Friday, March 31, 2006

On the bowling of Ramesh Powar

I have a piece on the maverick Indian off-spin bowler Ramesh Powar up on the cricket blog Different Strokes today. Here's the first paragraph:
Ramesh Powar is that rare thing: the genuinely slow bowler, someone whose bowling never quite "arrives". One knows that Powar is a tease even before he rolls his arm over: the substantial Powar waistline, the zany red Powar sunglasses, the glimmer of a Powar grin that appears on the ten-step Powar gambol to the wicket, all convey to the batsman the air of a seriously unserious cricketer having a bit of a lark. But there is no harm in all this. Spin bowling, after all, is basically about subterfuge.

The whole piece is here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Antonio Machado's eyes

If most people in the English-speaking world are acquainted the work of a Spanish poet in translation at all, then that work is almost always that of Federico García Lorca, also the greatest dramatist of twentieth-century Spain (Blood Wedding, The House of Bernarda Alba). Like Amrita Sher-Gil, the subject of my last post, García Lorca led a flamboyant and colourful life and died young, and the legend of his life has to some extent ensured that his work is not forgotten.

But a Spanish poet of equal (if not greater) distinction and a curious charm is Antonio Machado (1885-1939), a slightly older and definitely more old-fashioned poet than Garcia Lorca. Their lives could not have been more contrasting. Lorca achieved early fame, toured the world, won notoriety for his homosexuality, and was murdered by political opponents at the start of the Spanish civil war (an irony of which is that this event, reported around the world, also secured his reputation). Machado's life was a placid unrippled pool by comparison - he lived all his life in small towns in the province of Castile, served for decades as a schoolteacher, and journeyed out of Spain only three times in his life. One is tempted to draw a comparison between the Indian writer in English, often earning large advances and moving from one world capital to another, and writers in the vernacular, often working away quietly and in relative anonymity for decades before they have a chance of even a wider Indian readership.

But to return to Machado - it was not that his life had no drama to it, it was only that it was a more private drama. Just as Dante had Beatrice, so Machado had his own love the image of whom he carried always in his heart, Leonor. This was a girl nine years younger to him - the daughter of his landlady in Soria, a town where he was then teaching - whom he married when she was fifteen, and who died of tubercolosis when she was twenty-four. Machado never remarried, and many of his poems express the sense of the transient nature of all that in life that makes us happy.

Consider the complex play of feelings in one of Machado's best poems, "The Eyes" (here in Alan S. Trueblood's translation):

The Eyes

When his beloved died
he thought he'd just grow old,
shutting himself in the house
alone, with memories and the mirror
that she had looked in one bright day.
Like gold in the miser's chest,
he thought he'd keep all yesterday
in the clear mirror intact.
For him time's flow would cease.

But after a year had passed,
he began to wonder about her eyes:
"Were they brown or black? Or green? ...Or grey?
What were they like? Good God! I can't recall..."

One day in spring he left the house
and took his double mourning down the street
in silence, his heart tight shut...
In the dim hollow of a window
he caught a flash of eyes. He lowered his...
and walked right on...Like those!
The man wants the memory of his beloved to be undimmed and untarnished, to stop time at the point that she left him. But time hurries on, and despite his best efforts she begins to recede from his memory. The conclusion of the poem, in which he walks down the street and sees a pair of eyes "like those", beautifully expresses his double sense of wanting to be true to someone's memory but also his yearning to love again. Are the eyes of the woman in the window really "like those"? They can hardly be, but immediate experience is always more powerful than memory, and something always arrives to fill in the gap for that which we cannot recover. The poem is simultaneously an elegy to a a person lost forever and a recognition of the truth that ultimately we have no choice than to live in the present. Note Machado's marvellous use of ellipses to convey the jagged rush of thought - "He lowered his…/and walked right on…Like those!"

Machado was the best kind of poet, able to explore the most serious concerns while also retaining an ability to laugh at himself. Here is the poem "Last Night As I Was Sleeping", in a translation by the poet Robert Bly:

Last Night As I Was Sleeping

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvellous error! -
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart
I said: Along which secret aqueduct
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvellous error! -
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvellous error! -
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt,
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvellous error! -
That it was God I had
here inside my heart.
That repeated interjection - "marvellous error!" - transforms the meaning of the whole poem. Paradoxically the speaker's words appears more vivid, more true, precisely because he asks cleverly if they are only dreams with no significance to real life.

Here are some other poems by Machado: "Has My Heart Gone To Sleep?", "Evening Rainbow", "Portrait" ("In my dealings with women I’ve been no Don Juan/(I could never be bothered to dress for the part),/but I received the dart allotted me by Cupid/and have enjoyed all the comforts women bring") and a selection of translations by AS Kline.

A good essay on Machado's poetry by William Zander can be found here. And here is a piece by David Grayson on Garcia Lorca's influential theory of the duende - that mysterious power "which everyone senses and no philosopher explains".

Some old Middle Stage posts about other poets: "Constantine Cavafy's City", "Chess with Jorge Luis Borges", "Nazim Hikmet in prison", and "The despair of Attila Jozsef".

And one other post with some relation to "The Eyes" - "Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's language of love".

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Amrita Sher-Gil for a short time

In the preface to her book Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, Yashodhara Dalmia says it is her aim to show, through close attention to Sher-Gil's life, "how genius is not born but made, indeed self-made". This is an admirable way of approaching the life of an artist, and Amrita Sher-Gil contains a great many rich and beautiful passages that show us how Sher-Gil, rapt in her own talent and hungry for a way forward, turned talent into genius by learning from both art and life.

Sher-Gil (1913-41) was a woman well in advance of her time. Half-Indian and half-Hungarian, of aristocratic lineage, she was born in Budapest and brought up in the Hungarian capital and in Shimla. She studied art in Paris in the wake of high modernism - unusually, her family relocated to Paris just so that she could make good on her talent - and reached a level of considerable technical accomplishment while still in her teens.

Her youthful work, already highly proficient, blossomed out in several directions upon her return to India for good in 1934 at the age of 21. Travelling around the country and taking inspiration from indigenous traditions - the frescoes at Ajanta and other sites in south India, Mughal miniatures, paintings of the Basohli school - she produced through her twenties works of haunting beauty and striking, if not always successful, technical innovation. Sher-Gil's life was just as vivid: she had many lovers, friends and enemies, married her first cousin, and died tragically young at the age of 28, possibly as the result of a failed abortion.

Although her work was very varied, Sher-Gil's women are of special interest. Dalmia quotes an entry from Sher-Gil's diary when she was just twelve, about a child bride, noting the pathos of the little girl sitting silently in a corner, a "helpless toy" in the hands of those responsible for her well-being. The women of Sher-Gil's paintings are grave, although they often seem tremulous with suppressed feeling. One of her earliest successes, made during her Paris years, was The Professional Model (1933). The woman is ostensibly independent, but her slouched posture, sagging breasts hanging over a pouchy stomach, and plaintive eyes show that she too is helpless and pathetic in her own way - she does not even bother to strike a pose.

Two years later, after her return to India, Sher-Gil made Group of Three Girls (at right) - the girls very still from foreground to background, their eyes lowered or averted, each lost in thought, a group and yet not a group, the light sober and low, the heavy colours of the clothes, the scene giving off a gloominess, a sense of something cramped and silent. Her two major works - Bride's Toilet and Brahmacharis, both made in 1937 - also convey this air of quiescence and melancholy. Like many artists, Sher-Gil appears to have found images of Indian life constricted by poverty and oppressive social strictures morally disturbing but aesthetically striking. In her early years in India she writes often of wanting to paint "those images of infinite submission and patience".

"Those images of infinite submission and patience" - three decades later, another young artist with roots in India would arrive in the country of his forebears, and be struck at once by just this aspect of the country. This is VS Naipaul on page two of An Area of Darkness (1964), describing how he is received aboard ship at Bombay by the Goan guide Coelho. Naipaul and Coelho speak roughly as equals, but there soon appears a third presence - "Coelho's man" - who appears to be a denizen of a different universe:
[Coelho] clapped his hands and at once a barefooted man, stunted and bony, appeared and began to take our suitcases away. He had been waiting, unseen, unheard, ever since Coelho came aboard. Carrying only the doll and the bag containing the bottles, we climbed down into the launch. Coelho's man stowed away the suitcases. Then he squatted on the floor, as though to squeeze himself into the smallest possible space, as though to apologize for his presence, even at the exposed stern, in the launch in which his master was travelling.
The best thing about Amrita Sher-Gil is that Sher-Gil is not just spoken about on these pages; she also does a lot of speaking herself (and therefore seems not dead, and memorialized, but still alive and thriving, as she is in one sense). Sher-Gil shared a lively correspondence with several people, including her lover and eventual husband Victor Egan and the Bombay-based art critic Karl Khandalavala, who was a great champion of her work and wrote a book about her shortly after her death. Dalmia quotes liberally from her correspondence, showing what an adept interpreter she was not just of Gauguin (whom she admired greatly), Basohli paintings or the Ajanta frescoes but also of her own work, both the intent with which she began and the actual strengths and weaknesses of the result. In fact, she was not shy of speaking her mind on any subject. Here she is in a talk delivered at Lahore in 1937, castigating Indian film-makers for presenting in their work only the make-believe world of the studio:

When the people who are responsible for the production of films in this country discover the rich beauty of a blade of corn, the rough unctuous texture of the earth, the rhythm of movement found in massive bullock drawing ploughs…and learn to discard the synthetic substitute of the studio they will do great things. […] I would like them to notice the undulating lines in South Indian sarees and the beauty of the thin peasants in their strange straight dhoties, to notice the glossy beauty of the rice fields and the shimmer of dust rising in the sun, to focus their lens on small objects and invest them with a charm and a significance that surpasses all pomp and tinsel of the ancient courts or Indra's heaven.
This paean to natural beauty has an almost direct echo in a lyrical passage from "My Life, My Work", a lecture delivered by Satyajit Ray in 1982, in which he describes (in Gopa Majumdar's translation) how he made the move out from the controlled conditions of studio shooting and attempted to grapple with the problems of capturing sights and sounds on location:

If the books on film-making helped, it was only in a general sort of way. For instance, none of them tells you how to handle an actor who has never faced the camera before. You had to devise your own method. You had to find out by yourself how to catch the hushed stillness of dusk in a Bengali village, when the wind drops and turns the ponds into sheets of glass, dappled by he leaves of shaluk and shapla, and the smoke from ovens settles in wispy trails over the landscape, and the plaintive blows on conch shells from homes far and near are joined by the chorus of crickets, which rises as the night falls, until all one sees are the stars in the sky, and the stars that blink and swirl in the thickets.
In a letter written in 1931 Sher-Gil declares: "I will enjoy my beauty because it is given for a short time and joy is a short-lived thing." She was not to know that life itself was given to her "for a short time". But the colour and pitch of that short, incandescent span of years emerges vividly in Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life. The logical sequel to this book would be for Dalmia to now bring out a collection of Sher-Gil's radiant letters and essays.

Sher-Gil's painting Village Scene recently sold for Rs. 6.9 crore at an auction in New Delhi. Here is Dalmia's piece on that event, and here is an essay by Karl Khandalavala on Sher-Gil's work. Several Sher-Gil paintings are part of the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi.

And here are some more exceptional essays on artworks and artists: the great art critic Robert Hughes on Rembrandt, Sebastian Smee again on Rembrandt (it was Rembrandt's 400th birth anniversary recently, and discussion of his famous self-portraits also appears in Dalmia's book), Rochelle Gurstein on the Mona Lisa, and John Updike on Goya. And lastly this fun essay by Jacob Weisberg: "Matisse vs. Picasso: You're Either One of the Other", and an essay by Pankaj Mishra on Naipaul's An Area of Darkness.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Adam Kirsch, the Renaissance, and Garcia Marquez

In a recent essay called "Rereading the Renaissance" the literary critic Adam Kirsch says of the field of studies known as the humanities:

The only thing most teachers and students of the humanities agree on, it often seems, is that these are troubled times for their field. For a whole variety of reasons—social, intellectual, and technological—the humanities have been losing their confident position at the core of the university’s mission. This represents an important turning-point, not just for education, but for our culture as a whole. Ever since the Renaissance, the humanities have defined what it means to be an educated person. The very word comes from the Latin name of the first modern, secular curriculum, the studia humanitatis, invented in fourteenth-century Italy as a rival to traditional university subjects like theology, medicine, and law.
According to Princeton historian Anthony Grafton, one of today’s leading scholars of the Renaissance, “the studia humanitatis, the humanities....encompassed quite a specific range of subjects: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, the arts that gave a command of Latin, the language of learning, and oratory, history, poetry, and moral philosophy.” For centuries after, these disciplines were considered indispensable for any well-educated person. Still more important, they helped to define an ethical ideal: they were “forms of thought and writing,” Grafton explains, “that improved the character of the student.” To study the humanities was to grow more independent and intrepid, both intellectually and morally; it was the royal road to becoming a complete human being. In the words of the critic George Steiner […] modern education has been defined by the principle “that the humanities humanize.”

Most part of Kirsch's essay is about a project called the I Tatti Renaissance Library, a series of translations from Latin - the language of scholarship in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries - of the classic texts of the Renaissance. Indeed, there are some parallels between this project and another ambitious contemporary publishing venture aimed at making a section of the world's classical literature widely available in English, the Clay Sanskrit Library. I wonder why there is not so much as a word about this in the Indian press (when if Paris Hilton breaks a fingernail, then we know all about it in the Indian papers the very next day. O books page editors of the country, what are you up to?)

Among the best bits in Kirsch's essay is when he harks back to the fourteenth-century poet and scholar Petrarch and his search for good books - this in the age before the world-changing invention of the printing press:

…one of the most moving things in Petrarch’s life and work is his sense of the precious rarity of good books—the opposite of our own postmodern sense of literature’s crushing abundance. [...] Before the invention of printing and the rediscovery of many ancient authors, finding good new books to read was an ordeal of a kind we can hardly conceive in the age of Manuscripts first had to be tracked down, often in dusty monastic libraries, and then copied by hand. The British historian Lisa Jardine, whose fascinating book Worldly Goods explores the material culture of the Renaissance, gives a telling example of the expense and labor involved in assembling a library. Cosimo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence and one of the richest men in Europe, gave his agent Vespasiano da Bisticci an unlimited budget for books: “[A]s there was no lack of money,” the latter reported, “I engaged forty-five scribes and completed two hundred volumes in twenty-two months.”
Kirsch is a critic of great distinction; there are not many literary journalists I enjoy reading as much. Like all the best critics, he manages to articulate precisely what in another reader would only be an inchoate feeling. I have never liked the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its avalanche of batty Buendias, is one of the most tiresome books I've ever read), but to my knowledge no one has expressed a sense of what is wrong with Marquez's work better than Kirsch in a recent piece on Marquez's new book Memories of My Melancholy Whores:

Garcia Marquez manages to deflect moral or even psychological judgment on the acts of his characters because the "magic" of his fiction annuls the "realism" that is supposed to go along with it. He never demands for his creations the kind of sympathy that enables and necessitates judgment. Rather, he endows them with the grandiosity, and the irresponsibility, of heroes from fable and romance. They are so innocent they ascend into heaven (Remedios the Beauty in "One Hundred Years of Solitude"), so devoted they cherish an unrequited love for 50 years (Florentino Ariza in "Love in the Time of Cholera"), so evil they serve their enemies for dinner with a side dish of cauliflower (the dictator in "Autumn of the Patriarch"). But this means that they are not really innocent or devoted or evil at all, in the way we ourselves might be. Like the world they inhabit, Mr. Garcia Marquez's heroes are stupendous, and therefore stupefying; larger than life, and therefore not really alive.
Here are some links to old posts on the Middle Stage on classical literature, both European and Indian: Boccaccio's Life of Dante (the first post I ever did, therefore not perhaps the best), the Rig Veda, and Dandin's Dasakumaracharita. And here's another old post, about a man from the pre-modern world just as passionate about books as Petrarch: Jahiz the bibliomaniac.

Here's a chapter from Paul Johnson's excellent book on the Renaissance, with a very good survey of the invention and spread of print technology. ("Before printing, only the very largest libraries contained as many as six hundred books, and the total number in Europe was well under one hundred thousand. By 1500, after forty-five years of the printed book, the total has been calculated at nine million." Johnson's beautiful book Art: A New History, with which I've spent many pleasurable hours in the last six months, is available at Strand Bookstall for a steal at Rs.750. Buy it while you can.) And here's a good interview in the magazine Bookforum with Steve Maikowski, the press director of the Clay Sanskrit Library.

And lastly, to return to Marquez, a short piece by the critic Jonathan Bate on One Hundred Years of Solitude, in response to the question, "Which are the most overrated authors, or books, of the past 1,000 years?"

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Javier Marias's Written Lives

Written Lives, a collection of essays by the Spanish novelist Javier Marias, may be one of the most unusual and charming books written about writers ever written. Most writers have a healthy interest in the lives and work of others in their trade, believing, to quote from one of Marias's essays, "that in those lives, or in their most secret anecdotes, can be found the key to a writer's work." Often diligent biographers give us access to such details, but with a great deal of dross alongsides, in works often five or six hundred pages long - as Marias notes, we are living in an age of "exhaustive and frequently futile erudition".

In contrast, Marias's attempts to sketch out the shape of the lives of Joyce, Faulkner, Turgenev, Rilke, Nabokov and Kipling, among others, are usually no more than six or seven pages long. His essays are a felicitous mix of precisely weighted observations, whimsical speculation, and telling details or anecdotes. He claims of his selection that "the one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals", although it cannot be denied that, just as a novelist never bothers to write about characters who bore him, so Marias seems to have eliminated from his selection those writers who led quiet, sensible, dull, workaday lives.

Writers emerge here as an eccentric, scatterbrained, and chaotic lot in their personal life, no matter how beautifully alert and composed their work (indeed, perhaps because they gave so much of themselves to their work). Joseph Conrad was so absentminded that "it was not unusual for the book he was reading suddenly to catch fire after prolonged contact with the candle illuminating it". Henry James's speech resembled his written sentences, multi-claused and neverending: "The simplest question addressed to a servant would take a minimum of three minutes to formulate, such was his linguistic punctiliousness and his horror of inexactitude and error". Vernon Lee would come up with "so many arguments in a discussion that she would sometimes contradict herself and it would become hard to follow her". Yukio Mishima was so egotistic that he once made a record "on which he played all forty characters in one of his own plays".

And yet - and yet. Marias says at one point in his chapter on Robert Louis Stevenson, "Nowadays, almost no one takes the trouble to read Stevenson's essays, which are among the liveliest and most perceptive of the past century". If this observation has a faintly unsettling quality, it is because it alerts us to what is missing in Marias's essays, which is some sense not just of a writer's life but also of the particular qualities of his or her work. This lacuna renders some of Marias's essays slightly insubstantial, too much like pleasant trifles. While they are never uninteresting, they serve to remind us that, even at the hands of someone as accomplished as Marias, writers are nothing without their books.

And also perhaps their looks. Tacked onto the back of Written Lives is a long essay, "Perfect Artists", very different in method and manner from the rest of the book. Here Marias delves into his collection of picture postcards of writers, and declares that he is going to look once again at these familiar faces - Dickens, Eliot, James, Baudelaire, Blake - "with pen in hand". Marias's essay on these faces, eyes, poses, gestures, and what they reveal about the personality of the subject - matters that most human beings spend a great deal of time contemplating in their effort to understand each other - contains some of the most delicate and surprising writing one could ever hope to read.

We see Eliot, "a man who had spent decades combing his hair in exactly the same way….He is meticulous, a perfectionist, and he does not find it an effort to remain so immaculate - it is just a question of habit".

Rilke looks absolutely unlike the fragile, questing figure we would imagine from his poems. "His face is frankly dangerous, with those dark circles under deep-set eyes, and the sparse, drooping moustache which gives him a strangely Mongolian appearance….The truth is that he could be a visionary doctor in his laboratory, awaiting the results of some monstrous and forbidden experiment". It is this section of Written Lives that seems likely to become Marias's most enduring contribution to literary biography.

Here are some excerpts from Written Lives: "William Faulkner on Horseback" here, and "Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in Class". A story by Marias, "Fewer Scruples", can be found here. And here's a recent essay by Marias, "Smoking and Fuming", on Spain's new antismoking law.

Marias's translator for Written Lives is Margaret Jull Costa (who also translated the José Saramago book I wrote about recently). The work done by translators often goes unacknowledged. In truth it is translators, more than any other class of people, who allow cultures to gain access each another and who bring the world to our doorstep. Translators help achieve (to use a phrase by Edmund Wilson which I quote from memory, perhaps not entirely reliably) a "cross-fertilisation of cultures", without which we would be more limited people, confined by linguistic boundaries. In my last post, on the Russian writer Ruben Gallego, I linked to a discussion of the craft of translation by Robert Chandler. Here are two more very good essays on translation: "Novels Found in Translation" by J. Peder Zane and "The Mysteries of Translation" by Wendy Lesser.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ruben Gallego's sub-human world

I've just finished one of the most curious books I've read in a long time: the Russian writer Ruben Gallego's memoir White on Black.

Gallego was born with cerebral palsy - a kind of brain damage that severely affects control of one's motor movements. His grandfather, a high functionary of the Spanish Communist Party, was aghast at his condition and left him to a state orphanage, telling Ruben's mother that her son had died.

Gallego thus grew up in a series of Soviet orphanages thinking that he was an orphan. "At eight," he writes, "I understood one very simple idea: I'm alone and nobody needs me." In the orphanage Gallego and other disabled children like him found themselves inhabiting a realm (as is often the case with cripples and invalids) in which they were only dubiously human - not very far short of freaks. Sometimes teachers from a training institute would come to visit them as part of their exercises, and the boy Ruben would note their "bugged-out eyes and poorly concealed disgust".

Circumstances at the children's home were desperately straitened - in an early chapter Gallego movingly describes having to crawl to the toilet at night because the attendants wouldn't hear his cries. Gallego often uses the present tense for greater immediacy. Here (in Marian Schwartz's fluent translation) he describes a surprise encounter with another human being:

They've moved me to another children's home. I'm crawling down the hallway and an attendant is walking towards me. It's dark in the hall, and she doesn't notice me right away. When she gets very close, she suddenly shrieks and jumps back. Then she comes closer and bends down to get a better look at me. I have swarthy skin, and my head is shaved. At first glance, in the dim light of the hallway, all you can see are my eyes, my big eyes, hanging in the air fifteen centimeters off the floor.
She walks away. She comes back a couple of minutes later and puts a piece of bread and lard on the floor in front of me. This is the first lard I've ever seen in my life, which is why I eat the lard first and then the bread. Suddenly I feel all warm and cozy, and I drift off to sleep.
There is a phantasmagorical quality about this passage that is reminiscent of Kafka, especially the scene in his famous story "The Metamorphosis" in which the protagonist Gregor Samsa, who has suddenly and unaccountably turned into a large insect and is locked up inside his room by his family, is brought food by his sister not on a plate, but - as if in accordance with his changed status, the fact that he is no longer recognizably human - "all spread out on an old newspaper".

But we also see in this passage how Gallego, from constant exposure to people's reactions to his physical appearance, has developed a capacity for visualising, as if from outside, what he himself looks like, for giving an account of his own strangeness: "At first glance, in the dim light of the hallway, all you can see are my eyes, my big eyes, hanging in the air fifteen centimeters off the floor." It is as if the boy has learnt to see himself just as society sees him. And that detail about finding on the floor in front of him "the first lard I've ever seen in my life, which is why I eat the lard first and then the bread" - it breaks one's heart to hear such things. In fact one might say that Gallego has presented here an ironic parody of a traditional human encounter with a dog, in which one is charmed by the melting brown eyes of the animal and puts a biscuit on the floor for it to eat.

But Gallego's memoir never lapes into self-pity - although he tells us often that he cried at this or that point in his life, in the narration itself he is never crying. In fact, his prose is often beautifully poised at a location that combines bloody-mindedness, bitter irony, lyricism, and quiet pathos. After he passed out from school he became ineligible to stay on in the children's home, and was sent instead, perplexingly, to an old people's home, where death was almost a daily affair. In another unusual and moving passage, he writes about seasonal and gendered patterns of mortality at the home:

The old women liked to die in spring. People died in all seasons, in a steady trickle, but most of all they died in the spring. In the spring it got warmer in the wards, in the spring they opened the doors and windows, letting fresh air into the stuffy world of the old folks' home. Life got better in the spring. All winter the old women clung stubbornly to life, waiting for spring so they could let go and surrender to the will of nature and die in peace. There were far fewer old men in the home. The old men died without regard for seasonal changes. If life refused to tempt them with a bottle of vodka or a tasty snack, they went to the next world without a fight.
Like Primo Levi's accounts of his years in a Nazi concentration camp, or the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet's poems about life in prison, Gallego's account of life in a stripped-down, attenuated universe forces us to inspect our own lives, our very human-ness, and all those other things which we take for granted.

But to end on a lighter note (and also to take advantage of a lovely bit of serendipity), let me quote to you a joke from Robert Chandler's introduction to his translation of the Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov's novel The Railway, which I just received two days ago. In it Chandler speaks of all the children in twentieth-century USSR whose parents were killed in Stalin's bloodthirsty purges and who were brought up in children's homes. He writes of how in these homes there was a sense "encouraged by Soviet children's literature, that orphanhood was the ideal state; an orphan's father was Stalin, his or her grandfather was Lenin, and there was no rival father whose influence might corrupt". But some children didn't quite take to this parenthood by the nation. The joke goes:

A teacher asks children in his class what they want to be when they grow up. First child: "Russia is my mother, Lenin is my father; I want to be an engineer." Second child: "Russia is my mother, Lenin is my father; I want to be a nurse." Third child: "Russia is my mother, Lenin is my father; I want to be an army officer." Fourth child: "Russia is my mother, Lenin is my father; I want to be an orphan."
Chandler discusses some of the pleasures and problems of translation in a very good interview here on the excellent literary blog ReadySteadyBook. And you might also want to read this essay by John Banville, last year's Booker Prize winner, on Kafka, which begins with the arresting line: "The question has been asked: was Kafka human?"

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The film writing of Saadat Hasan Manto

Just recently I've been reading some of the film writing of the Saadat Hasan Manto, portraits of the great players and characters of the Hindi film world in the 1930s and 40s put together in a book called Stars From Another Sky, in an English translation by Khalid Hasan. Manto is by consensus the greatest Urdu writer of the twentieth century, so there is no real need to make a case for how good his work is - that is already known. But sometimes, when his name crops up in discussions with friends, or on the rare occasions when it appears in some context in the memory-less Indian press, I get the sense that the side of Manto that is generally remembered today is the Manto of the post-Partition years.

This is the angry, bitter, traumatised Manto who, having left Bombay for Pakistan early in 1948, wrote from Lahore arresting fables of the ravages and ruptures of Partition such as "Toba Tek Singh", the Manto who was capable of compressing the horror and the inhumanity of what he saw into stories sometimes no more than two lines long. (Here is one called "Resting Time": "He is not dead, there is still some life in him." "I can't. I am really exhausted.")

But there is another Manto, the Manto who came to the city of Bombay from his native Amritsar in 1936 at the age of 24, and who over the next twelve years, working as a scriptwriter in the Hindi film industry, became the poet of the charms of chawl life, of joblessness, gossip and drink, of rags-to-riches stories, of sudden affections and bitter partings, of vagabonds and prostitutes, of the sights and sounds of the big city, all of which he recorded with great affection and sly humour. This is the Manto I like best, and this side of him is often seen in its most vivid form not in his stories but in his non-fiction pieces about the film stars, directors, lyricists, and playback singers of his times, most of whom he knew very well through his work.

Here are Manto's pitch-perfect first three paragraphs from his essay on Ashok Kumar, which pitchfork us all at once into a world of frenzied passions and hectic disorder:

When Najmul Hasan ran off with Devika Rani, the entire Bombay Talkies was in turmoil. The film they were making had gone on the floor and some scenes had already been shot. However, Najmul Hasan had decided to pull way the leading lady from the celluloid world to the real one. The worst affected and the most worried man at Bombay Talkies was Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani's husband and the heart and soul of the company.

S.Mukerjee, Ashok Kumar's brother-in-law, who was to make several hit movies in the years to come, was at the time sound engineer Savak Vacha's assistant. Being a fellow Bengali, he felt sorry for Himanshu Rai and wanted to do something to make Devika Rani return. Without saying anything to Rai, he somehow managed to persuade her to come back, which meant that he talked her into abandoning the warm bed of her lover Najmul Hasan in Calcutta and return to Bombay Talkies where her talents had a greater chance of flourishing.

After Devika Rani came back, Mukerjee convinced the still shaken Himanshu Rai to accept his runaway wife. As for Najmul Hasan, he was left to join the ranks of those who are fated to be deserted by their beloveds for less emotional, but weightier political, religious or simply material considerations. As for the scenes he had already done, they were trashed. The question now was: who was going to be his replacement?
It is opening worthy of a great story or novel: so many things rush by so quickly, but by the end of it all we not only feel like we have a grip on all the action, but also on the natures of the three people implicated in it. Notice how sly Manto's comedy is. Logically the first sentence should have been, "When Najmul Hasan ran off with Devika Rani, her husband Himanshu Rai was in turmoil," and only later should Manto have spoken of how a film that was already on the floor was now ruined. But instead he makes us believe for a moment that the loss to Bombay Talkies is the most important consequence of Devika Rani's flight, and only tells us about her hapless husband in the last paragraph. And lest we think that he is being unnecessarily cruel towards Rai, Manto balances things out in the next two paragraphs. One pokes fun at Devika Rani in the juxtaposition of boudoir and film set (the latter being the place "…where her talents had greater chance of flourishing"), while the next pours cold water over poor Najmul Hasan, who had appeared in paragraph one a dashing hero.

And yet there is also something poignant about these paragraphs. That something is not to be found in the writing itself, which is too assured to reveal it, but we feel it when we find out that Manto wrote this piece and the pieces alongside it for a Pakistani film magazine in Lahore in 1950. He was out of work in the new world to which he had migrated, and pining for the Bombay that had supported not just his material life but also nourished his imagination and his powers of moral discernment for the best part of his adult life. Manto was never to return. His condition grew steadily worse in Pakistan, he was almost always out of work and had a family of four to support, he was prosecuted by the state on charges of obscenity for his story "Thanda Gosht", he took to drink, and finally died tragically early in 1955. These long journalistic pieces - about Ashok Kumar, Nargis, Rafiq Ghaznavi, Nur Jehan, Paro Devi - are not pieces concurrent with the events which they describe, but rather attempts to fix in memory a world which had been left behind forever.

Manto's portraits often bubble with a writer's insight into and sympathy for character, a feel for the shape of individual human nature in all its aspects. Here is a bit from his essay on Nargis, who became a star very young:

She was simple and playful like a child and was always blowing her nose as if she had a perennial cold - this was used in the movie Barsaat as an endearing habit. Her wan face indicated that she had acting talent. She was in the habit of talking with her lips slightly joined. Her smile was self-conscious and carefully cultivated. One could see that she would use these mannerisms as raw material to forge her acting style. Acting, come to think of it, is made of just such things.

Another thing I noticed about her was her conviction that one day she would become a star, though she appeared to be in no hurry to bring that day closer. She did not want to say farewell quite yet to the small joys of girlhood and move into the larger, chaotic world of adults with its working life.
"Acting, come to think of it, is made of just such things." With this one sentence, presented as a tentative thought, Manto establishes the relation between what might be said to be a person's real self and the acted self that they project for the camera, showing how they overlap and are nourished by each other. Stars From Another Sky may be not just the most dazzling but also the truest book ever written about Bollywood.

Several stories by Manto have been made into films: Mrinal Sen's Antareen (1994), Fareeda's Kali Shalwar (2001), and Toba Tek Singh by the Pakistani director Afia Nathaniel in 2005, but I have not had the fortune of seeing any of these. Kishwar Ahluwalia's translation of Manto's story "The Hundred Watt Bulb" can be found here, and Mushirul Hasan's translations of the Manto's Partition stories can be found here. Here are two good accounts of Manto's life and work by Khalid Hasan and Khurram Ali Shafique.