Monday, February 28, 2011

Things I've Been Reading: An Indian Literature Special

 "Your Missing Person: Clearing House and The Bombay Poets" by the poet and novelist Anjum Hasan, a survey of the dynamic small presses of Bombay of the 1970s run by loose collectives of Bombay poets, the ripples of connection and influence they generated, and the idea of Bombay as a cosmopolitan space that loosened the tongues of Indian poets who both lived in Bombay and didn't.

"Three Mistakes This Decade", a short piece by the novelist Chetan Bhagat on the worst things to have happened in India in the decade just gone by. One of these cataclysms is what Bhagat calls "The Godhra Riots" of 2002:
"The train burning incident and the riots thereafter, were both terrible incidents that scarred India's entry into the new millennium. The innocent families who were affected, of course, suffered the worst of this mistake. While a few miscreants did the heinous acts, for a while it tarnished the image of the people of Gujarat, which (sic) in my opinion, are one of the most peace loving people on earth." 
Bhagat's brightly complacent, feel-good, syntactically incoherent reading of what some would call a small-scale genocide, organised by groups much more deadly and efficient than "a few miscreants", is an example of what for me is the main problem with his work, which is that it is deficient just in terms of style (which can be, as Bhagat himself has argued, a subjective position, and something on which one might defer to the taste of others) but also in its thought, in its grasp of what is going on in the world, as in the jeering, stereotypical portrait of Americans in his One Night @ The Call Center. 

"Bankim or Tagore" by the translator Arunava Sinha, who has translated both these novelists into English and now tries to weigh his preference for one or the other ("As a reader, I admire Bankim’s control, structure, richness, characterisation and narrative verve. But as a translator, I was perhaps more challenged by Tagore’s craft, his unfailing ability to create poetry out of sentences, to draw rich pictures in his descriptions, and to present a larger truth through his fiction.")

"Let Poetry Be A Sword!", an essay by Ananya Vajpeyi on the Indian writer DR Nagaraj, whose marvellous book of essays The Flaming Feet was reviewed here recently("In his home state, DR had been recognised from his early days as a student activist and a literary agent provocateur. DR, himself born into an extremely impoverished and backward weaver caste, gave a new kind of voice to Dalit and Shudra identity struggles: compassionate, confident, comfortably learned, and equally critical of both upper-caste humbug and Dalit self-pity.") Vajpeyi is also the editor of a marvellous recent issue of the Indian magazine Seminar called "The Indian Constitution at 60", from which I'd recommend her own introduction, "The Problem", and Pratap Bhanu Mehta's searching essay "What Is Constitutional Morality?"

"The Un-Victim", a long interview with Arundhati Roy by the novelist and non-fiction writer Amitava Kumar. While Roy is very much "in character" in this exchange ("To answer your question, I don’t really do research in order to write. Finding out about things, figuring out the real story—what you call research—is part of life now for some of us. Mostly just to get over the indignity of living in a pool of propaganda, of being lied to all the time, if nothing else"), I was surprised to see Amitava Kumar—usually so flamboyant, so jaunty, so debonair, so chirpy, so forceful—so restrained, so sweet, and so deferential, only once stirring up a bit of trouble by asking, "Is there anything you have written in the past that you don’t agree with anymore, that you think you were wrong about, or perhaps something about which you have dramatically changed your mind?"

"One-Eyed", a striking poem by Meena Kandasamy from her recent collection Ms Militancy.

"Cameron's Cuz Is More The Curzon", a reply by Patrick French to "A Curzon Without An Empire", a review by Pankaj Mishra of his book India: A Portrait ("I was depicted as a Bob Christo character, playing several villainous, alien roles: I was the viceroy Lord Curzon, a shocked 'foreign visitor', a writer influenced by 'right-wing Friedmans', whose book was aimed at 'western businessmen'—and not just any western businessmen, but the sort who 'remain indifferent to the benighted 800 million in rural areas.'") Elsewhere, and recently, the economist Jagdish Bhagwati criticises Mishra in a lecture in Parliament last December called "This Is How Economic Reforms Have Transformed India", arguing that "While economic analysis can often produce a yawning indifference, and Mishra's narrative is by contrast eloquent and captivating, the latter is really fiction masquerading as non-fiction."

"The Final Chapter", a story by the Gujarati writer Pravinsinh Chavda in a translation by Mira Desai, and with an introduction to Chavda's work ("When envoys reached him with news about the ticket allotment for the state assembly, Jagubhai was waiting at the village bus stand, a wet napkin wrapped to his head. He’d reached in a rush, but the one-thirty bus had left right before his eyes, and since the next bus was only after two hours, he sat by a banyan tree, his legs stretched out."). The Gujarati version of this story is here.

"The BJP's Sole Currency Is Its Anger" by Aakar Patel, whose intriguing, homespun view of the Indian public sphere and history is to my mind the most acerbic and the most distinctive of all the columnists in the English-language press today ("We can read all 986 pages of Advani’s My Country, My Life and not encounter a thought or idea about his country’s illiteracy and poverty. Someone else will worry about them. Advani’s concerns are emotional—how Mother India is being ravaged by Muslims and Christians in Kashmir, Assam, North-East and so on. The BJP isn’t interested in economics as a subject of politics, because Hindutva is not constructive but sullen. Though both Manu and Kautilya weigh in on it in their texts, economics has not been a Brahmin concern. The Brahmin’s concern has been keeping his identity pure.")

And last, "The Enigma of India's Arrival", a long and perceptive essay on trends in the Indian economy since independence, and particularly after liberalization, by Kaushik Basu, now chief economic advisor to the government of India and the author of the fascinating new book Beyond The Invisible Hand: Groundwork For a New Economics, which I've been reading ("Virmani’s characterization of the resurgence of India caused by its break from socialism does not survive scrutiny. The primary reason for this is that India never practiced socialism.") If you're interested in this kind of work, you might also enjoy mulling over a paper by Gaurav Datt and Martin Ravallion called "Why Have Some Indian States Performed Better Than Others At Reducing Rural Poverty?" ("Rural poverty rankings of Indian states in 1990 were very different from 1960. This unevenness in progress allows us to study the causes of poverty in a developing rural economy. We model the evolution of various poverty measures, using pooled state-level data for the period 1957-91.")


Rathesh said...

That's the fascinating thing about Chetan Bhagat, when attacked by critics he says that they don't get the masses, but if somebody berates him as popcorn novelist , like say Surendra Mohan Pathak in Hindi, he suddenly pretends to be Chomski/Dawkins/Amis all rolled into one.

Amitava Kumar said...

Boss, galti qabool. She is so roundly attacked by our compatriots that I was eager to overcompensate. Jab pyaar kiya to darna kyaa, etc. Anyway, thanks for reading and for linking. You so speciaaaal.