Thursday, July 30, 2009

On Sankar's novel Jana Aranya (The Middleman)

Even in a time of recession, most educated young Indians today inhabit a job market miles removed from the India of the decades preceding liberalization. But public memory is always short, and one generation’s shared experience often erases that of the previous one. The array of urban job options available today to the graduate or even the school-pass will probably ensure that in a decade we will have all but forgotten the moment in middle-class Indian life when, to quote a line from Sankar’s novel Jana Aranya “if you had a job you were blessed.”

Sankar’s novel – famously made into a film by the same name by Satyajit Ray on its publication in Bengali in 1973, but only now translated into English by Arunava Sinha under the title The Middleman – beautifully evokes a world of competitive examinations, newspaper classifieds, job interviews, family pressures, and nepotism. At the same time, we see the desperation of those left behind in the race for financial security, the respect of society, and marriage and family through the gateway of employment. In a short, charming afterword to the novel, Sankar reveals how he himself worked as a middleman in his impoverished youth, buying all kinds of goods cheap and then selling for higher. Although his novel describes the particulars of a time and place that may have now disappeared, its sympathetic portrait of human striving and shrewd understanding of the ways of the world make it at once a great novel of both business and family.

The protagonist of The Middleman is Somnath Banerjee, the youngest son of a retired judge. Unlike his two older brothers, who have done well for themselves and made good marriages, Somnath is a struggler, an unexceptional individual seeking a place in a world which has its own peculiar ways of judging merit. Although Somnath is badly off, his family is not in need of his income. His struggle is personal, not familial, and there are many supportive presences at home, including his tender-hearted sister-in-law Kamala (some of the best scenes in the book depict conversations between these two kindred hearts). Some others have it even worse, such as Somnath’s friend Sukumar, who must find a job urgently to support his large family. Sankar expertly depicts the fellowship of these two hopefuls, Somnath and Sukumar, but does not fail to remind us of their differences.

After numerous attempts at finding a job, Somnath realises that time is running out: “If he couldn’t become self-reliant now, he would no longer remain human.” On the advice of an acquaintance, he decides to go into business. The novel now leaves behind the world of the salaried (except for brief glimpses into the life of the luckless Sukumar) and moves across into the adjacent world of entrepreneurship. What is Somnath to buy and sell? How are contacts to be made and how is business to be generated? Can one hold to one’s own values in the world of commerce, or is one to fall in line with the rest? Sankar makes us consider all these questions through the figure of Somnath, and his portraits of small-time traders, speculators, and agents are vivid and memorable. Somnath realises that to succeed in such a world – which is, after all, the only world which has offered him an opportunity to be human, albeit a morally impoverished human – he will have to jettison some of his beliefs and compunctions. Here are the paragraphs in which Somnath first tastes the thrill of an income:
When Somnath brought up the envelopes, Mr Ganguly asked him to leave a few samples and the rates. He promised to get back to Somnath after checking their stocks.

The transaction was completed by five o'clock, and after deducting expenses three crispt ten-rupee notes sat in Somnath's pocket. His first ever income. An experience as breathtaking as first love. Suddenly, Calcutta had shed its drab hues and was glowing before his eyes. Unable to contain his excitement, he took out his wallet and counted the money again.

Back in his office, Somnath looked for Bishubabu, but was told that he was out of town on business. As soon as Adak arrived, Somnath ordered for sweets, eager to celebrate. Adak protested loudly. 'This is why Bengalis get nowhere with business. This is your first capital. You can't afford to waste it. Get it up to ten thousand first. Then I'll be the one demanding the sweets.'
Just as Somnath has two older brothers, so too Jana Aranya could be said to bear a familial resemblance to two novels that preceded it in the world of Bengali fiction. These are Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s Ghoonpoka (The Woodworm, 1967); and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1969), both of which were translated into English many years before it was. As their very titles indicate, these novels too are about the corrosion of traditional values and the alienation of the protagonist from society. But although it has had to wait the longest to be translated, Sankar’s novel is a more satisfying experience than the other two because of the excellence of its narrative craft.

Although it is written in a smooth, unornamented prose, the novel’s achievement is deceptive. One would have to draw a diagram of the plot to see how deftly Somnath’s encounters with the different people in his life, his shuttling between home and the world, are laid out. There is a heartbreaking tenderness about some of the family scenes, and then a powerful hunger and ruthlessness about the world of deals and commissions; yet these realms are not a pair of simple contrasts, and at times it appears that it is the family that is unreasonable and the world of commerce a better arbiter of worth.

Although Sankar’s language is naturally something that would not lose much in translation, Sinha’s skill is especially evident when it comes to his magisterial rendering of dialogue, which Sankar prefers to third-person narration as his narrative motor. This is transparently one of the greatest of modern Indian novels, and though it has crossed the borders of its language belatedly, its second innings is sure to be even longer than the first.

Sinha's two other translations of Bengali novels are Sankar's Chowringhee and Buddhadeva Bose's My Kind of Girl. His translation of Rabindranath Tagore's story "One Night" can be found here.

An archive of my essays on Indian fiction is here.

[A version of this review first appeared in Mint.]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On Alaa Al Aswany's Friendly Fire

Novelists might be usefully divided into idealists, who wish to see a better world even as they strive to faithfully portray the one that is, and realists, who interpret life in a harsher and more pessimistic way as if to say that nothing will ever change. The Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany is without doubt one of the latter. Aswany, who leapt into the consciousness of the Anglophone novelistic universe with the publication of a translation of his novel The Yacoubian Building in 2007, is a poet of the appetites and passions, of a moral universe that is corrupt and doesn’t mind it. Some readers have declared him a heir to Naguib Mahfouz for his panoramic narratorial vision and interest in low-life stories, but the resemblance is really one of structure and not of spirit. Aswany is very much an original.

Friendly Fire, comprising a novella and a bunch of stories, is Aswamy’s latest attempt to copy Egyptian life out into a set of highly charged and coloured fictions. Since both his earlier novels, The Yacoubian Building and Chicago, spun around the lives of a dozen or so characters at the same time, one might argue that Aswany is basically a writer of short stories anyway: his interest is in character sketches that will build up into a portrait of an entire world. As with the earlier books, Friendly Fire too is about the brazen and self-seeking behaviour of those “well versed in the uses of power” and the powerless ones who feel the lash of their whips. Indian readers will find there is much that is familiar in Aswany’s portraits of politicans, heads of university departments, bureaucrats, and doctors, happily feathering their nests and tripping up the lives of others even as they hypocritically mouth prayers and pieties.

The trick in Aswamy’s method, though, is in never criticising overtly, but in only showing us the world as it is. In this way, without moralising, he both revels in ugliness and yet succeeds in making us feel guilty on behalf of those characters who find out, to their shock and despair, that “it is by evil laws that the world is governed.” This is the difference between him and someone like Aravind Adiga in Between The Assassinations, which is also a good book but sometimes reveals the writer’s interpretative pressure upon the material too much.

Aswany is a scourge not just of power and hierarchy, but also of religion. In one story, “The Kitchen Boy”, he shows us an outstanding young doctor, Hisham, reduced to the status of kitchen attendant by his seniors so that he may suffer the same indignities that they did during their induction. Hisham’s troubles are all of man’s fashioning: they are the consequence of the crookedness, callousness, and spite within society. Yet when he confides his troubles to his mother, she suggests that he perform daily a religious ritual that will ease his woes, and Hisham reluctantly agrees. Religion, in Aswany’s reading, is often like putting a blindfold over one’s eyes; it may be a refuge from injustice, but it also allows injustice to continue. Aswany’s narrations often feature quotations from the Quran that are used ironically, such as when a man is trying to smuggle some goods through customs and begins reciting the verse about “covering their eyes so they do not see.”

The other distinctive feature of Aswany’s writing is its frank sensuality, its love of pleasures both free and forbidden. “I drank of beauty until my thirst was quenched,” declares one of his protagonists, while another holds that “joy was a wild beast with vulgar features, an implacable urge lurking within everyone and everything in creation.” Such is the force of our instincts that they often overpower all propriety and reason, as when a man slips out of his father’s funeral ceremony to return to eating a dish of beans he had left behind when the news of the death came in.

And two old essays on Aswany: on The Yacoubian Building and Chicago.

[This essay first appeared in Mint.]

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Reading in Kolkata postponed to the 20th

Just a little note to say that because of the proposed Kolkata bandh tomorrow, my reading at Oxford Bookstore, Park Street, has been postponed to 7pm on Monday the 20th of July. I did know that I couldn't get through a week of events in Kolkata without a bandh popping in somewhere! Best to get it out of the way at the beginning and hope there's not another one before I leave.

Also, I'd like to remind you that if you wish to come for my lecture on writing at the British Council Library Kolkata on Friday the 24th, and are not a library member, then please write to me to confirm your participation, and I'll pass this on to the management.

Meanwhile, I just saw myself on Youtube for the first time: some clips of my Delhi reading courtesy Mint. Although my world is primarily verbal and not visual, I have to say I enjoyed this – and why wouldn't I, given how much time I spent wondering which colour shirt to wear?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Arzee the Dwarf: readings and events in Kolkata and Kharagpur

I'm on my way to Kolkata tomorrow, to read from Arzee the Dwarf when I am not eating and drinking at the dozen haunts I already have in mind. Listed below, for the convenience of all the readers of The Middle Stage in Bengal, are the details of the four events I'll be having in Kolkata and Kharagpur over the next two weeks.

At 7pm on Friday, July 17, I'll be reading from Arzee and be in conversation with the singer, writer and and translator Anjum Katyal at Oxford Bookstore, Park Street, Kolkata. The Facebook page for this event is here.

At 5pm on Wednesday, July 22, I'm reading along with the novelist Rimi Chatterjee at Worldview Bookstore, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. I have heard a lot about the range and riches of this bookshop, and I'm going to be there well before time so that I have an hour or two to go through its shelves.

At 5pm on Thursday, July 23, I'm reading from Arzee with the writer Saikat Chakraborty at IIT, Kharagpur.

And at 6.30 pm on Friday, July 24, I'm giving a lecture on literature, and on the things one learns or forgets while writing a novel, at the British Council Kolkata. If you are not a member of the British Council Library, then you'll need to write to me to say that you're coming.

Come to one or all of these readings and talks!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Reading from Arzee the Dwarf in Delhi, and in love with Delhi

I'd like to invite all the readers of The Middle Stage in Delhi to the launch of Arzee the Dwarf this Friday, the 10th of July, at 7pm in Conference Room No. 3, India International Center Annexe, Lodhi Road, New Delhi - 110003.

Although Arzee the Dwarf is set entirely in Bombay and was written entirely in Bombay, Delhi, which is never mentioned in the book, is actually very important to it. I think my English literature degree at Delhi University ten years ago instilled in me the ambition and some of the intellectual resources to make a life in literature. Further, most of my closest friends in the world live in Delhi, so to this day many of the ideas that I dream down west are sounded out and ratified up north.

Like anyone who has been to come to maturation in a particular place, I can never think of Delhi without memories and associations of friendship, love, food, the world opening out, of ideas sparking in the brain. The first two women I fell in love with in some enduring and life-changing way were both from Delhi, and for a long time in my twenties I harboured the unreasonable belief that only Delhi girls had what it took to be good companions, and kept trying to move from Bombay without much success. Over the three years of writing Arzee it was my friends in Delhi who for the most part read and commented on draft versions, and sent me back again and again to my work table (I don't claim therefore that it is perfect now).

Even now, when I go back to Delhi every two or three months on week-long trips, I find myself feeling absolutely relaxed and happy in a way I'm not in Bombay. C-block Kalkaji is for me the place that I love best on earth because of all the memories I have there, and the fresh ones I generate each time I go back to live with my best friends in the world.

So as you can see, I think in a practical way about Bombay, and in a romantic way about Delhi; in a way, behind the green Bombay sky on the cover of Arzee lies hidden Delhi's blue firmament. In my years in Bombay I've been moving house further north each time, and I entertain the fantasy that there will come a day in my life when the Western line will have extended northwards to such an extent that I can speed past Virar and get off instead at Nizamuddin, see all my friends, and be back in time for work the next morning.

So it gives me great pleasure to return to the city where the life that I have today really began, and to read to an audience that includes many of my friends, some fellow writers and tradespeople, and most of my intellectual mentors (who must not, however, be blamed for my many excesses and shortcomings).

The Facebook page for the event is here, so if you have an account please sign up. I will be in conversation with the novelist Omair Ahmad.

And here are two old posts about my years in Delhi: "Memories of a Borges book, and the old Twentieth Century bookshop" and "A Harold Pinter story".

See you soon!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

On Mridula Koshy's If It Is Sweet

In the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, one of the founding stories of modern literature, we see the travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wake up one morning to find himself transformed into a huge insect. “Companion”, one of the stories in Mridula Koshy’s debut collection If It Is Sweet, offers us a similarly strange prospect, although it is not announced as swiftly and dramatically as in Kafka’s story. Instead, we are made to wait. For a while we are led to believe that the efficient and attentive companion to the old widow in the story is like any other domestic servant. But we find out after a while that he is actually an extremely talented talking monkey.

The initial surprise and disbelief of this is quickly overwhelmed by the radiance of Koshy’s imagining. The monkey, we are told, was bought off the street by the widow (“Maji”) and rescued from a life of captivity, cheap stunts, and hunger. In return, he brings all his skills to bear on improving Maji’s stuttering life. The natural alliance of human and simian lives and needs imagined by Koshy (“His tendency to groom found great satisfaction in her tangled morning hair”) is very endearing. By the time the monkey takes Maji, at the close of the story, back to the old house in Bhutan where he used to live, and we see his tail curl “to lovingly lift the latch of the house gate”, we are totally won over. The companion echoes the tender love and fidelity of that most devoted of companions in our literature, Hanuman.

Indeed, Koshy’s stories are full of large and small acts of caring – of a sense of duty that does not go away even when the object of that duty is no longer present. In one of the best of these stories, “The Good Mother”, we see a woman returning to Delhi from Manchester after the death of her two young sons in a car accident. She carries with her their ashes, to be dispersed in holy waters, but finds herself unable to release them when the occasion arrives. Finally, in a little apartment in Delhi, the claustrophobia of which Koshy evokes with a set of precise details, she brings herself to let the remains go. “Little bits swirl back and stick to her lids and lips,” writes Koshy, leaving us to imagine the horror of swallowing a particle of a life birthed by the very body that now ingests it.

Koshy, who was born in Delhi, lived and worked in America for about two decades, and now lives in Delhi again, has said that she was “a trade unionist before she was a mother and a mother before she was a writer.” These anterior layers of her experience are given expression in the mingled toughness and tenderness of her stories. Many of them are about an underclass of workers – construction labourers, carpenters, garbage collectors, maids – living quietly in the interstices of a thriving South Delhi; one family’s slum home has tin walls “filched long ago from the construction of the Chirag Dilli flyover.” There are excellent close descriptions of the labour of workers, whose condition is sometimes intuited from the smallest details. The protagonist of “The Good Mother” hears the sounds of hammering next door and decides that the tools are either “made light, for smaller hands, or made cheaply, for poorer people.” Walking through a construction site, the boy protagonist of "P.O.P" sees a worker "reach the end of his plank-walk to throw the cement with a motion so precise he is convinced again that this work is easy because each of its parts are minute, and only the whole must hurt."

At the same time, these stories cumulatively offer a rich portrait of mothering: of the fulfilment of being a parent, but at the same time its many annoyances and curtailments. Indeed – and this is true to Indian realities – the task of motherhood in Koshy’s work often falls to people other than parents. Several children in these stories are stand-in mothers to their younger siblings, and devise games and consolations to make a bleak reality appear warmer and more exciting. Here is a description of food as seen from the perspective of extreme hunger in "When the Child Was A Child":
That year, Emma remembers, they ate vindaloo pork patted into flour: soft fat thick on stringy meat, and the rind of each piece that started out tough between her teeth crackling to release oil so rich she wanted nothing more than to live in her mouth. There was a dry preparation of beef, fried dark, to which slivers of coconut clung; and chicken in creamy gravy with bones good for crunching open and sucking the marrow from, till the sharp breaks in the crenulations within grated fine the surface of her greedy tongue.
In Koshy's stories, food and family are often conjoined; the same story has a Dickensian scene in which the long-absent father returns...
...from far away where he had been living in a place called a Correctional Facility, which [Emma] knew from the enemies at school was also the place called Jail. He came home that day with boxes of Twinkies and Dingdongs, and a lap into which he pulled the children's mother. The children, exultant and uncomfortable, ringed the tussling parents, and in the mirror Emma observed the great satisfaction of the whole.

Emma remembers it as the year they ate fish every night.
As these passages show, Koshy’s is a prose that does not surrender its shape or meanings easily. Sometimes her narration can seem as willfully dense and tangled as the forest to which Koshy's characters often retreat for a moment of peace or rest. But this is Koshy's method, her quiddity as a storyteller. If there is a criticism to be made of these stories, it is that they can be too one-paced: they sometimes lack that turn of speed, that change of register, that would balance out their heavy beauty, the careful accretion of details like a bird seen on a tree by a child, perched “not on a branch, but actually on a leaf”, or a character who vomits out "chunks of tomato and marvellously intact lengths of noodle." Even so this is absolutely rigorous and distinctive work, and there is a sound and a sense in these stories that make Indian fiction a bigger place.

[A shorter version of this essay first appeared in Mint]