& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A few books

During the last couple of months, I’ve liked these books.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Karvitz: Mordecai Richler

Duddy is a young Jew in Montreal – not yet of a legal age to enter into contracts. He is mean, arrogant, determined and without any scruples. An entrepreneur, he is always networking and turning chance meetings into opportunities, and using everyone to push ahead to fulfill his dream of buying land near a lake, because “a man without land is nothing.”

Mordecai Richler’s story of Duddy Kravitz – published in 1959 – has achieved iconic status in the world of books. Surprisingly, several books (fiction and non-fiction) published that year have gone on to attain similar iconic status. The fiction list includes The Tin Drum by G√ľnter Grass; Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D Day by Cornelius Ryan; The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe.

Malcolm Bradbury published his first novel Eating People is Wrong and Jack Kerouac had a particularly productive year with two books (Dr. Sax, and Maggie Cassidy) and a collection of poems (Mexico City Blues).

The non-fiction list includes The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson; The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer;  and The Second World War by Winston S. Churchill.

However, few, if any, books published in that year would be relevant today thematically or stylistically. Duddu Karvitz does, and that is the importance of Richler.

Pressure to Sing: Brandon Pitts

Brandon is a young poet who published his novel a month or so before this poetry collection. And as with his fiction, religion is a significant part of his poetry, too. Many poems in the collection are exquisite, and this one is my favourite:

Living Will

Marksman aims but cannot hit
The inept stumbles upon the gold mine
The dead are revived through television
Vitality given to the couch
            A living will, turn off the coma
The karmic debtors are now rich
She was once young and beautiful
He was once old and fat.

Translating Partition: Editors Ravikant & Tarun K. Saint

This volume of short stories and critical commentaries on Partition literature would be an admirable companion to Stories about the Partition of India (editor: Alok Bhalla). This volume has Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s Pandit Manto’s first letter to Pandit Nehru. Both Manto and Nehru were Kashmiris, and Manto wrote the letter in 1954 and it ends thus:

“You know there was a poet in our Kashmir, Ghani, who was well known as “Ghani Kashmiri.” A poet from Iran had come to visit him. The doors of his house were always open. He used to say, “What is there in my house that I should keep the doors locked? Well, I keep the doors closed when I am inside the house because I am its only asset.” The poet from Iran left his poetry notebook in the vacant house. One couplet in that notebook was incomplete. He had composed the second line, but could not do the first one. The second line ran this: “The smell of kebab is wafting from your clothes.” When the Iranian poet returned and looked in his notebook, he found the first line written there, “Has the hand of a blighted soul touched your daman?

Panditji, I am also a blighted soul. I’ve taken issue with you, because I am dedicating this book to you.”

                                                                - Sa'adat Hasan Manto

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Evening of live painting with music & poetry

I got to know AliAdil Khan quite by accident. He was the curator of Picture House: The Art of Bollywood – an exhibition along with Asma Arshad Mahmood last year.

Adil runs the SouthAsian Gallery of Art in Oakville.

Recently, over a bowl of Aash Reshteh soup at a Persian restaurant in downtown Toronto, we discussed many things of mutual interest - from Mahatma Gandhi  to MF Husain, and Hindi movie posters to contemporary art in the subcontinent and rising religious fundamentalism.

Last week, he organised An evening of live painting with music and poetry – one of the finest cultural events I've ever attended in Canada.

Anwar Khurshid (playing the sitar) and Shahid Rassam (painting)
Both interpreted in their own media a poem on environment by Afsfaq Hussain 
It was an exquisite jugalbandi of sitar by Anwar Khurshid and painting by Shahid RassamAshfaq Hussain's poem set the tone for a truly memorable evening.

It revived memories of M. F. Hussain's similar experiment with Ustad Zakir Husain and Ustad Allah Rakah (tabla), and Ustad Sultan Khan (saarangi) during a cultural festival on Calicut Beach in December 1994. 

Congratulations Adil!

Being Different

John Kenneth Galbraith (who was an Ontarian by birth) called India a functioning anarchyA characterisation had seemed apt when first coined – and now half a century later.  

To the Western eye, and increasingly even to many Indians (especially those who live in the West), India’s chaos is dismally mind-numbing and frightening, even.

And yet, India resolutely refuses to change.  There is a sense of inner serenity, peace and balance that transcends the outward turmoil as India moves slowly ahead with the grace of a Gaj Gamini (walk with the gait of a female pachyderm), oblivious of Western expectations. To many that is infuriating, and to many others that’s India's innate strength.

In his important book Being Different Rajiv Malhotra explains this phenomenon thus:
“In the West, chaos is seen as a ceaseless threat both psychologically and socially – something to be overcome by control or elimination. Psychologically, it drives the ego to become all-powerful and controlling. Socially, it creates a hegemonic impulse over those who are different. A cosmology based on unity that is synthetic and not innate is riddled with anxieties. Therefore, order must be imposed to resolve differences relating to culture, race, gender, sexual orientation and so on."

On the other hand, he asserts, “Dharmic civilizations are more relaxed and comfortable with multiplicity and ambiguity than the West. Chaos is seen as a source of creativity and dynamism. Since the ultimate reality is an integrally unified coherence, chaos is a relative phenomenon that cannot threaten or disrupt the underlying coherence of the cosmos.”

In Being Different Malhotra succeeds in walking on the razor’s edge. He discusses what are generally considered taboo ideas (especially in the West), and does so without being a chauvinist. 

He challenges the generally accepted notions that western universalism is the finest way of life for human beings globally, and argues for a radically different methodology to comprehend the unique position that India occupies.

He says, “India is...(a) distinct and unified civilization with a proven ability to manage profound differences, engage creatively with various cultures, religions and philosophies, and peacefully integrate many diverse streams of humanity. These values are based on ideas about divinity, the cosmos, and humanity that stand in contrast to the fundamental assumption of Western civilisation. “

Malhotra delineates the differences between the Dharmic traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism) and the Judeo-Christian traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) into four distinct categories.
  • Embodied Knowing versus History-centrism
  • Integral Unity versus Synthetic Unity
  • Anxiety over Chaos versus Comfort with Complexity and Ambiguity
  • Cultural Digestion versus Sanskrit Non-Translatables

It is the last argument – about cultural digestion versus Sanskrit Non-Translatables is sure to raise heckles especially among Indians living in the West because he strongly advocates for the retention of the distinctions between the two traditions. In the recent past, similar issues have generated serious and ceaseless debates, for instance (Aseem Shukla versus Deepak Chopra on Yoga that continues to rage; Malhotra, too, has contributed to it: Christian Yoga).

Malhotra says, “Western scholars and westernized Indians are accustomed to translating and mapping dharmic concepts and perspectives onto Western frameworks, thereby enriching and perhaps even renewing the Western ‘host’ culture into which they are assimilated. One does not say of a tiger’s kill that both tiger and prey are ‘changed for the better’ by digestion, or that the two kinds of animals have ‘flowed into one another’ to produce a better one. Rather, the food of the tiger becomes a part of the tiger’s body, breaking down and obliterating, in the process, the digested animal.”

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Beware of Pity

Stefan Zweig

Once a year my mother comes to visit us, and we reminisce about my father. Her visit last week was especially poignant because an aunt (my father’s cousin) had died in India in the preceding week.

Last week, I also read a review of biographies of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig (by Allan Massie. Read the review here: Standpoint.) and I remembered my father. 

He had insisted that I should read Zweig’s Beware of Pity. At that time, I was unwilling to do so because I was at an age where I couldn't imagine liking anything that he recommended.

Surprisingly, I absolutely adored the novel. It’s a straightforward tragedy – of a soldier’s compassion for a paraplegic being misunderstood by her for love. Many years after I read it, the novel was reissued as a Penguin paperback in the 1980s. I have a copy in Bombay.

Zweig was a German Jew who had to flee Austria in 1934 in the wake of Nazism’s ascendancy. He wrote Beware of Pity while in exile (1939), and committed suicide with his second wife in 1942 in Brazil. 

Wikipedia notes that Zweig “had been despairing at the future of Europe and its culture.” (I also learnt that the novel was turned into a movie in 1946).

In his review, Massie succinctly captures this despair.

“Writing in the Spectator in May 1989, G.M. Tamas, Hungarian philosopher, journalist, dissident, and briefly, after the collapse of Communism, a member of parliament, wrote about central Europe's "dark secret": "a universe of culture was destroyed." That culture was German and Jewish, and its destruction was the work of the two "industrious mass-murderers", Hitler and Stalin. Hitler exterminated the Jews, even though "the Jews, almost everywhere, were to all intents and purposes a peculiar German ethnic group", originally speaking Yiddish, a German dialect, but understanding, enjoying and ultimately transforming literary German. Then in 1945-46 Stalin murdered or expelled the Germans, and central Europe was bereft. Without the Germans and the Jews, Tamas wrote, "our supposed ‘common culture' does not make sense, and never will".