Friday, December 02, 2005

Leaflet Boy

It happened several years ago. A week of writers--Pinter, Doyle, Irvine Welsh; musicians and Qi Gong enthusiasts doing their thing on the streets; an afternoon spent with no one but the seagulls; the Irish doctor who showed me around the Canongate and told stories about his favourite writers the way other people tell stories about their favourite aunts; apple-and-cheese lunches; jazz one blustery night near Arthur's Seat; and then it was time to leave Edinburgh.

The Norwegian mime troupe who'd offered me a ride in the van hadn't bargained for the double bass player who was dating the driver; I said, no problem, I'd make my own way back to London. The flights and trains were too expensive, so I booked a bus ticket, and everything, naturally, went wrong.

The wheels on my suitcase locked, so it had to be dragged and carried down the street. It was a grey, mizzling morning; "here, luv, 'av an apple on me, you're too early for breakfuss", the lady at the desk had said kindly when I was leaving the hotel. But the apple and my spare cash had disappeared through a hole in the lining of my coat by the time I wrestled the suitcase into the bus. It was packed; two hours into the journey, I woke to find the guy in the seat next to me breathing his halitosis--stale beer, fried fish--into my face; when we stopped at a gas station, the loos had been pre-puked in by the previous busload getting out of Edinburgh. Five hours later, I'm starving. No, really. I blew my cash in Edinburgh on music tickets and books; it's only genteel starvation, but I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast two days previous. And the people behind me are eating hamburgers with way too many onion rings. And my coat is too thin, I'm freezing, and the window doesn't close all the way...Halitosis opens his eyes, mumbles something, turns the other way and releases an awesome Stealth Fart, the kind that makes your eyes water for the next half hour. I open the window. Now it doesn't close at all, any more, and everyone's glaring at me--but at least I can't smell Fart n' Onion. Only, as we roll into London, smog, car exhaust and Big City Dirt.

London was an indulgence, I knew that right from the start, but it's only at this point that I'm wondering if I made a big, big mistake. Broke, cold, wet, miserable, hungry, sleepy--I should have just got on the flight back home with the rest of the small group from India.

That's when I see Leaflet Boy. He's young, probably in his early twenties, a thin, brown figure wearing too-large spectacles that he has to keep pushing up his nose. He's standing at a corner watching the slow progress of traffic and offering leaflets with a grave, courtly gesture to Londoners who clearly couldn't give a damn about him or his leaflets. I don't know how long he's been standing there, handing out leaflets no one wants, but his eyes are watery in the wind and his cheeks are blue with cold.

I know it's rude to stare, but he's such a small, brave, pathetic figure. I'm about to look away politely when he catches my eye and waves.
The bus has stopped in traffic. I'm at the window; I'm sure he's waving to someone else, so I look around instinctively.
He's smiling now. He waves again.
At me? I'm confused.
He points a finger in my direction and sketches a wide bow. Yes, you.
Tentatively, I wave back.
He puts a hand on his heart and sketches an even lower bow.
he mimes.
I smile, uncertainly.
He draws a huge smiley face with a flourish in the air.
Cold! he mimes, shivering exaggeratedly.
This I can do. I mime "cold" back with absolutely no trouble. I'm guessing this is just a brown-face meets brown-face encounter.
He does a complicated mime. If you smile--ok, got that--and jump up and down--hmmm, not in a bus--and wave to random passers-by--they look startled, but some smile back at this skinny, exuberant kid--then you feel--he mimes overcoat, comfort--ah, warmer.
I start laughing. By now, other people in the bus are beginning to grin at the kid, wave to him. And people on the street aren't edging past him; they're stopping, briefly, turning around to smile at the loony Indian kid.
The bus starts up again. Leaflet boy looks sad, but only for a second. He crumples one of the leaflets deftly, working fast, shaping it into a rough paper rose. Puts it between his teeth, puts his hand on his heart, gets down on his knees and starts singing.
"Musafir hoon yaaron..." It's a cracked, adolescent voice, getting fainter and fainter until it's lost in traffic.
Soon I can't see him. In the bus, people go back to sleep, rustle their papers, look for mints, stretch, get back to their individual cocoons of silence.
I never saw Leaflet Boy again, and we probably wouldn't recognise each other if we met on the street. But over the next few years, I travel a lot, and each journey brings its own adventures: lonely roads, unsafe trains, fleabag hotels, muggings, magic, great meals, strange pilgrims, the works. But I've never travelled that broke again, or felt that lost and alone in a strange country.
And I'm sure that no matter where I go and how many friends show up at the airport to receive me, I'll never be welcomed as warmly, as gloriously, to a city as Leaflet Boy welcomed me to London. Bless the boy, wherever he is.

The BS column: The Ambedkar Letters

A young person of enterprise could make a fortune in today's India by modelling herself on The Hon Galahad Threepwood and setting up as an Unpublisher. For a modest consideration, such an enterprise would refrain from publishing salacious memoirs, period histories guaranteed to rattle many skeletons in many cupboards, and letters that would hurt the sentiments of such-and-such a special interest group. I can guarantee that Unpublishers Inc would made a tidy profit.

The question of what we don't want to see in the public domain, and why, is always fascinating. Take the recent controversy over the publication of letters written by Frances Fitzgerald to Dr B R Ambedkar.

Frances Fitzgerald was a typist in the House of Commons who met the young Ambedkar in 1920 when he shifted to the boarding house she and her mother ran. The exact nature of the relationship between her and Ambedkar is unclear, but it would hardly have been unusual for a young man trying to survive in the England of that day and age to form a friendship with his boarding house keeper. There was genuine affection on both sides: he referred to her as 'F' and dedicated one of his books to her: "To 'F.', In Thy Presence is the Fullness of Joy". None of this is unknown to Dr Ambedkar's biographers.

In 1923, when Ambedkar returned to India, Fitzgerald began writing to him; they stayed in touch until 1943, when her plans to come to India were disrupted—she was denied a visa because of "the political situation". Fitzgerald's letters were in the custody of Ambedkar's personal librarian, the late S S Rege. The letters were handed over by Rege to Arun Kamble, professor of Marathi and Dalit activist; Kamble also has notes from Dr Ambedkar's second wife, Savita, permitting him to use the letters as he saw fit.

Kamble brought the letters to Roli Books a few months ago. Now there's a considerable tangle over the letters that is playing out through newspaper columns and special reports, each adding to the confusion.

Are the letters authentic? Roli is satisfied on this point, as is Kamble. It may be desirable to verify the provenance of the letters further, but few people seriously doubt that these letters were written by Frances Fitzgerald.

From here, it gets murkier. Dr Ambedkar's grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, wants the publication of the letters stopped, disputing Kamble's right to own them. Ambedkar biographer Gail Omvedt was asked to be a formal collaborator, and told Outlook that Roli was not willing to work with her to establish the authenticity of the letters. Roli, conversely, says that Omvedt never showed up for a meeting arranged between her and Kamble in Pune, and that they broke off the collaboration after other points of difference arose. There may be another factor here: Omvedt is a well-respected scholar with a strong academic background, while Roli is a general-interest publishing house. Their ways of handling a collection of letters like this would diverge considerably.

One section of Ambedkar scholars wants the letters to be suppressed because they might show the Dalit leader in an "unfavourable light". I have no sympathy with this argument; Ambedkar acknowledged the relationship, and it is not for us to censor after his death what he did not censor while alive.

But what about Frances Fitzgerald's story—who was she, what drew her to Ambedkar and India, what happened to her between 1943 and 1945, when she died? Kamble's detractors say no serious research has been done by him on these questions. He and Roli would agree, however; as the publishing house pointed out, the contract had only just been signed when the first rumbles of dissent arose. Kamble is supposed to go to England to find out more about Frances Fitzgerald, and Roli has expressed hopes that they will find the Ambedkar half of the correspondence.

The doubts and fears being expressed about Roli's handling of the affair are understandable; with a figure like Ambedkar, in a country like ours, the instinctive response is to try and protect his legacy.

Perhaps the Frances Fitzgerald letters will be no more than a footnote in Ambedkar's life; perhaps they will be a source of information for feminist scholars or scholars interested in that social period. If Roli does a good job of the book, this could only add to our knowledge of the period; if they make a mess of it, the text of the letters will still be there in the public domain for other scholars to reclaim. Either way, I don't see how suppressing the publication of the letters helps anyone, least of all the interested reader.

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, November 29, 2005)

Book Review: My Ear at his Heart

My Ear At His Heart: Reading My Father
Hanif Kureishi
Faber and Faber
POUNDS 3.99, 242 pages

In 1989, Hanif Kureishi gave a talk in Calcutta. We were good little schoolgirls, utterly unprepared by a diet of Sharatchandra, Wordsworth and Steinbeck for his funky iconoclasm. Some of us had seen My Beautiful Laundrette ; most of us had been banned by parental edict from seeing Sammy and Rosie , presumably because it had "Get Laid" in the title.

Kureishi was genial, like a temporarily vegetarian wolf consorting with a bunch of lambs. He got us to discuss class and race rage, when most of us had experienced neither, and he looked amused when the boldest of our number asked him whether being gay was "wrong". "It's two people in love, yeah?" he said, and moved on, unaware that he had just undone about 17 years worth of carefully instilled prurience and prejudice.

Months after Kureishi had departed, his rebel's charisma still lingered. We argued about his films; in 1990, we argued about his Buddha of Suburbia ; in 1995, past the portals of college, we were arguing about his Black Album ; in 1998, settled into jobs or relationships, feeling suitably adult, we argued about My Son the Fanatic and Intimacy .

I didn't want to see Kureishi turn 50. If he were to age gracefully into distinguished authorhood, what hope was there for us, with our ironed and laundered lives concealing the urge to grow old disgracefully?

But that's the thing about iconoclasm: it lasts. My Ear At His Heart is a conventional family memoir in the same way that Howl was a pretty poem. It starts with an aborted book, the one Kureishi intended to write about "the way one uses or reads literature", about writers who had been important to him, and of course, about the 1960s and 1970s. The focus would be on one of his father's favourite writers, Chekhov, "and the numerous voices his work can sustain".

Instead, a "shabby old green folder" surfaces after eleven years, containing a novel called An Indian Adolescence . The author is Shannoo Kureishi, Hanif's father; this, along with another unpublished work, The Redundant Man , and other unpublished plays and writings, is a reminder that Hanif was not the only writer in the family, even if he did become the most successful one.

Both his father's books are heavily autobiographical, and through them, Kureishi approaches an intimacy with his father that parallels and also sometimes outdoes the relationship they shared when Shannoo Kureishi was alive. Other books emerge; Shannoo's brother, Omar, had written two books of autobiography, published and well-received in Pakistan. A family story is beginning to come together; like all family stories, this one offers both great knowledge and great danger.

Shannoo came to London after Partition, part of the flood of migrants in that generation. His official life was drab—he was a minor civil servant in the Pakistani embassy whose energies went into reading, and cricket, both obssessions shared to some degree with Hanif; his writing was not secret so much as unregarded. His books reveal a bitter and lasting competitiveness with Omar. His brother was more successful, though Shannoo was the better cricketer, but their early explorations into love were scarred by rivalry.

Some of this rivalry colours Hanif and Shannoo's relationship. Hanif Kureishi recalls his father blaming him for the failure of The Redundant Man to get published, striving for a different kind of brotherhood: "He put us on the same level: writers—almost brothers—together, with neither of us more talented than the other." When Kureishi put on an early play, his father showed up, but hated the production. "…Dad was in rage: for a start, he was giving me contemptuous V-signs from his seat."

Shannoo Kureishi found a kind of life in the suburbs; his son rebelled against the blandness and conformity that his father sought. In his teenage years, discovering sex n'drugs n'rock n'roll—and revolution—Hanif Kureishi learned, too, that "love and sex, taking you out of your family, led you into the strange field of other families".

There is humour here, too, and pride in his father's ambition, even a posthumous gentleness on the part of the son. But as Shannoo's story reveals a Pakistan that Hanif never knew, either through religion or language, and opens up the struggles of the early migrant, it fuels Hanif Kureishi's own journey through his life as he nears fifty.

This is a brilliant, corrosive memoir, whose power lies as much in the questions it raises as in the ones it answers. It's about writing and families, fathers and sons, the weight of our histories and how to carry that weight.

Kureishi starts by reading family history; by the end of the book, he's trying to read all of history. "To what extent do the dead determine the lives of the living? How do you keep them vital within you? And how do you keep them out of your way in order to live within a different age, as a different person?" He closes the manuscript; he walks out, into the chaos outside the order of the room. That, says Kureishi, is the only place to head for: the unknown.

(For The Indian Express, carried November 2005)

The BS Column: Dial B For Bestseller

The author of a successful campus novel gets the plot of his second bestseller off a beautiful woman, whom he meets in a conveniently empty train compartment. The story she tells him is about six friends who work at a call-centre, and a night in their lives that changes everything. The resolution is provided by God via a key phone call. This, slightly summarised, is the synopsis of Chetan Bhagat's second runaway bestseller, One Night at The Call Centre.

I emailed the uncut synopsis from Bhagat's website to a publishing insider I know. He was told nothing about the author's first book, the bestselling Five Point Someone, or about Bhagat's considerable brand equity.

The publishing veteran responded with deep scepticism: "The characters are fine, call centres are a decent, in-the-news setting. But the writer meeting a beautiful muse—give me a break. And God on the phone? That would get tossed from any Creative Writing 101 class. Tell him to rewrite and stick with the voices, or he doesn't have a prayer."

One Night at the Call Centre sold 70,000 copies in the first week of its launch, and still heads bestseller lists. There are two ways to read the moral of this story: one is to say that the critics, including my publisher pal, know nothing, and the other is to look at the story that Indian bestsellers have to tell.

It's almost too easy to set up an opposition between literary writing and Bhagat's attempts. The 31-year-old IIT and IIM graduate does it himself, stressing ad nauseum that he's the champion of the common man, out to write popular books for the "non-reader", not "boring", literary novels.

From the critic's perspective, his two novels read like promising first drafts, untouched by any editor's hand. I'll believe it's God calling at the end of ON@CC, because no one else but the Supreme Deity could have got through so easily to a call centre helpline. More than Five Point Someone, ON@CC is messy: the humour is clunky, the plotting shaky and more happens in 24 hours than is plausible. The critics who see a lack of lasting literary merit in Bhagat's works are perfectly correct.

But there's good reason for readers to love Bhagat's work. His books retail at the right price point for "timepass", the characters are immediately identifiable and the writing is fast-paced, smooth and undemanding. He writes for a generation that sees very few reflections of its aims, heartbreaks and language in contemporary literature.

Go back to a few of the milestones in IWE history, and you'll see another pattern. Rushdie's Midnight's Children lives in the minds of the larger reading public not because of its literary qualities, but because Rushdie scored a significant success on the global stage. Arundhati Roy's Booker win consolidated writing as a respectable, potentially middle-class occupation—though given Roy's iconoclasm, I'm pretty sure she wasn't looking to be a role-model for the bourgeoisie! Pankaj Mishra has a telling anecdote in Butter Chicken from Ludhiana where his admission that he is a writer is evaluated—and judged to be respectable--not by the content of what he writes, but by the potential advances and royalties he might receive.

The great home-grown Indian bestsellers have all spoken to a section of the Indian reading public that's used to being left out of the literary discussion. Anurag Mathur's The Inscrutable Americans, one of the longest-running bestsellers in the local Indian market, spoke for those homesick in the Land of Hope and Supermarkets in a way that more sophisticated travelogues could not. Shobha De's novels are incorrectly seen as "socialite" accounts. They're actually written for an audience who stands at the window of the socialite world, tempted and fascinated by what they see, but resigned to the fact that they're on the outside. And for all the surface glitz, De's novels champion classic values: conventional marriages, happy families.

What Chetan Bhagat did, in both his novels, is to address the great Indian middle class with tremendous ease. I'd argue that Sudeep Chakravarti did it better in Tin Fish, a work of fiction set in the boys' boarding school world of a few decades ago, or that Jaideep Varma captured the grind and heartbreak of an office more realistically in Local, to name just two contemporary writers who seem to be both adequately literary and adequately popular.

But Bhagat's more simplistic formula has been rather better marketed. He gets away with sloppy work because of the lack of competition in the popular fiction market. If you're looking to raise the standards there, you need more writers like Bhagat, not fewer. Oh, and better editors. Please.

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, Business Standard, on November 22, 2005)

Last Word: Tearing the Veil

The banner around Miss Afghanistan's waist is a reminder of her country, and also an insignia of exile. When Vida Samadzai entered the world's most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) beauty contest, she was breaking several taboos. Samadzai had left her country in 1996 to study in the US. She became the first Afghan woman in three decades to walk the ramp in that fashion, and then she wore a red bikini for the Miss Earth contest.

The reaction from her home country was immediate, and lasting; if she returns to Afghanistan, she will face criticism and even legal prosecution.

Samadzai makes traditional feminists uncomfortable. Very few feminist thinkers would find it easy to endorse beauty contests, with their emphasis on looks as the most important aspect of a woman, the often negative impact they have on young women in terms of body image, and the sheer mindlessness of most pageants.

But Samadzai made me wonder whether the problem with contemporary feminism was that the rules had become too rigid. For women from several war-torn or otherwise beleaguered countries, from Bosnia to the Lebanon to Afghanistan, taking part in beauty contests has become a symbol of empowerment. I find it baffling, as a woman, that we need to be empowered through teeth whiteners, cosmetic surgery, diets that would call Amnesty down on your head if you administered them to prison inmates, and all the rest of it—but that's just me.

For Samadzai and the many women in Afghanistan who have followed her career, entering that beauty contest was a way of reclaiming their rights to do as they pleased with their bodies. The Taliban enforced the burkha; Samadzai tore through the veil. In that sense, her achievement is as important as the achievements of, say, Afghanistan's first women chess players.

Take another case, that of Samira Haddad, who recently won the right not to wear the hijab in a case in the Netherlands. Haddad applied to the Islamic College of Amsterdam. She was told that, as a Muslim woman, she had to wear the headscarf or risk being rejected. Her win has widely been interpreted by the Western media as a blow against the hijab in the debate over whether the scarf is a symbol of oppression or empowerment.

But Haddad is invoking a different tradition—she comes from Tunisia, where women do not wear headscarfs in public. She wants Muslim religious groups to endorse the right of women to choose what they can and cannot wear. Like women who have fought for exactly the opposite—the right to wear the headscarf in countries where the hijab is seen as a disturbing reminder of religious differences—Haddad is fighting for herself. She is not anti- or pro-hijab—she merely wants the right to wear what she's comfortable with.

These are just two, fairly superficial examples, but they made me think. Women have been told what to do by men, by religious leaders, by social custom, and yes, even by feminist ideologues. Perhaps what we really want is just the right to make our own decisions—regardless of whether they seem to be anti-feminist when they're not, or whether they seem to be feminist when they're actually deeply personal.

(Published in The Kolkata Telegraph, November 2005)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Reasons to hate really good writers

Some day, I'm going to get on a train at Nizamuddin Station, perhaps the one that wakes us up at three am because it has such a quiet, mournful hoot, and take it to the end of the line, and find another train, and take that to wherever it's going, and so on and so forth.

Yeah, well, Paul Theroux did that already. Great Railway Bazaar.

Fine, no problem. So I'll take a look at where colours come from--ochre, Indian yellow, gamboge (what a name, eh?), lead white, which killed off so many fashionable women, cochineal...

Victoria Finlay. Colour: A Natural History of the Palette.

Cities, then. How about exploring an Indian city through the stories of people who live on the fringes? Delhi through its eccentrics, its lunatics, its obsessives...

Yawn. Suketu Mehta, Maximum City. It's Bombay, but you don't want to do the me-too book.

Or it might be fun to see what Kubla Khan's Xanadu was all about, or if we're talking long, continent-hopping journeys now, who could be a better guide than Ibn Battuta?

William Dalrymple, In Xanadu, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Travels With a Tangerine.

How about climbing Everest? Or doing the inside story on the Deep South, or Venice? Or no, wait, how about I just get in the car and drive? Across the subcontinent, as far and wide as the roads will take me, screw the deadlines (guilty voice in head saying, but who'll feed the cats can be ignored), just follow the highways and the little bumpy potholed roads and see what happens?

Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air; John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, City of Falling Angels; Way too many post-Kerouac writers been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

Dammit. Going to have to give up reading, aren't I?

The BS Column: Ode to Willy D

When William Dalrymple wrote an article recently in which he argued that Indian writing in English had sputtered out in the home country, I found myself wishing he would just read a little more often.

Dalrymple's arguments have been made over the years within India. There are no contemporary writers of the stature of Rushdie, Seth, Ghosh and Mistry; there have been no great literary successes after Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things . (We're not counting Allan Sealy, Ruchir Joshi and company—only commercial successes count in this arithmetic.) The best writing now comes from the diaspora—Jhumpa Lahiri, Hari Kunzru—and the great 'Indian' successes, such as Pankaj Mishra or Suketu Mehta or Siddhartha Deb, or even Amitav Ghosh, increasingly live abroad for at least part of the year. The best future writing, he predicted, would continue to emerge from the diaspora; inside India, the boom had gone bust.

Dalrymple made some valid points. I agree that some of the best writing will come from the Indian diaspora in the future, as it should—it would be cause for deep concern if crossing the black water robbed Indians of their talent. But the reason why Indian writers need to be in New York or London is simple: that's where the market is, and until local publishing booms, as it might, it's going to be necessary to go to the market. And Dalrymple's argument that Indian writers travel widely or live elsewhere demonstrates a sad lack of historical perspective. From Tagore to Mulk Raj Anand to Nirmal Verma, there are as many great Indian writers who've explored the world outside India as the ones who stayed rooted in one place. Some, like Saratchandra, were just as curious about Burma, for instance, as they were about Bilayat.

But still, I needed a sign. Could Dalrymple be right, or was his piece merely premature provocation?

Just a few weeks later, we heard about Vikram Chandra's big-bucks deal for a thousand-page novel set in Bombay, featuring Inspector Sartaj. I'd claim Chandra as an Indian success, even though he is, using the Dalrymple yardstick, exposed to Foreign Influences, having taught on American college campuses—and enjoyed the experience. Tch.

More omens would be propitious, I thought, so I looked for another sign. And found three.

Kalpana Swaminathan first gave notice that she was a writer to watch when she came out with Ambrosia for Afters , an ambitious but uneven novel. Some of us knew her writings already, as half of the Kalpish Ratna combine, a byline she shares with Ishrat Syed. Then she wrote Bougainvillea House , a darkly atmospheric novel set in Goa. Clarice Aranxa, her protagonist, is a woman of the old school, in the last stages of motor neuron disease, watching as sudden death visits some of the key people in her life. It's a brilliant study of obsession and betrayal, an utterly absorbing tale. And Swaminathan wrote it without the cushion of a large advance or the comfort of a thriving community of writers around her.

Then there's Nilita Vachani, the documentary film-maker who's out with HomeSpun . She takes some of the biggest myths we've spun around the freedom struggle, around war and around love stories, and refashions them from the inside out. This debut novel has a few flaws, but her portrait of a man whose idealism sorely tests his wife and her look at how a reluctant fighter pilot really died are not easily forgotten. Nor could I leave Sharmistha Mohanty off this list of new writers to watch: New Life has a predictable plot, with a heroine who discovers strength in unexpected places in love, writing and death, but Mohanty has an astonishing, utterly distinctive handwriting.

Three months, three writers to watch—and they're just the pick of what's been a quiet growth of talent from India, at a time when Indian writing in English is just beginning to stretch its wings.

The proper answer to Dalrymple's arguments, which I believe he made in good faith, isn't going to come from rebuttals written by people like me; they're going to come from the books. And I believe that these three writers are part of a quiet but sure gathering of talent in India that is making the counter-argument, slowly but steadily.

I'll stay on hand, anyway. Someone needs to watch the great Indian melting pot of literary talent as it comes to the boil—and when it's ready, add Dalrymple's article to the mix, so that he can eat his words in comfort.

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, Business Standard, November 15, 2005. And that was a truly brief list of writers to watch: for reasons of space, or because I'd mentioned them in previous columns, I didn't mention Timeri Murari (old writer, new book), Jaideep Verma (Local hero), Siddharth Chowdhury (Patna Roughcut), Cyrus Mistry (The Radiance of Ashes), Shankar Vedantam (The Ghosts of Kashmir), Sudeep Sen...oops, that's Sudeep Chakravarti, sorry (Tin Fish)... hang on, Mistry might be "diaspora talent", but who cares, read him any way.)

Book review: Curry

Curry: A biography
Lizzie Collingham
Chatto & Windus
Distributed by Rupa & Co,
POUNDS 11, 318 pages

Some years back, compiling an anthology of Indian food writing, I realised that the history of Indian food came by the tiffin-carrier system: one dabba at a time, its contents separate from its companions.

There were histories of Mughal or Rajasthani food; glorious food memoirs celebrating regional cuisines; a glut of Raj food books. But aside from K T Achaya's authoritative companion to Indian food, too magisterial to be comfortable bedside or even armchair reading, there was little in the way of a friendly, useable Indian food history. Even Shraboni Bagchi's Curry in the Crown was restricted to the Raj and then the revenge of the colonies we call "chicken tikka masala".

The food anthology eventually took a contemporary literary turn, dispensing with the historical background reading. I still thought it saddening that a country with a score of sophisticated and distinct cuisines, where eating out was a passion and eating at home a form of duel-by-khansama, had no accessible food history of our own.

Lizzie Collingham's Curry is the history of a dish whose very name is contested: most Indians sneer at "curry powders", and yet, curry is probably the most significant Indian export, outdoing even that other popular export, the software geek. Collingham is a historian who drank her first Bombay lassi in 1994, fell in love with vegetarian thalis and out of love with mulligatawny soup. Her curiosity and passion fuelled this wonderful "biography" of curry.

If you're about to question Collingham's credentials on the grounds of authenticity, pause to consider that the Indian chilli was unknown before the Portuguese brought it here in the 15th century; it remained alien to the north until the Marathas brought it with them in the 17th century. Or consider the parable of the chicken tikka masala, its pungent tomato soup-onion-and-cream gravy invented to please a foreign palate by a harassed Indian chef in a British restaurant. The chef may have been rooted in the migrant community of Sylhetis, who got their start taking over fish-and-chip shops and selling curry and rice alongside the cod.

Collingham gets notions of authenticity out of the way along with caste rituals and food taboos, taking down a few sacred cows as she goes. (The sacred cow, she observes, was not all that sacred in the 1st century AD, but had become holier-than-thou by the time of Babur and Manucci.) Her chapter on Biryani is a romp through Mughal culinary history. The mango helps Babur and his men forget their much-missed melons, Akbar's kitchens where Persian pilau meets Hindustani spices and creates biryani is as much an experiment in synthesis as his court, and Jahangir develops an equal fondness for Gujarati khichari as for his wine. 'Vindaloo' looks at the Portuguese influence, especially on baking, with those dariols, conserves and layered cakes like the bebinca; 'Korma' at the East Indian merchants who ate the staple diet similar to the Islamic and Christian worlds at the time, acquiring a taste for arrack punch and paan alongside; and 'Madras Curry' and 'Curry Powder' look at some of the more bizarre attempts to introduce East to West in British cooking. (My Constance Spry cookery book insists that an "authentic chicken curry" includes apples, raisins, dessicated coconuts, sultanas and cream.)

By the time we've got to 'Chai', a meditation on the humble cuppa, now reinvented as chai lattes, I'm gorged on Collingham's comfortable scholarship. I'm no longer surprised to learn in the last chapter that Indian food is popular in Japan—where the "authentic" curry was introduced by a fleeing revolutionary. Rashbehari Bose was on the run from the British when he came to Japan and found shelter with the Black Dragon society. He helped his Japanese father-in-law open an Indian restaurant. Nakamurya, in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, apparently still serves an R B curry. Revolutionary cuisine, anyone?

(Carried in The Indian Express, November 2005)

The BS Column: Places of the Heart

Here are the last sentences of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Memories of My Melancholy Whores:
"I was arranging my languishing papers, the inkwell, the goose quill, when the sun broke through the almond trees in the park and the river mail packet, a week late because of the drought, bellowed as it entered the canal in the port. It was, at last, real life, with my heart safe and condemned to die of happy love in the joyful agony of any day after my hundredth birthday."

The novel has been described as a fairy tale for the old, its narrator a journalist of insecure reputation who at the age of ninety, looks for a final love and finds it in a young virgin being initiated into the world's oldest profession.

But as with Garcia Marquez' most powerful work, it is deeply rooted in the life of the unnamed but identifiable city the "ugly, shy and anachronistic" narrator lives in. He knows the brothels with their cardboard partitions and the humid rooms set in groves of fruit trees; he knows the lanes where the belly-beat of brass bands thump out the time for a perpetual party, the irresistible storms that flood the streets, the jewellers' shops where women of the best families replace precious stones with coloured glass.

He writes of those places with intimacy and longing but without nostalgia. Last week, watching the crowds who had come to honour V K Madhavan Kutty, who died of a heart attack on Diwali in the same week as we lost Amrita Pritam, I thought of Garcia Marquez, the only writer I know who might have done justice to the moment.

Most of those assembled at Kerala House were there for V K Madhavan Kutty the journalist. His body was laid out in a clear plastic coffin-like case in the centre of the room, almost obscured by wreaths and bouquets piled up in little mounds. Everyone had a story to tell about his generosity, his humour, a regret to share about the suddenness of his death.

Like a few others in the crowd, I was there to honour V K Madhavan Kutty the writer. We knew him best for The Village Before Time , published in English under that title in 2000 and in Malayalam as A Feast of Memories in 1991. He had written a travelogue earlier, and he had toyed with the idea of writing about the plane crash that he survived, but that haunted his memories. He had come to writing late, and while his essays and articles were considerable, he had been frugal with full-length work. The Unspoken Curse , his new novel about a young woman shackled by tradition in a village near Kerala, had just come out; it was a sensitive work, set in a place he knew and described with intimate understanding.

I loved The Village Before Time for the same reason I loved Bibhutibhushan and R K Narayan and Mukundan's work. They set many of their books in the villages that they had grown up in and knew so well; but their recollections were free of sentimental nostalgia. Even Narayan's Malgudi was not an idealised world, nor was it recollected from a safe distance—all these writers claimed their worlds with perfect ease. In the Foreword to Village , Madhavan Kutty wrote: "I hoarded all the stories I came upon deep within me, and shared them with no one. Inevitably, many spilled out of that brimming treasure house and are now lost. But those that remain are still bright, untouched by rust." He was writing neither fiction nor memoir, but something in between: his stories were rooted in the real taravad of his memories, but the writer in him was free to add the detail missing from his recollections.

In his autobiography, the film director Elia Kazan wrote of the writers he knew—Steinbeck, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams among them—and of the fact that all of them knew where their material lay. Tennessee's best material came from his memories of the South; he was rooted in that territory; Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath is one of the greatest novels of the land ever written; Miller's house for Willy Loman was the mirage the salesman carried with him everywhere he went.

The best writers know where their roots are, whether that is in the tarmac of a city or the soil of a village. V K Madhavan Kutty was just beginning to explore how deep those roots went in his fiction, when death claimed him.

(Published in the Business Standard, November 8, 2005)

Last Word: In the ghetto

"Why do we need a Woman's Page?" a friend asked me recently. To her, a page marked 'Women' or 'Gender' is a tacit admission that there is no space for "women's issues" or "gender issues" in everyday, normal discourse.

And perhaps that admission is true. When I look at women's issues, as presented by activists, academics and thinkers, they seem to revolve around specific areas. Sexuality and reproductive health; marriage; earning equal wages; children and childcare issues; domestic rights and how to fight domestic violence; safety in the home, the workplace and the public world. All of these are deeply important issues—a woman who has no say in her sexual and reproductive choices, who cannot be free in the office, the home or on a public road, is half a human being.

But there's an unspoken corollary to this branding of certain spaces and certain issues as women's spaces, women's issues. It's a way of saying that women have no right to comment on other areas that might affect them just as strongly.

Every year when the Budget is discussed, for example, noises are made about making the Budget more "woman-friendly". This seems to translate into lower LPG prices, more tax breaks for women entrepreneurs in small businesses, with a few sops in education and health care thrown in. But I rarely hear arguments for cutting defence spending drastically in order to spend more money on enabling the education of young girls, for example; nor has there ever been a Finance Minister who has insisted that unequal wages for men and women working in the same field is a huge shame at the national level.

POTA, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and similar laws often have the effect of drastically reducing women's freedoms and rights—but this is not often seen as a feminist issue. It takes an unusual gesture—the protest of Manipuri women last year, who stripped naked in order to draw attention to what POTA and laws like it were doing to their lives—to make us think about what effect ordinary, apparently non-gender specific laws might have on the lives of women.

In a different vein, the increasing demand for the Right to Information has not been seen as a gender issue. But if women had a genuine, unassailable right to information, and were able to access information comfortably, so much would change. If most women knew that they had an equal right to property, that they had a right to be paid the same wage as a man doing the same job, that they had a right to expect some recompense for looking after the family and bringing up children, and most important, that they had an absolute right to dignity, our society would be very different. Most of this information is coded in ways that many women find hard to decipher: wills, property deeds, tax laws, job contracts, share certificates, legal notices. But the battle for the Right to Information has been taken up by women's groups at the village level, and it is significant that in areas where information is freely available, that availability has changed the quality of the lives of women radically.

It would be nice to be able to do away with a gender page, or a focus on women's issues. But that would require a world where women's issues were intrinsically entwined with everyone's concerns, where recognising discrimination was as natural as breathing, and where equality was not just a distant concept, but a natural condition of who we are. And that world, unfortunately, is still a little distant.

(Carried in The Kolkata Telegraph, November 2005)

The BS Column: Nirmal Verma

"Sometimes I think what we call our lives, our past, our history, brings us peace—no matter how painful it may have been to live. No matter how forbidding its terrain might have been, it is familiar country."

It was almost 40 years after Nirmal Verma had startled the Hindi literary world with 'Parinde' and the stories that marked the beginning of the Nayi Kahani movement that he wrote these lines in Antim Aranya (The Last Wilderness) . But the words he gave his narrator could have served as a personal philosophy of sorts for this most private of writers, who died last week in Delhi after a long illness.

He was a familiar and yet distant figure, a small, almost fragile, almost birdlike man who retained a quiet wall of silence between him and the world he observed with such care and understanding. The myth that has grown up around him over the years stresses the silence and the privacy, with good reason, but also stresses his ability to engage with the world—on his own terms. He was often called apolitical; though his essays, travelogues, novels and short stories explored the world of politics, it would be a very foolhardy critic who attempted to label Nirmal Verma, to pin him down as a socialist or a leftist or an espouser of any other ism.

But his quiet voice rang out several times over the years in support of the causes he truly believed in. He joined the Communist Party in his youth, and spent several years travelling in East Europe, many of them in Czechoslovakia. ("Kafka and Prague," he wrote, "in those day, the haunted dreams of one were strangely intermingled in my mind with the confused images of the other.")

What he saw and absorbed in that period made him critical of the politics of the Left in action; he gently criticized Bhisham Sahni, whose writings he admired greatly, for that great author's inability to see the flaws in Communism as clearly as he did. He wrote about the Free Tibet movement often, and lent his voice in support of their cause; they have lost a generous, open minded supporter in him. When India became the first country to ban The Satanic Verses , he raised his voice in support of Rushdie's right to write freely, while gently excoriating what he saw as Rushdie's distance from and ignorance of India. He was unequivocal, though, when he said that the Indian state had no business censoring writers.

In later years, many of his colleagues viewed Nirmal Verma's growing interest in Hindu philosophy and the underpinnings of Indian culture with dismay; he was accused, inaccurately, of being a soft supporter of Hindutva. His actual position is more accurately understood if you look at what he said when he was discussing the Rushdie ban in an interview: "There is a double standard of 'secularist modernity', both in public life as well as in the sphere of art. In Indian culture, there is no line of demarcation between sacred and profane. All art is sacred, precisely because it contains within itself all the profanities of worldly life. This traditional concept of the sacred, itself, should serve as the bedrock of genuine secular polity in our country."

To see a position as nuanced as this as an attack on secularism would be naïve; and naïve interlocutors would make little or no sense of Nirmal Verma's body of Jnanpith-award winning work. He was interested in human relationships, in how some of these were breaking down in the age of anomie, and what was emerging out of the wreckage. He explored the darker reaches of the human psyche, and the silent spaces between what people said and what they thought. The past has its own comfort to offer, he suggested, no matter how painful it might be to remember; and he was the ultimate poet of memory.

What I loved most about Nirmal Verma, perhaps, was the ease with which he moved between cultures; he was a translator as much as he was a writer. In one of his interviews, asked to name his favourite writers, he came up with this eclectic list of names: Simone Weil, Camus, Rilke, Orwell, Vaclav Havel, Toni Morrison, Chekov, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Agyeya, Virginia Woolf. It's just the list you would expect from a writer who was deeply rooted in his own culture, but who claimed the entire universe as his rightful terrain.

(Published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, November 1, 2005)


The best season for intellectual birdwatching is just after the rains, as the first signs of winter—garam chai and the city's patented smog, the colour and consistency of snot—appear. The only equipment you need as a fledgling bibliornithologist is a sharp pair of eyes, useful for spotting the discreet notice in the papers that says Professor Hugh Lee Famous is speaking at JNU or Dschool. Access to the flocks of bright-eyed babblers who run the bush telegraph, and a place high up enough in the pecking order not to have to fight for passes, also help.

This year, Professor Amartya Sen was among the early birds of passage to stop by Delhi. As previous migratory visitors, from Stephen Hawking to Vilyanur Ramachandran to Ben Okri, have discovered, Delhi's audience includes quantities of Restless Chattering Starlings. They need to be present at the first fifteen minutes of the lecture, speech, panel discussion or reading of anyone famous. Once their plumage has been admired, they move on to the feeding table at the nearest dinner, leaving large blank patches in what was initially a packed audience.

At the Sen lecture, though, it took 45 minutes before the first rustlings of departure interrupted the Nobel Prize winner's speech on the idea of India, something of a record for Delhi. His grand vision of a civilisation less wounded or divided than some might suppose went down well. And his belief in the argumentative tradition was justified by the number of Brainfever Birds who pecked, unsuccessfully, away at his logic after the speech.

Soon enough, the rest of the flying visits began. There was Lord Meghnad Desai, who gratified India and his publisher by marrying his editor last year, and who, like Sunil Khilnani, is becoming a regular on the circuit. Sir Vidia is missing this winter, but he dropped in earlier to endorse Tarun Tejpal's first novel. Salman Rushdie made more of a stir when he did a surprise reading of 'The Firebird', his new short story, dropping by as William Dalrymple's guest at the Oxford Bookstore. And the circuit's broadening—new faces included Thomas Friedman, who aired his flat world theory in front of a CII audience, Mike Marqusee, whose Bob Dylan book drew every ageing hippy in town out of their lairs, and Robin Sharma, author of The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari .

Of the visitors, the one and only bard of passage was Vikram Seth, who last gave an official reading after the publication of An Equal Music . So when he showed up to plug Two Lives at the Taj Mansingh recently, the Diwan-e-aam and khas were packed. The only guest who had breathingspace was an anonymous painter who had arrived with a huge canvas that depicted Seth against the cover of Two Lives , portrayed as a sort of reverse Dorian Gray, wizened, simian and with a sinister leer marking his features. But then that's another species Delhi specialises in at book readings—the Feather Brained Cuckoo.

It was when the terrifyingly sharp Umberto Eco made his maiden visit to India, though, that you saw the full complement out in force. There they were at the Alliance Francaise: the Bibulous Bulbuls, the Culture Vultures, the Page Three Mynah Birds, digging for gossip, the Greater Common Shrills, the caustic Butcher Birds, the Racket-Taled Drongos, the agreeable Wagtails, who never contradict or express an opinion. There were even a few Birds of Paradise, usually seen on the polo or fashion circuit where they're stalking bachelor pigeons ripe for the plucking.

Eco made his points about how text messaging may actually help return the next generation to the printed word, the survival of the Gutenberg Galaxy and the uses of mistranslation. It was only when an overexcited man declared, "You are just like Samuel Johnson, the lexicographer; he was as weighty round the waist as you," that he was even slightly ruffled. "Who was that?" he said genially.

Just a very odd bird. Their keepers let them out especially for readings. And no doubt, if Michael Ondaatje (already been here) or Amos Oz (never dropped by, but might) or other literary luminaries come by, they'll be there, ready to shake a tail feather.

(Published in Outlook City Limits)

The BS column: Umberto and the Tiger of Malaysia

Suspended by a 130-foot long cord, a giant pendulum swept back and forth across the halls of a basilica in Bologna, recreating Foucault's famous experiment. Perhaps the most famous of the assembled watchers there to testify that the world still rotates on its axis, as Foucault proved 154 years ago, was Umberto Eco.

This was on October 8, just two weeks before Eco's first vist to India. As we watched him turn a panel discussion into a superlative solo performance this Sunday, I thought of what the author of Foucault's Pendulum had said about Foucault's pendulum recently: ""We think of ourselves as a fixed point in the universe. But in fact, we are all 'gironzolini' [wandererers]."

Eco's reputation is such an imposing edifice—philosopher, semiotician, linguist, bestselling popular novelist—that the gentle reminders he issues from time to time are necessary. "I am a teller of tales," he's said in several interviews. He refers to the process of writing novels simply as "narrating", claiming an ancient link between today's most experimental writers and the oldest bards and griots. From The Island of the Day Before to The Name of the Rose to his most recent fictional work, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana , all his novels have been "books built of books".

Eco is speaking on knowledge exchanges between cultures, a topic that springs to life when he begins with an anecdote about a very famous gironzolini—Marco Polo. In his telling, even though Marco Polo was a man from a mercantile background, he must have known the legends of unicorns. On his travels in Asia and Africa, Marco Polo saw animals that looked like unicorns. "To be sure, they were black; their hooves were as big as elephant's hooves; and while the legend of unicorns says that the beasts could be captured by virgins, in whose laps they would lay their heads, these unicorns acted quite differently with any virgins they met." Polo had seen rhinoceri, not unicorns.

"We cannot say he did not tell the truth. He was the victim of his 'background books'." The question Eco wants to ask today is simple: "Can we travel without the background books?"

Afterwards, I ask him about his own "background books". This is tricky terrain. Eco's own library may not be as vast as the Borgesian one he created in The Name of the Rose (he paid tribute to Borges by naming his fictional librarian Jorges of Burgo). It is legendary, though. He lives in a remodelled hotel building in Milan, and has converted its long corridors into the shelves of his library. It contains over 30,000 books, and being Eco, he has read them all.

But the name he invokes is not what I expect at all. "I know your country through Sandokan," he says, his sharp eyes twinkling with mischief. He inherited a taste for popular literature—Verne, Dumas, Salgari--from his grandmother, who made no distinction between the literary and the dime-store novel, and perhaps this is what allows him to discourse as comfortably on porn films, blue jeans and mobile phones as semiotics and language theory today.

Indians remember Sandokan ("the Tiger of Malaysia") for the TV serial and Kabir Bedi's charms, but the books, by Emilio Salgari, were quite astonishing. Salgari was no traveller—the longest journey he undertook is said to have been an Adriatic cruise—but this didn't prevent him from setting the Sandokan books in exotic locations. Sandokan was an early anti-imperialist, a Robin Hood-style pirate whose war against the agents of Empire takes him to Malaysia, the Caribbean, and even to the Sunderbans where the Thugs are doing their bit to strangle the forces of imperialism, all too literally.

So Umberto Eco's favourite "background books" on India are these swashbuckling epics of exoticisation where the hero faces Black Jungles or embarks on Kohinoor-inspired quests. (This is no barrier for him; he can still, listening to bad translations from Sanskrit, one of the few languages he doesn't have under his considerable belt, discern the shape of the original.) And I love the idea that stories about river pirates and warriors against the East India Company would have travelled far enough to reach an Italian popular novelist who never saw the country himself, and then have travelled down the ages to reach the man who would become one of the greatest public intellectuals of his time. We are all gironzoloni, of one kind or another.

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, October 25, 2005)

Last Word: Get Ripped

Don't tell me about the success of Fair and Handsome skin whitening cream for men. Don't send me any more news stories about the growing industry in whisky facials or cucumber under-eye treatment for the metrosexual Indian male. And don't tell me about the hordes who're flocking to cooking classes, getting in touch with their softer side, or learning it's okay to wear pink and magenta.

The truth is that equality between men and women will only be achieved when they join us in the nastier rites of beauty. Skin whitening creams? All that they prove is that men are just as capable of being brainwashed as the erstwhile fairer sex into believing that you can have any colour of skin you like, so long as it's white.

I deplore this, as the authors of our epics and shashtras would have. They waxed lyrical about the allure of skin with the glow of the evening sky, skin with the eloquent darkness of rain clouds, skin the exact shade of rich, fertile earth under the plough, all shades we're being persuaded to discard for a uniform shade of bland wheatishness. And all I have to say about facials, aside from the fact that men who shave regularly need them more than most women, is that they require no effort on the part of the customer.

For men who're celebrating the new metrosexuality, or trying to get in touch with their feminine side, I have two words: bikini wax. We'll set aside the minor rites of beauty for the moment. Colonic irrigation is merely stomach-churning, but Gandhi led the way for generations of men to come. Threading is mildly painful, whether you're doing it to your eyebrows (chiefly women), your moustache (chiefly women) or your chest hair (some men); waxing arms and legs or the chest is uncomfortable; but in terms of surviving serious pain, the bikini wax has to be at the top of the list.

This form of sanctioned torture has been around since ancient times, when early writers of treatises on female beauty urged women to use mixtures of honey and sugar to "remove the weeds from the garden". In the last century, bikini waxing returned with a vengeance when Brazil shrank the swimsuit down to dental floss size.

It's one of the enigmas of fashion that the shrinking bikini didn't actually make the public display of pubic hair trendy. At different times, it has been considered appropriate to display various areas of the human body seen as taboo in other eras—we think nothing of displaying ankles or calves, but the Victorians would have swooned in shock at a glimpse of either. Given the recent trend towards "butt cleavage", it is surprising that the Brazilian style eschewed displaying hair down there in favour of ripping it out by the roots in a region of the body known for its extraordinarily high numbers of sensitive nerve endings.

The metrosexual man has caught up with his female counterpart in several areas. Hair styling, skin care and wardrobe changes are only the most obvious signs—the real change has been, more positively, in areas like sharing parenting skills, being more emotionally open and less attached to traditional male roles. But here's a tip for today's man. Skin lotions and fairness creams are surface stuff. You really want to be in touch with today's women? Get those Calvin Kleins off, let the waxing begin, and trust me—you'll feel our pain.

(Carried in The Kolkata Telegraph, October 2005)

Speaking Volumes: The One About Pinter

The audience had been queuing for an hour in order to hear Harold Pinter speak at Edinburgh. This was 2002; the Iraq invasion was in progress and phrases like "freedom-loving people" and "axis of evil" were the common currency of the day.

Pinter had just recovered from major surgery for cancer of the oesophagus, and written a poem—Cancer Cells—to celebrate, his first published poem in decades. We expected him to speak about his fight with cancer, which he did, eloquently and movingly. And then he moved on to the matter of the US war in Iraq, and made his strong opposition perfectly clear. Pinter likened Tony Blair's plans to bomb Iraq to an act of "premeditated murder". He spoke of the war as an exercise in power, he spoke of the silence and acceptance that greeted the ritualised killing of people outside the "Western world" and he said: "I could be a bit of a pain in the arse. Since I've come out of my cancer, I must say I intend to be even more of a pain in the arse."

In the three years since his Edinburgh comeback, Pinter has kept that promise. He has heckled Bush and Blair, campaigned against the war, and written cheerfully obscene poetry slamming the US army's tactics in Iraq.

This record has helped many see the 2005 Nobel, awarded to Pinter last week, as one of the most politically charged decisions in the history of the literature Prize. The Nobel announcement was delayed by a week; there was speculation that the Academy was considering Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer who's in trouble for speaking out against the Armenian genocide. (Turkey officially refuses to accept that the mass killings of Armenians occurred on the scale on which Pamuk and other observers point to, and refuses to call those murders genocide.) There is now much speculation, as one commentator put it, that this year's Prize is a rebuke to America, an anti-US Nobel.

To see the Prize simply as a politically correct decision would be to overlook Pinter's work. That would be naïve: I cannot see how you could possibly look at this century in theatre—and film—and ignore Harold Pinter's contribution. (He would probably be amused to know that in Calcutta theatre troupes, a standard stage direction was: "Aaro Pinteresque deen, dada!", meaning that more Pinteresque pauses were necessary.)

His first two plays, The Room and The Birthday Party , were ahead of their time. Their themes would eventually become familiar, much-imitated cliches of the stage—the damage that families inflict on each other, the struggle for power in everyday domestic life, the power of obsession, violence and the erotic, all of this presented by a man who had a gift for listening to the silences that lie between the lines. The Birthday Party ran for just a week, initially, before being taken off, and Pinter tells of how he met an usher on his way to one of the last performances. She asked who he was; he said he was the author. "Oh, are you?" she said. "Oh, you poor darling."

The late Samuel Beckett, who greeted his Nobel Prize with dismay rather than Pinter's expletive-laden exclamation of delight, had rather less trouble than those early audiences in recognising his younger colleague's talent. He and Pinter met often; I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when Edward Albee, Beckett and Pinter spent a long evening in a pub discussing the Marquis de Sade—the three great chroniclers of the absurdities of modern times on the life of the sensualist who took the pursuit of pleasure to lengths beyond the absurd. Pinter sent Beckett his plays, in typescript, and Beckett reserved a special place in his library for Pinter's dedication copies.

Pinter's plays, from The Room to Ashes to Ashes and Remembrances of Things Past are still performed today. If you've seen the film versions of The Comfort of Strangers, The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Trial or The Last Tycoon , to name just a few of his adaptations, you know that he is also one of the greatest screenplay writers of our time.

What I'm looking at is not the work, or the man, but at his signature: Harold Pinter, scrawled in a bold, unwavering hand right across the page, the letters large and uncompromising. That signature, the mark of the author, the political protestor, the man who refuses to back down, is scrawled all across the 20th century.

Last Word: Jobs for the girls

Among the film star posters and portraits of goddesses on the wall of her room, Mumtaz has an unusual exhibit: a picture of the women drivers who handle Maruti's factory cars. Mumtaz has spent her entire life in Delhi's slums, but her parents are determined to build a better future for her. They want her to work in a beauty salon, perhaps as a clerk.

"Didi, I want to drive," Mumtaz tells me. A ragpicker friend saw the glossy magazine that had carried the story on Maruti's women drivers and sneaked it out for her. Mumtaz got her teacher to read out the story. Now she knows it by heart. She can tell you that Maruti was initially sceptical about employing women as drivers: driving cars from the factory to various showrooms is a gruelling job, and drivers are typically expected to make between 15 and 20 trips a day.

It was a pioneering woman Air Force officer who backed the first women drivers. Maruti was enthusiastic when they discovered that the women spent less time goofing off. The male drivers were mocking, then resentful; now they've moved towards acceptance. Maruti might hire more women for the job. Mumtaz wants to be one of them.

When you think of women breaking through the glass ceiling, the conventional image is of a businesswoman storming boardroom barricades, a politician building a power base in Parliament. But real change happens in other, less visible areas.

Like the petrol pump near Nizamuddin that was staffed by women. When I drove up one day to discover that men were manning the pumps, I assumed the experiment hadn't worked. Quite the contrary, the manager told me. It had been so successful that the women's team at the pump were now busy training other groups of women to do the job.

Or the women priests who're demanding the right to address their god themselves. The Catholic Church is debating the issue. Last year, women clerics led prayers in mosques across the Muslim world. And while Hindu women priests may find Durga Puja gigs hard to come by, their presence is in demand at weddings, at family pujas, even at cremations.

For years, the construction business has been gender-skewed. A casual observer would assume that it's not, given the number of women migrants who work on building sites. But the jobs women do are the least skilled, the worst paid: shifting rubble, lifting bricks, clearing dust and sand. Even whitewashing and bricklaying are male preserves. On a Noida building site, though, I stopped to chat with women who were doing the scaffolding and the bricklaying. Munni Devi had begun this work when her husband started drinking too heavily to do it himself; she got him to teach her, then she taught other women. "The foreman didn't like it," she said. "But we do the work faster and better, so he's happy enough."

They know how temporary and tenuous their jobs are, but they've got used to the work—"not so boring!"—and the higher pay. On the next job, they'll be looking for a company and a foreman who can use them. "Look at you," says Munni Devi, pointing to my car. "You drive like a man. No problem, na? So no problem for us, too." And maybe someday, Mumtaz will post a picture of a woman operating cranes and bulldozers alongside her women drivers, expanding the circle of her dreams.

(Carried in The Kolkata Telegraph, October 2005)
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