Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Middle Stage's Books of 2009: Fiction

A survey of the best non-fiction of 2009 is here.

The Tamil writer Salma’s The Hour Past Midnight (Zubaan) tells the story, and the stories, of a group of women who belong to a Muslim trading and landowning community in a small village in Tamil Nadu. Each one of these characters is vividly brought to life, and the narrator beautifully negotiates multiple visions of love, truth, justice, sorrow, anger, belief and desire: the novel is a magisterial exercise in the working out of point of view. The focus is primarily female, but not exclusively so. We are for time to time catapulted into the lives of patriarchs, husbands, and brothers, and often the predicaments of these men are just as tenderly observed. Lakshmi Holmstrom’s translation often leaves some of the vocabulary of the Salma’s Tamil world intact, thereby making us enter a world as much on its own terms as on ours (readers cannot always demand the rights of consumers). Not the least of the novel’s pleasures is the quality of its thinking about God, who appears sometimes as a source of succour for the miserable and the helpless, sometimes as justice and at other times a perversion of justice, sometimes only as a question or a blank space – and therefore always human, in the sense of always appearing to us filtered through a human imagination. To my mind one of the greatest of Indian novels.

The leisurely and beautifully weighted stories of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Random House in India, Norton in America, Bloomsbury in the UK) take what has become a convention in short fiction – the stories of interlinked characters conceding primacy to each other – and raise it into an examination of the many currents of life emanating from the decaying estate of an aging landowner in feudal Pakistan. This world appears, like Salma’s, grossly patriarchal, but we find to our surprise that most of Mueenuddin’s stories are about women, and these women often exert a power over men that pierces the hearts of the heartless. Mueenuddin is often an astute psychologist, as when he shows us an estate manager throwing all caution to the winds in a love affair because he has so carefully calculated his rise that now, for once, “he deserved to make this mistake.” Some of the prose effects of this book are too vivid for description in a single paragraph. Longer essay here.

Orhan Pamuk’s long-awaited The Museum of Innocence (Knopf is America, Faber & Faber in the UK) proved to be a love story that, not for the first time, found a channel that made readers ask: why didn’t we think of this before, the idea of an actual museum for a relationship? A 30-year-old business scion, Kemal Basmaci, falls in love with his beautiful teenaged cousin Fusun and is vividly transported into the wonders of a private and shared vision, even as he about to make what society would think of as “a good marriage” to an attractive and accomplished woman of his same class and standing. Kemal cannot bring to a halt his drift in either direction, and becomes, to his own anguish, a resident of two camps. 1970s Istanbul and its streets, consumer objects, and mores are beautifully worked without any theoretical debris into this highly pleasurable story, the many fine moments of which invite the same rapture as the real experience of love itself.

Narrative swiftness and weightlessness – pure fictional skills, in a way, in which no sentence seems significant enough to be quoted but the story glows with an easy confidence in itself – were also a feature of works of fiction by two old masters: Nocturnes (Knopf in America, Faber & Faber in the UK), a collection of stories about music, memory, and dreaming by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The Middleman (Penguin India), a novel set in the discontented Calcutta of the 1970s by the Bengali novelist Mani Sankar Mukherji, or “Sankar”. Both writers are very adept at dialogue; indeed, since Ishiguro’s stories are all in the first person, they all aspire to the register of talk. Both writers also love plot. Ishiguro likes to move his stories on with little tremors of disbalance or revelation; we are never allowed to settle comfortably into our knowledge. Sankar’s tightly worked story expands just enough around a morally hazy landscape to carry a violent sting in its tail as we witness the protagonist’s journey from innocence to experience. Eudora Welty once observed: “A plot is a thousand times more unsettling than an argument, which may be answered.” Sankar is one of those writers who knows the truth of this, and revels in the power of story to make meaning through a narrative arc. Arunava Sinha’s translation was expertly thought out. Longer essays on these two books are here and here.

A novel explicitly about politics and then about all those things that politics, no matter how omnivorous it is, cannot possess or destroy, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants (Knopf in America, Fourth Estate in the UK) tells the moving story of a family of a young woman sentenced to death for counter-revolutionary activity in a fictional city in China in the year 1979. As with Salma’s novel, a number of characters, most of them on the margins of society, seem to draw the text out behind their trajectories, and the novel’s amplitude and artistic balance often rouse the reader to wonder. Longer essay here.

Aseem Kaul’s Etudes (Tranquebar) was the work of a truly independent sensibility: a book of 75 very short stories notable for their pellucid observation, dazzling metaphors, and jettisoning of the conventions of realist storytelling (which, in default mode, as it is used by so many practitioners, especially in popular fiction, can be absolutely wearying). A longer essay on Etudes is here. This was only one among several distinguished works of short fiction published in India this year, the others being Jahnavi Barua’s Next Door (Penguin, longer essay here), Mridula Koshy’s If It Is Sweet (Tranquebar, longer essay here), and Nighat Gandhi’s Ghalib At Dusk (Tranquebar, longer essay here).

Sudarshan Purohit’s translation of Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist (Blaft) brought into the house of Indian fiction in English, for the first time, a colossus from the Hindi pulp-fiction scene, and was a worthy successor to the same publisher’s The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction (2008). Longer essay here.

For a while now the translator Sandra Smith has been bringing to readers English, almost year by year, the vivid and striking novels of the French writer Irene Nemirovsky, who when at the height of her powers was captured by the Nazis and killed in Auschwitz in 1942. This year's Nemirovsky release was The Dogs and The Wolves (Chatto & Windus in the UK), which follows the stories of three cousins, one rich and the other two poor, across Russia and France and across two decades. Nemirovsky's passionate and questing protagonists, her shrewd eye for human vanities and hypocrisies, simmering plots, and intensely dramatic and economical style always make her sound like no one else you have read. Longer essay here.

A friend of mine, flipping through the copy of Shariar Mandanipour’s Censoring An Iranian Love Story (Knopf in America, Little, Brown in the UK) lying on my table, expressed shock that I had scored out so many passages of this book with a black pen. This was an unintentional compliment to perhaps the most unusual novel of the year, in which the love-story of two characters, Dara and Shirin, in Tehran, is intercut with the narrator’s own battle to defend the integrity of his text against an army of guideline-obsessed cultural censors (who, even when they find a female character sweating and saying “It’s hot”, immediately set about slashing and burning). Art literally fights for its life in this clever and jazzy postmodern tale, even as the author finds his own two creations rebelling against him and the storyline he has thought for them. When, towards the end of the novel, Dara and Shirin meet and are fulfilled, we totally understand, and are moved, when the narrator begins to speak of “my own loneliness”. A salutary deconstruction, and reconstruction, of fiction as it is conventionally understood. Longer essay here.

Good wishes for 2010!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Middle Stage's Books of 2009: Nonfiction

Here are The Middle Stage's favourite nonfiction books of 2009:

MG Vassanji's A Place Within (Penguin in India, Random House in Canada) was a brilliant meditation on history, religious identity, and Indianness by a novelist turning the questions of his fiction upon his own life and traditions. A member of an old, syncretistic faith, the Ismaili Khojas, Vassanji (who was born in Africa and later migrated to Canada) returns to the Gujarat of his ancestors and to the many Delhis to history to think about where he stands on some of the most vexing issues of our time. “It is always instructive,” writes Vassanji at one point on his travels, “to remind oneself of the obvious fact: The boundaries and names of many places are only recent in origin and often hide richer, more complex truths than one might imagine; the past then becomes inconvenient and slippery, far less easy to generalise.” And in a more personal mode, confessing to an inability to feel the belief of the true believer but also the skepticism of the agnostic: “At any dargah, a shrine of this kind, and even at a temple before a priest, I cannot but help but allow in me a solemn feeling, some respect and humility, for I stand alongside others in a symbolic place that it some manner reflects human existence and frailty, or smallness and exaltedness, and our striving for understanding.” To my mind this is the best Indian travel book of this decade.

Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice (Penguin in India and the UK, Harvard University Press in America) was, at one level, a highly technical and specialised work grappling with key questions in the theorisation of justice, most notably the landmark work by John Rawls on the same subject. But Sen's book also offered, to any intelligent lay reader interested in being led out of his comfort zone by a very astute tour guide, page upon page of brilliant thinking on both the plural nature of what we think of as "just" or "fair", while simultaneously insisting that these ideas be rigorously tested in the practical domain of "redressable injustice" instead of only aspiring to a theoretical, almost mathematical, beauty. Sen contests many ideas that have acquired a general currency in the world today, arguing here against rational choice theory and its "remarkably miniaturised view of human rationality", there against "the propensity [of theories] to account for all appearances from as few principles as possible", and holding a candle for "the plurality of reasons that a theory of justice has to accommodate." "Reasoning is central to the understanding of justice even in a world which contains much 'unreason'," Sen writes. "Indeed, it may be particularly important in such a world." The use of that understated and yet somehow reproving phrase "may be", which actually leaves the reader filling in a stronger word, offers a clue about what it is about Sen's style that makes his work so persuasive.

Hooman Majd's The Ayatollah Begs To Differ (Doubleday in America, Penguin in the UK) richly deserved the accolades it won for being one of the best books available on the complexities of modern Iran. One of the very charming features of Majd's book is that we are brought up close not only with Iran, but also with Majd himself: his love of life's little pleasures, his sunny nature and love of jokes and absurdities, and his alertness to very subtle nuances of social conduct. I read his work as a meditation not just on how to live when one goes to in Iran, but on how to live. Also perhaps the best book title of the year.

Chaturvedi Badrinath's The Women of the Mahabharata (Orient Longman) was simultaneously a brilliant philosophical inquiry and a work of subtle and polished literary criticism. Badrinath's book focuses on twelve significant women in the Mahabharata and the place of their stances and actions within the larger web of meaning embedded in the epic. "In being a most systematic philosophic inquiry into the human condition," writes Badrinath in one of his moments of flight around the idea of story,"the Mahabharata does not see the meaning of a story in the way it ends. The particular end of a story is not the whole of its meaning." Both epigrammatic ("Irony is the laughter of truth") and expansive (it quotes at great length from the text), this is a book which deserves a world and not just an Indian audience. Badrinath is also the author of The Meaning of the Mahabharata.

Another book which offered a brilliant interpretation of key cruxes in the Mahabharata, as well as other questions raised by the Ramayana and that of many other texts in the library of Hinduism, was Wendy Doniger's magnum opus The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin). Doniger's title gestures at an ambition to write a more comprehensive and inclusive history of Hinduism than the standard narrative allows, concentrating in particular on of women and lower-castes and their modifications of received traditions, as well as the vast internal diversity of Hindu thought itself on any of the big questions. Like Sen, Doniger is happy to accept the plurality of approaches towards the resolution of complicated academic debates; like Majd, she likes a good joke and is not shackled by ideas of scholarly decorum. I was particularly amused by her assertion that Emperor Ashoka's equivocations and hedging on the subject of non-violence "“is the expression of a man who finds himself between a rock edict and a hard place”.

Jonathan Bate's Soul of the Age (Penguin in the UK, Random House in America), a biography of Shakespeare by one of the greatest living Shakespeareans, beautifully organised its copious material around Shakespeare's own famous conceit of the Seven Ages of Man. Bate, who is also the author of the excellent book The Genius of Shakespeare, shows us Will the boy, youth, theatreperson, householder, and businessman against the background of a richly realised world of sixteenth-century reading, rhetoric, politics, statecraft, and even botany. Some of Bate's readings of individual plays, particularly of King Lear and its vision of human love and folly, showed how literary criticism is not just a response to literature and a meeting of two minds over one text; it is itself a form of literature, and can tint older works with new colours.

Tzvetan Todorov's Torture and the War on Terror (Seagull Books) was a short, eloquent and trenchant book about the vitiation of both inteliigence and dignity by the use of torture to grill suspects, whether in America's war on terror in particular or war in general. Todorov refutes various arguments made in support of torture, such the widely circulated "ticking bomb scenario", and suggests that the long-term damage of torture that is sanctioned by both states and societies that is, you and me are far greater than its apparent payoff. "Institutionalized torture is even worse than individual torture," writes Todorov, "because it subverts the very foundation of the idea of justice and law. If the state itself becomes the torturer, how can we believe in the civil order that it claims to bring or to sanction?"

Harsh Mander's Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre (Penguin India) was a compassionate and morally lucid account of what happens to a society in this case Gujarat after 2002 for weeks, months, and years in the wake of a genocide. The defining feature of the Gujarat violence to this day, Mander argues, “is the determined absence of remorse in both the state and many segments of the people.” As much as the trials of those who orchestrated large-scale murder and carnage in Gujarat in 2002 are about punishing the guilty, they are also, argues Mander, a way “for the victim to reestablish her or his equal citizenship and rights before the law in a secular democracy.” Mander describes the work done by himself and his volunteers on behalf of those deprived of their livelihoods, families and dignity in the carnage of 2002, but he always sees them as human beings first and victims second, even if this means that they choose not to fight the long fight in the courts.

Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Penguin in the UK, Pantheon in America) was a beautifully composed meditation on the idea of work as imagined and lived out by 21st-century human beings in a range of situations, from fishing in the deeps of Maldives to the backroom operations of supermarkets. De Botton is less a reporter, more a writer; he is no Barbara Ehrenreich, infiltrating the sites that he wants to investigate. One of the criticisms offered of his book was that he is rarely seen getting his hands dirty, and approaches the work of labour from a certain remove. But it seemed to me better that the writer made this clear, and mined his own mind and intuitions for the significance of what he was seeing, instead of committing himself to a more detached and perhaps quantitative engagement with the situations he was entering. One of the book's many pleasures was the distinctive filamented cadences of de Botton's language.

Many excellent meditations on both life and literature were brought together in The Essays of Leonard Michaels (Farrar Straus Giroux). One of the joys of reading Michaels is his emphasis on how writers are as interesting as the thoughts or ideas for which we know them, and that to understand a writer's ideas we must first and foremost read his sentences, not just seek out his arguments. "Because the sentences from Hegel and Blake also have a form in which their intuitions, and preserved against rational analysis, it is not easy to explain them without letting their pleasure and energy bleed away," he writes at one point. Elsewhere, in a beautiful meditation on the human face, he writes, "A face is the thing we most consciously bear or carry into public view, while it remains invisible to ourselves; and it is also the thing we contemplate endlessly in others, in the tremendous variety and subtlety of their moods, desires, and meanings....A face is revealing and at the same time a disguise....Whatever we say, our face says it first, or differently, or withholds part of the meaning. It betrays as much as its expresses." The cover of this book features, appropriately enough, a striking photograph of Michaels.

Dearest Father (Oneworld Classics), a new translation by Richard and Hannah Stokes of a long letter written well into middle age by Franz Kafka to his dominating father Hermann, but never sent, showed us the contorted emotional world and murky artistic wellsprings of one of the greatest of modern writers as perhaps no biography or work of interpretation could. Kafka casts himself and his father as permanently warring but poorly matched antagonists, and his life as one long series of failures presided over by the older man. "I was no real match for you, you soon disposed of me; all that then remained was escape, bitterness, grief, inner struggle," writes Franz. The sense of human powerlessness which is everywhere in Kafka's fiction is evoked here as a grown man's inability to see himself in any other way than as a despairing and unworthy child.

The fiction and poetry list follows next week.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Coming up: The Middle Stage's Books of the Year

Coming up over the next fortnight on The Middle Stage: as in 2008, two long essays on the best fiction and the best non-fiction that's come my way this year.






Wednesday, December 02, 2009

On Written For Ever: The Best of Civil Lines

Like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, the literary journal Civil Lines has for many years been an entity thought by most to be dead, even as a few of the faithful still insist it is alive and kicking, and merely waiting for the right moment to return to public life. Five issues of this journal of (to quote the editors) “fine unpublished writing” came out between 1987 and 2001, each edition, published and priced like a paperback, a celebration of the essay, memoir, long-form reportage, and the short story, while at the same time impervious to the charms of writing in translation, literary criticism, interviews, or poetry.

The magazine’s idiosyncracies of taste, irregularity of publication, somewhat cliquish circle of contributors, and lack of either a precise editorial manifesto or a market ambition were all repeatedly explained by the editors (perhaps a little too emphatically) as a symbol of their devotion to no other deity but quality. Since the last edition of Civil Lines appeared at the far end of this decade, might one then interpret this long hibernation as a damning comment on the state of Indian writing in English today – a kind of literary criticism of silence, just as vipassana is of the world of empty talk? Could be.

Alternatively, and much more realistically, one could attribute the disappearance of Civil Lines to financial issues, unsteady support from publishers, the involvement of the editors in more urgent projects, and the vacation air inherent to the magazine’s modus operandi from the very beginning (this when literary magazines usually begin with nothing less than a plan for world domination). In the same way, if one takes some of the editorial preening and pompousness on offer with a pinch of salt, (the introductions to each issue are included in the book, usually directed towards such revelations as this one from CL 5: 'We think that the seven stories in this issue add up to the best and most diverse collection of short fiction you're likely to read till...well, till Civil Lines 6 comes along) one might find plenty to enjoy in Written For Ever, a compilation of some of the best pieces published in the journal as chosen by one of its editors, Rukun Advani.

It is immediately clear from Advani’s anthology that the magazine published some outstanding non-fiction in its heyday (the late eighties, when three issues came out in quick succession). Dilip Simeon’s “O.K. TATA: Mobiloil Change and World Revolution”, an essay about a truck driver who discovers that his khalasi, or helper, is a Naxalite, evokes life on the road in the most sumptuous detail, while Ramachandra Guha’s “An Anthropologist Among The Marxists” describes with a giddy devotion the author’s first-hand knowledge of the various Calcutta factions of Marxism gleaned as a doctoral student in Calcutta. Alongside Pankaj Mishra’s “Edmund Wilson in Banaras” (published elsewhere), these essays must rank as two of the greatest in modern Indian prose. Indeed, Simeon’s piece deserves further praise for the acuity with which it transforms the substantially non-English world of truckers into an English that never seems incongruous. Here is a passage from his essay: here we see the driver, Hardip Singh, meeting his prospective khalasi Partap for the first time, after which there follows a description of a khalasi's duties:

The youth was a bit of a greenhorn and seemed delicately constructed to the driver. He was already on the truck when Hardip approached its owner, a Punjabi lala in his mid-twenties from a Partition refugee family in Delhi's Rohtak Road area. The khalasi seemed to go with the vehicle, though he had only been on it for a couple of month or so, he said. Hardip didn't care. One khalasi was as good as another so long as they kept awake on night journeys, were quick on their feet, and good at massaging one's back and legs. Most drivers' apprentices were teenagers and aspired to become drivers themselves. Glad invariably in grease-stained cotton knickers in summer and threadbare pyjamas or pants in the winter, they were human appendages to the trucks, odd-job hands who leapt out at brief stoppages bearing tyre levers, with which they knocked at the tyres to hear them ring (to confirm they were not punctured), rushed out at octroi barriers to pay the clerks, leaned out of cabin windows slapping the door in city traffic and yelling at rickshaws, two-wheelers, cyclists and pedestrians (here insults could be exchanged and colourful abuse hurled depending on speed and distance), stood behind the vehicle when it was being reversed shouting affirmatives, wiped the smudges of shattered insects off the windshield at night, washed the truck at long halts (hence their other appellation, clean-der), supervised loading and unloading, spread the onboard tarpaulin on to consignments by tying it down with the onboard rope, performed hard labour with jacks and roads during tyre changes, checked engine oil and radiator-water levels, stayed awake all twenty-four hours unless instructed to sleep, and were honoured occasionally by being asked to take the wheel.

This is someone who really knows how to write a sentence, laying into its folds bright, memorable details (knocking at the tyres to making them ring), little jokes ("shouting affirmatives"), and delicately ironical remarks (working all twenty-four hours a day unless given leave) just as efficiently and suavely as the khalasi is supposed to do his job.The essays by Simeon and Guha are easily worth the price of the book, and there are a number of other good essays: a charming memoir about animal-watching by M.Krishnan; a tribute to his father by Brijraj Singh; Advani's own introduction, mostly an account of the origins of the magazine; and and a very funny “prelude to an autobiography” by Amit Chaudhuri in which the writer sets himself up against none other than Shobha De.

In the realm of fiction, however, the magazine's record appears in hindsight more modest. Other than Manohar Shetty’s diverting tale of Goan gossip, “Lancelot Gomes”, it is a struggle to find fiction here that is formally inventive, aesthetically satisfying, or in any way “written for ever”. A number of them work within a narrow palette of first-person reminiscencerealism; while this method can lead to many good things, many stories here are sunk by cliched descriptions of states of mind and feeling. One love story ends with “two anonymous beings at the edge of a sea that threatened every moment to engulf”, while in another story we are told that “Yet out of the blue a new twist did appear, irrevocably changing the status quo of 'Neelu and I.'” This is itself status-quo storytelling. Narrative artistry is a rare quality at the best of times, and the editors’ skepticism towards work in translation – the only example here is a translation by Amitav Ghosh of an unbearably mawkish story by Rabindranath Tagore called "The Hunger of Stones" ("Where had she lived and when, this ravishing, ever-changing beauty? Where was she born, in which palm-fringed oasis, by which desert stream? Who was the tented nomad who brought her into this world?") – seems to have meant a kind of willed fishing in shallow waters, or, to move the metaphor from sea to street, a refusal to engage with any place very far away from the comfortable Civil Lines of a city. Some of the stories collected here supply, I suppose, serviceable descriptions of conditions like immigrant life, society's callousness towards women, or personal angst. Very few work as story.

Civil Lines 6 is apparently to be published next year by Tranquebar Press. It may be very different from its predecessors, but more likely it won’t; journals are usually as stable, in a broad way, as the people who run them. In that case, there will still be much about the Civil Lines to enjoy. But the literary values and assumptions held by much Indian writing in English the late eighties and early nineties seem slightly musty when aired today, and given how much has changed about that literature in this decade, the journal might find itself today, in a far more diverse and energetic literary scene, more to the fringes than it would like or, even with its deliberately contrarian air, can be proud of .

And here is an older post on a recent anthology of essays on Salman Rushdie: "Salman Rushdie and Midnight's Diaspora."

A shorter version of this essay appeared last weekend in Mint Lounge.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Some Things I've Been Reading: Shattuck, Garton Ash, Sharma, and Davis

Some things I've been reading recently:

"Nineteen Theses On Literature" by the literary scholar Roger Shattuck, the author of two fine books on Proust and Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography ("Literature ranges from simple songs and sayings to elaborate and extended tales of human deeds. The most compelling literature concerns persons whose feelings and thoughts and actions engage us in the lived time of mortality. Ideas and abstractions, which systematically separate themselves from persons and from time, do not form the essence of literature and do not surpass it.") The idea that literature allows us to feel more powerfully on our pulse than in real life "the lived time of mortality" seems to me exactly right; this is what we turn to literature and to narrative art for. See also Shattuck's essay "When Evil Is Cool", and a chapter from Proust's Way.

"1989!", an essay by Timothy Garton Ash on one of the most momentous years of the twentieth century, and one that offers a number of sage arguments against the temptations of reductivist approaches to history ("Every writer on 1989 wrestles with an almost unavoidable human proclivity that psychologists have christened 'hindsight bias'—the tendency, that is, to regard actual historical outcomes as more probable than alternatives that seemed real at the time [for example, a Tiananmen-style crackdown in Central Europe].What actually happened looks as if it somehow had to happen. Henri Bergson talked of "the illusions of retrospective determinism." Explanations are then offered for what happened. As one scholar commented a few years after 1989: no one foresaw this, but everyone could explain it afterward. Reading these books, I was again reminded of the Polish philosopher Leszek KoĊ‚akowski's 'law of the infinite cornucopia,' which states that an infinite number of explanations can be found for any given event.") Garton Ash has written some excellent books of reportage, and is also the editor, most recently, of Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, a massive collection of essays by different hands about different lands that I am hoping will be on my desk to reading soon.

"How Sanskrit Should be Taught" by the scholar of religion, in particular Hinduism, Arvind Sharma ("It is an axiom in some schools of Indian philosophy that a question can be fully addressed only if it is approached negatively as well as positively. This means then that a consideration of how Sanskrit should not be taught is integral to a discussion of how it should be.") On this theme, you may also want to read Sheldon Pollock's essay "The Real Classical Languages Debate". Pollock recently set up an endowment to fund three fellowships in Sanskrit at Columbia University each year exclusively for Dalit students. I am not entirely persuaded by the logic of this reservation, but perhaps we will hear more about the reasons for Pollock's thinking, and the expectation should be that the recipients should in time rebut any skeptics with the quality of their work. On the question of a revival of decaying traditions of classical scholarship, see also "A New Loss" by Sugata Srinivasaraju. Arvind Sharma's excellent blog Indological Provocations is here.

An interview with Dick Davis, the translator of the poet Ferdowsi's great Iranian epic Shahnameh ("[Ferdowsi has] become more mysterious to me, further away. I used to think I 'knew' him, or something of him anyway; I don't feel that now. The more one knows of the poem the more complex and fascinating one sees it is [...] He has the discomfort-producing quality that all truly great narrative artists have; he makes you question what you know and what you assume, especially perhaps what you know and assume about himself.")

"A Translational Friendship", an essay by the renowned translator of Arabic fiction Denys Johnson-Davies on Naguib Mahfouz, an excerpt from Johnson-Davies's book Memories in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature. Not only is this essay a charming work of reminiscence and homage, it also reveals the number of fortuitous connections, word-of-mouth circulations, and serendipities by which even work which retrospectively appears self-evidently great is published or translated.

"Dostoevsky's Dowager"
, a profile by Martin Ebel of Dostoevsky's German translator Svetlana Geier ("But the 'main thing,' the summit of a life dedicated to Russian literature has been first and foremost translation. 'Hold your nose high,' a teacher once advised her, and she followed his counsel to great advantage. He meant that she should avoid getting caught up with individual words, instead focusing on the whole, should hold within her gaze at least an entire sentence – and in principle the work as a unity. And even more importantly: in her ear. Svetlana Geier’s method, if one can call it that, is an acoustic one. She immerses herself in the text until she has absorbed it completely, is able to hear its unique tenor, or as she says, 'its melody.' Then she induces it to resound in German, and this again takes place acoustically, for Geier dictates her translations.") Speaking of Dostoevsky, Princton University Press has just issued, in a handy abridged single volume, Joseph Frank's biography of the writer, originally in five volumes written over more than four decades, and one of the greatest achievements ever in literary biography. Chapter One is here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

An Indian poetry special in The Literary Review

The new issue of The Literary Review, an American literary journal that has been published quarterly by Fairleigh Dickinson University for more than fifty years, is a special on Indian poetry. Edited by Sudeep Sen, it has about 200 pages of verse by 44 Indian poets.

Here are three poems from the journal that caught my eye for their quality of thought, delicacy of language and beauty of sound. The first one is by Robin S Ngangom:
Houses
After Cavafy

We believe we own them but
In the evening of a street not a soul will be found.
Only a few stars shuffling in the oily sky and
Orange trees for neighbours.
Here, they've lain huddled in December waiting
For Christmas to rock them on its pinewood floors
And in blue afternoons
You can see them drowsing in the barber sun.

Relentlessly, a dream has hemmed me in these hills
While the future has cast me as a bleak interpreter of signs.
And so many things to finish
That I did not pay attention to their birth,
There were no labor pains,
And they have shut me off from their hearths.
Some more poems by Ngangom ("Body", "Flight", "The Last Word") are here, and his book Time's Crossroads is available here.

And here is Karthika Nair's splendid villanelle, "Tempus Fugit":
Tempus Fugit

I think I would like to die watching you dance,
feet staying quicksilver skies, arms a swift crease
of light across longitudes. Stars rise from trance

at your touch, drape the stage with night while stagehands
mix music (bass from springtides, then soughing trees,
I think). I would like to die watching you dance

the tango with Mistress Time—trellised, by chance
or choice, in memory's arms—,transform a frieze
to light. Across longitudes, she twists in trance

till lips landlocked by your will blaze morning, lance
the inky continents, where—like yestreen breeze—
I think I would like to die. Watching you dance,

scissor land and sea, curve orbits with bare hands,
Time learns to whirl on lone, hennaed feet: release
of light on longitudes. Stars fall into trance

as you plummet out of life: no backward glance
of farewell, no thunder, no tears. With such ease
would I like to die, I think, watching your dance
—like lightning on longitudes—strike and entrance.
Often, when copying out poems or passages from books, one is able to better appreciate their qualities because the hand is so much slower than the eye, and so the mind stays with the words longer than it did the first time (this is one very good reason for keeping a notebook). I liked this poem by Nair even better while I was tracing it on my keyboard than when I read it the first time. Nair is the author of a recently published book of poems, Bearings. Some poems from this book are here.

Last, here is Anjum Hasan's "This Biography":
This Biography

My heart beat fast or did not beat at all;
I could not say all that I thought and thought
till words deserted me. I loved too abstractly.
I dreaded how all there was to give me was me—
like water, this biography. I unravelled far too easily
then fled to selfish deserts and slept on the hardest rocks.
I couldn't make what others made and broke and broke
and made, that sweet choreography. I went alone
and missed the world continually. I misread smiles;
I stuttered before open arms, but time passed too fast
for disappointment's imprint on the glass of memory.
I sought the future even when the blood swirled now,
I let the past decide too greedily. I kept searching out
the window, I tried to stay half hidden by the light.
Hasan is the author of the collection Street In The Hill. Here are some of her poems ("Mawlai", "Small Town", "To The Chinese Restaurant"), and some more can be read here.

Meanwhile, almost every Saturday in Mint Lounge you will find on the books page a new poem by an Indian poet, and here are three recent ones: "Ghost Sounds" by Aruni Kashyap, "Identification Marks" by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, and "New Delhi Love Song" by Michael Creighton.

And lastly, an old post about a great seventeenth-century Indian poet, Salabega: "Tigers in the poetry of Salabega and William Blake". This link gives a certain feline symmetry to this post, making it begin with a panther (the animal on the cover of The Literary Review is a fibreglass work by Bharti Kher) and end with a couple of tigers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Aseem Kaul's Etudes

Two moments involving the clothes of departed people might serve to give a sense of the distinctive mood and method of Aseem Kaul’s book of very short stories, Etudes. In “The Shirt”, we see a woman who has recently been widowed. Every day she continues to wash one of her late husband’s shirts and then hangs it out to dry, watching – the image is both macabre and touching – “the empty shape of him billow in the back yard.”

And in “The Smell of Smoke”, a woman is abruptly left by her partner, and decides instantly to give away all his clothes. The narrator proffers this observation: “There was something very attractive in the idea that if he did come back (not that she allowed herself to think about this, not even for a moment) he would find his wardrobe empty.” Although the parentheses insist that the woman is not considering the possibility of the man’s return, we know, of course, from the very vehemence of her insistence that she is. The sentence is simultaneously a description of both determination and desolation.

Almost uniquely among Indian short-story writers in English, Kaul is determinedly a writer of short shorts (for similarly compressed and elliptical work by contemporary Indian writers in English, I can think only of Kuzhali Manickavel's Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings). Kaul’s characters are rarely named, their backgrounds barely sketched in, and the places they live in almost never described—all the pillars and plinths on which realist storytelling is based are rigorously cleared away. But for all the austerity of the writer’s method, his creations seem no less real than those of realist writers. What we see his characters do, primarily, is think. In his best stories, we feel as if mind has insidiously established contact with mind, in the same way as we might in a conversation with someone we have just met.

Indeed, many of Kaul’s stories are built upon a model of conversation, either real or imagined. One of them, “Where Shall We Go For Dinner?”, is written entirely in dialogue, without a single word of narratorial explanation. It shows us a couple quarreling over where to eat dinner, and then making up. It is hard to work from such a simplified palette, so the success of this story is no small achievement.

In another story, “Conversation”, a man begins to track the voice of the woman who lives next door, because he can hear her on the telephone through the wall they share. Although they never actually speak, he becomes more and more involved with her life, . When he realises she is sad, he takes “to playing soft music at night – works for solo piano” to soothe her (as the title of his book indicates, this is clearly the kind of music Kaul loves best). But, churlishly, the woman complains about the disturbance, and makes the narrator gloomy. One day he finally takes the plunge, and calls her. She picks up the phone. “He doesn’t say anything, just sits there, hearing her voice coming through the receiver on the one hand, through the wall on the other. Like a conversation.” Kaul’s arresting ending beautifully fulfils the spirit and strangeness of the story.

Like the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who is clearly one of the moving spirits behind Etudes, Kaul loves to write a certain type of mind-bending fiction. In one story, “Googled”, the protagonist Bihag Sharma (one of the few characters in the book who are named) googles his own name, and is astonished to find, among the search results, a few links dated 2014, describing things that are going to happen in his future. Google's reach and power are now so immense, the story suggests, that is knows not just every bit about our past but also the future. A story called “Juliet” puts a wicked modern spin on the love story of Romeo and Juliet, suggesting that Juliet was really a malevolent schemer who cozened Romeo into sacrificing himself so that she could marry someone else. Kaul’s mischief extends all the way to the back cover, with its list of quotes by fictional reviewers, including one Orhan Gutan.

Here, in full, is the story with which the book opens, called "Note Autobiographical":

Note Autobiographical

Every time he speaks to himself you sense something missing, something not quite true. It's not that you doubt his sincerity—on the contrary, you know he's making every effort to be honest. It's just that by putting himself in the spotlight he has blinded himself to his own shadow, to the audience of alternate selves who watch him from the wings. He tells you what he sees, but all the while the real self remains invisible, like light seen from the inside of a bulb.

It's like the difference between the way you picture yourself and your face in a photograph. The way you hold your breath at immigration, waiting to see if the man examining your passport will accept you for who you are.

In six sentences, many truths and intimations about the self are captured, and the three metaphors—the two light-related ones of the spotlight and the inside of a bulb, and the one about the difference between the face's conception of itself and its look in a photograph—are all rich with suggestion, with lights and shadows. Even such a short piece attests to the writer's control over prose rhythm, and indeed, while the 75 stories in Etudes might prove wearying if read at one go, there is not a page here that does not reveal in some way the writer's ferocious intelligence and alertness to metaphysical complexity.

These winning pieces might be seen not only an assertion of a new kind of method, but also be seen as a tacit criticism of the lazy gestures and banalities of much realist storytelling, particularly from the subcontinent. Such a fresh and strange sensibility is very welcome in the house of Indian fiction.

And an older post on another writer of very short stories: "The zany fictions of Etgar Keret", which features Keret's strange and beautiful story "Pipes".

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An essay in Foreign Policy

Recently Foreign Policy magazine invited me to venture some thoughts on the problems of and pressures on the Indian novel in English in a globalising time. My essay on this theme, "English Spoken Here", appears this week in the November/December issue.

Here are some essays that discuss in greater detail some of the novels brought up in this piece: Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres And a Third, Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva, and Ali Sethi's The Wish Maker.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Pakistani short story in Urdu, and Do You Suppose It's The East Wind?

The iniquities of globalization have meant that even as a new generation of Pakistani writers in English have found a mass audience and not inconsiderable material rewards, Pakistani Urdu writers of the present day and of previous generations struggle on in the shadow of obscurity and neglect, or even at best an audience smaller than they deserve. Translation is a way out of at least the last of these predicaments, but even translation is something to which, in a consumer society, the market attaches the tag of “difficult” and, therefore, not consumer-friendly.

Simply put, in a market economy it is incumbent on the reader—the last link in the chain of literature, and therefore in some ways the clasp that ensures from one side the health and integrity of the whole—to be skeptical about the hype generated by publishers, publicists, and deep pockets in the front rows of bookshops and the front stretches of the literary market, and to look further and deeper, to be willing to supply time and mind for more unusual pleasures. Such readers will certainly find much to savour in Muhammad Umar Memon’s anthology of Pakistani stories in translation, Do You Suppose It’s the East Wind?

Memon is the editor of the excellent periodical The Annual of Urdu Studies, which publishes a selection of literary criticism, short stories in translation and scholarly essays every year, and can now be read online. He is also the translator of Indian writers of Urdu such as Naiyer Masud. For his anthology Memon has left out younger Pakistani writers, as if desirous of first giving the greats of the post-independence generation their due. For this reason, many of the writers in his collection, although they lived and died as Pakistanis, were born in the north of an undivided India, and they extol the beauties of a landscape which could just as well be Indian.

Unsurprisingly, one of the best stories comes from the familiar hand of Saadat Hasan Manto. Called "For Freedom’s Sake", it is set in Amritsar in the years of the freedom struggle and centres around two friends: The first, called Ghulam Ali, is a Kashmiri and wants to be a politician; the other is recognizably Manto himself. Always a sceptic of high rhetoric and noble motives, Manto writes cynically of his friend’s meteoric rise in political circles, saying that “the slogans, strings of marigold, songs of patriotic zeal and the opportunity to talk freely to female volunteers turned him into a sort of half-baked revolutionary.” As always in Manto, the mind wants one thing and the body another. His story of a political worker deeply in love with a woman in the same movement is reminiscent—although the narratorial voice is considerably more sardonic—of R.K. Narayan’s later book Waiting For The Mahatma.

Some other Pakistani writers who may be only names, and not really an experience in words, to Indian readers are each given a room of their own in Memon’s anthology. In "Sunlight", Abdullah Hussein tells a moving story of a man returning to his village after 20 years. Javed Shahin presents a different kind of journey, that of a son wandering through small towns and pilgrimage centres in search of his missing mother, in "If Truth be Told". While most of the stories abide by the conventions of realist fiction, a charming turn is taken at the very end by Tasadduq Sohail’s surreal "The Tree", about a man who finds a tree giving him a good scolding for the way he leads his life.

But perhaps the best of these stories is one about the opulence and decadence of the aristocracy of north India as revealed through their quarrels over, of all things, mangoes. In Abul Fazl Siddiqi’s "Gulab Khas", every five years, on the border of Avadh and Rohilkhand, in what formerly used to be known as the United Provinces, there takes place a competition for the best new breed of mango. During this great mango festival, writes Siddiqi, “The whole world was nothing but mangoes and life was lived only for the sake of this luscious fruit.” When a dispute breaks out between two leading mango-growers of the region, the person appointed to arbitrate feels that "the eyes of the whole subcontinent were riveted on him" and that his task is "fraught with historical import."

Siddiqi (1908-1986), whose forte was stories about rural and feudal worlds, liberally embellishes his claim by drenching his story in mango lore, reeling off dizzying catalogues of the best varieties, tracking with delight the conspiracies of growers to develop sublime new strains, and stretching every sinew of his prose to find words to convey the beauties of mango colour, flavour and texture. Just as the Gulab Khas mango, bred by a lowly female gardener, walks off with the first prize in the competition, so too "Gulab Khas" is the crowning glory of this excellent collection.

And an old post: "The film writing of Saadat Hasan Manto".

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Orwell on language, and the language of Orwell

The writer Rebecca Solnit has said about the essay form, comparing it to fiction, that, “In essays, ideas are the protagonists, and they often develop much like characters.” This thought might be a good way of making a case for the abiding relevance of the essays of George Orwell. Although remembered in the main today for his novels Animal Farm and 1984 and his travel books The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, Orwell was also the writer of some of the best-known essays of twentieth-century prose, including “Charles Dickens”, “The Prevention of Literature”, “In Defence of English Cooking”, “Why I Write”, and, most influentially, “Politics and the English Language”.

If ideas are the “characters” of essays, then the main characters of Orwell’s essays could be said to be four heavyweights: Freedom, Socialism, Totalitarianism, and Language. Just as no family ever agrees on any one point or takes one clear line, these four ideas also never work themselves, in Orwell’s writing, into some clear and consistent pattern, easy to summarise and propagate. To learn what he is saying – and we are thinking of a world in which the two World Wars, the Russian revolution, and the rise of Hitler were the main trends through which he was thinking out his ideas – we have to read Orwell, to witness a mind thinking its way through a political and moral minefield (As George Packer perceptively notes in his introduction, "In his best work, Orwell's arguments are mostly with himself."). A good way of beginning such a project would be to go through some of the pieces recently brought together in a sleek new volume called Critical Essays. This title is apt, for it as a critic of trends and currents in the immediate world around him that the essayist wields the most power.

The strongest of Orwell’s stresses (and hence the easiest argument to reproduce) was against totalitarianism, both of the communist and fascist varieties. As early as any other observer of his time, he grasped how the Soviet state was far more evil than the system which it claimed to refute, and that its management of thought and opinion could only end up making automatons of both the bureaucracy and citizens. We know well today the truth of Orwell’s argument that the organised deception practised by totalitarian states is not a temporary expedient, but is rather “something integral to totalitarianism”. In the same way, his observation that, in totalitarian states, “history is something to be created rather than learned” is something that historians of dictatorships from the Third Reich to Saddam’s Baathist Iraq have repeatedly demonstrated. Orwell gives us a lens that lays bare the deceptions of an entire brand of politics.

Orwell’s interest in language as an instrument of politics – as a means not for expressing but “for concealing or preventing thought” – is what animates his most famous essay, “Politics and the English Language”. Here, Orwell’s attack on bad, vague, overwrought or obfuscatory English is made not just as a writer concerned with declining standards. Orwell also sees that such language can be a result not just of plain incompetence or laziness, but of a deliberate intent to distort or mask the truth. Orwell proves that it is often in the interest of the state – or else a class within the state, such as the bureaucracy – to only pretend to be giving information or to be demonstrating intent, or empathy, or solidarity (he cites the classic bureaucratic cliche “we will leave no stone unturned”). But the very vagueness and woolliness of the words being used give the game away, and we would know this only if we have a conceptual awareness of how language is working, or can be made to work.

Orwell’s argument is of course aimed against the state – whether the propaganda machine of totalitarian states, or the hedging and inffectuality of democratic states – and against the peculiar jargon of ideologies like Marxism, of which he was a relentless opponent. But we could easily apply it today to many forces in our times. The hysterical shrieking, pervasive sexualisation, and bad faith of so much advertising and PR-speak today are a conscious debasement of language, as are the peculiar argot of management schools, political parties, and academia, the deliberate hysteria and melodrama of our media, and the many short-cuts of chatspeak when it infects more traditional forms of written communication. (I don’t know about you, but many emails and letters I get address me as “u” rather than “you”, and to me even this apparently harmless and innocent misdemeanour seems not just a diminishment of me, but of language and thought itself.) All these currents, under the aegis of the so-called forces of freedom, threaten our selfhood and independence in the free world as much as oppressive political power might; freedom cannot be something that is bestowed upon us, but is something that emerges actively from our own thought, language, and actions. And for Orwell, where thought is put to sleep, there begins the road to subjugation. Language as a means not of stimulating but of stupefying thought – that is Orwell's target. Writing of totalitarian propaganda, he speaks of how such thought can debase language and hollow it out completely from within, but he is perceptive enough to see that this kind of degradation can work both ways: that "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." We have in our culture today an abundance of shallow language that corrupts thought.

Orwell is one of the most quotable of writers, and the pleasures of his ringing sentences can only be communicated by direct quotation. From a long essay on Dickens, in which Orwell takes Dickens to task for criticising society without ever offering a constructive program, before concluding, more sympathetically: "The vagueness of [Dickens's] discontent is a mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, 'an expression on the human face'." From a review of TS Eliot's late poems, which Orwell judged negatively: "If one wants to deal in antitheses, one might say that the later poems express a melancholy faith and the earlier ones a glowing despair." Here, in one of the most moving passages in all of Orwell, are his criticisms of Gandhi and his religiosity in an essay called "Reflections on Gandhi":
Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because 'friends react on one another' and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one's preference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconciliable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others. The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children, but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. It is true that the threatened death never actually occurred, and also that Gandhi — with, one gathers, a good deal of moral pressure in the opposite direction — always gave the patient the choice of staying alive at the price of committing a sin: still, if the decision had been solely his own, he would have forbidden the animal food, whatever the risks might be. There must, he says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side of chicken broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which — I think — most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.
And here is the first paragraph of Orwell's review of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which, through a brilliant summary that is content to leave all analysis for later, summons up an unforgettable image of Chaplin's comic genius:
France, 1918, Charlie Chaplin, in field grey and German steel helmet, is pulling the string of Big Bertha, falling down every time she fires. A little later, losing his way in the smoke screen, he finds himself attacking in the middle of the American infantry. Later he is in flight with a wounded staff officer, in an aeroplane which flies upside down for such lengths of time that Charlie is puzzled to know why his watch persists in standing up on the end of its chain. Finally, falling out of the aeroplane into a mud-hole, he loses his memory and is shut up in a mental home for twenty years, completely ignorant of what is happening outside.
These vigorous and combative essays have dated only slightly; both as a record of their time and as advice for our own time, they still have much to say.

And a recent post that takes up Orwell on the question of writerly depictions of working life: "On Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work".