Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Minoo Masani's Swatantra thoughts

Wandering through the bylanes of Kalbadevi on Monday, I stopped by the New & Secondhand Bookshop and found on the shelves just outside the shop, where any book is for twenty rupees, a little volume, quite ragged and termite-eaten, but unwilling to give up the ghost just yet. The book's title was Congress Misrule and the Swatantra Alternative, and it was written in 1966 by the feisty Member of Parliament from the Swatantra Party, Minoo Masani (1904-1998). Reading it yesterday, I thought it full of the most salutary wisdom, for many of the ills which Masani excoriates the Congress government for having made a feature of our national life in the first two decades of its rule are still prevalent today, and many of the positive, constructive suggestions that Masani makes are ones the value of which we recognise today but which we have taken up, as my co-blogger Amit Varma argues in this post, in only a half-baked manner.

Formed in 1959, and now all but defunct, the Swatantra Party was the closest that any Indian political party has come post-Independence to espousing the virtues of classical liberalism. It held liberty, or human rights and freedoms, to be a greater and more realistic good than equality; advocated free enterprise, low levels of taxation, and the breaking down of the 'license-permit-quota raj' that was (and continues to be) a bane of our economic life; and stood for a much more limited role for government in national life than the socialist-inspired Congress model of central planning and massive investment of taxpayer's money in public sector units. Congress Misrule and the Swatantra Alternative, a collection of Masani's essays and his speeches to the Lok Sabha in the early sixties, was put together as a manifesto, a call for change, before the general elections of 1967, in which the Swatantra Party emerged as the single largest party in the opposition. Masani explains:

What is liberalism? Liberalism, according to Hobhouse, the great British liberal… is "a belief that society can safely be founded on the self-directing power of personality, that it is only on this foundation that the true community can be built. Liberty then becomes not so much a right of the individual, as a necessity of society." Professor Parkinson said in an article recently published in England: "The word Liberal means generous or open-handed. Be generous with what? With freedom and political responsibility."
This view of human affairs must have been exceedingly unusual in the political climate of mid-sixties India. In fact it is still heard very rarely in our public discourse - as the unfailingly perceptive Gaurav Sabnis argues in one of his posts, Freedom vs Sovereignty, we Indians often interpret freedom as political sovereignty, not liberty; we think of freedom as the struggle for independence from the Raj, and do not really protest if the government cracks down on smoking in films or people holding hands in public. There is a great deal of truth then in Sabnis's provocative formulation: "Our freedom struggle is yet to start." Were he alive today Masani would certainly have agreed with that.

But Masani did not just quote Hobhouse to Parliament in his speeches - his liberalism was not just a matter of a Western political idea projected as a desired end onto Indian public life. Rather, he showed the ability to mesh the idiom of classical liberalism, which by itself might have sounded remote from Indian concerns, to certain aspects of Gandhian thought, thereby creating what might be called a liberal idiom with a specifically Indian cast. He writes:
The starting point of Swatantra philosophy is based on Western liberalism and on Gandhiji's thinking. The two point in the same direction. What they have in common is hat the individual comes first, the individual is in the centre of the picture. If this is so, then a Party like this has faith in the people. It believes that, on balance, people are worthwhile. This, in turn, means that Government is for the people, that Government is a limited instrument for good. This idea is common to Liberalism and to Gandhi. Abraham Lincoln…said a century ago: "Don't try to do for the people what they can do better for themselves," and Gandhiji…said: "That Government is best which governs the least." ... Gandhiji taught us that the State in the 20th century is no longer a great friend of freedom and progress, that perhaps the biggest threat to human freedom comes from the State.
In this way Masani argued that it was the Swatantra Party, more than the Congress, that was faithful to Gandhi's conception of the role and the proper ends of government.

In Congress Misrule... Masani makes a point-by-point critique of the misplaced priorities of the government's economic policy (especially the investment in heavy industries at the expense of agriculture in the decades immediately after independence) and the colossal wastage of taxpayer's money in unprofitable state enterprises. He attacks the controls that the Indian state had arrogated to itself ("What is a control? A control is giving an official, even a small one, the power of life and death over a peasant, a shopkeeper, or a businessman.") and questions the government's suspicion of private business and industry. He was also, in the heyday of the Soviet Union and well before communism had been widely discredited, a scathing and frequently witty critic of that philosophy. He points out not only how it subjugated the interests of the individual to that of the collective and was more concerned with ends than the means used to achieve them, but also how all its claims for the material betterment of man and greater equality in society were betrayed by actual facts and figures. He writes:
[Lenin] imagined that, after a short period of dictatorship, liberty would be restored by the benign Communist Party to the people. The State would "wither away". After forty long years, it is Man that has withered, not the State.... Gandhi taught us that ends and means are interlinked, that you cannot produce a better society by methods that are not clean and decent, that the end does not justify the means. By the time your means, which are dubious, are practised, your end gets vitiated. In other words, to cite the Soviet Union, by liquidations and butchery, by distortion and lying, you cannot produce a more fraternal society. You have only to look at the kind of men who have ruled the Soviet Union to realize that this is not a more fraternal society: Stalin, Molotov, Vishinsky, Khrushchev. These are not the embodiments of a more brotherly, free and equal society.
Unfortunately the Swatantra Party fell away badly after its promising start in Indian politics, and successive Indian governments continued to neglect reforms and practice what Masani so tellingly calls 'statism'. But twenty-first century India seems a great deal more in tune with his thought, and Congress Misrule and the Swatantra Alternative deserves to be reprinted, for history has proved many of Masani's judgements to be correct, and there is much in his book that is still relevant and valuable. One wishes that every MP in the current Lok Sabha would take it out of the Parliament library and read it.

It also strikes me that the work of many other prominent Indian intellectuals and thinkers must have lapsed into obscurity, as Masani's has. What if one of our leading publishers were to bring out something like a 'Library of India' series, collecting the best essays and speeches of men like Dadabhai Naoroji, Lokmanya Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Vallabhbhai Patel, Vinoba Bhave, C. Rajagopalachari, Jayaprakash Narayan, and many others, with one volume for every writer. (The works of Gandhi and Nehru are of course widely available.) Each volume, no more than 100 or 120 pages long, would have an introductory essay by a scholar of repute, giving us the historical context of the writer's work and a brief analysis of his thought. As a whole the series would give the general reader a sense of the diverse strands of our country's intellectual heritage over the last hundred and fifty years or so, something which takes a great deal of effort to piece together right now.

Here are 'I Believe' and 'Leadership', two essays by Masani, and two more essays on his ideas and his legacy, one by SV Raju, published last year on the occasional of Masani's birth centenary, and the other by the Indian Express columnist Jaithirth Rao. And here is the whole text of Masani's utterly charming book Our India, written in 1940. My grandfather says it was read very widely by the youth while he was at university, and in this interview Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was probably a student at about the same time as my grandfather, says it was Our India that sparked off his interest in economics.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The world of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay

Some writers of fiction remain a presence within their stories, and one is palpably aware of their voice interpreting the world of their characters. Others have the great gift of being able to dissolve themselves into their creations so that, after guiding the reader by the hand for a little while, they suddenly appear to have vanished into thin air. Where have they gone? Their characters, like unruly tenants, have taken over the story: the unfolding of the story's events is presented as if filtered through their consciousness, not that of an observer from outside the action. The total communion with the world of a character that this provides is one of the greatest satisfactions that a reader of fiction can experience.

This capacity for narrative empathy, for depicting a scene the way a character might see it, is everywhere apparent in Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's A Strange Attachment and Other Stories, and this, combined with Bandyopadhyay's many other qualities, make this volume one of the most satisfying works of Indian fiction to appear in English translation in years - a kind of late gift, like a parcel arriving in the post many years after it was sent, from the author of Pather Panchali now dead fifty-five years.

Bandyopadhyay allows his narrative voice to be coloured by his characters's point of view most clearly in his stories about children (whose way of looking at the world, as those who have read the story of Apu and Durga in Pather Panchali will know, he could reproduce with remarkable fidelity). In the story "Dalu Gets Into Trouble", a huge lumber boat drops anchor at the village of a small boy, Dalu, and his younger brother Santu. Spellbound by the boat, the two brothers spend hours everyday gazing at it. One day one of the sailors invites them aboard the boat, but much as he wants to go Dalu demurs, worried that someone will see them in broad daylight and tell their mother. He decides that they will come back after sunset, under cover of dark. Bandyopadhyay tells us:

Santu wasn't overjoyed at this new plan. How could anyone dare to go down to the river's edge after dark? What about the witch living in the tamarind tree on Cinte the Bagdi's land? She pounced on little boys and dragged them to the very tip-top of the tree. No, sunset was a bad time of day. Santu told his brother his fears.
Bandyopadhyay's courtesy towards his character here lies in the way he imports Santu's concerns into the narrative without any indication that these are specifically Santu's thoughts. The questions troubling Santu are pressed upon the reader as if they are of vital importance, which of course they are to the boys. And later when the two boys ask the sailors what kinds of things they have seen on their travels and are told of "sharks, crocodiles, two-headed snakes, even red-faced monkeys and double-crowned palm trees", we share their wide-eyed wonder because we have become so accustomed to seeing things from their perspective. Here we see fiction authentically carrying out its pledge to the reader, which is to give us new eyes.

Bandyopadhyay had a marvellous comic sense, and he could write a very swift, light-footed prose that beautifully expresses this sense of comedy in human affairs. In the story "Haridas, Released Soul", the schoolteacher Haridas is sorely plagued by the cares of worldly life - an inadequate salary, a family pestering him with their wants, a headmaster dissatisfied with his work - but cannot see how he can free himself of these bonds. The narrator tells us that 'The Lord heard Haridas' prayer' and proceeds to tell us how. Every sentence in this passage gives off comic sparks:

One day Haridas caught the third grader Shripati Kundu reading a book under his desk. Twice Haridas called him to order. 'Hey, what's going on there? None of that. Do your sums. Here, add this."
But why should Shripati do his arithmetic, when on that very day he had been sent by the Lord as a messenger to the poor Haridas, beleaguered by the trials of earthly existence? […] Shripati paid no attention to Haridas; he went right on reading the book under his desk. Haridas did not scold him a third time. He got up from his chair and snatched the book away, not forgetting to give Shripati's ears a good twist on his way back to his desk. Curious, he opened the book. He was expecting a drama or a novel, or at least a good ghost story. But that was not to be. The name of the book was The Hero's Voice; its author was Swami Vivekananda. Haridas had never paid much attention to religion, but he did know about Vivekananda. He kept the book, thinking he might have a look at it some time later.
The next day was Sunday. Haridas didn't have to go out and give private lessons. He relaxed with a cup of tea and then picked up the book. The more he read the more interested he became. What was all this? I am He. I am the Lord. I am Brahma. I am the Great One.
What noble, majestic words! What exalted thoughts, reaching into the heavens like the lofty mountain Himalaya! Slowly, very slowly, the school master Haridas began to change. His head stretched up until thud, it bumped right into the vast empyrean! His heart and mind glowed with the light of an ineffable intuition, known only to Haridas himself. Haridas had become the ageless, deathless, eternal soul! The Lord and he had been walking hand in hand through countless aeons. Haridas was He; Haridas was the Omniscient One, Haridas was the Divine Lover; Haridas was the Great Hero.
Consider how skilfully the narrative communicates first Haridas's dashed expectations ("He was expecting a drama or a novel, or at least a good ghost story. But that was not to be") and then the rapid swell of his thoughts as his mind is engulfed by the message of The Hero's Voice, all building up to a booming crescendo. Just as it is the new convert who preaches with the greatest zeal, so here we have the comic spectacle of the initiate ascending up to the pinnacle of spiritual elevation in just a few moments.

Bandyopadhyay had roots in both village and city. In Phyllis Granoff's masterful translations, the stories of A Strange Attachment communicate the beauty of village landscapes and the variousness of nature's bounties but also of the thrill of the world fashioned almost entirely by man, the excitement of bustling crowds and shops and streets. His characters variously reflect Bandyopadhyay's openmindedness - that is to say, they do not suffer from that failing which sometimes affects the created beings of short-story writers, which is the fault of being too similar, of wanting the same kinds of things.

For instance, the protagonist of "Uncle Bhandul's House" lives all his life in rented accommodation in the city and invests all his savings in constructing a house in his native village, the place he loves most. So slow and laborious is this process that the narrator of the story grows up from a little boy into a man in that span of time, yet Uncle Bhandul carries on doggedly, intent on returning one day to his own house in his own village. But Canvasser Krishnalal, the hero of a story by that name, has spent all his life as a travelling salesman in Calcutta and loves the city ardently. When he loses his job, his condition becomes so wretched that he is thrown out of his boarding-house and has to return to the scrap of land his family owned in the village. He quickly grows disgusted by village life ("Krishnalal had never spent much time in the village before. The people were all uneducated; they didn' even know how to talk to each other politely. They didn't drink tea; in Calcutta even the beggars all drank tea. Everywhere you looked was mud and jungle." Here again we see Bandyopadhyay talking in his character's voice about the same village life that, in another story, he would describe with such affection!). Finally Krishnalal flees back to the city: "If he was going to starve to death, it might as well be in his beloved Calcutta."

The best reader that Bandyopadhyay ever had was the great film director Satyajit Ray, who fashioned from Bandyopadhyay's novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito the films now known as the Apu Trilogy. Coincidentally, one of Ray's books, Speaking of Films (first published in 1982 as Bishay Chalachitra), has also just been translated from Bengali into English for the first time. Speaking of Films contains several paragraphs' worth of acute commentary on Bandyopadhyay's work. At one point Ray advises aspiring scriptwriters to read Bandyopadhyay and note his wonderful ear for lifelike speech: "His lines fit the characters so well, they are so revealing that even when the author provides no physical description, every character seems to present itself before us simply through the words it speaks." And as an illustration of the "gold mine of cinematic observation" to be found in Bandyopadhyay's work Ray cites the story "Puinmacha" (which appears in A Strange Attachment under the title "The Basella Trellis"). Ray writes:

Annapurna's daughter Khenti has just got married, and it is now time for the bride to depart. The palki is resting on the ground with the bride and the groom in it. Annapurna, whose heart is torn by anguish, glances at the palki and notices - I translate - 'that the end of Khenti's modest red baluchari has trailed out of the palki, and is nestling against a drooping cluster of medi flowers by the bamboo fencing'.
In its context, this is a heart-rending detail, and a perfect film close-up of the kind described by Eisenstein as 'pars pro toto', part standing for the whole.
Indeed, Bibhutibhushan’s sympathy is so vast that each person touched by the roving lens of his narration seems momentarily to turn into the protagonist of the story. The work of many great fiction writers seems somehow self-consciously literary, but not so with Bibhutibhushan, who prizes—and produces—narrativeness (a term used in literary theory), that mysterious quality of constant motion and confident verisimilitude that makes a reader forget he or she is reading a story. When we read Bibhutibhushan, we suddenly know exactly why we read fiction.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

On watching Nagesh Kukunoor's Iqbal

All of last week I sat inside my room working, and the sun rose and set without my knowing very much about what was going on in the world outside; by the time I finished work it would be dark, and when I did leave home I went most days to a place where bright light never penetrates: the cinema. I saw two excellent German films, Head-On and Good Bye, Lenin, on successive evenings at the NCPA, and having worked up an appetite for pleasures cinematic I then proceeded, first on a damp and slushy evening last weekend and then yesterday on just as damp and slushy an afternoon, to watch Nagesh Kukunoor's Iqbal twice at the Regal cinema in Colaba.

When I bought my ticket last afternoon I looked closely at it and saw that it said not just 'Regal', as I thought it would, but 'The Regal', and that capitalized 'The' gave the name a ring of grandeur quite proper for a cinema now in its seventy-third year. The Regal first threw open its doors to the public on the night on October 14, 1933, and the first film it ran was the Laurel and Hardy starrer The Devil's Brother. (I advance this detail with some trepidation, dreading a barrage of Regal-centred questions the next time I see him from my blogger friend Yazad Jal, a fount of all sorts of obscure knowledge.)

Anyway, I stood for a while on the front steps of the cinema, watching the rain coming down at a slant against the dark foliage surrounding the gorgeous old dome of the Prince of Wales museum (now named, along with almost everything else run by the government in Bombay, after Chhatrapati Shivaji), with the tall straight lines of the Bombay Stock Exchange looming behind it in an ugly contrast. A poster on the steps advertised a new restaurant, Zaffran, that remained open till four in the morning, offered a discount to patrons carrying the counterfoil of Iqbal, and supplied a road map with directions: "Proceeding from CST to Crawford Market, do not take the JJ Flyover, but proceed towards Crawford Market…" After making an imaginary journey all the way from Regal to Zaffran, taking care to avoid the JJ Flyover after I passed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, I went into the theatre and took my seat. I stood up for the national anthem sung by a male voice in a Marathi accent, with a brightly coloured graphics-generated flag doing a mock-flutter on screen, a definite comedown from the instrumental version of the anthem, which always gives me a thrill, and the picture of a real flag fluttering in a real breeze that used to feature in the cinemas till a few months ago. Then the movie began.

Iqbal, to my mind, is at its best in its first half-hour. That is when everything about it is fresh and its cinematic language is the most original. The deaf-mute Iqbal lives and breathes cricket. He dreams, like any young cricketer, of sharing the stage with the heroes whose pictures adorn the little straw hut that is his little private den, and Shreyas Talpade is so good as Iqbal that we immediately feel intimate with his world. It has been noted almost everywhere that the film is outstandingly cast, but the way Iqbal's world is realised on screen in just as praiseworthy - not only his house with its green-painted walls and the courtyard outside and around that the village, but also the beautifully realised space where so much of the film is set: the little clearing by the river, surrounded by palm trees, that is Iqbal's practice ground, his theater of dreams.

Indeed, the film pays a great deal of attention to trees. The opening sequence, showing Iqbal's mother heavy with child, watching a cricket match beneath a tree with the rest of the village, suddenly provides us with a long shot so full of green trees that we do not know where to focus our gaze. Then suddenly the bottom of the frame explodes to life, and we see the miniscule figures of the villagers leap up at India's victory and begin to dance in jubilation. The camera returns up close to the villagers, shows Iqbal's mother dancing and then suddenly stopping and clutching her stomach, at which point it leaves the scene and cuts away, winding high, high amidst the trees, as if to approximate the passage of time; when we see Iqbal in the next scene, he is a boy of eighteen.

The scene in which Iqbal gives evidence of his cricketing ambition for the first time, leaving his buffaloes and stepping into the palm-tree-fringed clearing to bowl at three sticks, is just as well realised; indeed, we are more likely to carry away memories of Iqbal in this setting than later when he is doing great deeds in whites in the Ranji Trophy or running up to bowl in a blue Indian uniform for the first time. And the trees in Iqbal carry different kinds of meanings. On one occasion when Iqbal goes to the cricket academy where he spies on the young players from behind his buffaloes, he turns away in dejection and sits down with his back to the action, glumly looking at the green fields of his village - where he will soon have to go to work if his father has his way. The only other Hindi film I can remember in which trees mean so much and have such attention lavished upon them is Sudhendu Roy's 1973 classic Saudagar, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Nutan, in which both lead characters rely upon the sap of date-palm trees (from which jaggery is made) for their livelihood.

I found the cricket scenes in Iqbal charming only upto the point where they take place in this unusual private setting, with an unusual cast that gradually extends to include not only Iqbal but also his sister, his coach (played by the ever-brilliant Naseeruddin Shah), and all his buffaloes. The scenes depicting what are we are to understand to be Ranji Trophy cricket are understandably far less convincing, and the climactic gambit with which Iqbal bowls his team to the title was, at least to a former cricket writer's taste, quite absurd. The subplot involving the two coaches who go back a long way is frankly tiresome, and the sudden appearance of bribes on one side and agents toting cheques on another most unsatisfactory. But one forgives these things when one places against them the considerable achievement of bringing to life Iqbal, his world, and his dreams with great imaginative sympathy, and without the emotional manipulation that often accompanies the portrayal on screen of characters with disabilities. Imagine if you will what heavy-duty damage Sanjay Leela Bhansali would have wrought with such a story.

Film is the youngest of all the arts, yet the ubiquity of the moving image in our times is such that we take it completely for granted. Yet it was only a little more than a century ago all this was impossible, and the only things that could be projected onto a screen were still photographs. Watching the first-ever screening of film as we know it, organised by the Lumière brothers on the evening of 28 December, 1895, the magician George Méliès thought he was going to be shown yet another set of stills, when suddenly the world in front of his eyes began to move: "A horse pulling a cart started to walk towards us, followed by other vehicles, then passersby - in short, all the hustle and bustle of a street. We sat with our mouths open, without speaking, filled with amazement."

The first-ever film screening in India took place in 1896 at the Watson's Hotel, just down the road from the site that would one day house the Regal. A list of various milestones in the history of Indian cinema can be found here, and an essay on the same subject here.Good cinema in Bombay continues this week with the screening of several of François Truffaut's films at the Alliance Française, at New Marine Lines very close to Churchgate station.