Monday, December 25, 2006

Books of the Year 2006

Merry Christmas to all the readers of the Middle Stage, and before the year goes any further and more books arrive to confound my decisions, here are my choices for the best books of 2006, divided and subdivided into all kinds of categories.


The best, and funniest, novel I read this year was the nineteenth-century Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third (Penguin in India, University of California Press in the US). Translated into English for the first time, this story of life in a village under colonial rule presents a wealth of satiric detail filtered through the voice of a hilariously witty and nimble narrator, who like a village gossip often uses the plural "we" rather than the conventional "I". "People should be gagged and stopped from spreading rumours," declares the narrator, even as he gleefully broadcasts every rumour that reaches his ears. This is one of the foundational Indian novels.

Samrat Upadhyay's second collection of stories The Royal Ghosts (Mariner Books in the US, and Rupa Books in India) was a model of elegant and understated storytelling. Upadhyay's characters are shown living and loving in a Nepal in which tradition and modernity jostle uneasily, and political unrest casts a shadow over daily life. Stories like the title story and "Chintamani's Women" seemed to me to achieve a kind of perfection of craft.

The Algerian novelist Malika Mokeddem's Century of Locusts (University of Nebraska Press) tells the story of a wandering poet Mahmoud, himself accused of a crime, and his journey through the desert in search of his wife's murderer. Mokkedem's superbly incantatory prose ("A dream is the most vital of lies"; "Solitude becomes unbearable when filled with another's indifference" ) is saturated with striking imagery and a close attention to the rhythms of the natural world.

Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games (Penguin in India, Faber & Faber in the UK) conjured up in encyclopedic detail the sights, sounds and language of Bombay and the moral world of its denizens as seen through the eyes of the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde and the police inspector Sartaj Singh. I don't think I've read a better scene this year than the one in which Gaitonde, still a small-time crook, sells some stolen gold bars to a dealer for an enormous sum. Now Gaitonde does not know if he is being tailed or not: he has crossed the border into a new world. He does not know what to do now and takes refuge among devotees in a temple. The novel is perhaps two hundred pages too long, and the digressions called 'Insets' are tedious, but for most part Sacred Games has the kick of a good masala Coke.

Gaza Blues (Picador Australia), an unusual collaboration between the Israeli writer Etgar Keret and the Palestinian emigré writer Samir El-Youssef, brought together Keret's distinctively zany, minimalist stories with el-Youssef's beautiful long story, told in a more traditional style, "The Day The Beast Got Thirsty". Residents of a world in which politics is all-pervasive, both Keret and el-Youssef both want to clear a space, through the example of their work, where human beings can recognize each other from either side of the impasse through the commonality of their everyday concerns and desires. El-Youssef's debut novel The Illusion of Return is forthcoming in January.

The idea that literature "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" was also the shaping force behind Literature From The "Axis of Evil" (New Press), a compilation of stories, excerpts from novels, and poems from writers from so-called "rogue states" - Iraq, Sudan, Libya, North Korea and others - and featuring some first-rate works that readers around the world would otherwise never have got to see.

And the Japanese novelist Kobo Abe's profoundly unsettling The Face of Another (Penguin Modern Classics) tells the story of a scientist whose face is badly disfigured in a laboratory accident. With his face swathed permanently in bandages, he feels he is not a human being any more. A plastic surgeon explains to him that the face "is a roadway between oneself and others"; people cannot reach out to a man "without the passport of the face". The protagonist retreats to a quiet hideout and attempts to fashion himself a new face with the help of advanced technology. In Abe's hands the predicament of having no face and then a new face becomes the material of a drama more compelling than any detective novel or thriller. First published in 1964, this is a very worthy resissue.


"I will enjoy my beauty because it is given for a short time and joy is a short-lived thing." So said Amrita Sher-Gil, the great Indian painter whose life was tragically snuffed out in 1941 before she was even thirty. Yashodhara Dalmia's Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life (Penguin/Viking) was a splendid study of Sher-Gil's life and work, quoting at length from Sher-Gil's very rich notes and letters and lavishly illustrated with photographs and reproductions of paintings.

Talking India (Oxford University Press) was an enthralling book-length dialogue on Indian history, culture and politics between Ashis Nandy, one of India's finest intellectuals, and the Iranian scholar Ramin Jahanbegloo. If you want a perspective on how religious riots in India are also manifestations of "secular violence", on how the modern ideology of the nation-state obscures other deep-rooted continuities and traditions, or how globalisation "has created an enormous explosion of expectations, ambitions and greed", this is the book to go to. As enjoyable and stimulating as Amartya Sen's 2005 release The Argumentative Indian.

Another book which might just as well be called Talking India is In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (Little, Brown), by Edward Luce, the South Asia Bureau Chief for the Financial Times between 2001 and 2005. Only the title of this book is poor - I don't even see the need for that word 'strange'. From that point on, the book is a magisterial survey of modern India. Marrying lucid exposition to highly nuanced and trenchant arguments, Luce covers the character and idiosyncracies of the Indian state and the Indian economy, the place of caste in India, Hindu nationalism, and Indian Islam in a series of succulent forty-page chapters each as good as the other. This must rank among the very best books written by a visitor to India.

"For Flaubert, life began in Normandy and ended there….It was the landscape of his youth and all his seasons. It was the taste in his mouth and the verdant prison where he dreamed of deserts". From the very first sentences of Frederick Brown's sumptuous Flaubert: A Biography (Little, Brown) we know that we are reading a literary biography that itself aspires to be a work of literature.

A very different model of literary biography is to be found in Written Lives (Canongate), a collection of short and often whimsical essays by the Spanish novelist Javier Marias on Conrad and Kipling, Joyce and Faulkner, Turgenev and Nabokov. "The one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors," writes Marias, "is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals", and he has a fine time cataloguing these disasters. Of special note is "Perfect Artists", a lovely essay at the back of the book analysing the photographs of writers.

And another kind of literary conversation can be found in the writer Alberto Manguel's short and very beautiful memoir, With Borges (Telegram). The book recounts in loving detail Manguel's long association with the great Argentine writer, which began when he was chosen as a schoolboy by Borges to read to him in the evenings. Manguel writes that Borges's massive personal library was "like every other reader…also his autobiography" and that Borges believed "against all odds, that our moral duty was to be happy, and be believed that happiness could be found in books, even though he was unable to explain why this is so". Pure pleasure.

Climbing The Mango Trees (Alfred A. Knopf), the Indian actress and food writer Madhur Jaffrey's memoir of her idyllic childhood in the fold of a large joint family in Delhi and Kanpur, is a much better book than its hackneyed title suggests (There must be a ban from 2007 onwards on the words 'guava', 'mango' and 'cinnamon' in the title of any Indian writer's work.). Full of savoury reminiscences, Jaffrey's book is also an ode to a way of family life now on the wane in the age of the nuclear family, and to the syncretic culture of north India, with Muslim and British influences overlaid upon traditional Hindu life.

And two good nonfiction reissues were Sasthi Brata's anguished autobiography from the sixties My God Died Young (Penguin) and Pankaj Mishra's travel classic from the nineties Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (Picador).

But since good books are - like diamonds - forever, and in a manner of speaking all new books owe their existence to the schooling and influence of older books, no personal list of books of the year should be confined only to books published in that calendar year: they should also include older books read that year and surprising discoveries made that year. Of the many books about whose existence I learnt in secondhand bookshops this year, two stood out.

Renoir, My Father, which I found in a used-books store in Cambridge in June, is a luxuriant portrait of the Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir by his son, the filmmaker Jean Renoir. It is rich with the thoughts of both the illustrious painter ("I like painting best when it looks eternal without boasting about it: an everyday eternity, revealed on the street corner: a servant-girl pausing a moment as she scours a saucepan and becoming a Juno on Olympus") and his illustrious son ("A work of art is the candid, and often unconscious, expression of the personality of the artist who created it"). The book is available now in a new edition as a New York Review of Books classic.

And Faith and Frivolity, a collection of essays by the now-forgotten Indian writer Krishna Kripalani which I found in Bombay's excellent New & Secondhand Bookshop in Dhobi Talao, revealed a most agile and perceptive mind expressing itself in a sparkling epigrammatic style.

Readers are invited to name their own books of the year - but no more than three or four, please (books, that is, not readers). A happy New Year to you all, and may you have a 2007 free of Dan Brown and Paulo Coelho...

Monday, December 18, 2006

On the memoirs of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan

"At the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world," says Saleem Sinai in the first chapter of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, as he reveals that "thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country." In the prologue to his memoir In The Line of Fire, Pakistan's president General Pervez Musharraf, born four years before the creation of the state of Pakistan, sounds very much like a Pakistani Saleem: "The story of my life coincides almost from the beginning with the story of my country - so the chapters that follow are not only the biography of a man, but of Pakistan as well".

Saleem Sinai's claim is supposed to be interpreted by the reader as comic: Rushdie wants us to marvel at this fantastical linking of the destinies of man and nation, and Saleem himself always bemoans "that benighted moment" that robbed him, as it were, of his own independence as a sovereign individual. But the good General's claim is made in all seriousness. Providence has singled him out - the son of middle-class immigrants, reconciled at one stage to seeing out his career as a high-ranking military officer - for some reason for a special place in history, and, handcuffed to history, it is his duty now to carry out his role, responsibly if reluctantly, of commander of the ship of the Pakistani state.

"My autobiography," he says solemnly, "is my contribution to the history of our era." A simple, plainspeaking, moral man ("truthfulness is a sine qua non of good character" he tells us in a passage on moral development), he will along the way also tell us the real truth, obscured until now, about many things - the tussle in which he overthrew Pakistan's erstwhile prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the Kargil episode, Pakistan's role in the War on Terror and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. "I want the world to learn the truth." "It is time to lay bare what has been shrouded in mystery." This I-know-it-better-than-anybody-else air is the characteristic tenor of In The Line of Fire.

If In The Line of Fire reveals anything of interest about the president, it is the centrality of the army and the martial way of life to his worldview. "I was only eighteen when I entered the Pakistan Military Academy in 1961," he recounts in an chapter about his youth, one of the few which is low on rhetoric. Indeed, it is somehow symbolic that he has spent all his adult life as a soldier. In his book the word "army" is always associated with positive values: valour and heroism, commitment and sacrifice, integrity and intelligence. The army is a world within the world - a bastion of discipline and order to counterbalance the confused, disorganised sprawl of civilian life and of electoral politics.

When it comes to his beloved army, Musharraf is especially sensitive to insult and especially susceptible to grand posturing. What stung him most in the aftermath of what he sees as Sharif's ill-advised withdrawal from Kargil in 1999 is the sullying of the army's image by the country's own government: "I am ashamed to say, our political leadership insinuated that the achievements of our troops amounted to a 'debacle'. Some people even called the Pakistan Army a 'rogue army'."

The truth, he would have us know, is quite the opposite. "Considered purely in military terms, the Kargil operations were a landmark in the history of the Pakistan Army." Against all evidence he doggedly maintains that "whatever movement has taken place so far in the direction of finding a solution to Kashmir is due considerably to the Kargil conflict". This is a curious stand coming from a man who has, since coming to power, purported to taking the lead in resolving the Kashmir problem through dialogue.

For someone who considers himself "a soldier's man", the General also reveals himself to be an expert juggler with words. Although he agrees that he deposed Nawaz Sharif after the famous hijacking drama of October 12, 1999, he does not agree that it was a coup d'etat - instead it was "a countercoup". In the General's opinion it was Sharif who actually launched "a coup against the army and myself" by dismissing him as chief of the army while he was away in Sri Lanka and appointing another general in his place, and what the General did in reply was the countercoup - "for there can be no other word for it".

By refashioning the meaning of the word "coup", which my Shorter OED defines as "a violent and illegal change of government", the General carves out a kind of moral legitimacy for himself, even as he unintentionally demonstrates how in Pakistan, a country which has seen four military rulers in its short history, the army's self-image and functions often overlap with those of the state. To depose the chief of the army in such a country can also be a "coup".

The General drips with contempt for his two predecessors as the head of Pakistan's government, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif - particularly Sharif. For him the decade between 1988 and 1999, when Benazir and Sharif each spent two terms in power after winning elections, was a period of "sham democracy". Nor does he think very highly of Indian democracy, using quote marks always to show what he thinks of "the largest democracy in the world".

But democracy, through elections, confers legitimacy upon leaders, and every leader craves legitimacy. Musharraf had his own tryst with the electorate in the infamous yes-or-no referendum on his rule in 2002, in which he emerged with a staggering 97% yes vote. In a piece on this exercise called "The April Fool Referendum", the Pakistani human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir testified that "the rigging was so brazen that it will embarrass any foreign government to accept the exercise and its result as a democratic process". But while Musharraf himself admits that the exercise "ended in a near catastrophe", here is his wily attempt at explaining it:

The referendum went smoothly. There was a very high turnout, and the overall count was strongly in my favour. There were some irregularities, though. I found that in some places overenthusiastic administrative officials and bureaucrats had allowed people to vote more than once, and had even filled out ballot papers themselves. I also later found out that this absolutely unwarranted "support" was helped along by the opposition in certain areas where they have a hold and where they stuffed ballot boxes in my favor as to provide supposed evidence for claims of foul play. The whole exercise ended in a near catastrophe.[…] Finally, in a national broadcast, I had to come clean. I thanked the people for their support but also admitted that some excesses had indeed taken place without my knowledge or consent. (my italics)
In this passage Musharraf appears more sinned against than sinning, with both his supporters and opponents remarkably conspiring towards the same ends (to rephrase the old saying: with enemies like these, who needs friends?). Meanwhile, the General was oblivious to these happenings, but the chorus of "I founds" are meant to attest that, insofar as he had any agency in the whole case, it was in bringing the wrongdoings to light.

To be fair to the General, life has not been easy since he came to power. He took over a country on the brink of economic collapse. Later, the American government's demands after 9/11 and the resentment of Pakistan's religious hardliners put him between a rock and a hard place. His crackdown on terrorism led to two attempts being made upon his life; Time magazine declared that he held "the world's most dangerous job". Musharraf's account of how he negotiated his way through these troubles shows a commendable understanding of realpolitik. One of his good qualities appears to be that, at least in domestic matters, he has no patience with fundamentalism and religious obscurantism. On the demonization of Islam around the world as a religion of intolerance, he sensibly observes:

It is all very well for us to say that Islam is nothing of the sort, that it is in fact a very progressive, moderate and tolerant religion - which indeed it is - but why should the people of the world bother to go out of their way and spend their precious time to explore the authentic sources of Islam? They are going to judge Islam by the utterances and actions of Muslims, especially those actions and utterances that affect their lives directly, and not just by the protestations of academics and moderates, no matter how justified.
Six years in power have taught the General to weight and to aim his words carefully - his book, which made it to the bestseller list, can itself be seen as a work tailored carefully for a Western audience interested in Asian affairs but not expert in the finer details. His book tour in the US in 2006, which featured amongst other events a hit appearance on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show", was in stark contrast to his official visit to the US in 2005. That turned out to be a PR disaster after he spoke recklessly on the Mukhtar Mai rape case, suggesting that rape in his country was used as a tool by women to gain riches and to emigrate.

Now, in his book, his thoughts on the case are shoehorned into a chapter full of pieties called "The Emancipation of Women" written, as Tunku Varadarajan says in his piece on the book, "with all the passion of a government circular". It is a chapter that shows he has learnt that, whether or not he actually walks the walk, a statesman should always talk the talk. He drones:

Rape, no matter where it happens in the world, is a tragedy and deeply traumatic for the victim. My heart, therefore, goes out to Mukhtaran Mai and any woman to whom such a fate befalls.
"My heart, therefore" - how insincere is that? And what is the point of that phrase "no matter where it happens in the world" - how should that be relevant in any way? We understand when, a little later, the General reveals that no rape case should be allowed to besmirch the good name of the nation:
Rape and violence against women are universal phenomena, but this does not justify their presence in Pakistan. We need to set our house in order. I only object when Pakistan is singled out and demonized.
When a case of female victimization in Pakistan comes to light, sometimes the first victim is the truth.
In The Line of Fire itself often takes liberties with the truth, but in doing so it is so revelatory of the General's personality that it makes for a far more interesting book than a safer, more cautious account. Autobiography often stands at an angle to historical truth, but in doing so it lets us in on other valuable truths. This is not a book we need to read to understand contemporary Pakistan, as the General would have us believe, but it is certainly something to read if we want to understand the General.

A series of extracts from In The Line of Fire can be found here. And here are two perceptive pieces on the book, by Husain Haqqani and Vir Sanghvi. An audio clip of Musharraf's controversial remarks on the Mukhtar Mai case can be found here, and the video of his appearance on "The Daily Show" here.

Mukhtar Mai has also recently published a memoir called - in an uncanny echo of the title of Musharraf' memoir - In the Name of Honour. And see also a very good essay by Salman Rushdie, "Where is the honour in this vile code...?" on the parallels between the Mukhtar Mai case in Pakistan and the Imrana case in India.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Coming up...

Coming up on the Middle Stage in the next fortnight: pieces on the Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf's fact-and-fiction memoir In The Line of Fire and Vinod George Joseph's novel Hitchhiker, and a selection of Books of the Year.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Orhan Veli Kanik all of a sudden

The Turkish poet Orhan Veli Kanik (1914-1950), in the honorable tradition of poets the world over, lived in penury, drank too much for his own good, and died young. He left behind a body of work sometimes accused of being too simplistic, even unpoetic, but Kanik's rebellion was actually against what is conventionally thought of as the "poetic" - lyrical effusions, elaborate conceits, stifling metres.

Kanik's poems are about the texture of everyday life and about the sudden epiphany or realization glimpsed amidst life's chaos. Their language is simple and undecorative, all verbs and nouns, and they have a tone of casual, offhand utterance. We may hold that the special quality of poets is that they present (as Alexander Pope memorably put it) "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed", but curiously with Kanik we feel as if he has expressed something in exactly the language we would have found ourselves. All readers of Kanik go from his work convinced, for good or for bad, that they are poets themselves. "Even I," they may say to themselves, "could write a poem such as 'Fine Days' - in fact I was thinking these very thoughts just the other day...." And why do I put those thoughts in quote marks? Even I have thought them - but here is the poem:

Fine Days

These fine days have been my ruin.
On this kind of day I resigned
My job in "Pious Foundations.''
On this kind of day I started to smoke
On this kind of day I fell in love
On this kind of day I forgot
To bring home bread and salt
On this kind of day I had a relapse
In my versifying disease.
These fine days have been my ruin.
(translated by Bernard Lewis)

Kanik's favourite poetic device is repetition, which confers upon his lines the rhythm without which poetry is impoverished, and which embodies at the level of form the moment when everything has suddenly become clear, and the connections between disparate things have become visible to the mind. A variety of experiences then appear filtered through some unifying phrase: the wistful "On this kind of day" in the earlier poem, and "All of a sudden" in this one, with its ascending notes of wonder:

All of a Sudden

Everything happened all of a sudden.
All of a sudden daylight beat down on the earth;
There was the sky all of a sudden;
All of a sudden steam began to rise from the soil.
There were tendrils all of a sudden, buds all of a sudden.
And there were fruits all of a sudden.
All of a sudden,
All of a sudden,
Girls all of a sudden, boys all of a sudden.
Roads, moors, cats, people...
And there was love all of a sudden,
Happiness all of a sudden.

Translated by Anil Mericelli
Elsewhere the repetitions evoke a child's querulousness and petulance, as in "Tree":

I threw a pebble at the tree.
My pebble didn't fall.
Didn't fall.
The tree ate my pebble,
The tree ate my pebble.
I want my pebble.
I always think of this poem when a public phone refuses to return my coin even though my call has not gone through.

And in this six-line poem called "Landscapes", Kanik is found making a cheeky jibe at nature poets:
The moon came up
Behind the house across the street.
Street noises began.
The air is cooler,
From far away comes the smell of the sea.
I am an expert on landscapes.
Five lines of comically jumbled observation ("From far away comes the smell of the sea" is particularly funny) are rounded off by the abrupt claim of the sixth.

The translations of "Tree" and "Landscapes" are by Murat Nemet-Nejat, who has done more than anyone else to make Turkish poetry available to an English-speaking audience. In 2004 Nemet-Nejat brought out Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, and he also has published a book of translations of Kanik's work called I, Orhan Veli, and all of it is available to read online here. Among the poems I like best are "I, Orhan Veli", "I Am Listening To Istanbul", "The Poem of Being Lonely", "Sunday Evenings", and "Rumors".

Nemet-Nejat's introduction to I, Orhan Veli is here, and offers some very interesting thoughts on different approaches towards translation in an essay called "Translation and Style".

Other posts on poets: Osip Mandelstam, Nazim Hikmet, Attila Jozsef, Constantine Cavafy, Antonio Machado, Dunya Mikhail and Jorge Luis Borges.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Man Asian Literary Prize, and the Manjunath Shanmugam Integrity Award

Two announcements about awards, one to do with literary excellence, the other for work done to improve the quality of public life in India.

The Man Group plc, sponsors of the Booker Prize, announces the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize for a previously unpublished work of Asian fiction in English or English translation. The closing date for submissions is March 31, 2007, and first prize is $10,000. Submission guidelines are available here.

And the Manjunath Shanmugam Trust, set up in the memory of the upright Indian Oil sales officer who was murdered in November last year after coming in the way of the oil mafia, announces the Manjunath Shanmugam Integrity Award to honour those "working to uphold the values of truth and honesty in the Indian public life". Among the other important initiatives this Trust has taken is the launch of a National Right To Information Act Helpline recently to spread knowledge about the Right To Information Act, passed by the Indian government last year and the most powerful tool available now to the Indian citizen to fight corruption. All Indian citizens are allowed to nominate deserving parties for the award by December 19, 2006 latest. More details about the award can be found here.