Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Things I've Been Reading: A New Year Special

The Middle Stage wishes all its readers a happy new year and a happy new decade. (It had some good times in the last one). Here are some things I've been reading recently that might interest you:

A new Indian literary webzine dedicated to the short story, Out of Print, run by three friends of mine: Indira Chandrasekhar, Samhita Arni, and Mira Brunner. The first two issues contain work by a number of excellent Indan prose writers, including Anjum Hasan, KR Usha, Nighat Gandhi and Mridula Koshy. If you'd like to submit work to the magazine, the guidelines are here.

The new issue of the Indian (but world-literature focussed) literary magazine Almost Island, including Adil Jussawalla's essay "Being There: Aspects of an Indian Crisis".

"The Danger of a Single Story", the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's lovely meditation on how we are both imprisoned and liberated by the kinds of narratives constructed about us ("This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. Now, here is a quote from the writing of a London merchant called John Locke, who sailed to west Africa in 1561, and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. After referring to the black Africans as 'beasts who have no houses,' he writes, 'They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts.' Now, I've laughed every time I've read this. And one must admire the imagination of John Locke. But what is important about his writing is that it represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West. A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet, Rudyard Kipling, are 'half devil, half child.'").

"Desperately Seeking Susan", the writer Terry Castle's marvellously zingy memoir of her relationship with the American cultural critic and intellectual icon Susan Sontag ("We were walking down University Avenue, Palo Alto’s twee, boutique-crammed main drag, on our way to a bookshop. Sontag was wearing her trademark intellectual-diva outfit: voluminous black top and black silky slacks, accessorised with a number of exotic, billowy scarves. These she constantly adjusted or flung back imperiously over one shoulder, stopping now and then to puff on a cigarette or expel a series of phlegmy coughs. (The famous Sontag ‘look’ always put me in mind of the stage direction in Blithe Spirit: ‘Enter Madame Arcati, wearing barbaric jewellery.’)").

"L'Etranger In A Strange Land", Brendan Bernhard's hilarious essay from 2005 on a meeting in Los Angeles with the enfant terrible of French fiction, Michel Houellebecq, even as the writer tries to outwit two other journalists trying to write a profile of Houellebecq at the same time ("A passerby stopped at the table and stared down at the cup. “Is that a quadruple espresso?” he asked in amazement, and everyone except Houellebecq burst out laughing. What the passerby couldn’t know, of course, was that Houellebecq was a French writer; that all French writers worth their salt drink terrifyingly strong coffee, usually in enormous quantities; and that, historically, the crème de la crème like Jean-Paul Sartre have added to their coffee habit several packs of cigarettes a day along with amphetamines in the morning and barbiturates at night. It’s a tough tradition to follow, but Houellebecq was doing his best).

"In Search of Dieguito", the novelist Martin Amis's acute reading of Diego Maradona's autobiography ("In South America it is sometimes said, or alleged, that the key to the character of the Argentinians can be found in their assessment of Maradona's two goals in the 1986 World Cup. For the first goal, christened "the Hand of God" by its scorer, Maradona dramatically levitated for a ballooned cross and punched the ball home with a cleverly concealed left fist. But the second goal, which came minutes later, was the one that [England manager] Bobby Robson called the 'bloody miracle': collecting a pass from his own penalty area, Maradona, as if in expiation, put his head down and seemed to burrow his way through the entire England team before flooring Shilton with a dummy and stroking the ball into the net. Well, in Argentina, the first goal, and not the second, is the one they really like").

See you in 2011!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ambedkar, Gandhi, caste and novels in DR Nagaraj's The Flaming Feet

Two imagined voices suddenly pipe up midway through The Flaming Feet, the Kannada intellectual DR Nagaraj’s book of essays on the history of the Dalit movement in India, and they turn out to be none other than those of the principal protagonists of the book: BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. For once we, as early twenty-first century readers, see them not spoken about, but speaking in their own voices, as if restored to life. Nagaraj, a great lover of fiction and a skilled interpreter of its capacity to tell the truth about the world even more powerfully than reasoned argument or autobiographical testimony – unusually for an Indian observer of society and politics, his work is full of references to Indian novels – is found here taking the fiction writer’s license to compose “two imaginary soliloquies”.

It is 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence – an independence about which both men were, from the very beginning and for different reasons, sceptical. Ambedkar and Gandhi occupy adjoining rooms in heaven, and look down somewhat disconsolately on an India that has moved on. Ambedkar speaks of his immense antipathy to religious superstition and myth-making, and acknowledges that “my intimate enemy, that Gujarati Bania Mr.Gandhi, also does not like these things”, even if Gandhi is always seen as a man of religion. Gandhi, meanwhile, is found contemplating “how Hind Swaraj would be if my nextdoor neighbour, the learned Babasaheb, had written it”, and thinks that Ambedkar, a trained economist and the quintessential rationalist, would have found an enormous array of statistics to improve the argument.

Perhaps no one in the pantheon of Indian intellectuals had earned the right to appropriate Gandhi and Ambedkar in this fashion more than Nagaraj. Although clearly written from a perspective sympathetic to the Dalit viewpoint, Nagaraj’s essays repeatedly dramatised, with the deepest understanding and attention to detail, the epic clash between the two over the kind of society and polity that would finally grant Dalits a life of dignity and self-respect.

For Gandhi, this could happen only if high-caste Hindus examined their consciences, took account of the historic wrongs committed against Dalits, and experienced “a conversion of the heart” that made them redress these injustices. Gandhi’s method seemed idealistic, but was in its own way practical, trying somehow to identify “simultaneously both with caste Hindu society and the untouchable” so as not to lose one or the other.

Nagaraj grants that this was an enormous step forward for upper-caste Hinduism, but remains sharply critical of it. He holds that the Gandhian project had no real role for untouchables themselves, once again making them spectators to history in a drama in which high-castes were the chief protagonists, experiencing the guilt of a tragic hero and acting upon it. The Gandhian appellation for Dalits – “Harijan”, or the child of God – was not so much a generous as a patronising one.

In contrast to Gandhi’s language of conscience (what Nagaraj acutely calls the mode of self-purification), Ambedkar spoke the language of rights and of political agitation (or the mode of self-respect). While Gandhi wished to bind Hindu society into a refashioned whole, Ambedkar’s vision was of a complete break with Hindu society and all its encrusted modes of viewing the beleaguered and alienated masses on its margins. Ambedkar wanted the Dalit to stop being a subject in history and start becoming an agent, thereby “eliminating dependence on mercy and benevolence”. The modern systems of democracy, rights, political suffrage, and the nation-state allowed Dalits all this, while the traditional village panchayat never had.

This bifurcation in views set up one of the pivotal clashes of modern Indian history: the disagreement in 1933 between Gandhi and Ambedkar over the issue of separate electorates for untouchables, which Ambedkar desired deeply. By launching a fast unto death in Yeravada Jail over this issue, Gandhi forced Ambedkar’s hand, and had his own way. But even if Gandhi won the immediate battle, the larger war over the next eight decades for the Dalit view of self and the world has been won by Ambedkar, whose vision of aggressive self-mobilization and minoritization has found a variety of expressions in Indian politics and public life, especially since the seventies.

But, Nagaraj acknowledges, even if Dalits have won themselves new rights and greater security, especially from upper-caste violence, the result is not so much a rapprochement but rather a kind of detente. The structure of caste society remains basically unchanged from the top, and the peace achieved is a fragile one – it needs a dose of Gandhi to convert it into something more meaningful. In this way, as the scholar Ashis Nandy remarks in a short foreword, Nagaraj attempts heroically to reconcile Ambedkar and Gandhi. This posthumously published book, the only one written by Nagaraj, is a memorable examination of the Dalit encounter with history and modernity, rage and healing.

One of the pleasures of reading Nagaraj is his constant awareness of local contexts and frames to ideas which, over time, we have come to see in a somewhat general or pan-Indian way (this applies even to the word "Dalit"). Here he is, for example, on the specific roots of Ambedkarism in Maharashtra and in ideas Ambedkar adapted from his western education, and on other "proto-Dalit" movements which over time have become invisible in history:
Untouchable activism, finally, came into being only with the arrival upon the scene of Ambedkar, a Maharashtra Mahar untouchable. However, the proto-Dalit phase is under-studied in modern Indian history; in this phase, and afterwards too, many other models of lower-caste revolt were active and disappeared only after the decisive victory of Ambedkarism over other competing discourses to define and shape the identity of Dalit politics. For instance, in order to get an accurate and comprehensive picture of the emergence and consolidation of Shudra identity in general and Dalit identity in particular, we must study the insider culturalist-rebel model of Narayana Guru, the religious reformer of Kerala; the model of Manguram of Punjab; and the South Indian model of gradualism. Only then will we arrive at a deeper understanding of the specific strengths of the Ambedkarite paradigms.
Another virtue of Nagaraj's work is his reluctance to restrict himself solely to an empirical style of argument. He is an adventurous rather than a safe writer. Sometimes he advances by applying a vivid metaphorical imagination to the reading of history, and very often he uses examples from Kannada novels, plays, and poems to illustrate particular cruxes and dilemmas in Dalit thought and the representation of Dalits (in an essay on representations of Gandhi, Nandy writes of how he follows in the tracks of Nagaraj, "who loved to claim, following William Blake, that stylised exaggeration could be a path to wisdom"). The Flaming Feet is full of allusions to the work of Shivaram Karanth (whose 1931 novel Chomana Dudi Nagaraj calls "perhaps the earliest Kannada novel to explore the theme of untouchablity"), Kuvempu, UR Ananthamurthy, Devanuru Mahadeva, and the radical Dalit poet Siddalingaiah. These allow us to glimpse a literary universe with very different themes and tropes than those thrown up by Indian fiction in English. Although Nagaraj very rarely offers close readings of literary texts at the level of word or phrase, he is frequently stimulating and provocative when looking at them at the level of ideas and thought systems. Here he is, for instance, on Devanuru Mahadeva's Kannada novel Kusumabale, which he compares to Ananthamurthy's much more well-known English novel Samskara:
While studying the narrative technique of the novel, an inevitable question came to my mind. Does the cosmology of lower castes mean the death of the realist novel? ...I have always been nagged by the doubt that realism can provide full justice to the collective psyche and worldview of the lower castes. Even at its best, realism can only, in our context, reflect and accommodate the rationalist and empirical worldviews of the modern middle class. It can only deal with untouchability as a theme. The life of untouchables and other lower castes –in a total sense –has always remained outside the patterns of realism. If images are the distillation of worldviews, then naturally realism can only create images out of human situations. Images do not appear there as the synthesis of myth and history. Realism can only transform history into fiction. In fact, the realist novel is even seen as a fictional strategy to appropriate a form of history wherein, for example, a cot cannot be made to talk in an autobiographical vein. in Kusumabale, as in folk tales, by contrast, an ill-used cot tells the story of the decadence of the family to which it belongs.

Such restrictions [placed on writers by the realist novel] do not merely reflect the aesthetic rules of a narrative game. They are basically the restrictions of philosophy and ideology. Even if the realms of experiences and worldviews barred by realism seek entry into the fictional world, they are permitted only after making sure that they do not wreck the narrative. It is without argument that their philosophical explanation has no legitimacy in this context: irrational structure are allowed, but only in order to be monitored by the inbuilt rationality of the realist novel.

The Flaming Feet is scheduled for publication in America early in 2011. A essay by Ramachandra Guha on Nagaraj is here, and a long essay by Nagaraj, "Critical Tensions in the History of Kannada Literary Culture", can be found in Sheldon Pollock's massive anthology Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions From South Asia.

And here are some older Middle Stage posts on Indian history and politics: "On Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male", "Mark Tully and India", "Krishna Kripalani's Faith and Frivolity", "Jawaharlal Nehru As A Writer of English Prose", "Ramin Jahanbegloo on Gandhi's concept of freedom", "On the speeches of BR Ambedkar", "On Gandhi's autobiography", "Talking India With Ashis Nandy", "Harsh Mander and Gujarat", "Amartya Sen's large India", and "Utpal Dutt on Theatre and Film".

Thursday, December 02, 2010

On the Auto-rickshaw Drivers of Bombay

I always like chatting with the auto-rickshaw drivers of Bombay. Over the course of this year I decided to pursue these conversations in a slightly more structured way, leading each one of them in the direction of a common set of questions, and to write up our conversations into a long essay.

This essay appears in the December issue of The Caravan, and can be read in full here. Here is a short excerpt:
Like most residents of the city, the drivers have their own, highly developed and opinionated Theory of Bombay: how life is lived here, what makes the city tick, and what their own place is in the scheme of things. Always on the streets, continuously in contact with all kinds of people, they possess wider knowledge and more persuasive intuitions about the city than most. Their descriptions of the city have a certain heartfelt poetry, especially since their Hindi—and its many dialects—has a purer, sweeter sound that the patois that is Mumbaiyya Hindi. Looking around as they drive, they seem almost to be thinking aloud, and their words are a distillation of many years of wandering and watching.  
And here are some more essays from my travels over the last two years:

"Under The BJP's Big Tent", a report from the BJP national convention in February this year ("Further into my twenties, as my own understanding of Indian politics and society expanded, the party’s view of Indian history and culture came to seem ever less satisfactory. Yet, through my interactions with people and on my travels, I had come to be intrigued, both as an observer of politics and as a novelist, by the narrative power exerted by the party’s founding fiction on the minds of many middle-class Indians like myself. This was the idea that Indian culture is rooted in a Hindu ethos and worldview, and that Indian Hindus, because a double-standard secularism that ignored the sentiments of the majority community, were disorganised, defensive about their faith, and therefore accomplices in the desertion of the central principle of their civilizational history.");

"At The Sun Temple of Modhera" ("Descending, I feel as if heaven and earth have exchanged places; I go past level after level of sharp-nosed, full-figured, deities reverentially captured in different poses, faces serene or half-smiling, eyes darting left and right, legs splayed or crossed, arms delicately outstretched or holding up weapons or musical instruments. Every wall, pillar, arch, or nook in the bav ripples with the agitation of faces and limbs suspended forever in stone, and as the day progresses the sun begins at the western face of the well and works its way downwards to light up this rapturous panorama level by level");

and a trip to Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh ("Thus it was that, over two six-hour mornings in the woods, this writer, who hitherto could only recognise such two-legged creatures of his native urban habitat as the Jostling Traincatcher, the Horn-Happy Motorist, the Beautiful Passing Lady and the Common Loafer, suddenly became alive to the beauties of the leaping air-dashes of the white-tailed paradise flycatcher, the hushed, monastic vigil of the crested serpent eagle, the breathtaking mid-air halt of the black-shouldered kite, the mellifluous call of the white-rumped shama, and the whooping of the racket-tailed drongo...").