‘Same Same but Different’

peeppeep-fullcoverPeep Peep Don’t Sleep
Author: Ajay Jain
Kunzum
Non-fic (Travel)
Price: INR 350, US $19.95, UK £11.95

Available at: Ajay Jain’s Blog

By Bhaswati Ghosh

We thought travel was about visiting places, soaking up the atmosphere of new territories, and relishing the journey. Who could have known Road Signs could be part of the travel entertainment package as well? Yes, Road Signs, those inevitable pointers along the way that we take no more seriously than empty coke cans strewn across the terrains we travel through.

Welcome then, to the world of Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the Indian agency responsible for construction and maintenance of all roads in areas along India’s borders with Pakistan, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. For, BRO, with its BROtherly (even fatherly at times) attitude, can turn the toughest of driving trips along India’s edges into the funniest. Many a traveler journeying through these often rugged stretches must have enjoyed a smirk or four reading BRO’s imaginative Road Signs. Author-journalist Ajay Jain has, however, done a favour to those of us who are yet to grab the fun for ourselves. With his book, Peep Peep, Don’t Sleep.

Continue reading “‘Same Same but Different’”

Indira Goswami: Out of the Shadow of Kamakhya

It is very heartening when writers in Indian languages receive international recognition. The award of the Principal Prince Claus Award to Indira (Mamoni Raisom) Goswami (link via Aruni Kashyap) is therefore quite  a joyful occasion. My own reading of this outstanding Asomiya writer goes back to her major novel The Moth Eaten Howdah of the Tusker, located in the Assam of the 1950s. Another one is Pages Stained with Blood that is a pretty courageous short novel in the backdrop of the 1984 anti- Sikh pogrom. My admiration for her literary power is highest , however, for the collection of short stories The Shadow of Kamakhya, that was reviewed in an earlier post and re- appears below. Continue reading “Indira Goswami: Out of the Shadow of Kamakhya”

The Assistant by Robert Walser

The Assistant was first published in 1907 in German and has been translated for the first time in English by Susan Bernofsky and published by New Directions last year.

It caught my eye when I saw a reference to Kafka in a blurb about the novel. Apparently Kafka admired Robert Walser, and looked forward to his writings each week. After a spate of novels and short stories, Walser’s writing career ended quite grotesquely when in 1928, he was admitted to a mental asylum, where he was confined till his death in 1956. He is supposed to have remarked to one of his visitors that ‘I am not here to write, but to be mad’, a statement that to my mind makes his madness suspect. As in the case of all those who blossom early but are then ill fated, he leaves behind a sea of mournful conjectures of smothered possibilities.The Assistant is marked by a minimalist plot. Josef Marti- an alter ego of Walser when Walser himself worked a similar job once- joins an entrepreneur to work as his assistant. A veritable Man Friday, he helps out in the household chores as well. The novel follows Marti’s days as the entrepreneur falls into decrepitude, and his enterprise fails to take off. Marti is not paid for months but lives with the family and shares their bourgeois lifestyle, even if it is lived on borrowed money.The novel is an ode to the little man, the minor character of the everyday wage worker, a clerk in Walser’s time but could be anyone who works for a living and has someone or the other for an often domineering boss.

If the plot is minimalist, the action is still more so. Indeed, the lack of action in the novel might have been nauseating were it not for Walser’s exquisite prose peppered with insights into human behavior that transcend a century between when it was first published and now. I was constantly reminded of Anton Chekhov’s deep humanism while reading the book, especially of a story called The Clerk, though there are obvious differences between Chekhov’s short story and Walser’s novel. Chekhov’s clerk Ivan Tchervyakov is a self- effacing and apologetic character who tragically dies when he is unable to get a forgiveness from a general on whom Ivan had inadvertently sneezed in a theater. Marti, on the other hand, has a series of intermittent and hesitant bouts of rebelliousness, ending in his parting of ways with his financially ruined employer.

Yet, the concern for the small man and the travails of everyday life are the same in both the stories. Vasiliy Grossman, in one of the more unworthily obscure novels of the last century, Life and Fate, had remarked that Chekhov was the most democratic writer among the Russian classic writers. Walser, at least in this work, certainly shares a similar honor.

“Wherever there are children, there will always be injustice”, Walser observes at one point when describing the children in his employer’s household. Elsewhere, when Marti’s employer Tobler is presented with yet another bill that he cannot pay, Walser describes it quite imaginatively thus:

The steep amount presented in this bill was so clearly expressed in the furrows on Tobler’s brow, expressed with almost mathematical precision, that one might have been asked to read the exact figure presented there.

Marti has, at one time, even had a brush with the most modern and provocative ideas of his age- socialism. They, however, hardly spark his imagination or make any impact on his mind and life. Great ideas, great movements of history, even great moments in life bypass the inhabitants of the Tobler household, yet there is a magic of life that weaves itself through the routine banter and the changing seasons.Cross Posted at desicritics
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Read an excellent review here, and via the same site, a wonderful blog dedicated to Robert Walser.

Dr. Ambedkar: “Our very own Buddha”

Janhavi Acharekar reviews the autobiography by Dalit writer, Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke: The Autobiography of a Community, “a feminist critique … and sordid memoir of a cursed community.” The book was first published in Marathi in 1986 and is recently translated into English.

The Prisons We Broke is a graphic revelation of the inner world of the Mahar community in Maharashtra. “We were just like animals, but without tails,” she says, describing in lurid detail a world of lice-infested rags for saris, feasts comprising maggot-ridden innards of diseased carcasses, the tearing hunger of starving new mothers, babies cleaned with saliva instead of soap, and intestine-damaging cactus pods consumed to quell hunger.

Born to an entrepreneurial father, the author’s “privileged background” barely keeps her above the abject poverty suffered by her people. Her English-speaking aajas or grandfathers were butlers to European sahibs, far removed from their poverty-stricken and superstition-ridden Maharwada that lay on the fringes of society. However, for the author, it is a world of buffalo fairs and sacrifice, of people possessed by spirits and boys offered to the mother goddess as potrajas. She recounts vividly the people of Maharwada, their houses and customs, their joys and sorrows. Women, especially, occupy pride of place in the narrative.

Baby Kamble’s autobiography is unique because in critiquing Brahminical domination, it also speaks out for the women of her community, presenting an unflinching portrait of its women, subjugated by both caste and patriarchy (later, the same women become the driving force towards education). The younger women suffer the worst fate. Usually married off at the age of eight or nine, they are often physically chained or have their noses chopped off for incurring the displeasure of their husbands or in-laws. And it is in these circumstances that she embraces the teachings of Dr. Ambedkar, their saviour and messiah, their “very own Buddha”.

The Prisons We Broke is significant because it traces the evolution of the Mahar community from pre-Ambedkar days to its rapid transformation through education and mass conversion. It presents the seeds of a revolution through images of impromptu speeches and bold entries into temples, of poems in praise of the man who rescued them from the mire of Hinduism, their “Baliraja, Ravan, Buddha and Bhim”. However, she also contributes to the deification of Ambedkar (“…he is our God. Nay, he is even better; he is the god of gods…He is certainly superior to God.”) and is sharply critical of the current generation of educated Dalits that rejects its roots and drives Babasaheb out of its life.

Related Post: Namdeo Dhasal and the Fall of the Dalit Panthers

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Nazi Literature in South America and India

Roberto Bolano in his recently translated novel Nazi Literature in the Americas weaves an entire literary universe filled with imaginary writers and their writings.Not all writers were,however, fans of Hitler or other Nazi leaders or even their ideology. Bolano’s biographies of these imaginary writers, inspired in a way by Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, are short- the longest runs into a few pages, the shortest about a page in length. Marked by sharply etched portraits of the writers and of their equally imaginary writings, the novel reads like a racy potboiler, except that there is no evident plot in the novel. Only the last story (which readers of Bolano’s novel Distant Star will be familiar with because it is a summary of the same novel) is somewhat longer and has Bolano himself speaking in the first person and somewhat gives the clues to the underlying impulses behind the novel.

In this he recounts the story of Ramirez Hoffman, a Chilean air plane pilot who seemingly heralded a ‘new era’ in Chilean arts after the coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Hoffman’s poetry is written in the sky using smokes from his air plane thus announcing the new blend of technology and arts as Chile was ‘recovering its manhood’ under a military dispensation.Some of Hoffman’s poems, all one liners written on the skies, read as follows:

“YOUTH…YOUTH”
“GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE IN DEATH”
“LEARN FROM FIRE”
“Death is friendship”
“Death is Chile”
“Death is responsibility”
“Death is growth”
“Death is communion”
“Death is cleansing” and so on till “Death is resurrection” and the generals themselves realize that something is amiss. It is, however, something far more macabre that leads to his downfall.

Bolano’s prose is marked by the alacrity of flash fiction (which to me is one of the most important developments in literature in the internet age), but nevertheless carries forward the tradition of the serious novel. The absence of an explicit plot in the story does not mean that there is no plot- as a post- modern reading would suggest. Instead, the plot is hidden below the surface, like an underground river.

The point that he makes is that Nazi- like brutality has a long lineage, and it resides perceptibly and imperceptibly in literature as well. Literature is, therefore, a battlefield in the recovery of humanity and is not outside the realm of politics, and neither is politics outside the realm of poetry and literature.

Reading the novel, I could not but relate very much to India where, interestingly, it is rather normal to have politicians, in the tradition of rulers of the past like Bahadur Shah Zafar and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, to double up as poets and writers. It is therefore not unusual that two major contemporary politicians- Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, former Prime Minister and a present Chief Minister of Gujarat respectively, belonging to what is easily the closest we have to a fascist political movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have some claim to being poets.

To look for Nazi literature in India, one does not need biographies of imaginary writers. In India, they live among us, in our times. The question of literature and politics being separate also does not arise. They are so intricately tied up that both are the same. The nightmare and the muse.

Related Posts on Roberto Bolano

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How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira

First published in Spanish in 1998, Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun was received with critical acclaim. It’s English translation became available last year.

The novel is about the story of a six year old girl caught in the body of a boy, who tastes strawberry ice cream only to fall into a state of mental delirium emerging from it at the end by having to taste the same ice cream again, this time culminating in a macabre end.

Like Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girlpublished earlier this year in its English translation, that too has got impressive reviews, I feel disappointed by Nun after having been bedazzled by Aira’s two previous works translated into English till now- An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Hare.

The only passage that I found noteworthy, however does not appear in any of the online reviews, that is where Cesar Aira (the six year old girl/ boy protagonist) listens to the radio broadcasts about the astrological predictions of the day.

If the short novella was intended to, as other reviewers have noted, explore the inner workings of the mind of an artist or a writer and their capacity to imagine, the novella is not convincing, even distracing at places.

Other
reviews. The one that I agree with is the one at NYT.

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The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel The Bad Girl is unlike the typical Llosa. The structure is linear and he avoids the interplay with time and space that he normally brings into the novel and that is his hallmark. Perhaps because it is meant as a kind of 20th century Madame Bovary, a novel that Llosa admires much and has written a whole book on (The Perpetual Orgy.)

Llosa’s The Bad Girl, unlike Flaubert’s immortal creation, is unlikely to be counted as among the most significant of own novels- part of the reason is that despite its occasional flashes of brilliance and a most dramatic and contemporary theme, the novelist expects too much from the reader to believe in the many coincidences in the story, and there are just too many pages of dark prose.

I read it over a weekend and it was only my fawning admiration and confidence in Llosa’s previous works that kept me going (this is the 18th book by Llosa that I read, not counting 2 incomplete ones.) The prose is good in the beginning of the novel and towards the end, and while it is rather dreary in the big middle chunk, he manages to keep the determined reader engrossed in dramatic- or perhaps over dramatic- sequences leading to its ominous and disturbing end.

Not bad for a weekend read.

Review of The Bad Girl at SFGate (link via SPLALit).

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P. Sainath on India’s Winter of Discontent

P. Sainath writes on how post- reform poverty differs from that of pre- reform era. Poverty is, after all, as much a relative phenomenon as an absolute one.

The average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of the Indian farm household is a long way from Rs.15 lakh. And further from $115,000. It is, in fact, Rs.503. Not far above the rural poverty line. And that’s a national average, mixing both giant landlords and tiny landholders. It also includes States like Kerala where the average is nearly twice the national one. Remove Kerala and Punjab and the figure gets still more dismal. Of course, inequality is rife in urban India too. And growing. But the contrasts get more glaring when you look at rural India.

About 60 per cent of that Rs.503 is spent on food. Another 18 per cent on fuel, clothing, and footwear. Of the pathetic sum left over, the household spends on health twice what it does on education. That is Rs.34 and Rs.17. It seems unlikely that buying unique cellphone numbers is set to emerge a major hobby amongst rural Indians. There are countless households for whom that figure is not Rs.503, but Rs.225. There are whole States whose average falls below the poverty line. As for the landless, their hardships are appalling.

It is not that inequality is new or unknown to us. What makes the last 15 years different is the ruthlessness with which it has been engineered. The cynicism with which it has been constructed. And the scale on which it now exists. And that’s at all levels, even at the top. As Abhijit Banerjee and Thomas Piketty put it in a paper on “Top Indian Incomes 1956-2000,” “The rich (the top 1 per cent) substantially increased their share of total income [in the reform years]. However,
while in the 1980s the gains were shared by everyone in the top percentile, in the 1990s it was only those in the top 0.1 per cent who made big gains.”

“The average top 0.01 per cent income was about 150-200 times larger than the average income of the entire population during the 1950s. This went down to less than 50 times as large by the early 1980s. But went back to being 150-200 times larger during the late 1990s.” All the evidence suggests it has gotten worse since then.

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Palagummi Sainath: Reporting the Rural Poor

Madhukar Shukla has a collection of quotes from the writings of Palagummi Sainath, who last week won the Ramon Magsasay award for developmental journalism.

P. Sainath started his career with the tabloid Blitz and was groomed by the late Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who willed that after his death, Sainath would continue to write his column. He left the Blitz in 1993 when its proprietor BK Karanjia changed his political colours. Sainath’s book Everyone Loves a Good Drought published a decade back is a chilling indictment of the elite in India.

Excerpts from my own review of the book:

Sainath’s main findings can be summarized in one word- apathy.

Apathy towards the victims of rural poverty in the country. Around this core, he weaves the stories about real people who generally lie hidden in the great piles of statistical data. In a way, he has given names to poverty. His stories are provocative, jarring and shocking to the point of being macabre.

The selection of the districts which the author chose to study were the 2 poorest districts each in the 5 poorest states of the country- Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. According to the author, there was near unanimity among the experts regarding their dubious status. Seeing the problem of poverty as a process rather than an event (in the form of outbreaks of epidemics or the infamous ‘sale’ of children in Orissa in the mid- eighties), formed the bigger challenge. The process, it turns out is a ruthless, rinding one and one that is full of amazing contradictions.

Sainath discovers that while there are schools without buildings and teachers, there are schools with buildings and teachers too. Except that while the ‘buildings’ are used for storing fodder and tendu leaves and the teachers teach non- existent students. There is a teacher who has not visited the school where he is ‘teaching’ for years, while drawing his salary all the time.

The book brings out the actual state of affairs in which the poorest in India survive. These are tales of poignant misery, and at the same time of admirable courage. At another level, it is about the needs and aspirations of the “insulted and the humiliated”, to borrow a phase from Dostoyevsky. It is about policies, schemes and programs launched with great fanfare and soon left to take their own wayward course, making a mockery of the intended aims.

At another level, these are stories about the idiocy of what has been termed as development. There are dams that have displaced people who will never benefits from the dams anyway. There are dams that are under perpetual construction, with the contractors assured of a perpetual source of income. There are missile ranges which displace village after village like Chikpaar, with the villagers and adivasis losing not only their land but also the very world they belong to. They form the multitudes migrating to big cities, ending up as virtual slaves of contractors in an alien world.

Finally the book is a scathing indictment of the elite in this country. What Dr. K.N. Raj termed as the “two Indias” pithily and epigrammatically comes out in the present work. No debates on the pros and cons of liberalization or Nehruism can substitute for the reasons for such grueling poverty. If the tales in the book sound other- worldly or chillingly macabre, it is because the Indian elite, specially the middle class, which has been reared on this very ‘development’, or in other words on the heads and shoulders of the poor in India, has come a long way from the victims of this ‘development’.

Sainath has given words to the adivasi in Govind Nihalani’s film Aakrosh (the role was played by Om Puri), whose tongue has been cut off and despite being the victim, is actually hauled up in jail.

Palagummi Sainath has reasons to be bitter.

The complete review of the book Everyone Loves a Good Drought
Alexander Cockburn’s profile of Sainath at Counterpunch.

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How the way to the Baba Log Economy was Paved

A Vaidyanathan, in a review of collection of KN Raj’s writings quotes a prophetic insight by the ‘pitamah’ of Indian economists on how state/bureaucratic capitalism can pave the way for private capitalism. This is all the more remarkable since the writings in the book are mainly prior to the 1990s, when finally the dream economy of Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘baba log’ arrived.

Raj was of the view that despite their various internal contradictions, intermediate regimes ‘keep going as a political reality” in several countries. This, according to him, is because the upper middle class and the capitalists are not strong enough to take over and even the radical parties prefer to serve limited sectarian objectives than work for genuine broad- based transformation of society. That this has proved true so far is a reflection of the resilience of the political class and their capacity to manage contradictions. But he did rightly apprehend that “failure to generate surpluses can blunt the growth of state capitalism but also help promote the development of private capitalism.” (emphasis by the blogger)

The name of the book reviewed is Inclusive Growth: KN Raj on Economic Development” edited by Ashoka Mody. Certainly a book I look forward to read.

Link

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The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

While we were still under the spell of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a new generation of Latin American writers arrived.

A scintillating star in the galaxy of this new generation undoubtedly is Roberto Bolaño, who died at the age of 50 four years ago. Principally a poet, he increasingly has been recognized as an important contemporary novelist. Starting with By Night, in Chile to the most recently translated work The Savage Detectives, and the much awaited translation of his longest work 2066, his voice is very unique, and imploring to be heard. When The Savage Detectives was published nine years ago in its original Spanish version, it was hailed by some as the greatest thing to happen in the Spanish speaking world since Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Bolaño was born in Chile,but lived most of his life in Mexico, briefly going back to Chile when Salvadore Allende came to power, and returning after the infamous September 11 coup.

The novel is unduly long, 575 pages filled in a most unusual way, violating some of the most fundamental “rules” of writing, and especially novel writing. Except for complaining about the length of the novel- about 400 pages would have been ideal and the first part that is filled with excruciating, even nauseating details of the sexual proclivities of the “visceral realists”, there is little to complain about the novel, and much to deliberate over.

Divided into three parts, the bulky middle one- titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico”- is sandwiched between two rather thin ones. Part one introduces us to some of the central characters in the novel- Arturo Belano (an alter ego of the author) and Ulises Lima, both founder poets of the visceral realist movement that set itself the task of transforming the poetry landscape not only in Mexico, but the entire Latin America.

In a way, the novel is autobiographical, not in one, but two ways. It traces the story of Artur Belano, except that instead of him writing his autobiography, it is people that know him who write about him. Each one of the 55 people either write their personal journals at various times between 1975 and 1997, or sometimes converse directly with the reader. The long middle section novel consists of little more these entries, some short, but some rather long so that like Don Quixote, there are stories within stories, between them charting a landscape both fascinating and unexpected in its meanderings.

The other novel that comes to mind is Hopscotch by the Argentinian Julio Cortazar, a novel about a group of Bohemian Latinos in Europe. In the case of the characters in The Savage Detectives, the word Bohemian is an understatement!

There is no plot in the four hundred or so pages in the middle section. In the first section, narrated by a character- with no particular literary qualities, the two protagonists (the “savage detectives”) go out in search of an unknown predecessor, Cesárea Tinajero, who after initiating a now forgotten school of poetry in the 1920s has disappeared in the northern borders of the Sonora desert. The novel returns to the theme only in the last part, when the meanderings of the middle part- the umpteen journal entries, become clearer, and the title of the novel begins to make sense.

What emerges, is the story of the “lost” generation of Latin American writers that grew up in the shadow of giants like Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Octavio Paz. While the previous generation protested against the existing political and social order they invariably also became part of that system, with those like Garcia Marquez becoming friends with political leaders like Fidel Castro, Vargas Llosa himself running for the Peruvian presidential candidacy (though as a candidate of the Right) and Octavio Paz serving the PRI government in Mexico as a diplomat.

At the end, the novel leaves one with images floating across turbulent waters, a mosaic of paintings flitting past speedily. Fifty- five characters speak in their own voices- for the uniqueness of each Bolaño has to be commended. The word that occurs most frequently in the novel is “I”, the breakneck speed of the narrative- not so much action as speed, and the concurrent narrative from multiple geographic places and from various dates on the calendar- in a word, the novel is very much that belongs to our age dominated as it is by accelerated communications around the globe.

Is the novel then a reflection of the senseless chaos that seems to prevail around us? Is it the post modern dystopia- all narrative and no plots, no certainties? At one level, Bolaño’s novel would seem to indicate so. At another level, it pulls the rug from under the feet of such a world.

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Related Posts on Roberto Bolaño at this blog

There have been a plethora of reviews in the last two months of The Savage Detectives, many are available at this excellent site on Spanish literature.

The novel has a site of it’s own. Check out the biographical essay (pdf) in the “About the Author” section.

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Cross- posted at Desicritics 

Dalits and Hindutva

At EPW Pralay Kanungo reviews Hindutva and Dalits: Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis edited by Anand Teltumbde.

Gopal Guru makes an insightful observation on Hindutva’s penetration into the dalit bastion. As Guru explains, the public sector not only provided material security to many dalits, but also gave them psychological confidence to resist upper caste domination; with its dismantling, employment is rapidly shrinking and the expanding private sector is unwilling to open its doors to them. Hence, they fall back upon Hindutva primarily for material gains. However, their material objective is very much intertwined with a cultural quest as well. When dalit youths take part in Hindu religious festivals it is not just for a little pocket money, but also for glamour, public visibility, and some kind of cultural satisfaction. The glamour of Hindutva’s culture industry with electronic and digital spectacle overshadows the philosophical, rational and moral rigour of Ambedkarism.Hindutva’s cultural domination gets further reinforced as globalisation fails to provide any meaningful cultural alternative to the dalit youths, thereby compelling them to go for “subsidised satisfaction”. Hence, they fall prey to the promising cultural universe of Hindutva, which is more of a pragmatic choice rather than a substantive one. Hindutva conveniently transmutes the caste into the communal category where dalits become Hindus, forgetting their caste antagonism and adversarial identities.

In the context of Mayawati’s so- called “social engineering” (when it is little more than political opportunism), the following observation by Suhas Paliskar is relevant.

Palsikar concludes that in Maharashtra due to the political and ideological weakness of dalit politics Hindutva has made inroads into the space once occupied by the progressive forces. He rightly suggests that the issue of dalit-Hindutva alliance needs to be examined beyond the realm of electoral politics; it involves larger questions of hegemony and fascism which threaten to obliterate democracy and justice. Dalit politics in Maharashtra might have failed to checkmate Hindutva, but unlike Uttar Pradesh it certainly did not become Hindutva’s partner. Gatade accuses the BSP for subverting the dalit agenda by making an alliance with Hindutva purely for the sake of political power. Analysing the three spells of cohabitation that Mayawati had with the BJP, Gatade argues that Mayawati, who was firm and confident to start with, finally gave in to the communal politics of the Sangh parivar. The worst happened when she gave a clean chit to Narendra Modi and even campaigned for him in the Gujarat elections. Ramesh Kamble mentions that reckless pursuit of political power ironically compelled her to ally with the very Hindu upper caste forces whose hegemony the BSP wanted to demolish.

A Romantic Among the Bhils

An IITian’s Success Story among the Poorest in India

Rahul Banerjee did not make his millions in the Silicon Valley. In fact, he has never been to the Silicon Valley. He hasn’t made his millions either.

Instead he has written a book- and the book has not found a publisher. So he did not make his millions this way either.

But Rahul Banerjee found a wealth of experience and inner satisfaction of having spent a life among the poorest of the poor in the country. He represents that diminishing tribe of middle- class young men and women fired with an empathy for the downtrodden, forsake what could have been more comfortable lives, to work for, and with what Dostoevsky’s called the ‘insulted and the humiliated’.

A life- long activist among the Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh, Rahul was at one time associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, among others.

Recovery of the Lost Tongue is Rahul Banerjee’s mid- life autobiographical reflection on his life spent working with and organizing the adivasis in Madhya Pradesh. It is written in the manner of a well read and well- engaged activist, his range of reading is mind boggling, and his experiences as a foot- soldier organizer among the people he chose to work with, fascinating.

But the most exhilarating aspect of the book is is the harmony between thought and action, a constant dialectic between theory and action. Small is the tribe of such people, and fewer still are those who have documented their experience and engagement with some of the poorest of the poor in the country.

The result of this dynamic praxis is very evident in every chapter of the book, with its insights into the life of the poorest- adivasis, women and the Dalits. There are occasional flashes of flamboyance (Love is all you need) and humour. Some of the chapters are treatises in themselves, and each could spawn a book by itself.

What remains in the mind at the end is the constant effervescence of ideas and wisdom gleaned over a quarter of a century.

The themes that the book deals with are the author’s own urge that led him to give up a what could have been a comfortable middle class existence after he completed his engineering from IIT, Kharagpur in 1983 (A Mission Found ), his discovery of the life and struggles of the adivasis, his romance with his future wife and via her insights into Dalit life, the double exploitation of adivasi and Dalit women and the travails of organizing the poorest of the poor.

Some of the chapters written with an exceptional sense of adventure are those about the involvement with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and its sad marginalization that continues (Reliving the Myth of Sisyphus). On Aruna Roy’s struggle for the RTI, he observes:

 

Unlike Medha who has directly challenged the state to repeal unjust laws and policies and implement fully its just laws, Aruna has remained content with coaxing it to just formulating good laws and implementing them in fits and starts and so has tasted a little more success. When the National Advisory Council was formed under the chairpersonship of the President of the Congress party Sonia Gandhi to act as a super think tank for the Congress led coalition government at the centre in 2004, Aruna was chosen to be a member of this powerful body. She used this opportunity to make two very good interventions resulting in the passage of the Right to Information Act 2005 and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005. (Casting Pearls Before Swine)

Parallel to this is his ideological evolution- from Marxism to interactions with Lohiate socialists and to the advocation of what he calls anarcho- environmentalism. One can differ with him on these, indeed as I do, but what is unquestionable is his extreme sincerity to the ideas that he has believed in at various times during the last quarter of a century and the ‘confident restlessness’ that the poet of the reawakening of Asia, Mohammad Iqbal spoke of.

 

In a very perceptive chapter Reliving the Myth of Siyphus, he analyses the objective conditions that requires Gandhiji’s techniques of Satyagraha to succeed:

What price satyagraha then as an action strategy for bringing the modern state to heel. Satyagraha has some chance of succeeding in crunch situations only when those practising it are in very large numbers and so convinced about their cause and the philosophy of Gandhism as to be able to exert moral pressure and bring about a change of heart in the oppressor. The Gandhian philosophy relies heavily on Hindu ascetism and mysticism as we have seen, and is far removed from the lives of common everyday people and even more so from that of the Bhil adivasis. Arundhati Roy, who has pitched in lyrically in support of hedonism in her Booker Prize winning novel “The God of Small Things” (Roy, 1998), has admitted in the monograph ‘Greater Common Good’ that the theory and practice of Gandhism requires a very strong moral fibre, especially when it comes to renouncing sex and shopping, which most ordinary mortals cannot do without

Sisyphus was such a daredevil that on one occasion he even kidnapped the God of Death and kept him chained in his palace. Pluto had to send the God of War to free him. We in the environmental mass movements in India too have been trying to chain the God of Ecological Death and like Pluto the high priests of the God of Modern Development have continually sent their God of War to stymie us. It looks as if we are similarly doomed to eternally rolling the rock of mass mobilisation up against the mountain of state obduracy only to see it go crashing down time and again. What can be more punishing than such futile and hopeless labour? But according to the French philosopher, author and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, Sisyphus is in fact at his glorious best when he is back at the foot of the mountain because then he is not bemoaning his fate but pondering over its inevitability given his rebelliousness against the Gods).

He considers the environmental challenge- to which even the adivasis have now fallen prey- to the “prisoners’ paradox” in which both the beneficiaries and the victims try to outdo each other devouring up increasingly scarce resource of Mother earth.

The adivasi mass organisations reviewing the situation found that the only way in which things could be improved was for the government to take action under the various laws at its disposal against the sahukars. Since this was unlikely given the political power of the sahukars plans were finalised for launching a mass action programme pressing for punitive action against them. This campaign was to piggy-back on the other ongoing campaigns for access to and control over the main natural resources of forests and water that were already underway. Given the persistent drought conditions the pressure on these resources had increased and so had the confrontation with the agencies of the state regarding their proper utilisation. In the Udainagar area the Gram Sabhas stopped the logging of timber by the Forest Department saying that if the government could not find resources to provide them with relief works to tide them over their livelihood crisis then it had no right to take resources out of the area to finance its other activities.

This decision of the Sangathan brought it into direct conflict with the deep-rooted resource extractive character not only of the Indian state but also of global capital. The state through the forest department has continually tried to increase the extraction from forests and the first major new initiative in the post independence era was the setting up of the MP Forest Development Corporation in 1975 to encourage industrial forestry, which would yield high returns in a short time, both in terms of timber output and revenue. But whereas bamboo was supplied to industry by the Corporation at 54 paise per 4 meters of bamboo the rate for the villagers was Rs 2. (Sundar et al, 2001). After this at the behest of the World Bank a social forestry programme was then implemented between 1981 and 1985 but this too was unsuccessful in meeting people’s needs for fuel wood and fodder because of the lack of sincerity on the part of the forest department. (Cry, My Beloved Mehendikhera)

The Myth of SisyphusHow mammoth and pointlessly excruciating the task is, is expressed in some of the more cynical chapters like The Exasperating Anarchist and increasingly becomes shrill towards the later chapters. The author has made repeated references to the myth of Sisyphus- made memorable by the Albert Camus, though at places, the experiences of the writer in fighting for justice for the adivasis recall to mind Kafka’s Joseph K- in the novel The Trial.

Two of the most passionately written chapters are Time for a Sabbatical and The Treasure of Terra Madre. The former is based on the experience of his wife, Subhadra, who coming from a Dalit family found the distance learning course from Indira Gandhi University to be a challenge. The author’s own attempts to get access to get data under the Right to Information Act from a university whose professed goal is ‘knowledge … dissemination through sustainable open and distance learning systems seamlessly accessible to all’. Instead, he discovers that:.

A total of 35,844 students enrolled in 2002 of whom 63.4 % were females and 36.6% were males. The Scheduled Castes constituted only 6.2 % whereas their percentage in the population as a whole is 15%. Their female to male ratio was about the same as that for the total students enrolled. The Scheduled Tribes constituted 5.9 % whereas their proportion in the population as a whole is 7%….

The most striking feature of the results is that of the considerably fewer number of female students passing as compared to male students. Thus in 1996 even though females constituted 67.1% of those enrolling their proportion in those passing out was just 29.5%. Similarly in 2002 while females constituted 63.4% of those enrolling their proportion in those passing out was just 31.6%.

Despite the harsh experiences, the author concludes with the following words in the last chapter The Obsolescence of the Art of Daydreaming:

Given the likes of the World Bank the task of recovering lost tongues is always fraught with a danger that is quaintly termed by Bengalis as the cool wind from the River Ganges blowing on one’s back. Whenever a mass movement reaches its peak there are a lot of people lending their active support to it. However, as state repression gradually intensifies, most of the supporters melt away preferring to watch birds instead. So the cool wind from the Ganges, which earlier had been kept at bay by their once numerous supporters, begins to uncomfortably caress the backs of the activist leaders and deters them from fighting on! That is why the shining example of the practical naturalist Ambedkar should act like a beacon for all those committed to freeing the human race from the destructive myth of modern industrial development. This “Mook Nayak”, or heroic leader of the dumb, right up to the day of his death single-mindedly pursued the goal of recovering the lost tongue for the dalits regardless of the support he may be getting. Like for him our battle cry should be “The battle to me is a matter of joy, for ours is not a battle for wealth or power, it is a battle for freedom.”

Rahul Banerjee has not been able to give back the tongue to the adivasis. But he has learnt their language and spoken for them. And in the process, has etched the ideas and struggles that have defined the sensitivities of our age.

One hopes that he continues to carry forward as a crusading public intellectual of the other India.

(This post appeared earlier last week at How the Other Half Lives.)

Image Acknowledgments : Rahul Banejee’s picture, Sisyphus

Above all, thanks to Rama for the link to Rahul’s book.

Two Novels about Mexico, 1968

 

 

 

 

 

1968 for Mexico, as for many countries around the world, marked a year of student protests, culminating in what has come to be known as the Tlatelolco massacres. Wishing to change the oppressive one party rule of the PRI students revolted in the backdrop of persistent, if not rising social inequalities.

Two recently published novels are on this theme: The Uncomfortable Dead by the Mexican writer of mysteries, Paco Ignacio Taibo and the leader of the Chiapas’ revolt, Subcommandante Marcos and the other one is by the Chilean writer who lived in Mexico in those years Roberto Bolaño- Amulet.

Amulet is thematically similar to Distant Stars, another Bolaño novels also published in English last year– both lie at the intersection of literature and politics.

Amulet deals with the generation of Mexican poets that grew up after the 1968 suppression of student revolt. It is narrated by a woman Auxilio Lacouture, an ‘illegal alien’ from Uruguay and who hides in the bathroom of the UNAP university in September ’68 as the military cracks down on the students. She survives to play ‘mother’ to a generation of Mexican poets growing up in the shadow of the aborted revolt.

There is something about Roberto Bolaño that even in translation he is so readable, like Tomas Eloy Martinez, a contemporary Latin American writer from Argentina.

However, compared to Bolaño’s earlier novels published in English- By Night, In Chile and Distant Stars, this Amulet is somewhat disappointing despite a promising start.

It also forms a link to his novel published in English last week The Savage Detectives, which is certainly the longest work by this writer, who died prematurely at the age of 52 couple of years back to be translated into English.

The Uncomfortable Dead, on the other hand, is a uniformly wonderful novel, and combines the narrative of a racy suspense thriller with a deeply social and political perspective- an intersection that a delighted Zizek would term as the ‘Parallax view‘.

Since it is a suspense novel, I’d rather not comment much on this except to point out that Elías Conteras, an Indian from the Chiapas, is a wonderful Sancho Panza like character who lives much beyond the novel. His first person account of urban Mexico, as well as the Chiapas struggle is both deeply humorous and moving.

This is, for example, how he describe Mexico City- the ‘Monster’:

The Monster has big houses and small ones, tall ones and little bitty ones, fat and skinny, rich and poort. Like people, but without hearts. In the Monster, the most important thing is the houses and the cars, so people get sent underground, to the metro. If people stay up their in car country, well, the cars kind of like get very pissed and try to gore them, like bulls would.

In the city, they don’t really know how to speak the language, they don’t even know the difference between a mare and stallion; they just call everything a horse. Then there’s cool. When city people don’t know how to explain how they feel or when they are angry or when they are happy or anything like that, they just say cool.

I found the escapades of this rather subaltern character, that somehow persistently reminded me of The Good Soldier Sjevk, most gripping, and the novel a worthwhile read, even if the rest had not been written as well as it actually is.

There is yet another minor similarity between the two novels- in both the authors themselves appear as characters. Roberto Bolaño appears as Arturo Belano in Amulet and Subcommandante Marcos in The Uncomfortable Dead as himself- the El Sup.

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‘To Sir, With Love’

It seems like yesterday when one read a chapter out of E.R. Braithwaites’s To Sir, With Love. Then, I had felt I was the student wishing for a teacher that was like Sir.

It was an excerpt from the book in the English textbook in class six and we nonchalantly went on to the next chapter.

Yesterday night, I got to watch a movie based on the book.

This time, however, I imagined that I was the teacher, and imagined that I had had students like those in the book, like those in the movie.

Yesterday night, I completed an education.

The In- between Life of an Immigrant

Guest Post by Harminder DhillonThe immigrant’s experience is often that of Trishanku- precariously, and perennially, held between the sky of aspirations in their adopted land and the gravitational pull of their native ones.

While the Indian diaspora experience in the West has been captured in Indian writing in English and cinema in recent years, the Indian connection to Africa has been less so, with Mira Nair’s movie Missisippi Masala being a partial exception. I realized this while reading M.G. Vassanji‘s novel The In- between World of Vikram Lall and then chancing upon a photo essay by Amarjit Chandan.
Vikram Lal
M.G. Vassanji’s novel deals with the ambiguity of being an Indian in East Africa: a people not accepted by their adopted lands, and forgotten and disowned by their native ones; people viewed with suspicion and admiration at the same time for same reasons –hard work, wealth and success; a people literally and metaphorically hanging in-between. Masterfully crafted, the novel captures the micro level lives being lived, dreams being dreamt –and often shattered.

While reading Vassanji one often finds oneself walking down bazaars of Nairobi –buying photos, gold from Gujjus and jalebis from Panjus. As I flipped through Chandan’sVassanji’s haunting characters came back to life. The octogenarian Punjabi standing by the railway line he built an era ago, the white family that visited the highway store, the black gardener, Hindu boy holding hands with a Muslim classmate but finally succumbing to historic boundaries, the black lover of the Punjabi girl who was never accepted, perhaps not even by the girl herself, but surely not by her family and community.

The In- between World of Vikram Lall is story of migration, the fragility of immigrants’ dreams and their struggle for survival in a culture so alien to theirs.
Chandan Photo EssayA similar thematic continuity is visible in the recent photo essay (pdf format) by Amarjit Chandan. Chandan, one of the finer poets writing in the Punjabi language is a product of the ‘Spring Thunder over India’ era of Naxalite rebellion and now lives in the U.K.

His poetry, though written in the Punjabi language, shows the adaptation of European poetic themes and literary devices.

In this essay, however, Chandan’s photos bring to life the Punjabis living their successes, just as Vassanji’s characters live in the Indian quarters of Nairobi and Mombasa. Wassanji and Chandan, one living in Canada and another in U.K. tell the same tale –one through his novels while another through his poetic lens.

Punjabis, soon followed by Gujaratis –or Kuchhis as they like to be known as, landed on the coasts of East Africa almost a century ago and went on to play a significant role in the 20th century history of the region.

Originally transported by the Empire as artisans for railway construction and saw mills, they soon set their roots and contributed to the nascent labour movement, freedom struggle, administration, professionals, sports (Remember Indian players in African hockey/cricket teams) and, most of all, economics.

Ironically the endeavour to enrich the adoptive lands that flourished –and peaked –during the colonial times was halted in the 60-70s when these nations won freedom and became their own masters. Local nationalist leadership viewed Indians as carpet-baggers for the departing colonial Raj, which more or less, they were not. The ensuing exodus of Indians devastated local economies and from which they could never recover.

Maybe, after all, there still might be a happy ending to this story. The immigrant’s experience, after all, is a long one.

(Harminder Dhillon, an immigrant himself, is an engineer turning lawyer. He has founded and edited Punj Pani, a Punjabi weekly published from Toronto. )

The Burning Plain and Other Stories by Juan Rulfo

Not even a previous reading of Juan Rulfo‘s novel Pedro Paramo could have prepared me for this collection of short stories (The Burning Plain and Other Stories) that read like a novel painting a dark, sombre and chilling picture of Mexican life- more often than not of the underdog, the thief, the bandit, a murderer or a peasant.

The feeling that one gets while reading is of a smoky, dark night filled with suspicious shadows hiding still darker secrets that pour out of the words and sentences of the stories.

See this description of a daybreak (in the story At Daybreak) in which the main character is accused of killing his landowner, even though it was the latter who kicked him, and then died because of a heart attack.

San Gabriel emerges from the fog laden with dew. The clouds of the night slept over the village searching for the warmth of the people. Now the sun is about to come out and the fog rises slowly, rolling up its sheets, leaving white strips over the roof tops. A gray stream hardly visible, rises from the trees and the wet earth, attracted by the clods, but it vanishes immediately. Then the black smoke comes from the kitchens, smelling of burned oak, covering the sky with ashes.In the distance, the mountains are still in shadow.

A swallow swoops across the streets, and then the first peal of dawn rings out.

The lights are turned off. Then an earth- colored spot shrouds the village, which keeps on snoring a little longer, slumbering in the color of the daybreak.

They gave us land is the story of peasants given a piece of land bereft of water.

A big fat drop of water falls, making a hole in the earth and leaving a mark like a pit. It’s the only one that falls.

The opening story Macario is Kafkaesque and is narrated in a monologue of an idiot boy, in fact most stories are in the form of a monologue, of a people trying to know about themselves, of introspecting, searching for an identity, something to hold on to as they are washed up in a river of tumultuous time.

One of the early writings of what came to be called magical realism. The magic still holds. Spellbindingly.

Death of a Reader

Sham Lal, who introduced a generation of readers in the years between 1950- 1970s to books and literature via his column Life and Letters is dead.

A collection of his newspaper columns was published as A Hundred Encounters, which was a collection around works of fiction. Subsequently a collection around non- fiction works was also published. A Hundred Encounters was a wonderful treat for someone who was at best a toddler during his peak years and did not have the good fortune of growing up reading his column Life and Letters.

I came close to meeting him few years back, when MS, knowing my love for books- and the penchant for writing book reviews- asked me to accompany him to his house. For some reason, I could not go. Don’t remember why.

Mr. Sham Lal began his career with the Hindustan Times and, after 12 years with that paper, he moved on to the Times of India. He served as the Editor of the Times of India from 1967 to 1978.

He earned great journalistic reputation with his column, “Life and Letters.” In this column, he discussed and dissected modern thinkers, poets, playwrights and novelists. In 2001, a collection of these columns was published under the title “A Hundred Encounters.” He was known for his strong and independent views.

After his retirement, Mr. Sham Lal continued to write occasionally for The Telegraph and a journal, “Biblio: A Review of Books.” Failing eyesight forced him to stop writing three years ago.read on

With Borges by Alberto Manguel

More knowledgeable friends have often expressed consternation, if not contempt, for the fact that I have never quite ‘taken to’ Borges.

Silly as it may sound, but the fact is that I could not proceed beyond a few (well, actually just a couple) of his stories that I don’t even remember.

My reasoning is that I am a reader of the novel, not the short story, and then also novels in the tradition of the 19th century novel at least in their concern for social and political issues.

Borges does neither.

In fact, I was surprised by a statement attributed to him- that the novel is an unnecessary form since a good writer can express the same in a short story (or words to that effect) .

Jorge Luis Borges himself was a master of the short form.

His genre is also the fantasy, something that does not appeal to me for similar reasons.

It turns out that my views are not exactly original. In his early years, Borges was criticized on these very grounds (which makes me feel ancient.)

This and much else comes to light in Alberto Manguel’s slim, almost Borgesian volume, With Borges whose English translation came out last October.

Manguel read to the great Spanish writer when the latter was fifty eight years and had turned blind, and Manguel himself was sixteen years old. He was one of the many people who had the privilege of reading to Borges and it is very clear that these four years at that impressionable age left a lifelong imprint on his mind and his style of writing.

With Borges is part recollection and part an insightful literary excursion into the writings of Borges.

He brings out in one breathless sweep, the great man’s wide reading, his ability to correlate different works and ideas, his love for ‘inventive memories’, his disdain for convention when it came to writing, or reading for that matter, and his belief that the universe is a book.

There are writers who attempt to put the world in a book. There are others, rarer, for whom the world is a book, a book that they attempt to read for themselves and for others. Borges was one of those writers. He believed, against all odds, that our moral duty was to be happy, and he believed that happiness could be found in book, even though he was unable to explain why this was so.

Elsewhere he remarks:

For Borges, the core of reality lay in books; reading books, writing books, talking about books. In a visceral way, he was conscious of continuing a dialogs begun thousands of years before and which he believed would never end. Books restored the past.

Borges considered himself to be, above all, to be a reader.

…reading is, for Borges, a way to be all those men he knows he’ll never be: men of action, great lovers, great warriors. For him reading is a form of pantheism.

For anyone who is a fan of Borges already, this is a delightful book with incisive insights into their favorite writer’s mind and for those still not converted to the cult, it is a gentle reminder to go and read him carefully, and more generously.

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The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh‘s The Shadow Lines (1998) is an intense and anguished meditation on the creation of modern states in South Asia.

There are two streams in the novel- one that of the narrator who has heard about England from a cousin who lived there for sometime and his own discovery of the country when he visits it later in life.

The other stream is that of his grandmother visiting her old home in Dhaka, her nostalgia and the discovery of alienation from what she had remembered before Dhaka became part of Pakistan. I found the second stream to be far more readable than the first one, especially the grandmother’s character as seen by her young grandson (the narrator).

The grandmother goes to Dhaka to bring ‘home’ her uncle who had decided to stay on in Dhaka after the partition in 1947. He obdurately refuses, delivering one of the finest dialogs in the novel:

Move? the old man said incredulously. Move to what?

It’s not safe for you here, my grandmother said urgently. I know these people look after you well, but it’s not the same thing. You don’t understand.

I understand very well, the old man muttered. I know everything, I understand everything. Once you start moving, you never stop. That’s what I told my sons when they took the trains. I don’t believe in this India- Shindia. It’s all very well, you are going away now, but suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then? Where will you move to? No one will have you anywhere. As for me, I was born here, and will die here.

Even then, the grandmother tries to take her away from Dhaka when riots break out in the city and he is killed along with the narrator’s cousin Tridib and the rickshaw puller Khalil who had been looking after the old man.

It is an engrossing read, and shares a few elements with Midnight’s Children, though the latter is on a broader canvas. The Shadow Lines is written effortlessly and without the baggage of ‘magical realism’ that Rushdie carried even in his first novel. Ghosh’s prose is evocative and realist.

Nevertheless, what I found disconcerting at the end of the novel is the author’s treatment of the modern nation in South Asia as a given, and not historically formed entity. So the madness of the continuing riots is seen as inexplicable, and the humanist effort on part of his cousin to rescue his grandfather from the rioting mob, as fatal and meaningless.

Take this rumination of Tridib’s brother when he is reminded of Tridib’s death in a Bangladeshi restaurant in England, fifteen years later. It more then sums up the cynicism towards the nation states, towards the borders- the ‘shadow lines.’

And then I think to myself why don’t they draw thousands of little lines through the whole subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? The whole thing is a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide memory? If freedom was possible, surely Tridib’s death would have set me free.

For some reason, after finishing it my immediate urge was to reach out for VS Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now, because I think it helps to explain better the significance of shadow lines and why they are being continually redrawn, in physical geography as well as geographies of minds.