Sunday, February 27, 2011

Call Diverted

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka

INDIA CALLING Anand Giridharadas

You know a nation’s economic prowess is on the ascendant when the non-fiction sections of bookstores groan under the weight of titles that claim to explain how and why. Anand Giridharadas’ India Calling is the latest addition, another “intimate” look at how India has changed. At times a family chronicle, at others, a collection of journalistic sketches, it’s a book that’s disappointingly limited in scope.

Giridharadas writes about how his parents moved to America in the Seventies and his upbringing there. On trips back to India, he found scarcity, bureaucracy and frozen beliefs about one’s place in the world: “India, in my limited and impressionistic view, seemed a land of replicated lives, where most people grew up to be exactly like their parents…”  There’s much here that reads like one of those commonplace novels by second-generation South Asian-Americans. However, borne on winds of change, the author, at 21, finds himself on a flight to India for a stint with McKinsey, later becoming Mumbai correspondent for the New York Times and its allied publication, The International Herald Tribune.

Most of the book appears to be a survey of the country from the confines of south Mumbai. Giridharadas does travel, of course, and there are accounts of trips to a hamlet near Nagpur, to Ludhiana and to Hyderabad. He tells us the stories of a migrant in Mumbai, his city of dreams; of a small-town young man on the make; of a Naxalite ideologue and his disdain for globalisation; and of a Punjabi joint family facing a rupture between its traditional and modern factions. There’s also an unremarkable interview with Mukesh Ambani, as well as a potted account of their family’s rise. Though Giridharadas demonstrates a fluent prose style, there’s much use of often-heard words such as “revolution from below”, “new regime” and “flowering of self confidence”.

In every case, the author draws parallels from his own family, not only from his parents’ lives but also the differing attitudes of his maternal and paternal grandparents. In conclusion, Giridharadas asserts that globalisation and economic growth have made Indians achieve “an independence of the soul” by growing into roles beyond those laid down by their caste, parents or society. Of course, he hastens to add, the country still has to lift itself out of “the family relations of guilt, the never-questioned rituals, the intricate taxonomy of castes and sub-subcastes, the rural cruelty, the poverty…”

Issues such as what it means to be modern without reference to the West, the perils of runaway consumerism or venal politics are glancingly touched upon, if not ignored. The vexing outcome: half-memoir, half narrow-prism portrait.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Karachi Noir

This appeared in today's DNA.

INVITATION Shehryar Fazli

Some say there are only a limited number of basic plots and subjects, and writers of fiction have to constantly re-invent these to suit their needs. One such template is that of a stranger coming to town, and one such theme is that of loss of innocence. In his debut novel, Pakistani author Shehryar Fazli employs just these models.

Invitation is based in the Karachi of 1970, a setting that also animated Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography. It’s a place and time where almost all conversations revolve around Bhutto, Yahya, Mujib, the role of the army, and the elections in what was then known as East Pakistan. As such, Fazli joins company with the current crop of writers from Pakistan – with the notable exception of Daniyal Mueennuddin – whose work stresses upon linking the personal with the political.

Into this milieu arrives Shahbaz, Invitation’s narrator, returning after 19 years in Paris. We soon learn that Shahbaz’s father fled Pakistan because of his involvement in the infamous Rawalpindi Conspiracy of 1951, and has now sent his son back to resolve a dispute with his aunt over shared family property, a 36-acre mango orchard.

Shahbaz, unschooled in the ways of his native city, has to negotiate class differences and an inadequate knowledge of Urdu to achieve his aim. As the days pass, he listens to the stories of the people he meets while trying to construct one of his own. One of the novel’s clear strengths is its evocation of the personalities he gets close to, from Ghulam Hussain, his Bengali chauffeur, to Mona Phuppi, his aunt, to Brigadier Alamgir, an old contact of his father’s who now runs the Agra Hotel, to Malika, a cabaret dancer from Cairo who performs nightly at the Agra. The character of Shahbaz himself is a curious mix: on the one hand, a self-questioning innocent who’s far from worldly-wise, and on the other, one who seeks out drugs and whores with equal avidity.

The Agra Hotel, one of the novel’s main settings, can be seen as a microcosm of the nation’s corridors of power –  a place frequented by diplomats, police officers, fundamentalists and politicians – just as the dispute over the mango orchard mirrors the quarrel over the future of an incipient Bangladesh.

When he isn’t visiting the orchard and wondering how to win over his aunt as well as evict the squatters there, Shahbaz dallies with prostitutes and lies about in a drug-induced haze. After becoming the brigadier’s guest at the Agra, he enters into a liaison with Malika, and then compromises himself by paying petty bribes to a local police officer and, more importantly, by meeting members of the Jamaat-i-Islami who also engage in mysterious closed-door discussions with the brigadier.

The loss of innocence and betrayal that transpires applies equally to Shahbaz as well as Pakistan. Late in the novel, the brigadier remonstrates: "You don't realise, you don't see the bigger picture. You think shifts in power are brought about by ballots and polls and primaries and what-have-you. Here, they're not. It's still the twelfth century. Birth, death, marriages, wars, they're the things that move politics”.

As ought to be clear by now, Invitation isn’t short of colour and incident. Fazli’s prose is stylishly confident, detailing actions and interactions with verve, be it an opium-soaked qawwali performance or the animated conversations at the shack of Ghulam Hussain. As the novel progresses, the connections between the personal and the political do become belaboured, but the overall narrative energy makes Invitation, for the most part, an assured and readable debut. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Just So-so Story

A lightly-edited version of this appeared in today's The Hindustan Times


A classic 1920s postcard featured an illustration of a bespectacled youth with a cloth-bound volume in his hand asking a simpering young woman whether she liked Kipling. Her reply: “I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kippled”. When it comes to The Jungle Book, among those who’ve kippled are Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book) as well as the writers at Disney. Now, there’s Samrat’s The Urban Jungle which, as the title indicates, transposes Kipling’s characters to a metropolitan setting. An interesting premise, but one that’s let down by fuzzy execution.

Prepare, then, to meet Jimmy Mowgli, grandson of the original feral child. This naïve lad leaves his family in Haripur, next to the Seeonee jungle, to arrive in New Delhi for a job with an environmental NGO. Being an alienated, sensitive sort of fellow, he finds it hard at first to blend in, and this leads to moments of gentle satire on the ways of those in the metropolis.

Soon enough, Jimmy makes both friends and foes. Among them, the panther-like Heera, head of a security services firm; the affable Balu, photographer and man about town; the lone inspector A. Kala; and the menacing Shamsher Khan, poacher and arms trafficker. Jimmy’s allies also include a local faction of the Bandar-log, with whom he has the ability to communicate, and whose president lives in Rashtrapati Bhavan, no less.

The prose, and the telling, is pleasant enough, barring the occasional sentence such as “His hormones started shaking and his heart started quaking”. Jimmy, alternating between innocence and violence, sometimes comes across as a bit of a prig, especially when he utters lines such as: "The people of Haripur are not junglis. They are not beasts. They have manners, they have morals, they are in touch with our culture and nature, and they are not forever in a race to show off their money or earn more of it."

Along the way, the focus on the urban jungle dissipates, and the location shifts to an actual jungle. The narrative strand of Jimmy’s being a “star spy in the employ of the monkey republic” peters out, and there are other blind alleys, such as devoting time to his flailing attempts at wooing women.

It all comes down to a drawn-out dénouement: a character introduced almost at the last minute, the sleek Kaushal Acharya, a hypnotic yoga guru-cum-intelligence analyst known as KA, sets out with Heera and others to rescue an abducted Jimmy. The original Mowgli, too, gets into the act with a little help from a band of primates, to make the bad guys stop their monkey business. Taking another cue from Kipling, one could say it’s a Just So-so Story.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Spare, Disquieting Power

This appeared in yesterday's edition of New Delhi's The Sunday Guardian

NEMESIS Philip Roth

As of now, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the four countries in the world where the polio virus is still endemic. Should the ongoing immunisation campaigns be successful, polio could well go the way of smallpox in being completely eradicated.  Although fear of the affliction is on the wane, this, of course, wasn’t always the case. In mid-20th century America, for example, there was a series of polio epidemics that left thousands crippled, notably President Roosevelt. Such an epidemic, and the tragedy and fear that follow in its wake, forms the backdrop of Philip Roth's 31st book, Nemesis.

The moment a novelist uses an infectious outbreak as a subject, one is on guard for allegorical resonances. In Albert Camus’ The Plague, a city in Algiers is ravaged by a pestilence because of the citizens’ initial reluctance to act, the obvious parallel being with the Nazi occupation of France. Closer home, Kalpish Ratna’s The Quarantine Papers contrasts an outbreak of plague in 19th century Mumbai with the fear over the city after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.

Nemesis revolves around the travails of the idealistic Bucky Cantor, 22-year-old physical education instructor in Newark, New Jersey. It is a sweltering summer in 1944, and Bucky has escaped the draft because of poor eyesight. (As it turns out, he proves to be myopic in more ways than one.)  Roth’s evocative descriptions of Newark’s Jewish neighbourhood puts one in mind of his first published pieces of work, such as Goodbye Columbus: “…most of the stores were closed except for Tabatchnick’s, catering to the Sunday morning smoked-fish trade, the corner candy stores that were selling the Sunday papers, and the bakery, selling coffee cake and bagels for Sunday breakfast.”

It’s when boys from the playground that Bucky oversees start to fall ill with polio that the people of the neighbourhood start to worry, taking what precautions they can to prevent the epidemic from spreading. There was no polio vaccine at the time – it was at least a decade away – and more boys get infected, causing the uneasy Bucky to finally listen to his fiancée’s advice to join her at a summer camp where she is working as a counsellor. Though Bucky does this, he remains guilt-ridden over leaving the polio-stricken town. All too soon, however, boys in the camp start to get polio, too.

Without giving too much away, the rest of this slim novel details Bucky’s fate, outlining a theme that Roth has explored in his past few novels such as Everyman and Indignation:  the role of capricious chance in our lives. As the father of one of the afflicted boys says, “You do only the right thing, the right thing and the right thing and the right thing, going back all the way. You try to be a thoughtful person, a reasonable person, an accommodating person, and then this happens. Where is the sense in life?”  Later, Bucky is “struck by how lives diverge and by how powerless each of us is up against the force of circumstance.” This sentiment is summed up at the novel’s finale by a character who was a boy at Bucky’s playground: “Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance – the tyranny of contingency – is everything”.  Nemesis lies in wait for each one of us.

Given today’s terror-stricken times, another reading of this outbreak could well be the climate of fear and suspicion capable of infecting us all. Take the town’s reactions to Howard, a mentally-challenged neighbourhood youth, whose personal hygiene is suspect and who is pilloried as being a carrier of the virus. At another time, Bucky’s doctor says: “I’m against the frightening of Jewish kids. I’m against the frightening of Jews, period. That was Europe, that’s why Jews fled. This is America. The less fear the better. Fear unmans us. Fear degrades us.”  Such instances apart, Roth keeps his narrative literal and on-the-surface; such a reading is only peripherally supported by the text.

As with his other late-stage novels, Roth’s prose tries to make up in bluntness what it lacks in sinuousness. What is of note here is the care taken with structure. The ending packs a punch because of a shift in point of view, and the final scene, a re-enactment of Bucky’s prowess in his prime, is all the more poignant because of its placement. Nemesis, then, may not be as capacious as the work of Roth’s prime, but does possess a spare, disquieting power.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Novel Musings

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge


Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur. That these disparate works can be classified under the common heading of a novel speaks volumes of the form’s chameleon-like nature. This is one of the reasons that, as Orhan Pamuk points out in The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, it has become our dominant literary form: “Now, in every corner of the world, the vast majority of those who want to express themselves though literature write novels”.

It would take a brave soul, then, to “explore the effect that novels have on their readers, how novelists work, and how novels are written”. This is what Pamuk attempts in the six essays that make up this volume, the text of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that he delivered in Harvard in 2009. The title is derived from an 18th century essay by German litterateur Friedrich Schiller, “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry”.

As Pamuk points out, Schiller’s use of the words “naïve” and “sentimental” differ from the ways in which we use them. “Naïve poets are one with nature….They write poetry spontaneously… [and] have no doubt that they will adequately and thoroughly describe and reveal the meaning of the world”. In contrast, the sentimental writer is emotional and reflective: “he is unsure whether his words will encompass reality….So he is extremely aware of the poem he writes, the methods and techniques he uses, and the artifice involved in his endeavour”.  After more than three decades of being a novelist, Pamuk writes, he’s managed to find equilibrium between his naïve and sentimental sides. (Certainly, it’s instructive to re-read his The Museum of Innocence keeping this in mind.)

Things become woolly, however, when he elaborates on his conception of a novel’s “centre”: “a profound opinion of insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined”. Every novel, he says, has such a centre: the act of writing becomes a way to crystallize it, and that of reading, a way to uncover it. How this centre is different from what’s referred to as a novel’s theme or subject is not touched upon, and such musings leave one more mystified than enlightened.

Pamuk is more sure-footed when he updates E.M. Forster’s classic definition of flat and round characters in fiction. “People do not actually have as much character as we find portrayed in novels,” he says. “Furthermore, human character is not nearly as important in the shaping of our lives as it is made out to be in the novels and literary criticism of the West”. This is one of the few instances where Pamuk moves away from the verities of the novel in its 19th century realist avatar, one we are in thrall to till today.

With numerous references and allusions peppered through these lectures, what shines through is the dedication and passion of Pamuk, the reader. The excitement and insight with which he speaks of some of his favourite authors – Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, among others – is palpable. There is the additional pleasure of tracing how his reading informed his own journey as a novelist, from the traditional template of Cevdet Bey to the more experimental My Name is Red to an alliance of the two in The Museum of Innocence. Other personal reflections find a place too, some of which he’s touched upon earlier in his Istanbul and in his Nobel lecture. His decision to give up painting for writing in his early 20s, for instance, and how this led him to conceive of the novelist’s art as a form of painting with words.

Art, Picasso once said, is a lie that tells the truth. The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist is a pleasant and informed excursion into the lies and truth of the novelist’s art.