Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Book review: Collected Stories, Hanif Kureishi

Collected Stories
Hanif Kureishi
Faber & Faber,
Rs 850, 671 pages
(Published in the Business Standard, July 13, 2010)

For a generation of Americans, John Updike was the writer they came of age with, and then followed into the plains and plateaus of middle age. Hanif Kureishi, for a certain generation of British Asians, has become their Updike, the uber-cool, edgier version who understood the rebellious years and then hung around long enough to chronicle the slow, unglamorous but not unrewarding slump into middle age.

A few decades ago, it would have been blasphemy to compare Kureishi with someone as mainstream, as firmly establishment, as Updike. This was the man who began his career writing pornography, who blew our minds with My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and The Buddha of Suburbia. Kureishi wasn’t just the guru of the new multicultural, globalised novel, he was its bad-ass, strutting, swaggering poster boy. “At the deepest level, people are madder than they want to believe,” he writes in Something To Tell You, and it’s this insight that he brought to his explorations of relationships, the new melting pot of Britain, marriages, intimacy, love, desire and fanaticism.

“The cruelest thing you can do to Kerouac is to re-read him at thirty-eight,” Kureishi wrote in The Buddha of Suburbia, but it’s not a dictum that applies to his own work, especially the stories included in this compendium. Collected Stories covers the writing years from 1997 to 2007 and includes work from Love in a Blue Time, Midnight All Day, The Body and eight new stories. This is late Kureishi, the mellowed, autumnal observer of love and decay rather than the impassioned rebel of the early years. The cruelest thing you could do to Kureishi would be to read these stories before you turn thirty-eight.

“I used to like talking about sex,” says the narrator of Blue, Blue Pictures of You. “All of life, I imagined — from politics to aesthetics — merged in passionate human conjunctions… . I did, at one time, consider collecting a ‘book of desire’, an anthology of outlandish, melancholy and droll stories about the subject.” What a book this would have been, if Kureishi had brought himself to write it; but instead, Kureishi country turns out to be a more familiar, if still complex, world. The stories from Love in a Blue Time have dated better than Midnight All Day, and while The Body retains something of the force of Kureishi’s grand talent for subversion, its speculations about the future of desire, and a race of “wax immortals” who possess new bodies, have been overtaken not just by science fiction but by avatars, robots and other modern paraphernalia.

In his short stories, Kureishi allows himself an intimacy and an openness that can be absent from his longer fiction, where he is always an observer of desire, of break-ups, love and its fault lines — rarely a participant. There is nostalgia here, and regret mixed in with the rebellion: this is the territory of middle-age, populated by therapists (perhaps the ultimate inaccessible lovers of our time), the ebbing of desire, and the frustrations of apparently fulfilled desire. If rebellion has failed — or, more accurately, remains the domain of the young — there is always art, and political engagement; but both are as transgressive, and as elusive, and as unsatisfactory, as desire.

The stories that work best are his earlier work: the classic My Son The Fanatic remains a stark exploration of the gulf between those who are capable of faith, and the fanaticism of deep, implacable belief, and those who are helplessly wedded to reason. Perhaps the best of the most recent work is the brutal Weddings and Beheadings, where the narrator films beheadings “common in this war-torn city, which is my childhood home”. It’s a short story, just three pages long, but it is essential reading for anyone interested in our culture of the violence of media voyeurism: “To make it work on television, it helps to get a clear view of the victim’s eyes just before they cover them.”

Taken as a whole, Collected Stories is not a monumental work. Too many of the stories here have not dated well, or remain fixed to a particular place and a particular time; the London of Kureishi’s youth, so startlingly different and emblematic of the shifting politics of Britain, has been replaced by other Londons, other Britains. And far more than his novels or his films, his short stories expose the very limited range of Kureishi’s writing. But you’ll still read this for his insights, for their precision and wry wisdom: “We are unerring in our choice of lovers, particularly when we require the wrong person. There is an instinct, magnet or aerial, which seeks the unsuitable. The wrong person is, of course, right for something — to punish, bully or humiliate us, let us down, leave us for dead…”

For those of us who have aged and greyed almost alongside Kureishi, or at any rate, in his energetic, angry, peripatetic wake, Collected Stories will still be an essential addition to the bookshelves, despite its limitations. We need Kureishi’s worn gaze, and his cynical but heartfelt reminder: “Thank God, even now I am capable still of rebelling against myself.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The BS column: Imagining Shivaji

It was in 2003-2004 that a minor academic work by the scholar James Laine set off a fierce, orchestrated campaign of political protests that led to the state banning of a book, threats to the author and other Shivaji scholars and the ransacking of the BORI library in Pune by members of the then little-known Sambhaji Brigade.
In the wake of the recent Supreme Court judgement overturning the ban on Laine’s Shivaji, two things are very clear. The first is that the Shivaji case is no longer about free speech, but about complex political reactions. And the second is that the Shivaji case goes beyond just free speech and free expression; at the heart of Laine’s continuing travails is the question of what we’re free to think and explore in contemporary India.

The Supreme Court judgement turns on an apparently minor point: can an act (Section 153A) that invokes the possibility of censorship in cases where religious sentiments may be hurt apply to a great historical figure who is, however, neither a prophet nor a God? The Maharashtra government was forced to admit that Shivaji, however great a Maratha hero he might be, is not a religious figure, and the state ban on the publication of James Laine’s Shivaji was overturned on this technicality.

The judgement has caused a political storm. Various rightwing Hindutva parties have protested and threatened violence; Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has announced that his party shares “public sentiments” on the sanctity of Shivaji and may not endorse the SC judgment. This is a red herring: given the track record of Indian publishers and booksellers, few of them are likely to demonstrate the moral courage required to put the James Laine book back in stores.

In this debate, free speech is invoked only cursorily; and the phrase “offended sentiments” is reflexively, thoughtlessly invoked—in 2010, the Laine case is all about the political battle, not the censorship issues.

The ostensible reason for the protests and the thuggish violence that led to the 2004 ban on the book was a brief section in Laine’s work that reported the “naughty” tradition of speculation on Shivaji’s parentage. But what was really at work was a question of ownership of the Shivaji legend and franchise. James Laine asks: “Can one imagine a narrative of Shivaji's life in which, for example: Shivaji had an unhappy family life? Shivaji had a harem? Shivaji was uninterested in the religion of bhakti saints? Shivaji's personal ambition was to build a kingdom, not liberate a nation?”

These points were pounced upon as evidence that Laine was a “sensationalist” historian, seeking more readers. But when we speak of defending free speech, it is this question that is really at the heart of current free speech and censorship debates in India.

Political parties often frame free speech in strictly negative terms: no one should have the right to offend or harm the sentiments of an (undefined) public. The alternative to this line of thinking would be: “Everyone should have the right to engage in debate, intellectual exploration or questioning, however uncomfortable this process of debate may be, so long as it is not malicious.”

Few political parties in contemporary India have ever thought deeply about the implications of curtailing—or supporting—free speech, which is why we’ve seen a process of death by deification where it comes to understanding the lives and times of our national leaders.

If you look more carefully at Laine’s argument, it gives you a better understanding of the ban, the violence, and the current unrest after the Supreme Court judgement. What Laine, in his naivete, is really asking is this: are we free to step away from a rigid, politically defined way of looking at a great historical figure, be it Shivaji, Nehru, Sardar Patel or Mahatma Gandhi, and examine the more human, and to him, more complex and rich, narrative around that figure?

Gandhi is an exception: in his inconvenient fashion, the Father of the Nation aired his life with such ruthless honesty and such thoroughness that he is impossible to sanitise beyond a certain point. But with other historical figures, especially those being claimed by the Hindu rightwing as Shivaji currently is, the answer to that question is a blunt no. We’re not free to imagine the life of Shivaji within the perspective of his own times, or to see him as a human subject to human biases—because that open narrative is directly threatening to the present-day mythology of Shivaji.

And this is what makes the Laine case so crucial. The Supreme Court has upheld free speech, if on a technicality. Political parties, in contrast, are unlikely to see the importance of allowing the imagination and contemporary scholarship to remain free. Step away from Laine for a moment: the larger question is, are we free to write, or imagine, an honest, questioning history of some of the most important historical figures in India? At present, the answer to that is, unfortunately, no.
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