Thursday, September 28, 2006

On Hamid Dalwai's Fuel

The Marathi writer Hamid Dalwai (1932-1977) was, like many writers who came to maturity in the decades immediately after India's independence, committed to scrutinising Indian society - in his case, particularly the world of Indian Muslims - and working and campaigning towards a better world. Dalwai was a proponent not just of Muslim social reform in areas such as divorce law, but he also wanted to advance the cause of ideas - secularism, liberal humanism - which he thought were distant from the world of orthodox Muslim society in India. This subject is addressed in what is probably his best-known work, Muslim Politics in Secular India.

But Dalwai also wrote one novel - Indhan, or Fuel, published in 1966 but was only made available in English after the turn of the century, in a translation by his contemporary Dilip Chitre, one of India's most distinguished men of letters. It is a curious novel, covering difficult territory, and a little rough around the edges either in the original or in translation, but it realises vividly the world and the internal dynamics of a small town inhabited by several different communities separated by religion and caste. Its subject is religious strife, and man's inherent tribalism, which in times of crisis leads him to conceive of the most barbaric deeds. Indhan was written when Partition and its horrors were not yet two decades past, and it is a sobering reminder - no less relevant in our times - of how human beings can be brought to collective derangement by real or perceived provocations. The fuel of the title might be thought of as the massive incendiary power under some circumstances of a single human action or gesture.

Indhan is narrated in the first person by a middle-aged Muslim man (he never gives us his name) who is returning from Mumbai to his hometown in the Konkan after fifteen years. The narrator's beliefs were at odds with those of his family, one of a community of prosperous Khots or landowners. Not only is he an atheist, in the years preceding his departure from the village he tacitly supported the program of land reform that worked in favour of the town sharecroppers and against his own class interests (thus, like Dalwai, he might be thought of as standing for a new "idea if India" and for the dissolution of old hierarchies and reactionary ideas). In Mumbai he joined a progressive political party and became a well-known leader; although he has not been seen in his own village for so long, people know of him from seeing his picture in the newspapers.

Now a heart attack has left the narrator in fragile health, and he returns not just to recuperate but also to resume the relationships whose call he has ignored for so long. His father does not even recognise him; his brother has himself aged remarkably, and the narrator is struck by guilt on seeing him: "He carried the added burden of the duties I shrugged off, along with his own. His situation had been like one of a pair of bullocks pulling a cart, finding the other reluctant to budge."

In the days that follow the narrator walks around meeting people he used to know, and this allows Dalwai to lay out the town's complex demography: the former landowning class of Muslims; the Brahmins; the farmer and the barber castes, and finally the low-caste Mahars or untouchables, who have now converted to Buddhism. These communities are interdependent economically but wary of each other socially; notions of high and low, pure and impure, are still in force. However, sex is the force that dissolves these boundaries: the narrator discovers that his brother has a Hindu mistress, and that a family friend has a Mahar woman as a keep. These transgressions are to spiral later into a violent tumult.

In one of the most striking passages of Fuel, the narrator notes the changing of the seasons and watches the dust swirling around his house in the high wind:

The rains vanished and - by and by - swirls of dust took their place. The dust gathered in the air over our house and with the cold wind blowing, started settling all over the house…. The dust was going to gather over and over again, tons of it each day. It was going to spread all over the house and lie still where it fell. It was going to grow into huge heaps. Nobody would take the trouble to sweep it off. Who would sweep it? How often? And what was the use of taking such pains?…Before the next rains, people would sweep this dust away and make heaps of it in their backyards. Then, one day, raindrops would storm those heaps of dust. At first the heaps of dust would swallow up the raindrops battering them. The dust would…drink up the water from all those cold raindrops. But the water would prove too much to absorb. In the end, the dust would exude a fine tantalizing fragrance, a fragrance one would want to get one's teeth into, and the dust would disappear with the rain - just melt away - so as to return, after the next harvesting season, to settle over these houses again.
This vision of the workings of the natural world, serenely defeating all human resistance ("Who would sweep it? How often?") is very striking, and invites comparison with the closing paragraphs of Chekhov's story "The Kiss". But this passage tells us something also about the narrator's own weariness and languor, and it is paralleled later in the realm of human affairs when religious tensions break out with the same pent-up force, and the narrator, after making an abortive attempt to reach a settlement like he had in the past, bows down before the clamour swelling in his ears: "If there was going to be an explosion, let there be an explosion! If it was going to incinerate me, let me be incinerated in it too…"

Indhan reaches a climax in a riot in which outrages are visited on one community by goons recruited by the other; the narrator runs helter-skelter trying to save his own people, but of course he has alliances on both sides. An uneasy peace is enforced by the police, and the process of judicial enquiry begins. The narrator, sickened by all he has seen, leaves again for the city - the novel begins and ends with a bus ride. But even though the narrator has left his hometown behind, he continues to speak of the various players in the drama and their fates, and his narration shifts into the future tense. Is this what really happened, or is this what he is dreaming will happen? The novel combines traditional novelistic technique with modernist elements that disorient the reader.

Translation itself is not a simple process of like-for-like substitutions across languages, and among Chitre's most daring moves is to translate the Konkani Muslim Marathi dialect spoken by the narrator's community as a blend of black and country American dialect. Chitre writes that he was unwilling to render "a dialect in the source-text as standard register in the target-text", and so he has invented a kind of patois to communicate the sense of one in the original Marathi. Here is the narrator's father is admonishing him for his preoccupation with politics: "Izzis all ya'd do in ya life? An' earn nothin'? Not feed yo'self? Not feed yo' family?" This is a surprisingly successful move: when I think of the local dialects in my own state of Orissa, their rhythms are like this, with similarly crooked pronunciation.

Here is an essay by Chitre, "Remembering Hamid Dalwai"; Ramachandra Guha had occasion to discuss Dalwai's political opinions in this piece from two years ago: "Liberal India on the Defensive". Prominent among Chitre's other translations is Says Tuka, his acclaimed renditions of the poems of the 17th-century Bhakti poet Tukaram; the very good introduction to this volume can be read here. Chitre also writes a blog here.

Other posts on Indian writers in translation: on Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, Sadat Hasan Manto, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay, and Fakir Mohan Senapati.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

In Kolkata for a bit

I'm in Kolkata for a couple of weeks and don't know a great many people here, but I must talk to live, else I'll never get any work done, and then things won't work out as I intend them to, and I'll recede in life instead of advancing.

So if you're a Kolkata blogger, or even a Kolkata reader of my blog, and would like to meet, then email me. I must warn you that I'm an absolute demon: grumpy, poker-faced, silent as a ticket clerk, inscrutable as a cloud, and given to endless curses and complaints. But if you're sunny enough we may be able to overcome these difficulties.

And, by way of other diversions, here's Amitava Kumar on another writer, also Indian, who did not want to meet when in town. Amitava, come over to Kolkata - it's not working out for you at Vassar.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

On Saul Bellow's Seize The Day

Saul Bellow's Seize The Day is considered one of the greatest short novels in the English language. It appeared nearly half a century ago, in 1957, and it was Bellow's fourth novel, and the first after the one with which he made his name, The Adventures of Augie March. The Royal Swedish Academy, when awarding Bellow the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, made special mention of Seize The Day, though Bellow himself, in an interview late in life with his great contemporary Philip Roth, asserted that he didn't like the book much, and that he felt very little sympathy for its protagonist Tommy Wilhelm (it would have distressed Wilhelm greatly to know this, for his great problem in the book is that nobody feels any sympathy for him).

Curiously, Bellow is very little read in India - I can't remember his name ever coming up in conversation with other readers. And his books are very hard to find in Indian bookshops: the books go straight from Beaumont to de Bernieres. In fact, it is easier to find a set of his works secondhand, at the bookshop on the pavement opposite Flora Fountain in Bombay, at the place where DN Road and MG Road meet. This was where a week ago I pounced upon an edition of his very hard-to-find book To Jerusalem and Back, an account of a visit to Israel that first appeared as a series of pieces in the New Yorker in the '70s. But to return to Seize the Day.

Tommy Wilhelm is a man broken by life, and he is past helping himself. He is hoping that something or somebody will save him. On the morning on which we meet him first - and the timespan of the novel does not extend beyond this day - we see him at breakfast with his father who, like him, occupies a room at the Hotel Gloriana in New York. But while his father, a retired doctor and a widower, is living at the Gloriana in comfortable retirement, Wilhelm in midlife is a refugee from his home - he is separated from his wife, who now makes constant financial demands on him for the care of their two children - and wracked both by present troubles and unhappy memories.

Wilhelm is a big, still-handsome man, though a little stooped and thickened with age, with an attitude of "large, shaky, patient dignity" - Bellow repeatedly emphasises his heavy physicality, and by implication his burdened soul, by returning to the details of his body and his posture. (An example of the deployment of a similar technique in a contemporary novel might be the references to Chanu's obesity in Monica Ali's Brick Lane - Chanu "moving sideways like a big, soft-shelled crab" or his stomach rolling "a little farther into its nest of thigh" - only here they are suggestive of Chanu's complacent outlook).

Wilhelm thinks of his life as a series of setbacks. A good part of his youth was wasted unsuccessfully trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood (His last appearance on screen, we are told, was as an extra in a scene where he had to blow the bagpipes: "Wilhelm, in a kilt, barelegged, blew and blew and blew and not a sound came out. Of course all the music was recorded.") after which he spent several years as a salesman of children's furniture before falling out with the management and resigning. He and his wife are incompatible, but she will not give him a divorce; he feels she is turning his two children against him even as she sends him bills. And his father, from whom he expects a little sympathy and understanding if not monetary assistance, is cold to him.

The only person who is willing to take time to hear Wilhelm is the mysterious psychologist Dr. Tamkin, one of many Bellovian figures full of flowery talk and bizarre ideas. Among the many bits of advice Tamkin offers Wilhelm ("I want to tell you, don't marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together, just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it's adultery.") is to practice living in the "here-and-now" and to "seize the day".

Many criticisms can be made of Bellow - his plots don't move very well, his protagonists are too much like each other, there are few sympathetic female characters in his work- but, like Dickens, he was a master of that most essential of novelistic arts, that of portraiture. Here is his vivid realisation of Tamkin - not at the moment at which he is first introduced, but midway through the book, at a moment when Tamkin happens to take his hat off before Wilhelm:

What a creature Tamkin was when he took off his hat! The indirect light showed the many complexities of his bald skull, his gull's nose, his rather handsome eyebrows, his vain mustache, his deceiver's brown eyes. His figure was stocky, rigid, short in the neck, so that the large ball of the occiput touched his collar. His bones were peculiarly formed, as though twisted twice where the ordinary human bone was turned only once, and his shoulders rose in two pagoda-like points. At mid-body he was thick. He stood pigeon-toed, a sign perhaps that he was devious or had much to hide. The skin of his hands was aging, and his nails were moonless, concave, clawlike, and they appeared loose. His eyes were as brown as beaver fur and full of strange lines. The two large brown naked balls looked thoughtful - but were they? And honest - but was Dr.Tamkin honest?
And here, just for pleasure, is Dickens's famous portrait of Scrooge at the beginning of A Christmas Carol ( Scrooge might be said to have a connection with Wilhelm, in that he too must break with the past and learn to "seize the day"):

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.
Seize The Day ends with a beautiful scene in which Wilhelm, having lost most of his money at the bourses, goes searching for Tamkin, stumbles by accident into a funeral procession, is led towards the dead body and, after holding back his tears at several other points during the day, breaks down here and cries his eyes out. There is no neat resolution of Wilhelm's problems, but what we feel instead is a moment of catharsis.

And as always, great writers inspire great writing from readers. Here is a selection of good pieces about Bellow: "Rereading Saul Bellow" by Philip Roth; "The High-Minded Joker" by James Wood; "Editing Saul Bellow" by his long-time editor at Viking, Elisabeth Sifton; and "Bellow's Great Accomplishment", a very perceptive, often negative, assessment of his work by Tim Marchman ("Saul Bellow is a great writer, but I do not think he has written great books. It's difficult, thinking it through, to name one novel of his that is as good as its best passages, or worthy of its best ideas.What we take instead from Mr. Bellow are characters, precise observations, and particular settings of life that together amount to a style of consciousness."). Ramona Koval has a very good interview with Bellow here - you'll have to scroll down the page a little before Bellow begins.

More on Bellow next month, with a piece on the new issue of a journal he edited with Keith Botsford, News From The Republic of Letters.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Krishna Kripalani's faith and frivolity

The journalist and writer Krishna Kripalani is remembered today, if he is remembered at all, for a biography of Rabindranath Tagore he published in 1962. I have not read this, but last week I happened to discover in a secondhand bookshop a collection of his essays, also published in 1962, called Faith and Frivolity. I must confess I bought it primarily because it was only thirty-five rupees, but now I have read it as well, and I have to report that it is a volume of almost boundless charm.

"Without faith it is difficult to live a good life," announces the blurb on the inside cover (which I have no doubt Kripalani wrote himself; would that more writers wrote their own jacket copy, and put an end to empty hyperbole and gratuitous phrasemaking), "but faith itself may become oppressive if not occasionally relieved by frivolity. Our ancestors understood this psychological need well, for they were adepts at mixing the divine with the obscene and had no compunction in making up most frivolous tales about the gods they worshipped."

Faith and Frivolity is divided into three sections: Personalities (with essays on Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, S.Radhakrishnan, Romain Rolland and others), Trivialities (a title proposed with a broad wink, for it has essays like "Who is a Gandhi-ite?" and "Does Civilisation make for Happiness?") and Frivolities, a collection of diary-style tidbits that Kripalani composed over 1950-51 while he was editing the political weekly Vigil. But whichever mode Kripalani is working in, he is almost evenly dashing, witty and perceptive. Every page of this book carries traces of what must have been a most forceful personality.

Kripalani had that priceless gift without which no essayist can do justice to his form: the gift of succinct and memorable expression, of a rhetorical power that can pack into a paragraph that for which others may require pages. Here, from an essay written in 1945, when the career of Jawaharlal Nehru had not yet reached its peak, is a portrait of the man in two paragraphs:

Nehru occupies a unique position in the world of Indian politics. As a leader he has achieved more eminence than power, and commands more adulation than allegiance. As a politician he is more admirable than effective. He dominates but does not direct events and is more the beloved of the people than their master. His strength lies in the strategic position he occupies between divergent forces. Though not a Gandhi-ite, he enjoys the love and confidence of the Mahatma as perhaps no one else does. The elder politicians value his loyalty, their younger rivals applaud his audacity. The Rightists find him indispensable, the Leftists amenable. He is aggressive enough for the nationalists and international enough for the communists, reasonable enough for the capitalists and radical enough for the socialists. He is identified with no group in Congress. All groups may therefore partially claim him as their own.

What is the secret of this popularity without power, this adoration without allegiance? The secret lies in his personality at once dynamic and stable, revolutionary and rational, rebellious and disciplined. He challenges Gandhism and follows Gandhi, he is aggressive in speech and restrained in action, critical in analysis and compromising in decision, radical in outlook and conservative in loyalties. His revolutionary ardour in challenged by none, his disinterestedness and the innate magmanimity of spirit are trusted by all. He is capable of indiscretion but incapable of meanness, of betraying the larger interest for the sake of a narrow, personal end. He may be betrayed but he will not betray. He thinks for himself, and though he may yield to the superior wisdom of Gandhi or to the discipline of corporate action, he will not use language not his own. He is ready to see another's point of view, a virtue rare in a revolutionary. He tolerates dissent and obliges enemies, virtues rare in a politician.
Note how every sentence builds upon the next by laying out opposing groups or qualities, and demonstrating gradually how Nehru not only seems to bridge them but himself embodies them. All kinds of precise distinctions are made (Nehru "commands more adulation than allegiance"; he is "critical in analysis but compromising in decision") and there is not a word which is superfluous - put together the two paragraphs amount to just about three hundred words, which is how much a person might just as easily take to describe how he was feeling at breakfast. A ringing close is supplied by the final two sentences in each paragraph.

The same powers of concentrated scrutiny and pellucid expression are seen everywhere in the book. Here we find Kripalani noting how science has so demystified the transcendent in human affairs that love is now viewed by serious men as mainly as "a mischief of the libido" and genius "a kind of neurosis". There he is poking gentle fun at intellectuals: "[A]n intellectual is not always one who has a finer intellect than others but one who, whatever his cerebral equipment, believes in it alone and strives to live by it, repudiating more or less the validity of the rest of his being" - an umimproveable formulation. Now we find him giving voice in a lighter vein to something all wives instinctively know: "All married men are envious of bachelors. Having halved their rights and doubled their obligations by marriage, they hate to see bachelors flaunting their freedom." And in another example of happy phrasing he notes in a diary item:
A public meeting in Shradhananda Park in Calcutta ended in a pandemonium following a quarrel between two sections of the followers of Subhas Bose as to whether Netaji is alive or dead. This proves that at any rate his followers are very much alive.
I struggle to articulate what exactly is so funny about that last sentence, but I laughed a great deal when I read it - there is something very droll about it. Of Indian columnists today I can think only of Ramachandra Guha who has the same facility for marrying wit to wisdom. And so I'd like to nominate Faith and Frivolity for republication as the second book of a Library of India series - which I imagine as a series of short, pithy works by both well-known and neglected Indian thinkers, expressing some original point of view but noteworthy also for their style, with introductions by contemporary Indian writers -, the first being a work by Minoo Masani which I wrote about last September.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games

Vikram Chandra's novel Sacred Games is written in English, but it is an English that meets its characters halfway we find in it a sediment of the Hindi in which they really think and speak. Here, for example, is inspector Sartaj Singh threatening a man: "Don't argue with me, gaandu. You want me to take your izzat in front of your family? In front of your daughter?" This is the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde: "Under the grey sky they walked up and down, counting, and while this ginti was going, I discussed my plan with my two controllers."

Even the narrator in the Sartaj sections (the Gaitonde sections are narrated in the first person) often makes this move across tongues. Here is Sartaj at Katekar's funeral: "A man, another constable, carried a matka full of water. Sartaj could hear the rhythmic gulp of the water as he walked. The thali full of flowers and gulal was carried by another constable, close behind... They entered the shamshan through a tall black metal gate." The Hindi is always unitalicised, not marked out as foreign.

As Indian readers we take this quite calmly, and think of it as a judicious and even necessary blend the language allows us through to the characters by appropriating some of their speech in the original. By annexing a part, Chandra suggests the whole: we can readily imagine how the characters might sound in the Hindi.

Of course, Chandra's characters are themselves attracted by the allure and promise of English. In one of the book's most charming passages, revelatory of the struggle of tens of thousands in our country "born far from English", Gaitonde speaks of how his inadequacy in English stings him, and recounts his agonising struggles to master the language (a trivial paradox here is that his lament about English is actually in English):
I closed my door when I studied English because I didn't want anyone seeing me squatting on the floor, one uncertain and slow finger on the letters….It was humiliating, but necessary. I knew that much of the real business of the country was done in English. People like me, my boys, we used English, there were certain words we used with fluency in our sentences, without hesitation, "Bole to voh ekdum danger aadmi hai!" and "Yaar, abhi ek matter ko settle karna hai" and "Us side se wire de, chutiya." But unless you could rattle off whole sentences without having to stop and struggle and go back and build them bit by bitter bit, unless you could make jokes, there were whole parts of your own life that were invisible to you yourself, gone from you. You could live in a Marathi world, or a Hindi colony, or a Tamil lane, but what were those hoardings speaking…?…What were they laughing about, the people who skimmed by smoothly in their cushiony Pajeros? There were many like me, born far from English, who were content to live in ignorance. Most were too lazy, too afraid to ask how, why, what. But I had to know. So I took English, I wrestled it and made it give itself to me, piece by piece.
Like Gaitonde's boys, Chandra has created a serviceable alloy of two languages, in which the smallest dabs of Hindi keep the language close to the ground, and allow Chandra to take off on the most lyrical flights of English and not sound as if he is talking above the characters. This is Gaitonde taking his bride back home during the Bombay riots to the colony he has built, Gopalmath, which he finds ravaged by conflict. Of the two words of Hindi in this passage one is the resonant 'vatan':
Then I looked about, at the homes of Gopalmath. During a lull in my own war I had left my home, and came back to find my home the battleground for a larger conflict. They, somebody, had drawn borders through my vatan. Here was my Gopalmath, the habitation of my heart, the town that I had caused to be built, brick by brick, where I had walked with my friends, arms on shoulders, with the smell of gajras and falling water in the air, where I had found my manhood, my life. Here was the bright quilt of its roofs, stretching from the bowl of the valley up the hill, this vibrant spread of brown and blue and red knit together by the arcing threadlike lanes, here were the numerous angular reachings of the television antennas, catching their fierce glints from the hovering sun. All of it lay desolate. And at the very edge of the horizon, to the south, a smudge of smoke. Under that unbearably bright sky I took my bride home.
Here the gajras and the vatan with which the English is flavoured might be seen as transforming our reading of such phrases as 'the arcing threadlike lanes' or 'the numerous angular reachings of the television antennas'. The apotheosis of this method, in which the burnished lyricism of the English is steadied and Indianised by deposits from the vocabulary of the character, appears to my mind, in the chapter in which Gaitonde is arrested for the first time. In one long, long sentence, which proceeds as if miming the slow progression of the hours, he describes the routine of life in jail:
In three weeks I was able to execute my plan. And in those three weeks, I learnt the rhythms of this new life: the whistle at five in the morning; the drowsy rows outside for the ginti; the rattling of alumunium plates and bowls and the crackling of the tari on the dal, for which tari you paid extra; the long hours of the morning, and then the smell of cooking from the bissi where they kneaded the atta with their feet and threw rotting vegetables into huge bowls; after lunch at ten, the murmur of conversation and the snores and the smell of hundreds of men sweating; the smokers with their precious little balls of charas and their long rituals of burning and crumbling and rolling; the shifting games of chess, and teen-patti, and Ludo, and the curses and the laughter over the rattle of the dice; my boys ranged around the only two carromboards in the barracks, feeding their passionate following of the championship league they had set up, complete with blackboards for singles and doubles ladders; the tussles and sudden enmities that flared between men packed together, that spread like winding fire through the rows of beds; the shouting and threats as two men faced each other under the eyes of a hundred, each too afraid of shame to back down; the brawny kalias from Nigeria selling tiny fifty-rupee packets of brown sugar in the yard; and their clients, hunched knee to knee in tight little circles over their chaser-pannis, breathing in the smoke with the devout expression of men who had seen another, better world. And the long wait for five o'clock and the dinner of the same watery dal, and the lumpy coarse rice, and the rubbery chappatis, and then sleep at eight.
Here is another piece by Jeet Thayil dealing in some detail with the language of Sacred Games. My review of the novel is here.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Interviewed on Bloggasm

I'm interviewed today on Bloggasm, a media website featuring interviews "from the most interesting blogs around". I've talked a bit about literary blogging and all the good things it allows, and confessed to many things, including never having read any of the books my friends have recommended or gifted to me.