Sunday, May 28, 2006

Talking India with Ashis Nandy

The intellectual Ashis Nandy has written a series of excellent books on Indian nationalism, the Indian state, and Indian traditions, but perhaps nowhere is he as lucid and accessible as Talking India, a wide-ranging conversation with the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo.

It is to Jahanbegloo's credit that he has done his homework so well and set the scope of his questions so wide. Among the matters on which he questions Nandy are India's encounter with colonialism, on the spheres of the religious and the secular in India, on India-Pakistan relations, and on India's experience of six decades as a modern nation-state. Nandy's searching responses lay before the reader all kinds of unorthodox oppositions and parallels, and present surprising connections across disparate walks of life.

Amongst the most interesting lines of thought that emerge from Nandy's responses to Jahanbegloo's questions concerns the question of what India is. He makes a distinction between India as a three-thousand-year-old civilization, home to hundreds of diverse cultures, and India as a modern nation-state seeking a degree of unity among its citizens. Indian civilization, in Nandy's felicitous formulation, "can be considered to be simultaneously a conversation and a confrontation among cultures that are big and small, powerful and weak, known and obscure, high or low, respectable and disrespectable, lovable or despicable."

But the Indian state is a much narrower and meaner entity, if not in conception then in spirit. It is not just the case, Nandy argues, that the Indian nation-state has modelled itself after the colonial state, and "consistently retained a touch of imperiousness". It is also that state-centric thinking among general citizens blinds us to civilizational links with our neighbouring countries, and makes us think of them instead as "small-time states" or pesky neighbours. The demands and passions of nationalism sit uneasily with older formations. "We share some of the most important markers of civilization with our neighbouring countries but we have to treat them as foreign countries and they have to treat us as foreigners," writes Nandy. "We have learnt…that nation-states must have unique national cultures. We are willing to radically alter our civilization to become proper nation-states."

And nowhere in South Asia is an example of a civilization torn into two by national borders more visible, of course, than in the case of India and Pakistan. In the course of Nandy's analysis of India-Pakistan relations since 1947 there appears a beautiful metaphor of an estranged couple:

The Indian attitude to Pakistan is very strange. Very few want to know about Pakistan; only a few seem curious about what is happening there. Yet, most Indians think they know everything about Pakistan. Almost the same thing can be said about Pakistan. I don't think many Pakistanis know anything about India, except probably about Indian films which, I am told, they like. But every Pakistani thinks he knows India. So many of my Pakistani friends say that when they bring their children to India, the first thing their surprised children say is, "Look, they look just like us and they speak like us".

It's a love-hate relationship on both sides. It's almost as if the bitterness came from the splitting of a joint family, and each one was terribly, curious and nostalgic at the same time. Like a couple who are divorced after being deeply in love. Both claim that the divorce has been good for them, but both are bitter and curious about what the other is doing - what vegetables, furniture, or books the other buys in the market, and what he or she does with the children and the house. And both sides are constantly looking for evidence of how bad the other is. The venom is partly a defence against recognizing how much emotional cross-investment there is in each other.
" It's almost as if the bitterness came from the splitting of a joint family, and each one was terribly, curious and nostalgic at the same time…. And both sides are constantly looking for evidence of how bad the other is" - all this is very shrewd.

Nandy has always been a vociferous critic of religious chauvinism and hysteria, but that has not prevented him from being acutely interested in, say, the Hindutva movement. In a prescient essay written in 1991, "Hinduism vs Hindutva", Nandy argued: "Hindutva is an ideology for those whose Hinduism has worn off. Hindutva, if it wins, might make Nepal the world's largest Hindu country. Hinduism will then survive not as a way of life or the faith of a majority of Indians."

In "Obituary of a culture", an essay written in the wake of the Gujarat riots of 2002, Nandy explains how Gujarat " was being prepared for such an exorcism for a very long time". Among the most interesting passages in this essay is Nandy's account of a face-to-face encounter with Narendra Modi, then a small-time RSS functionary, more than a decade before the riots. He writes:
Modi, it gives me no pleasure to tell the readers, met virtually all the criteria that psychiatrists, psycho-analysts and psychologists had set up [for] the authoritarian personality. He had the same mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defence of projection, denial and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence… I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist. I came out of the interview shaken and told [Achyut] Yagnik that, for the first time, I had met a textbook case of a fascist and a prospective killer, perhaps even a future mass murderer.

These startling observations remind us how we have yet to see a proper biography of one of India's most dangerous men, and so we are yet to really understand who he is, where he came from, what he did in the days of his youth, and how he came into his own.

But one of Nandy's most salutary qualities is that he is an acute reader and critic not just of religious fundamentalism (and, let us admit, it is not difficult to be such a critic) but also of what he calls secularist dogma and irrationality. Nandy does not see the idea of "secularism" now employed by the Indian state and many of its intelligentsia, which extends to India the idea of secularism that emerged from the fractious quarrels between the church and the state in eighteenth-century Europe, as having the power to contain communal conflict in India. In fact, he suggests, what is thought of as communal conflict today is in a fundamental sense also an example of secularized violence. Religious riots are not spontaneous eruptions but carefully planned and controlled by interested parties, mostly in urban areas.

Nandy argues that "secularism" today is imposed practically by degree; it is not part of the lived reality of Indian people, and in fact it expresses a kind of contempt for religion. In an essay published in 2004 in Outlook, "A Billion Gandhis", Nandy wrote:

The concept of secularism emerged in a Europe torn by inter-religious strife, warfare and pogroms, when the resources for tolerance within traditions were depleted and looked exhausted. This has not happened in India, not even probably in most of South Asia. In India, a huge majority of riots—indeed nearly all of them—take place in the cities…[I]n the last 50 years, less than 4 per cent of all riot victims in India have died in villages—where nearly 75 per cent of Indians stay; more than 96 per cent have died in cities, where 25 per cent of Indians stay.

To go to an Indian village to teach tolerance through secularism is a form of obscene arrogance to which I do not want to be a party. These ideas of tolerance in ordinary people and everyday life are tinged with popular religious beliefs, however superstitious, irrational and primitive they may seem to progressive, secular Indians. In a democracy, people will bring their values into politics, whether we like it or not. Instead of imposing on them an idea that makes no sense to the non-English-speaking majority, why can’t we learn from and build upon indigenous concepts that have worked in real life over the centuries? If secularism only means the traditional tolerance of South Asia, why do we need an imported idea to talk about that local tolerance?
As Nandy says even in Talking India, neither Ashoka nor Akbar nor Kabir, though beacons of inter-religious understanding, would have thought of themselves as "secular". "Secularism," as he argues elsewhere, "is not communal amity; it is only one way of achieving such amity", and perhaps not the best way for India. His Tocquevillian message is that in a democracy, secularism "needs support in human passions". This double critique of religious extremism on the one hand and secularist excess and snobbery on the other is amongst the most searching interventions made by an Indian scholar to our contemporary deabtes upon these issues.

My only complaint with this book is that Oxford University Press has packaged and priced it as an academic book, rather than as a book for the intelligent layman, which is what it is. As a result, none of the major bookshops have it on prominent display; in fact many don’t have it at all. This is a pity, for as an analysis of India's past and present it Talking India a worthy companion volume to Amartya Sen's recent The Argumentative Indian, and deserves to be just as widely read.

Here are two other good essays by Nandy: "Unclaimed Baggage", written after the Gujarat riots of 2002, and "The ambivalence about Gandhi", about our difficulties with Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. In this interview with Smitu Kothari, Nandy speaks insightfully about modern-day ideologies of development. And here is another relevant essay by another good Indian thinker, Gurcharan Das, "Privatise Secularism".

In a shocking incident, Jahanbegloo was himself arrested on a charge of so-called "espionage" by Iranian authorities late last month while on his way to India. The writer Rasool Nafisi has a piece about the meaning of Jahanbegloo's arrest here. For some of Jahanbegloo's writing, go to this piece on the website openDemocracy, in which he exchanges thoughts with the American philosopher Richard Rorty on the question of whether the American dream can also belong to the world.

And finally an old piece from last year: "Amartya Sen's large India".

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Back on Sunday

I have a long essay on Ashis Nandy's very good book Talking India ready, but since it began as a review for a newspaper and that piece is out on Sunday, I'll have to wait for Sunday before I can put it up.

And although I have many exciting new books on my desk - such as Terrestrial Intelligence and World Beat, two beautiful new anthologies of world prose and poetry from New Directions, one of my favourite publishing houses; the scholar of religion Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation, and Frederick Brown's beautiful new biography of Flaubert (you can read a chapter of Brown's very rich, satisfying descriptions of Flaubert's world here) - I have so much else to do by way of planning and preparation before I leave on Thursday that I've left pieces on these books for after I come back.

Thanks again for all the kind emails and comments, and there'll be a new piece here on Sunday morning. If you'd like to read any of my older work in the meantime, most of my good older pieces are linked to from here.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Some thoughts on nearly popping it

For the last two days I've been lying in bed knocked out not only by high fever but also by the most agonising headaches (though this should not be interpreted as an accusation, readers; it has nothing to do with the quality of comments you've been sending in, or with what small numbers visit the Middle Stage these days).

I went to see a GP on the first day, and he said it was a mild viral infection ("Mild? No, you've got it wrong right there, sir!"), and gave me a large set of pills to take, in different colours and with some broken into half. But all those pills went down to no effect, and the next day was just as bad as the first. Nor could I eat anything - I vomited everything straight back out, as if I'd suddenly turned into a human equivalent of a paper shredder.

Lying in bed in unbearable pain, I began to feel I was going to die. I thought of how, from being a person, I would suddenly change into a memory. I thought of all the things I would never manage to do, such as carry out a grand romance, skewer some enemies for good, or write a novel about Eros - heck, any kind of novel. I thought of all my books, growing lonely in their cupboards, and decided that I would generously leave behind my economics and philosophy books to Amit Varma, my books of reportage to Sonia Faleiro, my film books to Rahul Bhatia, my old science fiction books to Jai Arjun Singh, and some of my novels to my Hungarian friend Magda Sdebi. (General people want their ashes sprinkled over the face of the earth, but writers want their books.) I thought of England, where I studied for three years and which I was scheduled to visit next week, and of how I would never again see that beautiful little isle with its handkerchief fields, persistent low-hanging clouds and solemn beer-guzzling people.

As you can see, lying in bed in great pain does tend to encourage the most morbid thoughts, though the good thing is that one can twist them by ten degrees later and make them sound very funny.

Finally I was taken to hospital last evening, where, struggling to even sit up, I was ministered to by a bevy of doctors. In between our appointments my mother kept asking if I'd been working too hard lately (as anyone who knows me well will attest, this is a laughable contention). After many prods, taps and readings one doctor said he suspected I'd caught a mightily serious infection, and suggested I get admitted right away so that they could monitor me closely. I might be in hospital for three days to two weeks.

I have a great horror of hospitals - just entering them makes me feel ill. If I was ever given one wish, instead of asking for a million dollars I'd ask never to have to go to a hospital ever in my life. And strangely enough, within five minutes of him saying this, a young man's blood being what it is, I suddenly began to feel much better. I said I'd take whatever tests he recommended, but after that could I go home please? The doctors agreed, and I was told I could go home after taking a brain scan.

A brain scan involves lying on a long rack, having something strapped onto your forehead, and then being rolled into a large machine. My thoughts were still a bit morbid, and as I began to enter the little cavern it seemed to me as if this was the closest I'd ever get to understanding what it felt like to being inside a grave (not that it usually "feels like" anything to those sent into that underground world).

Ah well, I said to myself, trying to cheer myself up, at least it's totally painless. At this very moment an attendant and a nurse approached me from the left-hand side. They asked me to extend my arm with my fist closed, and before I could protests swiftly inserted a needle into my vein with the force one would expect of an attempt to puncture a bullock hide. What was worse was that, as I lay there with my eyes closed in agony, I could hear the attendant lustily shouting for cotton wool to be brought quickly to him, as if I was bleeding to death before his eyes.

Shortly after, still clutching my arm gloomily, I escaped the hospital.

I feel much better this morning (as you can see), but I'm off now to the hospital for more tests. But I can sit up, walk and think without pain, so if my body's telling the truth, then I think I'm going to be well again soon.

And to celebrate it all I'm going to be back tomorrow or the day after - or perhaps a bit later if I'm asked not to work in front of a screen - and hopefully this day next weekend I'll be bowling off a very long run-up (this is not the same as bowling very fast, but it is the closest approximation of that experience, and if nothing else it is indicative of a great zest of life, to be willing to put in so much effort for such little result) on a lovely green cricket field beneath a blue summery sky in England.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The sweet voice and harsh words of Osip Mandelstam

The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1881-1938) was the brightest in a room full of brilliant flares, one of an extraordinary generation of poets that included Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Blok, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Marina Tsvetayeva, who made up what is called the Silver Age of Russian poetry. No writer more than Mandelstam bore the brunt of the political experiment launched by his country in the second decade of the twentieth century. It could be said that he loved and lived for his native Russia, and died at the hands of the Soviet Union.

Mandelstam grew up in St.Petersburg; his father was a leather merchant, and his mother a piano teacher. After graduating from school he visited Paris and became enamoured, like TS Eliot, of the work of the French Symbolists, but on his return to Russia he became associated with a poetic movement called Acmeism that emphasized clear language and concrete imagery. In any case, the work of great poets exceeds the bounds of poetic schools. Mandelstam once referred to poetry as "sweet-voiced labour". Here, in a translation by Albert C. Todd, is "A Body Was Given To Me", a poem from his late twenties ripe with the sound of a polished "sweet voice":

A Body Was Given To Me

A body was given to me - what to do with it,
So unique and so much my own?

For the quiet joy of breathing and living,
Who is it, tell me, that I must thank?

I am the gardener, I am the flower as well,
In the dungeon of the world I am not alone.

On the glass of eternity has already settled
My breathing, my warmth.

A pattern prints itself on it,
Unrecognizable of late.

Let the lees of the moment trickle down -
The lovely pattern must not be wiped away.
"For the quiet joy of breathing and living,/Who is it, tell me, that I must thank?" - what beautiful lines are those. Note especially how the pause in the second line "fills out" the line - the words "tell me" are not strictly necessary, but the pause makes the line sound somehow reverential and prayerful. Just looking at these lines one can see how, as the writer and translator Christopher Logue says in an interview, "a poem’s text is a sort of [musical]score as well as a text". The work of the young Mandelstam celebrates the music of life and of poetry. "And if a song's properly sung/With a full heart, then at last/All disappears; there remain/Just the singer, space and the stars!"

The great and unavoidable event of Mandelstam's life, as of the lives of everybody of his generation, was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that sought, and managed to bring about by force, a complete break with all the ways of the old tsarist Russia. Mandelstam, like many other Russian poets and intellectuals, felt ambivalently towards the Revolution; it both attracted and terrifed him. In one of his poems, "The Age", he compares the age to a wild animal with a broken back, looking at its own footprints.

Although he realised swiftly enough that there was something warped about the Communist dream, the confidence radiated by many of his peers threw Mandelstam into corrosive self-doubt (indeed, it was to be decades before the truth about the worst excesses of the Communist regime in Russia emerged). As his wife Nadezhda Mandelstam, whose book Hope Against Hope is one of the greatest works of Russian dissident literature, remarked, "It is not so simple to go against everybody and against the times. The power of the 'general will' is enormous - to resist it is much harder than people think - and we are all marked by the times we live in."

At the time the mere suspicion of dissent brought in its wake harassment by the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. Mandelstam soon found visitors from the government landing up at his home to ask him questions and explain to him the meaning of this or that line from his work. Mandelstam gave up writing poetry for several years. When he began writing again in the nineteen-thirties, the truth had become clear to him, though not to millions of his countrymen. His voice was now, in the words of his wife, "the voice of an outsider who knew he was alone and prized his isolation".

And what isolation. Here is Mandelstam's poem about Stalin from 1934, "We Live, Not Feeling":

We Live, Not Feeling

We live, not feeling the country beneath us,
Our speech inaudible ten steps away,
But where they're up to half a conversation -
They'll speak of the Kremlin mountain man.

His thick fingers are fat like worms,
And his words certain as pound weights.
His cockroach whiskers laugh,
And the top of his boots glisten.

And all around his rabble of thick-skinned leaders,
He plays through services of half-people.
Some whistle, some meow, some snivel,
He alone merely caterwauls and prods.

Like horseshoes he forges decree after decree-
Some get it in the forehead, some in the brow,
some in the groin, and some in the eye.
Whatever the execution - it's a raspberry to him
And his Georgian chest is broad.
Each detail of this poem is carefully selected to give a sense of looming menace. People speak in whispers; the only time they can raise their voice is when they speak well of the "Kremlin mountain man". Images of metal, hard and unfeeling, predominate in the description of Stalin - his words like pound weights, his decrees his horsehoes. He exudes danger from every angle and every pore, and both the people with him and those oppressed by him have been reduced to "half-people", who live not feeling.

And the "sweet voice" of the young Mandelstam - it has itself become harsh and metallic in these new circumstances. Mandelstam was arrested soon after, and sent to prison, where he lost his mental balance and tried to commit suicide; eventually he died in prison in 1938. His wife zealously preserved his manuscripts, often in ingenious hiding places, through the long years of Soviet censorship, and they began to appear in the sixties and seventies under the more liberal regimes of those years.

More poems by Mandelstam can be found here and here. Adam Kirsch has an excellent essay on Mandelstam here. Mandelstam can be heard reading some of his poems here at the large archive of Russian poetry An extract from Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope, "The Date of Death", can be found here.

And here are some links to aspects of the Russian experiment with Communism, perhaps the worst set of political ideas ever to have been given credence by intelligent men and women across wide swathes of space and time. Frances Stonor Saunders's beautiful essay "The Lost Tribe of Russia" - one of the sharpest book reviews I've ever read - deals with Lesley Chamberlain's recent book The Philosophy Steamer, about a group of Russian intellectuals sent into exile by Lenin in 1922 and sundered from their homeland for good.

In February there were a host of essays published in the world press to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Khrushchev's famed secret speech to the Twentieth Congress in 1956, of which here is one of the best, "Khrushchev’s secret speech and the end of Communism", written by the Soviet dissident Roy Medvedev.

And from some years ago, "You Are Strong, You Are Weak, Mother Russia" by the scholar of Russian history Robert Conquest, about why the reasons for Russia's problems with the transition to democracy, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, may be glimpsed in Russia's centuries-long history of authoritarian rule. ("Above all, nations do not escape their history.")

And finally, an old post about the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who also spent a great deal of time in prison, and whose work also devotes itself to understanding what it is to "live with feeling".

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Books Interview: Samrat Upadhyay

Samrat Upadhyay’s book of short stories The Royal Ghosts, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Times in February, is among the two or three best books I’ve read this year. Samrat kindly consented to an interview over email, and I present here his replies to some questions I asked him about his writing and reading. The Royal Ghosts will be out in India soon.

You have now written two books of short stories and one novel, which is unusual given that most writers today privilege the writing of novels. What do you find attractive about short story form?

The short story remains my first love. It is the form in which I began seeing myself as a serious writer, starting as an M.A. student in the late eighties. I love its compression, the deadline it gives me: I have a number of pages in which to accomplish certain things. No time or room to dilly-dally (although great writers are adept at taking us to the edge of dillydally-ness and turning around). I like the story’s shunning of luxury, a luxury the novel welcomes. In a way the story is saying, “Here are the rules, here are ways to break the rules, but you’d better be really careful.” (I just realized how closely that sounds to the mother in Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” offering admonishment and advice to her daughter. Kincaid’s story in itself is a meditation on the form of the story.)

Another attraction of short stories is that working on them allows me to enter multiple worlds and perspectives, some drastically different from one another. I am not bound to one world for months on end, as I am while writing a novel. I find this incredibly freeing. If I get tired of a story, I can bring it to a reasonable end and move onto something else. Alice Munro has said that the story form’s absence of elongated engagement suited her life as a busy mother. Nadine Gordimer has talked of stories being appropriate for our modern, restless consciousness; I greatly like how she talks of the story as a flash of the firefly for its sudden illumination.

Could you talk a little about the stories from which you've learnt the most about matters of technique or the delineation of character?

Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” remains an all-time favorite with me: the shock of the first line (“When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug”) followed by a languorous opening of several long paragraphs in which the body of the cockroach battles fiercely with the soul of a traveling salesman. It can’t get better than this, just in terms of “bursting” into a story, turning our world topsy-turvy, then relaxing and teasing out the implications of the opening line. When I read “The Metamorphosis,” I find myself participating in the writing process.

I’ve learned much from Nadine Gordimer on how to control narrative distance—you know, move away to provide a larger, omniscient picture, then zoom in on an individual character’s intimate feelings and thoughts. William Trevor is a writer whose technique I admire the most, but feel as if it’ll take me a couple of lifetimes to master what he does: provide a startlingly visual picture for the reader without compromising psychological accuracy. His compassion for his characters, even the “baddest” ones, seeps through the gaps between the words, and I’m in awe of it. “The Potato Dealer” from his collection After Rain is a good example of this. Simultaneously, we experience three characters’ point of view, and Trevor manages to make us feel for all of them.

Realist fiction relies to a great extent on verisimilitude, on its ability to persuade the reader through minutely observed details. Your stories are full of details about Nepal, but you yourself do not live in that country any more. How hard is that when it comes to matters of description, of scene setting? Or is your distance from Nepal helpful?

It’s not hard at all. Most of the core images I use come from my first twenty-one years of life in Nepal, often from my childhood. Both the emotional and geographical distance helps me observe, I believe, the terrain of my stories more objectively than I would otherwise. Of course, I visit Nepal at least once every couple of years, as my parents and relatives still live there. Naturally, I “update” myself with the latest changes so that at least in terms of sensory images my stories maintain an illusion of verisimilitude. I say ‘illusion’ because some people take realism to mean “authentic,” a term which then is used to lash out against writers who they feel aren’t “representing” reality as they see fit. Needless to say, South Asian writers living in the west are easy targets of what Vikram Chandra has called “the cult of authenticity”. The epigraph to my first book Arresting God in Kathmandu recalls the Tibetan yoga’s practice of regarding every life detail as a dream—that’s my philosophy of fiction.

The American novelist and short-story writer Bernard Malamud once said of his methods, “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times - once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say. Somewhere I put it this way: first drafts are for learning what one's fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.” Would you agree with that?

Yes, I do, although with the caveat that it depends upon the story. Only one story I’ve written, “Deepak Misra’s Secretary” from my first collection, didn’t go through the three stages that Malamud speaks of. That story I finished in a week, did some minor editing, and that’s how it was published in a journal and later in the book. All the rest have gone through various stages of exploration and discovery. In almost half of my stories the pleasure has come about only in the revision stage, once the story really begins to come together. But then, sometimes revision is pure drudgery—but necessary.

Every reader has some favorite passage from literature, something that seems to him or her an example of the sharpest, most subtle writing? Is there a passage like that you'd like to cite from a book, explaining what you like about it?

I can recall many such favorite passages, but the one that gives me goose bumps every time I teach it, and one that I even managed to echo in one of my stories, is from Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” The story charts the agony of a mother forced to live through her son’s coma and eventual death, all the while hounded by a baker who keeps making nasty phone calls about the son’s birthday cake that was never picked up. After their son’s death, the furious mother, accompanied by her husband, goes to the baker’s shop to accost him. When they tell him that their son is dead, the baker changes. The passage below, for me, shows what great literature really does: bring together antagonistic forces, with ample respect for the complexities of emotions involved, so that even the most extremes of feelings become transformed into some sweet, earthly, and meditative:

"You probably need to eat something," the baker said. "I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this," he said.
He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. "It's good to eat something," he said, watching them. "There's more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in here."
They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.
"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
You work in the USA as a teacher of creative writing. I'd like to ask you to what extent it is possible to teach someone to writer better fiction or poetry? And is there another way to the same goal? Is it possible to write better by learning to read better?

If you think of learning how to write as similar to learning music, then “creative writing” doesn’t seem like such a bizarre notion. I can’t teach those students who have no ear for language, or those who can not distinguish between easy, clich├ęd ploys of commercial, genre-oriented literature and serious, artistically compelling stuff. But I can teach students to gain better control of their material, to expand and refine their vision, and to come to terms with the reality of the profession. If you think of writing as an “apprenticeship,” which includes both learning skills and practicing, then reading becomes a way of learning skills. But this doesn’t necessarily need to happen in academia; writers groups in local communities can mirror the kind of gathering one finds in MFA programs like ours at Indiana University.

Which are the dozen or so books that you would like to take with you into the afterlife, if such a thing exists?

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas
Anita Desai, In Custody
Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey
William Trevor, Collected Stories
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems
Franz Kafka, Complete Stories

What are your work habits like?

I tend to get up very early in the morning to write, but get tired easily. Also, I have a full time job of teaching, so I write at most 3-4 hours a day.

Do you read literary criticism or book reviews? What, in your opinion, is the work of such activity? Are there any critics you specially like reading?

I do read book reviews; not only my reviews of my work but of others. I think discussion and reflection are nourishing activities for writers. I prefer to read works of criticism or essays by writers themselves, as I find them more illuminating. So, Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands remains a favorite of mine, a work I’ve often gone back to repeatedly. I’ve also learned much about the social responsibility of the writer from Nadine Gordimer’s The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, a collection of essays on what it meant to be a writer under apartheid.

Would you care to make any observations on the political situation in Nepal today?

Now that an autocratic regime has been defeated, I am very optimistic about the resolution of the Maoist political impasse in Nepal. Here’s my recent op-ed on the subject, "A King in Check", from the New York Times. And here’s another essay that appeared in the Times three years ago.

Have you been to India? Did you find yourself comparing to to Nepal in this way and that?

I have traveled extensively in northern India; studied in Bombay for a year in the early eighties; and now frequently visit Kolkata as my sister lives there. I grew up on a steady diet of Hindi movies, and I think sometimes my stories have undercurrents of the dramas of Hindi movies of yore. Nepali and Indian cultures are quite similar, with similarities in food and Hindu rituals and festivals.

These interviews always end with a question not related to literature, though related to the good life. Please tell us what your favorite meal is - and if you cook yourself, how it is cooked.

Momos, Nepali dumplings. Even thinking about momos makes my mouth water. Best momos will explode in your mouth, filling your palate with sharp, tangy juice that’s simply heavenly. The meat itself is yummily spicy, and before you even finish swallowing one momo, you must plop the next one into your mouth so that it’s a continuous, seamless orgasm.

I know of no Nepali who doesn’t like momos, so I’d venture to say that momos are probably more a symbol of Nepali unity that the institution of monarchy can ever be! Here’s the recipe my friend Karl Eisenhower put up on his website after he learned how to cook momos from my wife Babita. Chicken instead of pork will do just as well.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Fakir Mohan Senapati's roundabout fictions

My long essay on Fakir Mohan Senapati's novel Six Acres and a Third appears today in the new issue of Himal, a bimonthly magazine published from Kathmandu.

The 19th century Oriya novelist Fakir Mohan Senapati was a most oblique writer – he hardly said or meant anything in a straightforward way. Much of his work is ironical and satirical, and of course irony and satire work through indirection, by way of the meaningful glance rather than the plainspoken word. Yet irony, while aiming to surprise, can sometimes be applied too predictably, and then it becomes as unsubtle as the more homespun narrative mode it disdains. Thankfully this is not the case with Senapati: he worked with a very light and delicate hand.

At one point in Senapati’s newly translated novel Chha Mana Atha Guntha (Six Acres and a Third), the narrator, who often addresses the reader directly, remarks that “unpleasant truths are better left unspoken; in other words, we are forced to forget half the truth and tell you the other half.” This might serve as a loose definition of satire, which tells the truth by denying the truth. When Senapati describes the greedy ways of his hero, the venal zamindar Ramachandra Mangaraj, defending him all the while by saying that he is really a “kind and pious man” who is slandered by his subjects, Mangaraj is exposed more effectively than a simple and uninflected chronicle of his evils could have managed. The narrator is, in effect, repaying Mangaraj with the same duplicity that Mangaraj himself practices on those around him – he has a friendly hand on Mangaraj’s shoulder while simultaneously winking at the reader, confident that “for intelligent people, hints usually suffice”. This jaunty line of attack is Senapati’s way of pointing to unpleasant truths in a way that also gives the reader pleasure.

Chha Mana Atha Ghunta was written in 1902; at this point the novel in India, a legacy of colonial rule, was about four decades old. Most of the novel’s initial practitioners belonged to the new class of Indians who had, after the implementation of Lord Thomas Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education in 1835, received an education in English. (In fact, in 1864 the young Bankimchandra Chatterjee, then a district magistrate in Khulna in Bengal, wrote his first novel, Rajmohan’s Wife, in English.)

Senapati, like Bankimchandra and many other early Indian novelists, had some connection with the business of government and therefore to British rule. He was born Braja Mohan Senapati, but when a mysterious illness threatened to take his life when he was still a child, his grandmother took him to a dargah and promised to offer him as a fakir, a Muslim mendicant, if he lived. The boy recovered, but the grandmother was loath to give him up, and instead he was renamed Fakir Mohan and made a "fakir" for eight days every Mohurrum. In his autobiography Story of My Life, a classic of Indian literature still to be published in its entirety in English, Senapati recalls the fakir's garb he wore at Mohurrum: "shorts which would reach down to my knees, a multicoloured shirt, a fakir cap, a patchwork shoulder bag, a red walking-stick."

Later, Senapati worked as a schoolteacher and a dewan, or administrator, on feudatory estates. Six Acres and a Third, which is set in a feudal world and concerns a land dispute, probably has its roots in these experiences. Although Senapati’s book is recognisably a novel, it is has many Indian twists with no precedent in the classic Victorian novel then available to Indian writers - it is the novel form soaked in the crucible of Senapati's own reading and experience. Its plot is not linear, its methods of characterisation are fruitfully eccentric, and its storyteller’s tone seems to fuse the form of traditional novelistic narrative with older Indian narrative traditions.

The plot of Six Acres and a Third revolves around Ramachandra Mangaraj’s attempt to appropriate a village farmer’s verdant smallholding, six-and-a-third acres in area. Senapati’s is a moral tale: Mangaraj’s devious stratagems are successful, but soon his deeds return to haunt him, and he falls spectacularly from grace, losing every piece of his wealth.

This plot outline makes the novel sound more unsophisticated than it really is, for Senapati was not just an incomparably subtle but also a happily digressive writer. In Six Acres and a Third, the reader will find long sections on the place of the temple and the pond in village life, extended character portraits such as the one of Mangaraj’s shrewish maid Champa, and meditations upon human nature and Indian history. One of the features of Senapati’s narrative is the multiple levels on which it works simultaneously. “What do these six acres and a third represent?” the narrator asks towards the end of the book. It is reallly a rhetorical question, for we already know how much a plot of land can represent in the hands of a writer as astute as Senapati. His novel casts a searching ironic light upon the injustices of the zamindari system as well, the depredations of British colonialism, the suffocating hierarchies and prejudices of caste, and more generally at man’s capacity for inhumanity to other men.

But the truth is – and this is what is most charming about Senapati – that the author was really a kind of incorrigible ironist. His work is not dependent on the gross folly of the wicked, but the naturally crooked timber of humanity. In fact, if his novel persuades us about anything, it is about the ubiquity of human vanity and frailty. The tone of his narrative is that of the village gossip – sly, garrulous, conspiratorial, and full of hints and winks and insinuations. At one point, while describing the representations of some mythological scenes in Mangaraj’s courtyard, the narrator remarks, “Somewhere in Rajasthan, on seeing the image of a nude woman, Tod Sahib came to the conclusion that all women in ancient India went about naked.” (‘Tod Sahib’ refers to Colonel James Tod, the author of a widely-read book called Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan.) On another occasion, we are told about the village priest, a greatly respected man who runs the shrine of the village goddess, Budhi Mangala. “The priest was very highly regarded in the village, particularly by the women,” the narrator notes. “The goddess frequently appeared to him in his dreams and talked to him about everything.” That "about everything" – as if the goddess personally reports to the priest – is a damning phrase.

Cranes and kingfishers
One strand of thought in Six Acres and a Third that seems particularly striking from our twenty-first century point of view is Senapati’s response to the British – their reshaping of Indian civilisation, the adoption of new systems of government and jurisprudence, the newly emergent discourse of Western rationalism and scientific progress, and the missionary zeal of Christianity.

Senapati’s reading of these matters is quite complex. On the one hand, he makes fun of the assumptions of racial superiority held by the British. “Today, in the 19th century, the sciences enjoy great prestige, for they form the basis of all progress,” the narrator declares. “See, the British are white-skinned, whereas Oriyas are dark in complexion. This is because the former have studied the sciences, whereas the latter have no knowledge of these.” Senapati jocularly asserts that what are thought to be racial differences really have their bases in matters of environment: once the Oriyas learn science, they too will become white-skinned, and then the British will have neither an intellectual nor racial basis for lording over them.

But at other points Senapati chastises his own countrymen for the weakness of their opposition to the outsiders. “Historians say it took Clive less time to get the Bengal Subedari from the emperor of Delhi,” the narrator remarks, “than it takes one to buy and sell a donkey.” He is also concerned about the manner in which "English culture is rushing in like the first floods of the river Mahanadi". He mocks the way the new class of English-educated Indians have uncritically adopted Western assumptions: “Ask a new babu his grandfather’s father’s name,” he sniffs, “and he will hem and haw, but the names of the ancestors of England’s Charles the Third will readily roll of his tongue.”

Senapati was a naturally metaphorical writer. Indeed, his metaphors are often striking not just for their vividness and specificity – water lilies fold themselves up and hide during the day “like young Hindu daughters-in-law”; cows chew their cud “like baishnavas, moving their mouths as if they were repeating the divine name” - but for the ways in which grand meanings suddenly emerge from everyday juxtapositions. At one point, speaking of the birds found near the village pond, the narrator notes how the cranes churn the mud “like lowly farmhands” looking for fish all day long, while kingfishers appear suddenly, conduct swift raids, and gorge themselves on the stolen pickings. “Oh, stupid Hindu cranes,” he laments, “look at these English kingfishers…”

The great virtue of this new translation (by Rabi Shankar Mishra, Satya P Mohanty, Jatindra K Nayak and Paul St-Pierre) is that it renders the music of Senapati’s wonderfully salty and colloquial Oriya into a limber and mellifluous English. Nayak has already translated sections of Senapati’s autobiography, and perhaps the entire book will be widely available in an English translation soon. In the meantime, we have this piquant and gossipy book, one of the cleverest and most subtle novels ever written.

Some links: Satya P Mohanty writes about the linguistic and technical innovations of Six Acres and a Third here. A very funny chapter from the novel, "A brief history of the Asura Pond", can be found here. And here is an essay by Jaitirth Rao with some rather unorthodox opinions, "In praise of Thomas Macaulay".

And an old essay on an Indian writer whose work shares some similarities with Senapati: "The world of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay".