Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Middle Stage's Best Books of 2008 – Non-Fiction

The Middle Stage wishes itself, (why not? good cheer begins at home) and all its readers, a very happy New Year, rich with books, talk, companionship, love, food, exercise, travel, and plenty of sleep. Links at the end of some paragraphs lead to longer pieces on the books cited. A separate survey of the best fiction of 2008 is here. I hope you will excuse the great length of these two essays they are meant to be read at leisure.

Political dissidents rarely have the doors of power opened for them, and when this does happen, they often find themselves swept away or compromised by the pressures of practical politics, of action rather than reaction. One man – also a man of letters – who has made a success both of dissidence against the might of a totalitarian state and then of political office is the Czech writer Vaclav Havel, who came to power in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989. To The Castle And Back (Portobello in the UK, Alfred A. Knopf in the USA), Havel’s memoir of his fourteen years (1989-2003) in Prague Castle, is among the three or four most satisfying political autobiographies I have ever read. Havel not only describes how political life is a mix of the profound and the banal, of the thrust of policy and the conformity of protocol, but dramatises it by mixing long, thoughtful answers to questions from an interviewer, Karel Hvizdala, with his own notes, memos to Castle staff, and diary entries from his years in office. This makes for a highly appealing structure: here the President can be heard meditating on the relationship of our actions to the world (“We should, after all, do everything seriously, as though the future of the world depended on it, and, as a matter of fact, in some ways it does”); there he is found arriving to the conclusion that “We need a longer hose for watering”, or asking “In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it?” Havel’s place in history, grand themes, fidelity to language, powers of self-scrutiny, and distinctive organization of his material make for a work that may come to be seen as a classic of political literature. Longer essay here.
The theme of the Australian diplomat Walter Crocker’s book Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate (Random House India) might be said to be the one implicit in Havel’s: that is, “the dilemma faced by men of goodwill who acquire power and responsibility is remorseless”. This is why, although Crocker’s work, written only a few months after Nehru’s death in 1964, is highly critical of its subject on a number of counts – in particular economics, foreign policy, and the delegation of power – it takes a realistic and holistic view of Nehru’s contribution to Indian life, and leaves us finally with a sense of admiration for Nehru’s enormous intelligence, ideational power, energy, and discipline. Crocker’s unexpected but prescient conclusion, from the vantage point of 1964, that “Nehru’s rule will leave some mark on India, but not as much as is expected” has proved to be right on the mark. Both anecdotal and analytical, Crocker’s beautifully measured and composed account seemed to me a model of political biography.
Steve Coll’s brilliant and complex The Bin Ladens (Allen Lane) was simultaneously the biography of the world’s most feared terrorist and the story of the great business empire founded by his father. Most of us only know Osama Bin Laden the rootless holy warrior, spewing hatred against the West, America, modernity, and secularization, but his positions have not always been so consistent. He was the son – one of 54 children from several wives – of one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest business scions, Mohammed Bin Laden, and in his youth he worked as a junior executive alongside his brothers and cousins in the family construction firm. Tracing the radicalization of the black sheep of the Bin Laden family against the expanding range and influence of the Bin Laden business group in the nineteen-eighties and -nineties, Coll, formerly of The Washington Post and now at The New Yorker, brings together the many strands and leanings of a remarkable family, and can in fact be read as a Tolstoyan exploration of what Coll calls “the universal grammar of families”. The long section devoted to Salem Bin Laden, Osama’s gregarious, westernized, pleasure-loving, high-living eldest brother, transported me totally into the world of this man. A longer essay on the book here, and here is Coll's piece "Young Osama".

Some of the best works of Indian non-fiction in 2008 can be arranged neatly into pairs. All Indians now know that the Naxalite insurgency presents a serious threat to the stability of the Indian state, but beyond this our comprehension of the world and the motivations of the Naxals is shadowy. Indeed, “Naxalite” has become a convenient banner under which tendentious arrests and gross human-rights abuses are conducted; it would seem that any Indian citizen is potentially a Naxal. The journalist Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country (Penguin Viking) travels through the desperately poor and backward regions of Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Nepal to tell us the tragic story of the rebels, the Indian state, and the people caught in between. Chakravarti iconoclastically mixes travelogue, interviews, reportage and analysis, quoting here from a Maoist document, there from a taped exchange between police officers, and ferreting out both state apathy and revolutionary excess with an unflinching and often mordant gaze (longer essay here).
And Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night (Random House India) does for Kashmir what Chakravarti does for the Naxal heartland, showing us a land and its people that has suffered both the negligent eye and the bruising fist of the Indian state far more than it has partaken of its privileges and freedoms. Peer’s book is both reportage and memoir: he recalls how the Kashmiri resistance spiralled around him as he himself reached adulthood in the late eighties, and then, having become a reporter for a periodical in New Delhi, he travels through Kashmir in the early years of the new century, sympathetically logging testimonies and bearing witness. There is a heartfelt poetry in Peer’s book to go with the gloomy prose of machine guns, arrests, and curfews, such as in his plangent description of Srinagar as a city of absences. Longer essay here.
The historian Vinay Lal’s The Other Indians (HarperCollins in India, UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press in the USA) was an fascinating account of the history of Indians in America, from the curious and often socially marginal mix of farm labourers, students, and political activists of the early twentieth century to the mass of economically, academically, and politically influential diaspora in America today. Among the best sections of the book is a passage on the Ghadr party, a formation of Indian nationalists and revolutionaries in early twentieth-century America (longer essay here).
Anand Teltumbde’s blistering j’accuse Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop (Navayana), which takes its title from the poem "Strange Fruit" written by Abel Meeropol in 1939, was a disturbing study of the facts and the larger meanings of the heinous massacre of four members of a Dalit family in Khairlanji village in eastern Maharashtra in 2006. Indeed, Teltumbde's book might also have been called The Other Indians for what it showed us about the persistence of caste prejudice at the level of both state and society. and about the changing dynamics of power within caste groups in Indian today. For Teltumbde, Khairlanji is an atrocity so chilling that it “transcends the context of space and time and interrogates our claim to be humans. It is a mirror that shows us for what we are...It should not be viewed as a mere 'caste issue' to be dealt with by Dalits alone."
The impact of the moving image on India in the last century has been immense, and the magisterial essays of Chidananda Das Gupta’s Seeing Is Believing (Penguin Viking) made for what must be one of the most fulfilling books ever written on Indian cinema. Das Gupta argues that, although film originated in the West and was associated there with the march of science, its transplantation in the early twentieth century to a pre-industrial society heavily invested in faith and in myth instantly made it a very different thing in India. To this day Indian films, under their glitzy surfaces, draw upon the currents and structures of Indian religiosity: “the currents of traditional belief are kept alive beneath a modern exterior”. Whether analysing the phenomenon of Indian movie stars leveraging their fictive personae to become political heavyweights, thinking about the place of the song as “the transcendental element in the language of popular cinema”, or making a distinction between folk culture and pop culture, the range and shrewedness of his Das Gupta’s linkages is enormously satisfying. Longer essay here.
Paul Ginsborg’s Democracy: Crisis and Renewal (Profile) synthesised a huge amount of old and new scholarship to arrive at sophisticated insights into the quality of and possibilities for world democracy today. Ginsborg’s book is all the more attractive because it is set up as a debate between John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, two of the most demanding influential theorisers and critics of democracy. Whether on the subject of how capitalism and consumerism have eroded the public sphere or the role of the family as a school for a thriving democracy, Ginsborg offers us much to think about as we enter our own election year and ponder, in a winter of fear and discontent, how to reform and refine our own democracy. After reading this book I also found much of interest in Ginsborg’s older book The Politics of Everyday Life. Longer essay here.
The Lebanese novelist and historian Amin Maalouf is the author of several excellent books, including On Identity, which I bought very profitably for one pound in a damaged-books store in 2001 and which taught me – and I daresay would have something to offer to most Indians – many useful things about how to think about my relationship to family, society, history, and nation. Maalouf’s new book, Origins (Picador in the UK, Farrar Straus Giroux in the USA), was a very unusual reconstruction, built almost entirely on the leads provided by a trunk of old letters, of the life of his grandfather, an immense, iconoclastic teacher and scholar named Botros, in a small village in Lebanon in the early years of the twentieth century. A strident humanist and universalist in a provincial and sectarian society, Botros wishes for nothing less than the day when “the East [will] catch up with the West and – why not – outstrip it”. Origins is hot with his ringing assertions and demands, with Maalouf’s own voice providing a quieter counterpoint. Among the notes that Maalouf strikes is one that every reader can relate to: that of not taking old people seriously enough, or of reducing them to a bag of burdens and eccentricities. “Elderly persons are a treasure that we squander in cajoleries and blandishments; then we remain forever unsatisfied,” writes Maalouf. “[B]y reviving the past, we enlarge our living space.” A most unusual and charming book.
Leszek Kolakowski’s Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? (Basic Books in the USA, Allen Lane in the UK), a tour through the riches of the Western philosophical tradition by one of the world’s greatest living philosophers, was a little gem of trenchant thinking and compressed erudition. Kolakowski knows that his material is vast, so he synthesises the thought of each figure he takes up – Socrates, Heraclitus, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Bergson, Nietszche, among others – into a question, and shows how his subject answered that question, anew, in a convincing and yet startling way. Descartes’ aim was “to find the absolute beginning of knowledge, the starting point that is immune to error and doubt”; Aquinas holds, against the might of the Christian tradition, that “the fact that we are corporeal beings is not a minor or contingent matter, the result of chance or a reason for shame; it is part of the definition of our existence; Locke demonstrated what seems obvious to us today, that “liberty, property, political equality, religious toleration and the people as judge of the executive power – all these elements of the social contract are connected”. The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek work philosophos, a lover of wisdom or truth, and Kolakowski shows us the human mind arrowing away towards that goal through the centuries and allows us to participate in the thrill of these endeavours. I always feel especially awake after reading Kolakowski: read, for instance, his piece "What the Past is For".
The historian David Levering Lewis’s God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe 570-1215 (Norton) was a marvellous reconstruction, wide in its historical sweep – acute in its points of rest or focus, and narrated in the splendid lancing sentences of a masterly writer of prose – of the ascent of the newly emergent religion of Islam in Europe in the Middle Ages and its sallies upon Christendom. Lewis shows how the rule over a part of Spain for nearly four centuries by an enlightened Muslim dynasty, the Umayyids, was a kind of golden age of religious tolerance, cosmopolitan values, and science and learning in medieval Europe. He argues that today “much of the Muslim world stands in relationship to Europe and the United States as much of a ramshackle Christian world once stood in relationship to a highly advanced Islamic one”. Lewis shows us how interconnected our civilizational pasts really are, and how we cannot possibly take a us-versus-them, boxed-up approach to history, much less the present. Lewis is also the author of a two-volume biography of WEB Du Bois and another of Martin Luther King.
Lastly, I also found much to enjoy in Chitrita Banerji’s whistlestop tour of Indian cuisine Eating India (Penguin Viking), Alice Albinia’s massively erudite study of the Indus river Empires of the Indus (Hachette India), and the study by Martin Dupuis and Keith Boeckelman of the early years in politics of America’s new President, Barack Obama: The New Face of American Politics (Praeger).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Middle Stage's Best Books of 2008 – Fiction

The Middle Stage – forgive these sniffles; I have a bad cold – wishes all its readers a merry Christmas. A similar list for non-fiction follows next weekend. A link at the end of some paragraphs leads to a longer essay on the book. A minor but nevertheless important aspect of writing fiction is the work of finding a title that brings out in three or four words the themes and the tone of the entire work (no other phrase one composes is repeated as often in the world) and while putting this list together I was struck by how many of these works – particularly those by Saramago, Morrison, Nemirovsky, Lahiri, and Adiga – have titles that are both apt and memorable.
Joseph O'Neill’s pitch-perfect Netherland (Knopf in America; Fourth Estate in the UK) beautifully dredged the agitation beneath the placid and unprepossessing exterior of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker in New York. Hans – that is how we always think of him, by his first name, because of his vulnerability – is going through a marital crisis, and while it seems to the reader that his wife is at fault, it is Hans who takes the blame for it. Miserable, Hans finds an unlikely redemption in a motley band of cricketers – of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Jamaican extraction – who meet and play every weekend, and who evoke the multiracial and multicultural medley that is the future of our world. The marvel of O’Neill’s narration is rooted in the voice – rich with regret and yearning, shot through with doubts and qualifications – he finds for Hans, and his painstakingly laid links between self, family, sport, and life. Writing about Netherland in an essay called "Two Paths For The Novel", the novelist Zadie Smith offered the criticism: “It seems perfectly done – in a sense that's the problem.” Longer piece here.
The life of the Russo-French (and Jewish) novelist Irène Némirovsky was tragically terminated at Auschwitz in 1942, and it took the publication of her undiscovered novel Suite Française in the late nineties to restore her to the attention of the world. I haven't read Suite Française, but All Our Worldly Goods (Chatto & Windus), at once intimate and detached, slow and swift, telling through dramatic close-ups and long shots the story of a couple, Pierre and Agnes, and their family across the two World Wars, seemed to me to thrillingly deploy a range of sophisticated fictional techniques towards both the revelation of highly particularised emotional states and the architecture of an entire social order. Némirovsky's brilliant one- and two-page portraits of her minor characters are worth studying as much as anything else in her work. I thought this book one of the moving and beautiful depictions of a marriage that I have ever come across in literature.
I didn’t much care for Jhumpa Lahiri’s previous book of stories The Interpreter of Maladies, but I found the work in her new collection, Unaccustomed Earth (Random House in India; Knopf in America; Bloomsbury in the UK) extraordinarily good. Lahiri is like an GP who only examines and ministers to one set of patients – Bengalis in America – but that doesn’t matter, as the world she finds within them is a very large place. These slow-burning stories, discreetly and patiently accumulating details, observations, and epiphanies, lead the reader to that state of heightened feeling and sensitivity that all great art does. Longer essay here.
The Portuguese novelist José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998, is an absolute original whose work – with its spiralling sentences punctuated only by full stops and a rash of commas (the relationship between Saramago's syntax and his meanings is worth an essay on its own) and enormous and minatory paragraphs, leavened by a wizened and gnomic narrative sensibility like that of a very clever grandmother – resembles that of none other. His novels always start from some intriguing and disquieting premise, and Death At Intervals (Harvill Secker in the UK; Harcourt in America) considers what it might be like if death suddenly abandoned humanity, and every person could contemplate eternal life. Would we be happy, depressed, bored, weary, gloomy? What would happen to human institutions? Would we still believe in God? Surprisingly, the most affecting character in Saramago’s book is Death herself (whom Saramago imagines as “a skeleton wrapped in a sheet”, so old and hoary that she “can no longer remember from whom she received the instructions to carry out the job she was charged with”), struggling, after thousands of years on the job, to cope with the burden of humanity.
Some people consider Philip Roth the greatest living American novelist today, but my vote would go to Toni Morrison, whose ninth novel A Mercy (Knopf in America; Chatto & Windus in the UK) was a small masterpiece. Morrison is one of those rare writers who attempt sophisticated experiments with voice and narrative structure while also attracting a mass readership because of her compelling characters and situations. A Mercy gives us, in a language of sculpted cadences and great emotional force, the stories of five individuals – white, black, and Native American – battling against society, the elements, and their private griefs on a farm in Virginia in 1690, at the dawn of American history. "The structure is the argument" – this remark by Morrison (in an interview, naturally, not in a novel) is to my mind a highly germinal and revelatory observation about what novels are about and how they communicate their meanings differently from other forms of discursive prose.
The Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany scored a hit last year with his novel The Yacoubian Building, a portrait of Cairo society as seen through one building, and his follow-up, Chicago (HarperCollins in America; Fourth Estate in the UK), was just as good. Some readers find Aswany, with his love of sex and seediness, his gossipy narrators, and his lush language, too coarse, but these criticisms cannot obscure the fact that he is an extraordinarily deft writer, able to work dozens of characters around while seeming absolutely interested in the interior life of each. Set in a university department with many expatriate Egyptian students and teachers, Chicago daringly turns a great American city into a little Egypt. Longer essay here.
For a long way through David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk (Bloomsbury UK and Bloomsbury USA), a fictional retelling of the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan’s years in England, I remained skeptical about Leavitt’s project. But the book – which is narrated from the point of view of several British characters, including Ramanujan’s associate and mentor GH Hardy, but leaves Ramanujan inscrutable, a cipher – finally won me over with its majestic orchestration of voice and period detail. Its second half, with its superb recreation of Britain in crisis during the First World War, provided some of my best reading days this year. Longer essay here.
Books, friendship, and memory are perhaps three of the most reliable consolations of life. One of the most beautiful evocations of friendship in literature – the way it makes the simplest things seem poignant or funny, the dialectical manner in which it arrives at the meanings of things, the gestures by which it dissolves gloom and heals grief, or by sharing joy doubles it – is to be found in José Maria Eça de Queirós marvellously sweet and sublime The City and the Mountains (New Directions in the US; Dedalus in the UK), first published in the original Portuguese in 1901 and republished this year in a striking new translation by Margaret Jull Costa. Jacinto, the wealthy, pleasure-loving protagonist of the story, is utterly worn out by the sensual surfeit and moral squalor of Civilization, and can only be rescued if he can be led away from Paris to the ruder world of the mountains by his country-bred friend Ze Fernandes (who is the narrator of the story). Eça's story combines a satire on materialism and urban sophistication, the comedy of dashed expectations, and swooning descriptions of the wonders of air, light, trees, and skies – of “the briefest beauties, be they of air or earth".
The careful detailing, corrosive rage, and violent juxtapositions of Aravind Adiga's Between The Assassinations (Picador India) made, I thought, for a much more original and insightful study of the ugly binaries of Indian life than his Booker-Prize winning novel The White Tiger. The diseased, broken, or marginal figures seething at themselves and the world in the small town of Kittur in the mid-eighties made for an uncommonly vivid and striking catalogue of India's disabling hierarchies and rationalisations. Longer essay here.
Anuradha Roy's An Atlas of Impossible Longing (Picador in India; Quercus in the UK) was, at the level of language and of structure, a clear head above most Indian novels, and its rapturous descriptions of houses and landscapes were especially memorable. One of the signs of how much care has gone into this work arrives two-thirds of the way into the novel, when we are jolted out of the omniscient third-person narration on which we have been sailing thus far, and thrown into the first-person viewpoint of Mukunda, who is a kind of late protagonist. Longer essay here.
Some of the stories in Kunal Basu’s The Japanese Wife (HarperCollins India) were marvels of fictional roving compressed into small narrative spaces, especially the title story, which records the yearning of a schoolteacher in a village in Bengal for a spouse he has never set his eyes on (longer essay here).
The Adventures of Amir Hamza (Random House in India; Knopf in America), Musharraf Ali Farooqui's English translation of Ghalib Lakhnavi's nineteenth-century rendition of a popular Mughal epic, was a winning combination of humming language and swashbuckling storytelling. Farooqui's vivid translation thrusts glittering lists and catalogues of the world's delights at us, and the book's syntax is similarly ornate and pleasure-giving, as if drawing the reader into the folds of an enchanted cloak. Books like Farooqui's, drunken on the glories of the world and of language, provide a neccesary counterpoint to modern conventions of narrative prose and the self-made walls and corridors of realism.
Another story from Indian antiquity, the Buddhist monk's Ashvaghosha's Saundarananda or Handsome Nanda (Clay Sanskrit Library/New York University Press) is, on the surface, the story of a stubborn young man's initiation into the truth and power of Buddhist mindfulness and spiritual discipline, but it also delightfully evokes all the giddy pleasures of sensual life even as it decries them. Ashvaghosha's highly metaphorical language and expansive manner seem to be continually in tension with his message. Longer essay here.
Lastly, I immensely enjoyed the brilliant opening section – but only the opening section– of Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence (Alfred Knopf in the US, Jonathan Cape in the UK) , which shows us an Italian traveller arriving in the court of King Akbar. Many characteristically Rushdean tropes are woven into this account of Akbar, his family and court, and the stranger – for example the idea that “witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough”, or the inversion of the hierarchy between reality and fantasy in Akbar's opinion, regarding his imagined lover Jodha, that "it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the non-existent beloved who was real”. The rest of the book I thought a disappointment.
Previous lists of the best books of 2006 and 2007 are here and here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Best of the year lists

Coming up over the next two weekends: the Middle Stage's choices of the best books of 2008 in fiction, and then in non-fiction.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night

There are many books now in circulation on Kashmir and its discontents, but possibly none as haunting and intimate as this one. Basharat Peer has been a name in Indian journalism for some years now for his reporting on Kashmir for Rediff and Tehelka, but his new book Curfewed Night, a blend of memoir and reportage, is probably the best first-hand account of the region—its beauty, its alienation, and its pain—available to thousands of interested readers more simply and securely Indian than Kashmiris are.

Indeed, Curfewed Night lifts the veil not just from a Kashmir that is no longer a part of mainstream experience and limps along on its own track, but also from an India that many of us are not willing to acknowledge. Here is India as a military power, holding its own citizens—or people that it asserts are its citizens—to ransom in a double bind of ineptitude and brutality.

Peer was born in 1977, the son of a bureaucrat in the state civil service and the grandson of the village headmaster, in Seer village in Anantnag district, Jammu and Kashmir. His childhood was relatively serene and uncomplicated, bound up with the circadian rhythms of village life and the seasonal cycles of farm work and winter slowdown. Here is an idyllic village scene from early in the book:

On most Saturday evenings throughout my childhood in the mid eighties, a blue Willys jeep would drive to my village in southern Kashmir. It would follow the black, ribbon-like road dividing vast expanses of paddy and mustard fields in a small valley guarded by the mighty Himalayas. Two or three floor mud and brick houses with tin and thatch roofs faced the road. A few were brightly painted and most were naked brick; dust and time had coloured their rough timber windows and doors a deep brown. A ground level room in every third house had been converted into a shop. Villagers who routinely sat on the wooden shopfronts to gossip, talk politics and cricket would wave at the jeep. A not-so-tall man in his early thirties, almost always wearing a suit, a matching tie, and brown Bata shoes would raise his right hand in greeting. If you saw him up close, you could see his deep brown eyes, straight nose, plump cheeks, and the beginnings of a belly. The Willys would slowly come to a halt in a village square, not far from a blue and green milestone that bore the name of our village: Seer, 0 kilometres.

Father would step out near a modest, naked brick house next to a grocery store and a pharmacy...
What is so charming about this passage is that although Peer is describing his own father, we are given this information at the very end. We see the older Mr.Peer as the villagers see him, and although he is one of them, his position in the wider world gives him a kind of glow, a halo, when he comes back home to his humble origins.

Sent at the age of 11 to a boarding school a few miles from the village, the young Basharat feasts on books by Kipling, Dickens, and Stevenson. His connection to India, like that of many Kashmiri youth, is remote; he knows it only as the force that rigs elections and rules by decree from a distant centre. Then the rising pitch of the demand for self-determination in the winter of 1989-90, and the white heat of the Indian response, destroys the delicate balance of the old world for good. “That winter began my political education,” writes Peer. “It took the form of acronyms: JKLF, JKSLF, BSF, CRPF. To go with it I learnt new phrases: frisking, crackdown, bunker, search, identity card, arrest and torture.” At school, the students spontaneously stop singing the national anthem. Peer hears of teenagers slightly older than him crossing the border to receive training in arms from Pakistan; he finds boys from his own school absent after the vacations after the exodus of Pandits from Kashmir and he is herded with other males of his village to camps where their affiliations are scrutinized. Briefly, he too wants to enter the world of guns and glory, but is talked out of it by his family. He is sent off to study in Aligarh and then Delhi, far from the war zone.

In Delhi, though, Peer gains an awareness not available to him in Kashmir of “the various Indias that existed, Indias that I liked and cared about, Indias that were unlike the militaristic power it seemed in Kashmir”. Peer enlists in the media boom at the turn of the century and becomes a reporter. He returns to his homeland to try and be the voice for its troubles, even as he knows he is one of those fortunate Kashmiris who can leave for better prospects any time they like.

Peer’s book is so good because it moves skilfully between close-ups of people and the long view of history, and because it describes the scars not only on the physical but also the psychological landscape of Kashmir. He treats his subjects with sensitivity and sympathy, and they respond graciously in turn. His work illuminates many vexing predicaments that cannot be accounted for by mere statistics. For example, he shows how, even when an innocent is killed on suspicion of being a militant, his family is counselled not to seek justice for him because it will only mean further trouble for them. The living must resign themselves to the loss of a loved one, and try and stay under the radar of the authorities as if they are not victims but criminals.

Meanwhile, for every person who is confirmed dead, there is another who has disappeared without a trace: Kashmir actually has an Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. Kashmir, in Peer’s reckoning, is a twilight realm of the dead, the absent, and those left behind who furtively eke out a perilous existence, caught between soldier and militant. The living are fortunate to be still standing—"In these times, every day is a gift", says one of them. But it is not much of a gift, for in order to survive the living, too, “have buried and cremated the individuals they had once been”. Srinagar, the capital, a medieval city dying in a modern war. It is empty streets, locked shops, angry soldiers and boys with stones. It is several thousand military bunkers, four golf courses, and three bookshops. It is wily politicians repeating their lies about war and peace to television cameras and small crowds gathered by the promise of an elusive job or a daily fee of a few hundred rupees. It is stopping at sidewalks and traffic lights when the convoys of rulers and their patrons in armoured cars, secured by machine guns, rumble on broken roads. It is staring back or looking away, resigned. Srinagar is never winning or never being defeated.

[Srinagar newspapers often] print headlines announcing deaths in red. Some run a box on the front page giving the daily, updated statistics of the dead. Srinagar is being in a coffee shop, in an office, outside of a college, crossing a bridge and feeling, touching, breathing history, politics and war, in unmarked signs and landmarks. It is seeing a bridge, a clearing, a nondescript building, and knowing that men fell here, that a boy was tortured here.

[...] Srinagar is a city of bunkers. Of the world's cities, it has the highest military presence. But Srinagar is also a city of absences. It has lost its nights to a decade and a half of curfews, and de facto curfews.
Peer has not only travelled widely to put faces and names and stories to the situation that goes just by the name "Kashmir" but, as is evident from some of these sentences, he has also found a language equal to the burden of representing the anger and loss of an entire world, of a whole generation disfigured by armed conflict. If Curfewed Night offers no solutions, it is because there is already no shortage of them. What is in short supply is the courage to admit culpability and the will to begin on a new footing, and that redemptive state cannot bloom without books such as this one.

And some links to further reading: "Mutiny In The Mountains", a recent piece by Peer; "Death In Kashmir", "The Birth of a Nation", and "Kashmir: The Unending War", a three-part essay by Pankaj Mishra from 2000 (and an exchange between some readers of the piece and Mishra); "The Trouble With Eden" and "How Pluralism Goes Bad" by Mukul Kesavan, from 2008 and 2006 respectively (and again a response to Kesavan and Kesavan's reply); "Azadi", a recent essay in Outlook by Arundhati Roy; "The Question in Kashmir" by Pratap Bhanu Mehta; "Think The Unthinkable" by Vir Sanghvi, "Independence Day For Kashmir" by Swaminathan S. Aiyar, "A New Compact With J & K" by Nitin Pai, and "Rethinking Kashmir Politics" by Yoginder Sikand, four essays published at almost the same time in August this year; "The Kashmir Conundrum" by Harinder Baweja; "Report From Kashmir" by Amitava Kumar from 2002; "Kashmir: The Roads Ahead" by the foreign policy expert Stephen P. Cohen, from 1995; "One-Sided Coverage", an argument by Sevanti Ninan on the representation of the Kashmiri viewpoint in the Indian media and a recent interview with the journalist Chindu Sreedharan on the subject of media coverage of the Kashmir issue; "A Target Forever", a recent piece by SAR Geelani, the Delhi University lecturer first sentenced to death by an Indian court on a charge of involvement on the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and later acquitted in 2005 by the Supreme Court; and lastly, "On The Making of Jashn-e-Azadi" by the documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who has also written about the reception of his controversial film here.

A list of links to selected Internet resources on Kashmir maintained by the UC Berkeley Library can be found here. And a good book to read on the Kashmir dispute is Sumantra Bose's Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths of Peace (2002), from which a brief excerpt is here. A reading list of other books on Kashmir with brief comments on each can be found here.

[A shorter version of this piece appeared last Saturday in Mint)

Friday, November 28, 2008

In a time of terror

For all those who have written in the last two days expressing concern, I would just like to say that I am safe and fine, although a little shaken like thousands of others who were in the Colaba area when the shooting broke out on Wednesday night. And like all those who were fortunate to emerge unscathed, I grieve today for those around us who lost their lives, and for their bereaved family members.

I was at a restaurant in Fort with some friends at 9.30 pm on Wednesday; we were all coming from the opening of the show for which I'd written a short text that I'd posted here last week. There were some journalists among us, and from the information they were receiving it swiftly became apparent that the trouble was of considerable magnitude. My sister, who is also a journalist, was with us, and my most difficult moments of the evening were in trying to restrain her as she bravely decided to head out towards the conflict zone. I dragged her, against her will, into a car in which our friends were leaving, and we made our way down Marine Drive and through Napean Sea Road to Peddar Road, where another friend of ours lives. Like many others who put duty over self, my sister kept insisting that she had to go, and so we stood out on Peddar Road at 2am waiting for a police jeep that could take her to JJ Hospital. My friends Amit Varma, Sonia Faleiro, and Rahul Bhatia, and their respective partners, all of whom had also come to the show, were even closer to the trouble, and were only able to leave Colaba the next morning.

The crisis still rages on; there is no knowing yet if there are further horrors to come. What we do know that is that we now live in one of the terror capitals of the world, vulnerable to infiltration from both land and sea and full of soft targets. Yet, if there is something to cherish at a time like this, then it is the bravery of so many policemen who heroically laid down their lives in combat, and the many acts of individuals to help save the lives of others or give succour to the wounded. Perhaps on the other side of these days of grief and anger, there will be a new determination and a new beginning for all of us.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On Aravind Adiga's Between The Assassinations

In one of the stories of Aravind Adiga’s Between The Assassinations, a book that follows his Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger out into the world but was written before it, we see a quack sexologist, Ratnakara Shetty, on his way to the town dargah to sell his pills. As Shetty approaches the site he comes across the familiar Indian melee of pathetic supplicants – beggars, lepers, and the handicapped, including one especially grotesque specimen with a stump of a leg and, where there should be arms, “little brown stubs like a seal’s flippers”. Ratnakara Shetty leaves behind this “sorrowful parade of humanity” and walks on. Soon he is surrounded by yet another group, this time superficially normal, that also throbs with pain and despair: those afflicted by venereal disease.
Ratnakara Shetty’s story appears late enough in Adiga’s book for us to realise that Shetty himself is part of a “sorrowful parade of humanity” of protagonists, all of whom are denizens of Kittur, a fictional South Indian town. The two assassinations of the (striking and attractive) title are those of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and her son Rajiv in 1991, and the book is an intense examination – indeed an interrogation – of a small Indian town of the nineteen-eighties: its languages, its mores, its diversity of castes, classes, and religions and the many hierarchies within and between them, its white and black economies, the way its geography reveals its history, and the human encounters and non-encounters that determine the texture of its everyday life.
On a map of India Kittur would only be a finger-joint away from RK Narayan’s Malgudi, but the savagery of Adiga’s material and his slashing style make for an atmosphere worlds away from the older writer’s gentler ironies and greater tolerance for life’s injustices. Adiga’s main theme, one at which he hacks away relentlessly, is power relations – between rich and poor, master and servant, high-caste and low-caste, majority and minority, even haughty English and the low vernacular – and, as a consequence of these relations, moral perversion and subaltern rage.
All but a couple of the stories in his book are mounted on this kind of tableau of social and economic injustice, and draw their energy from its tensions. A recurring gesture in them is one person bowing before another with folded hands, feeding the power and arrogance of another with servility so as to stay afloat, hold on to one’s precarious place in the whole. Adiga’s protagonists differ from each other on the scale of their reactions to a callous and perverted system. The stories dramatise a range of responses from resigned acceptance to, even complicity with, the established order, to seething impotence and maddening rage.
Some of the stories, particularly those of the first half of the book, work very well because of the depth of Adiga’s characterisation of not just persons but place (several short interludes between the stories explore aspects of Kittur). Adiga’s grasp of the contours of the world he is mapping seems much surer here than in The White Tiger, which posited a facile binary vision of “the Light” and “the Darkness” in twenty-first century India. An attractive feature of his work is the verbal tics he gives to his characters, as if to suggest that where human relations are out of joint, language too must always come out chopped-up and inarticulate.
Ziauddin, the small, dark, chubby teashop boy of the opening story (and the most attractive character in the entire book) is always declaring his virtue and protesting his innocence in an adult world that both bullies him and laughs at him. At the bottom of Kittur’s social scale, he keeps having to insist that Muslims “don’t do hanky-panky” (this strange choice of phrase is an inspired one), and whenever someone misbehaves with him he uses exactly the same words to rebuke them. Mr. Lasrado, an ineffectual teacher in a boy’s school, cannot pronounce the “f” sound, and keeps addressing the other Jesuits as “Pather”. When the boys engineer a small explosion in his class, Lasrado’s rage has its sting drawn out by his cry of “You Puckers! Puckers!” Lasrado’s students are complacent about their access to English, to a good future, but not so another character in the book, the seller of pirated books ‘Xerox’ Ramakrishna, who “cannot read English, but knows that English words have power, and that English books have aura”. That aura of English leaves its mark on even a figure as marginal as Ziauddin, who is immobilised by its magic sound: “Whenever a word was said in English [in the shop] all work stopped: the boy would turn around and repeat the word at the top of his voice (‘Sunday-Monday, Goodbye, Sexy!’), and the entire shop shook with laughter.”
As is evident from these examples, Adiga’s style unites anger with incapacity, with grotesquerie. On several occasions his characters are compared to animals: the cripple whose arms looks like a seal’s flippers; the prisoner who leads his captors by the handcuffs “like a fellow taking two monkeys on a walk”; a prospective groom who is so deferential to his parents he seems “more the family’s domestic pet than the scion”; and the schoolmaster D’Mello who, extending the metaphor to all of humanity, taps his ribs while discussing Indian life with a favourite student and declares “The problem is here...There is a beast inside us.” The story about Ratnakara Shetty burns with images of male genitals blackened, withered, gnawed away by disease. All these seem physical symbols of a universe in which so much is scandalously wrong, yet everyone must carry on as if nothing is.
The lash of Adiga’s Swiftean rage is only weakened by repetition. As his book proceeds, and we repeatedly encounter the moral perversity of the rich and powerful (“In this life, a man is always a servant of his servants”) and the rancour of the poor and marginalised, the contingency and the tension of conflicts between characters hardens into a position and a politics that seem to lead us to the hidden hand of the narrator.
Even so, Between the Assassinations has a genuinely distinctive worldview and many satisfying passages. In a way, the best sections of this book, with their wealth of almost anthropological detail and careful peeling back of the interior lives of characters, might also be held up as the most lucid criticism of The White Tiger, with its cardboard-cutout protagonist speaking across several incompatible registers, muddled fictional thinking, and banal commentary. Indeed, Between The Assassinations might be read as an indictment not only of the bad faith of Indian social life but also of contemporary publishing, which jumped at Adiga’s other book but allowed this much worthier sibling to languish for so long.
And two old posts: one on the work of art as it takes the measure of a diseased social order in "Anger in Tahmiheh Milani's Two Women", and the other on the allure of English to characters who don't speak it in "English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games".

Monday, November 17, 2008

Coming up this week

Two bits of writing. First an essay on Aravind Adiga's new book Between the Assassinations, and then – finally – something new in the life of the Middle Stage and its rapidly aging author.

And as I never write posts only a paragraph long, a Merry Christmas to you all well in advance.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Paul Ginsborg's Democracy: Crisis and Renewal

Democracy: the idea comes from ancient Greece (where it was practised as direct democracy), then languished for aeons, resurfaced in the eighteenth century in a new form (that of representative democracy), made steady progress in the nineteenth century, and then caught fire and swept the field in the twentieth. It is now the dominant vision of the political good; even the most undemocratic regimes in the world utter democratic pieties or aspire for the fig leaf of rigged elections to cover their shame. Democracy rarely fulfils its intrinsic potential, but neither is it corrupted as easily as more utopian systems: it is both fragile and tough. It can be mostly procedural – limited to elections – or it can deeply permeate a society’s thought and everyday life. And though it can seem the most natural and practical of arrangements, yet it also requires a faith in human beings that amounts to a kind of idealism.

Indeed, it is idealism that animates Democracy: Crisis and Renewal, a new book by the historian and political theorist Paul Ginsborg, because, when interpreted statistically, democracy is not in crisis but is flourishing like never before. In 1926, Ginsborg writes, only 29 countries in the world had broadly convincing democratic credentials. But by 2000, 120 of the 192 nation-states of the United Nations could be said to be democratic. Communism, the greatest adversary of liberal democracy in the twentieth century, has collapsed except for one or two tenacious redoubts. Even though various kinds of dictatorship still prosper all over the world, not a day passes without democracy taking a small step forward, whether in China or Cuba.

The crisis, then, that Ginsborg detects in many of the world’s established democracies (among which we should include India), comes from within. And to help us make sense of what may be going wrong and how these troubles have been anticipated at different stages in the history of democratic thought, Ginsborg summons the spirits of two of the greatest modern political thinkers, the nineteenth-century contemporaries John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. Although neither man stood for democracy as we understand it now (we must remember that a concept seemingly so self-evident as universal suffrage is a fairly recent reality, and that these men lived under a different democratic sky), and there were many differences between them on the subject, both were integrally involved in the project to make all men and women “active subjects in both politics and society”, and in that this is one of the ideals of democracy they were both democratic. Much of what they had to say in their time with respect to democratic ideas remains relevant to present circumstances.

In Ginsborg’s reading, democracy is being undermined today by a complex of interrelated problems. Firstly (and this is a kind of paradox), liberal democracy has its roots in nineteenth-century European liberalism, which held that every adult citizen deserved, on the one hand, greater autonomy and private freedoms, and on the other, a right to vote and participate in representative government. But in many modern nation-states, politics and the political class have now become excessively professionalised; politicians are seen as being of a different breed from normal citizens. At the same time – and this is perhaps more serious – citizens have increasingly retreated into the private sphere, and are often involved in politics only to the extent of bemoaning its quality. Thus democracy has been “hollowed out”; it is not vigorous, but operates on a kind of autopilot. “Where politics does survive,” writes Ginsborg, “it has become media and personality politics, to be viewed rather than experienced”. Democracy is representative, but not participatory, when ideally it should be both.

Secondly, consumer capitalism has profoundly affected the rhythms and emphases of our lives, which are increasingly organised on a work-and-spend axis. The better-off classes are rich in comforts but often perceive themselves to be poor in time; the logic of choice and self-interest, while beneficial in many ways, has also produced what Ginsborg thinks to be “an extraordinary passivity and disinterest in politics”.

This crisis was foreseen by thinkers such as Benjamin Constant, who wrote in 1819 in his essay “The liberty of the ancients compared with that of the moderns”: “The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily”. The history of modern democracy is one of the (on some occasions mortal) struggle to expand the circle of enfranchisement to include all adult citizens. Therefore, by taking for granted what has been won for us at great cost, we open the door, however slightly, to a time when we may not have it again.

Lastly, in many of the world’s mature democracies, politics and big money have joined hands, and election spending has spiralled to preposterous levels. This not only makes a charade of democracy’s putative egalitarianism, it also makes it vulnerable to the Marxist critique of the state, which charges it with being the preserve of a particular class and of entrenched economic interests. The “classic liberal distinction between the political and economic spheres”, of the kind maintained by Mill, and today by his more determinedly ideological modern-day followers, can ignore serious issues about the relationship of democracy and economics.

Marx, on the other hand, was prescient in his understanding of how political and economic democracy must go hand in hand, and how, in a capitalist system, the worker is profoundly alienated from both the product of his labour and from himself, in ways that damage him or her and also the larger edifice of democracy (Marx’s diagnosis, though, was more acute than his proposed revolutionary solutions).

Ginsborg presents a number of responses to these issues of democratic destabilisation. Some of the best passages in his book are those which summarise Mill’s thoughts on citizenship as nourished in the soil of democratic freedom and openness. Mill imagined citizens as a group of “active and dissenting individuals”, self-disciplined, independent-minded, nurturing a strong sense of the meaning and worth of their individuality. “He loved eccentrics rather than conformists; he wanted everyone to make up their minds on the basis of information and deliberation.” Democracy had to be rooted in healthy disagreement and debate if it was not to wither, because “Mankind speedily becomes unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it” (We see from such sentences that Mill is so enjoyable not just because of the strength of his thought but also the marvellous rhythms of his syntax).

Although there is much talk now of the relationship between civil society and democracy on the one hand and the individual and democracy on the other, Mill also stressed the responsibilities in democracy of that other unit of social organisation, the family. Although the family in history had often stood for a system of authority, incarnating “the virtues of despotism, but also its vices”, the family might also serve as “the real school of the virtues of freedom”. Ginsborg takes up this theme:
Every family is different and each has its own individuality and history. Yet there can be little doubt that under modern consumer capitalism most families, for the reasons I have outlined, are overwhelmingly conformist (in Mill’s sense of the term) and self-absorbed. They are not, by and large, producers of active and dissenting individuals, nor do they contribute anything but a minimum part of their extraordinary energy and creativity to a public democratic sphere. It is as if, by a sleight of hand, they have been separated from politics. How to break through that separation, to release some of those energies so that they could contribute to the reinvention of democracy, is probably the greatest rebus of modern politics.[...] Families, civil society, and the democratic state need to exist in a mutually reinforcing equilibrium.
And here is Ginsborg again on the subject of individuals, time, and democratic participation:
The question of time in a society which is not time-rich but time-poor, and which is dominated by work-and-spend routines, is a very serious one. [But] it is not that individuals have no time, but that they are not accustomed to making time for the public sphere. Mill hits the nail on the head: “So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and everything that is usual appears natural.”
Putting aside a few hours every week for matters of public interest could quite easily come to seem customary, especially if those who now hold political power in democracies thought such an objective worth of encouragement. Under the honeyed routines of consumer capitalism, to pass a great many hours in hypermarkets and shopping centres has now become quite “natural”. A priori there is nothin to prevent time spent in improving democracy from becoming a habitual part of people’s lives. Such a prospect does not offer material rewards, but quite possibly a greater meaning to life – something which is often deeply felt as lacking today.
Ginsborg highlights innovative citizens’ initiatives around the world, such as a township in Brazil that practices a kind of direct democracy, or a proposal by two political theorists in America for a national “Deliberation Day” before elections to foreground the importance of political debate. He points to how, in our internet age, communication and access to information have been greatly improved for those who are prepared to make productive use of technology, and how global civil society is coming together in extraordinary ways in transnational movements of protest or proposal.

Ginsborg’s book closes with a thrilling dialogue in which the ghosts of Mill and Marx are seen carrying on their running debate from “a cloud somewhere over Europe” (Mill is wearing walking shoes, as he has just returned from a long botanical expedition; Marx has “recently been promoted from Purgatory”, and is carrying a book, which he keeps annotating). They begin to talk, to reflect over mistakes they might have made in the light of current realities; Marx agrees that he made a mistake in interpreting the birth of capitalism as its death throes, and agrees that “the rate of profit does not fall”, while Mill admits that he mistook the virtuous consequences of competition, and “over-estimated the self-righting capacities of the market”.

The best point in their discussions is made by the older man. Just as virtue is proved not by theoretical knowledge of the good but by good actions, says Mill, so too democracy, which we understand to be “virtue in its political guise”, can be established only through regular practice at large and small levels. Ginsborg’s book demands that we be not just subjects but also agents of democracy.

And here is a roundtable of essays on and debates around democracy, moving from larger overviews to more specific angles: "Democracy: a short history" and "Whatever happened to democracy?" by John Keane; "Downloading Democracy" by Robert Conquest; "Democracy and its global roots" by Amartya Sen; "Democracy as a way of life" by Sidney Hook; "Democracy for all?" by James Q. Wilson; "Liberal education and mass democracy" by Leo Strauss; "The essence of democracy: not majority rule" by Minoo Masani"; "Democracy's Global Crisis" by Ralph Peters; "Is voter ignorance killing democracy?" by Christopher Shea; "The myth of the rational voter" by Bryan Kaplan; "Aunt Kobra's Islamic Democracy" by Reza Aslan; "Islamist Parties and Democracy" by Husain Haqqani and Hillel Fradkin; "Identity, Immigration, and Democracy" by Francis Fukuyama; "Democracy's Forgotten Dimension" by Vaclav Havel; and "Reinventing democracy" by Jose Saramago.

And here are two essays each on Marx and Mill respectively: "The poet of dialectics" by Francis Wheen (whose biography of Marx is one of the most entertaining books on politics I have ever read) and "Karl Marx, journalist" by Christopher Hitchens; and "John Stuart Mill" by Richard Reeves (who runs the thinktank Demos and has just published a widely praised biography of Mill) and "The Forgotten Philosopher" by Alan Wolfe.

And lastly, an old post that shows that Mill and Gandhi might have had much to talk about: "Ramin Jahanbegloo on Gandhi's concept of freedom".

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama becomes President

On the successful culmination of Barack Obama's exhilarating campaign to become the forty-fourth President of the United States of America – a campaign that has reinvigorated the public sphere, restored to citizens a sense of their potential as political agents, and resuscitated the idea of politics itself as a force for and a vision of the good and of political office as one of the highest callings of secular life, ideas without which humanity has no future – here is an old post from May 2007 on Obama's The Audacity of Hope, a work that tells us a great deal about the character of the new President.

Here is Obama's long essay from last year: "Renewing American Leadership".

And three other posts on figures from the past century who practiced a visionary and morally ambitious politics: Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Vaclav Havel.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Forough Farrokhzad's Fridays

"And when I gained the road where all are free/ I fancied every stranger frowned at me" run a pair of lines in the nineteenth-century poet John Clare's plangent sonnet "I Dreaded Walking Where There Was No Path". To walk where there was no path, to search for that place where all were free, and to invite society's obloquy was also the fate, or perhaps the destiny, of the Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967), who began writing verse in her teens, broke with her marriage at twenty-one, took several lovers and with them notoriety, and, like Clare, eventually did time in a mental institution.

The titles of Forough’s early collections of verse: Asir (Captive), Deevar (The Wall), Osyan (Rebellion) all suggest intensely painful confinement – within family, patriarchy, society, religion, conventional morality – and the bliss and blaze of throwing off those shackles. “I have sinned a rapturous sin/ in a warm enflamed embrace,/ sinned in a pair of vindictive arms/ arms violent and ablaze”, begins her early poem “Sin”, and we are led to wonder if that word “vindictive” is a transferred epithet. That is, the arms that embrace the speaker are not vindictive because of any actual malice on the part of the lover but because of the terrible consequences that already seem poised to pounce, even before the moment of rapture is past.

“In the confines of a four-walled time, our only connection to the world outside is a window,” writes Farrokhzad in her memoir In An Eternal Sunset. “A window towards light, towards the sun. A window on the other side of which is beauty and desire. Without a window how could we bear the darkness that presses itself upon us?” Here is one of Forough’s most resonant poems, “Friday”, which seems to describe a world without that window. The translation is by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, and the place of Friday in Forough’s Iran is something like Sunday in ours:

Quiet Friday
deserted Friday
Friday saddening like old alleys
Friday of lazy ailing thoughts
Friday of noisome sinuous stretches
Friday of no anticipation
Friday of submission.
Empty house
lonesome house
house locked against the onslaught of youth
house of darkness and fantasies of the sun
house of loneliness, augury and indecision
house of curtains, books, cupboards, picture.
Ah, how my life flowed silent and serene
like a deep-running stream
through the heart of such silent, deserted Fridays
through the heart of such empty cheerless houses
ah, how my life flowed silent and serene.
Although the poem more or less explains itself, among the things worth noting in it is that “serene” appears to be a negative value here: it seems to be a cover for stasis, for submission. This is an impoverished silence and serenity, very different from the real thing. Everyone who has felt found their life or home intolerable at some point – whether through the callousness of the complacent, the condescension of the well-meaning, or the cheerlessness and empty routine that often masquerades as stability and peace – will recognize the mood of Farrokhzad’s Fridays. Many of Forough’s poem enact this movement of dread, the horror of insignificance: “Despite all my thrashing,/ I was sinking like silt/ slowly, slowly,/ in stagnant water, crusting/ the walls of its hole.”
And here is the first half of Forough’s long poem, “Window”, which, from the childlike peep of its opening to the ringing sounds of its crescendo, seems to enact a journey into disillusioned adulthood, an entrapment that the speaker beats back with the refrain “One window is enough for me”:

A window for seeing.
A window for hearing.
A window like a well
that plunges to the heart of the earth
and opens to the vast unceasing love in blue.
A window lavishing the tiny hands of loneliness
with the night’s perfume from gentle stars.
A window through which one could invite
the sun for a visit to abandoned geraniums.
One window is enough for me.
I come from the land of dolls, from under
the shade of paper trees in a storybook grove;
from arid seasons of barren friendships and love
in the unpaved alleys of innocence;
from years when the pallid letters of the alphabet
grew up behind desks of tubercular schools;
from the precise moment children could write
“stone” on the board and the startled starlings took wing
from the ancient tree.
I come from among the roots of carnivorous plants,
and my head still swirls with the sound
of a butterfly’s terror – crucified with a pin to a book.
When my trust hung from the feeble rope of justice
and the whole city tore my heart’s lamps to shreds,
when love’s innocent eyes were bound
with the dark kerchief of law, and blood gushed
from my dreams’ unglued temples,
when my life was no longer anything,
nothing at all except the tick tick of a clock on the wall,
I understood that I must, must, must
deliriously love.
One window is enough for me.
The translation is by Sholeh Wolpé, who has recently published a book of Forough’s poems in translation called Sin. The other bits of Forough I quote here are from this book, and one of the virtues of reading the poems in the chronological order of their composition, which is how Wolpé presents them, is that we sense the growth of the poet and the expanding circle of her compass. 
In the four decades after her untimely death in a car crash, Farrokhzad’s voice and words have seeped out into Iranian and world culture to enjoy what the Italian poet Eugenio Montale memorably termed “the second life of art”, or art as remembered and invoked in human dealings long after the first encounter with it as an aesthetic object. And it has been generative of other art too: I first heard of Forough in 2000 through Abbas Kiarostami’s marvellous film The Wind Will Carry Us, which takes its title from a poem by Farrokhzad of which this line is the ecstatic close (this link leads not just to a translation of the poem but also Kiarostami's revelatory essay "An Unfinished Cinema").
An interview with Sholeh Wolpé in which she discusses the process of translating Forough is here ("Something interesting to note is how even in our written material we refer to Forough Farrokhzad as Forough, not Farrokhzad. Even some scholars refer to her by her first name. To this day she evokes a charming intimacy between herself and the reader. Her poems are intimate at many levels and one cannot help but feel a kind of familiarity with her. After reading her work it is difficult to refer to her as Farrokhzad. She becomes one's own Forough.") and her translation of the long lyric poem "I Pity The Garden" here
Forough's short film The House Is Black, shot in a leper colony in 1962, can be seen here. And here is the poet Mimi Khalvati's marvellous poem "On A Line From Forough Farrokhzad".

Monday, October 27, 2008

Happy Diwali

The Middle Stage flings a couple of unreadable books over its right shoulder, holds up a diya, and wishes all its readers a very happy Diwali.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Poetry as Medicine in Ashvaghosha’s Handsome Nanda

This essay appears in the latest issue of the Indian literary magazine Pratilipi.

Few texts in Indian literature are as pointed and yet as paradoxical as Saundarananda (Handsome Nanda), written in the second century CE by the Buddhist monk Ashvaghosha and recently published in the Clay Sanskrit Library series in a translation by Linda Covill. This vivid and beautiful “conversion narrative” is both a story and a sermon; both a paean to sensual pleasure and a bitter denunciation of the deceptions of sense experience; both a work of literature—rich in metaphor, poetic language, and dramatic counterpoint—and yet an attack on literature from within.
The protagonist of the story, Nanda, is a handsome and pleasure-loving prince, a scion of the king of the Shakyas. Handsome Nanda has an equally gorgeous wife, Sundari; he is also a half-brother of the Buddha, “the Realised One”, who is creating a tumult across India with his revelatory perception of the nature of human suffering. Ashvaghosha's other extant work is a life of the Buddha, the Buddhacharita, and here too an entire chapter of his story is devoted to a recapitulation of the life of the Buddha. In one of the hundreds of metaphors with which this precept-heavy text is strewn, we are told that Buddha is the seer who had “passed over the fathomless sea of faults - which is watered by conditioned existence, which has anxious thoughts for fish, and which is disturbed by waves of anger, desire and fear”, and who wants to take us across too.
Sundari and the Buddha represent, respectively, the two poles of extreme sensuality and spiritual ambition that vie for Nanda. This conflict is realised in the story’s most dramatic scene, in which we see Nanda at home sporting with his wife even though his brother has arrived in the town of his birth to teach the dharma. The two lovers are so rapt in each other’s presence that, we are told, “they rubbed off their cosmetics through caressing each other” (like St. Augustine in the Christian tradition, Ashvaghosha seems to have clearly drunk deeply of the well of pleasure before abandoning it for the cave of austerity).
When the Buddha comes home to visit Nanda, he finds all the housemaids enlisted in this carnival of sensual pleasure: “one woman was grinding body-unguents, another was perfuming clothes, one was preparing a bath, and others were weaving fragrant garlands”. He sees the time is not right for him and leaves, but word of his appearance and abrupt departure reaches Nanda and disturbs him, and he seeks his wife’s permission to seek out his brother. Sundari, tantalising as ever, lets him go on the condition that he return before her make-up has dried. As Nanda makes himself presentable and leaves, we are given this matchless description of a man giddy with indecision and then another who has conquered his own self:
Reverence for the Buddha drew him on, love for his wife drew him back again. He hesitated, neither going nor staying, like a king-goose pushing forwards against the waves. However, once she was no longer in his sight, he came briskly out of the palace, only to hang back again, his heart contracting, at the sound of her anklets. Kept back by his passion for love, and drawn forward by his attachment to dharma, he proceeded with difficulty; being turned around like a boat going upstream on a river.
Then setting out with long strides, he thought “The guru can’t possibly not be gone by now!” and “Perhaps I’ll be able to hug my darling girl, whose love is so special, while her visheshaka is still wet.”
Then on the road he saw him of the ten powers, free from pride even in his father’s city, and with all arrogance similarly gone, stopping everywhere and being worshipped like Indra’s banner in a procession.
Indeed, Nanda’s unfulfilled hope that the guru has disappeared from sight might be seen as a foreboding of what lies in store for him, for in fact this is the last time he is to see his wife. The Buddha, when approached, seeks to rescue his brother from slavery to the senses, and after a brief sermon asks his monks to ordain Nanda “so that he may find peace”.
Weeping copiously, writhing in agony, sighing and grieving at the memory of his wife, Nanda enters the realm of monkhood with his glorious locks are shorn from his head and his fine clothes taken away. Ashvaghosha memorably describes his gloom in cosmic terms: “wearing a faded garment of tree-bark and depressed as a newly-captured elephant, Nanda resembled the full moon moving into the dark half of the month, at the end of the night, daubed with the light of the early morning sun”.
That Nanda is a monk only in shell and not in spirit works to the advantage of Ashvaghosha, for the rest of the text is devoted to the depiction of his conversion in slow, shuffling stages. Burning with sensuality and worldliness, the reprobate Nanda is given the most elaborate working-over by the Buddha and his monks. First he is led forward by false inducements and promises that appeal to his pleasure-seeking nature, then gradually his hopes are disappointed and his illusions stripped away, and he is driven on until he learns to see the truth of the dharma for himself. This dramatic situation allows Ashvaghosha to present an elaborate exposition of the Buddhist view of the self and of suffering, of the cycle of rebirth and the route to liberation, of the tyranny of the senses and the necessity of mindfulness. And of course it is not just Nanda who is being persuaded of the duplicitous nature of “conditioned existence”, but also the reader.
Indeed, the distinctive feature of the text is the intensity of its attack on “the six roving senses” and “the glittering show of sense objects” - the very foundation of our experience of the world. “The village of the senses never has enough of sensory experience, just as the ocean, though rivers perpetually fill it, never has enough water,” preaches the Buddha. “As fluidity inheres in water, solidity in earth, motion in wind, and constant heat in fire, so does suffering inhere in the mind and body. [...] Who could sleep without worry in the world of humankind, ablaze with the fires of death, sickness and aging, any more than in a burning house?”
And the emphasis of Buddhism not on an external deity, law, or commandment but on personal agency, practical action, and self-sufficiency is sounded in the Buddha’s revelatory assertion that “the reason for this suffering during one’s active life in the world is not a God, not nature, not time, not the inherent nature of things, not predestination, not accident, but the host of faults such as desire.” The antidote to this suffering is mindfulness: “The mind unguarded by mindfulness can be regarded as defenseless, like a blind man stumbling over rough ground without a guide. [...] Whatever it is that a person continually thinks about, his mind, through habit, will develop a leaning towards it. Therefore, you must give up what is unwholesome and concentrate on the wholesome…”
A spiritual novice to begin with, even a rebel, Nanda gradually becomes an initiate, then an adept, and finally a realised being himself, a self-conqueror. Dramatically, this is the least interesting section of the text, but Ashvaghosha partially compensates for this by showing Nanda rooting out the essential truths of existence, ascending to revelation, through his own journey of striving and discovery: what the Buddha has already said once, Nanda confirms through his own means and in his own language.
Nanda’s story has a curious double conclusion. One is sounded by the Buddha, who marvels at his accomplishments and asks him to go out into the world and carry his “lantern of learning” among the ignorant. The other is voiced by Ashvaghosha himself. Ashvaghosha declares in the last two paragraphs of the text that, knowing the predilections of his audience, he has deliberately made use of a questionable means to achieve a worthy end, and drawn upon the sweetness of literary form and poetic language to make palatable the austerity of his message. “This composition on the subject of liberation is for calming the reader, not for his pleasure,” he announces:
… It is fashioned out of the medicine of poetry with the intention of capturing an audience whose minds are on other things. Thinking how it could be made pleasant, I have handled in it things other than liberation, things introduced due to the character of poetry, as bitter medicine is mixed with honey when it is drunk.
Seeing that the world generally holds the pleasure of sensory experience uppermost and is resistant to liberation, I, holding liberation to be paramount, have described the truth in the guise of poetry. Knowing this, that part which relates to peace should be carefully extracted from it, not the entertaining part; serviceable gold necessarily comes from ore-born dust.
But which kind of reader is the real object of this moralising message? Is it the lay reader with his mind “on other things”, as claimed by Ashvaghosha? Or could it be that this passage is meant to disarm the Buddhist monks and teachers who were Ashvaghosha’s contemporaries and who may have frowned upon his elaborate depictions of sensuality and indeed his apparent love of language, rhetoric, and metaphor as ends in themselves?
The material character of Ashvaghosha’s text suggests an approach towards worldly and sensory experience more ambiguous than its explicit message, and while Ashvaghosha himself acknowledges and rationalises this, there is something expedient about his logic. Poetry, in this marvellous but apparently reluctant poet’s description, is a kind of addiction and corruption, just like sense experience, yet knowledge of the weakness of human nature has prompted him to take recourse to it to convert the masses. But in doing so Ashvaghosha seems to have supplied an escape clause not just for himself but for others. Why should the reader, even if converted to peace by the narrative, not claim the same immunity as Ashvaghosha, and steep himself in poetry with the intention of extracting the worthy part from it?
And isn’t poetry, heightened language, itself an antidote to conditioned existence and to idle sensory dalliance? Is poetry only a glittering wrapper for the truth, and not a form of truth in itself? Might we not be changed or redeemed by poetry as we might by faith or by right action? Poetry may be cited in Saundarananda as only a vehicle for an answer to the problem of suffering, but form and content are not as easily separated as Ashvaghosha seems to suggest, and there is one condition then that his “medicine of poetry” cannot cure and in fact furthers, which is the love of such sweet-tasting medicine.

Two older posts on other Clay Sanskrit Library titles are here: on Kalidasa's Shakuntala, and Dandin's marvellous pan-Indian adventure story, the Dasakumaracharita (and if you are interested in scholarly literature, a bibliography for this title is here).

And a previous long essay in Pratilipi: "Anjum Hasan and the Indian Shakespeare".