Saturday, August 14, 2004

The Longest Journey

(First published in Outlook Traveller)

The train starts at Jammu Tawi and cuts across ten states before it reaches the end of the line, Kanniyakumari; it covers 3,726 km of track, its wheels turning to a shifting rhythm (chaichaigaramchai it says in the North, idlivadacawphee it says in the South); at night at the smaller stations the announcer's voice reverently rolls out the syllables: the Jammu Tawi to Kanniyakumari Express is now on Platform Number One; it carries nuns, tired jawans, chattering families, even a sad-eyed baby monkey on a chain, down the entire length of the country, lazily bisecting the map of India into two in a meandering line; mountains bracket its leisurely jogtrot progress; villages, dusty small towns, tobacco territory, sanctuaries, tea country, factories belching putrid smoke, still lakes, small ponds, huge rivers, it takes them all in its stride, as it should, for these three-and-a-half days mark the longest journey you can make on India's railroads.

<>Not counting the 36 hours you will spend in Jammu if the train is running impossibly late, which it is. The artist and I have spent that time getting to know Jammu far better than we had ever wanted to, waiting for the Himsagar Express, as Train 6318 from Jammu Tawi to Kanniyakumari is better known, to leave town.

<>Twenty hours down the line, the Railways have tamed us, broken our spirits. (“So you want to take a three-and-a-half day train ride? Let's see you last 36 hours visiting temples, trailing round the Amar Mahal in the wake of a certain Indo-Italian politician, fending off carpet-selling shysters, surviving the lures of the Hotel Touch Wood and the GodsDelite Rest Home. Prove that you're worthy before you sign on for the journey.”) <>I replay a conversation I had with an employee of the clean and very friendly Jhelum Resorts (a definite improvement on the Touch Wood): "So madam you come Jammu from Dilli?" "Yes..." "You go Kanniyakumari on train?" "Yes..." "Train stop in Dilli?" "Er...yes." Long pause while he works it out. "Then madam-why you come Jammu?"

<>In another age, when all good Indians had to sit through Films Division Documentaries before they could watch Sholay, they played one particular film over and over. It was a lyrical look at India (theme: unity in diversity) that anticipated the floats from different states that drift past during Republic Day parades, the one where Goa is always represented by a large, partying crab and where West Bengal usually produces an exciting tableau of Coal Miners in Coal Mine or some such. But you got the idea: this was India, in microcosm. <>And that is the promise of the Himsagar Express: duniya dekho, desh dekho. In just three-and-a-half days, see your country, from one end to the other. Everyone in India is a pilgrim, and the pilgrimages we go on are undertaken for many reasons-faith, curiosity, desperation, boredom. Do this one for the idea of India, that is Bharat. Three days in the lifetime of the average citizen isn't all that much to ask; we're prepared to do that much. If the train shows up.

<>At four am, Jammu is silent, so still that you can hear the faint drizzle of a light rain. There are very few people on the platform, a grimy, bustling place by day: the Himsagar is almost a ghost train, with luckier passengers than us opting for more punctual trains. The coaches are grimy--the Himsagar began its inaugural run in 1984, on 3rd October, and some sections look as though they haven't been cleaned since that red-letter-day. There were supposed to be two other passengers in our first class compartment, but it appears that A Singh and P Singh have gone missing. Bright lads.

<>There's a lurch and the platform, glistening darkly from the rain, moves past, offering a last glimpse of the closed shutters of the poori, rajma and rice stall, the unmanned sandbags, the roll of barbed wire around the station and the sleeping troops on the opposite platform. It's been a long day's journey into night, but at least it's begun.

Early morning, a chaiwalla looms out of the mist; the steam from the cups mingles with the fog outside. First class is sparsely populated, but the occupants have found a way to make their presence felt, as gargling noises testify. The platform is crowded with hawkers; the cabin is filled with spitters. Through thick fog, the stations roll by: Jalandhar, with its spruce platform, Phagwara, with a sign that says "It is nice to be important but it is more important to be nice", Ludhiana where passengers huddle in vividly coloured blankets, and where a band of hijras who're addicted to Polo mints disembark.

The train will reach Delhi at 9 pm, and by midnight we should be rolling through Madhya Pradesh, says the armed guard, who sounds enthusiastic about the possibility of encountering dacoits. Our compartment is ideal: where there should be a vestibule and a connecting door to the next bogy, there is instead a blank. No door, no wall, just a carriage coupling. A wall will eventually be put in--after we've traversed MP with its promise of dacoits, but it's the thought that counts.

As the day wears on, our home away from home comes into focus. Half the train is empty. There are exactly seven people in AC 2 Tier. Most of the junta compartments are empty; two are sparsely populated, one contains a single passenger, a venerable gentleman. Like sparrows flocking together, the remaining passengers have congregated in two compartments, which have the air of a house inhabited by a large joint family that has amicably settled territorial disputes. Nuns occupy four berths like a group of dignified pigeons; their grey habits will by some mysterious force remain immaculate all the way through to Salem near the end of the line. On another berth, two women chop onions, tomatoes and dhania, while children squabble and shriek and jump on the bunks. A few army soldiers, young boys with old faces, sleep, dreaming of Kargil and the other border areas they've just left.

At night, we discover the bedding conundrum. The train has plenty of bedrolls going spare in the AC section. The passengers in first class have no bedrolls: we thought that the Railways, like the good Lord, would provide. But while the attendants are sympathetic, regulations forbid the renting of bedrolls. Aha, but they can, they explain, looking at our pathetic, shivering faces, upgrade us to AC for a small consideration-where we will be given bedrolls for free.

We decline--the upgrade costs too much; the AC compartment is an anodyne space; the first class compartments, specially when near-empty, are comfortable; we have shawls and jackets. But the most important reason is the windows. You can't open the windows in an AC compartment. In first class, the dust and grime and rain and wind can knock at the window and be let in. As it is, the view from a train is framed by bars; on a journey like this, the windows must be open.

Our route takes us across an undulating, changing landscape, but not into a world of extremes. J&KPunjabHaryanaDilli, the train says on a straight track; UPMP, it says clattering across a short bridge; Ma-ha-rash-tra, it rumbles in a tunnel; AP, it puffs on a siding; TamilNadu and Kerala, it rolls out at a platform. The transitions from one state to another are gentle; the shifts from mountains to plains to coastal areas imperceptible. An idle traveller could while away the hours collecting images of picture postcard India and be content.

Or you might want to close your eyes and reflect as you pass each swiftly changing yellow signboard. This is Jammu, and we're passing the Bahu Fort, where the Dogras ruled, where green parrots cling to the dome of the Rambiresvar Temple and the people of the city pay homage to the extraordinary crystal shivalingas inside. At Pathankot, I see two women who appear to have stepped out of a Kangra painting. Somewhere after Ambala we traverse a flat plain where Arjuna and Krishna spoke quietly on the eve of a great battle. We must have come close to Panipat, where more battlefields testify to the rise, and the fall, of the Mughal Empire. Delhi's noisy, crowded stations conceal a city built on the ruins of seven, some say nine, other great settlements.

One of the greatest monuments to love ever built will pass by unremarked in the night, as snoring passengers sleep through the wait on a silent Agra platform; at Jhansi, I will wonder as I shiver whether Rani Lakshmibai's tremendous energy stemmed from a need to stay on the move so as to stave off the cold. The Stone Age and the Chemical Age collide near Bhopal, remembered for the Union Carbide disaster, while Bhimbetka Hill further down contains prehistoric shelters and cave paintings. As the train chugs out of Nagpur and its orange groves, I remember that Ramtek, where Kalidasa wrote Meghdoot, is close by, the clouds feathering the sky above perhaps not so dissimilar to the clouds he saw as he wrote. Warangal in Andhra Pradesh, the capital of the Kakatiya Empire, drew praise from a previous traveller, a certain Marco Polo. The tanks built by the Cholas and the Pallavas are still functioning all along the Coromandel Coast; and as we draw closer to Kanniyakumari, where the Vivekananda Memorial and the famous rock rear up out of a sea of mixed blues and greens, it becomes harder and harder to forget that history is riding the rails with us, a silent but faithful passenger.

By the end of the second day, the journey has been brightened by the discovery of a pink plastic showerhead in a bathroom that allows passengers to wash off the dust (considerable) and dirt (don't ask) of a long journey. The thrill dims slightly when one finds out that there is a wide gap between door and doorframe, allowing anyone who walks by to make detailed notes on your soaping habits.

A man with a baby monkey on a chain rides second class. The monkey looks out at the world with sad, wise eyes that expect nothing; she shivers in surprised delight when she's petted, and gently grooms the petter back. The storm whipping around the rails adding its thunder to the train's rumble scares her; every flash of lightning has her scurrying for safety, which she finds in her owner's arms, her skinny hands wrapped around his neck. Outside, through the bars, the sky lights up in vivid streaks of flame-coloured lightning.

In the morning, everything has changed. This is the spotless South; at Tenali, home to Tenali Raman, a sweeper plies his broom around a station platform already so clean you could eat your morning vada-idli off it. Coconut palms fringe the tracks, standing well back from the train in attitudes of cautious observation. The painted signs that used to advertise the services of Dr Bangali, the famous specialist in social diseases, now advertise IIT training courses and unforgettably, Trunks Panties Shimmies for All The Family.

The Salvation Army is prominent; so are other emblems of faith. The previous night, on a nameless platform, a small group of station employees lined up to perform the evening prayers as the azaan drifted quietly over our heads from a neighbouring mosque. Today, temple bells and offkey hymns compete for attention; brightly coloured gravestones make the churchyards into giant paintboxes; in one town, as we flash by, I see a temple, a church and a mosque line up so that they appear to be one single building, like a hoary cliché out of a moral science textbook.

Night falls at Erode junction--the train splits in half here, one part headed off to Madurai, one going onwards to Kanniyakumari. There's a faint smell of camphor on the breeze as we watch the engine change. In the darkness beyond the junction, the sirens of our train and others sound like signals, like the gentle trumpeting of lonely elephants calling out to one another as they pass in the night.

By the time we get to Thiruvanantarapuram the next morning, the train is almost empty. The man with the monkey has left, so have the nuns. We're coated in red dust as we reach Kanniyakumari station. Journey's end, it’s silent, small and bare; the heat is intense.

I should feel elation, but I feel only relief. The trip is over; we are flying back; I can have a real bath; the ground beneath my feet is steady, not jitterbugging; I may never have to get on a train ever again in my whole life. I walk out of the station, profoundly thankful that the journey is over.

An hour later, I have paid obeisance to the mingling of oceans at Kanniyakumari, let the sea lap around my ankles, sat on the sands and looked out from land's end, from the southernmost point of mainland India, at the place where even the longest train journey you can take runs out of rails. And I feel nothing at all.

It happens that night, and then again, two days later, when I'm safely back home. There's a riff in my head, the clacketa-clacketa-clacketa of train wheels. The view from the window is the same, but I can see moving pictures, from the north of the country all the way down to the south, like still camera images, vivid, insistent. The low, plaintive call of the trains at Nizamuddin Station wakes me up at night, and I suppress an urgent need to visit smelly stations, get on the first train I can and keep going till the end of the line.

There are things they tell you about the Himsagar Express, and these are the things I told you in the first paragraph. And there are the things they don't tell you, and the most important of these is: stay away from it. Because once you get on the Himsagar, it'll clatter and chug and judder its way into your blood, and even when you've reached your destination, even when you've reached home, even when you've unpacked your bags, you will never really get off that train.

Afterword: This one's going to live in my mind as the most unsatisfactory piece I've ever written, because it left so much unsaid. One of these days I'll fill in the blanks.

The One About Nissim and Shivaji

(First published in Speaking Volumes, Business Standard, JANUARY 13, 2004)

In Iris, John Bayley's memoir of his wife, Iris Murdoch, he wrote of her post-Alzheimer self: "The power of concentration has gone, along with the ability to form coherent sentences.... She does not know she has wrotten twenty-seven remarkable novels, as well as her books on philosophy; received honorary doctorates from the major universities; become a Dame of the British Empire." The woman who wrote some of the most carefully turned sentences in the language could now be amused by a silly rhyme about Mary and her bear behind.
Alzheimer's, never a kind affliction, often seems far worse when it strikes writers: it takes away all memory of the work that formed their lives, and reduces language, the backbone of their very selves, to infantile babble, or to a set of stock phrases. Perhaps that's why Jerry Pinto wrote in his obituary of Nissim Ezekiel, who died at the age of 80 last Friday after surviving several years with Alzheimer's: "The onset of Alzheimer's meant that we, Mumbai, its poets, his friends and I lost him by degrees." And it was hard to recognise the poet of Island, the Bene Israel Jew who hymned Mumbai in lines both plain and ornate, the man who brought Indian English into the stilted world of poetry here, in the quiet figure I met several years ago who could cope with commonplaces but little else.
Ezekiel's reputation as a poet has waned over the years; he is seen by a generation that has replaced his pioneering spirit with a brassy chutzpah as an anachronism, a statue in front of which one genuflects absentmindedly, before passing on to other things. It would be terribly sad if he was remembered solely by 'The Night of the Scorpion', which was inflicted on generation upon generation of innocent schoolchildren: it is not a bad poem by any means, but I never saw it quite the same way after I came across this two-line parody: "I remember the night/ My mother bit the scorpion..."
In his biography of Ezekiel, R Raj Rao unearthed a rare political poem. Ezekiel was an experimental man-he approached travel, relationships and LSD in much the same spirit of detached curiosity-but not by any means politically engaged. 'Toast' was published by Kavi India in a special issue dedicated to the Emergency and appears not to have been anthologised. It speaks as much to our times as any contemporary poem:
"To those in power/ beyond the law,/ And those in prison,/ with no recourse to it,/ I drink a glass/ of this or that--/ it tastes/ like poisoned mud."
"A cheerful company/ downs the drink with me:/ it doesn't complain./ Its testament/ is silence: the new creeds,/ faces, voices serve/ the old cause of self/ as well as the older lot."
"Another drink,/ the same toast,/ Let others fight/ for you know what."

* * *

'Toast' could have been written for James W. Laine, the author of Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. As scholars across India began to assess the exact amount of the damage done at the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune, the enormity of the destruction pushed the issues raised by the Laine affair into the background. The Sambhaji Brigade activists who mobbed the Institute last week were ostensibly protesting against a section in Laine's book on Shivaji's parents. They zeroed in on the Institute on the most specious of grounds: one of its members, SH Balukar, had been named by Laine in the acknowledgements. The Institute says that thousands of books have been destroyed-perhaps 30,000 manuscripts have also been lost, not to mention, ironically, rare books on and portraits of Shivaji himself. The property destroyed includes icons of Ganesha and Saraswati, a case of religious zealots committing the exact acts of desecration they have condemned in others.
But why was Laine's book so controversial in the first place? It was published by OUP in 2003 and received fairly good reviews in academic journals and mainstream newspapers many months before trouble erupted. The Sambhaji Brigade is a little-known offshoot of the Hindu rightwing Maratha Sewa Sangh. It appears to have been casting about for a cause that would garner headline space, and it has succeeded beyond all reasonable expectation. In the Times of India, MSS founder Khedekar was quoted: "Some passages in Laine's book state that Shivaji's renowned mentors, Samarth Ramdas Swami and Dadaji Kondeo, are [sic] his biological fathers. This kind of brutish penmanship raises questions about Jijamata's morals as well. How can we tolerate such blasphemy?"
How can we, indeed-if such blasphemy had been perpetrated at all, that is. Leaving aside the issue of how two men could simultaneously father a child, a biologically impossible feat, the fact remains that Khendekar grossly distorts Laine’s actual line of research. The historian has clarified that the book is not a biography, but a look into the origin and development of the Shivaji legend.
In yesterday’s LA Times, Laine wrote: “The last chapter is where I entertained what I called ‘unthinkable thoughts’ — questioning ‘cracks’ in the Shivaji narrative. I wondered, for example, why no one considered the possibility that Shivaji's parents were estranged, given that they never lived together during the period the three were alive (1630-1664), and that the tale provided ‘father substitutes’ for the king-to-be. Why not entertain such an idea? What made it unthinkable? As it turned out, the ‘owners’ of Shivaji's story had their own set of questions, delivered with a punch: Who should be allowed to portray this history? Should an outsider, working with Brahmin English-speaking elites, have a greater say in Shivaji's story than Shivaji's own community?”
Pointing out the presence of “father-substitutes” is a very different thing from questioning Shivaji’s parenthood. But this key distinction has been lost. As Laine writes, once the book became unavailable, there was nothing to prevent “rumour piling on rumour”.
In other words, the Sena's activists were protesting about a book they'd never read, on the grounds that its author had made statements he may not have made, ignoring the fact that the book had already been withdrawn before they embarked on their lumpen assault. The intention seems to be to allow only a cartoon Amar Chitra Katha version of Shivaji's life to stand in for the truth. Any scholar who might suggest that Hindu-Muslim relations were a little more complex in that day and age than the equation of Hindu/ good nationalist, Muslim/ bad aggressor, will be shouted down. Any biographer who chooses to write about Shivaji's life, rather than the Sena-authorised version in primary colours, is best advised to destroy his work, unwritten, unread and unpublished. This is exactly what Bhaskar Gajanan Mehendale did when he tore up 400 pages of his unpublished Shivaji biography in despair and in protest at the age of pre-censorship.
Those who have forgotten their history are now the only ones who will be permitted to write it, in an illiterate's scrawl, their words informed by venom and prejudice rather than reason and scholarship. If Laine’s work is flawed, challenge him; ask him about his sources; subject him to the rigours of a debate. If his speculations are unfounded, tell him, or write a better book. The mindless slogan-shouting of an ill-informed mob is no kind of answer.

The One About Life ash a Shlurring Intellekshual

(Originally published in SPEAKING VOLUMES, Business Standard, December 8, 2003

“Reviewers and columnists,” said the drunken writer at my elbow, “are the last bastions of intellectual freedom left in this country.” It was a generous remark, and it had nothing to do, naturally, with the fact that his wife was coming out with her first novel and that (as he told several members of my profession when the alcohol had loosened him up sufficiently) he was hoping that she’d get good reviews.
A bright young thing who was also at the book launch looked impressed. “So that’s what you do for a living, safeguard intellectual freedom. I’d always wondered, you know, because every time I drop in at the house it seems you’re reading useless books and eating chocolates.”
“That’s part of the job,” I said. “The hard bit is getting the wrappers off those chocolates. I hate it when the silver paper stays stuck on and you don’t notice it until you’ve actually eaten it…”
“No, no,” she said, “I realise I’ve misjudged you. And that friend of yours who giggles so much and makes outrageous remarks and waylays the wine waiters. I suppose if you’re a last bastion of intellectual freedom, you need an outlet of some kind. The job must be very hard, monitoring the frontlines of intellectual activity.”
“Well, yes,” I said modestly, flagging down a passing tray of chicken reshmi kababs.
“So give me an idea of what it’s really like on the inside,” she said. There was a new note in her voice, one that heralded something alarmingly like adulation.
“Well,” I said, and sought assistance from my giggling friend, also a reviewer and some-time columnist. She detached herself from a glass of red wine and looked solemn. “Lasht week,” she said, slurring slightly, “last week, I mean, was rough.”
“It was?” I said.
“Yesh,” she said firmly, “It was. First there was the Ramachandra Guha launch, where all the blashted intellecshuals in the bally bashtion landed up and we had to make intelligent convershation about Hegel. Or hegemony. And liberal something…liberated liberals? Liberalising liberals?”
“Ram gave a wonderful speech,” I concurred. “Yesh,” said my friend, “but I missed it like most of the other people who came to the launch because there was a traffic snarl-up in Connaught Place and everybody except for fifteen people arrived after his debate on liberals was over.”
“That’s terrible,” said the BYT. “No, no,” said my friend, swaying a little. “We got there for the best part, just as they broke out the drinks and snacks.”
“But what about the rest of the week?” said the BYT. “There was the Bad Sex award,” I offered. “For writers who have bad sex with their partners?” she said, startled. “No, no,” I said. “Then we’d have to nominate the entire lot of them. This was the prize for Bad Sex in Writing. Aniruddha Bahal won for a passage where he compared the woman to a Bugatti when her partner really wanted her to be a Volkswagen, but it didn’t matter because the swastika was the whole point.” “The swastika? What swastika?” said my friend. “Oh, the swastika the woman had shaved on her…”
“Yes, yes,” I said hurriedly. “That swastika; it was a significant swastika, never mind where it was, I think it tipped the scales for the judges. It’s the reason Bahal won the prize.” “Well,” said the BYT, who’d been following our exchange with some bemusement, “I suppose what matters is that an Indian made an impact on the literary world. A bit like the Booker.”
“Like the Booker. The Bad Sex Prize. Ummm. Yes, I suppose so. World recognition and all that,” I said. “Anyway, it was a busy week.”
“Were you…opposing the forces of darkness and countering them with arguments of sweet reasonableness?” said the BYT in awe. “Sort of,” I said defensively, “I was laughing my head off over the 18-page letter that the Greater Sylhet Council for Development and Welfare wrote to Monica Ali, complaining that she had written despicable things about Bangladeshis in her book, Brick Lane.”
“And of course,” said the BYT, “she has done nothing of the kind and you sprang to her defence.” “Rubbish,” said my friend, relieving a passing waiter of three champagne glasses and draining the contents in the manner of a thirsty camel, “the book ish full of shtereotypesh. From those awful letters written in some unidentifiable pidgin English by the heroine’s sister in Bangladesh to the way she’s written about Brick Lane—all shtereotypesh. You have good Bangladeshis, but they are shtereotypesh, and bad Bangladeshis, but they are shtereotypesh too, and in-between Bangladeshis, but they are…”
This was getting monotonous so I broke in hurriedly. “Yes, yes, what I said basically was that even if a lot of Brick Lane was rubbish, Monica Ali is still a promising writer and she’s entitled to display her ignorance. I didn’t think that cutting out offensive passages was a viable option.”
“Oh,” said the BYT dubiously. “But there must have been other issues that demanded your unadulterated attention and intellectual labour, surely.” “Like thish launch,” said my friend, wobbling off in search of the chapli kababs. “Yes,” I said, “this is a very important launch, because Leila Seth’s book, On Balance, is a very fine memoir written by a woman who was a pioneering force in the legal industry.”
“Ah,” said my friend, wobbling back with a captive waiter and his tray, “ish that why it’s important? In that case, why are all the Page 3 photographers taking more pictures of Vikram Seth than of his mum? And why have all the extracts been about Vikram Seth’s childhood inshtead of…” “Instead of her battle against sexism in the courts?” I said. “Because books page editors know that their readers really want gossip about Vikram Seth, not serious stuff about a woman’s dignified struggle to balance work and family, which she did with flying colours, of course.”
The BYT looked enlightened. “I’m not sure I understand yet how you’ve been upholding bastions of intellectual freedom, but at least now I know why so many copies of the book have been bought today. Everyone wants Vikram Seth’s mother’s autograph, is that it?”
“No, no,” I said. “The people who’re buying her book are actually the few people in the room who’re here for Leila Seth and not to Vikram-watch. They really do want her autograph. Except for the man over there who just asked David Davidar to autograph the book, though he may have been confused and assumed that David was India’s first woman justice of the Supreme Court. As for upholding intellectual freedom, it’s a complicated business.” My friend, emptying a bottle of beer down her throat, nodded. “Outshiders,” she said, munching on some aloo tikkis, “never understand just how hard we work.”

Last Word: Raped by Anonymous

(Originally published in The Calcutta Telegraph, October 16, 2003)

You probably remember these names, or at least, these descriptions. Bhanwari Devi, gangraped in Rajasthan; the girl on the Mumbai train, raped in full view of five other passengers who did nothing to stop her assailant; the Swiss diplomat raped as she exited a film screening at Siri Fort auditorium in Delhi four days ago.
If there are no names for the last three, it’s because the media has finally realised that the victim has a right not to have her identity broadcast to the world.
But few of us remember the names of the men who decided that what they were going to do for the day’s entertainment was subject a woman to a terrible assault.
We know the names of other criminals. We know that Manu Sharma stands accused of shooting Jessica Lal. We know that Charles Sobhraj murdered woman after woman after woman. We know that Billa and Ranga were the men who tortured and killed two children called Sanjay and Geeta Chopra; they hanged for that enormous crime.
But we don’t know the identities of rapists. We seldom ask to know more about their lives; we rarely know their faces; we subscribe to a conspiracy of silence. It’s always the victims, named or unnamed, identified by the media in broad hints, who are the focus of discussion.
What could we bring about if we subjected rapists to the same scrutiny that we are not ashamed to bring to bear on murderers? What might happen if the rapist’s family, his colleagues, his friends, learned to see his name in cold print and to shun it?
I don’t know, but after the last fortnight in Delhi—girl raped by four members of the Presidents Bodyguards, diplomat raped in one of the city’s premier cultural spaces, teenager raped by a restaurant chef—I’m willing to set the ball rolling.
So here are the names, selected at random. At random, after all, is the only way that you can compile an honour roll of rapists in a country where 15,000 women are raped every year.
Gyarsa Gujar, Badri Gujar, Ram Sukh Gujar, Ram Karan Gujar and Shravan Panda, accused of the gangrape of Bhanwari Devi. Their victim walked miles to file her complaint, was insulted during the medical examination, and spent years fighting for justice. Memorise those names. They belong near the top of this very select roll, for this was a rape committed in cold blood, to teach a woman who did not know her place a lesson.
Rahul, alias Budh Prakash, is the prime suspect in the rape of a Maulana Azad Medical College student. The police think he stalked his target. The evidence that convicted him was obtained from her sanitary napkin, and that small detail should tell you not just how invasive the rape itself was, but how invasive the process of preparing a case against the perpetrator is.
Raju Tomar and Shrikrishan Kushwaha were minor as opposed to major headline rapists. Their target was a Dalit girl, now dead. The father of one of these 20-year-old men, enraged by the woman’s temerity when she filed a complaint with the police, burned her alive.
Hukam Singh is one of the few rapists to have received his due. (The conviction rate in rape cases currently runs at less than 30 per cent. You have a better shot at getting away with rape than with petty theft, defrauding the income tax authorities, or murder.) Hukam Singh’s victim was just six years old. Villagers lynched him.
Bireshwar Dhali is one of the many men with key political contacts who was accused of being a prime participant in the mass rapes in Sutia. He raped his victim inside the home of her grandparents. She was 18 years old at the time.
Praveen H Chaudhary was a senior police sub-inspector when he decided that his duties included the rape and torture of a tribal woman in Vadodara. He ducked out of the trials several times, was finally remanded to jail, but then was awarded bail.
Preserve this list of names carefully. It may be a difficult task, since the list requires updating every 54 minutes. In India, every hour yields another rapist.

Book review: Storylines

(Written for the Indian Journal of Gender Studies--September 30, 2004)

Storylines: Conversations With Women Writers
Women’s World India/ Asmita
Rs 250, 312 pages
ISBN not given

In the lexicon of literary criticism, there is no such thing as a Male Writer. Men Writers don’t get together for conferences; Male Writers don’t find the diversity of their work undercut by critics who lump them together, willy nilly, under the amorphous heading of gender; Writers (Masculine) rarely have their concerns dismissed as boy’s stuff.

Perhaps it’s because the forcible gendering of literature has always worked only one way that there is so much discomfort with the phrase Women Writers. Like the word “feminist”, it’s loaded: women who also happen to write either squirm away from it, protesting that the mere fact of their gender is not the most significant thing about their writing, or embrace the term in full awareness, accepting the term and vowing to use it to empower themselves.

For the editors of this book, Storylines is a project made necessary by the walls of indifference and ignorance that surround much of women’s writing in India. For a lay reader, the existence of a volume like this forces you to riffle through your bookshelves in search of other volumes of interviews and criticism, and to begin to notice the absences. The Paris Review series of interviews, justly praised the world over, still tends to include three male writers to every one woman writer.

Mainstream books on Indian writing—with the caveat, in English, or not—tend to marginalise women writers, dumping them in the footnotes, or focus on one or two women who are usually too well-known to be ignored, or to create what I secretly think of as the Zenana section, a chapter often decorously written, linking the stories of three or four women together as a sort of gesture of token appeasement. The only exceptions are always volumes from the women’s presses, which sets up its own echoes of unease. It’s as though mainstream publishing has washed its hands of this work, setting it down as yet another chore for women to carry out. Nor is the mainstream media much more sensitive. A case in point is this book itself, which has been available in Delhi bookshops for over a month now, and does not appear to have been reviewed seriously in any mainstream newspaper yet, though several of them found space to review self-help books (Paulo Coelho, Arindam Chaudhuri).

There are several themes this set of conversations attempts to address. The first is the question of space. In some cases, this is directly, bluntly physical, as when Volga speaks of the difficulty of finding a table to work on: “When the table is free, I am not; when I am free, the table is being used by the children or other adults.” Jameela Nishat is one of the few exceptions when she says that domestic issues don’t interfere with her writing; Mangala Godbole voices the feelings of a great many women when she refers to creativity as a “raincoat”, to be removed and placed on a peg outside the door before she enters the house. There is also the wider sense of space, as in the spaces women manage to occupy in the mainstream. Some writers find their work dismissed as a “hobby”, as though writing was needlework, only less useful; some, like Dhiruben Patel, have actually had their work taken over and appropriated.

Patel wrote Bhavni Bhavai

and discovered, a while after the English translation had come out, that her name had disappeared from the script—it was presented as the work of Ketan Mehta, who had directed the film. She demanded justice; when Mehta said that the film-script was his creation, she suggested that in that case he might have published his instructions and descriptions, but omitted the dialogues and lyrics that she had written. Her struggle to be named the author evoked telling responses: I could not imagine a male writer caught in a similar bind being told that at his age, this controversy was not appropriate, and that he should be worshipping god instead.

Space, or the lack of it, has a direct impact on form. “The interrupted nature of women’s lives often makes for ruptured writing…” the editors comment in the Introduction. “So writers move from modifying the content of their work to modifying its form…. Epics are replaced by novels; novels are placed on the back-burner and they settle for short stories instead; short stories are frequently abbreviated into columns. Creative effort is thus pruned to dimensions that do not pretend to grandeur—there are few magnum opuses in women’s writing.”

Everything about women’s writing, then, seems to be about shrinking, about fitting in. This also contributes to one of the greatest stereotypes about women’s writing, that it is often tediously domestic, and like all stereotypes, this has a small kernel of truth to it. There is a certain kind of “women’s novel”—not produced by most of the practitioners of the craft included here—that anyone who has apprenticed in a publishing house can recognise immediately: often touching, but often also deeply circumscribed, often written jerkily (you can almost see the interruptions of the average day taking their toll), and in some cases, eerily isolated, as though the woman who stumblingly writes of an old, hackneyed story has discovered it for the first time, and does not know that others have worn it to death. These poignant but sometimes deeply flawed specimens of writing express a different kind of urgency, a need to be heard and to have their stories told, but they don’t always make for good writing.

On the other hand, the struggle for several of the most skilled women writers is to have the domestic space accorded the importance it deserves. (This goes back to an old, old argument—was Charles Dickens superior to Jane Austen because he had a wider canvas, or would you place Austen over him on the ground that she was by far the more perceptive writer?) To belittle the novel set in the private spaces of the kitchen or the bedroom is to give your assent to the argument that only the masculine (read public) world counts, that the feminine (read private) world is of no importance, or at any rate, of importance only to women readers. And conversely, when women tackle larger themes—politics in particular—they risk greater disparagement than men. Mridula Garg captures the subtle shift in argument perfectly: “Earlier it used to be: what do they know about war, what do they know about history, about politics—all those were taboo subjects. But now we’re in every field so they don’t say that any more….So now it’s how you treat it—are you totally shameless, or totally without values, or are you anti-Indian, westernised…”

One of the many ideas discussed here is Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s idea of the “genderlect”: “In her view, while the linear narrative mode of story-telling with a strong pull towards closure is the preferred male-masculine form of expression and communication, the alternative conversational mode that follows a more open-ended and ‘interruptive’ structure, is more female/ feminine.” The best of the interviews here follow the “alternative conversational mode”: there is no sense of the interviewer following a rigid agenda, or of the interviewer as interrogator. Instead, there are moments when all three—interviewer, author and reader—appear to have found their way into a private, comfortable space where anything can be discussed and nothing is off limits. This is conversation, and what Storylines

does best is to keep the conversation going long after you’ve turned the last page.

The One About Edward Said

(First published in Speaking Volumes, Business Standard, SEPTEMBER 30, 2003)

Being online the night we heard that Edward Said died was to receive a demonstration of how deeply the man had affected his world. It was only by coincidence that I hit Google News a bare minute, literally, after Reuters and AP put the first notices up on their website: if you typed in ‘Edward Said’ just then, at that precise moment, all that came up were these two terse reports announcing that Said had succumbed to leukaemia after years of battling the disease.
Five minutes later, the bigger Western papers and the more important Arab news sites had picked it up. Ten minutes down the line, and Google News was swamped with links, starting with Al-Ahram Weekly where Said wrote regularly, proceeding to newspapers everywhere in the world, from Melbourne to Jerusalem, New York to Nevada, Valparaiso to Bombay. To witness this phenomenon was like watching a switchboard light up, was like having the lights turned off just as you look up at the sky, so that what seemed like blankess is suddenly filled with spreading, urgent pinpoints of light. Each time I searched, more and more links came up, until it seemed that the whole world had been informed, and that the whole world was mourning the death of Edward Said with the same intensity.
The Palestinian world had cause to mourn. Said occasionally grew tired of the paradoxical position his espousing of the Palestinian cause put him in—he, who had been among the first to articulate original thoughts about the injustice that had been visited upon him and his people, was condemned to restate that argument, to remind the world ceaselessly, to endlessly reiterate the roots of the problem.
Said, not a writer given to expressing himself emotionally in general, offered a rare glimpse of his personal anguish in his memoir, Out of Place: “Even now the unreconciled duality I feel about the place, its intricate wrenching, tearing, sorrowful loss as exemplified in so many distorted lives, including mine, and its status as an admirable country for them (but of course not for us), always gives me pain and a discouraging sense of being solitary, undefended, open to the assaults of trivial things that seem important and threatening, against which I have no weapons.”
Ultimately, the man who had been stigmatised as an indifferent, lazy student in his schooldays, would learn to wield the powerful weapon of his mind. Said’s critiques of the kind of mindset that allowed the Palestine question to fester for so long fed and were in turn fed by his seminal treatise on how to reread the literature we had taken for granted, in Orientalism.
It wasn’t till I read Out of Place and some of his more autobiographical writings that I realised the care and attention with which he had deconstructed his own background, always searching for the right symbols. One of the schools he went to was divided into “houses”, very like my own alma mater in Calcutta, and I still remember the wry recognition this passage called forth: “[The houses] further inculcated and naturalized the ideology of empire. I was a member of Kitchener House; other houses were Cromer, Frobisher and Drake.” Those of us who grew up owing allegiance to Charnock, Martin, Hastings and Macaulay (rather than Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru and Bose, for instance!) might indeed have cause to wince.
As Said’s reputation grew, so did the viciousness of the attacks on him. Perhaps the most pernicious attack on Said was the one perpetrated by Justus Weiner, who wrote in an article for ‘Commentary’ that Said had lied about his roots. Weiner claimed that Said’s house in Palestine never existed, or at least belonged to a distant family member; that Said had never studied in St George’s School in Jerusalem; that in effect, Said was guilty of creating a fictionalised Palestinian past in order to claim a greater solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The attack was treated with an amazed contempt when it first appeared: the truth of the matter was so very different.
It was true that the house in Palestine didn’t belong to Said’s immediate family, but it was also true that Said and his sister were born in that house, and that they spent much time there—individual ownership, as most Indians will immediately understand, accounting for far less in the clan than family ownership. Records were not available for the years in which Said was at St George’s—for all students, not just for Said—but there were at least four fellow students who could corroborate his presence there.
It was an especially vicious attack because as was apparent when it was first articulated, it was aimed at dispossessing Said twice over. He had already been removed from the land, as had many of his generation of Palestinians; now he was being dispossessed of his own memories. And it was vicious because it has lasted; it resurfaced in the usual form of rumour (“Said lied about his roots—how can you trust him?”) shortly after his death on several websites. Said had to return time and time again to explain his support for the Palestinian cause; now it seems as though Said’s supporters are caught in the same circle of endless rebuttal.
More serious, in some ways, are the attacks launched on Said by critics of his theory of Orientalism. Perhaps the most prominent but the least intellectually coherent of these critics is Christopher Hitchens, who attempted to assault Orientalism in a recent review for The Atlantic, but then veered off into a defence of the US war on Iraq and a diatribe against all those who, like Said, had attacked George Bush and the invasion.
Far more interesting is the criticism offered by commentators like Vijay Nambisan, to take just one example. Nambisan’s critique of Orientalism was expressed in his recent book, Language As an Ethic. Reading Kim and reading Said’s comments on Kipling, Nambisan came to the far more damaging conclusion that “Said ignores the rich (opulent, exotic) Indian material. He devotes the book to Europe’s picture of the Arab world.” Orientalism, one of Said’s two lasting legacies, has come under fire of late, and this is an excellent thing: the debates over Said’s once-pathbreaking work seem likely to lead into new directions, though I suspect that the Nambisan line will be more fruitful than the noisier Hitchens line of attack.
The next ten years might see a new Orientalism, or indeed a completely new theory, and I think Said would have been very glad of that. If Orientalism, or his treatise on Culture and Imperialism, had sunk into oblivion, that would have represented a defeat of his ideas, of his sense that no aspect of the world and how we read it should be exempt from examination. Socrates decreed that the unexamined life was not worth living; Said spent every moment of his adult years, whether he was addressing political questions, literary questions or a passion like classical music, examining and questioning the world that he inhabited and made such a contribution to. He left no intellectual heirs worthy of his name, and perhaps that is the only real tragedy.

The One About Jhumpa Lahiri and Reviews in India

(First published in the Business Standard, September 15, 2003)

The formula for a rising Hollywood star used to run along these lines. First there’s the hopeful actor in Phase One: “If you have the time, please give me a call. I’ll be waiting by the phone.” Then there’s the moderately successful role, or Phase Two: “Give me a buzz. I’m in the phone book..” Then there’s the big Oscar-nominated role, or Phase Three: “The party you are inquiring about has an unlisted number.” <>
You have a similar phenomenon with a certain kind of Author of Indian Origin writing of India in the West. Phase One: “I really hope my book does well in India.” Phase Two: “There were a few bad reviews, but only from India—everyone here loved it.” Phase Three usually occurs after the author has been feted enough abroad to relax into relative honesty: “India? No, they hate me and besides, they don’t count.” <>
Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book, A Temporary Matter, drew admiring reviews by and large in the West. The reviews in India were generous, laced with mild criticism where us native reviewer types sensed a gap between Lahiri’s (limited) knowledge of the country and her (admirable) writing talent. The criticism never reached the proportions of an attack, and when she received the Pulitzer Prize, most commentators in India as well as abroad agreed that it was deserved. <>
Lahiri wrote an anguished response attacking the cult of authenticity—it raised a minor kerfuffle, and then all of us got on with our lives. Not so Lahiri, who seems reluctant to risk more insult. In other words, she’s in Phase Three—she might visit. Some day. Do a stopover when she’s off to Australia for a literary festival, kind of thing. Her second book, The Namesake is drawing a mixed bag of reviews, including a rare rave from the formidable Michiko Kakutani, while others have been mildly critical. The first review to come out in India was a gushing thumbs-up. Perhaps if someone posts Lahiri a copy, she might even change her travel plans! <>
Not that the reviewing business here is above criticism. The Incredible Shrinking Review continues to puzzle me. If the average length of a novel is around 300 pages, and the average length of a review is around 600 words, you’re allotting about 200 words to a hundred pages. No one benefits—not the author, who’s sweated anything from a year to five over his heartbreaking work of staggering genius, not the reviewer, who must either turn traitor to her job and read the book cursorily, or live with the trauma of reading a book carefully only in order to post a short, blurb-length notice, not the reader, who’s better off reading the publisher’s catalogue. <>
The practice of logrolling—getting someone to praise a book for specious, often nepotistic, reasons—is balanced by the practice of pulling in the author’s sworn enemy to review the book, to make for controversial reading that the public will lap up. <>
And as will be obvious to anyone who reads the books pages, standards fluctuate wildly. The same page might feature in a single week the Review Disingenuous (where the reviewer has an axe to grind but pretends impartiality); the Review Via Kunji (regurgitate the blurb and the plotline so that you need not actually read the book); or the Review Outrageous (where the reviewer has read, but not understood, the book, and will proceed to flaunt his ignorance). I’m a practitioner of the Review Overcompassionate, where one allows a fleeting sense of pity for the poor author to outweigh one’s finer judgement, to the detriment of the reader and your own self-esteem. (Never write anything that you’d be embarrassed to see blurbed by the publisher. If you do, a thousand book covers will ensure that you live to regret it.) <>
Some practitioners do stand out, though, and Anita Roy has been in my personal Top Five for a long time. I stand doubly indebted to her for coining the term Mirror Literature to describe the kind of book that has the same appeal as egosurfing (Googling your own name) on the Net. You read it in order to be gratified by the fact that the author has written about People Like You—women in bad marriages, unmarried women in bad engagements, immigrant Indians, drawling PLUs and small-town Indians are at the top of this list. <>
The problem with Mirror Literature is that it does nothing beyond hold up a glass in which you can discern a reflection: the hallmarks of this genre are that it does not yield memorable characters, or memorable situations, or memorable language. There is nothing to be done when faced with a surfeit of Mirror Literature except to disappear into the soothing embrace of tried-and-tested fiction, preferably of the genre kind. <>
My current panacea is provided by two detectives, one old and one new-minted. Nero Wolfe has given me unending hours of pleasure—he provides recipes (try grilling kidneys a la Fritz some day!) alongside cheerfully improbable plots. The new detective in my life is Mma Ramotswe, proprietor of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, situated in Botswana and dreamed up in the wondrously fertile mind of Alexander McCall Smith, whose 50-odd previous books have included treatises on Botswana’s criminal laws and a short story collection called Portuguese Irregular Verbs. <>
Precious Ramotswe, who is a “traditionally built woman”, has a case list that involves a higher proportion of moral dilemmas than corpses. Her clients have included a woman who knows her husband has stolen a car, a beauty contest organiser who wants to be sure that his four finalists are women of integrity, and the parents of children gone missing in the bush. She has been compared to Miss Marple, perhaps because both women practise their trade by being good listeners and good people, but Mma Ramotswe is a one-off as a Lady Detective. The series made me realise just how much I’d missed the days when all cases weren’t set in the forensic lab, when all murderers weren’t psychotic serial killers, and when all detectives weren’t hideously complicated personalities working out their own psychoses. <>
Meanwhile, I have adopted Nero Wolfe’s patent system of judging the quality of books and am in deep trouble as a result. Books “marked with a thin strip of gold” (alas, silver, in my case) are Grade A. Books “marked with a piece of paper” are Grade B. Books with a dog-eared page to mark the place are Grade C. Below that is the last circle of hell, ie Grade D. It is disheartening, perhaps, but with a very few exceptions, I find that most of what I’m reading off the Booker longlist and off the new wave of Indian literary talent is firmly Grade C, and that’s only because I’m too kind to do worse to a book than dog-ear it. Either my standards have risen over the years, or there really isn’t much wildly exciting writing out there. It needs the wisdom of a Precious Ramotswe to sort out this one.

Last Word: The Love-Hate Laws

(This column was written for The Calcutta Telegraph, September 12, 2003.)

Until I went through the debates raised last week over whether the infamous criminal sodomy laws in the Indian Penal Code should be repealed, I had, like a good, well-brought up Indian woman should, taken the edifice of my marriage for granted.
My husband and I tied the knot about seven years ago. As practising heterosexuals, we took our right to stand up in public and affirm our commitment for granted; we did not, unfortunately, delve deeply enough into the laws governing marriage, or we might have opted out in disgust.
I mention this to avert a possible criticism from the government of India, which told justices of the Delhi High Court that the laws affected only a small minority of Indians—ie, gays and lesbians—and that “no one except those whose rights are directly affected by the law can raise the question of its constutionality". But we do not live in a police state, yet, and that every citizen of India is entitled to take part in a debate over the laws that govern us; and far from affecting what the government thinks of as a “small minority” and we see as a thriving gay and lesbian community, these laws affect everybody. This the state’s version of the Love Laws Arundhati Roy described that decree who is allowed to love whom and how much and when and why.
The government’s response concerned the potential repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which seeks to prosecute “whoever voluntarily has sex against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”. The government’s legal representatives asserted that “Indian society by and large disapproves of homosexuality”. In more Biblical vein, they asserted that legalizing gay sex would "open the floodgates of delinquent behavior”.
Indian historical records show that homosexuals and lesbians existed centuries ago in this ancient land, and have gone through cycles of persecution combined with moderate tolerance then as now. What the government’s records do not indicate, but the wording of Section 377 does, is that the idea of sexual relations “against the order of nature” is a very Victorian, indeed, almost severely Puritanical concept. It certainly isn’t a concept to be enshrined in stone by a country that expects to call itself modern.
We should be ashamed that the debate over the acceptability of homosexual behaviour in India is at such an embryo stage. I’m not going to point out the obvious, which is that people fall in love and it’s ridiculous to criminalise them because they prefer their own gender to the opposite gender. I’m not going to go into detail over the fact that Delhi and Mumbai now have a thriving gay and lesbian “scene”, or belabour the point that society is becoming far more tolerant—witness the Gay Pride march in Calcutta recently. Gays and lesbians should be at a stage where, like their counterparts in the Western world, they’re looking for additional rights—the right to adopt children, to celebrate your union legally—rather than be struggling for the right to be what they are.
But what is the government doing in our bedrooms—gay, hetero, it doesn’t matter—in the first place? Section 377 is a law that can be used to prosecute any adult, even consenting, for indulging in oral or anal sex. What it indicates, though, is just how far a patriarchal state thinks it has the right to legislate our sexuality. Under the matrix of the present laws, a woman, by entering into marriage, implicitly consents to “normal”—ie, non-oral and non-anal—sex. This is the unstated but widely accepted principle that makes it difficult for women to file charges of marital rape, incidentally, but we’ll let that pass.
The point is that the Indian government, like the old regressive Judeo-Christian regimes, appears to believe that the only kind of sexual relations permissible between consenting (heterosexual!) adults, is sex for the purposes of procreation. If we understand this, it becomes easier to understand the government’s fierce reluctance to grant acceptance to the gay and lesbian community. To acknowledge that this community has a right to exist would force the state to dismantle its own notions of what a marriage is for, what love is about, and how to legislate the two.

The One About Ponga Pundit

(Originally published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, September 2, 2003)

“We were left with the touchy business of having to get final approval for the film from [Bhaskar Ghose’s] successor, Shiv Sharma (called ‘Shivering Sharma’ for his alleged cravenness towards his political bosses). Fortunately there were only a couple of hitches—we had to remove ‘fuck’ and ‘screw’. But ‘screwed’ and ‘shit’ and ‘balls’ were allowed to pass. (‘Han yaar, “balls” chalega, voh toh hum bhi college mein bolte thhe,’ Shivering Sharma said to us.)”
Arundhati Roy brought the house down when she came to this particular episode in the making of In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, screened last week at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. All of us sitting in those chairs got the humour, even the ones who squirmed out of polite discomfort at hearing “those words” (two rows ahead, a girl muttered, “Lekin what is the need to say fuck all the time, yaar?”, which was kind of funny considering the number of people who walked out of the hall saying, “Hey, the film was fucking good, wasn’t it?”). And I loved the thought of a craven-hearted bureaucrat sorting through a mental lexicon: screw as in not the kind you get in a hardware shop—Verboten! No! Nahi!; screwed as in the past tense thereof, diluted by automatic overuse—okay, we can stamp that in accordance to regulation 3.ii (a).
Last week, an equally bizarre debate erupted over Habib Tanvir’s performance of two plays—Jis Lahore Nahi Dekhya and Ponga Pundit. Both these plays have been performed before by Tanvir and other troupes without raising more than the discomfort that the playwrights intended. Ponga Pundit was written in the 1930s by two Chattisgarhi folk artists, Sitaram and Sukhram and has been performed many times since then.
So there was considerable surprise when the Sangh Parivar’s monkey brigade decided to picket performances of the plays, claiming (here we go again) that Hindu culture was being attacked, even desecrated, by these plays. The Sangh Parivar tends to recruit people given to deep emotional outbursts, and in Bhopal, they expressed their deep sense of injustice and hurt by throwing rotten eggs at the stage, breaking chairs and engaging in other time-honoured forms of intellectual debate and argument.
It should be explained that Ponga Pundit is a classic that plays well among most audiences and especially among the Dalit community and has often been performed by members of the scheduled castes. It’s a takedown of organised religion, a pithy jab at the corruption and insecurity of certain priests, an indictment of untouchability. The plot includes a corrupt priest—the “ponga pundit” of the title and the rituals he sets up, all intended to exclude his sweeper from participation. I saw it years ago at a college theatre festival and thoroughly enjoyed its broad humour and its pointed critique of organised religion.
Not only have the members of the Sangh Parivar directly involved in the protests not seen the play, they appear to be completely unaware that Habib Tanvir is not the author. Part of the campaign launched attacking the troupe last week was based on misinformation—Habib Tanvir, a Muslim, had written this play that criticised Hindu priests, said some members of the Sangh. I’d object to this anyway, on the grounds that any Indian should be free to critique or comment on any aspect of his country, including a religion that he didn’t belong to, but the fact remains that they’re plain wrong. Ponga Pundit has always caused some discomfort among the more backward members of the supposedly high castes—a play written by folk artists, written for the Dalit community, overturns assumptions about who in our society is entitled to a voice, or is allowed to use a language, or may have a platform.
They are also completely unaware of what the plays are about, as is evident from news reports. “State BJP organising general secretary Kaptan Singh Solanki said: ‘Ponga Pandit aur Jamadarin are two separate plays through which bhartiya sanskriti pe hamla hua hai.’"
I loved this quote. It used precisely the same kind of Hinglish that Arundhati Roy and her friends were attempting to lay claim to in Annie, at a time when, unlike today, nothing else in the culture reflected the reality of our hybrid tongue. It’s exactly like the bit Roy quotes from Annie where Lekha Saxena says, “Hai sir, I’m so confused, pata nehi kuch samajh nehi aa raha what to do,”—much as Kaptan Singh Solanki might dislike being compared to a character in a film that just escaped being dubbed profane thanks to the bureaucratic ruling over acceptable and unacceptable slang. I also loved the fact that he knew so little about the play that he had made two plays out of one; I loved the fact that Solanki squarely equates Bhartiya Sanskriti with the culture of the priests at the high table, and not (heaven forbid!) with anything as low as the feelings of the Dalit community.
Even better than Solanki was former leader of Opposition Gauri Shankar Shejwar, who said that he had not seen the play and continued undaunted: “"I object to the name. It clearly shows a desire to drive a wedge based on caste. Panditon ko Ponga nahin kehna chahiye (Pandits should not be called Ponga)."
I visualise a present-day equivalent to Shivering Sharma whose job will be much the same, with a slight shift in definition. What, presumably, made Shivering Sharma uncomfortable was the taint of “Westernisation”, which made his task of sifting out Good Language in its neat party frock from Bad Language in its ripped jeans and tight T-shirt that much more difficult. (I wonder how he would have felt if someone had offered him the example of the Anglo-Indian Ball Curry, also known as Bad Word curry? Perhaps “balls” would have then been banned, along with that forbidden Eff Word.)
Today’s Shivering Sharmas will have a different mandate: no plays allowed that insult Religion (defined presumably strictly as Hindu), no plays allowed that question Religion (ditto), no references to Ponga Pundits, even if the phrase itself is part of popular dialect.
It may even become a criminal offense to call a pundit ponga, in print or verbally, and then we will have to do unto that phrase what for years squeamish editors did with the f*** word: “P**** Pundit”, news reports will say carefully. And the debate will continue to grow ever more hysterical, until someone finally loses their patience and tells this bunch of philistine barbarians to just Ponga off.

The One About Science Writing

(Memo: This was part two in a series of columns on science writing; will post Part One when I can locate it!)
(First published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, August 2003)

"If science writing is so great as you think,” wrote a correspondent in response to last week’s eulogy to the genre, “why has no science type been given the Literature Nobel?”
The question is meant to be rhetorical; but treat it as genuine, and you begin to raise alarmingly large issues.
Nobel’s Will is brief on the subject of the literature prize. All he wrote in 1895 was that one prize should be reserved for the person who had produced "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction". The statutes of the Nobel Foundation defined literature as "not only belles-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value". The statutes also stipulated that "older works" could be considered "if their significance has not become apparent until recently".
In the 102 years of the Prize, its recipients have included philosophers (Bertrand Russell, for instance), politicians (Winston Churchill), historians (Mommsen was cited specifically for his history of Rome), poets (by the score) and of course, novelists and dramatists. The language of the citations is worth comment. In 1974, the Prize went to Harry Martinson, for “writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos”. Churchill was cited, in part, for his “brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”. Sigrid Undset was cited “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages”, a year after Henri Bergson received the Prize, bestowed “in recognition of his rich and vitalizing ideas”. Naipaul was cited not in literary terms, but for “having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories”.
“In recognition of rich and vitalizing ideas”? Then why not a prize for Hofstatder? “Writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos?” Could that not describe Roger Penrose’s work as well? And if it’s “incorruptible scrutiny” united with “perceptive narrative” that we want, how about a hosanna for the work of Richard Dawkins? Given the range and breadth of the Swedish Academy’s search for writings which possess literary value, one finds it even more anomalous that they do not include science writing within their grasp.
This is even more puzzling in our time, in the age of ostensible reason, than it would have been in the 1900s—a period when science writing flourished, but did not, perhaps, enjoy the reach and popularity that it does today. Do a random check on Amazon for the five most popular titles in their science category. Number one is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything, which ranks number six overall; at two is Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which has slipped to 65 overall (a few weeks ago, Schlosser was in the high twenties); third is Steven Strogatz’ Sync, with an overall ranking of 93; fourth is The Golden Ratio: The Story of Pi, much further down but still respectable at a ranking of 234; and fifth is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, with a ranking of 299, not bad when you consider the book was published in 1999 and is still moving fast off the shelves. The rankings in themselves don’t make an impact—but compared to similar rankings for the Literary Fiction category, guess who comes out ahead each time? Science writing, no question. The genre also outdoes similar offerings in the History and Biography fields time after time, except in weeks when a Hillary Rodham Clinton skews the numbers.
I use Amazon just as an example: in bookshops the world over, the popularity of science writing currently rivals any genre except the popular fiction lot. This can go to absurd lengths—Simon Singh’s The Code Book and Karl Sabbagh’s Riemann Hypothesis are not, strictly speaking, works for the layperson (especially not, added this columnist bitterly, laypersons from a humanities background with inadequate training in mathematics), but glamour hangs around them. They are the new coffee table books.
In his introduction to Galileo’s Commandment: An Anthology of Great Science Writing, Edmund Blair Bolles says, “I love great science writing for the same reason I enjoy splendid autobiography or classic letters and journals. It puts me in direct contact with an active, probing mind… It is the presence of a living imagination that keeps great science writing alive, just as it does other forms of writing, yet the nature of this literary form remains mostly unremarked and unexamined.”
And yet this is a form that brings together minds as diverse, but as richly endowed, as Galileo, as Primo Levi, Julian Huxley, Johannes Kepler, Charles Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould…the list is long, the list is worth our time. Darwin wrote in a pre-Nobel era, or which academic committee could resist his style: “Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact—that mystery of mysteries—the first appearance of new beings on this earth.” I hear an echo of Darwin when I read Primo Levi on the elements of The Periodic Table, and I hear an echo of all the great storytellers as well: “Instead, I will tell just one more story, the most secret, and I will tell it with the humility and restraint of him who knows from the start that his theme is desperate, his means feeble, and the trade of clothing facts in words is bound by its very nature to fail.”
Over in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy has more important things to consider than its blindness towards a branch of writing that does not belong, officially, to the humanities, but that contains much of philosophy, affects our daily politics and often is literature. For years, the great question occupying the minds of those in the Academy has been whether Alfred Nobel wrote idealisk or idealiserad. It is an important question, since the difference encompasses the yawning gap between “ideal”, or “in an ideal direction”, and “idealised”, which is quite another thing. One might argue, though, that if the Academy can expend so much energy on this linguistic point, it might find it in itself to wonder about the broader meaning of literature, to debate the politics of exclusion.
If this column and the previous one have been far more richly dotted with quotes than usual, blame my zeal to get you to hear the voices of writers who are not normally seen as “literary”, not normally discussed as “mellifluous”, whose philosophies and styles are not debated as fiercely as we debate Naipaul or Dari Fo.
And so I leave you with one final quote, because Jon Franklin says this so much better than I ever will: “If science was ever a thing apart, a special way of living and of seeing things, that time is past. Today, science is the vital principle of our civilization. To do science is critical, to defend it the kernel of political realism. To define it in words is to be, quite simply, a writer, working the historical mainstream of literature.”

Ek din, pratidin: One Day, a book review

One Day
Ardashir Vakil
Penguin India
Rs 395, 292 pages

In Chapter Twenty One, a character at a party comments, "What I can't be doing with are novels about the trials and tribulations of middle-class north London couples. We've had enough of those to last us fifty years. Whingeing double-income liberal parents, please let us have no more of their banal utterances."
Aha, thinks the unwary reader--who, if he or she has got this far, will recognise an accurate description of One Day right off--condemned out of the mouth of his own creation. No such thing: Vakil, who has already lampooned a very recognisable fellow member of the IWE school and got in several other literary digs, is too canny to be hoist so easily with his own petard. Before embarking on her ruthless denunciation, Jocelyn has already disqualified herself by revealing that she is a naïve and over-opinionated reader: "No novel is ever as interesting as life, never as depressing and never as joyful."
One will never know whether it was this particular piece of intellectual legerdemain that prompted a UK reviewer (the English, having forgotten how to write novels, are now forgetting how to review them) to flounder through three paragraphs of baffled dislike for One Day before discovering to his relief that it was really a satire of itself and therefore a brilliant masterpiece.
One Day attempts to do for present-day, multicultural London what Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway did in a previous era. Its chief conceit, the insistence that a day in the life can be all-revealing and that you can tell the story of an individual, a family, a city even in the span of 24 hours, is a deliberate nod to its more famous predecessor.
On the eve of their son's third birthday, Ben and Priya are struggling to keep their eight-year-old marriage on track, the distance between them neatly captured in an opening sequence where Ben reads a sonorous manual on the inner game of tennis while Priya masturbates beside him. Ben's background is never quite filled in: his father is the kind of man who thinks all subcontinentals are "Pakistans", his sister died mysteriously, and otherwise he's a conservative white man struggling to find a way out of the morass of teaching at a local school. Priya's antecedents are far more clear, as they should be since Vakil's borrowed them wholesale from the Nayantara Sahgal branch of the Nehru family. Together, the couple forms "a voluptuous swirl, a multiracial lolly" in imminent danger of melting into nothingness. Their son, Whacka, provides the glue that holds the marriage together as well as the secret that threatens to tear it apart.
As the day unfolds, Vakil does the literary equivalent of the documentary filmmaker's job: here is the tension-filled landscape of London's schools, this is where Priya does her radio spots on the Southhall Black Sisters, these are the tangles that a couple adrift in a world without servants gets into when they try to organise a party for a three-year-old that will really be appreciated by his friends' parents. It leads up to a final scene, intended to be climactic and cathartic, where the simmering tensions in the adult conversation at the party boil over into a violent domestic argument that leaves Ben and Priya alone together once more.
Unfortunately Vakil, a master at setting the scene, is far less deft at spoken dialogue or even internal monologue-sequence after sequence unravels into what Naipaul once dubbed "chuntering", or falls apart under the weight of its own meaning. Vakil's paeans to London are more successful; his descriptive prose will win him award nominations as surely as the line about "Priya's fingers furling and unfurling her flaps" will garner him a Bad Sex nomination next year.
On the whole, reading One Day is like watching Priya masturbate: you politely applaud the writer's imagination, even welcome the opportunity to get into the heads of his characters, but when it comes to the climax, it does absolutely nothing for you.
(This was first published in Outlook, on April 2, 2003.)

The One About Michael Herr and Jarhead

(Originally published inSpeaking Volumes, the Business Standard, April 2, 2003.)

This is Michael Herr, in Dispatches, first published in 1968: "It was a characteristic of a lot of Americans in Vietnam to have no idea of when they were being obscene, and some correspondents fell into that, writing their stories from the daily releases and battlegrams, tracking them through the cheer-crazed language of the MACV Information Office, things like 'discreet burst' (one of those tore an old grandfather and two children to bits as they ran along a paddy wall one day, at least according to the report made later by the gunship pilot), 'friendly casualties' (not warm, not fun), 'meeting engagement' (ambush), concluding usually with 17 or 117 or 317 enemy dead and American losses 'described as light'."
Dispatches is now accounted one of the classics of modern warfare, more than just the correspondent's eye view indicated by the title, some of its reckless, despairing prose captured for all time in the film Apocalypse now. To write it, Herr had to invent a new language, one where he borrowed freely from rock n'roll and wrote red-eyed paragraphs that dripped with hallucinatory energy, that exuded an exhaustion that went beyond the flesh deep into the spirit. He closed with the line, "And no moves left for me at all but to write down some few last words and make the dispersion, Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we've all been there."
In between the war Herr went to cover (only to discover that "the war covered me") and today's spectacle of Shock and Awe turning into a grim comedy, where one episode might well be called 'When Bush Came to Shove', the Americans fought a couple of other wars. As Marine sniper Anthony Swofford prepared for the Gulf War with his fellow Marines, he paid sardonic homage to Herr's Vietnam.
"But actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr and Mrs Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible, and they will tell their friends at church and their family this, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Seaman Johnson at Coronado Naval Station and Spec 4 Johnson at Fort Bragg and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real First Fuck. It doesn't matter how many Mr. and Mrs. Johnsons are antiwar -- the actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not."
Swofford's memoir of the Gulf War is called Jarhead, a skewed homage to the haircut that marks the US Marine out from the rest of his fellow fighters as surely as the blue woad that daubed the faces of warriors in a previous generation. It's had a remarkable reception: J K Rowling's publishers might be able to organise a Hogwarts Express, but few publishing houses could arrange to have a war in Iraq coincide with the publication of a book on the previous war in Iraq. And in a climate of nervous jingoism, where every second war or terrorism bestseller in the US market is a justification of Bush's attack on Iraq, Jarhead with its relentless honesty about what it means to be a soldier awash in the terror and black humour of the Gulf War, is an unlikely success--but a runaway success. Swofford has no illusions who he's fighting for--a bunch of "old white guys" and others who have "billions of dollars to gain or lose in the oil fields". Endorsed by the redoubtable NYT critic, Michiko Kakutani, zooming up the charts in less than a month to hover around number 13 on the global bestsellers list, Jarhead is streets ahead of the general's memoirs and expert dissections, the academic treatises on Islam and the firm espousals of US defence policy that have been glutting the market since the first rumbles of war were heard.
Herr covered Vietnam in an age before you had "embeds"--correspondents allowed to travel like camp followers with military units, who have at least in this war, typically churned out excited, patriotic pieces about the bravery of the men whom they're following around, satphones at the ready. He saw that part of the tapestry of that war was rock n'roll, songs "that had been on the radio a lot that winter": "There's something happening here/ What it is ain't exactly clear./ There's a man with a gun over there/ Telling me I've got to beware./ I think it's time we stopped, children/ What's that sound?/ Everybody look what's goin' down…"
By the time Swofford or fellow Gulf War veteran Joel Turnipseed got into the game, it wasn't music so much as images that ruled the roost. Turnipseed, whose memoir Baghdad Express, also about the Gulf War, is doing almost as well as Swofford's, captured the situation perfectly. "CNN--we were so tuned in they had a direct coax link to our cerebral cortex: a chain-smoking war borg in a Mediterranean hangar. SCUDs in Tel Aviv. CNN. Electric night in Baghdad. CNN. Sirens in Dahran. CNN. Generals with wicked in-flight video in Riyadh. CNN, giving new meaning to 'theater of war'."
Tailpiece: "Shock and awe" is a stale phrase now, a term seized upon with delight only by bored sub-editors. The buzzword this week is "militainment"--a blend between military and entertainment which refers to the kind of reality TV the world gets to watch when a superpower sends out its armies well-equipped with camera-toting embeds.
Meanwhile, the US is still sulking over France's refusal to support what is either the War Against Saddam or the War For the Oil Wells, depending on your perspective, and have done their best to change French fries to Freedom fries. This could lead to problems if applied in a larger context. What would happen to The French Lieutenant's Woman, for instance? And will Patrick French now be better known as Patrick Freedom?

The One About The Prophet

(Originally published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard,January 2003)

January 6 was the anniversary of the late Khalil Gibran’s birthday; it was exactly 15 years ago that I first read The Prophet, courtesy a Gibran-crazy friend.
The difference that a decade-and-a-half can make is considerable. As a teenager with half-baked intellectual pretensions, Gibran’s florid philosophical musings were part of a required reading list that included Nietzsche at the upper end of the scale, Ayn Rand and Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) towards the middle and Richard Bach at the bottom. (The next level was slightly more complex, involving intellectuals like Franz Fanon and the immortal Calcutta trio of a French literary theorist, a Chilean poet and a Bengali detective—Derrida, Neruda and Feluda!) Today, Gibran’s ripe prose does nothing for me: the lessons he has to teach are dated, like the novels of Ouida or Marie Corelli, once hailed as intellectual mysticism at its best and now almost embarrassingly irrelevant. And while Gibran still commands a huge following, he has almost no credibility among the ranks of thinkers anywhere in the world today.
The lives of modern-day prophets like Ayn Rand and, to a lesser extent, Paulo Coelho, have been subject to so much scrutiny that every true believer has to grapple with a bunch of nay-sayers. But while opinions differ about the worth of Khalil Gibran’s writings, with many seeing them as exoticised Hallmark mottoes in extended prose form, his life has been airbrushed and sanitised beyond belief.
Gibran was born to a Maronite family in Bsharri in Northern Lebanon—his father was by all accounts a feckless man who drove his family into poverty. His name was actually Gibran Khalil Gibran, but was shortened inadvertently on a registration certificate. Accounts of his early years abound in near-mythological references—as a child, he had an accident that required his shoulder to be bound up and held immobile with the support of two sticks in the shape of a cross. The Biblical symbolism has been reinforced with various accounts saying that this was done for forty days—the same amount of time that Christ spent wandering in the wilderness. Gibran’s family migrated to the US when he was about 12 years old—his father elected to stay behind in Lebanon.
He began as an artist: he had his first exhibition in 1904, and spent several years studying with the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Gibran’s first work in English was published in 1918—five years later, he wrote The Prophet, a collection of 26 prose poems that has been translated into more than 20 languages and that he had been ruminating over since his teenage years. It met with a modest success that eventually became a classic word-of-mouth bestseller, taking several years to find its audience. Gibran—whose earlier work, The Madman, had been compared to Tagore’s writings—was reticent by nature and rarely spoke of his background, and was amused to be cast as the mystic oriental. By the time he died in 1931, his fame had spread, and the funeral procession in Lebanon, where his body was finally taken, was described as more of a “triumphal” occasion.
It’s hard to explain the enduring appeal of The Prophet, with its baroque phrases and its somewhat overwrought mysticism. But for every student at an elocution competition who recitesThe Highwayman, an Alfred E Noyes poem practically forgotten in England, and enshrined only in our dull syllabi, there is always someone else gravely reciting from one section or another of The Prophet. Two responses culled from the Internet sum up the contemporary reaction to Khalil Gibran. One was a query posted in all seriousness by a neophyte online, who asked: “I am new to internet travelling, and I am wondering what the mystic view on electrical communication is...what would Khalil Gibran have had to say about this new form of communication?” The other response, from the website, deserves to be quoted too: “I keep my copy of The Prophet on the shelf, near my VHS copy of Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood, for a balanced perspective…”
If Gibran has something in common with the late Ayn Rand, it is that their appeal has lasted down the decades. Richard Bach is the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a mushy modern-day fable of self-realisation via the flying lessons of seagulls. He’s also the kind of writer who serves as a touchstone of who you are as a reader. Either you read Bach only at a certain stage of your life and move on to better things, or you progress via Bach to a steady diet of F Scott Peck, Lobsang Rampa, Carlos Castaneda and Erich von Daniken. Bach, like Pirsig or the equally bestselling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, is a publisher’s dream come true—but even the most ardent fans of their works wouldn’t place them in the same bracket as Plato or Wittgenstein. Rand and Gibran attract an altogether different breed of follower. Gibran’s devotees have often reached him via the more academic slopes of Sufi writing; Rand’s devotees include Alan Greenspan and a whole host of corporate bigshots who find in her work a vindication of their lives. And like The Prophet, Rand’s The Fountainhead got off to a slow start: the first indication that it was going to be a runaway bestseller came a good two years after its publication, when sales finally began gathering momentum.
I have only one quibble with all these widely disparate authors, and that has to do with the recurring nightmare provoked by the reading that went into this article. For the last four nights, I have dreamed that a large seagull clad in a prophet’s flowing robes have pursued me down a long corridor to a balcony where a man stands, his hands clenched on the railing, his head thrown back in triumph. “To love oneself is the beginning of all understanding,” says the seagull; “Capitalism rules, OK,” says the man in the dream. Frankly, I preferred Poe’s raven and plan to follow its admirable lead. Will I ever read these long-forgotten gods of my youth again? Nevermore.
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