Monday, August 31, 2009

An introduction to The Middle Stage

Many of you are coming to The Middle Stage for the first time because of Arzee the Dwarf. So here is a selection of eight posts from the last four years that I think provide a fairly representative idea of what this site is about, what my ideas about literature, politics, and culture are, and what my methods are like:

"On Patrick French's biography of VS Naipaul""On the Autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi""Salman Rushdie and Midnight's Diaspora" "English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games""On Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male""Tigers in the poetry of William Blake and Salabega""On Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth" – and "Fakir Mohan Senapati's Roundabout Fictions".

Looking through these old essays, I also had occasion to read once again the many sharp and perceptive comments, not all of them complimentary, that you, my readers, have made in response to them. I thank you for your contributions, and hope that you will continue to write, as I will.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"The Reading Life and The Writing Life" – a lecture in Delhi

Next week, on the afternoon of Thursday the 27th of August, I'll be giving a lecture at the British Council in Delhi. Here is the flyer for the event. If you would like to attend, please email Vijay Shankar at or add your name to the Facebook page for the event. Hope to be seeing you!

"The Reading Life and The Writing Life"

Thursday, August 27 2009
4:00pm - 5:30pm
British Council Auditorium

Kasturba Gandhi Marg,
New Delhi 110001

In this interactive session on the pleasures of reading and writing, Chandrahas Choudhury, author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf and the weekly book critic of Mint Lounge, will speak (with some affection) about his days as a student of English Literature at Delhi University and at Cambridge between 1998 and 2003, and about a range of issues connecting reading and writing.

What can prose writers gain from the reading of poetry? What is the value of keeping a notebook? Is there a relationship between empathy, which is an attribute of character, and point of view, which is an attribute of fiction? Do writers need to go to creative-writing school? What is to be gained from thinking closely about questions of form? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in the talk.

Choudhury will also speak (but not for very long) about the composition of Arzee the Dwarf, and about some of the things he had to learn or unlearn while writing the book.

The lecture is meant to be no more than a set of suggestions, from the perspective of a working writer and literary critic, about how we may read better and write better. There will be a question-and-answer session afterwards.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Utpal Dutt on theatre and film

“I believe any discussion on films in semi-colonial or newly independent countries must start from the illiteracy, poverty and cultural starvation of the masses,” wrote the great stalwart of Indian theatre and film Utpal Dutt in an essay in 1979. “It seems blasphemous to engage in comfortable talk about the aesthetics of cinema in a country where the majority starves.” What can we say about this clearly Marxist aesthetic? Is it true? Was it more relevant thirty years ago than it is now? Shouldn’t art be seen as a site, a force, independent of social and economic realities? Are artworks themselves a product of class and power interests, or can they be seen as something more ambiguous and capacious, combating propaganda as often as complicit with it?

he great merit of the two new collections of Dutt’s combative essays written from the fifties to the nineties, On Theatre and On Cinema, is that he writes not just from viewpoint of someone with a definite politics but also as a practitioner in these arts, trawling the artistic seas of his time in search of productions that catch his eye. What is the place of local Indian theatre traditions like jatra, yakshagana, and tamasha in modern Indian plays? Do Indian films make cunning use of religious rhetoric to camouflage the iniquities of Indian social life and keep the masses quiet? Are Indian actors on stage and screen guilty of overacting? These are some of the still-relevant questions explored in these essays, at once critical and empathetic, written by Dutt in the sixties and the seventies.
Outside of Bengal, most Indians probably remember Dutt today as the goggle-eyed, hectoring patriarch of Hindi comedies like Golmaal, in which he memorably asserted a continuum between Indian tradition, manhood and virility, and moustaches. But Dutt’s work for commercial Hindi and Bengali was only a small part of his oeuvre, and probably to him the least important. As a teenager in the nineteen-forties, he came across the travelling theatre of the Kendals and received a rigorous training in Shakespearean drama. In his thirties he wrote a string of plays critical of past and present power structures (he was jailed by the Congress government in Bengal in 1965 for the subversive message of his play Kallol). Dutt’s range was vast. He acted in and directed Jatra plays, and reviewed new plays and films (usually under the pseudonym Iago) for journals. One month he might be seen in a Satyajit Ray film, the next in a speedily made farce.
Like many intellectuals of his time, Dutt looked – with glasses that were too rose-coloured – not to the West but to the Soviet Union as the crucible where the future of humanity was being shaped. Following Marx and Lenin, he deplored “the all-pervasive alienation of men in any society based on private property”. He can be heard on these pages haranguing bourgeois society for commodifying “all that mankind once considered sacred” and for peddling crude superstitions instead of standing up for independence of thought.
He often has a point. In a speech given in 1991, Dutt excoriates the TV Ramayana that brought all Indian life to a standstill on Sunday mornings in the eighties for its crude glitz and covert ideological agenda – “monkeys and bears speaking Sanskritized Hindi, holy men flying over painted clouds” – and connects this to the jingoism and chauvinism that led to the sacking of the Babri Masjid a few years later. The serial, he thunders, is nothing but “a fairytale written by an alcoholic.” After the Babri Masjid was destroyed, Dutt declares, "a new god appeared in the Hindu pantheon – the common brick", with the name of Ram inscribed on it.

If this makes Dutt seem like too much of a scold, then elsewhere on these pages we find himself reviewing one of his own performances under a pseudonym and cheekily declaring: “Mr.Dutt as Othello was rather a pitiable sight, with his voice gone, his breathing laboured and his bulk enormous.” There are excellent appreciations here of the films of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Chaplin, written in rich language with great attention to individual scenes and points of detail. Here is Dutt on Ray's film Devi:

Already in Pather Panchali, Ray's protagonists suffer not because gods have willed it but because of poverty created by men. They are evicted from their home by a power that is stronger than gods – a social system that condones exploitation. And this revolt against the concept of gods who crush human beings reaches fruition in Devi, where a girl, a common housewife, is declared a goddess incarnate and is expected to heal and cure every sick villager, until the boy she loves more than her life is dying and is placed before her so that she can touch and heal him. She dare not play with this boy's life and tries to flee, her sari torn and her mascara running all over her face. One has merely to compare this film with dozens churned out from the cinema-machine of the country, where a dying child, given up for dead by medical science, is placed before the image of a goddess – and, of course, there is a lengthy song glorifying the goddess – be it Santoshi Ma or some such forgotten local deity. Then the stone image is seen to smile, or to drop a flower on the boy's corpse, and lo and behold, what the best doctors could not do, the piece of stone achieves in a second! The corpse opens its eyes, even sits up. This is followed either by another unending song of thanksgiving, or the boy's parents weeping and rolling on the ground to show their gratitude. This kind of brazen superstition is peddled by film after film in this country every year. Are they any less dangerous than drugs? If drugs destroy the bodies of our young men, these films destroy their minds.[...] Devi is a revolutionary film in the Indian context. It is a direct attack on the black magic that is passed off as divinity in this country. Instead of the vulgarized Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Indian TV could have telecast Devi again and again; then perhaps we would not have had to discuss the outrages of the monkey brigade in Ayodhya.
And here are Dutt's entertaining riffs on the Sanskritization of Hindustani practised by Doordarshan:

The present rulers have gone after Hindi with a knife, excising every work of Urdu, Persian or Arabic origin (even though that word may be understood all over India), and replaced it with something concocted from a Sanskrit dictionary. The result is a new broadcast which no one but Benares pundits understand. 'Ab aap hindi mein samachar suniye,' wo bolte hain aajkal. Bolna chahiye, 'ab aap samachar mein hindi suniye.' [This quote is attributed to the comedian Johnny Walker by the actor Balraj Sahni in an address given at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1972.] That would make more sense. For example, replacing a word like zaroorat. The word zaroorat has entered every single Indian language from Bengali to Marathi. It is, however, being replaced by something called avshyakta. [...] Anyway, what is the object of setting a bunch of half-educated clerks to massacring a beautiful and simple language such as Hindustani? What is the reason behind this madness? The ruling class, all over the world and throughout history, wishes to create an esoteric language of its own. And the Indian rulers describe this destruction of Hindi as the restoration of an ancient tradition, as if our rishis in their forests spoke like TV newscasters.

Thus their vague insistence on a "link language"
– whatever that might mean for India – not only wilfully obstructs the growth of other languages but destroys Hindi itself. It makes Hindi a barren grammatical exercise, not spoken by anyone in the country. A language grows only by being spoken by millions and by borrowing from other languages – consciously and unconsciously. Far from uniting the country, this idiotic bastardization of Sanskrit is rapidly disuniting it.
Like most practicing artists, Dutt never lost his capacity for wonder, for pure pleasure in an artistic idea truthfully realised or a detail vividly brought to life. His politics can be too rigid and censorious, but his aesthetic sense never allowed itself to be shackled, and nowhere on these pages can he be found supporting the banalities of socialist realism. He knew very well, as someone who became a character each time he went on stage or faced a film camera, that “all artistic activity consists in camouflage.” Anybody interested in the arts can read these books for both profit and pleasure.
And here an old post on the film critic Chidananda Das Gupta's excellent book Seeing Is Believing, which also has much to say about the currents of mythology that run deep in Indian cinema. Alok Rai's essay "The Persistence of Hindustani" can be found here. Dutt's play The Rights of Man has also just been published by Seagull, whose excellent list is well worth browsing. Lastly, here are two old posts on films: "On Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor" and "On Tahmineh Milani's Two Women".
[A shorter version of this essay first appeared a few weeks ago in Mint]

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Things I've been reading: Rai, Lopate, Kolakowski, James, and Shakespeare

Some things I've been reading (or listening to) recently:

"The Persistence of Hindustani" by the literary scholar Alok Rai, an account of the fortunes, over the course of the twentieth century and before, of this shadowy language ("In a recent paper, Hindustani was described, sensitively, as not quite a language, but rather a zone of “anxiety” between Hindi and Urdu. This is a pity because a large part of the power and delight of Hindustani consists precisely in the way it enables the skilled user to play with polymorphous perversity, so to speak, over the entire range, from fairly tatsama Sanskrit all the way to fluent Persian and guttural Arabic, providing cross-border frissons to a genuinely multilingual community")

An interview with Phillip Lopate, one of the best film critics and essayists of our times and the editor of the excellent anthologies The Art of the Personal Essay and American Movie Critics: An Anthology From The Silents Till Now ("'Show, don't tell,' it seems to me, is far too broad a rule even in fiction since a lot of great eighteenth, or nineteenth-century fiction certainly does show and tell. It's a crude formulation, which has a greater truth in it. Of course if the teller has a wonderfully modulated voice and mind, I can see it in any method of telling. When Stendhal is on a roll, who care's if he's showing or telling? I don't want to fight that battle. What I want to say is that this interdiction against telling began to percolate into the craft of contemporary nonfiction, so that in workshops I teach I'll often hear students say, 'Well I think you should do this as scenes,' and I'll think, well, maybe yes, maybe no. The issue is not to do it as scenes or not as scenes. The issue is to bring a lively understanding or intelligence or voice in the material.") If you want more of Lopate, here is his essay "Novels And Films: A Comedy of Remarriage".

A recent podcast of James Wood's hugely funny (and then abruptly serious, and on that plane equally good and cogent) speech at the 2009 Griffin Poetry Prize awards ceremony.

"What The Past Is For" by the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who passed away recently ("The doctrine that 'there are no facts, only interpretations' abolishes the idea of human responsibility and moral judgments; in effect, it considers any myth, legend, or fable just as valid, in terms of knowledge, as any fact that we have verified as such according to our standards of historical inquiry. In epistemological terms, any mythical story is just as good as any historically established fact; the story of Hercules fighting against the Hydra is no worse—no less true—in historical terms, than the history of Napoleon being defeated at Waterloo. There are no valid rules for establishing truth; consequently, there is no such thing as truth. There is no need to elaborate on the disastrous cultural effects of such a theory.") Kolakowski's Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing: 23 Questions From Great Philosophers, which I read last year, seemed to me of the greatest works of philosophical exposition I have ever come across

"The Necessary Mininum" by the literary critic Clive James, a scintillating account of the power of poetry to hold up against the wash of time, and of the work of two poets, Dunstan Thompson and Michael Donaghy ("[Donaghy's] essay... sums up his lifelong—lifelong in so short a life—determination to make sense out of the twentieth-century conflict between formal and free verse. As a musician by avocation, Donaghy had no trust in the idea of perfectly unfettered, untrained expression. He agreed with Stravinsky that limitations were the departure point for inspiration. Donaghy believed that a living poem could emerge only from an idea in “negotiation” (the key word in his critical vocabulary) with an imposed formal requirement, even if it was self-imposed, and might be rendered invisible in the course of the negotiation. The split between form and freedom, in his view, had begun with the difference between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. He favored formality, to the extent of hailing Richard Wilbur as the supreme phrasemaker. But he could also see that freedom had been fruitful. He was ready to welcome vital language wherever it came from, even if it came from the uninstructed. This readiness made him the ideal teacher of creative writing, even though he was suspicious of the very idea.")

"Philip Larkin's first interview", a brilliant memoir by John Shakespeare of an interview with the poet in the nineteen-fifties. Larkin was, at thirty-four, still a star not easily marked out from the rest in the sky of poetry, and so, "For a few weeks the poet bombarded me with letters and suggestions about his profile, all in beautiful, precise prose. The Larkin that emerges from this correspondence is an exceedingly pernickety individual. Something of a control freak, in today’s terms, he was clearly determined to seize the opportunity I had so rashly offered him to recast his image in the way he thought would appeal most to his as yet almost non-existent audience. He also displayed an underlying concern that nothing in the profile should upset his employers, his staff or his parents – in that order. [...] He was also almost obsessively interested in the photograph that was to accompany it. 'I wonder which picture you chose? Standing, sitting reading catalogue, or staring suspiciously over right shoulder?' "

Monday, August 10, 2009

Song of Arzee the Dwarf

I am myself in my thoughts too much,
I seek recourse to myself too soon,
My days don't stand up without a crutch,
I sing my own song out of tune.
I stand before the mirror too long,
Stare big at the eyes that return my gaze,
My shadow seems to me more strong
Than my shrunken heart, that lonely place.
My worries hang about me like clouds,
And my creditors they come calling,
My being is riven by spooks and doubts,
The walls of my house are falling.
In mine own alleys I traipse and turn,
Dreamlike I float through nights and days,
I watch the hours slowly burn,
And do not leave on time my trace.
I myself speak and myself hear,
And myself act and myself see,
My own self extends far and near,
And so I cannot myself be.

"I wasn't really going to say anything, Deepakbhai," said Arzee, deeply hurt. "Thank you, Deepakbhai."
No, Arzee wasn't really going to say anything, because he knew he wasn't supposed to say anything. He wasn't supposed to say anything to Abjani, even though the Noor was going to its grave. He wasn't supposed to say anything to Phiroz, as Phiroz was busy preparing for his daughter's wedding, which was only going to come once in life. He wasn't supposed to say anything to Deepak, as Deepak was tired of hearing his complaints. He couldn't say anything to his mother, as that would only mean all his troubles being doubled. And he couldn't say anything to his friends: he avoided them now just as he used to avoid Deepak. He took back all the things he was going to say, with his deepest, most heartfelt apologies for the trouble he had caused, the time he had wasted. Where was he left? To whom could he speak? Why, to himself! He was his own concert and his own audience.

Chapter 9, Arzee the Dwarf, "Being A Bottle"

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

On Ali Sethi's The Wish Maker

The most startling feature of Ali Sethi’s debut novel The Wish Maker is that although it is over 400 pages long, its protagonist (who is also for the most part its narrator) is a cipher, registering on our consciousness as not very much more than a pair of eyes. When we meet Zaki Shirazi for the first time, he has just returned to his family home in Lahore (inevitably, for a wedding) after two years as a student in America. What should be the beginning of the book’s action is actually pretty much the end, and Zaki spends his time observing the new Pakistan (“We passed a hoarding on the bridge. It was advertising a new deal for mobile phones...”; “At night I went with Isa and Moosa to see the new places of leisure”) and lapsing into loops of ever-retreating flashbacks.

The Wish Maker swiftly reveals itself, to those with some experience of the genre, as that old chestnut, the three-generation South Asian novel: one tier retailing memories of Partition, the second covering the era of the wars with India and the Bangladeshi independence struggle, and the third, the Pakistan of the present day, both modern ( those"new places of leissure") and medieval when seen through the narrator’s wide-eyed gaze (“She said that such things were common in the villages, where customs were old and went largely untouched by the new ways that developed continually in the cities”). There is plenty of quasi-journalistic observation, a score of aunts, cousins and servants, and a number of songs and weddings, none of which can conceal the instrinsic hollowness of the mind and voice that speaks.

Sometimes such stories can be redeemed by depth of characterization or distinction of language, but strangely enough for someone writing his first book, Sethi shows no desire to contest any of the rules of an old, old game. Although Zaki has been brought up in Pakistan, and has been away for just two years, his eye is always noticing things in touristy ways, such as “old men sitting under trees on the footpath with colourful powders and bottles”, even as his memory is recalling such momentous occurrences as “After the maths period there was the physics period, and after that chemistry, for which we had to go to the chemistry lab in a line led by the teacher...”

Further, the narrator of The Wish Maker seems highly conscious of the need to record—indeed to celebrate—the specifics of Pakistani culture, language and place, while also trying not to turn off a global audience whose apprehension of these things is dim (one of the blurbs on the back cover of his book acclaims it as “a brilliant example of the new global novel”). This leads to a kind of backand-forth covering of bases that often clogs the narration. Sethi is the kind of writer who, when writing about a visit to a neighbourhood, will say that it was “a mohalla, a neighbourhood”, and not one or the other. Sometimes he can write an interesting English: a sentence about how the sun is “like a difficult god, present in the things it made visible” was one of the few bits of the book I enjoyed. But his English is also specked with local colour and subcontinental sounds in the most cliched way, with a carefully italicized “hai” here and a “taubah” there, and (since no narrative is authentic without a sampling of local swear words) one careful mention each of the words “bhenchod” and “maaderchod”.

The same contradictory imperative guides Sethi's attitude towards cultural detail, towards what he thinks should be explained and what only named. Zaki’s cousin, Samar Api, idolizes Amitabh Bachchan, who, Zaki explains, “was said to be the most famous actor in the world”. A police officer sits under “a framed portrait of the Quaid-e-Azam, the founder of the nation” (if an Indian novelist wrote such a line about a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, we would think he or she was being ironic). I have no idea what Sethi’s politics are, but it was surprising to see Benazir Bhutto’s personal and political life described in great detail while, when he approaches the political scene of the late nineties, Sethi devotes a few pages to Nawaz Sharif without ever naming him, only saying that “(Daadi) was pleased when her man won the election”. These are the riddles and puzzles, more than the mysteries of character or situation, that the reader of The Wish Maker ends up pondering.

Here, as a longer example of what seems to me the mechanical nature and aridity of Sethi's narration, is a passage from the book describing a journey made by Zaki's grandfather from India to Pakistan. The passage is told from the point of view of Zaki's mother, Zakia:
[Papu] took trains. They took him from Kanpur to Agra, Agra to Jodhpur, and from Jodhpur into Sindh. The train compartments became crowded. He looked past his window and saw desert turn to desert, and his mind filled with foreboding. He had a little money, and his clothes and his diploma were in his suitcase. He kept the suitcase between his legs. He closed his eyes and tried to think of the city that awaited him, a city he had never seen but had to envision in that moment for its own sake.
'Brother,' said a voice.
It was the old man sitting across from him. He had asked Papu earlier to consider some items, some things he had with him in a cloth bundle.
Papu said he wanted nothing from the man.
'Oh,' said the man, as if hearing it for the first time. 'Oh, I see.'
The train went on shuddering on its tracks. Papu closed his eyes again. And again the man disturbed him, until Papu, unable in that crowded train to change his seat, had to sit with his eyes wide open, his face turned resolutely to the window and his ears unresponsive to the man's increasingly maudlin appeals.
Zakia said, 'Didn't it get any better?'
And Mabi said, 'It didn't.' She knew because she had been with Papu on those trains. She said that in Karachi they had had to sleep in camps...
Oh, so Papu took Mabi along on those trains, did he? But shouldn't we know this from Papu's experience of the train journey, instead of it being tacked on at the end almost as an afterthought? In fact, wouldn't Papu's concern for his wife be central to his memory of those trains, as much as his foreboding about the city they are headed towards?

Unlike in non-fiction, in fiction we are not obliged to accept that something is real, or true, merely because it is asserted as fact, as it is here. Scenes like this demonstrate, by their negative example, that realism in fiction is not a matter of getting the details of history or of culture right, and expecting that one's characters will live and breathe because thrown into this recovered world that is "true". Fiction, too, is a more difficult god than Sethi seems to allow for. Although we are told that Mabi has gone on this journey with Papu, her presence is so anachronistic that for all practical purposes she never leaves home.

And, while on the subject of "increasingly maudlin appeals" that annoy the auditor, here is another passage— one might think of it as the title scene of the novel:
'Samar Api,' I said one night, 'do you think [Mother] doesn't want to get married because of me?
We were lying in wicker beds on the roof. It was August, the last month of the monsoon. All day the rain had been slashing and insistent; trees swayed and fell and lay like logs in the roads, which were swamped. The overhead wires had snapped; there was no electricity in the neighbourhood and the house was dark.
On the roof the night was clear. The clouds had left the moon in light.
'Not at all,' said Samar Api. 'She doesn't do it because she doesn't want to. There's nothing like your first love.' She closed her eyes and released a sigh. It merged with the breeze.
'Samar Api?'
She moaned.
'Make a wish.'
She cupped her hands, brought them to her mouth and whispered the wish, which was chosen without deliberation, without hesitation, then blew it away and watched as it went up into the night.
From sighs that merge with the breeze and wishes that are watched as they go up into the night, it is hard to beat this scene for exertion in making the invisible visible, and for turning yearning into bathos.

Although original and complex fiction in English about Pakistan is being written currently by writers as diverse as Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, Aamer Hussein, Mohammed Hanif, Musharraf Ali Farooqui, Azhar Abidi, and Daniyal Mueenuddin, Sethi’s tutelary deity is clearly the Afghan √©migr√© Khaled Hosseini. Hosseini's long and enthusiastic blurb on the back cover ("an engaging family saga, an absorbing coming-of-age story, and an illuminating look at one of the world's most turbulent regions") sounds like just the thing Hosseini would want said about his own book The Kite Runner.

Indeed, the very title The Wish Maker seems to reach out towards the large global audience which delighted in Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Sethi's writing and plot construction replicate many of Hosseini’s faults, though to my ear his prose has a slightly richer sound than Hosseini’s blundering and bathetic narrations. If this banal and almost willfully unsubtle work is really an example of “the new global novel”, then let us turn to our so-called local writers instead.

And two older essays: on Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and Mohammad Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

[A shorter version of this essay appeared last weekend in Mint]