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.

Still Looming Large


The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road To 9/11
By Lawrence Wright
Allen Lane/Penguin
Pages 470
£ 9.10

“Death will find you even in the looming tower.”
~ Sura 4, The Koran

In 1996 few people had heard about al-Qaeda. Not even the FBI. Or even the CIA, bar the few officers who had served in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation at the height of the Cold War, and perhaps befriended a tall, lanky, rich Saudi – Osama bin Laden, part of a bunch of Arab jihadis come to nettle the Russkies. Today, al-Qaeda experts are legion around the world and many of them have been busy writing books in recent years. Jason Burke set the benchmark with his gripping piece of journalism, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (2004). The most recent addition to the al-Qaeda corpus is New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright’s book, The Looming Tower.

Wright, also the screenplay writer of the Hollywood thriller The Siege (1998), tells an even-paced, meticulously researched (plenty of legwork and 600 interviews), compelling story of this many-headed monster that could have very easily not come into being, so tentative were its beginnings.

Sayyid Qutb, a small-town, reticent Egyptian academic, finds himself homesick in booming post-War New York, shocked by the ‘reckless, deluded herd that only knows lust and money.’ Appalled by the racism; the American role in the creation of the nascent Jewish nation-state, Israel; and the overt sexuality of American women; Qutb soon becomes the perfect prototype of our present day rabidly anti-West jihadist.

Like a perfect sleeper, though outwardly well adjusted to the American way of life, he writes the brief for the yet unborn al-Qaeda: ‘The white man in Europe or America is our number-one enemy. [He] crushes us underfoot while we teach our children about his civilisation... Let us instead plant the seeds of hatred, disgust, and revenge in the souls of these children.’ He goes back to Egypt to do just that, convinced that a return to Islam’s fundamentals is not just the solution to the Arab world’s ills, but that Islamists like him will be able to achieve their goals through political means.

Qutb was hanged to death by the secularist military regime, and the main Islamic organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood’s cadre was hounded into extinction. His torture in Egyptian jails spawned many legends which became a part of the collective Arab consciousness.

The story of al-Qaeda is essentially the story of a few young men, full of this very Qutb-spirit, drawn together almost by providence, with a shared vision of Arab states forming an Islamic vanguard against the decadent West and the godless communists.

Surprisingly enough, these men came from fairly to filthy rich families; all in possession of University degrees; all born in Islamic societies struggling to reconcile faith with new found wealth, and with political systems that are still in turmoil because basic freedoms still remain incompletely negotiated between the rulers and the ruled. All of them felt an urge sometime in their lives to shun suburban comforts and touch base with the spirituality of Islam; and finally all of them envisioned a political Islam.

The inexorable inching-closer of the two main strands of al-Qaeda form the substance of the book: Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician (second-in-command to Osama bin Laden and the writer of the entire 9/11 plot), whose bespectacled talking-head image was only recently spewing venom against America, and who formed the underground al-Jihad to overthrow the Egyptian government; and bin Laden himself, the scion of one of the richest Saudi families, once an energetic hands-on entrepreneur happily married with three wives and many children.

The third element that comes in later, though equally critical, is of the FBI’s counterterrorism chief John O’Neill, the cigar-smoking, tall Yankee with a flair for pressing flesh and network-building.

Bin Laden founded the al-Qaeda in 1988. They were even helped by a James-Bond-like US army officer, Ali Abdellsoud Mohammed, who used the US army’s training manuals to conjure up his own multi-volume terrorist-training guide, which became al-Qaeda’s ‘playbook.’ In 1988 he went to Afghanistan to train al-Qaeda in unconventional warfare techniques including kidnapping, assassination and plane hijacking. Though potentially potent, it was still an Afghanistan-bound, anti-Soviet, largely aimless outfit.

Then the two men met in Afghanistan. Bin laden the patient, Zawahiri, his physician: ‘Each man filled a need in the other. Zawahiri wanted money and contacts, which bin Laden had in abundance. Bin Laden, an idealist given to causes, sought direction; Zawahiri, a seasoned propagandist, supplied it. They were not friends but allies.’

When Zawahiri’s al-Jihad and bin Laden’s al-Qaeda finally came together in 1993, in Tora Bora’s rocky wilderness in Afghanistan, the real, new, improved al-Qaeda was born.

However, it was sometime before the two men could trust each other. And it was American foreign policy decisions that finally made the two fuse their similar hates and point the resultant focussed beam at the World Trade Center towers, the symbol of West’s excesses – the looming towers.

It took excruciatingly careful planning and endless deception to plan the 9/11 attack. O’Neill, who saw the attack coming was like the mythical Cassandra – with powers of prophecy but none to convince others. O’Neill was in one of the towers when the planes hit.

Wright has the full picture, and god-like, he does not judge. He does not make any pointed recriminations at specific American security agencies. He even paints bin Laden and Zawahiri as ordinary and relatable, like the family next door in an American suburb. Showing his New Yorker-pedigree, Wright does not tell; he shows.

‘[W]hen I’m reporting an international story I do my best to strip away the exotic veneer of the place in order to write about my characters in a fashion that is recognizable in any context. Then, once I’ve established their everyday humanity, I can get at the truly exotic dimension of the story,’ explained Wright in an interview to a fellow journalist. He might as well have been talking about The Looming Tower.

No Jingo, No Jargon


The Last Mughal
By William Dalrymple
Viking/Penguin
Pages 608 (with 16pp col and 8pp b/w insert)
Rs 695

William Dalrymple, the celebrated travel writer-turned-historian, author of books like City of Djinns (perhaps one of the finest books ever written on Delhi) and White Mughals (a myth-breaking history of 18th century India’s golden age of multiculturalism), finds many takers when he says Indian historians write to make history arcane and intimidating rather than relevant and approachable.

The Last Mughal, Dalrymple’s much-awaited history of ‘the Uprising’ of 1857 (what we know as the Sepoy Mutiny), seems like a new gauntlet thrown to his Indian counterparts. What makes this account of an emotive and contentious (to say the least) chapter in Indian history unique is that it is based largely on previously unused archival material that he himself discovered. The punch line is that the material is housed in the National Museum, located bang in the middle of Delhi, where it has been ignored by a generation of Indian historians of all affiliations, who tend to write jingoistic and jargon-riddled accounts of the event based on the very point of view they wish to debunk – the British records.

Dalrymple can’t help gloating and rubbing it in. He calls the cache ‘the kind of archive every historian dreams of discovering,’ about which he learnt as he was ‘pottering about the Hyderabad Residency records’ while writing White Mughals.

Among other material, he came across a 500-page catalogue containing ‘one-line descriptions of around 20,000 documents from the Sikh Sepoy accounts, from the Red Fort Chancery, from the Kotwal, from the Thana, and all of Delhi.’ He gleefully adds, ‘It’s the most spectacular account. Just four months, of one city, at the time of complete crisis, just before the whole city is wiped clean.’ Thus began The Last Mughal.

Written in elegant, plain English and paced adroitly like a well-spun airport thriller, in The Last Mughal the world of White Mughals is already drawing to an end, though the apocalyptic events are still far off. By 1852 the interracial bonhomie is replaced by a ‘virtual apartheid’ where children of mixed race have become butts of scorn and amusement, and instances of Indian wives finding mention in their white husbands’ wills have become rarer.

Dalrymple attributes this to the growing British intolerance quickened by the evangelising missionaries, and also to the Civil Service reforms of 1856, which ensured that the outpost-bound recruits were usually in their mid-twenties, and married. This soon began to upset the delicate equation the two races had entered, and even unleashed an expected backlash from the Wahabi elements and the Ulamas.

All of which perhaps created an environment conducive to the spread of rumours such as those about the new Enfield rifles, with their pork- or beef-laced cartridges, being issued to Company sepoys as part of a British conspiracy to wean them off their religions.

Soon, the Meerut sepoys mutinied. After massacring the European population there, they marched to Delhi to ask the Badshah of Hindustan, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to lead them against the firangis.

The Ganges water-drinking Zafar is both incidental and central to the book. In his fall is reflected not just the fall of the city or a dynasty, but a whole way of life. Zafar is, for Dalrymple, the symbol – instigator, product and practitioner-guardian – of a syncretic culture that is still the essence of India.

Ironically, it was Zafar himself who also hastened, or even caused, the fall of Delhi. Always fickle-minded and obsessed with his gardens and poetry, he was quickly coerced into being party to the Uprising after the rebel sepoys gatecrashed into the Red Fort and made themselves at home in the Diwan-e-Khas, helping themselves to fruits from his gardens and supplies from the palace.

Dalrymple brings into play the new archival material that consists of petitions from the ordinary citizens of Delhi, complaining against the lawlessness and highhandedness of the purabiyas or tilangas, as the sepoys were known. The emergent narrative painstakingly recreates the horrors of the four months the besieged city witnessed. The mostly Hindu upper-cast sepoys began a killing spree, butchering every white man, woman and child they could find in Delhi. Equally chilling is the final razing of the city and the large scale, systematic massacre of Indian men (women and children were mercifully spared) by the British forces arriving tardily from Meerut and Simla.

Dalrymple adds to the vividness and immediacy of the narrative by locating the action in places that still exist today, and familiarising the reader with some of the perpetrators. This humanising of evil does show up only part of the complexity of the Uprising. The picture becomes more confusing as the constitution of the different armies becomes clear: One reads about Muslim Pathans, Sikhs and Gurkhas fighting alongside the British against Hindu and Muslim rebels, who in turn had quite a few Englishmen on their side. Kith and kin were pitched against each other: Padre Rotton, who proclaimed the British to be God’s chosen race, had, among many Anglo-Indian cousins fighting for the rebel cause, one who was white but didn’t speak a word of English.

But to show us the larger picture of what happened in other spots of rebellion across India, in those months of mayhem between May and September of 1857, seems hardly to concern Dalrymple. His focus is Delhi, and there are few signs of an awakened political consciousness amongst the rebels there. The British were quick to realise the political dividends of the Uprising, and were quick to kill any heirs of the line of Timur.

Dalrymple succeeds brilliantly in conveying the sense of irreplaceable loss of a nuanced and a self-assured culture – the kind that any civilisation would have been proud to boast of as its zenith. If City of Djinns was Dalrymple’s first proclamation of his love for his mistress, the city of Delhi, in The Last Mughal he has uncovered the hidden sadness, the very secret of her allure.

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A Little Book on Men
By Rahul Roy
Yoda Press
Pages 98
Rs 150

One is not born a woman, one becomes one. Simone De Beauvoir wrote that. Her seminal The Second Sex (1949), which ostensibly tries simply to define a woman, led to bra burning, gender study courses at western universities, vagina-gazing sessions on the BBC, free sex, and perhaps courtrooms full of divorce seekers. Roy advocates that men consider themselves a gender too, to live longer and to keep away from violence by seeing through and side-stepping social conditioning. An innocuous, limp, smug, brown-coloured scrapbook containing doodling and Ideal Boy posters, A Little Book on Men makes an unlikely manifesto for men’s rights, but that’s what it is. The book does more than subvert the comic book form. It aspires quietly, half-seriously, with a when-no-was-looking approach to starting a revolution. Its assertion that men are a gender, much like women, and equal victims and agents in the enveloping meta-narrative of patriarchy, would eventually have to be faced by our fast-becoming-capitalistic society.

The West already has seen a male backlash to feminism, so is Roy’s prescription by chance a pre-emptive, bitter antidote to ludicrous alimony demands? No. This is a saner, studied, if not very accessible, appeal to make men and women realise that men are far more complex and calibrated beings than received notions about masculinity allow them to be.


The Road
By Cormac McCarthy
Picador
Pages 301
Rs 196

McCarthy, easily one of the greatest living American authors, was on Oprah recently, and was appropriately embarrassed by comments like, ‘You look just like your picture at the back of the book.’ ‘Is that a good or a bad thing?’ McCarthy asked, stuttering like a school boy. He turned scarlet and almost choked when asked by the Kerchief Queen if he was passionate about writing. Now ask yourself, ‘Why did Oprah pick up The Road, a book from a serious author whose obsession with violence has produced such works as Blood Meridian, considered by New York Times to be one of the five best books written in the past 25 years?’ The answer is in the book: The inherent and explicit emotionalism of The Road has found resonance with Oprah’s own mushiness. The story of a father and son seeking redemption in a horribly realistically, despairingly well-researched post-apocalyptical America -- cold, ashen, sterile, and zombie-ridden. Minimally written, prophetically imagined, this is McCarthy’s most ordinary work. Sorry Oprah, no fault of yours. The man was asking for it.



Kashmir Pending
Written by Naseer Ahmed
Artwork by Saurabh Singh
Phantomville
Pages 95
Rs 300

Before you read it, flip through Kashmir Pending. Its chiaroscuro images rendered in the unnatural, inverted colours of a nightmare would seem familiar. The images are generic: The stock, repetitive breaking-news footage on 'routine' crises in the Valley. But behind those enervating bioscopic images are real and urgent stories about real people, waiting to be told.
One such is the true story of Mushtaq, a surrendered militant, protagonist of this novel. The big story of Kashmir, caught between two lethally armed nations, usually elbows out the smaller stories of the Kashmiris. In this simmering war the first casualty is nuance. Nuance is brought back in Kashmir Pending by minimal use of text, panels that zoom in on the minute detail and pull back to get the panoramic view, sharp editing, cinematic cuts, and unintuitive colouring -- all of which go into recreating the sinister, turgid, paranoid gloom of the valley. The story flows naturally with deceptive artlessness. It’s a marvellous collaboration between the writer, the illustrator and the visualisers; the only problem is that the story is over in a trice, and ends where it could have begun. Published by Phantomville, run by India’s foremost graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee and his partner Anandiya Roy, who aim to tap the unarticulated narratives and graphic patios of India before western graphic novel publishers flood the Indian market with their fare. Remember David Davidar starting Penguin India in a Green Park barsati?

India At 60
Ed Ira Pande
Harper Collins India and India International Centre, New Delhi
Pages 355
Rs 495

Don’t expect light reading from India’s number one think tank and club, with a members’ roster that reads like a veritable Who’s Who. We imagine that finding contributors of the most-sought-after kind for this state of the nation anthology must have been a cakewalk, and a short one considering Ira Pande herself works at the IIC. No wonder the impressive line up: Mark Tully, Meghnad Desai, Sudhir Kakar, Rachael Dwyer, and Pankaj Mishra among others. Desai gives a racy, unputdownable account of India’s economic ups and downs since 1947. Nehruvian policies began, he reminds us, with Indira Gandhi and ‘not with the man.’ Mishra sadly says nothing new about small towns in his piece on small towns. Indrajit Hazra scores a point with his piece on how and why he heckles in his mother tongue, Bengali, at dinner parties and public functions. Anuradha Roy dishes out a readable stories-behind-food essay, catching with her pet theme the zeitgeist. Nayanjot Lahiri’s archaeological misgivings; Niraja Gopal Jayal’s musings on elections since 1952; Srilata Swaminathan’s take on the marginalised for which she confronts us, the English-speaking, mall-crawling, professionally qualified Indians for the march of millions to the periphery; and Mark Tully on why broadcast can never be business (Mark is still a BBC man at heart, see!) are some of the contributions that enlighten without using academese. Though seemingly extravagantly produced, the contributing photographers, and that too the likes of Raghu Rai and Dayanita Singh, must be up in arms at the quality of their works’ reproduction. Otherwise, a good snapshot of a 60-years young nation, complex and vital.


The Last Bungalow: Writing On Allahabad
By Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Penguin Books India
Pages 331
Rs 395

The Nehrus, the Bachchans, Sangam, Civil Lines, and the Oxford-of-the-East Allahabad University. Beyond these associations, the name ‘Allahabad’ evokes a lost world of the progressive parochial and genteel living. Surprisingly, Allahabad is much written about. Hsiuan Tsang, the 7th century Buddhist pilgrim, witnessed animals bathing, fasting and dying on the banks of the sacred rivers. Saeed Jaffery makes Allahabad read like a small American university town. Harivansh Rai Bachchan gives us a taste of the pre-colonial Allahabad. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s introductory piece joins the dots of the city’s decline. Amarnath Jha’s diary entries make even outsiders regret the loss of what apparently was once a flourishing civilisation. Big names here, like Ved Mehta and Pankaj Mishra, attest to the city’s contribution to India’s cultural and intellectual capital. Sadly, this book is packaged as if the editor and publisher were unsure there would be any takers. Don’t judge it by its cover.

The Way We Are


The Indians: Portrait of a People
By Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar
Penguin India
Pages 226
Rs 395

In the introduction to The Indians, the Kakars posit that “Identity is not a role, or a succession of roles [...] it is not 'fluid'”, and that beyond the age of twenty, ‘the possibilities of [...] changing identities [...] are rather limited and, moreover, rarely touch the deeper layers of the psyche.’

Many commentators have been put off by this rather cut-and-dried definition of identity, on which the celebrated psychoanalyst Sudhir and his German wife Katharina, who has written socio-anthropological works on religiosity, erect the grand edifice of Indian identity.

The Kakars must be feeling content and vindicated considering this almost universal criticism actually proves their general thesis that the Indian identity is loathe to be pinned down easily. The Indian identity, it emerges, is Hindu and fundamentally soft: The individual is subsumed in the group; the body is undifferentiated from Nature; between male and female there are fewer distinctions in the Indian mind than in its Western counterpart.

In fact, in the chapter on religious and spiritual life, the Kakars have a category called the ‘flexible Hindu’, who grabs the temporal and spiritual with each hand -- basically a person who has Moby and Mahamrtyunjaya Mantra cheek by jowl in his or her CD rack.

This cut-and-dried approach is actually what makes The Indian a definitive work. The Kakars view Indian-ness with admirable detachment and the compassion of Brahma. Our inherent sense of pecking order; our internalised caste experience; the surprisingly increasing emphasis on virginity; our visceral aversion to dirt, our Ayurveda-influenced view of our bodies that results in a transactional relationship with the environment, wherein all ailments arise from disharmony between the two -- are all admirably, comprehensively and precisely documented because the authors insist that all elements that go into the “making of the Indian mind are not abstractions to be more or less hazily comprehended during the adult years.” Rather they are “absorbed by the child” early in life.

Naturally, dealing with Indian-ness would require traversing through plenty of clichés about Indians -- the arranged marriages, hyper-religiosity, communal violence, our suspicion of allopathy etc -- and inevitably the dullness and familiarity of the clichés rubs off on the text. So much so that an average Indian reading the book would find most of the stuff so commonplace that its import fails to register on him or her.

Perhaps the book is redundant as far as Indian readers go. But it is very much a part of our constant stream of self-analysis that has resulted in an unrelenting civilisational chatter coming from everywhere, be it chat shows, early morning FM radio, or the Saturday supplements of white and pink broadsheets, where Indians explain themselves to themselves and the outside world -- especially to the West, our abiding frame of reference and our ubiquitous yet absent interlocutor.

Ironic that a definitive book on Indians will be best appreciated by Westerners. For Indians to know what Indian-ness is all about, all they need to do is watch the VCDs of their son’s marriage to his girlfriend, which they had ‘arranged.’

Phallacies of the Empire


An Indian surgeon assumes a white voice to send up the Empire and some of its brown denizens.

Perineum: Nether Parts of the Empire
By Ambrish Satwik
Penguin Books India
Pages 160
Rs 200

The last time serious literature took cognisance, subtly, or shall we say furtively, of the physical aspect of the Empire and its bodily urges, was in J R Ackerley’s 1932 comic-risque classic Hindoo Holiday, where the author, a gay Englishman, goes around stealing kisses from young, dark-skinned male flunkies of his employer-benefactor, a bored pederast maharaja.

Hindoo Holiday does not fit easy descriptions and hence discourages spins that could have made a case of Ackerley being symbolic of the rapacious, sex-obsessed Empire, whose second nature (if we take sex as the first) was to repatriate funds and raw materials back home. Ackerley, anyway no Kipling, could hardly be considered a representative of the Empire. The book ends up showing the limited reach the Empire had into the real India, which was largely left to its own devices.

All this postcolonial studies jargon has reduced the Empire to such abstract, ethereal terms that historians like Niall Ferguson are revisiting the notion of Empire as a force for good. A sense of the incongruity and the unfairness of the Empire, that real flesh and blood men from a different race ruled over India, seems lost to reasonable minds.

Satwik, a New Delhi-based surgeon and an exceptionally skilled writer, makes amends. Perineum, a collection of anecdotes written in a clipped, precise, dated style, catches the agents and the victims of the Empire at their most vulnerable -- with their pants down. And, curiously, or perhaps, naturally, they were not always down for sex.

Satwik is not into prurience. And even if he has written a nerdishly well-researched historical fiction around the British in India from Clive to Wavell, drudgery is the last thing that comes to mind. What we have instead is a surgeon’s take on the genital pathology of the Empire builders and breakers.

Medical jargon transforms the sordid into the recherché as Clive’s infected ‘frigsome foreskin’ (‘The effects of whoredom’) is dealt with and the founder of the British Empire in India is made ‘a Moor’ after a complicated surgical intervention by Dr John Rae, whose ‘principal recreation’ was ‘restoring ye genital parts of ye company curs.’ The account, even half understood, nauseates as much as it regales.

More set-pieces follow to prove the literalness of 'spreading the seed', the bromide used to describe the activities of the soldiers of the Empire, and that scatology of the Empire is key to getting the big picture. Honoria, the wife of the chief commissioner of Oudh, Henry Lawrence complains about his ‘carnal polymathy and strange sequelae of perversions’; a young company officer observes the ‘comely’ young wife administers an enema to her exiled husband Bahadur Shah Zafar in a Rangoon jail; Savarkar, the author of the Hindutva credo, chases conveniently undefined feelings for a frosty compatriot bluestocking-turned-anti-conversion-activist he met in London; George V on his famous Durbar-visit to India, almost fails to attend it, thanks to a twisted testicle and an apparition in his bathroom; a distracted Ambedkar; a vision of Ruttie, M.A. Jinnah’s Parsi wife, rides the dying, hallucinating consumptive founder of Pakistan.

This remarkable first attempt at fiction is impressive not just for the insights into history the author delivers with wit and lip smacking irony, or the assured way he has mastered and manipulated his material to combine his passion for letters and science. One can even quibble with the formulaic nature of too many historical twists and turns effected by sore or over-eager penises.

What makes Perineum a deliriously good read is the teasingly enigmatic persona of the narrator, a brown man assuming an antiquated white voice to send up the Empire. We partake of the cheesiness of this enterprise, along with the shared self-deprecating admission that we Indians are still enthralled by a white voice authoritatively narrating Indian history. We are ashamed and amused at our desire and the need to mimic a civilisation whose victims we claim to be.

We are dealing with a professional here: a surgeon; a polymath, a polyglot who spews jargons, most obscure facts about the most well-known events and people from our colonial past, and alternates between English, Hindustani, and Urdu with baffling ease; someone either too shrewd or intelligent enough to know that when sitting in judgement on history, perching on the fence is not to wimp out but to occupy a vantage point. In short, a horrendously clever penis.

If Satwik could write another book as inventive and as assured, Perineum, one could say at a later date, heralded a major literary find. And if he falls silent like a one-book-wonder, we will still be awe-struck with his capacity to create literature in 160 pages. Despite the fact that we had to lug the Shorter Oxford to make sense of it all.

Getting There


The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers
By Sarnath Banerjee
Penguin Books India
Pages 263
Rs 395

In the West, the graphic novel is an exploding category in publishing. Graphic novels win Pulitzers and figure in the Top-100-Novels lists of influential magazines. They tackle pretty much the same ground as literary novels do, hence they can be complex, difficult, and even simply obtuse like any other New York Times bestseller. Like their picture-less cousins, they are a form that is being defined with every new exemplar.

In India, though the comic form enjoys as much popularity as it does in any culture that has bored, housebound school kids, the graphic novel only emerged recently with Sarnath Banerjee’s charming Corridor. Just over hundred pages long, it is a soulful, witty take on Delhi’s city-town mix, trying to capture “the alienation and fragmented reality of urban life.”

In his second, more ambitious work, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, Banerjee brings Cartaphilus -- the Wandering Jew of the myth, who was cursed by Jesus to roam restlessly around the world till the Second Coming -- to Calcutta. The earliest cosmopolis of the Empire, Calcutta has since long been home to the Armenian diaspora. The Barn Owl conveniently uses one of them as an avatar of the peripatetic Jew: A self-appointed chronicler of the city’s oddballs and their capers, a connoisseur of scandals -- its earliest gossip columnist, who puts it all down in a book called The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers.

Banerjee’s narrative cuts to modern day Kolkata and London, where his alter ego, Pablo, a deracinated, funds-starved, oversexed, long-haired flaneur, juggling non-relationships, a flagging libido, and insatiated Viking Amazons, one day decides that he will go to Calcutta to claim three objects his deceased grandfather had left him in legacy: A pair of Humboldt binoculars, an old Murphy radio, a Norton Pre-War, and the antique book that could fetch a small fortune, the scandalous The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers.

The Barn Owl chugs along from that point as novel of quest, which gives Banerjee an excuse to bring alive Paris, London, and Calcutta in his deceptively casual pen-drawings. The story also traverses time-periods, scouring the armpits of history till it becomes a heady mix like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code -- a potpourri of the occult, history, afternoon sex and other obsessions, and of kooky secret societies.

A compulsive raconteur, Banerjee regales his readers with stories within stories, stories obliquely told, stories that read like exquisitely written shorts and essays. While not contributing much to the plot, they yet add a lot to the graphic novel’s texture and make the form alluringly footloose.

Those who have read some of the celebrated graphic novels -- like Chris Ware’s magnificently drawn exegesis on loneliness, Jimmy Corrigan; Marjane Satrapi’s engaging personal-political memoir, Persepolis; or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, whose sophistication reinfuses Holocaust literature with new poignancy -- are struck by their autobiographical intensity, sustained narratives, depth of characterisation and fearless individuality. Banerjee’s works, though equally nonpareil, choose to be less introspective. His infectious, childlike inquisitiveness about the possibilities of this mix of word and images, is the engine that powers his works. They are not, however, short on something deeper to convey: both Corridor and The Barn Owl could be together read as a meditation on desire and possession. Suffused with the exhilaration of pick-and-choose postmodernism where everything -- even time and space -- coexists simultaneously, Banerjee’s art aspires to be entertaining and cerebral at the same time.

Banerjee’s most abiding contribution to the graphic novel is that so early in the form’s history, he has developed an idiom that is unmistakably Indian, yet world-class. But it will need more than one Sarnath Banerjee to unleash in India a Manga-like tsunami.

05 September 2007

Inside Mr Ideas’ Mind

The full-text of the interview can be read in the Aug-Sep issue of 'M' Magazine, a New Delhi-based men's bimonthly.

If you have read or even flipped through Corridor (Penguin, 2004), India’s first graphic novel, or the more recent, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (Penguin, 2007), you will have to conceded that whether or not you relate to the graphic novel form, there is a prodigiously fertile mind and a keen eye behind these works. The artwork seem to doff its hat in acknowledgement to Western and Indian art histories, yet proud of its own uniqueness. The writing, if at all it can be viewed independently of the images, is informed, witty, urban, contemporary and very hip that unstutteringly spouts references to low, middle, and high culture -- Foucoult, Django Rheinhardt, Roland Barthes, Lalita Pawar, South Ex Barsatis, and Sande Ka tel. Hemant Sareen talked to Sarnath Banerjee in his Chitaranjan Park apartment, in a moving taxi, and in Café Turtle to try to understand the parts that make up this man of ideas and his comix.

M: Curious for someone who gave us India’s first graphic novel you are not happy with the term ‘Graphic Novel’?

Sarnath Banerjee: Rumours. I’m happy with all terms. I just feel that a disproportionate amount of interest has developed in finding the right word. Whether its ‘graphic novel’, or ‘comic book,’ both are forms. Its all under the superset of ‘comics’ There is graphic novel, there is Manga, there are Mexican comics. These are all comics. And in this, graphic novels are a segment which is basically a convention needed by marketing people in publishing houses to classify the comics which have a certain literary ambition.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that graphic novels are the better comics. But there are crap graphic novels and there are brilliant comics which they still prefer to call ‘comics.’ Comics have become such a huge trend in Europe and in America, particularly in America and Britain, markets that were earlier hesitant about mixing visuals and words because they are a little more entrenched in the platonic notion of the hierarchy of the word over visuals, because they were not [sold as] comics there.

A comic is culturally placed better when you call it a graphic novel, particularly for a readership which is not sympathetic to the whole notion of a comic because they think comic is superheores, children literature etc.

M: Or perhaps the word ‘novel’ in graphic novel suggests depth, scope, gravity ...


SB: I personally feel that comics are an entirely different language. You should not pit it against other forms. Also added to the fact is that, comics are also a language that is constantly being made. So anything which anybody writes in comics is extrapolating the language, making the Wren and Martin of the comic thicker, contributing to its idioms, its punctuation, its grammar. Except this language also has image, diagrammatic aspect, into it. Comics have page design and layout. Drama happens in the way it is laid out. Comics have non-linearity so people are constantly working with the narrative. You might have a single party happening somewhere, or a bus ride in London, say Route 36, which is one of my project. In the bus there are ten people taking the late night bus back home. And all these ten ‘inmates’ were in this sort of bordered space which they can’t escape. And in their heads are ten stories. The approach of a novel would be to get from one story to another story. Motee, motee baat is that, in comics you can have all those ten voices happening simultaneously. All you have to do is to lay your page in such a way that a story emerges from Senegal of the man three seats away from you. And the person who is sitting on your right is at that point of time thinking about Bombay, about a missed opportunity. And the Greek guy sitting on your left is thinking of the Mexican girl sitting three seats away who could have been his soul mate if there was a possibility of having a conversation.

M: That’s cinematic. Do you consider cinema as an inspiration in the making of your comics or graphic novels?

SB: No, cinema is durational. Cinema is linear, unless you technically bring non-linearality into it where you are cross cutting each of these aspects which is a style seen in Amores Perros and 21 Grams. You clip an action and put in another action, and then cut in with the first bit of action later on. In comics you can do all the actions simultaneously because the page is sacred, and your eye can more anyway you want it to move. So you have the finest element of a well-made CD-ROM. What we are talking about is a monstrously powerful medium and that its practitioners are merely coping with it.

M: You are a graphic artist and you are a writer. Do you think as a novelist about stories, plots, characters. Are you a novelist?

SB: Consider it like a chemical change. The final product is completely different from the initial chemicals that combined. So in comics words and pictures combine create something that resembles neither.

M: So you don’t think or act separately as a writer and a graphic artist?

SB: I don’t segregate, became if I segregate I disappear. My role disappears. I don’t even consider comics as a hybrid art. I just think it is a fairly pure art. It sounds very grand when I say that we are in the process or business of writing a new language. But that’s what comic book writer everywhere are doing -- creating a new language.

M: Its strange, you made a transition from biochemistry to graphic art. You went to London for an Image and Communication degree. Surely, one suddenly cannot become an artist?

SB: The classic case of middle class protective upbringing. My childhood was very restless because of fairly protective background where everything is provided for. A very normal straight forward Bengali childhood, with a banker father. There were certain prerequisites. That you need to, at a sustained level, do well in exams. That earned you enough points to do a lot of things, including the flaneuring which happened really early.

I was really a great quitter. I would begin things with a lot of passion and though I did not abandon them at a conceptual level, somewhere down the line things would lose steam and I would abandon the practise. For example boxing. I spent two years of my life doing it because my Anglo-Indian boxing coach convinced me that boxing is the game of the mind. So there is this myopic Bengali boy, noodled-armed, flyweight category, boxing purely on the basis of his coach’s reasoning, that since he was good in chess, he would be good in boxing too. I boxed for two months. I don’t remember hitting anybody. My footwork was amazing.

M: He must have been taking the Mickey out of you?

SB: No, he knew I was passionate about boxing. He didn’t want to discourage me. So he concentrated on my foot work. My conceptual framework and my theoretical understanding of boxing were probably the best in Calcutta. Except that I got knocked out in every possible fight by people who had no regard for the notions of boxing being a mind game. And these Nepalese boys were bloody stronger.

M: Did you break your nose?

SB: Somehow it survived. I still have a hooked nose [not a punch-flattened pug nose]. And my morale survived as well. Every time I had these hallucinogenic punches, they brought in clarity and epiphanies. I religiously went every Saturday to eat beef because I was told that Bengali Brahmins don’t win boxing matches because they don’t eat beef. So I had to go to Nizam to eat beef and drink.

There were lots of things I picked up and left, like rock climbing. But what stayed was actually biochemistry. I don’t know how I became obsessed, it probably was reading the discovery of Krebs cycle, or an autobiography of a biochemist fairly early in my life. And I was convinced that I have to do biochemistry. I was probably twelve.

M: You must have had some connection with fine arts?

SB: Again, it’s the whole baggage of growing up in Calcutta. Just as there is this whole grand tradition of the warrior-saint in Punjab, the parallel of that in Bengal was of the doctor-poet. Or the chartered accountant who was also a chess player. Basically, there was this emphasis given on the extracurricular activity. You were free to choose your interest and become good at it. So that, your mother, when you are forty years old, takes your wife from room to room, gently shows the piano and says, ‘Had he not been a lawyer, he would have been such a fabulous pianist.’ Its a very Jewish thing.

M: There is lot of science in your work?

SB: I guess it creeps in. Your expertise whether it’s economics or surgery, it somehow creeps in and out of your consciousness. And I think that makes the writing much more interesting. I am not against, but I am a bit weary of manufactured writing where people go to creative writing schools. The writing becomes similar, it follows a kind of trend. There are certain advantages though. Agents come and pick you up if you are from a writing school. But that whole manufactured writing, is to me a bit un-enriching. Also, comic book is a form that is developed out of many forms – like the Great Dane, you have to put many varieties of dogs together to create the breed – so with my ‘Great Dane,’ I feel that any other field that comes in, enriches it.

M: When did you become aware of the power of the graphic novel. Was it at the degree in Image and Communication you went to London for?

SB: No, no my practise was firmly established before I went for the course. What education abroad did was put the practice into clear perspective, because as part of my Masters in Image and Communication, essentially I had to study the nature of image, the theoretical part of it, so you understand the process of image making, how it communicates, advertising photography, visual trends etc. It is really gearing you up for think tanks or advertising companies which do policy work etc. At the same time, you are familiarising with different tools. So you are basically negotiating through the entire visual world. And that definitely gives you sharper perspective to your visual notion, to your idiom, to your visual language.

And, if done well, gets you closer to that level you are trying to achieve. Basically the whole oral storytelling tradition. Now if all my knowledge helps me to recreate that state, I have reached my destination.

M: Does the image come first or the words?

SB: Together, like the voice of the Lord. It all comes together. I don’t write a script and start drawing it. Or, I don’t make a set of drawings and start filling it with a set of words. It all comes together.

M: When did you seriously start considering graphic novel as your chosen form?


SB: It came out of frustration initially because the popular methods of dispersal of visual ideas – advertising, cinema, television, music videos – all these which I dealt with never really did it. Somewhere down the line dissatisfaction came in because lot of your material is chopped out and funnily those are your best parts that are chopped out. The random parts stay. I hate team work. And all these popular forms of more communication are consensus based. But with comics I felt suddenly that I was liberated. Comics are like handwriting. They are yours. Entirely your personality comes out in a comic. As you get more and more confident, it becomes more and more individual. And hopefully the other person [the reader] understands how individual it has become.

Each time I went and worked with a channel, working as an editor or a promo designer, these are the jobs I did, I did not try to make it beyond the brief. I was not having an artistic dissatisfaction. The World Bank gave me film to do on watershed management. I knew they wanted these mug shots. I just gave them their mug shots. I kept all my bizarre thoughts and weird ideas, independent trajectories, for my comic books.

The more I got into comics I started, the more distanced I felt from my day job. Graphic novel or comics is a very high maintenance mistress. It’s a low-lying Italian car. It is a lot like your father had a Fiat, you know he would be spending they weekend at the neighbourhood garage. Comics are like that. they require the attention of a Bonsai. You constantly need to be feeding it, nurturing it. And then you start enjoying its so much, that other things become so meaningless, that despite knowing that it might become a financial disaster, you just can't get back to those forms. So I can't go back to making films. Both Barn Owl and Corridor were scoped for cinema and in none of the contractual agreements I have anything to do with directorial decisions.

M: When did Corridor, as a book with two covers and pages in between, form in your mind?

SB: I did a strip for Gentleman called ‘Harrappa Files,’ little, thrown away stories. It was moderately successful. It came out nicely. Then I got this MacArthur Fellowship which is like the mother of all fellowships. It's like hard core. We are talking about serious money. And I got it. I was lucky I got it when I was twenty-seven. And that sealed my fate. I could not work any more. That totally spoilt me. My proposal was about understanding the urban, contemporary sexual landscape of India. It sounded a bit like an anthropology research project, but it got naughty. But those were like innocent days and people were kind. And [people at the foundation] apparently liked the naughtiness of it. So I started by researching Old Delhi. At that time I was very friendly with a group of wrestlers in Old Delhi, and I used to hang around with them. I had promised them that someday I was going to manage their Akhara. So they became good friends. They had all these discussions about their sexuality, wearing the langot, women, homosexuality, and the rest of it. I got a fairly good idea about a certain bunch of people's concepts of sex which were very different from mine. And then I also got to know people who shaped those concepts who were like the false prophets of Old Delhi. They are must an amazing bunch of charismatic people whom I love completely. And then I started visiting them one after another as a researcher. Deriving a lot of pleasure. Except that they would not open beyond a point. They are also very media savvy because lots of creative people have made films on masculinity approached them. So, I decided to become a client, I decided to choose a sexual weakness, and I went for ‘premature ejaculation’ because it sounded little less painful.

I told them I get a boner but the boner is a bit like a nazam, very short and I want a ghazal. I don't want a haiku. They liked my use of language and sort of took me under their wings and tried to correct me. So after a while it became addictive to a point where I just went from one hakim to another discovering new problems. And I used to pay them because MacArthur had given me so much money that I didn't know what to do with it. So I spent the money on these guys. And they became great friends, except that since I have written the book I can't visit them. I just can't. And what came out was Corridor.

M: You seem to take on kitsch and parody provinciality and small-town mentality.

SB: I parody very lovingly. I have been accused on various occasions of having a hidden sexist agenda, being gender insensitive, insensitive to minorities, like the Parsis. There is a fat book, that came out of Hyderabad's Centre for Language Research, which has theorised my work. It was based on a couple of students’ PhD work. Very complimentary. But I don't do anything unlovingly. The biggest of the luchchas and lafangas in my book are seen through with a lot of love. And it’s a voice from the crowd. Its me sitting in a crowded bus and I start talking about the crowd in the bus. I write very much from the inside, which is why I always had difficulty penetrating into the Anglo-Saxon market, I don't have that problem with the European market. I don't see the outsider's point of view. My works are written from the inside.

M: What about your visuals?

SB: I don't mock the Ideal-Boy graphics. I love it. I want to use it. I am not doing it because suddenly is fashionable to use kitsch. For me this is not kitsch. This is low cultures which I come from.

M: You never use it ironically?

SB: No, there is no irony in my fondness for these styles which I developed from the streets. The Kalighat style which has now become very fashionable. When it came out, it was just a popular yellow plebeian style of drawing. I don't believe in that kind of thing where just because suddenly some French guy thinks it is cool, we too start thinking it cool. It is very much us, like the detective plays on radio Calcutta ‘A’ which like Calcutta ‘One’ plays, or the advertisements of Phenyl X, Hammer Brand, or constipation tablets, or handmade ointments, people have enormous amount of enterprise selling on local trains. This is me, and these are my people.

M: Is this something about being a Bengali? You are very erudite and street smart and have this ability to mix the low with the high.

SB: Pull down the high to the low [laughs].

M: I am thinking of Satyajit Ray. Mixing low with high is very much Ray's art too. You use your roots in a considered way.

SB: Being chunt about your practise is important. I don't know if it's Bengali or contemporary art practise. The whole concept of a silent sculptor working in Anandagram who doesn't speak to anybody, is a bit '80s sort of a thing. You need to articulate your work. You need to push it. Because there are less people to push your work than were there before. There was an era of sycophancy. Earlier, there was an era of hero worshipping. There was an era of having cult heroes in the '60s political culture. Now people are much more, I don't like the word cynical, but more critical.

Two kinds of people network. One that thinks that by virtue of their networking the work will be up there. And they know their work is mediocre or they have the notion that it might not be up to the mark. But virtue of just elbowing their way into the cultural scene, they can somehow put it up. The other bunch of people clearly think that their work is so good that it has to go somewhere. It has to be published, it has to be seen, has to reach people. I am neither. I have solid amount of self doubt about what I produce. Somewhere down the line, I am quite driven to bring graphic novels in so that impels me to push books -- Phantomville books, and my own graphic novels.

Networking itself has because a skill. You have to be charming. You have to wait. You can't just be too front about it and barge in and say, 'Give the money'. People won't. You have to tell them, ‘You rascal, you are sitting on so much money, why the hell can't you give me some.’


M: Calcutta has become a character in the books.

SB: But in the next two books Delhi and Budapest become the characters. I am fascinated by Delhi. It is my favourite city. It makes me creative in every aspect. It’s a very under-articulated city, people don't necessarily write about Delhi, when Delhi really has a narrative lying beneath the obvious unfriendly autowallahs who are constantly trying to rip you off. Or the North Indians, an entire civilisation found on the elbow. Or alternately, these boisterously rich kids driving huge cars and partying. Beneath these obvious things, lies an exceedingly mysterious city.

M: But Delhi is too normal for your kind of work?

SB: No, not at all. Delhi has clarity. Delhi has enormous mood swings. With the change of seasons, the personality of the city changes. Look at the beauty of a winter in Delhi. Look at the edginess of a May in Delhi and the people going a bit wonky at that time. It houses all the important writers also. So, obviously, there must be some season why people line in Delhi. I need to explore this city a lot more.

Not in a romantic sort of way. Lot of dirt also excites me. Attitudinal dirt. Calcutta might have been featured much more in my books than Delhi is, but clearly, I am fascinated by Delhi.

M: You are also fascinated by the paranormal? Did you personally experience it?

SB: Paranormal? [Laughs]. Of things going slightly tilted? Slight change of reality. Many times. Two are written in the book. The lift episode and what happened in Digital [Dutta's] room that suddenly [he feels some one else's presence in the room, and finds his own image in the mirror transformed], happened to my wife and I. We had rented a little apartment in Vienna which belonged to an old Viennese guy who had died at eighty. He used to manage the stables the stables of the king of Eritrea in Ethiopia. The house was full of pictures of horses. Once, I was sleeping and I had this dream. In my dream I am snoring and my wife is getting disturbed and can't sleep. So she takes a pillow and suffocates me. And then I die. She then turns around and goes off to sleep. This happened every hour that she would strangle me, I would die again. It was a very weired dream. The night after, I was lying on my side and wanted to turn. I could not turn. And then I realised that I was passeena, passeena with fear that if I turn I will still have my wife lying next to me, except that her face would be the dead flat owner's face. That feeling stayed for the entire night till day break. Things really happened to me or to my mind.

M: Your next book you said would be about Hungry, Budapest and involves researching a family-owned pornography production house. Will you be taking your pencils and sketching pad with you there.

SB: Yeah, it’s a family-owned, Hungarian pornography production house. They make films and photo comics... and pornography. I am actually not doing it like the well-known graphic novelist Joe Sacco, introducing myself as a character in my own book. Although I am greatly interested in pornography, this project does not come from pornography. It comes from how small, family-run businesses operate. At least one of them I know in Budapest. The father does the direction and production, mother does the costumes and the sets, sons do the cinematography, and the daughters act.

I just found it so fascinating. One of my characters from the operas I am writing, which is why I am travelling to Germany, and is technically any third project. I am writing 21 short operas called 'Bachelor of 21 Dreams' in which one of characters called 'Monty of Unfinished Screenplays' what he does is write these little brochures in comic-book form and introduce them into condom packs so that the client has a more enjoyable sexual experience.

So, I want to look at the actual business side of pornography, doing something like this, for years and years. On the other hand I am doing this thing about indigenous, hand-crafted, cottage industry kind of thing about pornography. Also, I intend to capture the fantasy aspect of pornography, the East-European sensibility, the avant-garde-ness of this boring and staid world of pornography, the good old in and out.

My Hungarian editor has got me into a situation where I can get in to this porn production house as a person from the industry. But somewhat like a migrant guy who is looking for a job.

M: Like in the film The Guru?

SB: Yeah, more like a chottu of the area, but undercover. Otherwise if they know what I am doing, they won't allow me in. So this is a guerilla tactic to get inside the story. But I am on a grant, so that takes care of my expenses.

The reason I got interested into pornography was that I stayed for a while in the red district of Amsterdam. And the same guys who I would see in the evening in their glass boxes [where the sex workers stand displaying their stuff and soliciting], bought food and alcohol from the same supermarket where I went. So over a period of time, I got to know some of these people. And we got to know each other to a degree where we would occasionally go and smoke a joint in a café. They were really charming. They would ask me, 'How come we never had you as a client? You seem to be fun.’

So I also got bold and asked them what happened when the curtains are drawn, you know how it is. And they would say that, 'Yeah, lot of time we act out our clients fantasies.’ They would be very matter-of-fact about it. So it got me really interested in the whole world of pornography, how the industry worked. The sex industry really has a finger on the pulse of the society. Just like detectives stories are a great way to talk about contemporary society, I think pornography too gives us insights into the society.

The book again would pick two parallel styles. One style would be of these fantasy sequences of sex, and the other would be on the business of sex, simultaneously dealing with the business of pornography.So I want to keep it as much as possible about 'bare the truth' and it might become a literary fashion to take fiction and fact together.

M: There is a lot of sex in your books? Indian writers in English are not really known for writing about sex. One of them won the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. How would you rate your sex?

SB: There is a lot of sex in my book? (Slightly incredulous). Lot of people think that my books are autobiographical. I am not as athletic as my characters are.

M: There is no romance in your sex, it’s very mechanical.

SB: I try to take the myth out of sex. So, there is no seductiveness. It is very practical sex. There is a something about inherently erotic when you are progressing towards a hotel room with a girl. I just don't like to unnecessarily make sex ornamental, that whole candlelight, aromas, silk upholstery thing.

M: Your drawings are some of the roughest when the deal with sex. You can see pencil marks under your inking?

SB: Yeah, they are quickly jotted down. I just don't like too much of unnecessary poetry of sex.

M: There you ever considered erotica?

SB: I hate erotica. I like pornography. Erotica is a... I don't understand erotica. It sounds like a retired judge living in the South of France.

M: Something like the Kamasutra?

SB: There have been offers. But I am not interested. I like normal sex situations which arise from day to day living. For example you got this woman you want to have sex with. You negotiate that at some point you would have to wear a condom. You have this moment of doubt, how to get into that position and do this elaborate drama of saying, 'Oh I might have used one years back. I don't know where it is.’ Except, that when after doing this play of being a goody boy you find you have gone limp. You can't get it up for the rest of the night. I like realistic sex situations. I keep sex real.

And I write as much about people getting laid as I write of people not getting laid. I write about people with whom everything is going fine but like with the Indian hockey team who have great stick work, dibbling skills, centre, midfield, and defensive play but can't convert a penalty into a goal. So I like real situations. The Kamasutra is too bloody exotic for me. Even to have a re-look at it is something which I think is best left to Californian tantric sex experts. I have never read it.

M: Never say never. Your characters seem over-sexed.

SB: [Protests] Under-sexed!

M: Also, the sex is too casual. Like the guy who beds the woman footballer.

SB: When I was in college, I had the opportunity to coach a women’s football team for three weeks. After that I was given the kick, I was demoted to a treasurer. All sweat and grind, their t-shirts clinging to their bodies in the summer afternoon’s heat. The slapping of thighs against thighs and the ‘thuds’ of football hitting against the flesh, and these lovely footballers who looked like houris, was all very heady.

I got into the football team because of an illicit relationship with a centreforwad and I was kicked out of the team because of my affair with the midfielder. So between the centreforward and the midfielder there was this range of positions which I wanted to seduce but couldn't. That's when I developed a very thick and lasting, strong interest in women’s football. And clearly this one fantasy of mine, which I put in the book.

M: No wonder, you end up making your characters over-sexed?

SB: Not over-sexed, that means you get disinterested. Can't you see this is all the result of years and years of repression. Of not getting enough.

M: So sex in your books is like a public service. You seem to be doing it for this repressed republic of India?

SB: Yes, for me and my people, we are all under-sexed.

M: Your comics are very literary, in a sense that you linger on detail, you try to create illusion of depth, the inner world. Sometimes in two consecutive frames nothing happens. That’s like Satyajit Ray, another literary artist, making Charulata stand with her back to the camera, thinking, for 40 seconds.

SB: I can't deny literature. It is a bit like the butcher's cut. You take the meat and you cut it a certain way and that decides the price of the meat. In a good butcher's shop, how the butcher cuts the meat is primary, in every meat-eating society. It’s also the same in our society when you tell a story, its basically your cut. How you put it and where you put the silences. Italian cooking is not so much about cooking but getting the right ingredients. And then you create the right kind of dishes, stories.

Literary references I can't deny, because I am a product of the literature I have read, along with many other things I have done. I am a product of films I have seen, rejections I have faced, football games I lost, every punch in that boxing ring bears heavy on me. So you are a culmination of stories and narratives. Unfortunately, the only narrative we know or think of are films and literature. In between there is clearly another. I am a product of my stories. You are a product of your stories.

M: Your comics are full of eccentrics. People with strange habits, obsessions.

SB: But the main characters are regular guys. Pablo is a regular guy. He is an observer.

M: But do you see yourself going for more subtler characterisation?

SB: Yeah, a friend of mind was telling me, ‘Why you build your novels on edifices. Like one edifice to another edifice. Do you think you are Scorcesse?’ You are right. This is clearly a weakness. But, it is what I feel is worthwhile drawing, because it is not just writing. You can write and write, but when you are drawing, there is obviously another layer of work around. There are short pieces where I start talking about Old Delhi in Corridors. I am flanuering around the city. That’s my kind of graphic-novel writing, but yes they are very colourful characters. But these are also people who are vanishing. I am obsessed with people who are vanishing.

M: There is a lot of nostalgia.

SB: No, no, no, there's no nostalgia.

M: Nostalgia of a collector, you want to preserve a vanishing milieu.

SB: Yes, but I am not into that woody Allen kind of life-was-nicer, people-were-more-courteous kind of nostalgia. I am not saying we should go back. But there were some very charming characters of my childhood. Like the telephone sanitisers, young graduates from Calcutta University, who used to come to clean the phone, put a little eucalyptus flavour into the mouthpiece, and leave. That was the entire job. Or Ansari Uncle, who did all this hand-cranked, home-made air-conditioning for the entire 16-floor building of a bank where my fther worked. But then all these Voltas and Carrier people came. So these characters are vanishing very fast. And I feel three years down the line my books would be my little contribution to documenting this vanishing tribe. A proof that I knew people like these and record their indigenous skills. I really want to celebrate their existence. But that does not mean I am disinterested in the contemporary scene and the mythologies that contemporary India breeds.

M: Something about your publishing venture, Phantomville. What direction would you like it to take?

SB: Phantomville, I started it with Anindya Roy, and initially we were not trying to do it ourselves. We didn't want to be publishers, we just wanted to be the producers. Facilitate artists so that comics become popular. But publishers have to work under their profit motives. Everyone is not excited about reading comics. It doesn't make them enough money. So we decided to create our own medium. We are trying to create in India our own idiom, our own visual style. Four years from now, when it becomes like cool to do a comic, suddenly we will be flooded by comics from Europe and America. We are not making any profits, but we are not a charity. We want to make a profit. So we are putting in everything. It's like venture capitalism. Now we have two books out. Inshallah in about four or five years we would have many more.

M: Have observed any increased interest in comics recently?

SB: Growing, but not in proportion to other things. Consumer market is growing. It will largely also legend on the growth of book reading. Largely the money is spent on consumer goods. There is money being spent on mobiles, Land Rovers, luxury goods, but that kind of money is not being spent on buying books.