Monday, February 22, 2010

Chaturvedi Badrinath (1933-2010)

I was saddened to hear of the demise, on the 17th of February, of Chaturvedi Badrinath, a writer and philosopher I admired greatly. Badrinath was the author of several notable books, including The Mahabharata: An Inquiry Into The Human Condition (2006), Swami Vivekananda: The Living Vedanta (2006), Introduction to the Kamasutra (1999), and The Women of the Mahabharata (2008).

Badrinath's literary career began, by today's standards, fairly late in life, when he was in his forties. (He was a member of the Indian Administrative Service from 1957 to 1989, and this consumed his energies in his youth). Unusually, the last decade of his life, with the world of action exchanged for one of reflection, was the most prolific of his literary career. Indeed, it was through his last published book, The Women of the Mahabharata, that I first became acquainted with his work. Merely to read the introduction of this book was to realise that one was in the company of a first-rate reader.

Great literary works, by their very nature, condense thought, pressure language, revel in ambiguities, hum with implication, make meaning through symbols, patterns, leitmotifs and repetition. They replicate life's mystery and complexity through their own patterns of speech, suggestion, and silence.

It follows then that one of the primary tasks of literary criticism is exegesis: the explication, often at a length several times that of the text being scrutinised, of a text's net of meanings and complexity of structure. Sometimes criticism itself becomes pithily epigrammatic, vivid in imagery, rich in the play of ideas. This is the signal quality of Badrinath's work in his two great books on the Mahabharata, books which qualify both as literary criticism and as philosophy. They never make the mistake, as some works of interpretation do, of isolating the work's ostensible message at the expense of the form or context. A short excerpt from one of them is here.

Last summer I happened to be in Pondicherry, and took the opportunity extended by Badrinath's daughter, the novelist and exponent of Bharatnatyam Tulsi Badrinath, to see him at his residence in Auroville, where he had been living in relative solitude for several years. The bungalow was called Badri-La, and inside I found the writer, physically infirm but mentally spry, chortling over a joke with a friend. His spacious living-room was full of fine books on religion and philosophy, many of them of interest to me. We chatted for two or three hours about the writing life, about problems with publishing, about the value of concision and density in writing, and (since he was at work on his autobiography) about the place of the "I" and of self-observation in literature.

Badrinath asked as many questions as he answered, and sucked gleefully on his pipe as he spoke a pursuit gave him even more pleasure now that the doctor had forbidden it. I noticed too how involved he was with the lives of his staff, and their children. Despite his age and his remote location, he still ran a house very competently. I remember how, when at lunch I asked for some ghee to go with my rice and dal, he was enormously annoyed that the kitchen had run out of ghee the day before, and spoke with some astringency on the necessity of anticipating problems instead of finding oneself embarrassed by them later.

The last honour of Badrinath's distinguished career was the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009 for his literary criticism, which pleased him greatly. Confined to his hospital bed, he sent his daughter on to receive it, but did not live to see her return. The last interview he gave is here.

On hearing of Badrinath's death, I regretted enormously my failure to take up his invitation to return to Badri-La to stay for a few days. But every writer of distinction lives on in his or her books, and Badrinath's magisterial mind and voice suffuse his written work. I look forward to returning to his books those I have read, and those that I haven't and to getting to know Chaturvedi Badrinath better.

One of Badrinath's essays, "The Karma Conundrum", is here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

On The Essays of Leonard Michaels

The first thing about The Essays of Leonard Michaels to arrest the reader’s attention is the author’s own photograph on the cover, taken at some point in middle age. The expression is gently quizzical, amused, open, the face aware of the camera but comfortable with itself. Michaels (1933-2003) was an American Jewish writer, principally of short stories, and of the same generation as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, whose small, carefully chiselled work was praised for its candour about sex (this was in the days when such candour was a radical artistic choice in a buttoned-up culture, and not a default setting as it often can be now, as if would be embarrassing to be anything else) and a muscular, even self-consciously masculine style that was nevertheless alive to moods of tenderness, innocence, vulnerability, the anti-masculine.

Writing, in one of these essays, about a love affair that went too fast for him (it goes just as fast
inside the essay, described in two pages as an aside to a larger meditation on a professor of English who roused him to his highest nature), Michaels writes, “I had no virginity to lose, but when sex happened with guiltless and astonishing speed, I lost my innocence.” This tension between freedom and violation, meaning and mystery, desire and disappointment is what makes for the energy and insight of this book, one half of which is devoted to literature, art and cinema, the other half to portraits of people, including Michaels himself.

The son of a barber, Michaels was aware of how his own life of education, cultivation, artistic experiment and productive introspection was founded upon the persistent, almost unthinking labour of his father in his barbershop six days a week, year after year. In an essay entitled “My Father” (almost a mandatory requirement, it seems, of a male Western writer
, but even if a compulsory assignment then carried off here with panache), he writes that, outside of the two worlds of shop and home, his father was pretty much a fish out of water:

He took few vacations. Once we spent a week in Miami, and he tried to enjoy himself, wading bravely into the ocean, stepping inch by inch into the warm, blue, unpredictable immensity. Then he slipped. In water no higher than his pupik, he came up thrashing, struggling back onto the beach on skinny white legs. ‘I nearly drowned,’ he said, exhilarated. He never went into the water again.
That word "exhilarated", coming where it does, is what brings Papa Michaels alive.

The essay ends with a beautiful night scene where the teenaged Michaels, sleekly dressed and off in search of sexual adventure, runs on the street into his father, coming back home after
a long day at work, and is handed a few coins for expenses, as a little child might. The other mentor figure to be found on these pages is a professor of literature, Austin Warren, very famous in his day, whose teaching method was so sparse and precise – all he did was read texts aloud, occasionally stopping to draw attention to a word or ask a pointed question – and yet so vivifying that he held large classes in thrall. Having heard him once, Michaels decided to junk the idea of going to medical school (which would have been the respectable thing to do) and enrolled for graduate study in English instead. Michaels’s eulogy to his teacher reminds us of the enormous power of personal example and passionate rigour, if not to change the world, then at least to decisively impact and permanently enrich a few others.

The high p
oint of this book arrives in Michaels’s discussion of the work of an painter, Max Beckmann, who spent his entire life observing his own face through self-portraits. Beckmann’s work rouses Michaels to a set of inspired jottings on the wonder and mystery of human faces, on how faces are at once both public and private. “A face is the thing we most consciously bear or carry into public view, while it remains invisible to ourselves; and it is also the thing we contemplate endlessly in others, in the tremendous variety and subtlety of theirs moods, desires, and meanings,” he writes. “Whatever we say, our face says it first, or differently, or withholds part of the meaning. It betrays as much as it expresses. It speaks of sadness while laughing, or satisfaction while commiserating.... For no reason we can specify, a face can seem loveable or disagreeable.” The beauty of Michaels’s prose reminds us that although faces and their owners disappear from this world, powerful words are much less easily effaced.

Here are
some more of Michaels's essays: "My Yiddish", "The Action of Metaphor", and an excerpt from his spirited and observant reading of Saul Bellow's novel Ravelstein.

And here is an old post on Saul Bellow's Seize The Day, and here are five more on fine Indian essayists: On Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male, "Utpal Dutt on theatre and film", "Cricket with Ram Guha", On Chidananda Das Gupta's Seeing Is Believing
, and "Krishna Kripalani's faith and frivolity".

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Two events tomorrow evening at the Kala Ghoda Festival

I'll be making two appearances at the Kala Ghoda Festival this year, both on the same evening.

This pleases me very much, as it saves me the trouble of polishing my boots twice over and having an extra shirt ironed, and I'm one of those people who loves the sense of having saved precious time through adroit orchestration, no matter that I never establish what that saved time actually does go into. Just the feeling is enough.

Tomorrow, Monday, at 5pm I'm going to be talking to Anjum Hasan, the author of the novels Lunatic In My Head and Neti, Neti, in the David Sassoon Library garden.

And then at 8pm I'm going to be reading from Arzee the Dwarf, alongside Amit Varma and Lata Jagtiani, who'll be reading from their books. This time it will be Anjum asking the questions.

Look forward to seeing you! And now I'll return to my books and to my boots, while also trying to find the time (proleptically gained because of my time saved tomorrow) for a trip in the afternoon to witness the 9th All India Zoroastrian Body Building Championship in Byculla ("Any of the weight class events may be cancelled if we do not receive more than four entries in each class"), and then two hours in front of the television set at night to watch Arsenal v Chelsea. Sundays always turn out to be the busiest day of the week.

In closing, here is an old post: "Anjum Hasan and the Indian Shakespeare", and a review, from 2008, of Lunatic In My Head.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Things I've been reading

Some things I've been reading recently:

An interview with Jonathan Galassi, the publishing head of Farrar Straus Giroux and himself a poet and a translator of Italian poetry, on reading, writing, editing and publishing, and on the history of one of English-language publishing's most influential firms. Among the points on which I agree most emphatically with Galassi is when he talks of the pleasure that ensues when a manuscript is typeset: "I always feel that when you put a book into proofs it gets better just by virtue of being set in print. I know a lot of writers feel that way too. It takes on a kind of permanence. And then it's even more satisfying when it becomes an actual book." And on the subject what he looks out for most in a novel: "I think the voice is the most important thing—and then the shape."

"After Making Love We Hear Footsteps"
, a very funny and tender poem by Galway Kinnell about a child ("Fergus") whom—and this is a wonderful phrase—"habit of memory propels to the ground of his making"

"The Last Writes", an essay by DJ Taylor about how there is neither the money or the space in British literary life any more to sustain a career as a full-time book reviewer. I always like pieces about the nuts and bolts of the trade (who pays what sums, how much time it took someone to spin something out, who earned what when), and read this piece with special interest not just because I occasionally write for the British press, but also because I've managed for a few years to make a modest living (actually a very fine living if we understand the word as "existence" and not as "income") from the very profession whose diminishing wages Taylor mourns. Hmm—I wonder how much time I have left on my clock.

"The Perils Of Writing A Life Of Gore Vidal", a very entertaining account of running into trouble with one's biographical subject by Fred Kaplan ("Vidal's pride, one of the leitmotifs of his life, frequently compared to that of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, required that a biography be published while he still lived. If Norman Mailer already had two or three versions of his life published or in process, Vidal argued, why should he not have at least one? My argument that he should follow the example of Mark Twain, who insisted that his biography not be published before his death, met firm resistance.) I have on my desk right now, waiting for a week in which all other things fall silent or go on vacation, two fat new literary biographies of nineteenth-century greats: Michael Slater's biography of Charles Dickens and Joseph Frank's monumental study of Fyodor Dostoevesky, in an abridged version that is still about a thousand pages long.

"These Poems Are The End For Me", a set of poems in Hindi translation in the new issue of the literary magazine Pratilipi by the late Marathi and English writer Dilip Chitre, who passed away recently. Chitre's essay "The Practice of Marathi Poetry" is here.