Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Wislawa Szymborska, curious about everything

We are all wise, of course, but it takes considerable work to give voice to wisdom into a form free of condescension, disarming resistance through wit and perhaps warmth. Do such voices often seek to express themselves in verse? Perhaps not. As a rule poets tend, no doubt for reasons beyond their control, to encourage calumnies such as that perpetrated by the young Mark Twain, who, writing that a fire had destroyed his home, his happiness, his constitution, and his trunk, remarked that the loss of his happiness fazed him very little, "because, not being a poet, it could not be possible that melancholy would abide with me long".

Certainly it could not be said that melancholy is missing from the work of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. The great devastations of war and politics in the twentieth century affected Poland more than most countries; "hatred, in our century./How lithely she takes high hurdles./How easy for her to pounce, to seize" writes Szymborska in one poem. But even so Szymborska remains, even at her advanced age, the most witty, spry and searching of contemporary poets. If there is a strong line of irony running through her poems, it is more warming than brooding. Her work is so accessible as to be almost conversational, yet there is a curiosity and metaphysical intelligence that informs even her simplest lines, and at the same time a happy engagement with the surface textures of ordinary existence and what lies just beneath them, binding day to day and life to life.

Here, for instance, is her delightful poem "Funeral", in a translation by Joanna Maria Trzeciak. It is a poem that has possibly as many speakers as it has lines:

"so suddenly, who would've expected it"
"stress and cigarettes, I told him"
"not bad, thank you"
"unwrap these flowers"
"his brother's heart did him in too, must run in the family"
"I wouldn't have recognized you with that beard"
"it's his own fault, he was always getting himself into something"
"that new guy was supposed to speak. I don't see him anywhere"
"Kazek is in Warsaw, Tadek went abroad"
"you were the only one with enough sense to bring an umbrella"
"so what that he was the most talented of them all"
"it's a walk-through room, Baska won't go for it"
"sure he was right, but that still isn't really the reason"
"and a paint job on both doors, guess how much"
"two egg yolks, one tablespoon sugars"
"it was none of his business, why did he mess with it"
"only in blue, and in small sizes"
"five times with no answer"
"all right, I could have done it, but so could you have"
"good thing she had that part-time job"
"I don't know, maybe the relatives"
"the priest is a veritable Belmondo"
"I've never been to this part of the cemetery"
"I dreamed about him last week, something struck me"
"the daughter's not bad-looking"
"it happens to all of us"
"give my best to the widow, I have to make it to"
"it sounded much more solemn in Latin"
"it came and went"
"good-bye Ma'am"
"let's go grab a beer somewhere"
"call me, we'll talk"
"either No. 4 or 12"
"I'm going this way"
"we're not"
The mood of mourning, the freshened awareness of mortality, the words of commiseration expected in a funeral are there, but they are mixed in with trivial scraps of conversation. Even so sombre an occasion returns inevitably to the human mean; life goes on.

In "The Poet and the World", her Nobel Prize lecture of 1996. Szymborska says of the people she admires most:

inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."
This sentiment undergirds one of her best poems, titled, with her characteristic reticence, "A Few Words on the Soul". The translation is by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.

A Few Words on the Soul

We have a soul at times.
No one's got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood's fears and raptures
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It's picky,
it doesn't like seeing us in crowds.
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren't two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we're sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when non one is looking.

It won't say where it comes from
or when it's taking off again,
though it's clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.
What is so charming about this poem is the way the soul is imagined as a kind of dandy whimsical companion, always disappearing whenever something dull or routine is going on, and positively unhelpful whenever hard labour must be done. We are clearly elevated by it, yet strangely "it needs us/ for some reason too". The form of the poem and the details it picks on ("mirrors, which keep on working/even when no one is looking" - yes, that would impress the soul) is quite beautiful. We end up thinking that yes, we should be more hospitable to our souls.

Szymborska radiates the same charm and good humour in her exceptionally agile prose, of which she has written a good amount (for decades she wrote a newspaper column called "Nonrequired reading", the pieces from which are collected in a book by the same name). Here, for instance, are some highly entertaining excerpts from her columns for the newspaper Literary Life, in which she gives advice to novice poets. Although she is never condescending, she can be quite firm, and although there are no deliberate jokes here, lots of the answers are really quite funny, not to say insightful:

To Mr. K.K. from Bytom: "You treat free verse as a free-for-all. But poetry (whatever we may say) is, was, and will always be a game. And as every child knows, all games have rules. So why do the grown-ups forget?"

To Marek, of Warsaw: "We have a principle that all poems about spring are automatically disqualified. This topic no longer exists in poetry. It continues to thrive in life itself, of course. But these are two separate matters."

To Mr. Pal-Zet of Skarysko-Kam: "The poems you’ve sent suggest that you’ve failed to perceive a key difference between poetry and prose. For example, the poem entitled ‘Here’ is merely a modest prose description of a room and the furniture it holds. In prose such descriptions perform a specific function: they set the stage for the action to come. In a moment the doors will open, someone will enter, and something will take place. In poetry the description itself must ‘take place.’ Everything becomes significant, meaningful: the choice of images, their placement, the shape they take in words. The description of an ordinary room must become before our eyes the discovery of that room, and the emotion contained by that description must be shared by the readers. Otherwise, prose will stay prose, no matter how hard you work to break your sentences into lines of verse. And what’s worse, nothing happens afterwards."
The whole piece, "How To (and How Not To) Write Poetry", is here.

Here are some other beautiful Szymborska poems: "Consolation", in which she imagines what Charles Darwin must have liked to read ("Darwin./They say he read novels to relax,/But only certain kinds:/nothing that ended unhappily."), "A Cat In An Empty Apartment", and "The Three Oddest Words".

And some other posts on poets: "The sweet voice and harsh words of Osip Mandelstam", "Nazim Hikmet in prison", "The despair of Attila Jozsef", "Constantine Cavafy's City", "Antonio Machado's Eyes", "Dunya Mikhail's war against war", "Chess with Jorge Luis Borges", "Orhan Veli Kanik all of a sudden", and "Tigers in the poetry of William Blake and Salabega".

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Unusual book of the month, and some thoughts on matters many

Just received in the post today: a marvellous volume called Polish Writers on Writing, one of a series of books called The Writer's World published by Trinity University Press. It's edited by the poet Adam Zagajewski, and contains fascinating essays by and correspondence between all the luminaries of the great pageant of twentieth-century Polish literature, including Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Zymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, Witold Gombrowicz, and the utterly original short-story writer Bruno Schulz.

Schulz is found here arguing, "The life of the word consists in tensing and stretching itself toward a thousand connections, like the cut-up snake in the legend whose pieces search for each other in the dark.[...] Language is man's metaphysical organ.We usually regard the word as the shadow of reality, its symbol. The reverse of this statement would be more correct: reality is the shadow of the word."

On the arrival of this book I was immediately reminded of the time when, poking about in a second-hand bookshop in Bloomsbury in London last summer, I came across a book of essays called The Mature Laurel: Essays On Modern Polish Poetry.

I immediately realised that this rare volume might up the Seriousness of my book collection by a full percentage point, and so, impressed by essays with titles like "The Poet As Torturer" (wait, since when did APJ Abdul Kalam become a Polish poet?) and "The New Wave: A Non-Objective View", I bought it. Well, now it has the company of a brother book almost as serious, though probably a lot more readable, and all I need to do now is find meself a copy of Milosz's A History of Polish Literature to make me unbeatable on the subject within India. And from there I'll move slowly outwards, north and south, east and west, and have the whole world covered by the time I'm seventy.

And among other things, I've been rereading the essays in Jorge Luis Borges's Chronicles of Bustos Domecq, the memory of which and the loss of which I lamented in a post last year, and a new copy of which was sent to me by a very kind reader. Writing The Middle Stage is fun enough anyway, but such gestures fill my heart with love for all humanity, even Paulo Coelho.

And finally, for some time now I've been organizing all my essays on Indian literature into a sidebar you'll find on your left, and now there's quite a respectable set of them, from older essays on Saadat Hasan Manto, Amartya Sen, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Fakir Mohan Senapati and Dandin to more recent ones on Vikram Chandra, Krishna Kripalani, Raj Kamal Jha, Amitava Kumar and Parashuram.

And lastly, some other occasions when I've happened to have some thoughts: serious thoughts, in "Some thoughts on nearly popping it" and "The Kitab Literary Festival and a disquisition on boots"; and humorous thoughts, in "Some thoughts on artistic time and real time".

Saturday, July 21, 2007

On Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi

This essay appears today in the Scotsman, and is the second of an informal four-part series of pieces on the Middle Stage over the month leading up to the sixtieth anniversary of Indian independence. The first of these, featured last week, was "Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose".

The life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is one of the most well-documented and minutely analysed lives of the 20th century. Yet, as the editor of Gandhi's collected works, which run into 100 volumes, remarked, the Gandhi story is inexhaustible, "like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata combined".

This is because Gandhi's abiding concerns - the working out of disputes large or small without descent into hatred or violence, the need for every human being to arrive at self-rule in the individual sense before demanding authority in any other sense, and the belief that worthy ends are nothing without equally worthy means - remain eternally relevant, so that he speaks afresh to every age.

Now, the historian Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma, vividly brings to life in his massive biography the texture of Gandhi's days as he progressed from a timid anglicised student to the fearless loincloth-clad opponent of empire and other licensed injustices, the development of his thought across his engagements with conflict situations in England, South Africa, colonial India, and free India, the attitudes borne towards him by his many friends and foes, and the mood and colour of his age.

Gandhi is well qualified to write this book for more than just reasons of family. Among his other books are biographies of Vallabhbhai Patel and C Rajagopalachari (two of the Mahatma's staunchest allies in the independence movement and brilliant politicians in their own right); a study of Indian Muslims, over whom colonial India broke up into two independent countries; and a wide-ranging study of South Asian history, Revenge and Reconciliation, encompassing the thought of figures such as the Buddha and the emperor Ashoka and the counsel of such texts as the Bhagavad Gita (the Mahatma's favourite book). Gandhi's intimate familiarity with South Asian history and the many sides and perspectives of the Indian freedom movement impart to his study a satisfying density and richness that place it on the highest rung of the vast literature on the Mahatma.

In an excellent early section, Rajmohan Gandhi shows us how the young Gandhi, working as a lawyer defending the rights of the coloured community in South Africa, perfected the incipient methods of passive resistance and satyagraha (literally, "truth-force") through his reading of writers like Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau, and his skirmishes with the South African government. When he moved back to India for good in 1914 his reputation preceded him, and he himself was ready to publicise his unusual weapons before the Indian people and to persuade them to join him in deploying them against Empire.

Among the salutary qualities of Rajmohan Gandhi's work is his liberal and judicious use of quotations from Gandhi's writing, including his autobiography and other books, his weekly columns for the two Indian journals he edited, and his voluminous correspondence (he was an indefatigable letter-writer and lobbyist, once writing some 5,000 letters, all by hand, over a six-week period). The value of this approach is twofold. One, instead of the static, "finished" Gandhi enshrined in history, it presents us with a Gandhi continuously on the move, finding words for his experience as he discovers and refashions himself.

Second, it foregrounds Gandhi's engagement not only with the Raj, with the oppressive caste system and the Hindu-Muslim question, but with the English language itself. As a youth Gandhi's English was poor. As a 19-year-old journeying to England to study law, he dreaded conversation in English with his fellow passengers, recalling that "I had to frame every sentence in my mind before I could bring it out". But by steady labour he improved his English to the extent that, writing in English on the great questions of the day and rebutting the Raj at every step in a clear, forceful idiom, he did as much as any other Indian writer to domesticate the language. As the Indian historian Sunil Khilnani has observed, "English made the empire, but [Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru] showed how it could be used to unmake it - how the language could be a tool of insubordination and, ultimately, freedom."

Gandhi emerges in Rajmohan Gandhi's portrait as both an acute strategist and a doubting, sometimes fallible, man, viewed by some as a saint and others as a crank. Despite his misgivings ("I often err and miscalculate") he was one of history's greatest moral visionaries, the inventor of universally relevant pacifist concepts that aspired towards breaking down adversaries nonviolently. His genius extended beyond immediate conflict resolution; by the practice of never talking down or humiliating his opponents, he was also usually successful in foreclosing future conflicts. As Diana Eck has written, Gandhi "saw clearly that if conflict is cast in terms of winning or losing, of us prevailing over them, then ... the next round of the conflict is only postponed". Rajmohan Gandhi's splendid biography delivers to us both the Gandhi of his time and a Gandhi for our times.

And some essays on Gandhi: a recent one by Pankaj Mishra on Gandhi's Autobiography ('"I must reduce myself to zero," he wrote on the last page of the autobiography, upholding a long Indian tradition in which power and charisma are gained from renunciation rather than worldly success'); "Fighting A Gandhian Fight" by Mark Juergensmeyer; "Southasia’s difficulties with Gandhi’s legacy" by Ashis Nandy; "Gandhi in Jaffna" by Ramachandra Guha; "Gandhi the philosopher" by Akeel Bilgrami, and "What If Gandhi Had Lived On?" by Rajmohan Gandhi.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose

"I am not a man of letters," wrote Jawaharlal Nehru in one of his missives from jail to his daughter Indira, but of course he was. All through his life Nehru lost no opportunity to write. His words took the form of drafts and resolutions for the Congress party, essays on the great issues of the day for newspapers and journals, and letters to friends, family, and colleagues in the independence movement. When he became Prime Minister of India, Nehru wrote a long letter addressed jointly to his chief ministers every fortnight, containing his deliberations on domestic and world affairs. It is clear that, despite the burdens of his worldly commitments, words set down on paper were for Nehru a way of making sense of the commotion of life, politics and ideas.

But Nehru was also a man of letters in a more abiding sense, as readers of any of his major works (his autobiography, Glimpses of World History, and The Discovery of India) know, and as The Oxford India Nehru, a selection of his most representative speeches and writings, again proves. That is to say that we can read Nehru not just for his ideas, or for insights into his personality, but also for the way in which expressed himself, for the grace and rhythm of his English. "At its best," wrote the editor Frank Moraes, one of Nehru's best biographers, "Nehru's style shows a vigour and clarity as pleasing and compelling to the ear as to the mind." Indeed, Nehru was among a handful of Indian writers, among which Gandhi and Tagore were also prominent, who found a way to domesticate what for most other Indians born in the nineteenth century was an often puzzling colonial tongue, a language the rules and moves of which could of course be learnt, as did many young people wanting to make a career under the Raj, but could never be used with the same vigour or pliability.

"English made the empire," observes the historian Sunil Khilnani in an essay called "Gandhi and Nehru: The Uses of English", "but [Gandhi and Nehru] showed how it could be used to unmake it - how the language could be a tool of insubordination and, ultimately, freedom." The two men, neither of them professional writers,

shaped the place and form of English in India in three decisive ways. Gandhi was born in 1869; Nehru died in 1964: their lives encompassed a linguistic century that stretched from the English of legal petitions and imperial proclamations, of diwans, pleaders, and officers of the early Raj, to the official bureaucratese of the Five-Year Plans and the ministries of the independent Indian state. The sheer bulk of their spoken and written words (combined, the published work of Gandhi and Nehru exceed 150 volumes), as well as its historical span, ensured for the English language a countrywide currency. Second, though often ambivalent about the function of English in India, they kept a political commitment to English as a language of public communication. English may have been 'the language of the enemy', yet both wished to accommodate it alongside other Indian languages, recognising it as a vital link not just to the wider world but also between Indians themselves. Finally, the forms in which they wrote - autobiographies, public and private letters, journalistic essays and articles, and works of history - helped to define how these genres came to be understood and used in India, by their contemporaries and those who came after.
Although he sometimes chose a romantic and elevated tone that could grow monotonous, there is never in Nehru's work that tendency towards vagueness and bombast, the use of clichés and archaisms, that to this day disfigures so much Indian prose in English. Indeed, Nehru deserves to be seen, independently of the political man, as one of the best Indian prose writers of the twentieth century.

Uma Iyengar's selection of extracts for The Oxford India Nehru organises Nehru's work by theme rather than by chronology, grouping together Nehru's thoughts on Indian history and culture, on Gandhi, on India before and after independence, on the changing world situation, and so on. The great preoccupations and leanings of Nehru's work quickly emerge: his rationalism, his natural egalitarianism and his commitment to democratic institutions and practice, his impatience with, if not outright contempt for, religion, his espousal, after the fashion of his times, of socialism, his sometimes qualified admiration for and complicated relationship with Gandhi, his keen interest in world politics, and his sense of India as one indivisible composite culture and his desire to overlay upon it "the garb of modernity".

Many of these thoughts are still relevant; in fact, sometimes they seem never more relevant than today. Attacking the demands made by various communal organizations in 1934, Nehru writes that communalism is "another name for social and political reaction", and that "it has often sailed under false colours and taken in many an unwary person". Writing in 1953, Nehru remarks that although nationalism can be a rousing and unifying force, one of the problems with it is "the narrowness of mind that it develops within a country, when a majority thinks itself as the entire nation and in its attempt to absorb the minority actually separates them even more". Objecting to the very name of the Backward Classes Commission, he writes, "It is as if we are first branding them and then, from our superior position, we shall try and uplift them".

In more than four decades of writing to convince, persuade, engage, describe, attack, defend, reminisce, synthesise, and understand, Nehru wrote upon every possible subject on which opinions were divided, from cow slaughter to public health to the national flag and anthem to divorce ("Divorce," he opines with characteristic clarity, "must not be looked upon as something which makes the custom of marriage fragile"). Iyengar even includes a letter to his chief ministers on the subject of brooms, observing that the commonly found short-handled ones make for tiring and backbreaking work and encourage "a certain subservience in mind", and insisting that municipal sweepers be supplied with long-handled brooms.

Here, from The Discovery of India, is a classic example of Nehru's elevated style: a sentence multi-claused, expansive yet syntactically balanced and clear in sense, and proceeding steadily from specifics to generalities, generalities that exemplify his professed humanism and universalism:

The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India's civilization and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of the adventure of man and the quest of the mind which has so occupied India's thinkers, of the richness and fulfilment of life as well as its denial and renunciation, of ups and downs, of growth and decay, of life and death.
The only phrase that mars these sonorous cadences is "ups and downs", which is a favourite Nehru phrase. In a letter written in 1930 from jail to Gandhi, also in jail following the success of the Dandi march, Nehru exulted that Gandhi had made a new India with his "magic touch", and remarked that "our prosaic existence has developed something of epic greatness in it." His writing about India, too, can often seem like a project to lift up an India of prosaic realities and trying to infuse in it, by harking back to the past and to the universal story of man, an epic greatness.

Nehru becomes a more interesting writer when irked or riled; the expression of annoyance or dissent adds muscle to his writing. Here, for example, is a paragraph from one of a series of letters he exhanged with the Englishman Lord Lothian in 1936 over the future direction of India. In it he attacks Lothian's argument that Indian people should stick to constitutional methods of protest:
You refer also to the 'constitutional road' in India. What exactly is this constitutional road? I can understand constitutional activities where there is a democratic constitution, but where there is no such thing, constitutional methods have no meaning. The word constitutional then simply means legal, and legal simply means in accordance with the wishes of an autocratic executive which can make laws and issue decrees and ordinances regardless of public opinion. What is the constitutional method in Germany or Italy today? [These countries had just come under Fascist rule] What was this method in the India of the nineteenth century or of the early twentieth century or even now? ... The mere fact that it is impossible for the great majority of the people of India to make their will effective shows that they have no constitutional way open to them. They can either submit to something they dislike intensely or adopt other than so-called constitutional methods. Such methods may be wise or unwise, under the particular circumstances, but the question of their being constitutional or not does not arise.
Nehru's key rhetorical tactic is to ally "constitutional" to "democratic", and to insist that one is nothing without the other. Cutting and hacking away sentence by sentence, he leaves his adversary with no ground to stand on.

And in an essay in the Tribune early in 1934, he launches a broadside against organizations motivated by communal considerations:

What are communal organizations? They are not religious, although they confine themselves to religious groups and exploit the name of religion. They are not cultural and have done nothing for culture, although they talk bravely of a past culture. They are not ethical or moral groups, for their teachings are singularly devoid of ethics and morality. They are certainly not economic groupings, for there is no economic link binding their members and they have no shadow of an economic programme. Some of them claim not to be political even. What then are they?

As a matter of fact they function politically and their demands are political, but calling themselves non-political, they avoid the real issues and only succeed in obstructing the path of others.
Nehru had a naturally metaphorical cast of mind. He is often found on these pages comparing history to a great river. Indeed, he thought a lot about history, and felt keenly the pressure of history. In a speech to the Contituent Assembly in 1947, he imagines himself "standing on the sword's edge of the present between the mighty past and the mightier future" - a particularly good metaphor, because it suggests how fraught with uncertainty the present is, possessing the power to cut sharply even as attempts are made to work with it. Elsewhere, he likens the taking of risks to the exhilaration of climbing the mountains, while those who hold back, desiring safety and security, are seen as living in the valley, "with their unhealthy mists and fogs". This metaphor shows among other things Nehru's love of mountains, for most Indians would hardly go along with his negative characterization of valleys.

Although he read widely and well, Nehru was curiously not much given to quoting from the works of other writers, perhaps because he spent so much time on the move or else in prison, with limited access to books in either case. Despite frequent references to the defects and excesses of capitalism and the merits of socialism, for instance, he can only be found quoting Marx once on these pages. Also, Nehru's relationship to his reading was intensely practical, a means of learning something about the world past or present. He liked to read travellers' accounts - Hsuen Tsang, Marco Polo, Ibn Battutah - and surveys of history and society - Marx, Oswald Spengler, Reinold Neibuhr - but we know that he disliked reading novels, saying they left him "mentally slack". Gandhi appears to have been a more adventurous and open-minded reader, fond not only of the Gita and the works of Tolstoy, Ruskin and Plato but also of Walter Scott, Jules Verne and Goethe.

Perhaps it is to these tendencies we may attribute one fault of his writing, which is a fondness for generalities and groupings and a disregard for bracing and often necessary specificities. Consider that, although he travelled widely for decades on end, and was a captivating speaker who drew huge crowds, his references to the Indian peasantry almost always take the form of the generalized description - "the sunken eyes and hopeless looks of the people", "the starving peasant" for whom "hunger gnaws at his stomach". There is no account in his letters or essays of an actual conversation with a peasant whose name is provided or who is seen as more than a downtrodden man or a hungry stomach, and it does not seem to have occurred to him that his work would be all the more forceful by his doing so.

Yet the most stirring sentences of twentieth-century Indian writing in English were composed by Nehru. These are the opening lines of his speech to the constituent assembly on the hour of India's independence. It was a situation made for a man of his talents and predilections. "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom," he begins, before moving onto a majestic seven-part sentence. "A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance." Nehru never wrote a better or more deeply felt line - it was what he had been waiting to say almost all his life.

And here is some more reading on Nehru: "Nehru's Faith", by Sunil Khilani, who is writing a biography of Nehru, and also Khilnani's introduction to Nehru's collection A Bunch Of Old Letters. And here are two essays by Ramachandra Guha, one called "What's Left of Nehru?" (surely then, as now, the Communist Party of India?), and the other on Nehru's letters to his chief ministers. And finally, Nehru's "tryst with destiny" speech is here, and Ian Jack, till recently the editor of Granta, has an essay on that speech here, as part of a Guardian feature on the great speeches of the 20th century.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

On Muhammad Yunus's autobiography Banker To The Poor

Not many would dispute the claim that poverty - not AIDS, terrorism, or climate change - is the greatest problem before mankind today. After all, even if we are living in an age of unprecedented prosperity, more than one billion people, or one-sixth of humanity, still live below the poverty line, or on less than $1 a day.

But unlike those other issues, poverty has always been around with humanity, and so we are all to some extent inured to it - it is for most people a fact of life, as natual as the weather. And perhaps even the opening proposition of this essay leads to a misleading conclusion, for it suggests then that it is the responsibility of mankind, or at least the richer sections of mankind, to "solve" the problem of poverty through redistribution, charity, employment schemes, or development aid. And who should know of this propensity better than Indians? We are, after all, home to one third of the world's poor, and our politicians routinely come to power speaking the rhetoric of poverty alleviation. Indira Gandhi's rousing slogan Garibi hatao, which swept her to power in 1971, still resounds through the corridors of government today and informs our policy-making at every level.

The salutary argument of Banker to the Poor, the autobiography of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohammad Yunus, is that to emerge from the shackles of poverty the poor need access not so much to development aid or social welfare or skills training as capital. As Yunus has demonstrated in three decades of work in Bangladesh with his Grameen Bank, the idea that the poor are not credit-worthy because they have neither skills nor collateral is fallacious. The extent to which he has been successful is disputed by skeptics, but the fact that he has ushered in nothing short of an economic and social revolution is indisputable.

His autobiography recounts the steps by which he arrived at his thinking, and the progress of the micro-credit movement from a $27 loan made in 1976 - Grameen's disbursements came to over $600 million in 2005, and programmes replicating the Grameen model are in place now the world over. Yunus's philosophy of "grass-roots capitalism", and the specifics of how it involves both the individual and the community in a comprehensive vision, is one of the most essential advances made in our times on problems of economics that have been debated for hundreds of years, a fact acknowledged by the United Nations when it declared 2005 the International Year of Microcredit.

Returning to Bangladesh to teach economics in the seventies after completing his Ph.D in America, Yunus noted that the elegant theories of his education that he himself now propagated in the classroom seemed not to be working on the ground. Many of the desperately poor in his village, although capable of productive work, were caught up in the clutches of moneylenders, or else working for miniscule wages because, as Yunus points out, "profit is unashamedly biased towards capital".

These facts have confronted many an economist, but Yunus's achievement, backed by hundreds of committed workers, was to convince the poorest of the poor (many of them illiterate women in a society which treated them like second-class citizens) that they could be independent economic actors by borrowing small amounts of capital, and then to get them to pay back these debts. He shows that he managed this, paradoxically, by making it hard for the poor to borrow from Grameen. Each individual desirous of a loan had to approach the bank after forming a group, the members of which then acted as a peer-support system. Further, the repayment of the loans was not on a yearly but a weekly basis, a continuous rather than a deferred activity.

The poor are often overawed by money (many of the women to which Grameen issued loans had never handled money in their life) so Yunus went down to a scale at which even they could be comfortable. Grameen was also unusual in that it sanctioned loans without collateral, and that it gave no great importance to skills training. In Yunus's view, the poorest of the poor already have skills which they can utilize to break the strangehold of absolute poverty. In a table of activities supported by Grameen loans, amongst the most popular are paddy cultivation and paddy-husking, cow-rearing, weaving and cane-making, the purchase of rickshaws and sewing-machines.

Yunus emerges in these pages as a strong proponent of self-employment, which he sees as being given short thrift in traditional theories of economics. "Obviously self-employment has limits," he writes, "but in many cases it is the only solution to help the fate of those whom our economies refuse to hire and whom taxpayers do not want to carry on their shoulders." Yunus is also a critic of development aid and the welfare state, which inculcate in the individual a sense of dependence or natural entitlement. "Charity, like love, can be a prison," he declares.

The poor are poor not because they are untrained or illiterate, "but because they cannot retain the return of their labour," argues Yunus. "It is not work which saves the poor, but capital linked to work." By thinking of the poor as not creditworthy because they possess no collateral, banks, in his opinion, practice a kind of "financial apartheid". Micro-credit, in his view, uses the power of cash capital to liberate the potential of human capital. He reminds us that the etymological root of the word credit is "to believe, put trust in". This incisive and clear-headed autobiography should become an enduring part of the essential literature on poverty.

Here is Yunus's Nobel lecture, in which he asserts his belief in capitalism but argues against a now-standard interpretation of it based on the assumption "that entrepreneurs are one-dimensional human beings, who are dedicated to one mission in their business lives − to maximize profit". "This interpretation of capitalism," he argues, "insulates the entrepreneurs from all political, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental dimensions of their lives." And he has a good essay on globalization here, in which he contends that "we cannot cope with the problem of poverty within the orthodoxy of capitalism preached and practised today". Yunus's observations might be interpreted as proof that sometimes it is capitalism's most perceptive critics who are its best friends.

And here are two essays on a related theme by the economist William Easterly, "Why Doesn't Aid Work?" and "The Ideology of Development", and a good essay by Amartya Sen on Easterly's recent book The White Man's Burden.

And finally, a superb essay - the transcript of a lecture, actually - by James Q.Wilson, a writer I admire greatly: "The Morality of Capitalism".

Muhammad Yunus's new book Creating A World Without Poverty is published in America this week by the excellent imprint PublicAffairs Books.

And some other posts on autobiographies by Pervez Musharraf, Sasthi Brata, and Barack Obama.

[A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.]

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

On Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring The World

Many writers of fiction attempt on occasion to set their work a few decades back from the present, sometimes to recall the world of their childhood when their sense experience was sharpest, sometimes to explore on behalf of their readers the question of how we got here now from the place we were then, and sometimes just to relieve themselves from the pressures and risks of interpreting the contemporary world. The near past, then, is a place more familiar than unfamiliar.

But going further back in time that the recent past - into another age altogether, as does Orhan Pamuk in his great novel My Name Is Red, set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, or Kiran Nagarkar in his book Cuckold, set in the Rajput kingdom of Mewar around the same time - is a different matter altogether. Personal experience or the testimony of family members no longer counts for anything; a library is more useful than memory. Perhaps this is why works of fiction set in the distant past feature fictional recreations of actual historical personages - Mirabai in Nagarkar's book, Giacomo Casanova in Sandor Marai's Casanova in Bolzano. Such figures serve as a familiar anchor, as it were, in the ghostly world of distant time - they become representative of an entire age. Indeed there is a thrill in seeing them come alive, living in the moment, as they never can in history books or even biographies, which are obliged to see them through a different lens.

Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring The World, one of the unlikeliest bestsellers of this season, summons from relative obscurity two Germans of the early nineteenth century: the great naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose studies of the natural life of Latin America were revolutionary in their time, and the mathematical genius Carl Friedrich Gauss, still spoken of today as perhaps the greatest mathematician since antiquity. Describing the efforts of these two men to measure the world - Humboldt on arduous journeys, Gauss from the comfort of his study - at a time when "things weren't yet used to being measured", Kehlman presents a study of the single-mindedness of scientific genius, leavened by the comedy of their family life and dealings with society.

The novel's lightness of tone is crucial, because it gives it two registers, rather than the single one available from a more dedicated historical reconstruction in which the narratorial voice subsumes itself to the characters and their environment. While Kehlman faithfully summons up period details and the specifics of the work of his protagonists (he has a doctorate on the work of Immanuel Kant, so he knows the territory), he does not historicise his language - his characters are shown thinking and speaking not in archaisms but in a contemporary idiom. This is a clever compromise. The novel's language thus is always skittering on the edge of comedy, a comedy that exploits the contrast of the infinite patience of the protagonists with the challenges of measuring the world, and their absolute puzzlement with the behaviour of other, normal human beings with modest intellectual capacities and varied wants.

Gauss, for instance, feels irritation with the fact that a superior spirit such as himself should be housed in such a sickly body, while his son Eugen should be bursting with health when he is only "a common or garden-variety creature". On another occasion the boy Gauss, who can compute equations in a flash, feels incredulity at how slowly people seem to think. "Sometimes he managed to accommodate himself to them, but then it became undendurable again." On his wedding night, as his hands slide over his bride's body, Gauss sees that "a sliver of moon appeared between the curtains, pale and watery, and he was ashamed to realize that in this very moment he suddenly understood how to make approximate corrections in mismeasurements of the trajectories of planets. He wished he could jot it down…." That image of Gauss, his fingers on skin and his eye on the moon, might serve as a précis of the novel's method.

The defining feature of a historical novel is its setting in time, and the question of time is given an added edge in Kehlman's book by the way his protagonists themselves feel the yoke of time on their backs. Gauss, for instance, is acutely conscious of how speedily civilization is progressing scientifically , and thinks it unjust that "you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not". Readers will smile at this thought, for of course reading is one of the ways in which we can escape being held prisoner by time. Even as Kehlman's readers join him in looking backwards, his protagonists are looking forwards, to a day when everything about the world will be known, thanks in part to their researches.

Another of the novel's little ironies is that both Humboldt and Gauss have no time for art, and think it a frivolous pursuit, a distraction from the main business of life. Science is about fidelity to empirical truth, but artists remarkably "held deviation to be a strength". Humboldt is shown in one scene criticising novels in which the author ties his inventions "to the names of real historical personages". That the Humboldt who does so is himself a name tied to a historical personage in a novel is one of the many witty touches in this charming book.

Here is an essay by Kehlmann on the writing of historical fiction: "Out of this World". I am not sure if his remark that "As a German writer, I can only marvel at Latin American novels; unlike their authors, I can't just invent a beautiful woman who flies away while hanging up washing, or creatures that are half-man, half-snake" is meant seriously or as a sly barb.

And here is an old post, on Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Coming up in July

I haven't quite worked out what fiction I'll be writing about next month, other than Naguib Mahfouz's just-released Karnak Café.

But there'll be pieces on some splendid new non-fiction, including:

An essay on Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose, on the occasion of the release of The Oxford India Nehru, an anthology of Nehru's best essays and speeches

Banker to the Poor, the autobiography of the Bangladeshi economist and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus

Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels With Herodotus

Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone

and possibly Rajmohan Gandhi's recent biography of Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, July 02, 2007

In Pragati

My recent piece in Mint on Guy Sorman's account of contemporary China The Year of the Rooster also appears today in the new issue of Pragati, the monthly magazine of The Indian National Interest.