Monday, June 27, 2011

Things I've Been Reading Recently

Here are some things I've been reading recently that I thought I'd share with you:

"After The Fall", the historian Ramachandra Guha's marvellous long essay in this month's issue of The Caravan on the fall of the Left in Bengal and the future of the Left in India("In seeking to answer these questions, I shall start with the analysis of a printed text. This is apposite, since Marxists are as much in thrall to the printed word, or Word, as are fundamentalist Muslims or Christians. True, their God had more than one Messenger, and these messengers wrote multiple Holy Books. Withal, like Christianity and Islam, Marxism is a faith whose practice is very heavily determined by its texts. Thus, communists the world over justify their actions on the basis of this or that passage in the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Mao.")

"What Does Translation Mean In India?" a very cogent essay by the Kannada novelist UR Ananthamurthy. Ananthamurthy points out that the Indian novelist, whether in English or in some other language, is almost always a translator because of the nature of Indian linguistic multiplicity and exchange at the level of everyday life ("Chomana dudi, a celebrated novel in Kannada by Shivaram Karanth, is written in Kannada. Choma the hero of the novel is an untouchable, and in real life he would be mostly speaking in Tulu. In fact, one could say much of the novel takes place in the language of Tulu, and the author Karanth while writing the novel is truly translating from Tulu into Kannada. I wonder if this is not true also of much of the good fiction in English written by us in India. Isn’t Salman Rushdie translating from Bombay Hindi in many of his creatively rich passages? The best effects of Arundathi Roy, I feel, lie in her great ability to mimic the Syrian Christian Malayalam. Raja Rao’s path-breaking Kanthapura, although it is written in English, is truly a Kannada novel in its texture as well as narrative mode—deriving both from the oral traditions of Karnataka. With most of the truly creative Indian novelists in English, who seem to have made a contribution to the way the language English is handled I would venture to make this remark: For them to create a unique work in English is to transcreate from an Indian language milieu.")

"Flight of the Eagles", one of the many crackling pieces written for the Mumbai tabloid Mid-Day by the journalist J Dey, the paper's Head of Investigations and an authority on the city's underworld, who was shot down in broad daylight by four assassins on motorbikes in Powai on June 11. The piece begins: "When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber, goes an old adage. The adage is especially apt when it comes to controlling crime in the city. The eagles -- encounter specialists --have been silent for far too long.'" This avian metaphor is extended through the length of the article, and raises images as vivid as that in any great short story or novel. Dey's intriguing reports ("Osama's Death Means That Dawood Lives Longer", "Seasoned Diesel Kingpin Arrested") are so good to read because of their attention to detail, their willingness to lay out a web of connections, their immersion in the city's language, and their sympathy for small fry -- the khabaris and the chindis -- in a big game.

"The Inward Eye", an essay by the historian Ananya Vajpeyi on the place of the poet Kabir in India's artistic, religious and intellectual traditions that takes as its springboard the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's recent versions of Kabir ("Kabir for me conjures up the great multilingual chain of India’s poets, from Valmiki to Kalidasa to Tagore. He transports me to Banaras, a city of Sanskrit seminaries that has throughout the ages both drawn and persecuted the most talented Brahmins, from Tulsidas to Hazariprasad Dwivedi to Pankaj Mishra. He takes me into the fascinating vernacular domains of singers like Prahlad Tipanya, whose ceaseless journeys are so marvellously documented by the filmmaker, Shabnam Virmani. He opens the door to the complex anthropological worlds of Banaras, meticulously detailed by Nita Kumar, Philip Lutgendorf and Jonathan Parry, among others, and to its literary and intellectual history, as reconstructed by Namvar Singh, Purushottam Aggarwal, Vasudha Dalmia and Sheldon Pollock. The subtle, truant poetry of Kabir continually energizes Hindustani vocal music — from Bhimsen Joshi, to Kumar Gandharva, to Chhannulal Mishra, to Madhup Mudgal.")

"My Father's English Language", Martin Amis's very entertaining look at his father Kingsley Amis's book The King's English in an essay that is itself passionate about language ("Usage is irreversible. Once the integrity of a word is lost, no amount of grumbling and harrumphing can possibly restore it. The battle against illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms, is not a public battle. It takes place within the soul of every individual who minds about words.") and acute about its power ("We are all of us held together by words; and when words go, nothing much remains.")

"Why Tennyson Is Underrated", an essay by the limber and versatile poet and literary critic Eric Ormsby on the timelessness of Tennyson's verse, an argument he proves by some choice quotations, including these memorable lines from In Memoriam ("Old yew, which graspest at the stones/That name the underlying dead,/Thy fibres net the dreamless head,/Thy roots are wrapt about the bones."). The Underrated/Overrated series in Standpoint magazine has yielded some very provocative opinions, such as the one by Joseph Epstein on why he loves Willa Cather and can't bear Flaubert.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Love of literature and the literature of love in Aamer Hussein's The Cloud Messenger

Although they are asked, more frequently than anything else, if their books are autobiographical, all writers of fiction (and indeed all good readers) know that their work and their imagination are doubly rooted, half in life and half in literature. Over time, these two sources are intermixed so deeply that it is hard to think of one without the other: hard to experience a feeling that does not raise a phrase from a book or a line from a poem or the memory of a work as a whole, and hard to read a novel or track a poem's winding path without having a window opened onto one's own memories.

But of course novels themselves, being usually about neither writers or even readers in any significant way (perhaps the most characteristic act of reading found in novels is the typical one of someone reading a newspaper) rarely explore this double-sided condition, its truths, its failings: to do so is to risk a kind of solipsism. Very rarely there appears inside novels a finely drawn map of a literature-loving self and its relationship with the world. Aamer Hussein's The Cloud Messenger is one such book.

The novel is narrated by a man in London, Mehran, looking back on his life from the vantage of late middle age. Like most of Hussein's fictions it carries a mood both elliptical and elegiac. But what Hussein enjoys in this book, more so than the short stories for which he is thus far best-known, is a wider expanse of narrative space, a space he finesses in a quite distinctive way. Very early on in the book a number of highly suggestive triangles appear, particularly those of cities  the disparate worlds of Karachi, Indore (where Mehran's mother was born) and London  and languages: English, Urdu, and Farsi. Cities and languages are characters in this book as much as people are (something that is emphasised when we read that Karachi had given Mehran "his sense of a city's life", not just a sense of his own life). All throughout we see the protagonist being spun and shunted not just between people but also between place and tongue, a nomad in every sense of the word.

It is this complex texture and rich field of reference that gives the love stories at the centre of the novel their particular sweetness and poignancy. Over his twenties and thirties, Mehran falls in love with, and is later unable to escape the claims of, two very distinctive women -- the beautiful, flighty, and enigmatic concert pianist and photographer Riccarda, whom he meets while he is studying for a degree in Farsi, and the brilliant, tempestuous, sensation-seeking economist Marvi. Both are married when he meets them, and in a kind of flight from the facts of their life. Their arrangements with Mehran must necessarily be unorthodox; sometimes it takes years for a patch of blue sky to appear over them, and then it vanishes just as fast.

In one of the book's most beautiful passages, Mehran is suddenly summoned by Riccarda to Rome. The very look of the city  "Rome, in August, was drowsy, apricot-gold; sultrily abandoned to its silver fountains and its deep blue skies. For the first time in years, I began to imagine what it might be like to live away from London"  seems to promise a fulfilling of every call of body and soul. Mehran and Riccarda spend a few days together rapt upon wings (or, to borrow from the book's central metaphor, clouds) that appear only once or twice in life. The protagonist is seen imagining a lasting peace and stability when a call from Riccarda's husband suddenly shatters their idyll. She leaves in a rush, leaving behind Mehran to find his way back to London. On the journey back, Mehran experiences not just all the pain of heartbreak but also its resentful energy, the impulse to stoke a hundred new beginnings:
It took me thirty-six hours or more to get back to London; I travelled via Milan, changed stations at Paris, took the ferry at Calais. I cried on the boat and pretended I had hay fever in the sunny August weather. After Riccarda's sudden flight I knew that our relationship would always be full of interruptions and breaks. I had always wanted to hold on to her, missed her when she was away and found her elusive, so I gambled my body for her love, thinking that once we were lovers I would have a bigger place in her heart. I had failed. Looking at the whitish waters of the Channel now, I was making other plans: dreaming, for the first time since 1979, the year I dreamed of going off to Shiraz or Isfahan to study Persian literature there. [...] Now, again, I wanted to travel, to write essays or poems, or a short film script, perhaps, to live for a while in another country. I thought I should write a doctoral thesis or at least go along with my tutor's suggestion that I write one. Then I would settle down with someone or have a child, or adopt one, while I was still young. No room in my life for a secretive lover. I took the train from Dover to Victoria, and reached home dirty and dishevelled.
But Mehran continues to stay in touch with Riccarda, even to love her; as we see later in his relationship with the economist Marvi, in relationships he is very much the giver and not the taker. Yet as time passes, he proves much more resilient than his partners, as if nourished by a dozen wellsprings and redeemed by the grace of his own imagination. Some of this has to do with his ability to immerse himself willingly in prosaic tasks and to keep a kind of inner discipline, but some of his equanimity is also a result of the consolations of literature: a love of words, the knowledge that others have been in the same place as him and more are to come. Indeed, many of the novel's most ringing sentences have to do with Mehran's perceptions of books or writers, his precise evocation of the spirit that guides a single soul or a tradition in literature.

As a student in England, Mehran comes to realize that, although English is his first language, it an English that drinks at the fountain of another tradition: "the rolling cadences of Keats and Tennyson had always been a music as distant from my ear as the assonances of Mir and Ghalib or Faiz were close." His literary explorations take him out not just towards the great Urdu literary tradition of the subcontinent, but also the less-known one of Sindh handed down to him by his mother: "What I really wanted was to understand the work of Shah Abdul Latif, Sachal Sarmast and Khwaja Ghulam Farid, the great poets of the Indus Valley who used those age-old tales of blighted loves my mother had told us to map the experiences of the soul's longing for its origins." The voices and veneration of poets are something that he also shares in his relationship with Marvi, whose Urdu is as good as his and whose Sindhi is better; they arrive at an understanding of their condition through art's infinite power to permeate and clarify human realities:
The discipline in [Parveen] Shakir's syntax and the almost Persian grace of her complex vocabulary drew me to her verses; something else in her voice  a yearning, vulnerable intimacy beyond technique, born of our time and our generation  spoke to Marvi. (And there were verses that could have been about our relationship: 'We ought to have met/in a kinder age/in the hope of a dream/in another sky/in another land.")
But it was Shakir's broken marriage, her life as a single mother, her charisma, and most of all her early death that Marvi was drawn to.
That same "yearning, vulnerable intimacy beyond technique" can be heard at some points in Hussein's own narrative, as when Mehran comes to see that his essential condition is solitude, and that, unlike the cloud messenger of Kalidasa's Meghduta who carries a message from the lover to his beloved, in his own case he must "be a messenger to himself, carrying stories from the places of his past to his present place, and back again from present to past."

Last, it is worth dwelling upon the book's idiosyncratic narrative technique, one that stands at an angle to the large embrace, and smoothened surfaces and transitions, of conventional realism (although conventional realism, too, can be endlessly complex). In his short stories Hussein has always revealed a love of the fragment, of allusive passages that stand alone and whose relationship to the rest of the text must be resolved by the reader.

In the more expansive, detailed narrative world of The Cloud Messenger this distinctive tendency is used to complicate the story and to vary its pace and rhythm, large chapters of continuous narration being followed by single-paragraph ones that make no apology for either lyric flight or mysterious reticence. The glories of both literature and love are emphatically and memorably sounded in this most independent-minded novel, which seems like both the coming together of many themes and strands in the author's past work, and at the same time a new beginning.