide supposed evidence for claims of foul play. The whole exercise ended in a near catastrophe.[…] Finally, in a national broadcast, I had to come clean. I thanked the people for their support but also admitted that some excesses had indeed taken place without my knowledge or consent. (my italics)
In this passage Musharraf appears more sinned against than sinning, with both his supporters and opponents remarkably conspiring towards the same ends (to rephrase the old saying: with enemies like these, who needs friends?). Meanwhile, the General was oblivious to these happenings, but the chorus of "I founds" are meant to attest that, insofar as he had any agency in the whole case, it was in bringing the wrongdoings to light.

To be fair to the General, life has not been easy since he came to power. He took over a country on the brink of economic collapse. Later, the American government's demands after 9/11 and the resentment of Pakistan's religious hardliners put him between a rock and a hard place. His crackdown on terrorism led to two attempts being made upon his life; Time magazine declared that he held "the world's most dangerous job". Musharraf's account of how he negotiated his way through these troubles shows a commendable understanding of realpolitik. One of his good qualities appears to be that, at least in domestic matters, he has no patience with fundamentalism and religious obscurantism. On the demonization of Islam around the world as a religion of intolerance, he sensibly observes:

It is all very well for us to say that Islam is nothing of the sort, that it is in fact a very progressive, moderate and tolerant religion - which indeed it is - but why should the people of the world bother to go out of their way and spend their precious time to explore the authentic sources of Islam? They are going to judge Islam by the utterances and actions of Muslims, especially those actions and utterances that affect their lives directly, and not just by the protestations of academics and moderates, no matter how justified.
Six years in power have taught the General to weight and to aim his words carefully - his book, which made it to the bestseller list, can itself be seen as a work tailored carefully for a Western audience interested in Asian affairs but not expert in the finer details. His book tour in the US in 2006, which featured amongst other events a hit appearance on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show", was in stark contrast to his official visit to the US in 2005. That turned out to be a PR disaster after he spoke recklessly on the Mukhtar Mai rape case, suggesting that rape in his country was used as a tool by women to gain riches and to emigrate.

Now, in his book, his thoughts on the case are shoehorned into a chapter full of pieties called "The Emancipation of Women" written, as Tunku Varadarajan says in his piece on the book, "with all the passion of a government circular". It is a chapter that shows he has learnt that, whether or not he actually walks the walk, a statesman should always talk the talk. He drones:

Rape, no matter where it happens in the world, is a tragedy and deeply traumatic for the victim. My heart, therefore, goes out to Mukhtaran Mai and any woman to whom such a fate befalls.
"My heart, therefore" - how insincere is that? And what is the point of that phrase "no matter where it happens in the world" - how should that be relevant in any way? We understand when, a little later, the General reveals that no rape case should be allowed to besmirch the good name of the nation:
Rape and violence against women are universal phenomena, but this does not justify their presence in Pakistan. We need to set our house in order. I only object when Pakistan is singled out and demonized.
When a case of female victimization in Pakistan comes to light, sometimes the first victim is the truth.
In The Line of Fire itself often takes liberties with the truth, but in doing so it is so revelatory of the General's personality that it makes for a far more interesting book than a safer, more cautious account. Autobiography often stands at an angle to historical truth, but in doing so it lets us in on other valuable truths. This is not a book we need to read to understand contemporary Pakistan, as the General would have us believe, but it is certainly something to read if we want to understand the General.

A series of extracts from In The Line of Fire can be found here. And here are two perceptive pieces on the book, by Husain Haqqani and Vir Sanghvi. An audio clip of Musharraf's controversial remarks on the Mukhtar Mai case can be found here, and the video of his appearance on "The Daily Show" here.

Mukhtar Mai has also recently published a memoir called - in an uncanny echo of the title of Musharraf' memoir - In the Name of Honour. And see also a very good essay by Salman Rushdie, "Where is the honour in this vile code...?" on the parallels between the Mukhtar Mai case in Pakistan and the Imrana case in India.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Coming up...

Coming up on the Middle Stage in the next fortnight: pieces on the Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf's fact-and-fiction memoir In The Line of Fire and Vinod George Joseph's novel Hitchhiker, and a selection of Books of the Year.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Orhan Veli Kanik all of a sudden

The Turkish poet Orhan Veli Kanik (1914-1950), in the honorable tradition of poets the world over, lived in penury, drank too much for his own good, and died young. He left behind a body of work sometimes accused of being too simplistic, even unpoetic, but Kanik's rebellion was actually against what is conventionally thought of as the "poetic" - lyrical effusions, elaborate conceits, stifling metres.

Kanik's poems are about the texture of everyday life and about the sudden epiphany or realization glimpsed amidst life's chaos. Their language is simple and undecorative, all verbs and nouns, and they have a tone of casual, offhand utterance. We may hold that the special quality of poets is that they present (as Alexander Pope memorably put it) "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed", but curiously with Kanik we feel as if he has expressed something in exactly the language we would have found ourselves. All readers of Kanik go from his work convinced, for good or for bad, that they are poets themselves. "Even I," they may say to themselves, "could write a poem such as 'Fine Days' - in fact I was thinking these very thoughts just the other day...." And why do I put those thoughts in quote marks? Even I have thought them - but here is the poem:

Fine Days

These fine days have been my ruin.
On this kind of day I resigned
My job in "Pious Foundations.''
On this kind of day I started to smoke
On this kind of day I fell in love
On this kind of day I forgot
To bring home bread and salt
On this kind of day I had a relapse
In my versifying disease.
These fine days have been my ruin.
(translated by Bernard Lewis)

Kanik's favourite poetic device is repetition, which confers upon his lines the rhythm without which poetry is impoverished, and which embodies at the level of form the moment when everything has suddenly become clear, and the connections between disparate things have become visible to the mind. A variety of experiences then appear filtered through some unifying phrase: the wistful "On this kind of day" in the earlier poem, and "All of a sudden" in this one, with its ascending notes of wonder:

All of a Sudden

Everything happened all of a sudden.
All of a sudden daylight beat down on the earth;
There was the sky all of a sudden;
All of a sudden steam began to rise from the soil.
There were tendrils all of a sudden, buds all of a sudden.
And there were fruits all of a sudden.
All of a sudden,
All of a sudden,
Girls all of a sudden, boys all of a sudden.
Roads, moors, cats, people...
And there was love all of a sudden,
Happiness all of a sudden.

Translated by Anil Mericelli
Elsewhere the repetitions evoke a child's querulousness and petulance, as in "Tree":

I threw a pebble at the tree.
My pebble didn't fall.
Didn't fall.
The tree ate my pebble,
The tree ate my pebble.
I want my pebble.
I always think of this poem when a public phone refuses to return my coin even though my call has not gone through.

And in this six-line poem called "Landscapes", Kanik is found making a cheeky jibe at nature poets:
The moon came up
Behind the house across the street.
Street noises began.
The air is cooler,
From far away comes the smell of the sea.
I am an expert on landscapes.
Five lines of comically jumbled observation ("From far away comes the smell of the sea" is particularly funny) are rounded off by the abrupt claim of the sixth.

The translations of "Tree" and "Landscapes" are by Murat Nemet-Nejat, who has done more than anyone else to make Turkish poetry available to an English-speaking audience. In 2004 Nemet-Nejat brought out Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, and he also has published a book of translations of Kanik's work called I, Orhan Veli, and all of it is available to read online here. Among the poems I like best are "I, Orhan Veli", "I Am Listening To Istanbul", "The Poem of Being Lonely", "Sunday Evenings", and "Rumors".

Nemet-Nejat's introduction to I, Orhan Veli is here, and offers some very interesting thoughts on different approaches towards translation in an essay called "Translation and Style".

Other posts on poets: Osip Mandelstam, Nazim Hikmet, Attila Jozsef, Constantine Cavafy, Antonio Machado, Dunya Mikhail and Jorge Luis Borges.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Man Asian Literary Prize, and the Manjunath Shanmugam Integrity Award

Two announcements about awards, one to do with literary excellence, the other for work done to improve the quality of public life in India.

The Man Group plc, sponsors of the Booker Prize, announces the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize for a previously unpublished work of Asian fiction in English or English translation. The closing date for submissions is March 31, 2007, and first prize is $10,000. Submission guidelines are available here.

And the Manjunath Shanmugam Trust, set up in the memory of the upright Indian Oil sales officer who was murdered in November last year after coming in the way of the oil mafia, announces the Manjunath Shanmugam Integrity Award to honour those "working to uphold the values of truth and honesty in the Indian public life". Among the other important initiatives this Trust has taken is the launch of a National Right To Information Act Helpline recently to spread knowledge about the Right To Information Act, passed by the Indian government last year and the most powerful tool available now to the Indian citizen to fight corruption. All Indian citizens are allowed to nominate deserving parties for the award by December 19, 2006 latest. More details about the award can be found here.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana at eleven

In 1993 the writer Pankaj Mishra, then in his early twenties, was living in a village called Mashobra in Himachal Pradesh, working on a novel, when he received out of the blue an offer from Penguin India to write a travel book. Mishra took up the offer and, formulating a project around the kind of Indian milieu with which he was best acquainted and his reading of writers like Thorstein Veblen, set out to across India for a period of six months to chronicle the signs of what he thought was "a nascent sensibility", a change in the self-conception and the aspirations of India's burgeoning middle-class. His account of what he saw and heard and sensed on those travels was published to great acclaim in 1995 as Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India, and launched Mishra on travels that were to take him around the world.

Eleven years from the time it was first published, it is clear that Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (available in India next week in a splendid new edition published by Picador, with a new afterword by Mishra) stands as a classic of Indian non-fiction. Reading it this week for the first time, I was struck both by the smoothness of its style - it is a book without any dull bits, and the language has a full, rich flavour - and the strength of its argument, often more implied than asserted, from the picture of small-town Indian life it offers. It is a book that can be just as easily read to pass the time as to understand our age. Unlike most travel books, which suffer from more than a touch of the random and the inessential, it forges something cohesive from the writer's widely scattered rovings. Yet thoughout there is a sense of the thrill of being on the road, of not knowing who or what one is going to come across next.

Among the characters who appear on these pages are Mr.Sharma, a businessman from Ambala and star of one of the book's funniest sequences, in which Mishra realises that, although he is a lowly writer, he is being sized up as a prospective son-in-law ("Ab to suna hai ki kitaab-vitaab likhne mein bhi bahut paisa hai"); Mr.Tomar, owner of a haveli in a village in Rajasthan which he has turned into a hotel, who boasts nonstop about his contacts with the hoi polloi of the social world; a Jain teenager from Rajkot who declares the Hindus and the Jains have the same enemy, the Muslims, and declares that they must be finished off; Rajendra, an acquaintance of Mishra's from Allahabad university who wants to improve himself through reading ("he was the only person I knew who had actually read Dasgupta's five-volume study of Indian philosophy") but cannot come to terms with the fact that he is homosexual; Mrs.Shukla, escorting her daughter to Bombay because she wants to become a model; Salim, the caretaker of a museum in Murshidabad who speaks of how the city kept its peace after the demolition of the Babri Masjid ("Bas thoda ajeeb laga kuch dinon tak, It only felt slightly weird for some days"); and Raghubir Azad, a communist party worker in caste-conflict-ridden Jehanabad, who speaks of how the Ramayana and the Mahabharata legitimate taking up arms against oppression. They are individuals, but most of us know of other people like them: they also become types.

After a while it becomes possible to intuit a scale of values by which the various characters are judged. There are those who exhibit affectation, snobbery and high-handedness - such as Mr.Sharma's teenaged daughter, who throws a fit because a relative has used her bar of Camay soap, or Mr.Tomar with his preposterous blather - and are made the subject of ironical comment. Others exhibit a more serious, even shocking, failing, the absence of any kind of moral compass - such as the young men at the engagement ceremony in Muzaffarnagar, who "boasted about the bribes they had given to municipal officials and sales-tax inspectors, and spoke with awe and reverence of a certain police inspector who had personally killed seven Muslims in a communal riot", or the spiffily dressed teenager from Rajkot with murder in his heart, "oblivious to the morality of his desires and actions". These were people, writes Mishra, who seemed to have "translated the notion of laissez faire into both economic and social terms". Their modernity is a superficial one of dress, social demeanour and consumption; their thinking is barbarous, lacking any sense of good and evil.

On the other hand there are those, like Rajendra, who are striving to make use of their opportunities and to achieve a genuine self-fashioning - "Unlike his compatriots…he realized his incompleteness as a person and strove to overcome that" - and of whom we are given an extended and sympathetic portrait. Still others have become the victim of peculiar predicaments, such as Rajkumar, the owner of a guest house in Pushkar open only to foreigners, not Indians. Asked why, he begins to detail how Indians are filthy and bothersome. "I was struck by the way Rajkumar used the word 'Indians'," writes Mishra. "His foreign guests had 'modernized' him, and in the process had made him a man curiously at odds with his immediate environment, a man out of step with his own culture."

And from the hundreds of impressions of Indian life logged in Butter Chicken — the appalling civic conditions of most small towns; the "aggressive individualism" and ostentation of the newly moneyed classes and their love of kitsch; the cultural impact of satellite television and the adoption of new styles of dress and speech; the hunger for and respect given to wealth, power and prestige regardless of the route taken to them; the nonchalant, unselfconscious, voicing of caste and religious prejudice; the widespread sexual harassment and the ubiquity of pornography — there emerges a kind of double-sided critique of Indian society. On the one hand there is the old feudal, hierarchical India, in which discrimination and injustice are rampant, life is heavily circumscribed by one's caste or sex, and the free expression of personality is suppressed. As Rahul, an acquaintance in Banaras, says of life in many parts of Uttar Pradesh, "The modern idea of regarding people as individuals with their inalienable rights is still centuries away here. For the man with wealth and power everything in his domain, including land and human beings, is his property."

Such a world is antithetical to the spirit of modernity, and there is every reason for wanting to see it changed. But the supposed liberation that has arrived in its place in many parts is itself curiously distorted. To Mishra, while middle-class Indians show a great desire to embrace the the modern, all too often their modernity is only something tacked on to their old lives, such as their participation in consumer culture. It is an ambiguous revolution which has mostly to do with wants and aspirations and very little to do with thought or ideas, and there is often something grasping and pathetic, if not frankly disturbing, about it. The relevance of this argument has not diminished in the decade since Butter Chicken was published. "No other book defines as clearly, and with such troubled irony, our last decade of change," writes Amitava Kumar.

One of the book's best portraits is that of Mary Roy, mother of the novelist Arundhati Roy, describing her struggles against the Syrian Christian Church over inheritance rights and her complicated efforts to forge "an independent modern identity" in which all that is taken as given is reassessed. What faults the book has have to do with a tendency to read certain things too strongly, such as attendants in airconditioned textile shops in sleepy Kottayam "who, listlessly looking out from amid their brilliantly lit enclosures, gave off a strange forlornness", or business executives in an airport lounge: "Here, under the fluorescent lights of the departure lounge, they were set apart, they were an exalted breed".

But for all that it is a serious work, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is a very funny book: Mishra can be both appalled and amused by what he sees and hears, and the characteristic confusion and comedy of Indian life leaps off these pages. By contrast the writer's prose today has a more detached, austere tone. Some of the humour is in the recorded speech of others, such as Mr. Sharma's "Aajkal to behenchod scheduled caste backward caste ka raj hai; Brahman saale scheduled caste ho gaye hain", or the objections of a Bengali tourist to the hit song "Choli ke peeche kya hai" being played on a bus. Elsewhere it is puzzlement building into incredulity. Leaving Udaipur, Mishra's car comes to a halt before an unusually high speedbreaker, and is immediately surrounded by a crowd "of suggestion- and advice-givers". Still more people come out from shops and houses to watch: "From the expectant faces around us, we could have been stunt-jumping a row of burning buses". If Indians can feel such consternation at life in India, then how must it be for foreigners? Mishra finds himself one night in the waiting-room of Banaras station, full of sleeping people:

I tried to doze off in the manner of the people beside me, but failed. I turned instead to following the progress of three large-sized rats, who fearlessly scurried about the floor, nimbly making their way among the recumbent bodies. Once, they accidentally climbed over a sleeping bag and started burrowing into it, mistaking its fluffiness for something edible, and woke up its occupant.

After a brief struggle inside, a startled-looking white face emerged from under the sleeping-bag.

'Jesus Christ!' he exclaimed. 'What the fuck was that?'

Deserving special mention are the chapter on Murshidabad (pages 223-230 in the new edition) and the beautiful note of grace on which the book ends - I would quote it here but that would detach it from its context.

Some pieces by Mishra: a three-part series of essays on Kashmir published in the New York Review of Books in 2000 (1, 2 and 3); "The Restless Children of the Dalai Lama", on the Tibetan struggle for autonomy; and "Gaining Power, Losing Values", a recent piece about the governments of India and China in the New York Times .

And here are some other essays from different perspectives: Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? , a recent five-part series by Stephen Zavestoski, who writes the blog The Curious Stall; "Why Indian intellectuals and activists are hostile to the market" by Ramachandra Guha; "Democracy and Capitalism in India" by Gurcharan Das, and "Markets and Morals", the 1998 Hayek lecture by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Other Middle Stage posts about Indian non-fiction writers: Ashis Nandy, Amartya Sen, Minoo Masani, Sasthi Brata, Ramachandra Guha, Mirza Abu Taleb, and Krishna Kripalani.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Houshang Moradi-Kermani's "The Vice-Principal", and Literature from the "Axis of Evil"

"The Vice-Principal", a story by the Iranian writer Houshang Moradi-Kermani, is one of the most tender and sublime comedies I've read in a long time. It takes as its storyline a conflict between a schoolboy, Majid, and the vice-principal of the school, over an essay Majid has written on a familiar school topic: "Who Renders The Greatest Service to Mankind?". While the writing is very swift and alert, and there are laughs on almost every page, the story unfolds to become a meditation, on the one hand, on the conflict between oppressive authority and its subjects, and on the other, on the power of the moral imagination to enter into and empathise with the predicament of another.

Majid and the other boys of the class have been asked to write an essay by the ferocious vice-principal, who always carries a switch in his hand and a supply of candy in his pocket - not for the children, but for himself, as he is trying to quit his smoking habit ("Whenever he'd get the craving for a cigarette he would toss a few pieces of candy down the hatch instead" - all the charm of that sentence is contained in the phrase "down the hatch", with its image of something disappearing into the hold of a ship). He says grandly to the children that the question of who renders the greatest service to mankind is "entirely up to you", but upon doing the work - composition is his favourite subject, for he wants to become a writer when he grows up - Majid finds that this is not the case.

Majid is asked to read out his essay before the class, and in a long preamble he praises the members of various professions for all that they do to serve man. He continues (the translation from the Persian is by Constance Bobroff and M. R. Ghanoonparvar):

However, if we think a little, we find there is someone in this society who serves men much. He puts in an abundance of effort and if one day he should turn his back or not be there, no one would be willing to perform his job and then we'd all become helpless. Yet despite all this, we don't like him at all and he takes no pride in his work. We all flee at the sight of him and if, God forbid, one fine morning our glance should fall on him in some back alley or on the avenue, we would block our eyes and immediately turn around and get off the streets and go home or back to our job. Yet, no one can be found who does not, sooner or later, have need of his services.

Yes, it is the town body-washer who, in my opinion, more than anyone, renders the greatest service to mankind.
Majid's letter is a small masterpiece of imaginative reasoning. He holds that although many people work in a dedicated manner towards the service of mankind, it is only the man whose work is to ready corpses for dressing, the body-washer Kal Asghar, who is shunned by the rest of society because of his work. (There is a strong parallel here with the plight of low-castes in India). In spite of this he continues to ply his trade stoically without grudges or complaints. Since, for him and for him alone, work in the service of mankind brings with it not only monetary reward but also the penalty of social ostracisation, his sacrifice is greatest and he is most deserving of this accolade.

But for the vice-principal Majid's choice violates all civilised norms. He was expected to make his choice from any one of the conventional options, but instead he has inexplicably chosen as a hero the most marginal and despised figure in society. The vice-principal cannot fathom this alternative scale of values: he asks Majid (who is an orphan, and cared for by his grandmother) "Was your father a body-washer?". Finally he decides this is a attempt by Majid to make a fool out of him before the whole class - this ridiculous essay on the body-washer is really aimed at destabilising the authority of him, the vice-principal. Despite Majid's apologies, he demands to see his guardian the next day, and says he will be rusticated from school.

In one of the story's most beautiful scenes, we see Majid at home, cursing himself for his foolishness first in writing the essay and then in remonstrating with the vice-principal. His granny notices that he is very upset, and asks him what the matter is, but Majid imagines how stricken she will be to hear he has been rusticated, and cannot bring himself to tell her. Instead he spreads out his bedding and hides his face beneath his quilt. Shortly after he hears his granny crying all by herself. Just as, out of consideration for her feelings, he has been trying to deal with the situation all by himself without telling her, so too she, knowing that some great trouble is upon him which he cannot reveal, is thinking about what it might be and crying over his distress. Majid says:
I saw that if I didn't open up and tell her everything right out, the poor creature would stay awake till morning and plain die of grief. My heart melted for her. I was in a terrible bind. If I should lay everything upon the table, that they'd kicked me out of school, woe upon us all. I'd never hear the end of it. Granny, at that time of night, would raise a racket such that everyone in the entire neighborhood would come to know, and yet if I held my ground and didn't say anything, she'd let her imagination get the better of her. Granny was puffing away on her water pipe. She was sobbing away and rocking her head back and forth. I put my head under the covers. I waited until the bubbling sound of her water pipe stopped. I said softly and all choked up:
"Granny, you have to buy me soccer shoes."
The story is available to read online here, so I will leave you to enjoy it. One last remark: note the subtlety of the story's last sentence, which suggests by its particular emphasis that although Majid has had to truckle to the demands of authority, his defeat is not absolute. Were the story to be filmed (and Mehdi-Kermani has written for the cinema), it is clear that the film would end with a mid-shot of Majid running, moving into a close-up of a certain object.

"The Vice-Principal" is itself part of a significant new anthology called Literature From The "Axis of Evil", a selection by the brilliant online magazine for literature in translation Words Without Borders, and published in the USA by the New Press. This book brings together stories and poems by writers from countries dubbed the "Axis of Evil" by George W.Bush - Iran, Iraq and North Korea - as well as other nations with which the United States government shares hostile relations, such as Syria, Libya and Cuba.

As many writers and thinkers, including our own Ashis Nandy, have written, it is invariably the case in our age of the nation-state that when states are hostile to each other, then over time even their citizens grow to fear and demonise each other, and deny their shared humanity. (Growing up, I myself thought that Pakistanis were a specially antagonistic and bloodthirsty people till, at university in England, I met them in real life for the first time and discovered they were not so different from me, even in that they too came to the encounter with assumptions about Indians.) In the introduction to Literature From The "Axis of Evil" the editor of Words Without Borders writes:

The "Axis of Evil" is an abstraction that obliterates both the very great differences between the included countries, which are not even remotely in alliance with each other, and the distinctiveness of the individuals who live in them. …But it is not the place of this book to provide foreign policy or commentary. Our hope was that with this book we might simply celebrate diverse works of literature and through them, provide fresh perspectives on the notion of "enemy nation"….Literature, at its best, should allow us to see the individual rather than the general; to participate in some intimate way in other lives rather than melding them into shapeless abstractions. Newspapers give us accounts of tyrannical and corrupt leaders, and brave dissidents under trial - the heroes and the villains of the story - yet rarely do we have any contact with the more subtle hopes and ambitions of unique individuals, the oddballs and misfits as well as the "ordinary citizens".
Those are very sage words.

"The Vice-Principal" is taken from Moradi-Kermani's collection Qesehaye Majid (The Stories of Majid). I also had the good fortune recently of seeing the Iranian filmmaker Dariush Mehrjui's marvellous Mama's Guest (Mehman-e-Maman), based on Moradi-Kermani's novel by the same name.

And here are two more pieces from Literature From The "Axis of Evil": "Baghdad My Beloved" by the Iraqi poet Salah Al-Hamdani and "A Tale of Music" by the North Korean writer Kang Kwi-mi. The latter, I guarantee you, will be one of the strangest stories you've ever read, and provides an eerie glimpse of the suffocating and utterly bizarre atmosphere of a totalitarian state.

See also these essays: "Art Under Control in North Korea" by Jane Portal, with a superb slideshow of different kinds of North Korean art promoting state ideology, and "Encountering North Korean Fiction" by Stephen Epstein.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Some thoughts on artistic time and real time

Some kinds of artistic creation, like painting, are experienced across space - we understand them by organising all their elements visually at the same time. Others, like music or film or written narrative, unfold in a linear fashion and are experienced across time. Further, the pleasure we derive from them has its source not just in their subject matter, their content, but in how they unfold over time - how they speed up and slow down, the particular direction they take and the sequence in which their parts are presented.

If we reflect upon our aesthetic experience we realise that time as we experience it in artworks is far more intense, more "rich" with sensory detail and with feeling, than time as we know it in real life. In the best works of art not a moment is wasted: every word, every note, or every shot seems essential. By comparison with artistic time, real time is almost unbearably tedious in its aimlessness, vacancy and sheer sprawl. When we say we opened a book or put on a CD to "pass the time", we are actually saying something quite significant. One of the reasons why we need art is because it allows us not just to forget our own selves (as I argue here, here and here) but also to transcend the quotidian experience and slow time to which we are irrevocably yoked.

Of course, human beings possess the resources to fill time up, to infuse it with urgency and meaning, even without art. Those resources are the memory and the imagination, and they allow us to prepare our own homemade version of artistic time. Each one of us has a private corpus of memories of the most significant events of our lives, memories we are always reexamining and reinterpreting. What has transpired once in our lives is replayed hundreds of times in the private theatre of our minds, with the inessential details sifted out as they would have been in a work of art. And on the other hand there is the imagination, which takes unrelated elements or inchoate yearnings and, by shaping them into a sequence or a whole, creates the same satisfying richness that we derive from art.

It might be said that our memories and our fantasies are our private works of art, only occasionally sensed or glimpsed by others but constantly in our own sights. They are our way of overcoming the tyranny of the present moment, of substituting the inessential with the essential. Even more than in behaviour and in speech, they are where we are most fully ourselves. In fact, art forms like the novel are premised upon this idea, that the dredging up of a person's interior life reveals what is most essential about him or her.

Even so artistic time, itself a product of the human imagination, has a special glow. Putting down a book, or leaving a movie hall, we cross the border from one kind of time to another, and wonder if somehow our lives could not be freighted with the same richness and intensity. Of course, this is a chimerical wish: reality will never support it. But on the rare instances that we do manage to live for extended periods in a state of elevated feeling, we often find the only parallel for that experience in the intensity of artistic time. "I felt suddenly as if I could hear life's music", we say, or "It was like I was a character in a novel".

Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red

Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name Is Red is that rare book: a contemporary work that can already be thought of as one of the truly essential novels. Although the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to Pamuk last week, is given not for a single book but for a body of work, there can be little doubt that My Name Is Red stands at the centre of Pamuk's oeuvre.

The first chapter of the novel is narrated by a corpse. "I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of the well […] no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what's happened to me," he begins. There is no one to hear the corpse, yet his words assume a listener. That listener is the reader, and My Name is Red is full of such speakers who, like agitated and unruly witnesses at a public hearing, jostle each other to press upon the reader the stories of their lives and the shape of their feelings.

Pamuk's novel is set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, at the time of the zenith of the Ottoman empire, and it is at different levels a murder mystery, a love story, a meditation on the significance of art in man's life, a parable of the relationship between the East and the West, and an experiment in narrative plurality.

The novel's cast of characters (most of whom are also narrators) include the clever and beautiful Shekure, whose husband has gone missing in war and who therefore may be a widow; Shekure's father 'Enishte' ('Uncle') Effendi, a senior functionary of the Sultan's court; and Black, Enishte's nephew and the protagonist of the story, back in Istanbul after having fallen in love with Shekure when younger and being rejected by her and banished by Enishte from his home. There is also Hasan, Shekure's brother-in-law, also obsessively in love with her; and a band of calligraphers and illustrators employed in a thriving art, the production of illuminated manuscripts illustrating old tales and legends under the Sultan's patronage.

The back-story of My Name Is Red is the encounter of some of the men at the forefront of Ottoman art with an entirely different style of art just beginning to take hold of the human imagination in the West: the art of human portraiture. The clash between two views of artistic practice could not be more total. Ottoman art is above all a religious art. Conscious that idolatry - and by extension painting - is forbidden by the Koran, it produces pictures mainly as illustrations of well-known tales and stories, as ostensible aids in their understanding, and with due care taken to portray the world from "an elevated Godlike perspective," as if leading us to "God's vision."

But the new Western art of portraiture, which Enishte Effendi first encounters on an official visit to Venice, privileges the human subject, depicting the unique and individual characteristics of each face it portrays, and treating painting as an end in itself and an attempt to replicate reality. Enishte describes this art to Black as appearing to embody "a sin of desire, like growing arrogant before God, like considering oneself of utmost importance, like situating oneself at the center of the world." But he is also utterly fascinated by it for the same reason: it seems to immortalise each man it depicts, perpetuate in remarkable fashion his finite life. Enishte remarks with wonder:
If your face was depicted in this fashion only once, no one would ever be able to forget you, and if you were far away, someone who laid eyes on your portrait would feel your presence as if you were actually nearby. Those who had never seen you alive, even years after your death, could come face-to-face with you as if you were standing before them.
His Sultan is equally fascinated by the new art of portraiture. Desirous of having his portrait painted in this fashion, he instructs Enishte to prepare in secret, using his workshop's best artists, a book about his reign on the occasion of the thousandth year of the Hegira, to be presented to the Venetians as a marvellous symbol of the Sultan's power. It is to help him with the book - as also the management of skilled and sensitive artists who must now work in secret, and both personally consider as well as provoke in their wider society the question of blasphemy - that Enishte has recalled Black to Istanbul. And Black, still lovestruck after all these years, is obviously keen to re-explore the question of whether Shekure, now probably a widow, is interested in him. Observing the specimens of portraiture shown to him by his uncle, Black thinks:
Had I taken Shekure's portrait with me, rendered in the style of the Venetian masters, I wouldn't have felt such loss during my long travels when I could scarcely remember my beloved, whose face I'd left somewhere behind me. For if a lover's face survives emblazoned on your heart, the world is still your home.
Black is a solitary, ruminative sort: his troubled life leads him to assert that "for men like myself, that is, melancholy men for whom love, agony, happiness and misery are just excuses for maintaining eternal loneliness, life offers neither great joy nor great sadness". But he pursues Shekure enthusiastically, and all of a sudden she agrees to marry him if he agrees to certain conditions. Suddenly it is Black's wedding day: he can scarcely believe how he has suddenly been presented "the greatest of gifts…after so much suffering". He finds an imam and goes with him across the Bosphorus river in search of a legal functionary, and on the way imagines how a miniaturist might paint this scene of his life, tinged with the slight foreboding that is a characteristic aspect of his thought:
…the miniaturist ought to depict us amid mustachioed and muscled oarsmen, forging our way across the blue Bosphorus towards Uskudar in the four-oared red longboat we'd boarded at Unkapani. The preacher and his skinny dark-complexioned brother, pleased with the surprise voyage, are engaging the oarsmen in friendly chatter. Meanwhile, amid blithe dreams of marriage that play ceaselessly before my eyes, I stare deep into the waters of the Bosphorus, flowing clearer than usual on this sunny winter morning, on guard for an ominous sign within its currents. I'm afraid, for example, that I might see the wreck of a private ship below. Thus, no matter how joyously the miniaturist colours the sea and the clouds, he ought to include something equivalent to the darkness of my fears and as intense as my dreams of happiness - a terrifying-looking fish, for example - in the depths of the water so the reader of my adventure won't assume all is rosy.
Not the least of the novel's pleasures is the whiff and the savour of its keen metaphysical intelligence, its willingness to engage with life's deepest questions. One such instance appears when Enishte Effendi is murdered. His soul ascends to heaven led by an angel and talks of its experiences, like the corpse with whom the book begins. Slowly coming to terms with his existence in this new realm ("Eternal puzzles and dark enigmas that only the dead might understand were now being revealed and illuminated, bursting forth brilliantly one by one in thousands of colours"), Enishte suddenly senses that he is in the presence of the divine. He is overcome by fear and ecstasy, as also anguish over his probable sin of blasphemy. He blurts out some words and hears a response, not aloud, but "in my thoughts". This is how the matter proceeds:
I could barely contain my excitement.
"All right then, what is the meaning of it all, of this…of this world?"
"Mystery," I heard in my thoughts, or perhaps, "mercy," but I wasn't certain of either.
A startling double note is struck here, of confusion and unintentional comedy on the one hand, and profundity and religious awe on the other. Taken by itself, either of the two possible replies would have been anticlimactic, but blurred together as they are here, they are marvellously satisfying.

As these short excerpts may reveal, Pamuk's narrative artistry, his appetite for ideas, his talent for patterning (a method of producing meaning through the repetition or the contrast of words, thoughts, or symbols), and his flair for observation all find expression in the most remarkable sentences, their beautiful and startling cadences transmitting a sense of agile minds roused to a high pitch. It is hard to think of another book in which practically every sentence has such an aesthetically pleasing shape and a ring to it. Erdag Goknar's marvellous translation has produced a book that, had it been written originally in English, would stand alongside the greatest works of English prose.

The first chapter of My Name Is Red can be found here.

And here are some essays by Pamuk: "Freedom to Write", delivered as a PEN lecture earlier this year; "In Kars and Frankfurt", a piece which considers the novel "as a way of thinking, understanding and imagining, and also as a way of imagining oneself as someone else"; "A Private History", in which he talks about the research that went into My Name Is Red and his use of autobiographical matter in the book; "City of Ghosts", an extract from Istanbul, his book about the city that has nourished his imagination; "The Anger of the Damned", a piece written after the 9/11 attacks; "Humour May Be Our Only Hope", on the Turkish elections of 2002; "Road to Rebellion", on driving through the city of Tehran; "A private reading of Andre Gide's public Journal", on the French writer Andre Gide; and "On Trial", an account of going on trial in Turkey last year for a reference to the Armenian massacre of 1915.

Update, October 30: And here's a new essay by Pamuk on himself and his work, "Implied Author" ("To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true - nothing makes me happier, nothing binds me more to life. I also prefer it if the writer is dead, because then there is no little cloud of jealousy to darken my admiration. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the best books are by dead writers.")

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

On Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor

A few minutes into Nagesh Kukunoor's new film Dor - after a set of early scenes of great tenderness and beauty featuring two pairs of newlyweds - we see one of his two female protagonists, the Rajasthani girl Meera (played by the marvellous Ayesha Takia), perched on a pile of rocks with a mobile phone in her hand, making her monthly phone call to her husband in Saudi Arabia.

She asks for him by name, and is told that he is no longer alive. We see the expression on her face change, and the phone drop from her hand. As if it cannot bear to face her grief directly any more, the camera cuts to a low position behind her. She appears framed against the empty blue sky, which seems to reflect back her great desolation and puzzlement.

The camera cuts again to a shot which projects a sharp irony, with Meera in the background, and in the foreground, with his back to her, the man who has given her his mobile phone for a fee. The seconds he is counting down on his wristwatch do not progress in the same way for Meera, for whom time has effectively stopped from this moment onwards. Yet it is not a simple irony, in which the boundless grief of one character and the grubbery of another are unambiguously juxtaposed. In an earlier scene we have seen the man walk away to a distance to give Meera her privacy. This is why, on this occasion, he has no clue of what is happening to her. He is both calculating and kind. From the different aspects of this one scene we can tell that we are going to watch a drama of considerable subtlety.

As Baradwaj Rangan has also noted, Dor resembles Iranian cinema in its close attention to the play of human feelings when presented with complex moral dilemmas. Zeenat (Gul Panag, compellingly direct, droop-shouldered and gravel-voiced) learns that her husband stands accused in a foreign country of the death of another Indian man, and the only way in which he can be reprieved is if the dead man's wife will consent to his pardon. She sets out from Himachal Pradesh for Rajasthan (Kukunoor's use of the two contrasting landscapes to create mood is one of many good aesthetic decisions) in search of the unknown woman who holds the key to her own future. In a marvellous scene in which the two lead characters meet for the first time, Zeenat reveals she is in search of her husband but cannot bring herself to explain the circumstances. Meera innocently asks, "Why, do you think he can be found here?" And we know that yes, in a sense it is only here that he can be found.

Takia's is the most naturally expressive face of any actress in Hindi cinema currently. Here it radiates innocence and simple faith, and, covered at first by a gauzy pink veil and then by austere blue widow's robes, is the subject of many striking close-ups. On several occasions she conveys the state of being overcome by strong feelings, in long takes where the camera stays fixed on her face, by nothing more than a flicker of the eyes and a slight dilation of the nostrils.

Her character has a highly developed moral sense, and also a natural moral sympathy - one does not necessarily eventuate in the other. In one scene where the two women are talking about their husbands (Meera does not yet know the entire truth), Zeenat remarks that they are both consumed similarly by memories. At this Meera pipes up: "But there is a difference: you still have hope, but I don't." This is quite true, but then she becomes aware of her impetuosity and, reaching out to the other, says, "I shouldn't have said that. Loss can't be measured out and compared in this fashion."

The depiction of Meera's many moods and facets make this one of the best character studies of recent times. Meera lives in a world of restricted choices, and admires Zeenat for her freedom and independence. Later, when she learns the truth, she is inflamed, and exudes a heavy contempt. She declares to Zeenat that it has been her dream to slay her husband's killer with her own hands, and refuses to comply with Zeenat's wish. Later, when she rethinks this decision and delivers to Zeenat the letter of pardon just as Zeenat's train about to leave, the image of the life-giving letter exchanging hands is framed against the very sky that seemed to echo once with a sense of Meera's loss. If the first shot suggested human powerlessness before fate, this one attests to the ability of human beings to transcend their circumstances and to change the world.

The last drama of such force I saw was the Iranian filmmaker Tahmineh Milani's Two Women, and indeed Dor might have gone by the same title. Kukunoor is correct, I think, in pointing to how unusual it is in Hindi cinema for two women to work out a conclusion without a man's intervention - in fact the film as a whole carries a bracing feminist message. He is also to be complimented on his use of Indian landscapes (some thoughts by Amrita Sher-Gil and Satyajit Ray on its depiction on film can be found here in this old essay on Sher-Gil), on Salim-Sulaiman's unusual background score - it is a great pleasure to hear the sarangi given such prominence in our synthesiser-and-drums times - and Mir Ali Hussain's beautifully turned-out dialogue. Yet his work also has some faults.

His villains are too simply bad. Girish Karnad, who rarely appears in any other Hindi films these days, seems to take a special pleasure in playing utterly unsympathetic characters in Kukunoor films - the corrupt and conniving coach, shavenheaded like a baddie of old, in last year's Iqbal, and now the bullheaded and tawdry patriarch here, tempted into quoting a price for his own daughter-in-law. The irony is that Karnad is himself a playwright of great distinction. In Dor the exuberant tomfoolery of Shreyas Talpade, the Iqbal of Kukunoor's previous film, as a master of disguises is entertaining enough, but mostly his character exists to provide a few predictable laughs and to add half an hour of screen time. Watching the film a second time, I found his part discordant.

Strangest of all is Kukunoor's own appearance on screen as the factory-owner Mr.Chopra. It is known that Kukunoor's early films, made as a relative nonentity working on the fringes of Bollywood, were shot on shoestring budgets. As if unwilling to make a total break from those old days of desperate moneysaving gambits, he continues to cast himself in major roles in big-budget works, when if he had auditioned for these roles he would have been the first to be cast out. The spectacular dodginess of his delivery of the line "Ab aagya deejiye" ("Now please excuse me") at the close of his first long scene opposite Karnad has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Some other pieces on film: on Kukunoor's Iqbal, Rakeysh Mehra's Rang De Basanti, and Tahmineh Milani's Two Women. Now I've got some other pressing work to attend to, so ab aagya deejiye.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Saul Bellow and The Republic of Letters

Every writer has a private map of literature, a vision of what the best books are. He considers some books overpraised, and others unjustly neglected. He feels the pressure of literature upon his life, and believes that other people should feel some of that same charge, and if they don't he must show them how. He would like to dredge out the best of the old, and sift the best of the new. In short, every writer would like to to run a literary magazine.

The Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, who passed away last year, founded four literary magazines at different points of his life with his friend Keith Botsford. The last of these periodicals, published more or less biannually from 1999 onwards, is News from The Republic of Letters, featuring fiction, essays serious and lighthearted, reminiscences, excerpts from diaries, poetry, and literary criticism.

The latest issue of TRoL contains, alongside the usual mix, three essays in memory of Bellow, including one by the writer Herbert Gold. Gold first met Bellow in Paris in 1949; he was a young writer spending some time in Europe, and Bellow the same, only some years older, and with two published novels to his credit. At the time Bellow was writing The Adventures of Augie March (his own account of those years can be found in an essay here); and as the rumor had gotten around "that he was destined to be America's new great novelist" he already possessed a devoted circle of admirers, to whom he was given to complaining at length about his many woes, especially marital. Gold presents a scene of the writer holding court:

Usually these family quarrels, hot tongue and cold shoulder, had to do with boredom (his) and jealousy (his wife's). He cultivated the admiration of pretty young women; he received it. He liked to recall how, when his first story was published in a national magazine, Harper's Bazaar, along with a photo, he received a telephone call from MGM pictures. Did they want to make a movie of his story?

He beamed; high wattage. There was an ironic glint in his large dark eyes. His smile delighted. No, they wanted to offer him a screen-test.

When he glanced around his circle of admirers on the terrace of Le Rouquet at the corner of rue des Saintes-Pères and the Boulevard Saint-Germain, we all responded with an echo of his own joyous amusement, just as if we were receiving the tale for the first time. Sometimes there was at least one person present for whom it was new.
It is a very fine and sharp account, alive to good and bad both - Gold describes memorably Bellow's self-regard and need for attention ("He required an audience as devoted as the audience he gave himself"); the particular achievement of his work ("Saul's prose style married classical elegance to Mark Twain and the pungency of street speech; Yiddish played stickball with Henry James….He could spritz like a lower east side comedian and then lament like the prophets….His gifts enabled him to edge abruptly into scenes of vivid desire and grief, as in the last paragraphs of the great story Seize the Day"); his tendency to write up his antagonists in real life as characters in his novels ("I know three people who wrote novels intended as revenge for what he had written about them"); and his extreme touchiness when it came to the reception of his books ("Receiving hundreds of clippings, he was still the man who could be thrown into a raging flunk by that bad review in the Deseret News of Salt Lake City).

In a post on Seize The Day some weeks ago I linked to a number of essays on Bellow, and here are a number of excellent essays by him: "Hidden Within Technology's Kingdom, a Republic of Letters", a piece about the founding of TroL; "To Be Poor Meant Also To Be Free", an account of the hustle and bustle of the Chicago of the nineteen-twenties; "Strangely Independent of Place", about the writing of Augie March; and "My Paris", an account from the eighties about returning to the city he once lived in.

A piece by Botsford I like very much is this essay on WG Sebald from an old issue of TRoL ("...when I, so rarely, find myself with a writer whose every turn of phrase and every thought is so clearly going to be interesting, I become self-denying. I will not just read it; I will savor it. Really good writers command that they be read at almost the pace at which they write—otherwise you will miss something" - that is absolutely correct.) And Herbert Gold has an essay on the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg here.

And the website of The Little Magazine, to my mind the best literary magazine in India, can be found here. Here is a selection of pieces from it: "The idea of India in the era of globalisation" by Sunil Khilnani, "The Hundred Watt Bulb" by Saadat Hasan Manto, "India Through Its Calendars" by Amartya Sen, "The Closed Door" by the Bengali writer Ashapurna Debi, "Babur, the man behind the mosque" by Amitav Ghosh, "Angoori", a story by the Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam, "Ten Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence" by Achin Vanaik, and "Bon Appetit", a poem by Arun Kolatkar.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

On Hamid Dalwai's Fuel

The Marathi writer Hamid Dalwai (1932-1977) was, like many writers who came to maturity in the decades immediately after India's independence, committed to scrutinising Indian society - in his case, particularly the world of Indian Muslims - and working and campaigning towards a better world. Dalwai was a proponent not just of Muslim social reform in areas such as divorce law, but he also wanted to advance the cause of ideas - secularism, liberal humanism - which he thought were distant from the world of orthodox Muslim society in India. This subject is addressed in what is probably his best-known work, Muslim Politics in Secular India.

But Dalwai also wrote one novel - Indhan, or Fuel, published in 1966 but was only made available in English after the turn of the century, in a translation by his contemporary Dilip Chitre, one of India's most distinguished men of letters. It is a curious novel, covering difficult territory, and a little rough around the edges either in the original or in translation, but it realises vividly the world and the internal dynamics of a small town inhabited by several different communities separated by religion and caste. Its subject is religious strife, and man's inherent tribalism, which in times of crisis leads him to conceive of the most barbaric deeds. Indhan was written when Partition and its horrors were not yet two decades past, and it is a sobering reminder - no less relevant in our times - of how human beings can be brought to collective derangement by real or perceived provocations. The fuel of the title might be thought of as the massive incendiary power under some circumstances of a single human action or gesture.

Indhan is narrated in the first person by a middle-aged Muslim man (he never gives us his name) who is returning from Mumbai to his hometown in the Konkan after fifteen years. The narrator's beliefs were at odds with those of his family, one of a community of prosperous Khots or landowners. Not only is he an atheist, in the years preceding his departure from the village he tacitly supported the program of land reform that worked in favour of the town sharecroppers and against his own class interests (thus, like Dalwai, he might be thought of as standing for a new "idea if India" and for the dissolution of old hierarchies and reactionary ideas). In Mumbai he joined a progressive political party and became a well-known leader; although he has not been seen in his own village for so long, people know of him from seeing his picture in the newspapers.

Now a heart attack has left the narrator in fragile health, and he returns not just to recuperate but also to resume the relationships whose call he has ignored for so long. His father does not even recognise him; his brother has himself aged remarkably, and the narrator is struck by guilt on seeing him: "He carried the added burden of the duties I shrugged off, along with his own. His situation had been like one of a pair of bullocks pulling a cart, finding the other reluctant to budge."

In the days that follow the narrator walks around meeting people he used to know, and this allows Dalwai to lay out the town's complex demography: the former landowning class of Muslims; the Brahmins; the farmer and the barber castes, and finally the low-caste Mahars or untouchables, who have now converted to Buddhism. These communities are interdependent economically but wary of each other socially; notions of high and low, pure and impure, are still in force. However, sex is the force that dissolves these boundaries: the narrator discovers that his brother has a Hindu mistress, and that a family friend has a Mahar woman as a keep. These transgressions are to spiral later into a violent tumult.

In one of the most striking passages of Fuel, the narrator notes the changing of the seasons and watches the dust swirling around his house in the high wind:

The rains vanished and - by and by - swirls of dust took their place. The dust gathered in the air over our house and with the cold wind blowing, started settling all over the house…. The dust was going to gather over and over again, tons of it each day. It was going to spread all over the house and lie still where it fell. It was going to grow into huge heaps. Nobody would take the trouble to sweep it off. Who would sweep it? How often? And what was the use of taking such pains?…Before the next rains, people would sweep this dust away and make heaps of it in their backyards. Then, one day, raindrops would storm those heaps of dust. At first the heaps of dust would swallow up the raindrops battering them. The dust would…drink up the water from all those cold raindrops. But the water would prove too much to absorb. In the end, the dust would exude a fine tantalizing fragrance, a fragrance one would want to get one's teeth into, and the dust would disappear with the rain - just melt away - so as to return, after the next harvesting season, to settle over these houses again.
This vision of the workings of the natural world, serenely defeating all human resistance ("Who would sweep it? How often?") is very striking, and invites comparison with the closing paragraphs of Chekhov's story "The Kiss". But this passage tells us something also about the narrator's own weariness and languor, and it is paralleled later in the realm of human affairs when religious tensions break out with the same pent-up force, and the narrator, after making an abortive attempt to reach a settlement like he had in the past, bows down before the clamour swelling in his ears: "If there was going to be an explosion, let there be an explosion! If it was going to incinerate me, let me be incinerated in it too…"

Indhan reaches a climax in a riot in which outrages are visited on one community by goons recruited by the other; the narrator runs helter-skelter trying to save his own people, but of course he has alliances on both sides. An uneasy peace is enforced by the police, and the process of judicial enquiry begins. The narrator, sickened by all he has seen, leaves again for the city - the novel begins and ends with a bus ride. But even though the narrator has left his hometown behind, he continues to speak of the various players in the drama and their fates, and his narration shifts into the future tense. Is this what really happened, or is this what he is dreaming will happen? The novel combines traditional novelistic technique with modernist elements that disorient the reader.

Translation itself is not a simple process of like-for-like substitutions across languages, and among Chitre's most daring moves is to translate the Konkani Muslim Marathi dialect spoken by the narrator's community as a blend of black and country American dialect. Chitre writes that he was unwilling to render "a dialect in the source-text as standard register in the target-text", and so he has invented a kind of patois to communicate the sense of one in the original Marathi. Here is the narrator's father is admonishing him for his preoccupation with politics: "Izzis all ya'd do in ya life? An' earn nothin'? Not feed yo'self? Not feed yo' family?" This is a surprisingly successful move: when I think of the local dialects in my own state of Orissa, their rhythms are like this, with similarly crooked pronunciation.

Here is an essay by Chitre, "Remembering Hamid Dalwai"; Ramachandra Guha had occasion to discuss Dalwai's political opinions in this piece from two years ago: "Liberal India on the Defensive". Prominent among Chitre's other translations is Says Tuka, his acclaimed renditions of the poems of the 17th-century Bhakti poet Tukaram; the very good introduction to this volume can be read here. Chitre also writes a blog here.

Other posts on Indian writers in translation: on Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, Sadat Hasan Manto, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay, and Fakir Mohan Senapati.