Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On Yashpal's Jhootha Sach (This Is Not That Dawn)

This essay appeared last weekend in The National.


Any reader who has a feeling for the rigours and small miracles of novelistic composition is especially likely to be transported by the awesome narrative freedom and strength of the great long novels of world literature. Having broken through the walls of artistic and formal finitude over hundreds of pages of scene-setting, plot-threading and character tracking, such novels, or novel sequences – IB Singer’s The Family Moskat, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence – seem almost to write themselves, continuously unspooling and ramifying in the same way as life. Indeed, it seems a diminution of life to have to break with their company.

On one level, of course, the great long novels represent nothing more than an especially massy story – a map of human motion and connection on a grand scale. But is that all? Their size would be (and sometimes is) worth very little if we did not also take away from them the extended experience of mind, of an encounter with not just a world but a subtle, disembodied intelligence – the narrator – observing and occasionally annotating its ferment. To observe a story-world for weeks, even months, in concert with a novelistic narrator is to return to the world outside the book to find something strangely absent, or limited, or silent about it. Sometimes when we find ourselves missing the characters of a novel, what we are actually missing is the narrator.

This is the experience we take away from the Indian novelist Yashpal’s massive novel Jhootha Sach (literally The False Truth), first published in Hindi in two volumes in 1958 and 1960, and now translated into English for the first time as This Is Not That Dawn. The novel is over 1,100 pages long, but it is long only in an absolute sense, not relative to the dozens of characters it describes, the ideas it explores, and the narrative time (and indeed geographical space) it traverses.

Following a family from their roots in a gali, or lane, in the great city of Lahore (now in Pakistan) to a new life in the cities of north India over the 1940s and 1950s, Yashpal’s novel takes as its central, world-changing event the partition in 1947 of colonial India into the nation states of India and Pakistan. The bloodbath that resulted from this massive, uncontrolled two-way migration of peoples across the new boundaries of what was formerly undivided Punjab – Hindus streaming east into India from what had now become Pakistan, Muslims west into Pakistan in the fear that they would have no place in a new Indian nation state – took at least a million lives. Partition left a gash on the psyche of the Indian subcontinent that has never quite healed, and that inflames the politics of both countries, as well as Bangladesh, to this day.

The novel’s central characters are two siblings, Jaidev and Tara Puri, who live in a small, tightly knit Hindu community in a lane called Bhola Pandhe’s Gali in the old walled city of Lahore. Among the ways in which Yashpal’s novel links the lives and loves of its middle-class characters to the great churning in the public sphere of Lahore and Delhi in the 1940s is by setting them within the overlapping worlds of journalism, literature and education in Lahore (no other Indian novel is so much in love with the idea of the newspaper, and the newspaper’s power as a voice of reason in the public sphere). Puri is an idealistic young writer and journalist who has already served a prison sentence for the cause of the freedom movement. Tara is a college student excited by the intellectual freedom of the university – one that is not available in the world of the gali, with its family and gender hierarchies – but troubled by her engagement to a man she hardly knows.

In the novel’s opening movement, we see Puri (as he is called by the narrator) vexed by his inability to find a job and the social obstacles in the way of his marrying Kanak, the daughter of a prosperous publisher. Tara, meanwhile, feels that her world will come to an end if she is made to marry Somraj Sahni, her loutish fiance. But these problems pale into insignificance compared to the crisis that suddenly appears like a dark cloud over Lahore, as the British prepare to leave India. The Hindus of Bhola Pandhe Gali fear that Lahore might be ceded, as part of the two-nation theory that has gained currency in undivided India, to the new, primarily Muslim nation state of Pakistan.

“What if there’s a Pakistan or there’s a Hindustan? We’re Lahorites, neighbours of Doongi Gali,” declares one of the family’s optimistic friends. But as the book shows, this cosmopolitan vision of history and community has little chance against the drumroll of nationalism, and the combustible fear of the other lying just beneath the surface of the subcontinent’s social life.

Yet the novel also shows us that, at the time, Partition was not imagined to be a complete sealing-off of two geographically and culturally contiguous territories from each other, as turned out to be the case eventually. People left behind their homes, families, cities and countries imagining that they would soon be back once things had settled. But often they never returned, or returned to find that everything they owned had been taken.

The paradox most strikingly explored by the novel is that the very (allegedly foundational) categories of Hinduism and Islam that were the basis of Partition proved powerless, despite their scriptural emphasis on peace and justice, to stop the cataclysms of violence visited by each side upon the other. People of both sides looted, killed and raped, “all in the name of God”, as one character sorrowfully observes.

Repeatedly in This Is Not That Dawn, characters are shown jettisoning their private moral compasses because they are convinced that blood must be spilled to avenge the spilling of blood. Yashpal’s novel, on a scale equal to the complexity of the matter at hand, shows us how the question of justice is rarely contemplated by human beings in the abstract, or outside the pressures of time or frame of history – and that in a crisis, this tendency can prove to be mortal while continuing to believe itself moral. These conceptions of “comparative justice” are still doing the rounds of the subcontinent to this day, as during the gruesome religious riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002.

If This Is Not That Dawn is nevertheless a deeply pleasurable book, it is because it offers a world so vividly imagined that the quotidian acquires the same significance as the apocalyptic. The novel is steeped in meaningful details that reveal the networks and pressures of space, gender (“the afternoons in the galis belonged to the women ... If a male had to come back to the gali for some reason, he would clear his throat loudly to warn the women”), family and tradition in the small, hermetic world of Bhola Pandhe’s Gali in Lahore, and then out across the fields of city and nation.

As both Puri and Tara are thrust out into the world – Puri when he leaves Lahore in search of a job; Tara when she is abducted by a Muslim man after escaping from Sahni’s house on the night of her wedding – they are forced to bear the violence and derangement of Partition upon their bodies and then, finding themselves still alive, decide what to make of their battered selves. Although it appears for the longest time that Puri, with his idealism, his love of language, his political vision and his diligence, is the book’s hero, we see him gradually sinking, over a thousand pages, under the weight of his own worldly power in the new Indian republic and somewhat insecure masculinity – an unforgettable narrative arc. Revealingly, it is his involvement with the Indian National Congress that gradually leaches the idealism from Puri.

Instead, it is Tara, the apparently helpless, brutalised victim, who slowly gathers strength and makes an independent life for herself in the Indian capital, Delhi, watching out not just for herself but for other women in trouble. The storyline reveals not just Yashpal’s feminism – once she has a modicum of power and agency, Tara repeatedly resists any attempts to return her back to a normative world of female deference and duty – but also his emphasis on the individual’s right to dissent from the collective.

This Is Not That Dawn was written just a few years after the Indian constitution offered a new vision of rights, responsibilities and secular freedom to Indian citizens – a vision of a political order more egalitarian and enabling than any previously held in the history of the subcontinent. It might be thought to be the narrative and novelistic companion to that document, all the more compelling because its worldview is implied – parcelled out into the experiences and reflections of dozens of characters, and across the novelistic timespan of nearly two decades – and not spelt out from above.

Ten years into the life of the new nation, Yashpal sat down to compose an epic story, scrubbed free of nationalist cant, about the passion and tragedy that attended its birth. In doing so, he produced the first great novel about the ideals and implications of a new view of Indianness, a novel whose mingled vision of realism and idealism rings true to this day.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

On Diana Eck's India: A Sacred Geography and Akash Kapur's India Becoming

This review appears today in The Washington Post.


It’s most unusual to see geography as primarily a construct of the human imagination, but that is precisely what the scholar of Hinduism Diana Eck attempts in her massive new book, India: A Sacred Geography. Thousands of years before India was a nation-state (1947), a colony of Britain (the 18th century), or a cartographic vision on a map (1782), it was, in Eck’s view, conceived as a geographical unit in the hearts and minds of the faithful, and particularly in the religious imagination of Hinduism.
Pilgrims thought of India as the land of the seven great rivers, as a space marked by the benediction and caprice of the gods who resided in the great northern peaks of the Himalayas, as woven into unity by the great centers of pilgrimage, or dhams, in the north, south, east and west. Seeking the marks and manifestations of the sacred, they fashioned with their footprints a map of a vast subcontinent suffused with the presence of the gods and stories of their appearances in different incarnations.
Eck’s perspective has significant political implications. It arguably refutes the widely held notion that India was merely a confusion of diverse kingdoms, cultures and languages until it was politically integrated by the British Empire. Some scholars hold that the idea of Hinduism, too, is the modern tracing of a circle around a diversity of ancient religious beliefs never self-consciously systematized into a whole. This idea struggles to hold up against the layered evidence supplied by Eck’s book, the synthesis of three decades of work on the myths, rituals, cosmology and everyday life of Hinduism.
But the appeal of the book lies in the fact that its emphasis is not political, but aggregative and connective, making a forest out of a mass of trees. Eck offers an exceptionally rich account of how, throughout India, the cosmic is mapped onto the local in a tradition formed, revised and renewed over the centuries by thousands of discrete phenomena and often anonymous actors.
This map of myth, as it were, radiates a worldview very different from the assumptions of modern cartography. Cartography invests each place on a map with a name and an unassailable specificity. But sacral maps, Eck notes, are marked continuously by “patterns of duplication and condensation,” demonstrating an ability “to see a world in a grain of sand,” in William Blake’s unforgettable formulation. For instance, thousands of rivers and water bodies across the country are said to be linked to or fed by the holiest river of Hinduism, the Ganga. The Ganga is, depending on what lens one brings to it, both somewhere and everywhere.
“As arcane as lingas of light . . . and sacred rivers falling from heaven may seem to those who wish to get on with the real politics of today’s world,” Eck writes, “these very patterns of sanctification continue to anchor millions of people in the imagined landscape of their country.”
She devotes entire chapters to regional variations in the worship of the great generative god Shiva, the creator of the universe, or the myth of the Mother Goddess, who is consecrated and remembered in thousands of local incarnations as “the goddesses of earth and village, glade and river, hilltop and mountaintop.” In doing so Eck demonstrates how, just as novels are fully realized only in the minds of their readers, gods are made present in the world by the stories and footsteps of the faithful.
The two main currents of contemporary nonfiction about India might be said to be a broadbrush view animated by strong particulars (such as Patrick French’s recent India: A Portrait) and an attempt to fully realize a fascinating local world (such as two recent books about discrete realms in the megalopolis of Mumbai, Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers and Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing). Eck’s book might be said to stand at the sangam, or junction (a site of great religious power in Hinduism), of these currents.
Its ideas reverberate forcefully, too, against other recent works about geography as informed by the human imagination, such as Rebecca Solnit’s book about San Francisco, Infinite City, or Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France. (Robb and Eck also resemble each other in never writing an uninteresting or flat sentence.) All these writers would be fundamentally in agreement with Eck’s assertion that “every story has a place and every place a story.”
Eck’s book is so dense with detail that one might think of its 500 pages as a distillation of a world. In Akash Kapur’s India Becoming,” on the other hand, an idea that might be written up in a few sentences is stretched out, through the conceit of an autobiographical narrative, into an entire book.
In 2003 Kapur returns, after many years in America, to India, the country of his childhood, and finds the sleepy, unmoving world of old dramatically refashioned by new energies — especially the energies of capital — and ambitions. Fascinated by “that sense of newness, of perpetual reinvention and forward momentum that I had felt when I first moved to America,” Kapur beds down in Auroville, a small south Indian town, to take stock of this dramatic historical moment.
He explores the new India through a variety of conversations with, among others, a landlord who sees the old feudal world falling away around him, a young gay man riding the wave of the IT revolution and an activist in Mumbai fighting for the rights of those who have been marginalized or dispossessed by ruthlessness of the new economy. The Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis slowly emerges from his narration, but only as cliche, reverse cliche and all-encompassing cliche.
Dazzled in the beginning by the rumbling of a society of a billion people (“India, I felt, had started to dream”), Kapur soon begins to feel disillusionment with the spectacle of rising crime, pollution and poverty, and a “culture of not caring.” Finally he decides that he has been too hasty in both his elation and his despair, and settles for the comfort of realizing that “the central fact . . . of modern India was change” and the mystification “ineluctably, if at times haltingly, a new world was rising.”
If this were a novel, one might surmise that the writer was deliberately setting the narrator up as a naif. Anyone who reads it as straight-up reportage, though, will probably find the banality and contrivance of this self-indulgent “journey” exasperating. It is not just that Kapur does not take any strong positions (“I welcomed the progress. But all the destruction seemed a heavy price to pay”). What is worse is that his language groans with superfluity (“It was evening, a time between night and day, and the lights of the city were starting to come on”) and lazy allusion (“India, the author Nirad Chaudhuri reportedly once wrote, is a nation of a million exceptions”).
If Eck’s book reveals the relevance of the local, the unfamiliar and the seemingly obscure to the deep structure of a civilization, Kapur’s proves conversely the great gulf between taking up a relevant subject and writing a relevant book.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Some thoughts on novels, especially Indian novels

Last weekend I gave my talk "Ten Ways In Which Novels Can Change My Life" in Panjim, Goa (and this Friday I'm giving it in Pune, details in the image below). The Navhind Times of Goa generously ran a long interview with me on the subject of novels that I reproduce here.
Life is not a novel. How does a piece of literature factor in the 'unpredictable' human streak?
Life is not a novel, but it is a story, and so is a novel. Both kinds of stories have a lot to give each other. Literature is interested in precisely what is unsystematic and unpredictable about human beings. But the next challenge is to find a way of portraying this unpredictability, persuasively.
There is the good, the bad and the ugly in literature. How would you classify literature into each of these categories and what according to you is the purpose of 'the ugly'?
To my mind there are two kinds of "ugly" in literature. There is that literature which tries to portray or understand or criticise all that is ugly about human nature, human institutions -- for example communal violence, violence in man-woman relations, the urge to think some human beings inferior to others. And of course there is some literature or art which is to my mind ugly in itself -- cynically or manipulatively written, perpetrating stereotypes of its own (for instance the stereotypes of Goans in Hindi movies), or full of other kinds of clichés of thought and language.

The present age has seen the emergence of Chick Lit in India. Is this devaluing literature?
I wouldn't say so. Literature has value not in an a priori kind of way (such as, for instance, money) but only in terms of what it achieves between the time the first sentence of the book begins and the last line ends. In this space, whether it is literary novels, science fiction, or Chick Lit, a work may do something tremendously interesting and original. Some of what we think of now as great novels by women writers were considered Chick Lit when they came out. More important than the genre in which a book is written is the mind of the writer writing it.

What does modern Indian literature reflect of these times in India?
I think modern Indian literature is tremendously interesting and diverse. It reflects a society that is changing very fast, interrogating (or trapped within) old ways of living and interrogating new ones. But it is the responsibility of the reader (and to my mind, also bookshops) to experience the full diversity of Indian literature by seeking (or displaying) literature in translation, books published by small presses, books by writers who are no longer alive to do publicity events for themselves! To make just a short list, I would say that if you were seriously interested in say, just the Indian novel today, you would have to have read at least one work each by Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, UR Ananthamurthy, Aravind Adiga, Kalpana Swaminathan, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Fakir Mohan Senapati, Qurratulain Hyder, Yashpal, Salma, Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Sankar, and Mahasweta Devi. From a list like this you would be able to piece together a tremendously interesting picture of modern India.

Compare Indian writing qualitatively (including use of language) vis-à-vis the early trio of Indian authors -- Mulk Raj Anand, R K Narayan and Raja Rao.
Narayan was of course a very original prose stylist, as was Raj Rao. I don't like Anand's work so much. Even so, I think contemporary writers are less self-conscious in their use of English today than many of their predecessors, and the best of them produce a more interesting sound that brings the rhythms of Indian life to English. I think older Indian writers tended to write more British "English" English. The work of my generation has a freer sound rooted in multiple influences across world literature.

Your take on regional literature.
As I said earlier (and as I demonstrate with the short list of necessary Indian novels I offered), one cannot think of any map of Indian literature, whether as a writer or as a reader, without thinking about Indian writing in translation. I would not call writing in translation "regional" any more than writing in English is "regional".

Hollywood and European cinema draws heavily from literature. Why do we not see this same trend in India besides the few odd incidences like Chetan Bhagat claiming that 3 Idiots was based on his Five Point Someone.
I think an older tradition of Hindi films did borrow stories heavily from Indian literature. I'm thinking, for instance, of one of my favourite Amitabh Bachchan films, Saudagar (1973), in which he plays the role of a trader of cane sugar. The film was based on a story called "Ras" by the Bengali writer Narendranath Mitra. Or Shyam Benegal's Suraj Ka Satvaan Ghoda, based on a novel by Dharamvir Bharati. As films have become more generic and more calculated, they have drifted away from literature, which is in its very spirit very individual and very specific. I don't know that there are that many serious readers in Hindi cinema any more - someone like Shyam Benegal or Ketan Mehta. But I do know that Mira Nair is currently making The Reluctant Fundamentalist from Mohsin Hamid's novel by the same name. I'd be very interested in seeing that because the book is a very interior one.

What aspect of human nature fascinates you the most and in which piece of literature according to you is this best showcased.
I guess of all human relationships, I'm most interested in man-woman ones. The subject of how one can love (and give oneself away to) someone else over a period of time while also keeping to an independent trajectory -- to be both committed and single, as it were -- is an eternal question for adult human beings. One could make a small survey of the pleasures and problems of romantic attachment, for example, by reading Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence, Yashpal's Jhootha Sach, Irene Nemirovsky's All Our Worldly Goods, and Aamer Hussein's recent novel The Cloud Messenger.