Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The BS Column: Civil Lines, Redux

(Published in the Business Standard, November 10, 2009)

“Civil Lines hopes to appear irregularly, twice a year for a start.” Among the many promises this magazine of “fine unpublished writing connected with India” made and kept, the first part of their opening manifesto was religiously adhered to. It is only now that the best of Civil Lines has been collected in Written For Ever (Penguin India), some 16 years after the magazine’s birth.

The first issue of Civil Lines came out in 1994; between that date and 2001, the magazine took on a mythical aura, assisted by the fact that Civil Lines sightings and basilisk sightings occurred at roughly the same frequency. The cover photographs by Sanjeev Saith became as iconic as the contents between the covers.

It’s easy for any literary magazine to make an impact with its first issue, and in this case, the first issue was an absolute gem. Edited by the late, formidable Dharma Kumar, the late and equally redoubtable publisher Ravi Dayal, Mukul Kesavan, Ivan Hutnik and Rukun Advani, it included work by I Allan Sealy, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Radha Kumar, Ramachandra Guha, Bill Aitken and Khushwant Singh. Alongside this embarrassment of riches came a prescient warning: “The length and content of future numbers are as uncertain as the periodicity; we’ll play it by ear.”

Civil Lines is notorious for its elusiveness--five issues between 1994 and 2001, followed by an eight-year-long silence. (There will, however, be a Civil Lines 6: the contract was signed while I was still at the publishing house Tranquebar.)

Readers have consoled themselves with the reflection that Civil Lines shares its somewhat erratic tendencies with some of our finest Indian writers and thinkers, who seem unnaturally disinclined towards actual publication. But for those of us who have—and incessantly talk about, much to the annoyance of those who don’t—the complete collection of those five slender volumes, Civil Lines evokes a rare admiration.

It’s not just the roster of names who were published by Civil Lines, or the fact that many of them became names (or became much bigger names) post-publication: the editors, with their collective knowledge of the Indian intellectual circuit, had a knack for spotting emerging talent just before it became established talent.

Some, like Manjula Padmanabhan, Raj Kamal Jha, Ruchir Joshi, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Suketu Mehta and Allan Sealy, were evolving into the writers they are today. Some, like Radha Kumar, Bill Aitken, Sonia Jabbar and Tenzing Sonam, are well-known for their work in other fields, and add the label of “professional writer” to a host of other achievements. Some, like Dilip Simeon, first gave notice of brilliant work to come in the pages of Civil Lines—Simeon’s novel, expected out soon, grew out of the incredibly incisive and funny ‘OK TATA: Mobiloil Change and World Revolution’.

To establish a literary magazine where the first issue is a collector’s item is commonplace; to establish a literary magazine where every issue is a collector’s item is extraordinary. Civil Lines found its identity from the first issue onwards. In comparison, even the New Yorker shuffled uneasily in its first decade between being a vehicle for humorous writing and an arena for news of interest to a metropolitan audience. (The New Yorker, however, came out with admirable, even monotonous, regularity.)

Civil Lines was shifty about its stated manifesto: issue one commits itself only to “fine unpublished writing”. Civil Lines 2 admitted: “’First-rate writing’ is a good intention, not a usable manifesto,” and then stubbornly refused to set down a manifesto of any kind. Civil Lines 3 helpfully pointed out thematic links: trucks seemed promising, relatives were in abundance, and the editors continued bravely, “Then there are animals.”

Civil Lines 4 eschewed a manifesto in favour of a poem, the delectable ‘Tonguing Mother’: “When words float free of local reference/ writing happens in a fog/ of deference.” And Civil Lines 5 drew our attention to the fact that it advertises itself as ‘New Writing From India’: “This,” said the editors with what one couldn’t help feeling was perverse glee, “is misleading.”

In many ways, Civil Lines mirrors the successes and failures of the wider world of Indian writing in English. Here, in its five volumes, is the brilliance, self-referential wit and passionate engagement of some of the best of our writers. The magazine’s appearances may have been erratic, but the editors, with Kai Friese joining their ranks, displayed a virtue unusual in Indian literary circles—quality control.

And it’s significant that the silence from Civil Lines is mirrored by a decade of uncertainty in Indian writing in English—more writers have been writing to the marketplace, rather than for themselves, in the last decade than ever before. It is perhaps too much to expect that Civil Lines 6 will herald a return to the glory years when the magazine was an annual affair, but I would be content to see the magazine reach Civil Lines 10 before—well, let’s say 2030 to be on the safe side.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Ved Mehta: The time traveller's life

(Published in the Business Standard, November 7, 2009. Images taken from www.vedmehta.com)

Indian writing has little space for the family album. The few portraits of parents, siblings or partners that emerge are like the photographs that hang in our homes: officially posed, formally garlanded. Ved Mehta’s Continents of Exile series is one of our few, monumental exceptions, a long-playing biography on the screens of our imaginations.

He’s in Delhi for the re-release of the eleven books that make up the series, written over decades, starting with Daddyji and continuing through Mummyji and Mamaji into the personal terrain of All For Love and Red Letters.

Nothing is exempt from Mehta’s need to set it all down, not the years of apprenticeship with Mr Shawn, the legendary New Yorker editor, not his blindness, not his sessions on the psychiatrist’s couch. This has its pitfalls, as Ben Yagoda noted in About Town, a history of the New Yorker: “Ved Mehta’s endless biographies of the various members of his family almost seemed to dare the reader to say, “This is boring!” and flip ahead to the next article.”

Mehta, one of the great raconteurs in person, knows this; he also knows that Continents of Exile cannot be ignored. “When my three-part essay on Mamaji came out, other New Yorker writers asked why Mr Shawn would run this, at a time when people were dying in Vietnam,” he says. Shawn had his own reasons for shaping and encouraging Mehta’s personal and painful brand of honesty.


“I hate the word ‘memoir’,” says Ved Mehta, after I’ve used it for the fifth time. “I prefer biography, or autobiography.” We’re discussing the Indian reluctance to write in the autobiographical vein. My theory is that there are too many unspoken taboos on writing about the personal, the familial. Ved’s hands flicker in disagreement, like an unconscious turning of a page to a different chapter.

“Indians aren’t reticent,” he says. “Maybe we still have a Victorian morality that won’t let us speak our minds. But there’s a freedom in the West you don’t have here. Writers there are not afraid of not making a living. They have the freedom to write about sex. The freedom not to appear dignified, noble, likeable. What would Henry Miller have written if he’d wanted to be liked by his middle-class relatives?”

I think of my impatience as an adolescent reading Mehta’s “endless biographies”, wading through these meandering accounts of parents, relatives, lovers, friends, editors, partners. It was years later before I realised how deeply embedded Mehta’s portraits had become in my mind, as though his family had become mine, as though I knew Kiltykins and Daddyji as well as he did. It took years to see how tight, how taut — Mehta’s adjectives, not mine — the narrative was; how much had been skillfully omitted, how accurate the details were.

Mehta would give the credit to Shawn: “He was a genius, and he also had enormous taste, sympathy and humanity. These sound like abstractions, but they are not.” The preferred adjectives to describe good writing today are “necessary” and “honest”; but as Mehta expands on Shawn’s virtues, they seem like the Holy Trinity of truly timeless writing, including Mehta’s own work. Taste, sympathy; humanity.


How reliable is memory anyway? Here are three Ved Mehta stories. The Neemrana festival gathered together some of India’s greatest writers— V S Naipaul, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Khushwant Singh and Ved Mehta among others — and then, for inexplicable reasons, sequestered them in a fort-palace far away from their readers.

The insistent literariness of the Neemrana festival was enlivened by a massive disagreement between the wife of the German ambassador and Naipaul. The author and the ambassador’s wife threatened, from opposite corners of the fort, to leave if the other stayed on; the combined diplomacy of Pico Iyer, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Nadira Naipaul finally persuaded a still-furious Naipaul to come down to dinner.

Ved Mehta walks in late. For once, his normally acute senses fail to compensate for his blindness, and he sees only Vikram Seth and Dom Moraes, not Naipaul. “Dom,” says Ved in his clear, carrying voice, “you’ll never guess what that terrible old man has gone and done now.”

“No, no,” says Mehta, though he’s smiling. “That didn’t happen.” He has, he explains, often had to deny stories about himself.

The late Dom Moraes and he once made the same trip, and wrote separate accounts. Dom had a wonderful story about Ved Mehta as the guest of a maharana, drawn to the lifelike figure of a stuffed tiger. “May I pet it?” he asks, and the maharana gives his permission, while Dom signals frantically — but ineffectively, since Mehta can’t see him-from the other end of the room. Ved, petting the stuffed animal, is remarking on the realistic feel of its fur when the tiger gets up, yawns and walks away.

“Dom,” says Mehta with some feeling, “treated me as Quixote treated Sancho Panza. I never rode horses. The maharana never introduced naked ladies into my bedroom. And the stuffed tiger story isn’t true.” I have a clear memory of Dom telling the story in his rich timbre, and Mehta and I both agree that some stories, however false, should be true.

The third story concerns Mehta’s blindness, which he has often written about, commenting that it is for the blind to imagine the world of the sighted — the sighted rarely feel compelled to do the opposite. One of Mehta’s readers, noting the many references in his writing to “seeing” and “scrutiny” or specific colours, particular details, is convinced that Ved Mehta is not really blind. At a book launch, the reader decides to prove his theory.

Ved Mehta is speaking to a group of friends. The reader sneaks up and joins the group; then makes a rapid hand gesture in front of Ved’s face. The writer continues with his tale. The reader tries a more obvious gesture; the writer is unmoved. The reader, still convinced that Mehta’s faking, starts waving his hands in front of the writer’s face, jumping up and down. The writer remains impassive. Defeated, the reader leaves, and tells a friend who’s witnessed the incident that he was wrong, that Ved Mehta is, indeed, blind.

“That wasn’t Ved Mehta,” says the friend. “That was V S Naipaul.”

This story is true.


The conversation has roamed from the short attention span of the modern-day reader to the relative merits of Joyce versus D H Lawrence to a dispute over whether it was alcohol or buggery that fuelled the productivity of Truman Capote. (“Buggery,” says Mehta, and that settles the matter.)

There is one final matter to be addressed. “I never started out wanting to write a million words about my life,” says Ved Mehta, and we both contemplate what it would have been like, in 1972, to look ahead at a vista of writing biography all the way up to 2003. I cannot imagine it, any more than he could, as a young writer. “Writing is in itself a way of growing up; the more difficult the challenges you take on, the more you change.”

Continents of Exile is balanced by the other books — travelogues, political accounts, short stories — but perhaps Ved Mehta knows that his biographies will define him. There is an end to a novel, even a trilogy; but an autobiography can only end with an obituary, which we will hope is long delayed. However inadvertently he began the project of writing his life, the million-plus words it’s taken to cover his history, Ved Mehta has hit upon the only possible answer to writer’s block. Writing your life as you live it is the perfect way to ensure that you will never run out of material.

(Also read: Jai Arjun's excellent profile of Ved Mehta, carried in Tehelka.)

Food column: Sliced baboon for breakfast?

(Published in the Business Standard,
November 7, 2009)

The UK restaurant critic A A Gill is as well known for his acerbic outrageousness as for his (formidable) knowledge of food, but even he couldn’t have predicted the storm he would create with what will go down in history as the “baboon confession”. In his Sunday Times review of The Luxe, Gill served up an unforgettable opening line: “I shot a baboon in Africa, last Wednesday, just after lunch.”
Outrage followed, with readers flaying Gill for his vivid description of how he blew the creature’s lungs out, and for his confession that he did it to “get a sense of what it would be like to kill someone, a stranger”. Unusually for Gill, though, he may have committed a minor error. He writes: “There is no mitigation. Baboon isn’t good to eat, unless you’re a leopard.”

Some months before Gill blew his baboon away, though, a group of South African farmers were lobbying for permission to open the world’s first licensed baboon abattoir. Animal rights groups have successfully blocked the plans for the abattoir — baboons are uncomfortably close to humans in terms of their facial expressions, and most of us have a visceral discomfort when it comes to killing any of the ape family. The understanding that apes, monkeys and baboons can feel pain and fear is inescapable, given their closeness as a species to humanity itself.

The farmers had specific plans for marketing baboon meat —tinned according to old bush recipes, and in the form of salami. Given that Friar Labat records an 18th century recipe made with donkey meat, wild boar meat and the meat of the domestic pig blended together, baboon salami isn’t that much of a stretch.

In the same week of Gill’s baboon confession, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer touched off an ongoing debate with his book, Eating Animals. Foer doesn’t mention baboons, specifically, but he does ask an age-old question: why do we draw the line at eating dogs? Given that Gill spends much of his life as a food critic eating dead animals, is it really that reprehensible that he would then go out and shoot one? Would his baboon-killing have been more justifiable if he had subsequently cooked and eaten the primate?

Foer’s book shows much of the zeal of the newly-converted vegetarian, but he does offer new ways of looking at the increasingly vexed question of whether we can morally justify eating meat. (Full disclosure: I’m a lapsed vegetarian, who lost the taste-versus-ethics argument some years ago.) Foer has a cunning addition to the usual arsenal of reasons to go vegetarian: his research into factory-farmed meat, which accounts for most of the meat eaten in the US, demonstrates a strong and convincing link between bad holding and slaughter practices and the spread of numerous human diseases. To summarise his arguments: eating meat can’t be justified morally, and if the ethics of eating meat doesn’t bother you, consider the fact that it might make you sick.

Foer addresses cultural discomfort brilliantly: few cultures can afford to take a long, hard look at what’s on their plate, and why, whether that’s organic vegetables or pesticide-laden fruits, meat or tofu substitutes. The difference between the tables of the rich and the poor, between abundance and scarcity, the many food taboos balanced against the sensual pleasures of the palate, the cruelty of killing versus the widespread acceptability of animal slaughter — to look closely at your plate is an act of moral courage that is beyond most of us.

I think that’s also what’s missing from Eating Animals: the understanding that for most of us leading already-rushed lives, making increasingly complex decisions about everything from water conservation to child-rearing, we would prefer not to examine what goes into our bodies too closely. Between Gill’s gunslinger act and Foer’s compassionate but persistent inquiry, they might force us to look again at why we eat meat — and to accept that there’s a deep inconsistency between deploring the killing of a baboon while we order another portion of butter chicken or fish fry.
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