Speaking Volumes: Those Who Stay

(In tribute to Sabeen Mahmud.)
(Published in the Business Standard, 28 April, 2015)

It was around noon on March 2007 when Baghdad’s street of booksellers went up in flames. A suicide car bomber had detonated in the middle of Mutanabbi Street, killing over 20 people. One of them was Mohammed Hayawi, owner of the Renaissance Bookstore.

“Books and stationery, some tied in charred bundles, littered the block,” The New York Times reported. “Firefighters unleashed powerful sprays of water, only to have flames reignite because the paper had transformed into kindling.”

The late Anthony Shadid had been visiting the Renaissance Bookstore since 2003; he commemorated Hayawi in a grieving, thoughtful piece for The Washington Post. “Life goes on,” Hayawwi had said. “We are in the middle of the war and we still smoke the hookah.” Before the bombing, Mutanabbi Street had been filled with booksellers and intellectuals who, like Hayawi, had “tried to make sense of a country that doesn’t make sense any more”.

In Karachi, two days ago, gunmen followed Sabeen Mahmud back from a talk on “Unsilencing Balochistan”, that she’d hosted at T2F, a buzzing hub for citizens who wanted change, and also for music workshops, open mike nights, children’s storytelling sessions. Mahmud was driving home with her mother. When she stopped at a green light, the men with the guns opened fire on either side. She died in hospital; her mother sustained severe injuries. Mahmud was just 40; in the spate of tributes that came up everywhere, one featured the T2F director in a T-shirt that said, “I think therefore I am dangerous.”

(Kamila Shamsie’s tribute to Sabeen Mahmud in The Guardian)

For writers and the creative community from any country going through times when violence reigns along with its fellow thug, the muzzler of dissent, the choice seems stark. They could leave and face the pain (and sometimes the guilt) of self-chosen exile, or stay and face imprisonment, silencing or death. But what is less clear is how you should live if you decide not to leave. Despite all the risks attached to speaking out or creating an open community that might make you a target, the alternative – to remain silent, abandoning all that you love – is unthinkable to many.

There’s a phrase we often employ, in all sorts of circumstances, that is both banal and meaningful: “Stay safe.” It seems like good advice, until you start asking what is safe and what is unsafe. Since when was bookselling a dangerous profession? In what kind of world does hosting a group discussion in a small community centre become an invitation to murder?

Last month, another blogger was killed in Bangladesh. Washiqur Rahman, just 27, used to write on atheism and critique Muslim majoritarianism under the pseudonym “The Ugly Duckling”. Two of his attackers were taken into custody; they had hacked Rahman down on a busy street with meat cleavers, just as the blogger Avijit Roy had been killed a month or so ago. Roy and Rahman had both been outspoken in their critique of religion and had received death threats previously.

The murders of these two bloggers come at a time when a war crimes tribunal in Dhaka has initiated contempt of court proceedings against 23 Bangladeshi writers, journalists, musicians and activists, including Ziaur Rahman, Masud Khan, Bina D’Costa, Shahidul Alam, Anusheh Anadil and others. Their supposed crime is that they expressed concern in a joint statement over the sentencing of the journalist David Bergman. The tribunal’s actions go beyond criminalising critical journalism – they make even expressing dissent or disagreement a crime.

Bookselling and the existence of books, cafes, intellectuals and writers discussing the most pressing issues of their times are a threat indeed: the existence of such a community threatens hardline fundamentalism, because that fundamentalism cannot flourish in an open community.

Bloggers and rationalists who flourish their atheism and question the tenets of religious fanatics, from Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman to Narendra Dabholkar or the exiled Sanal Edamaruku, are seen as a threat because of the fear that their disbelief and scepticism might spread to the mainstream.

Sabeen Mahmud was gunned down not just for one talk, addressing one of the many taboo subjects in Pakistan today, but because the liberal community and space she fostered is a direct challenge to those who would like to see the country descend further into a regime of brutal intolerance. And the Bangladesh writers, historians and creative artists who questioned the tribunal’s decision are now being put under pressure because their dissent could spark wider questioning of how the state and its instruments function.

Beyond the present grief for Mahmud and for others who have died in this escalating war between fundamentalist intolerance and basic human rights, there are lessons for India.

It would be unwise to take the free spaces and the right to dissent that we have had so far for granted. This last year has seen rising clashes between religious and cultural majoritarians and liberal Indians, a takeover of many educational and cultural institutions by ideologues. Ominously, this government has already signalled and acted on its dislike of dissenting voices from non-governmental organisations and the media.

And yet, despite these troubling signs, it is worth remembering that those who stay on in a country going through upheaval often find ways to thrive and survive even the worst attacks on their spirit.

In 2008, Mutanabbi Street reopened in Baghdad. It was a shadow of its former self, but there were books out on the pavements again; reports said that the Friday curfew was lifted shortly after. In 2014, Al-Akhbar carried a report on Mutanabbi Street: the bookstores had not fully returned, but the pavement vendors were thriving, and the cafes were open once again.

If only they could talk

 

The Interspecies Internet interests me a lot more than the Internet of Things: it’s such a beautiful, simple idea at its core, even though it would take a lot to get it to work.

Peter Gabriel on animal-human animal communication: “What was amazing to me was that [the animals] seemed a lot more adept at getting a handle on our language than we were at getting a handle on theirs,” says Gabriel.’

The Interspecies Internet: Diana Reise, Peter Gabriel, Neil Gershenfeld, Vince Cerf

In the 1980s, Jim Nollman experimented with making music with the help of animals:

Smithsonian Folkways: Playing Music With Animals (Jim Nollman with 300 Turkeys, 12 Wolves and 30 Orcas)

(I like The Lesson a lot. So do my cats, who sit near the speaker with their ears cocked, though they’re not so fond of Cello and
Wolf Pack.)

The most frustrating part of writing The Wildings and The Hundred Names of Darkness was having to translate cat communications (or what I guessed were cat communications) from whisker, scent and touch to speech. I did the best I could, but it was like a more frustrating version of translating from Bengali to English (that’s still speech-to-speech); you’re trying to convey vibrational language (whiskers) or complex scent communications (spraying, scent-marking) into English. It’s clunky, though one way around it is to take the liberty of going inside an animal’s mind, and writing about that interior dialogue. (Tania James does this brilliantly in The Tusk That Did The Damage.)

I don’t know much about animal language, but the research on it is fascinating — from Jim Nollman’s Interspecies.com page on four whale species and communication:

“Other cetacean calls, including most of the toothed whales (i.e. odontocetes) are seldom used by composers. and even less less seldom heard by the general public. Orca calls are jazzy, edgy, and strident. Beluga calls are often dense and otherworldly, produced by a species with more discrete kinds of calls than any other animal. Dolphins are as high pitched as the hearing tests we all took as kids. The great whales — the blues, fins, bowheads, etc — sing low and monotone.”

The idea that animals might have language, thought, empathy, consciousness, a sense of self is unsurprising to anyone who lives with companion animals, or who has observed animals in the wild for however short a length of time. But Brandom Keim wrote a thoughtful essay in Aeon on why humans find it difficult when trying to comprehend animal consciousness:

“I was walking in Jamaica Bay on a bitterly cold and cloudless day when I saw semipalmated sandpipers again, running ahead of a pounding surf that caught the afternoon sun and sprayed their retreats with prisms. As Elizabeth Bishop observed in her poem ‘Sandpiper’ (1955): ‘The roaring alongside he takes for granted,/and that every so often the world is bound to shake.’ I wondered what it would be like to be one of them, to run with the flock and feed in the surf, to experience life at their scale and society. Simply put, did they enjoy it? Were they cold? Did they remember their journeys, feel a connection to individuals with whom they’d flown, a concern for compatriots and mates?

Asking those questions made me appreciate just how deeply I’d internalised the taxonomic system against which Prosek strained, as well as the habit of explaining animal behaviour in mechanical terms. I’d regarded the sandpipers as embodiments of their species and life history, but not as individuals, much less as selves. This oversight was not coincidental. The very history of taxonomy and attendant studies of animal behaviour is intertwined with a denial of individual animal consciousness.”

I’m curious about what would happen if animals could communicate with humans. What would they think of us, and our predatory, planet-dominating ways? Would they find us amusing, as we find some of them? Would we have to dissolve the idea that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’? Probably, because one of the first things we’d learn if animals could talk is that we’re just another animal; a strange, blundering, destructive, cruel, creative, curious species, inventors of bizarre and interesting devices.

Nervous Throat-Clearing

finis

Much to my own surprise, I have finished writing a book. Perhaps some people’s surprise is greater than mine, and that would be the very patient editors at HarperCollins India who suggested some five years ago that I should make a collection of my book columns.

From Bankimchandra's Bengali magazine, Bangadarshan.
From Bankimchandra’s Bengali magazine, Bangadarshan.

I started to collect my book columns and got side-tracked when hard disks (and floppy disks — remember them?) from eons past yielded other things that had been forgotten. Columns on the Internet back when we treated it as a strange new toy and thought Usenet groups and Lycos were so advanced; columns on random subjects that were blatantly written for the cheque back in the days when the partner and I had just started freelancing; columns on food (mostly on eating) from the time our food columnist disappeared and I was pressganged into doing this on the grounds that a) someone in my family had written a cookbook b) I read encylopaedias on food for fun c) I was the most efficient tiffin-raider in the office.

Rokeya Begum, author of Sultana's Dream
Rokeya Begum, author of Sultana’s Dream

So instead of taking six months to riffle through the files, what was then called The Collected Columns or Adventures in Reading or some such anodyne title took about two years to compile. My editor had stopped asking for a date of delivery and was instead anxiously asking whether I was still doing something — anything! — on the book.

Olga Perovskaya's Kids and Cubs, a Russian children's classic
Olga Perovskaya’s Kids and Cubs, a Russian children’s classic

Then I read the columns and realised they couldn’t go into print after all. Newspaper writing is supposed to be for the moment, and is supposed to contain some news, which means they don’t usually read very well six months or two or four years after they were printed. Discouraged, I abandoned How To Read In Indian — it had been retitled, after this essay in Caravan —  and went off and wrote a couple of cat sagas instead. That was a lot of fun. My editor came to the book launch and manfully, through gritted teeth, congratulated me on finishing a book, any book. Even if it wasn’t his. I like to think The Wildings gave him hope, and he was really very patient.

Dean Mahomet, shampooing surgeon, traveller & the first Indian writer to publish a full-length work in English.
Dean Mahomet, shampooing surgeon, traveller & the first Indian writer to publish a full-length work in English.

Once in a while, I’d run into Alok Rai, whom I’d discussed the book with back in 200– never mind when. I’d said exuberantly that I thought I’d finish in maybe a year, since the columns were already done. He laughed, wolfishly, and said, “You wait. Just you wait. It’ll take two years if you’re lucky.” Meanwhile, we were discovering that no one could pronounce How To Read in Indian. It was the “in Indian” bit that was tricky. Someone asked me how my reading nuns book was getting along, and that was the end of that title. My editor found himself a new cardiologist.
bengalienglishverse
Then last December, a friend gave me excellent advice. I couldn’t decide whether the book with no title was a collection of vaguely literary journalism, or whether it should be a literary history of Indian authors and their relationship with English in the 18th and 19th century. Which was a) another terrible title and b) would have taken another four years to research and write. She said, “What do you think it’s about right now?”

I said, “It’s about how much fun it is reading books. And writing books. And eating books.” (That last bit is explained in the book, though I have to admit that the title’s a bit of a giveaway.)

She said, “Well then. Leave it be what it is.”

So I wrote a few more love letters to reading, trying to explain why anyone would spend most of their adult life doing this, and sent The Girl Who Ate Books off to my editors. This came as something of a shock to them, but they’re out of the emergency ward now and the doctors say they’re doing fine. As for the book, it is a hodgepodge, a mishmash, a salmagundi, and it should be out around December 2015.

Picture This: on Radhaben Garva’s remarkable art

Radhaben Garva, from Kutch, has been painting the Indian women’s movement for the last 20 years in vivid, layered sketches. I was thrilled when Granta.com asked me to do an essay accompanying the artwork from her book, Picture This!

garva-cover
Picture This! Painting The Women’s Movement by Radhaben Garva, published by Zubaan Books.
garva-auto
‘Stepping out was stepping in,’ Garva and Sushma Iyengar write, ‘The more we travelled out, the more we met ourselves.”

The essay is up on the site here: http://granta.com/radhaben-garva-painting-the-womens-movement/

In another of Garva’s paintings, Malji, a sheep rearer, thrashes his young bride Sarli; she lies on her side, her mouth turned downwards at the corners in dismay and pain, cartoonish drops of blood staining the earth as the cows watch. She is in colour, her assailing husband and the silent cows in outline; and so are the two women who watch and who will go back to tell the rest, three splotches of vivid pink and leaf green connected by the thread of gender and solidarity.

Alternatively, many of the happiest sketches are about the journeys the KMVS women make once their movement has grown apace. The women are depicted leaving the village, riding on the back of a tractor, their red and green odhnis and wide skirts and the blue of the tractor’s sides providing a vivid splash of colour in an otherwise brown and white sketch. ‘Wherever we went,’ Garva writes, ‘we stared and were stared at – for we were now claiming spaces that were not considered ours.’

Speaking Volumes: A Thousand Tongues

(Published in the Business Standard, March 30th, 2015)

How long have Indians been arguing about language? For centuries, in some style. Shankar Goapl Tulpule records that it was roughly seven to eight centuries ago that Mukundaraja prefaced his great work, Vivekasindhu, with a defiant excuse for using Marathi instead of Sanskrit:

“If common trees can bear fruit on par with the wish-tree,
Why should they not be planted with growing zeal?
So also, even if here the language is Marathi,
The content is the same as that of the Upanishads,
Why should it not, therefore, be stored in the recesses of the heart?”

He had, Tulpule writes, “already anticipated the displeasure of the orthodox Sanskrit pundits” of the day – in their eyes, Indian regional languages were not considered refined enough to be used for serious work. That argument over hierarchy and power between languages ran fiercely in the 13th century: another story Tulpule tells is of the time Kesiraja asked the Mahanubhava preceptor Nagadeva a question in Sanskrit. He replied: ““Please, I do not follow your asmat (‘for this reason’) and kasmat (‘why’). The Master preached to me through Marathi. So, ask me in the same language.”

In many of the present-day arguments over language, English and Hindi dominate the discussion. The arguments over English have not substantially changed over the two centuries that it has been an adopted Indian language: it is an alien tongue (not after 230-plus years), it is unfairly the language of power and jobs (as true of English as it once was of Sanskrit, Persian and sometimes Hindi), it is the carrier of class privilege (an increasingly inaccurate claim as the language spreads, adapts and democratises), it divorces Indians from their root language (this ignores the very large number of Indians who are comfortably bi-or-multilingual).

The imposition of Hindi is a tricky subject: claims made for the dominance of Hindi speakers often club together the speakers of allied dialects – GN Devy, the formidable linguist, points out that over 100 “feeder” languages surround the Hindi belt, and act as the “roots” of Hindi. And opposition to Hindi as the national language rests on the fact that it is an alien tongue, just as much as English, for large swathes of the country. On the plus side, Hindi is easy to learn, and is considered one of the fastest-growing languages in India today; it has also become more adaptable in the sense of assimilating words from other Indian languages.

But all of the English versus Hindi (or English/ Hindi versus The Rest of India) debates in the mainstream, if not in academia, ignore a far bigger question: could India’s dominant languages strangle the rest? GN Devy and his colleagues conducted the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, working over a four-year period to track the number of languages still in existence and the number threatened. The Census of India names 122 languages, of which 22 are scheduled; the PLSI found over 780 different languages and 66 different scripts. In the past 50 years, they discovered that India had lost about 250 languages.

What India should be concerned about, more than the reductive and frankly useless Hindi/ English versus the Rest of India debates, is an environmental issue. Given that this is such a radically, almost magically, multilingual country, preserving language diversity is more important than lingering over the angst of the Indian writer who uses English as his primary publishing language.

In a fascinating 2002 paper for UNESCO, Rajeshwari V Pandharipande offers a simple way to assess power equations between Indian languages: how many domains do they cover? In her analysis, English emerges as powerful because it is used across several domains – business, education, national/ international communication and technology. Regional languages, especially state official languages, also have power: they cover private domains (home), but also education, government, law. Tribal languages emerge as the weakest because they are only used in the private domain, and as their power wanes, they are used less and less often at home.

Another historian of Indian literature, Sisir Kumar Das, makes a comparison between the influence of Persian and the influence of English. Persian, used as the “power” language until it was displaced by English, was, he points out, the language of the elite – but that elite was cross-community, and included both Hindus and Muslims. It had the advantage of being a living tongue, unlike Sanskrit whose reach was more written than oral. And for centuries, Persian served as a medium of translation, receiving texts translated from Indian languages as well as translating other Indian language texts into Persian, from where they spread across the world.

The Persian versus Urdu debate raged as strongly some centuries ago as the Hindi versus English one does. However entertaining, these debates should not blind us to a key fact about India: the dominant language in any region has often posed the greatest threat to smaller local and tribal dialects. Even multilingualism does not cut through hierarchies of power. As Das remarks of the 18th and 19th centuries: “Bilingualism was an accepted fact of life. Bilingualism, however, did not mean equal prestige for both languages.”

It might be utopian to imagine a time when Indian schoolchildren are encouraged to learn one of the many Indian languages on the endangered list as their third language. Or to imagine a time when English, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati and other dominant languages do not, like bullies, overshadow the many, many other tongues that people call their mother tongues. But as our understanding of the map of Indian languages changes and shifts, so should the old, atrophied arguments yield to newer debates.

Speaking Volumes: The Kids Are All Right

(Published in the Business Standard, April 14, 2015)

This is from a favourite essay by a favourite writer – Philip Pullman, who should know, on why children need reading and the arts in their lives:

“Children need to read and listen to proper stories as much as they need to be loved and cared for. The difficulty with persuading grown-up people about this is that if you deprive children of shelter and kindness and food and drink and exercise, they die visibly; whereas if you deprive them of art and music and story and theatre, they perish on the inside, and it doesn’t show… I’m not going to argue about this; I’m right.”

Children also need the right kind of books, by which I mean chiefly the kind that doesn’t preach or talk down to them. They sense when you’re sneaking a moral into a story, or trying to sell fiction that is a lesson in disguise, and their bullshit detectors are as sharp as ours were as kids. “I don’t like books that talk to me like Teacher Madam,” I was told once by a bright ten-year-old who was volunteering with his school’s fledgling library programme.

The kids who loved to read in his rural school didn’t pick out the easy, well-meaning and frankly stodgy books that someone had donated by the cartonload; they reached for books that were often above their vocabulary level, but that had great stories. That’s one reason why Ruskin Bond’s Rusty stories speak to so many generations of Indian children: they know he’s not talking down to them. The Room on The Roof novels worked because they were great storytelling, but also because there was no cautionary tale attached, no statutory warning that said “Running away from home is bad for your health”.

That’s why this year’s Crossword Books Award shortlist in children’s writing is a triumph: because none of the five books on the shortlist are earnest, preachy or are moral science lessons in disguise. Three of the books come from Duckbill Books, which began its operations in 2012 in typical fashion: instead of a book launch, it had the publishers’ family and friends singing the P-p-p-platypus song, and it asked authors to draw them a duckbilled platypus.

Duckbill’s publishers have the right credentials. One of its founders, Anushka Ravishankar, is a very popular children’s books author in her own right (Moin and the Monster, At Least A Fish), and is absolutely brilliant at singing monster songs. Co-founder Sayoni Basu learned the business of children’s book publishing at Puffin and Scholastic and is also an authority on the subject of what you should use to de-fluff a bellybutton (mustard oil and orange peels).

The three Platypuses on the shortlist are fairly typical of Duckbill’s list. In Shalini Srinivasan’s Vanamala and the Cephalopod, Vanamala puts up a notice offering her 8-year-old sister, Pingu, for sale; in Shals Mahajan’s Timmi in Tangles, the heroine has to deal with all sorts of annoyances, such as an Idli-amma who eats up all her idlis and dances on her stomach; and Balaji Venkataramanan’s Flat-Track Bullies is an unusual coming-of-age story set in Chennai.

The other two books on the shortlist are from different publishers. Richa Jha’s The Susu Pals (SWPB Books) brings together a trio of friends and enchanted all but the most humourless of parents, but then you have to be really humourless not to smile at the pun on “wee-wee girls”. Samit Basu already has a massive fan following for his Gameworld trilogy and the paired Turbulence and Resistance speculative fiction novels. The Adventures of Stoob (Red Turtle/ Rupa Books) introduced a ten-year-old with impossible hair, facing an Incredibly Dangerous Exam Adventure and some other creatures – a teacher called T-Rex, a Nalinisaurus and plotting monkeys.

None of Pratham Books or Tulika Books’s titles are on the shortlist this year, but these two publishing houses have also changed the way Indians read. Pratham is an NGO that publishes books in several languages – English, Hindi, Kannada for example – and also publishes story cards, priced at Rs 4/- in an attempt to take stories to the millions of children who might not be able to afford an English-language story book. They invite Champions to read a story every year on Literacy Day to children from under-represented schools: they had 250 champions in 2011, which grew to 1300 by 2014. Tulika Books, like Tara Books, does beautiful production and design on their children’s books while keeping the prices relatively low. Their bilingual books are particularly interesting, while Tara Books scores with its innovative illustrators – Swarna Chitrakar’s patua version of Pinocchio, for instance, beautifully updates an old story.

Twenty years ago, the complaint about Indian children’s books in English was that you didn’t have good production or innovative local storytellers and writers. You have both today; what’s missing is the bridges that connect publishers with readers. There are few imaginative, well-stocked children’s bookstores; the decimation of books pages to one-tenth the space has meant that children’s books don’t get reviewed outside of individual blogs; and there are almost no children’s magazines that carry thoughtful, useful books pages. But at least the books and the writers are there – perhaps the Invisibility Cloak around them will drop soon.

Günter Grass and the losers of history

grass-onion

(Published in the Business Standard, April 14, 2015)

When I heard that Gunter Grass had died at 87, in the town of Lubek, I thought of what he had been at 17 and 18. He was still a boy then, despite what he’d seen in World War Two. He weighed just 110 pounds in his Waffen SS uniform after the 850-calorie diet in the US Army-run camp he had reached after his surrender.

The boy, sensitive, already a storyteller by nature, was slow to understand that the word “capitulation” meant “final, incontrovertible”. The conquering US soldiers’ ability to chew gum was impressive; so were their silent rubber soles in contrast to his army’s jackboots. The Third Reich was over, but even when the American education officer showed them the pictures of Bergen-Belsen, the corpses, the ovens, he couldn’t believe it. He wrote in Peeling The Onion, the 2007 memoir that came out eight years after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature:

“You mean Germans did that?” we kept asking.

“Germans could never have done that.”

“Germans don’t do that.”

Drafted into the Waffen SS at a late stage of the war, he had not done any of that, or participated in any military action of any significance. But “they” did, “they” had, and for the rest of his life, he would be burdened. “One word evokes the other: Schulden, Schuld,” he wrote. “Debts, guilt.”

Grass at 19, 20, away from home in Dusseldorf; he filled out, put muscle back on when he found work as a sculptor. His job was to chisel tombstones, and change the names. The inscriptions – “such as: ‘Death is the Gate To Life’” – were recyclable. In his twenties he tried to write his first novel, The Kashubians, but he didn’t get very far. He managed to kill off all his characters by the end of the first few chapters, so there were no more chapters to write.

But he had been writing all his life anyway, sketching, making notes. His hands were restless, they never stopped. At the Bittweg tram stop, waiting to go home, he would see a line of stonecutting establishments, including the firm of Moog; he put it in The Tin Drum, his most famous novel, as C. Schmoog, sandstone and basalt specialists. When they were not working on tombstones, he and his fellow apprentices restored the arms and wings of park statues that had been maimed in the bombing.

In the 1950s, Grass travelled to Paris. He was close to thirty years old, and he was smoking Parisiennes, deep in conversation with friends and family, when a three-year-old boy came into the room. The boy had a toy drum, a tin toy, that he struck with wooden sticks; he refused to leave or to stop, and he circled the table, drumming determinedly. Then the child left, but his image stayed with Grass: “It would be a long time before the bolt slid open, the flood of images was released and with the images, words I had been saving since childhood.”

He wrote poems and plays (Mister, Mister; The Flood), and then The Tin Drum came out in 1959. The New York Times reviewer recognised its genius, calling it remarkable, and calling Grass “probably the most authentic literary talent to appear in Germany in 25 years”. But, Orville Prescott added in his 1963 review, “It is very German and in many episodes very repulsive… It is gross, grotesque, gruesome and horrible throughout.” Grass wrote many other striking and memorable works – From The Diary of a Snail, The Flounder, The Rat, My Century, Crabwalks – but it was The Tin Drum that readers remembered most and that made the most powerful impact.

In 1987, Grass and his wife came to Calcutta for the staging of one of his plays, The Plebieans Rehearse The Uprising. He made fast friends there among the city’s writers, notably Sunil Gangopadhyay; he caught up with some of them, including the painter Shuvaprasanna, when he went back for a visit in 2005. The city made a striking impression on him. For a while, Grass said, he could not write at all – he set down drawings until the words came back. His account of his time in Calcutta and Bangladesh was called Show Your Tongue, in a reference to Ma Kali:

grass-show

“Kali Puja announced, I saw Calcutta descend on us. Three thousand slums, usually rapt in themselves, crouched low by walls or sewer water, now all ran out, rampant, beneath the new moon, the night and the goddess on their side. Saw, in the holes of uncountable mouths, the lacquered tongue of black Kali flutter red. Heard her smack her lips: I, numberless, from all the gutters and drowned cellars. I, set free, sickle-sharp I. I show my tongue, I cross banks, I abolish borders. I make an end.”

Grass’s reputation was severely tarnished, mostly outside Germany, in the 2000s when the revelations about his wartime past came to light; Grass said in an interview that he should have written his memoir sooner. The shame had silenced him for some decades, but in 2007, he spoke eloquently enough in Sweden at the Nobel Banquet: “I come from a land of book-burning.” Writers, he said, were such a threat to churches, the politburo and the mass media because they saw truth in the plural, they were unable to leave the past in peace, they cast doubt on the victors of history by giving the losers a voice.

These were all flaws Grass had himself, in ample measure. But he also had wisdom, and an intimate understanding of the nature of evil. In The Rat, he anticipated some of the most pressing arguments of our own decade with chilling prescience:

“Towards the end of human history, the human race had developed a soothing, appeasing language, which spared people’s feelings by never calling anything by its name, which sounded rational even when it represented nonsense as wisdom. Marvellous how their politicians succeeded in making words supple and bending them to their purpose. They said that the more terror the greater is the security.”

Reading. Writing. Fooding. Lodging.

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