Saturday, May 30, 2009

On a new book of essays on Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Diaspora

It may seem outrageous to allege that a book of interviews with and essays about Salman Rushdie doesn’t have much Rushdie in it, but this is precisely the complaint to be made of Midnight’s Diaspora. This set of responses to Rushdie by a group of political scientists, anthropologists, and literary critics – all career academics except for one, Shashi Tharoor – goes about its business, for most part, in a language far too clotted and abstract to give any enjoyment to the lay reader. But even on its own terms, the scholarship on display in this book barely passes muster because it is either too narrow, tendentious, reductive, or peculiarly self-absorbed.
Midnight’s Diaspora begins with the transcripts of two plodding interviews with Rushdie held at an event in his honour at the University of Michigan in 2003. The subject of the first, conducted by the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney, is “The Political Rushdie”; that of the second, pursued by the literary scholar Gauri Viswanathan, is “The Literary Rushdie”. One might ask: why this division of labour? The writer is, after all, one being, both literary and political at the same time. The answer might be that both interviewers are playing to their respective strengths, the better to illuminate the literary and political facets of Rushdie’s oeuvre. But this is to presume that a person with a political background is incapable of a stimulating conversation on a general subject with Rushdie. All that this Rushdie-sharing seems to do is betray the anxiety of academics about certificates of authority and specialization. Despite this allotment of territory, the questions are mostly superficial, revealing a mental universe as cramped as Rushdie’s is capacious. Viswanathan declares in advance that hers “will be the great rambling interview – very much like the great rambling Indian novel” – a peculiarly grandiose remark that inspires more dread than excitement.
Varshney, in turn, asserts that Rushdie’s work is highly political: “He seems to be singularly incapable of telling a story without political sharpness, without political courage.” It follows, then, that we should not “entirely abandon Salman Rushdie to the literary scholars and critics.” There can be no disagreeing with this notion, but the limitations of Varshney’s perspective immediately become apparent when, in the first sentence of his essay about Rushdie’s novel Shame, he calls that book “a political commentary on Pakistan scripted as a novel.” Isn’t it strange that a book that is first and foremost a novel should be called a political commentary that is "scripted" – whatever this ugly word means – as a novel? And shouldn’t we be suspicious when it is a political scientist making this peculiar claim? Might not a historian similarly presume that Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence is a commentary on history written as a novel? Scores of readers – or should we say non-readers – of Rushdie made a similar mistake over 1988-89 when they decided that The Satanic Verses was actually a blasphemous attack on the Prophet scripted as a novel.
The simple truth is that the novel is a flexible prose instrument that encodes through storytelling, at different levels and even there on multiple registers, ideas not just about character and causality but also history, politics, religion, ideology, class and gender relations. To force it into the narrower corridor of one’s preset categories is to un-novelize it. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of his expertise, Varshney’s engagement with Rushdie and Shame lasts for only a page. The rest of his essay is about the problems inherent in the political self-conception of Pakistan. It is a very good essay, and there is much to be learnt from it about Pakistan. But Rushdie himself is almost entirely absent from it.
Indeed, it seemed to me a fault of the entire anthology that there is very little serious textual engagement in it: Rushdie is at times more springboard than subject. And even on his own ground, because he is so sure that Rushdie is at heart a political animal, it does not occur to Varshney to ask the question that Jack Livings does in his excellent Paris Review interview of 2005, “Could you possibly write an apolitical book?”, to which Rushdie gives a very interesting answer. Livings’s interview is part of the series called “The Art of Fiction” and – surprising though this may seem – this is indeed the proper category through which to explore the work of a writer of fiction. Consider, for instance, the illumination of novelistic practice, and how it offers a complex view of a society through its own, specific ways of working, offered by Rushdie in this answer to Livings:
I read less contemporary fiction than I used to and more of the classics. It seems they've hung around for a reason. When I wrote Fury, for instance, I read Balzac, in particular Eugénie Grandet. If you look at the opening of Eugénie Grandet, it uses a technique like a slow cinematic zoom. It starts with a very wide focus—here is this town, these are its buildings, this is its economic situation—and gradually it focuses in on this neighborhood, and inside the neighborhood on this rather grand house, and inside this house a room, and inside this room, a woman sitting on a chair. By the time you find out her name, she's already imprisoned in her class and her social situation and her community and her city. By the time her own story begins to unfold, you realize it's going to smash into all these things. She is like a bird in this cage. I thought, That's good. That's such a clear way of doing it.

Elsewhere in Midnight’s Diaspora, there is a ponderous defence offered by Akeel Bilgrami of Rushdie’s critique of Islam in The Satanic Verses. The paraphrase of Bilgrami’s idea – that we should defend Rushdie not merely on free-speech principles, but on the larger case that the novel is actually the ally of moderate Muslims against fundamentalist conceptions of their religion – is more interesting than its laboured and digressive execution. Thomas Blom Hansen’s subject – the changing picture of Bombay in Rushdie’s novels – seems promising to begin with. But even Hansen’s exploration quickly slides away into the area of his own research, which is violence and Hindu nationalism as embodied by the Shiv Sena, and then further to even more arcane matters. Hansen’s long, obtuse digression about “Alexander Kojeve’s reading of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic” and how this applies to the Sena seemed to me one of the low points of the book, puzzling on its own terms and therefore twice-removed from the subject of Rushdie.
The suspicion that this book may be no more than a group exercise in self-advertisement under the bright and attention-attracting flag of the Republic of Rushdie is confirmed by Shashi Tharoor’s concluding essay on Rushdie and Indianness. Tharoor is a more stylish writer than the others in this book, but his prose almost always conveys the impression of someone standing in front of a mirror. He allows himself precisely one good, insightful paragraph about Rushdie before he wanders off into a consideration of the main emphasis of Rushdie’s work. What is that emphasis? “[A]s I have written in my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium,” declares Tharoor, “the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural.” The suggestion is that Rushdie and Tharoor have been working on parallel lines all their lives, celebrating India’s teeming pluralism and excoriating its chauvinists of all stripes. “My India, like Salman Rushdie’s, has room enough for everyone,” declares Tharoor fatuously. The incredible thing is that readers should be expected to pay good money to discover this congruence.
These “encounters” with Rushdie appear, in sum, about as genuine as those of Mumbai’s cops with gangsters. Although the book concludes with a short afterword by Rushdie himself in which he expresses his gratitude for “the intensive, close, spirited readings offered in this collection”, my guess is that perhaps he is being more polite than truthful, especially from sentences in the same piece like: “As time passes, however, I admit to having more and more difficulty with this whole business of being Explained, rather than merely – happily – read.”If you have Rs.399 to spare, spend it instead on Rushdie’s exuberant early-career collection of essays Imaginary Homelands, which will tell you far more about his work than this puzzling book does.
Some links: an old post, "On the memoirs of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan", a book that, thrillingly if inadvertently, seems to claim for its author the same status that Saleem Sinai does for India in Midnight's Children. And here is an essay by Amitava Kumar that seems to be a stronger assessment, both personal and detached in the appropriate measure, of Rushdie than any in Midnight's Diaspora: "Is Salman Rushdie God?". A set of essays on different aspects of Rushdie's work in a special issue of the journal Twentieth Century Literature can be found here.
A shorter version of this essay appeared today in Mint.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Frank O'Connor Short Story prize, Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay's letter to his second wife, and Kafka

I'm pleased to see that Jahnavi Barua's short-story collection Next Door, about which I'd posted a long essay here in February, has been longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.

And recently, while reading Sunil Kumar Chattopadhyay's short monograph on Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay (at Rs.15, this must be the cheapest serious book on literature I have ever read), I found the writer quoting a letter from Bibhutibhushan that I thought I'd re-quote here.

Bibhutibhushan was married early, and lost his wife to pneumonia when he was just twenty-four. More than two decades later, when he was forty-six, he married a second time. It was not an arranged marriage; Bibhutibhushan knew the girl, Kalyani, fairly well, and approached her family for their consent. The year is 1940; in a letter to his wife shortly before the wedding, Bibhutibhushan – the author of Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Aranyak, and by now one of the biggest names in Bengali literature – writes, with a beguiling combination of tenderness, yearning, candour, and vulnerability (this is Ashok Dev Choudhuri's translation from the Bengali):
I feel so surprised when I look back on the days of my acquaintance with you. Perhaps I knew you in many past lives – otherwise, why should I feel like it! Kalyani, I knew you for for ages, but this time I meet you rather late. I wish I met you earlier! [...] You want to share your life with me, but I know you could have been married to a much more desirable groom. Since you have chosen me, I must also respect your love for me. I did not really want to be tied down to family life again, but your love is all that is important to me now. I desire that your love and affection should find their full satisfaction. That you'd be happy in your life. You need not respect me like a deity, I want only your love. We humans have so many foibles and weaknesses, we cannot be revered like a god. Of course, love is a different thing. You love someone not in spite of one's defects, but possibly because of them. It is said 'Love is God'. In our hearts there is the altar of God and there is also the sense of friendship, forgiveness, compassion and affection. You may rest assured that I shall always love you. I cannot be hard with you. I have rarely been cruel to anybody. It is my love which will develop your qualities. Kalyani, I knew you are not a Cleopatra or Noor Jahan. But then, how long does physical beauty last? I have seen the beauty of your soul; otherwise, why should I be attracted by you? ... You'd please learn a few songs. In my maternal uncle's place and at other places they'd want to listen to your song. Learn it along with the harmonium. You should know the words of the songs so that you don't depend on others. This is very urgent. Will you remember it?
Which woman would not learn "a few songs" when entreated like this? And I've just finished reading a book that is also a letter, but in its darkness, dread, and pathos its tone is the polar opposite of Bandhopadhyay's: Franz Kafka's letter at the age of thirty-six to his father, Dearest Father. Between them, the letters bring out, I suppose, how family and relationships can stand for both expansion and diminution, freedom and fetters.

And from 2005, "The world of Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay".

Saturday, May 16, 2009

An excerpt from Arzee the Dwarf in Mint today

A 1500-word excerpt from my novel Arzee the Dwarf appears today in Mint (if you live in Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata, Pune, or Chandigarh, you can buy the paper off your news-stand). The link to it is here, and the cover, designed by Pinaki De, is right before you. The book should be in shops early in June.

Meanwhile, while Arzee is roasting in the Bombay heat, I am having a marvellous time travelling in the north-east, journeying under overcast skies through hill and river country; eating large quantities of fish in mustard, chicken in sesame-seed gravy, duck-egg omelettes, and lychees; and occasionally putting up posts from little cybercafes like this one.

Monday, May 11, 2009

MG Vassanji on the road in India

The novels of MG Vassanji – born in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, to Gujarati immigrants in the middle of the twentieth century, just before the wave of African decolonization, and then from mid-life onwards a resident of Canada – are an embodiment of the winding path of history, of migrations that yield both gains and losses. Vassanji’s work often tracks those communities, or practices, made marginal or invisible by the march of time (as in his majestic novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, set among the Indians trapped between the political binaries of black and white in British-ruled Kenya), or individuals seeking to excavate their history and traditions in order to understand themselves better.

With his previous book, The Assassin’s Song, Vassanji chose an Indian setting for the first time, giving us the story of the keeper of a Sufi shrine in the wake of the Gujarat violence of 2002. Now A Place Within, Vassanji’s memoir of his travels within India over the last two decades, considerably extends and deepens his engagement with the country of his ancestors. One could say that Vassanji has taken the usual questions that inform his novelistic practice, and turned them upon himself to ask: Where do I come from? What meaning does the past of my community hold for me in an increasingly rootless world, and what are my own responsibilities towards that past? This question also has a political valency because historically Vassanji’s people, the Ismaili Khoja community of Gujarat, were practitioners of an “odd, syncretistic faith,” combining elements of Hinduism and Islam. Vassanji’s meditation on questions of identity and Indianness through the linked channels of history, travel, and self makes for a strikingly alert and controlled narrative.

The highlight of A Place Within is a long section on Delhi – really the many Delhis of history founded by a series of dynasties, each one replacing but not quite erasing the other. Some of Vassanji’s legwork will come as a surprise to even those who have lived in that city, like myself, and thought they know it quite well. Vassanji shows how, for the longest time, Delhi was a city moving ever northward, from the Qutb Minar of Qutbuddin Aibak to the Lal Qila and Jama Masjid of Aurangzeb, till after Independence and the inflow of Partition refugees the process was reversed and it has begun to expand southwards again, “towards the oldest Delhis and beyond.”

Whether quoting from the imperial historians Amir Khusrau, Alberuni, and Zia Barni, journeying to distant, unpromising Tughlakabad, or ferreting for Mirza Ghalib’s house in Old Delhi, Vassanji is consistently interesting. Some of his thinking about the role of place in human experience is aimed towards the foreignness of what we easily assume to be familiar. “It is always instructive,” he writes, “to remind oneself of the obvious fact: The boundaries and names of many places are only recent in origin and often hide richer, more complex truths than one might imagine; the past then becomes inconvenient and slippery, far less easy to generalise.” This idea of burrowing beneath the surface of the world’s present face, along with a related desire for the redrawing or rediscovery of the self, might be of thought of as the fundamental impulses of travel writing, and both are present in Vassanji’s work. “I have always felt a sense of wonderful elation while travelling in India,” he writes. “It has helped that I remain, and indeed feel, communally anonymous and ambiguous, identifiable only by that cipher of my very Gujarati last name.” Elsewhere he writes, “It’s only oneself one ever discovers.”

Especially noteworthy is Vassanji’s refusal to shirk the difficult questions of history: the fact that the Indian past is not just one of a fabled tolerance that might serve as a beacon for present-day discontents and that is codified in the idealism of our Constitution, but also of considerable hatred and violence. “No one who reads accounts of the early Muslim historians of India would fail to feel uneasy at the bigotry and the arrogance they reveal among the ruling classes and in the behaviour of the sultans,” he writes. “They remind us, let’s be honest, of Muslim fanatics of today. [...] Surely we must acknowledge this past, which casts a shadow upon our lives even today, when a politican can invoke it to create discord and mayhem in the nation. Surely we must ask if we can turn away from those aspects of it that disturb us while allowing others to move us. We must come to terms with it.” On the subject of the riots following the destruction of the Babri Masjid that broke out in India while he was visiting, he writes, “I could not accept India’s embrace and turn away from the violence. It must in some way be a part of me.”

While Delhi is a city that celebrates its great history, Vassanji finds no such consciousness in Ahmedabad, a city older than present-day Old Delhi, but one that seems “uneasy with time and history.” Vassanji’s search in Gujarat for the shrines and settlements of his ancestors, the Khojas, and for the icons and religious songs (or ginans) taught to him in the small Khoja redoubt of his African childhood, yields a section as moving and as beautiful as any of the great narratives of spiritual seeking in our literature. This even though the author acknowledges that he is “a rationalized being who is acquainted with spiritual longing but cannot yield to it”, cannot cajole and implore and supplicate before God as so many do. “At any dargah, a shrine of this kind,” writes, “and even at a temple before a priest, I cannot but help but allow in me a solemn feeling, some respect and humility, for I stand alongside others in a symbolic place that it some manner reflects human existence and frailty, or smallness and exaltedness, and our striving for understanding.”

Roving beyond the usual roll-call of tourist destinations, Vassanji discovers at many religious sites, even in communally sensitive Gujarat, “a certain laissez faire in matters of the spirit” that seems to be on the retreat. If he resists the labels “Hindu” and “Muslim”, he writes, it is not because they don’t have an element of truth, but rather because they are “too exacting, too excluding”, and they mask the extent to which the past is a foreign country. But how can one avoid these terms when they are such an essential part of our conceptual vocabulary? Vassanji chooses to remain a dissenter, and explains the various implications of his position:
I have already said that I find the labels “Hindu” and “Muslim” discomforting, because they are so exclusive. [...] I refuse to use them this way, perhaps naively and definitely against a tide; but I am not alone. I use the distinction of “Hindu” and “Muslim” only in context, and especially when it has been used by people for themselves or others, as in the Gujarat violence.

So deep is the suspicion when one talks of conflict, that one has to state over and over that to describe the murder of a Muslim here is not to deny, let alone justify, the murder of a Hindu elsewhere, that a fanatic group does not represent an entire people, and there is no entire people, Hindu or Muslim anyway. Attempts to create them, of course, have always been there.
At the same time, Vassanji casts an astringent eye on both the excesses of Hindu chauvinism and the tendency of Indian Muslims – in Vassanji’s view one is that is disabling as much as enabling – to adopt “a primary identity defined by faith, in a unity (the ‘umma’) that transcends political, cultural, and ethnic boundaries.”

Narrated in the distinctive cadences of a novelist in possession of a secure and cogent style, and animated by a love of both language and place and a powerful appetite for the mystery and fugacity of the past, this book about coming home to India cannot but make a richer person of every Indian reader.

Here are some other essays on books on India: Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana; Harsh Mander's book on the Gujarat violence of 2002 and its aftermath, Fear and Forgiveness; and Ashis Nandy's Talking India. And here are two long interviews with Ramachandra Guha and Christopher Kremmer.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Some things I've been reading: Cheshire, Butalia, Kakar, Dharwadker, and Malik

Some things I've been reading recently:

"How To Read Kiarostami", a long essay by one of my favourite film critics, Godfrey Cheshire, on one of my favourite film-makers, Abbas Kiarostami. Read, for instance, this long interview with Kiarostami by Shahin Parhami ("I envy people who read novels since they have much more freedom to use their imagination than a film audience...Cinema should be able to provide this kind of a freedom both for artist and the audience.") A long interview with Cheshire is here, and here are Parts 1 and 2 of his enormously interesting and influential essay from 1999, "The Death of Film/ The Decay of Cinema". And here is Kiarostami's essay "An Unfinished Cinema", which saw for the first time, strangely enough, on the wall of the lobby of Sheila Cinema in Paharganj in New Delhi in the year 2000, during a screening of Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us as part of the Delhi Film Festival.

"New Horizons, New Challenges", a recent survey of the depth and breadth of contemporary Indian publishing by Urvashi Butalia ("Estimates about the number of books published [in India] annually vary, but a figure of 70,000 to 80,000 titles is generally agreed upon. The number of active publishers is usually fixed at between 16,000 to 17,000, and these figures encompass the largest companies — who may do as many as 300-400 titles a year — and the smallest, one person operations — who may produce only two or three titles a year.")

"Five Best Books About India", a short survey by the writer Sudhir Kakar. Kakar names books by Calasso, Newby, Nirad Chaudhuri, Naipaul, and Ramanujan; send in your own list as a comment if you so feel like.

"Fiction at Play: The Truth about Haja Gul Baba Bektashi", an essay by the literary scholar Vinay Dharwadker on Qurratulain Hyder's very unusual short story "The Sermons of Haja Gul Baba Bektashi". The story, Dharwadker argues, "lifts the subcontinent's spiritual and psychic history of the past six centuries out of its linear Western-colonialist time frame and renarrates it in fluid, cyclical time." A large set of essays paying tribute to Hyder, who passed away in 2007, can be found here, and an interview with Hyder by Shoma Chaudhury from 1999 is here.

If you have access to the Sahitya Akademi's bi-monthly journal, Indian Literature, I also recommend that you track down Dharwadker's excellent essay "Translating the Millennium: Indian Literature in the Global Market", from the July-August 2008 issue. Among the ideas defended in it are, "The proper unit of translation is not the word but the phrase" and "Only a poem can translate a poem" (there is more to this notion than there first appears). Here is a paragraph from it:
To a great extent, diction and style can be analysed and translated as surface features of language and textuality. In contrast, 'voice' and 'tone' seem to be encoded inside a text, and hence are aspects of its 'inner form'. Voice and tone are both characteristic of a writer and are vital to the meaning and impact of a specific work: they should be 'heard' clearly when a translation combines the best phrases in the best order to represent its effects. Tagore's English translations of his poetry, fiction and drama fail because they are atonal; his English was not supple enough to capture the nuances of his own voice or the voices of his characters, which are vivid in the original Bengali. Without fine modulations of diction, style, voice, and tone, it is impossible to render a poem, a novel, or a play in one language as an artefact of comparable aesthetic or imaginative value in another medium....It is a major literary achievement in itself when a translator invents an entire style in English that parallels an author's signature style in the original. In all honesty, we have to admit that we still have not done for our major writers what Gregory Rabassa, for example, has accomplished for Garcia Marquez, or Maureen Freely has created for Orhan Pamuk.
Rabassa's recounts his experience of translating Marquez and Julio Cortazar in "Translation and Its Discontents", an excerpt from his book about translation If This Be Treason, here. ("As the first part of Hopscotch and some of the “Expendable Chapters” take place in Paris, quite a bit of French is woven into the narration. This could have been translated, but I left it as it was. Had Julio wanted these spots in English he would have translated them into Spanish in the first place. I also saw no reason to dumb the book down for readers of English and insult them in that way. I also left the Spanish intact sometimes for other reasons. Like any song, tangos are better left in the original or great and sometimes hilarious damage is done.")

Lastly, here is an essay, "Mistaken Identity", on changing attitudes towards issues of individual and group identity by the British writer Kenan Malik,whose work I always read with care ("Historically, anti-racists challenged both the practice of racism and the process of racialisation; that is, both the practice of discriminating against people by virtue of their race and the insistence that an individual can be defined by the group to which he or she belongs. Today's multiculturalists argue that to fight racism one must celebrate group identity. The consequence has been the resurrection of racial ideas and imprisonment of people within their cultural identities.") Malik is also the author of the recent book From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy, and some the arguments made in that book – that Rushdie's opponents may have lost the battle, but they have won the larger war against free speech – are presented here in "Shadow of the Fatwa" ("Critics of Rushdie no more spoke for the Muslim community than Rushdie himself did. Both represented different strands of opinion within Muslim communities. Rushdie's critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. The campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots, but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. They succeeded at least in part, because secular liberals embraced them as the authentic voice of the Muslim community.")

That should be at least eight hours of reading!