Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cricket and redemption in Joseph O'Neill's Netherland

Cricket and life are two very different things, but often to lovers of the game they seem the same, or at least to inhabit a continuous plane of existence. The contest of bat and ball seems a smaller version of the great game of life; the variability of pitches, weather and match situation a symptom of the workings of chance in all human affairs; the effort to impose oneself on the rectangle of brown within the circle of green emblematic in some mysterious but compelling way of the human condition in general. "For what was an innings if not a singular opportunity to face down, by dint of effort and skill and mastery, the variable world?" asks Hans van den Broek, the stoical and embattled protagonist of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, and we see immediately what Hans means. Indeed, Hans is totally adrift in the larger "variable world", and for a brief period cricket is his only means of hanging on at the crease on the pitch of life.
O'Neill's novel, his third, has its home in the scattered cricket fields of New York, one of cricket's earliest centres (as one character in the book points out, the first international cricket match was played between the USA and Canada in Manhattan the mid-nineteenth century). Although Hans is a Dutchman married to an Englishwoman, his work in banking has brought him to New York, where very soon he begins to inhabit "the nativity New York encourages even its most fleeting visitor to imagine for himself".

But soon Hans's world begins to collapse around him. His wife Rachel feels their marriage is unsatisfactory, and wishes to move back to London with their young son, Jake. Hans is unable to dissuade Rachel and, ever the one to take the blame for a shared crisis, is left with a great burden of rejection and failure. A family man, he is now cut loose from all his moorings. His arc is a classic trope in the American novel, that of the limping and defeated loser struggling with his intransigent nature in an environment of exuberance, optimism, and self-reinvention. Hans shares many similarities, for instance, with Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Saul Bellow's great short novel Seize The Day. Both live in hotels, both are estranged from their wives and torn from their children, and both are, "to anyone who could be bothered to pay attention, noticeably lost" (this is from O'Neill).
Hans used to play some cricket as a boy in Holland, and one day, taking up an invitation after a chance meeting with a Pakistani cab-driver, he goes to a weekend club game at Staten Island, and finds himself the only white man in a motley crowd of Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and West Indians. But this sense of being pulled out into a new set far removed from his usual world is a relief to him, and he finds playing cricket again immensely calming. O'Neill evokes this mood in his majestic description of "the sights and sounds and rhythms of a full day's cricket, in which unhurried time is portioned out by the ticking of ball against bat." Cricket in this description is a kind of restorative clock set to a more languorous speed than others, encouraging everybody to slow down and appreciate the big picture and the finer details.
It is at the cricket, too, that Hans meets an older Trinidadian man called Chuck Ramkissoon, a great dreamer and schemer who talks "incessantly, indefatigably, virtuosically", is a master of the grand pronouncement ("Women are responsible for the survival of the world; men are responsible for its glories"), and has a plan for building a cricket stadium in Brooklyn. The stadium, in Chuck's optimistic view, will make New York a centre of world cricket and restore the game to its lapsed prominence in American life. Hans finds succour in this unlikely brotherhood of men come together through a shared love of the great game, and in the companionship and infectious enthusiasm of Chuck and his starred-and-striped motto of "Think fantastic".
Netherland is an exquisite achievement on every level, from the stream of beautifully weighted and sonorous sentences that ripple on page after page to the larger architecture of narrative time and of plot. Here is Hans explaining (and thereby making an apparently simple matter dense) why he cannot slog the ball like the rest of his teammates, because cricket represents a force of continuity within his own fragmented self:

Some people have no difficulty in identifying with their younger incarnations. Rachel, for example, will refer to episodes from her childhood and college days as if they'd happened to her that very morning. I, however, seem given to self-estrangement. I find it hard to muster oneness with those former selves whose accidents and endeavours have shaped who I am now. The schoolboy at the Gymnasium Haganum; the Leiden student; the clueless trainee executive at Shell; the analyst in London; even the thirty-year-old who flew to New York with his excited young wife; my natural sense is that all are faded, by the by, discontinued. But I still think, and I fear will always think, of myself as the young man who got a hundred runs in Amstelveen with a flurry of cuts, who took that diving catch at second slip in Rotterdam, who lucked into a hat trick at the Haagse Cricket Club. These and other moments of cricket are scorched in my mind like sexual memories, forever available to me and capable, during those long nights alone in the hotel when I sought refuge from the sorriest feelings, of keeping me awake as I relived them in bed and powerlessly mourned the mysterious promise they held. To reinvent myself in order to bat the American way, that baseball-like business of slugging and hoisting, involved more than the trivial abandonment of a hard-won style of hitting a ball. It meant snipping a fine white thread running, through years and years, to my mothered self.
"These and other moments of cricket are scorched in my mind like sexual memories"this is very fine and apt. And let us look at this paragraph again and all its pauses and qualifications, the way in which the sentences seem to keep interrupting themselves: "I, however, seem given to" "But I still think, and I fear will always think..." "These and other moments of cricket are scorched in my mind like sexual memories, forever available to me and capable, during those long nights alone..." "It meant snipping a fine white thread running, through years and years..."

This is the characteristic cadence O'Neill has forged for his colourless and yet extraordinarily interesting protagonist's narration, and much of the pleasure of Netherland is in catching the delayed gratification of these stretched-out sentences: "Those circumstances were, I should say, unbearable", or, (moving from two pauses to four very even ones which in this case also dramatise the peace of the moment) "Not knowing what to say, I got up and stood next to him, and for a while we surveyed, twenty-two floors down, the roving black brooms of four-dollar umbrellas", or to a mix of short and long pauses: "Perhaps the relevant truth
and it's one whose existence was apparent to my wife, and I'm sure to much of the world, long before it became apparent to meis that we all find ourselves in temporal currents and that unless you're paying attention you'll discover, often too late, that an undertow of weeks or years has pulled you deep into trouble." The writing in Netherland has its own temporal current, a kind of slow, rapt murmur, and it does not take very long before we are pulled deep into the text by these rhythms.

And an old post, on Saul Bellow's Seize The Day.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

New issues of Pratilipi and Almost Island

New issues of two very good Indian literary webzines, Pratilipi and Almost Island, are out now.

What I like about Pratilipi is that it is bilingual, also features translations from foreign languages into Hindi, and has a deep Indian focus, while Almost Island sometimes has its snout pointed in the other direction and often features very unusual writing from around the world in addition to work by Indian writers. Both are beasts interested not only in actual translations but also the theory of translation. They are an odd but complementary pair. I have had an essay published in Pratilipi, and am sure to have one in Almost Island too before I turn 40.

Here are some things to read from them. From Almost Island:

"The Self That Writes", the transcript of a lecture given in Delhi in March at an Almost Island literature conference by the masterly Italian writer Claudio Magris (whose book Danube is full of brilliant things); nine poems by Namdeo Dhasal; "The Night" by the Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz; "Pensées" by Sven Birkerts; "Homage To Translation: Benjamin In Japan" by Forrest Gander; and two chapters from Satantango, a novel by the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai.

and from Pratilipi:

"Mourning" by Chandra Prakash Deval; "Say Something" by Sridala Swami; three poems in English and in Hindi translation by Anjum Hasan; "Wall Paintings by Meena Women" by Madan Meena; "A Necessary Poem" by Teji Grover; "An Initiation to Sexuality in Almodovar’s Films" by Sameer Raval; and "My Mother's Lover" by Sumana Roy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

On Anuradha Roy's An Atlas of Impossible Longing

The first and most unassailable truth of life is change, movement, flux. But the essence of that change is often to be found less in the highly visible, volcanic change of a new job, or a birth or death in the family, a milestone traversed, a timeline of events, a stock market crashing, or a government falling, and more in the galaxies that are always imperceptibly moving and shifting within us, the time that is ceaselessly passing, the body that is growing ripe and strong and then paling, the private and public faces that we sometimes will into being and that sometimes take even us by surprise. The famous Heraclitean epigram “You cannot step into the same river twice” is justly famous not just because of its primary meaning – the river is always flowing, and what was present a moment ago is now gone – but also its secondary suggestion of eternal flux contained in that word “you”. That you that steps into the river is also like the river.

Which art form walks with a lamp through this subterranean field? The novel, particularly the realist novel, a form we might think of as an education in human moods, feelings and compulsions through the shape of a story that we live vicariously. The best realist novels rouse us to a state of heightened awareness and sensitivity, and Anuradha Roy’s first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, the story of three generations of a Bengali family in the first half of the 20th century, seems just such a book. Roy’s novel is as much about a house as it is about a family, and indeed it teaches us that houses, which hold themselves erect longer and witness more than people do and echo with human presence, cannot but be seen as beings in their own right.

Early in the twentieth century, Amulya Babu, a Bengali entrepreneur, builds himself a huge house in the remote hamlet of Songarh, on the edge of a forest and beside the ruins of an old fort, with only a British couple for neighbours. His wife Kananbala detests the place because it is so far from Kolkata, relatives, and civilization. While her husband finds the solitude and expanse of Songarh liberating, Kananbala is oppressed by it, and slowly begins to lose her mind, shocking her family with sudden outbursts of spleen. Amulya and his wife are in search of a bride for their younger son Nirmal, and they find one from a town called Manoharpur, an only child raised in a vast, extravagantly built mansion by the edge of a churning river. The seasons come and go; one generation gives way to another. Suddenly widowed at a young age, Nirmal finds himself responsible not only for his daughter Bakul, but also for an orphan boy, Mukunda, whom Amulya had agreed to provide for.

Roy is especially good on establishing a character’s relation to place: we always think of her characters in relation to a scene precious to them or resented by them. Here is Amulya Babu’s bifurcated world of teeming town and hushed home:
Amulya was the only Indian to have built his home in that area, in the wilderness near the miners’ dwellings and fox-lairs, far away from the bustle of the main market, from the drums of Ram Navami, the speeches and tom-toms of patriots, the nasal calls of the maulvi, the discordant bursts of trumpet music at wedding processions, the sparklers and explosions of Diwali. He heard these noises all day at the factory. As his daily tonga clattered him towards his home each evening, he waited for that miraculous moment when the shouting town would slide behind, replaced by dark trees and an echoing stillness broken only by calls from the forest and birdsong at dusk.
Note that Roy does not say that the tonga “clattered towards his home” but that it “clattered him towards his home”, as if Amulya is himself a vessel of sounds and agitation on his journey towards peace. The noise-silence axis of this passage is thus evoked on every level.

And here is Kananbala’s relation to the same place:

The silence that to Amulya meant repletion locked Kananbala within a bell jar she felt she could not prise open for air. She had disliked it from the start: the large house with echoing, empty rooms, the wild, enormous garden where leaves rustled and unfamiliar berries plopped onto the grass. The want of visitors, the absence of theatre-shows and festivity. Instead, cow-bells tinkling, the occasional clopping of a horse’s hooves, the ghostly throb of tribal drums far away. The croaking of a hundred frogs after rain, the inscrutable sounds from the forest at night. In Calcutta, in her rambling family home crowded with siblings and aunts and uncles, there was always the possibility of a chat, the comforting sounds of nearby laughter, gossip, clanging utensils, squabbling sisters-in-law, the tong-tong of rickshaw bells, the further-away din of the bazaar, the cries of vendors, the afternoon murmurs of a decrepit goldsmith who visited them with boxes of new trinkets and a tiny silver balance to weigh them on.
But this passage also suggests that perhaps Amulya Babu only enjoys his home and his grounds so much because he has a noisy day-world of business, conversation, and engagement that fulfils another side of him; Kananbala, on the other hand, subsists on the memories of the same sounds which Amulya Babu might find so annoying. All the genderedness of space in Indian society is evoked by this description of Kananbala’s exceptional poverty of sounds and relationships, even within the prevailing constrictions of the female domain.

Indeed, the main theme of An Atlas might be the explosive relationship between people and the place they think of as home. Nirmal himself leaves home after the sudden death of his wife, entrusting Bakul and the orphan boy Mukunda to the care of his brother’s family and a widow called Meera. As a employee of the Archaeological Survey of India, entrusted with digging up ruins across the country, Nirmal tries to leave the place of his youth and its scars behind him and make the world his home:
It was a rare feeling, one that usually came to him, if it did, high on a mountain ridge, the immense folds and humps of hills and valleys falling away before him, edges muted in the evening air. At such times, he saw himself as if from the sky, an infinitesmal speck on a gigantic fold of earth, as inseparable a part of the mountains, pink sorrel and trees as were the flying squirrels that scampered up the deodars beside him.
When Nirmal returns home after several years to begin a dig on the site of the old fort, he finds that his daughter will not accept him as a father. And Bakul and Mukunda are inseparable in childhood, but as they reach the threshold of maturity, Nirmal is persuaded to send Mukunda to a boarding school to protect the innocence of his daughter. Mukunda never forgets this abandonment, and resolves never to return to Songarh. After his studies he begins work as an assistant to a building contractor, and this is what occasions his bitter observation, “I know all about houses and homes, I who never had one”.

Roy’s slow-burning prose style proves germinal for a host of beautifully weighted observations. “Beyond the house, in the memory of the day’s light, the ruins of the fort were still discernible to those who knew it was there” – a sentence like that, with absences evoked as presences, encapsulates a whole world of feeling and of mystery. When Mukunda, after a childhood supported by charity, rises to a position of some influence as a contractor and enforcer, he feels a new relationship with the world: “After a lifetime of deferring to other people, now there were those who deferred to me. I saw in their faces my old faces.” And yet, Mukunda knows that there were things not only painful, but also admirable in his past life, and fears that with his rough work he is changing “into someone my old self would have despised”.

One of the triumphs of Roy’s construction is that, after two sections told in the third person by a voice standing above the characters, the novel suddenly switches in the final section to first-person narration through the voice of Mukunda. This is very apt, because of all the characters in the novel, his is the voice most worth hearing from the inside. Mukunda carries within himself a complicated tie of both attachment to and resentment of the old house at Songarh; he loves Nirmal and Bakul for protecting him, and despises them for abandoning him; he has a wife and child of his own, yet longs for another woman. He harbours within him – as we all do to a greater or lesser extent – an atlas of impossible longing, and the contours of that terrain are memorably mapped in Roy’s novel.

And an archive of old Middle Stage essays on Indian fiction is here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On Vinay Lal's The Other Indians

In the early pages of Patrick French’s recent biography of VS Naipaul, there is a detailed portrait of the first representatives of the modern Indian diaspora in the mid-nineteenth century. These were unwilling travellers: luckless, impoverished indentured labourers, mostly drawn from regions in north India suffering drought or famine, tossed on board ship like chickens in a coop for an arduous journey across the seas on their way to plantations in the West Indies. From these early beginnings, fraught with dread and uncertainty, beset with dangers to both body and self, the Indian diaspora has come a long way to become “an incontestable fact of world culture”, as Vinay Lal puts it in his new history of South Asians in America, The Other Indians.

Notwithstanding several other significant narratives of movement and resettlement, the great Indian narrative of migration of our age, and surely for many decades to come, has been the journey to America. This migration has a kind of double reality: it as much a dream for millions of what Lal calls Resident Non-Indians (a representative example of how the term is used in popular Indian thought is here) as it is a proud fact for actual NRIs. For a long time, before our current period of reverse migration in modest proportions, America was thought to be the natural destination for our best and brightest, the site where they might break free of the sloth and stasis and crab mentality of benighted Indian life and grow wings.
But one of the tricks of the human brain – it the reason we need history – is that it all too easily extrapolates from a present reality that things have always been that way in the past. One of the aims of Lal’s book is to show us the stages of negotiation, attrition, and doubt through which Indian life in America has passed in order to reach its present bullish phase. For instance, although educational attainment among Americans of Indian origin is now famously high (63.9 per cent now have a bachelor’s degree compared to 24.4 per cent in the general population), as recently as 1940 Indians had the lowest educational standards of any ethnic group. Even as India made the transition from colony to independent republic, Asians in America were fighting for the most basic political rights (and often allying with the African-American movement). Lal’s book meticulously charts the progress of Indian life in America from trickle to flood, stammer to swagger.
Indians first began to arrive in America in significant numbers around the close of the nineteenth century. Almost all were male. Some were peasants from the Punjab who had been drawn by reports of American prosperity and who found work as farm labourers, others were students. Perhaps the most interesting of these groups was the one with clear political aims: a set of nationalists and revolutionaries trying to unshackle the British Empire from without by force of both words and militant action. As Lal explains,

By the second decade of the twentieth century, a sufficiently large coterie of cosmopolitan Indian rebels, whose ranks would be swelled and complicated by peasants and workers who had experienced the piercing effects of racial discrimination, felt emboldened enough to initiate a political party to press for Indian independence from British rule. The “Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast” took root in 1913, founded in Oregon, but it is by the name of Ghadr (also Ghadar) that it is commonly known. This “Ghadar Conspiracy” as the British termed it, lasted a mere five years[...] but it is the Ghadr’s party newspaper [which had the words “the enemy of the British Raj” emblazoned on its masthead] which most of all suggests why the romance with the Ghadr movement among Indian progressives endures.
[...] Published at first in Urdu, the predominant language (alongside Hindustani) of north India, and Gurmukhi, the language of Punjabi peasants, Ghadr had within months also commenced publication in Gujarati and Hindi. A contemporary British intelligence report confirmed that some 3,000 copies of the paper at this time were mailed to the Federated Malay States, Siam, and elsewhere in Asia [...]. When one contemplates that nearly 100 years ago an Indian newspaper was being published from the United States in at leadt four marvels at the ecumenism, grit, ambition, and vision of the movement’s advocates.
One might argue that it was only at a great remove from India that the Ghadrites could entertain...the utopian notion of a mother India that would be freed by militant action. The sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer coined the phrase “Gadar syndrome” to describe the phenomenon of a “militant nationalist movement” created “abroad by expatriates” embodying “the fusion of ethnic anger and nationalist pride”...Useful as are these ideas, they do not entirely capture the globalizing energy of Ghadr, much less the magisterial manner in which the Ghadr movement anticipated the notion of a global Indian diaspora. The Ghadrites, I am tempted to say after Bruce Chatwin, drew their own songlines across the oceans, and everywhere provided assurance to Indians that Indianness was, in some fashion, theirs to claim.
Just before the ascent of the Ghadr party an attractive picture of Indian civilization had already been imprinted on America by the discourses of Swami Vivekananda, whose electrifying address to delegates of the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893 catapulted him into the consciousness of the American public. And as the century rolled on India slowly became synonymous in the American imagination with the thought and work of Gandhi, who acquired a considerable following among the intelligentsia and members of the press. At the same time Indians in America were fighting a long battle over their right to citizenship that would not be resolved until the passing of the National Origins Act in 1965, which set in place systems and quotas for immigration which are still largely in place today.
Lal has many interesting things to say on a wealth of subjects, from the growth of Hinduism in America to the takeover of the motel business by the Patel community, and from contributions by Indians to American literature to the changing dynamics of the relationship between adopted land and motherland. He notes the pervasive anxiety about cultural loss and contamination among Indian Americans, which has spawned an aggressive and rancorous form of Hinduism that is broadly sympathetic to, and often lavishly funds, the activities of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India and sees nothing wrong in calling itself Hindu nationalist. It is not surprising, observes Lal,

...that, as India slowly begins to emerge as an Asian power, the Hindu community in the United States, which contributes substantially more to direct foreign investment in India than Hindus elsewhere, should begin to feel emboldened, mindful of its “rights” and prerogatives; nor is it surprising that these Hindus should view themselves in the vanguard of what I would characterize as revolutionary internet Hinduism. The internet is not merely the medium through which debates on Hinduness and Hinduism are being conducted, it is the vehicle, nowhere more so than among Indian Americans, for advancing a new conception of Hinduism as a global faith. If internet Hindutva’s proponents had their way, Hinduism, or more precisely Hindutva, would have something of an ummah, a worldwide community that would also assist in bringing pliant Hindus, both in India and in older Indian diasporas of the nineteenth century, to a awareness of the global strengths of a “modern” Hindu community. [...] Though nationalist Hindus in the United States take recourse to arguments about multiculturalism, they have not at all been hospitable to multiculturalism or even Indian variants of pluralism in India itself.
Indeed, there is material for an entirely different book in Lal’s thought that “Indian culture is perhaps more stable in the US than it is in India”. Himself a resident of America for almost three decades (he teaches History at the University of California), Lal has the advantage of being able to draw upon both scholarship and personal experience in this work, and speaks as both observer and participant. He elegantly summarises and brings into the mainstream a wealth of more specialised literature, such as ethnographies of particular migrant communities (such as the Punjabi-Mexican community in California). Many Indians at home will savour this book about Indians abroad.
Lal's website Manas: India and its Neighbours is here. And some links to essays by Lal: "Reflections on the Indian Diaspora", "Indic Presence in World Culture", "Labour and longing", "Palpable Falsehoods", a letter on the California textbook controversy of 2005, "Bobby Jindal and America", "Gulf Indians and the Hierarchies of NRIs".
And here are some other essays by Lal on aspects of Indian politics and culture other than the diaspora: "Reading Nandigram through ‘The Hindu’", "The future of Indian democracy", "The Tavistock Square Gandhi: 'war on terror' and non-violence", "Muhammad Yunus and the Nobel Prize", "Partitioned Selves, Partitioned Pasts" (an essay on Ashis Nandy), "After Bamiyan", and "The cultural politics of the national flag".
And for more on themes and isues raised by Lal's book: "The Ghadr Rebellion", an essay published in the Illustrated Weekly of India nearly fifty years ago by Khushwant Singh; Amitava Kumar's essay from 2000 "The Indian Is Coming", on the place of the Indian immigrant experience in American literature (Kumar is also one of the hands behind the film Pure Chutney, about the intersection of Trinidadian and Indian culture); Farrukh Dhondy's "The great Indian diaspora is more Indian than great"; Vidya Dehejia's "Arts and the Indian Diaspora"; Seema Sirohi's recent piece in Outlook "The Good War"; and Vijay Prashad's "Dusra Hindustan" and "Letter to a Young American Hindu". A special issue of the Indian magazine Seminar on the Indian diaspora, from which some of these links are taken, is here.
Links to other good essays on the Indian diaspora past and present are welcome.