All posts by Nilanjana Roy

Writer, reader, curator of interestingness. Author of The Wildings (Aleph, 2012) ; The Hundred Names of Darkness will be out in Dec 2013. Columnist on books (for the Business Standard) and gender.

Speaking Volumes: UR Ananthamurthy and the Quiet Majority

samskara

(Published in the Business Standard, August 26, 2014)

The education of UR Ananthamurthy, the redoubtable Kannada writer who died at the age of 81, was as distinctively Indian as his writings would be. In an interview with All India Radio, he spoke of growing up in Kerekoppa–“Ours was the only home in the forest”—and going to the Kannada school in the small village of Tirthahalli, which seemed like an enormous world in his eyes.

 “I could read a Bernard Shaw play, hear about the Bhagwad Gita at school, and discuss dvaita/advaita philosophies at the mutt,” he told his fellow writer Abdul Rasheed. “I became a writer because so many worlds commingled in little Tirthahalli.” His Brahmin family followed the ‘madi’ rules. His school shirt was considered polluted, because Ananthamurthy had worn it in the company of non-Brahmins—it had to be hung up on its own separate nail. “It was at school, while wearing this shirt, that I would come in touch with people of all castes—Muslims, Dalits, Gowdas, everybody. I became a writer not by wearing madi clothes but by wearing my school shirt.”

 In college in Mysore, his world expanded even further—education was not just what happened inside the classroom, where Kuvempu and others taught, but the debates that continued in canteens, hostel rooms and coffee houses.

 In time, Ananthamurthy would become as famous as any of the writers he had worshipped as a student, well-known for his novels, Samskara, Bharatipura and Awasthe as well as many short stories, essays and criticism. He was also a relentlessly energetic member of the Kannada and Sahitya Akademi literary worlds.

 

bharathipura

 

 In a conversation with Chinua Achebe, Ananthamurthy spoke about the need to belong, but also to criticize your own culture: “When we forget the British and the West, we begin to have our own quarrels with India. To depict the complexities of such a situation, you need a narrator who is both a critical insider and an outsider,” Ananthamurthy said.

 That was a reasonably accurate description of his position in Kannada writing in particular, and Indian writing in general. His natural literary ancestors and his peers were many, and included writers like Premchand or the brilliantly satirical OV Vijayan. Like them, Ananthamurthy was doubly rooted—in his preferred language, Kannada, and in place—but wrote in a universal idiom, channeling Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal as an influence just as easily as he was touched and shaped by DR Bendre’s poetry.

The novels by which he is best known have aged well, but they have aged. Samskara, Bharatipura and Awasthe no longer seem as iconoclastic as they once did. The tensions between touchable and untouchable, old worlds threatened when their boundaries turn porous that he describes still remain, but a new generation of writers and critics, especially from the Dalit community, have sharper inquiries and accusations to make. What was once radical in Ananthamurthy’s writings is perhaps now commonplace, in a time when caste and other privileges are increasingly under question.

 But the power and resonance of Ananthamurthy’s images is still undeniable. At the centre of Samskara (1965) is a rotting corpse, Naranappa’s death plunging a rigid community into turmoil because of the old taboos about pollution. “When the question of Naranappa’s death-rites came up, I didn’t try to solve it for myself. I depended on God, on the old Law Books. Isn’t this precisely why we have created the Books ? Because there’s this deep relation between our decisions and the whole community. In every act we involve our forefathers, our gurus, our gods, our fellow humans. Hence this conflict.”

 Ananthamurthy would continue to call out hypocrisies of all kinds, often angering the narrow-minded, the deeply conservative and the indelibly bigoted, right up to his last decade. He spoke his mind on his fear that Mr Modi and the rightwing’s ascent to power would be disastrous for India, and then he emerged from spells of dialysis in order to join battle with his vociferous detractors. In his last year, he faced attacks from a loud and aggressive rightwing fringe. He had to have police security at his home, after receiving threats for his remarks on Mr Modi; a case was registered him in a Bangalore court under the often-criticized offence laws; and some of his bitterest critics saw fit to celebrate his death by setting off firecrackers.

 Ananthamurthy’s supporters, students, readers and well-wishers formed a less noisy but far more widespread community, a quiet majority who showed up in the thousands for his funeral, to say their farewells to a man whose words had meant so much to them.

 In Bharatipura, he writes with a light, teasing touch about the dilemma of those Indians who knew only English: “I may have to rent a house in Bangalore, become an absentee landlord, talk in English — a radical, throwing parties, living somewhere in the Cantonment with similar rootless people, with an Indianness linked to Ravi Shankar’s sitar, the sculptures of Konarak, and folk songs.”

 That reflected one of his strongest beliefs; he said in one of lectures: “The best thing to do as a creative writer is to be rooted in your language, but branch out into the world.”

 Kannada critics might take years to fully assess Ananthamurthy’s gifts as a writer. For my generation of writers in today’s India, he stood as a reminder that you could be rooted in your own culture and place, but still claim a wider, more universal heritage. Where is the need to choose between home and the world, one or the other, when both are yours by right?

 

Happy Cortázar Centenary

Julio Cortázar, Elecciones insólitas.

 

No está convencido.
No está para nada convencido.
Le han dado a entender que puede elegir entre una banana, un tratado de Marcel, tres pares de calcetines de nilón, una cafetera garantida, una rubia de costumbres elásticas o la jubilación antes de la edad reglamentaria , pero sin embargo no está convencido.
Su reticencia provoca el insomnio de algunos funcionarios, de un cura y de la policía local.
Como no esta convencido, han empezado a pensar si no habría que tomar medidas para expulsarlo del país.
Se lo han dado a entender, sin violencia, amablemente.
Entonces ha dicho “En ese caso, elijo la banana”
Desconfían de él, es natural.
Hubiera sido mucho mas tranquilizador que eligiese la cafetera, o por lo  menos la rubia.
No deja de ser extraño que haya preferido la banana.
Se tiene la intención de estudiar nuevamente el caso.

My (very rough) translation:

The Unusual Elections

He is not convinced.
He is not at all convinced.
They have suggested that one can choose from a banana, a treaty of (Gabriel) Marcel, three pairs of nylon socks, one guaranteed cup of coffee, a blonde in an elastic habit, or even take retirement before the statutory age, yet he is not convinced.
His reticence causes insomnia for the officials, for the priest and the local police.
Because he is not convinced, they have begun to wonder if they would have to take steps to deport him.
They’ve hinted as much, kindly, without violence.
Then he said, “In that case, I choose the banana.”
Distrust him, naturally.
It would have been much more reassuring if he had chosen the coffee, or at least the blonde.
It is quite strange that he preferred the banana.
They fully intend to examine this case again.

gordimer

Booklove: “Being here” — on Nadine Gordimer’s life

Nadine Gordimer (from www.nobelprize.org)
Nadine Gordimer (from http://www.nobelprize.org)

(Published in the Business Standard, July 15, 2014)

“I didn’t know what politics was about until I saw it all happening to people,” Nadine Gordimer said to Alan Ross in a 1965 interview. She had been 15 when she wrote her first short story, about 25 years old when apartheid had been formally institutionalised in South Africa. Gordimer died this week at the age of 90 in Johannesburg. Her legacy included 15 novels and almost 20 short story collections.

By 1965, Gordimer was becoming well-known for her fiction. Some of her closest readers were in the State Publications Control Board, where censors argued whether (1958) was a desirable or undesirable work of literature. Gordimer, unlike many of her fellow South African writers, would not be jailed for her art, though three of her novels – including, A World of Strangers and Burger’s Daughter (1979) – were banned for long periods.

There were no picket fences or cordoned-off lines between Gordimer the writer and Gordimer the outspoken political activist: the censors were evidence of how closely her fiction bled into the real world and vice versa. The men who banned authors such as Athol Fugard and Gordimer, who decided that Es’kia Mphahlele was to be banned from teaching, were often colleagues, fellow writers and academics who did their censoring in secret. Censorship under apartheid extended, infamously, from books outwards. People could be “banned”, and not allowed to speak in public or meet more than one person at a time; these laws were in force against Nelson Mandela, among others.

Gordimer saw literature as a sacred calling, the writers’ task being nothing less than exploring the entire world. In her Nobel lecture, given in December 1991, she said: “Writing is always and at once an exploration of self and of the world; of individual and collective being. Being here.” But her life as a writer had begun with the refusal to look only at what was safe to look at: when she saw Johannesburg, she saw (with greater clarity over the decades) how her country was split into black and white, how the schools were different, how a black child like her might not grow up to be a writer as she had, because only one of them had the right of access into the local library.

“Censorship is control of communication,” she wrote in 1972. The aim of the censors was to act as a political weapon of apartheid, to bring about a situation “where there is ‘no communication’ between South Africa and the ideas that might cause us to question our way of life here”. Censorship, she continued, had successfully wiped out the literature of black South Africans – either their writings or their own selves had been banned.

The worst kind of ignorance was something she regularly breached, much to the alarm of the censors, in her own writings: the ignorance of white people about the inner lives of their countrymen of another colour. To write about these lives without appropriating them required a particular skill, and there Gordimer trusted her own writer’s ability to inquire as deeply into the human condition as possible. “First, you know, you leave your mother’s house, and then you leave the house of the white race,” she said in another interview in 1962.

And she was outspoken and firm in her defence of Salman Rushdie during the years of the Fatwa. She wanted people to recognise how the plight of one individual was an echo of a wider attempt to silence (sometimes murderously) dissenting, inquiring or provocative voices.

Her later story collections – , – and novels – , – ran in parallel to Gordimer’s active participation in worldwide anti-censorship movements, her growing involvement with the Aids crisis and the government’s handling of public health issues.

In Gordimer’s world, the writer’s life had the private side to it, the disciplined days and weeks when she was alone with her writing, and the public side of committees, protests, letters to various regimes, and she embraced both with almost equal keenness. In person, she was a slight woman with a formidable presence and a piercing gaze; she was polite rather than imperious, but conveyed the unmistakable impression that she would not allow her time to be wasted.

But it was perhaps when she read from her works that she was most compelling. In an early recording, she reads from a tart short story, her voice sharp, birdlike, completely in command of the stage: a voice that invites listeners, expecting them to listen in respectful silence.

Some 40 years later, Gordimer read from Jose Saramago’s touching The Centaur, and her brisk voice softened a little around the sentences that speak of a pursued creature without a homeland, destined to be a permanent refugee. Exiles, the marginalised and the persecuted, those who had been told they didn’t belong: this had been her territory, too.

writeratlarge

Journal: The Creative Life & How I Write

writeratlarge

The best writing advice ever is something you’ll hear from all the pros — figure out your rituals, use the space you have well instead of waiting for the perfect space, and most of all, write regularly.

Back in my twenties, I’d hear all of this — write every day, write regularly, show up at the typewriter/ computer, make an appointment with your Muse — and nod, and keep on reading, looking for The Secret Key to Writing. I thought you needed permission to be a writer, or the perfect space, or something; it took about two decades for me to figure out that all you needed was to start transferring the story in your head out of your head.

Starting out as a fiction writer, I have just one rule for myself, and it’s very simple, but it’s also slowly changing my life: write what makes you happy. More on that later, but for now here’s a link to an interview with Mumbai Boss, which asked some writers–Samit Basu, Namita Devidayal, William Dalrymple, me so far — a bunch of fun questions on how we write.

How I Write:

Do you procrastinate?
All through my twenties and thirties, by taking jobs that ran close enough to writing (journalism, publishing etc.) so that I could feel happy being around books while ignoring the fact that I wasn’t actually writing my own. Real procrastination is subtle: allowing chaos, drama, toxic relationships, poverty (material and emotional) into your life is a time-honoured way to avoid writing.

A well-ordered, happy, creative life and the comfort of routine are priceless. That calm foundation sets the ground for both writing and for other things—challenging travel, the ability to exercise your curiosity, to invite new experiences into your life.

The moment you start writing, and you realise how much richer and happier you feel when you’re making up interesting stuff for a living, the need to procrastinate disapparates.

Continue reading

Journal: Rubble — Three Stories for Jorge

For his Identidades Ocultas Series, New York-based artist Jorge Tacla asked people from four different professions — a philosopher, an art curator, a psychiatrist and a story-teller — to contribute short essays/ reactions.

Jorge Tacla, Identidades Ocultas

I loved collaborating on this — maybe there’s a natural jugalbandi between artists and photographers, maybe it’s just that the visually creative approach the world a little differently from writers, who work with the relatively more audible world of words and sentences. I wasn’t sure whether Tacla was expecting a proper essay, but his canvases were inspiring: massively layered, dense, tactile, and ominous and reassuring at the same time. So I wrote him three short-shorts. Here’s one from Rubble: Three Stories for Jorge.

Screenshot 2014-07-24 00.00.02

It looks even prettier in Spanish!

Screenshot 2014-07-23 23.59.21

To see more of Jorge Tacla’s work: his Publications page

The Identidades Ocultas exhibition, on at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, in Santiago, Chile till September 2014

vasquez

Booklove: The Sound of Things Falling

Screenshot 2014-06-24 12.13.56

(Published in the Business Standard, June 16, 2014)

It is only once in a while that animal tragedies impinge on human consciousness: the pathos of their suffering has to be extreme in order to jump the queue of human misery.

Some weeks ago, a Copenhagen zoo culled Marius, a giraffe with the soft nose and friendly air of a plush toy, to worldwide anger and indignation. Marius was fed to other zoo animals. The only reason for executing the giraffe was that he had undesirable genes; the zoo refused to listen to pleas from others who offered Marius a home.

That demonstration of dominion – man’s absolute authority, even unto life and death, over the animals in his keeping – came in the same week that a friend sent me Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling. His story of human tragedies – disappearances, assasinations, the evocative sense of a country where violence sweeps like malarial fevers through people’s everyday lives – starts with the death of an animal.

A hippopotamus escapes from Pablo Escobar’s zoo and spends his freedom recklessly, taking what he wants from the Colombian countryside. When he is finally shot, his death comes as tragedy: he had escaped with his mate and their baby, and it is the debate over what should be done with the lost hippos that brings back the narrator’s memory of more human losses.

The Sound of Things Falling is richly moving despite the atmosphere of menace and despair that surrounds its characters, and it came as no surprise when it won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award recently.

Mr Vasquez has a voice entirely his own, not in debt to any previous Colombian writer, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “In the darkness of the bedroom I thought of that, although thinking in the darkness is not advisable: things seem bigger or more serious in the darkness, illnesses more destructive, the presence of evil closer, indifference more intense, solitude more profound.”

The Sound of Things Falling solved a problem that the Indian writer, in and out of English, grapples with: how to write without ignoring the electric thrum of violence in India, but without turning fiction into an autopsy report.

In an essay, “The shiver of the real”, Amitava Kumar sets out a manifesto for Indian writing. He writes: “I hereby call for a literature that engages with ‘the real': not just the depiction of blood on the streets, or, for that matter, the cold air of the morgue, but also the warm, somewhat moist atmosphere of unwanted intimacy in the waiting room in which we have left behind a little bit of our past.”

Later, Mr Kumar writes – bringing to mind the way Mr Vasquez chronicles the noisy, chattering, relentless debate around the future of his fictional lost hippos – of the “news careening about on social media”, almost all of it bloodspattered, grim or grimy. “A writer’s task today, more than ever before, has become one of making sense of violence,” Mr Kumar writes, before gently pointing out that a writer’s task is also to see that what is around him or her is real and worth examining.

You don’t read novels as prescriptions, and I read The Sound of Things Falling for the most basic of reasons: because I liked Mr Vasquez’s storytelling, and I liked the sound of his sentences. But some weeks after events in India had swept Colombia from my mind, Mr Vasquez’s words kept coming back to me. He deals squarely with the missing parts of his country’s history, casually telling all the stories that many in Colombia today insist are unimportant or not useful; he remembers everything that has disappeared.

Julio Cortazar – another writer who, like Mr Vasquez, saw his own country more clearly when he was some distance away and did not have to breathe the air of violence and intrigue – divided the reception to his work into two segments. One kind of reader loved literature and books, and shared his need to struggle. The other kind did not like Cortazar’s writing. “The bourgeois readers in Latin America who are indifferent to politics, or those who align themselves with the right wing, well, they don’t worry about the problems that worry me – the problems of exploitation, of oppression, and so on. Those people regret that my stories often take a political turn,” Cortazar said.

He could have been speaking of Indian readers in this time. The demand made of writers here is that either they become reporters of the violence around them, recording each massacre like history’s clerks, or they produce pleasing books that allow people to stay in their comfort zones.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yuo1QRApeLQ

Some weeks after I finished The Sound of Things Falling, I looked for interviews by Mr Vasquez. In one, he speaks of following “the unofficial Latin American tradition, which said that you had to leave your country in order to be a writer”. The atmosphere in Colombia – violence, fear, corruption – kicked him out, but then he returned to Bogota, where he lives now. When I think of the generation of Indians in their twenties, many of whom hope to be writers, I think of his words: “I’ve always believed,” he says to The Huffington Post, “that one of the things that literature can do is open your eyes when most people want to close them.”

babel

Speaking Volumes: A Perfect Time For Babelfish

The Tower of Babel, Bruegel.
The Tower of Babel: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

(Published in the Business Standard, June 30, 2014)

In a country criss-crossed by centuries of traders, explorers, invaders and curious travelling locals, deciding what language should be dominant in the 21st century is no small thing.

The local languages have deep symbolic resonance, but choosing one over another could cause explosive resentment. The institutional languages are imported from elsewhere and formalising one of them as the official tongue would spark justifiable anger. As Morocco grappled with these issues, their struggle with identity politics, history and present-day language domination would have been dazzlingly familiar to Indians – if we had been looking at our language politics in a more global framework, which we’re not doing.

The debate in India over dominant languages – the imperial legacy of , the present and contested crowning of – was summed up years ago by in his song, “I am a Third World Child”: “They said/’You should learn to speak a little bit of English/Maybe practise birth control/Keep away from controversial politics/So to save my third world soul/They said/’You should learn to speak a little bit of English/Don’t be scared of a suit and tie./Learn to walk in the dreams of the foreigner …

For most postcolonial countries, this was the devil’s bargain: entry to the global world and its suits and ties, at a price. Even when English was subverted, taken over, rendered fully Indian or given a Nigerian accent, it came with Clegg’s warning: to speak in English was to exchange your dreams for the dreams of the foreigner.

This is the platform on which most countries across the world build an argument for the use of local languages, but as with India, few countries stop to see if the position of English remains as culturally dominant as it once was, or check the health of their own languages before making the switch.

In a telling note by the Columbia Global Centre, linguists examine the dominance of English in scientific and educational research. They note that this is a problem of influence. Original research is published in many languages: from French and German to Arabic, Spanish, Russian and Chinese. But the journals that make the highest impact and that exert the most influence have been in English.

This has strong implications for India, where the demand for any Indian language to be made official must take into account two major factors. One of them is an institutional failure – just as until very recently, the Hindi-language publishing market had been swamped by English bestsellers by Indian authors in translation, the lack of original research conducted in most Indian languages is both revealing and alarming. This is a failure of the imagination as much as the will, as though we find it hard to believe that the job of academics and scientists should be to think along original, free and creative lines.

Indian researchers don’t yet have the dilemma that Spanish or Arabic language researchers or thinkers do – should they address the local audience that understands them, or reach for a wider audience elsewhere with no shared cultural context in common? But if we do adopt any Indian language as the official one, its reach will have to go beyond courts, schools and the bureaucracy: in order to thrive and have influence, a language must encourage creativity and originality.

The other problem that India has with language hegemony is put very well by , associated with the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, which counts at least 780 Indian languages as opposed to the government’s official count of 122. Mr Devy’s arguments for the need to protect rising languages such as Bhojpuri is eloquent. Instead of one tongue to rule them all, one tongue to bind them, the state should look at how best to preserve this diversity.

Some years ago, the writer wrote: “I dream of an english/full of the words of my language./an english in small letters/an english that shall tire a white man’s tongue …

Historically, that has been one way out of the language tangle: the proliferation of feeder languages, pidgins and creoles, so that there are many Englishes, many Hindis instead of one dominant language.

But the world might be changing faster than we realise. It is hard to estimate actual language use on the internet – social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, are “deep” sites, hard to search, and Web spiders are not very good at estimating the reach of local-language blog platforms and sites. It seems, though, that English is only one of many dominant languages online; it may be in the lead, but the internet speaks Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and several other tongues.

In 2012, the then Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, suggested that students be given the opportunity to learn Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese in order to access nearby Asian markets. Importing those skills would be expensive, and the proposal may never take off – but Ms Guillard may have stumbled upon the next wave in language shifts across the world.

Instead of conquest or imperial domination, it might be regional affinities that decide which tongues you bring into your life. And the language of the neighbours might leave a better taste in our mouths than a language forced upon you by conquistadors, internal or external.