Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On Arundhati Roy's Walking With The Comrades

This review appeared last weekend in The Washington Post.

As India grows into its new economic might, it also oppresses and impoverishes its people in ways different from those of old. One might say that where once the sins of the Indian state were mainly those of omission — of being too supine and resource-starved to lift several hundred millions citizens out of a cesspool of poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and caste and gender discrimination — increasingly they are mainly those of commission, of conspiracy and corruption under cover of the motions and catchphrases of democracy. Even so, there remains a basic faith, even pride, among Indians in the warming narrative of “the world’s largest democracy” and its institutions.

For over a decade now, the writer Arundhati Roy has served as India’s most powerful and articulate dissident, tearing that broad consensus to shreds. Through a slew of acerbic and impassioned essays, speeches and books, Roy has attacked both the country’s religious right wing and the barons of big business, and excoriated the Indian state’s political, economic and military policy. At times, Roy’s uncompromising hostility, penchant for tendentious theses and juxtapositions, and appropriation of multiple causes have earned her as much notoriety as respect.

Walking with the Comrades, Roy’s new book, is a riveting account of the face-off in the forests of central India between the Indian state and the Maoists or Naxalites, a shadowy, revolutionary guerrilla force with tens of thousands of cadres. It is a battle over power, land, ideology, mineral riches, rights, ecology — a battle, as Roy sees it,“for the soul of India.”

The thickly wooded states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand in central India are home to millions of indigenous tribal peoples. Long neglected by the Indian state because of their inaccessibility and marginality, these areas gradually became the sylvan redoubt of a band of left-wing revolutionaries. These disenchanted and dreaming men and women are contemptuous of “bourgeois democracy” and committed to armed revolution, but have also dedicated themselves to working for and with the tribals to improve their lives. For decades, the Maoists have virtually run a parallel government in these regions.

But in recent years this uneasy equilibrium has been shattered, in part, by India’s booming economy. The tribals live atop lucrative resources: massive deposits of iron ore, bauxite and other minerals meaningless to them but coveted by mining companies. “Commonsense tells us,” Roy quotes India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram as saying in a speech in 2007 at Harvard University, “[that] we should mine these resources quickly and efficiently.” As government and big business draw ever closer in India, the state has become invested in the displacement of tribal peoples — and the flushing out of the Maoists — so that mining companies can blast and burrow in these regions.

Worse, the current government has armed and paid groups of tribals to inform on and smoke out Maoists, setting into motion a gory cycle of killings and reprisals that has claimed hundreds of lives. In this new McCarthyite climate, even to be a Maoist sympathizer in India has become an act of treason.

Roy’s charge is that Operation Green Hunt — the name of the concerted military campaign against the Maoists — is actually a front for the economic pillage of the forests and the destruction of the livelihood and habitat of some of India’s most vulnerable citizens. Deep in the jungle, the old Gandhian methods — or what Roy calls the “pious humbug” — of nonviolence and noncooperation seem absurd. Roy contends that at the Maoist resistance, even if often sinister and inscrutable, has at least halted the disastrous march of big dams and mines where numerous democratic and nonviolent resistance movements have failed.

The book is strongest when Roy describes her days in the forest among the strategists and footsoldiers of the insurrection — a privilege accorded to precious few Indians outside the movement. She walks, eats and sleeps alongside a ragtag bunch of armed youth (“almost everyone’s gun has a story: who it was snatched from, how and by whom”) and weighs their testimonies and arguments. Even so, the book is less reportage than polemic. What is seen and heard, even though vividly narrated, is immediately stitched up with material from newspaper reports and books, or set in counterpoint to claims by politicians, journalists and idealogues, or layered into complex global theses. The book’s primary landscape is not the forest, but the writer’s own mind.

Roy manages over the length of a book — and this is the point of books in any complex debate — to open out a distinctive position that belies easy summary. Although she has been painted as one, she is no simple apologist for the Maoists, whom she sees as possessing “a single-minded, grim, military imagination.” Yet she sees them as “the most militant end of a bandwidth of resistance movements” being waged by Indian people for causes across the country. An alternative to the impasse, she suggests, requires “an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as Communism.” The first step to that is to “leave the bauxite in the mountain.” Fruitfully skeptical and contrarian, Walking with the Comrades is a necessary book by one of India’s most distinctive voices.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

On board The Caravan

I have a new job, one that requires me to break one of my own rules and report to office, although only once a month. I'm going to be in charge of the Fiction and Poetry section of The Caravan.

I hope every month to publish new and necessary Indian fiction and poetry in English and in translation, flanked occasionally by writing from other parts of the world.

Here are this month's selections: Feroz Rather's short story set in Kashmir, "The Last Candle", and Rabindra K Swain's poem "The Prime Minister" ("In the Prime Minister is the triumph/ Of the bird who himself does not eat/ But watches the other one take tiny pecks").

As with the selections in my book India: A Traveller's Literary Companion, I've appended a little note to each piece that describes what I think is striking about them.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Falling In Love With The Novel

This essay appeared last week in The Telegraph of London.

In the autumn of 2000, I was a 20-year-old student in Cambridge, at home in the English language but new to England and the English. Producing dutiful but desiccated essays every week on regicide and gender-bending in Shakespeare, struggling meanwhile with the almost complete absence of rice and dal (“lentils”) in the British diet, I suddenly fell violently in love in an unlikely place – Galloway & Porter, a home for cut-price and remaindered books. Thankfully the object of my affections was willing. She was, to squeeze out the last of my metaphor, The Novel.

As with Shakespeare’s blue-blooded lovers, the vision of the novel I fell in love was inseparable from the name of a particular house. This was Christopher MacLehose’s magnificent Harvill Press, then on its last legs, soon to be bought up by Random House and reincarnated as the tamer Harvill Secker.

This encounter with the novels published by Harvill turned my relationship with the novel from one of deference to discovery. From the classroom, I knew of the English canon: Fielding, Sterne, Eliot, Dickens, Forster, Joyce and Woolf. If these novelists bored me a little, it was not because they were uninteresting, but because they were being given to me (I came to them much later, on my own terms).

But the beautiful tall paperbacks from Harvill seemed to me an alternative canon, put together by a mind in tune with the novel’s own roving spirit, its refusal to fit into neat compartments of nation and language. Here was a cavalcade of fantastic names from across European and South American literature: Bulgakov and Andrei Bitov, Lampedusa and Cortazar, Jose Saramago and Jorge Amado, Antonio Tabucchi and Haruki Murakami, with the occasional British firework like Henry Green.

Indeed, in a way that mirrored my own previous heartbreaks, these were novels that seemed to have lost hope in finding lovers, being sold at a pound or two apiece. From the glorious parade of their characters, narrative strategies, and formal play – every chapter on Alessandro Baricco’s Silk was no more than a page, but sometimes a single sentence in Saramago’s novels ran to more than that length – I took away an impression of a single amorphous spirit behind them all, a grand ur-Novel.

Empathetic and critical, veiled and direct, the novel seemed to suggest a complex position from which to inhabit and interpret the world, all the more powerful because not reducible to a single axiom or method. To be educated in novels was to be educated in many of the dilemmas and ambiguities and mysteries of life.

When, a few years later, I returned to India, this alternative education in the novel was to prove more useful than my classroom education in trying to make a map of the Indian novel (and eventually, in writing my own novels). Although the Indian novel has its roots in the English novel – it begins around the 1860s, a result of the colonial encounter – it very soon branched out onto its own paths, melting into the cultural memory and literary traditions of the more than two dozen languages widely spoken across India.

Like the European novel, I saw, the Indian novel was really a kind of continent; to read in it without an emphasis on translation was to confine oneself to only one country. Among my discoveries in translation was the Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati’s limber and anarchic Six Acres and a Third, every bit as powerful today as it was when first published in 1902. Other great books of an Indian pantheon might include UR Ananthamurthy’s Samskara and Bharathipura (Kannada), Salma’s The Hour Past Midnight (Tamil), and the Bengali novels of Mahasweta Devi and Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay.

Indeed, the values of the novel – individualism, scepticism, narrative depth, polyphony, empathy, truth-telling – seem to me to be in dialogue with the values of another ambitious project of Indian modernity: democracy. Both these projects invest similar kinds of trust in the individual, and take a similarly complex view of the relationship between liberty and responsibility. Democracy works through ideas and arguments, novels through stories. But the great novels, like democracy, represent a vision of justice.

Further, the novel’s native strengths seem to make it an ideal lens on India’s multiple narratives and long history of intercultural encounters. More than journalism or the cinema – both squeezed by commercial pressures – the novel seems the form most capable of absorbing India’s social and linguistic plurality, of not just describing but inhabiting from within the dozens of ways in which Indians make meaning.

In a culture where religion and society place vast pressure on the individual to believe in received truths, and advertising and the mass media now pour rivers of banality and manipulation into human brains, the novel is a reliable source of complex thought and an invaluable bastion of independence. For those seeking a layered and subtle account of India today, one very good place to find it is in a journey across the grand continent of the Indian novel.

And an older autobiographical essay: "On Not Coming Down From Trinity".

Monday, November 28, 2011

New stories in the Asia Literary Review and Pratilipi

I have two new stories out: one called "Captain", set in a restaurant in Bombay, in the new issue of the Asia Literary Review (a food special), and another called "Madhaba's Bottle of Oil", set in Bhubaneswar, in the new issue of Pratilipi (a fiction special).

Here is a paragraph from "Captain":
     “Europe!” Despite my contempt for Barun, I was impressed. I have never been to Europe myself. It has always been my dream to go to London some day. I want to see up close the people who once ruled us. “How did you get so far?”
     “I got work here, sir.”
     “Well, good for you. What country are you in?”
     “I don’t know, sir. But it’s very cold here.”
      I checked the country code on my phone and ran a Google search on my computer.
      “You’re in Poland,” I told him.
      “Yes…that’s right! I am in Poland.”
      Barun’s voice seemed so close, as if he were leaning right over me here in Prabhadevi, trying to peer into the tip box to see if he could quickly run a raid on it. I could clearly see his shifty eyes, his dark, cunning face, like a marsh always flooded by the waters of secret thoughts. If he had been merely quarrelsome or dishonest with the staff, they might still have tolerated him, because most of them were no saints themselves. But it was food that erected a wall between him and them. After he’s spent all day labouring far from home and family, you can’t deny a working man the needs of his stomach, of food the way he knows it and loves it. Almost to a man, the waiters despised Barun because, between him and Uttam, they made sure the staff lunch and dinner were always Bengali food, made to their own taste, cooked in mustard oil and spiced with panchporan. Phulkopi, aloo potol curry, dimer jhol, aloo chorchori, mung dal, fried eggplant, enough rice to feed seven generations of their ancestors – that was what they made every day. No matter what I or the waiters said to them, the staff food always tasted the same. When they made Chinese food it tasted like Chinese all right, but when they cooked Indian, even their rajma tasted like it was made by a housewife in Sealdah or Medinipur. What a pair.
And an old story, "Dnyaneshwar Kulkarni Changes His Name", is here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Speaking In Delhi and Trivandrum this week

The literary magazine Pratilipi is a journal whose values I respect and admire. Even to call it bilingual, which it is, is to mischaracterize it, for it contains not just original work in English and Hindi but also translations into English and Hindi from many other languages. No individual mind, publishing house, or journal can come close to comprehending Indian literature across time and across languages, but Pratilipi seems to me very dynamic and ambitious in this regard.

Recently the magazine has diversified into book publishing, and among its new titles is one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year: The Pratilipi Special on the Village. On Wednesday, November 16, the magazine is hosting a joint event for several titles in Delhi at the India Habitat Centre. There will be readings by the poets Mangalesh Dabral, Alok Bhalla and Asad Zaidi, and then Jai Arjun Singh will speak on Pratilipi's list of Swedish novels and I will speak on The Pratilipi Special on The Village.

If you're a student, or just a reader interested in literature outside the mainstream, come along: the Facebook page for the event is here. Would that such events were around when I was a student in Delhi at the end of the nineties; then my education in Indian literature would have taken far less time than it did. In those days there was no transmission of information about events on the Internet; nobody ever invited me to anything; I was confined to English literature classes at Delhi University, and my only outings in culture were viewings of obscure (but beautiful) films in the hushed, prayerful atmosphere of the Iranian Cultural Centre on Ferozeshah Road. This was in its own way not such a regrettable matter, as those films have decisively influenced my aesthetic beliefs, but all I meant to say is that if such an event had taken place in 1999 and I'd known about it I'd have definitely gone for it -- and so should you.

And on the afternoon of Friday, November 18, I'm giving my lecture "Ten Ways In Which Novels Can Change Your Life" at the Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Just in case there are some of you at the talk -- unlikely, but one should never say never -- who also came to the talk by the same title in Delhi in February, don't worry, I'll have changed lots of the novels around, so even if we've grown nine months older -- it's terrible, I know, how time passes, and nothing to show for it but more chapters of a novel thrown out into the trash for lack of rhythm, energy and sense -- the talk won't have. The entire program for the festival is here.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Things I've Been Reading Recently

Some things I've been reading recently in and around Indian literature:

"Shiva's Blue Throat: A Personal Vision of The Artist's Role", a very good essay by the novelist Kiran Nagarkar on the provocative idea of Shiva as a model for the writer ("The quality and truth of an artist depend not merely on the precise observation and nuanced mimesis of the lives of his creatures, but on how far he can, through his artistry, undergo every single emotional crisis, betrayal, thought-process, dilemma, joy and terror that his characters experience. That is the test of Shiva. The life of the character the writer is depicting must be absorbed so fully that it must burn his throat blue, a blue unlike any other and result in a voice which is distinctive and unmistakable. In short, the artist must become Shiva.")

"Should Writers Be Sexier Than You?" an intriguing essay by the novelist (and, last that I heard, a friend of The Middle Stage, although in times such as ours one can never rely on news more than three hours old) Karan Mahajan on the idea of the model as a model for the writer. Mahajan recounts how he posed almost naked, next to a tempting model wearing not much more than him, for Canteen magazine in an effort to overturn the modern writer's reputation for frowsiness. ('Authors present themselves as bright, sincere, humble, hardworking people, like Republican presidential candidates. “It’s all just revision and craft,” one says. “I couldn’t have done it without my mom,” offers another. “My three years of MFA were the best of my life and I would do them again if I could,” says a third.) When you read this piece you'll also find alongside it photographs of some of the bright lights of south Asian writing today, looking like they've just emerged from the pages of Vanity Fair. Also worth noting is that, of all the South Asian writers featured in this piece, everybody is clearly dressed up to achieve a particular look, but only Mr. HM Naqvi appears simply as his everyday self. Would that Tehelka had contacted me, too, to photograph me for this project. But deep in my heart I know the reason why I'd never come close to qualifying for such a project: I'm too cheerful to be sexy.

"Theory and Practice" a debate in The Caravan between the historian Ramachandra Guha and the head of the CPI (M) Prakash Karat about the content of "After The Fall", an essay Guha wrote a few months ago about the decline of the Left in India. It's not often that the head of an Indian political party locks horns intellectually with one of its critics (imagine the likelihood of Sonia Gandhi sitting down at her laptop to compose a response to, say, a critique of the Congress by Arundhati Roy), so you must read this for a sense of the occasion as well as the shape of the skirmish.

"Watch This Man", a magnificently acerbic and thoroughgoing takedown of the ideas of the historian Niall Ferguson by Pankaj Mishra, who anatomizes not just Ferguson's journey through the field of provocative hypotheses about empire and America, but also the shape and course of an entire intellectual milieu. Mishra's essay combines close reading of words and sentences and cultural criticism in magisterial fashion.

"Exploring Rama's Anguish in the Valmiki Ramayana" by the scholar of classic and translator Arshia Sattar, whose very stimulating book on the same subject, Lost Loves, appeared earlier this year ("Because of teaching from [the Ramayana] and reading it over and over again in the past few years, I have developed a new intimacy with the text, one entirely different from the closeness that I had to it when I was translating. To my surprise in this rapprochement, I find my thoughts going more and more to Rama. As a card-carrying feminist, I am shocked that it is he who draws me to him, compels me to try and understand his cruelty towards Sita and what it means for him to be king, perhaps even against his innermost wishes. I find myself more and more involved with Rama and am convinced that the way to a more complete understanding of the Ramayana, especially for contemporary women, has to be through an inclusion rather than a rejection of Rama and his questionable behavior.") Sattar's attention to the dilemmas of well-known figures from the epics in limber and searching prose reminded me of another excellent book in the same small field: Chaturvedi Badrinath's The Women of the Mahabharata.

"Rabindranath Tagore Revived" by Seamus Perry, a very astute look at Tagore's reputation a century after his heyday. Many figures appear in passing in this piece, including WB Yeats, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, and Bertrand Russell, who delivers the hilarious putdown, not without a degree of truth: "The sort of language that is admired by many Indians unfortunately does not mean anything at all."

Monday, October 10, 2011

On Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke

This essay appeared last weekend in the New York Times as "Fashioning Narrative Pleasures From Narcotic Ones"

No writer in modern India has held a novelistic lamp to the subcontinent’s densely thicketed past as vividly and acutely as Amitav Ghosh. Since the publication of The Circle of Reason in the mid-1980s, Ghosh’s work has been animated by its inventive collages and connections. River of Smoke,  the second volume of his ambitious Ibis trilogy, is the work of a writer with a historical awareness and an appetite for polyphony that are equal to the immense demands of the material he seeks to illuminate.

Like its predecessor, Sea of Poppies, this new novel fashions narrative pleasures from narcotic ones, exploring the fizzing currents of language, politics, trade and culture that swept through the vast opium network operated by the British East India Company in the 19th century. Sea of Poppies was set almost entirely in the cities, harbors and plains of India, the source of the poppies from which the opium was made. River of Smoke takes the action forward to the same opium’s destination, the Chinese trading outpost of Canton.

Although convincing in its reconstruction of early-19th-­century India and revelatory in its linguistic ventriloquism, Sea of Poppies often labored under its own weight. Improbable plot turns too often tied its narrative threads together; its pastiches too frequently lapsed into stretches of creaking comedy. Superficially less dramatic, River of Smoke is much more evenly written and engaging.

It is clear that Ghosh is fascinated by the history of Canton and, within it, of Fanqui-town, a tiny foreign enclave on the edge of a formidable but mysterious civilization that is beginning to resent the corruption of its people by opium. The outpost is populated by traders from around the world (but dominated by the agents of the East India Company) and surrounded by a flotilla of boats that ferry smuggled goods and serve as eating and pleasure houses. Although so small it’s “like a ship at sea,” Fanqui-town is, in one observer’s memorable description, “the last and greatest of all the world’s caravansaries.”

At the center of Ghosh’s story stands a man who owes his life to Canton: Bahram Modi, a Parsee merchant from Bombay. Entirely absent from the first book in the trilogy, Bahram is almost everywhere in the second, and serves as a channel for much of its energy. One of the few independent Indian businessmen in a trade controlled by the East India Company, he is both insider and outsider. A self-made man who has staked his fortunes on one massive shipment of opium, Bahram is paradoxically rich and poor, caught between a group of British merchants who swear by “the elemental force of Free Trade” and a Chinese establishment eager to root out the commerce in opium.

If there is one thing that reveals all the constituent elements of Bahram’s life, it is his language, which is “silted with the sediment of many tongues — Gujarati, Hindustani, English, pidgin, Cantonese.” Probably the most memorable character in all of Ghosh’s fiction, Bahram is captured in every possible mood, from opium-­induced hallucination to boardroom bluster, romantic rapture to Zoroastrian-­inflected philosophical rumination.

Ghosh clearly sets up the events leading to the breakout of the Opium War of 1839 as a mirror to contemporary realities. His British merchants, although fully realized characters, are what today might be called free-trade fundamentalists, adroitly dodging any moral criticism of their position. The force of Ghosh’s ideas and the beauty of his tableaux of Canton are two of the book’s achievements; the semantic ripples of the variety of dialects he folds into the narration are a third. River of Smoke is both a stirring portrayal of the past and, novelistically, a beacon for the future.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Fakir Mohan Senapati and the Indian novel

In a famous essay published in 1990, the poet and literary scholar AK Ramanujan asked the question, “Is there an Indian way of thinking?” In an analogous way, in the closing years of the nineteeth century the Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati appears to have asked himself: “Is there an Indian way of writing a novel?” 

Ramanujan had to identify or isolate his answer; Senapati had to invent his. Senapati poured his idiosyncratic novelistic awareness into a story called Chha Mana Atha Guntha, published in serial form in an Oriya magazine from 1895-97, then as a book in 1902, and at long last in an English translation adequate to its linguistic energy and narrative agility as late as 2006. Upon publication of Six Acres and a Third, as the English translation was called, it instantly became obvious that this was one of the greatest novels of the Indian pantheon, as revelatory and powerful today as in its own time.

What did Senapati do that was so remarkable? His novel tells the story of the rise and fall of a greedy zamindar, Ramachandra Mangaraj, as he plots to capture the verdant landholding – the eponymous six acres and a third – of a pair of humble weavers in his village in Orissa. But this in itself was not unique. All over India at this point of time, a generation of writers across the panoply of Indian languages was discovering the power of the novel as a tool to depict the realities and injustices of the world around them.

The crux of Senapati’s achievement lies not so much in what he said, but in how he chose to say it. When dealing with the public and private events of the story, Senapati’s narrator uses a plural “we”, rather than the conventional "I" or "he", to bind himself and the reader up with the world of the characters, like a village storyteller sitting with an audience of friends and intimates by a lantern under a tree at night. This innovation makes the story sound oral rather than written, and allows the narrator to both impersonate and ironize the voice of the village community, into which the reader is co-opted.

Sly and salty, riddling and chirruping, the narrator of Six Acres appears not to inhabit a stable world of truth retailed to the reader from on high, in the manner of the classic nineteeth-century British novel. Rather, he shunts between competing knowledge systems and ways of making meaning, leaping lightfooted between the points of view of traditional village order, colonial modernity, and the flickers of his own nonconformist intelligence. In doing so, he gleefully subverts the pieties of both the old and the new orders, and a kind of anarchic laughter rings throughout the book.

The great merit of Colonialism, Modernity and Literature, a new book of essays by different hands on Six Acres and a Third, is that in making an argument for the ingenuity and subtlety of Senapati’s narrative art, it also serves to showcase the interpretative range and appetite for ideas of contemporary Indian literary criticism. Edited by Satya P. Mohanty, one of the translators of Six Acres, the anthology brings together striking readings of Senapati’s novel by both Indian and western scholars, in a language that is theoretical and conceptual without being inhospitable to the lay reader.

The contributors demonstrate how Senapati Indianized the novel by seeding it with the communal intimacy and the skepticism of Indian oral storytelling traditions, creating in place of the “descriptive realism” of contemporaries like Bankimchandra Chatterji a narrative voice as murky and as fertile as the village pond to which Senapati devotes one of his chapters.

In one essay, Himansu Mohapatra explains how Senapati’s “complex and polyphonic realism” produces a more powerfully analytical world-picture than even that of a novelist as socially conscious as Premchand, because Senapati works in such a way as to reveal the “causal joints” of the world. Simultaneously, the “links, nudges and dodges” of the narrator produce “an active reader”, one who discerns the skeptical and critical awareness required of him as a political subject. Pursuing his comparision, Mohapatra writes:
Ironically...the label of a realist seems to have attached more readily to Premchand than to Senapati. This is because realism has over the years been identified with the kind of descriptive familiarity and psychological profiling that we associate with the panoramic psychodrama of Premchand's novels. Senapati's Chha Mana, on the contrary, encourages skepticism about what is given. Its epistemic achievement is to have problematized the real so that the rules of this world can be rewritten. This tradition of radical social critique is among the forgotten legacies of realism in Indian literature.
The writers also toss Senapati’s novel into a dialogue with books from other languages and traditions, thereby working it into the canvas of world literature. The scholar and translator of Telugu literature Velcheru Narayana Rao compares Six Acres with another late nineteenth-century work, Gurajada Apparao’s play Girls for Sale, to show how both writers deserve to be seen as  creators of "an indigenous modernity, distinct from colonial modernity". That is, they wrote from a position that could critique the faults and failings of the traditional Indian order without assenting wholesale to the values of Western modernity.

Even more interestingly, the critic Jennifer Harford Vargas links the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez not to Salman Rushdie (the Indian writer whose method most readily invites such a comparision) but instead to Senapati. Both One Hundred Years of Solitude and Six Acres try to shake off the burden of the colonial gaze, Vargas notes, by employing “underground types of storytelling – mainly oral, ironic, dialogic, and parodic ones – developed by those on the underside of power.”

Without raising the subject directly, Mohanty’s anthology has something to say to the contemporary Indian novel in English. Far too many novels in this domain today, whether popular novels written in an undemanding style or literary novels seeking a more complex awareness of language and character, remain intellectually lazy or formally unambitious, unthinkingly applying dozens of large and small narrative conventions to the act of storytelling (in the scene-setting opening sentence of a recent bestseller, I read that "a soft breeze blew gently", the writer's one claim to distinction being that a cliche has been turned here, through the proud emphasis of that "gently", into an even greater cliche). 

Through the independence and energy of his example, Senapati serves as a rebuke to complacent, even consumerist, storytelling, and the widespread suspicion in the Indian book market in English today – heard or hinted at in the press, among certain kinds of readers, and even from some novelists themselves – that formal ambition is something intrinsically self-indulgent or pretentious. As the essays in this stimulating anthology demonstrate, when someone works on the scale that Senapati did to think the novel anew, that book always remains new.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Friday, August 19, 2011

On Sonia Faleiro's Beautiful Thing

This essay appears today in The National.

It is much easier to establish what literary genius is in fiction than in non-fiction. To the demanding reader of fiction, genius resides for the most part in the experience of surprise, in being disarmed. We come to a work of fiction skeptical that it can make a world real and meaningful, even essential, for us, and ask to be won over by the writer’s vivid and imaginative use of his or her freedom in the realms of language, structure, and plot. 

But when it comes to narrative non-fiction, the writer is both fulfilled and constrained by his responsibility towards a world that precedes the book and is the reason for its being written. This limits expectations of the genre, and makes its purveyors appear more dependent than independent. Indeed, the very techniques and effects that thrill us in fiction, and are now increasingly channeled by modern-day long-form reportage, make us suspicious: we wonder if the writer is making some stuff up. For the work of non-fiction to be good, truthful, solid, we feel, it should essentially be duplicatable by another intelligent human being entering the same field. There is no room here for the wilfulness and wizardry of literary genius – truth and invention cannot be simultaneously indulged. 

Nonfiction writers, it seems, are either industrious worker bees, like David Remnick, or smart alecs spinning a grand theory per book or essay, like Malcolm Gladwell, or else unreliable fabulists, like Ryzsard Kapuscinski. It says something, then, that Beautiful Thing, Sonia Faleiro’s book-length portrait of a teenaged Bombay bar dancer, Leela, and her bright but brittle world, is so compelling that it invites from us the question of exactly what might constitute genius in non-fiction. 

Faleiro’s book begins in 2005 with her and Leela talking to each other in Leela’s tiny flat in Mira Road, a grotty suburb of Bombay. Their conversation is intimate, but not private; Leela’s most favoured “kustomer”, the owner of the bar at which she works, lies fast asleep on the bed beside them. This encounter sets the template for the entire book, in which the most intimate, manipulative, or bruising encounters between women and men, body and body, are dissected by the book’s many subjects (both female and male) in the most candid, matter-of-fact way, and the women live in one long continuous night, often black to them but sometimes also beautiful, in which there hovers in every frame the shadow of a man.

Behind Faleiro’s protagonist lies a Bombay institution with a storied history: the dance bar. Now controversially outlawed by the government of Maharashtra, which runs the city, the dance bar was for decades the site and channel of many of the city’s nocturnal pleasures, adding the shimmer and sizzle of glamour, the exuberance and melancholy of Bollywood film songs, and a frisson of romance upon the eternal and often sordid story of men seeking to trade money for sex. 

By dancing in front of customers in an environment where the pleasure of actual physical contact was denied to them, a dance bar girl became an object of desire with a power far greater than her importunate suitors, some of whom would have to throw money and gifts at her for months before she agreed to meet them in private. (“They think I dance for them,” says Leela, “but really, they dance for me.”) Although at first sight no more than an ornate screen for prostitution, the dance bar was also an institution in its own right, with its own codes and rituals. Crucially, it was viewed by many of the girls who worked there, often after early experiences of abuse in their own homes or in villages where feudal norms prevailed and women were seen as chattel, as a place of refuge, even as a gateway to riches. 

Dance bar girls, as revealed by Faleiro’s enormously detailed description of the psychological landscape of the trade, were likely to view other classes of sex workers as queens might commoners. When the bars were shut down (we see from the arc of Leela’s story), the girls suddenly found themselves independent in the most negative sense of the word, and were pitchforked into a sickening world of abasement, desperation and fear.

The book’s great achievement lies in its breaking down of the walls between its upper-middle class narrator and her bold yet skittish, cynical yet fragile, subject, and its invention of a language that accommodates the registers of both these voices without either one coming across as contrived. From the very beginning, Faleiro strives to establish a kind of phonetic naturalism that lets us into the world from which Leela and her colleagues come from, giving us, through their vivid monologues, japes, flights of fancy, and sneers, “bijniss” for “business”, “hotil” for “hotel”, “hensum” for handsome, and “kalass” for “class”. 

This is not mere mannerism: each time such a word is repeated, we are taken by language from our polished dictionary world into a place foreign to us, and begin to hear in these words layers of meaning specific to the circumstances in which they circulate. Faleiro is not the first non-fiction writer to discover that the truths of a subculture can be opened up only through a detailed attention to its vocabulary and grammar, but she is certainly among the most skilled. It is not just the Indian way of pronouncing a word that is replicated, but also the cadences of Indian speech, with its instinct for persistent repetition (among the gifts Leela desires from customers is “a new wardrobe, everything within matching-matching”) and its tendency to coax agreement for every assertion by adding a na? at the end. 

Although it is ostensibly “reported”, and therefore not original, in truth the dialogue in Faleiro’s book carries a power more earned than inherited, achieving its effects not merely because of the speaking and cursing of its unforgettable characters, but also because of the writer’s remarkable ear. To Leela’s gifts for metaphor Faleiro adds her own. A girl is seen with her silken hair “billowing about like an unpinned dupatta”, while Leela’s boyfriend, the balding bar-owner Purshottam Shetty, makes up for his many shortcomings “by being cooler than a chuski”, or ice-cream stick. These are metaphors rooted in the very world they describe.

Faleiro’s book stands alongside Vikram Chandra’s novel Sacred Games as the most memorable representation of Mumbai’s street language in its literature. But it also occupies a room of its own for the acuity of its portrayal of the most peculiar kinds of guilt and predation, provocation and neediness, generosity and spite, surreal spectacle and moral reversal. 

In one episode, we hear of a bar dancer who has been raped by a man: her own son. We expect her to be unhinged by rage and self-pity. But instead she creeps into a corner and is heard comforting herself: “At least he didn’t hit me. I’m an ugly face in a glamour line and had he damaged me further I would have been thrown out of the dance bar and forced to become a waiter...The humiliation! Merciful God, you saved me.” Elsewhere, a police constable, mocked on the street by a group of hijras, assaults one of them and tears open her blouse, “freeing fistfuls of paper napkins like doves in a cage.” To the eunuch this is a humiliation that can never be lived down, yet it is the man who is more disturbed: “Now they would get their revenge, because he was alone, because he stank of fear, and fear was a stench the hijras picked up on immediately because often they stank of it too.” It expands our moral awareness to be told stories such as this.

It is in the context of such encounters that the story of Leela’s own life, racked by violence and its memories, “proudy” and abrasive even in its poverty and need, holding no illusions about the nature of desire or power, lusting for material comfort and the highs of intoxicants, is told by Faleiro, all the way down to the fantastic fatalism and unconscious courage revealed by the protagonist in the book’s final act. Beautiful Thing is a model for how a work of nonfiction may be both journalistically rigorous and brightly novelistic, and places the author, alongside writers like Basharat Peer, Samanth Subramanian, and Siddhartha Deb, prominently at the vanguard of the revolution currently gusting across the landscape of Indian non-fiction.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On Bohumil Hrabal's Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age

This essay appeared last weekend in The National.

One of the minor arts of the novel is the art of the title, of a word or a phrase that successfully broadcasts the sense and spirit of the whole. Novelistic prose has all the time in the world to unfurl its nature, but titles, if anything, belong to the universe of poetry, to its mode of tightly wound suggestion. No matter how distinguished it is, we carry within our minds, at best, a few sentences of any prose writer's work; good titles, however, ring on forever.

Sometimes a title can prove to be, disappointingly, the most intriguing bit of a work, a cover charge that yields no reward in the establishment to which it gives access. But on other occasions titles are not just thresholds to narrative worlds of the greatest density and distinction; they are the whole work in microcosm. Such, at any rate, are the titles of the great 20th-century Czech novelist - some would say the greatest 20th century Czech novelist, above Kundera, Hašek, and Škvorecky - Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997). Even in translation, where they surely lose some of their colloquial charge, the phrases Too Loud a Solitude, Closely Observed Trains, Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, I Served the King of England, and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced In Age are flares that light up the teeming, gusting worlds, red with carnival and heavy with suppressed laughter, from which they emerge.

At one point in I Served the King of England, one of Hrabal's most perfectly realised works, the protagonist, a small waiter named Ditie, is seen moving from a big hotel in Prague to a small but plush establishment in the countryside called the Hotel Tichota. He arrives with his suitcase in the middle of the day, but mysteriously the hotel and its grounds are absolutely deserted, the only sound being that of the wind, "which smelled so sweet you could almost eat it with a spoon". Perplexed, Ditie turns and is about to leave, when suddenly he is stopped in his tracks by a piercing whistle: "It blew three times as if it were saying, Tut tut tut, then gave a long blast that made me turn around, and a short blast that made me feel a line or a rope was reeling me in, pulling me back to the glass doors." Even sounds in Hrabal's world are as perfectly measured and varied as the sentences that then describe or translate them, and the entire universe rains meanings upon the fevered brains of his heroes.

Hrabal's protagonists are also agents and enablers of the central force in his work, which he termed pabeni, or, loosely, shooting the breeze. He is a kind of poet of the beer garden, gathering up folk wisdom, old maid's tales, testosterone-fuelled exaggeration, and street chatter into perfectly formed monologues delivered by characters he called pabitels. A pabitel, he explains in a note to his early work The Palaverers, "is a person against whom there is always welling up an ocean of intrusive thoughts. His monologue flows constantly ... As a rule, a pabitel has read almost nothing, but on the other hand has seen and heard a great deal ... He is captivated by his own inner monologue, with which he wanders the world, like a peacock with its beautiful plumage".

Thus, although Hrabal's fantastically vivid narrations throb with incident and anecdote, they are paradoxically (except in Closely Observed Trains, his most popular but in many ways most conventional work) often plotless, taking delight in their very aimlessness and susceptibility to suggestion. The series of "little men" in his work - Ditie, the paper compactor Hanta in Too Loud a Solitude, the train dispatcher Miloš Hrma in Closely Observed Trains - achieve a gentle subversion through their very earnestness and naivete, blowing the pompousness and absurdity of the world's structures and doctrines into bubbles of the strange and the surreal. Although Hrabal worked under the aegis of a communist regime, in an age of "socialist realism" in literature, about the only doctrine sounded in his work is the exuberant conclusion of the unnamed narrator of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced In Age: "Mother of God, isn't life breathtakingly beautiful!" Taken in the context of its time and literary environment, this is not so much a declaration of aestheticism as a reproach to a world that hums with, to adapt one of Hrabal's titles, too loud a certitude.

The most important word in Hrabal's work might, however, be not so much a particular concept like pabeni or the repeated emphasis on the delights of sense life, but the humble conjunction "and". Since his narratives thrive on an effect of copious simultaneity, of a dozen balls of incident being juggled in the air at the same time, the word "and" is the well-oiled hinge through which this sense is circulated. Like Jose Saramago, Hrabal loves run-on sentences and enormously long paragraphs, though in Hrabal these things are not meant to mime a primitive "folk voice" as in Saramago, but to produce an onrushing river of richly embroidered and seemingly unstoppable incident.

This principle of composition reaches its logical conclusion in Hrabal's early and daringly experimental work from 1964, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, just published in a translation by Michael Henry Heim. The entire novel is told in a single sentence. Once we begin, we are allowed no pause for breath. In his life Hrabal worked variously as a warehouseman, a railway dispatcher, an insurance agent, and even as a waste-paper collector, in which incarnation the novelist Josef Škvorecky first met him, finding him (in a detail that might have come straight out of Hrabal's own work) "saving the proofs of a Thackeray novel from the rubbish". The unnamed narrator of Dancing Lessons is similarly diverse in his vocations, telling us about his tumultuous exploits as a cobbler, a brewer and a soldier, even as he retails to us his application to the real world of the lessons he has learnt from his favourite, if fanciful, books (one on the interpretation of dreams, another a book of wisdom on marriage).

Stories and characters come sailing out of nowhere, such as the tale told to the narrator by some truckers about a dentist they see while they are racing one another down a hill: "He'd left his umbrella in his office, and just as he was sticking his key into the door one of the [lorries] burst a spring and barrelled smack into the office and it lurched away from the key, the whole office, and he was left standing there with his key in the air." In Hrabal it is not the key that misses the door, but rather the door that escapes the key. Elsewhere we find human hands blown off by grenade explosions slapping people as they fly, and a flock of turkeys blown to bits by a careering express train coming down, part by part, at stations all the way down the line.

As everywhere in Hrabal, we see from numerous amorous exploits "how a real man trembles like a frog about to leap whenever he sees a beautiful woman", and are led through parades of comic complaint: "Why will no one see that progress may be good for making people people, but for bread and butter and beer it's the plague, they've got to slow down their damn technology." Never has the workaday world of bread and butter and beer been rendered so lyrically as in the work of this essential writer, every phrase of whose narrations both prove and demand "the world is a beautiful place, don't you think? not because it is but because I see it that way."

And some links. Some beautiful passages from Hrabal novels can be found here. And an essay on Hrabal by Adam Thirlwell, "The Pleasure Principle", is here. And last, the film critic Richard Schickel's essay on Jiri Menzel's film version of Closely Watched Trains, a classic of the Czech New Wave, is here.

Monday, July 04, 2011

On UR Ananthamurthy's Bharathipura

My review of the Kannada novelist UR Ananthamurthy's novel Bharathipura, published earlier this year in a translation by Susheela Punitha, appeared last weekend in the Wall Street Journal, and can be read here.

You'll forgive the appearance of some contextual details that you probably already know; I put them in for with the paper's audience in mind. I'll post a longer version of this essay, with some excerpts from the novel and a more detailed attention to Ananthamurthy's style, very soon.

Last week I linked to Ananthamurthy's very useful essay, "What Does Translation Mean In India?" which deals not so much with the question of how translators work, as with that of how Indian novelists (and by implication, all novelists who work up material from multilingual contexts) are themselves translators.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Things I've Been Reading Recently

Here are some things I've been reading recently that I thought I'd share with you:

"After The Fall", the historian Ramachandra Guha's marvellous long essay in this month's issue of The Caravan on the fall of the Left in Bengal and the future of the Left in India("In seeking to answer these questions, I shall start with the analysis of a printed text. This is apposite, since Marxists are as much in thrall to the printed word, or Word, as are fundamentalist Muslims or Christians. True, their God had more than one Messenger, and these messengers wrote multiple Holy Books. Withal, like Christianity and Islam, Marxism is a faith whose practice is very heavily determined by its texts. Thus, communists the world over justify their actions on the basis of this or that passage in the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Mao.")

"What Does Translation Mean In India?" a very cogent essay by the Kannada novelist UR Ananthamurthy. Ananthamurthy points out that the Indian novelist, whether in English or in some other language, is almost always a translator because of the nature of Indian linguistic multiplicity and exchange at the level of everyday life ("Chomana dudi, a celebrated novel in Kannada by Shivaram Karanth, is written in Kannada. Choma the hero of the novel is an untouchable, and in real life he would be mostly speaking in Tulu. In fact, one could say much of the novel takes place in the language of Tulu, and the author Karanth while writing the novel is truly translating from Tulu into Kannada. I wonder if this is not true also of much of the good fiction in English written by us in India. Isn’t Salman Rushdie translating from Bombay Hindi in many of his creatively rich passages? The best effects of Arundathi Roy, I feel, lie in her great ability to mimic the Syrian Christian Malayalam. Raja Rao’s path-breaking Kanthapura, although it is written in English, is truly a Kannada novel in its texture as well as narrative mode—deriving both from the oral traditions of Karnataka. With most of the truly creative Indian novelists in English, who seem to have made a contribution to the way the language English is handled I would venture to make this remark: For them to create a unique work in English is to transcreate from an Indian language milieu.")

"Flight of the Eagles", one of the many crackling pieces written for the Mumbai tabloid Mid-Day by the journalist J Dey, the paper's Head of Investigations and an authority on the city's underworld, who was shot down in broad daylight by four assassins on motorbikes in Powai on June 11. The piece begins: "When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber, goes an old adage. The adage is especially apt when it comes to controlling crime in the city. The eagles -- encounter specialists --have been silent for far too long.'" This avian metaphor is extended through the length of the article, and raises images as vivid as that in any great short story or novel. Dey's intriguing reports ("Osama's Death Means That Dawood Lives Longer", "Seasoned Diesel Kingpin Arrested") are so good to read because of their attention to detail, their willingness to lay out a web of connections, their immersion in the city's language, and their sympathy for small fry -- the khabaris and the chindis -- in a big game.

"The Inward Eye", an essay by the historian Ananya Vajpeyi on the place of the poet Kabir in India's artistic, religious and intellectual traditions that takes as its springboard the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's recent versions of Kabir ("Kabir for me conjures up the great multilingual chain of India’s poets, from Valmiki to Kalidasa to Tagore. He transports me to Banaras, a city of Sanskrit seminaries that has throughout the ages both drawn and persecuted the most talented Brahmins, from Tulsidas to Hazariprasad Dwivedi to Pankaj Mishra. He takes me into the fascinating vernacular domains of singers like Prahlad Tipanya, whose ceaseless journeys are so marvellously documented by the filmmaker, Shabnam Virmani. He opens the door to the complex anthropological worlds of Banaras, meticulously detailed by Nita Kumar, Philip Lutgendorf and Jonathan Parry, among others, and to its literary and intellectual history, as reconstructed by Namvar Singh, Purushottam Aggarwal, Vasudha Dalmia and Sheldon Pollock. The subtle, truant poetry of Kabir continually energizes Hindustani vocal music — from Bhimsen Joshi, to Kumar Gandharva, to Chhannulal Mishra, to Madhup Mudgal.")

"My Father's English Language", Martin Amis's very entertaining look at his father Kingsley Amis's book The King's English in an essay that is itself passionate about language ("Usage is irreversible. Once the integrity of a word is lost, no amount of grumbling and harrumphing can possibly restore it. The battle against illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms, is not a public battle. It takes place within the soul of every individual who minds about words.") and acute about its power ("We are all of us held together by words; and when words go, nothing much remains.")

"Why Tennyson Is Underrated", an essay by the limber and versatile poet and literary critic Eric Ormsby on the timelessness of Tennyson's verse, an argument he proves by some choice quotations, including these memorable lines from In Memoriam ("Old yew, which graspest at the stones/That name the underlying dead,/Thy fibres net the dreamless head,/Thy roots are wrapt about the bones."). The Underrated/Overrated series in Standpoint magazine has yielded some very provocative opinions, such as the one by Joseph Epstein on why he loves Willa Cather and can't bear Flaubert.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Love of literature and the literature of love in Aamer Hussein's The Cloud Messenger

Although they are asked, more frequently than anything else, if their books are autobiographical, all writers of fiction (and indeed all good readers) know that their work and their imagination are doubly rooted, half in life and half in literature. Over time, these two sources are intermixed so deeply that it is hard to think of one without the other: hard to experience a feeling that does not raise a phrase from a book or a line from a poem or the memory of a work as a whole, and hard to read a novel or track a poem's winding path without having a window opened onto one's own memories.

But of course novels themselves, being usually about neither writers or even readers in any significant way (perhaps the most characteristic act of reading found in novels is the typical one of someone reading a newspaper) rarely explore this double-sided condition, its truths, its failings: to do so is to risk a kind of solipsism. Very rarely there appears inside novels a finely drawn map of a literature-loving self and its relationship with the world. Aamer Hussein's The Cloud Messenger is one such book.

The novel is narrated by a man in London, Mehran, looking back on his life from the vantage of late middle age. Like most of Hussein's fictions it carries a mood both elliptical and elegiac. But what Hussein enjoys in this book, more so than the short stories for which he is thus far best-known, is a wider expanse of narrative space, a space he finesses in a quite distinctive way. Very early on in the book a number of highly suggestive triangles appear, particularly those of cities  the disparate worlds of Karachi, Indore (where Mehran's mother was born) and London  and languages: English, Urdu, and Farsi. Cities and languages are characters in this book as much as people are (something that is emphasised when we read that Karachi had given Mehran "his sense of a city's life", not just a sense of his own life). All throughout we see the protagonist being spun and shunted not just between people but also between place and tongue, a nomad in every sense of the word.

It is this complex texture and rich field of reference that gives the love stories at the centre of the novel their particular sweetness and poignancy. Over his twenties and thirties, Mehran falls in love with, and is later unable to escape the claims of, two very distinctive women -- the beautiful, flighty, and enigmatic concert pianist and photographer Riccarda, whom he meets while he is studying for a degree in Farsi, and the brilliant, tempestuous, sensation-seeking economist Marvi. Both are married when he meets them, and in a kind of flight from the facts of their life. Their arrangements with Mehran must necessarily be unorthodox; sometimes it takes years for a patch of blue sky to appear over them, and then it vanishes just as fast.

In one of the book's most beautiful passages, Mehran is suddenly summoned by Riccarda to Rome. The very look of the city  "Rome, in August, was drowsy, apricot-gold; sultrily abandoned to its silver fountains and its deep blue skies. For the first time in years, I began to imagine what it might be like to live away from London"  seems to promise a fulfilling of every call of body and soul. Mehran and Riccarda spend a few days together rapt upon wings (or, to borrow from the book's central metaphor, clouds) that appear only once or twice in life. The protagonist is seen imagining a lasting peace and stability when a call from Riccarda's husband suddenly shatters their idyll. She leaves in a rush, leaving behind Mehran to find his way back to London. On the journey back, Mehran experiences not just all the pain of heartbreak but also its resentful energy, the impulse to stoke a hundred new beginnings:
It took me thirty-six hours or more to get back to London; I travelled via Milan, changed stations at Paris, took the ferry at Calais. I cried on the boat and pretended I had hay fever in the sunny August weather. After Riccarda's sudden flight I knew that our relationship would always be full of interruptions and breaks. I had always wanted to hold on to her, missed her when she was away and found her elusive, so I gambled my body for her love, thinking that once we were lovers I would have a bigger place in her heart. I had failed. Looking at the whitish waters of the Channel now, I was making other plans: dreaming, for the first time since 1979, the year I dreamed of going off to Shiraz or Isfahan to study Persian literature there. [...] Now, again, I wanted to travel, to write essays or poems, or a short film script, perhaps, to live for a while in another country. I thought I should write a doctoral thesis or at least go along with my tutor's suggestion that I write one. Then I would settle down with someone or have a child, or adopt one, while I was still young. No room in my life for a secretive lover. I took the train from Dover to Victoria, and reached home dirty and dishevelled.
But Mehran continues to stay in touch with Riccarda, even to love her; as we see later in his relationship with the economist Marvi, in relationships he is very much the giver and not the taker. Yet as time passes, he proves much more resilient than his partners, as if nourished by a dozen wellsprings and redeemed by the grace of his own imagination. Some of this has to do with his ability to immerse himself willingly in prosaic tasks and to keep a kind of inner discipline, but some of his equanimity is also a result of the consolations of literature: a love of words, the knowledge that others have been in the same place as him and more are to come. Indeed, many of the novel's most ringing sentences have to do with Mehran's perceptions of books or writers, his precise evocation of the spirit that guides a single soul or a tradition in literature.

As a student in England, Mehran comes to realize that, although English is his first language, it an English that drinks at the fountain of another tradition: "the rolling cadences of Keats and Tennyson had always been a music as distant from my ear as the assonances of Mir and Ghalib or Faiz were close." His literary explorations take him out not just towards the great Urdu literary tradition of the subcontinent, but also the less-known one of Sindh handed down to him by his mother: "What I really wanted was to understand the work of Shah Abdul Latif, Sachal Sarmast and Khwaja Ghulam Farid, the great poets of the Indus Valley who used those age-old tales of blighted loves my mother had told us to map the experiences of the soul's longing for its origins." The voices and veneration of poets are something that he also shares in his relationship with Marvi, whose Urdu is as good as his and whose Sindhi is better; they arrive at an understanding of their condition through art's infinite power to permeate and clarify human realities:
The discipline in [Parveen] Shakir's syntax and the almost Persian grace of her complex vocabulary drew me to her verses; something else in her voice  a yearning, vulnerable intimacy beyond technique, born of our time and our generation  spoke to Marvi. (And there were verses that could have been about our relationship: 'We ought to have met/in a kinder age/in the hope of a dream/in another sky/in another land.")
But it was Shakir's broken marriage, her life as a single mother, her charisma, and most of all her early death that Marvi was drawn to.
That same "yearning, vulnerable intimacy beyond technique" can be heard at some points in Hussein's own narrative, as when Mehran comes to see that his essential condition is solitude, and that, unlike the cloud messenger of Kalidasa's Meghduta who carries a message from the lover to his beloved, in his own case he must "be a messenger to himself, carrying stories from the places of his past to his present place, and back again from present to past."

Last, it is worth dwelling upon the book's idiosyncratic narrative technique, one that stands at an angle to the large embrace, and smoothened surfaces and transitions, of conventional realism (although conventional realism, too, can be endlessly complex). In his short stories Hussein has always revealed a love of the fragment, of allusive passages that stand alone and whose relationship to the rest of the text must be resolved by the reader.

In the more expansive, detailed narrative world of The Cloud Messenger this distinctive tendency is used to complicate the story and to vary its pace and rhythm, large chapters of continuous narration being followed by single-paragraph ones that make no apology for either lyric flight or mysterious reticence. The glories of both literature and love are emphatically and memorably sounded in this most independent-minded novel, which seems like both the coming together of many themes and strands in the author's past work, and at the same time a new beginning.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Edna O'Brien's Saints and Sinners

This essay appeared last weekend in The National.

 “Is there a place for me in some part of your life?” a married man asks a woman in “Manhattan Medley”, one of the stories in the Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s new book Saints and Sinners. By asking for a place not in someone’s life, but in a part of her life, the man suggests that he wants to approach something slowly, less dramatically than affairs usually are. By speaking of a sliver and not of the whole, he perhaps indicates too that, realistically, all that he can offer is a part of his own life, and the woman understands as much. 

“We did not have a garden, we had ploughed fields and meadows,” says a girl about her family in another story, “My Two Mothers.” “Somehow I thought that a garden would be a prelude to happiness.” Although she longs for the pleasures of a garden to call her own, the girl still seems to divine that her childish desires can be but a threshold to some ideal state, not happiness but a prelude to it. These are people who seem preternaturally aware, even when in the grip of heightened feeling, of how obdurate life is, of how something may be changed or attained only by small steps, not grand sallies. Even the children are, by observing the world of adults, already adults, and the stories they narrate in O’Brien’s work are adult stories.

Saints and Sinners is the late work of a writer – late in terms of O’Brien’s own age, a vivid eighty, but not in terms of any diminution of her sensibility – to whom we owe some of the most beautiful, limpid, and resonant English prose of the twentieth century, especially that of the great The Country Girls trilogy and the stories later collected in A Fanatic Heart. Across these stories can be found all of O’Brien’s signature characters and narratorial emphases. There are the questing, emotionally dissatisfied female protagonists of small Irish towns and villages, longing for escape from boredom or stiflement; the women who think about their love affairs and the girls who watch the love affairs or marriages of their mothers. There are, too, the hardened men who want to escape from feeling or have succeeded in deadening it through drink or desolation. 

There is the landscape of fields, mountains and marshes, described in language that brings out all their strangeness (from “Inner Cowboy”: “The bogs were more peaceful, stretching to the horizon, brown and black, with cushions of moss and spagunam and the cut turf in little stooks, igloos, with the wind whistling to them, drying them out.”) And there is the society both roused and distorted by what O’Brien has elsewhere called “the hounding nature of Irish Catholicism” (“I was full of fears, thought everything was a sin,” remembers the old man Rafferty about his youth in the book’s opening story “Shovel Kings”. “If the Holy Communion touched my teeth I thought that was a mortal sin.”)

There is O’Brien’s very precise attention to the colours and textures and emotional valency of objects, as when we are shown, in “Old Wounds”, a woman turned out of her house by her son, who wanders down the road “carrying her few belongings and her one heirloom, a brass lamp with a china shade, woebegone, like a woman in a ballad.” And there is the affection for, even adoration of, people who dream and at the same time attend conscientiously to life’s duties and try to do little things well, such as the mother who, despite being poor, applies icing on a Christmas cake with “the rapture of an artist”. 

All these things are presented through a style that knows how to be ornate without being mannered and how to be plain without being poor. O’Brien achieves an effect of naturalness through a palette of options as simple as the omission of a comma where one is expected, and as complex as a clause in a sentence that seems unrelated to anything before it, as if seeking to surprise the very sentence of which it is a part.

Consider, for instance, Miss Gilhooley, the protagonist of the story “Send My Roots Rain”, which borrows its burnished title from a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins that Miss Gilhooley loves. Miss Gilhooley finds herself abruptly abandoned by a man with whom she has had a passionate affair, but remains possessed by him. Maddened by her pent-up yearning, she goes to see a psychic to see if there is a future for them. Encouragingly, the psychic foresees them “setting up a house together....She drew a picture of their future life together, one or the other, whoever got back first of an evening, kneeling to light a fire and praying that the chimney would not smoke, though at first it would, but in time that would clear, once the flue had its generous lining of soot.”

Though at first it would, but in time that would clear ­– the psychic seems to take her story much further out than she needs to, into a level of detail that should interest nobody, not even Miss Gilhooley. But it is only by her doing so that her story becomes real to Miss Gilhooley even as, on another plane, we comprehend how the writer’s narrative ingenuity has made the story real to us. The psychic’s crafty story also illuminates the craft of story. Miss Gilhooley is gulled by the psychic, but so are we, who are nowhere as susceptible.

In O’Brien’s stories men and women are always blazingly, defiantly, men and women before they are human beings. These are stories that everywhere ask us to think about what it is that constitutes their difference, a difference which undergirds both their mutual attraction and their ultimate incompatibility. Men and women feel differently, think differently, want differently, as a consequence of their biological and emotional differences, and this fact is not something to be evaded or simplified, but rather to be both experienced and rued. This sentiment may be accused of being essentialism, but in O’Brien’s stories it has always seemed, from the situations laid out before us, more like realism. 

“Never give all the heart outright – who said that?” asks Mildred, the rambling, slightly disordered narrator of the marvellous story “Madame Cassandra”. “I have read that men have cycles just like us women...we have cycles because of the presence of the uterus – hence we are subject from time to time to hysteria – whereas men’s cycles do not answer to the womb or the moon but to their own dastardly whims...they simply go on and off the creatures they call women.” 

The story is about Mildred’s visit all the way from a village up to Dublin to meet Madame Cassandra, some kind of psychic or healer, about an affair her husband is having. Madame Cassandra, however, refuses to see Mildred, but even in inaction she precipitates the story’s denouement. On the train back from Dublin Mildred runs, of all people, into her own husband, and finds that he “looked at me almost with wonder, as if he was seeing me in some way altered, his wife of twenty-two years leading a secret life, having a day up in Dublin, a rendezvous perhaps.” Mildred knows now, as they return home, that there is “a little agitation at the core of both our hearts”, and it does not matter if her husband’s rendezvous is real and her own is fiction, as long as her knowledge of the whole exceeds his. This is just one of many unusual closes and catharses in the work of this sensuous, rueful and sublime writer.

And some links: a long interview with O'Brien from 1984 in The Paris Review is here, and a recent one, "Edna O'Brien at 80" is here.