Writers, October: Amrita Pritam

Amrita Pritam’s short story, Wild Flower, from The Little Mag:


 Angoori was the name of the very new wife of the very old servant of the neighbours of my neighbours. One reason for her being new was that she was his second wife. In Punjabi, they call a man who marries a second time duhaju. Etymologically, a man who has entered a second life — a second life in marriage. The fact that Angoori was in her first life in the marriage made her new. It was not even a year since she had been given away as a bride, so she was still new.

(Amrita Pritam; died, October 31, 2005)

The BS column: English Vinglish

(Published in the Business Standard, October 2012)

The annual birthday party for English is held on October 25, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s birth anniversary, and celebrating it might become a new Dalit tradition.

Over a century ago, Savitrabai Phule, the first woman to teach in the first women’s school in India, wrote a classic ode to Mother English.

Brahman’s rule is now in ashes
Under the English whips and lashes.
It is all for the good of the poor,
Manu’s dead at English Mother’s door.

In another, equally well-remembered poem, Phule urges “Shudras and ati-Shudras” to “learn and break the chains of caste/ Throw away the Brahmin’s scriptures fast”.

It is only fitting that Zareer Masani’s biography of Macaulay, to be published by Random House, opens with a description of a birthday party to English, held at the home of the writer Chandra Bhan Prasad. A poet sings, “O Devi Ma let us learn English/ Even the dogs know English!” And Prasad endorses Phule’s prescription, adding, “Hereafter, the first sounds all newborn Dalit babies will hear from their parents is—abcd.”

Macaulay’s Minute is famous and infamous in India, where the spread of English cannot be denied, but where the influence and importance of the language is often resented. Many in India still bristle at Macaulay’s ignorant dismissal of Indian literature (“a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”), and his intent: “The languages of Western Europe civilised Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar.”

Until Masani’s biography, though, Macaulay had been reduced to a museum portrait–like so many other figures in contemporary Indian history—British and Indian, in the absence of a tradition of biographical writing. In Masani’s well-researched and engaging telling, Macaulay emerges from the dust of the past. He had little physical charm—Thomas Carlyle called him “a short squat thickset man of vulgar but resolute energetic appearance”—but he had a lively, ferocious mind, and a debater’s zest for argument.

By 1832, he was Secretary to the Board of Control, with an office overlooking the Thames: “I am already deep in Zemindars, Ryots, Polygars, Courts of Phoujdary and Courts of Nizamut Adawlut. …Am I not in fair training to be as great a bore as if I had myself been in India?”

Macaulay’s interest in India was broad, but not necessarily deep; he advocated “an enlightened and paternal despotism” for the new Raj. He met Rammohan Roy before he and his sister Hannah came out to India on The Asia. On board ship he read his Greek, Latin and Spanish, neglecting his Hindi and Urdu grammars, and his Hindi was of the ‘coop tunda’ (“khoob thunda”-very cold) variety.

He wrote lyrical passages about the colour and sounds of India, even though he complained that the fish and the fruit were inferior to England’s cherries and cod. Macaulay’s standards were set by England, and when he met the Mysore Raja, he lamented what the king might have been: “If he had been put under tuition, if he had been made an accomplished English gentleman…” His Calcutta was a racially segregated city, with the natives in Black Town, the Angrezis in power.

Masani doesn’t attempt to excuse Macaulay’s prejudices—he was very much a man of his times—but the biographer also draws attention to his brand of enlightened liberal imperialism. “Almost two centuries later,” Masani says of Macaulay’s Minute, “its underlying principles remain the Bible of Anglo-American nation-building in the world’s trouble spots.”

Macaulay’s aim was to produce “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”, and for a while, English was indeed the preserve of the babus and the bhadralok in India. As the latest Census figures demonstrate, it is now the fastest growing language in India behind Hindi, and it has become part of the Indian mainstream.

Macaulay couldn’t have predicted that a century after Savitrabai Phule and other Dalit intellectuals saw the potential of English as a way out of the caste labyrinth, there would be a temple to Angrezi Devi. When work started on the temple in 2010, Chandra Bhan Prasad was quoted saying: “She stands on top of a computer which means we will use English to rise up the ladder and become free for ever.” It was not an easy undertaking; the construction of the temple was halted on one ground or another, most of them remarkably flimsy. Some newspapers reported tension in the area, after members of the upper castes objected to a temple built for and by Dalits.

Perhaps Macaulay would have approved; his aim was not to replace local languages, but to add the library of English into the “native tongues”. As Phule wrote in her poems: “In English rule we’ve found our joy/ Bad days gone, Mother English abhoy!/ English is the inheritance of none/ Persian, Brahman, Yemeni or Hun.” There it stands, 175 years after Macaulay’s Minute, ready to be claimed by Angrezi Devi’s devotees.

140-word fiction: Nine Lives

Photograph copyright @Saadul Islam.

(Sunday Mid-Day asked for a cat story, in 140 words. Here it is.)

My nine lives?

I had a house, once, and Bigfeet of my own: then they packed everything, except me, and left.

There was a word for kittens who wandered outside for the first time: prey.

Seven bird kills, eight battles with rats, two with puppies, and I found a word that fit me better: predator.

No river cat remembers the names of the boats we lived on; the fish, yes, we taste their names in our mouths still.

In Sikkim, I made babies with a monastery cat, solemn kittens with Buddha bellies.

The vet took one of my lives, the time I crossed the road without looking, but he gave me back two.

Two is ample, I thought, and then one was squandered in a bandicoot brawl, but it was worth it.

I have one life left. Three paws.


(To read Sunday Mid-Day’s interviews with Scott Carney, Naresh Fernandes and me, go here.)

Writers, October: Ismat Chughtai

The Lihaf trial, from The Journal of Urdu Studies: http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/15/28naqviExerpt.pdf

 “There was a big crowd in the court. Several people had advised us to offer our apologies to the judge, even offering to pay the fines on our behalf. The proceedings had lost some of their verve, the witnesses who were called in to prove that “Lihaaf” was obscene were beginning to lose their nerve in the face of our lawyer’s cross-examination. No word capable of inviting condemnation could be found. After a great deal of searching a gentleman said, “The sentence ‘she was collecting  ‘ashiqs  ’ (lovers) is obscene.”

“Which word is obscene,” the lawyer asked. “‘Collecting,’ or ‘‘ashiqs’?”

“The word ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness replied, somewhat hesitantly.

“My Lord, the word ‘‘ashiqs’ has been used by the greatest poets and has also been used in na‘ts. This word has been given a sacred place by the devout.”

“But it is highly improper for girls to collect ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness proclaimed.


“Because … because … this is improper for respectable girls.”

“But not improper for girls who are not respectable?”

“Uh … uh … no.”

“My client has mentioned girls who are perhaps not respectable. And as you say, sir, non-respectable girls may collect ‘ashiqs.”

“Yes. It’s not obscene to mention them, but for an educated woman from a respectable family to write about these girls merits condemnation!” The witness thundered.

“So go right ahead and condemn as much as you like, but does it merit legal action?”

The case crumbled.”

(Ismat Chughtai; died, October 24th, 1991)

The BS column: A Swiftly Tilting Planet

The Itinerary is a reminder of how old the bestseller is

(Published in the Business Standard, October 23, 2012)

Ludovico de Varthema set out to see the world in 1502, leaving Europe four years after Vasco da Gama had reached the shores of Calicut.

His voyage to “Oriental lands”—Egypt, Arabia, Persia, through India to Sri Lanka, Burma and Java—was undertaken roughly 40 years after Gutenberg’s printing press had come to Italy, the printed book a popular entrant into the already bustling manuscript market. The Itinerary, his travel journal, became one of Europe’s first bestsellers, translated into almost 50 languages, including Latin, German, Dutch and Spanish.

The illustrations—copies are on display this month at the National Archives, New Delhi—resemble postcards, in the speed with which they were set down by the unknown illustrator, capturing cobras, elephants, merchants, sati pyres, farmers, festivals, spices etc like a photographic album. De Varthema saw himself in the way a contemporary travel writer might, writing of his desire to “determine personally and with mine own eyes… remembering well that the testimony of one eye-witness is worth more than ten heard-says” the abundance of those fabled, if not uncharted, lands.

He is an entertaining companion, discoursing on the partiality of the women of Arabia for white men—indeed, it’s a susceptible Sultana who springs him from jail. De Varthema had a novel method, perhaps wisely not imitated by many tourists, of getting rid of people who bothered him: when two wise men disputed at length about whether he was mad or holy, he settled the dispute by relieving himself on them. “Whereupon they began to run away crying out, ‘He is mad, he is mad, he is not holy.’”

Both the illustrations and the text of De Varthema’s Itinerary feel contemporary; as one of his translators notes, “It is impossible to peruse Varthema’s narrative and not feel… that the writer is telling the truth, that he is describing men, countries and scenes which he had examined with his own eyes.”

As proof of this freshness, the translator adds that there is “a manifest absence of attempt at composition…neither has he felt any qualms of conscience as to his grammar”.

The text brings out how well-connected the medieval world was, even without today’s technology. By the time De Varthema reaches India, he has already formed an opinion of the richness (and trading practices) of its spice and other commodities markets, courtesy his time in Ethopia and the Middle East. He speaks directly to his audience back in Europe, never forgetting—through all his travels—to underline the unusual.

He records a sultan of Gujarat with “mustachios so long that he ties them over his head”; another king who travels, rather delightfully, with “civet-cats, apes, parrots, leopards and falcons”, aside from the usual entourage; is fascinated with elephants; warns first-time travellers to be on guard against “some lions which are on the road”; pays great attention to the local markets and food habits; and in general, conducts himself with all the skill you would expect from a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide veteran. Sati horrifies him, but he approves of polyandry, especially when one of his fellow travellers is offered the use of their host’s wife for a night.

One of the claims made for the Itinerary is that it is among the first modern bestsellers. It is not hard to imagine how it fed the curiosity and growing appetite for travel—if only by proxy—of De Varthema’s fellow Europeans. And he wrote it at a time when bookselling was perhaps even more important an industry than it is today, since the book held primacy in the absence of television, newspapers and the Internet.

In The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt reminds readers: “The book in the ancient world was not a rare commodity: a well-trained slave reading a manuscript aloud to a roomful of well-trained scribes could produce masses of text. Over the course of centuries, tens of thousands of books, hundreds of thousands of copies, were made and sold.” This held true for Rome in the 16th century, too.

De Varthema’s Itinerary would have been packed in bales and barrels, and have been printed, as was the custom, without the covers—to be added by the purchaser at a bookbinder’s, according to his pleasure and purse. But the demand for the Itinerary was phenomenal. There would be many other travellers to the Middle East and to India after De Varthema, and there had been many before him from other parts of the world. He was one of the first, and most influential, of European travellers, however.

And the sense of discovery in the illustrations, De Varthema’s passion for travel—“as I do not see that I am fit for any other pursuit”—survive the passage of centuries, as fresh as when he first wrote his diaries. The Itinerary is a reminder that many ages, especially the Europe of 1510, once thought of their times as modern and exploratory, as we do our own.


Writers, October: Aravind Adiga

From ‘City of The White Tiger’, carried in Live Mint:

The white tiger was locked up in the heart of the city, like the biggest secret in Delhi: like an Iqbal poem behind black bars. And the secret that the white tiger knew was this: Beauty is freedom.

All through south Delhi runs a red wall, stained with bird shit and paan, and guarded by men with guns; behind this red wall live the powerful and important of the Capital. From my first day in the city I had been trying to breach this wall—get myself invited to book launches and cultural events—to join in the Capital’s inner life. But all I had found behind the red wall were third-rate people turning up at third-rate book launches and cultural events.

Outside the red wall, life was raw and beautiful; wild peacocks still roamed through New Delhi. Outside was where I was going to stay from now.

(Aravind Adiga, born in October, 1974)

Blog post: What the Haryana Khaps could do

If the khaps can ban so much, let them ban rape

I don’t know how many khap panchayats there are in India, but Haryana (and parts of Uttar Pradesh) in particular appears to be ruled by these all-male village councils. It’s easy to make fun of the pronouncements of the khaps, especially when they blame rape on chowmein, but when I thought about the influence these men have on the daily lives of the men and women under their care, I stopped laughing.

Haryana has a high incidence of honour killings, and of rape. It is not the state with the highest incidents of reported rate—Madhya Pradesh tops the list, with West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh showing a rise in cases of reported rape as well. But with more rapes of women—especially gang-rapes—being reported across Haryana, the khap panchayats have been under pressure to take violence against women seriously.

They haven’t. Suggesting child marriage or early marriage as a solution to rape underlines the strength of the belief that a woman needs either protection or policing, once she crosses the age of puberty. Suggesting that chowmein and the consumption of fast food leads young men to commit more rapes is an interesting twist on the ancient Indian tradition of blaming all problems on foreign influences. It also ignores the surprisingly high number of instant ramen fans who go about their business in countries from China to Japan to the USA without feeling the urge to put their chopsticks down and rape somebody.

Given the kind of influence the khap panchayats have on the behavior of the community, here is a list of things they might want to suggest to combat rape. It might even work better than eschewing Maggi noodles.

1)   Tell your community that women are not to be treated as property. A woman is not a cow, a plot of land, or a shiny new consumer product; she is a person, just as a man is. She is not available for barter, to be exchanged in marriage with another family for a motorbike, a car and a flat. She is not available for sale, to be given to another family as household or field help. She is, like her brothers, neither the property of her birth family nor the possession of the family into which she has married.

2)   As a logical corollary to this, tell your community that a woman’s body is not community property, either. Her womb and her vagina do not belong to any one family or community, just as her sexuality is not the collective possession of all of the men from an upper caste or all the elders in her community. She has an identity beyond “to be raped” or “breeder of children”.

3)   In fact, open up your khaps to women from the community—all women—and see how it goes. Some of these women might argue that women are indeed the property of family and the community, because that is the way they’ve been treated all their lives. Many of these women might not. Given the edicts that khap panchayats have come out with in recent times, many of the younger men in the community might actually have very different opinions on gender equality and sexual violence from their fathers and grandfathers. Either way, no discussion on rape should happen against the background of the echoing, constant, community-enforced silence of women.

4)   Break the silence that surrounds and protects rapists. If a khap panchayat, being a collective of men, can’t find it in themselves to speak to or include women, they can at least speak to the men. Khaps have banned mobile phones, jeans, trips to the market, conversations between boys and girls, even the right of young men and women to choose their own partners. If you can ban so much, ban rape. Tell your men that rapists will not be tolerated in the community; that any man who has attempted rape, committed rape or condoned rape will be thrown out of the family, the khap and the community.

5)   Tell the families of your community that sheltering rapists, either with food and help or with silence, will not be tolerated either. In your next panchayat meetings, call out the names of the rapists, just as you have called out the names of young girls and boys who have married outside the community. Ostracise the families of rapists, as you have ostracized the families of boys and girls who dared to make their own choices. Say that no family who shelters a rapist will be considered part of the community.

6)   Of course, if every clan that has condoned, conducted or accepted rape as a given, and if every clan that has sheltered, excused and helped rapists was actually to be cast out of the khaps, you would have a very small panchayat of men left. But there are consolations. Having disposed of the rapists, the men left in the khaps would then be free to eat all the chowmein they wanted, without fear or worry.

In FirstPost, Lakshmi Chaudhury on the lies we tell ourselves about rape.

In India Ink, Heather Timmons on reporting rape, with a focus on shame.

The BS column: “Carve out my own heart”: Mo Yan

Still from Red Sorghum

Mo Yan’s books speak louder than the writer’s public silence

(Published in the Business Standard, October 16, 2012)

If the task before a writer is to be a spokesman against injustice, a defiant risk-taker who is unafraid to criticize his state openly and often, Mo Yan is a failure.

As many dissident Chinese writers and artists, from Ai Weiwei to Ma Jian, pointed out after he had been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, Mo Yan’s silence has lived up to the name he took years ago, when he began writing.  Mo Yan was born Guan Moye in 1955. In an interview with Jim Leach, he recalled his childhood years, when his parents told him not to speak “outside”, or he would get into trouble.

When he became a writer, after years of working in different professions, from being a soldier in the PLA to teaching, he chose Mo Yan—“Don’t Speak”—as his pseudonym. And he lived up to it. With a few exceptions, Mo Yan, who lives and works in China, and has not chosen the path of exile, had rarely spoken up in protest, when yet another writer was silenced, exiled or imprisoned.

That changed with the Nobel announcement. In one of his first interviews, Mo Yan was asked what he felt about the continued imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize who remains in jail. Mo Yan’s response was a masterpiece of doublespeak, expressing his firm belief that Xiaobo should be released, while allowing enough ambiguity to keep the powers in China happy. “I now hope that he can regain his freedom very soon… then he can study his politics and the social system”.

However, if the task before a writer is to express his own truth, without fear or dissembling, while living in a system that has severe penalties for dissent, Mo Yan has been more successful than most of China’s dissident writers.

The question he—and the Swedish Academy by extension—raises is crucial. Is the measure of a writer’s worth to be made by his public gestures, or does a writer’s work speak for itself?

As a public figure, Mo Yan has chosen to yield, rather than confront. He is known to have copied out one of Mao Zedong’s speeches by hand in his days as a good soldier of the PLA. He has rarely spoken up for dissident writers. Mo Yan, as his name suggests, has built a history of silence. But the writer is one thing, the writing another.

Calling Mo Yan “unknown” is akin to declaring that OV Vijayan, Manto and Tagore are “unknown” authors: it’s one way of putting your ignorance on public display.  It may, perhaps, be harder for Indians to know of Mo Yan, since our influences were shaped by other market forces. The Russians and the Latin Americans were big influences on Indian readers in the 1970s and 1980s; British writers were well-known in India from Independence onwards; and more recently, American and European pulp fiction and self-help have been influential. China and India never had publishing trade agreements in place, and so we missed reading in Chinese, even though we read “in Russian” at one stage.

But Mo Yan’s novels dominated Chinese literature, shaping each decade. The Red Sorghum novels sprawled across the 1980s; The Republic of Wine and Big Breasts, Wide Hips were bestsellers in the 1990s; the 2000s has seen Sandalwood Death, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, and the remarkable Change—Pow! is expected soon.

By writing about the past, Mo Yan gives himself an extraordinary freedom, and it is here, in his novels rather than his mild interviews, that the real writer steps forward. “With this book, I respectfully invoke the heroic, aggrieved souls wandering in the boundless bright-red sorghum fields of my hometown,” he writes in the epigraph to Red Sorghum.

It seems polite enough, this introduction to a book that sets out a layered history of cruelty: cruelty inflicted upon the Chinese by the Japanese, upon innocent animals by the suffering Chinese, upon each other by the Chinese once they have power, a dark chronicle leavened with lightning touches of grace. As with many of his other works, Red Sorghum is both incendiary and subversive, all the more so because Mo Yan—not free to write about the censored present—wrote with incandescent freedom about the uncensored past.

“As your unfilial son,” he continues in his epigraph, “I am prepared to carve out my own heart, marinate it in soy sauce, have it minced and placed in three bowls, and lay it out as an offering in a field of sorghum. Partake of it in good health!” This, then, is Mo Yan’s credo as a writer. He will give you all of himself, the beating, mutilated heart. It is up to you to open his books, and partake of everything he has been free to say within their pages, everything that he has remained silent about outside their bound covers.


The BS column: A variety of absences

 The boom in litfests, and what’s missing from Indian book culture

 (Published in the Business Standard, October 8, 2012)

“Hyderabad, Kovalam, Shillong, Goa, Bangalore, Kolkata, Bombay—two festivals—Chennai, plus Jaipur, plus the ones in Delhi.” When publishing insiders discuss the map of new literary festivals in India (not counting Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Karachi and Dhaka), a slight wariness lines their voices.

The boom in literary festivals reached its peak this year, and it is now possible for a writer or a publisher to spend an entire season shuffling between book launches and festivals without ever having to go home. The upside of this is that it gives publishers something to do with writers, and it gives writers a sense of being productive human beings, instead of a parallel species who skulk around the house wearing pajamas in between writing 23 words a day.

But at some point, the phrases “hamster wheel” or “travelling circus” will crop up. Now that every major city seems to have, or covet, its own literature festival, you have to go beyond the tired newspaper question of whether litfests are a Good or a Bad thing. Perhaps the bigger question is to ask what’s missing, and why litfests are supposed to fill all of these absences.

Unlike some of the larger and busier festivals, the Kovalam festival brought to mind the ancient Chinese model of holding literary gatherings in a garden. While the proceedings—the conversations and the impromptu poems, the skills of each storyteller—were often recorded in fragments, it was understood that the value of the gathering lay not in performance, but in the offstage, chiefly unrecorded exchanges. (One game, for instance, required the assembled writers to sit by the banks of a river—artificial or real—and bring cups containing wine out of the waters. Any writer who missed would have to make up a poem on the spot, as punishment.)

Tomato rasam and filter coffee replaced the wine, mercifully, but as with those ancient Chinese gatherings, the most interesting conversations at Kovalam happened offstage—discussions between the writers NS Madhavan and Benyamin, pressing questions from students on the craft of writing. What these conversations, at Kovalam and at other festivals, frequently demonstrate is not only book hunger, but the hunger for more outlets for the reader than just bookshops or festivals.

Many readers use the question-and-answer sessions at literary festivals as mini-writing workshops, asking for feedback, or asking complex questions about craft and style at these venues in the absence of proper workshops or creative writing classes. (One small flicker of possible change: Amit Chaudhuri and Marina Warner will lead an eight-day creative writing programme next year in India, in collaboration with the University of East Anglia, rare in a country that has no tradition of creative writing courses.)

Festivals and the Flipkart effect have changed two things: the visibility of writers, and the way in which readers buy books, after the online retailer made it easy for Indians to order and pay for what they wanted. I’m still a festival skeptic—any committed writer knows that writing is a private, unglamorous act, and it’s easy to mistake the bustle and flurry around these events for actual work or writing.

But over the weekend at Kovalam, another absence came into sharp focus—the lack of book clubs in India. For many of the small knots of readers scattered around the grounds of the Kanakakunnu Palace in Trivandrum, festivals were the places where they discovered new reading and unknown authors, which is what a good book club should do.

The book club movement in the US started small—an early book club, set up in the 1920s for readers from rural America who had little access to books, had just 4,000 members. An essay in A Passion For Books, an anthology of writings about bibliophilia, tracks how this rose over the Second World War to about 900,000 members; book clubs in the US now have millions of members. India has just two or three book clubs for English-language readers, and even the larger ones wouldn’t run to more than a few hundred members, if that.

Literary festivals can spread the word, but they can’t sell the word the way book clubs were once able to, in countries as disparate as the US, Spain or China. (The influence of book clubs started to drop as countries developed more bookstores and larger ebook-readerships, neither of which has happened yet in India.)

This might explain why the Indian litfest calendar is so busy. Many of the newer festivals are driven by a kind of linguistic pride—a literary festival is one way to make well-known and well-loved regional writers visible to readers from outside a particular state.

And then, festivals are expected to compensate for the many other absences; the missing libraries and book clubs, the lack of writing courses, the absent or often poorly stocked bookshops. The problem is that no mushaira or literary festival, no matter how electric the performances on stage, can do more than paper over all the gaping holes in Indian reading culture.