Sunday, March 29, 2009

On Harsh Mander's book on Gujarat 2002, Fear and Forgiveness

In 2002 Harsh Mander, a serving IAS officer, was so dismayed not just by the sins of commission of murderous and highly organised Hindu right-wing groups in Gujarat, but also the sins of omission by the government and the bureaucracy in allowing the violence to go unchecked, that he resigned from the civil service and began to work directly with survivors of the Gujarat tragedy. Fear and Forgiveness, his account of the lives of the survivors in the long aftermath of the carnage, is, as the title indicates, a book that is disturbing but also, in small patches, warming. Mander documents the intense suffering and survival strategies of those reduced to “refugees in their own homeland” merely because they belong to the wrong faith. But he also lingers over surprising, unexpected acts of kindness in the midst of barbarism, and over the organised struggle of the survivors to wrest back some measure of dignity and justice.

The reports of several independent citizens’ groups and fact-finding commissions (such as here, and here) have already confirmed, in the greatest detail, the complicity of the Narendra Modi government in the massive loss of lives and property, mainly of Muslims, in what are euphemistically called the “riots” of February and March 2002. The violence broke out following the deaths, on February 27, of 58 Hindus when a train compartment of the Sabarmati Express was set on fire near Godhra station after a dispute between Hindu kar sevaks and some Muslim tea vendors at the station itself. But, as Mander demonstrates, the genocide (which is a more appropriate term for violence so targeted and systematic) has also had the long-term effect, ardently desired by its perpetrators, of imposing on the Muslims of Gujarat a pervasive sense of their second-class citizenship.

Pitted against a state that was hostile to their right to security during the violence then, and that is just as hostile to their right to reparation and justice now, the survivors to this day eke out a precarious existence, funneled into relief colonies, boycotted socially and economically, and often harassed and rounded up by the police without any regard for due process. Mander shows, in the absence of proper state support, that the cause of relief work has been embraced mainly by Muslim organisations, some with their own agendas, thus further entrenching the factionalism of a communalised polity. Reading his book, we understand how, firstly, what began in Gujarat in 2002 is in a way still current, and secondly, how an orgy of state-sponsored violence may radicalise an entire generation of perpetrators and victims both.

Mandar is just as keen to address the implications of the position, still widely aired in middle-class drawing-rooms around the country, that the Muslims of Gujarat “deserved it” or “had it coming”, either for the alleged role of some Muslims in the Godhra train-burning incident, or more generally for the invasion of India and forced conversion of Hindus by Muslim rulers further back in history. It is striking, he points out, that this idea of collective and vicarious responsibility “seems apportioned only to minorities”. Further, if people are to use this logic of group identity to argue that “they” had it coming, then tomorrow upper-caste Hindus might be a similar “they” for Dalits, and all men might be punished for the bondage of women throughout history. All too often this “they” is merely a projection, and a displacement, of the beast within us.

No individual or group deserves to pay this kind of price for the real or imagined wrongs of their co-religionists. Indeed, the scale of the supposedly retributive violence in Gujarat self-evidently shows that the genocide of 2002 was not a “reaction” to any action, as some have claimed and still claim, but a well-orchestrated action in itself. The sooner this truth is accepted, the closer we will be, in Mander’s view, to allowing the beneficial forces of reparation and forgiveness to come into play, and to achieving some kind of reconciliation and closure that allows people to get on with their lives with a measure of normalcy.

One of the best chapters in Fear and Forgiveness is devoted to the work of legal representation done in Gujarat by Nyayagrah, an organisation with which Mander is involved. If the concept of satyagraha, he explains, was about peaceful mass disobedience of clearly unjust laws, then nyayagrah, by contrast, is about a mass campaign to “hold the state accountable to actually enforcing rather than disobeying its own just laws.”

Although a number of high-profile cases concerning the carnage of 2002 have resulted in convictions for the accused, in general the bad faith of the administration, the police, and the lower judiciary has led to hundreds of smaller cases being summarily closed. Nyayagrah attempts to provide legal support and representation, often with the help of trained local volunteers, to any of the victims of the genocide who wish to pursue their grievances in the courts. One of the best passages in the book describes the pressures borne by survivors of genocide not just from those who hate them but also from those who are working in support to them:
Most often, struggles for justice using the law are fought by lawyers and human rights defenders for the victim, in her name and on her behalf. It is reasonably believed that the victim, after all, cannot be expected to understand the complexities of the legal system, and even less the way to negotiate its opaque treatises to secure ultimate legal victory. Therefore, the victims are rarely consulted about important decisions regarding the case, and professional and well-meaning human rights workers sometimes neglect to inform these survivors even about the way the case is progressing. Their existence is recalled only when they have to give evidence in court, for which they have to be suitably “prepared” if the case is to be “won”, or occasionally by alert human rights defenders if they report being threatened so as to plead for witness protection. They are demonized if they turn “hostile” in court or succumb to intimidation or inducement to change their statements. It is ironical that the victim is almost instrumentalised for the “larger” purpose of a greater justice. This is a grave danger when large and high profile cases of major and spectacular massacres, involving significant numbers, are taken up as symbolic “test cases” to uphold the law. The “weak” witness who succumbs to intimidation or inducement, or both, is seen to fail not just his own case, but the entire victim community and indeed the lofty cause of justice itself. I do not believe any victim – even one who prevaricates, surrenders, or submits to inducements or intimidation – should be made to carry burdens of stigma greater than those he or she already bears.
The battle for justice is not so much an end in itself, explains Mander, as it is a means “for the victim to re-establish her or his equal citizenship and rights before the law in a secular democracy.” He recounts how some Hindu volunteers of Nyayagrah are taunted for “siding with the enemy.” But, as this and many other examples of individual courage and compassion described by Mander show, it is only people who cross borders who may show us a way of erasing them.

The defining feature of the Gujarat violence to this day, Mander argues, “is the determined absence of remorse in both the state and many segments of the people.” In the absence of this remorse, it is citizens’ groups, individuals, and the law which must fill the void as best as possible. Mander’s book, at once engaged and morally lucid, is a gentle counsel to not perpetuate the universe of Gujarat 2002-2009 within our own hearts, or wall in our own lives and consciences by such totalising abstractions as “us” and “them”.

An essay by Mander, "Inside Gujarat's Relief Colonies", is here. And some links to other essays: Prashant Jha's long piece of reportage from 2006, "Gujarat As Another Country"; "Understanding Gujarat Violence" by Ashutosh Varshney and "The Gujarat Pogrom of 2002" by Paul Brass, who are both scholars who have written a book each on the subject of Hindu-Muslim violence in modern India; Ashis Nandy's essay from 1991 "Hinduism vs Hindutva: The Inevitability of a Confrontation" ("That death of Hinduism in India will be celebrated by all votaries of Hindutva. For they have always been embarrassed and felt humiliated by Hinduism as it is. Hinduism, I repeat, is a faith and a way of life. Hindutva is an ideology for those whose Hinduism has worn off. Hindutva is built on the tenets of re-formed Hinduism of the nineteenth century"). An extensive bibliography called "Resources Against Communalism and Religious Fundamentalism in India" compiled by Harsh Kapoor lists hundreds of essays and book-length works on the subject, some of which you may want to track down in your local bookstore or library.

[A shorter version of this essay appeared yesterday in Mint)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Some things I've been reading

Some things I've been reading recently:

"Do [Indian] anglophones paddle in the shallows" by Mukul Kesavan, who is in my opinion among the sharpest thinkers and almost certainly the best prose stylist among columnists in the English-language press in India, and whose piece closes with a line worthy of a great short story. My friend the writer Amitava Kumar, who has on occasion left comments of great erudition on The Middle Stage (such as here), and whose book A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook Of His Arm A Tiny Bomb will be out shortly, has a response to Kesavan here. A reverse angle on Kesavan's argument is provided by Aakar Patel's recent essay "Try and say this in Hindi -- bet you can't".

"Adventures in editing: Ted Solotaroff's Commentary Days", a very long and entertaining piece by the late Ted Solotaroff on his years as an editor at Commentary magazine, which is, among other things, about learning the art of editing from other highly skilled exponents ("Well, what she proceeded to do was a revelation. What I had thought was a solid review turned out to have as much fat as a sixteen-ounce blue-plate special. My resentment at being told I was ponderous turned into gratitude once I began to see with her eye and fall into step with her pace. 'Why the double adjectives here? Give me a good precise one.' My overzealous development of a point--example, comment, further example, more comment, final example -- turned into an incisive statement and the best example, and moved on. She showed me how removing a transitional or topic sentence from the head of a paragraph could energize the line of discussion and more involve the reader"). Part 2 of the piece is here: "Further adventures in editing".

And lest we forget that this is an Indian blog, and one that wants to know and to circulate what is happening at home as well as away, here is a beautifully tossed-off little memoir -- one wishes it were longer-- by Rukun Advani called "Academics among writers", about the experience of editing an entire generation of Indian writers -- sociologists, economists, political theorists -- closely linked with academic activity yet also interested in producing polished writing ("When I joined publishing as an editor it was with the expectation that my job would involve reading wonderful new book-manuscripts all day long. At the end of each week I'd tell my boss which the well-written scripts were, and he'd give me the go-ahead to publish those. The bad ones we'd save for a bonfire and watch gleefully as rotten prose met its fate, becoming even more like the dust it already was.")

If you give these essays the time they deserve, you could do worse than spend another hour reading this recent symposium of four good American editors at publishing houses, which offers many insights into the contemporary world of publishing: agents, advances, the rigours of editing, publicity, the corporatization of publishing, the impact of new technologies, why books are published first as hardcovers, and so on.

And here are two marvellous interviews at the ReadySteadyBook website with the poet and translator Michael Hoffmann and the translator Charlotte Mandell. I was particularly struck by Mandell's counterintuitive revelation that she never reads a book all the way through before beginning a translation ("I feel I’ve never really 'read' a work until I’ve translated it. I also make it a rule never to read too far ahead in the book I’m translating – that way everything is fresh and new, and I can’t form any preconceived notions about what will come next. I figure the author never had the luxury of reading his book beforehand, so why should I?"). Mandell also has some interesting things to say about her translation of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones here.

Lastly, I leave you with Adam Kirsch's splendid "In The Word-Hoard", an essay on Dennis O'Driscoll's book-length interview with Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones. And if all this is too literary for you, I can see your point, and so here is a really good essay by Jonathan Wilson on football: "Why is full-back the most important position on the pitch?"

Monday, March 16, 2009

On Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography My Experiments With Truth

A shorter version of this essay appeared in Mint in January as part of a special issue on Gandhi. The long version posted here was published this month in the political journal Democratiya under the title "Still Making Us Work: Gandhi's Autobiography".

Halfway through Part II of his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, we see the young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, still only 24, preparing to leave South Africa in 1893 after the successful resolution of the court case that originally took him there.

Gandhi has, by this time, won not just the respect but also the love of the Indian community in South Africa. His unusually stringent and holistic approach towards authority, law, and morals, his keen interest in matters well outside his brief such as racial discrimination, religious division, and sanitation, and his enthusiasm for petitioning and pamphleteering, organising meetings, and travelling has made him many friends and admirers. In Natal his friends, and the merchant community in particular, pester him to stay back and set up a legal practice there. They are willing not only to send private legal work his way, but also organise funds for the 'public work' of reform and improvement that so preoccupies him. Gandhi mulls over their offer, and then refuses the second part of it. He explains: 'My work would be mainly to make you all work. And how could I charge you for that?'

My Experiments with Truth was first published in English translation in 1927, and in its ninth decade it still commands the power, just like its author did in his own person, to make us work should we come within range of it, to make us newly reflective, newly ambitious. It is, as Gandhi himself writes, not 'a real autobiography', but a spartan, goal-directed one, closely focussed only on those incidents and encounters in his life 'which bear upon the practice of truth.' It reflects its author's impatience with inessentials, and his constant search for first principles; it is rich in lessons and maxims, in speculations about root causes and deep connections, and in an infectious moral restlessness and urgency. It can sometimes be vexing and crankish, as in the author's obsession with matters of diet and sexual self-control, or his imputation of a divine will at work in the most mundane matters. But as Gandhi himself writes, 'The useful and the useless must, like good and evil generally, go on together, and man must make his choice.'

The Autobiography was written or dictated in haste, during the fallow years of the nineteen-twenties, when the energy of the independence struggle had subsided somewhat but the demands on Gandhi's time remained immense. It was published piece by piece from 1925 onwards in Gandhi's Gujarati weekly Navajivan (which explains the book's often arbitrary division into dozens of three- and four-page chapters). Gandhi's faithful associate, Mahadev Desai, translated it almost concurrently into English, supervised by Gandhi himself, but the paradox remains that the autobiography of one of India's greatest writers of English comes to us in an English translation by another hand. The copies found in most Indian homes are the unsophisticated, homely, cheap editions published by Gandhi's own press, The Navajivan Trust, but they are in keeping with the spirit of the author, who honoured substance and economy over show and style.

Not withstanding the fact that most of it is set in England and South Africa, the Autobiography is the most quintessentially Indian of books. Indeed, it might usefully be prescribed as the foundational book for anyone approaching Indian life or literature for the first time. This is in part because of the range of fundamental Indian experiences, across both public and private spheres, with which it engages critically – that of travelling in third-class railway compartments across the length and breadth of India, of agonising over the filth and squalor of public and community spaces, of walking through temples and observing religious festivals, of reflecting on the inequity of power relations in Indian life all the way from marriage (beginning with the author's own marriage) to caste and class. But it also demands to be read because of Gandhi's own creative attitude – the insight offered by his specific strategies and responses – as a negotiator between the forces of tradition and modernity, as a seeker of a common ground where inter-religious dialogue can take place, and as an enthusiast when it comes to the multiplicity of Indian languages and systems. At different points in the book we see Gandhi trying to learn Tamil, the better to deal with indentured labourers from south India in South Africa; speaking in Hindi (or Hindustani) at a Viceregal meeting where the accepted practice was to speak in English; and trying to win over a predominantly Muslim audience in faltering Urdu. Gandhi always goes one step further than one would expect in dealing with the other; when we read him he always seems to be saying to us, 'You can do it too.'

Among the aspects of Gandhi's nature that emerge most clearly from the Autobiography are his considerable talents as propagandist, pressman, and editor. Gandhi's Collected Works run into a hundred volumes, yet relatively few writings were conceived as independent books – they all made their first appearances as pieces in newspapers and periodicals, often those run by Gandhi himself. Although Gandhi began to read newspapers only in his teens, very early in his career he seems to have become conscious of the enormous power of the printed word to disseminate information, to stoke reflection, to offer considered criticism, and to forge durable relationships on a mass scale without the necessity of reader actually meeting author.

But – and this is characteristic of him – he also saw in the written word a means of pinning himself to the highest standards of fairness and justice (which are only other words for what he would have understood as 'truth'). Writing about the journal Indian Opinion, which he ran for over a decade in South Africa, he recalls:
Week after week I poured out my soul in its columns, and expounded the principles and practice of Satyagraha as I understood it. During ten years, that is, until 1914, excepting the intervals of my enforced rest in prison, there was hardly an issue of Indian Opinion without an article from me. I cannot recall a word in those articles set down without thought or deliberation, or a word of conscious exaggeration, or anything merely to please. Indeed the journal became for me a training in self-restraint...The critic found very little to which he could object. In fact the tone of Indian Opinion compelled the critic to put a curb on his own pen.
Here, as at many other points in the book, we see Gandhi advance a sophisticated understanding of the dialectical relationship between one's own actions and those of others, such as when he says, 'My experience has shown that we win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.' And sounded here, too, is the idea of responsible speech and action through self-scrutiny which is one of the root ideas of Gandhian ethics and is explained elsewhere in the book: 'Man is man because he is capable of, and only in so far as he exercises, self-restraint.' Gandhi often asks the impossible of us, but his appeal is in the radical possibilities he opens out before us; he expands our moral arena. We come away from Gandhi with an enhanced view of our relationship to others and to the world.

The word 'God' appears dozens of times in the autobiography, and God clearly has pride of place in Gandhi's worldview. But what kind of God is he? Sometimes Gandhi speaks of God in a way that would strike the secular reader as strangely angular but which is in fact characteristic of the pious, by ceding the very human agency that has so assiduously been forged in hostile circumstances ('Thus God laid the foundations of my life in South Africa and sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect'). Sometimes the word appears in notes of gratitude towards a mysterious higher authority who seems to be watching over him ('Only vaguely I understood that God had saved me on that occasion' – the occasion being a visit to a prostitute that ends in Gandhi fleeing the scene); sometimes as the end of a human ideal or endeavour ('I worship God as Truth only'; 'I had made the religion of service my own as I felt that God could be realised only through service'); and sometimes as a retreat of language and intelligence before the mystery and ineffability of the divine ('I have no word for characterising my belief in God'). Most notably, this is not a God who belongs to a particular faith; he is a God available to any person who seeks him. How did Gandhi, a practising Hindu, arrive at such a God?

The Autobiography offers a very comprehensive record of the process of the development of Gandhi's views on religion. Gandhi was brought up in a staunchly Hindu household. But because the first years of his adulthood were spent as a student in England (he almost did not go abroad because his family feared that he would lose caste by crossing the seas) and then as a lawyer in South Africa, in these years he kept the company of Christians far more than he did that of Hindus. Indeed he had a sustained encounter with Christianity – attending church service with friends, reading the Gospels, debating the nature of Christ and of salvation, trying to resist attempts to convert him – and with Theosophy before he came to Hinduism in any sustained or coherent way. About his first stint in South Africa, he writes that 'it was Christian influence that had kept me alive in the religious sense.' He first read the Bhagavad Gita, for many the core text of Hinduism, at the behest of two Theosophist friends in England, in an English translation by Edwin Arnold.

This awakening of the religious spirit led Gandhi to explore, through his twenties, the intellectual heritage of Hinduism through correspondence with Indian mentor-figures, and to also read widely on other religions. The reading, he reports, 'fostered in me the habit of putting into practice whatever appealed to me in my studies'; as in other fields, Gandhi is a great improviser in religion. But although Gandhi was soon to be persuaded by what he calls the 'beauties' of his own faith, Hinduism, and came to regard the Gita as 'the book par excellence for the knowledge of Truth', there remained in his thought a Christianised view of sin and salvation. At the same time, the roundabout, unorthodox, and graduated route by which he arrived at his Hinduism made his creed both a liberal and critical one in itself, and genuinely open (and not just 'tolerant') towards others. 'In matters of religion beliefs differ,' he writes, 'and each one's is supreme for himself. If all had the same belief about all matters of religion, there would be only one religion in the world.' This would seem to be the starting point of peaceful coexistence in a society that is in part multi-religious and in part non-religious, yet individuals of all persuasions still have difficulty subscribing to this simple and dignified idea, which are both an endorsement of belief and a check on religious coercion.

Characteristically, Gandhi can be found in the Autobiography interpreting the word 'religion' not just as belief in God, adherence to scripture, rituals, and doctrine, but 'in its broadest sense, meaning thereby self-realisation or knowledge of self.' Looking at his own book similarly in the broadest possible perspective, we can situate it within a venerable tradition of the most ambitious human seeking and questioning. Nearly two-and-a-half thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death in Athens for impiety and for corrupting the youth with unsound ideas. The main thrust of Socrate's defence in court – 'The unexamined life is not worth living' – has rung across the centuries as a ideal of human life. My Experiments with Truth, with its insistent questioning and refashioning of both self and world, and its pursuit of 'the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience', might be seen not just as the central book in modern Indian literature, but amongst the most Socratic books in world literature.

And here is an old essay also published in Democratiya: "Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose".

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Things I've been reading recently: Lombardo, Nehamas, and Paglia

Some very fine things I've been reading recently (I recommend a cup of a good brew and at least an hour of free time for the proper reception of each of these sections):

An interview with Stanley Lombardo, one of the most recent flagholders of a venerable tradition, that of translating Homer's Odyssey into English ("The word Muse in Greek means ‘mind’ originally...Mind is for me the essence of translation. Odysseus has to attain the minds of many people in his wanderings. That’s what Homer has done, and it’s why his characters are so real — he attains the human mind, he attains many human minds. Translation is mind to mind, not dictionary to dictionary. Homer is a mind that I try to attain."). Chapter One of Lombardo's translation of the Odyssey is here, and if you'd like to hear a recording of him reading from the same section it is here. A friend recently bought me Lombardo's translation from the US (it is published by a small but very good publisher of classics, Hackett), and I've been trying to read it against the widely available Penguin translation by Robert Fagles.

An interview with the classics scholar Alexander Nehamas about Socrates, Nietzsche, Foucault, and also the relationship between book-learning and living in the world ("In modern times philosophy has traditionally been taken to be in the broadest sense a scientific discipline.... But in ancient Greece, as well as in a modest modern tradition, the primary issue is not to find answers to particular philosophical questions like 'What is knowledge?' or 'What is reality?' or 'What is good?' The primary issue is to live a philosophic life. To be a philosopher is to be a certain kind of person, not simply to have views on certain issues. A philosopher who is a certain kind of person is also, of course, a person who has views on philosophical issues. But what matters is not just the answers such a person gives. What matters is the kind of connections you establish between various philosophical issues and the rest of your life. What matters is that a personality emerges who has asked certain kinds of questions and given certain kinds of answers to them, and who, most importantly, has constructed a life around such questions and answers...I am trying to reclaim the defining tradition of Greek philosophy, philosophy as techne tou biou the art of living. Though 'art' is not a particularly accurate translation of the Greek techne, which is not art in the sense of our 'fine art', but something between art and craft.") I was also intrigued by Nehamas's idea that "the features that characterize oneself and one's life are similar to the features of literary works. The virtues of life are comparable to the virtues of good writing connectedness, grace, elegance." If you enjoy this, you might also want to read "Plato or Schopenhauer", the opening chapter of Nehamas's book The Place of Beauty in a World of Art.

An interview with the iconoclastic classics and poetry scholar Camille Paglia by Michael Sragow (himself the author of a recent biography of the American film director Victor Fleming) on the subject of the films of Alfred Hitchcock ("In writing my study of 'The Birds' for the British Film Institute, I had the opportunity to review all kinds of films from Hitchcock's past that were not available when I was young -- films from the silent era and the 1930s that are now on video. I was just stunned by what I discovered: the blatant continuity of Hitchcock's sensibility, down to tiny little details in the earliest films in matters of decor or geographical setting or the plot. It's clear that what we have in the works of Hitchcock really is, despite the ups and downs of the quality of the films, a giant oeuvre one huge imaginative projection.") You might also enjoy Paglia's essay "The Mighty River of Classics", and "Rhyme and Reason", the introduction to her 2005 anthology Break, Blow, Burn, a set of readings of 43 of her favourite poems ("My secular but semi-mystical view of art is that it taps primal energies, breaks down barriers and imperiously remakes our settled way of seeing. Animated by the breath force (the original meaning of 'spirit' and 'inspiration'), poetry brings exhilarating spiritual renewal....Like philosophy, poetry is a contemplative form, but unlike philosophy, poetry subliminally manipulates the body and triggers its nerve impulses, the muscle tremors of sensation and speech"). Paglia describes the selection process for the anthology here.

Some of these pieces were published many years ago, and discovering them brings home how, on the Internet, as in a library, everything remains "current" in such a good way.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

On Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s first, overwhelmingly verbose and florid, novel was called The Last Song of Dusk, and when, early on in his new book, we read that “On Tuesday morning a big fat sun careened through thick layers of cloud, revealing a sky the colour of joy”, we know that the writer is still composing gushing odes to mornings and evenings. Indeed, it is hard to think of another Indian writer in English who can match Shanghvi for linguistic excess: his alarmingly bad metaphors, his bewildering mixing of high and low registers, his excessively high pitch even when he believes he is doing understatement. But Shanghvi’s new novel is off-putting not just because we see in it a writer who has settled into his faults, and will now always perpetuate them. What is worse is that he is so indisciplined that he does not even play to his own strengths. His prose is peculiarly self-defeating.

Shanghvi’s native ground is the complex play of feeling between troubled adults. In his work, the chance alliances of love and friendship that his characters forge are seen as a kind of redemption from the intrinsic emptiness and loneliness of life, the troubles of aging and suffering. The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay is a chronicle of the linked lives of four protagonists and the Bombay they know or seek: Karan Seth, a young photographer; Samar Arora, a brilliant pianist who has now lapsed into silence; Zaira, a Bollywood actress; and Rhea Dalal, a middle-aged housewife who was once an outstanding young potter.
Karan, newly arrived from Shimla, is dazzled by Bombay. He believes, like many immigrants to the city, that "from the day I came to Bombay, I felt like I was staring destiny in the eye". His dream – and this is also clearly Shanghvi’s dream, though realised very self-consciously and jarringly – is to create “an epic record of the city” with his camera, an encyclopedia of its moods, characters, and possibilities. Karan’s relationships with the three others all contribute, in their own way and at their own pace, to the deepening of his vision.
Shanghvi can be insightful when working within this field of human striving and desire. When, for instance, Rhea, many years after her marriage has broken up, looks back at the wonder of it and thinks, simply, that “Love is good luck”, the truth of this modest thought surprises us. When Samar dies of AIDS, and Karan says of him that “Even if he couldn’t save what he had loved, loving them had saved him”, we are moved by this.When we see Rhea thinking about "the familiar, consoling details that parented her childhood", we recognise that this odd verb sums up the experience of growing up introverted and withdrawn, and when we are told that Karan's enthusiasm and dedication reminds Rhea "of herself as a young woman, an artist preparing for her conversation with the world", that last phrase seems exactly right as a description of artistic work.
But Shanghvi is so intent on capturing – above, around, and behind his characters – the rumble of the city and the evils of this world that he continually leads his own writing away from good places into black holes. His most dubious move is to turn a crucial event in the book, the death of Zaira, into a hamhanded reprisal of the notorious Jessica Lall murder case, complete with scheming politicians thuggishly working the system, a witness who claims he does not understand Hindi, and cartoonish portraits of a fashion designer and her socialite mother who seek to derive social capital from the tragic affair.
Shanghvi’s account – inspired, he tells us in a somewhat callous prefatory note, “by a range of events discussed extensively in the print media, films and on television” – tells us nothing about the case, or about the excesses of celebrity culture, that we do not already know. Shanghvi's one addition to the facts of the case is to make the murderer, a man called Malik Prasad, the son of a high-profile politician belonging to “the Hindu People’s Party”, a move that allows him to laboriously open fire on the venality of right-wing Hindu politics. Searching further for pilferable scandals, Shanghvi throws in the Salman Khan hit-and-run case. But merely copying reality has never made events in a novel seem real.
Shanghvi’s prose style is totally wild. A collection of his animal metaphors alone (“Her voice was wobbly with emotion, like a hippo on stilettos”; "memories of Rhea took nips at him like packs of hyenas") would be enough to form an instructive masterclass on death by overwriting. As an example of how his narrative continually destroys the mood it has built up, here is a conversation between Malik Prasad and his father – a conversation in which we find out that Malik, in a fit of rage, has shot and killed Zaira:
'How many people were present at the bar?'
'Maybe two hundred or so.' Malik's heart was thudding so hard that he could barely speak.
'Did anyone see you shoot her?'
'Of course, Dad!'
'Don't raise your voice, kutta!'
'How could someone not have seen me?' Blood had shot out from Zaira's temple and stained Malik's shirt.
'Was someone with Zaira when it happened?'
'Yes. Bunty Oberoi. He's her co-star in her new film.'
'Do you know this Bunty chap?'
Malik had met Bunty Oberoi in passing, and he told his father they were acquaintances.
'So Bunty saw you shoot her?'
'He was the one who raised the alarm.'
Bunty Oberoi's scream had been effete and comical, as if he was auditioning for the role of a widow in a Hindi film.
'And then you left the bar?'
'Lucky thought it was the smart thing to do; I just followed him. We ran out. Everyone was looking at me, Dad. Her blood has messed up my clothes. I desperately needed to shower.'
'Is the gun with you?'
'Yes, it is.'
As Malik had rushed out of the bar a few models, svelte and glazed-eyed, had shrieked and pranced out of his way like impalas taking on the plains of the savannah.
Let us leave aside the issue of whether this is good dialogue or not, and think of something even more basic. This is clearly a scene which is supposed to communicate the senselessness and the horror of Zaira's murder. Why then does it have such a puzzling air of bathos?
It is because of the two gratuitous and self-indulgent metaphors wedged into the dialogue by the narrator, one about Bunty Oberoi's scream as if he was "auditioning for the role of a widow in a Hindi film" and the other about frightened spectators running for cover "like impalas taking on the plains of the savannah". These metaphors would be bad, because overly extravagant and stilted, if taken just by themselves; in the context of the scene, they are doubly disastrous. Narratorial preening and showboating ("Her future appeared so blazingly bright, he was tempted to shield his eyes"; "He walked towards her, entering the private cosmology of her unabashed curiosity") make for a stream of jarring moments in Shanghvi's text.
Lastly, it might be worth noting Shanghvi's bizarrely oversexualised imagination, which manifests itself in an excess of hostility towards a chosen few characters. Page after page of his narration is besmirched by pointlessly bitchy and infantile sniping. Minister Prasad, the father of the killer, is not only ideologically despicable but physically gross, as if one kind of corruption inevitably follows the other. He has a habit, we are told, “of scratching his balls so savagely that his pubic lice experienced multiple orgasms.” The judge in the murder case is lured into corruption by the promise of a promotion, and gives his consent: "The words escaped the judge's mouth involuntarily, like a premature ejaculation." A mildly annoying character is dismissed, on the same page on which she enters the narrative, with this sentence: “Glee dripped out of Natasha like precum.” Karan quits photography and goes to work at a school, where the obnoxious principal, Mrs. Pal, has “an ass that looked as if it had been blown up with a cycle pump.” These tasteless smears seem uncannily similar to the casual bigotry of the “Hindu People’s Party” that so agitates Shanghvi, and they might be seen as emblematic of the many excesses and self-deceptions of this severely trying writer.
[A shorter version of this piece appeared last weekend in Mint.]