Friday, November 24, 2006

Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana at eleven

In 1993 the writer Pankaj Mishra, then in his early twenties, was living in a village called Mashobra in Himachal Pradesh, working on a novel, when he received out of the blue an offer from Penguin India to write a travel book. Mishra took up the offer and, formulating a project around the kind of Indian milieu with which he was best acquainted and his reading of writers like Thorstein Veblen, set out to across India for a period of six months to chronicle the signs of what he thought was "a nascent sensibility", a change in the self-conception and the aspirations of India's burgeoning middle-class. His account of what he saw and heard and sensed on those travels was published to great acclaim in 1995 as Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India, and launched Mishra on travels that were to take him around the world.

Eleven years from the time it was first published, it is clear that Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (available in India next week in a splendid new edition published by Picador, with a new afterword by Mishra) stands as a classic of Indian non-fiction. Reading it this week for the first time, I was struck both by the smoothness of its style - it is a book without any dull bits, and the language has a full, rich flavour - and the strength of its argument, often more implied than asserted, from the picture of small-town Indian life it offers. It is a book that can be just as easily read to pass the time as to understand our age. Unlike most travel books, which suffer from more than a touch of the random and the inessential, it forges something cohesive from the writer's widely scattered rovings. Yet thoughout there is a sense of the thrill of being on the road, of not knowing who or what one is going to come across next.

Among the characters who appear on these pages are Mr.Sharma, a businessman from Ambala and star of one of the book's funniest sequences, in which Mishra realises that, although he is a lowly writer, he is being sized up as a prospective son-in-law ("Ab to suna hai ki kitaab-vitaab likhne mein bhi bahut paisa hai"); Mr.Tomar, owner of a haveli in a village in Rajasthan which he has turned into a hotel, who boasts nonstop about his contacts with the hoi polloi of the social world; a Jain teenager from Rajkot who declares the Hindus and the Jains have the same enemy, the Muslims, and declares that they must be finished off; Rajendra, an acquaintance of Mishra's from Allahabad university who wants to improve himself through reading ("he was the only person I knew who had actually read Dasgupta's five-volume study of Indian philosophy") but cannot come to terms with the fact that he is homosexual; Mrs.Shukla, escorting her daughter to Bombay because she wants to become a model; Salim, the caretaker of a museum in Murshidabad who speaks of how the city kept its peace after the demolition of the Babri Masjid ("Bas thoda ajeeb laga kuch dinon tak, It only felt slightly weird for some days"); and Raghubir Azad, a communist party worker in caste-conflict-ridden Jehanabad, who speaks of how the Ramayana and the Mahabharata legitimate taking up arms against oppression. They are individuals, but most of us know of other people like them: they also become types.

After a while it becomes possible to intuit a scale of values by which the various characters are judged. There are those who exhibit affectation, snobbery and high-handedness - such as Mr.Sharma's teenaged daughter, who throws a fit because a relative has used her bar of Camay soap, or Mr.Tomar with his preposterous blather - and are made the subject of ironical comment. Others exhibit a more serious, even shocking, failing, the absence of any kind of moral compass - such as the young men at the engagement ceremony in Muzaffarnagar, who "boasted about the bribes they had given to municipal officials and sales-tax inspectors, and spoke with awe and reverence of a certain police inspector who had personally killed seven Muslims in a communal riot", or the spiffily dressed teenager from Rajkot with murder in his heart, "oblivious to the morality of his desires and actions". These were people, writes Mishra, who seemed to have "translated the notion of laissez faire into both economic and social terms". Their modernity is a superficial one of dress, social demeanour and consumption; their thinking is barbarous, lacking any sense of good and evil.

On the other hand there are those, like Rajendra, who are striving to make use of their opportunities and to achieve a genuine self-fashioning - "Unlike his compatriots…he realized his incompleteness as a person and strove to overcome that" - and of whom we are given an extended and sympathetic portrait. Still others have become the victim of peculiar predicaments, such as Rajkumar, the owner of a guest house in Pushkar open only to foreigners, not Indians. Asked why, he begins to detail how Indians are filthy and bothersome. "I was struck by the way Rajkumar used the word 'Indians'," writes Mishra. "His foreign guests had 'modernized' him, and in the process had made him a man curiously at odds with his immediate environment, a man out of step with his own culture."

And from the hundreds of impressions of Indian life logged in Butter Chicken — the appalling civic conditions of most small towns; the "aggressive individualism" and ostentation of the newly moneyed classes and their love of kitsch; the cultural impact of satellite television and the adoption of new styles of dress and speech; the hunger for and respect given to wealth, power and prestige regardless of the route taken to them; the nonchalant, unselfconscious, voicing of caste and religious prejudice; the widespread sexual harassment and the ubiquity of pornography — there emerges a kind of double-sided critique of Indian society. On the one hand there is the old feudal, hierarchical India, in which discrimination and injustice are rampant, life is heavily circumscribed by one's caste or sex, and the free expression of personality is suppressed. As Rahul, an acquaintance in Banaras, says of life in many parts of Uttar Pradesh, "The modern idea of regarding people as individuals with their inalienable rights is still centuries away here. For the man with wealth and power everything in his domain, including land and human beings, is his property."

Such a world is antithetical to the spirit of modernity, and there is every reason for wanting to see it changed. But the supposed liberation that has arrived in its place in many parts is itself curiously distorted. To Mishra, while middle-class Indians show a great desire to embrace the the modern, all too often their modernity is only something tacked on to their old lives, such as their participation in consumer culture. It is an ambiguous revolution which has mostly to do with wants and aspirations and very little to do with thought or ideas, and there is often something grasping and pathetic, if not frankly disturbing, about it. The relevance of this argument has not diminished in the decade since Butter Chicken was published. "No other book defines as clearly, and with such troubled irony, our last decade of change," writes Amitava Kumar.

One of the book's best portraits is that of Mary Roy, mother of the novelist Arundhati Roy, describing her struggles against the Syrian Christian Church over inheritance rights and her complicated efforts to forge "an independent modern identity" in which all that is taken as given is reassessed. What faults the book has have to do with a tendency to read certain things too strongly, such as attendants in airconditioned textile shops in sleepy Kottayam "who, listlessly looking out from amid their brilliantly lit enclosures, gave off a strange forlornness", or business executives in an airport lounge: "Here, under the fluorescent lights of the departure lounge, they were set apart, they were an exalted breed".

But for all that it is a serious work, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is a very funny book: Mishra can be both appalled and amused by what he sees and hears, and the characteristic confusion and comedy of Indian life leaps off these pages. By contrast the writer's prose today has a more detached, austere tone. Some of the humour is in the recorded speech of others, such as Mr. Sharma's "Aajkal to behenchod scheduled caste backward caste ka raj hai; Brahman saale scheduled caste ho gaye hain", or the objections of a Bengali tourist to the hit song "Choli ke peeche kya hai" being played on a bus. Elsewhere it is puzzlement building into incredulity. Leaving Udaipur, Mishra's car comes to a halt before an unusually high speedbreaker, and is immediately surrounded by a crowd "of suggestion- and advice-givers". Still more people come out from shops and houses to watch: "From the expectant faces around us, we could have been stunt-jumping a row of burning buses". If Indians can feel such consternation at life in India, then how must it be for foreigners? Mishra finds himself one night in the waiting-room of Banaras station, full of sleeping people:

I tried to doze off in the manner of the people beside me, but failed. I turned instead to following the progress of three large-sized rats, who fearlessly scurried about the floor, nimbly making their way among the recumbent bodies. Once, they accidentally climbed over a sleeping bag and started burrowing into it, mistaking its fluffiness for something edible, and woke up its occupant.

After a brief struggle inside, a startled-looking white face emerged from under the sleeping-bag.

'Jesus Christ!' he exclaimed. 'What the fuck was that?'

Deserving special mention are the chapter on Murshidabad (pages 223-230 in the new edition) and the beautiful note of grace on which the book ends - I would quote it here but that would detach it from its context.

Some pieces by Mishra: a three-part series of essays on Kashmir published in the New York Review of Books in 2000 (1, 2 and 3); "The Restless Children of the Dalai Lama", on the Tibetan struggle for autonomy; and "Gaining Power, Losing Values", a recent piece about the governments of India and China in the New York Times .

And here are some other essays from different perspectives: Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? , a recent five-part series by Stephen Zavestoski, who writes the blog The Curious Stall; "Why Indian intellectuals and activists are hostile to the market" by Ramachandra Guha; "Democracy and Capitalism in India" by Gurcharan Das, and "Markets and Morals", the 1998 Hayek lecture by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Other Middle Stage posts about Indian non-fiction writers: Ashis Nandy, Amartya Sen, Minoo Masani, Sasthi Brata, Ramachandra Guha, Mirza Abu Taleb, and Krishna Kripalani.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Aajkal to behenchod scheduled caste backward caste ka raj hai; Brahman saale scheduled caste ho gaye hain".

If this sentence is ur idea of humor u need some mental help.Please don't pass bigotry as humor u fascist.

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - Whatever Mr.Sharma may have intended, neither the writer, who set out to provide an accurate report of what he heard, nor I, in quoting Mr.Sharma and him, meant any offence.

I have looked at the sentence again to try and see it from your point of view, and I take your objection. But, as Mr.Sharma's earthy expression of his incredulity at what he thinks as the natural order of the world being rapidly inverted, the statement is funny - it is funny in a complex way, because the joke is on to him to some extent. We need not go so far as interpreting all slanders as bigotry - man is a prejudice-bearing animal, and there is a difference between nurturing resentments and acting upon them. By your yardstick, not many would escape the charge of being bigots.

Also, for someone so touchy about such remarks, you have a surprisingly loose tongue yourself. (Of course, being anonymous is a great help when one wants to be ungracious.) For this one quote, you leap up and brand me a fascist in need of mental help - I now have a picture of you in my head, and this image too I find funny.

Sundeep said...

I thought behenchod is now widely accepted as an endearment, no? Also variously to serve as exclamation, conjunction, filler etc. Thus, not uncommonly, with some people it is a splendid verbal tic.

The caste system got a much needed shake up for everyone to have more fun with it. The old way was getting stale and boring after all those centuries. All these inter-caste marriages are making things murky and I am personally against them, but we have to concede they add to the fun.

Hash, your being exquisite with words, insightful, generous and humorously self-deprecating is a combination to give cause for fair-minded suspicion. So anonymous is quite justified in calling you a closet fascist. You also have to consider that they have never managed to nail down a singular definition for this nice -ism. Maybe it has graduated to being an endearment, too!

Anonymous said...

Chandrahas if anonymous had read the entry he would have seen that that phrase- I am no scholar of Hindi so don't understand it- occurs in an entry which attacks ancient prejudice as well as modern anomie.

Yet again a really good sober interesting review. It intrigued me but this is just a thought flashing across my mind and probably a false analogy but in a way the alternatives seem to me curiously like the 19th Century European dilemma between on the one hand reactionaries who offered a way back into a paternalistic prejudiced past or liberals heading into a future which seemed to offer merely the sociology of the anthill.

Amitava Kumar said...

Behenchod Chandrahas,

How come you didn't notice that Mishra's book is funny? Don't tell me you did note that fact, because I didn't see it. I think you should have. Butter Chicken catches the comedy of our middle-class lives.

My second peeve is that you have quoted me out of conext. Do you even know what context means? If you did, you would have placed my comment beside a photo showing me eating a plate of butter chicken with relish.

Shama said...

Nahin nahin BC in L has Mishra's turgid prose style which he retains to this day. Its concept was new - travelling to small town India but I think Mishra himself had written somewhere that it was a callow effort and he was somewhat embarrassed at coming across as the English speaking saheb mocking the hinterland. Of course these days he makes a living out of the other persona Indian writers adopt - the brown person bearing the burden of a history of colonialism chastising the West.

Chandrahas said...

Amitava - Strangely enough, I did think of putting in the photograph you suggest, from the batch of thirty-six you sent last month. But I feared that a) the image might be too gruesome for my readers, twenty-four per cent of whom are vegetarian and b) people might think it was Pankaj Mishra himself (yes, strange as it may sound, there are still people in India, a couple here and a couple there, who recognise Pankaj by face even after he did all that touring and meeting), selling out on his own avowed vegetarianism for the sake of a publicity photograph.

You make a fair point - I should have dwelt more on the humour of *Butter Chicken...*. The thing is, lacking a sense of humour myself (I am aware of my faults), I sometimes miss it in what I'm reading. But it is also the author who must partly - or preferably even squarely - to be blamed for saying so many serious things alongside, or even through, the funny things. By the time I finished taking stock of his intense, his very intense, seriousness, I was just too exhausted to note the fun of it all. Life, as you know, isn't easy, though how that quite fits into all this I can't say right away - I'll tell you all about it the next time we're having butter chicken, not with relish, which must be the American way, but with onions, lemon slivers, and roomali roti.

Chandrahas said...

Sundeep - Yes, behenchod is indeed widely accepted as an endearment these days - Amitava has helpfully provided an illustration of it in his comment. (Either that, or he's reminding me of all the money I owe him...Amitava, just give me a few more days, I've written to my rich uncle in Satara). By the same token, fascist may indeed also be a modern-day endearment - it's getting a bit hard these days to keep track of which word means what.

"exquisite with words, insightful, generous and humorously self-deprecating" - I would have happily accepted all these encomiums (they're correct too, except for "humorously self-deprecating" - when have I ever been that?) were I not such a modest man. In fact sometimes I think I'm the very king of modesty.

But thank you all the same for your very generous praise - it shall be remembered in hard times, of which there are plenty and plenty.

Sundeep said...

Oh, you're not? I thought I saw that in some of the comments on earlier posts. Hmmm, I realize it could have been anyone of Amit, Jai, Atanu, misc. other bloggers. Like you said of words, it's becoming difficult to keep track of who is saying what with all the great blogging that's on offer! Of course, thats true only of the finer details.

Ok, maybe satirically self aggrandizing, your Imperial Modesty?

Anonymous said...

Your blog now has Bharat Matrimony ads on its home page. Ack! Is this a desperate stunt to draw female visitors? Tsk tsk.
A Bit of Company in the Evenings

Chandrahas said...

Bit of Company - Never. Rather it is an attempt by Bharat Matrimony to persuade the many intelligent, charming and accomplished single women who peruse this blog (these comprise a full twelve per cent of my readers) to enter the marriage market.

Chandrahas said...

Sundeep - Have you tried the seekh kababs at Abbasi Seekh Parathas in Nagpada? They're only six rupees apiece, and come with lovely crispy maida parathas. The kakabs are grilled under a bright yellow light at the entrance, and the swirling yellow smoke gives a dreamlike air to everything. I never jest when I talk about food.

Anonymous said...

Chandrahas, you've comvinced me to read "Butter Chicken." It's also nice to hear someone appreciating Mishra's work. It seems that his recent pieces in the New York Times and Guardian, calling into a bit of question all the clamor about "Shining India," have gotten him nothing but resentment from most of the politically and economically themed Indian bloggers. Perhaps it takes a literary mind to appreciate Mishra?

Sundeep said...

If poking sly fun at respectable bloggers is ur idea of humor u..... I have sent forth a strongly worded email expressing my angst.

swar thounaojam said...

Books on and about middle-class (small town) India hugely interests me - primarily because it allows me to observe the immense rift between this particular section and its parallel section in North-East India. As culture, ideologies, beliefs and practices are sharply divided between these two parts of India, it becomes quite an education to read such books and dig for ourselves what probably can be simmering underneath the quasi-liberal/modern constructs of the North-East.

when all is said and done, rapid consumerism integrates all societies into the "ambiguous revolution which has mostly to do with wants and expectations and very little to do with thought or ideas, and there is often something grasping and pathetic, if not frankly disturbing, about it."

Space Bar said...

to persuade the many intelligent, charming and accomplished single women who peruse this blog

being intelligent, charming and - what was that again - accomplished, what makes bharat matrimony think we want to step into the marriage market?!

Anonymous said...

Nice Review.
- I also noticed something else, not sure if it was just me or it was actually there, but how the mood of the writer and the novel changes the moment he comes to south india and finds everyone nice and perfect about it as compared to the gawdiness and the noise of north india.
- Little surprising considering Mishra himself is a north indian!!