Monday, June 27, 2005

Casanova and the good life

Relatively few words in the English language have their origins in some personage from history. One such is casanova, a word now used to describe a smooth-talking pursuer of women or a philanderer, which derives directly from the name of the eighteenth-century Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova, one of the most legendary lovers of all time.

But while Casanova's name has entered our general vocabulary for good, this fact has also worked to the disadvantage of his memory, because it obscures his many wider achievements. As Tim Parks writes in his introduction to Casanova's book The Duel, Casanova was also 'an adventurer, man-about-many-towns, indefatigable name-dropper, crack shot, amateur theologian, skilled diplomat …and (what makes us aware of all these qualities) a fine writer.' This was a man who, during his lifetime, served in the army, worked undercover as a spy, was jailed after falling foul of the authorities, escaped jail and fled Italy, and for many years lived an itinerant life travelling all over Europe writing plays, translating other authors, and playing the violin. And of course there were the ladies.

The Duel, which has been recently published in a new translation by the Hesperus Press, provides ample evidence of just what a good writer Casanova was. The book is about a famous duel that Casanova was once forced to fight with a Polish count, but we need not concentrate on the particulars of that matter here. Casanova was in his fifties when he wrote the book, and his colourful and peripatetic life had endowed him with a rich stock of opinions on human nature.

For instance, Casanova says he believes a man is truly wise when, "happy with what he knows, and always willing to learn from those who have more experience than he, he will allow everyone to believe what he wants to, and he will not try to force the truth on those who are recalcitrant. […] Men are by nature such that they cannot bring themselves to learn anything from those who wish to force instruction on them." And we hear the dashing adventurer speaking in these lines: "'I cannot' is heard too often on the lips of mortals: it is very seldom on the lips of a man who really wishes to do something."

It would be foolish to speculate whether, if Casanova had lived in the twenty-first century instead of the eighteenth, he would have been a blogger. But, given what we know of his nature, it is certainly possible to surmise what his feelings would have been had he attended yesterday's Mumbai blogger meet (even if he would had to be content with coffee instead of wine):

Excellent food, good wine, and the good company of friends who are well chosen and above all well-disposed, compose a nourishment which raises a healthy man to the highest degree of perfection of which he is capable.[…] There is no man or woman who, after a choice meal, is not more attractive, more eloquent, more animated, more courteous, more judicious and more self-possessed, full of fine thoughts and unusual ideas which are capable of providing honourable and legitimate pleasures to this wretched human race, which, left to itself, is an inexhaustible fount of unhappiness, boredom, and troublesome disagreements.

And more provocatively he continues:

And so, just as bodily health comes from good food, there is no doubt that spiritual peace derives from it also, since that [spiritual peace] cannot have any other impulse than those it receives from physical impressions.

Would you agree with that, dear reader - that good food brings not just bodily but also spiritual peace?

After Casanova's death in 1798, just as his name passed into the English language and kept his memory alive for future generations, so he began to take birth again and again as a character in fiction - for instance in the Hungarian novelist Sandor Marai's terrific novel Casanova in Bolzano, published in English translation only last year. I wrote an essay on Marai's Casanova for the San Francisco Chronicle, and it can be found here.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Amartya Sen's large India

In his new book The Argumentative Indian, a set of magisterial essays on the subject of India's diverse and many-sided past and the manner in which our understanding of that past influences the present that we now inhabit, Amartya Sen gives the sense of having distilled a lifetime's thought on the subject of India.

Amongst the best of Sen's essays is one called 'India: Large and Small', in which he engages with the claims made by the Hindutva movement - based on certain historical and cultural features of India's past and the overwhelming majority of Hindus among Indian citizens currently - that Hinduism is preeminent amongst the religions of India and is therefore central to any conception of 'Indianness'. Obeying the first rule of good debate, which is to engage with the viewpoint of the other party instead of dismissing it outright, Sen first tries to represent the positions of the Hindutva movement as fairly as possible. He does contrast the tolerance towards other religions and internal heterodoxy that has been a historical feature of Hinduism with the many untenable claims and the warlike approach of the present-day Hindutva lobby, but then note how skilfully he declines to validate - as a more earnest scholar might - the former at the expense of the latter:

It is not, however, particularly worthwhile to enter into a debate over whether the liberal, tolerant and receptive traditions within Hinduism may in any sense, be taken to be more authentic than the narrower and more combative interpretations that have been forcefully championed by present-day Hindu politics. It is sufficient to note here that there is a well-established capacious view of a broad and generous Hinduism, which contrasts sharply with the narrow and bellicose versions that are currently on political offer, led particularly by parts of the Hindutva movement.
Sen then moves on to scrutinise the foundational axioms of Hindutva ideology one by one, offering alternate arguments of his own. Here he is on the viewpoint that India should be thought of as a pre-eminently Hindu country because the Hindu tradition is pre-eminent in India's past:

Certainly, the ancientness of the Hindu tradition cannot be disputed. However, other religions, too, have had a long history in India, which has been, for a very long time indeed, a multi-religious country, making room for many different faiths and beliefs. Aside from the obvious and prominent presence of Muslims in India for well over a millennium (Muslim Arab traders settled in India from the eighth century), India was not a 'Hindu country' even before the arrival of Islam. Buddhism was the dominant religion in India for nearly a millennium. Indeed, Chinese scholars regularly described India as 'the Buddhist kingdom'.
…And to this has to be added the early presence of Christians, Jews and Parsees from the first millennium CE, and the late - but vigorous - emergence of Sikhism in India as a universalist conviction that drew on both the Hindu and Islamic traditions but developed a new religious understanding. The high ground of history is certainly not comfortable for a Hindu sectarian outlook, which is one reason why there has been such a flurry of attempts by political fanatics to rewrite India's history.
After many such specific and patiently elaborated rejoinders to different aspects of Hindutva thought, Sen concludes:

Rabindranath Tagore thought that the 'idea of India' itself militates 'against the intense conciousness of the separateness of one's own people from others'. Through their attempts to encourage and exploit separatism, the Hindutva movement has entered into a confrontation with the idea of India itself. This is nothing short of a sustained effort to miniaturize the broad idea of a large India - proud of its heterodox past and its pluralist present - and to replace it by the stamp of a small India, bundled around a drastically downsized version of Hinduism. In the confrontation between a large and a small idea, the broader understanding can certainly win. But the battle for the broad idea of India cannot be won unless those fighting for the larger conception know what they are fighting for. The reach of Indian traditions, including heterodoxy and the celebration of plurality and scepticism, requires a comprehensive cognition.
Many of the other essays in Sen's book attempt to provide this 'comprehensive cognition' of Indian traditions that will equip us adequately should we wish to defend the idea of a large India against the small. Here are two of them: 'Tagore and his India' and 'India Through Its Calendars' ("...the nature, form and usage of calendars in a particular society can teach us a great deal about its politics, culture and religion as well as its science and mathematics). And here is an essay by Sen on the issue of the writing and rewriting of history: 'History and the Enterprise of Knowledge'.

But even if parts of the book are available here and there on the web, there's nothing like reading these beautiful essays in bed late into the night over several nights, as I did. And since Indian bloggers, as I remarked in another post recently, are almost by definition argumentative Indians, it makes sense to read this book as an exemplary demonstration of the ideal on which we all have our sights.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Mirza Abu Taleb goes to England

In Attia Hosain's book Sunlight on a Broken Column, about which I wrote a post earlier, there is a reference to "the sweet tongue of the true Lucknavi - delicate, flexible, rich in imagery, pointed with wit, polished with courtesy." The durability of the tradition Hosain was referring to is apparent from the Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb, an account given by an eighteenth-century Lucknavi nobleman of his visit - very rare in those days for an Indian - to England.

Abu Taleb was an unwilling adventurer: he left India in a pall of gloom and not on a sea of expectation. For some years he had been running back and forth between Lucknow and Calcutta in search of patronage, at which point he received an offer from a Scottish friend to journey with him to Europe. He writes:

After having considered his proposal for some time, I reflected that, as the journey was long and replete with danger, some accident might cause my death, by which I should be delivered from the anxieties of this world, and the ingratitude of mankind. I therefore accepted his friendly offer, and resolved to undertake the journey.

But as his ship set sail and his homeland fell back Abu Taleb's spirits soon rose, and he threw himself into the task of observing everything that was strange and significant about his journey. In fact, when he reached the Nicobar Islands, where the ship halted briefly and gave those on deck a chance to see the lives of the natives, Abu Taleb was so captivated that he began to think the thoughts that all of us think when we go on a pleasant vacation:

I was so captivated by the mildness of the climate, the beauty of the plains and rivulets, and with the kind of life and freedom which the men enjoyed, that I had nearly resolved to take up my abode among them.
When Abu Taleb finally reached England after several months at sea, he was very well-received there (curiously he does not make any report of having to face racism) and soon became known in social circles as 'the Persian prince'. While giving himself over to revelry and romance - he confesses somewhat coyly at one point that 'Cupid had planted one of his arrows in my bosom', and presents some atrocious verse in praise of English women ('Adorable creatures! Whose flowing tresses,/whether of flaxen or jetty hue,/Or auburn gay, delight my soul,/ and ravish all my senses') - Abu Taleb also made a close study of English government and society. He arrived in England in 1800, in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, and the implications of the extensive mechanisation of production did not escape him. He remarks:

In England, labour is much facilitated by the aid of mechanism; and by its assistance the price of commodities is much reduced: for if, in their great manufactories, they made use of horses, bullocks, or men, as in other countries, the prices of their goods would be enormous…. [T]he great wheels of [iron founderies] are worked by steam, in a very surprising manner. In these they cast cannon, beat out anchors and do all other large work, which could not be effected by manual labour, the sledge itself being more that any man could lift.
And he is similarly perceptive of the subject of print technology, one of the pillars of modernity:

Of the inventions of Europe, the utility of which may not appear at first sight to an Asiatic, the art of printing is the most admirable. By its aid, thousands of copies, of any scientific or religious book, may be circulated among the people in a very short time; and by it, the works of celebrated authors are handed down to posterity, free from the errors and imperfections of a manuscript. To this art the English are indebted to the humble but useful publication of newspapers, without which life would be irksome to them. These are read by all ranks of people, from the prince to the beggar.
Abu Taleb was not always complementary about England - he devotes an entire chapter to criticisms of the English way of life, and he wrote an essay pursuing the unusual line of argument that European women actually enjoyed less liberty than did Asian women. The book ends when Abu Taleb arrives on the west coast of India in 1803 after four and a half years away from home, and, being 'very anxious to see my family' (of whom there has been no mention since the first chapter), returns to home and hearth in Calcutta.

Abu Taleb's Travels is available in a new edition from Oxford University Press. This page features a forthcoming edition of another book by an Indian nobleman who travelled to England in the first half of the nineteenth century: the Autobiography of Lutfullah - A Mohamedan Gentleman and his Transactions with his Fellow-creatures. Here, courtesy Arun Simha, is a brief history of early Indian newspapers, which began to proliferate a few decades after Abu Taleb brought back reports of them, and the look of some of the mastheads of these newspapers (the Asiatic Mirror, the Oriental Star, and so on) can be seen here.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Robert Farrar Capon and food

One of the many benefits of being unemployed, dear reader, is the chance to savour lunch instead of wolfing down one's midday meal at one's desk. I don't care much for breakfast, but after the morning's work there's nothing like a good lunch, freshly cooked and then slowly eaten at the table. On some days I like frying some garlic bread in a little butter with some slowly browned sausages to go with it, or else a little pasta with cheese on top, or eggs fried till the sides are thin and crispy but the yolk still gooey, or else a piece of chicken with some fruit afterwards. On other days I head out to a restaurant for a more hearty lunch, usually either Noor Mohammadi for flavoursome nalli nihari, dal gosht, or bheja fry with tandoori rotis the size of a wall clock, or to Café Baghdadi in Colaba. If you'd like to join me for good food and conversation at an eating-house one day, you're most welcome.

One of my favourite books on food - not just a cookbook but a treatise on the place of food in our lives - is The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon, now in a new edition as part of the Modern Library Food series. It is a charming and eccentric book, with a high conception of the beauty and relevance of matters gastronomical (food and cooking "sit us down evening after evening, and in the company that forms around our dinner tables, they actually create our humanity"), full of savoury asides (at the very beginning of the book there is a ten-page section on the beauty of chopping an onion, and towards an end there is an ode to the powers of baking soda) and pungent comments ("Nothing appalls me more than to hear people refer to the drinking of wine as if it were a forbidden and fascinating way of sneaking alcohol into one's system."). Although a priest, Capon sees nothing sinful or worldly about the love of good food; rather, he might be said to be in agreement of the nineteen-century philosopher of food Brillat-Savarin, who argued that "Gourmandism shows implicit obedience to the commands of the Creator who, when he ordered us to eat in order to live, gave us the inducement of appetite, the encouragement of savour, and the reward of pleasure…gourmandism is the common bond that unites the nations of the world.”

Here is Capon on place of the three meals of an ordinary working day:

Breakfast is an unmerciful meal. Unless you live in a house full of larks, you know perfectly well that few people are fit company at that hour. Accordingly, a completely routine meal, unvaryin from day to day, is a blessing to everyone. [E]xcept for men who have already worked hard for hours, an ordinary weekday breakfast is no time for a feast. Almost as clearly as breakfast, lunch is a meal in via, on the run. To sit down as if the world were our oyster at 12.30 is to face the second half of our daily obedience pretending that the agony of the world is over already.…I have long been convinced that man needs sleep more than food in the middle of the day.It is only at night, in gremio familiae, […] that we can properly rejoice and eat like men.
Capon's very name brings up the idea of food: 'capon' is another word for chicken or, specifically, a castrated rooster, which was considered a delicacy in Elizabethan England ("The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit", goes a line in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors).

And a contemporary historian of food, and defender of good eating against all those who would downgrade its importance, is the Oxford historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, who has written a book called Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food. In this essay, Fernandez-Armesto makes a case not just for gourmandism, as Brillat-Savarin did, but for gluttony, arguing that gluttony is a gift of evolution. And in this essay, Fernandez-Armesto contends that "[t]he obesity pandemic has coincided with the decline of the meal."

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Gogol's overcoat

The protagonist of "The Overcoat," one of the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol's best stories, is Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, a clerk in a government department in St.Petersburg, very mild-mannered and self-effacing, never known to raise his voice, and always passed over when it comes to promotions - a nonentity in the social order who does not even have the consolation of the love and respect of people at home, being a bachelor. Akaky Akakievich's only pleasure lies in his work, and he is so absorbed by it that he pays little regard to his personal appearance, to conversation with his colleagues, or to the routine tasks of daily life. He always comes to work wearing a tattered old overcoat ("its collar diminished more and more each year, for it went to mend other parts") that is a source of great amusement to his colleagues.

There comes a time when Akaky Akakievich's coat finally gives up the ghost and just cannot be mended any more. When he hears from his tailor the price of a new overcoat, nearly half his month's salary, he grows nearly faint with worry, and wonders how he will save up the money for a new coat to protect him from the violent St.Petersburg winter. But then gradually he formulates a plan to skimp a little here, forgo something there, and in this manner, through all sorts of pains and sacrifices, to save up enough for the overcoat over the duration of a few months. All this has a salutary effect on Akaky Akakievich's nature. Gogol captures beautifully the significance that gradually gathers around this one material object in the impoverished life of a man not otherwise given to material desires, writing that Akaky Akakievich
was nourished spiritually, bearing in his thoughts the eternal idea of the future overcoat. From then on it was as if his very existence became somehow fuller, as if he were married, as if some other person were there with him, as if he were not alone but some pleasant life's companion had agreed to walk down the path of life with him - and this companion was none other than that same overcoat with its cotton-wool quilting, with its sturdy lining that knew no wear….In the course of each month, he stopped at least once to see [the tailor] Petrovich, to talk about the overcoat, where it was best to buy broadcloth, and of what color, and at what price, and he would return home somewhat preoccupied yet always pleased…

I shall not reveal any further details of the plot, except for this bit: when Akaky Akakievich finally gets his beautiful new overcoat and wears it proudly to work, his colleagues are so pleased for him that they decide to throw a party for him that night at the residence of one of the clerks in office. Walking that night to the venue of the party, Akaky Akakievich passes through a posh part of town and looks at the shops:
It was several years since he had gone out in the evening. He stopped curiously before a lighted shop window to look at a picture that portrayed some beautiful woman taking off her shoe and thus baring her whole leg, not a bad leg at all…

This passage is thought to mark one of the early appearances of advertising in literature. Writing about it in her biography of Charles Dickens, the novelist Jane Smiley remarks that it can be seen as the moment 'when literature enters the modern world', a world in which

[t]he tissue of relationships and obligations that mark traditional society give way to the casual meetings and commercial connections that mark modern society. [Akaky Akakievich] is struck by the picture of the woman's leg slipping into the stocking. He moves on, but he has just had a thoroughly modern moment - sex and graphics have combined to turn him into a potential customer.
And here is an essay by the novelist AS Byatt on a recent translation of Gogol's great novel Dead Souls.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Jahiz the bibliomaniac

Cyclone Book Tag, which recently hit the Indian blogosphere, seems to have demonstrated irrefutably that there is a marked relation between blogging - the passion for demonstrating to the world that one is capable of independent thought - and bibliomania, the passion for possessing and collecting books. (I think this passion to possess is what distinguishes a bibliomaniac from a bibliophile, who is merely a lover a books and may or may not be a collector.) As modern bibliomaniacs we must take note of an ancient one, the ninth-century Arab writer Jahiz, whose most famous work, the Kitab al-Hayawan ('Book of Animals') has some marvellous passages on the place of books in life.

Jahiz (776-868/69) was born and lived most of his life in the great cultural centre of Basra (in present-day Iraq and currently wracked by clashes between American troops and Iraqi insurgents), at a time when the Islamic world occupied a similar place among world civilizations that the West does today. A prolific writer on every kind of topic - here is the table of contents of one of his books, listing essays like 'This Life & the Life to Come' and 'Why Speech is Superior to Silence' - Jahiz writes of books in the Kitab al-Hayawan:

I know of no companion more prompt to hand, more rewarding, more helpful or less burdensome, and no tree that lives longer, bears more abundantly or yields more delicious fruit that is handier, easier to pick or more perfectly ripened at all times of the year, than a book.
…For all its smallness and lightness, a book is the medium through which men receive the Scriptures, and also government accounts. Silent when silence is called for, it is eloquent when asked to speak. It is a bedside companion that does not interrupt when you are busy but welcomes you when you have a mind to it, and does not demand forced politeness or compel you to avoid its company. It is a visitor whose visits may be rare, or frequent, or so continual that it follows you like your shadow and becomes a part of you.
…A book, if you consider, is something that prolongs your pleasure, sharpens your mind, loosens your tongue, lends agility to your fingers and emphasis to your words, gladdens your mind, fills your heart and enables you to win the respect of the lowly and the friendship of the mighty.…Form any kind of attachment with it, and you will be able to do without everything else; you will not be driven into bad company by boredom or loneliness.
Some readers may find this enchanting but a little too ornate, and they would not be wrong in this. As Robert Irwin says in his book Nights and Horses and the Desert (from which I quote the above passage), Jahiz was a master at the ancient art of rhetoric - the art of using language so as to persuade and influence others. Many of his works appear to be rhetorical demonstrations rather than the expressions of deeply felt convictions - if necessary, one feels, he might have been able to argue that books exercised a debilitating effect on human beings and were agents of corruption.

But Jahiz was so much in love with books - the story goes that he used to pay the owners of bookshops to be locked into their premises at night so that he could read in peace - that we may safely assume that in this case he was really speaking from his heart, even if his style is that of a rhetorician. In fact (to end this tale of bibliomania on an appropriate if somewhat morbid note) Jahiz not only lived by books but died by them as well: it is reported that he was killed at a ripe old age when a stack of books fell upon him.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Unemployed at last!

"Unemployed at last!" So goes the first line of Tom Collins's Such Is Life, a classic of Australian literature, and that, my dear readers, exactly describes my condition right now. May was my last month at work for the magazine Wisden Asia Cricket, and from this month I'm going to a free man, and earn my living from writing.

I have a lot of things lined up in terms of work and writing, but I'd also like in my new life to greatly expand my range of experience - to meet new people, travel to new places, and learn a new skill or two. I expect that time, which is such a problem when one has a day job, will not be a constraint any more. In fact the new problem may be that of learning how to use all my time properly.

Conversation, the very motor of life, occupies a position of importance in my new scheme of things. So if you, dear reader, have any good stories to tell or anything that would interest me, please email me. for instance, I'd like very much to find out how a tea garden is run, or how it's like living on board a ship, or how the restaurant business works. I'm already looking forward to the next Mumbai blogger's meet.

And of course there'll be plenty more time for reading now, so I'll attempt to put up a post about a book or a writer every two to three days.

Unemployed at last!.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


I was book-tagged by my co-blogger Amit a few days ago, and here, dear reader, is a list of books for you. On my way I've also made a few variations to the template:

Total number of books I possess:

Probably between three and four thousand. As I was surveying my collection this morning in order to make an estimate of its size, I suddenly figured that some days, instead of going out to a bookshop to browse, I could just stay at home and leaf through my own collection, which includes - as it always should - hundreds of books that I haven't read and may not read for several years. I then proceeded to browse through my cupboards and came across several very interesting books that I'd forgotten all about.

Last book I bought

The Pursuit of Pleasure by the anthropologist Lionel Tiger (yes, what a name).

Last book I read

Amartya Sen's The Argumentative Indian, a book fizzing with ideas.

Five books I would not lend to a friend

Some of the books I prize most will already be familiar to you if you're been reading my posts over the last two months, so I shall disregard all of those and pick new ones.

The Odyssey by Homer
My Years with Apu by Satyajit Ray
Shakespeare on Love and Friendship by Allan Bloom
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz
Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

A book I want to possess

The Sarvadarsanasamgraha (Collection of All Philosophies) by the fourteenth-century author Madhava Acharya. This book is cited by Sen in The Argumentative Indian.

A book I couldn't finish

Ian McEwan's Atonement.

And these are the people I choose to book-tag:

My colleague Rahul Bhatia at Cricinfo
The Transparent Ironist