Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Indian Novel As An Agent of History

This essay was published earlier this month at India in Transition, a website run by the Center for Advanced Study on India at the University of Pennsylvania.

It is a universally-acknowledged truth that human beings experience their lives as embedded not just in time, but in history. To interpret history, they employ a variety of instruments: personal experience and cultural memory, political ideology and historiography, even (and sometimes especially) myths and stories. Among these instruments, a somewhat late-arriving one in India – only 150 years old – is the novel.
What is so noteworthy about the novel? It can be argued that as a form of story, let alone history, the novel does not enjoy great currency in India, for it is neither an indigenous form nor a mass one. Cinema has far greater popular appeal, and the stories and narrative conventions of epics like the Ramayana inform everyday life and moral reasoning much more than any novel (notwithstanding the apparent desire of nearly every Indian to write a novel, ideally a bestseller).
Yet if the novel is indispensable to any reading of modern Indian history, that is because a preoccupation with Indian history ­is a thread running through the work of some of the greatest Indian novelists, across more than two dozen Indian languages and literary traditions. In the great diversity of narrative forms and interpretative cruxes generated by the Indian novel, there lies a wealth of wisdom about Indian history and, therefore, about how to live in the present time as an Indian and a South Asian, a modern of the twenty-first century and a third- or fourth-generation denizen of the often disorienting age of democracy.
Consider Fakir Mohan Senapati’s enormously sly, satirical, and light-footed novel Six Acres and a Third, written in Odia in 1902 and only translated into English in 2006. The plot of Senapati’s novel revolves around a village landowner’s plot to usurp the small landholding of some humble weavers. But this is also the Indian village in the high noon of colonialism, and the first readers of Senapati’s story would have delighted in the narrator’s many potshots against new and perplexing British institutions, administered by a new ruling class of English-educated Indians. “Ask a new babu his grandfather’s father’s name, and he will hem and haw,” the narrator chirps. “But the names of the ancestors of England’s Charles the Third will readily roll off his tongue.”
The story appears to be generating, then, an argument about history and political resistance. India must rid itself of its colonial masters because they have delegitimized many of the traditional knowledge systems and truths of Indian society, and in the process made the modern Indian self imitative and inauthentic. The argument persists in India today in debates about “westernization.”
But this raises a new question: was traditional Indian village society itself very wise, just, or balanced? As the story progresses, we see that anti-colonial sentiments have not blinded the narrator to the need to subject his own side to the scrutiny of satire. When we hear that “the priest was very highly regarded in the village, particularly by the women,” and that “the goddess frequently appeared to him in his dreams and talked to him about everything,” the complacency and mystifications of Brahmanical Hinduism are also laid bare, as is the credulity about those who would place their faith in such an order.
Senapati’s irony is effective not despite, but because of its double-sidedness. It leads to a point useful as much in our time as his own: criticism of a clearly marked-out “other” – to Indians in the early twentieth century, the British; to Hindu nationalists today, Muslims and Christians – often legitimizes a sweeping and complacent faith in one’s own worldview;the search for truth or meaning in history must remain a charade if not accompanied by the capacity for self-criticism. The novel’s implied argument is liberating not because it is comforting or inspiring, but precisely because it is disenchanted. Fiction itself shows us how human beings are fiction-making creatures, and must therefore take special care to scrutinize what they believe to be foundational truths.
A different kind of novelistic irony – cosmic rather than comic – radiates from This Is Not That Dawn, the recent English translation of Hindi novelist Yashpal’s thousand-page magnum opus from the 1950s about Partition, Jhootha Sach (literally, The False Truth). Tracking the lives and loves of a brother and sister across the worlds of Lahore and New Delhi in the years both before and after Partition, Yashpal’s novel generates dozens of alternative views of that cataclysm from viewpoints male and female, Hindu and Muslim, Indian and Pakistani (even as these new identities come into being and crystallize), prospective and retrospective.
Here is history on the grand scale – individual, national, human, all at the same time. Each character’s position or dilemma carries its own distinctive charge of hope, memory, conviction, doubt, faith, naïveté, prejudice, and fatalism; a vast spectacle of human beings swimming valiantly with and against the tides of history. If the narrator himself has something to say about the logic or validity of the breaking up of India, it remains parcelled out among the characters, and must be intuited by the reader.
But in fact, the feeling we take away from Yashpal’s novel is not that of an entirely tragic story. Of course, Partition destroyed a particular shared and historically stable, if unconceptualized, sense of what it meant to be Indian. But as we perceive from the quest of the protagonist, Jaidev Puri, to start his own newspaper based on the idea of secular reason, what it means to be Indian would, in a new democratic and secular republic, have entailed building upon a new foundation in any case. At certain junctures in history, tragedy and progress may be inseparably mingled.
As these examples show, the work of novels is not confined to mere representation of historical realities, although this is where they may start. Rather, a novel may be a creative intervention in history in its own right – an actual agent of history, passing on to the reader who passes through its narrative field both its diagnostic and visionary powers. Indeed, from Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay to U. R. Ananthamurthy, Bankimchandra Chatterjee to Kiran Nagarkar, Qurratulain Hyder to Salma, Phanishwarnath Renu to Amitav Ghosh, novelists have generated some of the most layered and sophisticated visions of Indian history produced in the last two centuries. Yet as a group, they fall into no school or political camp. What unites them is their ability to illuminate the particular historical crux on which they focus, such as the tension in Ananthamurthy’s novels between the hierarchical imperatives of Hinduism and the egalitarian urges of democracy.
The novel form possesses certain advantages over other forms of discursive prose as a lens on history. There’s the persuasive power and ambiguity of a story, which may be read in many ways and asks for the partnership of the reader in the unpacking of its meanings. The freedom to rove in spaces of the past that we cannot access by means other than that of the imagination. The potential to think not in a straight line but dialectically in exchanges between characters, or switches in perspective between the narrator and the characters. All of these make the space of the novel a particularly fertile ground for historical thinking.
In fact, when they are themselves reinserted into the canvas of Indian history, the projects of the Indian novel and that of Indian democracy – both fairly new forms in Indian history – appear uncannily similar, and perhaps similarly unfinished. As Indian democracy has, over the past seven decades, sought to fashion a new social contract in a deeply hierarchical civilization, so the great Indian novel has attempted to not just find but to also form a new kind of reader/citizen, alive to both the iniquities and the redemptive potential of Indian history.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Arzee the Dwarf in America

Arzee the Dwarf is published in America this week by the New York Review of Books as part of their new e-book imprint of contemporary novels from around the world, NYRBLit.

If you'd like to buy it to read on your Kindle, you can do so off the NYRB page or at Amazon.

The book is also available in German and in Spanish.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sadat Hasan Manto's Bombay Stories

This essay appeared last month in The National.

The short-story writer Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) deserves to be thought of as the patron saint of modern South Asian fiction for at least three reasons.

First, Manto was personally and artistically impacted, in a way that he transformed into enduring narrative prose, by the massive cataclysm of history that was the partition of colonial India in 1947 into two nation states, the Hindu-majority India and the Muslim-majority Pakistan. The decision sparked off the largest two-way migration in history, with millions of Hindus and Sikhs in what was suddenly Pakistan crossing into India and millions of Muslims in what was now a smaller India attempting to flee to Pakistan. Both sides leapt at each other’s throats on the long, strife-torn route, generating a bloodbath – and more lastingly, memories that were passed down for generations afterwards – that may take hundreds of years to heal.

This event generated the enduring politics of distrust between the two great powers of the subcontinent, which between them account for more than a quarter of the world’s population today. What Manto wrote then in the light of what he had known, heard or witnessed – and what he did with this material artistically, within the four walls of his own independence as a writer of fiction – make him an eerie and thrilling writer to this day.

Second, Manto’s daring and iconoclastic writing served as a kind of declaration of independence from the main narrative tenets and orthodoxies of his times, which was that fiction should be “socially relevant” in its content, that it locate the personal within the larger realm of the public sphere, and that it deal coyly and euphemistically – or at best metaphorically – with the subject of bodily functions. Manto was in his lifetime repeatedly charged by his critics (many of them writers themselves) with obscenity, and was even taken to court for what was seen as the outrageous licentiousness depicted in his work.

But what his critics saw as a determined emphasis on the bawdy,Manto merely understood to be a determined emphasis on the body – as a site for pleasure and violence, trust and treachery, a house for yearnings of mind and spirit as well as its own longings. The world of the prostitutes, pimps, waifs, wastrels and debauchees that he wrote about in story after story was a universe that existed in reality – as much a centre of Bombay (now Mumbai) as the film world or the world of polite society – and was stratified and impacted by religion, politics, ideology, migration and economics as interestingly as any middle-class or radical world.

The current of defiance embodied by Manto is one of literature’s most necessary currents; its spirit was given voice by the French-Arabic writer Tahar Ben Jelloun at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year when he remarked, bitingly, of censorship, “What bothers censorship is the representation of reality and not reality itself.” To Manto, the writer must think through every sphere of human life, including one’s private life. If he is the frankest sensualist in Indian literature, it is because he knows (as did the 18th-century Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova in his magnificent 12-volume autobiography The Story of My Life) that sensuality is not without its own rules or ethical codes. For this reason, he speaks as powerfully to the 21st century as he did to his own.

Third, Manto stands implicitly for a certain progressive ideal of civilisation – and then, just as instructively, for a tragic rejection of that very ideal. Although partition found him living on in his beloved city of Bombay (where he had made a living and forged a reputation working as a screenwriter in films and an editor for journals), Manto felt insecure in the city in the poisoned years after partition and suddenly decided – to his everlasting regret – to move with his family to the new state of Pakistan. There, he struggled to find work, was prosecuted for obscenity, and drove himself to drink. He became a wreck, passing away soon after.
What makes Manto so readable, and so symbolic of the faultlines of his time, is this artistic partition that he went through a few years after the actual historical event by the same name.Manto discovers that the ideological certitude and censoriousness of a new nation-state was thin gruel compared to art’s invitation to freedom, doubt, linguistic and sensual pleasure, and dissent. He discovers, that is, what he already knew, and submits to suffering as he once thrilled to freedom.

In Manto’s own biography, as much as in his stories, the human being is a whirlpool of conflicting impulses, often most deluded precisely when most sure of himself. Human beings also appear constricted or enabled not just by nature (their class, or gender) but also by culture – in the world of Manto’s stories, by the tangled history, cosmopolitan culture, and worldly, laissez-faire philosophy of Bombay, so infrequently seen in the history of the subcontinent and so valuable for precisely that reason. It is a superficial criticism of Manto’s stories to see them as titillating tableaux of the whims and deceits of pimps and bawds. What we are also supposed to see is the social energy, toppled hierarchies, polyglot tongues, fantastic metaphors, and moral reverses and sacrifices of this universe.

That is why it is surprising to note that none of Manto’s many previous translators have done what Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed do in their new collection of Manto translations, and titled their collection Bombay Stories. Bombay is not just the place where Manto's stories are set but that world’s primal word, the two syllables of which generate all else in the geographical and narrative field it encompasses. Colloquial and frank where too many previous translations of Manto have been euphemistic and censorious, Reeck and Ahmed give us a Manto who walks with us in time, instead of receding from us in the vehicle of the archaic English and slightly appalled, sanitizing gaze of many South Asian translators.

“If you haven’t been to Bombay, you might not believe that no one takes any interest in anyone else,” writes the narrator in Manto’s story "Mammad Bhai". (Bhai, literally brother, is used frequently in India and Pakistan as an honorific; many of Manto’s stories are named after their protagonists.) But it is just not the sights and sounds and moral universe and freedoms of Bombay that are common to Manto’s stories, but also a narrator. Almost without exception, the stories are told by a character who shares much of the real Manto’s biography and is referred to by the characters in the stories as “Manto saab” (Mr Manto). 

The more we see this figure, the more mysterious he becomes, particularly since he keeps watching men fall in love with women without ever falling into the net himself. When at one point he confesses to a great admiration for a certain woman’s beauty and intelligence, he protests immediately, “For God’s sake, please don’t think I was enamoured!” It is as if his men and women can get together only when Manto saab agrees to keep watch.

Love in Manto may sometimes be transcendent. But it is always physical. “‘Love.’ What a beautiful word!” the prostitute Saugandhi is shown thinking in a story called "The Insult". “She wanted to smear it all over her body and massage it into her pores.” Here Manto, in a characteristically ingenious invention, makes love not something that emanates from the heart and soul and irradiates the body, but something like a salve or balm that is rubbed into the body from without. Manto’s romance is often deliberately anti-romantic – one woman, the Jewish girl Mozelle, carelessly smears on lipstick in such a way that her lips “seemed as fat and as red as chunks of buffalo meat”.

Over and over again in Manto’s stories, as in the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, men and women come face in face in private and confront one another with their dreams and pickings, their histories of guilt and pain. Readers of these stories who know Bombay today as Mumbai might find the city’s spirit somewhat impoverished in comparision to the mid-century Bombay that Manto describes. But that world lives on forever in Manto’s stories, and in these new translations by Reeck and Ahmed,Manto is himself reborn as our contemporary.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A review of two new books about the Indian National Congress

This review of two new books by Zoya Hasan and Aarthi Ramachandran about the Indian National Congress and its leaders appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal.

Monday, February 04, 2013

A special on Indian fiction in Italy's Internazionale

Here is an essay I wrote recently for a special Indian fiction issue of the Italian magazine Internazionale, produced in collaboration with The Caravan, in the last week of December 2012. I wrote it in my capacity as the Fiction & Poetry editor of The Caravan, and I attempt to introduce some currents in Indian fiction today and explain why The Caravan publishes fiction every month when it's primarily a magazine of narrative non-fiction. I've also made short notes on the stories in the issue (some of which were earlier published in English in The Caravan) -- literary-critical notes for the most part, and autobiographical in the case of my own story "Captain To The Poles". I chose in the main to leave out stories in Indian languages other than English because of the practical and methodological difficulties inherent in translating an English translation into another language.

The Caravan of India is a monthly English magazine of politics and the arts that specializes in long-form narrative journalism – in the work of fruitfully complicating facts and opinions that circulate in the public sphere, and generating detailed profiles of the men and women who exercise power in India, not always wisely. Every issue of the magazine contains six to eight pieces of reportage from five to fifteen thousand words long.

But of course, it is not just journalism that probes the secret vortexes of the world. So does fiction, by techniques and juxtapositions native to its realm, through the attention and craftsmanship of a bright individual sensibility that seeks to prove nothing, but generates sparks of meaning at every turn. Every month, the magazine publishes a short story by an Indian writer, young or old, classic or unknown, in English or in translation from one of India’s twenty or so other major languages, from Hindi in the north to Tamil in the south and Bengali in the east to Gujarati in the west.

The magazine’s aim in publishing fiction is to add, to the diverse points of view published on its non-fiction pages, another way of looking at the world. But it also means to set up for Indian fiction – a vast realm encompassing the work of hundreds of writers, many of them unknown to one another, in several languages – a site of evaluation and judgment independent of the biases of the literary market. (These biases have in the West tended to open the door to a certain type of writer who writes recognizably “Indian” novels, heavy on spices and colours, patriarchs and premonitions.)

The magazine’s literary pages seek a representation in fiction of the diversity of meaning-making systems and high and low religious and political traditions that so fascinate different kinds of people: both the first-time visitor to India, and also the Indian who has never even left his or her country. But they desire, too, the steps beyond such highly aware mimesis. In literature, The Caravan admires that fastidiously shaped language, that trick of narrative technique, the use of ellipsis and of contrast, that gives fiction its complexity, durability, and finally – in a journalistic age – its autonomy.

The stories I have put together in this small anthology of Indian fiction for Internazionale include some published recently in the pages of The Caravan, as well as the work of other contemporaries of mine whom believe to be the among the best and brightest voices in Indian literature today. I have  tried to put together the most diverse collection of styles I could find so as to make the point that the Indian writer of fiction is first and foremost – and freest as – an Indian writer of fiction. That is, if he takes his subject from what lies in front of him, he generates his style from a set of influences that know no borders. Calvino may be more important to him or her than Salman Rushdie; the realism of Giovanni Verga more useful in decoding the minds of village folk than the work of the great Indian realists.

Two of the stories included take full advantage of one of fiction’s greatest freedoms: the capacity to rove widely across time and space, and to bring to narrative life the silences that lie at the interstices of history. Kunal Basu’s “The Accountant” begins with that most prosaic of figures, an accountant trapped in a life of drudgery, and somehow makes him an actor the grand romance of the Taj Mahal – and not the Taj as we know it today, but a yet-to-be-built Taj confined to map and mind, the subject of palace intrigues, a site on a river-bank and nothing more. Anushka Jasraj’s “Radio Story” takes the reader into the world of the Indian independence movement, and a small plot by a Bombay clique – whether more passionate about nationalism or radio-wave technology, we cannot tell – to start a secret and dissident radio station.

There are stories here about family, set in both urban and country landscapes. Janice Pariat’s “Boats on Land” poetically describes a teenager’s sexual awakening on a family vacation on a tea estate, and powerfully evokes the seductive power and danger of the human body. Anjum Hasan’s artful montage “Saturday Night”, about the parallel dilemmas (one about a baby that is absent, the other about a baby that is somehow too present) of a middle-class married couple and a maid in the southern metropolis of Bangalore. 

Phaniswarnath Renu’s comic story “Panchlight” (the only story here to be doubly translated, from Hindi to English and then from English to Italian) opens out for the reader the hierarchical social world of castes in an Indian village. It is also a parable of twentieth century India’s encounter, full of creative misunderstandings and adaptations, with technology. In Renu’s story the warring castes (and lovers) are eventually reconciled, but in the late Attia Hosain’s “Storm” we encounter the dissident, rootless individual who appears from nowhere and provokes the entire social order, so uncompromising it seems she is alive only if she opposes. Of course it is fiction’s work to show us why, precisely when life it at its most settled, some individuals must bring about a storm.

I chose Aseem Kaul’s “Where Shall We Have Dinner Tonight?” for its exquisite minimalism and its interrogation of dozens of short-story conventions (fiction must question conventional thinking not just in human affairs, but also in fiction). We are given no names or background for the characters, and there is no narrator’s voice in the story: all we hear are two voices, and with each move they grow in force.

And as for my own story, “Captain To The Poles”, it is drawn from incidents from some of the happiest years of my youth. These were days spent in a restaurant near my small, decrepit flat in Mumbai, watching the world pass by (and through) the restaurant, which was like a stationary caravan. The months passed in listening to the patter of voices (the tall tales of the customers, the barbed observations of the waiters) and serving as friend to the proprietor, confidant to the staff, and taster of the menu. The restaurant was not just my School of Life, it was – because it was intensely interested in stories, even if totally uninvolved with books – also my School of Literature. 

Chandrahas Choudhury

Monday, January 07, 2013

"The Translator As A Reader And As A Writer" by Ros Schwartz

"The Translator As A Reader -- And As A Writer"
a hands-on lecture by Ros Schwartz, 
2.30 pm, Thursday January 10
Room 11, Hindu College, North Campus, Delhi University

The award-winning translator of French literature Ros Schwartz is on a tour of India as part of a British Council-Caravan magazine series of events. She will give a talk at Hindu College at 2.30pm on Thursday, January 10, on the subject "The Translator As A Reader And As A Writer". 

Schwartz will take different translations of passages from literature (including Pinocchio and The Little Prince) and break down their sentences, syntax, and word-choices, showing in how translation is really a kind of super-attentive reading, and one that requires  a combination of rigorous thinking as well as leaps of imagination. This is a unique chance to learn something about the art and craft of translation from one of the world's most highly regarded literary translators.

Ros Schwartz is a translator of more than fifty books of French literature into English, including a recent translation of Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince. She is Chair of PEN's Writers in Translation Program in England.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Middle Stage's Books of 2011-12: Indian Literature

It would be hard for any reader now to keep up just with Indian novels, or books on Indian history, or Indian narrative non-fiction, let alone books from all these diverse fields. My list is no more than a small, very personal selection of the many high-quality new books published in India over the last two years.

To begin: novels. The two best Indian novels I read these past two years were Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke, the second book of his ambitious and widescale Ibis trilogy, and Jhootha Sach, the Hindi writer Yashpal's massive magnum opus set on either side of the Partition years and in cities -- Lahore and Delhi -- either side of the border that Partition would make impermeable. Ghosh's protagonist in River of Smoke -- and the focaliser of much of the narration -- Bahram Mody, a character absent in The Sea of Poppies, is one of the most memorable characters in Indian fiction, and the Bombay and Canton settings of the book are exquisitely laid out even as the polyphonic narrative voices and linguistic play of The Sea of Poppies are carried over. I read the book over three days at a Portuguese deli in London, and they remain bright in my memory as three of the best reading days of my life.

Yashpal's novel, on the other hand, was first published in 1958; its size -- over a thousand pages -- perhaps prevented it from arriving earlier into Indian fiction in English. For its Tolstoyan sweep and density of detail, its realism with regard to human nature and its idealism about the power of human aspirations, and its magisterial overview of the religious cataclysms in the Indian subcontinent in the nineteen-forties, this novel seems to me a plausible contender for the greatest of all Indian novels. It is one of those books that one lives as much as reads. It is translated by Yashpal's son, Anand, and appeared in the Penguin Classics series -- to my mind the most diverse and exciting publishing list in all of Indian literature today. Longer pieces on Ghosh and Yashpal are here and here, and you should also read the translator Daisy Rockwell's essay on Jhootha Sach, "Night-Smudged Light". Among other Indian novels, UR Ananthamurthy's Bharathipura (Oxford University Press) deserves to be read by anybody interested in Indian fiction as an interrogation of the deep structures of Indian social life.

In non-fiction, the two books by Indian writers that I enjoyed most couldn't have been written in more different styles, or had as their subject more disparate personalities: respectively a bar dancer in Bombay and  an eighteenth-century Scottish natural philosopher. Sonia Faleiro's Beautiful Thing (Penguin/Grove), a book-length tracking of the rise, fall, and reinvention/suspension of Leela, a star of one of Bombay's dance bars, combined reportorial detachment and narrative empathy in just the right proportions. Faleiro's eye for detail is superior to almost any other Indian writer today, and her translations of Leela's talk into English initially appear patronising but only because they are so daring. Her work at the intersection of standard English and Indian English, or Indian English drawing on other languages, rivals the recent experiments in the same field by Ghosh and Vikram Chandra.

No human beings appear in the flesh in Kaushik Basu's Beyond The Invisible Hand: Groundwork for a New Economics (Princeton University Press and Penguin); there are only the intellectual ghosts of dead ones, particularly Adam Smith, whose ideas about the workings of markets and morality have been claimed and in many instances radically damaged by free-market thinkers of our time. But Basu has a wonderfully wry sense of humour, an eye for local examples for universal laws (such as the "ele bele phenomenon"), and an argumentative style so rigorous and yet unassuming -- consider the use of the word "groundwork" in his title -- that the three hundred or so pages of his book left me wanting much more. So I read it twice. The book is an elegant and unpartisan meditations on one of the great issues of our age: markets and their limits, and offers a roadway to rescuing free-market thinking from its more fanatical adherents. Chapter 1 of the book is here; you couldn't improve your brain more for an investment of Rs. 303. Basu's Twitter feed is consistently good reading too.

The scholar of religion Diana Eck's India: A Sacred Geography is a book that just can't be read without stopping -- only because so voluminous, rich, dense, and allusive -- and one which provides intellectual challenges and surprising connections from beginning to end. Its reading of Indian geography as a construct of the Hindu religious imagination before it was a secular cartographic map has a range that requires over five hundred pages to bring it out. “As arcane as lingas of light . . . and sacred rivers falling from heaven may seem to those who wish to get on with the real politics of today’s world,” Eck writes, “these very patterns of sanctification continue to anchor millions of people in the imagined landscape of their country.” a longer essay on her book is here.

I also found much to learn from about Bombay in Neera Adarkar's great anthology The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life (ImprintOne, longer essay here) and about the freedom struggle in Kashmir in Sanjay Kak's book Until My Freedom Has Come (longer essay here). Both these anthologies are primarily collections of essays by scholars and journalists, but neither Adarkar nor Kak are oblivious of the role of fiction in explaining the world and its dilemmas. The stories by the urban historian Prasad Shetty and the Kashmiri short-story writer Arif Ayaz Parrey are amongst the brightest lights in these books.

Short fiction. Anjum Hasan had already made a considerable reputation as a poet when she published her superb debut novel Lunatic In My Head in 2007, and last year she proved just as adept at the short-story form when she published her first collection, Difficult Pleasures (Penguin). Hasan brings a poet's startling perception and defamiliarizing eye to the observation of all her protagonists, as when the protagonist of "Banerjee and Banerjee", the economist Banerjee, is shown thinking -- entirely persuasively, if against the grain of the very story that is bringing him to life -- that "the crisscrossing of goods and services across the globe, created in hundreds of different environments and in response to countless human needs, is somehow a larger, better and more beautiful thing than any facts to do with individual lives."

Another poet, Janice Pariat, established herself as a major new narrative voice -- lyrical, elliptical, and empathetic -- with Boats On Land (Random House India).

Gogu Shyamala's Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket, But...(Navayana), rooted in the stories of Telangana in Andhra Pradesh and translated by several hands from the Telugu, impressed not only for the economy of Shyamala's style and the directness of the narration, but also because they take writing about Dalit protagonists beyond an older narrative binary of exploitation and suffering, enlarged and emaciated selfhood. Credit should also go to the publisher in working up a uniform and lucent English style for Shymala from translations by different hands.

Two works of fiction which had the words "Love Stories" in their titles were Annie Zaidi's Love Stories: #1 to 14 (HarperCollins) and Rajesh Parameswaran's debut collection I Am An Executioner: Love Stories (Knopf). Zaidi's work, taking one of fiction's most complex objects of inquiry head-on, was closely observed, multifaceted, and clearly thought through as a unity. "The One That Badly Wanted", about a girl who falls in love with a dead man, was a particular delight. Some of Parameswaran's stories indulged too heavily in the narrative hijinks that are a staple of the restless short fiction of our time, but his story about love in an alternative universe, “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319)”, was the most beautiful thing I read this year.

My poetic instincts are less sound than my prose ones and therefore my pursuit of new work in verse in India less secure, but over the last year I've dipped repeatedly into the bucking, slangy versions of Kabir produced by the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in his ambitious Poems of Kabir (New York Review of Books/ Hachette) and the fourteenth-century Kashmiri mystic Lalded's exquisitely elliptical and jagged ruminations on life, god and human relationships rendered into English by Ranjit Hoskote in I, Lalded (Penguin). These are books that will speak to readers just as powerfully in a hundred years as they do now. Hoskote's magisterial introduction to Lalded is also the best single piece of critical writing to have come my way in the last two years.

Last: literary criticism and intellectual history. So much work in the West on the Indian novel focusses on the best Indian writers in English -- Rushdie, Ghosh, Naipaul, Seth -- that this bias seeps back into Indian literature and Indian bookshops. So it was great to see a completely convincing case being made for the Oriya novelist Fakir Mohan Senapati being not just a writer that Indians should read but one that readers around the world should read by the contributors of Colonialism, Modernity and Literature (Palgrave Macmillan/ Orient Longman), edited by Satya P. Mohanty, one of Senapati's translators. A conclave of Indian and American literary critics show that Senapati's riddling humour, circling and subversive point of view, and throughly original narrative technique make his novel Six Acres and a Third one of the greatest and most durable of Indian novels, one that, as the critic Himansu Mohapatra memorably writes, "reveals the causal joints of the world." All novelists desire to earn this compliment.

And finally, the intellectual historian DR Nagaraj, who passed away tragically early while still in his forties, left behind an astoundingly diverse body of work -- and a carefully sculpted point of view -- about Indian society, native traditions, Kannada epics and novels and literary criticism, communal violence, and the tension between Gandhian and Ambedkarite thought. Although sometimes prolix and orotund, Nagaraj's prose is also marked by fantastic metaphorical leaps and fine-grained reading of texts. The white heat of Listening to the Loom (Permanent Black), a posthumous collection of Nagaraj's essays put together by his student Prithvi Chandra Datta Shobhi, kept me up many nights in July. “If the methods and philosophical positions of present times are fit and useful to analyse the formulations of several kinds of pre-modern eras," writes Nagaraj, "the reverse should also be true.” His book is that pathway that runs back into the mists of time.

Happy reading in 2013!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fiction and poetry in The Caravan for November

Here are my selections for fiction and poetry in The Caravan for November: the Bengali writer Narendranath Mitra's story "Ras", translated by Arunava Sinha, and four poems by Anupama Raju: "The Time-Eater", "On Borders", "The Memory Maker", and "Nightless Night". Here is a paragraph about "Ras":
Marriage and economics have never been independent of one another. The relationship between the two in the affairs of men and women is memorably dramatized in this story by Narendranath Mitra, one of Bengal’s greatest short-story writers. And the narrative time of the story and the arc of the romances within it are marked, too, by the cycle of the seasons in a rural economy, as seen through the life of the protagonist, Motalef, a tapper of palm-trees. The “ras” of Mitra’s story is not just the juice of the palm trees which give Motalef his livelihood, but also the “ras” of human passion, that longing to possess what is beautiful that maddens human beings and leads them to singe the lives of those around them. In order that he may accumulate the bride-price to marry for love, Motalef can see no other way out than to marry first for wealth; within this marriage, he enjoys a devotion and companionship that he later spurns for the lure of youth and beauty. Mitra’s story has an irresistible force and amplitude, but perhaps it is never more beautiful than in the long interlude between the two winters, or palm-tree seasons, covered by the events of the tale. Here, Motalef is seen pampering his pretty new wife and burning himself out over numerous unremunerative tasks, waiting for the next high season to come along and his labours to yield riches again through the transformation of palm-tree syrup into jaggery by his wife’s hand. Mitra fills his story with symbols and metaphors rooted in the world that it describes; when, in the closing scenes, Motalef comes to a realisation of how he has been trumped by his own scheming, the two pots of ras he takes on a final journey stand unforgettably for his defeat as they once stood for his triumph. “Ras” was memorably adapted to film by Sudhendu Roy in 1973 called Saudagar, starring Amitabh Bachchan, Nutan, and Padma Khanna. 
Arunava Sinha's translation of Mitra extends a vast oeuvre of translations from Bengali literature by Sinha in the last decade, including fiction by Sankar, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Bankimchandra Chatterji, Banaphool, Dibyendu Palit, Buddhadeva Bose, and Anita Agnihotri.

And here are some notes on Raju's poems:
The poems of Anupama Raju enact a world of metamorphoses and secrets, and their movement is continually toward a blurring and breaking down of walls and boundaries, whether physical or conceptual ones. In poems like ‘The Memory Maker’, every line throbs with the forces of shape-shifting; as soon as one transformation has been absorbed, we are catapulted into the space of another. One of her poems here is called ‘The Time-Eater’, and its most memorable image, coiled into the final pair of lines, is that of the human being and time feeding off one another before the stronger side wins the battle. But Raju’s taut, aphoristic style shows us how a poem, too, might be thought to be a kind of time-eater, working nimbly with syntax, rhythm and space to deliver concentrated effects in small shots of time.‘Nightless Night’ and ‘The Memory Maker’ are from ‘Une Ville Un Lieu Une Personne’, a poetry-photography collaboration between Raju and the French photographer Pascal Bernard.
The Fiction & Poetry page for The Caravan is here. If you'd like to submit original, unpublished work to The Caravan, (short stories no more than 5000 words long, or five or six poems) please email me at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com.

Friday, October 19, 2012

On Mo Yan

Last week the Chinese novelist Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is an old post from 2005 on his work: "Lush Life in Mo Yan".

And here are some sentences from a review of his novel Change that I wrote in 2010: "Mo Yan loves to play off communism’s vision of order, selflessness, discipline and ideological unanimity against its almost inevitable worldly expression as hierarchy, chaos, corruption and greed. Communism, in a way, is the enabling fiction of his own fiction."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A month in South Korea at the Toji Foundation for Culture

For the last month I've had the pleasure of living and working in the small village of Hoechon in South Korea, about three hours from Seoul, at the Toji Foundation for Culture, a center for Korean and foreign artists set up by the great Korean novelist Pak Kyung-ni (1926-2008).

The center takes its name from Pak Kyung-ni's greatest work, a sixteen-volume novel sequence, written between the years 1969-1994, called Toji or Land. Every year it hosts residencies for a diverse group of Korean artists, and  an annual residency sponsored by Sangam House, the Inko Centre, India, and the Arts Council, Korea, makes it possible for an Indian writer to join them. Indian writers who've come to Toji before me include the fiction writer Mridula Koshy and the playwright Manav Kaul.

Here at Toji I've been working on my new novel, wandering around the countryside and making occasional trips to the nearest town, Wonju, reading some Korean literature, and eating, drinking, talking, and playing ping-pong with a band of very sociable Korean writers, filmmakers, musicians and painters. The Foundation is set down in an uncommonly beautiful scene, ringed by tall pine-covered mountains that change colour in the varying light of the day and become obscured by clouds when it rains. All around us are lush fields of wild sesame, chilli, and corn, as well as apple and persimmon trees, and sudden surges of white, pink and red cosmos flowers.

Dawn and dusk are especially beautiful, and as I walk on streets so empty that my passing often sets off an entire alarm-chorus of  village dogs, whose barks, echoing off the mountains, give an air of extreme criminality to my small trespasses. There's great pleasure to be had in the sight of these mountains, their undulating shape matched on the ground by the roofs, uptilted at the edges like birds' wings, native to Korean architecture. While I contemplate my material and work out its moments of emphasis and stillness, I hear in my mind's ear the captivating sound, at once familiar and strange, of the Korean instruments -- the stringed gayageum, the flute-like piri, and the booming changu drums -- that I heard on my first weekend here, when I was taken by my hosts in Seoul to an exquisite musical, Miso.

At weekend gatherings of the writers and artists on the program to drink the Korean liquors makkoli and soju, I have had to contribute my small repertoire of Oriya folk songs as a complement to their Korean ditties. Meanwhile, I've tried to develop a working Korean vocabulary word by word, with the English-speaking Korean writers having to serve as go-betweens for my more complex sentiments. Since what small merits there may be to my prose style are remote to my companions, my main stratagem for winning their respect has been my topspin forehand at the table-tennis table and my Korean pronunciation at the dinner table; in turn, they are patiently teaching me how to eat with chopsticks in the correct manner, at once direct and delicate.

Meanwhile, I've also been trying to read some Korean literature in English translation, about which I knew very little when I arrived: mainly the excellent translations of a number of Korean poets by Brother Anthony of Taize, among them some by the poet Kim Sa-in that I had the pleasure to publish in The Caravan earlier this year. Here I've also become acquainted with other translations by Kevin O'Rourke, a long-time student of Korean literature, Don Mee Choi, and Bruce Fulton. I've also been able to lay my hands on the three large volumes of Pak Kyung-ni's Land that are currently available in an English translation by Agnita Tennant. The novel is set between the years 1897 and 1945, and  is imagined on a scale that dwarfs most of the sprawling realist novels of the world whose narrative techniques it adapts: it runs to 25 volumes, and has over a hundred prominent characters. Tennant writes in her introduction:
Land has been acclaimed as the most powerful and important work in modern Korean literature. While it is the greatest national novel, it has at the same time a universal appeal as it deals with fundamental, borderless and timeless themes of humanity such as love, treachery, the gap between the rich and the poor, fate, and deep-rooted traditions facing the tide of change.
The novel begins in 1897 on a night of the calendar of great significance in Korea: Chuseok (literally "autumn night") a harvest festival held on the full moon day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. The festival is one of joy, abundance, plenty to eat and drink, and the scenes that unfold before us are marked by this mood. But shortly afterwards, a dissenting note is inserted into the story by the narrator, who sees that times when joy is an obligation and man for a moment feels wealthy are precisely the times when old sorrows spring up most powerfully:
The Harvest Moon Festival of the eighth lunar month -- doesn't it have something of the translucent and frosty pathos of the finest hemp? How can a festival associated with the moon, which crosses the river of darkness like a shadow of death, be regarded as a symbol of abundance? As it hangs coolly over the ridge of the mountain the twigs of trees cast lacy shadows and a young widow clad in white silk walks the night road alone. Isn't the harvest moon of the eighth month perhaps a festival that celebrates the closing of a sorrowful life, revealing the art of renunciation to all living things, and especially to the poor. [...]
This is when they reflect on their many separations: elderly parents who perished in years of bad harvest, unable to keep alive on grass roots and bark; children in epidemics, left to die without medication, rolled up in a straw mat and buried in the nearby hills; a husband during the uprising dragged into the governor's house and beaten to a resentful death; and those many neighbours now asleep underneath the earth. The breeze plays gently on the strings of these sorrowful memories.
"Perhaps they are better off in the other world?"
My visits to Pak Kyung-ni's former residence in the nearby town of Wonju and to a museum that houses her manuscripts, books, and pictures from her life, as well as what I've been able to read here about what writing meant to her, left me with a sense of someone absolutely and enviably committed to literature, and who took great pleasure in work and in creation. In an essay written late in her life called "The Dangerous Power of the Material", she writes:
I think that being alive -- life -- is the most beautiful thing of all. And it is this thought now that is most dear to me. [...] It's not just human life -- flowers or animals, all that lives is beautiful. The reason why life is beautiful is because it is active. Isn't that what life is? That which acts? The world is full of material things. But all of these are passive. To be a thing is to be passive. To live is to be active.
I leave Toji this weekend -- incidentally the weekend of Chuseok -- to go back home to Delhi with many happy memories, and closer both to my own work and Korean life and literature.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Fiction & Poetry in The Caravan, August

Here are my selections for the Fiction & Poetry section of The Caravan for the month of August: Dilip Kumar's short story "A Clerk's Story", in a translation from Tamil by Padma Narayanan, and Martin Figura's  long poem "Talking".

Friday, August 03, 2012

Friday, July 20, 2012

On Andrey Platonov's "No-Arms"

This month, The Caravan publishes "No-Arms", a story by the Russian writer Andrey Platonov.

Platonov (1899-1951) is now considered by many to be the greatest Russian writer of the 20th century. Like Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the other, better-known names who might also be thought worthy of that title, Platonov was someone who for a time believed in the ideals of the Russian Revolution and the Communist Party before commencing a sceptical examination of the new reality it birthed, often by violence, in Russia. The individual and often mystifying emphases of his work and his utterly distinctive (and therefore unassimilable) style made it difficult for him to publish. Though Platonov published a number of great short stories during his lifetime, most of his longer works, along with his plays and screenplays, were published only long after his death. In his last years, he wrote a series of stories based on Russian folktales, infusing the material of these fairly well known stories with the spirit of his own metaphysics. 

In this tremendously powerful and wrenching story about a woman whose arms are cut off by her own brother, Platonov shows us both the ubiquity of human evil and the persistence of human grace in situations of extreme suffering. Although the story preserves the folktale’s clear distinctions between good and evil people, it is very complex in its understanding of guilt, redemption and justice. The recognition scene in which sundered lovers are reunited will remind Indian readers of a similar scene in Kalidasa’sShakuntalam, while the final act of violence (and the unforgettable image of a horse returning from the steppe) recalls Oedipus’s self-blinding when he finally perceives all the evil that has passed through him.

An interview with Platonov's main translator, Robert Chandler, is here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

On JMG Le Clezio's Desert

A glimpse at the list of winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature in the last decade shows that the Swedish committee that adjudicates the prize is often willing to honour highly feted, widely read, and hotly tipped writers who for years have had “Nobel Prize” tagged to their names. VS Naipaul is one such case, and so are JM Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk and Mario Vargas Llosa.

But just as often the committee throws up a name that the vast majority of readers have never heard of, and to my mind this is the more interesting, exploratory side of its work. Who had heard of the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz or the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek before they won the award in 2002 and 2004 respectively? Who indeed, at least in the Anglophone world, could claim at the time of announcement to have read anything by the 2008 winner, the Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
What the committee is saying, in effect, is that great literature, always being the work of an individual mind, can come from all kinds of unlikely places. Prizes like the Nobel can be a way of equalizing the iniquities of the literary market and the entrenched power of certain languages and cultures in the world today.

Le Clézio (many of whose works are now available once again in English translation after being out of print for some three decades), is an especially difficult writer to slot because, in addition to the difficulty and often wilful obscurity of his work, there is the difficulty and obscurity of his biography. Although he was born in France, and writes in French, he also claims allegiance to Mauritius, where one side of his family comes from, and where he still lives part of the year. 

A restless wanderer from the days of his youth, he seems not to have needed a “home” for his work, not to have cultivated a relationship with a single place or culture as most novelists do. Indeed, his itinerancy – he has spent time in and written books set in Mauritius, France, Mexico, Panama, and Africa, a world writer if there ever was one – might seem to resemble that of Naipaul, except that he mostly writes fiction, and his work is much more sympathetic to the marginalised people and cultures who are his subjects than Naipaul, with his glowering eye, is.

Among the distinctive emphases of Le Clézio’s writing is his engagement with what he has called cultures “broken by the modern world” – all the tribes and peoples thrown out of joint by the encounter with colonialism, Western rationalism, and the power of the nation-state (a good parallel in an Indian context might be someone like Mahasweta Devi or Gopinath Mohanty, both of whom have written extensively about the problems of Indian tribals). This willingness to move across a boundary, to invert a dominant power relationship, and to imagine the life of the “other” sympathetically from within is best seen in Le Clézio’s work in his novel Desert (1980), one the central novels in his oeuvre and now translated into English for the first time by C. Dickson.

Set in Morocco and in France, and spanning a century in time, Desert is the story of a warrior tribe of the desert, called “the blue men”, and their flight from French occupying forces in the early part of the twentieth century. Le Clézio depicts a group of people ceaselessly making their way forward like ants in the vast, arid and spirit-breaking desert, seeking a place of refuge where they can consolidate their resources and turn once again towards the lost homeland. In counterpoint, Le Clézio also tells the story, set in the present day, of a girl from the same tribe, Lalla, who flees the desert to escape a marriage she does not want and arrives in France, a vulnerable immigrant.

A great traveller himself, Le Clézio here produces a very close and painstaking description of human beings on the move across a landscape. His attention to the constantly shifting and turning shapes of the universe – no other novelist spends as much time detailing the changing colours of the sky, or the particularities of the light – turns his story into a cosmic drama. Le Clézio is also one of those writers who work absolutely on their own terms. His book is slow-moving and often difficult going, but the writing is frequently beautiful and alert, as when he speaks of the wind that “draws the yellow grasses aside like a hand passing over them”, or hears “the faint swish of sand running down the grooves in the rocks” on a cliff. If you consider yourself an ambitious reader, there’s no reason to deny yourself an encounter with this very independent-minded and distinctive sensibility.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Susan Sontag and the stresses of reading

Books, the great American essayist and cultural critic Susan Sontag writes, “are a way of being fully human”. This is a point of view that this site is of course very sympathetic to. Without books, we are more likely to be without history, without memory, without imagination, without good language, without that kind of skepticism or doubt that stimulates reflection and an appreciation of complexity. Books expand inwardness: the experience of them, in a hyperkinetic age full of carefully plotted and speeded-up stimuli, is tantamount to a kind of meditation. Before there is a book, there must be a reader – a mind that has the space in it for the experience of extended connection with a book. 

“By books, I mean the conditions of reading that made possible literature and its soul effects,” Sontag writes in an essay, wondering if books will survive the assault of our “advertising-driven televisual reality”. Here, undoubtedly, is a combative and adversarial thinker with a very high-minded view of reading. But as the pieces in Sontag’s final collection of essays, WhereThe Stress Falls, demonstrate, the truly remarkable thing about Sontag (1933-2004) was not so much the gravity of her pronouncements as the range and catholicity of her interests. 

Where The Stress Falls contains essays on books, films, music, dance, art, photography, each one of them a felicitous combination of close interpretation of particular works and larger arguments about the history of the medium itself. This high view of multiple art-forms informs all of Sontag’s work, generating rapid cross-connections (“As the statue is entombed in he block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it.”) Like all the great critics, Sontag brought to her work a combination of perspicacity and personality: the erudition of a trained and subtle mind applying itself to a careful observation of its own highly individual reactions to art, and able to reproduce its journeys in lithe, allusive prose.

Among the forty or so essays collected here, surely the most widely circulated and discussed was Sontag’s essay from 1996, “A Century of Cinema”. For Sontag cinema was the greatest contribution of the twentieth century to the corpus of human art-forms, a form rooted first and foremost in a wonder “that reality can be transcribed with such magical immediacy”. There was something total about the cinematic experience. “Lovers of poetry or opera or dance  don’t think there is only poetry or opera or dance,” she writes. “But lovers of cinema could think there was only cinema.”

But much as Sontag’s essay was a reprisal and a stock-taking of where the movies had gone over a hundred years, there was also something deeply elegiac and pessimistic about it. For Sontag, the nineteen-sixties and seventies represented the peak of what she termed “cinephilia” – a highly informed, highly personal love of the movies held by a substantial number of aficionados committed not just to films but to film-watching in a darkened theatre, so that they might be overwhelmed “by the physical presence of the image”.

But over time this cine-system had been broken down, on the supply side, by the cynical formulae and simplifications of capitalist production, which had eliminated the tension between cinema as industry and cinema as art, and on the reception side, by the sheer proliferation of images in the modern world and the expansion of private home viewing. “The reduction of cinema to assaultive images,” Sontag writes, “and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to be more attention-grabbing, have produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention.”  These observations could profitably be applied to the story of Indian own popular cinema.

Perhaps the first skill of the good literary critic is knowing how to quote – that is, knowing how to supply the part that will rouse in the reader a need for the whole. Attention, in words, to a work of verbal art involves stepping back at times and letting the work speak for itself. This becomes especially important if the essay is an argument for the beauty of a novel or poem or play few have ever heard of, for then it is the excerpt that persuades as much as the analysis. Sontag was an especially adept practitioner of quoting, and there are wonderful passages here from the work of such masters as WG Sebald, Witold Gombrowicz, and Adam Zagajewski. Where The Stress Falls is not just eloquent invitation to the pleasures of reading, of watching, of inwardness, but itself an incarnation of some of these pleasures.

And here is a wonderful essay on Sontag – both admiring and mocking – by the writer Terry Castle: "Desperately Seeking Susan."

Sunday, June 03, 2012

On the poems of Joseph Furtado

One of the earliest, but least well-known, great Indian poets in English, Joseph Furtado (1872-1945) is now all but forgotten even in his native Goa. No edition of his poems is currently in print. This is a shame, because this self-professed “Goan fiddler”, who added cashew trees and tamarinds to the cornfields of English verse, could produce a beautifully weighted verbal music both melancholy and effervescent by turns. Furtado’s poetic subjects include landscape (“Land of palm and mango-tree/ Dear as life art thou to me.” he writes in one poem) and love, in which matter his speakers reveal a warmingly ecumenical taste (in one poem, the speaker professes a love for a mullah’s daughter; in another, he dreams of a lady who sits by his feet “And reads out stories/ Of Vedic glories”). 
But as poems like ‘The Secret’ reveal, the natural world was for Furtado heavy with human mysteries and silences; and his verse can be feminist, too, as when he sees women not just as objects of male desire but desiring subjects, in ‘The Neglected Wife’. Is the refrain of Furtado’s ‘Only Shy’ a pun on shayri, as Furtado suggests by his subtitle ‘An Urdu Song’? We shall never know for sure, but the best-known photograph of Furtado shows him late in life with a white beard even longer than Tagore’s—and as a creator of limpid verse effects he was in the same class. 
This month The Caravan publishes five poems by Furtado.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Arzee the Dwarf in German

Arzee the Dwarf is published in Germany this month by Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag in a translation by Kathrin Razum as Der kleine Konig von Bombay

A Youtube trailer for the book is here. I watched it several times as, what with all the other work I've had to do between 2009 and 2012, I'd almost forgotten the story.

It's also available as a German audiobook.

Send word to your German friends -- or use it to improve your German!