Saturday, July 02, 2005

Business Standard column: Books Do Furnish a City

(First published in Speaking Volumes, Business Standard, June 28, 2005)

Somewhere on my bookshelves, there's a collection of modern verse that cost me Rs 15, three plates of papri chaat, one back massage and a paper on Jane Austen. It's a thick volume, dense with marginalia in four different sets of handwriting. It started with Eliot and Yeats, which was where the Eng. Lit. syllabus of a decade ago stopped, and took us into what was then new, wildly exciting, uncharted territory with the poetry of Symborska, Brodsky, Neruda, Mahmoud Darwish.

The four of us were regular visitors to the Sunday book bazaar held at Daryaganj: we were too broke to have more than a passing acquaintance with proper bookstores, but too hungry for books, in that pre-, pre-liberalisation era, to withstand the siren call of the pavement booksellers.

When our pockets were to let, we browsed hungrily and wistfully (and became extremely proficient speedreaders as a consequence). When we had the money, we greedily weighed the merits of Faulkner versus Nabokov, Faiz versus Ghalib, an Asimov compendium in tatters versus a single Arthur C Clarke novel in good condition. We met friends doing the rounds; some only in search of calendar art pictures with which to decorate their rooms (now considered high kitsch art, but in our day they were just garish wallpaper), some in search of a Ludlum or Richard Bach, some penniless seekers after the truth according to Pinker or Chomsky. We cultivated professors who might be induced to point us to rare finds and curiosities, most of these culled from the decaying libraries of the Raj. There was usually enough left over for us to end the morning's outing with a visit to Old and Famous Jalebiwala or Parathewala Galli, relics of a pre-Barista age.

The compendium of verse was expensive, and we were ten rupees short. R and J shrugged and suggested that we come back next week. S and I argued that we'd spent the month's allowance anyway; next week we'd be even more broke. Then the bookseller, a dour man who had watched unmoved as we scrabbled for loose change, said gruffly, "Poetry ke liye discount hai."

He took our money; we took the book and hitched a ride back home, because we had spent even the bus fare. It took me three months to buy out my co-owners, but it was a soft deal: we agreed that they could borrow the book back at need. J consulted it for love poetry he could crib and pass off as his own to impressionable girlfriends, R read the three poems by Rilke included in the collection and then saved up for four months until he could afford an entire Rilke compendium, S discovered a love of feminist poetry through Plath and others that eventually impelled her to apply to the US for further studies in feminist writings.

It's hard to convey what the Sunday book bazaar, and the pavement booksellers in Connaught Place meant to us. There were no mass-market chains like Crossword or the Corner Bookstore; the Bookshop and the Bookworm were landmarks in a city that lacked quality bookshops, but were too expensive for us to patronise in those days. Some of us had come from other cities—Calcutta, Bombay, Bangalore. We knew the pavement booksellers there, whether "there" was College Street or Flora Fountain. Even today, when many markets in Delhi have at least one bookshop, and CafĂ© Coffee Day sells books along with its lattes and frappes, those pavement sellers are often a student's first lessons in paper-and-print love.

Last month, Bombay's pavement booksellers were turfed out of the Flora Fountain area by an administration that sees no difference between them and illegal encroachers on public space. They have since been relocated, but not in Flora Fountain itself. This week, Delhi's Sunday book bazaar came under threat and there's still confusion over what will happen to the bazaar—the system of issuing tokens to regular booksellers isn't working and the new space they have been allocated may not be adequate. It seems, at the time of writing, that they will be allowed to stay. In both Delhi and Bombay, the argument for throwing out the booksellers has been the one about "public space". The Sunday book bazaar was under threat of closure because a "beautification drive" was in progress.

And I'm thinking, what better use of public space could you have than to use it as a vast and mobile library? Neither Bombay nor Delhi has decent public libraries; Bombay, for all its size, sprawl and energy, doesn't have the number of bookshops it needs to encourage a reading public.

A visit to a bookshop is a deliberate, planned affair; a stroll down sidewalks covered with books is serendipity at work. A book bazaar is for readers who might be too intimidated or too broke or too busy to step into a bookshop: it doesn't just belong in public space, it is in the best sense of the term, the public's very own space. We shouldn't be reduced to defending pavement booksellers; we should be demanding more areas, in this mall-ridden city, where you can buy jalebis and hankies alongside ideas and excitement.

Business Standard column: The authorised version

(First published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, June 21, 2005)

One way of reading the two great epics of this country is to see the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as piercingly, ferociously honest family autobiographies. With the Ramayana , there are many versions, so many that the true story is impossible to lose permanently: some versions might choose to portray Sita as a pliant, silent wife, but others have unchained her voice, choosing to retain her anger as well as her obedience, castigation of Rama when he asks her to submit to a test of purity. You might privilege one reading or one version above another, but the true story is there for those who wish to look for it.

In both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana , little is omitted of the secret sins, sorrows and vices of the many members of the clans, from the weakness of kings to the greed of queens, from the mistake made by a young girl that will separate the sixth Pandava from his brothers to Yudhisthira’s fatal flaw to the complex blend of wisdom, arrogance and acquisitiveness in Ravana’s character. You read the epics for their indelible literary qualities, for the debates over the nature of dharma and wisdom; but you also read them, in part, as the wrenching, true story of families torn apart by complex forces. No character’s virtues are omitted, no vices glossed over.

The epics are still read in a way that few of their literary counterparts can match: Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales aren’t woven into the fabric of contemporary England, the great Norse sagas are still read but they are not part of the common memory in the way of our epics. Given that they are still so much part of our everyday life, our stock of metaphor and wisdom, it’s strange that we don’t follow the honesty of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana when we write in an autobiographical vein.

Business biographies usually gloss over the true histories; the memoirs of politicians and bureaucrats are often a trifle more honest about the working lives of their writers, but usually reticent about the personal life. The autobiographies of well-known Indians in the sphere of the arts have, by contrast, an appearance of frankness: but the candour is usually not complete. The careful reader can see the omissions; the knowledgeable reader can often supply the truth—there are few biographies and memoirs, though, where the reader doesn’t have to read between the lines.

There are strong social and cultural prohibitions on speaking out, on letting the skeletons, the mad cousins and the molesting uncles, out of the closet. Even authors who feel they have earned the freedom to speak openly of their own lives find it difficult, in the Indian context, to tell the true stories of their families. Perhaps this is because we balance a general disregard for the privacy of the individual with an obsessive concern for the privacy of the clan, unlike the tellers of the true and unexpurgated family history of the Pandavas and the Bharatas.
Two recent exercises in biography, one Indian, one Turkish, made me explore the idea of what makes up a memoir more thoroughly. The first, Diddi , was planned by Ira Pande as a memoir of her mother, the well-known writer Shivani. Instead of writing a conventional biography, she blended her translations of her mother’s writings with personal memoir to create a book that is almost more honest than a straightforward memoir might have been.

One of Pande’s biggest problems was created by an apparent abundance of material, in Shivani’s writings about her life, which were compellingly honest but told only a fraction of the truth.

In Ira Pande’s words: “Diddi’s vivid childhood memories are as deeply frustrating as they are compelling. The wall she erected around her life and fears is impenetrable and guards a kingdom where she will grant entry very reluctantly, if at all. In contrast to her evocative pictures of Lohaniji, Henry Pant, Alakh Mai and Rajula is Diddi’s stubborn refusal to confront the dark history of her own family, or indeed her own life. Her sharp eyes saw the shadows, yet she resolutely refused to expose the people she loved the most to ridicule or criticism. I think she sincerely hoped she could transform the nature of her past with the power of selective recall and that if she did not remember the unhappiness and doubts of her past, they would simply disappear. So she blotted out the sun by holding up a thumb…”

Pande’s response was to go back to Shivani’s writings—and to re-read them with the knowledge she now has of the family history, to identify not just characters who were familiar but the connections between a story and the period in which it was written. Because she fills in the context for the reader without pretending to tell the whole truth, we’re free to re-interpret Shivani’s life in a way that would have been denied us if Ira Pande had set down the same story as the absolute and the only truth. It’s an intelligent way of getting around the Indian discomfort with sharing family histories, and a way that’s just as respectful of the reader as it is of the subject.

Shortly after reading Diddi , I read Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul , which is a memoir of a city, a culture, a history and a childhood. Istanbul is a strange narrative, where Pamuk casts himself alternately as an unreliable narrator and as the perfect guide. But early on, he has a passage that might be read as a warning against expecting any autobiography of a person, a place, an era, to be the true and authentic version.

“...I feel compelled to add ‘or so I’ve been told’. In Turkish we have a special tense that allows us to distinguish hearsay from what we’ve seen with our own eyes; when we are relating dreams, fairy tales or past events we could not have witnessed, we use this tense. It is a useful distinction to make as we ‘remember’ our earliest life experiences, our cradles, our baby carriages, our first steps, as reported by our parents, stories to which we listen with the same rapt attention we might pay some brilliant tale that happened to concern some other person… Once imprinted in our minds, other people’s reports of what we’ve done end up mattering more than what we ourselves remember.”
Perhaps another generation will rediscover the urgent candour of the narrators of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana , who knew that the stories they were telling were too important to be told any other way but truthfully. Or more narrators, caught between loyalty and honesty, faced with the inevitable silences of families and the lack of records, will choose to use Ira Pande’s method of re-reading the old tales for new meanings. Until then, Indian memoirists might want to rework their book titles slightly, to read: “The Authorised Version (Or So I’ve Been Told)”.

Play 'Honky Tonk Women' when it's my turn, ok?

At funerals, inevitably someone will look at the body laid out and whisper, “He looks so peaceful.” Or, “She looks as though she’s sleeping.” But this is not true, even when the dearly departed has died peacefully, of natural causes, in his sleep, whatever euphemism you want to use. Once you’ve seen the body of someone you loved, or liked, or perhaps just knew, laid out on the floor, covered with a white sheet, propped up on a bed of ice in summer, the jaw sometimes tied to hold it in place, the nostrils plugged with cotton wool, you know that it isn’t inhabited any longer. Most corpses look like newly vacant houses. Whoever was in there has moved, address undisclosed.

I find a kind of peace in this idea, along with the regret and the grief and the rest of it.

Placing an obituary in the newspaper is a distasteful experience. First there’s the compression of a person’s life into a few words: “retired” or “beloved teacher” or “obedient son”, none of which capture the really important stuff, that her eyes crinkle up at the edges when she laughs or he could remember every lyric The Sex Pistols wrote, or that he came back from office and told funny stories about the monkeys who throw government into disarray by stealing files from the building. Then there’s the few stilted phrases for grief: “deeply mourned”, “shall be missed”, “life will not be the same”, none of which capture what this really means, the number of times you start dialing a number and stop because the person you want to speak to will not be there at the other end, the devastation of the small, unimportant routines of the day that involved three people and now involve just two, the cupboard space now available after you’ve donated the clothes that you always needed and no longer want. None of this can go into the ad.

Then there’s the reduction of all of it to column inches and money. Rs 2,000 approx for a photograph and a few lines in a paper that doesn’t have all that much circulation in Delhi; so a second ad, hovering between Rs 8,000 (without photo) and Rs 10,000 (with photo) in a better-circulated paper. If you cut out the three lines from her favourite poem, the one her mother wanted you to include, it will fit within the budget, but then something else will have to be trimmed: the wreaths, perhaps. No one will notice the absence of a wreath.

Some families use death in the same way as they use weddings, as an occasion on which you show off your wealth, your status, your ability to spend Rs 50,000 or above on a quarter-page or half-page notice. The dead are good revenue-earners for newspapers. Not quite as good as the To-Let section, not half as good as the Matrimonials, but they pull in more every day than Missing Persons or Miscellaneous, though Massage Parlours do significantly better.

There’s the etiquette, at which we agnostic-atheists are sadly deficient. We take the rice that you’re supposed to sprinkle on the face of the departed in one hand, the right, not both; next time we’ll remember. We discuss the merits of Nigam Bodh versus Lodhi in terms of crematoriums. Nigam Bodh has the Yamuna running alongside, but the hall is gloomy, like a third-rate school auditorium with the stage awkwardly placed so that it’s always difficult bringing the body in on its bier. Lodhi has a neem tree outside, and stone benches on which you can sit and contemplate the sign that says “Moksha Marg” and then, slightly unnervingly: “Doorbhasha” and gives the phone number. I know it’s the number of the crematorium, but it feels like an invitation; make your last call to The Departed here, before he’s progressed all the way along Moksha Marg.

As we leave, someone opens a door in the wall and I see the plots laid out like empty flower beds, containing the ashes of the day, spread out to cool. On some days there are the ashes of several bodies in adjacent plots; today there’s a breeze, and some of the ashes from one plot dance in the air and are carried over to the next. I like that, the idea that in death we might finally live up to the creaky, pious hopes of a hundred stiff school tableaux promoting national integration; I like the idea that the ashes of the dead might get a little mixed up, without regard to gender or caste or class, just as those boring hum sab ek hai songs we sang in school had it.
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