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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?

 

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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.

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.

sbThe Wandering Falcon

Booklove: Jamil Ahmad and the Last Frontiers

Jamil Ahmad, author of The Wandering Falcon.

(Published in the Business Standard, July 14, 2014)

The work of a good political agent in the days of the British Raj could be splendidly varied. In Flashman and the Great Game, George Macdonald Fraser has a highly coloured description of the “political’s” job:

 

“After a couple of days, when I’d got the old Urdu baat rolling familiarly off my palate again, I even browned up and put on a puggaree and coat and pyjamys, and loafed about the Bund bazaar, letting on I was a Mekran coast trader, and listening to the clack. I came out rotten with fleas, stinking of nautch-oil and cheap perfume and cooking ghee, with my ears full of beggars’ whines and hawkers’ jabbering and the clang of the booths… It helped to get India back under my hide again, and that’s important, if you intend to do anything as a political.”

 

Jamil Ahmad died this week, at the age of 81, leaving a lifetime of warm memories and one minor classic, The Wandering Falcon, behind him. The most interesting part of his career had begun in Swat, where he was a political officer in 1971, though unlike Fraser’s Flashy, Ahmad did not feel the need for costumes and theatrical make-up in order to get his job done. Instead, he travelled across Balochistan, until he could have recited the family trees of the frontier tribes in his sleep.

 

The new Commissioner of Swat knew the area well: he had spent time as a political officer in Waziristan, Baluchistan, Malakand and the Frontier. But something changed in ’71; he began to set down his encounters with the tribes on the typewriter he shared with his wife, Helga. When we spoke some years ago, they laughed at the thought of how his writing began—he had aspired to poetry, but Helga, an exacting critic, said that he was wasting his time. He began writing sketches instead, and setting down incidents as they were told to him. They would make up the nine loosely connected chapters/ short stories that became The Wandering Falcon decades later, starting with the life of the orphaned boy, Tor Baz, whose name gives the book its title, continuing through the prostitute and slave markets of Mian Mandi, with Ahmad’s careful eye not shying aware from the death of camels, or the massacre of tribes.

 

Faiza Sultan Khan discovered Jamil Ahmad when the retired government official sent in a short story he’d pulled out from an old trunk to her literary magazine. She introduced him to editors and when she speaks of Ahmad today, it’s of the integrity and the gentleness of the man as much as of his talent.

 sbThe Wandering Falcon

What many readers loved about The Wandering Falcon was something they sensed in the way these stories were told, the lives of the frontier tribes revealed with compassion and openness, not dug out as anthropological curiosities: Jamil Ahmad’s integrity as a human being was inseparable from his skills as a writer.

 

As Faiza says, “He wrote about the tribes with such humanity, not seeking to explain them to us, but trying to make us see that we were just like them.” The empathy was mutual. The Powindahs and the Baloches narrowed the distance between the Commissioner-saheb and themselves. Faiza tells the story of how Ahmed had to tactfully decline the offer from his friends to provide a sizeable escort to his daughter on her first date—a well-meant offer, though one can only imagine what his daughter would have felt if he’d sent her off with the escorts in tow!

 

When we met, he was undeterred by illness, happy to talk about Delhi, where he had grown up and attended St Columba’s school. He was as wide-eyed as a child on the subject of the changes that had overtaken Delhi, though his gravitas returned when he spoke of the far sadder changes that had swamped his friends in Balochistan.

 

He wrote with gentle honesty and unflinching clarity. What he had chronicled in The Wandering Falcon, which won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award, was the almost unbearable sadness of a proud culture with its own integrity, despite many flaws, coming up against the blank, unyielding wall of a civilisation could not understand, let alone share, the way the frontierspeople saw the world.

 

In The Dead Camel, Ahmad was blunt: it was the tribes themselves, and the way they lived, that went against the harsh grain of this thing called civilisation. The Pawindahs, the “foot people”, move freely across from hills to the plains in order to find grazing for their flocks. “This way of life had endured for centuries, but it would not last for ever. It constituted defiance to certain concepts, which the world was beginning to associate with civilization itself. Concepts such as statehood, citizenship, undivided loyalty to one state; settled life as opposed to nomadic life, and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline.”

 

One way of life had to die. Many historians chronicled that death, but it took a writer like Ahmad to tell the full story of the General and the last of the travels of the Kharot tribes.

 

As the General reminded us, life is full of unpalatable things: it is best to develop a taste for raw onions, and to find a way of loving the world, even as the old ways collapse around you. There may be flashier, more spectacular writers than Jamil Ahmad, but few had his integrity, his wisdom and his compassion. May his tribe increase.

#flashreads for free speech:

Free speech primer: a user’s guide

#flashreads for free speech/ Feb 14th

Prem Panicker and Nisha Susan asked me to do this for Yahoo! India; it’s a compilation of the work done by many other people, writers, lawyers and activists, on free speech issues in India over the years.

Read the primer here: How to Fight Censorship and Remain Free

One of the earliest references to the power of the human tongue comes from the Rig Veda, where Vac, the goddess of speech, speaks of the riches that she bestows. The line that reverberated with me for years was so simple, and so powerful: “Hear that you are heard!”
That is the argument, in essence, for free speech and freedom of expression: everyone hopes to be heard, and wants to have the space to tell their own stories.”

Speaking Volumes: A is for Apple: what college won’t teach you

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(Published in the Business Standard, April 30, 2013)

 

Back in my day, which was of course when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Delhi University suffered from a serious case of envy.

 It had the St Stephens’ versus Hindu battles, the dazzling brilliance of the Kirori Mal dramatic society, the nerdy appeal of Sri Venkateswara, the steely intelligence of LSR and Miranda, the drama obligingly provided by Ramjas’s swaggering sons of the soil each year. But it remained dismally aware that it was not, despite all its hopeful bravado, anywhere near the twin towers of excellence represented—in those decades—by OxfordHarvard.

 JNU attracted international students in reasonable numbers, even if those percentages didn’t come anywhere near the casually global feel of a US college campus. Delhi University gawked at the scattered handful of students who had strayed so far from home. The twin ambitions of students in the late 1980s and early 1990s demonstrated a sound grasp of Indian reality: you either sat for the government service exams, or applied abroad.

 It was understood that those who went to an ordinary university in India had already failed, by being either too incompetent to clear the magic trinity of IIT/ IIM/ Medical, or being woolly enough to want to do a degree that could not be converted into instant cash. The only honourable thing to do was to either reach for power—hence the lure of the IAS—or escape abroad. 

 Underlying all of this was an inescapable truth: with a very few exceptions, Indian universities fail miserably in the area of imparting a real education to their students. Before you send me a flood of emails explaining how much you love your alma mater and what it did for you, consider how few Indian colleges encourage students to think for themselves, to prize and value their own creativity. Fewer still treat their students with respect, choosing to see students as overgrown children, rather than as young adults in charge of their own lives.

 There are exceptions; in North India, JNU and Jamia consistently appointed teachers who taught their charges how to question, and open up to, the world at large. On campus, the Delhi School of Economics was one of the few institutions that encouraged students to air their views, and that trained them to consider the logic and structure of a debate, rather than judging an argument by its emotional force.

 The National Institute of Design, the School of Planning and Architecture and at least some of the country’s art schools have been far more successful than most Indian colleges at encouraging their students to think independently and to explore their own creativity.

The IITs and India’s medical colleges, for all their success in other respects, produce surprisingly little original thought or writing on the sciences. The kind of analysis and writing on medicine that Atul Gawande or Siddharth Mukherjee have produced is neither nurtured nor understood in the Indian system. Nor do Indian science students write with the intensity and clarity that Robert Kunzig did about the oceans in Mapping the Deep, that Daniel Gilbert did about the science of happiness in Stumbling on Happiness, or that Mark Lynas did about the weather in Six Degrees.

 Delhi University has always had fine individuals in the teaching profession. But they are all too often pitted against the administration, as has been the case with the recent outburst of anger with major syllabus and systemic changes, pushed through by the authorities without proper consultation. The new syllabus, which would replace the old degree system, has massive flaws that have been pointed out in extensive debates over the last week, and the conclusion that the university preferred not to consult its stakeholders, forcing these sweeping changes through without serious discussion, is inescapable.

 But I would suggest that the problems with Delhi University—and many of India’s universities—go deeper than even this current crisis. The bookshops–or lack of them–were symbolic of the indifference surrounding the university. Most of the “bookshops” in the area stocked textbooks, photocopied notes, cheap guides called kunjis, and a smattering of classics. Though the pavement booksellers of Daryaganj in Delhi, Fountain in Bombay and College Street in Calcutta remain much-loved, pavement bookshops are no substitute for the kind of well-stocked libraries and intelligent, independent bookshops that act as an informal education for students in more privileged parts of the world. Their absence in Delhi University, and in other Indian universities, mirrors a wider absence, a disengagement with ideas and reading that is so embedded in our daily lives that we no longer notice these gaps.

Our universities do not train their students to think in these directions, any more than most of them really believe in giving young adults independence. The “boys” are often seen as unruly, disruptive forces, the “girls” as dangerously demanding creatures: both must be controlled and disciplined.

 The idea that part of the job of a college or a university might be to help young adults handle their newfound independence, and to teach them to think for themselves, rather than as an extension of their families, their clans or their caste groups, has not found wide acceptance. In a speech that went viral across the Internet, the writer Neil Gaiman explained what students in the humanities were supposed to do: make good art. “Make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”

 Make mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting than when you found it. These are great rules for life, but you’re not going to learn them at most Indian universities.

 

Speaking Volumes: Anthropology

 

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How to write about the poor:

 

He knows he won’t get very far if he thinks about them as “the poor”, or as “them”. The reader will sense the impenetrable barrier between him and his subjects, and an acute reader will feel the clunkiness of the dialogue he put into their mouths.

 

He knows that this doesn’t stop other authors: some write with that barrier firmly in place, for the benefit of readers who like to peer into the worlds of slumdogs and halwais from a safe, germ-free distance. But he’s Mohsin Hamid, so this will drive him to find a better way to write about the poor.

 

So he will, in a deceptively slender book called How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, pull off an act of stunning audacity. He will not be deterred by the fact that what young Asia wants is unrelenting banality—rewarmed and defanged myths, love stories discounted down from television soaps, tidy novels that reaffirm safe middle class values, diet and self-improvement books. Instead, he will smuggle in an original, moving novel, one that holds to the dated values of clean sentences and literary worth under cover of the self-help banner.

 

He writes about his characters, a boy and a girl breaking out of their grindingly impoverished and limiting world, with flair, even with style, and definitely with intelligence, which will make some readers suspicious. To soothe them, he will soften them up with regular reassurances that they are, indeed, reading a self-help book: “…A self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author.” It is possible that the intelligent reader will see right through his pretence—here he is, an astute novelist pretending to belong on the same shelf as Who Moved My Cheese?—so he reassures them: “This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia.”

 

In other words, he will write about the poor the only way one can: by lying, so that people put off by the idea of reading about the poor–*shudder*–will be lured into his net. This is cunning of him, just as it is clever of him to pull off the second person voice throughout. It allows him to write about the world with precise sarcasm, and about the poor with a measure of respect. The third person voice would reveal the layers of reportage that went into his book—the world of dusty new arteries, gray effluent water,  the internet cafes that smell of women’s hairspray, sweat and semen.

Writers are used to grabbing and squeezing the lives of the poor for juice; but Hamid’s use of the second person gives back “the poor” some privacy. He is aware of this; he knows his characters as well as he knew the rich bored boys in your first novel, Moth Smoke. But the second person allows a little distance, a little dignity, a little space—all those luxuries we reserve in India for the filthy rich, never the poor.

 

How to write about the rich:

 

The other night, at one of those Delhi dinners set against a tastefully crumbling monument hovering like a respectful khidmatgar in the background, I watched a young girl who reminded me of Daisy Buchanan. Like Daisy, her voice was low and thrilling; it promised that there would be “gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour”.

 

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the rich in The Great Gatsby from the perspective of a privileged outsider, someone who was invited to all the parties but doesn’t have his own polo ponies. Edith Wharton and Leo Tolstoy wrote about being wealthy from the inside, but they were among the exceptions—the rich don’t like holding up a mirror to their own lives in print.

 

Many of the authors who write with the sharpest intelligence on the subject of property, wealth and their subtly warping ways either had little wealth or came to the security of wealth late in their lives—Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Fitzgerald himself.

 

The film version of The Great Gatsby comes out at a time when the glamour of being rich has been significantly tarnished. If the rich in the US are responsible for bank crashes, and the rich in Europe are selling their islands along with the family silver, the rich in India have a disturbing tendency to pick each other off in farmhouse murders. But what makes Fitzgerald such a wonderful writer wasn’t that he unpicked the corruption that accompanied wealth—that would have been boring.

 

He understood the true allure of being rich: you stood, as Daisy Buchanan does, “safe and proud above the struggles of the poor”. And what made the rich dangerous wasn’t that they were corrupt; it was just that they were careless. They were so good, like Tom and Daisy Buchanan, at smashing things.

(Published in the Business Standard, April 16, 2013)