Monday, November 12, 2007

Shashi Tharoor, banally in love with India

A newspaper column is, as demonstrated by its best practitioners, a minor but nevertheless demanding art form, the essence of which is to give memorable expression to the topical by linking it to deeper realities. Those who carry it off most successfully on the Indian scene – Ramachandra Guha, Vir Sanghvi, Girish Shahane, Santosh Desai, Mukul Kesavan, Swaminathan S. Aiyar - delight and provoke us not only with their command over their subject but also their flair for shrewd generalisation and the economy and lucidity of their expression.

Sadly none of these qualities are visible in Shashi Tharoor's The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone, a ragbag of columns and op-eds in which ancient platitudes, second-hand insights, and tacky witticisms are aimed at the reader with a quite breathtaking conviction. Tharoor has never been a very good columnist anyway, so his unwise (but in some ways perfectly characteristic) decision to gather up his jottings only serves to expose more clearly his considerable shortcomings in the realm of both thought and expression.

Let us begin with the thought. India, pronounces Tharoor, is an ancient civilization of great diversity and richness, "a conglomeration of languages, cultures, ethnicities", "a land of contrasts". Our pluralist ethos is our greatest strength, yet because we have so many differences we often lapse into anarchy and division. Our economy is booming and our middle-class expanding; the cellphone is the symbol of this economic revolution. But a large chunk of our population still languishes in poverty, and if we don’t attend to this problem then, in Tharoor's heavyhanded metaphor, the elephant which is turning into a tiger may turn back into an elephant.

Tharoor asks us to mark also that elected leaders are often corrupt and unprincipled, and a blot on the name of democracy. Corruption is so endemic that the size of the black economy is probably as large as that of the white economy. To turn now to cricket: cricket emerged in a foreign land, but its spiritual home now is India. Cinema: movies are the great Indian national pastime, and Bollywood dominates popular discourse in India. Health: Indians are somehow acutely conscious of personal hygiene but unmindful of public sanitation. The mango: the mango is the king of fruits, but it sells at prices that make it the fruit of kings. Although Tharoor is an Indian writer writing about India for Indian readers, his writing is somehow pitched at the level of, say, a Norwegian writing about India for Norwegian readers.

Tharoor's interpretation of particulars is as dismaying as his stultifying generalities. Nowhere is he more wearisome than when composing elaborations on his favourite theme: the Nehruvian idea of India's unity in diversity. Take his reflections on the rise of the cricketer Irfan Pathan. That Pathan, a Gujarati Muslim and the son of a muezzin, could play for India and attain the popularity he did in the wake of Gujarat 2002 is for Tharoor "a testament to the indestructible pluralism of our country". This is dubious in itself, but a further advertisement of pluralism, Tharoor avers, was the Indian team itself,a champion side "including two Muslims and a Sikh, and captained by a Hindu with a wife named Donna". Tharoor here carelessly seems to confer an honorary Christianity upon Sourav Ganguly's wife Dona – one can't see any other reason why her name merits a mention – to fill up a blank in his pluralist headcount.

Elsewhere Tharoor recounts an incident, which he knows only through the testimony of "two American scholars", of a Muslim girl whose father refused to let her play one of Krishna's dancing gopis in a play, but had no objection to her playing a stationary Krishna holding a flute. Anybody can see that this story is marked by doubt and confusion (and distaste for low activities like dancing) as much as assent, but for Tharoor it is "a lovely story that illustrates the cultural synthesis of Hinduism and Islam in northern India". Tharoor sees himself as a proud carrier of the Nehruvian torch, but is happily oblivious to how complacent and patronising a Nehruvian he is.

Nor is Tharoor much more edifying when talking about another of his pet subjects, "the new India". Watching the excitable cricketer S. Sreesanth slog a bullying South African fast bowler over his head for six and follow it up with a frenzied war dance, Tharoor is convinced that this incident epitomizes "all that is different about the new India" – bold, fearless, confident. As the flagbearers of the bold new India and the secular and pluralist India respectively, Sreesanth and Irfan Pathan may, to go by Tharoor's reading, be the most meaningful pair of new-ball bowlers in the history of cricket. Tharoor continues: "Sreesanth's India is the land that throws out the intruders of Kargil…that wins Booker Prizes and Miss Universe contests." I felt embarrassed even reading such twaddle.

Of course we have still not approached one of Tharoor's main subjects, one that looms almost as large in the book as the India he loves so. This topic begins with the same letter as India and stops right there: it is the writerly self, the "I". Tharoor is a highly energetic and committed self-promoter: in fact some of the most ingenious writing in his book takes the form of his acrobatics of self-aggrandizement.

Consider these two examples. Coming across a photograph of a sadhu chatting on a mobile phone at the Kumbh mela, Tharoor remarks that this contrast "says so much about the land of paradoxes that is today's India – a country that, as I wrote many years ago, manages to live in several centuries at the same time." In another passage about India as a land of contrasts and extremes, Tharoor closes a paragraph with the lines: "Any truism about India can be imeediately contradicted by another truism about India. I once jokingly observed that 'anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true.'"

What is going on here? In these lines we find not one but two Shashi Tharoors – Shashi Tharoor present and Shashi Tharoor past – supporting each other in confirmation of the most trite characterisations. Tharoor is not only saying something that all of us keep saying, but also insisting that he said the very thing earlier, as if by a continuous process of self-quotation he can lever the thought into the domain of his personal copyright. The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone abounds with such predictable moves out towards India on the one hand and preening gestures in towards the self on the other.

Not all of Tharoor's book is so tedious. In one chapter he argues persuasively that Hindutva, an ideology without any base in Hinduism even if it shares the same root word, is in effect a separatist movement, one that appeals to a majority rather than a minority. Another section offers some useful profiles of little-known or neglected figures. But most of Tharoor's writing is just noise. Although we know from Tharoor that "anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true", there is little chance about the same diversity of opinion about a work so banally, so fatally, in love with India as The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone.

And a recent essay on another book about the meanings of India: "Mark Tully and India".

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

On Ilan Stavans's Love and Language

My review of Ilan Stavans's Love and Language appeared last weekend in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Two of the prolific and polyglot scholar Ilan Stavans' previous books are titled On Borrowed Words and Dictionary Days, so it is no surprise that his latest work, a disquisition on love in the form of a dialogue with the translator Veronica Albin, is also replete with word clusters and etymological burrowings, and connects the emotion and its expression with the title Love and Language.

This is because for Stavans, the limit of our language is also the limit of the world - an idea that led this reader back to Allan Bloom's complaint in his book Love and Friendship, which covers roughly the same territory as Stavans' volume but through a focused reading of a dozen great texts, that "there is an impoverishment today in our language about what used to be understood as life's most interesting experience, and this almost necessarily bespeaks an impoverishment of feeling."

Although Stavans is not as agitated as Bloom, implicit in his work, too, is the notion that an antidote to love's debasement as both word and feeling may be supplied by literature, mythology and the history of ideas. Stavans avers that humankind's understanding of love is in constant flux ("Who can prove what Cleopatra felt for Antony is the same as what Heloise felt for Abelard?"), demonstrating in an enthusiastic and sometimes idiosyncratic survey how economic and social conditions, religious strictures and literary and artistic tropes have led to love being understood very differently across time and across cultures.

Stavans sees romantic love, which is what the word "love" brings most immediately to mind in our culture, as being only the third of a set of concentric circles, flanked by self-love and love of family on one side and love of God and love of community (or in its modern form, of country) on the other. This is useful not just for the aptness of the geometric metaphor - the circle is the most pervasive emblem of love, such as Plato's theory in the Symposium of love as two sundered halves meeting - but also as a reminder that desire must be schooled by the tough demands of self and family before it can successfully engage with the other. Stavans quotes Alexander Pope: "Self-love, the spring of motion, acts the soul."

Yet the thrill and the thrall of romantic love are unlike that of any other. The marvel of it is not just that we are so powerfully, and sometimes enduringly, sucked out of our orbits by another human being; there is also the extent to which, belying all logic, we venerate and idealize the loved one, finding beauty in his or her simplest word or gesture. As Simone Weil wrote, "Two things cannot be reduced to any rationalizing: time and beauty." Stavans rightly criticizes reductionist explanations of love based on biological or psychological theories. Freud, he asserts, may have revolutionized our understanding of sexuality, but not of love. On the contrary, his theories drain love of its sublime element.

The metaphors of poetry, Stavans suggests, may provide a more accurate map of love than any scientific treatise. This brings up one of the central ideas of the book, which is that love and literature are inextricably connected. Drawing on Octavio Paz (to whom he has been compared), Stavans notes how the erotic act and the poetic act both have their roots in the power and fecundity of the human imagination. "Imagination turns sex into ceremony and rite, language into rhythm and metaphor." And it is to language - a system of sounds that gives material expression to nonmaterial things - that we turn, even if inarticulately, to give expression to the ravishment of love.

If there is a fault with Love and Language, it is that Stavans is perhaps too erudite for his own good. This creates two related problems. One is the rambling and associative nature of his meditations. Digression is, of course, more typical of dialogue than of writing, but while the ones here are diverting, they not always productive. On a number of occasions, names and incidents are called up in a somewhat perfunctory fashion, as if more from serendipity than choice. Sometimes the many peripheral details supplied by Stavans ("Walter Benjamin, called by Terry Eagleton 'the Marxist Rabbi,' who committed suicide in Port Bou, Spain...") unravel the tension of the text.

The other problem is that Love and Language is essentially a work of intelligent synthesis, and therefore a little more placid than is ideal given the fevers and disquiets prompted by its subject. Other than his contention that Socrates was not so much a tragic hero executed on a motivated charge as a highly aware martyr, Stavans does not really get his hands dirty. He has backers for all his ideas, and so his inquiry becomes a little too bookish. There is plenty of talk of love in this work, but the shock of love is sometimes too much at a distance.

An excerpt from Love and Language can be found here.

And here are some old reviews for the Chronicle (these incidentally are three of the best novels I have had the privilege of writing about): Sandor Marai's Casanova in Bolzano, Leila Aboulela's Minaret, and Malika Mokeddem's Century of Locusts.