Sunday, August 31, 2008

Spaced Out

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express


“The literary essay,” wrote American essayist Arthur Krystal, “though it may begin by addressing books, always ends up being about the interaction of society and culture.” An observation that’s exemplified yet again by Amit Chaudhuri’s pieces in Clearing A Space, comprising articles earlier published in The London Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement, among other places.

A common thread running through many of the essays here is Chaudhuri’s concern with tracing an alternative version of Indian writing, one that steers a course between the idea of India as a mystical, exotic land and the postcolonial, polyphonic torrents of Salman Rushdie and those who followed him. This is the space that Chaudhuri tries to clear, one that exists in “the elisions that direct the binaries (East, West; high; low, native; foreign, fantasy; reality, elite; democratic)”.

To chart this, Chaudhuri attempts to define a separate Indian modernity through the actions of its literate middle class over the years, particularly that of the Bengal Renaissance; to reevaluate Indian writing in the vernacular; and to look at the texts of those who pre-date the “boom” in Indian-English writing. Thus, there are essays that offer perspectives on writers such as Nirad Chaudhuri, R.K. Narayan, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Jibananda Das and, of course, arch Bengali humanist Rabindranath Tagore.

In expressing unease with triumphalist narratives of India’s rise, and glib theories of what Indians ought to be writing about, Chaudhuri favours delicacy, nuance and the minutiae of the everyday – which, of course, are the qualities that distinguish his own novels and stories. These are reminders that the house of fiction, with its foundations in India or elsewhere, ought to contain many rooms, and not just one great hall for the majority.

It ought to be pointed out though that many of the essays, thought-provoking though they may be, are couched in concepts borrowed from poststructural and postcolonial studies which make them heavy going for the lay person. (Never mind the irony of using postcolonial tools to dismantle postcolonial conceits.) These are offset by a few others that offer autobiographical vignettes, such as his move to Bombay with his parents when he was a child, his life in Oxford and his return to Calcutta. (Readers of Chaudhuri’s earlier work will find themselves on familiar ground.) Also of note is a piece on the stasis of what’s called fusion music as well as some astute observations on the commonalities and differences between Bollywood and Hollywood.

Despite the insights on offer, one can’t help but sense a feeling of datedness about the collection. The earliest of these essays was written 14 years ago, and when it comes to Indian writing in English, much has changed. Yes, Midnight’s Children did cast a gigantic – and well-deserved – shadow, but those that came after Rushdie have by now have emerged into their own light, with Vikram Chandra and Amitav Ghosh being merely two examples.

However, the triumphalism referred to earlier clearly is on the ascendant, not just in the discourse of fiction but in every other sphere, be it economic performance or Olympic medals. It’s in this context, then, that Clearing A Space is a necessary reminder of the worth of alternative ways of seeing and relating.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Voice From Malaysia

An edited e-mail interview with Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening Is The Whole Day, portions of which appear in a piece in the latest TimeOut Mumbai. Though I had some reservations about the book -- chiefly pertaining to the sprawls and shifts alluded to below -- it's certainly a striking debut. Samarasan, who moved from Malaysia to attend high school in the United States, is a sometime student of musicology who's attended the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan.

You were studying for a doctorate in musicology before you switched to writing. What made this happen? In this context, did your interest in folk music influence the structure of Evening is the Whole Day, in terms of circularity and harmony?

It wasn't so much a switch as a gradual decision -- I had always been writing, but I ended up in graduate school in musicology due to a confluence of random circumstances and the idea that I should have a slightly more stable career in academia. I'd been raised to think that writing as a career was more or less a pipe dream except for people in faraway countries like America and England. I took a long time to realise that sometimes it's worth taking big risks to do the thing you love.

As far as the influence of my study of music: it's a nice idea, and I wish I could say it's accurate, but I really don't think there was any such influence. My interest in musicology was always more anthropological than theoretical -- that is to say, I was always more interested in the issues surrounding music, the historical and anthropological context, than in the structure of music itself. In fact the abstract/theoretical/structural study of music was quite difficult for me, and this was another reason I began to doubt the wisdom of a career as musicologist.

Was the novel initially conceived as a series of interconnected short stories which was then made into a larger whole? This would explain the shifts and subplots in which it abounds.

No, it started and evolved as a novel. I knew it was a novel from the moment the first image of the wrongly accused servant girl came to me. The shifts and subplots are there because the novels I love best and am most influenced by are vast in scope, rambling, and intentionally messy: Bleak House, Midnight's Children, Waterland, Oscar and Lucinda, to name just a few.

To me, one of the striking features of the novel was the extremely well-crafted and resonant sentences. Is this something that required many rewrites? Or, like Arundhati Roy, do you think rewriting is like "breathing the same breath twice"?

I rewrote the novel about five times. In the beginning, I was still learning a huge amount about writing, and my learning curve was so steep that each time I got to the middle of the novel, I would hate every sentence I had written and have to begin again. So no, I wish I could say that I wrote exactly the novel I wanted to write on the first try, but that is nowhere near the truth. I rewrite each sentence dozens of times while I am working on anything -- whether it's a short story, an essay, or a novel -- and then when I'm done I revise the whole thing several times. It makes the whole process very slow, but I can't do it any other way.

When asked whether universities stifled writers, Flannery O'Connor famously remarked, "My view is that they don't stifle enough of them". How helpful was your experience at the creative writing program at Michigan University in terms of your development as a novelist?

First of all, I think creative writing programs have changed radically since Flannery O'Connor made that statement in the 1950s. The programs I know about do not even try to “teach” people how to write; they select students who already can write, who have strong, distinct voices and a demonstrated commitment to their art. They merely help you do the best writing you want to do, as you define it, and they do this primarily by asking questions and getting you to think deeply about your own writing. Getting my MFA was immensely helpful in three ways: 1) it gave me the time and money to concentrate on my writing for two years, and this, when you think about it, is a pretty substantial statement of validation for an emerging writer: We think you’re good enough to make it, so we’re going to pay you to come here and write for two years; 2) It introduced me to some amazing, generous mentors who had been writing for longer than I had, and who therefore gave me lots of new ways to think about writing and the writing life; 3) It introduced me to some truly gifted writers of my own generation. The connections I made in the MFA program will last my whole life; we still read each other’s drafts, discuss what we’re reading, and encourage each other. This kind of community of writers is possible to forge outside an MFA program, of course, but it’s more difficult.

I do love the Flannery O'Connor quote, though, because I think it's a clever, endearingly curmudgeonly way of saying something that is still true: that it's important for writers (for artists in any field, really) and for their mentors to have a realistic idea of their talents. Not everyone who tries hard is going to make it.

Clearly, the Malaysia of your novel is a world apart from that of earlier writers such as Anthony Burgess and Somerset Maugham. Have you read their Malaysian fictions, and was there, at the back of your mind, any intention of "writing back" to them?

I read Maugham a long time ago, and hadn't read the Burgess until this year, after my novel came out (I think the Burgess, in particular is magnificent in its insight and honesty -- not at all a blinkered colonialist rendition of the country). So neither one was really present in my mind as I wrote this novel; I know that postcolonial writers often talk about their mission to tell their country's own story, finally, after decades or even centuries of that story being told by outsiders, but because of Malaysia's particular circumstances, I think my intentions have more to do with "writing back" to those who have written Malaysia's history for the past 50 years since independence -- those who have drawn the lines of race and racial identity in ways that continue to destroy the nation and its people. In this novel and in everything I write, I think about telling the many national stories that have been suppressed, twisted, or simply erased. As John Berger famously said: Never again will a single story be told as if it's the only one.

Would the book have been different had you stayed on in Malaysia instead of spending years overseas? How important is the perspective provided by distance? (Come to think of it, even other novels in English set in Malaysia -- such as those by Tash Aw and Rani Manicka -- have been written by those who've been out of the country for years.)

The easy answer would be: Of course, of course one has to leave to be a writer, of course people who never leave don’t see the same things about their country. But I actually believe the reality is slightly different. I think writers are people who identify as outsiders whether or not they have the opportunity to leave physically. Frequently, they identify as outsiders from childhood, though they are not always sure why -- sometimes it’s simply a matter of temperament. Perhaps those who feel they’re outsiders are more likely to leave, and that’s why so many writers -- not just Malaysian writers -- have been expatriates at some point. But they don’t have to leave to feel like outsiders. Conversely, plenty of people leave but never give up their unquestioning patriotism.

I think I would have still written, and I think I would have made many of the same observations about Malaysia if I hadn’t left. But one thing would probably been different: I don’t think I would’ve been brave enough to say these things as loudly as I’m saying them now. Like most Malaysians, I had lots of unexamined fears when I lived in the country. Fears of the government, fears of What People Will Think -- between those two, it’s hard to say which is the greater set of fears! I think of my expatriate status as a luxury that allows me to say what I want without these fears. At the same time, I think it's important for me to maintain my connection with the country; I go back at least once a year for at least a month at a time.

Would you agree that the book shows the influence of two very disparate authors, Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie? Were you conscious of this stylistic blend?

It would be disingenuous and ungrateful for any postcolonial writer worth his or her salt to deny Rushdie’s influence. Rushdie gave us the permission to speak (though he would probably not phrase it that way himself: I suppose you could say he showed us that we could give ourselves permission to speak), and he gave us the language with which to speak. His impact on postcolonial writing in English is immense. I’ve been inspired by him on many levels: by the energy of his language, by his elevation of Indian English into poetry, by his use of magical realism to depict events and emotions too large for conventional Western realism. I think of Arundhati Roy as someone who inherited these ideas and made them her own instead of simply imitating Rushdie, and I tried my best to do the same: to absorb their influence, digest it, and come up with something entirely my own. Other major influences of which I was very conscious while working on this novel: Waterland by Graham Swift (from which I took one of the novel’s epigraphs); Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I do think it's important to point out, though, that I don't consciously imitate other writers; neither do I consciously seek to erase their influence. Art -- every single field of it, from music to the visual arts to writing -- has always been about absorbing and digesting influence.

The novel's obviously informed by your own childhood days in Malaysia. Now that you've lived in the US and in France for many years, would later works be set against different backgrounds? In other words, do you think you've "used up" your Malaysian material, and how strong is your connection with the country of your birth now?

I grew up in Malaysia as part of an ethnic Indian family. Childhood and adolescence are the most influential parts of many writers' lives; for whatever reason, those experiences really stay with us, especially if they've generated intense emotions. In my case, my anger and frustration with the Malaysian political system is by no means a thing of the past; it will probably fuel the rest of my career as a writer. Malaysia is my country, and its stories -- particularly the stories of its ethnic Indian community -- are the stories I want to tell. There's no question of "using up" material; I get new material every time I talk to my parents or extended family, who still live in Malaysia; every time I read the Malaysian news (which I do every day); every time I read an e-mail from a friend in Malaysia; and of course every time I go back. To some extent, Malaysia is still home; I'm in the process of buying a house there at the moment and would ideally like to divide my time between Malaysia and elsewhere. As long as the political system continues to be a prettified version of apartheid, I cannot see myself living there full-time, but a country and a government are not the same thing; I love the country in ways I will never love any other place.

An inevitable, final question: Were the experiences you portray based on the lives of the members of your own family, or were they entirely "fictional"?

The novel is not based on my life or the lives of my family members. There is a lot of emotional truth in it, as there is in all novels; I relate to each of the characters on some level, most of all with Aasha, the youngest daughter. Some of the minor characters are amalgamations or modifications of people I've encountered in real life, and Malaysian readers will recognise some of the details of the murder trials in the book. But the main plot is not at all autobiographical; our family had a lot less money than the family in the book, and a completely different lifestyle. We had no servants; I had two brothers and a warm, normal relationship with both of them.

Hindi Lessons

This is from the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai

T'TA PROFESSOR Manohar Shyam Joshi

Years ago, the venerable Reader’s Digest used to carry a series entitled ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met’, featuring first-person accounts of folksy wisdom from and inspiring actions by baseball coaches, college professors, neighbours and the like. Manohar Shyam Joshi’s T’ta Professor -- now translated into English from the original Hindi by Ira Pande -- can almost be read as a parodic inversion of this series.

The narrator here is a cynical author who looks back to the time when, in his early twenties, he worked in a school in Kumaon. The eponymous professor is one Khastivallabh Pant, “dubbul MA”, a teacher at this institution.The eccentric professor’s love for the English language, ability to get embroiled in school politics and lustful appetites are gleefully lampooned to begin with – but it’s when the narrative begins to explore variations of the professor’s life, including some disturbingly salacious exploits, that we slowly realize what Joshi is up to. T’ta Professor is not a mere character-portrait, but a mocking look at realistic modes of literary portrayal. And along the way, it also points out the distance between art and life. For this purpose, the narrator, an aging and rueful author, is perfectly chosen. Quite a long way from Joshi’s work for television, which includes serials such as Hum Log and Buniyaad.

Pande’s translation is competent, barring the unfortunate use of Americanisms that jar – the atmosphere is “pretty loaded”, people donate “slush money” and one location is “a darn sight better” than another, for example. For the rest, this bittersweet tale of a chimerical character is revealingly quirky.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Marathon Man

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.


He used to own a jazz bar in Tokyo. He competes in at least one marathon a year, and has completed more than a few triathlons, too. And his books, with their cool, surreal take on reality, have a passionate, devoted following.

Is Haruki Murakami, as The Times (UK) recently informed us, “the coolest writer in the world”?

The matter-of-fact, sometimes commonplace nature of his new memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, would seem to belie that observation. To be frank, this is really a long essay, padded out into book length by repetition and the inclusion of two earlier articles by Murakami.

Long-distance running, Murakami says, is one of the ideal pursuits for a novelist because of what it has is common with the nature of writing: the need for endurance, focus and sticking to a plan. Now in his late fifties, Murakami began running seriously when he was 33 in order to lose weight after giving up smoking. In a series of interlinked ruminations written in Hawaii, Tokyo and Cambridge, among other places, he takes us through his training schedule, his experience of running in the New York City marathon and the first time he ran 26.2 miles at a stretch, from Marathon to Athens in Greece. Because there are many observational overlaps, after a while you realize that though the scenery is different, the steps are the same.

What makes the book interesting – for Murakami fans, at least – are the insights he offers into his own compulsions. He’s fond of solitude and introspection, and uncomfortable with competition (and competitive sport). There are small nuggets of biographical detail, such as the exact moment when the wish to become a writer arose in him, what he liked and disliked about his experience of running a jazz bar, the mental preparations he has to make before delivering a speech in English and the sort of music he listens to when he runs – the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Daydream and Clapton’s Reptile, along with CCR, Beck and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to mention a few.

Though what’s endearing is a tone of down-to-earth humility throughout, it’s let down, alas, by many banalities -- for example, “In the final analysis we're all the same”, and “I’m the type of person who has to totally commit to whatever I do”. (And you can’t blame the translation because Philip Gabriel has done a sterling job with Murakami’s novels in the past.)

Those looking for the surreal moments associated with Murakami’s fiction will find a few: the dead dogs and cats he spots while running, and his quasi-mystical experience when, in a particularly horrifying feat of endurance, he once ran “an ultramarathon” – that is, 62 miles -- from morning to evening in Hokkaido. As if that last accomplishment wasn’t enough to prove the depth of the writer’s love for long-distance running, he even at one point tells us what he’d like on his gravestone: “At Least He Never Walked”.

All of which is enough to make you sprawl back on the sofa, let the book fall from limp fingers and reach for a large bag of French fries.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Off The Beaten Path

This appeared in yesterday's The Sunday Express.

Deborah Baker

In a recent interview, Amit Chaudhuri said that “for any cultural practice…the position of the outsider, the misfit, the daydreamer and even of failure are very important categories in the creation of a truly energetic and self-critical social and intellectual space….My anxiety is that in the last 20 years India, typically for a globalising country, hasn't theorized [such a] position.”

To find some of the best examples of such irresponsible misfits, you’d have to look at members of the so-called Beat Generation of the late Fifties and early Sixties in the United States, with their experiments with psychedelic substances, their stand against those in positions of power and their redefinition of what constitutes a literary work. Ironically in light of Chaudhuri’s statement, it was India that some of the most prominent Beats looked to for a degree of illumination and sustenance.

In Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand, we find an account of Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky’s sojourn in India in 1962, interleaved with the travels and exploits of others such as Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. In this detailed narrative, Baker draws heavily on not just the unexpurgated and unedited version of Ginsberg’s Indian Journals, but also the books, journals and correspondence of the rest. The logorrhea of the Beats was well-known, and Baker bravely dives into their sea of words for her reconstruction.

Though the sections dealing with India form the bulk of the book, Baker also dwells on the dovetailing effects of the actions of others, including those who never visited India, such as Gregory Corso. In particular, she dwells on Corso and Ginsberg’s fascination for Hope Savage, the charismatic and chimerical young American woman whom both attempted to influence and engage.

Baker is frank about the heroin abuse, psychosis and occasional mystical visions that affected these angel-headed hipsters. She recounts Ginsberg’s vision of a poetry recital by Blake: it was an attempt by the poet to recapture this sense of the ineffable that was in part responsible for his trips to Benares and Rishikesh, among other places.

Because there is so much detail, and because so much of it is interconnected, Baker’s prose can sometimes frustrate as much as it illumines. On occasion, the teasing out of a continuous narrative thread becomes an effort – especially with digressions such as details of Jackie Onassis’s trip to the country, to bolster the aim of examining the role of India in the American imagination.

Some of the most fascinating sections deal with Ginsberg and Orlovsky’s stay in Calcutta, where they were to befriend other poets such as Sunil Gangopadhyay and Shakti Chattopadhyay. Baker makes their visits to the College Street coffee house, the burning ghats and to literary soirees come alive and elucidates their East-meets-West interactions with perspicacity.

In conclusion, Baker quotes Ginsberg’s final despairing entry in his Indian journal: “Another day and I leave India/And I never crosslegged pierced heaven/With a thought or found bearded Guru/In Brindaban or levitated in Bodh Gaya…” She asserts, however, that what stayed with Ginsberg the rest of his life was “the sweetness and sympathy he found in the company of India’s sadhus, charlatans, poets and saints”. Something evident from even his last poem, ‘Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias)’ in which there are more than a few lines devoted to the time he spent with Orlovsky in search of his personal brand of salvation.