16 November 2007

Remaking the Mahatma


Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire
Viking/Penguin
Pages 672
Rs 650

Rajmohan Gandhi, one of the Mahatma's grandsons, joins the most exclusive club in India, one that admits a select band licenced to take liberties with the most untouchable of Indian icons, with this excellent, laboriously detailed biography of the Mahatma. Rajmohan's deconstruction is not just an act of daring for its refreshing iconoclasm, but for its ambition, fulfilled in full measure, to attempt to subvert a whole culture around the reductively entrenched myth in our history -- that of Mahatma Gandhi, the saint.

Rajmohan’s achievement is of collating, analysing and organising numerous extant sources into a thoroughly gripping narrative that interweaves the personal and the public personae of the Mahatma to reveal many downplayed aspects of arguably the most misrepresented man in history. And all this comes with the irrefragable ‘Gandhi’ imprimatur.

The biography is also a proof that for all the cynicism about Gandhian ideals and the silent but determined rejection of his legacy, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s story is a smacking good read and one that still inspires. And though part of its appeal lies in it being the greatest story ever told of self-improvement, the real pull is the complexity of a man who, as Rajmohan writes, “was neither simple to understand nor easy to live with.”

The story of an unruly urchin who picked beedi and cigarette butts off the streets and struggled like a wild animal to escape the orthodoxies his “worldly-wise” mother and an early marriage imposed on him; of Mohandas the compulsive dabbler experimenting with meat-eating, vegetarianism, Fabian ideas, and Tolstoy -- not to mention the much talked about experiments with sexual abstinence; of his fulfilling his sense of destiny by freeing India from foreign yoke, is an oft-repeated one, but a remarkable one.

Rajmohan duly fleshes out the otherwise sketchy account of Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth. He paints an attractive picture of Gandhi as a suave, with-it networking lawyer, and a foxy activist, who took pride in dressing well, travelling first-class, and launching grand campaigns to defend universal principles. A man with astounding physical courage (the numerous beatings he received at the hands of individuals and mobs in South Africa are the most well-kept secrets, revealed here), and uncanny ability to anticipate and pre-empt his adversary's every move, an ability which helped him in his biggest battles from winning rights for miners and migrants in South Africa, to bringing the Empire crashing down in India.

But there are darker, more human strains of the Mahatma that the biography does not flinch from documenting. These mostly have to do with Gandhi’s difficult equation with his wife and sons -- the dysfunctional relationship with his sons especially makes his other flaws pale in comparison. It begins with Kasturba and his sons joining him in South Africa where, instead of getting the benefit of western education, Gandhi forced them to study at home. This set off a long-term resentment in Harilal and Manilal.

In midst of his political crises, he would have to handle a major surprise from his sons. On Gandhi’s arrival in India in 1915, he and Harilal at last parted company. Gandhi gave him Rs 45 and wrote to an associate saying the parting was not bitter. But soon Harilal wrote Gandhi a ‘half-open’ letter, having simultaneously circulated it among a known circle. It is full of bitter charges like, “You have suppressed us (sons) in a sophisticated manner,” and, “You never encouraged us in any way.” The last perhaps referred to the fact that Gandhi had sent his associate Maganlal’s son to study law in London on a scholarship. Harilal, the eldest son had expected his father to have chosen him.

While it is easy to feel infuriated at the shabby and totally unjustifiable way Gandhi treated his sons, his relationship with Kasturba are less ambiguous, rather familiar -- the usual story of the ambitious careerist with an uneducated wife straggling in tow. One of the reasons for the conflicts with Kasturba, and generally his family, was over Gandhi’s principles.When Kasturba grew ‘restive’ after Gandhi admitted a young untouchable couple to live in his newly-established Satyagraha ashram, Gandhi is reported to have told her that “she could leave me and we should part good friends.” Kasturba relented.

Though by this time husband and wife had grown together having been through a lot in South Africa, Kasturba had remained the same untameable young wife whom Gandhi, as a jealous young husband, had tried to control and educate. Rajmohan shows us a Gandhi unable or unwilling to relate to his wife. From South Africa he wrote to Kasturba, dictating the letters to his secretary and trusted friend, Sonja Schlesin. Kasturba had to find someone to read and translate these ‘personal’ letters. He spent more time with his white friends and colleagues than with his family. Though he had managed to force Kasturba to adopt the Parsi-style sari and clothes westernised Indian women wore in those days, much to his regret Kasturba remained unconverted to Gandhi’s abstract principles.

So when the biography makes the disclosure about his affair with the forty-seven-year-old, married, Sarladevi Chaudhurani, Rabindranath Tagore’s, bluestockings niece, just as he began his Indian chapter on his return from South Africa, the reader hardly blinks, thanks to Rajmohan’s laying the ground for it. Sarladevi, called 'the greatest shakti in India' by her jailed husband, edited a journal who edited a journal Hindustan in his absence. Gandhi was dissuaded from it by his sons and friends as associates, who warned him of the consequences. Gandhi wrote to a 'shattered' Sarladevi ‘annulling’, what he called, their ‘spiritual marriage.’

Gandhi at his most vulnerable. A flesh and blood Mahatma. Nothing could resuscitate the Mahatma more effectively. As a man who loved makeovers and using image as strategy, Gandhi would have approved of Rajmohan’s efforts.

08 November 2007

Why Times Changed


On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape/
Random House
Pages 166
Rs 570

Why did the '70s rock? How and why were the '70s a coming-of-age decade in the West? Were the '70s inevitable? McEwan has come up with a neat little book that is a fiction-illustrated essay and social commentary to explain the inexorability of the sex, drugs and rock and roll decade. It catches a generation on the cusp of a major change to show why the change came. It shows a generation suffering from unsustainable uptightness, and how these circumstances resolved themselves.

Structured strangely, the book takes to minimal extremes McEwan's usual ploy to turn the narrative on the hinge of a singular central incident. The whole book, bar the last five pages, deals with eight hours in the life of a newly wed couple, and those last five pages bring the story up to the present and sum up a life -- a ‘whatever happened to’ history of an entire generation.

The story, simply stated, is about a newly wed couple trying hard to shed their personal inhibitions and beat their social conditioning to consummate their marriage. The year is 1963. The newly weds, Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew, to celebrate their honeymoon, are checked into a hotel on the Chesil Beach. As they self-consciously have their meal in their room waiting for the hotel staff waiting on them discreetly, to disappear, so that they could be alone to ‘in theory...to kick off their shoes and exult in their liberty,’ because ‘in just a few years’ time, that would be the kind of thing quite ordinary young people would do.’ ‘But,’ McEwan reminds us, ‘for now, the times held them.’

McEwan paints a Lucian Freud-portrait of the couple -- interpreted, like a caricature is, but chastisingly and painstakingly realistic.

Edward is poor. He is ‘not introspective’ and knows that yogurt is a ‘glamorous substance from James Bond novels.’ His father told him one Sunday afternoon that his mother is ‘brain damaged,’ a fact that made him feel a notional severance from his impoverished circumstances. He leaves his small town for London to study History. That is where he first meets Florence distributing CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) leaflets. A long sexless courtship makes Edward pop the question in the hope of sex in marriage.

Florence is rich. She is 'clever, but without guile,' ‘the squarest person on earth.’ Her father is a businessman. Her mother a philosopher. She cannot stand her father’s physical proximity but feels guilty to admit the fact to herself. Her mother is ok about Florence's CND activities but is appalled at her daughter’s soft-corner for the USSR.

Florence believes that despite its ‘clumsiness, inefficiency, defensiveness’ the Soviet Union is a beneficial force in the world. Florence’s mother just about tolerates her violin-playing. Florence is the founder and leader of the Ennismore Quartet. In life irresolute, in her quartet she is firm and decisive, a clear leader. But though she is delighted at the prospect of marrying Edward she is disgusted by the idea of having sex with him. She knows there is ‘something wrong with her.’

The book thrives on detail. McEwan’s all-knowing, Godlike narrator seem to be possessed of Dicken’s eye and Chekov’s heart: the characters’ circumstances and foibles are unsparingly observed, but never held against them. The times are everything to blame for: ‘While one heard of wealthier people going in for psychoanalysis, it was not yet customary to regard oneself in everyday terms as an enigma, as an exercise in narrative history, or as a problem waiting to be solved.’

McEwan does not shy away from the quotidian. He takes it head on. He does not glamourises it say in the way postmodernists and magic realist would. The everyday is the stuff of his fiction, and just like nondescript placards held up the right way create breathtaking portraits and sceneries in North Korean public functions aggrandising their revered leader, little details come thick and fast to flesh out a character.

McEwan also has a way with sex too. Indian writers couldn't do better than learn from McEwan how to write naturally and un-mawkishly about sex and have 'introspective' and 'erection' in the same sentence.

Do Florence and Edward do it? McEwan makes every word count before the reader is let on it. Without any showy literary tricks, McEwan uses the tools of the socio-psychological novel and English portrait to explain the times through people’s lives.

04 November 2007

Hear, Hear


The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches
Ed. Rakesh Batabyal
Penguin Books India
Pages 916
Rs 595



Great Speeches of Modern India
Ed. Rudrangshu Mukherjee
Random House India
Pages 454
Rs 395




People sometimes ask me whether...doon didn’t teach me lessons of leadership and character building and independence of mind. My answer, in a word, is No.

Vikram Seth (1952- )
On Founder’s Day (Dehra Dun, October 1992)

Cling to the simplicity and sobriety of your domestic lives. Keep its purity as it was in the ancient times and as it is still existing in your simple homes. Do not let modern fashions and extravagances of the West and its modern English education spoil your reverential humility...
~Sister Nivedita (1867-1911)
How and why I adopted the Hindu religion (Bombay, October 1902), Her advice to the women of India.


Two anthologies of Indian speeches snatch history from the dry desolation of academia and the clutches of Oblivion. One does it with panache. The other with exquisite thoroughness. Great Speeches of Modern India aims for the momentous, the heroic, resulting in a more accessible volume. The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches is high on historicity, seeks obscure speeches to fit the bill to reveal a rich and textured history of India.

Both happily betray the allegiances of their editors. Batabyal from Jawahar Lal Nehru University ensures that among the deeper and finer shades his selection includes, the Left finds suitable representation. Oxford-Harvard educated Rudrangshu is a cosmopolitan, a humanist who has seen to it that Vikram Seth, Lord Curzon, and Satyajit Ray are in.

In his excellent introduction (along with one of the most engaging acknowledgements) to the Penguin volume that serves to organise the speeches from 1877 to the present, as well as provide a short, insightful history of how the nation came to be articulated, Batabyal shows that India’s freedom struggle was a long, nuanced, and instinctive evolutionary process.

The early nationalist thinkers conceieved the idea of India. They breathed life into the single political, administartive body called India the British had created out of a ‘congeries of nations.’ They did not lustily shout slogans and burn effigies. Instead, they made reasoned critiques of the Empire like Dadabhai Naroji’s 1893 speech at the Lahore Indian National Congress session presenting his famous ‘drain of wealth’ theory. But it was still some time before some one would pick up the gauntlet one of our earliest nationalists Surendranath Banerjea threw in 1878: ‘Who will be the Garibaldi and Mazzini of Indian unity?’

The early ‘freedom fighters,’ including Gandhi before he became a Mahatma, were loyal subjects of the Empire, aware of the debt they owed the British. Like Pherozeshah Merwanji Mehta speaking in 1883, they lavished praises on the Bristish with their ponderous Zimmer-Frame usuage (first the language comes, then comes the meaning): ‘If I entertain one political conviction more strongly than another, it is that this country in falling under British rule, has fallen into the hands of a nation than which no other is better qualified to govern her wisely and well.’

With the arrival of Gandhi one would expect the induction of even more reasoned and reasonable arguements for independence and justice. Instead Gandhi, the seasoned lawyer-political activist just returned triumphant in the searing battles against inequities in another part of the Empire, introduced antagonism and victimhood in the discourse as evident in the Trail Speech, Ahmedabad, March 1922, following which he was sentenced to six-years imprisonment for the Chauri Chaura violence: ‘I came reluctantly to the conclusion that the Bristish connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically. A disarmed India has no power of resistance against any aggressor if she wanted to engage in an armed conflict with him.’

And as Batabyal explains, where earlier there had been conflict between the reformist and the nationalist as to what the country needs first, freedom from its own evils, or from the evils of the Empire, Mahatma was sharp enough to bring under his moral charge both the reformists and the nationalists for the first time in Indian freedom struggle, recognising with all the benefit of his South African experience the utility of harnessing these in appearance extreme but in reality two synergetic and complementary forces under the same yoke.

Mahatma’s speech at the opening of the Banaras Hindu University is a ringing proof. The Mahatma offends both the Hindus (‘Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are?’), and the British by protesting against being forced to speak in English. He is almost ordered off the stage by a presumably shrill Annie Besant screaming every now and then: ‘Please stop it.’

Lord Curzon’s speech, in Mukherjee’s collection, on the need to conserve and protect Indian monuments tempers the popular impression that the freedom struggle was a long monotonous, nationalist harangue. It shows why the Empire can still be argued as force for good and why the temperate Indian freedom struggle that lasted as long as it did, far from amounting to sleeping with the ‘enemy’ for 70 odd years, was an example of prudent gradualism, an irreplaceable centrepiece of our democracy.

When Mark Twain quipped that it took him more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech, he was being funny as usual, but he was also making a larger point about the vanity of speech makers--men and women not just in love with their voice, but stricken with hyper-consciousness about the historical import of their words. But the reader's pleasure comes from the knowledge that History's gaze apparaently beady, oozes nothing but indifference in the long run. No wonder the grandest of speeches is riddled with irony, given time.

For instance, Subash Chandra Bose’ thrilling speech ‘Give me blood and I promise you freedom!’ rings with an emptiness of ‘what if’ history. In other places irony is immediately apparent like in Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s most un-prescient speech, his opening address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 14 August 1947, that reads like a recant. Or was he merely homesick for his Bombay? He wishfully thought that ‘...in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims...in the political sense...’, not realising that he had just recently himself shot down that possiblity.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should pick up a copy of either book if he can’t find his own speech made in 1991 to innaugrate the economic reforms which have come a long way but have slowed since his arrival in the PMO, and it might help him tide over his 123-Agreement worries: ‘But let me say that you cannot achieve your objectives without hard sell.’ [Italics mine]

History might be bunk, but it still has a lesson or two up its sleeve.

Cry Me A River


Ganga
By Julian Crandall Hollick
Random House India
Pages 283
Price 495

It’s a sign of the age we live in that a book published this year on the river Ganges is neither a travelogue, nor a glossy coffee-table book. It’s a Kafakaesque account -- complete with footnotes and an impressive bibliography -- of an 18-month roughing it down the entire 1,200-mile length of the mother of myths, faith, indeed a whole civilisation, and, not to mention, of those countless coffee-table books.

Like earlier travellers and writers taken up by this culture thrown up by the coming together of poverty, blind faith, and a river, Hollick’s Ganga is a meditation on that same culture, but one that is now being changed radically by a new element -- urban India’s increasing affluence and a matching demand on natural resources.

Initially drawn to the river for the myths she sustains, and later, after years of casual encounters, being struck by the amazing variety of personalities she could possess, Hollick found rankling the general disconnect between the mythical and the geographical river. This was most evident in the way the faithful seem to treat the two rivers differently, making Hollick ask the question: ‘How can Indians pollute Ganga and yet at the same time worship her as a goddess?’

To explore this conundrum, Hollick, along with his wife Martine and a retinue that an Indian prince would have envied, consisting of a variety of retainers (including boatmen for different legs of the journey, and cooks), guides, and scientists, sometimes abroad and sometimes carrying their boat ‘Basanti’ in Mahindra SUV, sets out down the Ganges, from its source to its mouth.

No evocative descriptions, no charming vignettes, what follows is Hollicks intense gaze on the condition of the river relentlessly seeking out those responsible for its dire straits. Will Ganges the goddess die if the river did? Is it faith, literally blind to the extreme stress it puts its goddess through, whether it be plastic bags, dead bodies, or human waste thrown in and from which the river is believed to cleanse itself miraculously, that is killing the river? Is urban India’s insatiable thirst sucking the river dry?

Hollick’s learned forays into the river’s various physical aspects -- Ganges’ miraculous self-cleansing properties; the mysterious bacteriophage that allegedly appear and vanish in seconds to cleanse large swathes of the river of deadly bacteria; the deadly Chromium effluence of the Kanpur tanneries; the self-inflicted environmental catastrophe that Farakka barrage is, built ironically to punish East Pakistan; and river hydrology -- convey her true value as a natural resource and an ecosystem.

Hollick quizzes mahants, gurus, pilgrims, environmentalists, hydrologists, and microbiologists for answers. He meets interesting characters and goes strange places. In Motipur, a veritable Village of the Damned, he finds the entire population of both people and cattle afflicted with the effects of Chromium poisoning. The president of the Small Tanneries Association, offers a bizarre explanation to Hollick: ‘It’s all caused by nuclear radiation!’

And yet, Hollick’s problem is not of lack but a surfeit of answers. Hollick might now be a convert to Nehru’s assertion that in India there are many sides to a truth. One truth that remains unchanged through out the book is that people staying along the river's banks are less and less likely to bathe in it or use the river water to wash the bodies of their dead.

Something ails the Ganges? Who and what is responsible? Perhaps the answer lies in his analysis of the still-born Ganga Action Plan started with best intentions by Rajiv Gandhi, with the help of most competent men and women. ‘[Yet] everything that could go wrong has gone wrong!’ writes Hollick. ‘There’s little deliberate malfeasance or evil intent. It’s incremental: a decision is made, a direction taken, without fully anticipating the possible consequences. It’s never anybody’s fault!’

In short, it’s everyone’s fault. A whole culture to blame for its own imminent demise.

It’s amazing how Ganga, though reading like a skittish radio-documentary script and coupled with Hollick’s inability or indifference to marshall the wealth of his material into a cogent thesis, still manages to deliver a devastating cultural critique. Ganga is one of the most acute and revealing portrait of the land and its people by a Westerner on the sheer strength of Hollick’s well-chosen metaphor for contemporary India.

26 October 2007

A Question of Balance

Sir Mark Tully interviewed by Hemant Sareen on 7 July 2007. The interview appears in the New Delhi-based men's magazine. 'M', Sep-Oct 2007 issue.


Hemant Sareen: For many in India and in the West, you were the voice of a young nation going through one of the most tumultuous phase of its post-Independence history. Where did you get that sense of kinship with Indians and how did you come to share their anxiety, if at all, of how the world perceived them?

Mark Tully: I don’t know that I shared the anxiety, but I think one of the things that I had was that I was interested in this country. I had respect for the country. And, of course, I liked the country. And, I think those things are important. But at the same time, I had to say a lot of very unpleasant things sometimes about what was happening in the country. I had to be critical. But somehow I have found -- and I think the key to it lies with India and not with me -- that in India, provided people believe that you are genuine and you have a care and affection for them, they do not mind criticism. But they wouldn’t take it if you are always critical. So I think its part of how I managed to survive all these years.

But there were times when I was thrown out [of India] during the Emergency. And there were times when people were very, very critical indeed of us [the BBC]. And I wasn’t surprised because for instance if you have to report the first mutiny after the Operation Blue Star, and we were the people who first reported the mutiny, you are not going to be very popular with the army. But on the other hand it was my job to do that and in the end it was discovered that not only that mutiny, there were several other mutinies. If at the same time, you have to report something like the pulling down of the [Babri] mosque at Ayodhya, then the people at the spot are very angry about it. But it’s your job. You have to do these things. And it’s very important. I think the BBC would have lost its reputation if we had always been saying nice things about India. That’s not the way we went about things at all.

HS: Your ability to relate to India, did it have much to do with the fact that you were born in Calcutta?

MT: I think it does. I was born in Calcutta. My mama was born in what is now Bangladesh. My grandfather was born in Orissa. So, we were British in India from many generations going back. I had a great-great grandfather who was an opium agent in Ghazipur in the eastern Uttar Pradesh. So, we go back to five generations or so in this country. But as British: my childhood was very British, even when I was in India. I played with English, British boys. I only went to school with British children. That sort of thing. But, nevertheless, India is India and it rubs off on you whatever you are doing and with whoever. And when I came back here [later as a young man], I very quickly found that somehow my childhood came back to me and I felt at home here. So, I think it does in some way have something to do with that.

HS: What are your earliest memories of India?

MT: My earliest memories of India are of things like going for pony rides in Tollygunj in Calcutta. We used to go every Sunday for walks or bicycle rides to Behala [Calcutta] where there was an Oxford mission. My father was a great friend of the priest there. Also, of my nursery, I remember eating meals and saying how much I hated spinach. My nanny saying to me insistently -- I had an English nanny -- that I should never speak Hindi or Bengali. I remember some of the servants. I remember particularly one called Jafar who was a nursery boy. And there was another one called Abdul who was a khidmatgar -- my father had around 50 to 60 personal servants. So, I remember all that as well. Then I remember going to school on the Darjeeling railway and being very fond of railway. And I think, my love of railway started from that actually.

HS: You were very much a child of the Empire?

MT: Oh yes, very much the child of the Empire. Yes, I was a child of the Raj. You might even say, I am one of the relics of the Raj. [Laughs]

HS: Did you then get a sense of India, or what you later described as the ‘genius of Indian people to absorb and adopt,’ or even develop a basic understanding of the land and the people?

MT: No, no, not really. We were very much brought up to believe that India was India and we were British. So we didn’t learn much about India at all as children.

HS: When did you break away from that colonial mindset? Or if you like, when did you stop feeling like a sahib among natives?

MT: I don’t really think I felt like a sahib. I was too young. I never questioned it [the Empire]. I was only nine when I left [India]. I just thought this is the way things go, and I am English.

HS: What about later, when you returned to India as a grown up? Did you have Raj hangover?

MT: I was from a very young age a socialist. I became a socialist really because I could not understand how I could go to these very expensive schools in England and our village people [in India] went to very bad and poor schools. I had all these opportunities, and they didn’t have any. So, I became a socialist. Once you become a socialist you start to realise that privileged positions are very dangerous things. Then onwards, I thought to myself, well you know my position in India has been privileged. And that, I thought, was a dangerous thing. So, when I came back to India I knew that the last thing I wanted to do was to live the life of a sahib, or that kind of thing. Of course, I also knew that that sort of life had largely passed away. But I did know that I did not want to just live as an expatriate in this country. I was helped by the fact that from the first day I came here, I started to make friends because I worked for the BBC. People from All India Radio came to see me and helped me to establish myself, and became very good friends.

HS: You came to India via a very strange route. You went to Lincoln College in Cambridge to study theology in order to become a priest.

MT: But there is nothing contradictory between a priest and a socialist. My socialism was reinforced by my Christianity, because for me Christianity seem to be a religion which said you should care for the poor and be concerned about the poor and that sort of things.

HS: How big was religion when you were growing up in India?

MT: Well, it was very big really for me. The fact that I seriously tried to become a priest and I read theology at Cambridge, it was very big. But it was also very confusing. It was confusing because in Christianity we are very much concerned about sin. And I realised that I was a sinner in many different ways. I was a very wild young man. I used to drink a lot and I had lots of wild friends and things like that. And in some ways these contradictions [existed] between my Christianity and my wild part. But that didn’t mean Christianity was not a serious thing. It meant a failure of accommodation between [Christianity] and the way I lived my life.

HS: And as a child of the Raj, living in India, did you perhaps feel that in any way the Empire was about religion?

MT: In my family life, very much so. I think my first love for what I call Catholic ritual and church, the Church of England -- and we have quite a formal liturgical worship which I love still -- came I think from my going to Oxford missionary in Behala, especially to their Christmas eve services, I remember. So, from a young childhood I was brought up to go to church and I got to love the Catholic worship and, although I am Anglican Catholic not a Roman Catholic, the Anglo-Catholic worship from a very young age and that love has never left me.

HS: Most foreign correspondents are content writing descriptive books about their experiences in India. In your books, on the other hand, especially the latest, India’s Unending Journey, you exhort people to change, you want Indians to appreciate their past, you want the West to learn from India. You seem to have tremendous faith in people’s infinite capacity to change and self-reformation, kind of faith a priest would invest in his parish. There was something after all to your desire of becoming a priest?

MT: No, I don’t think so. My belief in the need for change being balanced by what I believe in, is not quite that everybody is easy to change, but life is all about accommodating change and not to be swept off your feet by it. What I think where my life was changed by India, is this belief that life is about balance and you never finally find the balance. Whereas in my English education, and through my Christianity in a way, I came to believe that life was about certainty. You found the way to live your life and that was it -- absolutely. And one went around in tramlines. Whereas India taught me that you never find a final destination. You will always be trying to find balance. And the important thing is to look out and see whether you are getting anything out of balance in your life, for instance, whether money has come to play play too big a role in your life, or search for fame is playing too big a role in your life. Other things can be, you know, the opposite. Whether you are so obsessed about not caring for money, that you become over-ascetic and you cannot look after people because you are not bothered about them at all. I also think that it is important in life to get the balance between free will and fate to acknowledge the fact that most of what has happened to you by free will, luck, or bad luck. And in this way, and at the same time, realising that you must too exercise your free will and that chances that you did, will be thrown away if you don’t exercise your free will. So getting the balance between the two. And this is important because otherwise for one reason you become arrogant. You think I have achieved all this, I am so clever, I am so great, I have so much charisma etc. etc. and you forget that the very simple fact that you were given a great gift when you were born. You didn’t choose to be born. You didn’t do anything to be born at all. And if you happen to be born with a very good brain, that’ not your achievement. It may have been an important achievement of your parents, but it is a gift given to you. And if you go around saying, ‘I am terribly clever,’ ‘I am very proud of myself because of my own achievements,’ then you get life out of balance. So that’s another balance, I think, that is very important.

HS: This is what you meant by ‘humility’ which you say India has taught you?

MT: Yes, India taught me humility. Humility of accepting your limitations, accepting that you cannot be certain about anything, accepting that you’ll never get anything totally right, you have to keep life in balance and accepting that you shouldn’t take things too far.

HS: This is part of your personal spirituality or morality, or your personal principles...

MT: Yes, you try to internalise it, certainly yes...

HS: But to expect a nation or a society to accept tenets of your personal spirituality or principles to consume mindfully in search of balance, isn’t that asking for too much? Isn’t that moralistic?

MT: No, I don't see it as being moralistic or in those terms at all. Just as I believe that in your personal life, if you do try to maintain a balance, if you do try to, you'll be a happier person. In the same way, I think, as a nation it is not a question of morality. It’s a question of common sense and being a happier nation. Just take one example -- consumerism. Consumerism is important to a certain extent. If we don’t consume, we will die. But on the other hand, if you take consumerism too far then you get charged up with greed. Because if you are not greedy beyond a certain extent, greedy for smart clothes, new cars, latest cars, all the time, the consumerist society, the consumerist economy, is trying to make us greedy. That sort of thing makes people very unhappy. Because greed is something that is never satisfied. So, what I am saying is that if you live in a consumerist society, if your nation or economy is built too much on on consumerism, if consumerism is off balance, then it’s not a question of morality, it’s a question of happiness. You will a lot of unhappy people.

HS: In India’s Unending Journey, you unapologetically quote someone who called you ‘an old-fashioned socialist and a romantic about India.’ Then, within the scope of ten lines you quote Spinoza, Manu, The Bhagwad Gita, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to denounce consumerism. But isn’t it too early in the day to speak of over-consumption to a section of Indian society embarking on its the first flush of consumption -- the first car, the first apartment, the first pair of decent shoes, necessities the West takes for granted?

MT: No, but I say in the book, correct me if I am wrong, that it is inevitable almost. I certainly point out that Indians were starved of consumer goods and I tell the story of how when I first came to India, diplomats sold secondhand lipsticks and things like that [to Indians]. So I certainly understand that it’s a bit like children in a chocolate shop at the moment. Suddenly they find this cornucopia, this array of goods and smart shops and all the rest of it -- people will get barmy. But I hope that the Indian tradition of balance will come in and balance will be restored. And I am not unduly pessimistic about [the ‘imbalance’ being left uncorrected by Indians].

HT: In the West, earlier associations with India, that had mostly to do with backwardness and poverty, are increasingly being replaced by those of technology and wealth. Did you anticipate in your long journalistic career in India the shape, manner, and the speed with which this new India emerged?

MT: Did I anticipate it would go up as quickly as this? No, to be honest, I didn’t. What I did anticipate was that I knew obviously the constraints on the Indian economy from the neta-babu raj, because I had written about it. and if you lifted those constraints, there would be an expansion. I knew Indians were very talented people. I didn’t foresee exactly which way it would go. I just didn’t believe that there would be such an expansion of economic activity because the whole thing had been suppressed in the neta-babu raj. And because when Indians went abroad, and I have written many times before about this anomaly, they did fantastically well [there]. But when they came back they couldn’t do anywhere nearly as well because of the whole license-permit raj was on their head.

So obviously I didn’t foresee necessarily that it would be so much in the IT sector, and I never foresaw that manufacturing would grow as it has done. So details, no, I didn’t. But in principle I thought there would be quite a rapid expansion of the economy [if the ‘constraints’ were removed].

HS: One of your pet themes and concerns, about which you have often written and spoken, is that one should build on what one already has. In No Full Stops In India (1991) you rued the fact that Indians don’t value their past and ‘the genius of Indian civilisation.’ Even in your public disagreement with the Director General of BBC, John Birt, which led to your resigning from the BBC in 1997, you were highly critical of the way he discarded a whole tradition, that had made BBC a well respected organisation around the world, in the name of restructuring. Does it surprise or disappoint you that India has not built on what it already had and that what it has become is not based on its own but borrowed beliefs?

MT: No, you see, since I wrote that, I have always feared that India will think that the way things are done in the West, is a model for the whole world, and this is the way India should do it. I have always profoundly believed that that is not so. You know you look at the record of other countries who have developed in quite different ways, Japan is the obvious example, to the way that the West developed. Even in the West, you get what we call the American-British [capitalist] model, the Scandinavian [welfare state] model, and the German model coming in the middle of the two. And I am afraid to say that I find the American model and my own country’s [British] model the least attractive. But I believe very strongly that there is a great strength in India’s culture and it is this strength on which India should build. One of these things which distresses me in the so many of the BBC-arguements was the destruction of the past. The idea that in the organisation for which people like me had worked for over thirty years that we knew was highly regarded, not because of us but because of the organisation it was, around the world, this man [John Birt] came along and said it was all rubbish and needs to be pulled down. I think another balance which is absolutely essential in national life, and indeed in personal life, is the balance between tradition and change. You can have too much tradition, as perhaps India does, or you can have change which is too destructive, throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater kind of change.

HS: “Western thinking is distorting and still distorts Indian life” you wrote in 1991. Does Western thinking still distorts Indian life? And is it due to the inability of India to interpret the West coherently? Or is it the fault of the western thinking itself?

MT: You can see it in two ways. I said before that I don't believe that what happens in one culture necessarily to be exactly imitated in another culture. India has a different culture. India has different problems as well. India is a very diverse country in every sense of the word. I personally feel, as I have written in India’s Unending Journey, we in the West have got things wrong and gone off balance. I don’t want that imbalance coming into India. But you know what’s happening in India is that all the pressures are coming on her to do what big business and western diplomats tell her to do. Everyone is telling her if you don’t follow this way, you won’t be able compete globally, and all the rest of it. And I don’t want India to blindly follow their way. I think, actually, gradually in the West, in Britain for instance, people are realising that the balance has gone too far, that they need to get more into the middle of the road.

HS: It seems, in India development happened not because of the government, but despite it. Just like the IT industry flourished because the government had no clue what it was all about and hence could not regulate it. Reforms too are more about the government stepping aside, withdrawing. The development in India so far is popular -- a section of the society, freed from state’s clutches, finds solutions to problems the state had failed to provide.

MT: You are absolutely right, but you have to be careful. Because the government interfered too much at one stage, then inevitably people started to think this was the whole problem and therefore said, ‘Let’s go completely the other way. We don’t want the government to interfere in everything’. In my view, the government does need at times to direct the economy, and to provide certain services still for the moment. Otherwise a whole lot of people are going to be left out. They have these super-speciality hospitals coming up [in India], what good are they for someone who earns one thousand rupees a month -- he wouldn’t get through the doors of a place like that. So, it comes back to the need to have a balance. Yes, the government does have a role to play, but, this is a hugely important thing, a hugely important thing, the government itself needs to have a really complete overhaul because there is no point in the government interfering if the government itself is corrupt, represents vested interests, and is taking decisions not because it genuinely believes in securing the interests of the largest number of people of the country, but because it serves certain vested interests. So good governance and fair governance is something which is severely lacking in this country. Therefore you cannot have a decent balance between government interference and the liberation of talents through giving people greater and greater freedom. This is a balance you need to get: the balance of the socialist way, the idea of directing the economy, and the capitalist idea of freedom of enterprise and the expression of individual talent. You are not going to get this balance right if you have bad governance. And you do have bad governance, I have no hesitation in saying that.

HS: You don’t think trickle-down economics works? Having seen Indira Gandhi’s pathetic attempts at garibi hatao and a planned economy’s limits, you seem to be advocating policies that suggest a nostalgia for that very same pre-liberalisation socialism.

MT: No, even in the book [India’s Unending Journey] I have been extremely critical of that. I do not think that was a better way at all. It was not a better way for one very obvious reason, as I have already said -- bad governance. What’s the point of nationalising institutions if you are not able to run them properly and well, and fairly. Look at all the corruption that came in the banking system, a decision [i.e. to nationalise banks] which was meant to create more equitable distribution of credit, didn’t do so because of corruption. No, I don’t think that was right. I think also, it was predicated on giving the government far too much say. It was unbalanced in the other way.

HS: Even if the public sector and the nationalised institutions had been well-run, do you think socialism would have worked for India, it hasn’t done much good elsewhere?

MT: I don’t think on the whole socialism has worked because it has become unbalanced. It has given too much power to governments. It has asked governments to do things which they are not good at doing, that’s why socialism has failed. But I don’t think that means that governments giving some some guidance to the economy, governments providing certain services which others [private sector] would not provide or cannot provide, is necessarily or automatically a bad thing. But you have to add time and time again the proviso -- the government has to be able to provide those things sufficiently and effectively. And that requires good governance.

HS: World over, even in Britain, there has been this trend for the governments to adapt managerial practices in matters of governance to make it more efficient and transparent. But you seem to have much against management practices and theories which you think are too cocksure and doctrinaire?

MT: I do not believe in the idea that management pattern that exists now may be appropriate for quite narrow things, but when you start applying it to broader things and then say we can apply it because we can measure these things, then I think you start to go wrong. Like performance of hospitals, judging them by number of operations done and that sort of thing. Yes, we want greater efficiency but if you go too far down that road, you get short cuts, and you have all sorts of problems coming in. If you have waiting lists for instance people don’t get referred even when the doctors know there is something wrong with you, you don’t get referred to a specialist because they say, ‘We don’t want long waiting lists.’ These are the fruits of these management theories which I do not think work on a broader scale. And on top of that there’s this whole idea that business men have become the high priests of our lives. We are told that business men are capable of running everything, should dictate our economic policies, dictate the way everything is run and all of this I don’t believe. Businessmen need to be kept in balance. And business indeed needs to be kept in balance.

HS: You say that, ‘[A] fundamental weakness of modern management and modern market capitalism is their lack of moral purpose,’ which socialism has, namely, its professed aims to create an egalitarian society and remove poverty. Again it seems that you are recommending morality to be the touchstone for everything.

MT: I would agree. The thing about socialism is that it had a moral purpose. Its moral purpose was making society more equal, helping poor people, but to me this modern capitalism does not have any moral purpose. Some people would argue that the moral purpose is the release of individual talents. But I don’t think that that is an adequate moral purpose. And I think it has severe dangers about it, because if you go too far down that track you are talking about a situation where winners take everything and to hell with the losers. And I think capitalism all too often comes very near that.

HS: But the moral purpose was more in thought than in practice?

MT: It wasn’t achieved. I am not saying it was achieved. Even capitalism had a moral purpose. When the Pilgrim Fathers set out for America, their intention was to build the City of God on Earth. But they didn’t succeed. They may have built a powerful nation but it’s not the City of God on Earth. Socialism did succeed. For instance in Britain it has great achievements. In India the heavy industry India needed to develop, education, etc. [could be considered socialism’s achievements]. But you know in all our life we never achieve all our moral purposes.

HS: Satyajit Ray was felt pained when a western commentator found it odd that characters in his film Kachenjunga should speak in English, and not, as expected, in their mother tongue. Ray said something to the effect that they are also Indians, who speak in English. In most of your books your interlocutors seem to be rural and vernacular speakers. I imagined since your latest book was written in times when a new class of skilled professionals had appeared in India, especially in the cities, there would be more English-speaking interlocutors in your book. But, no. Do you at all relate to the other India, the urban, prosperous India?

MT: Oh yes, I do! I have been critical in the past of the role of English in this country, not that I want to stop Indians from speaking English very well, but I do want them to respect Indian languages as well. I have often said that it’s been very difficult for me to learn Hindi in this country partly due to the fact that I am rather stupid, but also because everyone here wants to speak to me in English except when I go to the villages or places like that. I think English needs to be put in balance in this country. But you know one of the mistakes some people read into this book is that it’s addressed entirely to India. It’s not addressed entirely to India, it’s very much the other way around: it’s about what the West, including my country Britain, should learn from India.

HS: Do you follow Indian media, especially the electronic media? What do you make of it?

MT: I think that the Indian electronic media lacks editorial control and is too influenced by commercial factors.

HS: You recently wrote that media cannot always be run as a business. In a country where independent media is a nascent phenomenon and memories of government-controlled media still fresh in people’s mind, don’t you think any recommendations for a Doordarshan-like model would seem retrograde?

MT: No, no. No government controls. I believe it is important for a country especially like India to have a good public service broadcasting. I believe that very strongly. I don’t say you shouldn’t have commercial media as well, or that you should have government control. But if you have a good public service broadcasting, people will see a different type of broadcasting and many of them will like that. And maybe, it will also influence the commercial channels, because people will start saying that the commercial channels are very trivial and sensational.

HS: You covered India during some of its most crucial years. Which do you think was India’s darkest hour?

MT: I wasn’t here during the Nehru days, but since then I think it’s darkest time was probably those times in the early ‘70s when the economy seemed to be coming apart, corruption was quite rampant, the Congress party had been split, clear evidence of attempts to stifle judiciary, and it all ended with the Emergency. So, I think, that period was the darkest times I have seen, clearly.

HS: As you have also written about it, you almost had your backside bruised at the beginning of the Emergency when the Information and Broadcasting minister I.K. Gujral was instructed from Indira Gandhi’s residence to chastise you for allegedly reporting the arrest of senior opposition leaders. Do you think Indian politics and people at large have forgotten the Emergency? Have they seem to have forgiven Indira Gandhi?

MT: They may have forgiven Indira Gandhi: they keep on electing members of her family. I think, yes. But I do think they have not forgotten that to that extent. It’s highly unlikely that, unless something really awful happens, anyone is going to try that trick again. That way I don’t think people have forgotten it.


John Birt, BBC’s controversial Director General (1992-2000), tried to run the public service broadcast that the BBC is, as an automobile factory’s efficient shopfloor. He dropped people and practices without regard to their contribution to making the BBC a highly respected organisation around the world.

I.K. Gujral, the I&B minister was asked to ‘send for Mark Tully, pull his trousers, give him a few lashes and send him to jail.’ (Quote from Katherine Frank’s Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, Harper Collins, 2001. Page 380.)

28 September 2007

Letter to The General

Letter to The General

While General Pervez Musharraf is still figuring out how the maps in his book escaped being rubber-stamped by the Indian Foreign Ministry wonks with the warning ‘neither correct nor authentic’ legend, here are tips to help cure the embarrassing Irony-deficiency evident in his memoir In The Line of Fire (Free Press, Simon & Schuster, Pages 352, Price Rs 950)

Dear General Saab,

Here are some words that do not appear to be part of your, or your ghost writer’s, vocabulary which are so vital for a head a real democracy (we’ll explain that in a moment). Then there are words which you seem to have used in a very ironic sense without realising it. You know, funny thing is that the most embarrassing thing at times is that one is not embarrassed enough.

Acquired Taste: Don’t tell us commandos have democracy on their mind. A typical action hero, you found your guerilla style wanting once the coup you staged from the PIA flight PK 805 was fait accompli. So, instead of the wine-tasting courses you’d planned for your superannuation, you’re wrestling with abstracts like ‘institutions,’ ‘constitution,’ and ‘development.’ Neophytes are always initially more anxious of getting it right. But give your new taste some time, you might end up as a connoisseur. Thumbs up, General.

Application: Your tutor in Turkey Madame Kudret, taught you mental mathematics, geography and English. Your one-track, K-on-my-mind (see K) mindset crippled your English vocabulary. But Madame’s other lessons you applied diligently to plan the logistics and tactics of the Kargil operation. And remember your ‘romantic’ uncle Ghazi Gulam Haider who, in jest, not just slapped an innocent stranger once on his bald head and then apologised feigning mistaken identity, but did it again? You were quick to absorb a lesson you never forgot -- of getting away with a crime or a misdemeanour by repeating it and apologising for it every time. Smart boy, Pervez!

Banana Republic: Tropical countries mostly, with ludicrously frequent regime changes. General, you’re right. Pakistan is not one. It is indeed ‘a stable nation,’ as you proclaimed in New York recently, where you had gone to launch and plug your book… sorry... to attend the UN General Assembly’s 61st session. As you (nervously?) dismissed the rumours of coup in the non-banana republic of Pakistan, did you for a second think who could be behind these canards? The Baluchis, the army, the ISI, the jihadis, Al Qaeda? Sounds more like a banana-split republic scenario to us?

Brinkmanship: As a major in the Special Security group (SSG), Pakistan’s elite commando outfit, ‘world’s best,’ you ran your own ‘Pervez Musharraf Confidence-building and Nerve-testing Centre’ making men under your command hold ‘self-made grenades’ which they were expected to throw three seconds before they exploded. Hmm. That explains Siachin, Kargil and the near-war in 2001 which ended when India blinked. Conan O’Brian, please give the General a chance on your show’s staring matches.

Barkha Dutt: Dutt was sent to Kargil along with Bofors guns to get you, and get you they did. She, along with the other famous General-molester Karan Thapar, are the muses who inspire you to sort-of free your own media to wage war by other means.

Candour: Cynical glibness and devious charm help you appear more candid and transparent than you can ever really be. As a student in Lahore’s FC College, you exploded serial bombs around the principal Dr Dutta’s residence. You confessed. Said sorry. And he let you go. You write: “That is when I learnt the power of truth, a lesson that has never left me.” Baloney! You learnt that phoney sincerity and calculated candour can save ass. You’re openness personified while spilling state secrets, but when it comes to showing us a bit more of Pervez the man, you’re as silent as Osama’s mobile. But for all your Freudian slips, you’d still be a total puzzle to your readers.

Democracy: On your edgy Agra visit, just out of the cantonment life back home, you found everything about Indian democracy strange. Can’t blame you, you’ve hardly ever lived in one! (Irony, General! See?) When the final draft of the joint declaration was also binned by the backroom boys and the cabinet, you were shocked at the way we do things here. An authority above you and Vajpayeeji? That’s ‘sham’ democracy, where there are no checks and balances. And, no, the ISI and the army don’t count.

Discretion: Did you have someone from the home and foreign office vet the book for inadvertent indiscretions or disclosures of sensitive information? Don’t unlock your Glock, General, it was just a suggestion.

K-word/Kafka: 'K' is for...is for...Kafka! You kan say to Manmohanji, ‘First resolve the Kafka issue before we admit there is kross border terrorism.’ Read Kafka’s The Kastle to appreciate the chilling meaninglessness of set patterns of behaviour and konditioned responses. You want an ‘outside the box’ solution for the Kafka issue. But what if we tell you, the K-word is the box?

Khan Market: AQ Khan’s, ahem, ‘enterprise.’ Excellent after sales service. And yes, free home delivery. Now even the grass-eating North Koreans think they have a chance against the Yankees. All the while the Pakistani army and the ISI sniff nothing? Only their own five chalk lines, see Pakistani Exports

Media: You’re laddishly glamour-struck by the international media and believe everything they spout. And you parrot their lingo to scare the world -- ‘nuclear flashpoint’, ‘eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.’ Free Pakistani media? For starters, no more arbitrary arrests and Tehelka-style harassment (don’t snigger, General, democracy is a work in progress) of your media persons. Look for a subbing job at NDTV when you’re finished with Pakistan, or perhaps it with you.

Obsession: KafkaKafkaKafkaKafkaKafkaKafkaKafkaKafkaKafka KafkaKafkaKafkaKafkaKafkaKafkaKafkavKafkaKafkaKafkaKafkaKafkaKafka... see Kafka.

Pakistani Exports: to fake Indian currency, jihadis, the intriguing new concept of ‘real’ democracy, packaged lies, Punjabi-accented English, pot, RDX, nuclear technology, and detainees for Guantánamo Bay. Junoon and Strings are in high demand abroad, but you feel threatened they will upstage you. Did we mention the famous Pakistani visa?

Paruresis: Don’t bother checking your book’s index, you find the word there. It’s a condition where a person cannot pee when some one is watching. Pakistan’s political class is afflicted by political paruresis. With the army watching over them, no wonder they just can’t ‘P’ (for Politics, we mean).

Rough Neighbourhood: Karachi of your childhood. But instead of fearing or loathing it, you became its dada geer after ko-ing the bully after your brother Javed’s kite. You insist you still live in one. Did Musharraf make the neighbourhood bad or it him? Tricky one, that.

Pluralism: when the General speaks in many tongues? No. It is a simple tanga, that still run on Lahore’s streets, with not one but many horses in the front. Some even at the back. Ok, seriously, just let Benazir, Nawaz, Imran, the mullahs and the fundos, all have their say and then let people decide whether they want Bollywood movies on pirated or original DVDs. That would be more like it.

Politics: Popular politics. Your biggest fear, miles outside your comfort zone (read ‘the barracks’). You keep thinking of a makeover and discarding your military fatigues, but are afraid to. For good reasons too, General. To be elected a leader and to work within the constitution (if you recall, that was the first thing you messed with after you took over the TV station, we mean Pakistan) without firepower needs more guts than shooting down a helicopter with a leftover Stinger.

Pre-Irony: you snootily deride Bollywood. But we say, look who is talking. The treacly tripe you deal out about being the best soldier, best general, best thing-that-ever-happened-to-Pakistan, ignoring Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, even Qaid-e-Azam (whom you conveniently kill so early in the book), Junoon, and Strings, is akin to the pre-ironic this-film-is-hat kar statements Ashwarya Rais, Sushmita Sens, and your own Mira make.

Sitting Ducks: At the Gol Bashi lake in Ankara, duck-shooting with your father you discovered your predilection for sitting ducks --because the flying ones were beyond you. Until Barkha Dutt and our boys arrived in Kargil, you thought you were back at Gol Bashi.

Understatement: You write AQK ‘brought some drawings of centrifuges along with him’ from Netherlands where he worked in a uranium-enrichment facility. Teehee. He nicked them.

X: the unknown. Too many in your book. You don’t even tell us what movies you watched in Lahore when you slipped away to Regal Cinema from the FC College hostel.

We had more words, like Backtrack, not the same as Track-two or Backdoor diplomacy, but we’ve heard you’re busy reading and revising your book. Hope our counsel benefits the new edition.

Yours Truly,
Neeras Anthem

A Coachable Coach


John Wright’s Indian Summers
With Sharda Ugra and Paul Thomas
Viking/Penguin
Pages 243
Rs 495

Indian cricket, with its cultish mix of power and flash, would be no small culture shock to a man just out of the staid, tradition-bound, crusty world of county cricket. In this jaunty yet insightful book, John Wright, former New Zealand captain and coach of the Indian cricket team from 2000 to 2005, gives an engaging account of the many such shocks offered up by his life inside the Indian team’s huddle.

Wright’s tenure as the Indian team’s first foreign coach saw the post-match-fixing, halo-deprived Indian cricket team’s fortunes anomalously mounting, and some of its best performances, like the rare Test victory Down Under in 2003-04. If one overlooks his nostalgia for county cricket, Wright’s austere outlook -- combining the old-world suspicion for money, power and fame with a religious reliance on discipline, hard work and application rather than raw talent -- lends him a spirit-level perspective against which the skew of the complex, pragmatic, pacey, underachieving world of Indian cricket becomes apparent.

The picture that emerges is of a beehive frenetic with activity, with not the game of cricket but money as the honey. And if new money is the background score, then the default theme of Indian cricket, as Indian Summers captures it, is insecurity. Wright himself felt it all the time, fearing a brusque, arbitrary dismissal. The anxiety that the going is too good to last and the largesse might cease afflicts everyone who lives off the lucrative game. And this inglorious uncertainty, Wright feels, causes rivalries, heartburn, scraps, bitchiness and dismal performances.

Wright deeply empathises with the small-town boy, who learns the game watching the telly and, passing through the most arbitrary selection process, makes it to the big time. He is equally appreciative of the insecurities that drive cricketers to distraction beyond redemption by way of overnight stardom and fat advertising contracts.

Wright learnt early that the job of coach is what the coach, the coached, or the paymasters make of it. Still, he is clearly bitter about the times he was sidelined. The incidental status of the coach in Indian cricket, wherein following his counsel was optional, is confirmed as Wright relates instances when Sunil Gavaskar, once apparently on Sourav Ganguly’s invitation, made himself an alternative unofficial power centre in the dressing room, with disastrous results.

Indian Summers is a wise and eminently readable book that dares reflect on the state of a strand of our national identity -- something the frantic media coverage and Mandira Bedi’s spaghetti-strapped tops are wired against.

Lawrence Smells the Coffee, Again


Occupational Hazards
My Time Governing In Iraq
By Rory Stewart
Pan Macmillan 2006
Pages 422
Rs 925

Rory Stewart has a strong urge to engage the alien. His last book The Places In Between raised the bar for all travel writing with an unusually empathetic account of his travels in the post-Taliban, US-occupied Afghanistan. The same spirit compels him into his next, rather grimmer, venture -- governing Iraq. In a hard-edged, anticlimactic ‘sequel,’ Occupational Hazards, Stewart’s la-di-da notions about stretching hands across the oceans and playing God in the Third World seem thoroughly juddered.

In 2003, as the coalition of US-led forces invades Bhagdad, Stewart desperately seeks and finds a position of the deputy governorate coordinator of Maysan, and later of Nasiriyah, – on the strength of his recently-acquired language skills and insights into rural Islamic culture – in the post-invasion Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), created to rule and rebuild Iraq on behalf of the coalition, read the US.

Maysan, the remote district along the Iranian border famous for the Marsh Arabs, whose rebelliousness Saddam punished by draining the marshes and thereby wiping away a way of life, was known in the CPA-circles as a ‘den of dirty, superstitious, illiterates’ or, as a friend of Stewart put it, a ‘tedious non-event.’

With a notional authority over 85,0000 Iraqis of all hues, Stewart jumps into the fray quickly. In the very first week in Maysan, he is mediating in a tribal war, dealing with a flood, regulating religious flagellants, supervising the building of a souk, patching a split within a political party, setting up a television station, making arrangements for an election, and trying to equip the police with guns.

We recognise his ardour for reaching out and roughing it from his last book as he sets about his development work and helping form a local governing body from a rabble of players perpetually threatening civil war, risking his life and limb only to be constantly thwarted by ancient rivalries and rabid cussedness. The picture he paints of Iraq under occupation is breathtakingly frightening, making Michael Moore’s over-the-top diatribes against Bush’s Middle-East policies look even more ridiculous.

Stewart sees himself as a neo-colonialist of the kind the Empire-apologist Niall Ferguson would approve. Comparisons with T E Lawrence (of Arabia), the famous Brit who participated thanklessly in the Arab Revolt of 1916, would be too rich. Yet Stewart seems a generic natural heir to Lawrence: like Lawrence he negotiates the micro-complexities of the larger picture that he is too insignificant a cog of and too complicit in to see let alone critique.

So, when in his part self-exculpatory, part self-applauding narrative – and, yes, a jaunty, rough history of the coalition’s disastrous attempts to save from the anarchy it had pushed Iraq into – Stewart would have us believe that under the circumstances he juggled wonderfully everything thrown at him without dropping his idealism, one is sceptical, but for his charm. Just like the way people read Lawrence’s epic Seven Pillars of Wisdom – with a pinch of salt and little love for the Empire he was helping build.

Go West


Temptations of the West:
How to be modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond

By Pankaj Mishra
Picador
Pages: 439
Price: Rs 525

On the trail of Deobandi-bred jihadis in Pakistan, writer-critic Pankaj Mishra is asked by Rahamat, who turns out to be an innocuous handyman at a madrasa rather than an activist of the Sipah-e-Sahaba as Mishra’s fixer had promised, “if women in London went around with their legs exposed.”

Mishra writes: “This was a question that came from my own past: the kind of thing I would turn around in my mind when I was still a boy in isolated towns, with no TV or cinema around to inhibit my imagination. It was strange and unsettling to think how quickly that past... had vanished... how dramatically my circumstances had changed.”

This self-revelatory moment perfectly captures the spirit of Mishra’s ‘new’ book (not really new, since most of it has appeared in essay form in the New York Review of Books over the last five years), which explores the relationship between traditional societies and the West, the perceived fountainhead of that elusive modernity, and mulls over why they (unlike him) have been unable to benefit from the bounties of the West.

Mishra’s confessional style -- employed admirably in An End to Suffering to paint a piquant portrait of the Buddha as a real person and a radical thinker -- never tumbles into self-indulgence. Instead, by putting himself in the picture, Mishra precipitates the relevance of and provides human scale to the larger historical and political landscapes. His personal style infuses complex issues with the thoughtfulness and honesty of a writer ready to admit his own prejudices.

In ‘Prologue,’ Mishra engagingly narrates his own life-changing tryst with the West through his chance discovery of the works of the writer-critic Edmund Wilson, while he, an impecunious drifter, read obsessively “in a dusty old library in the ancient town of Benares.” A student-turned-contract-killer friend, Mishra realises, had better understood Wilson’s dictum of “the symbiotic relationship between life and literature” despite his own wider reading. But unlike his friend, Mishra went on to earn his living abroad, establishing the book’s theme that how one relates and benefits from the West and ‘modernity’ depends on the assumptions one brings to such concepts as modernity.

Mishra’s acerbic exposition of the harm the Nehru-Gandhi family did to India (thwarting the process of “the reclaiming of India by Indians”) is so waspish that at times it feels he holds them responsible for not just a whole generation’s but even his own “many stages of drift and futility.”

He is more surgeon-like dissecting the BJP and the RSS’ concept of Hindutva, with its “mishmash of anti-American rhetoric, paranoia, moral arrogance and ill-digested history”, explaining how, unlike fanatical Islam, the Hindu right, which “doesn’t reject so much as seek an alternative route to western modernization” would embrace globalisation to prove “the profound modernity of religious nationalism.”

Mishra unleashes delicious but predictable ironies exploring Bollywood’s take on modernity, via an awkward rendezvous with a flirty Mallika Sherawat plugging her ‘bold’ film Murder. Mishra seems equally unconvincing and impersonal in his despatches from Nepal, Afghanistan, Tibet, and to some extent even Pakistan -- the “late arrivals to the modern world,” which are consequently repetitive, slight and pessimistic.

If this intelligent and dark review of stasis and warped visions is a Bildungsroman, reflecting his personal journey from naivety to self-discovery, Mishra seems to be overextending himself the farther he is from Mashobra. Its time he find his bearings as a writer, again, its time to find the centre again.

Ancient Itch


Subhashitavali: An Anthology of Comic, Erotic and Other Verses
Selected and Translated from the Sanskrit
By A.N.D. Haksar
Penguin Classics
Pages 192
Rs 200

The blank, apologetic screen, where once FTV edified millions of Indians on the finer points of couture, announces our chronic sexual hang-ups, bawdy jokes in our newspapers and films nicked from the internet and foreign films laugh at our hobbled sense of humour, as devoid of originality as the Chinese watch industry. No wonder we are tired citing The Kamasutra as a belated proof of our once having been an unrivalled sexually liberated culture. And yet, we have nothing to show for having a long-standing comic tradition.

Now there is something to cheer us on both fronts: a new translation of an ancient source of titillation, that is also humorous.
Subhashitavali, literally ‘well said’ is a collection of erotic and humorous verses from the pens of some very venerable ancient bards like Valmiki, Bhasa, Bilhana, and the prolific and versatile Anonymous, compiled by Vallabhadeva in the fifth century CE. Scholars have been long aware of its existence, but the complete verses have never been before translated. Haksar’s light, sparkly translation effectively conveys rather than clouds the originals.

This new Penguin Classic kicks straight in the teeth the airy-fairy image of the past resembling one of those fake-white-beard serials. Clearly the producers of these dharma-soaps have not read their scriptures closely.

But make no mistake, the sacred is not forgotten in Subhashitavali. It remains an obsession even with the writers of the most louche verses. In fact, the compilation seems to be propagating the balanced Hindu way of life where everything is had in proportion. Accordingly, sex should be cherished as an essential, but not the only, part of a large smorgasbord that is life. Hence the sacred here has the profane in tow: Homage to Manmatha,/churner of the mind,/who dwells in lovely women/with round, uplifted bosoms,/comely hips and languid gait. (Vita Vritta).

Sex is there and in amazing variety. There is rampant promiscuity: priests are visiting whores, old men are itching for it, widows are caught with gigolos, indigent students make do with hand. There is courtship, foreplay, coitus, and there is the after-sex fag. There is guilty sex, there is orgiastic sex, there is natural à la-D.H.Lawrence sex, there is innocent groping, and there is accidental sex. A handful of verses deal with sex for only the lonely. Of course, there is casual sex too.

Staying on sex, women are no mere passive players -- fallow land to be ploughed, as any feminist would put it. A woman brags about her lover’s amorous skills who sings and kisses like a bird,/in making love he’s more/passionate than a rutting elephant., but rues that he is my wedded lord!. Such indiscretion from the ur-granny would shock a Cosmopolitan editor out of her Choos.

Rabid irreverence breeds sometimes mawkish, sometimes a liberating political incorrectness. Whores, clerks, priests, widows, women, old men, old invalids, impotent men, the sick. they all generally get the stick for their surfeit capacity or incapability in participating, meaningfully, in sexual activity, the most pleasurable human activity. And it’s not always in good taste.

Talking about the poetics, there is conceit, offering not just sensuous but intellectual gratification too, and there is ambiguity, occurring sometimes together, like in the special section on lovers and their go-betweens, where the comic and the erotic couple in a seamless union: Messenger, your face and bosom,/with your hand why cover more?/Lips and breasts, like soldiers brave,/look best while bearing marks of war.

And, it’s not all about sex or laughter. Brevity, accuracy, and evocativeness lend these verses rare sensuality, like Kalidasa’s masterly, minimal, portrayal of subtle emotions: She covered her lips/with her fingers again/as she timidly warned me/that I should refrain./I lifted her face,/she turned to my shoulder,/I do not know why/I did not then kiss her.

Curiously, no one has bothered to bring this compilation to light since brief appearence in the ‘80s of some of these verses in a largely forgotten scholarly tome by Lee Siegel, Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India (University of Chicago Press, 1987), an ‘original treatise on the aesthetics of comedy and the psychology of laughter.’ Perhaps, the verses seem too good to be true. As they say, past is another country.

Doing India Deep and Personal


Inhaling The Mahatma
Christopher Kremmer
Harper Collins India
Pages 420
Rs 495

There is something endearing about the firangi pluck that emboldens them to write the big book on India, unlike their Indian counterparts who, instead of writing No Full Stops for America or America in Slow Motion, or playing Indian Daniel Laks, Edward Luces, and Gillian Wrights in western capitals, write homesick fiction. Yet, westerners writing on contemporary India seem to be doing it watching her through their taxi windows.

Christopher Kremmer is a freelance Australian journalist who also travels in a taxi chauffeured by one Lovely Singh. But what makes Inhaling The Mahatma rise head and shoulders above similar recent attempts, is his refreshing and sometimes down right embarrassing (need said risky?), penchant to leave the hard-shell of his Amby and set out on a personal quest to discover India, and himself.

And how. Early in his long stay in India, Kremmer married an Indian. His journalist-wife hails from an old-money family, one of whose ancestors, Jiwan Lal, supplied vital intelligence that helped the British to wrench Delhi out rebels’ hands in the 1857 Mutiny. In the family’s postprandial discussions, Kremmer is the odd man out, holding a pad and a pencil, taking down notes.

As if his marriage does not suffice as proof of his acquired Indianness, Kremmer has neophyte’s habit of touching the feet of every swami, guru, and granny he meets, which, instead of helping him blend in, would have the same effect as Thompson and Thomson twins in the Tintin comics, trying one of their ludicrously ‘apt’ disguises to hide their aliennness.

In fact, Kremmer uses his foreignness as a litmus strip, and often as a mirror, to reveal an India at odds with itself, its people strangers in their own land, just like him. Ready to go out for an art exhibition, dressed in a white kurta-pyjama, he uses his crusty mother-in-law’s scornful reaction to his dressing like a desi to drive home this disjoint between the land and its people.

Later, as he sheds tears watching the Ram Lila on the banks of the Ganges, the reader for a moment thinks Kremmer has indeed become a desi. Not quite though. He comes close, but does not capitulate, to soft Indophilia and to the contradictions of the Indian way of life: he remembers that his ‘dharma [is] to doubt.’

His journalistic stories benefit from this ability to weave in the personal into the foreign political. He was eyewitness to some of the momentous, and events in the recent Indian history: the demolition of the Babri masjid, where he was almost killed; or the hijacking by a Hindu nationalist of an Indian Airlines plane, in which he was a passenger.

When, in his fine-brush American Gothic-portrait of compatriots Graham and Gladys Staines, Kremmer writes, ‘thirty-four years that he lived in India, Graham Staines had little grasp of the finer points of Hinduism,’ one knows he writes with confidence of man who knows his India well.

Kremmer seems emotionally invested in the Gandhi-dynasty. Weeks before Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Kremmer had briefly sat in Rajiv’s armoured-plated Ambassador as it heaved and panted on the muddy lanes of the Cow Belt. Rajiv was seeking not just a mandate to be re-elected, but his lost honour and people’s faith in his family, thanks to, what Kremmer seems convinced, Rajiv’s ex-protégé, V. P. Singh’s betrayal.

Kremmer relates easily to the Fellini- and Jazz-loving, charismatic Rajiv with his ‘large black eyes and full lips that curved easily into a shy smile,’ than he does with Vajpayee or the ‘gadfly’ V. P. Singh trying at once to take credit and also distance himself from the Mandal politics. While following the technocratese-spewing Rahul on a trip through Amethi, Kremmer observes Rahul struggling to connect directly to the bewildered masses. Kremmer seems reassured that like his father, Rahul ‘was just himself, a well-meaning, well-bred urban Indian.’

And, that’s Kremmer too for you. The Aussie global desi. Having imbibed so deeply of the land of the Mahatma, putting his unique perspective across in this tired template hardly does it justice.

Innocents Abroad


Magic Bus
By Rory MacLean
Viking/Penguin
Pages: 286
£ 11.99

In the 60s and the 70s, America’s Baby Boomers, born in the post-war economic boom, began to rebel against the bourgeois complacency that had set in. Campuses were wracked by sit-ins, bra-burning pickets and antiwar demonstrations that have had consequences far beyond their place and time.

The Beats formed the vanguard of this rebellion. Best experienced in the alternatingly -- or even simultaneously -- nutty and dense poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ken Kesey’s edgy, anti-establishment classic One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest, and Jack Kerouac’s charmingly neurotic On The Road that conveys a generation’s heady sense of new-found liberation, the Beats made the pursuit of self-knowledge to counter ‘spiritual emptiness’, hip.

Thus began another shopping spree to enrich the soul in the spiritual supermarkets of the East. Armed with plenty of luggage, charming naivety, and LSD, the first crop of dropouts set out via Istanbul, travelling overland through neighbouring Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, finally settling down, sometimes literally, in Nepal. Their default modes of transportation were decrepit buses with broken springs and iffy brakes, condemned vehicles meant to be flogged for a profit in Pakistan. “The secret for a successful trip was to get the passengers smoking chillum dope pipes before breakfast.” Not to mention the seats at back of the bus, joined together into a “love bunk.” The bus operator would take his vehicle around the European cities, stop at places frequented by the hippies, and shout, “Anyone for India?”

“Where’s you guys going?” the passengers would be asked by other hopeful hippies along the way. “Nirvana”, the passengers would reply. Dog-eared copies of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha became their Lonely Planet, and kept alive their spiritual hunger through their tortuous jaunt. A generation was initiated into a life less ordinary with the seed mantra: ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out.’

MacLean, a Canadian travel writer, retraces this journey from Turkey to Nepal in a wispy account that even takes the trouble to think of big themes: What was the legacy of the hippies? Did they, by “vaunting their personal freedom”, start the Iranian revolution? The Khomeini-led Islamists grabbed power from the pro-West Shah to create one of the most rabid anti-West, anti-liberal regimes on earth. Did freedom forge its own shackles?

Fortuitously, in Istanbul, MacLean meets Penny, “an original flower girl”, once a sprite, now limping with a replaced hip, who takes him around the city on a there-are-places-I-remember tour. With indelible signs everywhere of the change that “the Intrepids” wrought in the face and pace of many an anonymous town and village, the reader shares MacLean’s excitement that he is on to something.

Even in the black-hole of Iran, where time and history have lost their meaning, MacLean finds trenchant connections between the hippies and the country that blocked the hippie trail when it became a repressive theocracy in 1979. Here he meets tangy Laleh, who runs a private English language institute in Tehran; wears the veil “out of loyalty” to her parents, her society, her traditions; and holds protest sit-ins regularly with a duct-tape gag over her mouth at the university gates.

Later, at a party hosted by her brother to announce their imminent migration to France, women guests, Laleh included, slip off their chadors to reveal “skimpy miniskirts and teetering heels.” When the Janus-faced Laleh, the symbol of two Irans, admonishes the hippies and their counterculture for “the dislocation and the fragmentation” they have caused to the western societies, it imparts MacLean’s quest substance.

But only fleetingly. Magic Bus sputters as soon as it leaves the Iranian border. His grand project forgotten, MacLean seems content covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal like any other foreign correspondent. If these places have changed, for better or worse, it is without a leg up from the Magic Bus passengers. MacLean settles for commonplace observations on, for example, the contrast between the modern and the eternal India, unable to appreciate the fact that India, like the big Leviathan, swallows everything -- even stoned hippies.

Sadly, in the end Magic Bus turns out to be a spaced out trip livened up with a sprinkling of apocryphal tales about a generation's yen for freedom, individuality, and doing one’s own thing. The flower-power generation's double-edged legacy, of self-seeking instant gratification and self-empowerment, remains as elusive as it is all-prevelant. Perhaps, MacLean was too distracted to notice it mocking him from the billboards of the Nescafes and the Benettons, who sell their wares to the world using its now chic aspirations.

Step aside dude, let the master show you how


Kama Sutra: The Art of Making Love to a Woman
By Pavan K Varma
Lustre Press/Roli Books
Pages 208
Rs 650

Another version of the Kama Sutra, the 2000-year-old venerable manual to desire and getting it on, this time by the writer-diplomat Pavan Varma, currently the head of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. And this one comes in shocking pink with an awkward flap-binding that requires the same devious deftness to unravel it, as is required to undo an Indian bra.

What might offend male readers who thought they had broken through social conditioning and thrown away all that crap about fixed gender roles (only women doll up for a night out) and gender-attributes (women always listen, men don’t), is the contumely that Varma heaps on the sexual habits and manners of Indian men. He clearly thinks of men as sexually ignorant braggarts, completely insensitive to their women’s sexual needs, and who are intimidated by women’s new-found sexual assertiveness. What could have been a dialogue of equals, therefore, degenerates into an infantilising school lesson on the birds and the bees.

Varma’s language is more suited to gentle, semi-intellectual, personal explorations into culture and sociology, like in Being Indian. He takes his role as sex guru a tad too seriously, which results in unattractive language laced with bureaucratese and cheesy puns, and a tone as supercilious as a hostel warden who has caught you with Debonair centrespreads under your pillow.

Varma’s ‘demise of the erotic sentiment’ thesis is alarmist, if not a spectre of personal insecurities. Among the class educated enough to distinguish erotica from pornography (potential readers of well-produced editions of the Kama Sutra), sexual enlightenment has more chances of dawning than it did, say, in the 80s and the early 90s -- an age that produced the most egregious sexual fantasies (think the wet sari scene in Ram Teri Ganga Maili).

The Kama Sutra is anyway a redundant source of sexual knowledge. There are the Hollywood movies, the Sidney Sheldons, modern literature, men’s magazines, women’s magazines, and the Internet, acting as surrogate Vatsyayanas.

Despite Varma’s affected disdain for those who reduce the Kama Sutra to a Book of Impossible Positions or a source of titillation, he himself ends up perpetuating the myth: Varma brings little new in terms of either style or recasting the context to make the Kama Sutra a contemporary pillow book. Approaching this otherwise tedious text without any intellectual or aesthetic intent, both Varma and his editors display a want of imagination -- the one and only thing the mahamuni’s (Varma's sobriquet for Vatsyayan) ideal lover should fight shy of.

Absence Presence


Go Away Closer
By Dayanita Singh
Steidl
Pages 32
Price: Rs 2500

Go Away Closer, the latest book by Dayanita Singh, one of India’s most celebrated photographers, is a slim volume, the size of a small notebook, with unnumbered pages of thirty-one palm-sized, square, high-quality, uncaptioned black-and-white photographs. Except for the cover, which carries the author’s, the book’s and the publisher’s names, and the fine-print publishing information on the last page, there is no text in the book. Singh laconically informed this reviewer that the publisher’s catalogue describes Go Away Closer as “a novel with no words.”

One could call the whole build up, including the title, a tease: a foolproof marketing device. Another word the book elicits is ‘mysterious’ -- an attribute that, according to Susan Sontag, the aphoristic oracle of photography, makes a photograph more interesting, or less, if the element is absent. Mystery is certainly one of the most recognisable features of Singh’s photographs. But to call what looks like a pricey catalogue a novel seems at first to be an instance of artistic whim.

Singh’s initial journalistic works were more literal: She documented the life of the child-prostitute Meherunissa, and later, photographed the reluctant eunuch Mona Ahmed, ‘the queen bee of Turkman Gate’, for thirteen years before she came up with Myself Mona Ahmed (2001), with text by Mona herself.

Sometime in the 1990s, Singh decided that she didn’t want to live off Indian disasters and exotica, the two staple demands of western editors. It was then that she developed a more personal portfolio that led to the ironically titled Privacy (2001), a series of formal portraits of urban middle- and upper-middle-class Indians along with their possessions and pets -- a peerless record of urban Indian life as lived behind closed doors.

It was with Privacy that a new thread emerged in Singh’s work; more poetical, less literal. Among the lush pictures of dressed-up women posing self-consciously amidst the accretions of lived lives, there were pictures of more spartan settings. Pictures of vacant rooms and spaces, four-poster beds, antique chairs against plain, damp, discoloured walls, chairs in a foyer with light bleeding through the windows, bookshelves bending under the weight of the books they held.

One could see Singh’s growing fascination for absenting the human form. In a set of two photographs (68 and 69) of Barganza House, and Mrs Barganza (Goa, 2000), the reader or viewer can see the artist groping, and finding transcendence: It is the same setting captured with and without Mrs Barganza.

Singh has decided to cull this hide-and-seek motif from her earlier work, and to articulate it precisely, consciously. Like the opening image of Go Away Closer: A girl lying on her side on a bed that hardly seems to be an item of household furniture, rather a part of a museum display. The young girl, her face hidden under a white pillow, her plain school-dress revealing nubile arms and legs, her crumpled socks slack around her ankle, her school shoes still on her feet. A Lolita in distress? Or a schoolgirl who has flounced on the bed in a museum to amuse her friends as the guard looked the other way?

The ambiguity makes this and other self-conscious, mnemonic images in the book ‘writerly’, making demands on the ‘readers’ to come up with their own meaning. But do they form a novel? Perhaps with a bit of imagination; after all, the novel and the short story are still evolving and description-eluding genres. One thing is certain, though: Go Away Closer is certainly literary in its impulses. The book does offer a narrative that -- whatever it is, wherever it is going, however it is paced and plotted, with characters in no rush to develop, if at all -- is as varied and textured as that found in any modernist novel.

Singh’s unsentimental, unromanticised images seem to bounce visual and metaphorical correspondences and contrasts off each other, forming a narrative ‘of sorts’, the kind modern literature embraces.

A new bride clings to her mother (?) as she departs for her new life; an industrial warehouse full of newly manufactured scooters standing in endless rows; grainy stone-laid streets with intriguing play of shade and light. There is a conscious use of contrast, perspective, ‘voices’, and the ‘writer’ makes her hand visible without making her presence overt. There is a restructuring of reality, not just in the individual images, but in the way the images are arranged and juxtaposed in relation to each other: An image of an empty showcase is placed besides one with human-shaped, cocoon-like, pall-covered forms lying on a dormitory floor, playing out the theme of emptiness and fullness, absence or presence.

These literary qualities stem directly from the abstraction and transcendence Singh gained earlier, but did not consciously assert in her work. She seems to have understood at last where the power of her pictures lie, or at least where she wants it to lie.

Singh believes that the best training for any photographer is reading more and more books. Here’s one.