Sunday, May 30, 2010

Vijaydan Detha: between the folktale and the short story

Every reader of literature makes a conceptual distinction between a folktale and a short story. Folktales have protagonists who are often generic, distinguished by their birth (a prince) or their profession (a potter). In the world of the folktale, creatures change form or come back to life from the dead, the characters are buoyed by boons or buffeted by curses, and good usually wins over evil in a way that is narratively satisfying.

The short story is a more modern form, and can be seen both a response and a rebuke to the folktale. It privileges psychology and interiority, believing that the drama of the human mind is just as striking as that of worldly action. It also disdains magic, although it frequently invents fantastical and imaginative premises of its own. Morally, the short story is not committed to upholding virtue or goodness; narratively, it is not committed to always finding a clear resolution. A folktale is something that can be repeated and retooled; a short story, if its essence is to be kept, can only be read, privately or aloud, because it is the linguistic creation of an individual imagnation.
Can a piece of narrative prose then be both a folktale and a short story? To have done so seems to be one of the achievements of the octogenarian Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha. As Detha’s splendid American translator, Christi Merrill (who works on Detha in tandem with the poet, folklorist and translator Kailash Kabir, who has himself translated Detha's works into Hindi), observes in her introduction to Chouboli and Other Stories, Detha’s writing involves both conservation and creation, notation and invention.

For decades, as part of the work his organisation called the Rupayan Sansthan, Detha has been bringing together, as AK Ramanujan did, all the folktales he found told around him, and writing them up in the same language – Rajasthani – rather than the Hindi of which Rajasthani is often considered a poor cousin, thereby preserving and dignifying not just a corpus of oral literature but also the language in which it has been passed down over time. Chouboli asks us to understand it as a double act of translation: first by Detha from oral Rajasthani into the written, and then by Merrill and Kabir from the written Rajasthani into English.

Many of these stories retain a trace of their origins in performance – the presence of an audience is implied in them in a way that written texts, aimed at the single private reader, are not. Merrill begins one story with a chougou, or a nonsensical rhyme intended to put listeners into a mood for storytelling. Some stories also make mention of the hunkara, or "the grunts and hmms of approval that turn a telling into a two-way communication, a community event."

"Just as eyes look more alluring outlined with coal, and a brow looks prettier decorated with a tiki in sindur red, so is a story better told with hunkara," declares the narrator of the cycle of stories called "Chouboli", in which a prince (actually a young woman in disguise) wins a haughty princess's hand with the power of his stories, which he tells in isolation, with only the princess as an audience, but with many objects around him, such as beds and necklaces, offering the hunkaras that send the story bounding forward. Many of the stories begin not with some significant fact about a character or event, but with some remark or claim about the nature of storytelling itself. "Nothing happens to a story if all you do is listen," begins the story "A True Calling". "Nothing happens if all you do is read, or memorize word for word. What matters is if you make the heart of the story a part of your life. This story is one of those."

At the same time, Detha likes filling out the oral stories of his culture – stories about princes and princesses, cunning thieves and shape-shifting tricksters, who in a modern scheme would qualify as "flat" characters – with realistic touches and literary flourishes of his own, making them a reflection on manners, morals, and human nature that is recognisably the work of an individual mind. When the narrator of a story says that "There's nothing in the world more sacred and more wonderful than freedom", that is recognisably an emphasis of the writer.

The other great pleasure of these stories, for the English reader in particular, is the little swirls of local and proverbial detail folded into their situations. When a group of men each renounce a particular food, "someone gave up touri root, another kaddu squash, and a third cucumber"; a jeweller fascinated by a female form fashions "a set of thick mothiyou bracelets for each of her wrists and churau armlets to slide above her elbows." A character is reprimanded for picking on somebody without reason with this proverb: "When the potter isn't getting along with his wife, it's the donkey's ears he pulls."

Merrill prudently does not bother to find (inevitably distorting) English equivalents for words like "leela", leaving us to confront directly the connotations of a line like "The leelas of wealth are certainly most unusual." Ramanujan thought that the folktale was infinitely adaptable, “a travelling metaphor that finds a new meaning with each telling”, and in Detha’s work the folktale sporadically seems to find in itself the energy to find not just a new meaning but a new self.

Certainly, in the best of these stories, "Duvidha" or “The Dilemma” (filmed by Amol Palekar as Paheli in 2005), a human predicament is so convincingly portrayed that we slow down our reading, wanting to savour the complexity of the situation. A pair of newlyweds are seen returning to the man’s village. They stop to rest beneath a tree, where a ghost resides. The ghost is so taken by the girl’s beauty that he falls in love with her. Strangely though, the husband, who should be experiencing something similar for his wife, is so caught up in the mercantile mindset of his community (Detha explicitly says he is a bania) that he can think only of trade and profit. Shortly after, he sets out on a journey of five years because it is an auspicious time for business.

The ghost, still pining, sees the man heading away, engages him in conversation and learns of his story, and decides to take his form and replace him in the household he has left behind. But he is so much in love with the girl that he cannot bring himself to be duplicitous with her: he confesses everything. In turn, the woman, who has always been seen as an object and without desires of her own, cannot bring herself to reject this most extraordinary love from the beyond. The ghost and his beloved live as man and wife in the community for four years, when suddenly the real husband comes home. “All the wealth in the world cannot bring back time past,” writes Detha, and his story appears to side with those people who value time and human relationships over material values.

Although they are frequently diverting, not all the stories in Chouboli work so well. In "The Dilemma", the ghost finds that he is in such a difficult situation that he has to "walk the fine edge between truth and untruth as skillfully as wise Yudhistir himself", but between the folktale and the short story there is not a fine edge but often a yawning gap, and this is not so easily traversed. While these stories are often diverting, sometimes there is only so far a folktale can go, and to a modern sensibility some of the characters can seem too flat. Even so, this is definitely narrative work worth experiencing, especially when complemented by the insights of Merrill’s own introductory essay, on the work of translation and on the possibilities of an Indian English that contains words and concepts from other Indian languages. “Armies march to the beat of drums,/ stories, to the rhythms of ohs and hmms”, goes one sing-song phrase or chougou in the book, and there are certainly many moments worthy of ohs and hmms in Chouboli.

Many of the interpretative and linguistic cruxes of Detha's work are explained by Merrill in her essay "What Is A Translator's True Calling?" And here are two of the stories in the book: "A True Calling" and "Untold Hitlers".
A larger overview of recent Indian literature in translation is here.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bastar tribals and Indian Maoists in Satnam's Jangalnama

Deep inside the forests of Bastar in southern Chattisgarh live a mass of Indian citizens – tribals – who speak a tongue that bears no resemblance to the major Indian languages; subsist on broken rice, salt, dried fish and roots; have no gods or religion in the sense that has now become normative, and have no comprehension either of many basic axioms of democratic politics and market economics. As soon as we look at them, we begin to misunderstand and patronise them: their minds are almost impossibly foreign, and in popular discourse they are mostly referred to in a pejorative way. They occupy territories rich in mineral and forest resources, and yet are themselves desperately poor.

In and around these tribals, there exists in these jungles a shadowy but substantial force of guerrillas, the Maoists, including both men and women, non-tribals and tribals. The Maoists, or Naxals, seethe at the neglect of the Gonds by the Indian state, believe that the rapacity of capitalism is inimical to the forests and the tribal way of life and advocate "an alternative mode of production", think that Indian democracy is a sham, and are seriously committed to the idea of an armed revolution that will overthrow the Indian state. They have seized control of much of the forest in Chattisgarh, and now run a parallel government of sorts there with the support – sometimes voluntary, sometimes forced – of the tribals.

Finally, alongside these two presences in the jungle, there is a significant absence: that of the Indian state – spoken of internationally as a rising superpower, but present locally only in a severely attentuated and debilitated form, and uninterested in implementing its own legislation on matters like tribal community rights over forest resources, such as the Recognition of Forest Rights Act of 2006. It has none of the attributes of efficiency, accessibility, neutrality and trustworthiness that are minimally to be expected of it, and has over time, by its own dreadful avarice and callousness, lost its moral claim to the allegiance of those in its domain. The fascinating story of these three forces is told in the greatest detail, from a point of view sympathetic to the first two and hostile to the third, by the Punjabi writer Satnam in Jangalnama, his lacerating memoir of a few months in the forest in 2002.

It is the squads of the Maoist militia who control and defend the jungle, and is through them that Satnam gains access to the tribals. Much of the time in Jangalnama, the writer is seen walking, sometimes two or three days at a time, accompanying squads of young Maoists who are always on the move, carrying messages or supplies. Some guerrillas are tribals, some are not; but there is not between them the division and hierarchy that is characteristic of these interactions in other spheres of Indian social, political and economic life. Whatever may be said of the Maoists, they at least see the tribals as human beings, and grant them a dignity that the machinery of government has not. By walking in their wake, Satnam is able to to personally experience the enormous physical hardship and sacrifice of their lives, as also their sense of community and fraternity, and the ardour of both their hate and love.

But it is in the depiction of the day-to-day life of the Gonds that Jangalnama touches its greatest heights. Satnam marvellously opens up for us the peculiar innocence, fragility and unworldliness of these people. Many Gonds, he reports, cannot count beyond the number twenty; after they reach this limit they start all over again from one, and finally add up the twenties. How then are they to imagine that around them lie mineral resources worth thousands of crores in the world market, or even to hold their own in small transactions with shopkeepers and moneylenders? Because of their indigence and ignorance, most Gonds do not live beyond the age of fifty, yet they are not particularly exerted by questions of life and death, and do not have extended rituals of mourning for those who pass away. Their sense of time is not of minutes and hours, but rather of day and night, of the coming and going of the seasons. Many have never seen a bus or a train, or any of the wonderful machines which are forged from the iron ore that is extracted from sites beneath their own feet. They love to sing and to dance, but never individually. Theirs is still to a large extent a pre-modern “collective culture” that is, on the one hand, seen by "civilised society" (this phrase almost always appears in ironical quote marks in Jangalnama) as subhuman, and on the other, is now caught up with the very different, highly theorised and ideological, collective culture of the guerillas.

For the tribals, writes Satnam, Delhi does not evoke the same scenes and suggestions that it might for someone in the city. "Dilli is only a word associated with government, and to them, government means greedy contractors, repressive police, displacement and harassment." In one of the most scathing passages in the book, he charges:
The jungle is rich in medicinal plants and herbs, but the medicines made from these never reach the inhabitants of the jungle. ...The inhabitant of the jungle is not part of the market because he does not have money. If the ailing people do not have money, their only cure is death. ... The establishment isn't concerned with human life; it is there to sell contracts – contracts for exploiting jungles, for mining, building roads and hospitals, promoting private education. In fact, it doesn't even shy away from giving out government on contract: whichever faction bids the highest for dishonesty will capture power.
In contrast, the Maoists have at least built some basic infrastructure, set up rudimentary health facilities, offered assistance with farming and irrigation, and defended, even if with a gun, the tribal rights over "jal, jangal aur zameen" (water, the forest, and land). Satnam's portraits of some of the Maoists he meets are very vivid, humanising: Lachakka, a young female guerrilla who ran away from an oppressive marriage; Narang, an elderly revolutionary who wants first of all to improve the material life of tribals by setting up new systems of agriculture and fishery. When he writes of the radicalisation of Basanti, a tribal girl, that "from life experience she has gained a simple and clear understanding of what justice is, how power corrupts it, and the nexus between injustice and power", we recognise this anger because we know ourselves the truth of the world around us.

But as a group, can the Maoists really be trusted in the long run? How can one repose more than a limited, skeptical faith in a formation which self-consciously applies a vocabulary and a jargon of a Chinese communist, making reference, as Rohini Hensman points out in a recent essay, to classes of people and social conditions which often have no real relevance to Indian life? What about the history of successful civil resistance movements worldwide, especially in the twentieth century, running parallel to the bloody battles of communism? Satnam writes that the guerrillas devote some time each day to reading and studying, and that "almost every guerrilla has a pen in his pocket." But much as they may venerate the Lal Salaam and the Little Red Book, one feels that these warriors for a more just world might also do well to have a look at The Black Book of Communism.

In one incident, Satnam describes a massive political rally in the jungle organised by the Maoists:
Dressed in colourful attires, decked with horns of nilgai and peacock feathers on their heads, the people gathered on the grounds to the steady beat of a drum. ...Carrying banners, flags, and placards, the long column began marching peacefully through the jungle to the sound of drums. A guerrilla squad was accompanying them. There was no claos, no clamour. No government officials, no police, no bystanders. Journalists and press reporters, some with cameras, sound system technicians, and a few teachers had come from the town. ...In those jungles of Bastar alone, more anti-American protests must have been raised that in all of India...
An anti-American rally in the heart of the forest! As an example of a growing political awareness among the tribals, a wish to understand the processes at work in the wider world, this would be an impressive and warming spectacle. But, as Satnam tells us at another point, "I found out that most inhabitants of the jungle had only recently heard, for the first time, the names of Bush, Vajpayee, Musharraf and Afghanistan. The war had introduced these names to them as well as put them in the 'league of traitors.'" But what kind of perception of villainy is this? Can it really be respected? The tribals seem to be puppets moved by the doctrinal fervour of the Maoists, repeating the names they are given. When asked at the rally to come forward and utter words of support for a resolution condemning the American invasion of Afghanistan, "many refused to get up from their places, some spoke up from their own seats, others just shook their heads and tried to hide themselves in the darkness." Satnam's report on the tacit alliance between the Maoists and tribals yields some strange and anachronistic scenes, testimony to a new kind of skewed power relations and an ideological zeal gone overboard.

As with any work of passionate advocacy, there are certain things that Jangalnama leaves out. There is always a guerrilla squad accompanying Satnam, so it is likely that he cannot see very much more than what he is shown. Otherwise, he would have some sense that the guerrillas themselves are guilty of more excesses, whether it is violence against dissenting tribals or compromises with contractors and businesses, than his book allows; these charges are not just establishment counter-propaganda. Again, it is not just the guerrillas, but also many individuals and organisationals in Indian civil society, who are agitating for a more just treatment of the tribals. So, no matter what his problems with "civil society", it is an insult to many within it to treat it as one homogenous, lackadaisical, and ideologically slavish group. Rather, it is Satnam who, perhaps for good reasons of his own, appears to have lost faith in the possibilities of democratic protest. At one point he writes that if the anti-Tehri and anti-Narmada Dam protest movements had taken up arms like the Maoists have, these battles would not have been lost in the maze of complicity and corruption comprising the legislature, the executive, and even the judiciary.

Yet, if the first principle of a democracy is that citizens should understand the needs and realities of those who are most different from them, then this is a book that, even though it rejects Indian democracy, genuinely opens up such an extended passage of engagement. "Is there no option except to pick up the gun?" Satnam asks a Maoist. "Had there been one," he answers, "there would have been no need to pick it up." That these are the last words of the book, when the placement of this exchange would have been more logical almost anywhere else, gives Jangalnama a sense not of a resolution but a lingering ambivalence, as if there is more thinking left to be done. There is an sound in Jangalnama that is neither the desperation and puzzlement of the tribal nor the wrath and ideological obstinacy of the guerrilla, but something else: a sad, disillusioned, morally lucid and disquieting anger that any reader would do well to experience, even if finally reject.

And some links to other essays: "Social Banditry" by Ramachandra Guha; "Bastar, Maoism and Salwa Judum" by Nandini Sundar; Arundhati Roy's recent "Walking With The Comrades", to my mind a much more cloying and less persuasive piece of embedded journalism than Satnam's, worth studying for such curiosities as the repeated and romanticising use of the word "beautiful" ("We walk through some beautiful villages. Every village has a family of tamarind trees watching over it, like a clutch of huge, benevolent, gods. Sweet, Bastar tamarind. By 11, the sun is high, and walking is less fun. We stop at a village for lunch. Chandu seems to know the people in the house. A beautiful young girl flirts with him.He looks a little shy, maybe because I’m around. Lunch is raw papaya with masoor dal, and red rice. And red chilli powder. We’re going to wait for the sun to lose some of its vehemence before we start walking again. We take a nap in the gazebo. There is a spare beauty about the place."); "Heading For a Bloodbath" by Rohini Hensman; "Targeting Naxalism", a special issue of the magazine Pragati; "Winning By Out-Governing" by Michael Spacek; "The Real Solution For Naxalism" by Abheek Barman; "How Many Deaths Before Too Many Die" and "Death On The Margins" by Shoma Chaudhury.

Update, May 24: And the fresh outbursts of Naxal violence in the last week, in which civilians were targeted for the first time because they happened to be travelling with special police officers or SPOs, some more reactions: "Breaking The Mistrust in Chhatisgarh" by Nandini Sundar, "The Dangers of Playing Footsie with Maoists" and "Bleeding Heart Cynics" by K Subrahmanyam ("In states where the sections of the political class feel that in order to sustain their votebanks and siphon off development funds disturbed conditions are to their advantage, it will be difficult to eliminate Maoism without addressing misgovernance and its offshoot, bureaucratic corruption"), and "No military solutions for Maoism" by Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Things I've Been Reading: Vajpeyi, Reeck and Ahmed, Perur, and Nair

Here are some essays I've been reading recently in the field of Indian literature:

"Crisis In The [Indian] Classics" by the historian Ananya Vajpeyi, which mourns the moribund state not just of Sanskrit scholarship in India, but that of scholarship in all our classical languages ("For...India to forfeit its command over language, lose its voice, forget its traditions, abandon its vast inheritance of thousands of years of learning, reflection, metaphysical and aesthetic achievement, throw away its greatest wealth of knowledge and spirit for want of a few good schools, decent libraries, and spaces for the work of pedagogy to carry on undisturbed, is a shame on all of us.")

Vajpeyi argues that "Without our words, we are nothing", and that we sometimes ignore how we are constituted by language as much as by religion, race or state. Among the initiatives that are working against this tide of neglect and potential oblivion is the Clay Sanskrit Library, which included over fifty volumes of ancient Sanskrit texts in translation before closing down last year.

Vajpeyi's essay ends with a bit of good news: the establishment, through a generous grant from the Murty family, of a Murty Classical Library of India, which will make available, from 2013 onwards, texts in translation not just from Sanskrit but many other Indian classical languages (such as the Sangam literature of ancient Tamil Nadu, some of which is also available in an excellent new anthology of translations by ML Thangappa called Love Stands Alone).

In India, CSL titles can be bought directly off the site of Motilal Banarsidass, the Indian distributor (some titles are here, here and here). Two books I've enjoyed greatly on this list are Dandin's Dasakumaracharita and Ashvaghosha's Saundarananda.

"Manto's Life in Bombay", an essay by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad that gives us one of Urdu literature's brightest lights out and about in the city that funded his brilliant stories ("In 1936 Manto arrived in Bombay; he was twenty-four years old. Nazir Ludhianvi had called him there to work at the Clare Road offices of his weekly, The Painter, and Manto slept in the paper’s offices until he had enough money to rent a room in a squalid tenement nearby — a two-story building with holes in its roof, forty narrow rooms, and only two bathrooms, neither of which had a door"). See also Manto's entertaining essay "Why I Don't Go To The Movies" ("After working in some rinky-dink film companies, I finally found a job at a well-known studio that made accomplished films. I worked there as a writer for four years and in the process slowly laid to rest my interest in watching films. The entire story of this burial is long and drawn-out, but I have only several columns in which to recount a number of anecdotes...")

"Paperback Messiah", a long, detailed and stimulating analysis of Chetan Bhagat's books, his themes, and his readership by Srinath Perur ["Great or not, Bhagat’s signal achievement lies in having unearthed a staggering lode of new readers, people who did not previously find their realities reflected in literature. At least some of them have gone on to read books other than Bhagat’s. His novels, at their best, are entertaining and allow readers glimpses of their lives at a remove. At other times they can send out mixed messages. His columns are far more direct and cogent: topics he has written about include India’s inability to harness talent, a call for a moderate Marathi voice, a letter to Gandhi on his birthday from India’s youth (that ends with “We hope you had a good one up there”) and a call for relinquishing the dynastic hold on Indian politics.]

"Many Vibes of Writers", a piece in The Hindu by Vijay Nair about the different kinds of Indian writers there are, which once again commends Bhagat's books, their direct storytelling, and their lack of pretension, and then moves to a denunciation of another group of writers:
That respect is lacking when it comes to a particular breed of writers who have already styled themselves as literary writers. These are writers whose works come with the coded message 'take me seriously.' And the reason they are saying this and have deluded critics into echoing the same is because these are writers who give the impression of being erudite and scholarly. They are writers because they know their Rushdie and Grass. They can give intelligent interviews and most times what they say in their interviews is more interesting than what the reader has to plod through in their works. While writers like Bhagat and Pal seem to write because they have stories to tell and they enjoy writing, there are writers who seem to write because they have read other critically acclaimed writers and want to write like them.
Among the many problems with this passage
is that, even as it masquerades as a call for a better literature, it actually betrays a peculiarly anti-intellectual and anti-literary stance, making no distinction between those who "give the impression of being erudite and scholarly" and those who may really be so. Every phrase contains some peculiar assumption or smear. It is apparently presumptuous for "literary" writers either to take themselves seriously or to want others to take them seriously. But I would imagine even Bhagat would like to be taken seriously; indeed one of Nair's problems with Bhagat's detractors is that they seem to refuse to take him seriously.

In Nair's estimation, Indian writers read the great world novels just so that they can then imitate those models. But how is one to be a writer of any worth without reading the greats? Indeed, since all writers are only writers because of a love of reading, why should they limit one's reading for any reason, or have to apologise for reading the best books they can? It never seems to occur to Nair that writers might read books, and write books, principally for themselves, to satisfy a personal standard of ambition and expectation.

In Nair's view, even if an Indian writer has something intelligent to say about literature ("They can give intelligent interviews...") this is pretentious too, and inevitably a smokescreen for dull and derivative work that ends up "deluding critics". It is worth thinking about the intelligence of any argument that implies that a situation may be improved if only people would take the trouble to be less and not more intelligent.

What is most telling about this essay is that, although it does not hesitate to applaud particular writers who Nair feels have been unjustly traduced (which seems to me a merit of the piece), it offers no specifics about books, writers, or passages it considers fraudulent or grandiose. Why not actually bring up examples of this kind of work so that we may see what he means in the particular and not in the general? What looks like a show of critical bravado is really an act of intellectual cowardice: the writer would rather not make any enemies, and prefers to flap away from behind the large screens of insinuation and flaccid generalisation.

Just as telling are the binaries with which the piece begins to lay out the argument. The idea that "The fiction of ideas is literary fiction and the fiction of emotions is popular fiction. One evokes thoughts [sic] and the other feelings" is so shallow and simplistic that even bringing it up to declare its inadequacy, as Nair does, works only to cripple the discussion from the very outset.

The slack and hackneyed language of Nair's piece is itself a telling comment on what kind of language and literature the writer values. W
hy, for instance, do writers never just write books, but always for some reason "pen" them? ("I have read the first novel Bhagat penned many years ago...Thanks to the immense popularity the four books he has penned to date have enjoyed...") Nair's remarkably bland and unexceptionable conclusion ("Maybe it is a good thing for a writer to be well read and also have a great story to tell" – does such an idea really require to be let out through a "maybe"?) suggests that, while his piece may certainly evoke thoughts, they are thoughts that others have to improve or complete if they are to be at all defended.