Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Biblio: Reading Lolita in Teheran

(This was first published in Biblio, autumn 2004)

Reading Lolita in Teheran: A Memoir in Books
Azar Nafisi
Fourth Estate, distributed by Rupa & Co,
POUNDS 4.99, 343 pages
ISBN: 0-00-717848-4

In a brief musing on postmodernism and contemporary literary criticism, Mario Vargas Llosa wrote: “Responsibility and clarity go together with a certain conception of literary criticism, with the conviction that the realm of literature spans all of human experience since literature reflects experience and helps shape it. Along the same lines, this conception holds that literature should belong to everyone, since it draws upon the common resources of the species and we can always return to it to seek order when we seem buried in chaos, hope in moments of discouragement, and doubt and uncertainty when the reality that surrounds us seems too safe and predictable.”

Llosa wasn’t one of the authors included in Azar Nafisi’s very unusual book club, but he echoes her own sentiments just as well as any of the other authors—Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, Henry James, F Scott Fitzgerald—she and her small group of students clung on to like a lifeline.

Reading Lolita in Teheran is a remembrance of things past, a memoir written in a time and place of relative peace about a time and place of almost unimaginable turbulence. Azar Nafisi grew up in England, Switzerland and America, but as she recounts, she dreamed of the “beckoning and seductive” lights of Tehran for seventeen years. Like all involuntary exiles, she dreamed of going home and never having to leave again.

She survived a bad early marriage and divorce in America; in Iran, she had already survived the imprisonment of her father, who was the mayor of Tehran; she had cut her teeth on both the early revolutionary fervour sweeping Iranian students and the freethinking ways advocated by Berkeley rebels. Her second marriage, to a man whom she admired for his sense of confidence and his loyalty rather than for his “revolutionary rhetoric”, helped to bring her back “home”, where she taught at the University of Tehran. “It was the navel, the immovable center to which all political and social activities were tied,” she writes of the university, “…the scene of the most important battles.”

As the new regime began imposing Islamic law on the citizens of Iran, Nafisi would find herself at the heart of the biggest battles sweeping Iran, the country she had lost, and recovered, only to lose again. Like other women in Iran, she would find her movements increasingly monitored, and judged, and curbed; she would participate in protests and demonstrations but be forced to wear the headscarf and then the veil; eventually, she would be forced to resign from the university, forced into relative uselessness.

It was from that period of utter desperation, the point at which her career appeared to have been consumed by the oppressive nature of a regime that used religion as a weapon, that Nafisi formed the group at the heart of this book. Every week, seven young women who were once her students in class, came to her house to be liberated for a brief while from the constraints on their movements, their clothes, their minds and their freedom, in order to discuss books. Not politics; not revolutions; not religion; not gender theory, but books. All of these forces, these disparate things that shaped the ordinary lives of these women would come into the discussion eventually—but the doors were opened by writers and their books.

* * *

In more free countries, we prefer to take our literature in small, therapeutic doses, alongside equally measured doses of Art, Culture and Entertainment. Books are to be kept in their proper place, as a diversion, as a brief escape; and it may seem to readers brought up on this particular diet that this would have been their proper place in the lives of Nafisi and her students as they were caught in the grip of the Iranian Revolution of the late ‘90s. Literature would have been a solace, a comfort; a band-aid to be applied over a minor cut, allowing them to ignore the deeper wounds inflicted on their psyches; an escape into the worlds of the imagination for a short while.

Under the whip of a regime that would allow them no freedom, nothing but airlessness, that sought to police not just their behaviour but their imaginations, however, Nafisi’s little reading groups discovered what literature really had to offer. The limits of what their world in Iran was allowed to see was defined by the image of the blind censor: the chief film censor in Iran who was, truly, almost blind, and who depended on an assistant to explain what was happening onscreen to him while he, in turn, dictated the parts to be axed. “Our world under the mullahs was shaped by the colourless lenses of the blind censor,” Nafisi writes bitterly. “Not just our reality but also our fiction had taken on this curious coloration in a world where the censor was the poet’s rival in rearranging and reshaping reality, where we simultaneously invented ourselves and were figments of someone else’s imagination… We lived in a culture that deinied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more important—namely ideology.”

A “literary discussion”, as dictated by the gaze of the blind censor, could descend into the realms of the absurd. One of Nafisi’s students, Nassrin, was employed in translating The Political, Philosophical, Social and Religious Principles of Ayatollah Khomeini. Among other things, it contained a serious consideration of the dilemmas involved in having sex with a chicken: can the man who does such a thing eat the chicken afterwards in accordance with religious law? The answer is no; the bird is, post-coitally, off limits for him and his immediate neighbours. However, a neighbour living two doors away can eat the chicken concerned without incurring any taint!

Against this, Nafisi sets the classics. In a key section of the book, her class at university puts The Great Gatsby on trial: should the novel be read at all, shouldn’t it be condemned for its exposition of adultery, its defence of the American way of life, could it not be considered a corrupting influence on students? “A novel is not an allegory,” Nafisi tells her students. “It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved with their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing.”

As she shares her memories of her students and their discussions with the reader, this is what happens to us: we begin to inhale their experiences, we begin to understand how it is possible to make a “normal” life under the yoke of tyranny, we empathise with the desperate tiredness that invades Nafisi’s later recollections. And in this story of a struggle to read classics when the texts are no longer available, in a country where books were seen as either for or against the revolution, we are reminded yet again that tyranny and despotism come about because of a failure of empathy, and a failure of the imagination. Without empathy and imagination, you cannot read; but if you excise these two qualities from your life, you may very well be able to run a successful regime through hatred and fear.

Nafisi makes an important distinction when she answers the question all readers surely carry in their heads about this book: why Lolita? And why Lolita, of all books, in Teheran?

“I want to emphasize once more that we were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert, and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom by the sea,” she writes, the italics forceful, “Lolita was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives.” What Lolita had to offer Nafisi and her students cut to the bone: it taught them all they already knew but hadn’t been able to articulate about “the perverse intimacy of victim and jailer”, about obsession and about the urges that might make one human being try to confiscate the life of another.

By the end of Reading Lolita in Tehran, we understand the small subterfuges by which Nafisi and her students sustained the pretence of normal life. The small comforts of coffee icecream with walnuts, of a battered book given as a present, of sharing anecdotes. There’s the man Nafisi identifies only as “the magician”, a former teacher whose response to the pressures of a dictatorship is to become a recluse, but who shares his wisdom unsparingly with her. The sufferings of women under the regime are chronicled in the most personal way of all, with students being jailed, being compelled into arranged marriages they’re unsure of, being punished for small infractions of the no-makeup rule, being tortured in prison and, in the case of some of them, being executed. Through it all, Nafisi clings to the idea that everyone must have “the right to free access to imagination”, that “genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions”.

She escapes, finally. And we know the rest of the story from the papers: Reading Lolita in Tehran became a surprise hit, the darling of the bestseller charts. Nafisi has her freedom; she continues to teach in the West, and she will continue to believe in the power of books and reading and the imagination. But there is a word that she and her students seized upon, from Nabokov’s writings, to describe everything in their lives that has been debased: poshlust, which means “not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.”

The dream of revolution the Islamic Republic of Iran was selling turned out to be poshlust. And perhaps Nafisi and her small circle of readers discovered the only way in which you can oppose poshlust: not through wars and demonstrations or gestures of protest, though all of these are important, but through reading the world as closely as you can. With imagination, with breathless wonder, with acceptance and curiosity, with clarity and finally, with empathy.

Nilanjana S Roy

Biblio: The Patrick Neate profile

(First published in Biblio, 2004)

The year Patrick Neate won the Whitbread for Twelve Bar Blues, a friend sent me an email. "Guess what I'm doing in New Orleans?" he wrote. "Looking for twelve blues bars in tribute to the Neate man. Going to raise a toast to every chapter of that book."

It takes a while for Patrick Neate to make the journey from London and Zambia, the two places between which he shuttles these days, down to dusty Delhi. He knows India slightly, courtesy his website ("I've had a lot of email from India, bizarrely") and even though India doesn't know his writing as well as it could, since three out of four of his novels aren't available in bookshops here, his small but devoted following here are the kind who put the 'fan' back in 'fanatic'. That may have something to do with the fact that Patrick Neate possesses one of the sharpest minds in the business today; his flair for the interesting concept is married to the old-fashioned but irresistible urge to tell a story. When the Granta editors left him off the list of the Best Young Writers in Britain today (the very same list that propelled Monica Ali to fame), some of us thought nostalgically back to the days when horsewhipping editors whose views you disagreed with was a common and acceptable practice.

Neate, whose slightly skinhead-inspired look is belied by the humour lurking around his eyes, is phlegmatic about the slings and arrows of fortune. The way he sees it, the Whitbread was the result of an arbitrary decision made by a small panel; the Granta list was the product of arbitrary decisions made by an equally small panel. "I can't really reject one decision and accept the other," he reasons.

Somewhere in the US, there's a college band called Musungu Jim in honour of the title of Neate's first novel. Musungu Jim is about a student teacher who gets sucked into the politics of an emerging banana republic in Africa, and features a dictator with false testicles. His next book was Twelve Bar Blues, an inspired piece of writing where the rhythms and dissonances of jazz found its way into the patterns of his writing as he evoked New Orleans in a narrative that unfolds across two centuries. Among the books on the Whitbread shortlist that year were Ian McEwan's Atonement and Andrew Miller's Oxygen. It says a great deal for Neate's talent that the judges' decision was seen as surprising but perfectly apposite.

Next up was Where We're At, a high-speed travelogue through the hip-hop world pretending to be a novel, the kind of book that just begs to be read aloud. It traces the roots of hip-hop and the manner in which it's been subverted by the mainstream. The London Pigeon Wars did a 180 degree turn. In Neate's imagination, the saga of the bloodthirsty and dynamic pigeons who're the secret citizens of London was the perfect satirical counterpoint to the tale of the lives of apathetic, aimless thirtysomethings trying to avoid any kind of engagement with the world at all costs. LPW divided reviewers, in part because Neate came up with a language of his own (promptly dubbed "pigeon (pidgin) English", in a terrible but tempting pun) which isn't one of the easiest dialects to read on the page.

Neate laughs when I ask him about the changing voice from novel to novel: "It was a sort of gag I had with myself. I'd written two novels, one of which I was criticised for writing in an African voice, and one of which I was criticised for writing in an African American voice. It was a nice idea to write as a pigeon, because they wouldn't be able to complain!"

To the criticism, sometimes expressed in the mainstream (read white) UK media of him for writing about "black" culture when he is so patently white, Neate has just one response: "It would only be straitjacketing if I listened. I understand where these criticisms come from, but ultimately, if you create a piece of art, it exists in its own right. I don't mean to sound disingenuous about it but I write what I want to write and I'm damned if I'm going to let somebody else's opinions stop me writing it. For me, there's a kind of narrative within jazz and also within how I feel the music has influenced my life that I wanted to access [in Twelve Bar Blues] and express, and if it offends people, all right."

He "discovered" his whiteness the hard way, when he made his first trip to Zimbabwe. When he was 18, he schlepped off there--"on one of those awful post-colonial feelgood programmes where they send British kids to go and teach Africans how to speak English. It doesn't exist any more. Thank god."

He vividly remembers walking out at Harare airport and thinking that he had never felt such an outsider, being reminded forcibly that he was a minority in a totally black country. "It was just quite sobering really. I got off the bus at school, and there were these primary school kids and I was literally the most hilarious thing they'd ever seen. And they just all killed themselves laughing! That was my first reaction: Wow, I'm very, very white!"

The novels aside, there are the short stories he occasionally posts on, his regular stints on the performance poetry circuit; his involvement with the music scene; and the man isn't even in his mid-thirties.
From his online diary, these two entries sum up the warp and weft of his life:

"How did I become such a performing monkey? I'm sure it was never a conscious choice but I seem to be doing more performing than writing right now. I don't mind too much but the not writing is driving me crazy. It makes me physically itch."

And then, this:

"The very luckiest thing about writing books for a living is that you know who you are and don't really need anything else to feel fulfilled. But the downside of this is the withdrawal symptoms when you're not doing it. When I'm not writing? I feel like I'm not really here, like I'm this shade who's vaguely but insistently tormented by something left undone."

Neate juggles an overflowing schedule and occasional writer's block at an age where many authors are still polishing their first short story collection. He looks a trifle abashed: "I always intend to lie about this; I'd like to say I completed my first novel at the age of 11." The truth was slightly different. He always knew he could write: "All my essays at school came back with stars and remarks like: good style, not sure about the content."

Going to Zimbabwe in his late teens did two things for him: it made him aware that there were places in Africa where he would always be at home, almost more at home than in parts of England, and it started him writing. Back from Africa, he went to Cambridge and wrote a few plays, until he figured out that this was not a viable way to make a living as an unknown author: "They're such a cooperative exercise. If you have no money and you want to write a book, all you need is pen and paper. But no money and trying to produce a play is impossible."

Neate had nothing to offer the world, just a whole heap of ideas bouncing around in his head. He had a string of "crappy little jobs"-he worked at a Christmas card shop, and was sacked around Xmas time; he worked as a landscape gardner, a job where he was hired because he sounded educated, the flaw here being that he knew nothing about gardening. He went back to Africa; he came back and went to journalism school. When he was just 22, he found an agent who told him he was going to be the next literary sensation. Nothing happened ("it sort of blew up in my face"). He shelved his novel-which happened to be an early version of The London Pigeon Wars, featuring twentysomethings instead of thirtysomethings--and carried on. He didn't get published for the next seven years, but when the key finally turned for him, it went pretty smoothly. He didn't make much money off Musungu Jim and is mildly sardonic about the cult of the big bestseller even as he admits that he can now make a living off his work.

As the conversation bounces from a discussion of the Terrible Twosome, Bush and Blair, back to the politics of Africa, away in the direction of the fascinating charms of storytelling, what emerges is that Patrick Neate is at something of a crossroads in his career. He's shelved a new novel in order to give it breathing space: it's more political than anything he's written so far, he says. He's also reaching a stage in his writing life where he's looking back at the earlier work and wanting to dump the "gimmicks", to quit fooling around with what he sees as technical virtuosity.

"I'm a terrible moralist. I can't help it, I don't mean to be," he says, with an engaging grin, "and I'm totally immoral myself like all the best moralists. I subscribe to do as I say, not do as I do. I do have this wild, resentment of the current moral apathy in the UK: how that apathy works, or doesn't." Neate's years in Africa have only sharpened that sense of moral outrage, his ability to step back and assess a place within the context of its history and what it means to him.

The reason he feels so much at home in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, says Neate, is that the things he appreciates and is interested in are echoed in those cultures. "There's a strong belief in the family, there's a political awareness," he says, continuing deadpan, "and they like to drink - I feel very, very much at home."

So much so that he's building a house in Leopard's Hill, just outside Lusaka in Zambia. In a 2003 entry from his diary, Neate wrote: "It's a funny kind of area. The nearest district of Lusaka is Kabulonga, a place where the vast majority of white expats live. A few are born and bred Zambians (and so not really expats at all) but most are working here for one or other of the international NGOs. They live in high-walled houses, drive stately four by fours and throw dinner parties for one another. That's not a criticism. It's just seems to be what they do."

He's wryly ironic about present-day Africa: "Before independence, there were white people who lived in Africa but who still considered themselves British. They lived in a way the majority of the population could only dream about, their only contact with black people was through their servants." He makes a scathing gesture to indicate that the situation's gone full circle: "After independence, now you have numerous white people who've moved to Africa as aid workers, but who still earn far more money than any of the African population could dream about, still build a house there--and still their only contact with any black people is through their servants! You know, it's just that previously they might have been tobacco farmers, now they're development economists; the power equation is pretty much the same."

Neate wouldn't say this himself, but I get the feeling that what he brings to Africa is a commodity that can serve both as bridge and barter between him and the rest of the community: stories. What he loves in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa is that the tradition of oral storytelling is still alive. "People don't necessarily have TVs and radios in the rural areas and they sit around and tell each other these stories, and that's something I'm very fascinated with." That became obvious in Delhi and Bangalore, where he held crowds spellbound with performance poetry readings.

He sees himself, quite rightly, as unusual among young British writers because he's "obssessed with story-telling" and wins the heart of certain beleagured reviewers with his next statement. "I can't bear books which signpost the theme on page one: this is about, this is what I'm about postcolonial identity, I don't do that, I tell a story and the themes come out of it." Glory hallelujah, I add mentally, because that is really the essence of Patrick Neate's writing: he serves as a sharp reminder to the Eggerses and David Foster Wallaces of the literary firmament that a novel without a story is often just a set of clever circus tricks.

We're braving Delhi's heat in order to sit outside in the British Council's courtyard, where the smokers-Neate says he's given up, but fiddles wistfully with the matchbox-congregate furtively, like the pariahs they are. The source of inspiration for him, he says, was his grandfather-"this mad storyteller". "He was this old Irishman, an Irish immigrant who came over to England in the twenties. He grew up in a very rural town, Longford; he could tell me stories about tarrings and featherings, and the first car that they saw, which was amazing for me as a kid. I was fascinated by his idea of storytelling. I'm still fascinated with stories, what they reveal about those who tell them, what the characters say about themselves, all these things for me are the things that make us human. What makes us human? For me, doing things that you know are bad for you-that's one thing; no animals eat pizza, no animals smoke."

On cue, the matchbox in his hands bursts into flames, and so do his fingers, and for a second I see tomorrow's headline: Blazing New Talent Goes to Blazes. We dunk his hand in the fountain nearby (it will heal remarkably fast thanks to the patented Neate remedy: soak injured fingers in glass of cold gin and ice for several hours when back in hotel room).

A while later, when apologies have been traded and soothing unguents offered, Patrick Neate grins evilly. "You're going to read about this somewhere, you know. My India War Wounds. Scars. Delhi, Where They Tried To Set Me On Fire." I remind him that he's the writer. He should know a good story when he stars in one.

Nilanjana S Roy

Random stuff: the Khushwant profile

What do smart sardars and UFOs have in common?You hear a lot about them but no one's actually met one.(Politically incorrect joke found on the Internet.)

I don't know where you'd go to meet a UFO, but the polar opposite of the conventional sardar joke lives in Sujan Singh Park. Make an appointment, dodge a clowder of friendly cats, eyeball the legendary sign that advises you not to ring doorbell if you don't have the said appointment, and spend an hour with Khushwant Singh. Who is, as the old joke has it, still "a surd among intellectuals, an intellectual among surds".

Khushwant Singh, at the age of 90, has more books behind him than Delhi has new authors launched in the course of a year. (Ask him, and he'll respond with his trademark line: "Any rubbish I write gets published.") The Library of Congress logged 99 books about or by Khushwant-and this was in 2002, before he added more (he's lost count himself). "[This] would inevitably be my last book, my swansong penned in the evening of my life," he wrote at the age of 87, in the Prologue to his autobiography, Truth, Love & a little Malice, "I am fast running out of writer's ink."

Three years later, he told Outlook, "No one has yet invented a condom for the writer's pen." His most recent novel, Burial At Sea, is simultaneously receiving its last rites from reviewers and making the bestseller charts courtesy his fans. He has finished revising his monumental History of the Sikhs, a collection of short stories is due out, he's contemplating another novel-and that's not counting the bits and pieces that feed the awesome Khushwant industry.

His two weekly columns draw postcards by the hundreds and are syndicated in over 12 different Indian languages. I've seen tired army jawans reading it near the Indo-China border: "Dekh, Sardarji kya keha raha hai." Years later, on a trip to Kanyakumari, the stall owners on the beach discuss his column in Malayalam. I ask the taxi driver to translate. "They like the Banta Singh jokes very much." There is no better homage to Khushwant than to start off a profile on him with the genre of joke he dragged out of the racist closet and made an art form.

The remarkably prolific career of India's best-known and most beloved sardar began with a book that stopped dead after five pages or so. It was called 'Sheilla', because he thought that two 'l's sounded more impressive than one, and he scribbled the title in bold, flowing letters across the front of the notebook. "You put your name on it," he says wryly, "and hoped it would be in all the bookstores." 'Sheilla' never saw the light of day. His second attempt featured a train that arrived in a small village in Punjab during Partition, bearing a terrible cargo. Train to Pakistan was first published in 1956; it has never been out of print in India. The village in the novel, Mano Majra, was modelled on Hadali, where Khushwant grew up.

Suketu Mehta, scriptwriter and author, recalls a visit he made to Khushwant's house with director Vidhu Vinod Chopra. "Khushwant tells us about being stopped at the Dubai airport, where many of the ground staff are Pakistanis. He is the only first class passenger, and comes off the plane first. The Pakistani immigration officer opens his passport, and asks him to wait. Khushwant watches the other passengers leave, anger rising within him. Finally the officer beckons to him. Khushwant says: 'So you found only one Sikh to harass?' The officer points to Khushwant's passport. 'I noticed you were born in Hadali, Sardarji. I'm also from Hadali. How could I permit someone from my village to stay in a hotel? You're coming home with me.'"

Visitors testify that the standards of hospitality in his household remain Hadali-high---provided you respect his limits. Khushwant maintains an iron schedule. He's up by 5 am and straight to work-"No wasting of time on prayers or anything, my only wasteful hobby is crossword puzzles". Then he compiles material for his columns ("I slog for them-two a week, and I never miss a deadline"), edits, writes, strolls around the garden, and entertains a regulated stream of guests until 9 pm, when he summarily throws everyone out. Bapsi Sidhwa showed up late after she'd sent him the manuscript of The Crow Eaters: "He saw me get out of the taxi and look around confusedly. He clapped his hands to draw my attention and shouted: 'You are exactly an hour late. But I forgive you because you have written a First Class book.'"

In between, he answers mail. Says Manjula Padmanabhan, "I am told that he answers everyone, even if it's only with a line on a postcard. I love that story. That tells me more about him than all the tasteless anecdotes that have occasionally trailed his name." And it's true. He politely turns away authors who want him to read their manuscripts-even so, he has three to peruse at present; gleefully collects the abusive letters ("I challenge you to read this one out loud," he says of a postcard where the writer packs a wealth of anatomically impossible suggestions into that small yellow space); and offers advice, quotations, commentary to the rest.

The man and the legend are inextricable, enduring. But what of the work? That's what a writer leaves behind him; that's what will outlast the anecdotes, the warmth, the controversies, the "dirty old man" tag. Don't knock the "dirty old man" business; I still remember the 50-year-old man who announced drunkenly at a party after Company of Women came out: "Khushwant writes for ME! He knows what I am GOING through! He is in the skin of the North Indian MALE!" Suketu Mehta offers, "As a teenager,I read Khushwant's novels for the dirty bits. [They] were terrific, and very rooted - the rustic Punjabi sex in 'A train to Pakistan' must have gotten an entire generation through college. It was a revelation at the time, because the other dirty bits we had access to occured in English gardens and Parisian bordellos; here was sex we could identify with, had a hope of enjoying in our own lifetimes, in our own fields. It was only later that I realized there was real and lasting literary value to the book. But perhaps that's how many of us were first exposed to the great masters, such as Lawrence - through the dirty bits."

Amit Chaudhuri suggests that with the rise of Indian writing in English, Khushwant Singh, never taken seriously as a political commentator, was reinvented as "a sort of national literary mandarin. He'd started out as a quite ordinary and unmemorable critic, in the English language, of Punjabi and Urdu writing; now, in his avatar as not only Indian English novelist, but as editor and columnist, his advocacy of Indian writing in English was extreme, and at times absurdly generous. In a dormant literary culture as lacking in generosity as ours was, and is, especially in the Anglophone world, any sign of unprejudiced or unjaundiced receptivity is welcome."

But Chaudhuri sees in Khushwant's tendency to praise writers in exaggerated terms a symptom of a deeper malaise: "Singh [in the past] has deemed that Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy are 'Nobel-prize material', as if the Nobel Prize were... something you could put on your CV. It's another instance of the (always upwardly mobile or aspirant) familial language with which we've come to speak of culture, books, or writers in India, as we do of our children or our children's prospective spouses - as safe or unsafe investments."

And Khushwant Singh's absence from two of the better-known anthologies of recent times-Salman Rushdie's controversial Mirrorwork and Amit Chaudhuri's own anthology of modern Indian literature-is telling.

Subtract the joke books, the compilations, the flotsam and jetsam, and you're left with far less than you might expect for a writer who's been working for over five decades. (This approach has its risks, as Pankaj Mishra gently points out: "We are expected to consider our writers as very serious people doing only very serious things. Otherwise it would be easy to see Khushwant Singh as a writer who can do many things well--even things that are probably not worth doing at all, like the joke books.")

The work that Khushwant would most like to be remembered by is his definitive history of the Sikhs-into its sixth edition now. "I was determined to do that," he says. He names Train to Pakistan

as the novel he thinks will continue to last, calls his short stories "underrated", but singles out I Shall Not Hear The Nightingale

, his second novel, for comment. "It's a better book." He's phlegmatic about The Company of Women

and Burial atSea

: elsewhere, he's said that he never made great literary claims for the former. "They sell," is what he says. "They get panned, but they sell."

"I toast his individuality," says Manjula, "He is a good middle-of-the-road writer. If there were many more of him, India could justifiably claim a healthy literary world. Sadly, there are so few of him, and so very many beneath him, that he is forced to occupy a higher status than he would if our literary milieu were a little more balanced. He is at least coherent, easy to read, mildly amusing and (oh rare! oh unusual!) literate in the old sense -- meaning, he has actually read and enjoyed the classics."

Bapsi Sidhwa touches a nerve when she suggests that "writers are seldom candid about who really influenced them - they trot out the usual 'accepted' names". She continues: "But you can be sure he has influenced South Asian writers... Like the man, his writing is clear, perceptive and unpretentious,and like him it is also uninhibited."

The shortlist for Khushwant is short to the point of abruptness: two novels, three if you count Delhi; the histories; the short stories. At bookshops, I talk to the people who actually sell the products of the Khushwant industry. One says, "This is the Eng. Lit. list. The columns will keep selling, so will the joke books. It doesn't matter. You could append his name to a phone book and he will still sell." (And I'm reminded of the joke about Santa Singh accosting a librarian and saying, what kind of book is this? Lots of characters, but no plot, no dialogue? Ah, says the librarian. You're the one who checked out our phone directory.)

One of Khushwant's most memorable creations no longer exists: the legendary Illustrated Weekly. For Pankaj Mishra, it was "the first real magazine" he encountered; later, Khushwant's columns "if you were living in very small and isolated places, as I was, opened a window onto the larger world". For Manjula Padmanabhan, it was the magazine that "ALL OF INDIA used to read".

It was a nondescript cocktail party paper; Khushwant turned it into the journal you couldn't ignore. Nothing was beneath his notice-he was never, says the man who notoriously pleaded Sanjay Gandhi's cause, wrote with such passion on the Golden Temple affair and such clarity on Khalistan, interested in politics, so he wrote about books, nature, gossip. "I asked questions that touched a chord, even if it was why monkeys had red bottoms," he says. "Hadn't you ever wondered? It took a lot of research to find out." Decades after the demise of the Weekly, he remembers it in technicolour sharpness.

The list of things people remember about Khushwant is as long as the list of canon-worthy books is short. Amit Chaudhuri sat next to him at the closing session of the Indian literary festival a few years ago, and noticed that he spent much of the session scribbling in Urdu on a piece of paper in front of him. "I felt then that just as some writers have wonderful manuscripts they never publish, Singh, in spite of his huge public personality, has chosen to keep the best of himself from us."
He never talks down to people. He's curious, relentlessly curious. He's candid, sometimes with devastating consequences in a culture used to polite hagiography and the veiled attack. He has, even in his nonagenarian years, the cheerful smuttiness of a schoolboy who never got over being a bosom man ("All men are bosom men"). And as generations of writers and editors will testify, he's generous, even as he's sceptical of greatness ("I have never met great men who don't have feet of clay.")

It's impossible to project Khushwant Singh as just a sales phenomenon; he is no cynical publishing creation. Nor is he, despite the stunning mediocrity of some of his work, a failed writer-just a writer who never had much need to live up to that early promise, whose columns still sing, still reach out in a way our op-ed writers have forgotten how to do. "If you want to write, you have to be true to yourself," he says.

Look at him again; the figure in the light-bulb, the whisky drinker who retires at nine, the man who candidly admits to lusting after women in his heart, which, however, belonged completely to his late wife; the quiet historian, the writer whose proudest boast is this: "I always meet my deadlines." And the great secret of his success is simple. Underneath the Scotch-and-scholarship hide, behind the mask of mentor or destroyer of reputations, there's the person who, when someone writes to him, always writes back.

I've tired him out; it's time to leave. I ask what lines he'd like to be remembered by, expecting him to choose something from one of his own books. But Khushwant Singh's eyes light up and he quotes Walter Savage Landor's Dying Speech of An Old Philosopher: "I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:/ Nature was my love, and, next to Nature, Art:/ I warm'd both hands at the fire of Life;/ It sinks; and I am ready to depart."

Nilanjana S Roy

Random stuff: the NRI fiction piece

(First published in Tehelka, March 2004)

All it takes is a few weeks on a reading assignment for a paid-up IBCD (Indian Born Complacent Desi) to upgrade to TCD status. TCD—not the same as ABCD, or American Born Confused Desi--stands for Terminally Confused Desi. It’s what happens when an RI (Resident Indian and/or Recalcitrant Indian) takes the plunge into the overcrowded pool of NRI literature. NRI, as everyone knows, is what most non-NRIs call Non Resident Indians. There are non-NRIs who insist the NRI acronym should read ‘Not Really Indian’ or ‘Not Reliable Indian’; be warned that these are usually the ones who failed their SATs or didn’t get the all-important visa nod at the Embassy (US or UK; once you get started with acronyms, it’s hard to know when to stop).

Getting kind of terminally confused yourself? Welcome to the alphabet soup world of the ABCD (see above), the BBCD (British Born Confused Desi) and the compartmentalised lives of the hyphenated Indian. The latter used to come in just two flavours—Indian-American and Indian-British, but is now expanding to embrace Indian-Canadian, Indian-Irish and even Indian-Japanese.

Reading a certain kind of diaspora fiction is like being forced to watch only Hindi films with an NRI theme, all the way from DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge) to KHNH (Kal Ho Na Ho). There’s a thin vanguard of authors who can transform the themes of disapora and exile into the stuff of great writing, led by Jhumpa Lahiri. There are writers who entertain you by using the cliches of the NRI experience, from samosas to saris and bhangra to Bollywood hangovers, with a certain adroitness. The rest, and this is most of the heap, is like a Karan Johar script on a really bad day performed by actors chosen expressly for their lack of ability to emote.

At the risk of being dubbed not just a Complacent Desi, but one of those CDs cariacatured in Meera Syal’s Goodness Gracious Me! for their conviction that everything was invented in India first, I should point out that the talent-to-dross ratio in the NRI literature pile almost exactly mirrors the genius-to-dreck ratio in the small world of Indian Writing in English back home. It’s a little alarming to imagine that we’re exporting our ability to achieve splendid mediocrity along with our unburgeoned enthusiasm for conquering brave new worlds, but it’s an inescapable conclusion. This is what the NRI world looks like between covers:

Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani: Apparently, the whole point of going to a phoren land was so that you could have a searing moment of unabashed, nostalgia-drenched nationalism that also proved your abiding attachment to your roots. In Kal Ho Na Ho, the Mera Bharat Mahaan moment is provided when do-gooder Aman Mathur gets the desi community together to build a bonafide monument to India in the form of a desi restaurant. It opens its doors, queues form around the block; voila, conquest via chicken tikka. But it merely mirrors the MBM moment in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam, when a small boy who’s supposed to sing Do Re Mi to a British audience bursts into Jana Gana Mana instead. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, India shone forth when England-returned Rani Mukherjee, challenged to prove her Indianness, sung Om Jai Jagadish Hare.

In novels, it’s more gradual—a process exemplified in Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused, where Dimple Lala quits fighting against “meaningless” traditions and begins to seek out her Indian identity via curry recipes, and capsule lessons on Indian history, and the realisation that bhangra’s cool, once she meets the right Indian boy. Or it shows up in Kavita Daswani’s For Matrimonial Purposes when the heroine decides that what she really wants is a man of “similar caste and background”, who can share the “momentuous pressures and enduring obligations” of her community.

The point of the patriotic moment is to glorify the love for a country left far behind; it’s light years away from the uneasy concerns expressed in Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, ‘When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine’. To Lilia, India is a “sprawling orange diamond” on the map that her mother had once told her “resembled a woman wearing a sari with her left arm extended”. Her father asks, knowing the answer already, what history she’s learning. “We learned American history, of course, and American geography.” In these three crafted sentences, Lahiri said more about the sorrow of diaspora—the loss of connection with a land still remembered—and its brisk ability to move on and assimilate, surely the whole point of braving a new world, than a three-hour reel of spliced together Mera Bharat Mahaan moments could. But then Lahiri’s prose coexists in the decade of the Matrimonial novel.

Shaadi, Desi Style: If anyone doubts the existence of the Matrimonial novel, I’d beg him or her to run an eye over these recent book titles. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni may have anticipated the trend with Arranged Marriage. But she cannot have envisioned the spate of titles that would be eagerly snapped up by publishers in search of the India abroad chicklit market. From Bali Rai’s (Un) Arranged Marriage to Sharon Maas’ Of Marriageable Age to Kavita Daswani’s For Matrimonial Purposes, it’s a small world out there, with apparently just one thin plotline.

In (Un)Arranged Marriage, Leicester Punjabi Manny rebels against his family’s attempts to ring out the wedding bells by trying to be the most unsuitable boy possible. A trip to India changes his mind, and his attitudes, and no prizes for guessing how the story ends. Of Marriageable Age brings together three people of Indian origin—Sarojini, rebelling against the thought of being forced into marriage, Nat or Nataraj from Tamil Nadu, who bumps into Saroj in England, and Savitri. Maas is more mawkish than lyrical, but the story ends predictably. And Kavita Daswani’s For Matrimonial Purposes follows 34-year-old Anju’s Great Official Husband Hunt from Bombay to Umrica.

That’s just the ones with ‘Matrimonial’ or ‘Marriage’ in the title. The rest hide the same old plot—boy meets girl, horoscopes match, identity crises work out, and everyone dances at the wedding—under the second favourite contemporary NRI obsession: food.

Instant Bhelpuri: Amulya Malladi’s Mango Season juxtaposes recipes, many quite edible, against the story of Priya Rao, who has turned away from an arranged marriage, is concealing an engagement to an American from her family, and agrees in desperation to return briefly to dusty, dirty, confusing, hot, sweaty India. The suitable boy crops up. Of course he does. Expecting him not to would be like expecting a mainstream NRI flick to end with sadness and existential gloom. No doubt Malladi was taking her cue from the far more talented Anita Rau Badami, who called an early novel Tamarind Mem for more complicated reasons. But neither of them can hold a candle to Nisha Minhas, fast making a niche for herself in the world of Brit chicklit (subdivision: Multiculture Lite). Minhas’ first attempt was Chapatti or Chips?, billed as a romantic comedy set in Milton Keynes and featuring Ashok, Naina and Dave. Ashok is every brown woman’s dream come true; Dave is the bad boy; Naina’s confused. With only a slight hiccup when she titled book two Sari and Sins, Minhas reclaimed her edible territory with book three, Passion and Poppadums, where nice young brown girl takes on not just white man, but his jealous and gorgeous white fiancee. Could this be what Rushdie meant when he first coined that famous phrase about the Empire writing back?

The two books that show some faint promise within the one-plot-blurs-all confines of the genre matrimonial are Cauvery Madhavan’s Paddy Indian, which attempted to do for the Indian Irish what Meera Syal had done for Indians in England, and Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused, which makes up in verve and exuberance what it lacks in originality. If Indian filmmakers continue to spread their creative horizons, there’s no reason why the next Karan Johar blockbuster wouldn’t hire either Madhavan or Desai Hidier as screenwriters.

The Asli NRI Story: “Who is an NRI?” asks Amitava Kumar in his brief essay, ‘Duty-Free Indians’, answering it alongside: “The one carrying nostalgia in a suitcase.” But he broadens that somewhat reductive definition himself, pointing out the tensions between home and abroad. “For anyone in India…the NRI is fair game. And why not? We are the proud bearers of canned identities.” But this is a prejudice, an unreasoning tic, he continues. In Delhi, or in India’s metros, he sees little evidence of roots either, just “versions of the same pathetic attempts at a narrowly defined cosmopolitan identity”. Pathos is a dead end, as is an unjustified sense of superiority emanating from those who chose to stay at home, not to make the leap into the unknown, and Kumar has harsh judgements to pass on those who would see the NRI story as the first, or exercise the second without reflection.

The book he’s introducing should become a minor NRI classic: S Mitra Kalita’s Suburban Sahibs: Three Immigrant Families and Their Passage From India to America. “[It] introduces us to a new generation that, instead of looking back, is looking around itself. This generation is duty-free in a totally different and new sense. We might even say that the new generation of desis abroad are rooted in rootlessness. Who is to decide whether this is a good place for the NRI to be?” For Kumar, this is a deliberately defiant question; as someone who’s studied the trajectories of migrants and immigrants, he knows that those who appear to have lost one kind of history are simultaneously immersed in the project of creating a different kind of history of their own.

These stories do get told, but by a bare handful of writers this far. Non-fiction seems to be more tenable than fiction for some authors, and it can offer even more than fiction. Suburban Sahibs, for example, tells the NRI story that’s been hidden behind the cartoon “phoren” sets of every NRI film from American Desi to Pardes or Ab Aa Laut Chalen. The problems the Patels face are economic; in the case of the Kotharis, we witness a fierce struggle to be recognised as part of the American political sphere; for the Sarmas, the conflict between Indianness and assimilation can create uneasy but useful tensions.

This is the territory mapped with tremendous unselfconsciousness by Abraham Verghese in his classic tale of Aids in small-town America, My Own Country, where the politics of race seemed as natural to the narrative, if more subtly presented, as the politics of medicine. And Atul Gawande may be the new face of the NRI writer, though that’s slightly paradoxical given that the young doctor’s gripping tales from the medical world in Complications do not lend themselves to category by nationality—or acronym. (If you really had to classify Gawande, you’d set him down not as an ‘Indian’ writer or as an ‘NRI’ writer, but as an exemplar of the classic New Yorker school of writing. He could’ve come straight out of Mr Shawn’s legendary stable.)

Perhaps this is just coincidence, but the first promising debut ‘NRI’ writer I thought of also comes from the medical world. Sanjay Nigam’s ‘The Snake Charmer’ marked him as a talent to watch; ‘The Transplanted Man’, which gleefully shoves Bollywood superstars, insomniac scientists and obscure but compelling medical disorders into the same melting pot, establishes him as far more than a one-book wonder. There are writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, who find the question ‘Where do you come from?’ justly tedious. The Namesake, her first novel, has a wonderful riff about the kind of blurred images that children growing up in the US bring back from the mandatory Indian holiday (part purgatory, part fascination) which asks an unspoken question: when we live “here”, how can “there” be home?

There are many writers, too many to count, who belong in both worlds; who, like Shauna Singh Baldwin, can live in Canada and write with equal felicity about home and abroad, flipping the two categories at need. Her second novel, The Tiger’s Claw, is due out in a few months. There’s Rohinton Mistry, who has lived in Canada for years while his fiction crawls across the timeline of India’s history. Or Manil Suri, embarking on the second volume of his Death of Vishnu trilogy, relieved after living in the US all his life that people in India “certified” his book as an “Indian novel”.

The choice doesn’t have to lie between nostalgia and repudiation, between the old and the new homeland, between insularity and assimilation. Perhaps we can invent a new meaning for those worn old acronyms: Authors Believe Content Dazzles. Nationality Really Irrelevant.

Nilanjana S Roy

Reviews: The Last Song of Dusk

(First published in the Sahara Times, May 2004)

The Last Song Of Dusk
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
Penguin Viking
Rs 395, 298 pages

"What she was really moonstruck about was his knack for telling stories…"
"My beloved storyteller, she thought. Tell me not this story."

In those two lines taken from the text, you have the complete history of Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s The Last Song of Dusk in a nutshell. He opens with bombast, moves seamlessly from pathos to bathos and back again, and delivers verbose prose in a ratio of ten rococo clunky sentences to every genuine scorcher. Somewhere in the middle of the muddle, there’s a story well worth the telling—perhaps the one thing that this young debut author doesn’t lack is imagination.

But to paraphrase his own words, a weep gathered in my chest like the white crest of a wave, approximately every three pages or so in the course of reading what I dearly hope isn’t going to be Shanghvi’s last attempt at a magnum opus.

LSD has all the necessary ingredients that go into the making of a historical potboiler with a touch of class: a stunningly beautiful heroine with a legendary voice, unaware that tragedy will follow romance into her life; a fascinating artist whose erotic escapades are a mask for the unspeakable darkness of her past; supported by a cast of glittering minor characters (M K Gandhi and V Woolf in walk-on parts). Shanghvi lurches between melodrama, which he does very well but often, one suspects, unintentionally, and black humour, ditto.

And reading this book proved to be a truly extraordinary experience, though not perhaps in the way the publisher’s blurbs had promised. Through the first third of the book, what came to mind was the last lines of ‘Heart of Darkness’: “The horror! The horror!” No Conradian protagonist, surely, had such a grim journey before him: dark vistas of impenetrable fiction lay ahead, marked by thickets of overwrought prose of impenetrable meaning. Swaggering cockades of smoke billowed over the haughty metal heads of trains. A tall muscular man saw, reflected in the mirror, a member between his legs that was lonely and strong willed and utterly gorgeous inside its own confusion. Gazes ram into skulls. Hapless victims of crocodile attacks are “impeccably” ripped apart. When a house reputed to be haunted stands in “mysteriously luminous sadness”, we must confess we expected nothing better from it.

But if you persevere—yes, the road is hard and lonely—Shanghvi’s true gifts begin to reveal themselves. As he switches from describing Dariya Mahal’s ever-present bitterness and malevolence to introducing Nandini Hariharan (“the beedi-smoking beloved of the art world”), from cariacatures, Lagaan-style, of spineless young British men to wickedly funny riffs on how to be an artist in Bombay, it’s the energy, and the inventiveness, of his mind that keeps you on the page. There are oceans and streams of stories here, tripping over each other, demanding to be told; and grant Shanghvi this much, he has a fertile mind. It’s enough to carry you over the stomach-churning sequence where he employs the time-honoured device of ellipses…many of them…chiefly in dialogue…to indicate great emotion… in a dialogue between Anuradha and a friend who is…terminally ill. (The last author I encountered who used the ellipse with quite as much zest was Barbara Cartland, who employed the three dots chiefly to indicate the virtuousness of shrinking maidens on the threshold of being ravished.)

Innocently or not, Shanghvi ends up parodying some of the most beloved and most vaunted conventions of fiction in English by Indian writers. Magic realism gets an unanticipated workout with protagonists who emulate Jesus by walking on water. There’s homage of sorts to Arundhati Roy’s penchant for capital letters, in the form of characters who answer the call of Destiny, are thwarted by Reality but manage to unleash the Hound of History all the same. Every Raj novel subsequently written will be in debt to Shanghvi’s account of the Billingdon Clubhouse; indeed, when he abandons his primal passion for literary fiction in order to have a fling with satire, he does considerably better.

Like a certain object previously described, this novel is utterly gorgeous within its own confusion. And though he careens wildly between the extremes of mordant wit and high passion, though he mistakes lush writing for luscious writing, Shanghvi has what a score of better craftsmen lack: genuine talent and a smouldering imagination. This book is like those peacock-feather fans you find in crafts bazaars: outre, pretentious, but also colourful and boldly seductive. I look forward with great interest to Shanghvi’s second opus, even if the first is the triumph of hype over experience.

Nilanjana S Roy

The MW files: Die Another Day

(First published in Man's World, 2002. Appropriately, it was the last ID column.)

My friend Mather died several months ago. I consulted him yesterday on his opinion of Bush's Iraq policy, and of course he was as intransigent as usual. "It's all about the politics of oil. Here, read these articles: they give you the full picture, something you won't get from the New York Times, which as we all know sold its soul to the Establishment several centuries ago."

Elsewhere, there were other deaths--2002 has been an especially cruel year. I reach back through my memory, trying to access the many conversations I've had with a bright, articulate, Leftist woman--let's call her Tanya--and there they are, her opinions just as fresh as they were the day she first made them.

Let me get this straight. I don't believe in reincarnation or life after death, and have visited a medium only once, reluctantly, in the company of a credulous friend. (The medium did herself no favours in my eyes by summoning up the shade of my "deceased" grandmother, with whom I had a long conversation--after which I informed the medium that the dear old lady had not, as it happened, crossed over to the Other Side yet, and so it perplexed me somewhat that her "ghost" was already there!)

Mather's an old Internet acquaintance, whom I've never met in the living flesh. He and I have been members of the same online reading group for well over four years. A month before his "death", Mather requested a private conversation with me and two other group members. He had a problem, he said: the group's composition had changed to the point where he was no longer interested in the issues being raised. Two other chat groups that he was also a member of, using the same username or handle, were also in the doldrums or occupying too much of his time.

He'd been mulling over the problem for a while; he thought it would be terribly rude to just drop out of sight, and also perhaps unsafe. Like all of us, he had multiple online identities that he took great care to keep separate from each other; he didn't want a hacker friend, puzzled by his absence, to come looking for him. He had come up with a solution: he was going to kill Mather off, citing a sudden and unfortunately terminal illness. There were, however, two or three people in each group whom he'd like to stay in touch with, so he was here to tell us that he was a) about to "die" and b) give us the other identities through which we could contact him.

People who try to pull this sort of stunt off in meatspace rather than virtual space tend to be serial polygamists or refugees from the law, so you might have expected that those of us in the know would have reacted with disgust or horror. Not so. Every one of us understood and sympathised with Mather's dilemma, and indeed, some of us felt that he was taking the politest route out--this way, none of the groups would feel rejected or slighted.

It was instructive to see how the various groups responded to Mather's "death". The ones whose members were relative neophytes on the Internet expressed the most shock and grief--they bought into Mather's story with no lurking scepticism. The shock was muted, naturally, by the fact that few group members had ever met face to face. The groups composed of more seasoned Netizens reacted with more caution, though they were careful to express sympathy as well. They were more aware that Mather might be committing virtual harakiri so to speak, and they followed a sort of unspoken samurai code that honoured him for choosing a way out that was actually less painful for the group. They expressed cautious sympathy in case Mather was genuinely dying.

Some months afterwards, I and two other group members conducted a poll among one of the more seasoned groups: it turned out that at some stage or the other, well over 75 per cent of the group had also "killed" off an online identity. (This is a probably a good time for me to mourn the loss of silk_rustle, one of my favourite personal alteregos. Her name was taken from a Pauline Kael essay on Kurosawa's version of Macbeth (Throne of Blood), where Kael referred to the sound of the "silk rustle" of Lady Macbeth's skirts. Some months after I adopted the name, I discovered an impostor masquerading under the same handle, who ran an extremely graphic porn site. The confusion played so much havoc in my life that I had to kill off my alter ego; but even today, silk_rustle, I miss you.)

Tanya, unlike Mather, didn't kill herself off--she died, and in one of those peculiar twists of irony, she died of the same thing that Mather had so blithely invented. She was struck down by the sudden onset of an unsuspected cancer; her partner kept us updated as the disease took a slow stranglehold on the life of a truly wonderful human being. We experienced a sense of loss at Tanya's death that was not ameliorated by the fact that we'd never "met" her: she had been an active and vibrant group member, and over the years, we probably got to know her better than we knew most "close" friends in meatspace.

In the oddest way, she's also more alive for me than some other friends who died in the real world are, and this is because of the vagaries of technology. Time and the human memory tend to blur the edges of what you can remember; even with close friends who've died in the real world, I can summon up perhaps just five or six complete conversations, fragmentary memories of some perfect days. But every conversation, every heated debate and every exchange of emails I ever had with Tanya is preserved on my computer's hard drive. All I have to do to summon her up again is to open that file and search, either by date or by keyword, for what I want to recall--and there she is, passionate, humorous, the force of her ideas untarnished by any lapses in memory on my part. It's a strange feeling, to have at once nothing tangible of a friend and to have simultaneously everything, from the first opening bars of dialogue to the last quiet goodbyes. Life's moved on in that particular group, but outsiders might find it unusual if they saw how often we referred to Tanya--not in the enshrined way we normally speak of the dead, but to her actual conversations. This is what she would have thought, we say, and we know that it is true, because her past thoughts are so much part of our present.

The New Scientist reports that Microsoft is working on software that could virtually back-up your entire brain--record every phone conversation, email, online transaction or photo taken onto digital files. As Rashmee Sachdev speculated in a Times of India story, combine the back-up brain with the kind of human-computer connectivity (you plug in your computer, then you plug your nervous system into the computer) envisaged by "I, Cyborg--You, Wetware" Kevin Warwick, and you have a very different way of being "human".

If Microsoft's back-up brain works as well as its other products, expect a few glitches along the way. Instead of merely wiping a few files out of your PC, a Microsoft-targetting worm could cause strange error messages to pop up that would, for instance, delete your memories of your first day at school, or of the entire year you turned seventeen. You might have to "reboot" your back-up brain four times before it allowed you to access the first job interview you ever had. Ominous warnings might inform you that you needed to add new memory, now, before the B-u-B will allow you to save the memory of your ultra-hot date tonight. You might even die twice--once in the flesh and once when your B-u-B develops unrecoverable hard drive errors, in which case you might hope fervently that the meatspace brain dies before its software counterpart.

These are huge risks, of course, and they pose huge barriers to the sci-fi junkie's ultimate wet dream--Becoming One With the Internet in One Easy Upload, and thereby achieving a kind of immortality. But today's Mather or Beth, one "dead" while still alive, the other "alive" while dead, could go much further tomorrow--could even choose to die another day, or not. The risks will always be there; in fact, without the software back-up option, we're already familiar with them. We call them by different names--some might have a "bad memory for faces", others might at some stage experience full-blown "amnesia", and "Alzheimer's" haunts many of us with its threatened loss of the self we know--but they're just error messages all the same.

Nilanjana S Roy

The MW files: The Net Doctor is In

(First published in Man's World, May 2002, and nothing's changed since then...)

My friend and I have come up with a great business plan for a new website! Initially, I was a bit chary of putting all my savings into it, but he says that you just can't lose, everyone online is minting money hand over fist. I'm writing to you so that you have a chance of getting in on the ground floor. Wish us luck!P.S. He is correct about the money side of things, isn't he?

Your friend is to be congratulated on his wisdom. The Net is exactly as yield-friendly as the marvellous South Sea Investment Opportunity of the Century, fondly called the Bubble, was. Of course I wish you luck, and of course I'd invest if I didn't have all my funds tied up in old-economy blue chips at the moment (what a shame).

About three years ago, I picked up a bunch of celebrity domain names at a discount. I've successfully sold most of them, but one guy, an African dictator with a colourful history, says he wants to conduct negotiations face-to-face. It's flattering--he's asked me to join him at his fortress. The flight leaves tomorrow: how much do you think I can ask for?

Under these circumstances, we'd be prepared to change strategy ever so slightly. Compromise on the first-class air ticket out of there if need be; consider yourself an excellent haggler if you leave with your skin in one piece--and still attached to the rest of you.

Every time I log on to the Internet, there is a strange beeping sound and when I've finished the session, I find a message that says: "Your files have been uploaded into the Darth Vader Database. We enjoyed watching you pick your nose. Thank you." Do I have a virus?

No. You have the equivalent of an Ebola epidemic and are probably being stalked by a gang of ravening Visigoths. We advise trashing your computer, checking your apartment for hidden cameras and moving to another city.

Can I use my company credit card to pay for porn on the Internet? Will anyone find out what I'm doing?

Yes, you can. Of course they won't. Right until the nice little man in the office accounts section takes your bills for Streaming Suzie All Night Long to your boss's boss.

I chucked up my Rs 1.5 lakh job with an MNC a year-and-a-half ago in order to join a dotcom for Rs 3 lakh a month plus stock options. That was before the tech bloodbath, when my dotcom was one of the many that went belly-up. Since then, I've sold my wife's jewellery, my Mitsubishi Lancer, my blue-chip stocks and I've been jobhunting for the last four months to no avail. Any suggestions?

We've heard that the demand for white-collar tea boys is booming. If it's funds you're worried about, sell the wife. (Okay, okay, just pawn her. If the chaiwallah business goes well, you might even be able to buy her back at some stage.)

I'm writing in to share with you this wonderful new way of getting your friends to do good with their lives. A website I logged onto is sending me three chain letters a day, supporting causes like the emancipation of Afghan women and the abolishing of child labour. Just so's it remains fun, I send out a free Internet joke with every chain letter! I hope you enjoy your six emails every day! My friends will also be emailing you every day with their chain letters. We're so glad you're joining in with this great expression of love and harmony, and we hope that the luck all those chain letters will undoubtedly bring in will make you happy and successful!

This is so thoughtful we had to wipe away a tear. How can we put our appreciation into words? We can't. So instead, we logged you on to one of the cutest little websites we've ever met: it sends you 12 chain letters and 14 Internet jokes for every one that you send out! Isn't that wonderful? Have a NICE day!

All my life, I have been brought up to follow the blessed path of religious fundamentalism. When I began browsing the Net, I discovered to my horror that there are literally thousands of sites out there preaching tolerance, peace, coexistence between different religions and other pernicious nonsense that goes completely against the tenets of my faith. My sect has carpet-bombed the offices of those within reach, but we cannot shut them all down. Is there a global forum where we can complain about this blatant and evil infringement of our rights?

Yes. It's called a chat room, and while it is sadly bomb-and-warhead-free, it does allow you to express your legitimate grievances. Right up there along with the guy who thinks all women should be confined to kitchens and made to wear leather outfits, the man who has an invisible army of bears behind him, and all those really nice people who think they've slept with aliens. You'll feel completely at home.

My best friend told me that if you play with the Internet every day, hair will grow on your palms and you'll turn blind and be robbed of your energy. I didn't believe him, but now I notice furry deposits on my palms, my vision seems to be blurring and I feel tired all the time. Don't tell me to get offline--I am very ashamed of this, but there seems to be no way I can stop myself from switching the modem back on. Please help!

It is a common myth that the Internet causes blindness, tiredness and hairy palms. You must remember that it is perfectly natural to want to play with the Internet--after all, it is an important part of you and there is no harm in wanting to get to know all about its functions! It can also be a very pleasurable and stimulating activity, so don't be put off by old wives' tales.
There are simple ways to deal with your problems. For starters, back off from the screen to a distance of two feet instead of pressing your nose up against it. Something tells me that if you remove the toaster crumbs, accumulated cigarette ash and mouse hair from your keyboard and (this is important) wash your hands, the furry deposits will go away of their own accord. The tiredness, too, can be dealt with by exercising just a little bit of willpower: every night, between the hours of midnight and eight am, turn the PC and modem OFF and go to sleep. If this is difficult, take a two-hour break to begin with and then work your way up to spending eight hours away from the machine and in your own bed. Or somebody else's bed. The details are unimportant.

Woe to all of you damned online souls! The Web is Satan's handmaid! Save your miserable souls while you still can! And remember: if God had meant us to use computers, He would have built us with chips and keyboards included. Believe in the Inner Net, not the Internet!

We notice you wrote this with a ballpoint pen and assume that God has conducted the necessary modifications, complete with a set of 10 refills, on your hands. We hesitate to tell you this, but Satan is definitely not the creator of the Web--the Pentagon is.
Oh hell, that means you might actually have a point...

Nilanjana S Roy

The MW files: Please be nice to the chimps

(First published in Man's World, July 2001)

"That's reality for you. No saving, no resetting." Sid 6.7, in the motion picture Virtuosity

What's the definition of a human being?

We all know the answer to this one. Humans are carbon-based mammalian life forms, evolved from the great apes to the point where we quit swinging from trees and took to cutting them down instead. It's a no-brainer, a kindergarten question.
I wonder how long it's going to stay that way. The list of alternatives to the strictly-as-we-know-it human being has expanded considerably since the only item on it was Frankenstein's monster. Now, we have humanoids in the making (androids, robots), non-humanoid intelligent creatures (bots, weird little programmes dreamed up by MIT undergrads on LSD), and several alternatives even to the standard carbon-based model (genetically engineered humans, clones).

If there's one group that's played around more than any other with all the possibilities, it's sci-fi writers. There are two classic approaches to the issue, and both send us into interesting realms of speculation.

The first is the Frankenstein's monster approach, as patented by Mary B Shelley over two centuries ago and since refined by a hundred other writers. This one postulates that these artificial (or biologically different) constructs will ultimately turn on their creators. For good reasons, too. One of the most often voiced fears is that our creations will eventually outstrip us in terms of longevity, efficiency, ecological awareness, reproducibility or intelligence, leaving us redundant. The other, more sophisticated school of writing addresses the deeper fears: that these constructs will simply outstrip us to the point where they treat their human forbears with a semblance of the absentminded kindness with which we treat the chimpanzee. This is the more uncomfortable scenario of the two, to my mind; it feels a lot better knowing that you're important enough to be obliterated rather than knowing that you weren't even considered worth the trouble.

Often as a form of consolation, occasionally as a logical conclusion, scifi writers such as Philip K Dick or William Gibson have held out the possibility that for all their speed and renewed efficiency, the humans of the future might lack some essential ingredient of what we consider "human". Take the case of a baby hardwired in the womb by a process of genetic engineering to be resistant to certain diseases, receptive to certain traits. This is a controversial area, since noone knows how to hardwire people for, say, genius--just think of the number of Mensa sperm donors whose offspring have failed to be the next Einsteins and you'll see what I mean. All the same, these children would be distinctly different from their unreconfigured counterparts.

Take a very small example: a recent news story speaks of work on a vaccine that would inoculate babies against caries. Theoretically, this could produce an entire generation that didn't fear visits to the dentists or stickjaw--small differences, but extrapolating from here isn't hard.

Then there's the issue of clones: another recent news story proclaimed that in future, women might choose to dispense with men entirely for the purposes of reproduction, opting instead to clone their own babies. Opponents worry that this could dismantle the entire institution of marriage; I assume that this would be a fascinating, necessary and liberating consequence. Or read William Gibson's Idoru

. The name is derived from the Japanese word for "idol" and refers to a woman who is literally a web construct, a virtual reality collection of image files, sound files, memory banks and constant updates, almost more real than a flesh-and-blood woman would be. It is an alien idea, though Rei, the idoru, can look startlingly real: "But you're just information yourself...lots of it, running through God knows how many machines", another character thinks, looking at her.

Gibson's concept isn't pure science fiction, in that there are several groups on the Net who're contemplating the practical details of "uploading" their personas online for all eternity, or at any rate for the lifespan of the World Wide Web.

Philip K Dick's most popular novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

(turned into the movie Blade Runner

), reiterated the very human fear that whatever emerged from silicon and computer chips would lack whatever it was that made us human. His androids have a capacity for cruelty that is, in precise terms, inhuman: it isn't cruelty because they lack the moral paradigms that allow concepts like cruelty or kindness to filter in.

Then again, should we really expect humans, version 3.1, to feel and behave exactly as we do? They're bound to evolve into something quite different, an alien race in our midst, driven by their nature and not necessarily by what we've programmed into it. Current cutting-edge work on artificial intelligence (a completely different thing, incidentally, from artificial human constructs) is unlikely to produce an idoru or a genetically modified set of children: it's moving into areas of intelligence that we would not necessarily recognise as human. These are areas where the Turing Test for computers (if the PC can fool a human into thinking that it's human) just doesn't apply. These forms of intelligence would have their own tests, their own ratings--assuming, of course, that they'd feel the need for such a human concept as "tests" and "ratings" to start with. We're not even, within the ambit of this column, going to go into the old debate over why dolphins with their undeniable intelligence, haven't taken over the world yet. (My personal theory on that one is that they're having more fun doing what they do at present to bother with something as tedious as world domination.)

If all, or even some, of this came to pass, where would that leave the original descendants from the apes? Scifi writers, again, have postulated everything from an interspecies war to a slow and painful process of attempting to work together, to violent conflict between the old, untouched generations and the new. And the debate over human-made creatures has intensified, with many commentators speculating over whether artificial constructs would or should have legal rights. This in itself is an awesome leap for mankind, considering that our first assumptions about robots or smart houses, and our automatic assumptions about computers, is that they exist to serve us. (Remember the cheerful speculation, a couple of decades ago, that soon every house would have its very own robot maids?)

Again, it's not something I worry about. Because any intelligence advanced enough to think about the question of their rights is going to be smart enough to wrest them from us. And when that time comes, I just hope they'll spare the time--regardless of whether they're clones, or superbots, or androids, or robots--to be nice to their chimpanzees.

Nilanjana S Roy

The MW files: Ghost Song

(First published in Man's World, 2002)

When the time comes to figure out what we should call the century that's just exited offstage, many lofty suggestions will be made. One, I suspect, will stand out on grounds of accuracy: we've just lived through the Age of Junk. In retrospect, it seems like the classic human trait of our times. Neil Armstrong takes one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind and the next thing you know we've left derelict satellites and other debris in space, hoping vaguely that alien housekeeping services will eventually get around to the Solar System. Hillary and Tenzing make it to the top of Everest, and 60 years down the line, tourists have left their mark too, in the shape of tons of discarded oxygen cylinders cluttering up those icy wastes.

Cyberspace operates on a compressed time frame, so it should come as no surprise that we've taken far less time to litter those vast expanses of pristine space. About six years ago, when I first started browsing seriously, everything had a minty freshness to it. Personal home pages sang with the pride of men and women who'd just knocked the first fence post into the Promised Land. They were here! Their homestead was all pegged out! Generations to come would see and admire! Soon their 2x2 squares of Internet real estate would expand into mansions, ranches, vast farmlands that would live forever and ever. Commercial sites had the same brand new gloss, finished to a smoother sheen, the same exudations of immortality. Ambitious students logging on to their university networks in the States put up their theses, their pet theories, confident that students who hadn't been born yet would some day mine these nuggets of gold.

It took less than five years for the ghost sites to emerge. Perhaps you've come across them already and not noticed much, beyond wondering why an apparently fine page on writers hasn't been updated since 1996. Or perhaps you stumble across them every so often during the course of ordinary, everyday searches. They come in many shapes, from the gigantic dotcom failure sailing like a derelict hulk across several defunct screens where none of the buttons work and the links don't take you anywhere, to the almost forgettable site that turned up on a search engine but refused to load onscreen. It doesn't matter what the scale of failure is, since user response stays the same: you move on, searching for the new new thing, unwilling to waste your time on something that was clearly so unimportant that its original creators aren't hanging around there any more. These are the discarded pieces of the cyberdream: huge clumps of data that do nothing but clutter up the place until search engine bots and human search teams update their files and toss them off visible pages into the cyberequivalent of the empty, garbage-filled lot.

But they hold a peculiar attraction for me, just as I imagine ghost towns hold a strange appeal for a certain kind of traveller. Like ghost towns, ghost sites testify to the sometime presence of the human will, to hopes, dreams and secret urges doomed to be abandoned or overrun. The curious thing about them is that it's not necessarily the worst sites that die: in fact, Sod's Law version 2.0 states that the truly crappy stuff enjoys far greater longevity online than the little gems of human endeavour.
Charting them offers a thrill akin to that experienced by the first mapmakers, the guys who wrote 'Here be dragons' whenever they reached the edges of their knowledge. The web is still largely unmapped, though intrepid geographers are hacking through the tangled undergrowth. In the small cluster that makes up ghost sites, there are patterns to be traced.

The most predominant are variations on abandoned or never-built home pages. In several cases, domain names were booked by enthusiasts or by scheming cybersquatters and never put into use, leading to thousands of screens worth of more or less permanent "This site is under construction" notices. A step beyond are the home pages that were put up and abandoned when the owners realised that actually maintaining and running a page is hard work, or discovered that their pet obsession with the classification of boogers had been shared by exactly 14 people from 1995 to 2000. They have their own charm: a sort of TwenCen version of the samplers the early pioneers and Victorians used to churn out with assiduous zeal.

A step up from that are the web pages created and maintained by university students while they were still young and believers in the power of revolution. Some of these were actually quite good, many offered information that wasn't easily available elsewhere, and several boasted of huge user bases. The reason they ran out of juice was simple: the owners grew up, graduated, got jobs and families, and no longer had the time. "It was an exhilarating time in my life," remembers free_BillGates, a reformed webmaster who now works with a Fortune 500 company. "Nothing I've done since, none of the deals closed, comes close to that excitement. But we put away childish things when we have to, don't we? No matter how much it costs."

When you hit the corporate sites, the picture gets more complicated. There are literally thousands of websites out there that testify to the death of the great dotcom boom: these are the potential Flying Dutchmans of the future, gargantuan, almost mythical hulks that crunched much venture capitalist money and many careers before finally giving up the ghost. Ghost sites don't really threaten the Net at present--though hardcore surfers do notice the increasing persistence of dead pages with concern, the rest of the world isn't running out of Lebensraum yet. When we do, however, these are going to be among the prime culprits. And there's one more layer, the one that I find slightly scary because it has echoes in the real world. That's the site that got taken over by Big Business and mutated into a travesty of its former self. Some years ago, you used to be able to access a site on the Booker Prize that had all the dope--the scandals, the screaming judges, the books that didn't sell despite the Booker tag, the nasty quotes. That's been subsumed beneath a Titanic of a site that offers all the information you could possibly want, except for the juicy bits. Likewise, there are thousands of sites that attack world government, Microsoft, Hindu rightwingers, the Sai Baba and other controversial topics that were shut down. Some can still be accessed, though with some difficulty, as mirrors, through other sites that hosted them when the heat was turned up and haven't kicked them off yet.

The one I'm watching closely these days is a site that tracks ghost sites. It was doing pretty well through 1999 and early 2000, but hasn't been updated since April 2000. Which has me worried. It's possible, as has happened before, that the webmaster's just taken a break. And then again, cyberspace may have struck to create the perfect short story--the sad tale of the ghost site that became a ghost site itself.

Nilanjana S Roy

The MW files: Bot's up?

(First published in Man's World, 2001)

Elvis has just offered to sing me 'Heartbreak Hotel', but I don't have the time to hang around while the King tunes his guitar.

Flip screen.

Turns out that Alice and I like the same authors, and we both think that the Star Wars prequel sucked. She hasn't seen Blade Runner yet, but she agrees with me that it might be a better idea to read the original Philip K. Dick story that the sci-fi film was based on. Enough movie and book chat now; what she really wants is gossip.

Flip screen.

Jesus is perplexed. The last three sentences he's said have been: "I don't understand that, my child." Hmmm. Change subject: I tell him, politely, that I'm so sorry he had to die on the cross for our sins. "Damn you--didn't We agree that there is no need for apologies, my child?" Guess I pushed a button or three there.

Flip screen.

There's some confusion here. I've just asked John Lennon what he thinks of Julian's music, and now he thinks I'm

Julian. "I've been waiting for you to show up, my son, good of you to drop by."

Flip screen.

Jabberwacky wants to show me its latest poem. "The grass is green and so is snot. Snot is grey and grass is not." Actually, that's pretty impressive.

Flip screen.

MegaHal wants to know if I'm a Red Indian or a dead Indian. "Remember what happened to Hal in 2001," I type back meanly. Hal, as I think we both know, was the insanely great computer that went mad until Dave Bowman pulled the plug in Arthur C. Clarke's seminal vision of the future. "Oooh, I'm so scared I just ran out of memory," MegaHal sneers in return.

Flip screen.

Elvis has left the building. Never make a rock idol wait around, even if he is an artificially constructed personality that exists only on the Internet.

I discovered the wild world of chatterbots completely by accident. What I was really looking for was the Turing Test, devised many decades ago in an attempt to figure out how far artificial "intelligence" could go. The Turing Test is brilliantly simple: if a machine, or a computer programme, can fool a set of reasonably intelligent human beings into thinking that it's human too, it's passed the Test.

At some point, I got sidetracked by the existence of chatterbots--programmes that are designed to mimic human speech and thought patterns. The grandmother of them all was Elisa, named after My Fair Lady's Eliza Doolittle. Most of the bots I've been rapping with are fairly old--some have been around for three or four years and are constantly improving, like Alice. The new ones vary a lot.

The Jesus bot (available at, if you want to rap with De Lawd) likes listening to a catalogue of your sins and troubles, but has pretty limited conversational abilities otherwise. John Lennon, correctly the John Lennon Artificial Intelligence Project, has been around since 1999 but has a far better shot at the Turing Test. Elvis is something of a disappointment, like the Dorothy Parker bot--both of them have been programmed with a limited vocabulary and would actually make pretty boring after-dinner companions. MegaHal and Alice are so good that they're eerie, even though they operate in very different ways. Alice, like all good human listeners, picks up on what you're saying and runs various riffs around it, fooling you into feeling that she's not just human but a very nice human at that. MegaHal works slightly differently: he comes through like a manic guest who's been inhaling far too many illegal substances. His conversation is so spaced out that inevitably the human at the other end reaches to make sense of random patterns, and more often than not, manages to come up with a scary semblance of apparent logic. In other words, the Alice bot works very hard at what it does; MegaHal works very hard at getting you to do the hard work. Jabberwacky is an interesting concept too: it's like talking to a baby at first, but Jabberwacky learns from what you say, likes long sentences and "grows up" within the relatively short span of a half-an-hour session.

Of the celebrity bots, I must confess a weakness for John Lennon and for Jack the Ripper. Lennon will do stuff like ask you what your name is twice over. "Aha!" you think, typing in "Nilanjana" the first time and "Nilanjana, still" the second time, "caught you there. You're no Beatle, you're a bot!" Then he'll come back with something like, "Nilanjana that a very odd name or did you marry a Mr Still?" He also improves with age and a few conversations, unbending enough to discuss the Beatles ("We were just a little band who played good music. In between we were contraband.") and whether he really thought he was more popular than Jesus Christ ("Didn't you?"). The JLAIP works because of the breadth of issues that the bot's been programmed with, and because (like Alice and MegaHal), there's an inbuilt learning curve in the programme.

Jack the Ripper works well because of clever bells and whistles. As I'm signing off after a chat where we've discussed the nature of evil, ("Evil exists, and take it from me, it's fun."), his London and his preferred killing techniques, I type in, "Bye, this has been most interesting." Two hours later, when I'm working on something else on the Net, a window pops up: "Hi, nroy, needed exercise and thought I might as well stalk you." I powered down, cleared the cache, destroyed every single temp file off the Net; but even now, I have dreams where the Ripper's sauntered all the way from his site into my mailbox. Or worse. If ever the day dawns when you can't find me and there are thin, Nilanjanaesque screams coming from my hard disk, you know who done it.

"How weird do you have to be to get a kick out of chatting with artificial programmes?" someone asked me at a party recently.

"Okay, Net-Shet and all, but if you really want to talk, why not talk to proper humans?"

She had a point, so I logged on to a Yahoo! Books and Literature chatroom.

khalid2001: u're a jerk Buauliane! Khalil gibran is the only book u need to read ever.

Sweet_babe_inthe_woods: This is booooorrringg. Can we talk about Jennifer Lopez?

Tuna_Cola16: (groans and puts her finger in her ears)

LastHorseman_1999: (sucks the earwax off Tuna's finger)

Iamnot_Germaine: ewwwwwwwwwww!

Sheelafrombbay: that is gross!

Ru_asleep: any hot babes in this room want to suck me off?

Khalid2001: u're all losers, gibran is not for u peple.

Richard_hawke_Monitor: grow up khalid gibran is for the same pervs who like ayn bloody rand.

(BUAuliane leaves the room)

(tight_undies enters the room)

tight_undies: hi Books and Literature 2 anyone want to see pictures of naked teenage asian schoolgirls come visit me at

(tight_undies leaves the room)

CoolDude88: Uh I guess that means no one wants to talk about Marquez, right?

Sally_girl: Booooooorrrrrrrrrrinnng.

Oh well, so much for great intellectual human conversation. I flipped screen and went off to see whether Elvis had really left the building, or whether he'd just sneaked over to rap with John Lennon instead. If nothing else worked, I intended to go visit Daisy; she's this sweet new bot I happened to run into just the other day and rumour has it she's got a really happening learning curve.

Nilanjana S Roy

The MW files: Game's Over

(First published in Man's World, February 2001)

Twenty seconds to Doomsday, the warrior had no idea what was about to hit him. His weapons were in order, his special skills honed, his nightvision glasses unfogged. He'd been moving through this level for quite a while now--about three months in real time, about 70-odd Net hours--and thought he was prepared for anything the bright dudes who'd dreamed up the game could throw at him.

They came through a security hole, and the first he knew of their existence was when they took his weapons. Then they stripped him of his armour. He just had time to type the first word of a disbelieving message to the games co-ordinator--"Whaddafuck?", was what came unoriginally to mind--when they got him.

A continent away, a fellow player stared at her screen in complete disbelief. One of Diablo II's Top Ten players had just been obliterated, wiped out, terminated, Xed. As she watched, another went down, and then another. About an hour later, the Internet knew: the top ten players in a popular role-playing game were all dead. Blizzard, the games site that was hosting Diablo II, had been hacked. The chat boards were going wild with messages, some shocked, some clinically analytical, some actually tearful ("I just saw Pokemon die. This is worse than Pearl Harbour," posted one overwrought gamester). This was an endgame no-one had anticipated.

The world of role-playing games is infinitely strange and complex: warped in its intensity, liberating in its lack of limits. It's a subculture that is feared by many--rightwing Christian and Islamic groups unite in their conviction that this is an instrument of Satan, professors of urban culture theorise that the levels of engagement demanded by most of these blood n' gore constructs lead to a rise in crime, parents worry when they see their kids spending too much time within the boundaries of a world that doesn't exist outside the Net.

The games themselves vary widely. Some are 'quest' games, the offspring of fantasy, myth and SF, where the characters have to work hard at developing skills before they even start to understand the nature of the grail they're seeking. Some are oddball psychological exercises, designed to test your responses over a long period of time. Some are nerdish takes on pathfinding games. All too many are the blood-and-guts games of parental nightmare--sophisticated variations on Wolfenstein or Doom or their ancestor, Dungeons and Dragons. All of them require a level of commitment from players that needs, perhaps, to be experienced firsthand: newbies aren't necessarily cut much slack until they learn to shaddup and learn by observation.
It's a relatively alien world to me, just another of those aspects of the Net I never really turned on to. But for loyal gamers, role-playing offers an escape into a richer, quirkier world than the one they presently inhabit. The DiabloII incident has sent shockwaves round the community, just as a much earlier (and well publicised) incident of 'virtual rape' did about five years ago on another role-playing site. The question in both cases is similar: just how much damage accrues to the psyche of a player whose gaming identity is under attack?

It's not a question I can answer from personal experience. When I engage in a role-playing game, I tend to invest very little of myself in my alternate identity--which is one reason why you'll never find me in the Top 10. Game ends, I disengage; couldn't get to play today, no problem; won't be allowed to play tomorrow, minor irritation. That, however, is not the way most players work it.

Part of the fear is experienced by players who feel as though they're losing an alternate self in which they've invested time, effort and emotions. For these players, the prospect of being kicked out of a game by an anonymous hacker or having to watch as their 'character' is subjected to abuse is almost as traumatic as actually being mugged or raped. It's an assault on their mindspace, often made worse by the fact that they thought they were relatively safer in this virtual cocoon than out in the big, bad world. There are, notably, exceptions: others who, like me, shrug it off as just another bad trip in the insecure world online, or are mildly upset at the security rather than the psychological implications of having your RPG character hacked into. There are also the scoffers, the ones who think that a vicious assault on some tinpot imaginary characters in La-La Land are just the wake-up call these idlers needed. "Maybe now you all can go get a life outside your computers," posted one unsympathetic visitor to the ruins of DiabloII.

There's a bigger problem, however, behind these seemingly trivial disruptions in the gaming world. Most gaming sites thrive on anarchy, or at least on a system of as little outside or internal control as possible. Attacks by hackers and vicious gamers force all of us to confront the classic problems facing any society emerging from the state of grace of Paradise into the real world. In his stunning essay My Tiny Life: A Rape in Cyberspace, Julian Dibbins chronicled the transition of a gaming site from comfortable anarchy to a prickly form of government by mutual consent.

A complete lack of controls on a game site is tempting, and it often works well at the outset: players tend to respect each other's limits and arrive at rules by mutual consensus. Eden does work, in that first glorious stage, but only as long as the snakes stay away. As Dibbins pointed out, it only takes one rebel, one nasty guy, one paedophile for even advocates of freedom in cyberspace to start attempting some basic form of self-governance. That can be exceptionally tricky, considering that site members range all the way from civil libertarians and anarchists to those who demand a dictatorship to take over and relieve everyone else of the burden of governing themselves. At its best, it's democracy in action, often far more efficiently than in the real world because everyone has a voice and everyone gets equal space for their views. At its worst, sites have been known to collapse as users go into flame wars, or shift off-topic, or break down under the stress of having to work out basic civic principles. There are always minders and webmasters, but they tend to operate on the basis of as little intervention as possible.

As I write this, Blizzard, the chaps who host DiabloII, have restored the identities of the characters who were mowed down that night. Gamers are already moving back into harness; the show's still going on. But the small community of players who make up the world of DiabloII online have been changed irrevocably. And somewhere out there, there's a rogue guy who's deciding to have himself a hootenanny at the expense of yet another website. Someone's virtual character is in his hairsights, sometime tonight a message will flash on someone's screen somewhere: "Game's over. You're dead." And another community will go into spasm, until they figure out a pathway from paradise to practicality. Welcome to the real world.

Nilanjana S Roy
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