Writing

A Strange, Familiar Place

This Place ♦

By Amitabha Bagchi
Fourth Estate / HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2013, 253 pp.,
Rs 499 (HB)
ISBN 978-93-5116-018-2

thisplaceAfter being suspended from his government job, Naresh Kumar, the title character in Amitabha Bagchi’s previous book, The Householder (Fourth Estate, 2012), finds himself a stranger in his own house. He waits desperately for the evening, “The time after which this house, which he had plotted and pleaded and sweated to have allotted to him, this house where every single object, durable and consumable, had been bought with the money he had earned, this house where every single person ate because he worked, this house that didn’t seem to possess the generosity to keep him during the day, this same house would open up and welcome him back. Shamelessly ignoring the fact that he had not left all day, the house would readmit him into its rigid routine.”

“This house” is the particular locus of Bagchi’s second novel, but the question of how people make and unmake – and are made and unmade by – place is present in all three of his books, which have sometimes been slotted into categories circumscribed by setting: the campus novel (Above Average, HarperCollins, 2007), the Delhi novel (The Householder), and the immigrant novel (This Place).

This Place takes in the larger reality of an entire city, Baltimore, but focusses its plot and action around one stretch of 26th Street, where its small cast of characters live. Compared to Naresh – a man mired in his relationships with the world, whose form of rebellion (a contemplated affair with his secretary) is almost as tawdry a cliché as the confines of his mundane middle-class life – the main character in This Place, Jeevan, is a cipher. Formerly a taxi driver, Jeevan has been in America for a long time but never quite lived there. He looks at other immigrants, settling into their new lives and sometimes tries “to want the things that they wanted”. Early in the book, he walks into his house and “for a moment it felt like he was visiting himself, Jeevan Sharma, an old acquaintance. He felt a twinge of curiosity, as if he had known this Jeevan Sharma when they were both much younger and was eager to see what his life was like now and how he kept his house.” In a sense, This Place is the story of how he discovers himself through the people around him on 26th street.

On one level, Jeevan already knows that this closeness to his neighbours goes beyond proximity and has a premonition that “he could stay in this place for a long time”. Besides Jeevan, on the four houses on 26th street there’s Miss Lucy, an elderly black lady who plays the organ and makes him pancakes; Henry, who never missed a day of work before he retired, and whose idol is Cal Ripken, Jr (the Baltimore baseball player who holds a record for consecutive games played); and the younger, more transient characters Matthew and Kay, a couple with marital problems who have just moved in. Jeevan’s Pakistani boss, Shabbir, owns three of the four houses and holds court at his Food Point restaurant nearby. As the diversity of the characters implies, this is not the “immigrant fiction” of the ghetto, but the story of a few people at a crossroads, unrelated by blood, yet functioning like family.

Bagchi is also especially interested in characters in transitional places, whether it’s The Householder’s government flats (where “there was always a near or distant future looming ahead… they would have to return this house to the government, ‘surrender it’…”) or the IIT-Delhi campus in Above Average. In This Place, Baltimore itself is in upheaval at the end of the 1990s. After years of neglect, the city administration, with the backing of Johns Hopkins University, is taking over 26th street for “urban renewal”. Bagchi casts “The City” as a larger entity, imposing its own agency upon its inhabitants. “The City has exercised its rights,” one of its representatives tells Miss Lucy. “The City has the power, they are using their power,” Shabbir tells Jeevan, “And we are all going to benefit.”

Larger economic shifts may be driving the City, but it is Shabbir, one of its newer residents, who celebrates and implements its decisions. “This hell will become heaven, Jeevan bhai,” Shabbir says, anticipating how highly he will be compensated for his property, “and we will be landlords in heaven.” Attachment to the old buildings and old neighbours is foolish, Shabbir explains to his son, who wants to help save the houses by registering them as historical landmarks. “What history is there in this two-hundred-year-old country anyway? In Lahore, every mohalla had a six-hundred-year-old-building just sitting there with birds shitting all over it.” He takes Miss Lucy to a new house and she protests that “I didn’t birth two children here… My husband didn’t fall down dead here.” He replies, “Your final home is in the sky with your god. Till then, if living here is your destiny, you must accept it.”

Bagchi is a writer who flirts with stereotypes, complicating them through his characters’ actions. While Shabbir’s motivations are primarily pecuniary, this “greedy man’s ruthless acquisitiveness” is tempered by “a version of honesty”. Jeevan is Shabbir’s accountant and moral compass — accepting his shady business dealings while drawing a line when the landlord tries to keep his ownership of Miss Lucy’s house a secret and to profit from it. Jeevan may be putting down roots in shifting ground, but it’s precisely this churning that allows him to realise the extent of his attachment to other people. Another character reflects that “This time it wasn’t he who would leave but the place itself.” The threat of a reverse type of displacement compels Jeevan.

Bagchi also excels at monologues and dialogue, and he often uses both to stylistically reflect the book’s themes. Henry’s uninterrupted retelling of his past in an early soliloquy mirrors the stasis (soon to be shattered) of the city he has known for “seventy some” years. During a dinner conversation between Jeevan and Shabbir at a Chinese eatery, intrusions by the owner and delivery boy and the random dialogue of fellow diners captures the fragmentary, cheek-by- jowl nature of urban life. Readers who liked the compressed style of Bagchi’s previous books may find This Place disappointing: the writing feels sparser than the college slang-filled dialogue and almost fetishistic descriptions of Delhi in Above Average, or the thick descriptions of babudom and domestic life in The Householder. In some of This Place, Bagchi uses the lighter touch of short story writing, inviting sustained intimacy through a description or a dialogue, but dancing away from overly long digressions in favour of punch and concision.

Bagchi wrote This Place before he wrote The Householder, but the subtle stylistic difference seems more like an authorial choice than the result of a lack of experience. Bagchi has described in a note how he wanted This Place to echo the emptiness of the paintings of Edward Hopper, “landscapes marked by human habitation but empty of human figures,” that imply an understanding of “the essential transience of human life and [a] hope for permanence” on what humans build. At the end of each chapter, Bagchi appends a coda that riffs on a word or a theme from the preceding pages through a conversation between anonymous strangers or a description of the cityscape. Some are oblique, such as a conversation about homemade versus box pancakes overheard on a bus. Others are heavyhanded; one chapter ends in a vision of decrepit, bullet-riddled walls and then an assertion, almost in the voice of the City: “What do we do with this place? … Perhaps the best way is to start from scratch. Demolish them, each last one of them. Pulverize them. We need to start afresh. A clean slate. We won’t make the same mistakes this time.”

These codas, and Bagchi’s excursions into characters’ back-stories and inner lives, all accumulate to create an excess of incompleteness, an almost claustrophobic lightness. He approximates the surface emptiness and sudden intimacy of urban American life itself. Space – a limitless resource to be conquered, administered and turned to profit – supersedes place. When Kamran and Kay dissect the significance of the words “our past” in the criteria for registering a historic landmark, Kamran says, ‘“I don’t think that their ‘our’ means us,’ … ‘It’s like, you know, a bigger ‘our’.” “Yeah,” said Kay. “That’s what’s funny. It’s an “our” that includes us, but it’s so big that it doesn’t mean us.”’

These characters try, and fail, to resist the erosion of place – “This place will not be here in a few months’ time,” says Jeevan – but find what refuge they can in planning a future together — “And all of you will be in all the places you’ll be in,” answers Matthew. The idea echoes Walt Whitman’s “A Song For Occupations,” (Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman / James R Osgood and Company / 1881-82), which encourages “You workwomen and workmen of these States”, who build the nations’ cities, to make some meaning too, out of each other’s company:

Will you seek afar off? you surely come back at last,
In things best known to you finding the best, or as good as the best,
In folks nearest to you finding the sweetest, strongest, lovingest,
Happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place, not for another hour but this hour,
Man in the first you see or touch, always in friend, brother, nighest neighbor…

Originally published in the March-April 2014 issue of Biblio.

Read as a PDF here:

Published: April 16, 2014

Chukandar chop

Beetroot patties ♦

beetrootHere’s a beetroot, juiced for breakfast and its fibrous bits turned into patties for lunch. With lettuce and tomatoes from the veranda gamlas.

Beetroot patties: Fibre of one beetroot (also happened to be two carrots, a cucumber, and mint in there, but only because this was all juice byproduct); 1 egg; bunch of dalia flakes; half a small onion; some garlic; whatever spices were in reach (bunch of fresh basil, dried red pepper, oregano, pepper, salt)… Mushed up, moulded into four patties, pan-fried in olive oil, consumed.

 

Published: April 12, 2014

Here’s looking at you

The eyes have it ♦

On the occasional morning, a tall, dark, handsome man and his short, dark, even more handsome Labrador visit the pocket-handkerchief of a park opposite my house. Once in awhile, the man happens to look up towards my balcony and, suddenly, the world is transformed. The scraggly park becomes a charbagh set with generously leafy trees, rustling and reticulated in myriad shades of green, from parrot’s feather to peacock’s tail. The weedy flowerbeds into which the dog is relieving himself become a many-splendoured gulistaan. And I’m no longer a half-asleep lecher in rumpled nightie with a pillow-streaked face, but the girl in a Bru ad, looking out mysteriously over a suggestively steamy mug of coffee, my cheeks dewy and flushed, hair impossibly kempt.

Then he guiltily looks down at his mobile, and I dart back behind my newspaper, and the spell is broken.

I’d almost forgotten, over the past year or so, about this game of harmless flirtation, played with two pairs of eyes, and with no real object but momentary elation. From newspaper articles to Internet forums, concern about the violence of the male gaze has been so much more in focus. As a viral video released by film students last December 16 suggested, all escalating eve-teasing – brushing, nudging, whistling, pinching and worse – is built upon this foundation of ladki ko galat dekhna. In “Dekh Le”, the ogling men find their daft expressions reflected back to them when the object of their gaze slams down a visor, slips on a mirror pendant or dark glasses, or adjusts a purse. In this fantasy, the daily negotiation of public space is won by women who put the coffee shop creeps and scooter sideys firmly in their place.

But if the current moment is all about reflecting and correcting the inherent violence of the Indian leer, a part of me still romanticises the abundant celebration in our art – in poetry, film and fiction – of the look of lust. If the brazen, impudent looks of the drunken lout worry us now, it was also the mischievous, flashing eyes of the lover that drove the poets to drink. I may be ideali­sing an aesthetic device; nigahon ka khel is a safer game in theory than in practice; but I still hope that between nazron ke teer chalana and aankhon pe mar jana, there’s some possibility of agency, and pleasure, for both parties.

I remember the summer of my awakening, in my early teens, into a world of unfettered visual impulse, of constant sizing-up of men. Until then, I was mostly disdainful of the hot gossip of who-liked-who and who-did-who that kept the pubescent student body of my American middle school on a constant boil. But on a visit to India that summer, my dormant hormones kicked into high gear. I couldn’t stop ogling and mentally ordering. I became a connoisseur of jaw-lines, hairlines and degrees of stubble. You name it, I objectified it: men in tight jeans with non-existent asses; men in uniforms that creased awkwardly around their hips; men in bright spandex shirts and cotton bush-shirts and particularly men in graceful kurtas and flowing pyjamas; men with puffy hair like old film stars, or centre-parts like Salman Khan; even Salman Khan himself, larger than life and hotter than the summer sun, a star fixed in a firmament of PVC flex.

Eventually superego caught up with id and I learned to look away, or not at all. For women on the street, it’s easier to think of men as one undifferentiated pack to be avoided, rather than a species with many variations, to be observed with curiosity, to be considered individually, or catalogued for future fantasising. We use the phrase “shamelessly ogle”, but it seems to me unfortunate that the familiar male stare is always either laden with shame, or else lascivious, but laced with moral judgment.

The past year has brought editorials, articles and umpteen tweets suggesting that India needs a sexual revolution – a good cleansing romp and a round through the wringer to rid us of our dirty shame. I fear the reality of such a revolution would be even more excruciating, and even less cathartic, than sitting through Imtiaz Ali’s Highway.

But I do wish there was something between engaging with the unbearably cocky head-to-toe appraisal and going around blinkered like a gelded horse – and not just in the socially sanctioned spaces of the city where the rules of class and gender are complex but clearly understood.

Maybe romance is just the art of channeling the heat behind an initial look, through the complicated conduits of language, and back to pure heat. Still, what separates the men and women from the dogs and pigeons is the ability to indulge in the pointless yet pleasurable exchange of glances that can be its own reward. I believe the man with the Labrador in the park understands this. We’ll probably never exchange more than a half-smile each, but he knows I’m keeping an eye on him.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2014

Published: April 12, 2014

Scent of a season

Farewell to winter ♦

Winter ends as it began, its first and last trace a lingering scent, like the whiff of tobacco on a smoker’s shawl. All season, the city has mostly been a smudged landscape in indeterminate shades of grey, lifted from a palette of fog, smog, smoke, haze and mist. Hindi might have even more words to describe Delhi’s mix of pollution and precipitation in all its hoary proportions – from the frosty tuhin and tushaar to the dusty dundh, dud and gubaar, not to mention the many variations on kohra: kuha, kuhasa, kuheri, kohar.

If the many gradations of fog can be named, the scents of winter deserve a proper cataloguing too. Compared to the heavy summer attars of jasmine and khas – or, if you prefer, of sweat spiked with coriander and slow-baked asphalt marinated in piss – the dry, ephemeral perfumes of winter are harder to pin down. All the more so because they’re often sniffed through snot-blocked olfactory passages.

The early winter festivals and initial round of auspicious wedding dates assail the senses first, with loud bangs and puffs of gunpowder. An instantly recognisable seasonal marker is the acrid, floating aroma of firecrackers, slightly mellowed by wafts of perfume from the blooming alstonia scholaris trees – what a friend once poetically called saptaparni and cordite.

As winter progresses and the nightly mist descends, black spumes unfurl against the white, pungent petrol exhaust spewing from the backsides of incontinent cars and buses. But the diesel fumes sputtering forth from generators all summer give way to the more chemical odour of trash and plastic being burned, mixing with the leafy smoke curling up from tightly rolled beedis, which glow between the tightly cupped hands of squatting men, swaddled in beige shawls. Trailed gently by must and hay, off-white horses trot past them, sporting faded red caparisons. Our own pea soupers taste more than smell – soft and almost liquid on the tongue. The stench of the Yamuna is tamped down and masked by the flourishing carpet of greenery spreading over its banks. Gardens around the city are fragrant with the light, flirty scents of chrysanthemums and sweet peas. Expensive synthetic colognes mix with gladioli in guldastas bound for parties, where the strangely spearminty smell of dark rum swirls out of glasses, mingling with wisps of clove-spiced smoke from lit gudang garams. Not to mention the seductively boozy bouquet of brandy-soaked plum puddings.

Of course, the best winter smells are the ones that seem to filter straight down to the stomach. Hot tea, frothing up from saucepans and releasing gingery steam. Cast iron, heated by coal – the base note for a whole subgenre of charred smells: desiccated kernels of corn; salty peanuts; floury, crumbly roasted naan khatai.

Then there’s the thick, sweetish smoke rising from knobbly piles of shakarkandi, its thin skin singed; its insides soft. And the buttery, sugary, sesame-tinged aroma of chikki and gajjak and laddoos made of gur. The gooey, ghee and cashew fragrance of halwa emanating from great pans of either the earthy moong daal stuff or the juicier, more vegetal gajar. And finally, the faintly milky, pistachio-and-saffron perfume of daulat ki chaat, which is less food, more transubstantiated winter cloud.

Signalling the beginning of the end, the wood-stacked fires of Lohri blaze before the houses in my neighbourhood, and large families gather around the flames. Red-cheeked, powder-caked babies in their pom-pom caps with tasselled ear flaps cuddle in their mothers’ arms. Fattened these past few months on kababs and paneer pakoras, the young men emanate undertones of cheese and grease, with top notes of deodorant and hair gel, while the girls give off traces of fresh methi, gulab jal and hot jalebis.

The old men throw popcorn into the fire, sitting spread-legged in plastic chairs, their bald heads cosy under turbans, hats and scarves. Grandmothers with tiny, scraped-together buns huddle under woollies, their feet toasty in thick socks with toes, easy to slip between their rubber chappal thongs. The bodies of the elderly, like well-varnished antique instruments, are suffused with heavy oils of mustard and almond. But the strong infusion of camphor has finally faded from their shawls.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2014

Published: January 31, 2014

Burnt offerings

Seasonal rituals ♦

IMG_20111022_215251In the narrow confines of Eve’s tailoring shop in Greater Kailash, bunched up between the brocade-covered, sequin-strewn counters and the walls plastered with neckline patterns, a queue of ladies jostles surreptitiously, packed like the rack of blouses hanging behind the unflappable form and appraising eyes of owner Vineet Kumar. In the old city, where Nai Sarak spills into Chawri Bazaar, a flurry of stiff orange, red and golden paper, embossed with elephant heads, swastikas and cursive letters, eddies between the kuchas and katras, trails from boxfuls of last-minute orders being fetched and carried by cycle rickshaw.

Deghs of biryani, sent up from the smoke-singed kitchens of Nizamuddin and Jamia Nagar, traverse Delhi in tempos; tandoors and live pasta stations are lugged by caterers in their brand-emblazoned vans. People stuck in traffic on the road to Chhatarpur sit in their SUVs and sedans, clutching gifts wrapped in silver paper, craning their necks to look at intermittent fireworks in the sky. White horses prance past florist shops, where men snip flower stems, tease petals apart, plump up blossoms and pad cellophane bouquets with strange, glittery foliage. From Shalimar Bagh to Shahdara, the desolate bulwark of banquet halls that rings the city suddenly comes alive with coloured lights and dhinchak remixes. Besides the season’s roses and chrysanthemums, lawns everywhere sprout orchids and marigolds, tent-poles, braziers and dance floors. On the phone from Sadar Bazaar, a leaf-plate wholesaler informs me that one hundred guests is laughably small for a Delhi party; he will be obliged to charge retail rates.

It’s that time of year – when the weather and the stars align, and the city plays host to people from all over the country and the world, supporting a seasonal economy in which to sink one’s Diwali bonus. There are friends and relatives to squeeze in, politicians to pander to with extra-gilded invitations, acquaintances to cull into lists of varying importance, and party crashers to prevent from getting to the bar.

The occasion of marriage somehow transforms individuals into an array of stereotypes; the wedding guests assemble as a recurrent cast of characters: blingy aunty and boozehound uncle, pedantic panditji, stressed saas-to-be, nervous bridegroom and gora guest of honour. Anyone who’s been to a Delhi party would find Flaubert’s description of the attendees of the wedding in Madame Bovary utterly familiar: “The ladies, in their best bonnets, wore town-made costumes, gold watch-chains, tippets with ends crossing over at the waist… The little boys, dressed like their papas, seemed rather ill at ease in their new clothes… and alongside of them, not daring to utter a word, and wearing her white first communion dress lengthened for the occasion… a gawky girl of anything from fourteen to sixteen – a sister or a cousin, no doubt – all red and flustered, her hair plastered down with strong-smelling pomade and terribly afraid of soiling her gloves.” Just replace the communion dress with an over-starched sari, the gloves with its dragging pallu.

The Bovary wedding – a grand, provincial contrast to Emma’s later aspirations and penury – was “a great party where they sat down forty-three to table and remained there sixteen hours, a party which started again next day, and went on, more or less, for several days following”. “Old quarrels had been patched up” in its honour. At a south Delhi wedding I attended, two aunts – sisters who don’t speak to each other – sat on opposite sides of the room at the sangeet. Someone opened a composition notebook with raunchy Punjabi lyrics and the singing began. One sister was shepherded towards the other. Their mother had been famous for her particularly saucy renditions, and though the estranged sisters didn’t look at each other, they couldn’t resist the chorus of shaavaas, and suddenly both were singing with one voice. Not a patching up, but a temporary seam, tacked together during a moment of celebration. And then a Pakistani guest who knew the Punjabi folksongs better than most of us joined in, prompting more emotion than the Google “Reunion” video.

Maybe it was all this getting together that inspired me to host my own winter get-together. And as fun as that was, it was also a reminder that while Delhi parties sometimes bridge divides, they are also clannish moments of exclusion that reinforce the rules of distance between those who provide and those who consume.

After the party and probably due to said consumption, I dreamt that our security guard stood in the lawn with a whiskey in hand, chatting with a newspaper columnist about the impending elections. The dream, like the final scene in Monsoon Wedding where the maid dances with memsahib, like the urge to start chatting up the guys who come around with kebabs, was pure fantasy. The staff whose ceremonies I’ve attended over the years haven’t exactly been guests at our parties. When I first moved to Delhi, I tried throwing together friends from diverse backgrounds, but a couple of awkward situations led to more carefully curated lists.

The next morning, while clearing away half-drunk bottles of cheap wine, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, who wondered how to defend herself from the accusation that she entertained only because “she enjoyed imposing herself; liked to have famous people about her; great names; was simply a snob in short.” “What’s the sense of your parties?” she imagines another character asking. The hostess comes to believe she is motivated by an impulse to stitch together the disconnected realities of the people she knows: “the sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?

“An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps,” Mrs Dalloway concludes. Yet in Delhi during party season, her question hangs like smog over the idling traffic fumes, the fireworks and flowers, the piles of trash people burn to stay warm.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, December 20, 2013.

Published: December 21, 2013

Club Pangaea

Guilt plated ♦

photo 5Judging by the tremors Pangaea has caused in the lifestyle media with the news of its opening, the nightclub at the Hotel Ashok promises a seismic shift in the after dark life of the capital. The club aims to “redefine high-end entertainment”, said Spice Global chairman and owner BK Modi in Blouin ArtInfo. Reservations will cost up to Rs 4 lakh a table, reported Forbes India. The Pangaea club in Singapore, reportedly serves a $26,000 cocktail. Collaborator Michael van Cleef Ault – an inter­national nightlife baron who created the Pangaea brand (yes, he’s one of those van Cleefs) – said the Delhi club is “a sensuous and brilliant journey into the decadence of the Renaissance”. Is Pangaea all it’s cracked up to be? To find out, we headed to the Ashok one Friday night. A velvet rope and a small army of bouncers and hosts in black uniform stood outside where F-Bar used to be, bowing us in without a peep about cover charge or table price. We suppose the generosity and the warm welcome was bestowed upon us due to the relatively early hour (about 10pm), and our gender. Milling about inside were more waiters and two European women in red dresses. Around us: walls padded with red velvet – somewhere between bordello and loony bin, chandeliers and thick curtains, drawn apart to reveal some startling wall décor looming above the leather sofas. Front and centre is Eugène Delacroix’s “The Death of Sardanapalus”, which depicts an Assyrian king overseeing the murder of his harem to protect it from his enemies. Is the figure of a naked woman, bent painfully backwards in the grip of a man plunging a dagger towards her throat, really the best embellishment for a Delhi drinking hole? Will the patrons Ault mentioned in a Sunday Guardian interview – “Indian jet-setters”, “Delhi’s most affluent”, “the Bollywood star, the Hollywood star, the super­models and rock stars” – relish the opportunity to appreciate this classic of French Romanticism as an example of what Edward Said called “the Oriental genre tableau”, while nursing their bejewelled cocktails? We doubt it. Even if this were Prufrock, not Pangaea, that might be too much to ask. Anyway, neither famous people nor fancy cocktails were visible on our visit. In fact, there was no cocktail menu at all. When we asked for something interesting, we were offered the standard choices of “Cosmopolitan? Mojito?” The club plans to offer bottle service, but that night they didn’t even have Johnnie Walker. It’s been reported that the management here fires any waiter who doesn’t bring you a drink in three minutes. This wasn’t a problem as it was a relatively empty night, but getting the bill took longer than expected (and we had to ask for our change). Of the party-goers who did show up, some looked barely out of school and the rest were garden-variety scruffy south and west Delhi punters. The men were moussed-up, the women epilated and nervous as they swayed on their high heels to overloud EDM. A group congregated near the bathroom so they could gab. People seemed to be coming and going from the cordoned VIP section fairly freely. We lingered past 1am, but after a wallet-busting G&T and dirty martini (Rs 570 and Rs 700, sans tax), it was time for us to go too. Casting a look back at the not-so-sensuous decadence of a city’s youth adrift, we slipped under Jan van Eyck’s disapproving “Portrait of a Man in a Turban” and out the door. That we then sat for half an hour in the Ashok’s lobby, watching businessmen and NRI families from the late international flights checking in, tells you all you need to know.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, December 6, 2013.

Published: December 11, 2013

Shelved selves

Unpacking literary baggage ♦

booksThe first library I fell in love with was my great-grandfather’s study in Shimla. An angular room with thick glass windows, dark wood furniture and a scuffed, burnt orange carpet, it looked out over the misty tops of ragged pine trees and rounded hills. Like any good study, its architect knew that the delicate work of the mind needs buffering from the shrill sounds of the household, and the library was accessible only from the front veranda. Encircling the room were shelves enclosed within stubborn sliding glass doors; each shelf lined with dusty newspapers – some of which were probably worthy of preservation themselves. Hardcover books were packed tightly together, many of them doubly secured in homemade plastic jackets. Prying a spine loose would set a shoal of silverfish darting into different directions, and large hairy spiders lurked in the corners of the ceiling, spinning their own stories in a spiky gossamer font.

My great-grandfather was a historian and educator, and many of the books were too academic for me on those early summer vacations, but it didn’t matter. Adding to the literary clutter, my brother and I would cart our summer reading in suitcases all the way from the US. We’d sink into the new plastic weave seats of old dining chairs, our noses close to the pages, breathing in the book-must while sneaking glances at my grandfather as he composed letters with a fountain pen at his father’s writing table. This quietly thrilling collegiality was disturbed only by the sudden clatter of monkeys on the tin roof above, or my grandmother calling us for garam chai and butter-smeared, currant-filled fruit buns. Inhaling the dust of these old history books (some of them bundled up and brought all the way from Lahore during Partition) was like absorbing a sense of my own past – recuperating something I thought I’d lost as an angsty first-generation American.

Back then, the contents of the library didn’t matter so much, but age demands prejudice and  I’ve since become one of those people who makes a beeline for the bookshelf upon entering a new home. Recognising an obscure personal favourite in an acquaintance’s collection has often perfectly bound a friendship. And when a new love interest goes off to make tea or pour wine, examining his private life through a shelf of Russian literature or radical politics makes me wonder how neatly this catalogue might complement mine.

My own bookshelves have felt like a distinct disadvantage. Sparsely filled with random titles and castoffs from friends who have also shuttled cities and continents for work, they reflect the fact that carting books in suitcases, or cardboard boxes, has become a fixed feature of a transient life. My childhood library sits on white shelves in America, neatly ordered by author, waiting for when I have my own kids. I haven’t revisited the Shimla study in a decade. But after yet another move, I recently had the chance to rip open the boxes, dust, order by genre and stuff into shelves what felt like various chapters of my life. Worn classics from childhood, theoretical texts scrawled with earnest marginalia from college, all the Delhiana hoarded from editing a city magazine, old postcard bookmarks, a glut of contemporary Indian literature and many volumes with stiff spines and crisp pages set aside for future reading.

“Owning books has been only intermittently of importance to me,” writes Claire Messud in Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books. In this edition of a Yale University Press series, Messud continues, “To be weighed down by things – books, furniture – seems somehow terrible to me. It’s important to be ready to move on.” I’ve often felt the same way in the face of heavy boxes and duct tape. In the same book, Gary Shteyngart says, “Some books are just crap and have to be thrown out. But some crappy books remind you of certain times in your life and have to be kept. In the closet.” Why not just throw them all out, I wonder, when that third half-read copy of Moby Dick turns up. Or put a moratorium on book-buying and get a tablet?

But as I sit surrounded by stacks of fresh and faded titles, sniffling not just because of the dust, arranging my shelves gives weight to the task of putting myself back in order. I’m sure digital libraries have their place, but maybe my personal history still needs this hefty cover: this old baggage of beloved literature, those potent, unread volumes taking up space, and yes, even that stash of romance novels, stuffed spine-inward behind the Derrida.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2013.

Published: October 31, 2013

Home of horrors

Jnavayanaoe Sacco and Chris Hedges combine efforts to draw a poignant, disturbing picture of post-capitalist America ♦

Black and white truth has little place in the slippery grey of liberal opinion. Poverty porn or slum tourism are easy dismissals of writing on the human fallout of consumer capitalism. And plenty of people make a fetish of poverty for personal or political gain. But some artists bring the dying places of the world to life in their work with such searing conviction that it burns through the smog. Like cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco, whose work is a reminder that moral uncertainty is all too often a veil of self-deception – that if looking at poverty can be exploitative, we’re still not justified in averting our eyes.

If in urban India we’re quite used to looking away from our own inequalities, oppression in the US is practically a sight unseen by the rest of the world. The new South Asian edition of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a 2012 collaboration between Sacco and Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges, could change that. Published by Delhi’s Navayana, which engages with caste and other forms of inequality, the book reports on the American communities hard-hit by globalisation, the so-called “sacrifice zones” of unchecked capitalism. The book is split into five chapters, four of which consist mostly of Hedges’ written reportage from America’s deepest circles of hell: the Native American reservation of Pine Ridge, South Dakota; the violent city of Camden, New Jersey; Welch, in an area of West Virginia devastated by coal mining; and Immokalee, Florida, an agricultural region reliant on undocumented immigrant labour. Sacco’s illustrations are interspersed: sound-bite portraits and a few short story-length histories of representative individuals.

The stories are relentlessly horrific. There’s senseless murder, forced prostitution, alcoholism, pill addiction, obesity, homelessness, genocide fuelled by suicide, and more grit than some readers might be able to stomach. “Take a look at the American dream,” says the manager of a tent town in Camden. “In today’s society, no one is exempt… Everybody is one paycheck away from being here.”


Both Sacco and Hedges let such characters do a lot of the talking, but Hedges is also an opinionated presence in these pages and he makes no apologies for it. At times he gets almost biblical, which might invigorate or irritate, depending on the reader. “To stand on the sidelines and say ‘I am innocent’ is to bear the mark of Cain,” Hedges proclaims.

Founding editor of Navayana, S Anand is a believer. “This charge of being biased and pedantic… frankly it is tiresome,” he wrote over email. “The crisis they [Hedges and Sacco] are documenting is vulgar. The hard-hitting documentary style is effective.” Anand and Sacco had been on each other’s radars even before the latter blurbed Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability, a graphic novel inspired by Ambedkar’s life and illustrated by two Pardhan-Gond artists. (Sacco also addressed caste in his reporting from Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh.) The cartoonist was instrumental in getting Navayana the South Asian rights.

The edition, Anand said, is aimed at English-speaking upper and middle class members who believe in “following the American model… a blind imitation of a crass consumerist capitalistic ethic”. And while it complicates the idea of America, the bookinevitably stirs up comparisons between poverty in “developed” versus “developing” nations.

“One of the key reasons I did this book is to try and create a template for similar books in India,” said Anand, who, besides cowriting Bhimayana, also published A Gardener in the Wasteland, a graphic interpretation of Jotiba Phule’s Gulamgiri. “I want to publish such a book on Koodankulam for instance, a sacrifice zone in the making,” he said. “There’s no dearth of issues; there’s a dearth of writers and artists. Sadly, in India, the graphic novel form is considered merely cool, quirky, fashionable. It’s like a boys’ club. That [it] can be political is granted, but is rarely attempted.”

Days of Destruction… isn’t perfect – some of the academic interludes sit awkwardly within personal narratives; occasionally there are abrupt switches from one character to another, past to present or fact to opinion. What Hedges is especially good at, though, is underscoring how downtrodden people turn against each other, and how oppressors encourage this to their advantage.

In the spirit of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Hedges and Sacco are also good at looking for resistance. These “bright spots” range from union history to community organising groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to intelligent, outspoken individuals who defy the stereotype of hapless sacrificial victims. The final chapter is devoted to the Occupy movement, which the authors see as evidence that discontent with capitalism is spreading to those who are well-placed to protest it. Whatever Occupy’s potential to inspire revolt may be; the chapter is a valuable, clear-eyed, insider dissection of the movement. Anand pointed out that “many of the poor in India have no choice but to ‘occupy’ or squat. These acts are not seen, unfortunately, as political… Only when the middle class of the US, mostly whites, staged Occupy did it become newsworthy.” Still, Occupy is an important example for elites anywhere whose sense of justice can often outpace a willingness to acknowledge, as Anand put it, “their endorsement of a capitalistic ethic; their own culpability through consumption”. And in an age of global industry, creating links between oppression and revolt in different parts of the world is an important endeavor in itself. Cutting through the smokescreen of “neutral” reporting, Days of Destruction… is a reminder that “Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers… It passes on another narrative.” And radical dissent can start as simply as exercising one’s right to unselfish action.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Nayavana ₹595.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2013.

Published: October 11, 2013

Footloose

Walking with a purpose ♦

“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his essay on “Walking”. His particular idea of a stroll had more to do with venturing into nature to reclaim one’s wildness than ambling through a city, but his words feel like a true characterization of walking in Delhi too. Thoreau further explained: “No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession… You must be born into the family of the Walkers.”

We generally start to walk before we even talk, but who in this city is truly born into that family? Not the commuting pedestrians, navigating the petty commerce of the pavement like contestants on Takeshi’s Castle. Not the rich who stroll the city’s parks, but rarely its streets. Not the middle classes who increasingly limit their wanderings to the insides of malls and shopping centres – and who are increasingly forced to do so by the barricading of public areas like India Gate. And certainly not those who stride about the halls of power ensuring that those barricades stay up. On every level, the fundamental human right to walk is frustrated by flawed urban architecture and discouraged by the dictates of society.

But one group of people is especially excluded from this family of walkers. Thoreau noted its absence tongue-in-cheek: “How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know; but I have ground to suspect that most of them do not stand it at all.” Pressured by challenges as mundane as having shoes that stand up to the sidewalk and clothes that cover the body appropriately, to labour laws and curfews enforced by family, wardens and city authorities, Delhi’s women are notably shut out of its streets.

Besides the daily irritant of ogling that manages to be simultaneously rapacious and judgemental, the fear of physical violence has grown steadily alongside the shrill crescendo of reports of sexual assault since that grey day last winter. With every new story, the fear starts as gut-wrenching anger and sickness, dulls into a weary, heartsick paranoia, and eventually settles into cold lead in the shoes, a kind of dead weight of caution in every step.

However, I’ve been lucky to be doing a bit of flying lately. First to Greece, where I saw women walk naked along the Mediterranean coast, garnering less attention than a man peeing on a Delhi road. Then to Medellín in Colombia, where men and women – sometimes unknown to each other before nightfall – walked in the parks and plazas until sunrise, drinking, talking, sometimes even dancing. Finally to the brightly lit, Google-mapped streets of New York, with their double-wide, garbage-scented sidewalks and unending subterranean current of public transport. As I walked, the lead in my shoes melted away. There was a spring in my step all summer.

I flew back to Delhi last week, in the midst of the verdict announcement of the December 16 gang rape and murder trial. I remembered actor Maya Krishna Rao’s performance “Walk”, in which she states powerfully and simply:  “I wanna walk. Sit on a bus. Walk on the street. Lie in the park. I try not to be afraid of the dark.” I recalled walking from SDA to Vasant Vihar in high heels, trying to ignore the cacophony of catcalls and car horns following me down the Outer Ring Road. I remembered going on assignment with a photographer along the city’s bridges at night. She and I were about the same age as the young photojournalist attacked in Mumbai last month.

And I remembered the woman who walked out of a movie with her friend last winter and tried to catch a ride home from Munirka to Dwarka. I thought about the men who killed her, for whom walking as equals beside a woman was unfathomable, and how that fact was in itself unremarkable. I thought how killing them would do nothing to protect my freedom to walk – at any time, in any place, for any purpose – to stop where I wish, to stride, skip or saunter.

Sauntering, Thoreau wrote, could be derived from “‘idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre’ – to the holy land…’”. But after a summer of idle sauntering in other cities (and with cooler weather hopefully around the corner) I’m ready to keep putting one foot in front of the other in the little crusade for Delhi’s streets too.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2013

Published: September 1, 2013

The Hired Man

Aminatta Forna travels to Croatia for her fourth novel ♦

the-hired-manIn her fourth book, Aminatta Forna ventures out of Sierra Leone and Africa, the setting for her previous titles (including the Commonwealth Writer’s Prizewinning The Memory of Love). Set in a small town at the foot of the mountains in Croatia, The Hired Man, like Forna’s earlier work, grapples with the effects of violence and war – now in the past, but never far from the surface of the present, a “dark child scratching on the walls”, as Duro, the story’s narrator and titular character, writes.

In the supple and self-assured style of an author who has consciously honed her craft over time and who can draw description out from the wells of imagination and research, Forna describes the beauty of the Croatian countryside and the horrors buried in its wildflower-filled fields and azure swimming holes with equal skill. The story unfolds over a few summer weeks, during which time Duro Kolak also revisits the span of his 46 years. His outpouring of memories is prompted by the arrival of Laura, an Englishwoman who has purchased an abandoned home nearby with her husband. With her two teenage children in tow, Laura busies herself with restoring the “blue house” and enlists him to help. She’s set her sights on starting a real estate service for wealthy outsiders looking for vacation homes, but when it comes to knowing the reason for these abandoned houses, she’s happy to turn a blind eye to the area’s history.

Ultimately the family has to confront this past, though the more horrifying events remain contained within Duro’s memories of the 1990s. And while these memories incorporates soldiers, sieges and abductions, Forna’s intent isn’t to shock but to question what makes some humans despise others and to discover what happens when childhood grudges and playground politics are grafted onto communal conflicts and flourish there, blooming into the most grotesque expressions of hatred. Forna eloquently frames this question, keeping things interesting through suspended information and some rather nice, nonmainstream character dynamics (the friendship between Duro and Laura’s daughter, Duro’s relationship with his hunting dogs).

Because she doesn’t point to the war’s political perpetrators by name (referring more directly to the town’s fictional petty villains) and because her narrator is a man who sometimes has to look away from the truth in order to live with it, The Hired Man can seem a little bloodless compared to Forna’s more personal work set in Sierra Leone (her father was a politician there and was hanged on charges of treason). Yet following last year’s “best tourist season in Croatia’s history,” according to that country’s tourism minister, Forna’s latest is a timely reminder that “Et in Arcadia Ego”.

The Hired Man, Bloomsbury, ₹499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, August 2013.

Published: August 4, 2013