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.").

Monday, April 20, 2020

Gopinath Mohanty's Immortal Indians


Is there another Indian novelist whose books contain, not just so many beautiful sentences, but so many different kinds of beautiful sentences, as those of Gopinath Mohanty (1914-1991)? No Indian novelist is as consistently and meaningfully melodious as him, and with no one else’s material does the reader feel such a strong sense – very hard to achieve in novelistic prose – of the concentration and economy of music. Most thrillingly, when one reads Mohanty’s great novels of tribal life in Odisha, one realizes that the notes he summons derive not just not from his own feeling nature, but from his material: the pleasure and danger of the forest, the proximity and capriciousness of the gods, and the elemental beat and spark of the life-force itself.

Thankfully, the impact of Mohanty’s stylistic dexterity and felicity in Odia shine through even in translation – or have been made to do so by some very painstaking and adept translators. Amrutara Santana, published by Sahitya Akademi in a translation by the Odia scholars and professors of English literature, (the late) Bidhubhusan Das and Prabhat Nalini Das, as The Dynasty of the Immortals, is one of two great novels about Odia tribal life written by Mohanty in his youth. The other is Paraja, which appeared almost thirty years ago in an excellent translation by Bikram Das.

Mohanty’s engagement with the tribals of Odisha began fairly early in life. As a young bureaucrat enlisted in the Odisha Administrative Service in the years just before independence, he lived in distant outposts in the district of Koraput, then, as now, one of India’s poorest regions. But when the young city boy with an MA in English Literature came into contact with people whom those of the social order to which he belonged thought of as primitive, simple-minded hillmen, he found in them a beauty and integrity, a generosity of spirit and a animistic empathy, a love of song and story that cried out to be enshrined in words.

But the tribals were also the “other” of mainstream Indian civilization, relentlessly patronised and exploited, destined to be on the wrong side of history even when India rid itself of its colonial masters. (“The Kandha,” Mohanty writes presciently, “is to be found wherever the forest is. However, once the forest is opened up, the Kandha is evicted from his land.”) Like his contemporary Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay in Bengal with his forest novel Aranyak, Mohanty set out to describe both the rapture and the tragedy of this other way of life. But unlike Bandyopadhyay, he chose to do so from the point of view of the forest-dwellers themselves.

Readers of Paraja, about the tribe by that name, will immediately recognise the feel and force of the limber, capacious, almost centreless point of view in Dynasty of Immortals, about a group of Kandha tribals in a group of isolated, impoverished villages (“Here, humankind did not get anything from nature without a struggle”) in the Eastern Ghats. The narration ricochets continuously from the intimate and the domestic to the wide-angle and the cosmic, from the narrator’s almost ethnographic observations about the Kandhas to a tracking of the minds of diverse characters that unspools for us the same worldview from the inside. Mohanty’s translators find short and long, shapely and broken, sentences that capture the many shades of light and dark, the many intricate subtleties, that he conjures up.

Mohanty’s distinctive narrative method adds to the feeling of extreme intensity and compression: in tightly sculpted and focussed chapters no more than five or six pages long, written almost as short stories, we are hit by wave after wave of powerful feeling. But the jolt in this case is not just aesthetic, but – in Mohanty’s time and in our own – political. Mohanty’s ecstatic style is an instrument precisely designed to reveal the beauties of the way of life of his forest-dwelling protagonists.

Out here in the forest, distinctions between the human and the animal realm, the world of human artifacts and that of nature, the living and the dead, seem to be much more blurred than in modern industrial society. We sense this right from in the opening chapters of Dynasty, when the man who appears to be the protagonist of the story, the elderly village headman Sarabu Saonta, collapses and dies; nevertheless, his presence echoes across the 600 pages that follow. “Sarabu Saonta loved this earth,” we read. “He did not know how to love with discrimination. Life was truth, beauty; let the old body be destroyed, he would be reborn in this beautiful land.”

After Sarabu dies, his son Diudu, daughter Pubuli, and daughter-in-law Puyu are left to carry on all the rituals and reveries of their realm: the forbidding and enchanting forest, with its light and shade, cooing birds and hungry tigers.  In one scene, reminiscent of the story of the killing of the male krauncha bird and the grieving sounds of its mate that inspired Valmiki to invent the shloka meter of the Ramayana, Diudu kills a bird on a hunt and, reaching it as it lies thrashing on the ground, thinks he sees a cloud rising in the pupils of its eyes as it expires—an astonishing image. There are other thrilling hunting scenes, in which the contrasting energies of human social dynamics and violence towards beasts are mingled as expertly as Leo Tolstoy did in Anna Karenina (Mohanty was a voracious and cosmopolitan reader and even translated War And Peace into Odia).  

In choosing characters who approach the business of living with such rapture and intensity, Mohanty reminds one of other twentieth-century artists and philosophers who, in an ideological age, have resisted the reduction of life to any system – people like the French film-maker Jacques Becker, who declared, “In my work I don’t want to prove anything except that life is stronger than everything else”, or the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, who after being incarcerated in prison comes to the paradoxical realization that “the meaning of life is life itself.”

The forest is the realm not just of food-gathering, of the hunt, but also of love, the place where human beings succumb to “the instinct of eternal nature”. It is the place, in other words – and this is where Mohanty’s focus on a very particular social world at a particular historical moment acquires a universal resonance – where man and woman become Man and Woman, carrying on the eternal dance of life and creation.

Repeatedly in Mohanty’s novels, we are given this sense of what one might call deep time, the sense of an archetype playing itself out repeatedly across the centuries. The young people falling in love for the first time thrill to this new emotion; the storyteller, meanwhile, thrills to the sense of the very same figures becoming indistinct, bringing the past to life within the folds of the present. “Then the dialogue of Kandha courtship through question and answer ensued, the exchange of words from time immemorial; thousands of years had rolled by in the formulation of such exchanges.” For his characters the link to the past is not a matter of the historical record but rather an imaginative one rooted in a feeling for nature and the cosmos; it is in this sense that the tribals with their short life-spans and many hardships are nonetheless “the dynasty of the immortals”.

In 1953, a letter of complaint arrived at the office of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, sent to him by the land-owners and moneylenders who comprised the elite of Koraput. The letter said (I take this from an essay about Mohanty written by the critic JM Mohanty) – “To our great calamity and disaster Sri Gopinath Mohanty is posted here as the special assistant agent at Rayagada. He is always fond of hillmen and behaves like hillmen himself. He very little respects other classes of people before them. He behaves as if only born for Adivasis."

Perhaps the letter had an unintended effect. When the Sahitya Akademi was founded in 1954 to award literary achievement in the 24 major languages of India, Amrutara Santana was judged the first-ever winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for Odia literature. It has taken sixty years to produce a worthy translation in English (marred, sadly, by the terrible layout and copy-editing that has unfortunately come to be the general standard for Akademi publications). The wait, though, has not been in vain. Mohanty’s ecstatic vision, shot through with light and dark, sings here on every page. In time, the world will grant that this contemporary of Garcia Marquez and Vasily Grossman had a vision of life no less original and enduring than them. But for now, let at least us Indian readers ignore no more this marvellous hillman standing at our very own doorstep.  

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.