Sunday, February 25, 2007
On Kalidasa's Shakuntala, and the Clay Sanskrit Library
The place of Sanskrit in India today is much like that of Latin in the West. It is part of the bedrock of our history and its words are the root words of our contemporary speech, but it has long ceased to play a role in the commerce of daily life and, like all dead languages, it has become the preserve of priests and schoolchildren. Many of the greatest works of Indian literature are written in Sanskrit, but apart from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, their influence upon us is muted because the language itself has fallen silent.
Now an ambitious new publishing project, the Clay Sanskrit Library, brings together leading Sanskrit translators and scholars of Indology from around the world to celebrate in translating the beauty and range of classical Sanskrit literature. Two dozen volumes of a projected 100 titles have been issued already. Published as smart green hardbacks that are small enough to fit into a jeans pocket, the volumes are meant to satisfy both the scholar and the lay reader. Each volume has a transliteration of the original Sanskrit text on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right, as also a helpful introduction and notes.
Alongside definitive translations of the great Indian epics—30 or so volumes will be devoted to the Mahabharata itself—Clay Sanskrit Library makes available to the English-speaking reader many other delights: The earthy verse of Bhartrhari, the pungent satire of Jayanta Bhatta and the roving narratives of Dandin, among others. All these writers belong properly not just to Indian literature, but to world literature.
One work of Sanskrit literature that for long has belonged to world literature is Kalidasa’s great play, Abhigyanashakuntala, or The Recognition of Shakuntala. Translated into English for the first time in 1789 by British scholar William Jones, then a high court judge in Calcutta, the play found a wide audience in Europe and was swiftly retranslated into several other European languages.
The great German poet Goethe was struck by the beauty of Kalidasa’s verse and enthused, “If you want heaven and earth contained in one name/I say Shakuntala and all is spoken.” Goethe put into his play, Faust, a prologue similar to the one in Shakuntala, in which a director and an actress mull over what to play for an audience of “sophisticated spectators”, before deciding on a play with a plot “devised by Kalidasa”.
Sanskrit is a notoriously difficult language to translate and, since the 18th century, many other translators have grappled with the power of Kalidasa. Somadeva Vasudeva’s elegant new translation of Shakuntala for Clay Sanskrit Library is the latest of several extant translations, such as the one by Arthur Ryder in 1912.
Kalidasa, court poet of the 5th century Gupta emperor, Chandragupta II, took the plot line for his play from an episode in the Mahabharata, changing it slightly for his dramatic purposes. On a hunting expedition in the forest, the king Dushyanta—Kalidasa’s heroes are always kings, their actions having ramifications not just for themselves, but for the entire world—meets, in a hermitage, the beautiful “forest-dweller” Shakuntala, daughter of a nymph. They fall in love and marry secretly.
Dushyanta leaves behind his signet ring with Shakuntala, but because of a sage’s curse, he is unable to recognize her when she later arrives at his court, pregnant, but having lost the ring. Shamefully abandoned, Shakuntala is lifted up into the heavens by the gods. When the ring is later found in a fish’s belly, the king’s memory returns. But Shakuntala is gone. Many years later—Kalidasa draws out the time-scale of his plot to create an affecting emotional arc—the valiant but grieving Dushyanta fights a war on behalf of the gods and is then reunited with Shakuntala and his young son.
The 7th century poet Banabhatta remarked, “No one fails to feel delight when Kalidasa’s verses are recited; they are sweet and dense, like clusters of buds.” Banabhatta’s flower metaphor is especially apposite, because Kalidasa was a great poet of nature. His work is full of beautiful descriptions of birds, trees, flowers and seasons, sometimes extended to the human realm through metaphors, as in the description of the king as a great tree, that “endures with its crown fierce heat/and cools those sheltering in the shade”. This new translation of Shakuntala presents freshly an evergreen poet in whose work, to quote one of his translators, “all life, from plant to god, is one”.
Some links: "On Bhartrihari" by Greg Bailey, the translator of Bhartrhari's love poems; Csaba Dezső on Jayanta Bhatta's Much Ado About Religion; Robert Goldman's long introduction to his acclaimed 1984 translation of the Ramayana, and the text of a lecture on the Mahabharata by one of its more recent translators, P. Lal.
And an old post: "Seventh-century Indian life in Dandin's Dasakumaracharita".
Sunday, February 18, 2007
The Kitab Literary Festival, and a disquisition on boots
And there really is going to be something worth going to, as later this week a battalion of writers from around the world will turn up for the Kitab Literary Festival, from Friday the 23rd to Sunday the 25th of February. The full schedule is here.
There are a few events I'm looking forward to in particular:
The panel discussion "Veils and Miniskirts" (Friday, 12.30 to 1.30, Asiatic Library), featuring Germaine Greer, Urvashi Butalia and Kamila Shamsie among othersAnd the festival will be a landmark in my singularly uneventful life as well, because for the first time I'll be at a panel discussion where I'll actually be on the panel, and can speak as loudly as possible (as I like to do) instead of murmuring.
A chat between Hanif Kureishi and Ashok Row Kavi after the screening of My Beautiful Launderette (Friday, 2 to 4.30, Max Mueller Bhavan)
The screening of Anand Patwardhan's short film We are not Monkeys, followed by a discussion by Patwardhan, Farrukh Dhondy and Sujit Saraf on the use of religious symbols in art (Saturday, 1 to 2, Max Mueller Bhavan)
"Credentials Please", a discussion on writers and authenticity, with Geoff Dyer, Blake Morrison and Ranjit Hoskote among others (Saturday, 2 to 3, Max Mueller Bhavan)
Amit Chaudhuri in conversation with Ian Jack (Saturday, 3 to 4, Oxford Bookstore). Chaudhuri will also be performing with his band at Prithvi Café, Juhu, on Sunday, 6 to 7
A symposium on "World Literature", featuring Helen Cross, Dilip Chitre and Antara Dev Sen among others (Sunday, 1 to 2, Prithvi Café)
And most unusual of all, a Poetry in Performance Session with poets Jeet Thayil and Vivek Narayanan (Sunday, 3.30 to 4.30, Prithvi Café). I've heard both these poets in performance, and they're very good. Members of the public will be allowed to present their own poetry afterwards.
And lastly, Mumbai Meri Jaan! (Sunday, 7 to 9, Prithvi Theatre) featuring readings by Sonia Faleiro, Naresh Fernandes, and Eunice D'Souza among others
Yes indeed, I shall be one of several people asked to pontificate on the subject "What's the future of literary criticism in India and Britain?" on Saturday the 24th at the NCPA, 10am to 11.30 am. Come along, if for nothing else then to get a good seat for the discussion to follow right after on "The Role of the Writer", which is sure to be packed, as it will feature many Beauteous, Handsome and Important people in conversation.
I'm not sure what I'm going to say at the discussion, or if I'm going to say anything at all - as everyone knows, I'm an exceedingly quiet person, and speak only when spoken to - but secretly, all I ask and pray for is that, even if they line us all up in chairs, there isn't a long table in front of us, of the kind seen at dining halls and symposiums. The reason for this is that I plan to wear on this great day a pair of very natty boots I bought recently - long, pointy size 11s, peeping out from under the fall of my trousers like crocodiles half-sunning themselves beneath trees - and what would be the point of it if no one could see them?
As everyone knows, the three things that most determine one's general mood in life are one's choice of career, life partner, and - last and least, to be sure, but important nonetheless - shoes. I had a excellent conversation on this very subject with Jeet Thayil at Jaipur last month, and found him to be even more zealous than me on this theme - look out for his splendid boots when he reads on Sunday. I bought these boots of mine after great deliberation and at great expense, and immediately grew to care for them as a parent cares for a child. I'd polish them before I went out and, solicitous of their wellbeing, polish them again after I came home. I kicked no stones on the streets, and avoided all crowded places, where lesser shoes might stamp on them.
Thus it was that, when a reporter from the Guwahati Herald called last week for an interview (I don't know why - possibly they ran out of people to interview in Guwahati) and asked me, among other things, what my most prized possessions were, I naturally said "My boots". Imagine then my surprise when I looked at the paper a few days later to find my answer mysteriously rendered as, "My books". How ridiculous - why would they ever think that?
So, anyway, as we've got to chatting, I might as well tell you about some other things I've been up to recently, and if you want to do the same you can catch me on Saturday, and I'll hear you out.
I don't often write about art - nobody asks, and I'm not much good anyways - but a couple of weeks ago I did a piece on Atul Dodiya for Tehelka, which you can find here. And I don't often work in the movies - nobody offers, and indeed why should they - but last month I assisted my filmmaker friend Rustom Irani on a short for a competition called the Genesis Film Project, and it was selected as one of the prizewinning entries. It's going to be screened tomorrow evening at Zenzi, and I'm listed on the credits as Creative Advisor - like all undeserved praise, this exaggeration pleased me very much.
All right, I don't know if you've got all sorts of things waiting to be taken care of, but I certainly have, as it's almost time for the weekly polishing of my boots. See you later this week at Kitab.
On Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building
One of the great pleasures of the realist novel as told in the omniscient third person is the esteem in which it holds the reader. Instead of being a guest standing unremarked at the threshold, we are welcomed in and given the best seat in the house. From this position, we have a panoramic view of the lives of characters in disparate orbits, and share the narrator's privilege of being able to divine the truth of their lives and relationships better than they can themselves. This style of storytelling is unfashionable nowadays, but Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building is a reminder of its attractions.
An imposing 10-storey edifice in downtown Cairo, the Yacoubian Building embodies Egyptian society in microcosm, housing in its plush apartments members of the old aristocratic class, the nouveau riche, and the army, and in the rented-out servant's quarters on its roof a mass of workers and tradesmen with small lives and starry eyes.
This arrangement represents in inverted form the entrenched hierarchies of the world they live in, in which the rich oppress the poor and influence trumps merit - where, in the bitter words of one character, "money begets money and poverty begets poverty".
So, at the same time as the ageing sensualist Zaki el Dessouki is planning his latest seduction and the unscrupulous businessman Hagg Azzam is rigging his entry into parliament, we see the ambitious student Taha el Shazli being denied entry into the police force because he is the son of a gatekeeper, and his childhood sweetheart Busayna facing the predations of her employer on her first job. Al Aswany's achievement is in showing how several forces work to moderate or even reverse these inequities.
There is time, which runs at the same speed for both rich and poor and eventually enfeebles even the strongest; there is militant religion, which rouses and unites the disenchanted; and above all there is bodily desire, "deliciously insistent" and maddening by turns, the source of both weakness and power.
The many languorous descriptions in The Yacoubian Building of the pleasures of the flesh, and the subtly ironic renditions of religious rhetoric, might be taken as evidence that the author too is a sensualist, prizing the good things of this life over those of the one after (we are told only that he is a dentist). A bestseller in the Arabic world, The Yacoubian Building is well served by Humphrey Davies's elegant translation.
A short interview with Alaa Al Aswany is here, and a long profile of him by Stephanie Merritt in the Observer here.
Saturday, February 10, 2007
On The Oxford Anthology of South Asian Food Writing
And an archive of scrumptious essays on Bombay restaurants both high and low by the legendary Indian journalist Behram Contractor ("Busybee") can be found here.
Monday, February 05, 2007
The Books Interview: Christopher Kremmer
The result of the national election of 2004 was significant because, once again, Indian voters proved smarter than politicians and pundits. Nobody was predicting that the BJP would lose, but they did, and it marked the end of a dramatic period of change in the country. It seemed the right time to pause and reflect on a decisive decade when not just the economy, but Indian democracy became more competitive. I realised that India should be judged not by its problems alone, but by its achievements, and by the incredible challenges it has survived.
Traditionally, print journalism was thought to be "the first draft of history". But some of the traditional functions of a daily newspaper have now been usurped by television and the Internet. Do you think then that the role of newspapers is going to change gradually, and that we will turn to them less for the what than for the why?
I would like to think so, because explaining our complex world, rather than merely following television and the web in reporting it, really is the only way forward for newspapers. Books too are filling this important niche—explaining our complex world in a way that deepens readers’ understanding. The Indian media market is showing a dynamism that is very encouraging. When I first came to India there was a single broadcaster—Doordarshan—and the I&B minister was able to influence what news went to air. Here too, the '90s changed everything.
Would you like to say something about your two previous works of narrative nonfiction, The Carpet Wars and Bamboo Palace, and the circumstances in which you wrote them? Also what they may have taught you that you could bring to Inhaling The Mahatma.
Well, in the beginning I was really just experimenting with a different style. I had read the work of Tom Wolfe and others, and some really inspiring work by Indian writers—Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake, for example—and loved the way travel, and history, and contemporary politics could be woven into a pleasurable but educative experience for readers. So my quest to discover the fate of the missing royal family of Laos became Bamboo Palace. Then, in Afghanistan, I wanted to paint a picture of the tragic plight of so many people, but do it in a way that showed what a magical place it was. So I made a list of things I loved about Afghanistan, and things I’d experienced there that changed me - carpets(which I collected), refugees (most of my Afghan friends have fled the wars) Islam (which I believe has been a civilising force in Muslim society overall) and war (which terrified me, and forced me to come to terms with life’s less pleasant realities). That became The Carpet Wars, which did very well because I finished the manuscript just before 9/11. Inhaling the Mahatma is the third book in a kind of trilogy of Asian non-fiction books. The style of blending reportage and personal stories is consistent throughout, but the mood of each book is quite different. The India book is the deepest, the most personal, and most reflective of the three.
Which nonfiction writers do you like reading best?
Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily and John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels, which is about Venice, are examples of how good non-fiction writing should be—as gripping and enjoyable as any novel. I was talking to Suketu Mehta recently and he put it very well. He said ‘The reader is entitled to pleasure, to derive pleasure from each individual sentence in a book”. I couldn’t agree more. My aim is to hook the reader from the first page, and then hang onto them for a solid 400 pages, telling stories that make them laugh and make them cry, but importantly, telling true stories and giving them the context and background to understand a person or place in greater depth. So, you know, if I’m talking to Amar Singh, and he is sitting on a sofa in a five-star hotel massaging his feet, I’m going to include that detail. Or, in Inhaling..., in the scene where Rahul Gandhi washes his hands in disinfectant after shaking hands with people at a rally, that’s definitely going in, because you see the real person in such episodes, not just the political hype.
Many of your descriptions of locale and landscape in Inhaling the Mahatma are so rich and beautiful they seem almost out of a novelist's cupboard. Does the nonfiction writer have anything to learn from the reading of fiction?
I started my writing career in short stories, which won prizes, and that encouraged me to keep writing. But I couldn’t make a living from short stories, so I turned to journalism, not just to survive, but to gain the sorts of life experiences that I felt would help me mature and have something interesting to say. Whether we write fiction or non-fiction, we’re all writers with stories to tell, and we can learn from each other. Non-fiction writers are definitely leading the way at the moment, but the novel is not dead. I hope not anyway, because I would certainly like to write one.
I've always been curious about how the best nonfiction writers convey not just what they saw and heard - things which can be attributed to careful on-site note-taking - but also the moment-by-moment sense of an experience - which, it seems to me, one can miss if one is too fixed on taking notes. Can you cast any light on this?
I use notes, memory, tape recordings, and articles that I and others have written to piece together these books. But the most valuable thing I find is, where possible, to revisit people and places I am writing about. Inhaling the Mahatma would have been nothing more than a memoir, but the yatra I undertake [Kremmer returned to India in 2004 to revisit some of the sites he'd described] turns the book into a living, breathing experience. When I started that journey in the summer of 2004 I had no idea where it would take me, physically, intellectually or spiritually. I wanted to open myself to the possibility of being changed by the experience, and the book has changed my life in so many ways that are positive. It became an excuse to break down the walls that separate people on the basis of nationality, language and religion. It became a very moving and beneficial journey through hard times to hope.
You sometimes conduct workshops on nonfiction writing. Could you distill what you say in them for readers of this site?
Well, the first thing I tell people is that it’s not rocket science. I get them to read examples of fine narrative non-fiction and then we deconstruct it, and see how it is put together. It’s a very post-modern form, and the writer needs to be open to the multi-faceted nature of truth. A building might look beautiful from outside, but at the back it could be a garbage heap. Look at people and things from different angles. Another thing is that you have to be prepared to reveal who you are. These are not objective books, in the traditional sense, so we need to know who is this person who is taking us through northern Afghanistan, or northern India. What’s their background? Why should be trust them? Because the books sometimes don’t have a strictly defined plot, the voice of the narrator is very important in holding it all together and making the reader turn the page. And characters. Don’t forget the absolute necessity for bringing people alive on the page. There has never been a good book that lacked humanity.
Were you at all interested in, and do you have any strong opinions about, the work of the legendary Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died recently?
I haven’t read his work, but people speak highly of him. We both met and wrote about the late Afghan mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in the last years of his life.
Every reader has some favourite passage from literature, something that seems to him or her inexpressibly sharp or subtle? Is there such a passage like you'd like to cite, explaining what you like about it?
As a youth I was besotten with the Russian classics. The black humour of Gogol, the intensity of Dostoyevsky, the romance and historical drama of a book like Doctor Zhivago, and the gritty realism of Gorky. I could go on and on about those Russians. I remember reading War and Peace, which is a very fat book, 1500 pages from memory. And in the midst of this great epic, Tolstoy takes the trouble to describe in great detail a boy climbing down from a fence. And it’s just such a close piece of observation, you can almost feel the boy’s toes searching for a grip on the wall, that I was blown away by that. It taught me that seemingly minor details can be very important in drawing a reader into the world the author wants them to experience.
You've got closer to Mahatma Gandhi than most Indians now alive, by inhaling his ashes. Let's say you were hosting a dinner, and you could invite to it five personages from the entire sweep of history. Who do you think you'd like to encounter in the flesh?
What a great dinner that would be! Gandhiji would be at the head of the table. He was a great talker and doer, and had a wonderful way with words and a sense of humour. Above all, he was wise. Wisdom is divine. Next to him I’d put Jesus Christ. No questions for him. I’d just listen and watch his body language. Also it would be very nice to know what he actually looked like. Beside him I’d put Hitler, because it would be good to see how they got on. Would sparks fly? Then, of course, a writer. Maybe someone no-nonsense like Ernest Hemingway, or an intellectual like George Orwell to keep the conversation interesting. Then, there would have to be an Australian, of course, so maybe Steve Waugh, who was the most Zen sportsman I ever saw play.
Do you have any ideas for what your next book is going to be?
I always have about ten books rattling around in my brain. What gets done is really a matter of priority and ranking. I talk a lot to my agents and publishers about my next move. So yes, I have been doing preliminary research and having discussions about it, and have pretty much settled on a subject. But there’s a superstition among writers that if you talk too much about what you are doing next, it will never happen, so I can’t go into the detail. Let’s just say that I’m a person who needs to keep changing in order not to get bored, so the next book could be something totally unexpected and different.
These interviews always end with a question about the good life outside of books. I notice, both from your sentences as well as from passages in Inhaling The Mahatma like the one about Neemrana, that you like things of "beauty and pleasure". You have a choice: either to describe your favourite meal, or to talk about the most beautiful living space you've seen in all your years of travel.
I have two homes—one in India and one in Australia. The Indian home is in pulsating, crowded Delhi, but the Australian home is in a quiet village of 400 people, situated in the Southern Highlands between Sydney and Canberra. We get bushfires in summer, and winters are cold enough for the occasional snowfall. The air is scented by pine trees. The village dates back to the early days of the convict colony of New South Wales, and still has many buildings from the Georgian period. It’s ten kilometres to the nearest town, and the drive you takes across rolling green hills through farmland and sheep and cattle stations. There are kangaroos and wombats and platypuses and black cockatoos and all kinds of other wildlife around, and many beautiful valleys, rivers and hills to explore. This is where I go to escape the world, to think and write, and I love it very much. All that and a broadband internet connection! In India, lots of people are moving to the cities, but in Australia it’s the other way around. My dream is that by the end of the 21st century cities will be fewer and smaller, and most people will live with the best of both worlds - the web-wired semi-rural community.
Previous books interviews: with Altaf Tyrewala and Samrat Upadhyay.
Saturday, February 03, 2007
As on the Middle Stage, I'm going to write about books with an Indian focus and also work by writers from around the world. I expect that weekly reviewing will impact my blogging slightly - how much work can a man with runs to run, friends to meet, drinks to drink and thoughts to think do after all? - but there should still be a fair share of blog-only pieces on this site.
My first piece is on Christopher Kremmer's superb account of India in the nineties, Inhaling The Mahatma. To read it you'll have to go through a one-time registration, which is free. You can register here.
And Kremmer himself should be on the Middle Stage next week for a books interview.