Saturday, April 11, 2015

Home And The World

This appeared in today's The Indian Express

On a December morning in 1986, the ten-year-old Rafia Zakaria’s Aunt Amina left her husband to return to her parents’ house. This, to the young Zakaria, was mystifying, until it was explained to her that Uncle Sohail had taken a second wife. The reveberations of this episode and the context against which they play out form the driving force behind Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife, a domestic memoir of Pakistan that's counter-balanced by public events.

In Shame, the novel banned in Pakistan almost immediately after it was published in 1983, Salman Rushdie writes: “I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge.” However, he continues, “the women seem to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories and comedies”. If Shame is set in Rushdie’s “looking-glass Pakistan”, The Upstairs Wife is Pakistan-as-jigsaw-puzzle, with many pieces – though not all -- portraying women’s tragedies, histories and comedies.

The book moves backward and forward from 1986 in an ambitious attempt to capture Pakistan’s “intimate history”.There are vignettes to do with the lives of Zakaria’s grandparents in undivided India: Konkani Muslims living in the shadow of Mumbai’s Jamia Milla Mosque, they stay on after Partition, changing their minds and arriving in Karachi only in 1961. There’s the saga of Aunt Amina who returns to her husband and his second wife: she lives on an upper floor, with Uncle Sohail’s time equally divided between one and then the other. There are mini-portrayals of other members of the family: the author’s mother, for instance, who is determined to provide her children with an education.

Interwoven with these are observations on historical events, notably, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which forms the book's prologue. Other pieces of the jigsaw that make up this portrait of Pakistan feature the Bangladesh War, the effects of the Islamic policies of Zia ul-Haq, the struggles between the muhajirs and other communities, and the fallout of happenings in Afghanistan over the years. A lot for any place to endure.

It’s an approach that works well when there’s a resonance between the private and public. The day of Benazir Bhutto’s killing, for example, is also the day that Uncle Sohail is in hospital after suffering a stroke. As Zakaria writes: “For one odd, brief, and singular moment, the catastrophes of my family and my country had come together, showing me how they were woven together, knotted and inextricable, inside and outside, male and female, no longer separate.”

At times, though, the links seem forced: “One year after Uncle Sohail took a second wife, another strange wedding took place in Karachi [that of Benazir Bhutto with Ali Asaf Zardari]”. At yet other times, the connections are tenuous, especially as many pieces of this jigsaw aren’t specifically about women’s lives. This can give The Upstairs Wife, deeply-felt and keenly-observed though it is, something of a fragmentary character.

Journalistic set pieces or otherwise, Zakaria’s slices of life in Pakistan are always revealing. There is, for example, the delicious tale of how Hamida Bogra, wife of Mohammad Ali Bogra, third Prime Minister of Pakistan, started a campaign for women’s rights after her husband fell in love with his secretary, resulting in the country’s Muslim Family Law Ordinance. Pages and years later, there’s the moving account of Shaheeda Parveen, sentenced to be stoned to death because her previous husband alleged that he had never really divorced her.

The significance of The Upstairs Wife also lies in its portrayal of the quotidian in the face of the uncertain. “There was the outing to the beach disrupted by the kidnapping of a friend’s father,” the author recollects, “the concert that concluded a half hour after it began because of a bomb threat; the exams carefully prepared for again and again and again only to be put off due to curfews and killings and strikes and sit-ins”. Here, as elsewhere, Zakaria demonstrates how public events shape private lives. Individuals may change history, but more often than not, it’s the other way around.

Bihari Hamlets And Don Quixotes

This appeared in the March 9, 2015 issue of India Today.

In one of the stories from Siddharth Chowdhury’s new collection, The Patna Manual of Style, the narrator settles down for a train journey, looking forward to re-reading Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches: “a book which always calms me down and makes me feel more generously disposed towards humanity in general”.  In a famous essay written in 1860, the Russian writer mused on two types of characters in fiction, the Hamlets and the Don Quixotes. The first is eaten away by self-reflection, while the second is purposeful and full of belief in reaching his self-proclaimed aims. Both types of characters can be found in Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style; the former comes across as a fictional stand-in for the author himself, while the striking figures he encounters represent the latter.

Readers of Chowdhury’s earlier work will find these interlinked tales comfortingly familiar. Many characters and concerns from Patna Roughcut and Day Scholar appear here too, making The Patna Manual of Style an organic extension. This collection, then, largely deals with the continuing fortunes of the twenty-something Hriday Thakur as he navigates jobs and writing projects in New Delhi. Along the way, he charts a course through a loose network of friends, family and acquaintances of varying castes and affiliations, almost all of them with a Bihar connection.

Among the more pleasing aspects of The Patna Manual of Style is its distinctive tone of voice. This, for the large part, is a mixture of the knowing and the naïve, of the sardonic and the nostalgic, of Bihari comportment and new-wave cinema – all of which sounds like it can’t possibly hang together, but somehow does. (In the first few pages, for example, Hriday strikes a noir pose in Connaught Place by buttoning up his ancient herringbone, “patched up at the elbows and cuffs with scuffed tan leather” and lighting “a fresh Gold Flake from the dwindling embers of the previous one”; after a visit to the barber, he thinks that “with the beard now gone and a thick moustache in place I looked more grown-up and purposeful, which I felt was a good thing”; thus fortified, he looks forward to devouring a thali called the Patna Large at Yadavji Litti Centre in one of the bylanes leading to the train station.)

Many stories involve Hriday coming across, or hearing news of, a character from his past – Quixotes to his Hamlet – with the narrative filling in the blanks between then and now. Thus, Jishnu-da, a former university associate, tells him about how he’s now transformed into an “importer of blondes”, by which he means a supplier of Russian dancers for shows, weddings and the like, and of the dangers of mixing heart and head. At the start of another detail-laden and character-filled story, Hriday attends the funeral of one Samuel Aldington Macaulay Crown, “the best proofreader in all of Ansari Road”, and we’re then supplied with details of Hriday’s initial encounters with him, as well as his potted career. Yet another story deals with Hriday’s wife telling him of the suspected affair of one of his old flames, a lever for Hriday to recall past times.

Perhaps the most satisfying story here is told from the point of view of Hriday’s wife, Chitrangada, a rumination that dwells on her gradual acceptance into his circle of friends. More specifically, it deals with the consequences of a drunken lunch with them, during which she first meets the beauteous Charulata Roy, whom Hriday was ealier almost married to. The shift in focus from Hriday to Chitrangada is pulled off efficiently and provides a welcome and needed shift in perspective.

Many other stories, however, are no more than slight character sketches.  There’s the gently self-mocking tale of writer named Siddharth Chowdhury, who has “published a novel no one has actually read”: a postmodern pirouette that sits a trifle uneasily with the rest, especially since this story is little more than a vignette.  Another such vignette brings us the first-person musings of another writer, the daughter of an eminent littérateur, who riffs on people "getting her goat" as an euphemism for sex (that's more corny than horny, if you'll pardon the expression).

To return to Turgenev, it was of his A Sportsman’s Sketches itself that he somewhat self-deprecatingly wrote: “Much has come out pale and scrappy, much is only just hinted at, some of it's not right, oversalted or undercooked – but there are other notes pitched exactly right and not out of tune, and it is these notes that will save the whole book.” One could say much the same of Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style.