Thursday, January 29, 2009

Arzee the Dwarf in Tehelka, and on the low stone wall

There is a little piece on my novel Arzee the Dwarf in this week's issue of Tehelka that I would like to share with you. It is here.

And here, as promised, are some passages from the book. This is from Chapter 2, "Looking Forward". After a game of cards with his friends, Arzee is on his way to work:

Arzee passed the grey building which was his home – he could hear the television all the way up from the second floor, because Mother listened to all her soaps loud – and then the empty school, its blue gate being locked by the watchman. Instead of going on straight, he turned now into a passage between two buildings, so narrow it was almost invisible. It was a kind of wasteland where everyone threw rubbish which no one then cleared. A broken toilet seat was lying here, and a red plastic chair with three legs. The ground was covered with a squelchy slop of plastic bags, vegetable peelings, and eggshells. Long grasses had sprouted up near the walls, carrying bits and pieces of garbage within their limbs like diseased flowers. Little frogs the same colour as the muck were hopping from one spot to another with springy leaps, and becoming invisible once again as soon as they landed. Arzee’s shoes sank into the wet earth, and when he looked back to see if anyone had seen him enter, he could only see his footprints following him all the way in.

He arrived now at a low stone wall, on the other side of which thin whispering sounds could be heard. He hitched up his trousers, hoisted himself up onto the wall using the crevices in it as footholds, and arrived at the top. He stood up, and looked down into the silky waters.

Yes, there was a nasty stench here, but also a lovely still and calm. No one bothered to come out here, and all the pleasures of the place were just for him. As if to mark his arrival, a milky sun had come out over his head, and his reflection in the sewer was backlit, as if there was a halo around him. He studied himself closely, and saw what he already knew: that his forehead was high, his hair wavy and thick, his lips full and pink, his black eyes somewhat crabby and disconsolate. He was good-looking, there was no doubt about that. But what of it? Looks weren’t just about shapes and textures, but also about sizes. Even in his reflection there was something irredeemably odd and stunted about him, like a thought that had come out all wrong in the speaking. The acrid whiff of the sewer was so strong that it felt as if his nostrils were burning. But even so, fish or other forms of life – algae, perhaps, or microbes – seemed to inhabit it, making the surface bubble in little spasms. There was a kind of peace to be had in watching the water go by. Arzee thought of that lost one, that past one, whose current had fallen away from his, and how she’d missed this day in his life. She’d gone, but he’d carried on, and learnt to be strong, and now he was all right, only he thought of her sometimes. He spat into the water, as if expelling the thought.

How strange! It seemed to Arzee that somebody was calling out his name: "Arzee!" “AR-zee!” "AR-ZEE!" In fact, what with all the echoes of this bounded retreat, it seemed as if the voice was coming out at him from the inky deeps beneath. Arzee looked around, disoriented. Perhaps it was a trick of his brain: his brain did sometimes play games with him.

But somebody was calling out his name! And Arzee recognised that voice – he'd been trying to avoid the person whose voice it was!

And here is one more passage, about a minor character, Ranade:
If ever there was an instance of someone so in love with this world that even death could not tear him away from the established routine and unfinished business of living, then it was Ranade the stockbroker, who used to live – still lived – on the floor just below Shinde. Two years ago Ranade, a bachelor, had been hit by a stroke and passed away. But not for long, for it seemed he'd passed right back in. Within a week of what was thought to be his final, irreversible departure he was seen back on his first-floor corridor – and not even furtively in the black of night, but nonchalantly, in the clear light of day. His hand was at his lips and he kept drawing and exhaling as if smoking a cigarette, as he often would when taking a break from work when he was alive. One person, not knowing who he was talking to, had even held a conversation with him for ten minutes, and had come away with advice to hold on to Larsen & Toubro and sell India Cements. Ranade's belongings had all been disposed of, but at night Shinde heard the familiar sounds of a tapping at a keyboard from down below, and the scraping of a spoon as Ranade ate his lonely dinner. As the room was clearly haunted, no one was willing to rent it any more. And so Ranade stayed right where he was, and it was as if he'd never gone. Out of curiosity, Shinde had left a pack of cigarettes at Ranade's door one night, and the next morning it was gone! Ghosts weren't as airy and insubstantial as was commonly thought, but clearly had a need for the goods of this world. Perhaps there were many others like Ranade in the city. Once it was established there was one like him, there was no reason why there couldn't be more, all playing the part of life even as they answered the roll-call of the world after. What a curious thing was life – and death too.
That's too much already! The rest you'll see in May.

And an excerpt from my story "Dnyaneshwar Kulkarni Changes His Name", which came out two and a half years ago, is here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Some things I've been reading

Here are links to some things I've been reading recently. First, three essays on literary biographies that can be usefully read against each other, and which cumulatively give a sense of the rewards and the pitfalls of the form:

Robert Alter on Nili Scharf Gold's biography of Yehuda Amichai ("Gold's study illustrates what a bad idea it is to reduce a great writer to one or two explanatory formulas"); Lewis Jones on two new biographies of Samuel Johnson, which have as their competition one of the earliest and greatest literary biographies ever written, Boswell's Life of Johnson ("Bernard Malamud maintained that all biography is fiction, which may well be true. It is certainly true that no two biographers agree completely, and every biography is stamped with the character of its author); and, most fulfilling of all, Alan Hollinghurst's review of Sheldon Novick's Henry James: The Mature Master (In the end -- by which I really mean soon after the beginning -- you are faced with a problem that can affect literary biography more sharply than other kinds: a writer is writing about a writer. One sensibility is at the mercy of another in a shared medium. No one would want a life of James written in Jamesian. But something sharp-eared, responsive, and self-aware should ideally show itself in the biographer's style and approach").

And here is an essay to do with Indian literature: "The Real Classical Languages Debate" by the scholar and translator Sheldon Pollock, whose lecture two days ago at the Jaipur Literary Festival on the beauty of Sanskrit literature and on the "Sanskrit cosmopolis" of a thousand years ago was among the most rousing talks I have ever heard. I can't wait to read Pollock's book The Language of the Gods: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Pollock is also the General Editor of the marvellous Clay Sanskrit Library series, about which I've written earlier here and here.

Lastly, some links to old essays on literary biographies: Patrick French's book on VS Naipaul, Alberto Manguel on Borges, Giovanni Boccaccio on Dante (this was my first-ever blog post, back when my hair was all black and my weight 65), and Javier Marias on Eliot, Rilke, Lampedusa, and many others.

Monday, January 19, 2009

An interview with Ramin Jahanbegloo

The achievement of Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo has been, over a series of books, to interpret India for Indians, often with the help of other Indians. Jahanbegloo’s works include Talking India, a book-length conversation with scholar Ashis Nandy; The Spirit of India, a study of the thought of 20th century Indian thinkers; and India Revisited: Conversations on Contemporary India, a set of interviews with Indian politicians, businessmen, artists and sportsmen. In these works, Jahanbegloo presents to Indian readers a set of resources and interpretive frameworks to understand both their history—rich with intellectual ferment and examples of fertile synthesis—and the criss-crossing forces and energies of the present moment. On the occasion of the release of two new books—India Analysed (Oxford University Press), a dialogue with psychoanalyst and historian Sudhir Kakar, and Beyond Violence (Har-Anand), a political manifesto for the 21st century, written in collaboration with Italian ambassador Roberto Toscano— I asked Jahanbegloo some questions about his relationship with India.

You grew up in Iran and were a doctoral student in France. What then are the origins of your intense interest in India?
I think that what I know about India today is the result of 30 years of reading, reflection, conversations with people, and travelling within India. My first links to the thought of India were the books by Gandhi, Tagore, and Radhakrishnan that I found in the library of my parents. Later, for my master’s degree in France, I was working on Carl von Clausewitz and war. Around this time I began to gravitate towards the literature of non-violence, which seemed a very appealing alternative to the Western military tradition. So I actually did my PhD on Gandhi: My thesis was called "Gandhi and the West". Later I also did a book on Tagore in Persian for Unesco. I first came to India 20 years ago and I have been coming back regularly ever since. Sometimes I say to my friends that either I have been an Indian in a previous life or I will be one in my next life.

So many of your books—such as your book with Ashis Nandy, and the new one with Sudhir Kakar—are cast in the form of a dialogue. Could you tell us why you prefer this approach?
The idea of dialogue is central to my world view and the way I work. I think the essence of philosophical work is dual: to engage in dialogue, but also to have the courage to think independently, to think like a dissident. You might call these the two Ds of philosophy. Each of my book-length conversations with Indian scholars has different emphases. With Ashis Nandy it was issues such as religion and secularism; with Kakar I have tried to explore the attitudes of Indian people towards sex, the mystical side of Indian religious life. I have a similar book forthcoming with the intellectual Bhikhu Parekh, where we talk about political philosophy, multiculturalism and diversity in the Indian context.

Even your other new book, Beyond Violence, while not explicitly in a dialogical format, is written in collaboration with the Italian ambassador to India, Roberto Toscano.
The book itself is about how dialogue can be used as a tool to tame the violence in our world today. So it made sense to write it with someone from another religion, another culture, since it is about how we must transcend the idea of an “us” and a “them” and find shared values with others. The idea of shared values is important because, as the first decade of the 21st century is showing us, the world is no longer facing regional issues, but global issues—all our problems are deeply interlinked. The terrorist attacks on Mumbai fall not just into a regional pattern, but a global pattern.

But can humanity really advance “beyond violence”? Isn’t violence a kind of constant throughout human history?
Let me put it this way. If we look at modernity, we can discern two strands to it. One is a narrative of domination and mastery: over nature, over technology, over other human beings. This is a narrative of violence. The other is that of emancipation, of freedom, of individualism. So, although the first principle cannot be eliminated, it can certainly be moderated by the second. The idea of permanent violence does not mean that successful examples of the reverse have not been seen. All the thinkers of non-violence have always emphasized that we cannot just accept the situation that we have—we have to think of ways of transcending it. So I am not a fatalist on the subject of violence.

You take up the idea of the native strengths of Indian culture more specifically in your book The Spirit of India. What is this spirit?
The strength of India is that it is a country of in-betweens. It is a median country. If you look at the 20th century, India was never totally on the side of either traditionalism or modernism. Traditionalists had to learn how to engage with modernists, and modernists in turn were moderated by voices rooted in tradition, as in the relationship between Gandhi and Nehru. The common element in the work of Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and several other thinkers is an attempt to acknowledge the richness of Indian traditions while also trying to root out its uglier aspects, its injustices. Even the intellectual journey of someone like Maulana Azad, for example, is the journey of someone who spoke like a fundamentalist in his youth and like a secularist in his later years. He went from a kind of Islamic revivalism to Islamic humanism.

I was struck by your remark in a lecture that Gandhi’s aim was to “democratize democracy”. What do you mean by that? How does Gandhi approach the idea of democracy and where does he leave it?
By that remark I meant that Gandhi wanted to further democratize the Western idea of democracy that he came across in his reading and in his years in the West. Gandhi is not a pluralist, a democrat, in the liberal sense—that is, he does not just emphasize the rights and freedoms of people, but also their duties. So his is what I call an enlarged pluralism, in which freedoms stand side by side with responsibilities. This leads naturally to the idea that change in society cannot occur in a vertical, top-down way, but only in a horizontal way, through individual empowerment and will. And that is a very relevant idea in today’s world: that individuals assert themselves, and not just allow states to act in their names. As Gandhi used to say, "The spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without. It has to come from within."

Finally, you were put in prison, in solitary confinement, without being charged, for over four months by the Iranian government in 2006. What impact did that experience have on you?
Solitary confinement leads to a great increase in self-awareness and self-discipline. You are fighting insanity; you have to learn how to get along with yourself. I had to work very hard to beat back the bitterness that prison creates, the sense of your most basic rights being violated. I had no paper so I would put down my scattered thoughts on biscuit wrappers. Later I published them as a collection of aphorisms called A Mind In Winter.

Is there any one of those aphorisms that you can share?
I can. “The meaning of life is life itself.” In prison you become aware of naked life, stripped of any ideology or dogma. You realize that life cannot be reduced to any system or simple moral framework—it is bigger and stronger than any of these things.

Two old posts on Jahanbegloo are here: "Talking India with Ashis Nandy" and "Ramin Jahanbegloo on Gandhi and his concept of freedom". A review of Spirit of India is here.

And some older interviews with writers: Ramachandra Guha, Samrat Upadhyay, Altaf Tyrewala, Pico Iyer, and Christopher Kremmer.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Coming up

Coming up in the next three weeks on The Middle Stage:

an interview with the Iranian (Canadian? Indian?) philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo,

a review of Jahnavi Barua's debut short story collection Next Door,

a long essay on Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography My Experiments With Truth,

and a little note on and an excerpt from my novel Arzee the Dwarf, which comes out in India in May.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

On Irène Némirovsky’s All Our Worldly Goods

Extended depictions of successful marriages are very rare in fiction. This is not just because good marriages themselves are rare, or because marital discord and misunderstanding is itself a favoured subject for fictional inquiry—an opportunity to observe the workings of the self as it rubs up against that other with which it is most intimate; a way to probe the gulf between the private thought and the public word in adult life. In addition to all this, it must be said, it is difficult to bring out the richness of a fulfilling marriage in a way that is also dramatic. There is a reason why folk tales and romantic comedies end at the point of “and they lived happily ever after”—because beyond this point lies more difficult, ambiguous terrain not just for the couple but also for the form.

This is why, when, four chapters into Irène Némirovsky’s novel All Our Worldly Goods, her protagonists, Pierre Hardelot and Agnès Florent, decide to consecrate the unspoken affection they have shared since childhood, and marry in defiance of Pierre’s family, we ask: What now? We feel that Némirovsky has either played her cards too soon, or she is setting these two young people up for a fall.

But remarkably, this is not the case. Némirovsky’s novel begins in a small town in France called St.Etienne at the beginning of the 20th century, and over the next three decades everything around Pierre and Agnes will change shape and colour—crises of livelihood, the death of parents, troubles with children, the horror of two World Wars in which Pierre and then his son are, respectively, mobilized—except for what is shared between them. The tenderness and awe that Pierre feels on his wedding night as he wakes up and contemplates the sleeping figure of his beloved runs like a winding thread across place and time, all the way to the closing scene of the novel, in which, after many months of separation and of fearing the worst, Pierre and Agnes find each other still alive.

Némirovsky’s own life story is no less poignant. She was born in 1903, the daughter of Russian Jews who escaped just after the Russian Revolution and moved to France. In relative youth she wrote a string of successful novels, but she was captured by German troops in World War II and met a gory end at Auschwitz, Poland, in 1942. A notebook snatched up by her daughter as the family fled their house remained unopened for more than 50 years, when it revealed itself to be not a diary but a pair of finished novellas. This work, translated into English as Suite Française in 2006, proved an enormous success, and led to the republication and translation of Némirovsky’s earlier works, including All Our Worldly Goods. Contemporary fiction is all the richer for this belated injection of Némirovsky’s work into its bloodstream.

Némirovsky’s work is distinctive and unforgettable for many reasons. She is interested not only in individuals but also their milieu; All Our Worldly Goods also traces the fortunes of the Hardelot family and the business it owns, and repeatedly cuts away for a page or two at a time into memorable portraits of minor characters ( to my mind the way in which a realist novelist deals with such characters is often a good way of understanding the depth of her engagement with her material).

Further, Némirovsky has the courage, both in this book and in Suite Francaise, to write about the present moment as if it were already historical. She began All Our Worldly Goodsl in 1940, when France was already occupied by German troops, and some the action of the book takes place in the same year—indeed, we are given a fairly comprehensive portrait of what the war is like. The wonder of this would have been apparent to her first readers in French; reading it now, we forget that the war she is describing is the same war that took her life.

Lastly, like all the great realist novelists, Némirovsky alights upon situations we all know and makes them come alive with some marvellous perception. For instance, Guy, Pierre’s son, comes home on leave from the front, and is told by his wife, Rose, that she is pregnant. Guy cannot think of anything to say but “I’m very happy” over and over again, but he does so “without looking at her, feeling oddly shy”, and so much is contained in this paradoxical and yet truthful observation.

This moment parallels one from much earlier in the book, when Pierre comes home from the war (this is World War I) for the first time. Although he has arrived, we see Agnès standing still “in the dark hallway, pressed against the door that was about to open”—she wants to hold on to this moment of delicious anticipation, because every moment after this will be turned towards her husband leaving again. Némirovsky’s writing is full of such delicate and daring surges, beautifully rendered by Sandra Smith’s translation from the French.

The title of Némirovsky’s book (Les Biens de ce monde in French) is worth contemplating. At the most basic level it gestures at the human need for material security and the use, within families and societies, of economic power as social force. Marriages are considered good or bad on grounds of class; Pierre’s grandfather threatens to disinherit him when he decides to marry beneath his station; families are repeatedly shown gathering up their most precious possessions as they flee from war—all these are illustrations of the title.

But “goods” can also be understood in a different way, as—to take a phrase in the novel itself—“all the good things of this world”, both tangible and ineffable. The trust and faith of relationships, the memories of sweetness and darkness we carry, the simple round of actions and exchanges that see us through the day—these too are our worldly goods, and Némirovsky’s novel successfully balances both these planes of existence to open out for us a vision of "the good".

And some links: here is the website of a wonderful exhibition running in New York till March 22, 2009, called "Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Francaise". Among the things worth seeing online are the manuscript of Suite Francaise, with its hand-drawn map of France made by the author (there is a good deal of cross-country movement in the book), the pages crammed from top to bottom with tiny handwriting (Némirovsky must have feared running out of paper), and the lines running on blank paper from left to right and sagging in the middle like clothes lines. Ruth Scurr has an excellent essay called "Irène Némirovsky In The Woods" which discusses, among other things, Némirovsky's love of of Katherine Mansfield and also Chekhov (of whom she wrote a biography). JM Coetzee's essay "Irène Némirovsky: The Dogs and the Wolves" is here, and Paul La Farge's "Behind The Legend" here.

Lastly, as a kind of counterpoint, John Mullan's essay "Ten of the best marital rows in literature".

[A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.]

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Some things I've been reading

Some things I've been reading recently: the philosopher Roger Scruton on the philosopher Mary Midgley (Scruton's book Beauty is out soon); "Looking For The Great Indian Novel" by Nilanjana Roy (which is really more about the search for great Indian novels across all languages, which laments the lack of good translations of novels in other Indian languages into English, and to which I can append my choice of what for me is both a great Indian novel and a great translation: Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third); Toby Harnden's very amusing lists of top 10 most annoying Americanisms and top 10 most annoying Britishisms (to which I can add a eleventh: "To be honest", which translates as, "You deserve to be told this, but it's killing me to do so"); Arnab Chakladar's long and very interesting interview with the Hindi writer Uday Prakash;"Hanging On Like Death", Anjum Hasan's short story in Tehelka's year-end fiction special (what a pleasant surprise to see such a thing from a weekly newsmagazine); "The Centrality of Literary Study" by Marjorie Perloff, with whom I find myself greatly in agreement ("Why do we study literature anyway? To make the connections between the progress of human lives and their verbal representations. To thicken the plot."); and the ReadySteadyBook Books of the Year 2008 symposium, which lists a lot of great books of which I seem to have read not one.