Tuesday, December 27, 2005

On Siddharth Chowdhury's Patna Roughcut

Like another recent novel, Altaf Tyrewala's No God In Sight, Siddharth Chowdhury's Patna Roughcut has no narrative centre. There is no single point of view from which the story is told and which holds all the material together, although, unlike No God In Sight, the novel does have a central character: Ritwik Ray, a journalist with a daily in Patna.

Ritwik, we are told, went to university in Delhi (indeed, he is the first character I have come across in Indian fiction who went to the same college as I did, Hindu College) but, instead of staying on in the capital after his studies, or even seeking to go abroad like his girlfriend Mira, he decides to come back to the city where he grew up, work there, and write a book of stories. The novel has several themes - the relationship between provincial centre and metropolitan capital, the nature of childhood experience and adolescent sexual awakening, the moral apathy and entrenched prejudices of the Indian middle-class - but the most important one, in my reading, is the way in which we are formed, at that period of life when our personalities are most open to influence, by the striking character and passions and dreams of certain people around us - how what we think of as the discrete individual personality is to a great extent a series of relationships and inheritances.

The first two sections of the book, while told in the first person by Ritwik and notionally about his early life, are really odes to two characters who dominate his Patna childhood. Harryda is "a man who loved style": a good-looking, hard-drinking, high-living figure who plays cricket for a local club and dreams of writing scripts for movies ("He ate, slept, talked, breathed movies", we are told, and so does the book, which is full of references to cinema), but whose spirit is broken by a love affair that ends badly. Iladi is another character whose dreams shatter upon the rocks of reality (a clumsy metaphor, but in keeping with the spirit of this piece, for I borrow it a bit of dialogue from the film Deewar). A voracious reader, an idealist, and, as is often the case with idealists, a Marxist when she grows up, Iladi is attacked by an angry mob while staging a protest play in Delhi, and loses her life. Of her Ritwik writes: "She was the first person in my life who taught me that there was such a thing as a secret world of the mind which could be more real and enriching than the mundane reality of our meagre existence."

Chowdhury writes a kind of prose which, if sometimes peculiar in tone or construction, is almost always interesting. There are many instances in which he seems to feel no need for commas where ninety-nine out of a hundred writers would prefer to use one ("Devoid of any musical talent Happy just happily collected the money"; "Ila switched the radiogram off stopping Rosemary Clooney in mid-flight"). But he has a great feel for place, for piquant disorienting observations in which the oddest things are coupled together ("What is it with adolescent Patna convent girls and Edna St.Vincent Millay, I wonder sometimes"), and for details which are interpreted first by the eye and then by the imagination ("men coming from offices in their sweat-soaked and defeated shirts").

And finally, the last section of the book, "Waiting for Godard", is one of the very best pieces of extended prose I've read this year. It is narrated for most part by Mira, Ritwik's ex-girlfriend, now married to one of his best friends and settled in America, but back in Patna for a brief visit. The great advantage of first-person narration is that it allows one to recover the emotional immediacy of past experience, breaking down the border between the present and the past as is the case when we ourselves think about past events that have affected us deeply. Mira's narration roves over her childhood in Patna; her love affair with Ritwik during their years at Delhi University and all their shared moments and interests, such as a love for the movies - over little spots of time that, in retrospect, seem significant.

Then we arrive at the present moment, when the two run into each other at a Cine Society screening; Chowdhury depicts the rush of their respective feelings with an uncommon tenderness and empathy, and also finds for this episode the perfect finish. Patna Roughcut is worth your money just for this section alone.

Jai Arjun Singh also has a piece on Patna Roughcut here. And here are links to pieces about some other Indian novels that featured on the Middle Stage this year: Tyrewala's No God in Sight, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Waiting For Rain, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's Srikanta, and Attia Hosain's Sunlight On A Broken Column.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Nazim Hikmet in prison

The trial of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, for having “publicly denigrated Turkish identity” with his remarks about the massacre of Armenians and Kurds by the Ottoman regime early in the twentieth century, makes this an apt time to recall the life and career of another Turkish writer prosecuted - indeed, persecuted - by the state for his controversial views: the most prominent name in modern Turkish poetry, Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963).

In 1938 Hikmet, who like a great many poets of his time (Pablo Neruda, for example) was a committed Marxist, was sentenced to 28 years in prison on charges of sedition for a long poem about a fifteenth-century rebellion against Ottoman rule. Hikmet’s case, like Pamuk’s now, received wide international attention. Indeed, the figure of Hikmet looms in Pamuk’s recent remarks (in an essay in the New Yorker) about his country’s historic persecution of writers, and his joke that it is only with his trial that he has become “a real Turkish writer”. In 1949 an international committee, including on its rolls Picasso and Sartre, was formed to campaign for Hikmet’s release, and in 1950, the year he was released by Turkey’s first democratically elected government, he received the World Peace Prize. Hikmet continued to be harassed even by the new regime, and eventually had to seek refuge in Poland.

His long years in prison, and the experience of hardship, privation and even torture, seemed to have focussed Hikmet’s attention on questions of life and death - on what it meant to be alive, to really live fully and vitally, and on the shadow of mortality that always hangs over life and renders our existence precarious and fragile. There are not many Hikmet poems in which these concerns do not come up in some form or the other. One of his most famous poems, “On Living”, begins: “Living is no laughing matter:/ you must live with great seriousness/ like a squirrel, for example-/ I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,/I mean living must be your whole occupation.” In another poem he speaks of the necessity of living as intensely as possible, of being “caught up/ in the flurry of the world”. His verse often reflects this; it is full of vivid details and small epiphanies. Here is another of his best-known poems, “Today is Sunday”:

Today is Sunday
Sunday today.
Today they took me out in the sun for the first time.
And I just stood there, struck for the first time in my life
by how far away the sky is,
how blue
and how wide.
Then I respectfully sat down on the earth.
I leaned back against the wall.
For a moment no trap to fall into,
no struggle, no freedom, no wife.
Only earth, sun, and me...
I am happy.
And in one of his most beautiful and affecting poems, Hikmet imagines his funeral:

My Funeral

Will my funeral start in our courtyard below?
How will you bring my coffin down three floors?
The lift will not take it
and the stairs are too narrow.

Perhaps the courtyard will be knee-deep in sunlight and pigeons
perhaps there will be snow and children's cries mingling in the air
or the asphalt glistening with rain
and the dustbins littering the place as usual.

If in keeping with the custom here I am to go, face open to the skies,
on the hearse, a pigeon might drop something on my brow, for luck.
Whether a band turns up or no, children will come near me,
children like funerals.

Our kitchen window will stare after me as I go,
the washing on the balcony will wave to see me off.
I have been happier here than you can ever imagine,
friends, I wish you all a long and happy life.

One stops upon the marvellous images of “the courtyard knee-deep in sunlight and pigeons” and the washing on the balcony waving the corpse off. And the booming final line asserts, just like the glittering details of the lines that precede it, the desire to breathe fully of life, celebrate its colours and textures, even at the point of taking leave of it. Has any poet ever made death seem so much fun?

Some of Hikmet’s other poems can be found here; I recommend in particular “Hymn To Life”, “Last Will and Testament”, "Things I Didn't Know I Loved", and the wonderfully poignant and plaintive “I Come and Stand at Every Door” (“I come and stand at every door/ But no one hears my silent tread”), which was made into a song by the Byrds. Hikmet’s most recent translators, Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, observe, “Like Whitman, Hikmet speaks of himself, his country, and the world in the same breath. At once personal and public, his poetry records his life without reducing it to self-consciousness.”

Pamuk’s essay “On Trial” can be found here, and here is Pankaj Mishra’s recent essay about the Pamuk affair, “Secular Democracy Goes On Trial”. The Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer has an essay called "Literature, Censorship and the State" here, and here is an excellent essay on writing and censorship by the South African novelist JM Coetzee, from his book Giving Offence. And in his essay "Defend the right to be offended", written last February, Salman Rushdie writes: "The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not?"

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Cricket with Ram Guha

I’ve stayed up late several times in the last week reading Ramachandra Guha’s magnificent new book, The States of Indian Cricket: Anecdotal Histories. It’s not really a new book, in that it revises and updates two of his books published in the early nineties, Wickets in the East and Spin and Other Turns. I wonder how I missed them when they first came out, for I was just entering my teens then, and possessed a fine collection of cricket books, mostly culled from secondhand bookshops, that I prized dearly, reread incessantly – Harsha Bhogle’s biography of Azhar, a boyhood hero of mine, was a particular favourite – and kept on the bookshelf nearest to my bed. I don’t think I was ever as passionate about cricket as in those four or five years; everything else came second, and a pretty distant second too.

Wickets in the East is like an extended selection meeting, with the privilege of being able to rove over all of recorded history: in it Guha picks a representative eleven for each of the great regional powers of Indian cricket – Bombay, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Hyderabad, Delhi, Bengal, and some of the princely states of old – and goes over a lot of history in the process, always fluently and enjoyably. Spin and Other Turns consists of a series of long essays about the lead characters of Indian cricket’s ‘coming of age’ in the seventies – Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, the famous spin quartet of Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkatraghavan, and Kapil Dev – all of whom Guha had the good fortune to watch at close quarters on many occasions. (For someone who is not a pure cricket writer by profession, Guha appears to have seen a massive amount of live cricket, including a great amount of Ranji Trophy play.)

The States of Indian Cricket contains some truly sumptuous prose. Here is Guha in a long lead-up to a cricketer he admired greatly, the wicketkeeper-batsman Budhi Kunderan:
Once or twice a year I take what must be one of the loveliest short drives in the country, the fifty-mile road that runs from Mangalore’s Bajpae airport to the university town of Manipal. Keeping the sea on the left, the road passes through acres of paddy fields, interspersed with areca gardens and the odd remnant of rain forest. Every five miles or so we drive over a river, a leisurely boatman in the water. The artefacts of man that one encounters include mosques, churches, Jain monasteries, and Hindu temples. Here in western Karnataka cultural diversity matches ecological diversity, the D’Souzas mixing with the Alis and the Raos, the forests with the fields and the ocean.
The names of the towns en route are charmingly quaint too. There is Parbidri and there is Kapu and, exactly halfway between them, there is Karnad. Whenever my taxi enters this settlement the driver will surely tell me, ‘Saar, Girish Karnad coming from here.’ I can sense and share his pride in the achievements of the writer-actor, a man who has brought lustre to his town, his state, and his country. But I wish I could, at least once, summon up wit to tell the driver, as he passes through the next town on our way: ‘Saar, this is Mulki. Budhi Kunderan coming from here.’
In his essay about Gundappa Viswanath, Guha speaks about how popular the gentle, unassuming Viswanath was with both his team-mates and his opponents: he was “the best-loved cricketer” of his time. Among the traits of Viswanath’s batting against the spinners is that he virtually never lifted the ball. These details serve as a background to this story recounted by Guha:
…I once watched Vishy, at the Ferozeshah Kotla, in a Ranji Trophy match between Karnataka and Delhi, being beaten on the back foot by a delivery from the rising university star Praveen Uberoi. The ball had come in late with the arm instead of, as the batsman had anticipated, spinning away towards the off side. The ball was only narrowly missing leg stump, and the bowler, after pleading with the umpire to give the decision in his favour, sank to the ground in despair. Vishy watched calmly, but at the beginning of Uberoi’s next over, came dancing down the wicket to send the ball into the crowd over extra-cover.
Even the gentlest of men are sometimes moved to show an upstart his place.
I choose The States of Indian Cricket as one of my four Indian books of the year, along with Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, the Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb, and Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s A Strange Attachment and Other Stories. And here is a much wider list of Indian books of the year by Sheela Reddy of Outlook.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

An interview with Altaf Tyrewala

My review of Altaf Tyrewala's excellent new novel No God In Sight appears today in the Indian Express.

Your book is a collection of first-person narratives told by characters mostly based in Mumbai. Some of the speakers are related to each other, and give way to one another's stories - such as a man and his prospective wife, or the four members of a family - but no one character is aware of all the others. Yet the form of your novel suggests they are all linked to each other in some way, does it not?
Absolutely. In fact, the interconnectedness between my characters’ lives is merely a shallow, one-dimensional simulation of the multi-layered and impenetrable interconnectedness that actually exists in the real world between things and people and events.

One of the stories is that of an abortionist traumatised by 'unborn-baby voices' in his head. I particularly liked the bit in which he takes home a Nirvana tape sold to him by a foreign tourist, puts it on, and finds in the discordant music that starts up an analogue to the sounds that are tormenting him. How did you hit upon that unusual parallel?
When I wrote the abortionist’s voice in late 2000, I had just discovered Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. I grieved for Cobain like he was kin. The ‘unborn-baby voices’ is itself a reference to ‘the unborn chicken voices in my head’ from Radiohead’s song "Paranoid Android". The abortionist’s is the first voice I wrote. I had no idea that this one-off experiment in literary ventriloquism would become a full-time activity for the next four years. Which is probably why the abortionist’s voice is so self-referential. I think I managed to remain more uninvolved while writing subsequent voices.

How hard or easy is first-person narration compared to third-person narration? Was there ever a stage when you considered telling these stories in any other way? Narration is excruciating, be it in first or third person. (This is where you would indicate ‘Laughs’ had this been a face-to-face.) I think we live in both first and third person. Most of the time we are being tossed around by external and internal circumstances and have to remain alert to the moment. Occasionally, though, things ease up a bit, the mud settles, allowing for a little perspective on life. I instinctively began writing monologues. But as you will have noticed in No God In Sight, long stretches of first-person are suddenly interrupted by third-person narration. There was no other way to do it without contradicting the rhythm of life.

I'm interested in the gestation period of No God In Sight, the time you spent walking around with the shape of it in your mind before you finally got down to work. How long was this period?
One day, while sending fake letters to a friend’s agony-aunt column, I began writing a query in the voice of an abortionist. The abortionist’s voice developed into a short story. His occupation had affected the lives around him, and it was crucial to account for those points of view as well. I wrote the abortionist’s father’s voice. And then came the father’s boss’s voice…. At times, at the end of a character’s voice, another character was already looming large, waiting to have his or her say. Unfortunately, I didn’t have it so easy throughout. Sometimes I just couldn’t take the plot forward. I would launch into a completely disconnected monologue, which would then bring forth its own set of characters, and this would lead to an independent mini story. It wasn’t a ‘book’ until almost two years into writing it. It was quite late in the day when I realized that I could link these mini-stories to create a larger whole. So no such gestation period. It was more of an organic occurrence.

Did you keep a kind of routine while writing it?
My routine was a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week kind of thing. Once I began writing full-time, everything I did was for my book. I was never really off. If I had just finished a voice, I would be away from the computer, but I would be going insane thinking about the next voice. I hope I can manage such single-minded devotion for my next book.

Do you find the time spent in composition pleasurable, or is it more like a hard slog?
I am an instinctual person. 99 per cent of my writing happened when I wasn’t writing. When I returned to the computer after days of planning a voice, it would be to chisel out, to sharpen an amorphous intuition that I had already arrived at. Of course one derives pleasure when one has succeeded in putting one’s vague perceptions into words. But I found greater pleasure when I was able to perceive a character’s essence - this was a wordless perception, beyond verbalization. How does one put it?

I'd like to ask you how hard it is for a writer to judge the quality of his or her own work. Here are my own thoughts on it: not only is it hard to read one's own work impersonally, one's objective judgement of it is also blocked off because, having worked on a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter several times, it is hard to respond to it in the manner of a reader coming to it for the first time…
I would’ve agreed with you four years ago. Now I’m not so sure. When something is good, you just know it. It doesn’t matter who has written it. But you have to first form a habit of honesty. (I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious at all.) I wasted too many months in the beginning defending something I’d written against my own self. Now the second I find myself rationalizing something I’ve written, either with myself or with someone else, I immediately know something is wrong. I am not recommending mindlessness. But I’ve come to realize that the ‘desire’ to express can lead to a lot of trouble. If one wants to be a writer, like most of us do in the beginning, one is almost certainly asking for a lot of heartache. But something happens through repeated failure. A sort of purification. Finally, one starts writing in spite of oneself; then everything falls into place. Also, I think the form of my book had let to a state of self-imposed multiple-personality-disorder. Writing the voices required me to continuously replace myself and my opinions. As a result, I was able to approach my work with a fresh perspective by default.

Your bio in the book says that you live 'in Bombay and Mumbai'. Would you care to elaborate on that? Are there any characters in the book who live 'in Bombay and Mumbai' too?
For me, any aspect of this city that is illusory (or artificial, or out-of-place) represents Bombay, i.e., air-conditioned restaurants, glass-sheathed office-complexes, mega-malls, SUVs, the escapist travesties from Bollywood, men and women who behave like they are in London or Tokyo… I am, of course, as guilty as anyone else of enjoying the spoils of Bombay. But no matter how hard we try to live out our fantasies, good old Mumbai catches up. Hopefully someday we will forge a more reasonable city. We could call it Mumbay or Bumbai.

Which are your favourite writers or books?
Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy in fiction (if one can call it that). And Robert Pirsig’s Laila in non-fiction.

Is the reading of poetry of any help to a prose writer? Do you read poetry at all?
I don’t read poetry. But I do listen to music a lot, and for me that’s a more dyamic form of poetry.

And finally, let's finish on a non-literary note. What's a really good but relatively little-known restaurant in Mumbai?
Tea Centre's take-out counter has got to be the most pleasant surprise awaiting people in Churchgate. It's a small air-conditioned room adjoining the main restaurant. It has a single, semi-circular table jutting out from the wall surrounded by three high chairs, which means that you and whoever you're with are the only ones in there. And you get everything – the teas, the snacks (veg & non), and the deserts – for less than half the price you'd be paying inside TC. Sometimes I wish I could live there.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Coming up this month

...in the next fortnight, probably, on the Middle Stage will be essays on new Indian fiction, including Altaf Tyrewala's No God In Sight and Siddharth Chowdhury's Patna Roughcut. And also perhaps a look at the Little Magazine's recently released anthology of Asian fiction published on its pages over the years.