Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An essay in Foreign Policy

Recently Foreign Policy magazine invited me to venture some thoughts on the problems of and pressures on the Indian novel in English in a globalising time. My essay on this theme, "English Spoken Here", appears this week in the November/December issue.

Here are some essays that discuss in greater detail some of the novels brought up in this piece: Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres And a Third, Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva, and Ali Sethi's The Wish Maker.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Pakistani short story in Urdu, and Do You Suppose It's The East Wind?

The iniquities of globalization have meant that even as a new generation of Pakistani writers in English have found a mass audience and not inconsiderable material rewards, Pakistani Urdu writers of the present day and of previous generations struggle on in the shadow of obscurity and neglect, or even at best an audience smaller than they deserve. Translation is a way out of at least the last of these predicaments, but even translation is something to which, in a consumer society, the market attaches the tag of “difficult” and, therefore, not consumer-friendly.

Simply put, in a market economy it is incumbent on the reader—the last link in the chain of literature, and therefore in some ways the clasp that ensures from one side the health and integrity of the whole—to be skeptical about the hype generated by publishers, publicists, and deep pockets in the front rows of bookshops and the front stretches of the literary market, and to look further and deeper, to be willing to supply time and mind for more unusual pleasures. Such readers will certainly find much to savour in Muhammad Umar Memon’s anthology of Pakistani stories in translation, Do You Suppose It’s the East Wind?

Memon is the editor of the excellent periodical The Annual of Urdu Studies, which publishes a selection of literary criticism, short stories in translation and scholarly essays every year, and can now be read online. He is also the translator of Indian writers of Urdu such as Naiyer Masud. For his anthology Memon has left out younger Pakistani writers, as if desirous of first giving the greats of the post-independence generation their due. For this reason, many of the writers in his collection, although they lived and died as Pakistanis, were born in the north of an undivided India, and they extol the beauties of a landscape which could just as well be Indian.

Unsurprisingly, one of the best stories comes from the familiar hand of Saadat Hasan Manto. Called "For Freedom’s Sake", it is set in Amritsar in the years of the freedom struggle and centres around two friends: The first, called Ghulam Ali, is a Kashmiri and wants to be a politician; the other is recognizably Manto himself. Always a sceptic of high rhetoric and noble motives, Manto writes cynically of his friend’s meteoric rise in political circles, saying that “the slogans, strings of marigold, songs of patriotic zeal and the opportunity to talk freely to female volunteers turned him into a sort of half-baked revolutionary.” As always in Manto, the mind wants one thing and the body another. His story of a political worker deeply in love with a woman in the same movement is reminiscent—although the narratorial voice is considerably more sardonic—of R.K. Narayan’s later book Waiting For The Mahatma.

Some other Pakistani writers who may be only names, and not really an experience in words, to Indian readers are each given a room of their own in Memon’s anthology. In "Sunlight", Abdullah Hussein tells a moving story of a man returning to his village after 20 years. Javed Shahin presents a different kind of journey, that of a son wandering through small towns and pilgrimage centres in search of his missing mother, in "If Truth be Told". While most of the stories abide by the conventions of realist fiction, a charming turn is taken at the very end by Tasadduq Sohail’s surreal "The Tree", about a man who finds a tree giving him a good scolding for the way he leads his life.

But perhaps the best of these stories is one about the opulence and decadence of the aristocracy of north India as revealed through their quarrels over, of all things, mangoes. In Abul Fazl Siddiqi’s "Gulab Khas", every five years, on the border of Avadh and Rohilkhand, in what formerly used to be known as the United Provinces, there takes place a competition for the best new breed of mango. During this great mango festival, writes Siddiqi, “The whole world was nothing but mangoes and life was lived only for the sake of this luscious fruit.” When a dispute breaks out between two leading mango-growers of the region, the person appointed to arbitrate feels that "the eyes of the whole subcontinent were riveted on him" and that his task is "fraught with historical import."

Siddiqi (1908-1986), whose forte was stories about rural and feudal worlds, liberally embellishes his claim by drenching his story in mango lore, reeling off dizzying catalogues of the best varieties, tracking with delight the conspiracies of growers to develop sublime new strains, and stretching every sinew of his prose to find words to convey the beauties of mango colour, flavour and texture. Just as the Gulab Khas mango, bred by a lowly female gardener, walks off with the first prize in the competition, so too "Gulab Khas" is the crowning glory of this excellent collection.

And an old post: "The film writing of Saadat Hasan Manto".

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Orwell on language, and the language of Orwell

The writer Rebecca Solnit has said about the essay form, comparing it to fiction, that, “In essays, ideas are the protagonists, and they often develop much like characters.” This thought might be a good way of making a case for the abiding relevance of the essays of George Orwell. Although remembered in the main today for his novels Animal Farm and 1984 and his travel books The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, Orwell was also the writer of some of the best-known essays of twentieth-century prose, including “Charles Dickens”, “The Prevention of Literature”, “In Defence of English Cooking”, “Why I Write”, and, most influentially, “Politics and the English Language”.

If ideas are the “characters” of essays, then the main characters of Orwell’s essays could be said to be four heavyweights: Freedom, Socialism, Totalitarianism, and Language. Just as no family ever agrees on any one point or takes one clear line, these four ideas also never work themselves, in Orwell’s writing, into some clear and consistent pattern, easy to summarise and propagate. To learn what he is saying – and we are thinking of a world in which the two World Wars, the Russian revolution, and the rise of Hitler were the main trends through which he was thinking out his ideas – we have to read Orwell, to witness a mind thinking its way through a political and moral minefield (As George Packer perceptively notes in his introduction, "In his best work, Orwell's arguments are mostly with himself."). A good way of beginning such a project would be to go through some of the pieces recently brought together in a sleek new volume called Critical Essays. This title is apt, for it as a critic of trends and currents in the immediate world around him that the essayist wields the most power.

The strongest of Orwell’s stresses (and hence the easiest argument to reproduce) was against totalitarianism, both of the communist and fascist varieties. As early as any other observer of his time, he grasped how the Soviet state was far more evil than the system which it claimed to refute, and that its management of thought and opinion could only end up making automatons of both the bureaucracy and citizens. We know well today the truth of Orwell’s argument that the organised deception practised by totalitarian states is not a temporary expedient, but is rather “something integral to totalitarianism”. In the same way, his observation that, in totalitarian states, “history is something to be created rather than learned” is something that historians of dictatorships from the Third Reich to Saddam’s Baathist Iraq have repeatedly demonstrated. Orwell gives us a lens that lays bare the deceptions of an entire brand of politics.

Orwell’s interest in language as an instrument of politics – as a means not for expressing but “for concealing or preventing thought” – is what animates his most famous essay, “Politics and the English Language”. Here, Orwell’s attack on bad, vague, overwrought or obfuscatory English is made not just as a writer concerned with declining standards. Orwell also sees that such language can be a result not just of plain incompetence or laziness, but of a deliberate intent to distort or mask the truth. Orwell proves that it is often in the interest of the state – or else a class within the state, such as the bureaucracy – to only pretend to be giving information or to be demonstrating intent, or empathy, or solidarity (he cites the classic bureaucratic cliche “we will leave no stone unturned”). But the very vagueness and woolliness of the words being used give the game away, and we would know this only if we have a conceptual awareness of how language is working, or can be made to work.

Orwell’s argument is of course aimed against the state – whether the propaganda machine of totalitarian states, or the hedging and inffectuality of democratic states – and against the peculiar jargon of ideologies like Marxism, of which he was a relentless opponent. But we could easily apply it today to many forces in our times. The hysterical shrieking, pervasive sexualisation, and bad faith of so much advertising and PR-speak today are a conscious debasement of language, as are the peculiar argot of management schools, political parties, and academia, the deliberate hysteria and melodrama of our media, and the many short-cuts of chatspeak when it infects more traditional forms of written communication. (I don’t know about you, but many emails and letters I get address me as “u” rather than “you”, and to me even this apparently harmless and innocent misdemeanour seems not just a diminishment of me, but of language and thought itself.) All these currents, under the aegis of the so-called forces of freedom, threaten our selfhood and independence in the free world as much as oppressive political power might; freedom cannot be something that is bestowed upon us, but is something that emerges actively from our own thought, language, and actions. And for Orwell, where thought is put to sleep, there begins the road to subjugation. Language as a means not of stimulating but of stupefying thought – that is Orwell's target. Writing of totalitarian propaganda, he speaks of how such thought can debase language and hollow it out completely from within, but he is perceptive enough to see that this kind of degradation can work both ways: that "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." We have in our culture today an abundance of shallow language that corrupts thought.

Orwell is one of the most quotable of writers, and the pleasures of his ringing sentences can only be communicated by direct quotation. From a long essay on Dickens, in which Orwell takes Dickens to task for criticising society without ever offering a constructive program, before concluding, more sympathetically: "The vagueness of [Dickens's] discontent is a mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, 'an expression on the human face'." From a review of TS Eliot's late poems, which Orwell judged negatively: "If one wants to deal in antitheses, one might say that the later poems express a melancholy faith and the earlier ones a glowing despair." Here, in one of the most moving passages in all of Orwell, are his criticisms of Gandhi and his religiosity in an essay called "Reflections on Gandhi":
Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because 'friends react on one another' and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one's preference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconciliable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others. The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children, but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. It is true that the threatened death never actually occurred, and also that Gandhi — with, one gathers, a good deal of moral pressure in the opposite direction — always gave the patient the choice of staying alive at the price of committing a sin: still, if the decision had been solely his own, he would have forbidden the animal food, whatever the risks might be. There must, he says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side of chicken broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which — I think — most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.
And here is the first paragraph of Orwell's review of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which, through a brilliant summary that is content to leave all analysis for later, summons up an unforgettable image of Chaplin's comic genius:
France, 1918, Charlie Chaplin, in field grey and German steel helmet, is pulling the string of Big Bertha, falling down every time she fires. A little later, losing his way in the smoke screen, he finds himself attacking in the middle of the American infantry. Later he is in flight with a wounded staff officer, in an aeroplane which flies upside down for such lengths of time that Charlie is puzzled to know why his watch persists in standing up on the end of its chain. Finally, falling out of the aeroplane into a mud-hole, he loses his memory and is shut up in a mental home for twenty years, completely ignorant of what is happening outside.
These vigorous and combative essays have dated only slightly; both as a record of their time and as advice for our own time, they still have much to say.

And a recent post that takes up Orwell on the question of writerly depictions of working life: "On Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work".

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"In That Place Where Mind Meets Mind"

Here is my poem "In That Place Where Mind Meets Mind", which appeared recently in Mint Lounge's new poetry section, Free Verse:

In That Place Where Mind Meets Mind

In that place where mind meets mind
Eye speaks to eye, and in the same breath hears
The long-barred self is intertwined
With one that it both needs and steers
A peace opens out, and a music binds
One moment to another, and day to day
The soul runs free, and all that it finds
It somehow both keeps and gives away.
Such was the place, or such the dream
That smiled, and then from me was taken
I slipped back into the common stream
My life moved on, but my faith was shaken.

And some other poems: "A Poem Is Someone Close To Tears", "Let Us Just Keep Things This Way", and "Song of Arzee the Dwarf".

Monday, October 05, 2009

On Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes

In one story in Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book Nocturnes, the narrator, a small-time musician who plays in caf├ęs, looks around at his supporting cast and explains, “Playing together every day like this, you came to think of the band as a kind of family.” Of course, it is not only among musicians that music generates feelings of intimacy, tenderness, fraternality—a kind of higher awareness of both the present moment and an overarching continuity. To an extent that the rational side of our minds can never fully explain, our moods sometimes vault dramatically when we hear a melody, the tremor in a singer’s voice makes a hundred memories or regrets come flooding back, and the shape of a tune can make the most banal phrases appear as if they are exploding with significance.

In his new book, Ishiguro, who in his youth nurtured dreams of being a singer-songwriter, conjures up a set of stories about the power of music to bind, console and heal. The word “nocturne” means “a musical composition of a dreamy character”. It struck me that the protagonists of the stories here are not just players of nocturnes; their lives are themselves nocturnes. Some of them are young musicians of modest talent who know that they will never be stars; others are middle-aged drifters whose lives are gently washed by regret. Ishiguro explores the implications of this for their self-perceptions, their friendships, and their marriages in a way that is simultaneously tender and comic.

Like a vibrating guitar string, these stories are never stable or stationary. There is a twist or turn, usually minor but slowly expanding in significance, on nearly every page, as the narrators (all the stories are told in the first person) work out, sometimes not very well, what is happening to their lives. In the story called "Nocturne", we see a middle-aged saxophonist, Steve, whose career has come to a standstill not because he is not good enough, but perhaps because he is not good-looking. Steve’s wife eventually falls for the charms of a richer and better-looking man, but both of them feel so guilty that her paramour offers, as a kind of compensation, to pay for some plastic surgery for Steve. Steve’s agent thinks this is quite a good deal given that Steve is going to lose his wife anyway. After some resistance, Steve finally succumbs and gives himself a new face in the mirror.

Recovering after his operation, Steve finds himself in the room next to the celebrity Lindy Gardner, who is one of those children of the media age who are famous despite having done nothing of significance. Seeing that he and Lindy are now in the same boat, Steve realizes “the scale of my moral descent”. But the despised Lindy turns out to be surprisingly good company, and eventually turns into a kind of confessor figure for him. Ishiguro’s deceptively light and easy touch draws the reader in right away, and much of his dialogue is of an exceptionally high order.

Another story, "Malvern Hills", offers the pleasures of a familiar Ishiguro device seen, for instance, in his novel The Remains of the Day— that of the unreliable narrator. This kind of story features a complex first-person narration where, although we have no other information than that which is being provided by the person who is telling the story, we can nevertheless tell that he is not interpreting life accurately. When carried out skillfully, this makes fiction more stimulating and rouses the reader to activity, because it is as if we are reading a story and constructing an alternative version of it at the same time. Simultaneously, we come to understand, philosophically, how our sense of the world depends so much on subjective perception.

The narrator of "Malvern Hills" is a young, self-involved, hard-up songwriter who goes to spend the summer in a hotel in the countryside run by his sister and her husband. Although he is the one who is being helped out, he quickly comes to resent the few duties thrust upon him, and feels that the artist in him is being suffocated. “It seemed clear I’d been invited here on false pretences,” he thinks, and we laugh at this and commiserate with him at the same time.

At a number of points in Nocturnes, the characters express a preference popular music— evergreen ballads, Broadway hits, the work of “those old pros [who] knew how to do it”—over more challenging and difficult forms. The idea implicit in these gestures is that we often overlook the extent to which music we think of as “easy” is itself the result of great craft and discipline. After six novels, Ishiguro is now an old pro, and as these smoothly tossed-off and beguiling stories demonstrate, he too knows just how to do it.