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Speaking Volumes: Mr Mistry’s homecoming

(Published in the Business Standard, December 8, 2014)

“Mother said what she liked best was his remembering everything so well, how beautifully he wrote about it all, even the sad things, and though he changed some of it, and used his imagination, there was truth in it.”
– “Swimming Lessons”
, Tales From Firozsha Baag

The group of women queuing for their lattes at the Times of India literary festival at held copies of Rohinton Mistry’s novels aloft with the triumph of successful autograph hunters. None of the books were new; one woman, a nursery schoolteacher in her 20s, had brought her college copy of A Fine Balance, while her friend clutched a second-hand, now 10-year-old copy of that she’d bought from a pavement bookseller on Flora Fountain.

One girl had brought her student copy of Such A Long Journey from her days at University of Bombay. She had graduated in 2009, the year before Mr Mistry’s novel was, memorably and disgracefully, burned by the student wing of the Shiv Sena, and dropped from the syllabus at the university. “It feels good to get his signature on this,” she said. She did not complain directly about the burning or the banning of the book, but she said, “I liked reading it when I was a student. People should be able to read good novels, no?” She traced Mr Mistry’s signature as she was talking, her fingers touching the ink lightly and with love.

When Mr Mistry had read from his works the previous day, she and her friends had been among the group of readers at the back who had been identifying characters and passages, annotating his readings with their whispered sharings as they compared their memories of his novels.

In comparison with many writers, Mr Mistry has a small oeuvre – three collections of short stories, of which Tales From Firozsha Baag is probably the best loved, and three novels, Such A Long Journey, and Family Matters. But the collected works have a power that exceeds those of many longer bibliographies. His novels tend to stay in readers’ memories in a way that many more experimental novels don’t – Mr Mistry said in one of his interviews that he prefers honest books to clever books, which is a succinct description of his own writing.

Mr Mistry came to writing relatively late; he studied mathematics at the University of Bombay and had a job in customer service at a Toronto bank when he took a course in literature along with his wife, Freny. She graduated from the course and became a teacher; he began writing short stories, almost pitch-perfect right from the start, and soon left the dubious pleasures of customer services behind in favour of the writing life.

In one of my favourite stories, “Swimming Lessons”, a man in Canada decides to finally learn how to swim, remembering the sea off Chowpatty (“it seemed that the dirtier it became, the more crowds it attracted”); his memories are punctuated by the exchanges between his father and mother at home in India, sharing the stories their writer son has sent them by parcel post. Their wonder – “our son is a writer and we didn’t even know it, here we are thinking he is still clerking away” – is followed by a set of quiet exchanges between them: does the writer write about India because he is unhappy in his new country, or is he just, as the father argues, using his memory and his experiences to shape his fiction?

They share the stories back and forth, taking it in turns to read each one, and the argument over what fiction is for and what writing should be continues, parallel to the main narrative.

That set of exchanges on the need for stories and the art of storytelling came back to me when Mr Mistry read from his works on the second day of the festival. His voice is resonant and controlled, and he has a flair for timing, honed perhaps from his many years of performances as a folk singer. His friends say he is not so much a recluse as a very private man; even so, set him in front of an audience, and he becomes as eloquent a storyteller off the page as he is on it.

He had – finally, after several years of people trying and failing to persuade him to make a public appearance in India – given in to the persuasion of the organisers. In April, Bachi Karkaria reported that Aditya Thackeray, who had led the protest against Mr Mistry’s novel in 2010, had been asked at a meeting in Dadar’s Parsi Colony if Mr Mistry could revisit the city of his birth without fear; Mr Thackeray had said that the author would be free to come. Mr Mistry mentioned the Shiv Sena in passing: “My first thought [on hearing about the ban on Such A Long Journey] was, did it take them 19 years to come across it? I’ve heard of slow cooking, but slow reading? I heard that the sales of the book went up after that.” The audience roared in appreciative laughter.

He stayed in form when he accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday. “A lifetime achievement award is a funny sort of thing, like a death or a funeral,” said Mr Mistry. “When an author gets one, it reminds me of his or her books. It is also the beginning of the end.” And then he took over the mike, singing Don’t Fence Me In and old Bing Crosby numbers, reminiscing about his Bombay childhood and his memories of listening to The Beatles and old Broadway musicals.

Mr Mistry has won many prizes over the years – the Giller Prize, the Neustadt and the Commonwealth among them – but some celebrations are particularly special, and some victories are quiet, not noisy, triumphs. It had been just four years since the city had been told that Mr Mistry was off limits, but now Mumbai gladly rose to celebrate one of its favourite authors and outside Mehboob Studio readers bought his books without fear or fuss.

Murder She Wrote: PD James

(Published in the Business Standard, November 29, 2014, in memory of the late Baroness PD James and her books.)

In the five decades between her first book, Cover Her Face, published when she was 42, and her last, Death Comes to Pemberley, published when she was 91, the Rt Hon Phyllis Dorothy James murdered over a score of characters. She had a knack for it; the reading public thought so too, devouring the 14 Adam Dalgliesh novels and the two Cordelia Gray mysteries.

When she died this week at the age of 94, she had reigned over the world of crime fiction, drawing in both the kind of reader who had a taste of Agatha Christie’s tidy village mysteries and the sort who preferred the new, bloodier school of Nordic-inspired thrillers. Her books may have had old-fashioned settings – from Oxbridge to Jane Austen’s fictional estates—but she had a cold eye; she saw the skull beneath the skin quite clearly.

“I had an interest in death from an early age,” PD James acknowledged in her Paris Review interview. “It fascinated me. When I heard, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, I thought, Did he fall or was he pushed?”

Many reviewers felt there was much of her in Adam Dalgliesh, the Detective Chief-Inspector who rose over the 14 books in which he featured to the heights of Commander. Dalgliesh is sensitive, compassionate, a poet who grew up in a vicarage, but also a quietly relentless tracker of evil, a fullblooded widower who has discreet romances, one of them (mentioned in an aside) with PD James’ other sleuth, Cordelia Gray.

James loved the city of Cambridge, and based some of murders in university towns, but she herself had not attended university; her father felt that women did not need a higher education. She did assorted jobs, taking up full-time employment in hospital administration after her husband came back from the Second World War with a serious psychiatric disorder. PD James cared for him, and for their daughters with the help of their families, until his death in 1964. She had written Cover Her Face and A Mind To Murder by then, and would continue to write at a steady, even pace, producing a book roughly every two-and-a-half years or so.

Her notes for each mystery were kept in carefully organised notebooks, around 7 to 15 for each novel, recording details of landscape, the history of the time, the lives of the characters, the ways in which they were to die or to kill. She had trained herself to rise early and write before the bustle of the household began; this settled into lifelong habit, and she was known for writing between 8 am and 12 noon on most days.

It was the keen edge of her craft that made a PD James novel so satisfying, as much as the human frisson of reading about someone else’s tragedies. Robert J Ray records a lecture by James in a 1987 article in the Orange Coast magazine:

“Remember these four things. First, the body must be discovered by an innocent, a child or an unsuspecting citizen. That increases the shock value for the reader, who sees through innocent eyes. Second, the body should appear early, preferably in line one of chapter one, but no later than chapter two. Third, you cannot as a writer enter the point-of-view of a killer after the body has been discovered, after the reader knows there’s been a crime committed. Otherwise, you give it all away, because the killer, being human, is re-thinking the murder. Fourth, the killer should not be revealed until 60 per cent of the book is done.”

By 1991, she had become a national asset, a position confirmed when she was made Baroness James of Holland Park. James had her critics – many said that her novels were of the old conservative school, that the settings were both tidy and old-fashioned. But as PD James wrote in the introduction to one of her omnibuses, the modern detective story remained, despite some shifts, a reassuring genre. “It distances for us the atavistic fear of death and by fictionalizing it… helps us to come to terms with its inevitability. It affirms the sanctity of the individual human life and confirms our belief that we live in a generally benevolent and rational human universe.”

She had no fear of death, herself; a lifetime of exploring the fragility and precariousness of human life had only strengthened her faith. The pleasure in having lived a rich life came through in many of the interviews she gave after the age of 80. After her death, the first tributes to the Baroness came from Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, the next generation of crime writers paying tribute to the grande dame of their genre. They owed PD James much, and they were proud to acknowledge that debt.

Speaking Volumes: The History House

(Published in the Business Standard, November 24, 2014)

The of is situated in a quiet lane, away from Dhaka’s background traffic-jam roar, in a graceful two-storied whitewashed bungalow. It is a peaceful setting in which to try to understand history and the horrors of 1971.

The museum started only in 1996, with a few hand-curated exhibits. Over time, Mofidul Hoque and the other curators at the museum had put together a small but moving record of the genocide that accompanied Bangladesh’s birth as a nation. Many of us writers, in Dhaka for the Hay Festival, had found time to visit; Salil Tripathi, author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, a non-fiction account of 1971 that includes many interviews with survivors, had told me that the museum should not be missed.

A man was thatching the roof of a small sitout in the courtyard, his movements expert and unhurried. As we moved through the house, each room opened up slowly, taking visitors from the history of this part of Bengal to the great protests that brought students and citizens out into the streets of Dhaka into the 1960s. Photographs of the war were in the last room of the ground floor; you ascended up a wooden staircase into the worst of the slaughter of 1971. The Liberation War Museum had collected over 14,000 memorabilia, Mr Hoque had written in a 2010 letter; what was on display was a fraction of the memories they had so painstakingly gathered.

I had just finished reading David Finkel’s moving and disconcerting Thank You For Your Service. Mr Finkel, one of The Washington Post‘s most meticulous reporters, had been embedded in Iraq in 2007, publishing his experiences in (2009). Thank You For Your Service went deep into the trauma and struggles to adapt to life after war of the many United States veterans.

“Every war has its afterwar,” Mr Finkel had written, “and so it was with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans. How to grasp the true size of such a number, and all of its implications, especially in a country that paid such scant attention to the wars in the first place? One way would be to imagine the five hundred thousand in total, perhaps as points on a map of America, all suddenly illuminated at once. The sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast.”

That was one side of it; the other was the constant struggle – consistent for writers, archivists and historians across centuries – to convey what the victims and survivors of war had to grapple with. Despite his years of covering war as a correspondent, Mr Finkel wasn’t prepared for what he would encounter when he tried to track the “afterwar” and the lives of soldiers coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. He told the online magazine Guernica that he had few illusions about the impact of his book – he did not expect to be able to affect war policy, but he hoped to bring the suffering of the afterwar into the light.

In one of the most powerful chapters of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, Mr Tripathi went to speak to the biranganas, the women who had survived the war despite being raped and often tortured. He went in with many doubts: “Why would women want to open up their lives to me, a foreigner, an outsider, a man who came to visit them and asked questions, asking them to go over some of the most painful moments of their lives … And what would they get out of that exercise?”

His hope was to talk to the women, not as a voyeur, nor as someone promising “justice or an income”, just to listen with sympathy and empathy. He met 28 survivors, eventually, and wrote: “I decided to tell the story of each woman I met, because each experience taught me something new. It is easy to talk of a ‘quarter of a million rapes’ and think that each violent encounter was the same. It never is. I owed them the decency, the courtesy, of recognizing that.”

Ahead of me, two students spoke in Bangla, in low urgent murmurs. One boy was visibly disturbed. Why were they here, he asked repeatedly. The war was history. It was over. Was there any use in seeing these disturbing, shattering images of the dead, the dying, and those about to die? His monologue weaved ahead of me like a guide’s patter, filling the pause between each devastating story and the next – the two babies, turning to each other for comfort moments before their death, the coat taken off the body of a doctor murdered by the razakars, the torture ligatures on a student’s upraised hands. His friend listened, not saying anything, until the boy was finally silent; then he said in Bangla, but if we don’t know what they did, how will we prevent it from happening again?

They left, and I walked into the last room, coming face-to-face with a small collection of skulls and human bones, respectfully collected in a glass case. Nothing about the Liberation Museum was designed to shock, but the unexpectedness of this stopped me cold; perhaps it was also that there were only a few skulls, some bones, not the great charnel houses that pay silent witness to the killing fields of Cambodia. I turned away, held by that instinctive human fear of the dead.

And then something happened that I cannot explain. Perhaps it was the way the exhibits had been collected, the poignancy of the individual enamel tea cups or jackets, the shaving kits or the handwritten notes. The scale of what had happened in that old massacre began to sink into my brain: the immensity of the loss, the vast numbers of those whose lives had been winnowed in the slaughter, the high cost of every human conflict, then and now.

When I looked again at the grey bones, I did not see the anonymous dead; instead, I thought of the people they had once been, students making handwritten signs for the protests, rickshaw-pullers resting in the cool spaces of the evening, professors collecting their notes in preparation for a lecture at Dhaka University. Perhaps it was Mr Finkel’s words and Mr Tripathi’s writings, but the fear of the dead lifted and disappeared. The only thing I wanted to say to them was futile but also heartfelt: how sorry I was, that their lives had been cut short by horror and war, how I wished these evils would never happen again.

Speaking Volumes: “It was Delhi, you know.”

(Published in the Business Standard, November 10, 2014)

Unless you go very early in the morning to Chandni Chowk, before dawn, an hour or so after the flowersellers market has opened, it is hard to see in today’s city of politicians the “Dilhi” where poets once ruled.

That city can be imagined easily enough in the sliver of time between dawn and about 9 a m, as the great ancient markets stir and the lanes – quiet, narrow, not yet crowded with porters, handcarts and Honda sedans – see some of the old havelis open their doors.

It is not difficult then to conjure up this city: “The breezes that blew so pleasantly through the lanes and bazaars of resonated anyway with the poetry of Mirza Bedil, his disciple Achal Das, his friend … The winds wafted away the poetry to far-off places.”

But then the present takes over firmly from the past, and Ghalib’s ghost leaves, ushered out by the raucous bargaining of the traders, the silversmiths in Dariba and the costumesellers in Kinari Bazaar.

– critic, scholar, poet, editor and novelist – published in 2001, completing this translation from the Urdu himself some years later. In the absence of a literary history of the mushairas, poets, teachers, printing presses, historians and writers whose darbars rivalled the official ones over north India from Lucknow to Varanasi to Delhi, these five long stories serve as both literary entertainment and as history.

To read is to be reminded not just of the poets and their passions, but of the many centuries when this part of India took literature as seriously as it did politics. Perhaps more seriously, for rulers came and went, but a good ghazal or dastan would last the ages.

Mr Faruqi translates in harmony with the spirit of the age he is writing about, using a brisk, contemporary English woven through with terms like “The Guide and Mentor, who occupies the station of the Tongue Unseen”.

In “Bright Star, Lone Splendor”, a young Ruswa, Mian Beni Madho Singh, comes to Delhi from an Awadh “in the Firangi’s shackles”. His education has been in Persian, Arabic, English, mathematics, history and “something quite unfamiliar which was called Hindi”, where the language he and his family spoke at home loses some of its dulcet flow when weighted down with “the hard-to-pronounce Sanskrit vocabulary”. (The complaint, only lightly worn by a century’s use, was still a common one in the Walled City a decade ago.)

Mr Faruqi likes a sprawling canvas, filled in with intricate detail, and The Sun That Rose From The Earth unfolds as his novel The Mirror of Beauty did. This is unhurried storytelling, dense rather than meandering, filled with world-building detail. Like the other stories in this collection, “Bright Star, Lone Splendour” takes time to unfold, but that pace has the useful effect of slowing the reader down, removing him or her from this hurried age. For maximum enjoyment, switch your message alerts and Twitter feed off when you’re reading Mr Faruqi.

Ruswa finds the courage to approach Ghalib, and the two poets, the master and his young admirer, settle into a writers’ friendship. In a charming passage, Ruswa daringly decides to ask Ghalib to “autograph” his books of poetry – newly published by the Nizami Press in Chaman Ganj. Ghalib sahib complies, but he also suggests – and this will gladden the hearts of contemporary authors – that showering them with a necklace of 21 gems, or robes of honour, might be a better sign of appreciation than “buying a little book for half a rupee and getting it autographed”. (Modern readers, take note.)

The debates of the day emerge: language and authenticity are large preoccupations, with arguments over those on whom their mother tongues (Hindi, or Bengali, or Bhaka) exert a pull can truly express themselves in Persian. A little further on, in “The Rider” (set around 1764-1769), the argument has changed: “The better poets today were turning to Rekhtah in large numbers. Rekhtah had a brilliancy of wit and a freshness of colour that was lacking in Persian.” Even further on, Hindi begins to show its uses and its dexterity.

Mr Faruqi tries his hand at fable, fairly successfully at an old-school ghost story, and displays sweeping ambition in “Such Meetings and Partings, Ultimately”. This story starts in the house of Zohra the Egyptian in Nakhjavan, shifts to Tabriz, and follows Labiba Khanum as she settles briefly in the gardens of Isfahan, only to travel the high roads down to Delhi, where she is greeted by Mir Taqi Mir’s poetry.

If the details about the poets themselves, from Ghalib and Ruswa to Mir Taqi Mir, Kishan Chand Iklas and others, or a score of beguiling, formidable, unforgettable courtesans, will draw many readers, at least as many will enjoy The Sun That Rose From The Earth for its portrait of Delhi across the centuries.

Mr Faruqi’s love for the city – and for other cultural centres in north India – is as evident as his scholarship. Basant (spring) unites “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain or Nanak Panthi”; all have a taste for the Basant, its mustard flowers and marigolds, when the whole city is “drenched in yellows, saffrons, ochres”.

Nor is his love blinded by nostalgia: in the title story, a courtesan cruelly dismisses a poet who has written a scathing ode about her. “It was Delhi, you know. Scandals, rumours, poems, especially cruel and abusive poems, were enjoyed more than the choicest foods and tobaccos.”

The poets may have yielded place to ambitious longform journalists, and the scent of Jaunpur’s jasmine flowers may have been replaced by the traffic fumes at the ITO crossing; but the Dilliwallah‘s love of beauty, the city’s syncretic culture (beleaguered but not yet dead) and the appetite for good gossip still remain. And perhaps even the poets survived, or so the hipsters of Hauz Khas village would like you to believe.

Book review: The slaughterhouses of the world

(Published in the Business Standard, October 19, 2014)

The Narrow Road To The Deep North
Richard Flanagan
Random House;
474 pages; Rs 420

On June 27, 1971, Gitta Sereny conducted her final interview with Franz Stangl, who had been the commandant of Treblinka and Sobibor. She had already accumulated 70 hours of interviews with this man, responsible for the deaths of so many, in what would be a lifelong mission to understand evil.

In this last interview, her questions were pressing, and she withdrew her sympathy: she did not accuse Stangl, but she placed a fence of silence between her and him.

“My conscience is clear about what I did, myself,” he said as he had said many times before. Sereny said nothing.

“I have never intentionally hurt anyone, myself,” he said. Sereny remained silent.

“But I was there,” he finally said.

Those few sentences, Sereny wrote, had taken almost half an hour to pronounce. Stangl, 63, went on to speak of his guilt. Sereny left; and a few hours after her departure, the former camp commandant died, of natural causes.

That story makes a powerful impact because it is true. Perhaps we need it to be true, to believe that in the long annals of human history, evil is brought to its knees when it finally glimpses its own face in the mirror. But what happened between Stangl and Sereny is also powerful because it is rare.

In the world we live in, the men who start wars, crusades, medieval battles of conquest or riots, who cause the deaths of thousands and hundreds of thousands, often avoid confrontation and punishment. The world’s most efficient mass murderers are not known for admitting their own guilt.

Richard Flanagan’s is a war story that treats the mysteries of love and the mysteries behind evil with equal weight. It starts quietly, with a line of immense beauty: “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?”

Then it follows the veteran soldier Dorrigo Evans into appalling darkness – not the war of combat and trenches, recognisable and touched with glory despite the destruction, but a far grimmer business. Mr Flanagan’s sixth, Booker-winning novel takes its title from a Basho poem, and is dedicated to “prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)”.  Mr Flanagan’s father was one of the few to survive the Death Railway, which took the lives of some 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs), and a “quarter of a million Tamils, Chinese, Javanese, Malayans, Thais and Burmese”, who were conscripted along with the POWs by the Japanese to build the line between Burma and Siam in 1943.

For the survivors, Mr Flanagan writes, “Forever after, there were for them only two sorts of men: the men who were on the Line, and the rest of humanity, who were not. Or perhaps only one sort: the men who survived the Line.”

In J M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, a novel that judders as a novel but is indispensible as an examination into the perils of attempting to understanding evil, there is a moment where Costello sets forth a plea for not wading into the murk and horror of the worst of human suffering. She calls explorations of evil obscene: “Obscene because such things ought not to take place, and then obscene again because having taken place they ought not to be brought into the light but covered up and hidden for ever in the bowels of the earth, like what goes on in the slaughterhouses of the world.”

In Costello’s cautionary words – ruthlessly picked apart by Mr Coetzee’s pitilessly inquiring mind – she echoes the warning that a bishop gave Gitta Sereny, when they met while she was researching murderers and the worst of humanity. He said to Sereny that she should be careful of “exposing oneself” to the devil, for then the devil might invade those who are that unguarded against horror.

Mr Flanagan is no horror tourist; if you take this journey with him, he will guide you through these circles of hell with pity and compassion. His approach is very distinct from the safely distant frisson of shock that accompanies the ritualised viewings of today’s news pictures of dead infants or beheadings, and Mr Flanagan has, as a human and a writer, no truck with the current vogue for the pornography of violence.

The Death Railway, in his careful but unflinching reconstruction, pitted real horror – deaths by cholera, by beatings, from ulcers, from starvation, men rotting in the jungle humidity on the Line – against small things, friendship and the sharing of a duck’s egg, minuscule kindnesses offered by the dying to the near-dead.

Dorrigo Evans, who hates virtue and men of virtue, is a living demonstration of human goodness all the same; and men such as Major Nakamura and the Koran soldier called The Goanna are seen to have been warped by evil, the way wood warps and rots in the rain, without losing their sense of themselves as good, normal people.

The force behind Mr Flanagan’s writing is imperceptible, but undeniable: The Narrow Road To The Deep North is one of those rare books that has the power to change its reader. It carries the same urgency and moral force as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Braided with Dorrigo Evans’ memories of the Line is the other part of his life – a love affair with a woman, vivid, blue-eyed, whom he first sees wearing a red flower. Amy is married to his Uncle Keith; Dorrigo will marry another woman, have children with her, and both these marriages will have the weight, sag and comfortable shelter that old relationships provide over time. Mr Flanagan is as good at describing love – its inexplicable power, its everyday beauty, the inexorable force of it – as he is at describing war, and Amy (“Amy, amie, amour”) becomes as real to the reader as Dorrigo has. They make the right decisions, or perhaps the wrong ones: Mr Flanagan understands that adultery has as many complex shades as a marriage, and that both of these relationships have their own secrets, their own particular sanctity.

It is not that difficult to come across well-crafted books, but it is a rare novel that is, in Mr Flanagan’s phrase, life itself. Parts of The Narrow Road To The Deep North are intensely difficult to read, as hard as reading survivors’ accounts of massacres or autopsy reports. But Mr Flanagan keeps the reader going because his prose is compelling, if unbearably honest in its depiction of evil, almost too convincing in its understanding of what might make those who have committed evil feel absolved, if they have done it in the company of others.

“A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else”; but Dorrigo Evans has both a demon-haunted past and the memory of an undeniable, burnished, true love. It will take you a long time to forget him, or the novel and the world on the Line that he survived.

“Novels are life, or they are nothing”: Richard Flanagan

(Published in the Business Standard, October 15; a quick introduction to this year’s Booker winner, Richard Flanagan.)

Out of the many stories that tells so well about himself and Australia’s past, there’s the unforgettable one about the time he met the Lizard.

He was researching The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the novel about WWII’s Death Railway; his father had been one of the troops—British, Australian, Dutch, Indian—who survived being conscripted by the Japanese into building the Burma-Siam line. Over 100,000-200,000 of the labourers conscripted died: “more corpses than there are words in my novel,” Flanagan told Guernica. Then he met the Lizard. Once one of the most brutal of the camp commanders, he was now “a gentle, gracious old man” who spoke quietly of the past. They talked for an hour, and then Flanagan asked the man to slap him. It had been one of the camp punishments; he wanted to see what it would be like. The Lizard, now just another old man, slapped him, reluctantly, just as one of Tokyo’s earthquakes shook the room. Flanagan says to his interviewer of that encounter: “And I realised at that moment that wherever evil was, it wasn’t in that room with me and that frightened old man.”

Neither Flanagan’s novels nor his life as an activist lean on the comfort of easy answers. He grew up in Tasmania and said in his Booker speech: “I come from a tiny mining town in the rainforest in an island at the end of the world. My grandparents were illiterate. And I never expected to stand here before you in this grand hall in London as a writer being so honoured.”

The bookies’ odds on Flanagan had improved as the date of the prize announcement drew closer, but Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and Howard Jacobson’s J had been the front-runners, with Ali Smith, Karen Joy Fowler and Joshua Ferris also producing rewarding novels. Readers who know Flanagan’s writing love the way in which he finds different answers in different novels to the question of how humans make their peace with memory or are weighed down by its rough stones. Those who haven’t read Flanagan before might want to begin with Gould’s Book of Fish or The Unknown Terrorist, just to whet your appetite for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

It is typical of Flanagan that a book built on such grim material, historical and personal, should begin so beautifully: “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” Dorrigo Evans, now in his old age was one of the men who had survived the Line; he finds his solace in the writings of men long dead, Homer, Basho, Shisui. “As naked slaves, they were starved and beaten and worked beyond exhaustion on the Line. And as naked slaves they began to die for the Line. No one could reckon it, neither the weak nor the strong. The dead began to accumulate.”

This is an Australian story, but also a Japanese and a Korean one, in parts, and it is Flanagan’s particular genius to convey what it means for ordinary people to be overtaken by a tragedy, still clinging to the once-commonplace, now-luxurious hope of their former lives.

Flanagan’s view of history is hardwon, and not at all academic. He has agitated successfully against pulp mills, for instance, calling others to stand on the road along with him and place their bodies between the machines and their homes: “Our love. Our island. Let’s take it back. Let’s start marching.” His attacks on John Howard, Australia’s refugee policy, the country’s treatment of Aborigines, loggers and Kevin Rudd have been sharp and furious. In an essay on the Commonwealth, he speaks for many when he writes of his own discovery: “Slow and stumbling and finally astonishing, that we were never British in disposition or temperament, that the great southern land had its own stories.”

Being born too late and missing the dream of Empire is a blessing for Flanagan, who has felt free to turn the force of his conscience and his writing – both often entwined – on the myths and wounds of his own country. For a man of such passionate political temperament, his Booker Prize speech was equally revealing of his character. His novels are attempts to capture “life itself”, not thinly fictionalised polemics. He would get back to critiquing Australia soon enough. But when he went up to accept his prize at the Guildhall, Flanagan did not speak of his quarrels with the idea of the Commonwealth, or of the weight of history’s ghosts.

Instead, he included his fellow writers: “Josh, Karen, Howard, Neel and Ali—I see tonight as ours, not mine”. His speech was about the love of writing, and the way in which its practice was a journey into humility.

And Flanagan ended with the most passionate defence of his profession heard in a while, one that will last as his books will: “As a species it is story that distinguishes us, and one of the supreme expressions of story is the novel. Novels are not content. Nor are they are a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels are life, or they are nothing.”

Speaking Volumes: Where They Burn Books

(Published in the Business Standard, October 13, 2014)

You know it’s winter in Delhi when the breeze is scented with the smell of woodsmoke and burning leaves, and when the talk turns, as it does these days, to the question of which books are ripe for burning.

Subramanian Swamy, BJP leader, had a few suggestions when it was his turn to talk at a panel on Hemu and history, held at the National Museum, organised by the ABISY. Affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ABISY’s stated aim is to write “Bharatheeya history from a national perspective”.

Now that the rightwing is in power, the ABISY’s actions are a useful indicator of what to expect over the next five years. Bonfires seem to be popular; as FirstPost reports, Swamy was applauded by those in the auditorium when he said: ““Books written by Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra and other historians of Nehru must be burnt in a bonfire.”

Dr Swamy is well-known for giving voice to the outrageous, but it is a sign of the times that he felt confident enough to repeat his suggestions in interviews to the media, and to justify the burning of history books by referring to the burning of British-made goods in Gandhi’s time. Nor can Dr Swamy be dismissed as merely provocative: he speaks to and for the growing ranks of angry, far right extremists who are not known for their restraint or their tolerance.

The weekend brought more signs of the times in India – an age of swaggering, strutting censorship, the unapologetic silencing or heckling of voices that dared to question or challenge the dominant rightwing narrative. As reported, Forward Press had copies of its October issue confiscated, and cases were filed against the magazine claiming that religious sensibilities had been offended.

The magazine’s crime was to put forward Bahujan and tribal versions of the Durga-Mahishasur myth in a set of articles, most of them scholarly; the one that was singled out as offensive was an illustrated piece.

With the rise in offence laws and their application in India over the last decade, the claiming of offence has become an easy business. Instead of writings, films, documentaries and art exhibitions being seen as a whole, they are in effect dismembered by those who claim offence, and reduced to sentences or images that, taken in isolation, might fit the relevant sections of the law. In the Internet age, distortions of the implied “offence” are common; scholars find that in these warped mirrors, the erotic becomes obscene, a mythical seduction is described as prostitution, and any attempt to bring up alternate versions of religion, especially non-Brahminical in the Hindu context, are recast as attacks on myths and scriptures.

Entire groups of Indians and scholars of India have been, in effect, silenced or threatened by the combination of the laws, and the hidden violence implied in statements like the one made by Dr Swamy. As the Forward Press case indicates, for Dalit historians and writers trying to reclaim their own history, this is a time when threats of censorship hang around their necks like nooses.

This week’s examples—the one against the Forward Press, the ban on the late Shubhradeep Chakravorty’s documentary, En Dino Muzaffarnagar, an investigation into how the Muzaffarnagar riots were stoked by politicians and prominent leaders—are dismaying, and confirm fears voiced before the elections that India would see further assaults on freedom of expression. But it was the tenor and aggression of the threats made that day at the National Museum that made me think of what it means for a nation to get used to the dangerous idea that burning books is not only acceptable, but necessary.

“Where they burn books, they will some day burn people.” Most readers know that this quote comes from the poet and writer Heinrich Heine (1797-1856], but there’s an interesting story behind the words.

Heine was a Germanic Jew, who became a writer at a time of significant but subterranean anti-Semitism. One of his earliest memories was of being mocked at school by his playmates when he innocently said that his grandfather was a Jew. He had put that incident behind him when he wrote Almansor, an early attempt at drama set in Granada in the 1500s, in “the city of double enemies – discord inside, outside malice and rage”. Almansor comes back home and tells his old retainer of the terrible sights he has seen, which includes the burning of the Koran by Ximene, a Spaniard, in the public square. Hassan responds with the famous line.

It is often assumed that Heine, writing in the early 1800s, was prescient about the rise of Nazi Germany, but I think he was writing about his own times after all. His life was free of the extreme horrors one usually associates with persecution; this was a time before the Holocaust, he was not imprisoned (though his Jewishness made it impossible for him to think of a job as a University professor), and he was not tortured or killed for his racial origins.

But Almansor was only staged once, in August 1823 in Brunswick. Heine’s biographer Kossof sets down what happened: just before the last act, a drunk caused an uproar in the auditorium by shouting that the play was written “by the Jew Heine”. The audience in Brunswick confused Heine the writer with a much-despised moneylender of the same name. They rioted; Almansor was never staged again.

It took a century for the mild hatreds and commonly held prejudices of Heine’s time to ripen into something far worse; the world has never forgotten where the book-burnings ended in Germany. India is a different country, and history will take a different path here.

Swamy’s incendiary call to torch and trample on histories of the country that are inconvenient, because they are not histories of hate and divisiveness, is in keeping with his beliefs. But remember what Rohinton Mistry said in 2010 when his book was burned in Mumbai by a different set of intolerant Indians: “Burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone (unless one counts those hired to light bonfires), not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.”

Four years ago, Mistry saw that the book burners, and the rest of India, faced a choice: we were at the lip of the abyss, and we could step back, or go over.

It is still possible to step back, even if time is running out fast.