Friday, May 26, 2023

The Indian Novel as an Agent of History

This essay appears in my recent book My Country Is Literature

Human beings experience their lives as embedded not just in time, but in history. And we deploy a variety of modes and instruments to make a personal map and mood of history: individual experience and cultural memory, political ideology and historiography, myths and legends, the news on TV and the chat at the barbershop. Among these ways of constructing or examining the past, a somewhat late-arriving one in India—only about 150 years old—is the novel.

But what is so noteworthy about the novel as a lens on history? It might be argued that even as a form of story, let alone history, the novel does not enjoy great currency in India, for it is neither an indigenous form nor a mass one. Cinema has far greater mass appeal, and the stories and narrative conventions of epics like the Ramayana inform everyday life and moral reasoning much more than any novel does (notwithstanding the apparent desire of nearly every educated Indian to write a novel, ideally bestselling).

Yet if the novel deserves to be studied as a site of Indian history, it is because Indian history itself is one of the great subjects of the novel in India. A preoccupation with Indian history—its pleasures and possibilities, its continuities and its fractures, its burdens and its freedoms, its shape and its mysteries—is a thread running through the work of some of the greatest Indian novelists of the past century and more, across more than two dozen Indian languages and literary traditions. In the great diversity of narrative forms and interpretative cruxes generated by the Indian novel, there lies, waiting to be unpacked by the active reader, a wealth of wisdom about Indian history—and therefore about how to live in the present time as an Indian and a South Asian, as a modern person of the 21st century and as a citizen of the first century of Indian of democracy. (Some of these possibilities are apprehended or activated by characters in novels themselves, allowing us to experience vicariously, or in advance of actual historical fact, difficult dilemmas and choices in our own lives.)

Consider Fakir Mohan Senapati’s enormously sly, satirical and lightfooted novel Six Acres and a Third (1902). The plot of Senapati’s novel revolves around a village landowner’s plot to take over the small landholding of some humble weavers. But this is also the Indian village in the high noon of colonialism, and the first readers of Senapati’s story would have delighted in the many potshots taken by the narrator against new and perplexing British institutions or perverse intellectual fashions, administered and advanced by a new class of English-educated Indians. ‘Ask a new babu his grandfather’s father’s name, and he will hem and haw,’ the narrator chirps, ‘but the names of the ancestors of England’s Charles the Third will readily roll off his tongue.’

The story appears to be generating, then, an argument about history and about political resistance. India must rid itself of its colonial masters, it seems to say, because they have delegitimised many of the traditional knowledge systems and truths of Indian society, and in the process made the modern Indian self-imitative and inauthentic. (The argument persists in today’s debates about ‘westernisation.’)

But this raises a new question, one that is not lost on Senapati. Was traditional Indian village society itself ever very wise, just, or balanced? As the story progresses, we see that anti-colonial sentiments have not blinded the narrator to the need to subject his own side to the scrutiny of satire. When we hear that ‘The priest was very highly regarded in the village, particularly by the women,’ and that ‘The goddess frequently appeared to him in his dreams and talked to him about everything’ the complacency and mystifications of Brahmanical Hinduism are also laid bare, as is the credulity about those who would place their faith in such a system.

Senapati’s irony is particularly effective because of its double-sidedness, and leads to a point useful as much in our time as his own. That is: criticism of a clearly marked-out ‘other’ (to Indians in the early 20th century, the British; to Hindu nationalists today, Muslims and Christians) often legitimises a sweeping and complacent faith in one’s own worldview; that the search for truth or meaning in history must remain a charade if not accompanied by the capacity for self-criticism. The novel’s argument, buried in its details and never overtly stated, is liberating not because it is comforting or inspiring, but precisely because it is disenchanted. Fiction shows us how human beings are themselves fiction-making creatures, and must therefore take special care to scrutinise what they believe to be foundational truths.

A different kind of novelistic irony—cosmic rather than comic—radiates from This Is Not That Dawn, the English translation of Jhootha Sach, the Hindi novelist Yashpal’s thousand-page novel from the 1950s about Partition. The story tracks the lives and loves of Tara and Jaidev, a pair of siblings, across the worlds of Lahore and New Delhi in the years both before and after Partition. In so doing, Yashpal’s novel generates dozens of alternative views of that cataclysm from viewpoints male and female, Hindu and Muslim, Indian and Pakistani (at the very moment that these new highly charged and adversarial identities are coming into being), prospective and retrospective.

Each character’s position or dilemma carries its own distinctive charge of hope, memory, conviction, doubt, naïveté, prejudice, fatalism, cynicism: a vast narrative collage of human beings swimming valiantly with and against the tides of history. If the narrator himself has something to say about the logic or validity of the breaking up of India, it remains parcelled out among the characters, and must be intuited by the reader.

In fact, although the book faces up squarely to the tremendous violence and horror of Partition, the feeling we take away from Yashpal’s novel is not that of an entirely tragic story. Of course, Partition destroyed a particular shared and longstanding, if uncodified, sense of what it meant to be Indian. But as we perceive from the quest of the protagonist, Jaidev Puri, to start his own newspaper rooted firmly in a rejection of religious partisanship of either a Hindu or Muslim stripe, what it means to be Indian would, in a new democratic and secular republic, have entailed building upon a new foundation in any case. At certain junctures in history, the novel shows us, tragedy and moral progress may be inseparably mingled.

As we can now see more than seven decades later, the new Indian republic has faced many challenges in remaining secular (and indeed democratic). Perhaps, in retrospect, we might say that it asked too much of the first citizens of independent India, who might have preferred political independence while remaining wedded to their old ways of social organisation. A splendid insight into the tensions between the hierarchical imperatives of Hinduism and the egalitarian impulses of the new Indian democracy might be found in the novels of the great Kannada novelist UR Ananthamurthy, and nowhere more convincingly so than in his early novel Samskara (1965), published when Ananthamurthy was just 33.

Samskara is, as the title indicates, about rites for the dead. Its plot turns on the dilemma posed by Naranappa, a man even more troublesome dead than alive. Naranappa is a member of a small agrahara, or settlement, of brahmins in rural Karnataka. The brahmins are, for the most part, almost stereotypically true to type: they live off alms and donations, perform rituals for the rest of the community, interpret the sacred books, and uphold through both poetry and penance the values of an ancient (and apparently eternal) hierarchical social order.

But Naranappa has gone rogue, profaning the tradition, provoking his neighbours with orgies of drinking and meat-eating, living in sin with a woman of a lower caste. There is no taboo he has not traduced. If he has not been excommunicated, it is only because the agrahara’s leader, the wise and compassionate scholar Praneshacharya, has long waged a war to reform his demoniacal nature. When Naranappa suddenly passes away, a question of profound significance comes up, one on which the entire world order seems to turn. Must the dead man be cremated with all the respect due to a high-born Brahmin? Or will the brahmins who survive him themselves be polluted by performing the last rites of someone who devoted himself to ‘kicking away at brahmanism’? It is Praneshacharya who must decide. Confused, the man widely known as ‘the Crest-Jewel of Vedic Learning’ turns to his palm-leaf manuscripts for guidance. What precedents exist for a conundrum such as this?

Upon the horns of this beautifully counterbalanced conflict—dead against the living, hedonism against self-restraint, profaner against pardoner, sexuality against textuality—Ananthamurthy sets down an allegory of Indian history with a particular resonance for the 20th century, and indeed the one after. For although the novel appears to be set in the unchanging Village Time of old India, in actual calendar time we are somewhere in the 1950s, in the levelled world of the new Indian democracy, that has made its touchstone not the books of revelation, but a constitution thrashed out by human beings.

Slowly, our view of the dead man’s misdemeanours changes colour. Perhaps Naranappa, underneath the obvious provocation of his saturnalia, represents the spirit of the new freedom, blowing away the fossilised thinking sanctified by the centuries. In openly falling in love and living with a low-caste woman, Naranappa shows a greater humanity than that required merely by ‘keeping the faith.’ Unlike his compatriots, flapping cantankerously in manacles of jealousy and moralism, he thinks on his feet and with his body.

Even the spotless Praneshacharya finds himself morally discombobulated by the age: his righteousness is founded upon a deep social conservatism, and he thinks through the foundational categories of purity and pollution, which find no place in the new social compact. The brahmins, we see, are prisoners of history, huddled in a cocoon of hypocritical piety; never daring to live beyond the ‘duties a brahmin is born to.’ Teaching all other castes to keep their own boundaries, they preside over a sterile society, when the age demands a new moral creativity. When they face a dilemma, they delve into their palm-leaf manuscripts, not into themselves. Praneshacharya begins to perceive this, but is powerless to act upon his intuition. Until his body does. On a trip deep into the forest to seek out an answer at the feet of a god, he encounters Naranappa’s voluptuous companion and ends up sleeping with her.

Now Praneshacharya, too, is a sinner, forced to confront his own repressed carnality. ‘I suddenly turned in the dark of the forest,’ he ruminates. Smarting with shame but rapt with a strange exhilaration, he takes to the road, both running away from himself and in search of himself. Ananthamurthy’s finespun prose, rendered in exquisite cadences by his late translator AK Ramanujan, tracks with great rigor the inner monologue of Praneshacharya as he arrives a new vision of the self. And as we follow Praneshacharya there, we see that we have reached a point not just metaphysical but metafictional. In place of the Sacred Books, perhaps it is the novel that contains the wisdom and the doubt that India needs for a new age in its history (which would make Ananthamurthy a kind of novelistic Naranappa). It’s a startling story, one as provocative for its time and place as those of Cervantes, Sterne and Diderot must have been in theirs.

As these examples show, the work of novels is not confined to mere representation of historical realities (although this is where they may start). Rather, a novel may be a creative intervention in history in its own right—an actual agent of history, passing on to the reader who passes through its narrative field both its diagnostic powers and visionary charge. Indeed, from Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay to UR Ananthamurthy, Bankimchandra Chatterjee to Kiran Nagarkar, Qurratulain Hyder to Salma, Phanishwarnath Renu to Amitav Ghosh, novelists have generated some of the most layered and sophisticated visions of Indian history produced in the last two centuries. Yet as a group they fall into no school or political camp—some of them possess a conservative rather than progressive sensibility. What unites them is their interpretative power and their ability to illuminate and complicate the particular historical crux they focus on.

It would appear that there is something inherent in the novel form—the persuasive power and freedom of a story when compared to a discursive argument; the prospect of linking the world of the self with that of the community and society; the freedom to rove in spaces of the past that we cannot access by means other than that of the imagination; the potential to think dialectically in exchanges between characters or switches in perspective between the narrator and the characters—that makes the space of the novel a particularly fertile ground for historical thinking.

And when they are themselves reinserted into the canvas of Indian history, it seems to me that the projects of the Indian novel and that of Indian democracy (both fairly new forms in Indian history) appear uncannily similar—and perhaps similarly unfinished. As Indian democracy has over the last seven decades sought to fashion a new social contract in a deeply hierarchical civilisation, so the great Indian novel has attempted not just to address but also to form a new kind of reader/citizen, alive to both the iniquities and the redemptive potential of Indian history.

Monday, January 09, 2023

Mahatma Gandhi and the meaning of being a Pravasi Bharatiya

Since 2003, the Republic of India has marked January 9 as Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. Here is a piece on the overseas Indian whose journey it commemorates.

Today, January 9, marks the anniversary of the greatest homecoming ever by an Indian, one now celebrated in India – the mother country of perhaps the largest and most farflung diaspora in the world – as Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, or “Overseas Indian Day”.

On January 9, 1915, a lawyer and community organiser from Gujarat called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (at 46, already in late middle age) stepped off the ship SS Arabia at Bombay Harbour. Gandhi had spent the previous two decades in South Africa, where he had made a name for himself representing the civil cases of the prosperous merchants of Indian origin there and the struggle for political rights of indentured labourers of Indian origin in a society divided on racial lines. Before that, he had also spent a few years as a (fairly mediocre) student in England.

In between these two stints abroad, Gandhi had already made one brief, unsuccessful attempt in the 1890s to return to India and set up his own legal practice. One reason for his failure then was his own diffidence; another, the fact that, as an Indian who had travelled abroad across the “black waters”, he was seen as having lost caste in a highly stratified and cloistered social world. Indians of that time preferred to deal with somebody uncorrupted by contact with the great unknown.

Though he returned to India a successful and even wealthy man, Gandhi’s travels had not made him arrogant, but rather more curious and more humble, even at the age of 46. It’s worth noting that he had promised his political mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, that he would not speak or write on India for a year, till he had travelled around the country and acquainted himself with its problems.

During his sojourn in South Africa, Gandhi had discovered something enormously liberating about the life of émigrés. The boundaries drawn by Indians at home between themselves were blurred, and sometimes entirely abandoned, by the solidarities and hardships of being Indians abroad – which experience, for the rest of his lifetime, was to be expressed in Gandhi’s optimism about the ability of Indians to transcend their differences and work together.

Gandhi’s early life in Gujarat, then, and his outlook as a devout Hindu, were orthodox; his life experience for an Indian of the time, unusually heterodox. Among the protagonist in the movement for Indian independence (which he transformed within a decade from a primarily upper-class, small-scale campaign to a mass movement), no one possessed a sophisticated sense of the possibilities and civilizational blind spots of both India and the West – or such a willingness to turn the harsh light of criticism upon his own country (and indeed himself).

Through his capacity to combine homegrown ideas with those from around the world, Gandhi forged, first abroad and then at home, a creative new political philosophy called “satyagraha”, or “truth-force” – a compound of nonviolence, active resistance, and demanding self-scrutiny that was to become part of the basic vocabulary of modern political resistance. He came to it by way of the theories of Tolstoy and Ruskin, as also the Bhagavad Gita. To this day, Gandhi's thought holds a prominent place in the world’s sense of what it means to be Indian (even if its ideals are today under siege in India itself).

South Africa, as many have argued, was the making of Gandhi. The scholar Judith Brown put it well when she wrote, “Gandhi's twenty years in South Africa were not just his apprenticeship as a political mobilizer. They also provided the time and circumstances in which he formulated his attitude to India and the West; and this, far more than his political capacity and experience, was to mark him out on his return to India.”

One might even say Gandhi's travels had ennobled him. Having fought for the cause of Indians in South Africa, many of them Muslim, he could not bring himself to divide Indian society reflexively into Hindus and Muslims, as so many of his companions in the independence movement did explicitly or privately. He sought an independent Indian nation-state that would be home to all the faiths of the subcontinent.

Having grown up reflexively obeying the codes of Hindu social life – including marriage to a child bride – Gandhi returned to India transformed by his experiments in thought and morality. From now on (as we see in his autobiography, one of the twentieth century’s greatest books), he was determined to move the giant edifice of Hinduism back in dialogue – and if necessary in conflict – with the call of the individual conscience. He was eventually to pay the price for this with his life.

What can Indians today learn from Gandhi’s attitude to travel? From the time of Gandhi’s return to India onwards, a great change has come about in the size and character of the Indian diaspora. Indians began to leave the country in ever-greater numbers, on terms more amenable than those of indentured labour; no longer were they resented for their departure, or rejected on their return.

Everywhere they went, they came together to form small replicas of the beloved world they had left behind. Some lapsed into conservatism, nostalgia and a partitioned mental life, while others, like Gandhi, embraced the challenge of refashioning many of their values and beliefs in the light of their new experiences–and often brought the results home. 

The story of the homecoming, more than a hundred years ago, of the greatest overseas Indian in history makes for an eternally resonant parable. As Gandhi proved, sometimes the best way of knowing oneself and one’s civilization is by going away.

A version of this piece was first published in Bloomberg Opinion

Monday, April 25, 2022

On Nico Slate's Gandhi's Search for the Perfect Diet

There are two kinds of people, the saying goes: those who eat to live, and those who live to eat. But over the course of a lifetime, each one of us is perhaps both kinds of person. One could just as easily discern a pattern in which human beings typically eat with a bias toward pleasure, taste, excess and conformity in the first half of their lives, before gradually listing towards seeing food through the prisms of health, nutritional value, novelty, and diversity, as well as dietary questions of a social and political nature and a sense of the importance of tradition in cooking and eating. Hyper-aware and pleasure- virtue-signalling moderns, we are sometimes both these people on the same day.

But whichever way you look at it, our relationship with diet and consumption is profoundly detailed and layered, encompassing our deepest, most primitive instincts, our childhood memories, centuries of culture and tradition, and large social and political crosscurrents. As our relationship to our own bodies and to the world changes over the course of a lifetime, so does our thinking about food.

And modern consumer society makes huge demands on our eating lives — both in the negative sense of continuously presenting us with scores of tempting food choices, many of them unhealthy, that we must discipline ourselves to resist, and in the more positive one of offering us culinary possibilities from the entire world and the chance to grow and learn from the experience of traditions not our own. In England, when I combine in a single morning a visit to Sainsbury’s with the South Asian and East Asian and Caribbean supermarkets, I often come away with the same feeling of gastronomic pleasure and possibility that I did intellectually as a student when I visited the Cambridge University Library (home to a few million books, and therefore all the knowledge acquired by humanity).

But I also find myself asking many questions, as I’m sure you do when you shop for food. Pleasurable though it is to eat, what is the carbon footprint of the Chinese pear or Brazilian mango in my shopping bag? Do microwave meals cut down time in the kitchen and allow harried parents a spot of leisure, or do they help create a convenience culture of culinary illiteracy and dependence on processed food? What food system is better for farmers and food sellers: The highly consolidated, corporatized, imports-oriented model of the West or the much more diversified and localized but disorderly one of India, with its millions of small farmers with a deep relationship to the land but without proper access to (or any power over) markets and often themselves living in food insecurity? With every meal that I put on the table, what ripples in the food universe do I create or participate in?

These questions have acquired a deeper resonance for me since reading Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet, the American scholar Nico Slate’s deep, wise book about the eating life of one of the moral giants of the modern world. Very few people think of Mahatma Gandhi as an authority on food. His emaciated figure seems, if anything, to suggest a lifetime of ignoring the rich and varied culinary delights of the Indian subcontinent. And, of course, he was vegetarian too; he never knew the pleasure of a Lucknowi galouti kabab, a Bengali daab chingri, a Peshawari raan, a Konkani surmai rava fry, or a fiery Kerala crab roast. Sad.

But, as Slate shows, Gandhi was, in his own way, an extremely ambitious eater -- even a peculiar kind of gourmet -- continuously experimenting with new foods and new dietary combinations throughout his life. Although brought up in a strict vegetarian environment, he lived for 25 years of his adult life in vegetarian-unsympathetic England and South Africa, becoming part of the small vegetarian and radical countercultures in these countries (meaning that, even while eating less food than most, he had a more varied and cosmopolitan diet than most).

Food was an integral part of Gandhi’s politics and spirituality. Sometimes he changed his diet to identify with an oppressed community, such as when he started eating mealie pap, a corn porridge that was a staple of the Blacks of South Africa, after first resisting it when given it in jail. When the relationship between sugar, slavery and empire became clear to him, he stopped eating sweets. And when he wanted the people of India to rise up unitedly against the British Raj, he launched an agitation for their right to produce their own salt, a basic necessity of life that was produced and heavily taxed by the state.

A critic of many aspects of modernity, Gandhi also criticized the growing industrialization of food culture. He pointed out that eating highly processed food was not only unhealthy, but that it could also insulate the consumer from inequalities and injustices in the chain of production. The raw food, organic food and local food movements of our time can all find an ally in him.

Gandhi strived all his life for mastery of his palate, believing that gluttony was a symbol of indiscipline and spiritual corruption, not to mention unhealthy and unseemly in a world where so many people do not have enough food to eat. He was highly impressed by those who kept fasts, believing that fasting was not only good for health, but that it also developed self-mastery. Sometimes, Slate points out, his austerity and quest for dietary perfection could become obsessive — almost an egotism of sacrifice and renunciation. Yet he was alive to the social and pleasure-giving power of food and — for someone who ate so little — he gave, or attended, a surprisingly large number of dinner parties.

Most importantly, unlike many food (and other) crusaders of today, Gandhi was not arrogant and inflexible about his moral positions on diet. For such a passionate vegetarian, he was a greatly tolerant one. To those who defended meat-eating, he asked only that they make an effort to eat less meat. “Understanding Gandhi’s diet," writes Slate, "is… to connect two of history’s perennial questions: How to live and what to eat.” It might be hard for ordinary people like you and me to subject their diet to such rigor and moral ambition. But we could all do with inviting Gandhi, metaphorically speaking, to dinner.

And two old posts on The Middle Stage: on Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Gandhi, and on Gandhi's autobiography.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

On Upendranath Ashk's Girti Deevarein

In the novel form’s capacious chest of mysteries, one intriguing phenomenon is the attraction of so many novelists who call themselves realists to protagonists who are anything but. (Of course, they can be “realists” in different senses, but equally, sometimes they are not.) Like all paradoxes, this one too points to an important truth.

From Cervantes onwards, naïve protagonists in fiction, their hearts full of great dreams and noble ideals, believing that a more just world can be realised, often rudely schooled in worldly truths by the cynical, provide a point of view on human nature that eventually unsettles the reader just as much as their fictional milieu unsettles them. Of course, they may come across as purely comic if they, like Don Quixote, refuse to learn anything at all. But equally, should they learn to adapt themselves completely to their circumstances, we sense something tragic about their pragmatism, like that of a parrot that has made peace with living in a cage. And so their education has not been in vain, for even as these characters become more worldly-wise, we feel the need to defend or rescue exactly what they are abandoning. It is a good template for a story...I feel it myself as I write this schema out.

Something like this narrative arc – one says “something” because this 500-page novel is nevertheless only a fragment of a massive, seven-volume story, and much remains to be realized in the “future” of the story – appears in Girti Deevarein (Falling Walls) by Upendranath Ashk. Ashk was one of the leading lights of Hindi literature in the twentieth century, and remains, alongside Premchand and Yashpal, one of the realist Hindi novel’s holy trinity. The Girti Deevarein series was his great novelistic project: the story of five years in the life of a highly sensitive young man that he hoped would also become a portrait of the age.

Here is a writer, therefore, who is no hurry at all. (How was he to know that his first readers in English would be reading him decades later in a time when there is time for nothing, and especially not novels?) For three or four hundred pages, all we are given are the torments of the provincial young protagonist, Chetan, in the town of Jalandhar as he flaps, stumbles, falls, and gets up again, buffeted by the storms of family, education, livelihood, poverty, marriage – and his own questing self, which will not allow him to accept easy answers to his questions, even as it cannot reject the dictates of convention.

Brutalized by a belligerent, hard-drinking father who is nevertheless perfectly secure about his place in the world, Chetan knows he can never become the same kind of man. But has no sense of what kind of man to become instead. He needs time to grow into a place of independence, but meanwhile time is a rope steadily twisting tighter knots around him: a wife who does not represent what he wants in a woman, a job in a newspaper that bears no resemblance to what he seeks from work. He is tormented both by his feelings of towards women who cross his path – most notably his own sister-in-law, Neela – and by his inability to do anything about them. Not having a strong sense of self, he repeatedly places his trust in older men who seem to represent some kind of power or virtue. But each one of these engagements leads him only to a further revelation of “the duplicity of the age.”

Above him, another figure seems to proceed much more serenely: the narrator, building up in painstaking (and occasionally pointless) detail the surfaces and structures of lower middle-class life in undivided Punjab in the nineteen-thirties. We are in a universe of galis and mohallas, charpoys and turbans, thundering patriarchs, downcast mothers, the frames of karma and dharma, the Arya Samaj and the Congress party, a glass of milk before bed and one set of new clothes every year. Men prefer the company of men, women only open up to other women, and both sexes sublimate their unactable yearnings in story or song or silence. Late in the book, at a restaurant in Shimla, we learn that Chetan “tasted salad for the first time in his life” – a novel taste in a world where milk reigns over not just meals but metaphors, and the prevalent theory of parenting holds “that the curses of a mother and father are like drops of milk and ghee.”

Daisy Rockwell, Ashk’s greatly involved and touchingly partisan translator (she has also written a critical biography of the writer, and published a collection of his stories called Hats and Doctors), has elsewhere compared Ashk to Proust. The resemblance is certainly worth contemplating. Both writers wrote a seven-volume novel sequence that remained unfinished; the theme of In Search of Lost Time is also the development of a nervous and questing young man into an artist; and both protagonists return obsessively to the fevered climate of their childhoods.

But the fundamental difference between the two writers is that Proust’s story is told in the first person by the protagonist, who by the force and beauty and peculiarity of his obsessions succeeds in converting us to his poetic vision of reality, while Ashk’s narrator shows us Chetan from the outside as the prisoner of his circumstances, and reality in Ashk’s world remains stubbornly prosaic and mean. The workings of memory are central to the narrative method of both writers. But the dozens of flashbacks into Chetan’s childhood in Girti Deevarein reveal not just of a character who seeks refuge from his own present, but also a writer wrestling with his own rather rudimentary technique and generating more mass than meaning.

About a hundred pages from the end, though, the writing suddenly takes wing, and Chetan’s difficulties with the world suddenly begin to be marked by insight rather than incoherence. Glimmering observations begin to appear about the relationship between art and life, self and society, religion and morality. Trying, for instance, to compare the boy Chetan’s genuine love of nature with the adult Chetan’s equally genuine love of art, the narrator observes that “with art, he found what he couldn’t attain in nature: self-expression” and that “Art is really the daughter of nature.”

The story builds up to a devastating denouement. After having meditated for long upon his discontents, Chetan decides that he is at fault for the emotional distance between him and his wife. He resolves to make a genuine effort to scale the wall of gender difference so deeply built into marriage by tradition, and make his wife not his slave but his friend.

Just then, though, comes the news that Neela, his sister-in-law, is about to be married off at a very young age. And Chetan remembers that it was he himself who, having nearly committed a misdemeanour with Neela, had advised her father to have her married off and in so doing, congratulated himself on his own powers of restraint.

Now, attending the wedding, he sees that the girl is being married off to a well-off, well-over-the -hill widower. Yearning for a genuine soulmate himself, he has just ensured that another human being will forever be denied one. Yet again Chetan feels hapless, but there is a difference: he feels hapless for the sake of someone else. And in the same breath he ceases to lie to himself.
The naked truth appeared before him. He was in love with Neela. Despite a year and a half of married life, he loved her….Intelligence, religion, morality, society, marriage – all those walls which in reality had kept his desire hidden from him had fallen in his imagination.
Watching these walls fall so dramatically, one moves from asking more of Ashk to asking for more Ashk.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

A new book: My Country Is Literature

I have a new book out this month: My Country Is Literature — a book of literary essays, some of them first published here on the Middle Stage. It is published by Simon & Schuster, and has over 60 essays on writers and books (including a great many Indian novelists from across the history of the Indian novel) and a long introduction, "The Books of My Twenties, or, How I Became A Literary Critic," that is a memoir of my life in book-reviewing.

Two excerpts from it — one, a passage about the relationship of literary criticism to the essay and of the novel to life, and two, some memories of my father, who taught me to love books and to treasure libraries — are here and here. Here is a paragraph from it:

A book is only one text, but it is many books. It is a different book for each of its readers. My Anna Karenina is not your Anna Karenina; your A House for Mr Biswas is not the one on my shelf. When we think of a favourite book, we recall not only the shape of the story, the characters who touched our hearts, the rhythm and texture of the sentences. We recall our own circumstances when we read it: where we bought it (and for how much), what kind of joy or solace it provided, how scenes from the story began to intermingle with scenes from our life, how it roused us to anger or indignation or allowed us to make our peace with some great private discord. This is the second life of the book: its life in our life.

It's a book about all the pleasures and glories of being a reader and trawling the boundless seas of literature. If you know of someone, especially a young person, who loves books, please present them a copy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Shakti Maira and the Promise of Beauty

"Saundarya drishti – an eye, a sense, an instinct for beauty – is a quality naturally available to every human being.”

The painter and sculptor Shakti Maira reclines in an armchair, and in a patch of morning sunlight, in his family home on a quiet, tree-lined street in Delhi’s Greater Kailash I. “And further, the experience of beauty is such a vital part of the human sense of well-being. Sadly, we have become so acculturated today to the idea that well-being is basically economic. And the idea of beauty has become mainly about looking good, or at the most about visual experience. Today we are constantly taking in-breaths in our lives…and I’m not sure that the experience of beauty is possible without the capacity to take out-breaths.” 

As Maira looks around the room, it is not difficult to see the beauty in him. In profile, his head and broad shoulders radiate the nobility and classical proportions of a Greek bust from antiquity – an effect only accentuated when his serene gaze trains itself back onto you. During our conversation he frequently takes my name, as if to emphasize that, even if he is doing most of the speaking, this is a dialogue. His use of a meditation metaphor reveals the basic ground of his thought; his widely admired art is intensely focussed on ideas of inner harmony and balance. His smile is mischievous, but underneath it there is something enigmatic that reminds one of the face of the Buddha. This is only his temporary residence – his mother, who lives on the ground floor, is 95 and he wants to be near her – but it is lined with beautiful objects, including many made with his own hands, such as his distinctive long human figurines in wood and metal. (“When I think of human beings I see them as feeling, perceiving, imagining creatures, but deeply rooted in the earth. That may be why their bodies look like the trunks of trees.”).

Beauty, clearly, has never been far from Maira’s thoughts. At 70, he has lived many lives – including two decades in corporate life in America before returning to Delhi at the turn of the century – and has won accolades for both his painting and his sculpture, not to mention a book about aesthetic experience and spirituality called Ananda.

His new book, The Promise of Beauty, is notable for being both an emphatic act of assertion and a graceful gesture of self-effacement. Although there are in it dozens of pages of vivid, magisterial writing on the meaning and experience and history of beauty – Maira belongs to that line of protean Indian fine artists who are as comfortable with words as with paint and wood – the bulk of the book is devoted to a set of eighteen long conversations. A cast of eminent scientists and philosophers, poets and painters, dancers and ecologists, architects and politicians are engaged by Maira on the subject of beauty: how and why we experience it, and what it can and should mean to us. 

Most Indian readers will know some of the names in the book – Muzaffar Ali, perhaps, or Vandana Shiva – but the range of the cast and the continuum of science, art, economics and ecology along which the subject is explored will surely be a surprise. If our instinct for beauty is innate, Maira asks, to what extent can it be further trained? Are ideas of beauty cultural constructs, or are some things universally beautiful? Is beauty a static or a dynamic state, a state of balance or of sublime disruption? Are there many dimensions and planes to beauty – sensual, intellectual, spiritual – and how might we climb this ladder of beauty? Is the experience of beauty confined to human beings, or might animals, too, have a sense of aesthetic delight? When we experience something beautiful, what exactly is going on in the brain and what can modern neuroscience tell us about it? What are the aesthetic theories of India and how do they compare to those of the West? Is the world of economics and the active enemy of a beauty-centred existence, or can there be an economics rooted in respect for beauty? Must beauty have any place in policy-making? Why are the modern fine arts so suspicious of beauty? If our experience of beauty is closely tied to the quality of attention we bring to songs, paintings, or people, doesn’t beauty lead out naturally to ideas of responsibility and care? Are beauty, truth and goodness inextricably linked, or can each of these exist without the other?

Maira’s interlocutors are clearly provoked and delighted by these questions, for they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the dance he proposes. The biologist Pushpa Mitta Bhargava wonders if we find some forms in nature especially beautiful because we ourselves are part of the world of such forms (something we often forget in our sense of separateness from the world produced by the alienating sophistication of our consciousness, itself an object of beauty in its own right). The scientist Rupert Sheldrake dwells on the beauty of flowers and fruits from a evolutionary perspective – they are beautiful in order to attract pollinators – and riffs on the idea of beauty as a web of interconnected relationships, an idea echoed by the poet Ruth Padel when she speaks of humans as “membraneous beings” who are constantly navigating between what is inside and outside them. 

These are magnificent, memorable encounters: the more that people say on the subject, the more, it seems, there is left to say. The philosopher Roger Scruton compares the bliss of beauty to the experience of love – “It wells within us but is directed outwards and involves a self-giving of the person who feels it.” The architect Gautam Bhatia ruminates on why modern Indian cities are so ugly when the older facades amidst them are so much more harmonious, and what contours a new imagination of the beautiful Indian city might have. The filmmaker Muzaffar Ali describes the vision of beauty at the core of Sufism (“Beauty, especially in Sufism, is a continuous battle between the visible and the invisible”). It’s like a one-book literary festival on one of the richest and deepest of human themes, with Maira playing the role of a shrewd and sagacious Master of Ceremonies.

The conversation is not all amiable: Maira’s interlocutors resist or elude him, too, which friction generates productive channels of its own. Padel rejects his attempt to give beauty a very transcendent, even salvific, status in human affairs, allowing for nothing more ambitious than “Beauty is a working okayness.” The painter Anjolie Ela Menon finds Maira’s vision of beauty as gladness, well-being and balance somewhat underwhelming, pointing out that at the pinnacle of beauty, “there is ecstasy” – the ecstasy, for instance, of love-making, which has no connection with making the world a better place or the lovers more truthful people. 

The Promise of Beauty is idiosyncratically written: after every two or three chapters, Maira pauses to take stock on the advances that have been made, and to draw together some of the strands of what has been said with his own thinking on beauty. “Beauty is more than a concept,” he writes, “and is best taught through lived experiences of mind and body.” Some of the best moments in the book are when takes us into such experiences of his own. There is the state of alertness, wonder and centeredness that comes with the casting of a bowl in a pottery studio. And the devastating and yet cleansing experience of releasing the ashes of his 26-year-old son into the waters of the Ganga, and then, a year later, of taking up some clay from the banks of the same river, further downstream, to use on a canvas – an experience that leads organically to “a renewed wholeness” as life, time, and art form ever-new patterns and combinations.

“I would say that my life has been and continues to be blessed by beauty,” Maira writes in the book’s concluding pages. But while there is much beauty to be found in the world, “my most profound experiences of beauty have come in meditative quietening, when I have found access to the mind’s inherent spaciousness, its light, peace and well-being.”

Maira’s overall diagnosis, his sense that there is something profoundly out of joint in our world today, is, I think, correct. For all the freedoms and energies and aspirations released by post-liberalization India, there is today in our civilization also a crisis of beauty.  We are harrowed by the chaos and violence and pollution of the city without being able to change anything about it, bemused by our own unending gush of material needs that thrill to the invitations everywhere to indulge them, out of touch with the continuity and consolation of traditional Indian forms, and diminished by our inability to pay close and sustained attention to anything by the white noise of our smartphone lives. 

If we were to pause and “allow our instinct for beauty to become more manifest in our lives,” he believes, we would be able to make a new compact with ourselves and each other. “To live in beauty might be a good working definition of a happy and healthy life at all levels of existence.”

Friday, January 01, 2021

On Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Birth of a Dream Weaver

Have the pleasure and power that a BA in English can confer on a human being ever been described more movingly and inspiringly than in Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s
Birth of a Dream Weaver? The new book by the great Kenyan novelist and playwright, now 78 and a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, is the last of a trilogy of memoirs he has published this decade. 

The story of his years at university, it can quite profitably be read on its own as the account of the ripening of a writer’s artistic consciousness. But for the full force of its revelations, ironies, and moral and literary cruxes, one should first take in its predecessors, Dreams In A Time of War (childhood) and In The House of the Interpreter (adolescence).

In those books, we saw the boy Ngugi growing up amongst a vast brood of siblings in the large, raucous rural homestead of his father, a goat-herder – and then suddenly being cast out when his mother, one of four wives, flees to her own father’s home after being beaten by her husband. We are in the nineteen-forties. The world is at war, and Kenya is an impoverished colony of Britain, with a nascent freedom struggle masterminded by an outlawed group called the Land and Freedom Movement, or the Mau Mau. 

The young boy is poor, powerless and often hungry, the captive of a present “born of the power plays of the past”. He takes refuge from history in the consoling power of stories, including those narrated by a blind half-sister, Wabia. Although illiterate and a single parent, Ngugi’s peasant mother has many dreams for her son. When the boy wants to go to school, she makes a pact with him. She will find the money as long as he agrees “to always give his best”. This refrain echoes through the books, setting up the sense of a private ethic – the idea that one is answerable to oneself even more than one is to the world – that overrides worldly standards. 

Having excelled at his studies, Ngugi wins a place at an elite boarding school, Alliance. He wears shoes for the first time and goes forth into the world. The ironies multiply: the arbitrary depredations of colonial rule menace Ngugi’s every dream, but it a school run by Christian missionaries that provides him a physical and intellectual sanctuary from the strife of the larger world. English books give him a sense of the power of literature and the imagination, but English is also the language in which the colonisers assert their power and stereotype the native as a primitive, not much better than a beast. 

Now, in Birth of a Dream Weaver, the steadily expanding frames in the story of both mind and world reach an apotheosis. Innocence is no longer a virtue, or a crutch to hold on to. Ngugi is in his early twenties and has won a scholarship to Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, the most famous educational institution in East Africa. The sense of a divided self remains. The railways in Africa were set up for the exploitation of the continent’s natural wealth. Even in taking a train to Kampala, “I was benefiting from a history that had come to negate my history”.

But even so, Ngugi is now in a position to fight for his own side of history. Once a passive watcher of events in the world (“In my mind, political actors had always appeared as fictional characters”), he is now part of the intellectual elite of his generation. All around him, decolonization movements are changing the old world order; he looks up from his book to “the rise of new flags” and throws himself into passionate debates about race, religion, politics, language and literature. 

Ngugi decides he wants to become a novelist, and is persuaded by his peers to become a playwright to dramatize the burning debates of the day. His work as an artist brings a new thrill and tension to the interplay in these books between the worlds, not always antithetical to one another, of “history” and “story”. When a contract for his first novel arrives in the post from a London publisher, Ngugi is over the moon. 

Meanwhile, back in his native Kenya, the independence movement delivers the country back to its people. Ngugi leaves university both a free man – in the sense of having become an thinker who has transcended his limited origins – and the citizen of a free country. Even so, the book ends on an unusually pessimistic note, with dark forebodings of the crises to come: the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi (under whose regime Ngugi would later be thrown into prison) and the sense that colonialism had, even in departing the scene physically, left its tentacles in Africa. The face of the young man slips away, replaced by that of a disappointed 78-year-old.

None of that will distract the reader, though, from the central emphases of these books: their unflinching faith in education and in the power of literature to liberate the imagination and ground the moral sense. Indeed, it’s hard to think of another living writer today – Orhan Pamuk, perhaps – who speaks so inspiringly and convincingly about the values of literature. For some years now, Ngugi has been spoken of as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize. The publication of this riveting story of “how the herdsboy, child labourer and high school dreamer…became a weaver of dreams” makes this an ideal year to give Ngugi wa Thiong’o his due.

And some other old posts on the Middle Stage on autobiographies: "The acid thoughts of Sasthi Brata", "On Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography My Experiments With Truth", "On the memoirs of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan", and "On Muhammad Yunus's autobiography Banker to the Poor".

A slightly different version of this essay appeared in the Washington Post.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

On Boyd Tonkin's The 100 Best Novels In Translation

Over the last 400 years, the novel has become the pre-eminent prose storytelling form around the world: a torch that passes from country to country, language to language, lighting new fires of story everywhere and finding, or making, new audiences. It follows, then, nobody counts as a serious reader of novels who does not read novels in translation.

Many of our great novel-reading experiences are actually the result of the work of two artists, not one. How would we know Chekhov in English without Constance Garnett, Proust without CK Scott-Moncrieff, Garcia Marquez without Gregory Rabassa? How would the Arab novel have travelled to Anglophone shores without the pioneering work of Denys Johnson-Davies? As the British literary critic Boyd Tonkin argues in his exciting new book The 100 Best Novels in Translation, translators are the great travel agents and bridge-builders of the novel form, allowing books written in one language to be read – with pleasure approximating the experience of the original – by readers in many others. 

Since no one language or country has a monopoly on novelistic excellence, every reader knows a majority of his or her favourite novelists in the words fashioned by their translators. In fact, without translators to give them new material to feed on, even novelists would be stuck with models solely from their own linguistic tradition. Unsung, often even unnamed, translators are the silent heroes of literature. 

And although the Anglophone world is extremely rich in translators, a sad consequence of the spread of English and of monoglot culture has been the marginalization of works in translation. But here comes Tonkin to remedy that. For many years the literary editor of the British newspaper The Independent, Tonkin has always been a committed proponent, in a literary culture all too often unconsciously insular, of the pleasure and power of the cosmopolitan tradition of the novel and the translators that make it come alive. Uniquely, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, an annual prize he helped found, awarded its prize money equally to author and translator. 

Now he presses his decades of reading world literature into a literary panorama of great geographical sweep and intellectual charge, making a list of his favourite novels in translation across 400 years, from Cervantes to Balzac, Mario Vargas Llosa to Orhan Pamuk (one of the rules of the game is that no author is allowed more than one book). Here is a book that makes a hundred other books come alive. 

In fact more than a hundred, as Tonkin often points to more than one translation of a novel, pointing to the relative merits of each in a way that might disconcert those readers who want him to recommend “the best translation”. Certainly, many versions exist of the first book on the list, Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605), “the acknowledged pattern-book or seed-bank which germinates every branch of Western fiction”. But if Tonkin is to be taken at his word, Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation is the most readable of them all and the most faithful to Cervantes’s style.

For all those of us who loved novels in our youth but have sacrificed their pleasures to the demands of family, work, and social media, here is a book to make you fall in love all over again. In almost every essay, Tonkin says something illuminating and memorable.In Marcel Proust’s great novel sequence In Search of Lost Time, “Not quite all human life is here. All human feeling is.” In his essay on Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, he gets to the heart of what has made the novel such a good traveller when he says that the books “enact a dialogue between Egyptian ways of being and European ways of knowing.” 

Each essay has many wonderful quotations from the books themselves, allowing the reader direct access to the novelist’s style and sensibility. How I wish I’d had this book when I was a literature student 15 years ago. It would have saved me so much work.

Tonkin is at his most revelatory in his selections from 17th and 18th century novels, ands then again in the final decades of the twentieth century. I only found him somewhat limited – and more than a touch Eurocentric – in the middle. The core of his list is made up of novels from between 1920 and 1960. Here there are too many predictable choices – and too many men. I’m not convinced that Sartre, Camus, and Mann are as essential as Tonkin thinks. And there are a host of great Italian writers (Buzzati, Pavese, Bassini, Svevo) whom one might also consider not indispensable, especially when one sees there are so few novels from the Indian subcontinent (two), Africa, or the Arab world. 

Tonkin is too hung up, one might say, on European ways of knowing European ways of being. A cosmopolitan literary critic brought up in Delhi, Rio or Cairo would probably add many exciting novelists to such a list (Gopinath Mohanty, Jorge Amado, Nawal el-Saadawi, Malika Mokkedem) while still covering the great European tradition. But this is a small cavil at a large and generous project. As Tonkin shows, we are living in a great age of translation, with many of the great classics of old also being presented in exciting new versions. (“Translations, notoriously, age faster than their originals.”) We need people like Tonkin to bring the big picture into focus – and to allow us to refocus it to make big pictures of our own. 

A version of this piece first appeared in The National.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

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 may have taken place, but it is never finished: it remains a dynamic entity, capable (like memory) of generating new meanings. 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, and so different histories ebb and fade in conjunction with the needs and preoccupations of the present. 

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 Ramayana, that of Ashoka to the medieval Kashmiri historian Kalhana. Even in her late eighties, she is still very much a vivid and forceful presence on the Indian intellectual scene – not least of because 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 a 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 worldview – 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 Ramayana 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 fifty years as it has attempted to interpret themes and events that take place over a span of at least five thousand 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?

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 onto the distant Indian past, therefore, becomes text-based Sanskritic Hinduism. The actual practice of 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 Ramayana, for instance, may have behind them the literary impulse of inciting wonder and awe in the reader. Similarly, is 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 eighteenth 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. 

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 nonhuman histories focussed 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 in 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.

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 make.

An excerpt from Talking History is here.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Naguib Mahfouz and the truths of the Novel

Akhenaten, an Egyptian pharaoh, also called the 'Sun King' or the 'heretic', ruled briefly in Egypt more than three thousand years ago. Akhenaten's peculiar appearance, as if part man and part woman, his inscrutable ways, and the wrenching changes he ushered into the life of his kingdom – shortly after coming to the throne, he overthrew Egypt's traditional polytheism and decreed the worship of a single god, the sun god Aten – brought him a notoriety that secured his place in history, where he still floats untethered to a line of interpretation, a ghostly figure now perennially shrouded in ambiguity. 

Akhenaten's story nevertheless carries a certain resonance for all who hear it, because it serves as an archetype of a conflict that is one of the threads running through the history of civilization: the conflict between religion and freedom. It is a story remote in time that links the present to our past. Further, "truth" is one of the keywords of human language and consciousness and is at the centre of every human quest; a narrator who in the very title of his story declares that his protagonist is a "dweller in truth" suggests to us that, whether he is being ironic or sincere, there will be much to learn in the story about what truth is and how we may arrive at it (or the impossibility of ever achieving it). The legend of Akhenaten is explored, and indeed enriched (because presented in a way that brings into being before our very eyes the mystery that was Akhenaten, and also given a thematic direction, a focus on one or two repeated words that is one of the ways in which novels are most truly novelistic), by the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz in his slender, glancing novel Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth.

Mahfouz's story is narrated from a vantage point relatively close in time to Akhenaten, through the eyes of a character who grew up in Akhenaten's Egypt, Meriamun, who becomes a second protagonist. We are not told Meriamun's exact age, but his thoughts and his language suggest he is in his early twenties, somewhat unformed, and hungry for experience. On a journey down the Nile with his father, himself a venerable man with 'a passion for knowledge and for recording the truth', Meriamun espies on the river a gloomy and deserted city which he learns is Akhetaten, the dead pharaoh's capital, where his wife and consort Nefertiti still lives in isolation. "It all began with a glance, a glance that grew into desire, as the ship pushed its way through the calm, strong current at the end of the flood season." 

Meriamun's father calls Akhenaten 'the heretic,' but Meriamun is struck by the pharaoh's story, and senses a suffocating narrowness in the verdict that history has passed upon him. He quotes to his father a saying by Qaqimna, a sage they both respect: "Pass no judgment upon a matter until you have heard all testimonies." Many of Akhenaten's friends, family members, and followers are still alive, and Meriamun's father is an influential man and can get them to open their doors to him. With his father's approval ("Your forefathers sought war, politics, or trade, but you, Meriamun, you seek the truth instead"), Meriamun sets out to meet all those who knew Akhenaten, and, as Qaqimna instructed, hear all testimonies.

Akhenaten is dead; each person that Meriamun meets tells him about the Akhenaten they knew. A basic framework of facts is established. Akhenaten's mother, Tiye, came from a commoner's family. Having married the pharaoh Amenhotep III, she then exerted great influence over the royal household. Akhenaten's name at birth was Amenhotep, like his father; it was only later, whe he came to the throne, that he changed it to Akhenaten. He was frail and feeble from birth, but when he and his healthier brother, Tuthmosis, contracted the same illness, it was Tuthmosis who succumbed to it and Akhenaten who survived. While he was growing up Akhenaten, although the heir-in-waiting, showed no interest in matters of government. Rather, his interest lay in spiritual matters: Ay, his tutor in his youth, recalls that it seemed to him that he was born 'with some otherworldly wisdom.' Before Akhenaten came to the throne Queen Tiye had already declared her veneration of Aten, the Sun God, in preference to Amun, the master of all the deities in Egypt. As he grew mature, Akhenaten too began to believe in the preeminence of Aten. One morning, while watching the sun rise, he had a religious vision that affected him profoundly, and became convinced that the truth had been revealed to him – the truth that there was only one God, Aten. He resolved thereafter only to 'dwell in truth,' and walk the path of love and non-violence, and though the pharaoh tried his best to draw him away from these beliefs, he remained stubborn.

One of Ay's two daughters, Nefertiti, was drawn to the prince and his beliefs, and they fell in love and were married. When the pharaoh passed away suddenly, his son came to the throne, upon which he changed his name to Akhenaten, and immediately set about purging Egypt of its plural religious traditions by decree, declaring that there was only one god, Aten. He toured his empire preaching the new religion and proclaiming the message of love, and set up a new capital, Akhetaten, where he lived with Nefertiti and his closest followers and gave himself over to devotion. But there remained a disenchanted faction in the country, followers of the old beliefs and the old order. At the same time the country's enemies pressed in at its borders, sensing an opportunity to invade it. But Akhenaten refused to send an army to the country's borders, saying he would confront the intruders himself with his message of peace. Finally Akhenaten's chief of security, Haremhab, rebelled and declared his allegiance to a new pharaoh, Akhenaten's half-brother,Tutankhamun. Akhentaten was deposed and put under house arrest, his capital was emptied of his followers, and the country successfully defended by the new regime. Egypt returned to its old traditions, and Akhenaten passed away soon after. The official reason for his death, a sudden illness, was contested by his wife, who continued to reside in the deserted capital, and his followers. The aberrant monotheistic religion dedicated to the sun god Aten died a swift death after the pharaoh's passing away, and Akhenaten became established as a heretic in public memory.

These are the facts: now what is the truth? As Meriamun covers the territory of Akhenaten's life over and over again with the people he meets, he encounters a swarm of different narratives of Akhenaten's life, each with its own particular emphasis: psychological explanations of his behaviour, speculations that he was a puppet in the hands of his mother or his wife, providential readings of history, accounts in which he seems remote and otherworldly contrasting with those in which he seems all too human, assertions that he was foolishly or tragically deluded milling with those that he was in possession of a higher truth and hence a martyr.

Although the characters, who between them comprised the milieu in which Akhenaten walked, variously express anger, love, warmth, sadness, or bitterness, few, if any, speak complacently, as if confident of possession of the whole truth: they are aware that what they express is an account of a relationship, not a one-way stream of knowledge about the life of a man. The novel suggests that when we seek to establish something definite about human beings, we must resign ourselves to approaching only the threshold of truth, and not totally comprehending it: firstly, because we ourselves are implicated in the search, and bring to it either beliefs or perspectives that are our own and that we cannot quite lay by, and secondly because, even if we have had an opportunity to know the person closely or even intimately, and feel confident of a wide understanding and therefore a kind of objectivity, there is nevertheless still something about that person that we do not know about or is hidden from us – several people make some individual observation about Akhenaten that we could consider of importance, but that others close to him seem not to know.

Nevertheless, the novel is not pessimistic about our desire to know the truth, our belief that we can ascend to the truth through effort. It does not regard Meriamun's 'desire to know the truth' cynically, but rather shows him arriving a more complex conception of it. In fact, something of what Meriamun will eventually understand is hinted at early in the novel in his words to his father asking for letters of introduction to all those who knew Akhenaten and have something of importance to say about him: "Then I could see the many facets of truth before it perishes like this city." Truth here is not seen as something easily achieved or formulated; it has many facets, each of which must be discovered, after which it may not be further reducible. Also, it is significant that Meriamun speaks of the many facets of truth before 'it perishes' and not 'they perish': it is as if when even one facet of the truth is lost then the truth itself stands imperilled. Meriamun wants to take advantage of his historical proximity to the dead pharaoh to grasp the many faces of the truth before they begin to ebb away one by one, leaving behind a thinner, a more famished 'truth' – for instance, the current understanding of Akhenaten as a heretic.

But it is not Meriamun only, in this novel, who is preoccupied with the idea of the truth. For that word was also the most important word in the whole world for Akhenaten, who believed he was a ‘dweller in truth.'  The novel achieves its charge through the interplay and contrast of these two conceptions of truth, which we might call the truth of reason and the truth of religion or faith, a truth that prizes skepticism and one that resides in belief. We note the differing ways in which the two protagonists speak of the subject: Meriamun is a seeker of truth; Akhenaten, a dweller in truth. And through this contrast Mahfouz thrusts us onto rocky ground: is it possible to make some judgment of the truth about Akhenaten without first making a judgment of Akhenaten's 'truth' – the vision that came to him and which he codified into a religious system and propagated as the only true way of knowing God? From what standpoint can one make such a judgment?

The novel form, which is itself a product of the waning of religious belief in the world, has sometimes found this judgment easy; it is a form skeptical of absolutes, and for believers religion is an absolute. But the great beauty of Mahfouz's novel is that it allows us to enter and inhabit not just the universe of Meriamun's worldly truth but also that of Akhenaten's otherworldly truth. For Akhenaten's opponents his religion was a sham religion, the result of his hallucinations or else a piece of deliberate trickery; Toto, the chief epistoler in Akhenaten's chamber, thinks it 'the shrewdness of a man humiliated by his own weakness.' But these judgments are destabilised by the tutor Ay, who noticed the young Akhenaten's religious bent; by his wife Nefertiti, who confesses she was drawn to his beliefs 'as a butterfly is drawn to light,' and by the pharaoh's aged physician Bento, who was skeptical of his vision at first but then became a believer, and helped set up his capital at Akhenaten. Akhenaten's followers convincingly describe the ecstasy, the paradoxical wholeness of being that arrives from surrendering before the divine that, if at all we admit of the authority of religion, we know as being one of the authentic experiences of faith. "Every morning I compared what I heard in the temple of the One God to the liturgy of the old gods," recounts Bento. "I became certain beyond doubt that a stream of divine light was filling us with pure happiness. [...] Today, Akhenaten is known only as 'the heretic.' But despite all that was said about him, my heart still fills with love at the mention of his name. What a life he created for himself! Did he really devote his life to love?"

There is a polyphony, then, in Mahfouz's novel similar to the one we find in The Brothers Karamazov. Difficult matters are not resolved but addressed so compellingly from different angles as to give us a true sense of their difficulty. (It could be said that the novel's striking last paragraph is indeed a kind of resolution, but it is a private one, not to be generally applied.) Since no final judgment is passed on Akhenaten from the evidence Meriamun has compiled, one attitude towards Mahfouz's novel might be that Mahfouz has left it to us to make a judgment about Akhenaten. But this is to flatter ourselves. The novel is complete without the reader – complete with respect to the complexity and elusiveness of its subject, and also complete in the manner in which it is all-seeing, in the way in which it manages a omniscient, magisterial presence through nothing more than juxtapositions: of narrator and subject, and of different testimonies. Mahfouz’s narrative method reminds us of “the calm, strong current” with which the book began; he does not press a reductive idea of the truth upon us, and in doing so reveals the truths that only novels can show us.

A lovely essay by Peter Hessler on Akhenaten is here on National Geographic. Mahfouz's Nobel lecture is here ("One day the great Pyramid will disappear too. But Truth and Justice will remain for as long as Mankind has a ruminative mind and a living conscience.").