Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mark Tully and India

This is the last of an informal four-part series on India to mark the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. The other three are "Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose", on Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi, and "The art of oratory, and the great speeches of modern India".

India can be a foreign correspondent's nightmare, very hard to get in its entirety even to those wholly committed to the search. The intense and irreplicable peculiarity of India - the residual presence of outdated modes of behaviour and thought from the days of the Raj, or the widely divergent experience of daily life along lines of caste and particularly gender, to take just two examples of how both the near and distant past continue to work on the present - is of course hard to miss for anybody except those totally habituated to it, but it can nevertheless perplex the intellect seeking to break it down into its constituent elements.

From this perspective, the books of Mark Tully are an especially noteworthy contribution to the literature on modern India. Indeed, because he has now spent the best part of four decades in close engagement with the country, because his travels as the BBC's Chief of Bureau have brought him in contact with all kinds of places and people, and because he is part-insider, part-outsider in a productive way, Tully is probably better tuned into India than most Indians, with their limited access to the great sprawl of their own country and its past.

Tully's latest book and perhaps last book on his adopted country, India's Unending Journey, is a work both off and on the beaten track. This is because, after a series of highly agile, capacious and erudite books about contemporary India, hospitable to all kinds of viewpoints, Tully has in closing written a volume that resembles the traditional "India's message to the world" book customarily written by well-meaning visitors.

In part this is because India's Unending Journey - there is something cliched about the title itself - is the most autobiographical of Tully's books, as also the most polemical. The balance between observed detail and overarching argument is different from that of Tully's previous books, and the writing is more clearly addressed to the western reader. Tully makes a critique of aspects of western life though the lens of India, and thus addresses two constituencies at one go. In some ways he flatters his adopted home at the expense of the civilization in which he grew up. Although Tully knows that India itself, with its manifold problems, has yet to find any kind of balance, the argument he extracts from the experience of "forty years of living in India" is how the West itself is now unbalanced, unquestioningly secular and meanly materialist.

In his youth Tully briefly trained to be a priest in the Church of England, and if anything the autobiographical tone of his new book explains why the question of religion, and the place of religion in an increasingly secular climate on the one hand and a radically shrunken world where previously hostile faiths are forced to co-exist on the other, lies at the heart of his work on India. For in India not only is it taken for granted that you believe in God (as a Goan priest tells Tully), in a way that is no longer so in Europe, but also the other, the stranger, is always in one's field of vision, forcing upon every citizen the imperative of co-existence.

It was in India, writes Tully, that he refined his understanding of religion and came to believe "that a universal God made far more sense rationally than one who limits his activities to Christians", which is the sense of exclusivity, of chosenness, that his upbringing and later his abortive training as a priest taught him and which is shared by dedicated believers of the three great monotheisms. This explains his position on two dominant strands of contemporary Indian thought: he feels equally distant from "a secularism which seems to respect no religion, and a nationalism which carries with it the danger of only respecting one". The view that "any cause that is not secular is illiberal, seems to be illiberal itself," he remarks (not surprisingly some of his critics in India have accused him of being a BJP sympathiser). The religiosity of Indians is clearly congenial to Tully's temperament (while in the west "Mammon is triumphant and God on the retreat"), as is the openness and syncretism of Hinduism, even if it has recently taken on a militant aspect.

For instance, in a beautiful essay called "Altered Altars" in his previous book, India In Slow Motion, Tully sets out with his partner, Gillian Wright, (best known to Indian readers as the translator of Shrilal Shukla's comic novel Raag Darbari), to investigate Goan Christianity four decades after the departure of the proselytising Portuguese. Under the Portuguese, Goa "was the headquarters of the mission to convert the Orient, and was often described as the Rome of the East". But on his visit Tully finds churchgoing tinted with all kinds of borrowings from Hinduism; social life has managed to liberalise doctrine. Where representatives of the Vatican once promoted a spirit of exclusivity, priests are now preoccupied with the necessity of making their church "an Indian church".

Tully attends different services around the state, and reports on the particularities of each one. Among the ways in which worship has taken on an Indian face, he notes, is in the relationship between believers and God. While the Portuguese had wanted to impress the Indians with the awesome majesty of "a God who lived on high", now typically the priest "became one with his parishioners worshipping a personal God, more a friend than a king". Tully confesses he is uncomfortable with these altered altars - "I came from the old tradition...I found it easier to worship God in majesty, rather than God the social worker who battles for the poor, or God the personal pal of the charismatics."

But everywhere in this essay and others in the book - on the history of the Sufi faith, on farmers's problems in Karnataka, on cyber-governance in Hyderabad, on the reinvention of Rama by the BJP - there is evidence of Tully's talent for what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called "thick description". Although the title India In Slow Motion is primarily a reference to the "peculiarly Indian form of bad governance" that has immiserated Indian people and retarded economic growth, it might also be understood as a metaphor for the writer's painstaking methods.

Tully's warming belief in his adopted country, or more precisely the best of what it has to offer, leads him to overestimate India. For instance, in India's Unending Journey he contrasts "our Western habit of seeing issues in black and white" with the Indian belief in balance and reconciliation. "If there is one thing I have learnt from India," he writes, reprising a hoary platitude, "it is to appreciate how little in life is totally black, or indeed, purely white."

This radically exaggerates the gap between western and Indian civilization. "Balance" may be an avowed ideal in India but it is clearly not a reality, and the secular temper of the West that Tully criticises often facilitates a reasoned discussion of issues without the shrillness, misplaced sense of superiority, and contempt for the rule of law that marks the contribution of aggressively religious organisations or people to Indian debates. It is hard to resist the suspicion that it is Tully's impatience with the west that makes him overturn the dominant paradigm. For even if Tully has learnt to appreciate from India how little in life is purely black or white, it can safely be said that there are millions of Indian people who themselves show no sign of having learnt this from their country, and whose faith, whose sense of their history, and attitudes towards their wider society constrict rather than enlarge their lives - which is the emphasis, for example, of VS Naipaul, the titles of whose works on India or Indian characters include the words "area of darkness", "wounded", and "half a life". Reading Tully, conversely, one might feel it is western civilization that has become an area of darkness. I don't think that day has come just yet.

We end, then, with two paradoxes. One is that Tully, by dint of his decades of travel and exceptional learning, has a more sophisticated sense of India and its past than many Indians, who cleave to exclusive and partial views of it. But two: because of its insistence on distilling the meanings of Indian civilization into simple assertions that don't hold up for very long, India's Unending Journey actually waters down a perspective on Indian life that is strongly made, even if never explicitly stated, by Tully's other distinguished books.

And here are two essays by Tully, "My unending journey through India" and "Still in slow motion".

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mathematics and rebellion in Nikita Lalwani's Gifted

I confess that when I first looked at Nikita Lalwani's Gifted I put it down quickly. This was because the first sentence on the back-cover blurb - "Rumi Vasu is ten years, five months, thirteen days, two hours, forty-two minutes and six seconds old" - seemed to me characteristic of a tendency of bad literary fiction the world over: the tendency towards irrelevant detail, which, like a reflection in a shop window, points back towards the narrator instead of establishing something significant about the character. This sentence appeared to me a particularly egregious instance of this, because for all its fastidious attention to specifics of time it becomes inaccurate even within the time taken to read it or think it.

I only looked at Gifted again when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize, but on reading it I have come around to thinking the judges have actually made a fairly astute choice. Regardless of whether it goes on to win a formal honour (it is pointless to think of novels primarily through the lens of prizes and awards) it is a sparky contribution to Indian letters. And it is so not only for its theme - which is that of the Indian family, and within it the characteristic tenor of parent-child relations, which tend to remain stagnant even as the child matures and finally becomes an adult - but also for the quality of its writing, which for large sections of the book is unusually precise and rich.

The protagonist of Gifted, Rumika Vasu or Rumi, is a child prodigy with a highly developed aptitude for mathematics, and her father, a university professor at Cardiff, is determined to make sure that she makes the best of her talent by passing her A-levels well before the appointed age and gaining entry into a place like Oxford. Early on in the book, when Rumi is just a child, she does not see her talent as a curse, only as a gift. The detail on the back cover about her age appears in the novel on page 17 of my Penguin edition, and it takes on a different quality there because it is Rumi herself who is shown computing it, as part of the patter of a host of charming thoughts about numbers:

She looked at her watch again. Now she was 10 years, 2 months, 13 days, 2 hours, 48 minutes and 4 seconds old. She sang the numbers song in her head. It was almost a lullaby, one she had known since she was a child, the tune working like a step graph with a line that rose and rose, then flattened out when it got to sixteen, ending with a comforting monotone. [...] The figures continued in her head...they were wholesome, even numbers, created through doubling alone. 32 and 32 are 64...128...256...512. Five hundred and twelve was a lovely number. Really friendly. It made her think of her dad's big, warm, open hands, the lined palms in which she used to put her face on Sunday mornings when he and her mum were in bed. He used to pretend those hands were crocodile jaws waiting to gobble her up. That had been when he hadn't been so obsessed with mental arithmetic and getting the right answer.
A long passage humming with mathematical thoughts ("Five hundred and twelve was a lovely number. Really friendly" is to my ear a beautiful touch) ends with a slight grumble of complaint about the consequences of that mathematics in Rumi's family life. Even as they establish a present reality, unfolding spontaneously in the protagonist's lively mind, the details foreshadow what is to come.

Immigrant life in Cardiff is depressing; the burden of being the class geek troubling; the small social circle of the Vasis, further restricted by Mahesh to ensure his daughter's discipline, boring. Rumi daydreams often of her family's previous visit to India, where the visits to other branches of the line and the encounters with unknown cousins and savoury eats made for such excitement. She dreams of escaping to India, and knows just enough of history to see how that history can be used to triumphantly legitimise her rebellion:

And then it would be announced in Assembly, how she was leaving them behind - Rafferty, Harris, the lot of them. She'd get her hair cut in advance, with a big fringe that spiked up a bit, and somehow get hold of a ra-ra skirt. When the list was read out at the end for football, table tennis and all that extra-curricular stuff, she'd raise her hand.

She's get up and say, "Yes, I have an announcement. I'm moving to a country where people laugh and have fun and aren't cruel and rude and don't make a joke of you, and where they are more intelligent than people here, especially at maths like me. And I'm never coming back. And also, by the way, my mum and dad say that British people stole all these stones from people in India, the rubies and diamonds in the precious buildings, before they stopped ruling it [...]. So it doesn't make much sense for me to live here, to be honest, because I don't agree with it. I'm going back to where I came from.

She knew that she would have to make sure she was in a place where she could look at Simon Bridgeman and Christopher Palmer during this last bit, to give them a signal so they didn't take it personally. Or maybe she'd warn them in advance, so that the shock of what she was about to reveal, about their own history as British people, didn't upset them too much.
This is really a complex triple-sided point, because while Rumi registers her protest at the British, and amusingly leaves out the two boys in her class who are friendly with her, we can see from above her that what she wants to escape, ironically, is not so much Britain as her own, resolutely Indian, family in Britain.

Not all of Gifted is as good as this. If Lalwani's contention, through the tracking of her protagonist at different stages of her childhood and adolescence, is that Indian parents, even highly educated ones, often don't know how to deal with their children as they grow older, infantilising them and denying matters like their growing awareness of their sexuality, then to my mind her book to some extent duplicates these faults this by managing the protagonist less well she grows older. I was wearied in particular by the repeated descriptions of the teenaged Rumi's obsession with chewing cumin seeds. But there is a great deal of genuinely lively and vibrant writing in this novel, to go with its diagnosis of a major faultline in Indian society.

And old posts about two other works of comic fiction that have something to say about the encounter between imperial and colonised cultures: Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third and Parashuram's "The Scripture Read Backwards".

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The art of oratory, and the great speeches of modern India

This is the third of an informal series of pieces to mark the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. The first two are on Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose and on Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi.

Words are the basic currency of human communication, and if in one enduring form words are worked into stories, into literature, then in another more immediate and practical form they take the shape of rhetoric, or speeches expressly designed to make arguments and persuade people. In the decades leading up to Indian independence and just after public speaking took on a special urgency and force, as revealed by the wealth of Indian speeches from this period anthologized in two recent collections, Rakesh Batabyal's The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches and Rudrangshu Mukherjee's Great Speeches of Modern India.

India is an orator's country. Traditionally we were an oral culture, passing on our heritage by word of mouth rather than written records. Even today, after nearly two centuries of modernization and the spread of literacy, India remains a resolutely oral and visual culture, now boosted by the new mass media. From the streetside incandescence of trade union leaders to the honeyed discourses and grim jeremiads of saints and godmen of all stripes, the intense and unflagging verbosity of characters in our movies to the ingenious pitches for magic pens and ginger drops by wandering salesmen on Mumbai locals, everywhere in India the art and practice of oratory is alive and well. We are a people who revel in garrulity and cannot countenance silence.
Neither Batabyal nor Mukherjee rove as widely as they could have, choosing, perhaps because of constraints of space, speeches made mostly in formal settings like parliaments and courtrooms and grouped around significant themes. There is, for instance, not a genuinely funny speech in either book. But both anthologies have their share of thrilling passages, some, like Jawaharlal Nehru's "tryst with destiny" speech, familiar to all Indians, and others dredged out from the back-rooms of history. My selections here are intended to illustrate certain themes and patterns in these books and also some general aspects of the art of oratory.

For instance, the speech made by a man sentenced in a courtroom is a tradition that goes back to Socrates. Its appeal lies in the fact that justice is seen, by both the speaker and at least a part of the audience, to have been denied in the very house of justice. As the British government took to arresting and incarcerating large numbers of Indian protestors in the non-cooperation and independence movements, there naturally arose many occasions for condemned men to take the rule of law to task.

Two such speeches from the 1920s demonstrate the range of approaches used to discomfit the authorities. The more ingenious one was devised, not surprisingly, by Mahatma Gandhi, at his historic trial before Justice Robert Broomfield at Ahmedabad in 1922 after the suspension of the non-cooperation movement because of outbreaks of violence in parts of the country. After the prosecutor had made his case, Gandhi disarmed the judge completely by agreeing that he was guilty but at the same time arguing for the morality of his actions. Gandhi says:

I would like to state that I entirely endorse the learned advocate general's remarks in connection with my humble self. I think he was entirely fair to me in all the statements that he has made, because it is very true and I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of Government has become almost a passion with me [...]

It is the most painful duty with me but I have to discharge that duty knowing the responsibility that rests upon me, and I wish to endorse all the blame that the learned advocate general has thrown on my shoulders in connection with the Bombay, the Madras and the Chauri Chaura occurrences [...]

I wanted to avoid violence. I want to avoid violence. Non-violence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed. But I had to make my choice. [...] I know that my people have sometimes gone mad; I am deeply sorry for it.

I am therefore here to submit not to a light penalty but to the highest penalty. I do not ask for mercy. I do not ask for any extenuating act of clemency. I am here to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law in a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you, the judge, is as I am just going to say in my statement, either to resign your post or inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting to administer are good for the people of this country and that my activity is therefore injurious to the public weal.
The judge could not of course in good conscience believe this, and in sentencing Gandhi he remarked that if that sentence were later to be commuted, "no one will be better pleased than I". Here, as on many other occasions in the years to come, Gandhi's speeches were marked less by strident sloganeering or an appeal to emotions than by what the historian Simon Schama calls one of the elements indispensable to great oratory: "integrity of personal conviction, the sound of what Cicero, after the Greeks, called ethos".

A few months later the Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam struck a more dramatic tone than Gandhi - even a melodramatic tone - in another courtroom of the Raj at his trial on charges of sedition. On the day of his hearing the Kazi, later the national poet of Bangladesh, emphasised the gulf between what he called the king's law and God's law, between justice and Justice. He thundered:

The message of the king is like bubbles; mine - the boundless ocean. I'm a poet, sent by God to speak the unspoken Truth, to give form to the formless creation. The message is the revelation of the Truth, the message of God. That message may be judged seditious in a state-court, but in the court of Justice, that message is not against Justice, not against Truth [...]

I'm the shower of Truth, tears of God. I have not rebelled against a mere king, I have rebelled against injustice.

I know and I have seen - I'm not alone standing convicted in this court today. Standing behind me is the beauteous Truth, God Himself. Throughout ages He stands quietly behind His soldiers of Truth turned political prisoners. Through farcical trials like this when Jesus was crucified, Gandhi was imprisoned, that day too God stood quietly behind them. The judge could not see Him. Between him and God stood the emperor.

I hear that my judge is a poet. I'm delighted! A rebel-poet is to be judged by a judge-poet! But the last boat at the day's end is calling this elderly judge whereas, red-dawn's naba shankha is here to greet my coming. Death is calling him, life is calling me. I can't tell whether our respective setting star and rising star will unite. Nah, I'm talking nonsense again.
It should not be seen as an aspersion on the justice of his cause when I say that the Kazi does here seem to enjoy the sound of his own voice, the messianic tone of which sometimes bubbles over into an unintentional comedy. If there is indubitably in the words of the good Kazi, as those of Gandhi, the sound of ethos, there is also mixed in with it the equally distinctive sound of bathos.

Speeches are often meant to rouse or inflame; they are what turn a group of individuals into a mob. A characteristic method of doing so is to draw upon history and myth, the sense of a past or an injury shared by the speaker and his audience. Where the speaker wants to argue for the legitimacy of his actions, the past supplies true or false precedents for his stance and helps him align himself within a tradition.

An example of this is a speech chosen by Mukherjee called "Why I Killed Gandhi", delivered by the assassin Nathuram Godse in a packed courtroom in Simla in May 1949. Godse advanced the injured pride of Indian Hindus as his reason for eliminating Gandhi, and declared his hostility towards what he saw as Gandhi's emasculating creed of nonviolence:

Since the year 1920, that is, after the demise of Lokamanya Tilak, Gandhiji's influence in the Congress first increased and then becam supreme. His activities for public awakening were phenomenal in their intensity and were reinforced by the slogan of truth and non-violence which he paraded ostentatiously before the country.

No sensible or enlightened person could object to those slogans. In fact there is nothing new or original in them. They are implicit in every constitutional public movement. But it is nothing but a mere dream if you imagine that the bulk of mankind is, or can ever become, capable of scrupulous adherence to these lofty principles in its normal life from day to day.

In fact, honour, duty and love of one's own kith and kin and country might often compel us to disregard non-violence and to use force. I could never concede that an armed resistance to an aggression is unjust. I would consider it a religious and moral duty to resist and, if possible, to overpower such an enemy by use of force.

Rama killed Ravana in a tumultuous fight and relieved Sita. Krishna killed Kansa to end his wickedness, and Arjuna had to fight and slay quite a number of his friends and relations including the revered Bhishma because the latter was on the side of the aggressor.It is my firm belief that in dubbing Rama, Krishna and Arjuna as guilty of violence, the Mahatma betrayed a total ignorance of the springs of human action.
Note how, in the process of positing Gandhi as opposed to the glorious tradition of Rama, Krishna and Arjuna, Godse subliminally advances the idea that he himself has carried on the tradition of their heroism. There is something tragic about these words - tragic that a man should be shot because of his insistence on the nation's "scrupulous adherence to these lofty principles in its normal life" and his supposed ignorance of "the springs of human action", but tragic also that a man could kill for these reasons, genuinely believing himself to be in the right. But the springs of Godse's thought, the shape of his logic, have also undeniably run deep in India over the last sixty years, and especially since the early nineties

But if oratory often ends up appealing to chauvinist sentiments, then it can also be a force for broadening boundaries and forging connections. Among twentieth-century Indians who demonstrated and advocated an openness to, and not a distrust of, the wider world the most prominent are Jawaharlal Nehru, Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen. If in many of his speeches Nehru spoke passionately of an independent and inclusive India, then he was also the first to warn that nationalism could be a straitjacket. And Ray, like Nehru, was a citizen of the world as much as he was a citizen of India.

Looking back at Ray's legacy in a speech given in 1995 called "Satyajit Ray and the art of Universalism: Our Culture, Their Culture", Sen remarked:

In Ray's films and in his writings, we find explorations of at least three general themes on cultures and their interrelations: the importance of distinctions between different local cultures and their respective individualities; the necessity of understanding the heterogeneous character of each local culture (even the culture of a common, not to mention a region or a country); and the great need for intercultural communication, attended by a recognition of the barriers that make intercultural communication a hard task.[...]

In emphasizing the need to honor the individuality of each culture, Ray saw no reason for closing the doors to the outside world. [At the same time] Ray appreciated the importance of heterogeneity within local communities. This perception contrasts sharply with the tendency of many communitarians, religious and secular, who are willing to break up the nation into communities and then stop dead there: "thus far and no further." The great filmmaker's eagerness to seek the larger unit — to talk to the whole world — went well with his enthusiasm for understanding the smallest of the small — the individuality, ultimately, of each person. [...]

While Ray insists on retaining the real cultural features of the society that he portrays, his view of India — even his view of Bengal — recognizes a complex reality, with immense heterogeneity at every level. It is not the picture of a stylized East meeting a stereotypical West, which has been the
stock-in-trade of so many recent writings critical of "Westernization" and "modernity." Ray emphasized that the people who "inhabit" his films are complicated and extremely diverse. Take a single province: Bengal. Or, better still, take the city of Calcutta where I live and work. Accents here vary between one neighbourhood and another. Every educated Bengali peppers his native speech with a sprinkling of English words and phrases. Dress is not standardized. Although women generally prefer the sari, men wear clothes, which reflect the style of the thirteenth century or conform to the directives of the latest Esquire. The contrast between the rich and the poor is proverbial. Teenagers do the twist and drink Coke, while the devout Brahmin takes a dip in the Ganges and chants his mantras to the rising sun. It is important to note that the native culture which Ray stresses is not some pure vision of a tradition-bound society, but the heterogeneous lives and commitments of contemporary India. The recognition of this heterogeneity makes it immediately clear why Ray's focus on local culture cannot be readily seen as an "anti-modern" move. "Our culture" can draw on "their culture" and "their culture" can draw on "our culture".
This is a remarkably cogent and sophisticated series of insights, although, having heard Sen speak on several occasions, I can guess that despite the urgency of its critique of aspects of contemporary Indian thought it would have hardly been made in a lectern-thumping or hectoring fashion. This brings us to a valuable point made by Mukherjee, which is the distinction between great speakers and great speeches. "Great speakers do not always make great speeches," he writes. "The yardstick for judging the latter is whether the words retain their power with the passing of time. There is obviously a shadow between the power of oratory and the power of a text when it is read by subsequent generations."

And in a rare speech delivered in 1982 by the title "The Education of a Filmmaker", Ray himself demonstrated his universalism by speaking among other things of his love for the Italian neorealist filmmaker Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves. What is so wonderful about it? Ray says:

One quality which is sure to be found in a great work of cinema is the revelation of large truths in small details.[…] There is a scene in Bicycle Thieves where father and son go feverishly looking for a man they believe to have connections with the thief. In the process the two lose each other. Finding himself alone in a back street…Bruno is seen to approach a wall while unbuttoning his pants. But before he can do what he wishes to do, Ricci suddenly appears and calls out urgently. 'Bruno whirls around and runs to join his father, his urge unsatisfied.' This one detail brings home the implications of this desperate, daylong search more vividly than anything could have done.

[And] there's a scene towards the end where Ricci suddenly runs into the thief in front of the latter's house, pounces upon him, and demands that he hands back his bike. Hotly denying his guilt, the thief suddenly goes into an epileptic fit. As he sinks to the ground shaking and foaming at the mouth, his mother, who's been watching from an upstairs window, tosses pillows to put under his head. Meanwhile, Bruno has dragged along a policeman, whom Ricci now takes into the house to make a search. We see the miserable pigeonhole of a room where the mother cooks a meagre meal for the family of four. 'Instead of accusing him,' she says, 'why don't you find him a job?' The bike, however, is not found. As Ricci comes out of the house, he finds that the whole neighbourhood has turned against him....

Apart from adding dimension to the story, the film challenges our stock response of instant antipathy to a character who brings misery on the hero by an unsocial act. But so finely is the balance maintained that the incident doesn't lessen the calamity of the hero's loss. It merely makes the film a far richer experience than a conventional treatment would have done.
And finally, which of the two books to buy? Batabyal's is the longer and more comprehensive selection, Mukherjee's the more idiosyncratic and interesting - most of the work I've excerpted is from his anthology. I would be more partial to the Mukherjee were it not for the vexation provided by the text, which is littered with totally careless typos that a single diligent reading could have eliminated. Reading it I was often reminded of the highly flexible grammar and spelling of the competition success magazines I used to peruse in adolescence. So if you don't mind an error-strewn text then go for the Mukherjee; if you find these things annoying, as I do, then read the good bits of the Mukherjee in a bookshop and buy the Batabyal.

And here is a link to a splendid feature run several years ago by the Guardian: the text of, and commentary on, the greatest speeches of the twentieth century.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Me, Mint, me and me

This Saturday I happen to have a full-page piece in Mint on the art and practice of oratory in India, as exemplified by two worthy new collections of modern Indian speeches edited by Rudrangshu Mukerjee and Rakesh Batabyal.

So if you happen to be in Bombay or Delhi, you might want to actually buy the paper, not because of any remarkable quality in the work, but because for the first time Mint has requested a picture of my mug to prop up the piece. As I don't have my photo in the newpapers very often, and as I get excited easily, unsurprisingly I got excited about this, as anyone would in my place. And why shouldn't I, after all I've been through? I quickly sent them a photograph from an angle which, if not exactly flattering, at least didn't further damage the case of what Nature had already treated so unkindly, and when earlier this week I happened to pass by the office on my extensive travels around the city (from restaurant to restaurant, bar to bar, popping by sometimes at the place of a friend to eat and drink for free) I thought I'd pop in there too and have a preview of myself on the page.

Imagine my shock then (at least try) when I found that they'd decided to use not my actual photograph - a representation of me at one remove, as indeed all representation is by definition, but you won't get my precise point without this recourse to tautology - but an artist's reconstruction of my photograph, or Chandrahas Choudhury twice removed from himself, and looking mighty upset about it too.

As you already can tell if you've been paying attention, I was not pleased to see this reconstruction. To be fair, it did bear a striking resemblance to me. But the resemblance was not to the me of today, which I might have accepted, but instead to the probable me of ten years from now - old, haggard, wearied by continuous book reviewing on the one hand and by being ignored by pretty girls everywhere on the other and the carping of critics on the third - or have I scrambled my metaphor? This was transparently unfair: let down, and by my very own paper! I protested and protested, and even offered to re-do the page myself on QuarkExpress, but they said it was already closed, and no, I couldn't meet the artist. I had a black coffee, and left in a mood the same colour.

Anyway, as the wise Macbeth truly did say, what's done is done. This post is too, and I'm off now.

Friday, August 03, 2007

In Pragati

My review of Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi appears today in the August issue of Pragati, alongside pieces by Nitin Pai on India's vacillations over a free-market economy, Atanu Dey first on Indian villages and then on the state of education in India, and Ravikiran Rao on Arun Shourie's analysis of our flawed electoral system.

You can download the entire issue here.