Friday, February 10, 2012

#flashreads for free speech/ Feb 14th




Update: Thanks to all those who participated in or started their own #flashreads groups in Delhi, Bangalore, Bombay, Kochi and Kolkata--what we had this year was several small groups of volunteers doing readings in libraries, markets and public parks. Special thanks to our youngest protestor in Delhi, 10-year-old Nikhil, who read from Luka and the Fire of Life.

Some of the suggestions that have come in for next year:

1) make it a larger protest. This wasn't my intention when starting #flashreads, which was meant to be a small and personal way of protesting, but it would be really nice if someone did want to organise it in a bigger way, and if they could raise issues around free speech and censorship in college campuses next year.

2) include more readings from more Indian languages--absolutely, and many thanks to those of you who read from Faiz, Paash, Muktibodh, Gadar and VM Basheer this year.

3) have a Free Speech week, instead of a single day, starting on February 11 (World Free Expression Day) so that this could go beyond just the issue of banned books and censorship.

Just keeping these up here as a reminder--and once again, thanks for your time and your ideas.

(All posters courtesy the generosity of Sanjay Sipahimalani--for all four free speech posters, go to Antiblurbs.)

#flashreads for free speech/ Feb 14th:

THE IDEA: To celebrate free speech and to protest book bans, censorship in the arts and curbs on free expression

WHY FEBRUARY 14TH? For two reasons. In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering the death of Salman Rushdie for writing the Satanic Verses. In GB Shaw’’s words: “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.”
February 14th or Valentine’s Day has also become a flashpoint in India, a day when protests against “Western culture” by the Shiv Sena have become an annual feature. In Chandigarh, 51 Sena activists were arrested by the police after V-day protests turned violent in 2011. Our hope is to take back the day, and observe it as a day dedicated to the free flow of ideas, speech and expression.

#flashreads is a simple way of registering your protest against the rising intolerance that has spread across India in the last few decades. At any time on February 14th—we suggest 3 pm, but pick a time of your convenience—go out with a friend or a group of friends and do a quick reading. If you'd like some suggestions/ selected passages, here's a link to some short passages. If you want more and longer selections, email me or leave a message on twitter.com/nilanjanaroy, and we'll send you a selection. Or pick your favourite passage on free speech, or passages from a challenged book or the works of any writer who has faced sedition charges, a book ban or other forms of censorship.



One way to do an effective #flashreads is to work like a traditional #flashmob: with a group of three-ten friends, select what you're going to read in advance, and do the reading without announcement in a place like a Metro station, the area outside Dilli Haat, the open spaces in malls, each person picking up from the previous reader. Have fun.

Places where you might do public readings: subway and Metro stations, public parks, coffee shops, open areas in malls. If you’re talking about Flashreads on Twitter, please use the #flashreads hashtag.

If you have a blog, a tumblr or a website, an easy way to join in is to post Tagore’s poem, “Where the mind is without fear” (see below) on your site for a day, or choose any other passage on free speech/ censorship that appeals to you. Or write a post about free expression and what it's meant to you in your own life.

Where the mind is without fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

~Rabindranath Tagore

Thursday, February 09, 2012

#flashreads for free speech:



(All posters courtesy the generosity of Sanjay Sipahimalani--for all four free speech posters, go to Antiblurbs.)


SHORT READINGS FOR #flashreads—SUGGESTED PASSAGES.
(For more selections, email me or drop me a line at twitter.com/nilanjanaroy.)


How many Ramayanas ? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas , a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? ~ AK Ramanujan

He could say something radical -- that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone (unless one counts those hired to light bonfires), not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever. ~ Rohinton Mistry

From Luka and The Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie:
“The nerve!” squeaked the Border Rat. “That you say you are offended, insults me mortally. And if you offend one rat mortally, you offend all Rats gravely. And a grave offence to all Rats is a funeral crime, a crime punishable by--.”

Haroun, in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories:

“He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that have ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and to become yet other stories, so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.”



RULES FOR CITIZENS

A poem by Jeet Thayil

Let us govern those who undertake the telling of stories.
Censorship is good governance. Self-censorship is an attribute of the highest civilization.
If an actor speaks of God, he will be chastised. He will be refused an encore. If he repeats the speech, he will have his license revoked.
Let us govern those who undertake praise of the next world, since what they say is neither true nor useful to us.
Our best recourse is to be warlike.
We do not deny that storytellers are good at their job and give people what they like to hear. But the better they are, the less we wish our children and men to hear them.
We shall refute their attempts to be wise. We shall scoff when they repeat their vile allegation, Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.
We will do away with the dirges of famous men and leave them for women, and not the best among women either.
Let us abolish those fearful and terrific names, Cocytos, the River of Lamentations, Styx, the River of Fear, Ganga, the River of Death in Life, Lethe, the River of Bliss, Tigris, the River of Affliction.
We shall disallow travel and the mingling of songs.


“Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has an affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence. ” ~ Mahatma Gandhi, on the sedition laws

"We cannot let our republic, our beloved republic, our constitutional republic, our free and free-speaking republic, be hijacked by fear. It happened once in the Emergency. It must never happen again.
We cannot let them close our mouths and eyes and ears.
We cannot let them break the pen or ration the ink. ~ Vikram Seth, speech at the Kolkata Book Fair.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth…
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

~ Rabindranath Tagore



THE LONGREADS VERSION:


From AK Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas, withdrawn from Delhi University’s syllabus after protests from Hindu rightwing groups:

How many Ramayanas ? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas , a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question. Here is one.
One day when Rama was sitting on his throne, his ring fell off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and disappeared into it. It was gone. His trusty henchman, Hanuman, was at his feet. Rama said to Hanuman, "Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me."
Now Hanuman can enter any hole, no matter how tiny. He had the power to become the smallest of the small and larger than the largest thing. So he took on a tiny form and went down the hole.
He went and went and went and suddenly fell into the netherworld. There were women down there. "Look, a tiny monkey! It's fallen from above? Then they caught him and placed him on a platter (thali ). The King of Spirits (bhut ), who lives in the netherworld, likes to eat animals. So Hanuman was sent to him as part of his dinner, along with his vegetables. Hanuman sat on the platter, wondering what to do.
While this was going on in the netherworld, Rama sat on his throne on the earth above. The sage Vasistha and the god Brahma came to see him. They said to Rama, "We want to talk privately with you. We don't want anyone to hear what we say or interrupt it. Do we agree?"
"All right," said Rama, "we'll talk."
Then they said, "Lay down a rule. If anyone comes in as we are talking, his head should be cut off."
"It will be done," said Rama.
Who would be the most trustworthy person to guard the door? Hanuman had gone down to fetch the ring. Rama trusted no one more than Laksmana, so he asked Laksmana to stand by the door. "Don't allow anyone to enter," he ordered.
Laksmana was standing at the door when the sage Visvamitra appeared and said, "I need to see Rama at once. It's urgent. Tell me, where is Rama?"
Laksmana said, "Don't go in now. He is talking to some people. It's important."
"What is there that Rama would hide from me?" said Visvamitra. "I must go in, right now."
Laksmana said, "I'11 have to ask his permission before I can let you in."
"Go in and ask then."
"I can't go in till Rama comes out. You'll have to wait."
"If you don't go in and announce my presence, I'll burn the entire kingdom of Ayodhya with a curse," said Visvamitra.
Laksmana thought, "If I go in now, I'll die. But if I don't go, this hotheaded man will burn down the kingdom. All the subjects, all things living in it, will die. It's better that I alone should die."
So he went right in.
Rama asked him, "What's the matter?"
"Visvamitra is here."
"Send him in."
So Visvamitra went in. The private talk had already come to an end. Brahma and Vasistha had come to see Rama and say to him, "Your work in the world of human beings is over. Your incarnation as Rama must now he given up. Leave this body, come up, and rejoin the gods." That's all they wanted to say.
Laksmana said to Rama, "Brother, you should cut off my head."
Rama said, "Why? We had nothing more to say. Nothing was left. So why should I cut off your head?"
Laksmana said, "You can't do that. You can't let me off because I'm your brother. There'll be a blot on Rama's name. You didn't spare your wife. You sent her to the jungle. I must be punished. I will leave."
Laksmana was an avatar of Sesa, the serpent on whom Visnu sleeps. His time was up too. He went directly to the river Sarayu and disappeared in the flowing waters.
When Laksmana relinquished his body, Rama summoned all his followers, Vibhisana, Sugriva, and others, and arranged for the coronation of his twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Then Rama too entered the river Sarayu.
All this while, Hanuman was in the netherworld. When he was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he kept repeating the name of Rama. "Rama Rama Rama . . ."
Then the King of Spirits asked, "Who are you?"
"Hanuman."
"Hanuman? Why have you come here?"

"Rama's ring fell into a hole. I've come to fetch it."
The king looked around and showed him a platter. On it were thousands of rings. They were all Rama's rings. The king brought the platter to Hanuman, set it down, and said, "Pick out your Rama's ring and take it."
They were all exactly the same. "I don't know which one it is," said Hanuman, shaking his head.
The King of Spirits said, "There have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth, you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rama is about to be over, his ring falls down. I collect them and keep them. Now you can go."
So Hanuman left.
This story is usually told to suggest that for every such Rama there is a Ramayana .[1] (end of excerpt)

From Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey, removed from the Mumbai University syllabus after Shiv Sena members protested against and burned copies of the book:

Dinshawji: “What to do with such low-class people? No manners, no sense, no nothing. And you know who is responsible for this attitude—that bastard Shiv Sena leader who worships Hitler and Mussolini. He and his ‘Maharashtra for Maharashtrians’ nonsense. They won’t stop till they have complete Maratha Raj.”
Dinshawji’s narration had brought them to the main intersection of Flora Fountain, where the great traffic circle radiated five roads like pulsating giant tentacles. Cars were pulling out from inside the traffic island and recklessly leaping into the flow. … With the dead fountain at its still centre, the traffic circle lay like a great motionless wheel, while around it whirled the business of the city on its buzzing, humming, honking, complaining, screeching, rattling, banging, screaming, throbbing, rumbling, grumbling, sighing, never-ending journey through the metropolis.”

From Rohinton Mistry’s open letter about the targeting of Such A Long Journey:

In this sorry spectacle of book-burning and book-banning, the Shiv Sena has followed its depressingly familiar, tediously predictable scripts of threat and intimidation that Mumbai has endured since the organization’s founding in 1966. … A political party demanded an immediate change in the syllabus, and Mumbai University provided deluxe service via express delivery, making the book disappear the very next day.

As for the grandson of the Shiv Sena leader, the young man who takes credit for the whole pathetic business, who admits to not having read the book, just the few lines that offend him and his bibliophobic brethren, he has now been inducted into the family enterprise of parochial politics, anointed leader of its newly minted “youth wing.”
What can -- what should -- one feel about him? Pity, disappointment, compassion? Twenty years old, in the final year of a B.A. in history, at my own Alma Mater, the beneficiary of a good education, he is about to embark down the Sena’s well-trodden path, to appeal, like those before him, to all that is worst in human nature.

Does he have to? No. He is clearly equipped to choose for himself. He could lead, instead of following, the old regime. He could say something radical -- that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone (unless one counts those hired to light bonfires), not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.

He can think independently, and he can choose. And since he is drawn to books, he might want to read, carefully this time, from cover to cover, a couple that would help him make a choice. Come to think of it, the Vice-Chancellor, too, may find them beneficial. First, Conrad’sHeart of Darkness, in order to consider the options: step back from the abyss, or go over the edge. Next the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. And I would like to urge particular to attention to this verse:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
...Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.







PASSAGES ON FREEDOM AND FREE SPEECH
Mahatma Gandhi on the sedition laws:

“Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has an affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence. But the section under which Mr.Banker [a colleague in non-violence] and I are charged is one under which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime. I have studied some of the cases tried under it, and I know that some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it.”

Sedition, by Prasun Mukhopadhyay

“To serve the Muse is sedition
Sedition is assemblage
To think about the country is sedition
Sedition is to speak about hunger
To continue living in this country is sedition’.


FROM THE POEMS OF PAASH:

मेहनत की लूट सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होती
पुलिस की मार सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होती
ग़द्दारी और लोभ की मुट्ठी सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होती
बैठे-बिठाए पकड़े जाना बुरा तो है
सहमी-सी चुप में जकड़े जाना बुरा तो है
सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होता
कपट के शोर में सही होते हुए भी दब जाना बुरा तो है
जुगनुओं की लौ में पढ़ना
मुट्ठियां भींचकर बस वक्‍़त निकाल लेना बुरा तो है
सबसे ख़तरनाक नहीं होता

सबसे ख़तरनाक होता है मुर्दा शांति से भर जाना
तड़प का न होना
सब कुछ सहन कर जाना
घर से निकलना काम पर
और काम से लौटकर घर आना
सबसे ख़तरनाक होता है
हमारे सपनों का मर जाना



From Luka and The Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie:
“The nerve!” squeaked the Border Rat. “That you say you are offended, insults me mortally. And if you offend one rat mortally, you offend all Rats gravely. And a grave offence to all Rats is a funeral crime, a crime punishable by--.”

RULES FOR CITIZENS

A poem by Jeet Thayil

Let us govern those who undertake the telling of stories.
Censorship is good governance. Self-censorship is an attribute of the highest civilization.
If an actor speaks of God, he will be chastised. He will be refused an encore. If he repeats the speech, he will have his license revoked.
Let us govern those who undertake praise of the next world, since what they say is neither true nor useful to us.
Our best recourse is to be warlike.
We do not deny that storytellers are good at their job and give people what they like to hear. But the better they are, the less we wish our children and men to hear them.
We shall refute their attempts to be wise. We shall scoff when they repeat their vile allegation, Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.
We will do away with the dirges of famous men and leave them for women, and not the best among women either.
Let us abolish those fearful and terrific names, Cocytos, the River of Lamentations, Styx, the River of Fear, Ganga, the River of Death in Life, Lethe, the River of Bliss, Tigris, the River of Affliction.
We shall disallow travel and the mingling of songs.
From Ismat Chughtai’s account of the obscenity trial for Lihaf:

We now waited impatiently for our second appearance in court. We no
longer cared if we were to be hanged. If we were hanged in Lahore we
would attain the status of martyrs and the Lahorewallahs would take out
our funeral processions with great pomp and show.
The second appearance was scheduled for the pleasant month of
November, in 1946, that is. Shahid was busy with his film. Seema’s ayah
had become very efficient and Seema was now very healthy and robust, so
I left her in Bombay and flew by plane to Delhi, continuing on to Lahore
by train, accompanied by Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi and his calligrapher. I
felt very embarrassed before the calligrapher. The poor man had been
dragged into all this for no reason at all. He was always very quiet, sat
with his eyes lowered, a weary expression on his face. Every time I looked
at him I’d be overwhelmed afresh by a feeling of guilt.

“What do you think?”
I asked him, “Will we lose the case?
I can’t say, I haven’t read the story.”
“But Katib Sahib, you calligraphed it.”
“I see the words separately and write them, I don’t pay attention to the meanings.”
Amazing! And you don’t even read it after it has been printed?”
“I do. But only to catch printing errors.”
“Each word separately?”
“Yes.” He lowered his head in contrition. After a short pause he said,
“You won’t mind if I say something?”
“No.”
“You make a lot of spelling mistakes
May God bless calligraphers, they will keep my honor intact, I thought.”

***

There was a big crowd in the court. Several people had advised us to
offer our apologies to the judge, even offering to pay the fines on our
behalf. The proceedings had lost some of their verve, the witnesses who
were called in to prove that “Lihaf” was obscene were beginning to lose
their nerve in the face of our lawyer’s cross-examination. No word capable
of inviting condemnation could be found. After a great deal of searching a
gentleman said, “The sentence ‘she was collecting ‘ashiqs ’ (lovers) is
obscene.”
“Which word is obscene,” the lawyer asked. “‘Collecting,’ or
‘‘ashiqs’?”
“The word ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness replied, somewhat hesitantly.
“My Lord, the word ‘‘ashiqs’ has been used by the greatest poets and
has also been used in na‘ts. This This word has been given a sacred place by the devout.”
“But it is highly improper for girls to collect ‘ashiqs,’” the witness proclaimed.
“Why?”
“Because … because … this is improper for respectable girls.”
“But not improper for girls who are not respectable?”
“Uh … uh … no.”
“My client has mentioned girls who are perhaps not respectable. And
as you say, sir, non-respectable girls may collect ‘ashiqs."

“Yes. It’s not obscene to mention them, but for an educated woman
from a respectable family to write about these girls merits condemnation!”
The witness thundered.

“So go right ahead and condemn as much as you like, but does it
merit legal action?”

The case crumbled.”

Khattam-Shud, in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and The Sea of Stories:

“What brought you up here, eh?” he asked in his dull, dull voice. “Stories, I suppose.” He said the word ‘stories’ as if it were the rudest, most contemptible word in the language. “Well, look where stories have landed you now. You follow me? What starts with stories ends with spying, and that’s a serious charge, boy, no charge more serious. You’d have done better to keep your feet on the ground but you had your head in the air. You’d have done better to stick to Facts, but you were stuffed with stories. You’d have done better to stay home, but up you came. Stories make trouble. An Ocean of Stories is an Ocean of Trouble. Answer me this: what’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”

Haroun, in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories:

“He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that have ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and to become yet other stories, so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.”

Vikram Seth, speech at the Kolkata Book Fair on Kolkata, Kobi, Constitution and Kolom:

I will now go to the fourth ‘ko’ or Kolom. I have touched upon the word in law and literature. But especially when one thinks of Tagore, one also thinks of the word as a graphic form, a form of art. I am very happy that Sunil Gangopadhyay and I—as part of this inauguration—were asked to write the word ‘kolom’ in black paint on those white boards there. As you can see, Sunil Da has written it in Bengali and I have written it in English and Urdu. It is interesting that three of the world’s great civilisations, the Hindu, the Islamic and the Judaeo-Christian, are thus incorporated on those boards, just as they are part of our common discourse. This is the richness of our country; we cannot allow it to be filtered and thinned. This is the strength of our country; we cannot allow it to be contorted or distorted.

Let me end with the two opening lines of a poem by Tagore that I have known—in his own English translation—since I was eleven years old. It was one of our school prayers and it expresses his aspirations for India.

‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free.’
Let me repeat that: ‘Where knowledge is free.’

Those who try to cloud our minds with fear are the enemies of both knowledge and freedom.

We cannot let our republic, our beloved republic, our constitutional republic, our free and free-speaking republic, be hijacked by fear. It happened once in the Emergency. It must never happen again.

We cannot let them close our mouths and eyes and ears.

We cannot let them break the pen or ration the ink.
Kolome kali jeno na shokaye.
May the kolom flourish.

POEM, RABINDRANATH TAGORE:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
~ Rabindranath Tagore

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Speaking Volumes: How To Be A Journalist-Katherine Boo


(Published in the Business Standard, February 2012, just to add to the growing mountain of Kate Boo-worship.)

“One choice that I don’t agonise about is when I write, keeping myself out of it. The reporter writing about how she got her story has become de rigeur: a lot of self-mythologising bullshit.”

There is no ‘I’ in Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers, except in the Author’s Note. She spent about four years in Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport, trying with the help of two translators to listen to and understand the lives of the people who lived there. Across the 244 pages of the book, what you read and hear most are the voices of Asha and her aspirations to become a slum landlord, Abdul, a teenager who sorts garbage and is accused of a murder that is actually a suicide, Manju, the college girl who is bored stiff by having to read Mrs Dalloway. Boo’s opinions come in, if at all, in a low murmur.

When you read interviews by journalists just discovering this brand-new form—chiefly in the US and the UK of the 1930s and the 1950s, but often also 1990s and 2000s India, to the enduring embarrassment of those of us who were shaped by those times—the ‘I’ is everywhere.

An early Paris Review profile of Graham Greene, conducted in 1953, has the intrusive voices of the two interviewers, with questions longer than Greene’s answers. In another few decades, the Paris Review interviews with writers had changed. The interviewer’s voice was sharp and personal, but his or her presence was increasingly obliterated.

“My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action-even an opinion is a kind of action.”

This defence of the reporter’s objectivity is made by Fowler in Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American. But Greene didn’t necessarily believe that reporters should be objective; Fowler’s own objectivity rests on thin ground. ‘”You can rule me out,” I said. “I’m not involved. Not involved,” I repeated. It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved.’ This, as Graham Greene knew and Boo knows, is not a stand any reporter can afford to take.

“The corpse measured 66 inches from blue toes to jutting ears.”

Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers is already a legend, especially among journalists. It cannot be dismissed as yet another lazy excursion into slum poverty tourism, or as an outsider’s account of India. Boo’s determination to give all of the space of the book over to the people she meets, rather than to what she thinks of them or of Annawadi, is what gives the book its moral centre and force.

In her time as a New Yorker reporter, Boo often wrote just one piece a year. When Indian journalists hear this, their first reaction is often envy—the three things that have been missing from the Indian journalism landscape are a proper grounding in media ethics, a lack of column inches and time. If 2,000 words—compared to the roughly 7,000 words Boo had earned at the New Yorker—is a luxury, a year to work on a story is almost unimaginable in the Indian context.

But there is another way to be the kind of journalist Katherine Boo represents. Boo and the Washington Post team won a Pulitzer for a year’s worth of reporting—20 stories--on the mental health care system. When you look at that line about the corpse, it speaks of careful reporting. At least a dozen Indian journalists working on a similar story might also have got those details.

Then Boo continues.

“The body in plaid pajamas was that of a 57-year-old retarded ward of the District of Columbia. On the streets outside the city-funded group home where he had lived and died, kids sometimes called him Retard-O. Inside, he sweetened the hours by printing the name his mother gave him before she gave him up. Frederick Emory Brandenburg. He blanketed old telephone directories with that name, covered the TV Guides the home's staffers tossed aside. He glutted the flyleaves of his large-print Living Bible. The immensity of the effort made his hands shake, but the habit seemed as requisite as breath. In this way Brandenburg, whose thick-tongued words were mysteries to many, impressed the fact of his existence on his world.”

It is hard to see with that paragraph, as it is with Behind The Beautiful Forevers, how much work went into it. Boo tells you some of it—a section in her book about the self-immolation of Fatima Shaikh is based on interviews with 168 people, she filed hundreds of RTI applications in order to understand the world of Annawadi. But it’s not the hours she spent interviewing the doctors she met at the group home or Brandenburg’s colleagues, or the hours she spent in Annawadi that are the point.
The point is only this: when she met the people who lived in Annawadi, Sunil and Abdul, Manju Waghekar and Zehrunisa, she listened to everything they had to say, even to everything that was hard for them to say. And that is what makes Katherine Boo’s journalism, and Behind The Beautiful Forevers, unforgettable.

Also:
Jonathan Shainin on Behind The Beautiful Forevers

Anjali Puri's interview with Katherine Boo

Samanth Subramanian in conversation with Katherine Boo, Philip Gourevitch, David Remnick and other journalists.

Speaking Volumes: The Great Trotter

(Published in the Business Standard, January 2012. Re-reading The Trotternama after years, it struck me that Allan had anticipated the Tumblr generation-that book was made to be read on a Tumblr in little doses. Someone should start one in his honour.)


In the 1970s, the Cellar in Delhi’s Connaught Place and Trinca’s in Park Street had sizzlers and live music, and for those old enough to remember that age, you might remember a guitarist by the name of Sealy who was often seen at jam sessions.

I Allan Sealy, who was on the list of Padma Shri awardees this year, was fresh out of St Stephens’ College then, part of a generation of writers called, with gentle mockery, the “Babalog School”, by Ira Pande. His contemporaries included Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Vikram Seth and the publisher Rukun Advani. What they had in common was the love of reading (and music) more than the burning urge to be writers.

“Even in your twenties, you know that life is short, you know that you're never going to read everything you want to read,” said Sealy in a 2006 interview. “So you're always sifting. You're trying to get at the very best from the very beginning. If you're actually looking at yourself as a writer, you're looking at all the possible books you could ever write, even if you don't live to write them.”

Fame was not the point; it wasn’t available for Indian writers in English in that era anyway. Politicians, godmen and businessmen traded in the open market of success; writers queued up with other artists at the ration shop, happy to be doled out a few readers, the promise of publication. Permanently inoculated against celebrity, Allan Sealy popped up to survey early Indian literary festivals with an anthropological eye and disappeared as rapidly as he could to his natural habitat—his small home in Dehradun and the garden where he knew the name and personal history of every tree.

The Trotternama, Sealy’s first novel, is a mock epic that replaces the grand historical figures of the old “namahs” with Justin Aloysius, the Great Trotter, officer and inventor who lives on the sprawling grounds of Sans Souci in Naklau. Like one of its predecessors, GV Desani’s All About H Hatterr, The Trotternama is both elusive and immortal—reports of its death are usually proved to be exaggerated, though it’s only a handful of readers in each generation who respond to the slightly manic history of the Great Trotter. Running through its exuberance is a sadder and now almost-buried history—the story of the decline of the Anglo-Indian community, the carefully culled biographies scattered through the book no match for oblivion. “I wish to show you how History is made,” a character says. “Understand first, good adept, that there are no sides to it… Front and back there be, certainly, which the vulgar call past and future… But sides, no.”

The Trotternama, first published in 1988, stands at the crossroads. For the next two decades, Indian publishing (if not all Indian writers in English) would be in the grip of the marketplace, which exerts a kind of dictatorship of success on writing today. The Trotternama was also the last true successor to Hatterr and Midnight’s Children—with a few scattered exceptions, the Indian novel in English took a much more conventional and far less experimental narrative direction in the 1990s.

Sealy wrote against the grain of the marketplace, giving up early on commercial success, looking instead for the freedom to experiment—he moved closer and closer to poetry, for instance, including several of his poems in his last published novel, Red. Landscape is crucial to his books; just as a writer like Annie Proulx sculpts the raw material of a place like Wyoming into her stories and novels, Sealy works best with places like Dehradun, making occasional forays into Delhi (“a good lover,” he says of the city, “but a bad wife”).

From Yukon To Yucatan was an early example of what he could do in other genres—Sealy turned a sharp eye on America, allowing himself to see the US as an exotic, unknown country, in just the way most travel writing outside of Europe and America explains the unfamiliar. His novels overlap without ever returning to the same terrain; The Everest Hotel, set in Dehradun, explored political and personal fault lines, betrayal and friendship; Red came back to a fictionalized Dun, but was an exploration into art and creativity. Nestled in between the two was Brain Fever Bird, an unusual love story that brought a Russian expat together with an Indian artist, in Delhi, a city defined by puppets, theatre and the relentless pulling of strings.

None of these descriptions do the brilliance and the intelligent inventiveness of Sealy’s work justice, nor is the Padma Shri likely to change his life. “Part of me thinks, what's the point of writing if you're only going to write for 12 bright readers,” he had said back in 2006. “But with every book, maybe one per cent you think of the reader, ninety nine you're thinking of yourself, what you want to say."
 
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