Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Conjugal and Fictional Possibility in Perumal Murugan's Kali-Ponna trilogy

One reason why we gravitate to fiction is for the pleasure of entering imaginatively into a highly worked-up moral field that is not our own and often very different from it. In fact, fiction reassures us of the plasticity of our own consciousness: after only a few pages of acquaintance, we are able to bind ourselves with the point of view of one or several characters. Even if they themselves seem trapped or bound down by a situation, a city, or their own natures, in living vicariously through them we experience the space between own imaginative life and theirs as freedom, an enlargement and deepening of our own sense of life and of our awareness of cause and effect. No reflective reader deeply stirred by a novel ever quite relinquishes the trace it leaves behind, and when those novels do not supply a neat closure we often "carry on" the lives of the characters in our own minds beyond the point at which the writer left them. Having once made the story the object of our reading life, we now make it a part of our reading of life itself. It is perhaps the greatest compliment we can pay a writer.

Ten years ago, the writer Perumal Murugan proved himself worthy of just such respect and reverberation – left us tantalized with the sense of a book having ended when the story had in a way only just begun – with his 2010 novel One Part Woman (in Tamil, Maadhurbaagan). Set in a village in western Tamil Nadu some time in the early part of the twentieth century, the book illumined in a torrent of exquisite, empathetic detail the predicament of a peasant couple, Kali and Ponnayi, deeply (and for those around them, often provokingly) in love with one another but unable after twelve years of marriage to conceive a child. 

Although Kali and Ponna are utterly rapt in one another, the norms of the world and the tongues of people around them always remind them of what is missing from their lives. The child-shaped hole in their lives is brought up in nearly every social encounter and finally in their own dealings with each other, although never to the point of breaking the bond between them. If anything, Kali is repeatedly counselled to take a second wife, but refuses to do so. Instead, he grows ever more reclusive, spending all his hours in the barnyard that lies a little distance from his home, tending his fields and his animals. Meanwhile, Ponna, compulsively scratching the wound, turns every subject to the question of children: "The plant that we plant grows; the seed that we sow blooms; is it only me who is the wasted land here?" 

When all patience and propitiation has been exhausted, one final option, if extreme, presents itself. At the popular annual chariot festival of the half-male, half-female god Ardhanareeswara – in his encompassment of both sexes into one whole, the very emblem of conjugal felicity – in the nearby town of Thiruchengode, there opens up on the final night an abandonment of all norms and the erasure of identities. Then, any man and woman may consort with one another in the dark, and children born of such encounters are held to be bestowed by the god himself. It is suggested to both Kali and Ponna by her own brother Muthu that she journey to the festival all alone to find a man on this night to be impregnated by him. It is very hard for her to contemplate this act of tawdry yet potentially liberatory adultery, but she wonders if she would do it if her husband gave his permission.

The tension between the present and the future, the individual and the couple, between sexual fidelity and the need for children, is thus strung by Murugan to the highest pitch. In the end, as the result of a misunderstanding orchestrated by Muthu for what he believes to a good cause, we see Ponna going to the festival and being seduced by a man believing her husband has discreetly consented to it, and Kali belatedly discovering what he then takes to be the greatest of all betrayals. One Part Woman ended with an image of Kali, drunk and devastated, in the very barnyard where he and his wife had spent so many happy hours, and looking up at the portia tree that he himself had planted many years ago – the most prominent motif in the book: a symbol of pleasure in the natural world, of Kali's own capacity for creation and nurture, of the passing of time, and of the slow ramification of of events. What would happen next? Would he take his own life? We could not say: people need air to live, and characters their creator.

And what was happening to the creator? It is clear Murugan himself was exhilarated by his own story in One Part Woman and unwilling to take leave of his characters. In fact, he had generated such a cloud of possibilities that in the years that followed, he came up with not one but two sequels, now ably translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan as Trial By Silence and A Lonely Harvest. What is thrilling about this follow-up is that the books are not contiguous. Instead they audaciously take they take advantage of the freedom that fiction allows and life does not, and explore two versions of events arising from the same narrative crux: Kali and Ponna sundered by the eruption in their lives of a single night's events and their consequences. Some events are common to both sequels – in both, for instance, Ponna discovers she is pregnant – but the meanings and feelings they generate are very different because of the circumstances in which they transpire, allowing us, in effect, to choose a path on a fork on the road, then come back and take the other one.

In Trial By Silence, we see Kali where we left him, now attempting to kill himself by hanging from a noose on the portia tree. But his mother arrives just in time and saves him. Shortly afterwards Ponna arrives home from her night at the chariot festival and is shocked both by his brush with death and by her discovery that he had never given his consent. She is branded a whore by her husband, who refuses to touch her or converse with her and retreats into a private universe, stewing and suffering silently in his barnyard with his animals and becoming even more estranged when it turns out she is pregnant. Ponna herself cuts off all her ties with her own family for having plotted the destruction of her marriage. In this way an entire web of connections is broken up; the world of the family becomes a set of solitudes.

And the other book? In A Lonely Harvest, we find that Kali succeeds in killing himself; the grotesque details of his grimace at point of death and his cadaver are no less unsettling in light of the knowledge that he continues to live in another book (which experience leads to the insight that the "reality" of fiction is of a different order than that of life). Ponna is left a widow with a small farm, an aged mother-in-law, and (soon) a child in the womb. But she refuses to leave the barnyard where Kali spent all his days and in fact moves house there, seeing his presence in every small detail and especially in the portia tree. 

We are thus made spectators to two kinds of tragedy. In one, we see how lonely and riven two partners in love and domesticity may become while keeping up a kind of perfunctory life in the world together. In the other, the desire to perpetuate life results instead in the snuffing out of a life, and in the desperate efforts, pervaded by regret and yearning, of those left behind to patch together an existence that will never yield the pleasures of the past. These are exquisite formal patterns.

And they are realized in writing of great involvement and fidelity to point of view. Nowhere is Murugan's mastery of his material more evident than in his depiction of space as a reflection of human personality, and in his intricate braiding of the human and natural world. In a seemingly artless, low-key "village prose" that is nevertheless limpid and expressive, he makes us partners in the peasant's endless round of chores, showing how in his imagination the possibilities of trees and soil, birds and beast, water and stone, sun and season, are channeled into mutually supportive combinations. Raising livestock and working his fields in One Part Woman, Kali is a master of creation who is yet mocked by the world for being impotent; then in Trial By Silence, his decision to abandon his crops and cattle and let everything decay around him in his beloved barnyard becomes a metaphor for the blighting of his mind by the plague of cuckoldry; then in A Lonely Harvest, he kills himself in the very same haunt, and the control of the space passes over to the two women of his house, who in taking it over and adapting it to their own needs and capabilities discover its pleasures all over again while finding in it disturbing hints of his presence.

There is much to admire also about the equity of empathy distributed by Murugan between his male and female protagonist – sometimes expressed in very shape of the story, in the form of chapters alternating between their respective viewpoints. And, given his own starting position, his extraordinarily layered and lucent exposition of female subjectivity and agency in the characters of both Ponna and her mother-in-law Seerayi give the lie to what has regrettably become an axiom of modern gender politics and of some strands of feminist literary criticism: that male writers can never write truthful portraits of female characters because they somehow “just don’t understand”. (If the only identities we could depict truthfully were our own, there would no point in writing fiction in the first place.)

If anything, the most powerful emotional effect of the book is the sense that in their long years of mutual adoration and affectionate mockery (of which many lovely scenes fleck all three books) both Kali and Ponna have become, like Ardhanareeswara, half-man and half-woman, able to treat gender and sexual difference as a bridge to the other and not as an island.
Kali was intimately familiar with every inch of Ponna's body. He did not even know his own body that well. There was one little lash on Ponna's eyelids tht was thick and slanting away from the other eyelashes.  He sometimes held it between his lips and tugged at it. She once said to him, 'Let me know if you want to remove it.'But he replied, 'It is my most favourite piece of hair, let me tell you.'
He also liked to play with her tongue by keeping his finger on it. She would pull it in at his touch, and he would ask her to bring it out again. 'If feels soft, like touching a snail,' he said once.'See, now the snail's going into its shell!' she said, and closed her mouth. 
He loved the fine lines on her lips. He once counted them and said, 'Fourteen.'She said, 'You are crazy.' And he agreed. 'Yes, indeed I am.'

And, as an extension of the same experience of reaching out, both parties are able to marshal imagination and memory as an antidote to pain  and even as a substitute for embodied presence. “She pervaded his thoughts,” we read in One Part Woman. “She came to occupy them so much that he could tell her every movement and gesture.” And in a startling scene in A Lonely Harvest, we see Ponna going into the fields after Kali’s death and finding a brinjal patch that had been lovingly planted by him. The effect gradually metamorphoses into the cause; creation back into the creator. “Ponna caressed the bristly stem of the brinjal plant. It felt like she was caressing his arms. She held the stem against her cheek. Definitely his hand….She kept walking through the plants. How many hands did he have!”

Is this one of the essential works of Indian fiction in our century? It absolutely is.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Basanti's Dream: Reading women in the early Indian novel

A striking feature of early Indian novels – novels published, say, between 1880 and 1910 in English, Bengali, Urdu, Odia, or Malayalam -- are their readers. By this, I don’t mean, however, readers of these novels: students, intellectuals, the educated upper class – the natural constituency that early Indian novelists sought out. That readership was almost embarrassingly small – inevitably so, because the writers were working in a form alien to the very people whom they wished to depict and sometimes provoke. And in any case there was often little for that readership to savour: the writing was earnest, clumsy and derivative of the English novel in language, form and content.

No, what is fascinating about these novels, when read at a distance of a century, is how often contain scenes of characters reading books – very often western literature, and just as often novels. Sometimes the most important thing a protagonist does to assert him- or herself in early Indian fiction is just read. This was not just an ingenious kind of self-publicity – the desire of a new and novel literary form to validate itself by representing common people engaging with it. Rather, reading is often a controversial, provocative activity in early Indian novels, as sexual experimentation and drug-taking might have been in the novels of the post-Independence generation. To show a character – especially a woman – reading was to show her thinking, reasoning, reconsidering her position in society and her relationship to patriarchal tradition, and becoming, page by page and line by line, an individual in ways newly sanctioned in the West but unfathomable or undesirable in the social world in which the early Indian novelists lived.

Reading, then, is rarely a benign detail in early Indian novels: it stands for a revolution within the spirit, and therefore potentially in society. As soon as a character is shown reading, we know that a faultline, a thread of self-consciousness and potentially of conflict and alienation, has been opened up between her and her world; they will never be joined up again in perfect comity, and even if they do then it is us, the readers, who will mourn the cost at which they have been brought back into line. Even the tawaif Umrao Jaan Ada in Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s book by the same name loves to read, slowly substituting books for men as she ages, saying of her former admirers, “When they began to drop out of my life one by one...I developed a taste for books.”

By showing their characters reading books, the early Indian novelists – almost always male, we must remember – wished to imply that these fictional (in every sense) women had the same aspirations to intellectual independence and linguistic power that they had themselves, as readers, witnessed in female characters of English novels of the day. A woman who read was a woman whom both the male hero – himself often somewhat alienated from tradition by an English education – could desire and the reader could love. She was a person who could validate the very existence of the novel itself.

This viewpoint, we see, is almost never shared by figures of authority in the novels themselves. To them, to allow a girl an education, and especially an English education, is usually seen as fatally corrupting (although it was fine for men to study English) and radical. To allow them to read novels in English was to reach the heights of libertinism. “I lately found her reading an English book,” complains the old patriarch Panchu Menon of Indulekha, the spirited 16-year-old heroine of O. Chandu Menon’s novel by the same name in 1890. “She told me the story was only a made-up thing, but...just consider the consequences, my dear Panikar, if girls are allowed to read such trash.”

Even writers who did not share the general consensus among early Indian novelists that western education is good for young Indians – for instance, Bankimchandra Chatterji – can be found populating their books with images of women reading. In Debi Chaudhurani, Bankim’s most radical vision of a martial Bengali nationalism, the humble female protagonist Prafulla, cast out of her marital home by her in-laws, becomes a bandit in the forest under the tutelage of a Sanskrit-speaking brigand who teaches to fight – and also to study the Gita. A program of reading was essential for any woman who aspired to agency in the world. Only the choice of books differed.

This stark divergence at the turn of the century between the generations on the matter of female education and learning the language of the coloniser is both made a tragic crux and finessed for comic effect by the authors of Basanti, an Odia novel first published in 1931 and just translated into English by Himansu S.Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre. In Basanti, the disapproving matriarch Subhadra Devi – mother of the idealistic zamindar Debabrata, who seeks to marry the highly educated and capable (if socially marginal) young heroine Basanti – is appalled by her son’s choice of consort.

“Yes, it was good for daughters-in-law be well-read,” we read, following the lines of an argument still widely echoed in familial and conjugal reasoning in India nearly a century later. “They ought to be able to sing the Bhagabata and read out Kesaba Koili and Jema Dei Kanda for their mothers-in-law. But then, heavens, what was all this! Learning English, learning Bengali, reading newspapers, singing – what on earth was all this!” Basanti’s reading life is connected up to her lack of compliance with social norms for women. “The thing she disliked most about Basanti was such a grown up girl, far from speaking softly in hushed tones from beneath a foot-long veil, wore nothing on her head and her words rang out loud and clear.”

To be sure, this scene in Basanti is echoed by situations in many Indian novels of the time emphasizing a progressive view of women and encoding a critique of Indian tradition into their plotlines and narratorial ruminations. But there is still something unique about the book that should give it pride of place in any essay (such as this one) or reading list focussing on the theme of reading as a road to independence and female emancipation in the Indian novel. For what is most exciting about this ironic recapitulation of the critique of “reading girls” in Basanti is that it is not composed by an English-educated male writer with a progressive outlook (which would give such scenes a certain meaning), or even by a rebellious female writer with feminist leanings (of the kind who would arrive in Indian fiction within a generation). Rather, this novel published in 1931 is written collaboratively by a group of young writers who might be said to be the very kind of people of whom the first generation of male Indian novelists sought to produce an image in their writings.

Nine young Odia writers of the 1920s  (six men, three women, some of whom, like Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Annada Shankar Ray and Sarala Devi, went on to have significant literary careers) come together in Basanti to write a story on the theme of gender for the youth of India. In keeping with the spirit of the novel form, which is always aware of ambiguities and of discordances with any idealistic project, the book is also a richly imagined scenario of the pitfalls that might lie in the path of this Indian new compact of love, compassion and intellectual companionship in marriage.

At the beginning of the novel, we see young Basanti, a spirited, book-loving girl in the town of Cuttack, left orphaned when her beloved mother passes away. No matter: she has many well-wishers, and none more than the good-hearted college student Debabrata, who greatly empathises with her difficult position in the world. Debabrata loves reading, writing and social work – and is apparently a feminist to boot. In an early scene, he is seen giving a speech to the student union of his college on “The Duty of the Student Community with Regard to the Autonomy of Women” and is laughed out of the room, partly because some of the other students allege that he thinks what he does because he is in love with Basanti.

Despite these challenges, Debabrata and Basanti come ever closer together, the only hurdle in their way the skeptical figure of Nirmala Devi, to whose village household Debabrata must return – and perhaps take Basanti – when he has finished his studies. Eventually, this is what happens, although it is Debabrata who announces unilaterally to Basanti that he has decided they are to get married – the first sign that he may not be as immune to the old complacencies of masculinity as he fancies.

The novel is a very sensitive rendering of what happens to a intellectually agile woman when subsumed to the hoary old pieties of family life – because no other choice is available to her. Basanti’s life in the village becomes a never-ending round of service to her mother-in-law, in the hope of earning her approbation. But this is merely to cede power to the institution and authority she has reluctantly embraced. Even Debabrata begins to feel guilty for suppressing his wife’s individuality and intellectual spark, but nor can he criticise his mother.

The writers of Basanti take turns to show how their heroine slowly loses her sense of self in her new surroundings. The two secure sources of solace in Basanti’s life are her old friends and her books. In a key scene in the book, we see Basanti reading Tagore’s Gora, a novel she greatly loves. She tells her new friend in the village, Nisa, “As I was reading this book, the thought came to me that like the characters in this book we too could do something” – the clearest sign possible of the early Indian novel’s desire to light a lamp for a new path in Indian history, and also an indication of Odia writers fashioning their own Indian novelistic canon. Basanti thinks of starting a school for the village girls – an idea that sends her mother-in-law into a fury.

Matters eventually come to a head, turning once again upon an act of reading or writing. Debabrata comes across an article written by Basanti in a literary magazine. There, he questions the pervasive patriarchal cast of the world and asks, “Why is the idea that women are subordinate so lasting and all pervasive? Why has no one imagined a distinct and independent identity for women, separate from men?” Ideals clash with reality: he takes this as a personal criticism of him. When we hear him say, “Now Basa, please tell me what kind of autonomous life you would lead that has nothing to do with me,” we know that, whatever the state of their marriage at a legal and social level, the marriage of minds that the two of them had once dreamt of is over.

Basanti, then, is a book about the recasting of the balance of power between man and woman in modern India. Most interestingly, it is written in a self-reflexive way that greatly deepens the relationship between reading, selfhood, freedom and agency so prominent in the early Indian novel. While reading the novel, we are always aware, every time we start a new chapter and see that the narration has changed hands, that the nine men and women who wrote it come together in the book not just as writers but as readers. In order to take the story forward, since each one had first to absorb the character and narrative cues set up by his or her predecessor, and to work in a spirit both of individuality and partnership. All nine of them were Basanti by turns and together, sometimes as writers and other times as readers.

In an echo of Prafulla’s fate in Bankim’s Debi Chaudhurani, Basanti, too, is cast out of the house by Debabrata. Eventually, the sundered couple are reunited – but in a somewhat melodramatic way that goes against the realistic spirit of the first half of the book, and that may have been a concession to readerly expectations.

Basanti’s dream of a world in which women may have their own identity, however, rings as clear as a bell long after one has put the book down – as does her idea that men and women may reshape their historical relationship by reading and reflection. Echoes of Basanti’s dream can be found in Indian novels all the way through the twentieth century, such as in Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach (1955).

There, the protagonist Jaidev, a journalist, mourns the loss of the great love of his life, Kanak, because of Partition, as the loss of a marriage in which both husband and wife would have been equals, if not in the eyes of the world, then certainly within their own home. “Had she been there, they would have worked as one and achieved great new heights. Kanak's dream was to have a house of their own, both of them at their desks, writing and creating.” The new translation by Mohapatra and St-Pierre restores to the Indian novelistic canon a text that represents a kind of apotheosis – both in terms of the story and the conditions of its composition – of a grand theme of the early Indian novel: women who read so that they may imagine a new womanhood, and world, into being.

[A slightly different form of this essay appeared recently in Open magazine under the title "Basanti's Dream".]

Saturday, February 02, 2019

On the Penguin Book of Haiku

The most famous tiger in world poetry lopes in William Blake’s “The Tyger”; the most melodious nightingale trills in the pages of Keats. But the greatest poetic frog of all – one who remains alive through the centuries, and is actually set in motion anew by the reading eye – appears in a poem by the 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. In the original, it goes:

furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

In Landis Barnhill’s fine translation from 2004, this is rendered as:

The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
Water’s sound.

And surely most readers, when they see this poem, will recognise not just the frog but also the form. Japan’s greatest export to the world is probably neither bonsai nor origami, not noh theatre nor manga comics, not Asahi beer or Mitsubishi cars, not Kurosawa or Murakami, but haiku. This short three-line verse form, usually following a 5-7-5 syllable structure and capturing some flash of sensory experience, some concrete but transient detail of the natural world, has been around for nearly four centuries.

To most non-Japanese readers, haiku seems an expression of Japanese aesthetics in its most concentrated form, a nugget of gnomic wisdom distilled into a few spare details. And it is one of the most cheerful travellers among poetic forms. Alongside the sonnet and the ghazal, haiku is today an indispensable part of the education of any young poet working in English. Just the haiku composed in a single year in American MFA programmes would be enough to silt up Basho’s frog-pond.

So The Penguin Book of Haiku, a substantial new anthology of over 1000 translations made by Adam Kern, a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin, will surely be one of the bestselling poetry books of the year. All new haiku translators are judged by what they do with Basho’s frog. Kern’s amphibian, perhaps feeling the heat of the competition, is a touch disappointing (“old pond! / a frog plunges into / watersound”).

Kern also breaks with tradition in organizing his selection not in chronological order, or by poet. His book a single linked sequence of haiku revolving around keywords. Poems about frogs shade into poems about cats and thereon to mistresses, who themselves give way to downpours and and parasols – from which section there is this gem from an unnamed poet:

rain lets up
and the price of umbrellas
comes back down!

Some readers might find this approach a bit laboured (how many poems about umbrellas can one read in a row?) and probably more arbitrary than a chronological selection. But Kern’s method does have the virtue of restoring to our understanding of haiku a sense of its distant origins as a form of light verse composed in long sequences by multiple hands, each poem serving as a stimulus for an impromptu “reply” by another poet. A cat haiku generated another, and another.

In such circumstances, the haiku poet did not work alone in a garret, but in playful and inventive dialogue with a milieu. “Spontaneity, the ability to think on one’s feet,
wit – these were the cardinal virtues,” Kern writes in his introduction. “Haiku was the collaborative art of instantaneous and contingent refiguring, not unlike a jam session in improvisational jazz.”

But once this emphasis on the comic and improvisatory aspects of haiku is taken on board, a 21st-century haiku anthology such as this one can bear only so much recasting of the tradition (just as it would not help a book on democracy to insist on the normative nature of early forms of democracy in Greek city-states, that denied the vote to women and slaves).

Every culture, after all, has a tradition of light verse and wordplay. To this writer, at any rate, haiku rose up to its Olympian status in the world of poetry when it transcended its origins in light verse and began to generate glimpses into the deepest truths of life – all in the amount of time it takes to light a cigarette.

Partly it did so with wonderful “jump-cuts” in language to defamiliarize quotidian experience and shake up the reader, such as this haiku by Ryoto:

Violets –
the geisha will want
to view the fields

And partly it was because haiku grew more poetic muscles and became more aesthetically and philosophically ambitious, producing an unforgettable vision of human life that was rueful, mysterious, elliptical, profound. A poem like Basho’s, or Buson’s haiku (taken from Kern’s anthology)

perched asleep
on the massive temple bell:
a butterfly!

gives us new eyes for the tremors and stillness of the world’s varied life-forms and allows us, however briefly, to slough off the kind of self-interested perception generated by the ego. Quite deliberately shorn of the language of emotions, haiku nevertheless gives us powerful snapshots of feeling rooted in human relationships (as with Ryoto’s haiku about the geisha above) and situations.

Kern’s anthology, then, links haiku across the centuries into a giant tapestry quite inventively. But his highly Americanized and sometimes incongruous diction, sometimes unconvincing focus on the comic and grotesque notes of the form, and overuse of exclamation marks make this book less of a pleasure to read than some of the extant translations of the great haiku masters like Basho, Issa, Buson or Masaoka Shiki.

The range of moods and notes in the haiku tradition is, one feels, too vast and subtle to allow for realization by a single translator. A better way for Kern have done it might have been to make The Penguin Book of Haiku an anthology bringing together a host of translators including himself, which would have granted to it the sociality and give-and-take between different poets that he himself insists is fundamental to the form.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Adam Smith on Markets and Moral Sentiments

The flight lounge was Kuala Lumpur, the crisps were jackfruit, and my companion was Scottish and had been dead for over 200 years. I had left home in Delhi for a short trip to Vietnam. My cut-price ticket allowed for no checked-in luggage; what I had on me was all I had.
Even pared to the bare essentials, however, there was room for the 1,200 pages of Adam Smith’s The Wealth Of Nations. This is one of the foundational texts of the modern world. Every right-leaning person keeps quoting stuff about free markets at you from this book, but no one actually seems to have ever read it in its entirety. Journeys are a good space for intellectual challenges. While in the skies and then abroad, I wanted to break not the sound, but the Smith barrier.
Thankfully, the gamble proved to be a good one. High up in the peace of the clouds and down in the clamour of airport lounges, in the little cafés of Ho Chi Minh City where people sip jasmine tea and drink coffee from phins, recumbent at night in the silence of a little hotel room, I read Smith’s magnum opus with pleasure—and a steadily escalating admiration for his intellectual ability, stealthy empathy, and rhetorical flair.
Two weeks later, one journey had ended, but another was just beginning: one of the great intellectual love affairs of my life. Over the next year, in Delhi and Varanasi, Stuttgart and New York, Prague and Paris, Athens and Rome, I read as much of Smith, and about Smith, as I could.
The first thing that strikes the reader about Smith is that he is so much more than even his admirers and proponents make him out to be. Often, his arguments can’t be reduced to a precis: As with the great novelists, you have to immerse yourself in his long, delicately weighted sentences and paragraphs to catch the full drift of his meaning. Then, when you hear other people paraphrasing Smith, you always find yourself saying, “Yes, but….” He is like that charismatic friend that everyone in a group fights over, everyone thinking “I know him best”.
Second, what is so engaging about Smith is not just his matter (which, as I will show, is even more considerable than is commonly granted) but his manner. He is a writer of great clarity and courtesy. Brilliantly and convincingly, he first recapitulates the arguments of his opponents—the cheap point-scoring of our television debates would not have been his thing—before just as dexterously undermining and refuting them. Once you pick up the sound of his voice, you hear it in your head all day long like a tune.
Third: his philosophy. Smith comes across as exceptionally well-adjusted. He is a realist who never seems to lapse into cynicism or dogma, a worldly man who insisted nevertheless that life demands from us some grand ideal and commitment, even sacrifice. He seeks the continuous advance not just of markets but also morals; not just knowledge, but self-knowledge. When you read him, you feel that somewhat like Gandhi, he seems to know you even better than you know yourself.
And last—and this is something no scholar of Smith ever tells you—the great Scotsman can often be laugh-aloud funny, as piquant as an Indian grandmother observing modern life from a charpai (cot). Has anybody ever managed to match the truth and tartness of Smith’s characterization of love as “the passion [that] appears to everybody, but the man who feels it, entirely disproportioned to the value of the object”? There is a discussion of value here, as befits someone known for his attention to costs and benefits, but one also senses a distinct sympathy and even admiration for the deluded.
That cracking sentence appears not in The Wealth Of Nations, but in The Theory Of Moral Sentiments (hereafter, TMS). Yes, you must read both these books, or none at all. And TMS, Smith’s other masterwork and one that describes the peculiarities and potential of man as a social and ethical creature, was long given short shrift by economists, who built their representations of Smithian thought—and applications of it for economic debates of the present day—entirely upon the argument of The Wealth Of Nations. It was written when he was just 36 (he published The Wealth Of Nations when he was 53), and Smith remained so engaged with its argument that he revised and expanded it through his lifetime, publishing a final edition just before his death in 1790. One might even say, as a riddle, that Smith’s first book was also his last.
Yet it is the book in the middle that immediately caught the imagination of the world—and not without reason. The Wealth Of Nations is still the core of Smith’s intellectual achievement, a seminal moment in the human effort to understand how our material lives cohere and interlink on the macro level. And it is especially worth reading today, when capitalism—Smith himself never actually used this word—is under attack from many sides. Partly this is because it seems to have been taken over (as Smith himself feared) by elites who want more to capture than to produce wealth. But also, a combination of rising inequality, static real wages, and an explosion of human desires linked to mass media and consumer culture have made both white-collar and blue-collar workers in the developed world unbalanced and resentful. In fact, the journey from poverty to (relative) prosperity described in The Wealth Of Nations is a story Indians today can appreciate better than most Europeans, for it is the great Indian story of the last 25 years (and one that Mint has chronicled extensively over the last decade).
The core of The Wealth Of Nations is devoted to Smith’s magnificently comprehensive description and original and frequently counter-intuitive defence of what he called “commercial society”. This was the newly emerging 18th century world order in which the eternal human need “to truck, barter and exchange” (Smith loves sonorous and evocative verbs) was taking a new form, very different from the top-heavy economic order of the feudal world with its lords and vassals.
Smith, at heart an egalitarian if not exactly a democrat, greatly approved of this transition and gave it the intellectual steel frame it needed. With a wealth of rigorous and ringing detail, he showed that simple price signals in a market could deliver justice, and stimulate an economic energy that no regent or government could fashion or force. If economic actors were allowed to work in their self-interest, the “invisible hand” of the market would likely allocate goods and prices in a way that could serve the interests of all. A liberal new economic order would provide rich rewards for the exercise of the virtues and habits that Smith admired the most: prudence, thrift and industry (Smith is actually not a big one for spending money and—readers of TMS will find—is even sceptical of the idea that great wealth is conducive to happiness).
But there is more to Smith’s theory than just a defence of the profit motive as an engine of growth. As the great Smith scholar Ryan Patrick Hanley neatly puts it, Smith saw that “commerce substitutes interdependence for direct dependence and makes possible the freedom of the previously oppressed”. In commercial society, the shape of material life begins for the first time to lean towards economic independence and political freedom even for the meanest labourer. The gates of commercial society open out, eventually, on to the garden of freedom (a difficult, challenging freedom) and democracy.
Sadly, though, over the course of 200 years after his death, for a wealth of reasons, Smith was co-opted as the father of pure capitalism, insisting, apparently, on the primacy and inevitability of self-interest in all human dealings, and on the need for governments to allow the market mechanism to determine how resources in a society are allocated (and by extension, how social problems are resolved). Smith’s famous sentence about butchers, bakers and brewers working not out of a sense of benevolence for others but from a regard to their self-interest was taken as the touchstone of his thought.
But no one who reads The Wealth Of Nations can fail to see that this is a very distorted (one might even say self-interested) view of Smith. Amartya Sen, who has done as much as any other modern scholar to draw attention to the complexities of Smith’s world view and rescue him from the clutches of free-market fundamentalists, gets Smith’s view of the powers and limits of the market exactly right in his contribution to a comprehensive new book of essays called Adam Smith: His Life, Thought And Legacy (Princeton University Press, 2016). “It would be hard to carve out from Smith’s works,” writes Sen, “any theory of the sufficiency of the market economy (as opposed to the necessity of markets). He sought substantial supplementation of the market mechanism, though he would not endorse any proposal to supplant it.”
Even the invisible hand of market forces needs visible hands to supplement its work in a just society. One of the surprises of The Wealth Of Nations, I found, is how often Smith sides with the interests of labourers against those of merchants and manufacturers, and proposes and delineates a system of moral reasoning that will frame and discipline the very markets whose virtues he extols.
In July, I moved on to TMS. I had by now become convinced of Smith’s great qualities not just as an intellectual guide, but as a travel companion. Every time I packed a suitcase, he was the first thing I threw into it after my toothbrush and notebook. Whenever my days became disordered and giddy, whenever I woke up with a hangover or drooped with a sense of inertia, I had only to read two or three pages of his even, tranquil prose to set the world in order again (“Happiness,” he states quite simply at one point, “consists in tranquility and enjoyment”).
Smith was 36 when he published this precociously wise book, the same age that I was now when I was reading it. It took me many more months to read than The Wealth Of Nations. Realizing that when I was done there would not be much more of Smith left to read.
Trade and economic activity barely appear in TMS. Rather, Smith is found here contemplating another kind of economy: the economy of our emotions and the moral commerce of our lives in society.
For Smith, man is fundamentally a social being, embedded in multiple networks that answer not just his material needs but his need to be loved and respected. Or, as the Smith scholar David Schmidtz puts it, “a human life is a social life”.
Yet this does not take away from the inescapable truth, Smith observes, that we are violently self-centred. We feel our own pleasure and pain, our own joy and sorrow, much more deeply than that of others. A cricked neck troubles us much more than a war in which thousands lose their lives. Our instinctive reaction to any new development is to think, “What does this mean for me?” If possible, we would always privilege our own self-interest over that of others—until we come to realize that others must feel exactly the same way about themselves.
Where do we go from here? It follows that to form a truthful understanding of reality, we need to be able, habitually, to see ourselves as “an impartial spectator” would. “The natural misrepresentations of self-love,” writes Smith, “can be corrected only by the eye of the impartial spectator.”
Here we arrive at one of Smith’s greatest concepts, perhaps even more central to his thought system than of the invisible hand (which phrase, after all, appears only twice in his work). The impartial spectator is something more than just a conscience; it is an emotional rudder that keeps us balanced. By listening to the whispers of this invisible companion, we work out just how morally complex and quirky and fallible we are; true selfhood requires continuous self-command.
Our moral sentiments are full of strange biases, just as any landscape has slopes and ditches. Many of Smith’s insights—for instance, that pain leaves a much more lasting impression on us than pleasure—have today become the province of behavioural economics. To take another example, he observes that we are instinctively much more sympathetic to the woes of the rich than those of the poor, and mourn the overthrow of a king, although most of his material privileges remain unaffected, much more than, say, the tragedy of someone going hungry. What we need to do is to acquaint ourselves with the general terrain of our moral nature, and then use self-knowledge to compensate for our weaknesses and oversights.
Virtue, for Smith, inheres not so much in what we believe, but in how—and how much—we act. And here Smith issues a clarion call, a sentence one never forgets once one has read it, “Man was made for action,” he writes, “and to promote by the exertion of his faculties such changes in the external circumstances both of himself and of others, as may seem most favourable to the happiness of all.” Man’s actions must be guided both by the invisible hand of the market, showing him opportunities for work and profit, and by the ethical promptings and expanding social imagination of the impartial spectator, “the great inmate, the great demi-god within the breast”. The market can be man’s friend, but he diminishes himself when he makes it his god.
It seems clear, when one has finished reading Smith, that it will not do to call him an economist. He is certainly one—maybe even the father of economics—but he is so much more than that, and this very word is, like one of those human biases he describes, an unreliable road into his thought. He is also a moral philosopher, a historian, a literary critic, a student of linguistics. Even his economics might more properly be called “humanomics”—this is the phrase used by the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey, who in the last decade has published a thrilling trilogy about how the modern world came to generate so much wealth.
One morning last February, I sat in my balcony in New Delhi, drinking coffee, and put my marks on the last page of TMS. It was over. A whole year had passed with Smith by my side. I felt enormous gratitude for everything he had given me. But perhaps there was some wealth I had generated for him as well, across a gulf of two centuries. After all, doesn’t he say in TMS that “the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved”?

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Indian novel not yet translated into English that I most want to read...

...is 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 while...you 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.