Friday, January 28, 2011

A response to Hartosh Singh Bal (again), and a note on Open magazine

Here are some thoughts, some of them reposted from the magazine website, on the recent Open magazine controversy about the current state of Indian literature (1, 2, 3), and especially Hartosh Singh Bal's last piece, "Does Dalrymple Know What Racism Really Is?"

Unfortunately, Open magazine strikes me as being greatly fascinated by the subject of Indian literature without really being interested in the actual books that comprise it – interested, that is, in literary opinion without the actual work of considered and independent-minded literary judgment.

Indeed, Open's own recent books coverage seems to me an excellent example of the very Anglo-servility that the magazine decries so passionately – and, on this evidence, hypocritically – in another section of its pages.

Consider this: two out of three books pieces in the current issue of January 22 are, respectively, an immensely long interview with the obscure Rowan Somerville, winner of this year's Bad Sex In Fiction Award (which is handed out by a British literary magazine) and then, even more perplexingly, a review of Somerville's book itself. It's as if no worthy books appeared in India this week, and as if the Bad Sex In Fiction prize is actually a major honour that requires readers to scramble towards the neglected book in question in the same way as a Crossword Literary Prize or a Booker.

If this isn't the most slavish genuflection at the feet of literary England (and that too over a minor episode within England's own literary culture) then what is? And aren't Indian writers who've put years of hard work into books that might have been released this week entitled to be dismayed by the magazine's misplaced priorities?

What is most disturbing for Indian writers about this is that Open's editor, Manu Joseph, is himself an Indian novelist of some repute, and winner of last year's The Hindu Best Fiction Award for his novel Serious Men. Serious Men, when it came out last year, was widely reviewed in the Indian press, perhaps partly because – if one wants to make an Open-like case for too much foreign influence – the book had already been sold in other major literary markets and gained plenty of pre-release notice, but also, to my mind, because it was indeed a genuinely good book (as I myself argue here).

But it seems clear, looking at the pages of Open, that the close consideration of literary merit from which Joseph himself benefited, and without which he might have not won the prize, is not a courtesy that he is usually willing to extend on the pages of his magazine to other Indian novelists – particularly those who appear in translation and need all the attention they can get (even if positive things are finally not said about their work) if we are to become a genuinely equitable literary culture.

It seems to me nothing short of scandalous that the magazine should allot precious review space to books like Somerville's, for no other reason than that the word "sex" and a constellation of related activities is activated by this focus, while blithely ignoring recent releases by major Indian writers, such as the great Kannada novelist UR Ananthamurthy's novel Bharathipura, which has just appeared in English translation.

If Mr.Bal and Mr.Joseph are really as exercised by the idea of a continuing Indian "literary Raj" as they claim to be, and are looking for further evidence to help prosecute their case, they need look no further than the books section of this week's edition of their own magazine. The questions they might pose to themselves then are, for the first time in this long-drawn and unsavoury episode, sure to yield some genuinely valuable answers.

Last, some of the atrocious tabloid-style reports that then appeared in the major Indian newspapers during the Jaipur Literature Festival only confirmed that this sort of bad faith and empty posturing is a widespread malaise in Indian letters.

Consider, for example, the absurdly snide and disrespectful tone of this fairly typical piece, for which it would be pointless to blame only the writer whose byline appears on it. If this kind of writing was merely the result of ignorance and linguistic disability, then it might still be condoned.

But the truth is such work actually represents a carefully worked out and calculated cynicism, which sees literature less as an autonomous entity with books at its centre, and more as a subset of the celebrity-and-entertainment-gossip industry, to be sexed up whenever possible and reduced to personalities rather than works. Let's face it – it's the newspapers (with a few honorable exceptions) that want writing like this, perhaps because it attracts eyeballs, even if for all the wrong reasons, and helps bring in advertising revenues. These are the kinds of ugly, trivialising, homegrown power structures, numbing our minds day after day, by which Indian literature is, far more than any foreign literary raj, tragically held hostage.

My original response to Bal's essay in the magazine is here:

Hartosh Singh Bal's latest salvo -- and his first in Indian letters as a chest-thumping, hard-drinking Sardar, a persona that was only implicit in his earlier detonations -- seems to me to make no other point than that he is spoiling for a fight. Reading his "rebuttal", I could hear the nagada drum booming violently in every paragraph.

What seems most suspicious about Bal's piece is that, although he insists that his argument is more about a larger issue than about personalities, he loses no opportunity to drag the debate down to just that: a wrestle in the akhada or a guzzle-contest in the bar. In his conclusion, he might have re-emphasised that, in making the arguments he does, he had the good of Indian literature at heart. Instead, we got a gust of hot air about Sikhs and Scots (which ended up, as one commenter pointed out, actually meaning the very opposite of what it intended).

There seems little point in trying to refute any of Bal's allegations and insinuations, as it seems clear from these pieces that he's not one to admit that he's anything other than one hundred per cent right. It was only if his piece had been properly reasoned to begin with that one could have had a reasoned debate with him.

I'd just like to make a few remarks about the point at which Bal says, of Dalrymple and Jaipur: "Much has also been made by him and others of the diversity or range of the Jaipur festival. That in no way takes away from the point I am making. In the same way that the need for equal-opportunity employment betrays an unequal society, the need to stress this aspect only emphasises that the people who remain the focus of attention at the festival are not homegrown."

Having been to the Jaipur Literaure Festival four of the five years it has been in existence (including the first year, when it had tiny audiences of 40 or 50 people at most events), I'd like to say that Bal's comparison of the festival programme to "equal-opportunity employment" is not just unfair but deliberately (and indeed predictably) disingenuous, particularly since he has never been to the event himself and relies, for his allegations, completely on hearsay.

Over the years I've gone with my notebook and pen to many of what, after Bal, one would have to call the "homegrown" events at the festival, and profited enormously from listening to Sheldon Pollock on the Sanskrit literary cosmopolis of a thousand years ago and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra on the state of Indian literary criticism, watching Naveen Kishore's film on Mahasweta Devi, learning from S.Anand and Omprakash Valmiki talk about Dalit literature. and hearing the electric sounds of Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain's dastangoi, the gravelly voice of Gulzar reading his poems, and the beautiful cadences and wit and rhetorical flair of Ashok Vajpeyi's Hindi.

In my experience, if there is a space where the festival is distorted, it's in its representation in the Indian media, which reports mostly on the big-name authors and ignores all the other riches on view, riches the worth of which our newspapers and magazines (and here Open is as guilty as anybody) should be doing their best to communicate to the lay reader.

I'd even meet Bal halfway, and grant that, buried deep somewhere in his unpersuasive and splenetic piece, he has a point about the larger power dynamics of Indian literature and publishing.

But if Bal really feels so passionately about Indian literature and how it remains a kind of satellite of the London literary establishment, looking westward for all its cues, then one would expect to see from his pen, alongside the work of attacking deeply entrenched interests and biases, pieces that advance the appreciation of actual Indian novels, plays, or poems, or that champion Indian writers who are unfairly neglected. But the only reading of an actual text that he offers anywhere in his work is that of William Dalrymple's bio on the festival website, one that he gleefully brings up again and again, as if by tracking it all our doubts and ambiguities can be magically resolved. This is just juvenile.

I've read some of Bal's other work, such as the essay on the Narmada river and Gond tribal narratives and artworks that he published in the Asia Literary Review in 2008, and found him, in this avatar, to be a much more complex and subtle writer than he comes across as being here. I'd like to submit (at the risk of discovering that he can no longer restrain his urge to reply in Punjabi) that, in crude jeremiads like this one, Bal is not only being unfair to William Dalrymple and the Jaipur Literary Festival, he is above all being unfair to himself.

And an old post from 2009: "A reply to Hartosh Singh Bal".

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On the novels of Herta Müller

This essay appeared recently in The National.

To read the work of the Romanian novelist Herta Müller is to feel, instantly, that the lights of one's everyday world have been switched off, and that one is in a place of danger, of an amorphous dread. Müller's protagonists, powerless but mildly peeved individuals living under the yoke of a tyrannical regime, are the agents of this immersion into paranoia. Perennially watched, or suspecting they are being watched (for even the most innocent bystanders "might be doing a little spying on the side"), they are themselves ever-watchful, living, even at their most secure, in "a tousled state of fear".

The most common kinds of social interaction in Müller's world are interrogation, observation, or conspiracy -- power and the attempt to subvert power. Material life is abject, private life narrowed down to a set of desultory gestures, and small spurts of emotion or sensory stimulation take on a heightened significance in these novels, which enact, through the very texture of their bleak and enigmatic sentences, the debilitation of human personality in a world in which every person feels himself incarcerated, choiceless. "What am I taking away from this country by going to another," the narrator asks her interrogator in Müller's novel The Appointment. The answer, of course, is "yourself", for without subjects there can be no dictatorship.

The Appointment opens, familiarly, with a scene of coercion. "I was summoned," begins the narrator, a young factory worker whose name we never get to know. Desperate to leave the country, she has been caught sewing notes into the linings of men's suits bound for Italy, entreating the buyer to marry her. This real "crime" has become, in turn, the foundation for fictive ones. The narrator's supervisor, an older man called Nelu who is upset with her for spurning his advances, has concocted some new notes on the same lines as her own, signed off with a spiteful touch -- "Best wishes from the dictatorship" -- and passed these over to the authorities. State power and sexual resentment spin a web around the protagonist, and she and her boyfriend are now enmired. Her summoning engulfs her totally, and is thus aptly her introduction. As we see her taking a tram on her way to her menacing appointment, she tells us that she is expecting the worst, that "today I'm carrying a small towel, a toothbrush, and some toothpaste in my handbag."

Like The Land of Green Plums, perhaps Müller's best-known novel in English translation, The Appointment proffers a series of plangent, elliptical vignettes of life under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's dictator between the years 1974 and 1989. In these novels Ceausescu is never mentioned by name; rather, his reign is treated almost as a fact of life, like the coming and going of the seasons or the onset of old age and decrepitude.

Unlike many novels in the 20th century's vast library of the literature of totalitarianism, Müller's books do not offer us a redemptive map of the struggle to keep hope and humanity alive under conditions of the worst physical or psychological oppression (like the Russians Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vasily Grossman), or else concoct a kind of grotesque comedy from the contradictions that they find before them (like, say, the Chinese novelists Mo Yan and Ma Jian). Their words and situations replicate, rather than contest with a vivid rhetoric of their own, the banality and the stupor of a life lived to the tune of empty slogans (in Green Plums, workers' choruses play all day long from loudspeakers attached to the walls of student dormitories) and reflexive persecution.

A network of causes and effects is not drawn out; the stoical protagonists just accept that the air is bad, and try to keep going a life that, in the words of one character, is "just the farty splutter of a lantern, not even worth the bother of putting your shoes on". These are books that, in effect, make the same demands of their readers as the life that they depict makes of their protagonists, with gradually accumulating tensions suddenly being muffled by anti-climax. Like JMG Le Clezio, the French-Mauritian novelist who won the Nobel Prize the year before her in 2008, Müller is one of those independent-minded writers who don't so much reach out to the reader as ask to be reached.

The Appointment is stretched out upon a frame of double time: the present moment, in which we see the protagonist taking the tram to her interrogation early one morning, watching the people around her and making guesses about their lives with a practised eye, and, balanced against this, the swoops and circles of memory as she lives what may be her last hours of freedom. She remembers her father, a bus driver whose affair with a vegetable seller is part of a recurring pattern in the book in which older men prey on young women; her friend Lilli, who was shot dead on the border while trying to flee with her lover, a retired army officer; her ex-husband, who nearly threw her off a bridge when he found out she wanted to leave him; and her lover Paul, whom she first met at the flea market while trying to sell her wedding ring.

In one of the novel's best moments, the narrator tries to imagine what might have gone through the mind of the young border guard whose bullet took the life of her best friend. "When he fired, he was just a man on duty, a miserable sentry under a vast heaven where the wind whistled loneliness day and night," she thinks. "Lilli's living flesh gave him shivers, and her death was heaven-sent, an unexpected gift of ten days' leave… Perhaps a woman like me was waiting, someone who, although she couldn't measure up to the dead woman, could nonetheless laugh and caress her man in the grip of love until he felt like a human being." By extinguishing the life of a human being then, the guard, under the incentive scheme of a perverted order, has his own prospects for humanity returned to him.

Müller documents the slow descent of her protagonist into paranoia ("I've been listening to the alarm clock since three in the morning ticking ten sharp, ten sharp, ten sharp"), and the small obsessive gestures and dependencies of someone in trouble ("Once the nut's been cracked, it loses its power if it opens overnight.") Sometimes this kind of work risks shrinking into mannerism. Her narrator spends almost unreasonable amounts of time thinking about things like the precise colour of apples or leaves or the surfaces of windows -- this is a world in which the life of objects almost equals that of human beings (a theme amplified in Müller's Nobel lecture, appended here to the text of the novel, in which a handkerchief laid out upon a staircase becomes Müller's office after she is thrown out of her workplace).

Indeed, at one point the protagonist finds, wrapped in a piece of paper inside her handbag, "a finger with a bluish-black nail", and cannot figure out whether this object, in its own grisly afterlife, connects to life or to death -- "whether the whole person was dead, or just his finger". It is this strange mingling of the quotidian and the macabre that one remembers when one puts down the work of this difficult but distinctive writer.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

In conversation with Orhan Pamuk this Friday

This Friday, the 21st of January, on the opening morning of the Jaipur Literature Festival, I'm going to be in conversation with Orhan Pamuk for an hour at a discussion called "Pamuk and the Art of the Novel".

I've always loved Pamuk's novels (which I find serious and playful in exactly the right proportions), and consider him fundamental to my own education as a novelist. His work combines, in a very original way, the realist novelist's love of psychological exploration and a compelling "illusion of reality" with a postmodernist's skepticism, trickery, and self-consciousness about form. My Name Is Red and The Musem of Innocence are two of the greatest stories about love, desire, the body, and time that I've ever read. An old post from 2006 on Pamuk's novel My Name Is Red is here, and a long review of his book of essays Other Colours here.

I'll also be in conversation with the Scottish novelist James Kelman, winner of the Booker Prize in 1992 for How Late It Was, How Late, at 3.30 that afternoon, and will be moderating a panel discussion called "Imaginary Homelands" on the afternoon on the 22nd.

Last, you'll find on sale in the festival bookshop the Indian edition of my anthology India: A Traveller's Literary Companion, just out this month from HarperCollins. The introduction to the book is here, and a short interview about how I put the book together here.

See you in Jaipur!