Sunday, March 14, 2010

Who's Indian, What's Authentic

This appeared in today's DNA.


The ultimate triumph of colonialism is to keep the subject’s mind in chains long after the land has been set free. This assertion is at the heart of Pavan Varma’s Becoming Indian, in which he looks to India’s cultural past as a panacea for the ills besetting the country today.

Such a way of thought is not new; it was central to, for example, the romantic nationalists in Germany and then other parts of Europe from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We all know what that led to.

Varma, however, is too polished a polemicist to indulge in rabble-rousing. The book isn’t merely an airing of views; it’s studded with personal memories and anecdotes, starting with his father’s joining the ICS as well as his own visits to Bristol to see Raja Rammohun Roy’s grave, to the Tower of London to view the Kohinoor, to Southall to interact with the Indian community there and several other locations.

His cri de coeur is that “freedom is not only about having one’s own flag and Constitution and Parliament; freedom is as much about re-appropriating your cultural space, of reclaiming your identity, of belonging authentically to where you come from, because without these your articulation of freedom has a synthetic and imitative quality”. The key word here is “authentically”, and the question that remains unanswered is: because something belongs to the hoary past, can it be deemed authentic, or is it itself the result of intermingling of thought and expression?

Fanon-like, Varma targets colonialism’s damaging aspects on the Indian sense of self, taking aim at individuals such as Macaulay (of course) as well as declining standards of architecture, theatre, classical music and dance. There is some merit in his argument that we blindly embrace the West, but most of it sounds curiously old-fashioned – after all, there’s been an upsurge in cultural confidence of late, hand-in-hand with the country’s economic performance. At times, Varma’s reforming zeal is curiously misplaced: for example, he lays the blame for the Yamuna’s becoming a cesspool on Lutyens’ decision to build on Raisina Hill and not along the banks of the river.

At other times, he is not averse to dissembling. His unabashed promotion of Hindi makes him assert that had Nehru spoken in that language during his “tryst with destiny” speech, large numbers in the southern, eastern or other parts of India may not have understood, but it would yet be a “language of the soil”. Well, there’s more to India than the “soil” of its Hindi heartland.

He can also be misleading – writing of Salman Rushdie, he claims that “the pedestal he has been placed on…may become very wobbly if his brave prose is used to criticize the west.” He ought to be aware that Rushdie has been critical of US foreign policy on more than one occasion; moreover, one of the characters in The Satanic Verses itself went by the name of “Margaret Torture”. Varma also takes Amartya Sen to task for confusing a person’s identity with a person’s interests, something that smacks of semantics and appears to miss the point.

Better editing would have helped, too: there’s a long rambling chapter on the Indian disapora, mainly in Britain, all to make the often-made point that you can take the citizen out of the country but not vice versa.

The crowning irony, however, and one that appears to have escaped the author, is that a book extolling the virtues of “Indianness”, deriding colonial occupation and emphasising the primacy of Hindi is written in – heaven forbid -- the English language.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Slim Book, Weighty Point

A slightly abridged version of this appeared in today's The Indian Express


In Don DeLillo’s 2007 Falling Man, one of the characters watches a performance artist suspend himself from various locations in Manhattan, mirroring the reality captured in a photograph of a man falling from the Twin Towers on 9/11. Art plays a role in DeLillo’s new work, too, this time as a museum installation that doesn’t reflect reality but a version of art itself. This is an exhibit titled“24 Hour Psycho" that was installed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2006: an actual conceptual piece by Douglas Gordon showing the Hitchcock film in extreme slow motion, taking twenty-four hours to screen. It is, in DeLillo’s words, “the strange, bright fact that breathes and eats out there, the thing that’s not the movies”.

Scenes of characters watching this exhibit bracket the slender Point Omega which, like DeLillo’s last few novels, is written in a condensed, elliptical style. It is, however, carefully and intriguingly structured, almost in an answers-first-questions later manner.

The plot begins with Jim Finley, a young film-maker, travelling to a California desert to meet the 73-year-old Richard Elster. The latter was formerly employed by the Pentagon to conceptualise their Iraq war efforts and provide intellectual ballast to their martial leanings. Finley plans a short trip with the intention of persuading Elster to participate in a proposed film project, but when he gets there he finds himself staying on for days, listening to Elster’s theories on matter and mind. Waters are muddied when the passive Jessica, Elster’s daughter, joins them, sent by her mother to spend time away from a suitor’s advances. A sudden disappearance follows, throwing equations off-kilter.

Elster, has retreated from the chaos of cities to “reclaim the body from the nausea of News and Traffic”, and is fond of gnomic utterances such as “matter wants to lose its self-consciousness”. The omega point of the title, a concept that occupies most of his waking hours, refers to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the acme of awareness towards which the universe is progressing. In Elster’s words, “Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.”

As ought to be clear by now, all of this doesn’t exactly make for light bedside reading. Some of it puts one in mind of the brooding landscapes of Cormac McCarthy; at other times, there is Pinteresque menace and silence. What DeLillo seems to be trying to do is contrast “man's grand themes” with “local grief, one body” – and to make the whole palatable, there’s a long, studied build-up, after which the mechanics of the plot kick in. This imparts to Point Omega a strange unity, half in slow motion, the other in something resembling normal speed.

Though the characters often come across as mouthpieces and the book’s gravitas veers close to self-importance, the austere Point Omega does possess a compelling incantatory rhythm. Stripped down without losing vitality, its gravitational pull is that of a star collapsing inwards upon itself to a point of singularity.