Saturday, March 24, 2012

An Existential Laurel And Hardy

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.

DOGMA Lars Iyer

In his recent “literary manifesto after the end of literature and manifestos”,  the Danish-Indian academic Lars Iyer asserted that literature nowadays was no more than a pantomime, and a tired one at that. He called upon writers to “resist closed forms”, to “mark the absence of Hope, of Belief, of Commitments, of high-flown Seriousness” as well as a sense of imposture. “The end is nigh,” he concluded. “The party’s over.”

All of this – along with a vein of dark comedy – was much in evidence in Iyer’s first novel, Spurious (though traditionalists would say it was more a series of linked blog posts than an actual novel). Spurious introduced to the world a pair of bumbling academics, the first one named Lars, the second, simply W. Philosophers manqué, a pair of Brods without a Kafka, they made their way through a universe facing “end times”, with the hapless Lars being grandly insulted and upstaged by W. at every opportunity.

The pair returns in Iyer’s new work, Dogma, with W. still firmly convinced that the end is nigh: “Our end or the end of the world?” “Both!” Happily, his insults are as Falstaffian as ever. He asserts that if he’s a Socrates, Lars is “a Diogenes gone mad”, exhorting him time and again, as the policeman tells the lost wayfarer in the Kafka story, to “give it up!” W. is also compelled to make fun of Lars’ Hindu heritage, including one memorable occasion when, referring to a statue of Nataraja, he mocks his luckless confrère: “What's your cosmic dance like? It's the funky chicken, isn't it?”

Dogma is virtually without plot, but in the course of its pages, the two embark upon a lecture tour of the United States, visiting, among other places, Nashville and Memphis, which of course brings about much mock-philosophizing by W. Not that all of this is without insight, such as the statement that “capitalism is the evil twin of true religion”. At other times, there’s laughter from the abyss: “Philosophy is like an unrequited love affair. You get nothing back; there’s only longing, inadequacy, a life unfulfilled”.

Abandoning their dream to “live on the fruits of America”, the gin-quaffing team returns home, W. to Plymouth, Lars to Newcastle, where the latter discovers an infestation of rats – a slightly forced continuation of the situation in Spurious, where his walls were  beset by mysterious  (and symbolic) damp and fungus. Nothing deterred, Lars and W. conceive of their own dogma for presentations, inspired by filmmaker Lars von Trier’s Dogme95 movement. With these two, however, the dogma is simply an excuse to make up rules as they go along, with no ripples being created in the world they seek to influence.

Soon, W. finds that his academic career in jeopardy and, like a Continental philosopher’s version of Laurel and Hardy, or even an updated, garrulous version of Vladimir and Estragon, the two stagger through life as if in an “eternal waiting room”, sometimes sinking into nihilism: “Every day is only the fresh ruination of any project we might give ourselves…What have we learnt except that we have no contribution to make, nothing to say, nothing to write, and that we have long since been outflanked by the world, overtaken by it, beaten half to death by it?”

Dogma, then, is a snap of the fingers in the faces of those still under the spell of traditional novelistic forms. As for Lars and W., there’s another book on the way charting their further exploits. They can’t go on, they’ll go on.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mumbai: The Cities Within

What's interesting about these five recent books set in Mumbai is that they bring us glimpses of the city, from the Thirties to the present day, in almost chronological order. 

This piece appeared in the March 2012 issue of MW Magazine.

If you were to arrive at Mumbai’s Sahar airport and take a taxi all the way to the Taj Mahal hotel in Colaba, you would travel through not one city, but several. 

There would be the city of the slums bordering the airport, the blue tarpaulin roofs of which you would have been able to spot even as the plane was circling above. There would then be the neighbourhoods from Andheri to Bandra, the tony coffee shops and meretricious pubs of which would be filled with scriptwriters, actors, models and others looking for the break to transform their lives. If an especially chatty driver was behind the wheel of the taxi you were in, he’d tell you of his world, of how his current occupation was just a stop-gap before he hit the big time with a home-grown scheme or two. After a quick glance at the rear-view mirror to assess his chances, he might even offer to escort you to the city’s quarters of ill-repute, where, he would affirm, you would be able to sample the pleasures of drugs or the flesh. Shrugging off his offers, you would look out of the window to find yourself in the area of Mumbai called “the town” by suburban commuters. Sweeping down the Art Deco bordered sea-face to the mock Gothic buildings that still speak of colonial solidity, you’d finally reach your destination, the hotel that, though scarred by a recent, horrific act of terrorism, still stands as a beacon of civility and repose.

Centuries ago, the roads you just travelled down didn’t exist; it was a series of reclamation projects – not to mention the fortunes that arose from trade in opium and cotton -- that unified the seven islands to create the city you witnessed. Now, five authors of recently published books seek to reclaim older memories and more contemporary ways of life, charting, almost in reverse chronological order, the ages of Mumbai that made up your journey from airport to hotel.

 The Mumbai of the three decades from 1935 -- a time of intermingling, of civility and of hospitality --  is what Naresh Fernandes brings alive in his Taj Mahal Foxtrot. Even those not alive during those years would be nostalgic about this age of “conspicuous cosmopolitanism”; in fact, to look at the photographs that the book is sprinkled with is to wonder whether this really was the same city you see when looking out of the window today.

Fernandes unearths the often-ignored legacy of the jazz musicians who came here from the US and Europe as well as home-grown talent, much of it from Goa. The “energetic, improvised form” of the book celebrates a long-gone culture, chronicling visits by Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and others, and the rapturous reception they received – not to mention Frank Fernand and Chic Chocolate, and the latter’s effect on Hindi film music because of his participation in the songs of Bhagwan’s Albela.

The grand ballroom of the Taj Mahal played host to many a memorable concert, and Fernandes also mentions other institutions, now vanished from sight if not memory: Napoli and Bombelli’s in Churchgate, for instance. Though the recollections are largely effervescent – such as the time when the combined bands of Chic Chocolate and Micky Correa launched into a jaunty swing version of Jana Gana Mana to cheering crowds at the Taj on the night of August 14, 1947 – there’s also an elegiac quality to the book. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of America’s Jazz Age that “it was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire’, and, as TajMahal Foxtrot makes clear, Mumbai itself experienced such an age.

It was a city, Fernandes writes in summation, “that gave everyone the space to play their own melody the way they heard it”. Before you can do so, he himself adds tersely: “That era has passed.” The city rode into the Sixties on waves of rising populist agitations but optimism undimmed. This is the Mumbai of Kiran Nagarkar’s novel, The Extras, his follow-up to Ravan and Eddie, and reading it is like listening to the tales told by an interesting yet garrulous uncle reminiscing about his past. It follows the fortunes of Ram Pawar and Eddie Coutinho as they make their way through a city teeming with people and stories. The music they’re inspired by is not jazz but pop and rock standards as well as, of course, Bollywood songs, initially performed in the novel by local “brass bandwallahs”.

Life as a taxi driver, as a film extra and as a music composer: through Ravan and Eddie’s occupations, Nagarkar paints a picture of a city impatient to get ahead. The pace of Mumbai is already frantic: one of the characters observes that her life is like a counter on a carom board, hurtling from one corner to another. Nagarkar’s characters grow increasingly anxious to break out of their ways of life at the crumbling CWD chawl in Mazagaon, as a fictional Maiboli Sangh launches a ‘Maharashtra for Maharashtrians’ agitation and underworld dons seek to carve out fiefdoms. That representatives of both these types would, in years to come, scar the city forever is what you can discern between the lines.

At one point, with trademark irreverence, Nagarkar has Ravan muse that national integration could only truly be found on Falkland Road, the city’s red-light district, as women of all nationalities were to be found there. That infamous area – as your taxi driver would have informed you -- is bordered by Shuklaji Street, where you could once discover integration of another kind, the one forged by smoking opium. This “city of O” is what you come across in Jeet Thayil’s debut novel, Narcopolis. Primarily set in the Seventies, this is a hallucinatory ode to Mumbai: the “hero or heroin” of the story.

In Narcopolis is to be found a city wallowing in its refuse, as the narrative interweaves the lives of those such as Dimple, a hijra with a penchant for reading; Rumi, a violent and desperate businessman; Mr Lee, a refugee from mainland China; Dom, the narrator, who speaks of “visitations from absent friends”, stories that are “straight from the pipe’s mouth”; and Rashid, the owner of the opium den in which the others congregate.

It’s a chemical romance that begins and ends with the word “Bombay”, where all manner of depravity arising out of addiction is on parade. When the novel moves on from the Seventies in tracing the decline in the characters’ lives, you find an elegy for an earlier time: “Already now there were times when he could feel it slipping away, a way of life vanishing as he watched, the pipes, the oil lamps layered with years of black residue, the conversations that a man would begin and lose interest in, all the rituals that he revered and obeyed, all disappearing.” 

Narcopolis sweeps on to cover the aftermath of the bloody 1992/93 riots, “when the city killed itself” and after which the narrator begins to see the metropolis as an “image of my cancelled self: an object of dereliction, deserving only of pity, closed, in all ways, to the world”.

For others, though, the city represents a way to validate the self, not to cancel it. Like Ravan and Eddie, these aspirants seek to break into the world of film and TV; that most who pursue such dreams fall by the wayside is no deterrent. This is the backdrop to the by-now well-known saga of Maria Susairaj, Neeraj Grover and Emile Jerome, names gleefully pounced upon by the tabloids just some years ago.

 The tragedy is recounted with chilling exactitude in Meenal Baghel’s Death in Mumbai. This is the Mumbai of the 2000s, brash and unapologetic about reaching out to grasp the brass ring, its values amoral and avaricious. It’s not an attitude that’s spoken about when you hear the words, “the spirit of Mumbai”. The suburb of Oshiwara and its environs, where much of the book is set, is revealed to be “an ocean of anxious insecure, ambitious, competitive, vulnerable and often rudderless people”.

Baghel meets those known to and touched by Grover’s murder – friends, families, colleagues, room-mates – to create a riveting narrative. In her hands, the affair isn’t just a triangle; it’s a polygon, with numerous sides encompassing a murky centre.  She also talks to those such as TV and film producer Ekta Kapur and director Ram Gopal Varma – the latter referred to as “cinema’s equivalent of an ambulance chaser”. Stating that “crime, not Bollywood is our salutary entertainment”, Baghel illustrates the intermingling of the two, pointing out that Love Sex Dhokha was “an edgy triptych about sexual betrayal, cinematic aspirations and parental disapproval – themes that deeply resonated with Neeraj’s killing.”

Death in Mumbai, then, is a well-researched cautionary tale, reportage that reaches beyond the incident it describes. Another such example set in another suburb of the city, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is the most compelling of these books. Boo takes us into the slum of Annawadi, bordering the international airport and in the shadow of luxury hotels, to reveal people hanging on by their fingernails to globalisation’s promise of a better tomorrow. As she writes, in just one of the book’s many memorable phrases, “Annawadians now spoke of better lives casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past”.  Things are bleaker with the economic downturn: “We try so many things,” says one slum-dweller, “but the world doesn't move in our favour”.

At first, one is reluctant to get deeper into the book: surely, one has had one’s fill of spirited recreations of those from the slums, especially on screen. Below this is the reluctance to engage with familiar middle-class guilt. To overcome those qualms is to find that Boo’s book is necessary reading: amazingly detailed, accurate and revelatory of an “enriching, unequal world” where “anger and hope were being privatized” like much else in the city. Corruption is everywhere; government agencies are “operating as private market stalls not public guardians”.

The characters that populate the “undercity” of Annawadi are a far cry from jazz musicians and star aspirants, and the only addicts here are those who get high by sniffing discarded bottles of correction fluid. There’s Abdul, a garbage picker accused of a horrific crime and caught up in a web of courtroom appearances, police cells and detention centres to outrival Dickens. There’s the ambitious Asha, who believes that politics is her way out of the slum: “She had by now seen past the obvious truth – that Mumbai was a hive of hope and ambition – to a profitable corollary. Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy”.

Though Boo’s book is more a critique of what the forces of globalization do to the underclass than a book about Mumbai, you soon realize that it could only have been set in this city, with an ever-growing influx of migrants, and with political collusion and corruption leading to the proliferation of shantytowns.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not without its moments of grim humour – a youth engaging in petty theft is referred to as a “new economy saboteur” – but the overall picture that emerges is that of adapting to an uncaring environment, if not downright resignation. These slumdogs don’t want to be millionaires; they just want to lead a life more decent than the ones they live at present.

For some, then, it’s still a maximum city; for others, it has a minimal future. Some arrive here hoping to find streets paved with gold; others realize that they’re filled with no more than garbage. Whichever version of Mumbai you inhabit, from swinging past to crumbling present, the city has always found a way, as these five books reveal, to both surpass and confound expectations.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

If You Really Want To Hear About It

This appeared in today's DNA.


In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger has Holden Caulfield say, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it”. This feeling of intimacy between author and reader is one of the defining characteristics of Salinger’s work. As such, a biography of the author may seem like an intrusion, a stepping into a sacred space – more so, given Salinger’s own obsession with privacy.

In the latest such attempt, it helps to find that the biographer, Kenneth Slawenski, counts himself as one of Salinger’s chief fans, being the administrator of a website devoted to the man and his work. The tone throughout, therefore, is one of respect, not to mention outright admiration. (This is something that can be taken too far, such as when Slawenski affirms that Salinger’s short story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ was the inspiration for Nabokov’s Lolita.)

Nevertheless, J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High is readable for the persistence with which it takes us through the main facets of Salinger’s life – beginning with the early ambition to become a writer, his repeated efforts to be accepted for publication in magazines such as Saturday Evening Post on one hand and The New Yorker on the other, and first mentors such as editor Whit Burnett and publisher Jamie Hamilton, both of whom he was to have a falling-out with decades later because of the manner in which they represented his work. What comes through time and again is Salinger’s obsession with his craft over the years, writing to the exclusion of all else, and revising and re-revising until he was happy with the results.

From the start, Slawenski tries to establish correspondences between Salinger’s fiction and his life, an early example being his pointing out that the author’s half-Jewish-half-Catholic heritage is something shared by the fictional Glass family. Given the restrictions on quoting from Salinger’s stories or letters, the in-depth analyses of his output comes across as dry, bereft of the voice that Salinger strove so hard to perfect.

However, what is riveting is the biographer’s piecing together of Salinger’s time in the army during WWII. Starting with a relatively quiet stint at army bases in New Jersey and Georgia, Slawenski goes on to recreate Salinger’s participation in the bloody Normandy landing, the liberation of Paris, the depredations during the Battle of the Bulge and – if Slawenski’s speculation is right – the discovery of the horrors of Dachau. All of this, he emphasizes, was to have a marked effect on Salinger, causing him to deal with trauma by treating writing as a form of healing. He was to be profoundly influenced by the teachings of those such as Ramakrishna Paramhansa (calling The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna “the religious book of the century”) and by Zen teachings via, among other things, his friendship with D.T. Suzuki.

With an archivist’s glee, Slawenski traces the many short stories in which Holden Caulfield and his siblings make an appearance, all of which – starting with ‘Slight Rebellion off Madison’ in 1941 – were to culminate in the seminal The Catcher in the Rye, published ten years later.  From this time on, Salinger’s taste for solitude was to become even more pronounced: he was to ensconce himself in a secluded, picturesque property in Cornish, New Hampshire, where stayed until his death in 2010, at 91.

In Cornish, he was to immerse himself in writing the “prose home movies” about his beloved Glass family – the seven children of Bessie and Les, including Seymour Glass, whom many believed was a stand-in for Salinger himself. The last of these stories, ‘Hapworth 16, 1921’, was published in the New Yorker in 1965; from that time on, though Salinger was believed to be writing obsessively, there’s been no new story published.

Slawenski outlines Salinger’s well-known attempts to protect his privacy, including the court case against Ian Hamilton to block the publication of his biography, which the British journalist then had to recast as In Search of J.D. Salinger. (Another often-told tale repeated here is that of Salinger refusing Elia Kazan the rights to turn Catcher into a Broadway show, saying “I fear that Holden wouldn’t like it”.)

The biographer’s respectful attitude extends to Salinger’s relationships with women, from the early liaison with Oona O’Neill -- daughter of the playwright and later wife of Charlie Chaplin – to the ups-and-downs in his life with Claire Douglas, his second wife, whom many believe was the template for the fictional Franny. Of other relationships with those much younger, there’s not much said here, barring a passing reference to Joyce Maynard, whose side of the relationship can be found in her controversial, not-so-flattering recollection, At Home in the World.

The influence that Salinger still exerts on authors and reader is remarkable, considering that it’s been over two years since he died, and over 40 since any new work was published. In a rare 1974 interview to The New York Times, he confessed: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. ... It's peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure”. That pleasure was something he protected till the very end.