& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, August 29, 2011


Aatish Taseer’s Noon is a remarkable novel because of an absence of linear narrative and also because of its sparseness.
It’s unsettling because it doesn’t offer any closures.
Despite its experimental form, it’s a great read and effortlessly involves the reader in the lives of its characters.
I continued to wonder what could've happened to Kalyan in India and Mirwaiz in Pakistan - the two characters most exploited by circumstances and people they serve.
Rehan Tabassum is a young man whose mother is an Indian and father a Pakistani. He has lived with his mother as a child, grown up in the US and returns to both India and Pakistan as an outsider.
Anyone even remotely aware of the lives of the rich and famous in the subcontinent will immediately recognise several familiar characters – some of them seem to have been derived from the novelist’s life.
However, Taseer is able to transcend the personal (and the prurient), and take on a persona of an observer to describe the life of the sub-continental rich and those who serve them.
There is evocative poignancy in the manner in which Taseer portrays the relationship between those who serve and their masters – it’s a relationship of servility and subservience on the one hand, and cunning connivance and concealment on the other.  
In Notes from a Burglary Taseer depicts the grime beneath the flashy success of an India that has turned into an economic powerhouse, putting more wealth in the hands of the already wealthy, and their disdain for the underprivileged.
Concomitantly, the chapter also narrates the utter incomprehension of the lives and values of the rich by the poor who share their space.
The following description of Rehan's mother's reaction to her stolen jewellery is masterly: 
“Her pain at what had been lost became keener when she considered that the great part of her jewellery’s value lay in the people who had made it, jewellers such as Bulgari and Cartier. But this aspect of their value had no importance in India and would have meant nothing to the people who stole it. In fact it was fair to say that only a handful of jewellers in the entire country were capable of assessing the jewellery’s value in these terms. And it was not to these places that the thieves would go. Where they would go, the jewellery would be broken up like scrap metal into gold and precious stones and sold piecemeal. And in this form, now with irony spread evenly among victims and culprits, it was not really worth much. My mother could not manage a smile at the philosophical implications of this: the special pain of losing the things into which we breathe hidden value; and India, ever prepared to cut down to size anyone clinging to alien refinements.”
The elaborate charade of investigation conducted by the local police and its casual, random violence on the farmhouse’s staff is riveting as is the relationship that Rehan has with Kalyan – a relationship that is transactional, based on dependency on both side, and yet one in which the master, who appreciates the servant’s deft culinary skills, doesn’t care too much when the police want to give him the “third degree.”
Rehan, the eternal outsider, leave India when the goings-on become unbearably intolerable.
When he goes to Pakistan, his alienation is more acute not merely because of his strained relationship with his father, but also because his inability to understand the deeper nuances that defines relations in a feudal society.
He seeks solace in the meaningless and the mundane.
In Port bin Qasim: An Idyll Taseer captures the true essence of Pakistan’s existential dilemma in a conversation Rehan has with his brother Isffy (“a brother from yet another mother).
“…Everyone has some high idea or the other about what the country was founded for, but it’s always something completely divorced from the reality of the place, something we have to be and are not.’
‘Isn’t every place like that?’
‘No. In other places, what you have on the ground becomes the foundation of your aspirations. Here, it’s the other way round. There’s always something abstract that needs to be imposed on the existing reality. And it fucks up everyone’s moral compass. Because if you’re always setting out to be something you’re not, and are never going to be, if you’re always chasing some Utopia or the other, after a while you get fed up and stop bothering even to be what everyone is, which is human; your most basic morality starts to erode. And, Rehan, you know what they’re about, these unobtainable Utopias?’
‘They’re an excuse for retreat, for more nihilism and futility. Rumi says – though it could just as well be our founder speaking: “That which is not to be found is what I desire.” So what do I do instead? I build high walls and retreat with them, I occupy myself with futility.”
Although always in the background, Begam Akhtar is the only constant for Rehan both in India and in Pakistan.
Noon is an immensely readable and an interesting novel.
Literature Live Mumbai had organised a reading and a discussion with Taseer in Bombay recently at Olive, a restaurant inside a former horse stable at the Racecourse. The event – expectedly – was attended by the who’s who of Bombay.
There was an unusually large component of young women at the reading. I was later enlightened by a friend: They were all there primarily to oogle at the handsome author.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Independence Day musings

It requires some distance and a fairly long separation for one to realise the significance and the importance of a milieu.

I’m in India on August 15 (India’s Independence Day) after a three years

And it feels good!

August 15 is when India remembers Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, khadi 
The following are some impressions of the day.
  • The early morning speech by the Prime Minister from Delhi’s Red Fort (no prime minister has ever equalled Indira Gandhi’s soul stirring Jai Hind!)
  • Doordarshan remains firm in the depiction of the official version of Indian nationhood. I find it exasperatingly irrelevant, especially now, when India has the confidence to straddle the global stage (although AR Rehman singing Vande Matram is guaranteed to give gooseflesh, always; and the full version of the national anthem, shown for the first time, is interesting only because of the stanzas are sung by stalwarts) 
  • The Times of India has its annual review of the Indian nation on the editorial page (Patrick French today), and glowing tributes to Shammi Kapoor, the legendary actor who passed away yesterday; sadly none of these mentions his Govinda Ala Re (from Bluff Master, I think) which is a quintessential Bombay song, shot in the city’s chawls)
  • A listless parade and flag hoisting by the young merchant navy cadets of the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) outside my window. The cooperative where I live used to hold a flag hoisting till some year ago; it’s been abandoned, I guess
  • Patriotic songs wafting in from a Sarvajanik Satyanarayan Mahapuja pandal (a pandal is a makeshift platform) in a slum nearby (heard Jai Jai Maharashtra Maazaa! after a long time; to me, a Maharashtrain is a combination of Shivaji Maharaj and Sant Dnyaneshwar)
  • The Satyanarayan Mahapuja could well be Bombay’s second most popular all-inclusive publicly observed religious festival. The first is – without question – the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav (unfortunately, I’ll be back in Toronto by the time that festival begins)
  • Independence Day is also when the truly secular and multicultural ethos of the Indian nation really sinks in. A woman in a black burqa is as much a part of the urban landscape as a man with his forehead pasted with sandalwood and a large red tilak (religious mark) – both impatiently awaiting their turn at the ticket window at Ghatkopar station along with some 500 other Indians; I’m awaiting my turn, too. India teaches patience
In the evening I attended a book launch event in Thane.
Sharada Sathe is an activist with a lifetime of work for the underprivileged and the underrepresented millions in India. She has translated Ramchandra Guha’s India After Gandhi into Marathi

The large hall in Thane is overflowing with people. Guha is present and so are filmmakers Amol Palekar and Ashutosh Gowarikar.
Kumar Ketkar, free spirit advocate and intellectual, is the master of ceremonies, sets the tone for the evening by speaking in English and Marathi.

In his introductory remarks makes a telling point that India is both a democracy and a republic, which has a few parallels.  
Sharada Sathe, the book’s translator, believe the present seemingly terminal decay in the Indian society is perhaps because her generation preferred to follow instructions instead of asking questions

Amol Palekar, actor and filmmaker, is an erudite speaker in both English and Marathi.
He asks why only theatre and cinema are pre-censored in India. But clarifies that once the censors clear a film for release nobody has any right to prevent or disrupt it.

Palekar quotes Ambedkar (from the book) who had said that extra-constitutional measures such as satyagrah, used effectively against the British, should have no place in a newly independent republic.
Ashutosh Gowarikar, filmmaker, take a quick poll of the audience – is media in India good or bad. Nobody raises their hand to say it’s good; many do to say it’s bad.

Gowarikar observes that 1992 shattered the belief of the post-independence era generation that the excesses of the Partition wouldn’t be repeated in independent India.
But clearly, the evening belonged to Ramchandra Guha – who called himself a Nehruvian Indian; which, he said, meant a confused Indian. The Nehruvian Indian believes he can belong to any part of India, but his enemies are convinced that he doesn’t belong to India.

Paying fulsome tributes to the Maharashtraian intellectual traditions, Guha said a meeting such as this one wasn’t possible anywhere except in Maharashtra, where a social activist, two filmmakers, an urban planner and a journalist along with an historian are releasing a book.  
He said while he had lived and worked in all parts of India, somehow, he hadn’t in western India. However, his three passions – cricket, Hindustani classical music and history – were intricately linked with western India.

Guha observed that every visit to Maharashtra is a triple pilgrimage for him because of “Tendulkar, Tendulkar and Tendulkar – cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, playwright Vijay Tendulkar and the Mahatma’s biographer DG Tendulkar.”
An enthralling evening, where I briefly met a couple of friends from my journalism days.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

India: A Portrait

India: A Portrait
Patrick French’s book on India (India: A Portrait – AnIntimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People) is a mixture of racy history, stories about jugaad (innovative approach at fixing intractable problems) and stories about the bizarre.

It’s a welcome addition to understanding India at a time when understanding India is becoming imperative.  As French said during a  panel discussion about his book organised by Literature Live!, in the week US was downgraded, India was upgraded.
In the last decade or so – since Sunil Khilnani’s Idea of India was published, there has been a surfeit of books on India, some by historians and some by western journalists.

These books are meant for the western reader who can't quite figure out the India as perceived from media headlines. Increasingly, as Kumar Ketkar pointed out to me, these books are also for Indians whose exposure to India is through English language.
All these book seem enthralled by the amazing turnaround of this once famine ravaged, poor nation into an economic powerhouse.
For many years, as it floundered economically, India’s only redeeming feature was its surprising success in democracy and electoral politics – something that no other postcolonial, newly-independent nation quite managed.

French’s book traverses all the known terrain and even does excellent primary research in unravelling the extent of nepotism in politics – with truly insightful results.
Although I don’t quite get the point of this Hereditary Members of Parliament (HMP) exercise – isn’t everything in India is nepotistic? And, Anil Dharker made a pertinent point that the second or third generation dynastic politician wouldn’t be corrupt.

Some of these and many other issues were discussed at the panel discussion at Bombay’s Prithvi Theatre earlier this week. The discussion was scintillating.
Besides French, Kumar Ketkar, public intellectual; Shabana Azmi, activist and actor; Aditya Sinha, journalist; and Anil Dharkar, former editor; participated in an engaging debate that touched upon several aspects of French’s intimate biography of 1.2 billion people, as well as some that aren’t part of the book.

On a vacation in Bombay, I'm able to do a few things (such as attend a book discussion) that I could only dream of doing when I lived here.
About “Literature Live!, The Mumbai Lit fest. The Festival was launched in November 2010. The response from Mumbaikars during the three-day fest was truly enthusiastic and it was clear from the level of audience participation that Literature Live! was answering a long-felt need.”

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Rummaging my book shelf

Homecoming means different things to different people and different things at different times to the same person.  To me, homecoming is to return to the sights, smells, sounds of my city – soaking in the particular and the peculiar.

Transformation is inherent to a city and this is especially true for Bombay.
When I was here, I seldom noticed the changes in my city. It had changed every day – stealthy, imperceptibly, and when the change was obtrusive, as it can be quite often, I adjusted uncomplaining.  It continued to change after I left.
Upon my return three years later, it’s only the change that I notice. And it's overwhelming. The sights, smells and the sounds are quite unbearable.

Bombay is in throes of a physical transformation, and its infrastructural monuments are certainly impressive – the new skyscrapers that dot the skyline and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link are – well, quite frankly – awesome.

But it is all at soul-searing cost – millions are deprived of a dignified life and millions eschew dignity and decency to get just a few steps ahead.
I’m sure it’s not as bad as I’m making it sound, and it couldn’t have been much different when I was here.  What is undeniable is that the cost of living is exorbitant, and commuting a chaotic nightmare. 

The only redemption is rains – sometimes torrential, incessant, often scanty - a mere “passing shower,” but always unpredictable, always exhilarating.
I’ve preferred to stay at home, re-working my novel. My body clock has refused to adjust – I lay awake in the middle of the night, and want to sleep during the day. It’s my body’s revenge on my mind.

And my mind finds solace in books.
My books are a good reason to return home. I couldn’t take them when I moved to Canada because I couldn’t afford to – my family’s needs were a priority.

I take a few out – the unread ones. I have a large collection of unread books that I bought with the noble intention of reading, but never did get around to doing so.
Rajni Kothari’s Memoirs Uneasy is the Life of the Mind, for instance.  I read about a dozen pages and marvel at the complexities of his ideas and the lucidity of his style.

I also take out a few books that I’ve loved and re-read several times, not in full, but a few key passages. These books, those passages have stayed with me.
I read A Tale of Two Villages from M. J. Akbar’s RiotAfter Riot. The report that was first published in Sunday magazine and combines reporting on a riot in Sarhupur with passages of Munshi Premchand’s Sadgati, made into a memorable film by Satyajit Ray.

The riots in Sarhupur and the film’s release happened almost simultaneously.
Akbar observes, “Both the villages belong to that world which Mahatma Gandhi described to his dead countrymen as the ‘real India’; in both the stories, the object of torture and death were the people the Mahatma had christened ‘The Children of God’: Harijan. Premchand, Satyajit Ray, Sarhupur: art and life were a mirror to each other; time and pious resolutions had changed nothing; the real India still lived out its awful realities.”

These days the term “taking it to a new level,” is used rather recklessly. A Tale of Two Villages took Indian journalism to an altogether new level.  
A new dawn is trying to pierce the sky. But the overcast sky doesn’t let the sun look at the earth. Suddenly, the birds come alive – it’s nature’s munificence to the tropics.

For me, it’s time to go to sleep.