Friday, November 28, 2008

In a time of terror

For all those who have written in the last two days expressing concern, I would just like to say that I am safe and fine, although a little shaken like thousands of others who were in the Colaba area when the shooting broke out on Wednesday night. And like all those who were fortunate to emerge unscathed, I grieve today for those around us who lost their lives, and for their bereaved family members.

I was at a restaurant in Fort with some friends at 9.30 pm on Wednesday; we were all coming from the opening of the show for which I'd written a short text that I'd posted here last week. There were some journalists among us, and from the information they were receiving it swiftly became apparent that the trouble was of considerable magnitude. My sister, who is also a journalist, was with us, and my most difficult moments of the evening were in trying to restrain her as she bravely decided to head out towards the conflict zone. I dragged her, against her will, into a car in which our friends were leaving, and we made our way down Marine Drive and through Napean Sea Road to Peddar Road, where another friend of ours lives. Like many others who put duty over self, my sister kept insisting that she had to go, and so we stood out on Peddar Road at 2am waiting for a police jeep that could take her to JJ Hospital. My friends Amit Varma, Sonia Faleiro, and Rahul Bhatia, and their respective partners, all of whom had also come to the show, were even closer to the trouble, and were only able to leave Colaba the next morning.

The crisis still rages on; there is no knowing yet if there are further horrors to come. What we do know that is that we now live in one of the terror capitals of the world, vulnerable to infiltration from both land and sea and full of soft targets. Yet, if there is something to cherish at a time like this, then it is the bravery of so many policemen who heroically laid down their lives in combat, and the many acts of individuals to help save the lives of others or give succour to the wounded. Perhaps on the other side of these days of grief and anger, there will be a new determination and a new beginning for all of us.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On Aravind Adiga's Between The Assassinations

In one of the stories of Aravind Adiga’s Between The Assassinations, a book that follows his Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger out into the world but was written before it, we see a quack sexologist, Ratnakara Shetty, on his way to the town dargah to sell his pills. As Shetty approaches the site he comes across the familiar Indian melee of pathetic supplicants – beggars, lepers, and the handicapped, including one especially grotesque specimen with a stump of a leg and, where there should be arms, “little brown stubs like a seal’s flippers”. Ratnakara Shetty leaves behind this “sorrowful parade of humanity” and walks on. Soon he is surrounded by yet another group, this time superficially normal, that also throbs with pain and despair: those afflicted by venereal disease.
Ratnakara Shetty’s story appears late enough in Adiga’s book for us to realise that Shetty himself is part of a “sorrowful parade of humanity” of protagonists, all of whom are denizens of Kittur, a fictional South Indian town. The two assassinations of the (striking and attractive) title are those of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and her son Rajiv in 1991, and the book is an intense examination – indeed an interrogation – of a small Indian town of the nineteen-eighties: its languages, its mores, its diversity of castes, classes, and religions and the many hierarchies within and between them, its white and black economies, the way its geography reveals its history, and the human encounters and non-encounters that determine the texture of its everyday life.
On a map of India Kittur would only be a finger-joint away from RK Narayan’s Malgudi, but the savagery of Adiga’s material and his slashing style make for an atmosphere worlds away from the older writer’s gentler ironies and greater tolerance for life’s injustices. Adiga’s main theme, one at which he hacks away relentlessly, is power relations – between rich and poor, master and servant, high-caste and low-caste, majority and minority, even haughty English and the low vernacular – and, as a consequence of these relations, moral perversion and subaltern rage.
All but a couple of the stories in his book are mounted on this kind of tableau of social and economic injustice, and draw their energy from its tensions. A recurring gesture in them is one person bowing before another with folded hands, feeding the power and arrogance of another with servility so as to stay afloat, hold on to one’s precarious place in the whole. Adiga’s protagonists differ from each other on the scale of their reactions to a callous and perverted system. The stories dramatise a range of responses from resigned acceptance to, even complicity with, the established order, to seething impotence and maddening rage.
Some of the stories, particularly those of the first half of the book, work very well because of the depth of Adiga’s characterisation of not just persons but place (several short interludes between the stories explore aspects of Kittur). Adiga’s grasp of the contours of the world he is mapping seems much surer here than in The White Tiger, which posited a facile binary vision of “the Light” and “the Darkness” in twenty-first century India. An attractive feature of his work is the verbal tics he gives to his characters, as if to suggest that where human relations are out of joint, language too must always come out chopped-up and inarticulate.
Ziauddin, the small, dark, chubby teashop boy of the opening story (and the most attractive character in the entire book) is always declaring his virtue and protesting his innocence in an adult world that both bullies him and laughs at him. At the bottom of Kittur’s social scale, he keeps having to insist that Muslims “don’t do hanky-panky” (this strange choice of phrase is an inspired one), and whenever someone misbehaves with him he uses exactly the same words to rebuke them. Mr. Lasrado, an ineffectual teacher in a boy’s school, cannot pronounce the “f” sound, and keeps addressing the other Jesuits as “Pather”. When the boys engineer a small explosion in his class, Lasrado’s rage has its sting drawn out by his cry of “You Puckers! Puckers!” Lasrado’s students are complacent about their access to English, to a good future, but not so another character in the book, the seller of pirated books ‘Xerox’ Ramakrishna, who “cannot read English, but knows that English words have power, and that English books have aura”. That aura of English leaves its mark on even a figure as marginal as Ziauddin, who is immobilised by its magic sound: “Whenever a word was said in English [in the shop] all work stopped: the boy would turn around and repeat the word at the top of his voice (‘Sunday-Monday, Goodbye, Sexy!’), and the entire shop shook with laughter.”
As is evident from these examples, Adiga’s style unites anger with incapacity, with grotesquerie. On several occasions his characters are compared to animals: the cripple whose arms looks like a seal’s flippers; the prisoner who leads his captors by the handcuffs “like a fellow taking two monkeys on a walk”; a prospective groom who is so deferential to his parents he seems “more the family’s domestic pet than the scion”; and the schoolmaster D’Mello who, extending the metaphor to all of humanity, taps his ribs while discussing Indian life with a favourite student and declares “The problem is here...There is a beast inside us.” The story about Ratnakara Shetty burns with images of male genitals blackened, withered, gnawed away by disease. All these seem physical symbols of a universe in which so much is scandalously wrong, yet everyone must carry on as if nothing is.
The lash of Adiga’s Swiftean rage is only weakened by repetition. As his book proceeds, and we repeatedly encounter the moral perversity of the rich and powerful (“In this life, a man is always a servant of his servants”) and the rancour of the poor and marginalised, the contingency and the tension of conflicts between characters hardens into a position and a politics that seem to lead us to the hidden hand of the narrator.
Even so, Between the Assassinations has a genuinely distinctive worldview and many satisfying passages. In a way, the best sections of this book, with their wealth of almost anthropological detail and careful peeling back of the interior lives of characters, might also be held up as the most lucid criticism of The White Tiger, with its cardboard-cutout protagonist speaking across several incompatible registers, muddled fictional thinking, and banal commentary. Indeed, Between The Assassinations might be read as an indictment not only of the bad faith of Indian social life but also of contemporary publishing, which jumped at Adiga’s other book but allowed this much worthier sibling to languish for so long.
And two old posts: one on the work of art as it takes the measure of a diseased social order in "Anger in Tahmiheh Milani's Two Women", and the other on the allure of English to characters who don't speak it in "English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games".

Monday, November 17, 2008

Coming up this week

Two bits of writing. First an essay on Aravind Adiga's new book Between the Assassinations, and then – finally – something new in the life of the Middle Stage and its rapidly aging author.

And as I never write posts only a paragraph long, a Merry Christmas to you all well in advance.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Paul Ginsborg's Democracy: Crisis and Renewal

Democracy: the idea comes from ancient Greece (where it was practised as direct democracy), then languished for aeons, resurfaced in the eighteenth century in a new form (that of representative democracy), made steady progress in the nineteenth century, and then caught fire and swept the field in the twentieth. It is now the dominant vision of the political good; even the most undemocratic regimes in the world utter democratic pieties or aspire for the fig leaf of rigged elections to cover their shame. Democracy rarely fulfils its intrinsic potential, but neither is it corrupted as easily as more utopian systems: it is both fragile and tough. It can be mostly procedural – limited to elections – or it can deeply permeate a society’s thought and everyday life. And though it can seem the most natural and practical of arrangements, yet it also requires a faith in human beings that amounts to a kind of idealism.

Indeed, it is idealism that animates Democracy: Crisis and Renewal, a new book by the historian and political theorist Paul Ginsborg, because, when interpreted statistically, democracy is not in crisis but is flourishing like never before. In 1926, Ginsborg writes, only 29 countries in the world had broadly convincing democratic credentials. But by 2000, 120 of the 192 nation-states of the United Nations could be said to be democratic. Communism, the greatest adversary of liberal democracy in the twentieth century, has collapsed except for one or two tenacious redoubts. Even though various kinds of dictatorship still prosper all over the world, not a day passes without democracy taking a small step forward, whether in China or Cuba.

The crisis, then, that Ginsborg detects in many of the world’s established democracies (among which we should include India), comes from within. And to help us make sense of what may be going wrong and how these troubles have been anticipated at different stages in the history of democratic thought, Ginsborg summons the spirits of two of the greatest modern political thinkers, the nineteenth-century contemporaries John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. Although neither man stood for democracy as we understand it now (we must remember that a concept seemingly so self-evident as universal suffrage is a fairly recent reality, and that these men lived under a different democratic sky), and there were many differences between them on the subject, both were integrally involved in the project to make all men and women “active subjects in both politics and society”, and in that this is one of the ideals of democracy they were both democratic. Much of what they had to say in their time with respect to democratic ideas remains relevant to present circumstances.

In Ginsborg’s reading, democracy is being undermined today by a complex of interrelated problems. Firstly (and this is a kind of paradox), liberal democracy has its roots in nineteenth-century European liberalism, which held that every adult citizen deserved, on the one hand, greater autonomy and private freedoms, and on the other, a right to vote and participate in representative government. But in many modern nation-states, politics and the political class have now become excessively professionalised; politicians are seen as being of a different breed from normal citizens. At the same time – and this is perhaps more serious – citizens have increasingly retreated into the private sphere, and are often involved in politics only to the extent of bemoaning its quality. Thus democracy has been “hollowed out”; it is not vigorous, but operates on a kind of autopilot. “Where politics does survive,” writes Ginsborg, “it has become media and personality politics, to be viewed rather than experienced”. Democracy is representative, but not participatory, when ideally it should be both.

Secondly, consumer capitalism has profoundly affected the rhythms and emphases of our lives, which are increasingly organised on a work-and-spend axis. The better-off classes are rich in comforts but often perceive themselves to be poor in time; the logic of choice and self-interest, while beneficial in many ways, has also produced what Ginsborg thinks to be “an extraordinary passivity and disinterest in politics”.

This crisis was foreseen by thinkers such as Benjamin Constant, who wrote in 1819 in his essay “The liberty of the ancients compared with that of the moderns”: “The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily”. The history of modern democracy is one of the (on some occasions mortal) struggle to expand the circle of enfranchisement to include all adult citizens. Therefore, by taking for granted what has been won for us at great cost, we open the door, however slightly, to a time when we may not have it again.

Lastly, in many of the world’s mature democracies, politics and big money have joined hands, and election spending has spiralled to preposterous levels. This not only makes a charade of democracy’s putative egalitarianism, it also makes it vulnerable to the Marxist critique of the state, which charges it with being the preserve of a particular class and of entrenched economic interests. The “classic liberal distinction between the political and economic spheres”, of the kind maintained by Mill, and today by his more determinedly ideological modern-day followers, can ignore serious issues about the relationship of democracy and economics.

Marx, on the other hand, was prescient in his understanding of how political and economic democracy must go hand in hand, and how, in a capitalist system, the worker is profoundly alienated from both the product of his labour and from himself, in ways that damage him or her and also the larger edifice of democracy (Marx’s diagnosis, though, was more acute than his proposed revolutionary solutions).

Ginsborg presents a number of responses to these issues of democratic destabilisation. Some of the best passages in his book are those which summarise Mill’s thoughts on citizenship as nourished in the soil of democratic freedom and openness. Mill imagined citizens as a group of “active and dissenting individuals”, self-disciplined, independent-minded, nurturing a strong sense of the meaning and worth of their individuality. “He loved eccentrics rather than conformists; he wanted everyone to make up their minds on the basis of information and deliberation.” Democracy had to be rooted in healthy disagreement and debate if it was not to wither, because “Mankind speedily becomes unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it” (We see from such sentences that Mill is so enjoyable not just because of the strength of his thought but also the marvellous rhythms of his syntax).

Although there is much talk now of the relationship between civil society and democracy on the one hand and the individual and democracy on the other, Mill also stressed the responsibilities in democracy of that other unit of social organisation, the family. Although the family in history had often stood for a system of authority, incarnating “the virtues of despotism, but also its vices”, the family might also serve as “the real school of the virtues of freedom”. Ginsborg takes up this theme:
Every family is different and each has its own individuality and history. Yet there can be little doubt that under modern consumer capitalism most families, for the reasons I have outlined, are overwhelmingly conformist (in Mill’s sense of the term) and self-absorbed. They are not, by and large, producers of active and dissenting individuals, nor do they contribute anything but a minimum part of their extraordinary energy and creativity to a public democratic sphere. It is as if, by a sleight of hand, they have been separated from politics. How to break through that separation, to release some of those energies so that they could contribute to the reinvention of democracy, is probably the greatest rebus of modern politics.[...] Families, civil society, and the democratic state need to exist in a mutually reinforcing equilibrium.
And here is Ginsborg again on the subject of individuals, time, and democratic participation:
The question of time in a society which is not time-rich but time-poor, and which is dominated by work-and-spend routines, is a very serious one. [But] it is not that individuals have no time, but that they are not accustomed to making time for the public sphere. Mill hits the nail on the head: “So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and everything that is usual appears natural.”
Putting aside a few hours every week for matters of public interest could quite easily come to seem customary, especially if those who now hold political power in democracies thought such an objective worth of encouragement. Under the honeyed routines of consumer capitalism, to pass a great many hours in hypermarkets and shopping centres has now become quite “natural”. A priori there is nothin to prevent time spent in improving democracy from becoming a habitual part of people’s lives. Such a prospect does not offer material rewards, but quite possibly a greater meaning to life – something which is often deeply felt as lacking today.
Ginsborg highlights innovative citizens’ initiatives around the world, such as a township in Brazil that practices a kind of direct democracy, or a proposal by two political theorists in America for a national “Deliberation Day” before elections to foreground the importance of political debate. He points to how, in our internet age, communication and access to information have been greatly improved for those who are prepared to make productive use of technology, and how global civil society is coming together in extraordinary ways in transnational movements of protest or proposal.

Ginsborg’s book closes with a thrilling dialogue in which the ghosts of Mill and Marx are seen carrying on their running debate from “a cloud somewhere over Europe” (Mill is wearing walking shoes, as he has just returned from a long botanical expedition; Marx has “recently been promoted from Purgatory”, and is carrying a book, which he keeps annotating). They begin to talk, to reflect over mistakes they might have made in the light of current realities; Marx agrees that he made a mistake in interpreting the birth of capitalism as its death throes, and agrees that “the rate of profit does not fall”, while Mill admits that he mistook the virtuous consequences of competition, and “over-estimated the self-righting capacities of the market”.

The best point in their discussions is made by the older man. Just as virtue is proved not by theoretical knowledge of the good but by good actions, says Mill, so too democracy, which we understand to be “virtue in its political guise”, can be established only through regular practice at large and small levels. Ginsborg’s book demands that we be not just subjects but also agents of democracy.

And here is a roundtable of essays on and debates around democracy, moving from larger overviews to more specific angles: "Democracy: a short history" and "Whatever happened to democracy?" by John Keane; "Downloading Democracy" by Robert Conquest; "Democracy and its global roots" by Amartya Sen; "Democracy as a way of life" by Sidney Hook; "Democracy for all?" by James Q. Wilson; "Liberal education and mass democracy" by Leo Strauss; "The essence of democracy: not majority rule" by Minoo Masani"; "Democracy's Global Crisis" by Ralph Peters; "Is voter ignorance killing democracy?" by Christopher Shea; "The myth of the rational voter" by Bryan Kaplan; "Aunt Kobra's Islamic Democracy" by Reza Aslan; "Islamist Parties and Democracy" by Husain Haqqani and Hillel Fradkin; "Identity, Immigration, and Democracy" by Francis Fukuyama; "Democracy's Forgotten Dimension" by Vaclav Havel; and "Reinventing democracy" by Jose Saramago.

And here are two essays each on Marx and Mill respectively: "The poet of dialectics" by Francis Wheen (whose biography of Marx is one of the most entertaining books on politics I have ever read) and "Karl Marx, journalist" by Christopher Hitchens; and "John Stuart Mill" by Richard Reeves (who runs the thinktank Demos and has just published a widely praised biography of Mill) and "The Forgotten Philosopher" by Alan Wolfe.

And lastly, an old post that shows that Mill and Gandhi might have had much to talk about: "Ramin Jahanbegloo on Gandhi's concept of freedom".

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama becomes President

On the successful culmination of Barack Obama's exhilarating campaign to become the forty-fourth President of the United States of America – a campaign that has reinvigorated the public sphere, restored to citizens a sense of their potential as political agents, and resuscitated the idea of politics itself as a force for and a vision of the good and of political office as one of the highest callings of secular life, ideas without which humanity has no future – here is an old post from May 2007 on Obama's The Audacity of Hope, a work that tells us a great deal about the character of the new President.

Here is Obama's long essay from last year: "Renewing American Leadership".

And three other posts on figures from the past century who practiced a visionary and morally ambitious politics: Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Vaclav Havel.

Monday, November 03, 2008