Saturday, January 26, 2008

Three new novels, and some older ones

I don't usually put up my reviews for Mint up on this site, but by a strange coincidence in the last three weeks I've happened to review three first novels (one dating back to 1954) by women writers (if that means anything at all): Kamala Markandaya's Nectar In A Sieve, Shahbano Bilgrami's Without Dreams, and Anjum Hasan's Lunatic In My Head.

One of these I liked very much, another I enjoyed moderately, and the third not at all, so these pieces can be read as a kind of review-trilogy making a set of linked arguments about fiction, and about how difficult it is to produce a genuinely good work of art or create even one memorable character.

And elsewhere, I'm happy to see that Alaa Al Aswany's marvellous novel The Yacoubian Building, which was one of the three novels on my books of the year for 2007, has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (this link leads to a passionately argued essay by Boyd Tonkin which you should read). I still curse myself sometimes for having garbled the sense of the opening line of an otherwise satisfactory short piece on The Yacoubian Building I wrote for the Sunday Telegraph, which points to one of the advantages of a blog, which is that you can smooth out infelicitous thoughts and phrases. The only other novel I read and wrote about among this list of novels in translation was Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring The World, which I thought a modestly charming work with little or no enduring worth.

And some essays I've been reading recently:

Geoff Dyer's meditation on artistic influence in an essay on Rodin and Rilke ("In real life our chances of meeting people are limited and contingent. In the realm of art and literature those constraints are removed; everyone is potentially in dialogue with everyone else irrespective of chronology and geography")

James Wood's meditation on fictional characters "A Life of Their Own", which is perhaps an extract from his new book How Fiction Works. This passage is to my mind a little below Wood's usual standard - he is the greatest, and subtlest, close reader of fiction I have ever read (indeed every review-essay he writes could be called "How Fiction Works") - but necessary reading nonetheless.

the literary critic Geoffrey Hartman's long lecture "A Life of Learning" ("A life of learning has little moral weight unless it communicates the life in learning")

and James Surowiecki's essay on Ha-Joon Chang's Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism in the new issue of Bookforum.

Lastly, I greatly enjoyed - indeed, felt energised by - the dash and brio of James Wolcott's prose in "How Bush Stacks Up", a survey of books about the Bush presidency ("It’s difficult to think of any modern inhabitant of the Oval Office who has contemplated his own mortality aloud more often than Bush, or drawn more consolation from its graveyard perspective").

And some of my other long reviews of recently published Indian novels: Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third, Raj Kamal Jha's Fireproof, Vinod George Joseph's Hitchhiker, and Amitava Kumar's Home Products.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Books Interview: Ramachandra Guha

The publication of Ramachandra Guha’s thrilling history of India from 1947 to the present day India After Gandhi was one of the highlights of Indian literature in 2007. Guha, whose other books include a biography of the anthropologist Verrier Elwin, the awardwinning social history of Indian cricket A Corner of a Foreign Field, the marvellous anecdotal history The States of Indian Cricket, a history of the Indian environmental movement (with Madhav Gadgil) and the book of essays An Anthropologist among the Marxists, kindly agreed to answer a host of questions about India After Gandhi and also about the nature of the historian's craft, favourite books and bookshops, Indian newspapers, and food.

Six decades after independence, democracy is now quite deeply rooted in our psyche and in our language: we are at home with democracy, or at least with the rhetoric of democracy. But as you demonstrate, the decision in 1947 to move straight to a system of adult universal suffrage was "the biggest gamble in history". Could you reprise just why this move was so radical?
In the West, the franchise had been granted in stages; first only men of property were allowed to vote; then men of education were added on to the list. The male working class had to struggle long and hard to be deemed worthy of the privilege. Women had to struggle even longer; in a supposedly “advanced” country like Switzerland, women were not permitted to vote until 1971! This is what makes the Indian experiment so radical. So soon after Independence, a poor and largely illiterate citizenry was allowed to freely choose its own leaders. All Indians above the age of 21, regardless of gender or class or education, were granted the franchise. There was, as I show in India after Gandhi, widespread scepticism about this experiment; many Indians, and most foreigners, thought it would never work. But it did.

Although India After Gandhi is 900 pages long, its scope is so vast that you must have left out at least as much as you left in. Did you find that work on this book was an especially demanding instance of that problem which all narrative historians must grapple with: the selection of detail?
I did leave out quite a lot, though certainly not as much as I left in! I cut 40,000 words from my final draft, these mostly original quotes from primary sources. Even so, the book runs, as you say, to 900 pages. My publishers, my agent, my closest friends, had all warned me that a history book about India would not sell if it were more than 500 pages long. In the end, my American and British editors, together, recommended very few cuts–perhaps 5,000 words to add to the 40,000 I had myself deleted. No reader has (yet) complained about the length; although many readers (beginning with my wife) have complained that the book is too bulky to read in bed.
As I explain in the prologue, historians of India have taken 1947 as a lakshman rekha they cannot cross. My real hope for this book is that it will encourage younger historians to write books of their own on the history of independent India, which is without question the most interesting country in the world. Each of my chapters should be a book. Several of my sections could be developed into books. There are themes I have treated only fleetingly (for example, the history of Indian architecture since 1947) that could be made the subject of whole books. And many of the characters who figure in the pages of India after Gandhi­—for instance, Sheikh Abdullah, AZ Phizo, JB Kripalani, and NT Rama Rao—deserve full-length biographies.

The decades immediately before and after Indian independence also seem to have been a golden age of political leadership. Your chapters on this period are among other things a chronicle of the contributions of our own Founding Fathers - Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar and a host of others. None of these men except Nehru had a family background in politics, yet they were all drawn to politics, and as you show they were all in some way above politics. Is this just a historical curiosity? Must a democratic citizenry be reconciled to not expecting greatness in its statesmen?
A I think that it was, alas, a historical curiosity, or more accurately, coincidence. Rarely in any country’s history have so many men and women of intelligence and integrity taken—at more or less the same time—to the political life. We Indians are insufficiently aware of (and certainly insufficiently grateful to) the country’s Founding Fathers and Mothers. We owe them much more than we realize. Now, intelligence and integrity have mostly left the sphere of politics—although they are visibly present in the realms of social work and social activism, entrepreneurship, and in professions such as medicine and the law.

Your book synthesizes an impressive amount of scholarship. Among the concepts you take up, I was struck by W.H. Morris-Jones's idea of the three idioms of Indian politics: the modern, the traditional, and the saintly. Would you like to elaborate on this idea, and perhaps explain it in terms of a contemporary Indian debate?
I suppose Dr Manmohan Singh represents the modern idiom, and someone like Medha Patkar the saintly idiom. However, most important or successful leaders nowadays practice one or other version of identity politics—and thus would qualify as ‘traditional’ in the terms of Morris-Jones. Caste, region, religion—these continue to shape and define how politicians win elections and how they run their administrations.

Would you like to talk a bit about the works of history that have most influenced your understanding of the art and craft of narrative history? I know that the historian Marc Bloch was an early influence on you...
Apart from Bloch, his great Annales School colleague Lucien Febvre was also an early influence, as was the British social historian EP Thompson. I have also learnt a great deal from Indian writers, particularly the sociologists AndrĂ© BĂ©teille and MN Srinivas—the two scholars who, in my view, have written most insightfully on society and politics in modern India.
A historian must read capaciously, and eclectically. He must read writers Indian and foreign, theorists as well as biographers, sociologists and essayists apart from formally trained historians. But in the end he must use the narrative style that works best with the theme that he has chosen and the material that he has gathered. In this sense, no other historian or book can serve as a model or exemplar. If you compare India after Gandhi with some of my other books, you will see that it is more sociological and argumentative than Savaging the Civilized, my biography of Verrier Elwin (which had to follow a person’s life and emotions closely); yet less sociological than A Corner of a Foreign Field, my social history of cricket, whose organizing categories are race, caste, religion, and nation.

Your research for India After Gandhi must have thrown in your path many texts about Indian history, politics and culture that are now little read. Would you like to talk about some that can still be read for pleasure and profit?
I don’t know about ‘pleasure’, since very few Indian historians write with any sense of style. An exception must however be made for Sarvepalli Gopal, whose lives of Nehru and Radhakrishnan can indeed ‘still be read for pleasure and profit’. Among the other books that I found particularly valuable in terms of the depth of their research, or the spotlight they threw on important issues, were Prafulla Chakravarti’s Marginal Men (a study of Bengali refugees in Calcutta), and Sisir K. Gupta’s meticulous study of the first decade of the Kashmir dispute.

Must a historian read the newspapers closely? What newspapers do you read? And would you like to provide an account of your changing relationship to the newspaper over the course of your life?
A historian must certainly read, and closely, the newspapers of the period or region he is writing about. For both India after Gandhi and A Corner of a Foreign Field I spend many enjoyable hours looking at microfilms of old newspapers and magazines. The riches of India’s periodical press are an under-utilized resource, since many historians still tend to restrict themselves to official records.
The newspapers of the present day are another matter. Growing up, my favourite newspaper was The Statesman, which combined elegant English with a sturdily independent editorial stance. It was destroyed by a megalomaniac named CR Irani. Back in the 1970s, the Times of India was also a real newspaper; now, as we well know, it is a fashion supplement. If the TOI is too frivolous, then The Hindu is perhaps too solemn. Now, in 2008, my favourite Indian newspaper is The Telegraph of Kolkata, and I often also find things of interest in the Hindustan Times. On the whole, though, I feel that the quality of the English-language press in India has declined over the years. There is too little grassroots reporting; too much celebrity journalism. Editors and columnists are too closely allied to particular politicians or political parties.

In 2007 there was a boom in the publication of books on India both at home and in the west. Are there any books amongst these, whether for a scholarly or a lay audience, that have caught your eye?
The two books on India that I most enjoyed in 2007 were both on that most elevated of art forms, Indian classical music. I was very struck by a remark once made by Amitav Ghosh, to the effect that our classical musicians are the only Indians who strive for excellence and achieve it. Their art is richer and more subtle, and calls for far great discipline, than the game of cricket; and it brings the artist in touch with the Divine.
I mention cricket because it is a game we both love to distraction, and both of us write about. But give me M. S. Subbulakshmi over Sachin Tendulkar any day. Sadly, our shastriya sangeet has not really been written about (at least in English) with insight and imagination; there are no musical equivalents of Sujit Mukherjee or Mukul Kesavan. Or not until last year, when Kumar Mukherji published (posthumously) The Lost World of Hindustani Music, a wideranging anecdotal history of many musicians and many gharanas; and Namita Devidayal published The Music Room, her evocative memoir of singers from a single gharana.

Which is your favourite bookshop in the world?
I have many favourite bookshops: John Sandoe in London, the Strand in New York, Clarke’s in Cape Town, and the New and Secondhand Bookshop in Mumbai. But the one I love most is Premier Bookshop, off Church Street in Bangalore. Its owner, T. S. Shanbagh, is a man of much charm combined with a sly humour. His books are arranged in a most eccentric fashion, but he knows where each one is, and knows too which new arrival is likely to interest an old customer. I have written a tribute to Premier in an anthology of writings on Bangalore edited by Aditi De, which Penguin will publish later this year.

Let us say you were hosting a dinner party and had the liberty of inviting half a dozen personages from the entire sweep of Indian history. Who do you think you would want at your table and why? And what then might you talk about?
That is a tough one! To make matters easier, let me restrict myself to the recent past. I guess I must have the four modern Indians I admire above all others—Tagore, Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Nehru. Then the great (or at least brilliant) Indian whose politics and personality is somewhat at odds with this quartet—namely, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. That will surely get the sparks flying. Finaly, the socialist-turned-social worker Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, not to fill in the gender quota, but because of the range of her experience and the independence of her mind, not to speak of her penchant for puncturing pomposity wherever it was to be found.
The conversation? Perhaps I might begin by asking Gandhi his opinion of his fellow Gujarati, Narendra Modi. Ambedkar might then offer his views on Mayawati, Nehru his views on Rahul Gandhi, Tagore his views on Amartya Sen (whom he named). I think we can trust them to take it from there!

These interviews always end with a question about food. As you have travelled widely around the country, and lived for considerable periods of time in the south, the north, and the east, you must have left your footprints on thousands of eating-houses. What is your favourite memory of a meal?
The older I get, the more I relish Indian vegetarian food. Gujarati cuisine is a favourite, of course, but so is Bengali vegetarian food (I grew up in Dehradun in close proximity to a home in which lived a Bengali widow, for whose delectation—since she had little else to look forward to—this cuisine was first fashioned). But my most memorable meal was had in the Admaru Mutt, adjoining the famous Krishna temple in Udupi. I had been at a conference in the neighbouring town of Manipal, whose presiding deity was the Kannada writer UR Anantha Murty. On the last day of the conference we were taken to the Mutt for lunch by Anantha Murty. The Madhava Brahmins love their food, and this particular meal consisted of forty-two separate items, each listed on a printed card. Udupi is on the crest of the Western Ghats, so to add to the various varieties of cultivated cereals, legumes, and vegetables came a whole array of items picked from the forest—among them wild mango, jackfruit curry, and bamboo shoot pickle.
The meal was made more memorable by the company. We ate sitting cross-legged on the floor. On my left was the Sikh sociologist J PS Uberoi, on my right the Christian anarchist Claude Alvares—both accustomed by culture and upbringing to deprecate vegetarian food as simply ‘ghaas’. Opposite me was the veteran Gandhian Dharampal—not allowed by his upbringing to eat meat, but not allowed either to be exposed to such subtle varieties of taste and essence. As we ate, Anantha Murty walked up and down, explaining the origins and significance of each of those forty-two dishes.
When I was young, I used to say, at the conclusion of every concert by Mallikarjun Mansur that I was privileged to attend: ‘Please, God, allow me to hear this man once more in the flesh before he dies’. Now, from time to time I ask the fellow above that I may be allowed one more meal at the Admaru Mutt before I die.

And some previous books interviews: Altaf Tyrewala, Samrat Upadhyay and Christopher Kremmer.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Bauerlein on the New Critics, and Hughes on Dickens

In an essay flagging the upcoming publication of a new anthology, Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism, the literary critic Mark Bauerlein argues that the now unfashionable New Critics - most famously William Empson with his Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), but also IA Richards, Cleanth Brooks and RP Blackmur - were "the first humanists to make theory into a recognized disciplinary activity". I've always learnt something from Bauerlein's work - his book Literary Criticism: An Autopsy was of great help during my years as an undergraduate struggling to figure out what to make of the turn of literary studies towards "theory" - and I totally endorse his argument, directed at professors of English on the one hand and at commercial publishers zealously hanging on to copyright on the other, that:

professors owe respect to the past of their own fields. It is up to them to safeguard intellectual history, to keep the pressures of money and fashion at bay. The actions of a commercial press here demonstrate that if professors take their field's past for granted, or if they regard that past as an inferior practice, it will fade and disappear. They should realize that, for all the adversarial postures toward the market and bourgeois values, their "presentism" (or "post-1966ism") combines all too smoothly with the bottom line of the corporations who own their forebears.
Alongside Bauerlein's "What We Owe The New Critics" you might also want to read his essay "Theory's Empre", Andrew Delbanco's classic NYRB essay "The Decline and Fall of Literature", and Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer's acerbic survey from 1995 "Farewell to the MLA". I regret that I have not yet been able to read Delbanco's widely praised biography of Herman Melville.

And in a marvellous essay in the Guardian on Charles Dickens's Christmas stories, Kathryn Hughes writes about how Dickens often used Christmas "as a time to wake up the dozing conscience of the prosperous urban middle classes" and notes of his most famous Christmas story that:

What makes A Christmas Carol so important is that it marks the first time that anyone tried to imagine what a modern, urban Christmas might look like. Here you will find no lingering nostalgia for the Baron's Hall with its extended kith network and 12 days of feudal feasting. Instead, this is a pared-down Christmas, a single day's holiday enjoyed by small nuclear families with no historical or social links to anything beyond themselves. We never hear about Bob Cratchit's mother or sister, and even Scrooge's nephew's house party consists only of close family. When the memory of a joyful Christmas past is held out to Scrooge in the form of Fezziwig's Ball, which he attended as a young man, it is an after-work party held in a merchant's warehouse rather than a scene of feudal feasting. So Dickens demonstrates triumphantly that a meaningful Christmas is possible even in the most contemporary and urban of settings.
What I like best about Dickens is his immense verbal energy and riotous metaphorical imagination - think of Lady Tippins in Our Mutual Friend, with "an immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon" - and this facet of his work is taken up in another lovely essay from some years ago by Joseph Bottum, who himself sounds like a character out of Dickens.

And some other things I've been reading over the week gone by: Andrew Sullivan's long essay in the Atlantic Monthly on the Obama campaign, "Goodbye to All That", and Jeremy Waldron's close inspection of the idea of free speech, a big theme in our national conversation and especially on the blogosphere, in his essay "Boutique Faith", arguing among other things that "the costs of hate speech, such as they are, are not spread evenly across the community that is supposed to tolerate them".