Tag Archives: Books

The Angst of Being a Modern Indian

The Cosmopolitans ♦
Anjum Hasan
Penguin India, 309 pages, Rs 499.

anjum-book“Being a modern Indian is hard work,” a former king tells Qayanaat, the protagonist of Anjum Hasan’s The Cosmopolitans. If this is true for the King, the dispossessed monarch of fictional, small-town Simhal, it’s certainly so for Qayanaat, a 53-year-old single woman who lives in Bengaluru, subsisting on the diminishing material wealth of one man, her deceased father, while trying to manage her excess of emotions for another, the artist Baban.

Had Hasan chosen Baban—a character who recalls certain real Indian artists, such as Subodh Gupta—as her protagonist,The Cosmopolitans would likely have been India’s first Künstlerroman set in the contemporary art world. And Baban, triumphantly returning from New York to launch his large-scale conceptual work, ‘Nostalgia’, in Bengaluru, would have been a rich character for Hasan to use to pick apart the tensions she explores: between modernity and tradition, aesthetics and ethics, art and profit.

Instead, although The Cosmopolitans opens with the inauguration of ‘Nostalgia’, Hasan sets about painting a portrait of Qayanaat, a character on the periphery of the art world, but at the center of this ambitious, yet intimate, novel of ideas. Qayanaat neither makes art, nor collects it, and her place in the wider world is unclear as well. She is hopeless with money; her quietly bohemian lifestyle, surrounded by her garden and a few works of art, is only enabled by the house that her father left her. By conventional benchmarks, she is something of a failure. This makes her an appealing and important character in a country obsessed with success.

The first half of the book describes Qayanaat’s life in Bengaluru, as a drifter on a sleepy art scene populated by a cast of familiar figures. There are the Bengalis, both elderly intellectuals and young, eager creators; Baban, the maverick hotshot with his NRI arm-candy; the aficionados and the aunties, the patrons of various means. Hasan deftly sketches her characters and has fun fleshing out the stereotypes. Baban, for instance, “reared on curd rice and Charminar, now sought after by the world’s leading galleries and collectors”, or Sara, Qayanaat’s “vivacious, art-loving friend, her jingle-jangle jewellery and swishy skirts”.

There’s no snappy sentence to describe Qayanaat’s slippery existence in this milieu. While Baban calls her QT, her ex-boyfriend Sathi’s mispronunciation of her name (which comes from the Urdu and Arabic kainaat, or universe) is one reason she gives for breaking up with him. Later, the King calls her Mandakini. For her part, Qayanaat is too busy attempting to live as a modern Indian to try and analyse such an existence, least of all through an aesthetic lens:

When among her artist friends, she always withdrew from conscience-stricken conversations about Who Was to Blame and What Should be Done. Hell, she would think. What happened to experience? It seemed to have been replaced by hot air. If we can’t be out there, eating grass and fighting the Indian state with rickety rifles, we could at least shut up and look to our own lives. Karma, she would think. Wasn’t it supposed to be the guiding force once, the idea that every action, however minor, has consequences? So she would go back home and water the flowers and then sit in silence, looking at the garden of trees her father had planted. Almond, frangipani, pink tabebuia.

Eventually, Qayanaat’s passive retreat turns into an impetuous offensive against the seriousness and conceit of the art world. The impulse that drives her must be familiar to many of us who, standing in a gallery sipping wine, have felt the urge to to do something drastic, something that would puncture the solemnity and the casual conviviality of the occasion, to rub out the hallowed glow emanating from the artist or artworks, so robbed of their own power to rupture the mundane.

Book One culminates in just such a moment of rebellion, which ends in a disaster that Hasan treats as almost more comedic than tragic. In order to finance an escape from the repercussions of her actions, and her guilt, Qayanaat sells an old painting she owns by ‘Nur Jahan’, a sort of artist-in-purdah whose nude paintings have gained notoriety and appreciated in value due to the political controversy surrounding them.

Book Two shifts aesthetic gears significantly, from visual to performance art, from avante-garde to tradition. “I’ll go into India,” Qayanaat decides, to learn about the dance-theatre of the town of Simhal. But between meeting the King, with his odd mix of conservative and worldly views; Vipul Singh, a local tout and wannabe tough; and Malti, a widowed tribal woman; Qayanaat finds “India” perhaps a bit more than she bargained for.

The cheek that makes the first half of The Cosmopolitans so enjoyable to a reader familiar with the metropolitan art world retreats slightly in the book’s second half. As Qayanaat finds herself out of her element, she is less capable of passing judgment upon a world in which she is truly an outsider, as are we. If this transition makes Hasan’s book a little less fun, it also make it a more robust portrait of the angst of being a modern Indian. There is slight frustration in watching Qayanaat bridge her experiences in the countryside with her life in the city by way of maternal instinct, but – typically of Hasan’s art – it is only because it imitates life all too well.

Originally published in The Wire.


Published: December 28, 2015

Crash of Civilisations

City of Spies ♦

By Sorayya Khan
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015, 239 pp., Rs 295 (PB)
ISBN 978-93-83064-78-6

city of spies

Pakistan was scorchingly hot during the summer of 1977, the narrator of City of Spies recalls: “the newspapers were filled with worry that rain might never come”. And the persistent Cold War chill in relations between the United States of America and the Soviet Union only meant that the politics of the subcontinent were simmering too. A day after the American Embassy in Islamabad celebrated its country’s independence, things finally boiled over. As some of the worst floods in its history hit Karachi, the papers reported that General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had imprisoned Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, accused of election rigging and murdering political opponents, and declared martial law. The General’s photograph was splashed across the front pages, with his eyes “cast down, as if he were posing reluctantly, like a Pakistani bride”.

In the decades since then, historians have researched, in depth, the transformation of Pakistan under the eleven years of Zia’s rule, as well as substantiated many of the open secrets about the international influences that allowed his regime to flourish. Several novelists have also attempted to unearth the gritty truth of life from beneath the heavy monolith of dictatorship, to describe how things changed, incrementally but irrevocably, as the State and military became further entangled with religious extremist groups and foreign superpowers. In his satirical novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), Mohammad Hanif channeled the comedic voice of a fictional junior air force officer to retell the story of Zia’s death – and suspected assassination – in a 1988 plane crash. In her very different debut, In the City by the Sea (1998), the London-based author Kamila Shamsie described the cost of Zia’s ruthlessness on the life of a child growing up in Karachi.

Sorayya Khan’s third novel combines elements of both these seminal books: her first-person narrator is an 11-year-old girl, Aliya Shah (rather unfortunately characterised as “a different Malala” by Amitava Kumar in a cover blurb). Aliya is the “half-and-half ” youngest child of a Dutch mother and Pakistani father, who believes that “being white is… being whole. And knowing it”. She is also keen enough to understand that her mother has become “brown” by “being married to my father… though, of course, you couldn’t tell by looking”.

In an essay on “The March of the Novel Through History” (Kenyon College, 1998), Amitav Ghosh, whose novel The Shadow Lines (1988) resonates in the pages City of Spies, wrote that to describe one’s environment, “one must somehow distance oneself from it… one must assume a certain posture, a form of address. In other words, to locate oneself through prose, one must begin with an act of dislocation”.

Like Ghosh’s landmark novel, City of Spies is a story of dislocation with diasporic dimensions, freighted with questions of national belonging. But unlike The Shadow Lines, or Kamila Shamsie’s sweepingly international Burnt Shadows (2009), Khan’s book is rooted in a particular place and time. Her characters do not range too far and wide, even if the causes and consequences of the things that happen to them in the 30 months following Zia’s coup spiral out from Islamabad, the titular city of spies, to places like Teheran and Cazenovia, New York.

Aliya is certainly a character at odds with her environment, but her moment of dislocation occurs as prologue, before the story begins. The Shah family is uprooted from Europe when Aliya’s father, bound by a patriotic sense of duty, leaves his United Nations job to head a Pakistani government agency. The family settles in what Aliya’s grandfather (a protagonist of Khan’s previous book, Five Queen’s Road, set in the aftermath of Partition) calls the “fake” city of Islamabad, a city that pales in comparison to his beloved, history-soaked Lahore.

Aliya’s self-conscious thoughts about her identity, and her observations, are a useful lens through which to view the rippling effects of the General’s political machinations in the public and domestic spheres of Pakistan’s capital. She is mostly able to keep the two halves of her life – the Shah household and the American School where she studies – separate. But as a sensitive pre-teen, she is also aware of the tension flowing through Islamabad’s wide, empty streets. In her eyes, the city is a playground for several strange games. There’s the competition for dominance between the cars marked by Soviet and American diplomatic license plates, surrounded by the clamour of a bevy of less identifiable plates from smaller countries, the pawns of this board. From the vantage of her seat on an incongruous yellow school bus, Aliya also has a ringside view of the spitting game the American boys play, targeting hapless Pakistani passers-by. Aliya cringes, but is unable to stand up to her schoolmates.“A small part of me believed that Pakistanis deserved to be spit upon,” she remarks. “I wasn’t proud of this, of course…”

These road games provide a neat dramatic setup for the tragedy at the centre of the novel, an event that causes Aliya’s discomfort to blossom into a full-blown identity crisis. Hanif, the young, Bhutto-obsessed son of the family servant, Sadiq, is killed in a hit-and-run accident. When Aliya discovers that the car was driven by the mother of her American best friend, the accident becomes conflated in her mind with the fate of Pakistan. Her personal loss – sharpened by guilt at her inability to have communicated with Hanif when he was alive – becomes a political one. “With the hit-and-run accident on an Islamabad street, Anne Simon had behaved in her personal life the way American governments behaved in the world, doing whatever they wanted without, for the most part, suffering any consequences.”

Khan writes this death with heartbreaking subtlety, keeping it from lapsing into a cliché plot twist by revealing the details of the accident to Aliya in bits and pieces, as the adults around her attempt to censor the information. City of Spies is not a particularly long novel, but Khan’s tight rein on its pace and artful ratcheting up and down of action make the consequences of the accident appear to slowly unfurl in the characters’ lives, even as the months pass swiftly by. (There are also many lovely distractions along the way, such as the juxtaposition of various cuisines: Aliya’s mother’s European baking; the imported junk food from the commissary stockpiled at her friend’s house; and Sadiq’s cooking, which makes her house smell “like Pakistan” to an American visitor.)

As Aliya begins to view Hanif’s death, compounded by Bhutto’s hanging, in geopolitical terms, she begins to see herself as Pakistani, despite being alienated by language and class from most of her fellow citizens. “Knowing who’d killed Hanif made the spaces in my life fall into each other like collapsing sand tunnels. It would be impossible to separate them, reshape them and restore them to the way they had been.”

In an attempt to give the accident some meaning, Aliya begins to secretly learn Urdu, with Sadiq’s help. Their friendship, built over convincing, though halting, dialogue, is just one of the tenderly drawn relationships between Khan’s memorable, sympathetic characters. In a way, her simple but emotionally packed story is an attempt to depoliticise the personal, or at least to find hope in the power of communication between two people to subvert the structures of power in which they exist.

It takes years for Aliya to understand that learning a language is only one aspect of this sort of communication. After a riot, spurred by suspicions of American involvement in a siege in Mecca, results in the burning of the American Embassy, a rift forms between Sadiq and the family. At the time, Aliya thinks of the riot as another kind of game: “I was suddenly reminded of Klackers, the game of two balls suspended on a string. When one ball hit the other, the klick-klack sent it careening. Countries were connected to each other the same way, which made our world a very scary place.”

Aliya’s thoughts – and the event itself– recall the reflections on a different riot, on the other side of the subcontinent, by the narrator of The Shadow Lines as he tries to “learn the meaning of distance” while drawing circles on maps. Attempting to “imagine an event, any event, that might occur in a city near the periphery of that circle” that could bring people at its centre “pouring out into the streets”, he comes up with “none, that is, other than war”.

“My parents tell me that we are defined by the wars we have lived, regardless of whether we can name them,” the grownup Aliya tells us in the prologue, “The war of my story, the war we shared long ago, whether we knew it or not, is the Cold War.” Riots, the civilian violence often engendered by war, are real and inexplicable —“to look for words” beyond the simple description of these events “would be to give them meaning… a risk we cannot take any more than we can afford to listen to madness” cautions the narrator of The Shadow Lines. But Khan also wants to suggest the possibility of a thaw; of reconciliation through communication, however imperfect. In her story, the city may be full of spies, and people prone to making mistakes, but they are also capable of forgiveness and surprising humanity. In her attempt to square Pakistan’s dire news headlines with the minutiae of life, there is a plea for giving people the benefit of the doubt, for faith in sanity even in the face of madness.

Originally published in the September-November 2015 issue of Biblio.

Published: November 9, 2015

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

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