Friday, July 13, 2018

The Indian novel not yet translated into English that I most want to read... Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's Adorsho Hindu Hotel (1940). Long-time readers of the Middle Stage will know what a great admirer I am of this Bengali novelist's poetics and fictional ethics (fictional as in "relating to the writing of fiction", not "fictitious"). I explain why I love him so much in this post from 2005, "The World of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay". In fact, if I could have a dinner party in which I could invite half a dozen writers from the length and breadth of literary history, the four certainties would be Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton, Jorge Amado, and Bibhutibhushan.

Many of Bibhutibhushan's novels are translated into English, but one of the most famous, Adorsho Hindu Hotel, is as yet mysteriously untranslated. When I was Fiction & Poetry editor of The Caravan between 2012 and 2014, I used my small powers and privileges to commission to the great translator of Bengali literature Arunava Sinha to translate the first chapter of this book, and it was every bit as good as I'd anticipated. You can read it here, with a short introduction by myself:

Arguably the twentieth-century Indian writer with the imagination and technical gifts most suited to the creation of great fiction, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay continues to enjoy renown across India—though unfortunately not elsewhere—for his stories and novels, written in his native Bengali.
Every reader finds some new way to describe the legerdemain of Bibhutibhushan (as he is commonly known in Bengal). One interpretation holds that here is a narrative artist who seems to drop into the world of his characters and then become invisible, producing the illusion that the story is telling itself. His sympathy is so vast that each person touched by the roving lens of his fictional narration seems momentarily to turn into the protagonist of the story. The work of many great fiction writers seems somehow self-consciously literary, but not so with Bibhutibhushan, who prizes—and produces—narrativeness (a term used in literary theory), that mysterious quality of constant motion and confident verisimilitude that makes a reader forget he or she is reading a story.
Here are the opening pages of one of Bibhutibhushan’s best novels, Adorsho Hindu Hotel. For a while, the narration holds the daily life of the hotel in focus. Then, from out of the picture, emerges the unforgettable figure of the cook Hajari, a middle-aged toiler and dreamer. “Why then did he weave these dreams every day here by the Churni?” the narrator asks. “Because it was pleasant, that was why.” No greater insight is required—and Hajari’s reasons are also the reasons why we read fiction.

Which Indian publisher will commission Arunava to translate the rest?

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Khushwant Singh On—And In—Love

In a novel, the writer sells the reader a story; in reportage, his or her powers of perception and analysis. In the realm of autobiography and memoir, it might be said, one sells oneself. The more dramatic one’s life experiences and the more divergent one’s beliefs from the mainstream of the culture, the more readers one wins. Khushwant Singh always enjoyed the persona of a professional provocateur, as suggested by the very title of his widely syndicated column, “With Malice Towards One and All”. The purpose behind his writing, he tells us in Absolute Khushwant, has always been “to inform, amuse, provoke”.

He certainly does so this book, an engaging if somewhat uneven collection of opinions and reminiscences on various subjects, transcribed by the journalist Humra Quraishi. Long-time readers of Singh are unlikely to be surprised by any of his stances. He continues successfully, to cast himself as part monk and part libertine, rising at 4am, working through the day, always keeping himself gainfully occupied, speaking truth to power, and avoiding idle pursuits, while simultaneously enjoying his drink and his gossip sessions, keeping his sexual life alive in mind if not in the flesh, recalling his many affairs, and vigorously contesting (while also clearly enjoying) his public image as a dirty old man, accepting it finally as the price to be paid for his candour.

“Usually, writers are an interesting and colourful bunch,” he writes – and clearly he has set out his stall to be the most interesting and colourful of them all. This carries a certain charm, and certainly the house of Indian literature (which at one point in the book is compared to a brothel) would be much duller without Khushwant Singh’s two rooms, one for work and one for play.

Absolute Khushwant reads very much like – this is both its strength and its weakness – a string of quotable quotes pulled together for maximum impact. Dozens of subjects are raised, from the place of sex, marriage, work, and solitude in life to secularism and communalism in politics to Partition and the persecution of Sikhs in 1984 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, but on most issues the discussion ends abruptly just as matters are beginning to become interesting. Many contradictions arise, few of which are explored.

Stubbornly, Singh continues to defend his support of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, and indeed the thuggery of her son Sanjay (“He had a vision and this was not really understood...He had been good to me. He put me in Parliament. Even The Hindustan Times – it was he who called up [KK] Birla and told him to give me the editor’s job!”)

This is to put personal relations over reason. “If [Sanjay] has lived, this country would not have been a democracy,” writes Singh. “There would have been order and faster development, but no democracy, of that I am sure.” This makes it harder to sympathise with Singh’s persistent agitation against the politics of Hindutva (“My present mission is to warn readers against the dangers posed by Hindu fundamentalists”). It seems reasonable to ask why democracy may be sacrificed for development, but not secularism. After all, Narendra Modi, though considered a murderer by Singh, too boasts of a record of “order and faster development”.

One of the most intriguing angles of the book is Singh’s view of sex, and of all those other aspects of and appendages to desire – love, marriage, companionship, family – that exist on the same continuum as sex while also being in tension with it, never quite working themselves out into a straight line. “If you ask me what’s more important, sex or romance, it’s sex,” he declares. “Romantic interludes take up a lot of time and are a sheer waste of energy, for the end result isn’t very much.”

But even the road of sex only takes one so far, for “sex with the same person can get boring after a know, routine...A partner once bedded becomes a bore.” That would suggest a sexually fulfilled life is incompatible with the institution of marriage and its presumption of monogamy and sexual fidelity. As one season keeps giving way to the next, so – if one is really to be honest to oneself – must a sexual partner.

This is an interesting and perhaps quite logical (if somewhat disillusioned and possibly very male) view of desire, worth contrasting, for instance, to the sexual code implicit in Manto's fiction. But here it is complicated, and in part explained, by Singh’s personal experience. In an essay on his wife, Singh writes that he was married for over sixty years and “It wasn’t a happy marriage.” In part this was because his wife got very close to another man “from the very beginning of the marriage, probably from the very first year.” “I felt I could no longer respond emotionally,” he confesses, “and had nothing left to give.”

There is something quite heartbreaking about this, and while many of Singh’s views on sex are refreshingly unorthodox and candid, it’s hard not to feel that they involve an element of compensation and rationalisation that have to do with his own lacks and losses.

Singh is a great admirer of old English poets (Tennyson, Edward Fitzgerald), even casting his translations of his beloved Urdu poets (whom he also quotes liberally in Absolute Khushwant) into a style and meter similar to theirs. So one might perhaps offer, as an alternative to his view of love and sex, William Blake’s view: “What is it men in women do require?/The lineaments of gratified desire./What is it women in men require?/The lineaments of gratified desire.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Talking History with Romila Thapar

Human beings live not just in time, but in history. History is an account of the events of the past, but it amounts to much more than that, for it is also a theory of cause and effect, a source of identity and consolation, a narrative that includes some and excludes others. History not only influences the present, it is also influenced by it: We go to history in search of answers to questions that are of importance to us now. History may have taken place, but it is never finished: It remains a dynamic entity, capable (like memory) of generating new meanings.

These and many more ideas about the nature of history pop up in Talking History, a freewheeling book-length conversation about the practice—as also the politics—of history with Romila Thapar. Thapar is the doyenne of Indian historians, someone who has lived and worked in two centuries and taken readers into the India of many more, from the world of the Indus Valley civilization to that of the Ramayan, that of Ashoka to the medieval Kashmiri historian Kalhana.

Even at 86, she is still very much a vivid and forceful presence on the Indian intellectual scene—not least because of the ascent in recent years of the Hindutva school of history and its votaries, whose keenness to dismiss her outright as “anti-Hindu” and a “Marxist” is grudging acknowledgement of Thapar’s stature. Her co-discussants here are the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo (now virtually an honorary Indian after having produced several such book-length dialogues on themes in Indian life with other intellectuals) and the historian Neeladri Bhattacharya.

Here is a book to initiate any lay reader into the subtleties and difficulties of the historian’s craft. Although it is not Thapar’s aim to say that history is best understood only by historians, she does want us to appreciate that history is hard: not an open plain, but a dense forest. Finding one’s way around the terrain of history is not easy, and much depends on the intellectual resources, scepticism, imagination and even self-restraint we bring to the quest.

And just as everything—tea or coffee, monarchy or slavery, a word or a world view—has a history, so, Thapar reminds us, does the writing of history itself. The study of history-writing is called historiography, and from it we see that there can be many ways of thinking about the past, some compatible with one another and some not. The Ramayan may have much to tell us about ancient India, but in its literal form it is not admissible as history, even if some people think of it as such.

Over 300 pages, Thapar takes us on a journey through Indian historiography over the last 50 years as it has attempted to interpret themes and events that take place over a span of at least 5,000 years. These are questions of great import over which much ink—and sometimes blood—continue to be spilt. Is it true that Indians lack a sense of historical consciousness, as claimed by writers on India across a whole millennium, from Alberuni to James Mill? (“Contesting this,” says Thapar, “has been my lifetime project.”) Was the defining historical event of ancient India an invasion, or waves of migration, from the north-west, of the Indo-European peoples that we now call the Aryans? Or, as some writers today would have us believe, were the Aryans indigenous to India and migrants out of India to the West? What kinds of linguistic, archaeological and literary evidence are admissible in the court of these debates, and must the historian ask different types of questions of each kind of source?

Some of the best pages in the book are those in which Thapar shows how history, even when not motivated by any overt ideological agenda, gradually becomes aware of its own biases and develops new eyes and ears for the past. For instance, since so much of what we know about the past comes from textual evidence, elite groups that had control over the writing of those texts come to dominate our view of the past. The default version of Hinduism we project on to the distant Indian past, therefore, becomes text-based Sanskritic Hinduism. The actual practice of what we today call Hinduism may have been much more variegated and idiosyncratic, the product of little and local histories that time has rubbed away.

Nor are details of material culture in texts always set up with factual accuracy as their primary aim: The descriptions of vast wealth and splendour of the imperial court and capital in the Ramayan, for instance, may have behind them the literary impulse of inciting wonder and awe in the reader. Similarly, it’s easier to write the histories of settled societies than those made up of nomads, to trace a broad narrative of unification and consensus rather than the smaller ones of resistance and heterodoxy, to project modern religious and political categories and motivations upon the past rather than face up to its strangeness. “We should not forget,” says Thapar, “that there is always a part of history which is forgotten.”

And what of the future of Indian history? The arrival of the nation state in the 18th century, Thapar reminds us, led everywhere in the world—whether the nations of Europe or the later decolonization struggles of Asia and Africa—to the gradual reinterpretation of the past through a nationalist frame. Although it was finally riven by a Hindu-Muslim divide that became the basis of a “two-nation theory”, Indian anti-colonial nationalism was an inclusive ideology that did not see Indianness as anchored in a particular religion or language.

Indian historians aimed to recover the marginalized histories of women and Dalits, peasants and artisans, traders and travellers, even non-human histories focused on ecology or geography.

This led, at independence, to the ambitious construction in the new nation state of India of a new platform for Indian history, one that sought to draw a line around the violence and iniquity of the past and endowed all those who lived within the boundaries of India with the same rights and freedoms.

The secular and democratic leanings of this new order (as also trends in the wider world of historiography) greatly affected, Thapar explains, the aims and aspirations of Indian historiography. Indian historians aimed to recover the marginalized histories of women and Dalits, peasants and artisans, traders and travellers—even non-human histories focused on ecology or geography.

Indian history became richer, more textured, more clamorous. But its political implications and reluctance to endorse a grand narrative were vigorously contested by Hindu nationalism, with its emphasis on religion as the main constituent of Indian identity across the millennia and Vedic Hinduism as the starting point of Indian history (thus the desire to prove that the Aryans were actually native to India). As Hindutva has gained political strength, so too it has attempted to reclaim Indian history for itself—paradoxically often using concepts and formulations, Thapar reminds us, first proposed by British colonialism.

It would not be excessive to say there is a civil war raging in India today—only it is being fought on the ground of Indian history. What we make of our history today will be a great influence on the history that we ourselves make.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Clouds is out now!

My new novel Clouds is out now from Simon & Schuster: a double-sided story "about Indian democracy at 70 and Indian love at 7000". The lovely cover art is by the painter Golak Khandual. You can read an excerpt here, buy it here, and a piece about how I wrote it over seven years is here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

On Junichiro Tanizaki's The Maids

This piece appeared recently in The Wall Street Journal.

Novels, like life, tend not to take much notice of maids. In most novels domestics serve only to open and close doors, make meals, or assist with the toilette of those who have attained true selfhood. At best, they might pass a message between lovers or stumble upon some conspiracy. They are points in the plot—agents, not actors.

 What a pleasure, then, to come across a story in which maids occupy center stage from beginning to end and are as clever and capricious as any bourgeois heroine. To many followers of Japanese fiction, the present writer included, Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) is the greatest Japanese novelist of the 20th century, and “The Makioka Sisters” (1949)—his book about the familial and marital dilemmas of four sisters of an upper-class family, in which maids stand by in the shadows—the greatest Japanese novel.

But while at work on that book, Tanizaki was also engrossed in translating a foundational work of Japanese literature, a book written by a woman on the far side of the millennium. “The Tale of Genji,” a richly detailed story about the life of a sybaritic prince and his lovers in the imperial court of the Heian dynasty, was written by a lady-in-waiting, Murasaki Shikibu, at the turn of the 11th century. Some scholars call it the world’s first novel.

The book’s storyline—Genji’s roving eye means he does not limit his attentions to women of blue blood alone—requires many detailed portraits of accomplished women in service, women much like Murasaki. And while it would be a stretch to call them maids, their example seems to have given Tanizaki—the rare male novelist more comfortable writing about women than men—the idea of re-presenting the bourgeois world of “The Makioka Sisters” from the point of view of the kitchen rather than the salon.

Published in 1963, and set in what was then the recent past, “The Maids” is Tanizaki’s final novel. It is also—as Michael P. Cronin’s translation, the first into English, shows—one of his best. Loosely organized but written with Tanizaki’s usual narrative brio and sly intimacy, “The Maids” is a homage to the work of the humble in making a house a home.

In this case, the household is that of the elderly novelist Chikura Raikichi and his wife, Sanko. This prosperous couple own and rent a number of homes in the Osaka-Kobe region, and deploy a retinue of maids across them like pawns on a chessboard, judging them by their housekeeping, cooking, account-keeping and general tractability, but also by their liveliness, conversational skills and aesthetic sensibility.

Without exception, the maids all come from the same region, Kansai, in the extreme west of Japan. They speak a dialect worlds removed from “the smooth, clipped Tokyo way of speaking,” and even have in common a certain regional style of peeling vegetables. Here we see Tanizaki’s skill not just as a novelist but also as an ethnographer, taking great pleasure in the specifics of time and place. 

The maids’ congested quarters in the main house, a room off the kitchen “only four and a half mats in size,” becomes a domestic subculture not just of class but of thought, feeling and memory. To understand these women as individuals, the narrator seems to be saying, we need to make the journey—the reverse of the one they themselves have made—to the place where they come from.

 “Raikichi,” we are told, “liked to have a lot of maids around—he said it made the house bright and lively.” But Tanizaki’s lifelong focus on feminine allure and male erotic obsession, from early novels such as “Naomi” to the late masterpiece “Diary of a Mad Old Man,” is here reprised in a subdued, autumnal key.

Raikichi is clearly the aging sensualist, drinking in the freshness and innocence of youth to keep up his interest in the world. But when sexual scandal finally erupts, there is no male hand in it. Two maids who have left Raikichi’s for another household, Sayo and Setsu, are discovered by their new mistress in the throes of passion. It is society that is shocked by this, not the narrator, who in a perfectly weighted detail gives us the two girls in their room, “seated in careful composure” and with their bags packed, waiting to receive notice.

Other maids, such as the beauteous Gin, make eyes at the tradesmen who visit the house and make use of the family telephone to advance their amours. And some girls just fall in love with themselves. When the maid Koma is taken to a department store with a closed-circuit television setup, she is thrilled to see herself on TV, “and she [rides] the escalator again and again, watching herself.” That Koma is not alone in her abundant self-regard becomes apparent when—in an allusion that works on many levels—we meet the maid Yuri, a great reader who owns “a complete set of Tanizaki’s adaptation of ‘The Tale of Genji.’ ”

Tanizaki’s focus on the pleasure and drama of everyday life is so all-encompassing that when the eruptions of history intrude—in the form of the second Sino-Japanese war and World War II—they ring, as desired, like pistol-shots at a party. As men are drafted into wartime service, many maids are sundered from potential husbands; others rush back home to help their aging parents. 

But time has many gears. Even without these cataclysms, we come to see—Tanizaki is an insistently elegiac writer—that the world is always in flux. By the end of the story, we are in the 1960s; domestics now stay in service no longer than a year or two, and the very word “maids” has become archaic, replaced by “helpers.” Tanizaki’s great success is to make us see how it is not only the masters who mourn the passing of such a world, but also the old maids.

And for fans of Japanese literature, some other pieces: "Kobo Abe and the Face of Another", and a piece on Murasaki Shikibu's astonishing The Tale of Genji.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

On Donald Lopez's The Lotus Sutra: A Biography

This piece appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal.

Every morning at thousands of Buddhist shrines in Japan—and at the Nichiren Temple in Queens, N.Y., the Rissho Kosei-Kai Center of Los Angeles, and the Daiseion-Ji temple in the small town of Wipperfürth, Germany—there rises the chant “Nam myoho renge kyo.” These five syllables don’t sound so lyrical in translation—“Glory to the wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra”—but for those who utter them they proclaim the enduring mystery, wisdom and salvific power of one of the most important and ancient books of Buddhist teachings, the Lotus Sutra.

The lotus, which roots in mud, rises up through water and raises its beautiful petals towards the sky, is the most ubiquitous of Buddhist motifs, an image of the ascent from the morass of worldly desires and suffering to beauty, peace and virtue. Sutra comes from the Sanskrit word “sutta” or “thread,” meaning a set of thoughts or aphorisms on a given subject (as in the Kama Sutra, a treatise on love and courtship). Since there is no written record of Buddhist doctrine from the time of the Buddha, the canon of Buddhist literature brims with hundreds of such sutras which purport to reveal his true teaching.

The Lotus Sutra has a special place in the Buddhist canon. A lively if often confounding grab bag of parables and proclamations told in both prose and verse, it is rich in narrative pleasure and contains more braggadocio than a Donald Trump speech. (“The Buddha is the king,” we read at one point, “this sutra is his wife.”) Indeed, many scholars trace its self-promotional tone back to the era of its composition, when it had to establish itself within a crowded market of religious texts and sects in India. The nature of the Lotus Sutra’s influence is taken up by the scholar of Buddhism Donald S. Lopez Jr. in the latest in Princeton University Press’s excellent series on the “lives of great religious books.”

As with so many religious works from antiquity, the Sutra has a history shrouded in uncertainty. Even its authorship is a mystery. By the time it was composed in Sanskrit early in the first millennium, the Buddha had been dead for 500 years. His striking message, at once austere and compassionate, offered a vision of liberation resolutely free of mythological content. The Buddha’s eerily convincing diagnosis of the nature of human suffering and the way to transcend it had achieved a wide currency in India and had extended to China and Sri Lanka. But Buddhism had begun to break up into sects over divergent interpretations of the teaching.

The major schism was between the Hinayana and the Mahayana. The Hinayana school stressed the importance of monastic life as the only real path to liberation. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, was much more worldly even in its quest for transcendence. Its hero was not the “arhat,” or the being who has attained nirvana, but the “bodhisattva,” the enlightened person who perceives the truth but stays behind in the world to help others across to the far shore of peace.

The Lotus Sutra is a classic—and cacophonous—Mahayana text. The book unfolds as a series of dialogues between the Buddha and his followers, many of them men of great spiritual prowess themselves. The text slowly and artfully builds to a revelation: that of the “saddharma,” or true dharma. The Buddha reveals to his interlocutors that the “threefold path” that he teaches in other texts—a somewhat arcane theory of different streams of learning and discipleship that open out paths to liberation—is actually something of a deception.

In truth, there is only a single Way. But “this Dharma is indescribable / Words must fall silent.” (A very lucid account of the possible nature of this vision, which the Buddha says cannot be formulated in language, can be found in Heinrich Zimmer’s 1952 book “Philosophies of India.) The Buddha is so far gone, he explains, that had he taught such a difficult doctrine, he would have made himself clear to precisely nobody. Instead, he used the path of “skillful means” to set people off on the path to transcendence, preaching to each person according to his estimate of their capacity for enlightenment.

With this master stroke, the Lotus Sutra makes the goal of liberation at once more mysterious and more practicable (and, conveniently, knocks out other sutras competing for the attention of the faithful). The ultimate goal, so elusive, seems almost unattainable, but this makes every teacher a student and every student part of a great, throbbing chain of learning. Indeed, following the Buddha, any teacher must think seriously not just about knowledge, but the right way to transmit it. In this way, the Lotus Sutra makes itself indispensable not just as a teaching, but as a tool of pedagogy. As Mr. Lopez writes: “Perhaps the central teaching of the Lotus Sutra is to teach the Lotus Sutra.”

The allure of Buddhism eventually faded in the land of its birth, where Hinduism was too vivid and well-established to give way to this more introspective ideology. But the Lotus Sutra and other key texts gradually took root in others lands and languages. To the raft of entertaining characters found in the text itself—peasants and princes, initiates and religious masters, the Buddha as both truth-teller and deceiver—Mr. Lopez’s book adds a cast of historical figures across two millennia united only by their passion for the book, including the 13th-century Japanese monk Nichiren, whose fire-and-brimstone message declaring all other Buddhist texts but the Lotus Sutra to be heretical earned him a long incarceration on a lonely island, and Gustave Flaubert.

The author focuses on two especially interesting figures, both of them translators. The first, the Buddhist monk Kumarajiva, lived in eastern India in the 4th century, and had the misfortune of being taken hostage by an invading Chinese general. Over long years as a prisoner, he picked up enough Chinese to translate the Lotus Sutra for the benefit of the Chinese emperor, already a devout Buddhist. Thus the Sutra took root in China, and spread slowly through the Far East.

Just as fascinating is the story of how the book arrived in the West. The Sutra was among a large cache of Buddhist manuscripts sent early in the 19th century to the French Sanskritist Eugène Burnouf by Brian Hodgson, an enterprising young officer of the British East India Company. Burnouf immediately set to translating it, noting among other things the book’s “discursive and very Socratic method of exposition.” His French version, published posthumously in 1852, made its way across the Atlantic, where it was picked up and circulated in translation by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists, who regularly published scriptures from Asia in their magazine, the Dial.

Mr. Lopez’s book shows us that translators are the unsung heroes of religious, as much as literary, history. Here he has serviced the text with yet another sort of translation—this one to a general audience.

The Lotus Sutra is a rejection, observes Mr. Lopez, of the kind of nirvana “that is a solitary and passive state of eternal peace.” Rather, we are all travelers on a long road, even the enlightened ones among us; we cannot see through to the end right from the start and must begin with small acts of compassion and caring. The inspiring message of the Lotus Sutra is that buddhahood is immanent in all of us.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On Amitav Ghosh's Flood of Fire

Much like the ambitious speculators who appear so often in his Ibis Trilogy, Amitav Ghosh – or the narrator who answers to his name – resumes operations in Flood of Fire, the final book, having sunk all his narrative capital into a consignment that must now be carefully steered into a safe harbour. The reader knows that the panorama of characters from the first two books – the dispossessed Indian prince Neel Rattan Halder, the young American shipwright Zachary Reid, the wily Hindu accountant Baboo Nob Kissin Pander, the grizzled opium merchants Benjamin Burnham and Bahram Modi, the peasants and soldiers, the boatmen who rove the rivers of Calcutta and Canton and the vagrant lascars who traverse the ports of the Indian Ocean – are connected by a ship, the Ibis; a substance, opium; and an institution, the English East India Company. 

And by a force? In Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, characters were repeatedly seen straining to grasp the reasons for the moral and material upheavals of their world, and the mystery of why they had come together. The Ibis, a former slave ship now requisitioned by a British merchant attached to the East India Company in Calcutta, became a microcosm of a rapidly changing world order: each character on his grim voyage to the colony of Mauritius offered his own interpretation of his destiny and ‘the delirium of the world’, but only the powerful were able to understand it. Among the Indian cast members, only the ambitious Parsi merchant from Bombay, Bahram Modi, could see through the tumult wrought by the opium trade on England, India and China. Flood of Fire, which draws the story out into the Chinese Opium War of 1840, brings the trilogy’s grand subject clearly into focus: capitalism and colonialism as invented, practised and justified across the ports and seaboards of the Indian Ocean in the 19th century by ‘Britannia’s all-seeing eye and all-grasping hand’. Opium, Ghosh suggests, was the substance that created the modern world, and he has set out to tell its epic story.

The dynamism and turbulence of the trade come across in the language of the novels, which is clamorously and sonorously inventive. Early in Sea of Poppies, Zachary, on his journey from America, is forced to change his ‘usual sailor’s menu of lobscouse, dandyfunk and chokedog, to a Laskari fare of karibat and kedgeree’: in these books characters consume not only each other’s cuisine, but their languages too. Different communities swap and transform elements of each other’s vocabulary. Many of the characters are not native English speakers: they speak Hindustani, Bhojpuri, Cantonese and lascar-lingo, and their attempts to communicate with the British, and British attempts to communicate with them, create a rich, lively and punning texture. 

Power determines the new linguistic ‘normal’. The English of the soldiers, sahibs and memsahibs (or Burra BeeBees) in the cities, factories and garrisons of the East India Company reflects a desire to hold on to the world they have left behind, and to make sense of – and prove their interest in, or contempt for – the one they find themselves in. ‘Chuckmuckery’, they say, after the Hindi word for ‘glittering’, chakmak; or ‘dumbcow’, from the Hindi for ‘threaten’, dhamkao; or ‘tuncaw’, from the Hindi tankha or salary. As they bend the strange world of India to their will, they attempt to bend the Indian language into something that sounds like their own, without seeing that they are also being shaped by it. One of the novel’s best puns, repeated so often that it becomes a leitmotif, is uttered by Catherine Burnham, the wife of the Ibis’s owner: ‘Surely you can see,’ she tells her lover, Zachary, ‘that it would not suit me at all to be a mystery’s mistress?’ A mistri, in Hindi, is a humble toolsman, which is how Zachary started out, but it’s the homonym that proves to be the more pertinent characteristic.

During the first two books, Catherine seemed the very incarnation of severe, corseted self-possession, BeeBee-style. Her husband, Benjamin Burnham, is typical of the Englishmen who have arrived in India with the East India Company. He is an agent not just of the Company’s flourishing opium trade, but also of the larger ideology of free trade as a whole, with its alluring new vocabulary of rivers of supply flowing towards vessels of demand, and of markets no longer constrained by morals but creating a new morality – even a new religion. ‘Jesus Christ is Free Trade,’ he insists, ‘and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.’ But now Burnham is in China, trying to break the blockade imposed by the Chinese emperor on the import of opium. When Zachary – the young, mixed-race American shipwright who appeared in Sea of Poppies delivering the Ibis to Burnham from Baltimore – receives a commission to repair another boat of Burnham’s, Mrs Burnham suddenly takes a keen interest in reforming him. Her reproving letters and insistence on private consultations soon reveal a pent-up passion of her own. Before they know it, the two are lovers and Zachary has been introduced to a world of feminine mystery and material wealth. When Burnham returns unexpectedly from Canton, the mystery is abruptly discarded, as his mistress had warned he would be, but love for Catherine has already led Zachary to covet a place in Mr Burnham’s world, and, crucially, to realise that this need not be a fantasy. For once, the winds of history are behind the sails of men like him.

One day, Zachary is taken by Mr Burnham’s generous gomusta, or accountant, Baboo Nob Kissin, to an opium auction held by the East India Company. (The Baboo, whose diligent caressing of ‘correct English’ recalls Hurree Babu in Kipling’s Kim, has his own agenda.) The spectacle is so grand, and the awe in which big traders like Mr.Burnham are held so seductive, that Zachary decides to invest the money bestowed on him by Mrs Burnham during their assignations in a small consignment of opium, to be taken to China alongside Mr.Burnham’s vast stock. Love’s labours have become a source of capital: Mrs Burnham has shown him his place in the world and set him on the road, should he have the nerve for it, to becoming a sahib. Zachary is no longer a mere mystery and an exuberant free trader in language – he speaks more languages than anyone else in the trilogy – but a Free Trader as Mr Burnham understands the term. Like Mr Burnham, Zachary has crossed the divide – the distinction is made by Fernand Braudel in his classic study, The Wheels of Commerce – from the market economy to capitalism, from the routine material life of an economy to the darker arts of speculation. It is almost like falling in love again. That night,

Zachary experienced spasms of anticipation that were no less intense than those that had seized him before his assignations with Mrs Burnham. It was as if the money that she had given him had suddenly taken on a new life: her coins were out there in the world, forging their own destiny, making secret assignations, colliding with others of their own kind – seducing, buying, spending, breeding, multiplying.

The hideous culmination of the cult of free trade is the Opium War of 1840, which has been anticipated from at least halfway through River of Smoke. Ghosh’s account is more or less faithful to history. With tea all the rage in England, the East India Company required a scarce and desirable commodity of its own in order to balance its trade with China, so created a vast market in China for Indian opium. With more and more Chinese men incapacitated by an addiction to ‘chasing the dragon’ (the exquisite scenes of opium-smoking in Ghosh’s story elicit pleasures to rival the narcotic ones), the authorities in Canton eventually declared the trade illegal. The distress and debt generated by this move reverberated back up the distribution and production chains to Calcutta and Bombay, and moved the powerful British merchants in Canton to lobby the British government to intercede. The result was a war which the economist Ha-Joon Chang describes in Bad Samaritans, his account of the deceits and delusions behind the idea of free trade, as ‘particularly shameful . . . even by the standards of 19th-century imperialism’. 

By the time we reach the final act in Flood of Fire, Ghosh has laid the ground painstakingly for a sophisticated analysis of the politics of the war. Details of nautical and military manoeuvres are relayed with panache and present an unforgettable picture of the tumult of military order (“The noise too was overpowering, the sheer volume of it: the thudding of feet, the pounding of drums, the ‘Har-har-Mahadev’ battle-cry of the sepoys, and above all that, the whistle and shriek of shots passing overhead”). And there’s a sombre beauty to the British and Chinese descriptions of the war’s devastation (“All around them metal was clanging on metal, drowning out the cries of dying men”), as also to the narrator’s attention to his favoured few (“An unnameable grief came upon him then; falling to his knees he reached out to close the dead man’s eyes.”)

As in the previous books, some of the most dramatic moments involve characters who, having taken up the challenge posed by circumstances not accounted for by convention, realise that their very identity is being devastated in the process. We see Shireen, the widow of Bahram Modi and a woman who has never even left her house in Bombay without an escort, taking a ship out to Canton to try and recover her husband’s fortune. Soon she realises, with both alarm and pleasure, that ‘the journey ahead would entail much more than just a change of location: in order to arrive at her destination she would have to become a different person.’ (Her actions are also being determined by a principle which the feminist critic Malashri Lal calls ‘the law of the threshold’, according to which the lives of women in Indian novels change irreversibly when they cross the safe, but suffocating, threshold of their houses, and by implication their gender-defined roles, for the first time.) 

And midway through the war, the reader also realises that Zachary’s amiable and empathetic nature has coarsened irredeemably, as power becomes more important to him than justice. ‘I am a man who wants more and more and more,’ he declares towards the close of the book, ‘a man who does not know the meaning of “enough”. Anyone who tries to thwart my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must expect to be treated as such.’

Over the course of the three books, one character stands out as possessing a level of intelligence and detachment on a par with the narrator’s, and it is to him that the trilogy’s greatest meditation on history is handed. He is Neel Rattan Halder, the Raja of Raskhali, a somewhat introverted sensualist, heir to the revenues from his family’s feudal estate and the profits from his father’s investment in Mr Burnham’s enterprise. In Sea of Poppies his wealth was confiscated by a British court in Calcutta and he was sentenced to several years in the penal colony of Mauritius. On his way, on board the Ibis, Neel jumped ship and eventually ended up in Canton under an assumed name, his truculent nature shaken by adventures he would never have sought out himself. In Flood of Fire, he is settled in Canton and works as a translator of English documents into Chinese. But he fears that the Chinese aren’t taking the British threat of war seriously enough, and believes that they will come to regret their assurance that a vast country can’t be shaken by a few foreign battleships. When the two sides finally meet in battle, it’s as if two ages are clashing, and Neel becomes both elegist of the old order and a chronicler of the energies of a new force in history:

He had never witnessed a battle before and was profoundly affected by what he saw. Thinking about it later he understood that a battle was a distillation of time: many years of preparation and decades of innovation and chance were squeezed into a clash of very short duration. And when it was over the impact radiated backwards and forwards through time, determining the future and even, in a sense, changing the past, or at least the general understanding of it. It astonished him that he had not recognised before the terrible power that was contained within these wrinkles in time – a power that could mould the lives of those who came afterwards for generation after generation . . . He understood then why Shias commemorate the Battle of Kerbala every year: it was an acknowledgement that just as the earth splits apart at certain moments, to create momentous upheavals that forever change the terrain, so do time and history.
How was it possible that a small number of men, in the span of a few hours or minutes, could decide the fate of millions of people yet unborn? How was it possible that the outcome of those brief moments could determine who would rule whom, who would be rich or poor, master or servant, for generations to come?
Nothing could be a greater injustice, yet such had been the reality ever since human beings first walked the earth.

Those familiar with Ghosh’s work will hear echoes here of his previous novels. From his very first book, his characters always seem to know that they are sailing not just on the ship of Time, but – which is a different thing – of History. Even as they search for meaning and agency in their own lives, they compare their situations and civilizations to others distant or disappeared; sometimes centuries pass in their mind’s eye as hours do in the lives of others. 

But as Ghosh has learnt to withhold these meditations from his cerebral narrators and disperse them more freely and cunningly among his characters, so his books have come to exude not the fusty odours of the library, of the mind responding to a text or map at leisure, but rather the bracing air and even flood of fire of the greatest fiction, of the mind taking itself by surprise during a moment’s respite from the body’s labours. “Ben Yiju’s documents were mostly written in an unusual, hybrid language:” declares the narrator of In An Antique Land (1992), describing his twelfth-century Jewish merchant who is his subject, “one that has such an arcane sound to it that it might well be an entry in a book of Amazing Facts.” “Nobody knows, nobody can ever know, not even in memory, because there are moments in time that are not knowable:” declares the equally studious narrator of The Shadow Lines (1986), “nobody can ever know what it was like to be young and intelligent in the summer of 1939 in London or Berlin.” Compare these to the music of the spheres produced by the (in this case disembodied) narrator watching the Bihari peasant woman (and reluctant poppy-cultivator) Deeti in The Sea of Poppies as she undertakes the long voyage to Mauritius on board the Ibis:

As she was listening to the sighing of the sails, she became aware that there was a grain lodged under her thumbnail. It was a single poppy seed: prising it out, she rolled it between her fingers and raised her eyes, past the straining sails, to the star-filled vault above. On any other night she would have scanned the sky for the planet she had always thought to be the arbiter of her fate – but tonight her eyes dropped instead to the tiny sphere she was holding between her thumb and forefinger.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Indian Novel As An Agent of History

This essay was published earlier this month at India in Transition, a website run by the Center for Advanced Study on India at the University of Pennsylvania.

It is a universally-acknowledged truth that human beings experience their lives as embedded not just in time, but in history. To interpret history, they employ a variety of instruments: personal experience and cultural memory, political ideology and historiography, even (and sometimes especially) myths and stories. Among these instruments, a somewhat late-arriving one in India – only 150 years old – is the novel.
What is so noteworthy about the novel? It can be argued that as a form of story, let alone history, the novel does not enjoy great currency in India, for it is neither an indigenous form nor a mass one. Cinema has far greater popular appeal, and the stories and narrative conventions of epics like the Ramayana inform everyday life and moral reasoning much more than any novel (notwithstanding the apparent desire of nearly every Indian to write a novel, ideally a bestseller).
Yet if the novel is indispensable to any reading of modern Indian history, that is because a preoccupation with Indian history ­is a thread running through the work of some of the greatest Indian novelists, across more than two dozen Indian languages and literary traditions. In the great diversity of narrative forms and interpretative cruxes generated by the Indian novel, there lies a wealth of wisdom about Indian history and, therefore, about how to live in the present time as an Indian and a South Asian, a modern of the twenty-first century and a third- or fourth-generation denizen of the often disorienting age of democracy.
Consider Fakir Mohan Senapati’s enormously sly, satirical, and light-footed novel Six Acres and a Third, written in Odia in 1902 and only translated into English in 2006. The plot of Senapati’s novel revolves around a village landowner’s plot to usurp the small landholding of some humble weavers. But this is also the Indian village in the high noon of colonialism, and the first readers of Senapati’s story would have delighted in the narrator’s many potshots against new and perplexing British institutions, administered by a new ruling class of English-educated Indians. “Ask a new babu his grandfather’s father’s name, and he will hem and haw,” the narrator chirps. “But the names of the ancestors of England’s Charles the Third will readily roll off his tongue.”
The story appears to be generating, then, an argument about history and political resistance. India must rid itself of its colonial masters because they have delegitimized many of the traditional knowledge systems and truths of Indian society, and in the process made the modern Indian self imitative and inauthentic. The argument persists in India today in debates about “westernization.”
But this raises a new question: was traditional Indian village society itself very wise, just, or balanced? As the story progresses, we see that anti-colonial sentiments have not blinded the narrator to the need to subject his own side to the scrutiny of satire. When we hear that “the priest was very highly regarded in the village, particularly by the women,” and that “the goddess frequently appeared to him in his dreams and talked to him about everything,” the complacency and mystifications of Brahmanical Hinduism are also laid bare, as is the credulity about those who would place their faith in such an order.
Senapati’s irony is effective not despite, but because of its double-sidedness. It leads to a point useful as much in our time as his own: criticism of a clearly marked-out “other” – to Indians in the early twentieth century, the British; to Hindu nationalists today, Muslims and Christians – often legitimizes a sweeping and complacent faith in one’s own worldview;the search for truth or meaning in history must remain a charade if not accompanied by the capacity for self-criticism. The novel’s implied argument is liberating not because it is comforting or inspiring, but precisely because it is disenchanted. Fiction itself shows us how human beings are fiction-making creatures, and must therefore take special care to scrutinize what they believe to be foundational truths.
A different kind of novelistic irony – cosmic rather than comic – radiates from This Is Not That Dawn, the recent English translation of Hindi novelist Yashpal’s thousand-page magnum opus from the 1950s about Partition, Jhootha Sach (literally, The False Truth). Tracking the lives and loves of a brother and sister across the worlds of Lahore and New Delhi in the years both before and after Partition, Yashpal’s novel generates dozens of alternative views of that cataclysm from viewpoints male and female, Hindu and Muslim, Indian and Pakistani (even as these new identities come into being and crystallize), prospective and retrospective.
Here is history on the grand scale – individual, national, human, all at the same time. Each character’s position or dilemma carries its own distinctive charge of hope, memory, conviction, doubt, faith, naïveté, prejudice, and fatalism; a vast spectacle of human beings swimming valiantly with and against the tides of history. If the narrator himself has something to say about the logic or validity of the breaking up of India, it remains parcelled out among the characters, and must be intuited by the reader.
But in fact, the feeling we take away from Yashpal’s novel is not that of an entirely tragic story. Of course, Partition destroyed a particular shared and historically stable, if unconceptualized, sense of what it meant to be Indian. But as we perceive from the quest of the protagonist, Jaidev Puri, to start his own newspaper based on the idea of secular reason, what it means to be Indian would, in a new democratic and secular republic, have entailed building upon a new foundation in any case. At certain junctures in history, tragedy and progress may be inseparably mingled.
As these examples show, the work of novels is not confined to mere representation of historical realities, although this is where they may start. Rather, a novel may be a creative intervention in history in its own right – an actual agent of history, passing on to the reader who passes through its narrative field both its diagnostic and visionary powers. Indeed, from Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay to U. R. Ananthamurthy, Bankimchandra Chatterjee to Kiran Nagarkar, Qurratulain Hyder to Salma, Phanishwarnath Renu to Amitav Ghosh, novelists have generated some of the most layered and sophisticated visions of Indian history produced in the last two centuries. Yet as a group, they fall into no school or political camp. What unites them is their ability to illuminate the particular historical crux on which they focus, such as the tension in Ananthamurthy’s novels between the hierarchical imperatives of Hinduism and the egalitarian urges of democracy.
The novel form possesses certain advantages over other forms of discursive prose as a lens on history. There’s the persuasive power and ambiguity of a story, which may be read in many ways and asks for the partnership of the reader in the unpacking of its meanings. The freedom to rove in spaces of the past that we cannot access by means other than that of the imagination. The potential to think not in a straight line but dialectically in exchanges between characters, or switches in perspective between the narrator and the characters. All of these make the space of the novel a particularly fertile ground for historical thinking.
In fact, when they are themselves reinserted into the canvas of Indian history, the projects of the Indian novel and that of Indian democracy – both fairly new forms in Indian history – appear uncannily similar, and perhaps similarly unfinished. As Indian democracy has, over the past seven decades, sought to fashion a new social contract in a deeply hierarchical civilization, so the great Indian novel has attempted to not just find but to also form a new kind of reader/citizen, alive to both the iniquities and the redemptive potential of Indian history.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Arzee the Dwarf in America

Arzee the Dwarf is published in America this week by the New York Review of Books as part of their new e-book imprint of contemporary novels from around the world, NYRBLit.

If you'd like to buy it to read on your Kindle, you can do so off the NYRB page or at Amazon.

The book is also available in German and in Spanish.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sadat Hasan Manto's Bombay Stories

This essay appeared last month in The National.

The short-story writer Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) deserves to be thought of as the patron saint of modern South Asian fiction for at least three reasons.

First, Manto was personally and artistically impacted, in a way that he transformed into enduring narrative prose, by the massive cataclysm of history that was the partition of colonial India in 1947 into two nation states, the Hindu-majority India and the Muslim-majority Pakistan. The decision sparked off the largest two-way migration in history, with millions of Hindus and Sikhs in what was suddenly Pakistan crossing into India and millions of Muslims in what was now a smaller India attempting to flee to Pakistan. Both sides leapt at each other’s throats on the long, strife-torn route, generating a bloodbath – and more lastingly, memories that were passed down for generations afterwards – that may take hundreds of years to heal.

This event generated the enduring politics of distrust between the two great powers of the subcontinent, which between them account for more than a quarter of the world’s population today. What Manto wrote then in the light of what he had known, heard or witnessed – and what he did with this material artistically, within the four walls of his own independence as a writer of fiction – make him an eerie and thrilling writer to this day.

Second, Manto’s daring and iconoclastic writing served as a kind of declaration of independence from the main narrative tenets and orthodoxies of his times, which was that fiction should be “socially relevant” in its content, that it locate the personal within the larger realm of the public sphere, and that it deal coyly and euphemistically – or at best metaphorically – with the subject of bodily functions. Manto was in his lifetime repeatedly charged by his critics (many of them writers themselves) with obscenity, and was even taken to court for what was seen as the outrageous licentiousness depicted in his work.

But what his critics saw as a determined emphasis on the bawdy,Manto merely understood to be a determined emphasis on the body – as a site for pleasure and violence, trust and treachery, a house for yearnings of mind and spirit as well as its own longings. The world of the prostitutes, pimps, waifs, wastrels and debauchees that he wrote about in story after story was a universe that existed in reality – as much a centre of Bombay (now Mumbai) as the film world or the world of polite society – and was stratified and impacted by religion, politics, ideology, migration and economics as interestingly as any middle-class or radical world.

The current of defiance embodied by Manto is one of literature’s most necessary currents; its spirit was given voice by the French-Arabic writer Tahar Ben Jelloun at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year when he remarked, bitingly, of censorship, “What bothers censorship is the representation of reality and not reality itself.” To Manto, the writer must think through every sphere of human life, including one’s private life. If he is the frankest sensualist in Indian literature, it is because he knows (as did the 18th-century Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova in his magnificent 12-volume autobiography The Story of My Life) that sensuality is not without its own rules or ethical codes. For this reason, he speaks as powerfully to the 21st century as he did to his own.

Third, Manto stands implicitly for a certain progressive ideal of civilisation – and then, just as instructively, for a tragic rejection of that very ideal. Although partition found him living on in his beloved city of Bombay (where he had made a living and forged a reputation working as a screenwriter in films and an editor for journals), Manto felt insecure in the city in the poisoned years after partition and suddenly decided – to his everlasting regret – to move with his family to the new state of Pakistan. There, he struggled to find work, was prosecuted for obscenity, and drove himself to drink. He became a wreck, passing away soon after.
What makes Manto so readable, and so symbolic of the faultlines of his time, is this artistic partition that he went through a few years after the actual historical event by the same name.Manto discovers that the ideological certitude and censoriousness of a new nation-state was thin gruel compared to art’s invitation to freedom, doubt, linguistic and sensual pleasure, and dissent. He discovers, that is, what he already knew, and submits to suffering as he once thrilled to freedom.

In Manto’s own biography, as much as in his stories, the human being is a whirlpool of conflicting impulses, often most deluded precisely when most sure of himself. Human beings also appear constricted or enabled not just by nature (their class, or gender) but also by culture – in the world of Manto’s stories, by the tangled history, cosmopolitan culture, and worldly, laissez-faire philosophy of Bombay, so infrequently seen in the history of the subcontinent and so valuable for precisely that reason. It is a superficial criticism of Manto’s stories to see them as titillating tableaux of the whims and deceits of pimps and bawds. What we are also supposed to see is the social energy, toppled hierarchies, polyglot tongues, fantastic metaphors, and moral reverses and sacrifices of this universe.

That is why it is surprising to note that none of Manto’s many previous translators have done what Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed do in their new collection of Manto translations, and titled their collection Bombay Stories. Bombay is not just the place where Manto's stories are set but that world’s primal word, the two syllables of which generate all else in the geographical and narrative field it encompasses. Colloquial and frank where too many previous translations of Manto have been euphemistic and censorious, Reeck and Ahmed give us a Manto who walks with us in time, instead of receding from us in the vehicle of the archaic English and slightly appalled, sanitizing gaze of many South Asian translators.

“If you haven’t been to Bombay, you might not believe that no one takes any interest in anyone else,” writes the narrator in Manto’s story "Mammad Bhai". (Bhai, literally brother, is used frequently in India and Pakistan as an honorific; many of Manto’s stories are named after their protagonists.) But it is just not the sights and sounds and moral universe and freedoms of Bombay that are common to Manto’s stories, but also a narrator. Almost without exception, the stories are told by a character who shares much of the real Manto’s biography and is referred to by the characters in the stories as “Manto saab” (Mr Manto). 

The more we see this figure, the more mysterious he becomes, particularly since he keeps watching men fall in love with women without ever falling into the net himself. When at one point he confesses to a great admiration for a certain woman’s beauty and intelligence, he protests immediately, “For God’s sake, please don’t think I was enamoured!” It is as if his men and women can get together only when Manto saab agrees to keep watch.

Love in Manto may sometimes be transcendent. But it is always physical. “‘Love.’ What a beautiful word!” the prostitute Saugandhi is shown thinking in a story called "The Insult". “She wanted to smear it all over her body and massage it into her pores.” Here Manto, in a characteristically ingenious invention, makes love not something that emanates from the heart and soul and irradiates the body, but something like a salve or balm that is rubbed into the body from without. Manto’s romance is often deliberately anti-romantic – one woman, the Jewish girl Mozelle, carelessly smears on lipstick in such a way that her lips “seemed as fat and as red as chunks of buffalo meat”.

Over and over again in Manto’s stories, as in the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, men and women come face in face in private and confront one another with their dreams and pickings, their histories of guilt and pain. Readers of these stories who know Bombay today as Mumbai might find the city’s spirit somewhat impoverished in comparision to the mid-century Bombay that Manto describes. But that world lives on forever in Manto’s stories, and in these new translations by Reeck and Ahmed,Manto is himself reborn as our contemporary.