Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ramin Jahanbegloo on Gandhi's concept of freedom

From the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo's new book The Spirit of India, this marvellous passage on freedom as understood by Gandhi both in the personal and in the political sense:

To Gandhi, swaraj did not mean simply replacing British rule with Indian rule. [...] Political independence was not an end in itself. Swaraj was above all about individual autonomy, involving self-respect, self-restraint and maturity. Gandhi appealed for individual Indians to free themselves mentally and through character development from internal and external colonization. [...] In other words, Gandhi aimed to revitalize the idea of civilization as dharma (a sense of order, a quality of the soul and duty towards other human beings) through a redefinition of self-government as self-actualization. [...]

What Gandhi criticizes in modern civilization is the process of reduction of self-restraint and self-actualization to self-interest. According to Gandhi, to value human freedom only as the freedom to pursue one's self-interest lacks moral and spiritual depth and creates a life devoid of meaning and truth. [...] Swaraj means essentially 'being open to others', but at the same time it means building a character for oneself by living one's life as a moral project. [...]

We can now understand why freedom for Gandhi was not merely a right, but was a duty. [...] In Gandhi's philosophy civilization is not just a state of self-proclamation of freedom. True freedom is not merely the freedom to do what one desires, but also the ability to ensure that what one chooses is the result of a sense of duty and self-knowledge. For Gandhi, this choice is not exercised as 'freedom from restraints' but as 'freedom through restraints'. There is an ontological difference between the two formulations. In the first formulation, restraint refers to a situation imposed by an 'other' (for example, colonialism). In the second formulation, restraint refers to a self-imposed situation (Gandhian swaraj).

Therefore, freedom is not only freedom from coercion and domination, it is also self-regulation through self-restraint. Hence, self-restraint forms an indispensable part of Gandhi's concept of civilization. [...] True civilization is a state of self-transcendence through self-restraint. It is a process of making and rectifying mistakes. Freedom should provide conditions of growth for an individual. In the eyes of Gandhi, the civilizing process results from an inner reform of the individual. As for outward independence, it is a yardstick to measure the freedom of self within. There can be no outward self-rule without the experience of truth. And there can be no experience of truth without self-realization and moral freedom. True civilization is the reign of moral freedom. [...] For Gandhi the truth is actually the spirit of search for truth. In his own life, he conducted the search as experiments with truth.

And three older posts: "Talking India with Ashis Nandy", in which it is Jahanbegloo that Nandy is talking India with; a review of Rajmohan Gandhi's recent biography of Gandhi, which also addresses the points made here; and a piece on Jeffrey Goldberg's Prisoners, which takes up some of the thoughts on Gandhi in that book.

A piece by Jahanbegloo, "The Modern Gandhi", is here, and a long conversation between Jahanbegloo and Danny Postel can be found here. A large set of links on Iran's politics, art, and ideas can be found in this post written last year on Christopher de Bellaigue's The Struggle For Iran.

Also, last week's post on David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk is now updated with a passage from the book.

Monday, February 18, 2008

On David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk

This piece appeared yesterday in The Sunday Telegraph.

An intriguing aspect of novels that conscript characters from real life, under their real names, into the world of fiction is the degree to which such books must perform a continuous balancing act to justify their existence. They simultaneously invite judgement for their fidelity to the historical record – for the novelist’s painstaking “research” – and for the cunning of their fiction-making, the private corridors they open off public knowledge.

This is the situation of David Leavitt’s novel The Indian Clerk, which explores the relationship between the protagonists of one of the oddest, but greatest, partnerships in the history of mathematics: the Cambridge don GH Hardy and the Indian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. Hardy – fiercely atheist, rationalist, contemptuous of small talk and complacent attitudes, a closet homosexual – brought Ramanujan over to Trinity College in 1914 on the basis of no more than a couple of pleading, eccentric letters full of mathematical hits and misses from the impoverished Indian clerk, and considered his association with him “the one romantic incident in my life”.

Yet Hardy’s relationship with the “Hindoo calculator”, as Ramanujan came to be known in Cambridge circles, was as vexing as it was fulfilling. In Leavitt’s book, as in Robert Kanigel’s widely praised biography of Ramanujan The Man Who Knew Infinity, Hardy is perplexed by Ramanujan’s devotion to the goddess Namagiri (to whom he attributes his flashes of insight) by his childlike and often inscrutable ways, by his unstable mix of highly worldly and unworldly attitudes, and finally by his tragically early death.

Leavitt’s novel begins with a telling scene from 1936. Hardy is about a deliver a lecture at Harvard, but knows that his audience is not as interested in his work as they are in the long-dead Ramanujan. The Indian Clerk has something like the same relationship with readers’ expectations: we want Ramanujan, but get Hardy. At times the narration advances upon the voice of Hardy and at times from above him, steadily enfolding the lives of a host of brilliant supporting characters (some “real”, some Leavitt’s inventions), but it never allows us private access to Ramanujan’s thoughts. Although characters can be just as interesting when information about them is withheld as they are when it is supplied, the reader is likely to chafe at this unequal division, especially since Hardy is such a cold fish.

But this strategy does allow Leavitt to set up one of the most sublime and affecting moves in a novelist’s repertoire, which is a change in a character’s long-settled voice in response to changing circumstances. As the First World War (“the Great War” to Hardy) begins, Cambridge is emptied of its able-bodied men, the mood of crisis invades even the most innocuous act of social intercourse, and life limps along in Trinity College, the cadences of Hardy’s clipped and unemotional sentences open out slowly and make for a more yearning, wondering sound that captivates the ear. Many things in this newly stricken world – including the troubles of his moping Indian friend, longing for home and family – surprise Hardy and move him, and as it shuttles around the lives and worries of its Cambridge set, once close-knit but now widely dispersed, Leavitt’s novel also worries itself into being.

And here is a link to a long interview with Leavitt at The Elegant Variation ("Point of view is my obsession. I love the intimacy of first person, and I also love the scope and latitude of third person").

Unfortunately I don't have the book on me as I'm travelling, else I've have quoted a couple of passages from it. But I thought it work of an enviably high order, and recommend it unhesitatingly.

Update, Feb.28 - And here is a paragraph from the novel, from Part 5, "A Terrible Dreaming". The war has begun; many Cambridge men have been enlisted and have fallen on the battlefields of France. Hardy has chosen not to volunteer, and is reduced to reading "the lists of the Cambridge dead that the Cambridge magazine published", and trying to insert his name "among those of the men from Trinity, all of whom, of course, I had known, at least by sight, and some of whom I had taught". Trinity has been emptied out, although a camp for the wounded has been set up in Nevile's Court. "Hermione" in this passage is the cat beloved of Hardy and his late partner Gaye; Hardy's mother is "half out of her mind" because of old age, not because of the war:
Early that winter I was sitting, one morning, reading in my rooms, with Hermione on my lap, awaiting Ramanujan. I looked up and saw that the first snow was falling. And somehow its innocence, its seeming obliviousness to the condition of the world, moved me and saddened me. For possibly the snow was falling also on the riven farmland of France and Belgium, falling into the trenches in which the soldiers waited for what might be their last sunset. And it was falling on Nevile's Court, to be gazed upon by the injured lying in their camp beds. And it was falling in Cranleigh, where my mother, half out of her mind, watched it through her bedroom window, and my sister through the window of a classroom in which uniformed girls were painting a vase of flowers. Lifting Hermione off my lap, I got up and walked to the window. It was still warm enough outside that the snow didn't stick; it melted instantly when it touched the ground. And there, standing in the court below me, was Ramanujan. The flakes melted on his face and ran down his cheeks. He stood there like that for a full five minutes. And then I realized that this must have been the first time in his life that he had seen snow.

A man watches snow, imagines a fractured world and within it his near and dear ones briefly brought together by the experience of watching the same snow, and then sees another man standing under the snow and realises how different his reading of that snow - and by extension the war - must be. This is a passage aglow with the moral sympathy that is one of the reasons why novelistic narrative, even if it contains little or no factual content, asks at its very best to be taken as a branch of knowledge.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

On Chitrita Banerji's Eating India

This piece appeared yesterday in Mint.

It could be said of good food writing that no matter how far afield the writer ventures, he or she always has one foot set at home. That is, food writing is always less interesting when the writer goes out only to look, taste, describe what is out there, and more interesting when the writer brings to the encounter a distinct point of view rooted in his or her family hearth, in a formative tradition that becomes everywhere a standard of comparison and calibration.

A powerful sense of just this kind of dialogue is communicated at every step by Chitrita Banerji’s marvellous survey of Indian cuisine Eating India. Banerji begins with a sumptuous chapter on the culinary traditions of her native Bengal—also the subject of her two previous books Hour of the Goddess and Life and Food in Bengal—and then sets out across the country to taste and think about its enormously variegated food, from the predominantly vegetarian diet of Gujarat to the sharper flavours of the south, the rich synthesis of north Indian cuisines to the enclaves of Parsi and Jewish cooking.

Tracing spheres of influence, establishing patterns of continuity and innovation, and foregrounding subtle variations in cooking methods and the use of ingredients, Banerji connects food to customs, culture, religion, folklore, climate and even architecture. This is important because reading the newspapers these days, and noting the density of detail in the pieces about “eating right” and the contrasting insipidity of restaurant reviews, it is possible to come to the conclusion that eating knowledgeably in our times has come to mean understanding the place of various food groups in a balanced diet, keeping track of calories and portion sizes, and eating no carbs after dark.

There is no question that these are urgent issues in a populace traditionally affected by obesity and heart disease and newly stirred by the idea of the beautiful body as ours, but Banerji’s idea of food appreciation as a series of concentric circles that engage not just the senses but also mind and memory is an incomparably more sophisticated model. Among the implicit points made by her book is the importance of the human encounter to the enjoyment of food, even fast food—she is rarely found eating alone, and there are beautiful passages describing meals at the residences of writer Khushwant Singh and painter Jehangir Sabavala.

While Banerji’s researches are by no means comprehensive—often she stays in a place no more than a day or two, sampling food idiosyncratically with some help from local contacts—her zest is infectious and her eye for points of connection and contrast excellent. Among the things, big and small, I learnt from her book was the influence of the Portuguese not just on Goan cooking but possibly on the Bengali tradition of sweets made with cottage cheese (milk was traditionally never “split” in India); details of the parallel culinary Hindu, Muslim and Christian culinary traditions of Kerala; why meat-eating Hindus until recently looked down on eating chicken; and why Parsis never cook prawns at wedding feasts.

Banerji notes the startling continuity of traditions of Indian temple food (a meal at Amritsar’s Golden Temple or Puri’s Jagannath Temple is limited to the same ingredients and tastes much the same as 500 years ago) as also the incongruity of the sight of workers on a construction site eating chowmein for lunch and the sudden popularity of butter chicken in a country where the preferred cooking medium for centuries has been ghee.

But the element that really binds Eating India into a whole larger than the sum of its parts is the intriguing personality and complicated life story of the author, glimpses of which appear at several points in the text. The voice that speaks throughout with such a distinctive tone—cultivated, empathetic, wise, yet sometimes oddly wistful and vulnerable—reveals itself to be that of a woman now based in a country (America) halfway across the world from where she was brought up, unable to abide by religious belief, and without a secure place in the perception of people after a failed marriage to a Muslim. This paradoxical mélange of rootedness in food and itinerancy in life and in thought gives Eating India a totally unforgettable flavour.

An excerpt from Eating India can be found here. And an older post: On the Oxford Anthology of South Asian Food Writing.

Monday, February 04, 2008

New books received, and old boots polished

Just received: some fabulous new books, including Laurence Senelick's new translation of The Complete Plays of Anton Chekhov, José Saramago's new novel Death At Intervals, the New Poems of Tadeusz Rosewicz, and Ashvaghosha's Handsome Nanda, the latest in the marvellous series of translations of classics by the Clay Sanskrit Library (see the translator Linda Covill's introduction to the book here).

Can't wait to read and write about these, but before that I have a lot of other pieces to put back, including one on David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk, which after a stuffy first couple of hundred pages has opened out into a set of chapters of miraculous beauty over which I have tarried for the longest time. I am in general skeptical of novels that feed off the historical record for both large and small details, as Leavitt's does to a considerable extent, and open the corridors of their fictions off the known pathways of the facts (which seems to muddy the facts as much as the fiction) but perhaps I shall have to rethink my objections for this particular case.

Also, it is winter and festival time again in Bombay, and so time once again to bring out those boots, now a year older but still in good condition. I will be part of a panel discussion on Banned Books at 8 pm on Friday the 8th of February at the Kala Ghoda Festival. My friends Amit Varma and Jai Arjun Singh will also be on this panel, as will the playwright Manjula Padmanabhan.

Lastly, my review of Sudeep Chakravarti's Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country (with Chitrita Banerji's Eating India one of two new Indian works of non-fiction I've enjoyed greatly), appears in the new issue of Pragati.

And two older posts on Clay Sanskrit Library titles: on Dandin's Dasakumaracharita and Kalidasa's Shakuntala.