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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

A Conversation With: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

A Conversation With: Literary Critic and Novelist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi ♦

faruqiIndia’s literary establishment is abuzz about the recently published novel “The Mirror of Beauty,” a 984-page fictional account about the life and times of Wazir Khanam, the mother of the famed Urdu poet Daag Dehalvi, set mostly in Delhi and its environs during the 19th century. A beautiful and spirited woman, Wazir mingles with the noblemen of the Mughal court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the English officers of the East India Company, the poets of the age and a whole panorama of other unforgettable characters.

“The Mirror of Beauty” is a translation of the original 2006 Urdu-language novel “Ka’i Chand The Sar-e-Aasmaan” by its author, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Mr. Faruqi, 78, who retired as a top bureaucrat in the Indian Postal Service, is a leading figure of Urdu literary criticism. He spoke to India Ink in Delhi about how he created the world of 19th century Delhi for “The Mirror of Beauty” and what he hopes young readers will get out of the book.

You live in Allahabad, a relatively smaller city, and your work has mostly been read by those within the Urdu-speaking or academic world. Suddenly you have a celebrity author like Orhan Pamuk calling your book “an erudite, amazing historical novel.” What’s it been like to step into the global literary spotlight?
I feel uncertain about all this. I am not sure that I really deserve all this attention, all this lionizing. I told my editor that I feel small, knowing that you guys are building me up so much, like a colossus. I am now long past those things. I have faced so much criticism in my life, from my own people, and also I have earned praise, love and appreciation. It makes no difference to me whether it is the global environment or the backwater of Allahabad. If Orhan Pamuk writes well about me, I’m happy; if he didn’t write well, I wouldn’t mind.

Writers in English can usually assume a global readership. Though Urdu was a lingua franca, at least in India, 150 years ago, its contemporary literature has a more specific audience. How did the shift in audience affect your translation?
The novel is slightly longer than the Urdu version, because I had to explain certain things. And of course translating two lines of verse in Urdu might expand to four or five lines in English. One theory of translation is that it is worthless unless it sounds like translation. I really don’t agree with that at all, because when you are transferring a certain kind of cultural code and symbolism, which is so utterly alien, it is unfair on the reader to make her feel, all the time, that “yes, I am reading something in high Urdu in the English form.” Like some English woman wearing Indian dress.

How did you go about researching and reinventing the worlds of 19th century Delhi — from the descriptions of carpet-weaving to courtly etiquette?
I didn’t do any systematic, formal research. As I wrote, I did consult a few books when I needed to verify some particular detail, dates mostly. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the novel had always existed in my head as an amorphous, identity-less entity. Facts, memories, impressions — and of course my reading before I’d began to compose the novel — it was all there — a chaos, especially because I didn’t have anything like an idea to write a novel with Wazir Khanam as the chief character.

Of course, I was incomparably enriched by my love for pre-modern Persian and Urdu poetry. Later, what went into my unconscious, more than I realized, was my reading of the Dastan of Amir Hamza, a series of loosely linked oral romances whose 46 volumes and 42,000-plus pages and more than 20 million words I read, and in some cases reread, since about 1980. I’ll always remain obliged to Frances Pritchett [professor emerita at Columbia University] who directed my attention to the Dastan.

For both Urdu and English novels, you restricted yourself to words from the 19th-century lexicon. “The Mirror of Beauty” is very readable, but is the original book a challenge for native Urdu speakers?.
People have been admiring it for sheer size and expanse, but everybody has complained: you didn’t give a glossary, you should have given the Farsi [Persian] in translation. Even in Pakistan, people complained. Not that it was not popular – it went through two editions in four years or so, which is somewhat remarkable for an Urdu novel. I made it the way it is quite consciously, writing in a register which is no longer spoken — archaic Urdu which is unfamiliar to most people. I didn’t care. I was doing my thing. I had to be faithful to my own vision.

There’s a strong rapport between Indian and Pakistani authors writing in English – they review each other’s books, travel to each other’s festivals, make the same award lists. What about Indian and Pakistani writers in Urdu?
On a personal level, there is a lot of friendliness, a lot of coming and going and writing and reading, but it’s not wholehearted promotion. I can promote a Pakistani writer or book wholeheartedly, but the Pakistani literary establishment is reluctant to promote Indian writers so strongly. Almost every important writer who died in Pakistan or is taken as a Pakistani now – take Faiz [Ahmad Faiz], Rashid, [Saadat Hasan] Manto – everybody has written about them in India. You can’t find a comparative example [in Pakistan]. Otherwise, they are extremely cordial; they will feed you, they will wine you, they will dine you.

You’ve mentioned your interest in the historical fiction of A.S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd, among others. Are there any fictionalizations of India, particularly its Mughal history, that you looked at?
In English, Amitav Ghosh’s novels, which I have read and admired: “Sea of Poppies,” followed by “River of Smoke.” A lot of history has gone into them, although it is a history of a very narrow area, that is Bengal of the early 19th or late 18th century, particularly the opium trade. He certainly has full grasp on the material.

You’ve suggested that you wrote “The Mirror of Beauty” not just as a pleasant trip back through time. Could you talk a bit more about that?
I was hoping that if young people read this book, they will learn more about themselves – where they came from, how they were formed — the pain of separation, of discontinuity [from] what the world was before 1857. Though it was already crumbling, they had a world which was self-conscious, which was sure of its self-worth, which could match with any other culture or any other society anywhere – but for the adverse information and propaganda handed out to us by our colonial master.

In any case, every past is worth revisiting, even if it is the dirtiest possible past. But this past is not dirty. This past is honorable. And this past is more literate, more cultured, more sophisticated than today’s present. I am hoping people who take the trouble of reading it will find it an easy book to read, in the sense that the story goes along and keeps you interested, and ultimately they will know where they came from, what they were.

Originally published in The New York Times“India Ink” blog, July 17, 2013.

Published: July 17, 2013

Portrait of a lady

The last century of Mughal rule comes to life in The Mirror of Beauty, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s compelling picture of Delhi and its wider world ♦

 

 View as PDFThe Mirror of Beauty

Beloved of poets and coveted by kings, conquered and constructed again and again, Delhi in its present avatar is a tough city to love. Yet many still regard it with affection, looking through the rosy veil of nostalgia at the capital’s embarrassment of ruins: from the tiny, pipal-shaded shrines in Shahjahanabad courtyards, to the Kalan Masjid, steeply soaring out of a narrow alley near Turkman Gate. What would it be like to see the city’s empty palace rooms and silent tombs fill with life again?

It is to this Delhi of the past, specifically the 19th century, that Shamsur Rahman Faruqi allows the reader to travel in his monumental 2006 Urdu novel Kai Chand The Sar-e-Aasman, now reworked in English as The Mirror of Beauty by the author himself. The pinnacle of its creator’s fictional oeuvre, this novel sits atop a lifetime’s worth of work in Urdu literature. Faruqi, who ideally should need no introduction to the English literary scene, was born in 1935 and lives in Allahabad. A respected Urdu critic who also writes poetry and fiction (and had a career in the Indian Postal Service), he is that rare literary figure who is both steeped in the culture of his own language and well-versed in other traditions. For example, the novel’s envoi is taken from “The Traveller”, a 1763 poem by Oliver Goldsmith who writes of being, “Impelled, with steps unceasing to pursue/ Some fleeting good that mocks me with the view.” In The Mirror of Beauty, Faruqi finally captures that view – of India seen through the portal of its capital city, during the period when “The Company may have been ruling, but it did not reign”. And he does so in gorgeously detailed miniature style, with figures of complex hue, set against both urban and natural landscapes. At the very centre of the frame is Wazir Khanam, a woman so beautiful that “you would feel that the Tailor of Eternity had cut all dresses for her and her alone”. As a miniaturist illustrates myth, so Faruqi fictionalises history: Wazir Khanam was in fact the mother of the poet Dagh Dehlvi and eventually the wife of an heir apparent to Bahadur Shah Zafar.

mirrorYet in Faruqi’s portrait of her, Wazir is more than simply wife, mother, daughter or lover. He brings the interior life of this otherwise peripheral person to the fore, with finesse. She does not necessarily control her destiny – no character really has that kind of power – but she pushes against fate. While she accepts the fact of her beauty, even uses it to her advantage, Wazir’s spirit yearns to transcend the societal expectations of her sex. In a telling moment, British Resident William Fraser, who was murdered in 1835 (a death Faruqi vividly brings to life), woos Wazir and mistakes her for a mere nautch girl: “In spite of his vast experience and natural capacity for discerning subtleties,” Faruqi writes, “Fraser missed out completely at judging Wazir and did not appreciate that her own sense of self was that of a refined woman of good family, though of decidedly liberal views.” In Faruqi’s sensitive delineation, Wazir is neither stereotype nor anachronism.

Around this extraordinary woman circle the men of the story: her lovers, her husbands, her son Dagh, her forefathers in Kashmir and Rajasthan. Then there are saints, soldiers, scientists and, most of all, the poets, who form a colourful crowd behind Wazir. Dagh and Mirza Ghalib are two of the book’s most verbose verse-mongers, but for many characters, poetry itself is the medium through which their most emotional conversations take place. Faruqi, whose many poetry-related accomplishments include a four-volume project on Mir Taqi Mir, presents the conversation between 19th-century poets and those who preceded them as a continuum, running through public performances and secret notes, in royal chambers and chai-stalls. Summoning the spirit of the Persian mystic poet Hafiz, an augur tells Wazir: “If you read his poetry, imagining that those words have just been uttered by him, and uttered for you alone, then… The poet never dies. He’s present through his words: it is just that he… talks to us in twig and branch, in garden, park and meadow, in palace and the poorest alley, in castle and tent…” Sometimes the couplets studding The Mirror of Beauty can be opaque in translation (Romanised Urdu footnotes would have been brilliant), but they still imply a world where literature was not quite so set apart from life.

Literature is but one element in the backdrop of this portrait of a woman, her city and times. The scalloped arches, domes and minarets of Delhi’s architecture are also visible in “the city which ceases to remember past sorrows in the shortest possible time”; which proclaims “its undying youth and beauty through the… towering spire of Qutb Sahib… the power and grandeur of Muhammad Tughlaq’s mausoleum… through the mellifluous sounds of the reciters of the Quran or the Primary Declaration of Faith in the ancient mosque attached to the meeting house at the effulgent mausoleum of Nizamuddin Auliya… through the grey blue pigeons which roost at the two-toned dome of Shahjahan’s mosque… through the sudden starting up of the fountain in savan bhadon, the large six-sided tank in the Haveli [the Lal Qila]…” Built into these stone, brick and marble structures is the city’s social fabric. When Wazir first leaves Delhi to live in Jaipur with an Englishman, she recalls “the whispers, the silences, the intimate conversations, the exchange of quick, friendly phrases, the faces showing through narrow windows at the back that provided safe communication between homes, the phrases sweet and musical like the trill of the harmonicon – a small little interior hutch of one’s heart in spite of lives lived together in narrow houses. All that was Delhi…” There are perhaps even a few glimpses of the modern city presaged in its past: even then Dilliwalas are “past masters in fashioning rumours, making and exchanging news, flying every kind of kite in every kind of weather…” And when Wazir worries about “having to return alone after nightfall” from a party on the Pahadi (The Ridge), the contemporary reader can sympathise with her plight.

In language that can be flowery or formal but is always unselfconsciously literary, Faruqi fills in the nuances of Delhi life with a fine brush. Subtleties of fabric and dress are laid out in long passages describing outfits down to their transparency and regional provenance. There are long honorific titles, much capitalised, referring to kings and other important men. The dialogue reads appropriately to its era, with little flourishes like the Nawab of Loharu’s taqia kalam, or pet word, “bhaiwallah”, and Welsh adventurer Fanny Parkes’ spirited memoirs through her one-sided conversation with Wazir. There are passages describing diet and Unani medicine, highly refined codes of hospitality and etiquette, and the various arts – from music to painting to carpet-weaving. The chapters describing a journey through Thuggi territory are gripping, suspenseful, and creepy as hell. This isn’t a subaltern history as such, but by describing in detail the lives of a society’s consumers, Faruqi gestures at the whole world of creative, small-scale production supporting it.

This way of life is threatened by the creeping influences and sometimes violent impositions of British might. Despite its romanticising tendency, The Mirror of Beauty is not a self-Orientalising book, but one attempting to show how an entire world was destroyed from the inside out. “The Firangee mind was by nature haughty, tyrannical and overbearing,” muses Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, Delhi’s “Rhazes and Avicenna”. Mughal heir apparent Mirza Fakhru realises that there was “an alien presence in their midst… impinging not on just economics, trade and money… The Firangees impact changed the values that attached to art, poetry, social conventions… They were increasingly successful in teaching the Hindustani that the values that he loves, the lights which he hopes to lead him into worldly success and Heavenly favour, are wrong, or at best outdated.”

Ultimately the question of whether a decline in Indo-Islamic culture was inevitable “absent the political pressure and military conflicts of those times” is at the heart of The Mirror of Beauty, and it is referenced in the novel’s first book (there are seven). These early chapters, the book’s “frame”, narrate the discovery of a portrait of Wazir Khanam in a London museum by her descendent Wasim Jafar, who shares it with Dr Khalil Asghar Farooqui, a retired opthalmologist. In a description that could apply to Faruqi himself, Farooqui writes of Jafar: “Old pictures, books, documents, manuscripts, were thus milk and bread to him.” It is the English reader’s good fortune that Faruqi decided to share this knowledge (even incorporating primary sources in translation) in such tantalising form. “The people of today are developing the habit of forgetting,” he notes, introducing a chapter related to Madhava Rao Sindhia, “The dust and smoke of modern life are busy obliterating, or at least dimming, many such events hidden in the mazes of family stories and even the histories of nations.”

Recuperating these histories is difficult, but not impossible. Like Jafar, Faruqi rejects “the notion that the past is a foreign country and strangers who visit there cannot comprehend its language… old words can be narrated in new words…” Putting the notion to practice in his translation of a verse by Hafiz, Faruqi describes a beauty so deep and complex that her reflection “sends the mirror to sleep”. We may never see more than a reflection of the past we’ve lost – that fleeting good that, in Goldsmith’s words, “allures from far, yet as I follow, flies”. But the reflection itself is such a beautiful dream that we are lucky to have seen it at all.

The Mirror of Beauty, Hamish Hamilton, ₹699.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2013.

Published: July 15, 2013

Going off script

A cross-border blog spreads the word of South Asian literature ♦

Shiraz Hassan

Shiraz Hassan

In India, Pakistani writers in English are considered common property. Their books are often published here first, and writers like Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie and Nadeem Aslam frequent our literary festivals. But when it comes to contemporary Hindi or Urdu fiction crossing the border, the script barrier can be more difficult to surmount. Shiraz Hassan, an Islamabad journalist with the Urdu daily Jehan Pakistan, decided to start transliterating and posting Urdu and Hindi stories online last August. He told us about the challenges and rewards of running Kahani Khazana, a literary blog in the two languages.

How did you come up with the idea for a Hindi-Urdu exchange?
The idea developed when I started studying Hindi in Punjab University, Lahore. In Pakistan, though many people understand Hindi – as Bollywood films and TV soaps are quite popular – Devanagari is considered “alien”. As far as the film or TV industry is concerned, it isn’t an issue, but for literature lovers it’s the biggest hurdle. So I learned Devanagari and tried to read Hindi stories. After reading “Naukar Ki Kameez” by Vinod Kumar Shukla in Urdu, I thought more Hindi stories should be translated. So, I just started, keeping in mind that there is a treasure of stories written in Hindi and Urdu, both in India and Pakistan, by well-known, lesser-known and even unknown authors. Most of these stories are a mirror image of the prevailing circumstances of the people living in the two countries, which comprise a common South Asian culture. The readers may appreciate that there are barely a handful of words that need actual translation.

Why short stories?
We deliberately chose stories and not poetry, as poetry can still be shared through mushairas. In this regard Ilmana Fasih, an India-born friend based in Canada helped me kick off this project.

What were the technical difficulties of setting up the blog?
Managing a blog in Urdu is very hectic, as Windows systems do not support Urdu script well. We have to use Unicode scripting, which is hard to read for some. People suggested using JPEGs of the Urdu in Nastaliq, which is easy to read. But then there were problems in designing the web page. In Pakistan, Hindi typing software is not available, so I have to rely on Google transliterate. For Urdu I use Urdu InPage software, then convert the text into Unicode for web. The idea is to put the same story in both Devanagari and Urdu in a single post.

What are your editorial criteria?
The basic criterion is writers who started writing post-Partition. Most people in India and Pakistan know about Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Munshi Premchand, Krishan Chandra, Ismat Chughtai and others. But what happened after that – how prose literature developed in India and Pakistan – is a big gap. In Pakistan, literature about Partition is just one aspect. We saw the fall of Dhaka, martial law, political turmoil and terrorism – all these have their effects on literature. What Hindi writers wrote post-Partition, and are writing nowadays, we have no idea. When I got the chance to read the Hindi stories, I found that they are very much like ours. The stories I picked for Kahani Khazana are mostly narratives of our society – the political turmoils, poverty; few of them are related to India-Pakistan relations. After reading Wajahat Asghar’s “Aag”, one cannot identify whether it is a Pakistani story or an Indian one.

Who are the authors so far?
I selected Rasheed Amjad, Mirza Athar Baig and Muhammad Mansha Yaad – renowned and well-established Urdu writers, but not many people know them outside Pakistan. Selecting Hindi stories was a hurdle. Several Indian friends suggested names. I found the short stories of Wajahat Asghar, Vishnu Prabhakar, Usha Priyamvada, Anindita Basu, Sushant Supriya and Anand very catchy and relevant.

Did you consciously decide not to include English translations?
The prominent names of Urdu and Hindi literature have been translated into English. Contemporary literature has also been translated, and many Indian and Pakistani writers write in English. My idea was to explore Hindi and Urdu contemporary literature without killing the taste of the language. If you are reading a Hindi story in Urdu, it is almost 100 per cent what the writer wrote and wanted to say; it’s just like reading the original text.

Do you think Hindi (and Urdu) in India and Urdu in Pakistan face similar challenges?
In Pakistan, Urdu literature is being ignored at several levels. Though Urdu is compulsory until 12th grade, it is not a breadwinner language like English. But there are still many writers who are writing in Urdu. I can say that Urdu is facing almost the same kinds of challenges Hindi is facing in India. At the recent Lahore Literary Festival, almost all the sessions were in English, most guests were English-writing and speaking, and just a couple of token sessions were dedicated to Urdu.

Do you know other online cultural initiatives that connect people across borders?
The Internet has opened wide the doors on both sides of the border. Sometimes, some random person messages you, saying that he read your articles and it’s his first time interacting with a Pakistani. It happens. Social media has provided this opportunity for people to share thoughts. Aman ki Asha [The Times of India and Jang Group’s campaign] also played a good role in this regard. Other than that, Pul-e-Jawan (across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan), Romancing the Border and Folk Punjab are online groups that are playing a commendable role.

How do you plan to keep Kahani Khazana going?
Kahani Khazana is running on a volunteer basis. I am translating more stories, Ilmana is helping, and some friends proofread the Hindi. I would like to include Punjabi stories also, as Punjabi in Pakistan is written in Shahmukhi, and the Gurmukhi script is used in India. It’s just a matter of time until you see Punjabi stories in both scripts at Kahani Khazana as well.

Kahani Khazana is online at www.kahanikhazana.wordpress.com.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2013.

Published: April 12, 2013

Cracks in the pavement

Setting out to rediscover Calcutta, Amit Chaudhuri rejuvenates the genre of city writing ♦

calcuttaCities have been the incubators of literature since at least the time of Plato in Athens, or of Kabir in Kashi. In turn, they have also played muse, inspiring an entire metropolis of fiction and non-fiction that attempts to describe them. There are towering landmarks of writing about the city: the poetry of Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin’s philosophy and architectural criticism, Edith Wharton’s novels of manners, the entire semi-journalistic oeuvre of writing modern New York, and other literary edifices on large and miniature scales.

Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City is an ornate yet understated, brickby- brick addition to this literary landscape. With the slightly indulgent self-assurance of an author with several acclaimed books under his belt, Chaudhuri sets out to look for the cracks in the patina of the Calcutta of his childhood imagination (a portrait he’s already painted in some of his novels). The authorflâneur walks the physical city, but also strolls down the avenues of thought that branch off from his observations and encounters. These range from the Chandan Hotel roadside eatery – a “kind of aberration from the street I knew”, he called it in an interview with Time Out – to meetings with politicians, Italian chefs, aging bhadralok, beggars and others. Like Iswar Gupta, who Bankimchandra Chatterjee is quoted as calling the “poet of what’s at hand”, Chaudhuri magnifies concrete details: the prawn cocktail at Mocambo, the Chinsura oils in Aveek Sarkar’s dining room. A meditation on Calcutta’s ubiquitous green French windows, for example, carries him through an entire chapter.

Chaudhuri’s style of spinning the particular and the personal into complex musings on society and history is resolutely modern. In his long sentences and looping chapters that cast forth on a topic, then reel it back, he reflects Calcutta (“India’s most tolerant, multicultural, multireligious metropolis,” he writes) as a quintessentially “modern” city. Chaudhuri’s concept of modernity is inspired by Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life”, and he writes, “By ‘modern’ I don’t mean ‘new’ or ‘developed’, but a selfrenewing way of seeing, of inhabiting space, of apprehending life.”

Through the city, Chaudhuri stalks and sketches the legacy of this self-renewing way of seeing, blending dissections of genre with contemplations on urban change. There’s a nicely confusing passage in the chapter “A Visit”, as he travels north to the old town, in which the direction of his thoughts and his physical trajectory merge: “Tagore began to perform a similar innovation with the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, and with that same Upanishadic tradition, from the 1890s onward: to regard them not just as ‘our great tradition’, as dead heritage, but as essential to fashioning the modern poem and literature.

“We’ve lost our way. Where exactly is Shobhabazar? We’re in Shyambazar, lurching forward steadily in the congestion – Dada, in which direction is the Naba Jiban Nursing Home? And, excuse me, Dada, did the Bengal Renaissance really happen? Could you point out its signs?”

Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri

Yet Chaudhuri’s endeavor in this book is not to restore, with the filler of nostalgia, the cracks in that old Calcutta, “one of the great casualties”, he writes, with the “death-knell” of modernity in the 1980s. Focusing loosely on the two years leading up to the 2011 West Bengal elections, if Chaudhuri does dwell on the literary, architectural and human vestiges of the city’s past, it’s because these are the peeling edges of the cracks he wishes to peer into – to rediscover his city in the age of globalization. “In this book, I decided there’s a reconfiguration taking place in my imagination through all these places that I’m visiting or interacting with,” Chaudhuri told us, “starting from the anecdote about the homeless woman at Sealdah Station.” The anecdote is a small encounter between this woman with no address and the poet Utpal Basu, himself an old Calcutta figure, who relates the story to Chaudhuri with the assertion that “These are our citizens” – spurring a recognition, Chaudhuri said, of “initial disconnect” and then a desire to “explore the nature of that connection” between the new, fractured, globalizing Calcutta and the city he once understood.

This exploration has some similarities with that other modernist sympathiser Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, though it is less dramatic and less personalWhile Pamuk wrote himself at the centre of his book, Chaudhuri too is a character in his narrative. Male, entitled – a modern humanist intelligence – Chaudhuri doesn’t shy away from inhabiting his own point of view, including when it makes him appear slightly hapless in the face of the globalised, capital-driven world. “It has a kind of inadvertent comedy, which I didn’t want to leave out,” he admitted in our conversation, “as long as you resist something you’re connected to, there’s something kind of comical about that.”

Though its humourous moments leaven Calcutta’s ponderous aspects, it’s the flashes of insight about shifting culture – those glimpses of the new in the cracks of the old – that really bring the book to life. Unlike countless recent titles about the “new India”, Chaudhuri doesn’t exactly tackle the surging unknowns head-on; but in delineating their boundaries with modernity, he comes up with some fruitful ways of looking at “this weird enchantment – the fairy-tale stillness of a globalisation that has no real resources.” Globalisation, Chaudhuri said, “has provincialised great territories, great parts of the world.” He sets off this Anglophone, homogenizing phenomenon against the backdrop of bhadralok culture, which he argues was both provincial (in its linguistic and cultural Bengaliness) and cosmopolitan (in its liberal harvesting of international art and writing).

While mourning the passing on of the “perennially new” people of modern Calcutta in a eulogy with deliberately mixed allusions (“they were like some kind of new genre that had emerged in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century – like a film by Ghatak or Renoir, or a painting by Paul Klee, or a poem by Jibanananda Das, or a song by Cole Porter or Himangshu Dutta”), Chaudhuri also recognises “the difficulty of evolving as an artist, of reigning yourself to the fact that the styles and visions most previous to you have lost their place and urgency, of accepting that what you once thought was uninteresting is now full of possibility!” He goes on to note, “This is a little parable about cities and genres; how, while some of them lose their imaginative centrality, others take their place.”

Calcutta’s place in the genre of city writing is yoked to Chaudhuri’s unhurried temperament and walking pace – the street is “a place to loiter in”. As cities change, the flâneur finds himself loitering within the commerce-driven, flattened landscape of a mall. Meanwhile, for the intellectual elite and the bourgeoisie at least, the contours of urban experience are defined less by physical proximity or historic roots than by the identities and friendships that are lived online. Though Chaudhuri explained that “I wanted to be moving constantly between one thing and another… let’s say from an object, like a French window, to my being there, to the history of the city,” his intellect ambles meditatively between these things. As cities spawn new genres that focus, package, then flit away from their subject – that are media-rich but often hit-and-run in their engagement – there seems to be less time for a book like Calcutta. This only makes it an all the more special reminder of the power of unhurried writing and the self-renewing potential of returning again and again to a subject one thinks one knows.

Chaudhuri quotes Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel” in his epigraph, and in doing so unconsciously echoes Tagore’s My Reminiscences from a hundred years ago: “So in the streets of Calcutta I sometimes imagine myself a foreigner, and only then do I discover how much is to be seen, which is lost so long as its full value in attention is not paid. It is the hunger to really see which drives people to travel to strange places.” And also, which sometimes brings them home again.

Calcutta: Two Years in the City, Penguin India, ₹599.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2013.

Published: March 15, 2013

The spectacle of books

Notes from the Jaipur Literature Festival ♦

jlf“This is literature as spectacle” — the phrase was a common refrain at the recently concluded DSC Jaipur Literature Festival. I heard it uttered, worriedly, by publishers, sceptical that all the song and dance would translate into sales. I heard it from journalists, expounding between complaints of the festival’s two dry days (books without booze — the horror). The sentiment was even echoed in the festival’s blurb on its promotional materials, cadged from Tina Brown: “The greatest literary show on earth!”Cynics and worried intellectuals might argue that the JLF’s spectacular aspects — the overblown Ashis Nandy controversy (this year’s Rushdie incident), the inclusion of celebrities like Rahul Dravid or the Dalai Lama (this year’s Oprahs), the parties and the concerts could overshadow the books themselves. Though quieter and better organised, the sixth JLF also drew an increased footfall of nearly two lakh people over five days — and yes, many of them seemed to be there to show off outfits, distribute business cards, pose for photos, or stalk The Wall.Groups of schoolchildren were seen, notebooks in hand, collecting autographs like butterflies. British author Howard Jacobson joked that, at home, his audience is usually no younger than 90. Here, he’d found a fan club of 14-year-old girls. In some of the festival’s wittiest sessions, the comic novelist had the audience chuckling, schoolgirls and retirees alike.

Jacobson may have made questionable jokes, but his sessions were enjoyable because he didn’t, like some, court controversy for controversy’s sake. For example, moderator and British Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng came off as needlessly belligerent towards Anjan Sundaram, tipped as this year’s hot non-fiction author, in a panel on Africa. More interesting than the panels focused on vague questions of nations or literature were discussions between a few experts on a particular subject — Indian miniatures, for example — or talks featuring one deeply knowledgeable speaker. And of these sideshow gems, there were many.

What’s more, both the spectacles and these sideshows sold books. While publishers regularly, shamelessly, use attractive author portraits to seduce readers, at the JLF, the less problematic fact that eloquent authors sell books was evident. After a hilarious Latin America session, marked by the bonhomie and banter between Ariel Dorfman and Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo, Dorfman’s books vanished from the bookstore shelves. Similarly, after an electrifying talk by explorer Wade Davis, the store ran out of Into the Silence, his nearly 700-page book on World War I and the conquest of Everest.

These authors are by no means light reading, although the JLF certainly had its typical, dizzying, mix of low- and high-brow subjects and speakers. But if the florid flourishes of celebrity or controversy drew people in, there was enough solid literary programming to thicken the plot. Often the audience asked for reading recommendations: young Latin American novelists, Russians beyond Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Whatever else some of its speakers may court, the JLF certainly sparks literary interest.

The mishmash of topics and speakers could actually make for charming serendipity. One morning, I heard a reading of “We and They”, Rudyard Kipling’s poem about the arbitrary nature of allegiances and prejudices. That afternoon, Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz recited her classic “Naya Bharat”, which judges the rise of Hindutva through the voice of Muslim fundamentalism in its lines: “Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle.”

Notably, in the second recitation, the audience itself begged Riaz for the poem. This level of audience participation was typical of the few Hindustani talks I attended — more humour, spontaneous clapping, and a few “wah wahs” in the aforementioned example. Including more Indian languages and possibly making provisions for translation could only add to the festival’s richness in variety, increase the fluency of discussion and appeal to a wider audience.

Ultimately, the free festival’s broad appeal and unassailably literary core are its strengths. Despite the commercialism of ads between sessions, headline-grabbers and other charges of spectacle levelled against it, the JLF can’t escape the business of books, and the reading of them. If teenage girls from Jaipur have newly minted author crushes on a septuagenarian British Jew, it’s a testament to the transcendent power of language and humour. One hopes too that some of those teenagers wandered into, say, the launch of Ira Pande’s translation of Prabha Khaitan’s Anya Se Ananya. With feminists and female authors as polar as Shobhaa De and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on its roster, the JLF hopefully did its bit to break down the spectacular nonsense of some of our national conversations about women.

Over the years, the JLF has also done its bit to inspire similar festivals across South Asia. Compared to the gargantuan Delhi book fairs, these small-town events have a greater scope for attracting new readership. If ferris wheels and mind-reading donkeys are still the mainstay of local melas, may literature too continue to make a spectacle of itself.

Originally published in The Indian Express, January 31, 2013.

Published: January 31, 2013

Flaps over jackets

What’s behind the various covers of Indian books? ♦

beautyfullOn the US edition of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a girl squats in a swamp, surrounded by a slum. Her face, tilted towards a pale, yellow sky, could reflect grief or devotion. The UK and India edition’s cover is the polar opposite – saturated with shades of cerulean, yellow, and pink, its subject is the figure of a boy in motion, running up a flight of stairs: a symbolically hopeful image that recalls the kitsch aesthetic of Slumdog Millionaire.

Are American readers so wracked by guilty privilege that they’re more likely to pay money for an image of abject poverty? Do Indian readers respond better to stylized, uplifting images of the poor than confront them as stark, hopeless reality? In their role as packaging, book covers are beholden to market tastes, which vary from place to place. It’s often tempting to spin sociological theories from the differences between them around the world. But drawing conclusions about cultural differences based on cover designs is a complicated exercise.

A complaint we’ve heard often among editors, designers, authors and intellectuals in the Indian publishing scene is that books by Indians or about India often get the exotic treatment by cover designers abroad. Freelance book cover designer Pinaki De said he thinks the typical Western design reflects a “pigeonholing, [a] very claustrophobic idea of India”. HarperCollins India’s publisher VK Karthika listed “mehndi, the Taj Mahal, bindis, even a sort of Sanskritised looking font” as the recurring stereotypical motifs she sees cross her desk from abroad.

Some authors actively try to ensure that their books avoid orientalist treatment. Sonia Faleiro recalled her ground rules about the international covers of Beautiful Thing: “Firstly, no stereotypes. So, no henna, no precious fonts. Second, if you put a woman on the cover she must have brown skin.” With a dozen editions in print or in the pipeline, there are almost as many covers of Beautiful Thing – variations on a portrait, a crop of a woman’s torso, and even a painting.

The book cover of Open magazine editor Manu Joseph’s Serious Men has as many variations. Joseph, who aired a similar opinion about the American edition’s Shiva cover in the Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time blog last year, was quick to qualify the thought when we spoke to him. “India is a selling point,” he said, with “a set of visual images which work – it could be a sari, it could be a bindi, it could be any of the gods. The Italian cover of Serious Men has Akbar holding a broken rose.” These stock stereotypes exist for a reason, Joseph said, “as long as people are thinking so deeply about your book, or how to sell your book, I think as an author you feel a bit secure.”

Typically, authors do tend to come around to a cover, especially if it enjoys commercial success. Siddhartha Deb, whose The Beautiful and the Damned ran with a techie pastiche in its American hardcover edition, said, “I initially really disliked the pink cover for the UK paperback/India edition and gave a very grudging yes to it, but people do love it… I’ve grown pretty fond of it myself.”

Traditionally, the use of different covers in different markets stems from a split in US and UK cover design (conventionally perceived as a divide between commercial American covers and artistic British ones). In both these big markets, publishers’ representatives take books to major sellers, who can veto covers if they believe they won’t catch on. Here, as Karthika explained, “we present [the book] as a finished product to the trade.” Of course, every country has its own self-exoticising tendencies as well, and a need to differentiate each product. “There may be a Mughal romance,” Karthika said, by way of example, “you want it to look like a Mughal romance, and play the stereotype up, but you also want the book to look different from any other romance out there.”

However, as the internet plays a bigger role in how books are sold, there’s a new tension between the old wisdom of tailoring covers to particular audiences, and standardising them. There’s a move towards using very slight or no variations. “Because of Google and the way searches work, you really want one look for the book,” Karthika said.

Joseph agreed, “It would be nice if there were only one cover. You want a single visual branding where a person looks at a cover and knows that this is that book, without having to read the text.” He added that “for most publishers, Amazon is the biggest client now, so they are looking at covers which would stand out as… a very small thumbnail on your screen.”

Several people pointed to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger as an iconic example of a typographical cover that was used successfully internationally. As the Indian market grows, and eventually surpasses, foreign markets in size, we’ll likely see more Indian edition covers being picked up abroad. Pinaki De, who has had his designs used internationally, thinks this is already happening. “Increasingly, covers from India are being taken internationally, so that’s good news,” he said. Perhaps Indian designers have their own clichés about the West, he said. “But I personally feel a lot of designers in India are actually doing a lot better than foreign designers.”

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, June 2012.

Published: June 4, 2012

Bridges, not barriers

Delhi’s new literary festival is an appropriately polyglot affair ♦

If India is, as Mark Twain put it, “the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues”, then Delhi is the place where all  these nations and tongues inevitably meet. This fortnight, a new festival acknowledges the importance of the capital as a literary destination – just as worthy as your Jaipurs, your Thiruvananthapurams and your Hay-on-Wyes. But more importantly, it puts the spotlight squarely on those hundred tongues (well, eight of them, at least) in a way that few stages have before.
The· idea for Samanvay was born out of the India Habitat Centre’s desire to ride the popularity of literary festivals, but to turn the focus inwards – towards Indian languages – rather than outwards. IHC Director Raj Liberhan said “The citizen is usually kind of immune from the beauty of the Indian languages’ writing for various reasons. We wanted to actually let people see for themselves the universality of thought, emotion, and yet the variety of expression.
The festival was designed by Satyanand Nirupam, Associate Editor at Delhi Press’ Sarita magazine, and Giriraj Kiradoo, founder and editor of bilingual journal and publisher Pratilipi. The two decided to invite writers of Assamese, Punjabi, Malyalam, Urdu, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali and English literature. lf Samanvay does become an annual fixture as planned, the next year’s edition may include more or different languages.
Kiradoo and Satyanand decided to hone in on relatively specific themes for each of the three-day festival’s sessions. They spoke to established and new writers to put a finger on the pulse of each language’s literary scene. So there are sessions with topics as narrow as Punjabi Dalit love poetry, challenges for women writers from Assam, and “women writing the body” in Tamil. Each session will include readings and discussions between a moderator and an author panel. The writers themselves range from famous (Javed Akhtar on “The Death of Mushayara”) to young Sahitya Akademi winners, bloggers and a few fresh faces.
The Malayalam session on “Autobiography from the margins”, for example, is moderated by celebrated poet K Satchitanandan and includes authors Nalini Jameela, a sex worker; Sister Jesme, a nun who left her convent after 33 years; CKJanu, a tribal activist; and Pokkudan, a Dalit who wrote about vanishing mangrove forests. Autobiography has always been a strong genre in Malayalam writing, Satchitanandan told us, “but what has happened recently is that a lot of people who are on the margins of society have come out with their stories. These mark a break from the mainstream autobiographies, mostly written by political leaders, bureaucrats or well-known actors.”
With over 50 such writers from far and wide, the organisers realised that they’d have to push Samanvay’s intended November slot to December. The bigger logistical question though, was deciding which language to use In each session. Each discussion will have oneor two bilingual participants and a bilingual moderator. If a writer speaks in her own language, the moderator will take the conversation forward after quickly briefing the audience. Nirupam explained that “Our whole focus is on expression. There should be a dialogue between people without language acting as a barrier.”
This refusal to spoon-feed the audience underlines Samanvay’s relative lack of interest in selling big names or drawing attention from the international media. “Just as books are being written with a target reader in mind,” Nirupam said, “festival directors also ask who will be attending. We figured that if we talk about things that are important, people will come of their own accord – if not this year, then next year.” Liberhan explained the decision to stop worrying too much about accessibility (read: accessibility to English speakers): “It’s so difficult amongst the generality of audiences to pick and choose. Hopefully, we can get people who can pick for themselves.”
Those who do attend might come to the pleasant realisation that Indian language writing is more approachable than they think. Nirupam pointed out that a person from Delhi “knows quite a bit of Urdu, but he’s not confident of how much he knows. So when he sits In the Urdu session and hears the language, he’ll realise that there’s hardly a difference.”
He also quoted the example of people leaming Hindi to read Devaki Nandan Khatri ‘s novels. More recently, Kashinath Singh’s Kashi Ka Aasi was adapted as a Bengali play, Kashinama, by Usha Ganguli. “When it was staged In Kolkata, lots of Bengalis learned Hindi just to read the original,” Nirupam said. “Sometimes, good books or authors act as a bridge between languages. Hopefully, the festival can remove some of the mental blocks that prevent us from reaching outside our own languages. Our languages are tied together, they have commonalities.”
By letting linguistic plurality reign – in all its glorious cacophony – rather than touting its headliners, Samanvay should provide a diverting complement to the Delhi intelligentsia’s annual exodus to Jaipur. At the least, it will help bring authors whose books grow dusty on the sturdy, but sometimes unreachable, upper shelves of the Sahitya Akademi’s library to a wider audience. At best, Delhi’s own festival could become an important forum for the knitting together of our hundred nations.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, December 2011.

Published: December 2, 2011

Found in translation

The man behind a flood of translations is swept up in his work ♦

chowringhee-uk-atlanticNearly 15 years had passed since Arunava Sinha translated Chowringhee at the request of the Bengali classic’s author, Sankar. Back then, in 1992, Sinha was embarking on his professional career and considered his bridge translation (an English draft for a French edition) a one-time diversion. By 2006, he was living in Delhi, managing web products for Ibibo, when he received a call from Diya Kar Hazra, then an editor at Penguin.

Hazra, interested in commissioning an English Chowringhee, had been told that it was already translated. She puzzled out that Sinha was responsible for the manuscript. Penguin published the book, which went on to win the 2007 Vodafone-Crossword Award for translation. “Even then,” Sinha told Time Out, “I hadn’t thought about doing another one.  But the book was received with a lot of excitement…” Eleven translations with seven different publishers later, Sinha’s hobby is threatening to take over his day job – as head of IBNlive.com and cricketnext. com – and his life.

my kindThis summer, Sinha had two translations published: Buddhadeva Bose’s 1949 family saga When the Time is Right and Nabarun Bhattacharya’s cult contemporary classic Harbart. Bose’s tender domestic family drama could not be more different from Bhattacharya’s hallucinatory novella, and it’s a testament to Sinha’s versatility that he’s captured the grace of Bose’s prose and the grotesqueness of Bhattacharya’s fever dream. In the past couple of years, Sinha has also managed to interpret the nuances of other voices, whether translating the wry irony in Banaphool’s short stories, the ups and downs of sport in Moti Nandy’s Striker and Stopper, or the thrills of adultery in Dibyendu Palit’s Illicit. He also translates short stories on the side, putting them up on his website as “a form of riyaz”.

busstopPublishers can’t get enough of his translations, and perhaps part of the reason for the number of titles is that his contracts have tended to come out of informal conversations, even Facebook posts. Another factor is the growing interest in regional literature. Sinha thinks Bengali lit has led the pack because many senior editors are Bengali. Whatever the reason, he’s glad. “The quality of fiction there is far superior to the quality that Indian writers in English produce,” he said. “It’s not possible for Indian writing in English to be so good right awayBengali writers have been sitting on top of a long tradition of writing – that’s how they got better.” If India is ever to have a “national” literature, Sinha believes it will be in English. “You cannot have a national literature which is only read by a portion of a country’s population,” he said. “The one common language in India, like it or not, is English.

time isHowever, Sinha also thinks the English language itself will benefit from new translations. “There are expressions from specific languages” that can enrich English, he pointed out, “capturing emotions and ideas that don’t exist.” As an example, he mentioned the Bangla and Hindi “man”, “a continuum between the heart and the mind. It’s a percentage of heart and a percentage of mind, adding up to hundred. But the point is that that continuum can be anywhere depending on the context. So when translating you find yourself using ‘mind’ when it’s more mind than heart and using ‘heart’ when its more heart than mind. But you can never capture that it’s actually a mixture of the two.” Sinha is refreshingly grounded for someone so deeply immersed in language and publishing. He’d love to let questions of the heart and mind take up all his time, but believes it is impractical given publishing standards, which award a translator about 2.5 per cent royalties. “You don’t do it for the money,” Sinha said, noting that being able to translate in his spare time “has probably helped me avert a midlife crisis.” He also has no desire to write fiction himself.  “You have to ideally get to the point where you can no longer write anything on your own,” he insists, “I think that’s the ideal definition of a translator.” Still, we get the sense that Sinha’s only going to get more and more sucked in to his “second innings” as he called it. “What I need is a patron,” he laughed. “I have this wild idea. I want to put together a trust contributed to by rich Bengalis.”

dozakhnama-final-coverEven on his own, Sinha has had the tenacity to make a difference to the field. Though he claims to be terrified of translation theory, his uninhibited intelligence and enthusiasm is a welcome change from the wooden, homogenising translations that have stifled English editions for decades. Two more translations will appear this year: Seventeen short stories by Anita Agnihotri, and Samaresh Basu’s Mahakaler Rather Ghoda (Fever), a “staccato, deceptively simple” tale told by an Adivasi Naxalite in the 1960s. Several books are in the pipeline. Any impression that he’s churning them out is negated by the attention he lavishes on each project. “I always feel that translating is the closest reading that you can give,” Sinha said. “It’s like walking a road instead of merely seeing the map. You actually encounter every gravel, every pebble, every crack in the pavement, every smooth stretch.”

Read translated excerpts  online at www.arunavasinha.in.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2011.

Published: October 4, 2011

Damn nation

 Siddartha Deb finds life less than shiny in the new India ♦

the-beautiful-and-the-damnedIn The Beautiful and Damned, F Scott Fitzgerald’s profligate main characters embody the two adjectives in the title. The novel – an attempt to critique the excesses of America’s jazz age – ended up as a rather self-indulgent byproduct of it instead. Fitzgerald’s narrative only superficially encounters the oppressed classes, on whose labour the froth of that era floated.

Siddhartha Deb added an article to that title for his first non-fiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India, and the alteration is significant. Here, the adjectives describe two discrete groups: the beautiful who, like Fitzgerald’s characters, are the face of India’s wealth; and the damned – those pinned to the peripheries of modernity by corrupt systems and the spread of capitalism.

The Beautiful… is a smooth, under-300 page read, dressed in a tastefully kitsch cover, and well-suited as a catalyst for conversation. Through a reflective introduction and five chapters, each profiling a different individual or group who represents a larger swathe of society, Deb concludes that a culture-wide acceptance of aspiration sustains the lopsided economy that separates the beautiful from the damned.

Deb opens with the story of Arindam Chaudhuri, the private management school mogul. A version of this chapter appeared in the February 2011 issue of Caravan magazine, which, along with the author, Penguin India and Google India, was sued for defamation by Chaudhuri’s institution. That chapter, conspicuously absent from the Indian edition, is still being circulated on the Internet, where it has spawned a lively debate. “I like to think it’s become a bit of a multimedia project, Deb told Time Out. “The missing chapter is [the plaintiffs’] contribution. It’s a collaborative exercise.” While he felt that the Indian edition was “kind of an amputed version,” he’s Deb is glad that “in a way, it’s part of the debate that’s opening up”.

Deb had less provocative intentions when he took on the book. It began as a “wildly overambitious” way to secure a publishing advance, to cope with the financial demands of being a new father. Through five years of research, writing, and winnowing down, he settled on “five kinds of characters, who provided sufficient contrast to brush against each other.” Besides Chaudhuri, Deb explores engineers and identity crisis in IT-fuelled Bangalore in “Ghosts in the Machine”. He reports from the “navel” of India, writing in deft, evocative prose of the dusty farmlands of Telengana in “Red Sorghum”, and of steel factories stoked by the human fuel of migrant labour in “The Factory”. Finally, “The Girl from F&B”, follows a Manipuri waitress in an upscale Delhi restaurant.

As reportage, the chapters from the geographic heart of India are the strongest. Deb said he wanted to go beyond narrative journalism, to add “the layer of a novel”. Each chapter is prefaced by a series of outlining phrases, which bring to mind old-fashioned travelogues, or a novel published in installments. While writing, Deb watched The Wire – “a modern version of a nineteenth-century Dickensian serialised novel”. Other inspirations included George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s book includes the expenditure lists of unemployed miners, and Deb “was stunned by the fact that he could make weekly accounts so interesting”.

Apart from his engagement with similar accounting (digestible statistics punctuate and anchor the text), what makes Deb’s book so likeable is the narrator’s unhidden presence. The Beautiful… is a trustworthy account of a series of conversations with characters, each sketched with a novelist’s attachment (“I don’t think there’s a character I dislike”). Deb, who has published two novels, lays bare his alienation from events, and admits to sometimes viewing harsh reality in fictional terms. During his travels, he sees a limbless man approach an official to complain about government-issued footwear for lepers: “It was an absurd yet poignant detail, making Nizamabad… feel suddenly like a magical-realist setting, a feeling that was enhanced as we… saw nearly 100 children appear from nowhere… in the courtyard and shouting slogans.”

Though Deb doesn’t feel disconnected from India (he retains citizenship), as a US resident he is able to detach from this “vast, fascinating and grotesquely unequal country”. Appropriately, a main reason for staying abroad – his young son – ties him to his characters in the most fundamental way. For despite their wrenching poverty or blinding wealth, the common denominator among new Indians is still an old truth: the people around you, especially family, always take precedence over idealism or the common good. The Beautiful… isn’t an attempt to reverse this psychology – it’s a firm reminder that the personal and the universal go hand in hand. “I want people to know that we’ve been in a fever dream about becoming a superpower,” he said. “And if we don’t treat each other well, it won’t last.

The Beautiful and the Damned, Penguin, ₹499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, August 2011.

Published: August 4, 2011