Friday, November 24, 2006

Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana at eleven

In 1993 the writer Pankaj Mishra, then in his early twenties, was living in a village called Mashobra in Himachal Pradesh, working on a novel, when he received out of the blue an offer from Penguin India to write a travel book. Mishra took up the offer and, formulating a project around the kind of Indian milieu with which he was best acquainted and his reading of writers like Thorstein Veblen, set out to across India for a period of six months to chronicle the signs of what he thought was "a nascent sensibility", a change in the self-conception and the aspirations of India's burgeoning middle-class. His account of what he saw and heard and sensed on those travels was published to great acclaim in 1995 as Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India, and launched Mishra on travels that were to take him around the world.

Eleven years from the time it was first published, it is clear that Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (available in India next week in a splendid new edition published by Picador, with a new afterword by Mishra) stands as a classic of Indian non-fiction. Reading it this week for the first time, I was struck both by the smoothness of its style - it is a book without any dull bits, and the language has a full, rich flavour - and the strength of its argument, often more implied than asserted, from the picture of small-town Indian life it offers. It is a book that can be just as easily read to pass the time as to understand our age. Unlike most travel books, which suffer from more than a touch of the random and the inessential, it forges something cohesive from the writer's widely scattered rovings. Yet thoughout there is a sense of the thrill of being on the road, of not knowing who or what one is going to come across next.

Among the characters who appear on these pages are Mr.Sharma, a businessman from Ambala and star of one of the book's funniest sequences, in which Mishra realises that, although he is a lowly writer, he is being sized up as a prospective son-in-law ("Ab to suna hai ki kitaab-vitaab likhne mein bhi bahut paisa hai"); Mr.Tomar, owner of a haveli in a village in Rajasthan which he has turned into a hotel, who boasts nonstop about his contacts with the hoi polloi of the social world; a Jain teenager from Rajkot who declares the Hindus and the Jains have the same enemy, the Muslims, and declares that they must be finished off; Rajendra, an acquaintance of Mishra's from Allahabad university who wants to improve himself through reading ("he was the only person I knew who had actually read Dasgupta's five-volume study of Indian philosophy") but cannot come to terms with the fact that he is homosexual; Mrs.Shukla, escorting her daughter to Bombay because she wants to become a model; Salim, the caretaker of a museum in Murshidabad who speaks of how the city kept its peace after the demolition of the Babri Masjid ("Bas thoda ajeeb laga kuch dinon tak, It only felt slightly weird for some days"); and Raghubir Azad, a communist party worker in caste-conflict-ridden Jehanabad, who speaks of how the Ramayana and the Mahabharata legitimate taking up arms against oppression. They are individuals, but most of us know of other people like them: they also become types.

After a while it becomes possible to intuit a scale of values by which the various characters are judged. There are those who exhibit affectation, snobbery and high-handedness - such as Mr.Sharma's teenaged daughter, who throws a fit because a relative has used her bar of Camay soap, or Mr.Tomar with his preposterous blather - and are made the subject of ironical comment. Others exhibit a more serious, even shocking, failing, the absence of any kind of moral compass - such as the young men at the engagement ceremony in Muzaffarnagar, who "boasted about the bribes they had given to municipal officials and sales-tax inspectors, and spoke with awe and reverence of a certain police inspector who had personally killed seven Muslims in a communal riot", or the spiffily dressed teenager from Rajkot with murder in his heart, "oblivious to the morality of his desires and actions". These were people, writes Mishra, who seemed to have "translated the notion of laissez faire into both economic and social terms". Their modernity is a superficial one of dress, social demeanour and consumption; their thinking is barbarous, lacking any sense of good and evil.

On the other hand there are those, like Rajendra, who are striving to make use of their opportunities and to achieve a genuine self-fashioning - "Unlike his compatriots…he realized his incompleteness as a person and strove to overcome that" - and of whom we are given an extended and sympathetic portrait. Still others have become the victim of peculiar predicaments, such as Rajkumar, the owner of a guest house in Pushkar open only to foreigners, not Indians. Asked why, he begins to detail how Indians are filthy and bothersome. "I was struck by the way Rajkumar used the word 'Indians'," writes Mishra. "His foreign guests had 'modernized' him, and in the process had made him a man curiously at odds with his immediate environment, a man out of step with his own culture."

And from the hundreds of impressions of Indian life logged in Butter Chicken — the appalling civic conditions of most small towns; the "aggressive individualism" and ostentation of the newly moneyed classes and their love of kitsch; the cultural impact of satellite television and the adoption of new styles of dress and speech; the hunger for and respect given to wealth, power and prestige regardless of the route taken to them; the nonchalant, unselfconscious, voicing of caste and religious prejudice; the widespread sexual harassment and the ubiquity of pornography — there emerges a kind of double-sided critique of Indian society. On the one hand there is the old feudal, hierarchical India, in which discrimination and injustice are rampant, life is heavily circumscribed by one's caste or sex, and the free expression of personality is suppressed. As Rahul, an acquaintance in Banaras, says of life in many parts of Uttar Pradesh, "The modern idea of regarding people as individuals with their inalienable rights is still centuries away here. For the man with wealth and power everything in his domain, including land and human beings, is his property."

Such a world is antithetical to the spirit of modernity, and there is every reason for wanting to see it changed. But the supposed liberation that has arrived in its place in many parts is itself curiously distorted. To Mishra, while middle-class Indians show a great desire to embrace the the modern, all too often their modernity is only something tacked on to their old lives, such as their participation in consumer culture. It is an ambiguous revolution which has mostly to do with wants and aspirations and very little to do with thought or ideas, and there is often something grasping and pathetic, if not frankly disturbing, about it. The relevance of this argument has not diminished in the decade since Butter Chicken was published. "No other book defines as clearly, and with such troubled irony, our last decade of change," writes Amitava Kumar.

One of the book's best portraits is that of Mary Roy, mother of the novelist Arundhati Roy, describing her struggles against the Syrian Christian Church over inheritance rights and her complicated efforts to forge "an independent modern identity" in which all that is taken as given is reassessed. What faults the book has have to do with a tendency to read certain things too strongly, such as attendants in airconditioned textile shops in sleepy Kottayam "who, listlessly looking out from amid their brilliantly lit enclosures, gave off a strange forlornness", or business executives in an airport lounge: "Here, under the fluorescent lights of the departure lounge, they were set apart, they were an exalted breed".

But for all that it is a serious work, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is a very funny book: Mishra can be both appalled and amused by what he sees and hears, and the characteristic confusion and comedy of Indian life leaps off these pages. By contrast the writer's prose today has a more detached, austere tone. Some of the humour is in the recorded speech of others, such as Mr. Sharma's "Aajkal to behenchod scheduled caste backward caste ka raj hai; Brahman saale scheduled caste ho gaye hain", or the objections of a Bengali tourist to the hit song "Choli ke peeche kya hai" being played on a bus. Elsewhere it is puzzlement building into incredulity. Leaving Udaipur, Mishra's car comes to a halt before an unusually high speedbreaker, and is immediately surrounded by a crowd "of suggestion- and advice-givers". Still more people come out from shops and houses to watch: "From the expectant faces around us, we could have been stunt-jumping a row of burning buses". If Indians can feel such consternation at life in India, then how must it be for foreigners? Mishra finds himself one night in the waiting-room of Banaras station, full of sleeping people:

I tried to doze off in the manner of the people beside me, but failed. I turned instead to following the progress of three large-sized rats, who fearlessly scurried about the floor, nimbly making their way among the recumbent bodies. Once, they accidentally climbed over a sleeping bag and started burrowing into it, mistaking its fluffiness for something edible, and woke up its occupant.

After a brief struggle inside, a startled-looking white face emerged from under the sleeping-bag.

'Jesus Christ!' he exclaimed. 'What the fuck was that?'

Deserving special mention are the chapter on Murshidabad (pages 223-230 in the new edition) and the beautiful note of grace on which the book ends - I would quote it here but that would detach it from its context.

Some pieces by Mishra: a three-part series of essays on Kashmir published in the New York Review of Books in 2000 (1, 2 and 3); "The Restless Children of the Dalai Lama", on the Tibetan struggle for autonomy; and "Gaining Power, Losing Values", a recent piece about the governments of India and China in the New York Times .

And here are some other essays from different perspectives: Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? , a recent five-part series by Stephen Zavestoski, who writes the blog The Curious Stall; "Why Indian intellectuals and activists are hostile to the market" by Ramachandra Guha; "Democracy and Capitalism in India" by Gurcharan Das, and "Markets and Morals", the 1998 Hayek lecture by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Other Middle Stage posts about Indian non-fiction writers: Ashis Nandy, Amartya Sen, Minoo Masani, Sasthi Brata, Ramachandra Guha, Mirza Abu Taleb, and Krishna Kripalani.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Houshang Moradi-Kermani's "The Vice-Principal", and Literature from the "Axis of Evil"

"The Vice-Principal", a story by the Iranian writer Houshang Moradi-Kermani, is one of the most tender and sublime comedies I've read in a long time. It takes as its storyline a conflict between a schoolboy, Majid, and the vice-principal of the school, over an essay Majid has written on a familiar school topic: "Who Renders The Greatest Service to Mankind?". While the writing is very swift and alert, and there are laughs on almost every page, the story unfolds to become a meditation, on the one hand, on the conflict between oppressive authority and its subjects, and on the other, on the power of the moral imagination to enter into and empathise with the predicament of another.

Majid and the other boys of the class have been asked to write an essay by the ferocious vice-principal, who always carries a switch in his hand and a supply of candy in his pocket - not for the children, but for himself, as he is trying to quit his smoking habit ("Whenever he'd get the craving for a cigarette he would toss a few pieces of candy down the hatch instead" - all the charm of that sentence is contained in the phrase "down the hatch", with its image of something disappearing into the hold of a ship). He says grandly to the children that the question of who renders the greatest service to mankind is "entirely up to you", but upon doing the work - composition is his favourite subject, for he wants to become a writer when he grows up - Majid finds that this is not the case.

Majid is asked to read out his essay before the class, and in a long preamble he praises the members of various professions for all that they do to serve man. He continues (the translation from the Persian is by Constance Bobroff and M. R. Ghanoonparvar):

However, if we think a little, we find there is someone in this society who serves men much. He puts in an abundance of effort and if one day he should turn his back or not be there, no one would be willing to perform his job and then we'd all become helpless. Yet despite all this, we don't like him at all and he takes no pride in his work. We all flee at the sight of him and if, God forbid, one fine morning our glance should fall on him in some back alley or on the avenue, we would block our eyes and immediately turn around and get off the streets and go home or back to our job. Yet, no one can be found who does not, sooner or later, have need of his services.

Yes, it is the town body-washer who, in my opinion, more than anyone, renders the greatest service to mankind.
Majid's letter is a small masterpiece of imaginative reasoning. He holds that although many people work in a dedicated manner towards the service of mankind, it is only the man whose work is to ready corpses for dressing, the body-washer Kal Asghar, who is shunned by the rest of society because of his work. (There is a strong parallel here with the plight of low-castes in India). In spite of this he continues to ply his trade stoically without grudges or complaints. Since, for him and for him alone, work in the service of mankind brings with it not only monetary reward but also the penalty of social ostracisation, his sacrifice is greatest and he is most deserving of this accolade.

But for the vice-principal Majid's choice violates all civilised norms. He was expected to make his choice from any one of the conventional options, but instead he has inexplicably chosen as a hero the most marginal and despised figure in society. The vice-principal cannot fathom this alternative scale of values: he asks Majid (who is an orphan, and cared for by his grandmother) "Was your father a body-washer?". Finally he decides this is a attempt by Majid to make a fool out of him before the whole class - this ridiculous essay on the body-washer is really aimed at destabilising the authority of him, the vice-principal. Despite Majid's apologies, he demands to see his guardian the next day, and says he will be rusticated from school.

In one of the story's most beautiful scenes, we see Majid at home, cursing himself for his foolishness first in writing the essay and then in remonstrating with the vice-principal. His granny notices that he is very upset, and asks him what the matter is, but Majid imagines how stricken she will be to hear he has been rusticated, and cannot bring himself to tell her. Instead he spreads out his bedding and hides his face beneath his quilt. Shortly after he hears his granny crying all by herself. Just as, out of consideration for her feelings, he has been trying to deal with the situation all by himself without telling her, so too she, knowing that some great trouble is upon him which he cannot reveal, is thinking about what it might be and crying over his distress. Majid says:
I saw that if I didn't open up and tell her everything right out, the poor creature would stay awake till morning and plain die of grief. My heart melted for her. I was in a terrible bind. If I should lay everything upon the table, that they'd kicked me out of school, woe upon us all. I'd never hear the end of it. Granny, at that time of night, would raise a racket such that everyone in the entire neighborhood would come to know, and yet if I held my ground and didn't say anything, she'd let her imagination get the better of her. Granny was puffing away on her water pipe. She was sobbing away and rocking her head back and forth. I put my head under the covers. I waited until the bubbling sound of her water pipe stopped. I said softly and all choked up:
"Granny, you have to buy me soccer shoes."
The story is available to read online here, so I will leave you to enjoy it. One last remark: note the subtlety of the story's last sentence, which suggests by its particular emphasis that although Majid has had to truckle to the demands of authority, his defeat is not absolute. Were the story to be filmed (and Mehdi-Kermani has written for the cinema), it is clear that the film would end with a mid-shot of Majid running, moving into a close-up of a certain object.

"The Vice-Principal" is itself part of a significant new anthology called Literature From The "Axis of Evil", a selection by the brilliant online magazine for literature in translation Words Without Borders, and published in the USA by the New Press. This book brings together stories and poems by writers from countries dubbed the "Axis of Evil" by George W.Bush - Iran, Iraq and North Korea - as well as other nations with which the United States government shares hostile relations, such as Syria, Libya and Cuba.

As many writers and thinkers, including our own Ashis Nandy, have written, it is invariably the case in our age of the nation-state that when states are hostile to each other, then over time even their citizens grow to fear and demonise each other, and deny their shared humanity. (Growing up, I myself thought that Pakistanis were a specially antagonistic and bloodthirsty people till, at university in England, I met them in real life for the first time and discovered they were not so different from me, even in that they too came to the encounter with assumptions about Indians.) In the introduction to Literature From The "Axis of Evil" the editor of Words Without Borders writes:

The "Axis of Evil" is an abstraction that obliterates both the very great differences between the included countries, which are not even remotely in alliance with each other, and the distinctiveness of the individuals who live in them. …But it is not the place of this book to provide foreign policy or commentary. Our hope was that with this book we might simply celebrate diverse works of literature and through them, provide fresh perspectives on the notion of "enemy nation"….Literature, at its best, should allow us to see the individual rather than the general; to participate in some intimate way in other lives rather than melding them into shapeless abstractions. Newspapers give us accounts of tyrannical and corrupt leaders, and brave dissidents under trial - the heroes and the villains of the story - yet rarely do we have any contact with the more subtle hopes and ambitions of unique individuals, the oddballs and misfits as well as the "ordinary citizens".
Those are very sage words.

"The Vice-Principal" is taken from Moradi-Kermani's collection Qesehaye Majid (The Stories of Majid). I also had the good fortune recently of seeing the Iranian filmmaker Dariush Mehrjui's marvellous Mama's Guest (Mehman-e-Maman), based on Moradi-Kermani's novel by the same name.

And here are two more pieces from Literature From The "Axis of Evil": "Baghdad My Beloved" by the Iraqi poet Salah Al-Hamdani and "A Tale of Music" by the North Korean writer Kang Kwi-mi. The latter, I guarantee you, will be one of the strangest stories you've ever read, and provides an eerie glimpse of the suffocating and utterly bizarre atmosphere of a totalitarian state.

See also these essays: "Art Under Control in North Korea" by Jane Portal, with a superb slideshow of different kinds of North Korean art promoting state ideology, and "Encountering North Korean Fiction" by Stephen Epstein.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Some thoughts on artistic time and real time

Some kinds of artistic creation, like painting, are experienced across space - we understand them by organising all their elements visually at the same time. Others, like music or film or written narrative, unfold in a linear fashion and are experienced across time. Further, the pleasure we derive from them has its source not just in their subject matter, their content, but in how they unfold over time - how they speed up and slow down, the particular direction they take and the sequence in which their parts are presented.

If we reflect upon our aesthetic experience we realise that time as we experience it in artworks is far more intense, more "rich" with sensory detail and with feeling, than time as we know it in real life. In the best works of art not a moment is wasted: every word, every note, or every shot seems essential. By comparison with artistic time, real time is almost unbearably tedious in its aimlessness, vacancy and sheer sprawl. When we say we opened a book or put on a CD to "pass the time", we are actually saying something quite significant. One of the reasons why we need art is because it allows us not just to forget our own selves (as I argue here, here and here) but also to transcend the quotidian experience and slow time to which we are irrevocably yoked.

Of course, human beings possess the resources to fill time up, to infuse it with urgency and meaning, even without art. Those resources are the memory and the imagination, and they allow us to prepare our own homemade version of artistic time. Each one of us has a private corpus of memories of the most significant events of our lives, memories we are always reexamining and reinterpreting. What has transpired once in our lives is replayed hundreds of times in the private theatre of our minds, with the inessential details sifted out as they would have been in a work of art. And on the other hand there is the imagination, which takes unrelated elements or inchoate yearnings and, by shaping them into a sequence or a whole, creates the same satisfying richness that we derive from art.

It might be said that our memories and our fantasies are our private works of art, only occasionally sensed or glimpsed by others but constantly in our own sights. They are our way of overcoming the tyranny of the present moment, of substituting the inessential with the essential. Even more than in behaviour and in speech, they are where we are most fully ourselves. In fact, art forms like the novel are premised upon this idea, that the dredging up of a person's interior life reveals what is most essential about him or her.

Even so artistic time, itself a product of the human imagination, has a special glow. Putting down a book, or leaving a movie hall, we cross the border from one kind of time to another, and wonder if somehow our lives could not be freighted with the same richness and intensity. Of course, this is a chimerical wish: reality will never support it. But on the rare instances that we do manage to live for extended periods in a state of elevated feeling, we often find the only parallel for that experience in the intensity of artistic time. "I felt suddenly as if I could hear life's music", we say, or "It was like I was a character in a novel".