06 May 2011

Oyster Boy Review of Maps For Lost Lovers

This review was published six years after its submission to a small literary magazine, Oyster Boy Review

Oyster Boy Review Volume 19, Summer 2011

Maps For Lost Lovers
Nadeem Aslam
Knopf, 2005
384 pages, $25 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Hemant Sareen

The 2004 Man Booker longlisted Maps for Lost Lovers' release was accompanied by quaint, almost embarrassing, stories of the author’s self-confinement—complete with blacked-out windows—during the eleven years it took to write a book that had come to possess him. Even the more fetching prospect of a Muslim, a Pakistani one at that, writing a courageous book taking on big themes of Islam and the West, Identity and Immigration—themes that evoke book-burning mobs and fatwas as much as jumbo jets jabbing concrete—hinted at a self-conscious earnestness bordering on the vain. In fact, the absence of fatwas belies the potency of the statement on Islam and cultural conflicts of our time that Aslam’s beautiful,though often self-indulgent and an obsessively crafted manifesto-like, book makes.

In an unnamed English town, a live-in Muslim couple, Jugnu and Chanda, have been missing. The novel opens with the news of the arrest of the suspected murderers. Apparently an “honor killing”—a common phenomenon in Pakistan and as recent reports suggest, the U.K. too— carried out by the girl’s brothers for bringing shame on the family and Islam. The book follows a year in the life of the two families living in the shadow of the gruesome murder. The illusion of the effect having preceded the cause soon vanishes as the family, while coming to terms with grief and their own humanity, finds itself inching inexorably towards more potential tragedies, averted, if at all, only through either enlightened or timorous com- promise and the more drastic and often hazardous flight from the oppressive Islam and family.

Peacocks, moths, and parakeets flit across the brooding and menacing sullenness of Dasht-e-Tanhaii—“Desert of Loneliness,” a sobriquet the immigrants give their adapted town as much to claim as to repudiate it—their natural and instinctual existence mocking Islam’s un- natural repression. Moths, the creatures of light and darkness, are leitmotifs—used along with a profusion of symbols, almost to the point of contrivance—to resonate the ambivalence of human desire that Islam seeks to negate. The fatal attraction of moths for flame is a kitschy staple of popular Urdu and Persian poetry: flames of both love and religion allure and then burn the seeker. They add to the sense of tragedy that hangs over Dasht-e-Tan- haii’s garden of Eden rife with whispers of love, prayers, blasphemies, rumours, and confessions.

Shamas, Jugnu’s liberal brother, is drawn into adultery, as he strives to retain a humanity that, the book suggests passionately, Islam erodes. Kaukab, Shama’s wife, is the perfect hostess and matriarch, feels her authority waning amongst her near-apostate and rebellious children, the westernized second generation: they instinctively place Kaukab at the centre of the forces that killed their uncle. Silencing her mind to bring her own instincts to conform to her faith in a Mobius-strip logic, Kaukab condemns her brother-in-law’s murder, but can’t help denouncing his “sin” also.

Aslam uses Kaukab to look unsparingly at the practise of Islam and at the Koran that lends itself so easily to literal reading. She is the zealot-in-the-kitchen, who raises the bar of everyday piety to such heights that the suicide bombers’ jacket is the logical and just a small step away in the continuum.

There is no reconciliation in the family, representing various tensions within modern Islam.

A Little Pakistan, that cohabits with an indifferent West, and in continual hostility to it, the town is populat- ed with characters, major and minor, all fleeing from liv- ing hells from across the Islamic world, only to find them replicated here in cruel exactness: another place where a million mutinies flare up and are continually quelled in the name of Islam. The enclosing West’s primary act of hostility is not its racism but its alluring permissiveness, that threatens to entice young Muslims away from their faith and families. The causes for the West’s Islamopho- bia are sought in the unmindful indoctrination of hate against the “brothel” West, that “ordinary,” “decent” Muslims subject their children to. Around Dasht-e-Tan- haii, a common curse is to wish someone that their son marries a white woman. The huge chasm between the two cultures makes the crossover to freedom and sanity of the West an extremely hazardous journey.

Aslam is more faithful to his literary roots than he might seem to his creed. His immersion in Urdu lan- guage and literary culture makes the prose redolent with “perfumed longueurs of an Urdu lyric”—full of nuanced observations, if at times epicene. Abundant references and similes mnemonically link the twin milieus of the Pakistani immigrant—the immediate, and the lost and constantly recalled—vividly recreating the ethos of a Punjabi Muslim family and community. The book’s main achievement is the near-accurate, piquant translation of an elusive subculture, that often gives rise to tawdry and comic interpretations, into an international literary idiom—the breakthrough Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children achieved. Maps is a worthy follow up act.

16 January 2009

One Dastan, Two Dastangos

Photo © Hemant Sareen
Photo © Hemant Sareen
Photo © Hemant Sareen

Before the Mutiny of 1947, the steps of Delhi’s Jama Masjid were witness to a regular scene---amongst the bustle of the faithful, hawkers, and an assortment of entertainers, stood storytellers regaling crowds with their endless, tall tales. Most likely, these improbable, digressive tales at times piously pushing faith, at others teetering on the edge of bawdy, were the storyteller’s take on Dastan-e Amir Hamza, or Hamzanama, or The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a long rambling, lusty tale about the adventures of one Amir Hamza, generally recognised as an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed. The Islamic connection is an uneasy one. As the latest critically-acclaimed translator of the Dastan, Musharraf Farooqui, points out: The Koran trashes Dastan as ‘idle tales’, confirming for present day scholars the availability and popularity of the Persian Dastan in Arabia at the time The Koran came to be written---early in the 7th century.* Later, of course, Dastan was roped in by Islam to spread the word. Akbar had his own illustrated version done in his ateliers. Dastan has been acknowledged as an oriental and Islamic equal to Western canon’s narratives like Homer’s Iliad and Bewoulf. But unlike these works of Western classical literature that are fixed and unchanging, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza is a work in progress. Every Dastango, or storyteller, is not merely reciting the tales from Dastan, but is in fact a co-creator. Former Rhodes scholar and writer, Mahmood Farooqui, and the New Delhi-based stage actor Danish Husain have taken up Dastan to revive the almost extinct, ancient, oral art form and for the love of the equally endangered Urdu language. Exploring their art, its history and practice, and its future, Hemant Sareen tries to find out whether they are the last in the line of Dastangos or the first of our times. Or perhaps, it is too early to tell.

Hemant Sareen: What is Dastangoi? Where does this art form come from?

Mahmood Farooqui: Dastangoi as an art form, as a form of storytelling, has been around in India and in other parts of the Islamic world for a very long time. Its uniqueness as a way of storytelling is in the fact that it relies only on the spoken word. It doesn’t use any musical instruments; it doesn’t use any pictures. It is basically, therefore, the art of oral narration and improvised storytelling. The story is built up as you narrate it.

HS: So you make it up as you go along?

MF: On the spot! And it is this combination of spontaneity and rehearsal that distinguishes Dastangoi from other [traditional, oral] forms of storytelling.

HS: So, the Dastangoi has to be not just a master of the language but also an inventive story writer?

MF: Well, in an ideal scenario, yes. But we [Mahmood and Danish Husain] rely mostly on stories created by traditional Dastangoi in the Urdu language, especially from places like Lucknow, Rampur, and Delhi.

HS: Are most of these prototypical stories recorded and written down?

MF: Yes a lot of them are recorded. What happened was that at the fag end of the 19th century, these stories began to be printed. Many big Dastangoi of Lucknow were invited by the leading publishers of the time, Munshi Naval Kishore, who compiled their Dastans in book form. The particular story of the Hamza-cycle was printed in a textual canon which ran into 46 volumes.

HS: Were the Nawabs of Lucknow big patrons of Dastangoi and Dastangos?

MF: Yes, a lot of patronage and not just from the Nawabs, every notable in Delhi cultivated a Dastangoi in his retinue. And when there were no Nawabs and the city had been taken over by the British [after the Mutiny of 1857], it was performed at various locales -- at street corners, on the steps of Jama Masjid, at the nobles’ salons.

HS: As Dastango in the modern times, have you brought in contemporary elements, subjects, references into your Dastans?

MF: Not so much in each Dastan, but we have tried to create Dastans which are about contemporary themes and concerns. Say, we did a Dastan on the Partition last year which we performed many times and it went down very well with the audience. The original Persian elements, are they still to be found in the Dastan. Afrasiyab is a character from ancient Persian lore, also mentioned in tenth century verse epic Shahnama by Firdausi, the greatest Persian literary text; as is Nausherwan, also known as Nausherwan the Just is a legendary Sassanian, old Iranian, Emperor; Samri and Jamshed are Zoroastrian deities.

HS: And, the Amir Hamza’s Dastan still retains its Pre-Islamic framework?

MF: Yes, the framework is Pre-Islamic but the content and the telling is very much India.

HS: Did Dastan change with the arrival of Islam?

MF: No, the earliest Dastans which we can date are the ones written after the coming of Islam. The 8th century or so is the oldest [available] Dastan. And Islam had been there for almost 200 years before that. So, I don’t know if it is a case of Pre-Islamic story continuing in an Islamic form, we don't know enough to say for certain.

HS: After Akbar, we know for sure because he had the Dastan-e Amir Hamza illustrated in his ateliers.

Danish Husain: Yes, and there was the text written at the back [of each illustration], though not the entire text. It is called Hamzanama. It ran into around 1400 folios and each folio had this painting depicting a scene from Dastan-e Amir Hamza, and at its back was the text written in the form of poetry in Persian. [Apparently], in Akbar’s court, you would find people standing in front of the Emperor with the folio. And as he admired the painting, somebody would read the text at the back. It was a sort of a prototype of cinema.

MF: Of the 1400 folios, only around 100 have survived, preserved in museums abroad.

HS: When did it get translated into Urdu?

MF: The first printed version of the Urdu Dastan we get is around 1803 or 1804. But one can safely say that Dastan had been around before that. The tradition would have been there for it to find itself transcribed as a text. So, sometimes in the 18th century, as Persian gives way to Urdu in Poetry, so also was the case with Dastan-e Amir Hamza.

HS: In the Random House edition of The Adventures of Amir Hamza recently published amidst universal praise in the West, the translator Musharraf Farooqui says in his introduction that the popularity of Dastans owed much to the conducive ‘decadence’ of the times from 1707 to 1857, a time which William Dalrymple approximately portrayed in his The Last Mughal as a time of flourishing for Islamic education, Urdu language, and other Mughal art forms, especially in Delhi.

MF: The popular understanding of the 18th century is it being a time of weakness and indulgence. In the last twenty years historical research has rehabilitated the 18th century as a formative period for Urdu poetry and Hindustani classical music, certainly khayal. So, the period couldn’t have been decadent in that sense.

HS: In the Qur'an damns Dastangoi s ‘idle tales’ which lead people astray from the ‘Path to Allah’ and promises ‘humiliating chastisement’ for those partake of them.

MF: But there are Dastans about the conquests of Hamza or Islamic armies over the infidels. This was the framework of [many of] the stories. But when you read the stories, the Islamic aspect is not at all at the centre. Dastans are very secular stories. These are not, unlike other folk tales like The Panchatantra, moralising tales. Dastans are meant completely and exclusively to entertain. You just sit there, enjoy the telling, enjoy the tale, and go home. There are no moral strings attached.

HS: Indian Islam is not considered very Book-oriented. Still, was there a pressure on Dastangoi to exercise restrain and genuflect to Islamic tradition?

MF: Not in the pre-modern period. The pressure came in the modern times. In the 19th and 20th century, reformers attacked Dastangoi as a genre. Key reformer Ashraf Ali Khan wrote a text called Bahishti Zaver -- ‘bahishti’ means feminine, and ‘zaver’ is ornament. The primer told young women how to be ideal women and wives and it became a necessary accompaniment with every dowry for a girl. Dastans were one of things the primer attacked and proscribed. Even literary reformers thought Dastans were not good enough literature. They were all fantasy, there was no characterisation, there was no attempt to depict the internal life of the characters. And also, Dastan-e Amir Hamza is not like a novel essentially, therefore it couldn’t be called literature.

HS: What about the present times, how is Dastangoi perceived today?

MF: It’s early days yet. Let’s see how it develops. We have been giving Dsatangoi performances for the last three years and the response so far has been very enthusiastic.

HS: But you perform in cultural festivals, colleges, and at book launches which makes it an elitist form. Did Dstangoi enjoy popularity and support of the masses beyond the patronage of the wealthy and the powerful?

MF: Yes, it did. The last renowned Dastango, Mir Baqar Ali, died in 1928. After that there might have been some Dastangos because traditions don’t peter out like that. But in the last 20 years or so we haven’t had anyone performing Dastan. We are the only Dastangos around. So obviously it is difficult to perform everywhere at the same time. But we do what we can. In earlier times Dastangoi was a popular form with both the elite and the common man, because if you perform on the steps of Jama Masjid, as it Dastangos did regularly in the 19th century, then its the masses you are catering to. That’s another uniqueness of Dastangoi that it is very literary in its lineage, but in terms of he twists and turns of the plot it can very easily be a party to the popular and even to the vulgar. It can be even very bawdy. It is full of scatological references, like about pissing and shitting, all matters to be avoided. Dastangoi can scale the heights of refinement and it can go very low as well.

HS: How did you come to Dastangoi?

MF: I came to Dastangoi because I was interested in Urdu literature. I had never read Dastans though, because they are not taught as part of the mainstream canon of Urdu literature. They are prized, as they should be, but they also seen as part of a heritage that is bygone about which we don’t need to bother. But it was S. R. Faruqi, the leading Urdu critic spent twenty years collecting different volumes of Dastans and published a three volume study of the long Hamza version who got me into this. In a sense, he started the revival. And he asked me to get into it. I was not thinking about being a performing Dastango myself. I was more interested in doing a documentary on the genre. Then I got a fellowship at the Sarai, and around the same time the India International Centre (IIC) asked me to do a show. So it was the Sarai and the IIC along with S. R. Faruqi who together created a space for me to put on my first Dastangoi performance. I did my first few shows with Himanshu Tyagi, but he moved to Bombay. Then Danish, whom I had seen in Habib Saab’s plays, joined me and since then we have been working together for the last two years.

HS: Danish you are in the theatre? How does the theatre experience sit along with Dastangoi and how separate or close are the two from and to each other?

DH: I don’t see Dastan outside the theatre purview. If we were to strip Dastan to the basics, and specially the way Mahmood and I do it, it does fall under theatre. The actors are using their body, their voice, their memories, the text as they perform for an audience. The genre is different in a sense that it is not your mainstream theatre where you can have other devices to augment your performance. You have light, sound, design, props, sets, costumes. All these things are not a part of Dastan. You are limited to your voice and facial expressions and the text. So it is challenging as if we have our hands tied at our backs in a match with someone who is free to move around. A lot of times especially in experimental theatre find this tendency to shun the text as if meaning has to be found in the body movement of the actors on stage, or in visual texture, light, etc. I don’t subscribe to this all the time. It may work sometimes and it may not. I believe that he text is t the heart of any performance, unless you move to dance or something else. And this is what excites me about Dastan. Here the text is the core of the performance and it is primarily the text that props us up on the stage.

HS: Is Dastan still associated with Islam? You are both Muslims, does that help or hinder?

DH: No, I don’t think we ever approach Dastan as an Islamic art form. The way Mahmood and I do it, it is definitely not an as Muslims. MF: It is an Urdu art form. In popular perception anything in Urdu is Islamic or Muslim. If you were to walk around and flash a very secular Urdu text at anyone on the street and ask what comes to their mind, they will say Islam, Muslims. So, in that sense, yes. But I don’t think we personally approach it as an Islamic genre, or doing it because we were Muslims. The advantage we have is that because we grew up in families and cultures where things that go into making Dastans had a strong tradition...

DH: ...language, poetry, literature. So we were not alien to these elements. We might not have read Dastans but we were aware of its existence and the tradition that it comes from.

MF: Let me add another aspect to t. Here is a narrative which is purportedly a narrative speaking the truth of Islam. But it is a narrative which partakes so heavily of the secular and the profane, and of things that even today would be regarded as complete no-no by a lot of Muslims in the country, yet yolks such elements to sacred Islamic figures. It gives one the sense of how once there were Muslims in this country and elsewhere in the past who would sit and listen and enjoy stories which might raise a lot of frowns. The orthodoxy today would hardly allow to create these texts. But it does not mean that texts like Dastans would not be created or are not being created, but the relationship of the orthodoxy of those times and these texts would have in all likelihood been similar. So, Dastans open an imaginative space which lets us see what people, and especially Muslims, were like in earlier times.

DH: To our surprise, we did a show at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and in the audience were many traditional, orthodox-looking Muslims. Our tales were bordering on the vulgar. Yet no one from the audience chastise us or had any misgivings. On the contrary, they had enjoyed the show.

HS: It is very telling that you are at all times testing your audience for their response?

DH: At AMU we were in two minds about doing certain things which were almost blasphemous. Then we decided that we should go ahead because these tales were not our creations, we were just reciting them. If somebody had a problem with them, they should ban the whole tradition of Dastangoi. But surprisingly the response was very good, which encouraged us. We performed in Pakistan too. But we must say that we did not perform for the real, ordinary Pakistanis, but to an elitist, deracinated, acculturated audience.

HS: Pakistan has a strong Sufi tradition. Bulle Shah is big there. So, you were performing to the enlightened Pakistanis perhaps?

MF: They are somewhat aware of the Dastans because in Pakistan children's version of the Hamza stories continued to be published for a long time. But most of them were ignorant of Hamza and Dastangoi. They were even surprised by our usage of the Urdu language. They said to us, ‘Oh, we didn’t know Urdu was such a beautiful language.’ But that could have been because we were performing to a select, westernised audience. Dastan-e-Hamza in translation has been received in the West as the next Rumi, another rare piece of evidence that the present suppression seen in Islamic societies is a product of bad myopic politics which is in constant denial of the real liberal core of Islam.

HS: Is Dastan perceived similarly in India, as a rare instance of liberalism in Islam?

DH: The usual mistake of the West is to regard Islam as a monolithic religion. But in India I don’t think it is seen as coming from a liberal tradition. It seen more as a performance, or as something embedded in Islamic culture. In our times, one can’t be very conclusive about how Dastan registers on the audience, but they certainly relate to it. We performed in a college in Delhi where there were no Muslims. The audience had had no truck with the Urdu language. Yet it turned out to be a cathartic moment for them. That is because Dastan is an encounter with Islam. We begin our performance by invoking the name of Mohammed Sahib, whose uncle was Amir Hamza.

HS: Have you had any Western response to your performance?

MF: Yes and no. We have had Westerners and Easterners amongst our audience who have enjoyed the performance a lot. But the performance is so deeply embedded in the Urdu language that it is very difficult to translate. How long can you sit through two people talking without you understanding a word? Their appreciation would be greatly enhanced if they could understand it. We have to figure out ways to take it across to them.

HS: Have you considered using bits from an English translation like the recent---and acclaimed one--- done by Musharraf Farooqui?

MF: We have thought about that but the idea doesn’t appeal to us. The level of language and the orality which is inherent in the Urdu text cry out to be read aloud. English translations, however excellent like Musharraf Farooqui’s, are not oral driven like the original in Urdu. The Urdu text has been honed by decades of telling by numerous Dastangois, each one adding something to the original. When we say a beautiful line and people respond with ‘Wah, wah!’ that’s where the joy of performing comes from. That’s what we aspire to. We might try a bilingual approach or translate the text and give it to the audience before the performance.

HS: Does the urban Indian audience have any problem with Urdu?

DH: That’s another myth. People in the cities might not speak it, but understanding Urdu is fairly easy. Not just because of Bollywood movies, also because you do hear it spoken in many places in India.

MF: There’s no one around who can understand everything we say, except maybe Ahsan Farooqui. And even he admits regarding some passages of Dastan that, ‘Iski daat to Mir aur Ghalib hee dey sakte hain jo samajhne aur taareef karne ki ehmiyat rakhte hain. Chotte-motte aadmi to iss kabil hee nahin hain ke iski tareef bhi kar sakain. Unhe samajh bhi nahin ayega ki baat kya kahi gayi.’ So, for most it is enough if they get the gist and enjoy it. Urdu maintains a cultural prestige even though it has declined. That works to our advantage.

DH: If we were storytellers in any other Indian language, I don’t think we would have stood out as we do as Urdu storytellers. Is Urdu all but lost? MF: It is, but part of our endeavour is to put it up there and present it to the world and tell them what they are losing out on. It is the country’s loss. It is all of us’ loss.

Farooqui, Musharraf, ‘The Simurgh-Feather Guide to the Poetics of Dastan-e Amir Hamza Sahibqiran’, The Annual of Urdu Studies, Vol. 15, 2000, http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/15/11farooqim.pdf

05 September 2008

Manto with a Funny Bone

Irreverent, hip, assured. Mohammed Hanif belongs to the new breed of Pakistani writers who herald the birth of a bold, new Pakistan -- only if, inshallah, the army and the mullahs will let it come into being. Hanif, the BBC Urdu Service head who was once a Pilot Officer in the Pakistani Air Force Academy, is the latest entrant in the fast-lengthening list of accomplished young Pakistani writers like Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam, and Mohsin Hamid, who display consummate skill combined with Sadat Hasan Manto’s hunger to break taboos. Hanif's first book, The Case of Exploding Mangoes, has attracted much attention for its brave, spirited, hilarious look at Pakistan's past. A review in The New York Times even compares it to Joseph Heller's black-humour classic Catch-22. Hemant Sareen, in an email exchange with Hanif, discovers that the suave, cool, wickedly funny voice of the narrator in the book wasn't a put-on act.

Hemant Sareen: How has your book been received in Pakistan?

Mohammed Hanif: Great so far. Brilliant reviews. Wall-to-wall coverage in print and electronic media. And some really sweet emails from random readers.

HS: You must have stumbled upon state secrets to absolve the Bhuttos, the CIA, the Israelis, the Soviets, and the Afghans, not to mention the Indians, all of whom wanted Zia dead?

MH: I didn’t notice that I had absolved anyone. That wasn’t the purpose. I was trying to write a murder mystery with some jokes.

HS: And you have implicated one General (Akhtar, Director ISI) and a Major (Kiyani) from the Army, and the ISI? The book is not just an entertaining historical thriller, it is naming names of real people?

MH: Again, I don’t think I have implicated anyone. You need names for your characters. And Kiyani is a very common last name in Punjab. And as a novelist I think I can name as many names as the plot demands.

HS: You actually suggest that the absolutely powerful, deeply hierarchical, totally unaccountable army-ISI complex was the main culprit.

MH: I do not suggest any such thing. There are some great books out there about the Pakistan army and I think anyone looking for an insight into this complex should read them. My novel will only misguide them.

HS: You were an insider; you were training to be a pilot in the Pakistan Air Force. Did you complete your training? When and why did you quit?

MH: Hardly an insider. I was in my late teens and one of thousands marching up and down the parade squares with an occasional flying lesson. I left because it was quite boring.

HS: What did you learn from that experience? When and how did the experience turn into political convictions, if at all it did?

MH: Sadly, I haven’t been able to turn any of those experiences into any political conviction. I learnt that one should wake up really early, go for long runs, keep one’s belt tight, shine one’s shoes properly, clean my cupboard every week etc. Good lessons all, but I am too lazy to make any use of them in my current life.

HS: You allude repeatedly to the Pakistani army’s self-delusional existence. Does it really believe it is being useful to the country, and that it is popular? One would have imagined over the years it might have been cured of the delusion?

MH: The Pakistan army is not the only army in the world guilty of this delusion. Ask any colonel from the US army or even your Indian army and you’ll find out what they think of civilians like me and you.

HS: Your Zia reads like a Hamlet who comes into knowledge, but late. Was it a literary requirement to humanise the “cruellest of modern tyrants” or do you really think, no harm done, maybe he would have listened to his Koran or the inner voice, and perhaps withdrawn, reformed?

MH: I think you are reading too much into a little plot twist. I don’t think he is redeemed as a character. And as we all know, dictators in our region don’t reform and never withdraw.

HS: Was he, maybe, as much a victim as he was an agency of evil? Was the Islamisation of the army and the society at large that he effected an act of piety and a foreign policy strategy -- and not a tactic to consolidate and retain power?

MH: I don’t think piety had anything to do with it. It was just old fashioned greed for power.

HS: Is there a new clarity in Pakistan about contemporary history? Have people become smart enough to not let another Zia happen?

MH: I hope they have. Millions have marched against Musharraf on the streets of Pakistan during the last one year. And they have forced Musharraf to hold half decent elections, to take off his uniform. I think civil society in Pakistan is definitely on the rise.

HS: Are the Police State elements too deeply entrenched to be uprooted completely?

MH: It’ll be a long struggle.

HS: One of the processes you show in your book is the brutalisation to which the elite of Pakistani society subject their young, hip, secular, modern offspring, which turns them into cynical hate-mongers who abuse religion and power to remain on top of the heap in society.

MH: The elite of Pakistan actually send their offspring to Ivy League colleges, where they get a very expensive education, learn new ways of making money, and make their families proud and richer in the process. Army careers, both in India and Pakistan, are for lower middle classes only, or the academically challenged.

HS: This also suggests that the coups and political upheavals in the country are a way to bring the balance of power back in favour of the elite, who are complicit in their orchestration. Which is why the coups in Pakistan tend to be bloodless -- the feudal elite have only subjects and no competitors?

MS: You are absolutely right but as I said earlier this seems to be changing now. We have a very thriving media, a very determined lawyers’ movement and lots of hardworking rights groups trying to change things.

HS: Is the book a vehicle of your political convictions or are you just trying to be an agent provocateur?

MH: I am a journalist who is dabbling into fiction and hoping to do more of this in future.

HS: What kind of research/investigation did you follow while writing, if you did, or is the book the sum total of impressions and hearsay?

MH: Mostly impressions, recycled rumours. My research involved watching reruns of MASH.

HS: Where were you when you heard about Zia's death? I remember, I was in my late teens and had a personal celebration being in a very apolitical place -- an ashram.

MH: I was also in a very apolitical place, an officers’ mess. We were drinking beer in our rooms. We were shocked and sad so we switched to whisky.

HS: Is Pakistan deciding that the kind of Islam that has gained currency since Zia is not its cup of tea after all? That it’s time to go back to the traditional South Asian Sufi-tinged, gentler, less dogmatic, suppler kind of Islam?

MH: I don’t think anybody is going back to traditional Sufism. There is a very vocal minority that is religious and they are joined by some new converts. Most people are struggling with rising food and fuel prices and really have no time to worry about religion.

HS: Has an increasingly liberal and permissive India (at least in the media and the films) denied Pakistan a familiar model worth emulating -- one that could balance tradition, religion and modernity? The example that comes to the mind is a group of middle-class Pakistani women visiting India, complaining that they find it harder and harder to relate Bollywood because of the western dresses actresses wear in the movies?

MH: Bollywood fashion trends? I think you haven’t been following Bollywood lately. A lot of Pakistani women wear western dresses, you can see them everywhere. Pakistan also has a very vibrant fashion industry. Bollywood is always trying to find new ways of introducing the skimpiest clothes for their women. I don’t think real life women in India and Pakistan have that approach. I was quite surprised about the furore over cheerleaders recently. Obviously people objecting to it have not been to a cinema lately.

HS: You have an MFA from the University of East Anglia. Who was your teacher? Who were your classmates? What makes a young man training to be fighter pilot land in a writing course?

MH: I have been a journalist for a decade and a half, and I wanted some time off to write. That’s how I ended up at UEA. I had some brilliant teachers there. Patricia Duncker, who is the author of Hallucinating Foccoult and many other brilliant novels. Then we had Andrew Cowan and Michel Roberts. Also Richard Holmes taught me a life writing course which was great. Had lots of people in my class: Ann, Vicky, Laura, Emily, Ralph. All great readers and good company at the college bar.

HS: What is your ideal of writing? Who is your favourite author?

MH: I think, trying to find out what you don’t know. You sit with a blank page and you have a very vague idea about what’s going to happen. That really is a delicious feeling when you find out what is going to happen next. My favourite author is Truman Capote. Current favourite author Mirza Athar Baig, who wrote Ghulam Bagh.

HS: A writing school degree on the back cover blurb usually means a serious, literary, personal, well-crafted book. You’ve come out with a lean but breezy historical thriller.

MH: Is that a compliment or a complaint?

HS: The book reads like a movie at times -- the plotting, the pacing, the cuts in and out, the dialogue, and the set pieces (eg Zia’s night out on his bicycle). Are you still into your other passion, cinema?

MH: I have written a movie and a half. Passion is a bit of an overstatement, though. Occasionally I get passionate about theatre. I have written two-and-a-half plays. It’s the best feeling; sitting in the audience, watching people react to your words. I am in the middle of writing a play called The Dictator’s Wife. I’ll be sitting in the audience.

HS: I thought the book, because it machetes away the complexities of the times and around the event, to be guilty of low ambition. Did you ever consider a more monumental, dense, complex, solid book? Or did you plan it that way, but then received a call from Islamabad to knock it off, so settled for a book that moves from one one-liner to the next?

MH: I have written a very monumental, very dense book, and I think the most complex book I have ever written. Sorry you don’t agree. Will try harder next time. I am also glad you recognise that I lack ambition. The only calls I get from Islamabad are from our BBC bureau and trust me they never say, ‘Finish that bloody novel!’

HS: While writing the book, you must have been thinking up Pakistani-flavoured witticisms all the time? You must have been some company to keep in a pub?

MH: Pubs are for writing. Only bores talk in pubs.

HS: What’s your view on how Pakistani writing is coming up and the direction it is taking?

MH: The best Pakistani writing I recently read was a novel called Ghulam Bagh. A philosophical, archaeological thriller. Everybody should read it. I think that’s the direction Pakistani writing should take.

HS: Does being a part of the BBC make you an agent of the West in Pakistan, like it made foreign journalists and their Indian colleagues suspect in Indira Gandhi’s time?

MH: I wasn’t there in Indira’s time. People are generally suspicious of journalists, local or foreign. And I think they should be.

HS: The BBC's maternalism looked a bit out of place in the free-market culture fast becoming the norm in the developing world. Now, what with global warming and food crises, it seems relevant again?

MH: BBC bosses would love this.

HS: Is Pakistani private, independent media an established fact now? Can this advance ever be reversed?

MH: No.

HS: Is there another book on the hard disk?

MH: Only on notebooks.

04 September 2008

Highs, Sea: Sea of Poppies

Sea of Poppies
By Amitav Ghosh
Viking/Ravi Dayal
Pages 515
Rs 595

Opium was once what oil is today: an addictive substance fueling personal and imperial fantasies. The first major enclaves of the British Empire in India, Bombay and Calcutta, were built on opium. The British Empire in India drew its power from the substance, much in demand then as an analgesic, a narcotic, and an addictive stimulant that produced countless junkies, but also some great poetry. The British held a monopoly over opium production in India. Vast swathes of fertile land along the Ganges were turned into seas of poppies. The farmers who cultivated poppy were no more than slaves forced to provide the cheap labour and land for poppy cultivation that fed the British opium factories in India. The British used this dope and the profits from it to cause mischief in China -- opium became the opiate of the Chinese masses.

It was a British policy, much like their divide-and-rule in India, to turn the Chinese into junkies -- in one stroke carve out a market and an empire. That was until the Chinese got wiser and put the spanner in the Limeys’ work. In the early 19th century, the trade almost ground to a halt as China embargoed the British opium. The worst affected were the opium farmers, already chronically indebted thanks to the unfair terms dealt to them by the British. Mouthing free trade pieties, the British declared the Chinese move an act of aggression. Soon the Opium Wars would begin and would end in the British biting a meaty morsel off China -- Hong Kong. But before that, the British, to cut their losses in China, took up trade in indentured labour -- the ‘girmitiyas’ (people who had signed an agreement) or Jahaj bhais, as the ragtag lot would later fondly call their fellow travellers and immigrants.

The first book of Amitav Ghosh’s proposed Ibis trilogy, Sea of Poppies, is set against this background: To be precise, in 1938, on the eve of the Opium Wars. The story is about how the Ibis, a refitted American schooner that arrives in Calcutta’s Hooghly with an American mulatto freedman, carpenter-turned-captain Zachary Reid at the helm, to be filled with its load of passengers before it can set sail across the dreaded kala pani to Mareech dweep, Mauritius. Each of its passengers is a creature of circumstances in which opium looms, large or small: A group of indentured labours headed for the sugarcane fields of Mareech, among them Deeti, the widow of an afeemkhor poppy farmer; her low-caste jora, Kalua; Paulette Lambert, the orphaned, spirited daughter of a French botanist; Jodu, her childhood playmate, son of her Bengali ayah; Raja Neel Rattan Halder, a disgraced, bankrupt zamindar; and the strange devious-benign Baboo Nob Kissin, agent-incharge of the illegal human cargo (slavery having been abolished by then) of the ersatz slave ship Ibis.

Ghosh, with his redoubtable ability to mix fact and fiction and churn out engaging narratives that can deal with knotty, urgent, civilisational themes without breaking a sweat, is in his element here, revelling in the opportunity the trilogy provides to mount his continuing project of retrieving marginal histories teetering on the edge of oblivion -- the subject also of his two most accomplished books, The Shadow Lines, and In An Antique Land -- on an epic scale, something already attempted in The Circle of Reason and The Hungry Tide, albeit on relatively smaller scales. He now turns the economy of opium production into a scathing allegory about how egregiously exploitative and oppressive the Empire was, and into a cracking page-turner.

Ghosh shows rather than tells the perverse nature of the social engineering the British were effecting with the opium, whose effects were so profound as cause tectonic shifts in a civilisation -- disarray across caste hierarchies, upheaval in the most entrenched of religious beliefs, en masse breaking of the strongest taboos. The world of Deeti and her fellow girmitiyas -- from their fields, the opium factory, their economic and social circumstances, to their Calcutta camps where they waited in fear and trembling to board the ships to the unknown -- is wonderfully textured, painstakingly reconstructed by the fine literary ethnographer Ghosh is.

Characters come alive -- after all, they have to keep us curious about their fates for two more books -- as Ghosh effortlessly, unselfconsciously constructs them partly from research, partly from his masterly ability to get under his characters’ skin. Ghosh successfully authenticates his characters through language. The reader is treated to Laskari, a ‘motley tongue’ that combined various Asian vernaculars to come up with translations of English maritime terms; the Hobson-Jobson patois of Mr Doughty, the river pilot; and the indentured labourers’ lilting Bhojpouri.

The resultant vivid evocation of the characters’ milieus and the pleasure of tad delayed recognition of vernacular words in strange spelling and strange script -- ‘dumbcow’ (‘dhamkana’), ‘carcanna’ (‘karkhana’) -- however, soon wears off when the scene shifts to the Babel-like, cosmopolitan Calcutta, and the English characters -- the voluble pilot, the grumpy first mate, the captain whose lip curls when approached by a native, and the viscerally racist owner of the Ibis -- begin to ‘speak’ to each other and their native interlocutors. The book’s tone suddenly becomes apparent: No more the studied-neutral with which the book began, it now sounds grotesque-comic. Characters start assuming their true colours -- black or white. The moral world becomes a contrasty dichromatic.

Ghosh seems to falter as he leaves the familiar territory where fact and fiction mitigate each other’s excesses and the realm of make-believe begins. The wonderfully delineated characters now must interact with each other. The book’s atmosphere becomes unreal; it reads increasingly artificial; the action is forced. The final part, titled ‘Sea’, suffers from an overdramatised denouement that is more Paul Scott than vintage Amitav Ghosh. It feels like a schoolboy playing with action figures carefully placed in a plastic ship resting on the floor of an air-conditioned room. The sea---and Ghosh's sea is like a cup of tea gone cold---sinks any traces of ambiguity left in the book. Good and evil are neatly separated, and efficiently and judiciously dealt with. The ending does more for the next book in the trilogy than for Poppies.

Despite some achievements, Sea of Poppies feels towards the end more like a product of a grand commercial venture than an outcome of a writer's reflection and deep-felt literary intent. Yet, this is a low-risk three-chance game. Ghosh has two more, and given his talent, he is likely to make good.

The Tazurba of Amitav Ghosh

Photograph © Hemant Sareen

Amitav Ghosh, with his mop of since-ages white hair and a pleasingly contrasting dusky skin, stands welcoming you in his tenth floor suite in a five-star Delhi hotel looking like a weightier, intellectual, grown-up, oriental Tintin. There are signs of the whirl of book launch-related activity---boxes full of copies of his latest book, presumably meant to be given away to old friends from Ghosh’s long stay in Delhi, are strewn on the floor. You realise, here is a man who perfectly embodies the image the middle class India has of an Indian Writer in English---a material and creative success; someone with a universality that comes from being a perfect mix of Indian-ness and westernisation, a man as comforatble in a Harvard lecture room as he is in a boat afloat in the Sundarbans; and a nerd with a great presence, equally at home at his desk as he is at a book-launch party. As he engages the photographer in easy conversation about an old Stephanian connection they have both discovered, you feel the ice is broken. Nope. Almost rendered inarticulate by Ghosh’s combativeness, Hemant Sareen discovers that the author of nine books that have constantly countered the West-centric world view, Amitav Ghosh is not someone to whom one mentions ambivalence and the Empire in the same sentence.

Hemant Sareen: Sea of Poppies is an indictment of colonialism but it was surprising to find the heroes and the villains so neatly separated into good and bad guys. Also, the fact that all your British characters are shown as snarling rascals.

Amitav Ghosh: Are you sure you read my book? My book is about marginal people and all of them are deeply flawed. The central character Deeti has murdered her own mother in law. They are all either criminals or on some side of criminality. Another character is a forger. And the single most genuinely evil character in the book is Bhairon Singh. So what it really show when someone asks me that question is that they cannot believe that an Englishman can be bad. I should only bring out the badness in the Indians and no one else, is that what you are saying ? It wrong to bring out the badness of Englishman, is that what you are saying?

HS: Not really!

AG: But that seems to be the sound of it! It’s interesting to me that you are reading it [the book] that way because it seems you have an agenda!

HS: Having read your other books, especially the first two, The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines, the Empire as something so unambiguously evil as it is portrayed in Sea of Poppies doesn’t cross the mind.

AG: The Shadow Lines is not about drug smugglers or slave traders. How many gentle Arab slave traders have you read about? And that is really a racist thing because many of them [the Arab slave traders] were really sweet people. Very kind, very gentle. Similarly, how many good-natured Colombian drug traders have you read about? And I am sure that’s a terrible distortion [about depicting Colombian drug lords as hardened trigger-happy criminals] because they have families, they are nice to their children.

HS: If the British were so plainly evil, you have not painted their victims in primary colours, they do not really act like victims. In fact they are shown as much victims as beneficiaries of the changes drug trade brought in the circumstances? Caste system is suddenly in flux, religious taboos are broken, societal oppression is replaced by indenture, but all in all the indentured labourers are looking forward to the journey across kala pani, there is even romance on the ship hardly out of Hooghly waters?

AG: It doesn’t interest me to write about the victims of the Empire. What interests me is people who make their way in a very difficult world. That’s what my Indian characters do [in Sea of Poppies], that’s what my French, American and English characters do. Some ways they are all participants in the evil of the circumstances they live in.

HS: You wrote in your essay The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi (1995): It is when we thin of the world the aesthetic of indifference might bring into being that we recognise the urgency of remembering the stories we have not written. What was the urgency you felt to write about the indentured labourers, the Jahaj-bhais and -baihans?

AG: When I started thinking about this book especially when I travelled to Mauritius and met people there, one of the things that really struck me was this aspect of their remembering -- their ancestors, relationships --as they crossed the waters and came together, and they often spoke of [these fellow travellers-indentured labourers] as Jahaj-bhais. That was a beautiful thing and I would think about it, and write about it.

HS: And, of course, the book continues with your abiding writerly concern of retrieving from extinction histories on the verge of being forgotten, especially the histories of marginal people?

AG: The thing about dealing with marginal people is that marginal people often have to do terrible things just to stay alive. And it’s never easy for them to survive in the circumstances and the world they live in. So many of the indentured labourers whose portraits are painted are painted in Sea of Poppies are people who in some ways emerging from poverty become warped by it.

I think the 19th century was incredibly hard, incredibly bitter, and it’s strange that people have such a toffee-coated notion of what life was like in the 19th century. It was an incredibly ferocious, violent life. In fact, if I were to reproduce the real violence of the slave ship and what slave, opium traders did, the actual reality of what they were doing , you’d probably not believe it because, of course, you actually think all Englishmen were nice, gentle school teachers. [Laughs]

HS: I am not going to ask you what the next book in the Ibis trilogy is going to end, but tell me why a trilogy?

AG: Hmm, because I want to have the time and space to explore this [the above] at some length.

HS: Is it a theme or the story that is driving the trilogy?

AG: What I am going to do is just follow the lives and destinies of these characters.

HS: The first book reads like ‘to be continued’, ‘part one’. Not so much a triptych as a book in three volumes this Ibis trilogy?

AG: It could be more, four, five, or, even more volumes. I don’t know. I’m thinking of three.

HS: You regard the novel as a national narrative. It seems now that you are trying to consolidate your oeuvre, project your pet writerly concerns on a larger scale.

AG: It is interesting what you said there. I don’t regard the novel as a national narrative at all. A large and a national narrative are different things. [The novel to me] is not national in the sense of relating to contemporary India. Sea of Poppies is a non-national narrative in the sense that it is about people who are leaving India behind.

HS: You have a problem with the concept of nation. You regard its artificiality as antithetical to identity’s organic-ness. Do you have an alternative to it in the Subcontinental context (something like a European Union)?

AG: My feelings about this are twofold. One is that we should be very keenly aware when you say artificial. One thing we do have to understand is that the nature of the relationships with our neighbours is civilisational, it is linguistic. These are deep and enduring relationships. And we have to remember that we can’t make them seem as though they were ancient because they are not. They are new.

At the same time you know the nation state as such, artificial or not, is a very important institution. It is an institution because it provides a forum in which people can negotiate their differences within which they can also implement policy. So, the nation state in my view serves a very important purpose and I don’t in any way discount or devalue the nation because I have actually seen what happens when a nation state is disappears. In fact, what you then get is warlordism. And the nation state is greatly preferable to that -- although within our nation sate we do have entire areas that are run by warlords. But even in this day and age, we have to consider ourselves very fortunate that we have a functioning nation state and it functions in a democratic way. These are great achievements and in no way to be discounted.

HS: The Novel or fiction, you have often said, is preferable to both history and anthropology, the subjects that you pursue in your academic life, because the novel can accommodate both these disciplines and much more?

AG: I do. I think other than history and ethnography, the novel can include a lot of other things that other genera cannot encompass, like food, climate, air. What is really exciting about the novel is its expansiveness. Its ability to take in the whole world and hold a mirror to the world.

HS: You told the BBC once that you feel uncomfortable writing in an adopted language. ‘I do battle with my self,’ you said. But reading something like The Shadow Lines, in which the language is supple, organic, and seems totally unforced, that you’d believe a native speaker was writing it. Even now the new experiment in language you try in Sea of Poppies, gives an impression of a writer fully at ease with the language. You have tried to present the times and the characters through language. There is the Anglo-Indian patois; there is Laskari, the language lascars, the Indian or South-East Asian sailors of the time spoke, usually translating the English Maritime jargon into vernacular; there is babu English, vernacular directly translated into English including the syntax. And then there is Bhojpuri.

AG: I love those interstitial languages. Just in general though, why do we think of any writer’s relationship with the language as something that’s comfortable? What’s good about being comfortable with the language? Any writer’s relationship with the language should be difficult, not comfortable. That is exactly from where writing emerges. You are pushing yourself against something. You are meeting resistance, and you meet the resistance within yourself. So, for me the fact of being in a difficult relationship with the language is much more interesting than being in an easy relationship with the language. Language isn’t like a hot water bath that you just to lie down in and forget about yourself. Language should be something to be struggling against. I think to have a counter-statutory, difficult relationship with the language has at least for me been a highly productive thing. It’s a very good thing. It’s what my writing comes from.

Also, my writing comes from a sense of multilinguality---from the multilinguality of India. An Englishman, an American, a Thai, a Frenchman---they don’t know lots of other languages because their reality can be lived in one language. Our Indian reality cannot be lived like that. It cannot be experienced like that. It follows that the books we write will reflect that. In my case, my father’s family settled in Chapra in 1856 --- 150 years ago. In my father’s family they always spoke in Bhojpuri to each other. And I so enjoyed listening to it. It is a very beautiful language. I remember most of my Bhojpuri through music---through kajris, hooris, dadra, and so on, such beautiful forms of music.

HS: Your idea of the novel is very historical in the sense that in early novel, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, travel provided the plot, the setting, character development. Why did travel become such an important motif in your works?

AG: As you say, Cervantes, but also because I travelled a lot. My family, as I told you, travelled from Bengal to Chapra and that was not a one-way journey---they had to go back to Bengal to get married---so it was a continuous [to and fro]. And I think this is an interesting thing about India, Indian migrants continuously travel [within India] and not just one way. Travel helps me organise a story. It helps me tell a story.

HS: You refused the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2001. Has anything in the world changed or your own views to reconsider your views of the Commonwealth?

AG: Absolutely not! I think, if anything, the world has gone in the wrong direction. When I rejected the prize, it was before the Iraq war and I think what you are really seeing is the return of colonialism. a kind of Anglo-American imperialism. And that is the whole problem with the Commonwealth. My rejection of it is based on the idea that the Commonwealth is a euphemism. It’s a whitewashing of the past. The Commonwealth historically meant white settler colonies. It was only after the 1940s that they began to include non-white colonies in it. Look at the Commonwealth’s history, it was a hideous thing.

HS: You have qualms about globalisation?

AG: I have qualms about the globalisation of Capital to the exclusion of the globalisation of Labour. That’s really the problem. What it all adds up to, what the contemporary globalisation has become is a way of always seeking cheaper and cheaper labour. Whereas the idea of globalisation to me is that of cultural contact, of cultural exchanges between people and civilisations. That to me is the most wonderful thing that can happen to human beings. And it has happened, there is nothing new about it. It goes back to millennia. So, that is something I completely embrace and celebrate that aspect of interchange. I wrote In An Antique Land which was about pre-colonial globalisation. Globalisation under the control of a few dominant nations is the globalisation of slavery and indenture. That’s not the globalisation I would want.

HS: Interconnected world easily lends itself to romanticism. Even in Sea of Poppies, you depict the 19th century globalisation as extremely unfair and exploitative, but you also show how it allowed Indians to cross the kala pani, break crippling religious taboos, shake up the age-old caste system a bit. Inequity is part of globalisation just as it is of real life. There is both good and bad to it.

AG: That you can say about anything. Even about Nadir Shah, presumably. [Laughs]. What can one say about that?

Before the Europeans entered the Indian Ocean, the sort of exchanges that happened between people were not necessarily iniquitous. There was a certain amount of inequity naturally as there always is in human society, but the bases of the terms of the trade were not iniquitous necessarily.

HS: You write in an essay about V.S. Naipaul’s role in turning you into a writer. There were other Indian writers around and there was Salman Rushdie. Was he an inspiration?

AG: Rushdie is a wonderful writer, but he wasn’t writing when I was in my formative years. When I was in school and college, it is very hard to explain to young Indians today that, there were so few people writing about experiences like ours. So we always sought them out. I read every word I could find of Naipaul. I hunted him out. And not just Naipaul, but also his brother Shiva Naipaul. Also, Sam Selvon who is another major Caribbean writers, and one of the great inspirations in my life, James Baldwin, the great Black American writer. But the writers who were available to us in those days like Nayantara Sehgal, Anita Desai (whose work was very important to us in those days, and it was quite different from what it is now), and others like Aubrey Menon, who are forgotten, I don’t know why. All these writers were great inspirations to us because there was nobody else. We had to read them.

Today, when I walk into my nieces’ or my nephews’ rooms, their bookshelves are filled with writers from the Subcontinent. I feel so happy for them because it’s a wonderful thing that they can see their experiences reflected in the works around them. I think this is one of the greatest things that has happened in these last many years. It just wasn’t there for us.

HS: The direct, sparse language of The Shadow Lines that sought a direct connection with the reader was surprising for the fact that the book was written when magical realism with its lingual frippery was in vogue--- you too had flirted with it in The Circle of Reason just two years before Shadow. Where did that confidence come to buck the trend?

AG: Style is an interesting issue because it pertains to each book. In the process of writing it the style, that is appropriate to the book, emerges. So, that was what happened with The Shadow Lines. It was different for The Calcutta Chromosomes.

It comes out with the process of writing. There is a very good word ‘tazurba’ which is both experiment and experience. In that sense this is what it is---from ‘tazurba’ of the writer the form emerges.

20 July 2008

Past Continuous
By Neel Mukherjee
Picador India
Rs 495
Pages 544

Neel Mukherjee writes scurrilously unsparing, jocundly caustic book reviews for some of the best publications in the West. But one can tell by the bravado with which his own derivative, imitatively and gratuitously experimental, self-conscious Big Book Past Continuous is written that Mukherjee managed to silence the critic within while writing it.

This messy, unfocussed, anarchic novel is made up of two prima facie unrelated narratives (a different font for each!) clumsily woven together. One concerns the hero Ritwik’s journey from the “seething shit” of Calcutta's low-middle class wretchedness -- make that poverty and abuse at the hands of an over-conscientious mother -- to early orphanhood, to Oxford and gay sex, to his eventually becoming an arms dealer’s catamite. The other one sketchily takes up the account of Miss Maud Gilby, the music and English tutor played by Jennifer Kapoor in Satyajit Ray’s Ghaire Baire, who “had refused to live in a little England” of fellow expats in India, “a country where she was going to have to learn all over again,” and she does, willingly.

Using two narratives to pull and push against each other and create dramatic, thematic tension, is a done thing. But sadly each narrative ends up diluting the other, each narrative being in itself flimsy. The whole feel is of two different, incomplete packs of playing cards shuffled together just to make up the numbers.

The first chapter, titled 'Zero', sets the tone. It maps the cesspool called Calcutta and the middle class life sloshing in it -- the ground zero from which would emanate a raw, turbulent, misanthropic anger that would set Ritwik on a self-destructive trajectory. It makes Past Continuous read like a long howl in the spirit of Howl, the foul-mouthed, filthy-minded rant-ish poem that got its creator Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in trouble with the US law.

Ritwik, reluctantly attending to the last rites of his mother who has died within days of his father's passing away, and appalled by the scavenger-like curiosity of his relatives and neighbours, unleashes a blast of rabid bitterness and violent rage that ends suddenly at the end of part one of the book. He floats on these thermals to reach Oxford, where he seeks and sells fellatios, and finally settles down to being an illegal immigrant in London, tending an old English woman and trading more fellatios.

But Mukherjee does not harness these tempests efficiently and with enough focus to come up with a refreshingly subversive version of the clichéd Bengali narrative about rice ceremonies and the roll call of joint-family members. Ritwik’s narrative reads at times like a my-friend-is-gay spiel: The unrealistically high pitch of anger telescopes the narrator's and the writer's identity, imperiling the novel to be read as a sort of thinly disguised coming-out-of-the-closet novel for Mukherjee, where parental abuse seems dubiously placed in a cause-and-effect vis-à-vis his gayness.

Trying to pack the novel to the gills with meaning takes its toll. Obscure literary references, the vapid colonial narrative of Miss Gilby, trite thematic symmetry (his animus against his own mum balanced by his giving tlc to an old English woman with an India connection), uneven writing that stoops down to juvenilia in the matter of a line, and not to mention Ginsberg’s well-known picture in Calcutta on the cover, mar the novel’s nippy nostalgia. Mukherjee, almost criminally, ignores and fails to realize the complexity and vitality inherent in his core narrative---of a boy's psychic and spiritual growth on his journey from Calcutta to London---that would have sufficed to convey all he had intended, and instead looks for it elsewhere.

As far as Ginsberg is concerned, he would have been bemused at Mukherjee intellectualising visceral and spiritual experiences: in short, for being a perfect square.

Lost Magic, Realism Misplaced

The Enchantress of Florence
By Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape
Pages 360
Rs 595

Every new Rushdie book is, at the end of the day, just another random anniversary commemorating the advent of his iconic Midnight’s Children (1981), the book that is still a pulsating presence in the canons of contemporary world literature and the English novel. And, of course, a landmark of Indian writing in English. Scanning our literary horizons for the next Rushdie is in fact one of our national pastimes.

But the last time a Midnight’s Children-like brilliance was seen even in a Rushdie book was more than a decade ago, in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). Since then almost every Rushdie book has become an occasion for despair. Now we are resigned to the fact that Rushdie too, post-fatwah relieved of fear, lightened of the burden of victimhood, stripped of his alluring repressed complexity, should live in his own shadow. This is particularly the case with his new book.

The Enchantress of Florence has a mellowed Rushdie, unable to fully kick the magical-realism habit, so instead, bringing the pitch of strangeness, improbability, and fancy down a few notches, settling for Fable -- more accurately, a hybrid of fable-history -- to spice up, pique, and intensify reality-history. He finds a fabulous connection between two 16th-century cultures in their respective florescences: The Mughal Empire at its zenith under Akbar, a rare, and hence great subcontinental unifier of fractious kingdoms from Kabul to almost the southern tip of the peninsula; and the Italian city state of Florence enjoying its golden age under the powerful business family, the Medicis.

The connection comes in two guises. One, Mogor dell’ Amore, literally a Mughal born out of wedlock, a yellow-haired Italian who lands in Akbar’s court claiming to be the Emperor’s uncle. The other, Qara Köz, the missing Mughal princess, Akbar’s grandfather Babar's sister, whose son Mogor claims to be. Mogor’s narration of how Qara Köz ended up participating in the golden age of Florence, and as one of the early inhabitants of the newly discovered Mundus Novus -- the New World, South America -- makes up the heft of Enchantress.

Despite Rushdie setting up a whole circus of his famous acts -- his pet themes as a writer, the slippages of memory, distortions of history, the East-West equation, identity and the strains that transplantation and dislocation put on it -- their adumbration seems smugly rushed and hollow. It appears Rushdie is more at peace with history than he ever was, and perhaps feels less alienated in the West than he ever did since he left India for it at the age of seventeen. The quintessential immigrant who had dared to step across the line and live in imaginary homelands, has apparently at last found comfort in a cushy corner in America, and settled down to being an international celebrity with little urge to recall the earlier angst of acculturation.

This would also explain his new approach to History, opting for researched history rather than his usual mnemonic take on it. Historical fidelity, however, has burst Rushdie's bubble, let the fizz out of his famous effervescence. This is most noticeable in the parts dealing with Renaissance Italy: He tries hard, even borrows shallow slick style and noir bits from graphic-novels and Hollywood’s historical fare, and liberally sprinkles Italian conversations with a zillion 'f**ks', yet ends up giving us pages upon pages of pimped history that make Enchantress one of the most unreadable of all Rushdies.

In this literary traffic jam of themes and operatically large cast of characters, including the Navratnas and Niccolò Machiavelli, the characters are worst off: Akbar, Mogor, and the two chimerical ones imagined by an old and exhausted Akbar, Jodha Bai and Qara Köz. Though mapped well to be historically or legend-wise accurate, they are scarcely convincing fictional characters. The two-dimensional Mogor could have walked out of a comic. Even Akbar, despite all the existential internal chatter -- constant, whether he is carrying back from a distant battlefield, 'the heads of his defeated enemies bobbing in their sealed earthen pickle-jars,' or as he 'sip[s] watered wine and lament[s] his gory genealogy,' -- remains a set of co-ordinates picked from well-prepped research note cards.

Rushdie tries to liven up the poster boy of Indian syncretism: A lower register of Akbar's internal monologues countervails his Prithviraj Kapoor-like harrumphing grandiloquence. We 'hear' Akbar the Great berating himself for being a 'barbarian philosopher and a crybaby killer, and also an egotist addicted to obsequiousness and sycophancy who nevertheless longed for a different world.' But being a historical figure, Akbar, with little free will, ends up looking like a regal version of the street-smart intellectual Rushdie, about whom could also be said that '[h]e wanted a country.' Someone who can with little gaucheness observe that his subjects are 'all bags of selves, bursting with plurality.' And this identification with Akbar is apt: Rushdie perhaps suggesting that Akbar, a conqueror never really viscerally connecting to India (the unattainable Jodha) and craving for his roots (Qara Köz), mirrors Rushdie's own relationship with the complex West and his estranged vatan. Like Akbar, Rushdie might have carved a niche in an adopted country, but is homesick!

The leaping, bounding, trope-laden language that in early novels of Rushdie hurried meaning, gave sneak-previews of things ahead, nudged-winked the reader to find real world correspondences, tackily punned and winced at its own tackiness, has now gone flat. The plot is static and lacking in the charge that in the earlier Rushdie novels came from the internal peek-a-boo between a book's parts -- which together with Rushdie’s lingual brio and magical realism went in to the coining of the neologism, Rushdiesque.

Instead, we have Agra-tourist-guide tripe, kinky sex in the shape of cheesy threesomes, coffee-table erotica, and the whole Kamasutra shebang, which seems to be the only historical reality thoroughly dealt with in the book, the six-page high-brow bibliography notwithstanding. If there is Indian exotica, mumbo-jumbo can't be far behind. Counting the number of enchanters in the book could make for crashingly erudite game on a summer afternoon. The city is an enchantress. The Emperor is an enchanter. So is Mogor. The skinny whore, ‘Skeleton,’ is an enchantress. Tansen, who lights up the lamps in Skeleton’s house by singing raag Deepak, and burns himself in the process, is also an enchanter.

More endearing bits of Enchantress are Rushdie’s tongue-in-cheek self-references. He naturally identifies with Mogor, a fellow storyteller and a literary show-off: 'If [Mogor] had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself as well.' And even more transparently: 'Himself a teller of tales, he had been driven out of his door by stories of wonder, and one in particular, a story which could make his fortune or else cost him his life.' Storytelling or writing history as a perilous vocation is perhaps the most fully realised theme in the book. And its depth and sincerity is authentic: 'The dungeon did not understand the idea of a story. The dungeon was static, eternal, black, and a story needed motion and time and light. He felt his story slipping away from him, becoming inconsequential, ceasing to be. He had no story.'

Enchantress reads like an earnest, adults-only, stolid version of the pixyish satirical Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun, the boy protagonist based on Rushdie's older son, queries his storyteller father Rashid the Shah of Blah, ‘Why tell tales if they are not even true?’ Enchantress, as if written as a riposte, retorts, 'The story was completely untrue, but the untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world.' An author in search of a purpose to write a story has no story. This is Rushdie gone soft, having lost all sense of irony. He has forgotten how to make the untruth of the story tell the truth without sounding preachy and boring. Another failed attempt to come out of Midnight's Children's very long shadow.

18 July 2008

Through Eastern Eyes

Photograph: Hemant Sareen
KUNAL BASU LEADS A DOUBLE LIFE. His day job is as a Reader in marketing at Oxford University, and you can tell the Oxford don in Basu by the rhetorical, interrogatory ‘Okay?’ with which he ends almost every sentence, making sure he is understood. Basu’s other life is as a writer. His three acclaimed novels, The Racists (2006), The Miniaturist (2003), and The Opium Clerk (2001), and his recently released collection of short stories, The Japanese Wife, are somewhat like red herrings in the post-Rushdie canon of Indian writing in English. They buck the trend of post-colonial, often self-confessional, ebulliently nostalgic narratives obsessed with defining India and the self. Basu looks outwards instead, with no inhibitions about who can write about what -- only stories and ideas matter.

That might give the impression that Basu’s inner life is not be complex or knotty enough to write from and about personal experience. Far from it. Hemant Sareen caught up with the author to discover a man with a full-sized kit of contradictions that he carries with élan, never allowing it to bear heavy on his persona of the well-adjusted, successful-as-they-come Indian writer in English.

photographs by Hemant Sareen

Hemant Sareen: So far you have written novels of ideas, narratives with a historical sweep. Your latest book, The Japanese Wife, is a collection of short stories about East-West encounters. You seem to be working with themes, or perhaps a theme that is trying to explore the East-West equation?

Kunal Basu: I do not work with themes, I think in terms of stories. These stories are about people, about context, about relationships, and in some stories the context is that of the East’s interaction with the West. If there is one overarching theme that connects all of all my writing, and it is difficult to find such a theme, it is perhaps one of humanism, of compassion -- compassion towards the oppressed in society, towards those who are disadvantaged, be it the opium addicts forced into addiction, or the young woman from the story ‘Long Live Imelda Marcos’, whose life is destroyed because a prospective husband is killed in a riot.

Purely cultural contact or conflict between the East and the West bores me to death. I am not interested in that. I am not interested in people from different cultures meeting and having difficulty of language, customs, manners. Or about NRIs living in the West and having cultural conflicts because their children are dating Caucasians. What I have tried and am interested in, and hopefully these short stories reveal that, is people who meet in unlikely places. Unexpected encounters in unlikely places spark off dreams, memories within them. And it can happen even to the most ordinary among us.

“Purely cultural contact or conflict between the East and the West bores me to death. I am not interested in…NRIs living in the West and having cultural conflicts because their children are dating Caucasians.”

HS: You write very easily about the world beyond India and what your readers would imagine to be your own immediate world as a Bhadralok Bengali man. Where does that outward looking world view come from? Has it anything to do with the communists’ notions of Marxist internationalism, given that your father was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and later the CPI(M), and you yourself were once a cardholding member of the CPI(M)?

KB: Not simply in terms of politics, but culture as well. I grew up in a house full of books; a bookish house, one might say. My father was a publisher and my mother an author of Bangla fiction. She is still alive, 86 years old, and still very prolific; she published her memoirs a few years ago and a collection of short stories last year.

I grew up with intellectuals, my parents’ friends, all around us -- poets, politicians, filmmakers, theatre actors. In the crucible within which I grew up there was an absence of prejudice of any kind -- race, gender, caste, religion and what have you. The world was open to us. We would read Tagore, but we would also read Tolstoy. We would watch films by famous filmmakers from around the world. Art was a very significant part of our upbringing. We would forever be talking about artistic movements in different parts of the world. So it was an enlightened childhood that gave me the values of humanism, of universality, of not being restricted by prejudice. And I have carried that through my life.

HS: When you became a member of the CPI(M), was it a given that you take up the family’s political affiliation, or was it your own decision?

KB: It was a conscious decision. I was actually into the arts, theatre. I acted on stage in school and later in college; I was also into painting. I was not into writing, though I did write a little here and there. I think my political consciousness took shape at the time the Emergency was declared. I was in the early years of college, and to me it was a huge jolt. For the first time since 1947, we Indians were in a situation when our fundamental liberties were being curbed. I said to myself that as a thinking Indian I needed to oppose it. That took me into the realm of politics. But bear in mind, my political life actually was very brief. In 1978, soon thereafter, I graduated and went abroad to study.

HS: Brief, yes, but you still managed to have MISA [Maintenance of Internal Security Act] files on you?

KB: But who wouldn’t, in the 70s in India, in Bengal, struggling against the Emergency? I was no exception.

HS: From a CPI(M) cardholding member to professor of marketing at Oxford. That’s some transformation. How easy or difficult it is to rationalise these contradictions in your life?

KB: I don’t see it as a contradiction. We aspire to and believe in lots of things at certain points in our lives. They don’t necessarily stay the same 20 years later. Today’s views, even in the Left, about capitalism have changed from the time I was growing up in the 70s. The world is dramatically changed. The Soviet Union no longer exists. China is the most powerful communist country in the world now and uses capitalist methods.

[Also], I realised very soon after 1978, when I went abroad, that I am not really comfortable as an organisational being. That’s not my personality. My personality is that of an individualist who thinks about things, sits down and writes. So here was a clear departure away from organisational politics. At some point as I was growing up in my post-University years, I realised the futility of strong ideological views of any particular orientation. Instead, I became interested far more in how common, ordinary, poor, disadvantaged people in this world can be helped. I became more concerned with methods than the ideologies behind those methods.

“I am not really comfortable as an organisational being. That’s not my personality. My personality is that of an individualist who thinks about things, sits down and writes.”

HS: You are very deeply situated in the West. You are part of an institution, Oxford University, which is the epitome of Western values. From that vantage point, what kinds of changes you have seen in Western views about India and the East over the years in the West?

KB: First of all, the advantage of being an author who is also an individualist is that I do not have to subscribe to the philosophies and views of the institutions I work for. If I work for a large company, it doesn’t mean I have to identify with what the company does and stands for. It is just a way for me to make a living. It is my profession. The advantage of being an academic in any institution in the world, in the East or the West, is that I can be what I am. I can believe in what I believe in and can write what I want to. I don’t have to be located within any particular paradigm. I can choose my paradigm wherever I live.

Views about the East are changing of course; I don’t need to say that. The face of the world is turning towards the East. It is turning because of economic reasons. Those economic changes are causing ripple effects in [international] politics. Asian nations have become important political players. In every domain Asians are making their presence felt. I hope in arts too.

HS: You were talking about the liberty to think, write, and speak in the places where you have lived. That is no longer to be taken for granted in India?

KB: This is a matter of contention. If you as an author or as a person in the arts take a strong position, you will be opposed and criticised wherever you are. I will give you one example. When Racists came out, which is a story about 19th century European racism, the book was extremely widely reviewed, but there were voices that criticised it very sharply saying, ‘Why is he writing about us? Racism is something that has gone and disappeared. Why is he bringing all that up again? Why is he corrupting the minds of young generation with these ideas about race?’ I wanted to write back -- though as an author you never write back to the reviewer -- and say, ‘I wish that was the case. But look at the racism around.’ In 2006, when Racists was published, race riots [had raged] in Birmingham, Sydney, Paris, and New Orleans.

So contentious views would be criticised anywhere in the world. What one hopes is that the kind of criticism or discourse remains civilised. I know of the events and incidents you are alluding to here. In such cases, civil society needs to step in and say: Look, people can have different views that you consider outlandish, but it is important to air these different views.

HS: Do you feel certain expectations, if not pressure, to write a certain kind of novel, say, a more personal book?

KB: I don’t. But I know what you are talking about. The expectations that, you know, he is an Indian, he should write about the ‘hot’ Indian themes such as the Bombay mafia or religious fundamentalism. I don’t pay any attention to that because I have to be very sensitive to the stories that I think about. And if I like my stories, those are the ones I will write, always, regardless of what’s the fashion of the week or what anyone expects. I hope my readers will like what I write. But I will not write and have never thought about writing stories that fit expectations.

HS: You are considered an outsider to the Indian-writing-in-English literary marketplace, a stranger to its hardsell, self-promotional ways. That is a bit strange for a professor of marketing?

KB: Do I want to be commercially successful? Absolutely. Every author wants to. And my books sell pretty well and are popular not only in India but in other parts of the world too. But at the end of the day, I write literary fiction, and you can’t have an eye out for commercialisation of your work. If people like it and it is widely, widely appreciated, I would love that. But I won’t market myself; that’s the job of the agent and the publishers. I need to stay focussed on what I do, and what I do is write fiction. And bear in mind I have written four books in less than seven years! I have to be extremely focussed on my writing.

“At the end of the day, I write literary fiction, and you can’t have an eye out for commercialisation of your work. If people like it and it is widely, widely appreciated, I would love that. But I won’t market myself.”

08 May 2008

The Twice Born Indian

Photograph: Hemant Sareen
When Manil Suri, a professor of Mathematics at an American University, wrote his first novel The Death of Vishnu (2001) he admits its critical and popular success around the world felt ‘disorienting.’ The internationally bestselling novel, translated into dozens of languages, was a heady mix of the mythical and the modern, about a man named Vishnu dying in an apartment building in the crowded city of Bombay. Initially just a one-off book, it grew into a full-fledged Hindu epic in three parts thanks to his agent who wanted to know if Suri had another book in the offing. Suri, off the cuff, offered to write a trilogy on the patriarchal Trinity of Hinduism Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva not necessarily in that order.

Now, seven years later, Suri has come up with the second book
The Age of Shiva, an intimate epic that simultaneously reads as a personal narrative of the coming of age of young girl from being a silly little shadow of her elder daring sister to a woman of independence and the story of India from Independence to a free nation negotiating a torrent of choices, not all of them easy. Hemant Sareen caught up with Manil Suri to talk to the writer and his vision.

Hemant Sareen: The Age of Shiva is part of an allegorical trilogy based on the Hindu Trinity. One expected to read about a character based on Shiva, just like in the first novel of the trilogy The Death of Vishnu actually had a central character named ‘Vishnu’. But instead this is a book written from the point of view of Shiva’s consort Parvati, reflected in the leading character Meera, the daughter of a Punjabi, Daryaganj-based publisher telling her story from a young girl to motherhood. What was the design behind it?

Manil Suri: I actually started writing the book about [Meera’s] son, who was supposed to be Shiva. At some point I said ok, let me write a bit about his mother and have some back story about her. At that point I started reading a lot about Indian history, and it was the first time I enjoyed history -- I always hated history. I got so involved and inspired by it that I said I have to interpret this word ‘Age’ as something to do with India, make this a novel about India.

Before I knew, I had written 200 pages about this woman, and the son still hadn’t been born. I new then, it was really [going to be] about her, rather than the son.

The question then was how to still have it in the context of Shiva. And the way I interpreted it is that Shiva is an ascetic. He’s also a destroyer. But the way I have been told he is a destroyer is that he withdraws from the world and without his participation the Universe winds down. He is most often felt by his absence. When he withdraws from the world, a vacuum is created and people have this intense longing for him. Much like a mother has for her son. In this context it was natural to bring Parvati in. She was the one who actually feels this absence, and what happens in Shiva’s absence.

HS: This is a political novel too.Your Parvati-based character in the book, Meera, also represents India. Early reviews consider the politics of the novel distracting. You said once that before publishing an academic mathematical paper, you comb through the drafts to weed out extra equations. Could you have excised the political equation in the novel?

MS: I approach a novel as something very multilayered. So what is attractive to me is if you can have several interpretations of the novel. So, there you have Shiva and Parvati myth that is going on. Then there is this story of a woman making her way in this male-dominated world. But there is also the maturing of India in the background. After Independence this young country is coming of age just like the female protagonist of the novel. So, to have eliminated the politics would have cut out one whole level of complexity. That I didn’t want to do.

Politics is very much [a part of this novel]: the political maturation of the right wing in particular, is a very important, [as was] the experimentation with Emergency. [But] all these things are in the background. They are not the primary focus. The primary focus is still the woman, the family story. Like all those authorial ambitions are best layered underneath.

HS: What does it take for a man to write from inside a woman's mind?

MS: Here’s what I did. When I knew I was going to write about this woman, before [starting] the novel I read a lot about women who had given birth, the idea of breastfeeding. There are some web sites for example where women have been sharing their experiences, like the kind of flush that they feel when they are breastfeeding an infant. I read some texts like Of A Woman Born, a classic feminine text by Adrienne Cecile Rich.

At some point though the research had to stop. And then I just said to myself, ok, now I have to feel what it means to be a woman. I had filled my head with facts, let me try to feel [now]. It was only after allowing myself to ‘feel’ for almost two months that I actually sat down and wrote the first two pages. After that it was still a matter of feeling -- and intellectualising too -- but really feeling, trying to enter Meera’s mind, and taking small steps, looking at the world through a woman's eyes. lt was a very long process. It took seven years to write this novel. It was also scary, I wasn't showing it to anyone. I wasn't showing it to women and asking 'Is this correct?' I had only my own intuition to guide me.

One of the things was this [relationship] between the mother and son that I explore. It has been really talked about a lot by Freud, the Oedipal Theory and so on, but it was always from the male point of view. I looked all over but couldn’t find anything from the female point of view.

HS: Like Salman Rushdie you seem to reject belief in favour of myth while you embrace your Indianness. But compared to Rushdie, your take on Indian myths is much more earnest?

MS: I am sure all those things are correct. One thing I must point out even though it doesn't not address your question is that whenever I read an author like Rushdie or Naipual there is always a red light that goes on in my head saying, ok, this is someone very famous, you have to go perpendicular to it. You can’t do the same thing. So there is always this kind of censorship that goes on anytime I find myself [drawn towards them]. Like in the first novel, was tempted to dabble with magic realism. But I said no, that’s Rushdie, let’s stay away from that. Especially for younger authors, they seem larger-than-life icons, that we have to kind of stay away from them. So when you compare me to them, I get nervous.

HS: But isn’t it a process of acculturation -- you go abroad, you start thinking about your Indianness, consolidating it? But it so happens that belief or religion is easily eschewed? Culture, mythology, no problems.

MS: Everything you say about consolidating my Indianness is correct. Just as I was inspired by history in Shiva, in Vishnu I was inspired by religion. I am an agnostic, but I read the Bhagwad Gita and I found myself inspired by it. And that is what I was really trying to bring out -- just the philosophical underpinnings of Hinduism. Which can be interpreted in different ways. You don’t have to subscribe to the whole religious aspect of it. You can just take out various spiritual things.

HS: The microcosms that you have created are too true to be imagined. Where do they come from?

MS: The first one was inspired by my own situation. When I grew up it was as a paying guest in one room of a large flat in Bombay. There was actually a kitchen, and toilet that everyone shared. Also, though this was not in the novel, we were the only Hindu family and there were three Muslim families in the rest of the flat. So it was a very fraught situation. Even though it turned out that most of the fights we had were not about religion but space. When you are all packed together its space that counts not culture.

The Age of Shiva is set in Delhi where I hadn’t spent much time in. I never experienced a joint family. And I didn’t know anyone in the family who did. So that was sort of imagined. It actually came about when in my university UMBC [University of Maryland, Baltimore County], the president has taken a real interest in what I ave been doing. So one day he just asked me, ‘You know these joint families in India stay in one big room. When a couple gets married how do they have sex?’ And that is what started me thinking well how am I going to engineer this [make couple have sex in a shared room in a joint family]. The setting is Nizamuddin where my uncle used to be a station master. So I know that area and I know a little bit about that. But every thing else is made up.

HS: Two books out of the trilogy behind you, do you have a sense of what you are aiming at in the trilogy?

MS: Yes. And it has been a process of evolution because it was really about mythology but now its become about India. Where the first book was a snapshot of India in contemporary times, the ‘80s and the ‘90s, this book is the evolution of India from the Independence to how it got to the [present] point. The next book is going to be a prediction of what is going to happen in the future, so propel it [India] into the future.

HS: The novel as a narrative of the nation, novels with scope and breadth, something like the 900-page long Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra and now your The Age of Shiva, these seem to be coming more from the Indian writers living in the West. How important is the West for an Indian writer?

MS: I haven’t finished reading Vikram Chandra’s book, but I know it is a long epic. Certainly, Salman Rushdie’s books like Midnight’s Children are very encompassing of the whole picture of India, maybe that is what you are alluding to.

When you go away [from India] you have time to reflect and consolidate. You start seeing India as a whole. I have been very fortunate that I come back three times a year. So I get to see both aspects. I don’t know if it is a very Western phenomenon, there are many authors who are living in the West who have a much more intimate views and picturisations of India. But surely you can pick up some Indian authors [in India] who have an epic view of India? I don’t know.

HS: Not any contemporary writer.

MS: Then there is a mathematical theorem there then, almost!

HS: Apart from making one rethink one’s Indianness and the material support in terms of literary agents, editors, publishers, advances, not to mention markets, do you think the West is our constant interlocutor? An easy audience because you must always begin from the beginning while you explain yourself to the West?

MS: It is hard to say. Like for the first novel, even though I was living in the West, I don’t think I had any particular audience in my mind just because I had not yet been published. So I wasn’t thinking of advances and publishing. With this novel, I think I had to make a very conscious effort to keep shutting out my audience. Because it is so easy, since this novel is so steeped in culture and history that a lot of the references will not be fully grasped by the West. And I am quite resigned to that. Even the character of Meera, I found that the few western readers who read Shiva have been much less sympathetic to her than people in India have.

So that is the kind of danger you [under]take for a novel to succeed. I have seen many [Indian] novels where there is an actual pandering to the West like ‘samosa’ with an asterisk and then at the bottom it says ‘a pastry filled with peas and potatoes.’ That is the kind of thing one has to avoid. I will say that what you are saying is true at the subconscious level. But consciously, I try not to think which audience I am writing for.

HS: You have attended writing workshops by Jane Bradley, Vikram Chandra, and Michael Cunnigham. What was the most useful piece of advice you picked up from them?

MS: The best piece of advice was from Michael Cunnigham who said, based on the first three chapters of The Death of Vishnu, ‘You are a writer,’ and he was the first to call me a ‘writer.’ He said something like, ‘I don’t know what advice to give you except this that you have to finish this [Vishnu] at every cost.’ That was the best piece of advice.

HS: You are reluctant to talk about authors who inspired you. You said somewhere you started writing in around 1983. So that was two years after Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children came out. It would be easy to assume that as an inspiration like it was for a spate of new Subcontinental writers that followed Rushdie’s groundbreaking book?

MS: No! Actually, I will tell you why. I had no idea who Salman Rushdie was until 1989. I used to write but did little reading surprisingly! I was busy doing math. I didn’t have time to read for several years. In 1989 I was in France for seven months. There was this Spanish student there who said he had read this book in school, everyone had to read it. It was by an Indian writer. He than gave me a copy of Rushdie’s Shame [because] he could not find Midnight’s Children. [Shame] was the first literary novel I read. It was so bizarre and wonderful. So, that was my introduction to Rushdie.

HS: You went to the US in your early twenties. Was getting assimilated easy or difficult?

MS: Anyone who has education in one of these convent schools [in India] you kind of know what the US is going to look like. And it is truth in advertising because the US is exactly like it appears in [Hollywood] films, Mad magazine, and everything else [i.e. American cultural consumables].

HS: You think the US culture has lost some of its allure with globalisation?

MS: I think the US has squandered a bit of its international clout. I don’t know if it is economic or it is political. [But the US has made] bad political choices in the last 8 years. It is going to be interesting to see how that pans out. In terms of culture, there is always going to be a large segment of people both in the East and the West [who would look at the US for cultural consumption]. Even Europeans are very Americanised that way.

If it is to become less culturally attractive or become a beacon of culture, it is only because that culture has [already] spread across the world so much that it is almost like the US culture has won. It is the dominant globalised culture now, a lot of it. There was this article ‘The End of History’ by Fukuyama. It is not the end of history really but the end of culture. In some sense, the US has taken over and there is this globalised culture [extant around the world] with bits and pieces [of local and imported] much like the US potpourri, the melting pot.

HS: Do you get a feeling writing from the US that some things have irrevocably changed. You are no longer, what someone a decade ago would have called, a Third World Cosmopolitan, rather someone from a rising economic power in the world, and that it is the US that has increasingly become just another country?

MS: [Like in] India, people in the US need a lot of economic prodding before they will actually pay attention to any country. Finally, India has reached a point where yes they will have to pay attention now. And I suspect in the next few decades this Asian century that they talk about is really going to happen, there is no doubt in my mind.

HS: Do you feel anxious at times of being out of touch with the contemporary India, not being able to keep up with developments?

MS: A little bit, yes. As I said, I have been coming 3 times a year to India. So that has helped. But India is changing so fast that it is hard to keep pace now. And I haven’t ever worked in India, so if I am trying to depict what it means to work in India it is going to be a challenge. But then I knew very little about Indian history, I didn’t know anything about mythology when I started The Death of Vishnu. So, I can learn.

HS: You once rued being treated like an NRI. Has the reception in India improved since?

MS: Oh, it changed dramatically when The Death of Vishnu was released [in India]. I found that that is when I really came to India when especially the press here and the public, the audience that counted, embraced my book as an Indian novel. That was very energising. Since then, one of the nice things is that I have become an Indian citizen again because of the Overseas Citizenship of India which was always something that bothered me that I had to give it up. So it was very nice to be treated like, and be, an Indian again.