Saturday, September 26, 2009

On Tzvetan Todorov's Torture and the War of Terror

One of the major early decisions of the Obama presidency in America—a decision intended to establish a sharp break with the Bush regime’s way of working—was the resolution to shut down the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay by January 2010. This site has been one of the key locations, along with the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, that has led to the debilitation of America’s moral standing in the world, and has created a general derision at the purported aims of the “war on terror”.

As the world’s first democracy and, even today, the first among democracies, America has a certain responsibility, no matter how awesome its power, towards democratic norms. But as the philosopher and historian of ideas, Tzvetan Todorov, argues in his new book, Torture and the War on Terror, not only is the Bushian phrase “war on terror” a vague, dubious and scaremongering idea, it has succeeded, in contravention of generally accepted norms in the civilized world, in sanctioning unspeakable human rights violations upon detainees in the interest of “security”.

Todorov is concerned, like many other commentators, about the Bush administration's tactic of introducing euphemisms such as “illegal enemy combatant” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” to work its way around prevailing strictures against the use of torture to extract information from suspects (as glimpsed, for instance, in the line taken by the infamous "Torture Memo" of 2002, on which a comprehensive set of listings is here). He is also worried about the support extended to such practices by other governments in the free world. But he is distressed, most of all, by the recent change in the moral climate that has made ordinary citizens of democracies, like you and me, believe that torture is a worthwhile way of ensuring that our safety is defended.

A common hypothetical situation put forth by those who say torture is under some circumstances justified (and there are many “hawks” among democratic thinkers who subscribe to such views) is the “ticking bomb scenario”. A terrorist has been arrested; it is known he has planted a bomb somewhere. There is only one hour to find out where. The lives of thousands of citizens are at stake. In such a situation, would you not use the harshest methods to get the necessary information out of the detainee? If you say “no”, all too often you are assumed to be an unreasonable and lily-livered bleeding-heart.

But, argues Todorov, the situation involving most detainees on a charge of terrorism is far more prosaic than this cooked-up situation of high drama, and usually our own knowledge of what they may have plotted amounts to no more than a strong suspicion. Further, nothing proves that the information obtained under torture is actually true. As the third-degree methods used by policemen in India often prove, prisoners under duress will confess to pretty much anything you accuse them of. Intelligence obtained by subjecting a man or woman to intense stress or degradation is often not, to use the catchphrase, “actionable intelligence”. Too often, torture is about nothing but the exercise of absolute power of one human being over another.

Lastly, even if torture allows, in a small number of cases, the resolution of a short-term crisis, in the long run it does incalculable damage to the moral standing of nations, inflames hostility among adversaries, and makes the population of neutral countries unsympathetic to the cause. As the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat has written, “Torture aims for a single goal—obtaining information—but it achieves a slew of others.”

Citizens of democracies, notes Todorov, often criticize sharply the human rights violations of totalitarian regimes. But we should look closer home too, to see if we are not, by degrees, being turned into the very brutes that we so abhor. Even if we are not actually at fault ourselves, barbarous acts are being committed by governments we have elected, that claim to be acting in our interest. "institutionalized torture is even worse than individual torture," writes Todorov, "because it subverts the very foundation of the idea of justice and law. If the state itself becomes the torturer, how can we believe in the civil order that it claims to bring or to sanction?" There are no good reasons for torture, either on the count of utility or of morality. Todorov’s short, trenchant book is a reminder that we cannot be tough on terror without also, paradoxically, being tough on torture.

And some links: "Should We Fight Terror With Torture?" by Alan Dershowitz, "If Torture Works" by Michael Ignatieff", "Bush's Intellectual Torturers" by Todorov, "Does Torture Work?" by Edwidge Danticat, and "The Torture Myth" by Anne Applebaum.

Todorov's points also have great relevance closer to home. Custodial deaths in India are among the highest in any of the world's democracies, a sign of how far we have to go on respecting the rights of individuals and the rule of law. We are at the moment debating our own Prevention of Torture Bill, on which point you might want to read Neelabh Mishra's "Dismantle The Iron Maiden".

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A reply to Hartosh Singh Bal

A reply to Hartosh Singh Bal's piece "Oh, For a Book to Ban" on the Open magazine website last week:

Hartosh, I'm one of the authors on the list you provide — a list you judge as not to your reading taste even though you have evidently not bothered to read a page of the work of any. I thank you at least for citing your friend's "strong recommendation" of my book Arzee the Dwarf, but despite having got off lighter than the others — for which gesture I am ever in your debt, for we novelists are calculating creatures — I think there may be a few things I want to say in response.

You begin with the banning of Rushdie's Satanic Verses two decades ago and declare: "Today you would be hard put to find Indian fiction in English that anybody would want banned." The banning of Satanic Verses was, it is generally agreed today, a foolish and knee-jerk action by the Indian government, and India remains one of the few countries where it is still illegal to sell the book. Despite the hysteria and controversy surrounding the book upon its publication, no western government thought it fit to ban it.

So it surprises me that an act of such randomness on the part of a government (and whatever the debate about what governments can or can't do, it's generally agreed they're not very good when it comes to judging fiction) should for you become the litmus test for judging the ambition of contemporary fiction. Had the Indian government not banned Satanic Verses (and this could easily have been the case), the book would still have been as good or bad as it is. Only you would then have had to actually read it to have anything to say about it, while now you at least know it was banned, and therefore is good.

Indeed, you don't seem that interested in quality issues, as if this is irrelevant in a work of fiction, even though you then quickly pass judgment on two "ambitious" Indian novels as not being good, because inauthentic. That is, you perversely insist that the ambitious Indian novels being published today are not well-written enough, while the "quiet, well-written books" — well, you won't even read them.

By your logic, were some mediocre novel critical of Hindu society were to be banned, say, by the Gujarat government, that would immediately become an ambitious novel that everyone should read. But only a PR agent would want to think this way about books. Frankly, such a stance is an insult to the entire endeavour of artistic creation. Our powers as writers are limited to realizing our imagined worlds as best as we can. We are not out to write bannable books so that you may read us, although I certainly agree it's a pleasant feeling to be banned and it helps sales in the long run (as your own argument proves).

Your standards for judging fiction seem peculiarly journalistic, as if all that fiction writers do is report true stories while changing the names here and there and adding bits of dialogue and chapter numbers. "As someone who has reported out of Bhopal for two years," you declare," I know that the person excised out of Indra Sinha’s book is the one who has done much of the work on the ground...." Was Animal's People a fact-finding commission? Is everyone who did "work on the ground" in a real-world scenario supposed to be given a starring role in a work of fiction?

You don't argue at any point, citing a specific passage or interpretative point of view in the book, that Sinha's depiction of Bhopal gas tragedy is flawed or manipulative. Your status as "someone who reported out of Bhopal for two years" is supposed to be enough to support your judgment. To judge a work of non-fiction, perhaps (though I would contest even this). But for a work of fiction? Is that all you need? Your problems with the book are actually a direct consequence of the problematic assumptions with which you begin -- assumptions I am surprised you hold, considering you've published a novel yourself (the subtitle of which was, if I recall right, A Mathematical Novel).

Also, may I point out that it is not just us fiction writers, but you non-fiction writers and reporters too who need to pull up your socks? It will not have escaped your notice that Jaswant Singh's book Jinnah, Partition and Independence was recently banned by the Gujarat government. In one swift and satanic leap, Jaswant Singh, despite his wooden prose style, has become the leading Indian non-fiction writer of his day. When can we novelists expect to see a ban-worthy work of comparable ambition and consequence by a journalist or professional non-fiction writer? We're tired of reading the "quiet, well-written" reports you guys are churning out by the dozen -- that's really not what journalism is about.

Lastly, I'm sorry to hear that you won't be reading Arzee the Dwarf (your smirking comment about "dwarves and eunuchs" suggests that you think group identity is the primary identity any individual or fictional character has). But please make sure then that you pre-book my forthcoming novel Love In The Time of Naxalism, which should be more to your taste. In fact, if you have reported on the Naxal movement, may I consult you on it? I promise I won't leave you out of the book (although I may be mischievous and compose a scene where you are shown actually reading a novel, page by page, pencil in hand).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Arzee the Dwarf in Hyderabad, and a roundup of interviews

I am reading from Arzee the Dwarf this Saturday in Crossword Bookstore, Hyderabad, and will be in conversation with the poet Sridala Swami. Here are the details of the event:

Saturday September 19, 5.30 pm
Crossword Bookstore,
City Center, 1st Floor, Shop No. 101-108,
Junction of Road No. 1 & 10,
Banjara Hills, Hyderabad - 500 034.

And one of the pleasures of the last three months has been the opportunity to speak about the book: a chance to answer questions instead of asking them, and to speak not just about my novel but about literature, classics, reading, and reviewing (and about writing this weblog). So I'm taking the opportunity to also put up a list of links to Arzee-related interviews in newspapers and journals, and on some weblogs. Here they are: the Hindu, the Deccan Herald (a longer version of this exchange is on Vinayak Varma's weblog), DNA, Rediff (this one seems to have made me plenty of fresh enemies), Book Nook and Scribbles and Stories.

If don't sound like the same person across these interviews (the only one for which I actually wrote answers is the penultimate one), this only shows, I think, that interviewers are also interpreters, and hear and transmit the rhythms of a person's voice differently from one another.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

On Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

The writer Alain de Botton has, by middle age and across a series of books (How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety), more or less perfected a form of freewheeling, though not flabby, rumination upon a chosen subject. His work embraces, without limiting itself to the understood boundaries of, philosophy, autobiographical meditation, literary criticism and travel writing, generating a fluid and fertile compound of all these elements. The criticism that has sometimes been made of his writing is that it has too much synthesis, and can therefore be synthetic; the writer already knows so many impressive things that he sells himself short on original thought and legwork. But that is not an objection that can be made about de Botton's new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

De Botton has set out to write “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace”. His book is also an investigative report into our highly industrialized, synchronized and globalized civilization. As de Botton says, we live our days surrounded by machines and processes “of which we have only the loosest grasp”. Is specialization of labour making for a life of dignity, increased prosperity, and independence, or are we being turned invisibly into cogs in the wheel, alienated, as Marx argued, not just from the very goods and services we produce but also from each other? What is the ever-expanding reach of the hyperbolic language of advertising and PR-speak doing to language itself, to our capacity to trust in words? What is globalization doing to our awareness of the local and its specific rhythms? These are some of the questions taken up by de Botton.

Armed with a photographer (the book has about a hundred black-and-white photographs), de Botton sets out to explore activities as diverse as fishing in the Maldives and cargo shipping, career counselling and entrepreneurship. His study of supermarkets suggests to him that, even as our access to goods from around the world has grown enormously, our understanding of their origins and history has shrunk. “We are now as imaginatively disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of our goods," he remarks, "as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation which has stripped us of myriad opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.”

Certainly there is plenty of wonder in de Botton’s narration. Here he is on that most unromantic of places, the industrial warehouse:
If only security concerns were not so paramount in the imagination of its owners, the warehouse would make a perfect tourist destination, for observing the movement of lorries and products in the middle of the night induces a mood of distinctive tranquillity, it magically stills the demands of the ego and corrects any danger of looming too large in one's own imagination. That we are each surrounded by millions of other human beings remains a piece of inert and unevocative data, failing to dislodge us from a self-centred day-to-day perspective, until we take a look at a stack of ten thousand ham-and-mustard sandwiches, all wrapped in identical plastic casings, assembled in a factory in Hull, made out of the same flawless cottony-white bread, and due to be eaten over the coming two days by an extraordinary range of fellow citizens which these sandwiches promptly urge us to make space for in our inwardly focused imaginations.
Sitting in the cockpit of a commercial plane, de Botton notes how the open sky is revealed, through the flight instruments, “as a lattice of well-marked lanes, intersections, lay-bys, junctions and beacon signals”—it is almost like a road. Following a painter who has spent years in a wheat field in England “repeatedly painting the same oak tree under a range of different lights and weathers”, de Botton comes to the conclusion that “there is an impractical side to human nature, particularly open to making sacrifices for the sake of creating objects that are more graceful and intelligent than we normally manage to be.” At a biscuit manufacturing company, he learns the British biscuit market is technically divided into five categories of biscuit, and does not know whether to be amused or distressed by one high executive’s contention that “biscuits are nowadays a branch of psychology, not cooking”. Of course, the same could be said today about many other consumer goods.

De Botton is by no means a Luddite or killjoy. He is willing to believe, and frequently attests to the fact that human invention and initiative is praiseworthy and on occasion beautiful. What he wants to do is engage with, or recover the possibility of, attitudes and processes related to labour which once existed but to which we may have now become oblivioys. If working and loving are the two most significant activities in life, it might be said that de Botton wants work to contain within itself the possibility of transcendence just as love does.

And here is a recent essay by de Botton on the lack of engagement with the working lives of people in contemporary fiction, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Data-Entry Supervisor". De Botton claims: "It used to be a central ambition of novelists to capture the experience of working life. From Balzac to Zola, Dickens to Kafka, they evoked the dynamism and the beauty, the horror and the tedium of the workplace." But I would be less certain of this kind of distinction than he is. Indeed, the criticism that he makes of contemporary writers vis-a-vis Balzac, Dickens, etc, is, in fact, the very criticism that George Orwell makes very powerfully of Dickens himself in his splendid essay "Charles Dickens":
Dickens has no difficulty in introducing the common motives, love, ambition, avarice, vengeance and so forth. What he does not noticeably write about, however, is work. [...]
In Dickens's novels anything in the nature of work happens off-stage. The only one of his heroes who has a plausible profession is David Copperfield, who is first a shorthand writer and then a novelist, like Dickens himself. With most of the others, the way they earn their living is very much in the background.[...]
Dickens sees human beings with the most intense vividness, but sees them always in private life, as ‘characters’, not as functional members of society; that is to say, he sees them statically. [...] As soon as he tries to bring his characters into action, the melodrama begins. He cannot make the action revolve round their ordinary occupations; hence the crossword puzzle of coincidences, intrigues, murders, disguises, buried wills, long-lost brothers, etc. etc. [...]
With the doubtful exception of David Copperfield (merely Dickens himself), one cannot point to a single one of his central characters who is primarily interested in his job. His heroes work in order to make a living and to marry the heroine, not because they feel a passionate interest in one particular subject. Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance, is not burning with zeal to be an architect; he might just as well be a doctor or a barrister. The feeling ‘This is what I came into the world to do. Everything else is uninteresting. I will do this even if it means starvation’, which turns men of differing temperaments into scientists, inventors, artists, priests, explorers and revolutionaries — this motif is almost entirely absent from Dickens's books. He himself, as is well known, worked like a slave and believed in his work as few novelists have ever done. But there seems to be no calling except novel-writing (and perhaps acting) towards which he can imagine this kind of devotion.
One might apply Orwell's observation that "Dickens never writes about agriculture and writes endlessly about food" all the way back to de Botton, though, and say that is is precisely this gulf in the awareness of production as compared to consumption that he is trying to bridge in his book.

Last, here are two essays on Indian writers (both published this year, one in English and the other in translation) who have written with insight about the life of manual labour and of petty trading respectively: Mridula Koshy and Sankar.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Things I've Been Reading

Some essays, interviews, and transcripts I've been reading recently:

"Markets and Morals" by Michael Sandel, a transcript of the first of the BBC's Reith Lectures for 2009. Sandel's argument is about how, without realising it, we may have "drifted from having a market economy to being a market society", and about all the things in life that are only cheapened by trying to understand them through an (increasingly pervasive and acceptable) economistic logic. Sandel, who teaches a popular course on justice at Harvard University, is also the author of a new book called Justice.

"My Father", an arresting essay by the American writer Leonard Michaels, whose Collected Essays have just been brought out in America by FSG. ("Six days a week he rose early, dressed, ate breakfast alone, put on his hat, and walked to his barbershop at 207 Henry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, about half a mile from our apartment. He returned after dark. The family ate dinner together on Sundays and Jewish holidays. Mainly he ate alone. I don’t remember him staying home from work because of illness or bad weather. He took few vacations. Once we spent a week in Miami and he tried to enjoy himself, wading into the ocean, being brave, stepping inch by inch into the warm blue unpredictable immensity. Then he slipped. In water no higher than his pupik, he came up thrashing, struggling back up the beach on skinny white legs. “I nearly drowned,” he said, very exhilarated. ")

A conversation between Philip Roth and the Irish writer Edna O'Brien, which is also the first of the interviews with writers collected in Roth's excellent book Shop Talk ("I think it is different being a man and a woman, it is very different . I think you as a man have waiting for you in the wings of the world a whole cortege of women - potential wives, mistresses, muses, nurses. Women writers do not have that bonus. The examples are numerous, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Emily Dickinson, Marina Tsvetayeva . I think it was Dashiell Hammett who said he wouldn't want to live with a woman who had more problems than himself. I think the signals men get from me alarm them.")

"Not A Gentle Kind of Zen", an essay by the cricketer Ed Smith on the footballer Zinedine Zidane. ("For an intimate study of ‘Federer’ at work, watch the film Zidane – a 21st Century Portrait. I had approached the film with some trepidation as I didn’t expect to be much bothered about a real-time replay of the match between Real Madrid and Villarreal on 23rd April 2005.How wrong I was. It is the best insight into the mind and movement of a great sportsman I have ever experienced in any medium. Seventeen synchronized cameras focused exclusively on Zidane throughout the match. The film, which follows the first kick to the last, takes us not only onto the pitch, but also into the imaginative world of a great player in the final chapter of his career.") An essay on this film by Manohla Dargis, a film critic I enjoy reading greatly, is here.

An interview with the poet and critic Clive Wilmer ("Poetry is inherent in language, so all language is potential poetry. Language as we speak it has all the characteristics of poetry: rhythm, music, richness of meaning, analytical and critical qualities. By being a poet one is foregrounding what is already in language. One is trying to take the potential of the language and make it manifest....While you are in love with language, you also have to be in love with what is beyond language. Language is, in a sense, an attempt to take possession of the world. A lot of what I write is an attempt to take hold of what I love but can’t really have.")

And last, an interview with the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, who makes a number of subtle and stimulating observations over the course of 25 pages ("The most fruitful intellectual encounters are not those in which you are in total disagreement with the other person. A dialogue, to pick up a hackneyed term, is situated somewhere between war and perfect harmony; if different voices merge into one or if they fight each other tooth and nail, their plurality brings no enrichment. I’ve learned the most from authors with whom I could peacefully travel a certain distance before they lead me off in an unknown direction. When you’re three-quarters in agreement and a quarter in disagreement, the latter becomes the starting point of keener,more nuanced thinking. And when you have that many things in common, you have no desire to engage in a head-on confrontation anymore.") Todorov is also the author of Facing The Extreme: Moral Life In The Concentration Camps and, most recently, Torture and the War On Terror, which I'm reading right now.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Indian poetry in Mint Lounge

If you haven't noticed thus far (or simply don't read the paper), Mint Lounge now has a space for poetry on the books page every Saturday.

Although it is, for now, only a small space – down in the bottom-right corner, enough for about a sonnet or a bit longer – the idea is to provide a room for the best Indian poets of today to declaim from. Today's poem, "War Poetry", is by Aseem Kaul, and here is last week's poem by Anjum Hasan, "Distant Gods":

Distant Gods
by Anjum Hasan

When the bombs go off and there is blood all over the TV,
he'll be sitting in some human corner of the world,
drinking his tea, stunned by the impersonal reach
of his act, just as you are by how far this screaming thing
has travelled - translated by distance into helplessness
at being dumb witness again to the guts-spilled-open
suffering of random strangers.

And this is how we realise the world's grown-up -
by knowing that the act of twisting a knife
inside the warm heart of your enemy on a summer night
is far too local a measure of your loathing, while to kill people
you do not know and will never see is to speak a language
of the universe that can be relayed on the TV.

And an old post: "Anjum Hasan and the Indian Shakespeare". And some old posts on poets: Wislawa Szymborska, Constantine Cavafy, Dunya Mikhail and Osip Mandelstam.