An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira

César Aira is one of the most prolific contemporary Argentinian writers. His “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter” recounts the transformation of Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), a German painter who is deformed during one of his travels across South America. This ‘deformation’ in reality is a transformation as well, as Rugendas begins to look beyond the beautiful landscapes of South America and into the faces of the native Indians. This change in perspective happens when Rugendas is struck by a lightening bolt.

It has certainly been one of the more unexpectedly wonderful books I came across this year, elegant with a dense story that is most poignant when the bolt of lightening strikes Rugendas and transforms him even while deforming his face forever.

The storm broke suddenly with a spectacular lightening bolt that traced a zig- zag arc clear across the sky. It came so close that Rugenda’s upturned face, frozen in an expression of idiotic stupor, was completely bathed in white light. He thought he could feel its sinister heat on his skin, and his pupils contraced to pin- points… From that moment on, like all victims of personlized catastrophes, he saw himself as if from outside, wondering. Why did it have to happen to me?

The introduction to the 87 page novella is by Roberto Bolaño who remarks in his preface:

Aira is an eccentric, but he is also one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.

The novel reminded me of Raj Kapoor’s early film Aag which investigates the same dialectic of Beauty and the Beast, but this book is far more spectacular in its meditation on the relationship between reality and art, as well as an encounter, or clash, if you like, of civilizations.

A more detailed review.

Drizzle of Yesteryears by M. K. Ajay

Drizzle of Yesteryears by M. K. Ajay

Publisher: Frog Books
Pages: 113
Year: 2006

MK Ajay’s debut collection of short stories, the blurb announces, “examines belongingness, delightfully eccentric behavior, displacement, every day surprises and longing to return to one’s roots”.

After reading the collection of short stories, one cannot but help observe that the writer has an amazingly gifted imagination as well as a knack for bringing alacrity to his writing.

However, the book delivers only unevenly on its other promises, more than the theme of belonging and a longing to return to one’s roots, the characters in the stories display eccentricity and more often than not are at the mercy of the supernatural and the unexplained (“Philatelist”, “The Drizzle of Yesteryears”, “Flight to Norway”, “Skylights”, “Departures”, “The Temple of Snakes”), when they are not rudderless.

There is a sense of purposelessness in the characters and situations that stands out (“The Holy Man”, “A Question of Morality”, ” Rebirth”, “Departures”, “The Temple of Snakes”.)

“Fortunes of Circle” shows a macabre sense of imagination.

“Country Practice” probes well into the cynical mind of man who has spent a lifetime in the village as a clerk in the post office.

“In Spam” is a perceptive journey into the mind of a contemporary advertising executive. Through a “virtual” Buddhist monk, the character achieves self- realization- a theme that is reminiscent of Herman Hesse’s Siddharta. Thematically, this is one of the better stories in the collection.

“The Search” impresses with its humanism, as does “The Sketch”. “Alpine Miracle” leaves a pleasant after taste and displays the writer’s ability to give an unexpected twist at the end- certainly a major hallmark of a good short story.

The story “A Sunday Visitor” is one of the finest ones in the collection. In a theme inspired, according to the author himself, from Pirandello, a character named Bhairavan in the novel of a writer comes to haunt the writer wanting to know why he was left unexplained in the novel.

Unfortunately, too many characters in the collection tend to be like Bhairavan- left without any palpable sense of meaningful existence.

The story “Twelfth Night” comes nearest to perfection, marred only by the writer not leveraging the caste dichotomy built in the first half of the story and selecting once again to be overawed by the inexplicable. There is a minor editing flaw though where the email is referred to as a letter.

In terms of literary style, the stories bear the mark of detail, for example:

He adjusted the loose soil with his sandals. Ants were carrying away an overripe mango from the tree nearby. The sun was peering through the mango tree as he scanned the hum of life around him- red ants, an oriole preening itself, a plump cat sleeping on the brick wall, hibiscus in full bloom.

There is no doubt on the technical finesse of the collection- there is indeed a mastery in the how to write a story, it is in the realm of what to say that expectations raised by the literary style leave one somewhat less enthused.

At their best, most of the stories individually succeed in holding the interest of the reader and some display a wonderful sense of suspense and mystery. But they have very little to tie the characters together on the theme of belongingness and longing to return.

Perhaps, it is an attempt to over intellectualize the stories- people have been migrating over centuries and being “At Home” and “In Exile” are not necessarily binary opposites or contrasting categories. And if they are, the stories don’t sufficiently bring that out.

Overall an uneven endeavor by a young author, whose first collection of short stories is marked by occasional flashes of brilliance.

There is a blog on the book that the writer maintains.

The Underdogs- A Novel of the Mexican Revolution by Mariano Azuela


Few novelists have managed to create a successful short novel- some that instantly spring to mind are Turgenev (Father and Sons, Rudin), Juan Rulfo (Pedro Paramo), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Fiftyfive Five ), even Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and perhaps a few more complete the list.

To this short list also belongs Mariano Azuela’s classic novel about the Mexican Revolution: The Underdogs. In a mere 150 pages, Azuelo captures the tribulations of an Indian peasant leader- Demetrio Marcías and through him, the tribulations of the Mexican Revolution. Suffice would be to quote a a few lines from the novel that also serves as the summary of the novel:

Villa? Obregon? Carranza? Who do I care? I love the Revolution like I love the volcano that’s erupting! The volcano because it is a volcano; the Revolution because it’s the Revolution!… But the stones left above or below after the cataclysm? What are they to me?

“Why do you keep on fighting, Demetrio?”

Demetrio, frowning deeply, absentmindedly picks up a small stone and throws it to the bottom

of the canyon. He stares pensively over the precipice and says:

“Look at the stone, how it keeps going…”

The stone falling into a bottomless precipice is allegorical about the fate of the Mexican Revolution itself.

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The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac

Marx pondered if his magnum opus Das Capital would meet the fate of the painting in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, Picasso actually tried to emulate the fiction in his last painting and Cezanne admired this short story.

Considereing that it is a mere 22 pages, it is amazing how much Balzac has managed to pack into The Unkown Masterpiece– there is the question of the relationship between art and life, between love and art and the search for perfection.

Balzac recounts the story of a 17th century painter Frenhofer who, in his search for perfection, spends ten years painting his masterpiece. However, when he shows it to two of his young admirerrs, they see nothing more than a canvas daubed with paint.

The old man, absorbed in reverie, did not listen to them; he was smiling at that imaginary woman.

“But sooner or later he will discover that there is nothing on his canvas!” cried Poussin.

“Nothing on my canvas!” exclaimed Frenhofer, glancing alternately at the two painters and his picture.

“What have you done?” said Porbus in an undertone to Poussin.

The old man seized the young man’s arm roughly, and said to him:

“You see nothing there, clown! varlet! miscreant! hound! Why, what brought you here, then? – My good Porbus,” he continued, turning to the older painter, “can it be that you, you too, are mocking at me? Answer me! I am your friend; tell me, have I spoiled my picture?”

Porbus hesitated, he dared not speak; but the anxiety depicted on the old man’s white face was so heart-rendering that he pointed to the canvas saying:

“Look!”

Frenhofer gazed at his picture for a moment and staggered.

“Nothing! Nothing! And I have worked ten years!

He fell upon a chair and wept.

“So I am an idiot, a madman! I have neither talent nor capability! I am naught save a rich man who, in walking, does nothing more than walk! So I shall have produced nothing!”

Balzac ends the story in a way that one can see the almost King Learish tragedy of the painter- betrayed by his own work, as well as the story of perfection in which the work of art arrives before the aesthetic required to appreciate it has developed.

In either case, it is a story of art as transgression and a tragedy par excellence.

Image: Picasso’s rendition of Frenhofer painting The Unkown Masterpiece. Acknowledgement

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‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin

We by Evgeny Zamyatin is often seen as a precursor of George Orwell’s dysutopian novel 1984. Indeed, there are similarities, though We strikes one with it’s novelty and the fact that it was written in 1920-21, when the newly formed Soviet government was just beginning to consolidate itself.

Lenin was still alive, the Stalinist terror had not yet begun.

While it is possible to read We as a dysutopian novel- a critique of the socialism as it evolved under Soviet rule, it can also equally be read as a critique of positivism– a school of thought that reduced human nature to empirical and scientific facts.

It is a critique of a technocratic society and comparisons with modern Western societies are inescapable.

The novel is situated in about 3000 AD. The central character is numbered D-503- the level of civilization reached requires no names, everyone is a number. D- 503 is a mathematician/ engineer whose life is disrupted when he is attracted towards a woman I-330.

Even love appears as a mathematical problem when his mind grapples with the nature of an irrational number (the square root of minus 1).

D-503 is a law- abiding number who has absolute faith in the Benefactor, the supreme, God- like head of the One State. He recognizes the superior nature of his society. He compares his present with the primitive 20th century, for example, when he goes to vote in the election that every time unanimously returns the Benefactor to power. Those that disagree, are obvioulsy eliminated in a grotesque ceremony presided over by the Benefactor himself.

Naturally, this is entirely unlike the disorderly, disorganized elections of the ancients, when- absurd to say, the very results of the elections were unknown beforehand. Building a state on entirely unpredictable eventualisties, blindly- what can be more senseless?

Despite the inevitable comparisons with Orwell’s 1984, there is reason enough to believe that Zamyatin is more optimistic. At the end of novel, the One State- the State of Reason survives, but also suffers a blow, as the Wall that separates the sanitized One State from its primitive human neighbours is pushed back.

This cannot be postponed, because in the western parts of the city there is still chaos, roaring, corpses, beasts and unfortunately- a considerable group of numbers who have betrayed Reason.

The conflict between Reason and ‘primitive’ society (when numbers were humans) continues.

It is significant that while Zamyatin resisted efforts by the Party to censor his works, he considered himself to be a Soviet writer till his end in 1937.

His Bolshevik perspective comes through at places:

Then how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one; revolutions are infinite.

In 1931, Stalin had, miraculously, granted Zamyatin permission to emigrate. Zamyatin died in Paris in 1937, waiting for his return.

He was thus spared the fate of many other writers who were to satirize the emerging Soviet society. Andrei Platonov, for example, spent his last years as a window cleaner and whose works like The Foundation Pit, Soul and Happy Moscow saw the light of day only towards the end of the Soviet Union.

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Santa Evita by Tomas Eloy Martinez

In an apparent attempt to reduce the popularity of her own blog, Bhaswati Ghosh invited me to guest- post at her blog “At Home, Writing“.

My thanks to her. After all, the risk is all her’s 🙂

***

In the short span of six years between 1946 to 1952, Eva Perón, the wife of the Argentinian dictaror and founder of the Perónist party, Juan Perón, won over the Argentinian people so much so that her popularity was said to rival, if not exceed, that of Juan Perón himself. Having risen from obscurity, the youngest daugher of an unwed mother, her rise had been all the more spectacular.

Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Santa Evita could have been termed as a biographical account Eva Perón’s life had the author chosen to write about her short but eventful life.

Instead, he has chosen to write about her corpse.

Eva Perón’s body, like Lenin’s, was embalmed after she died of cancer at the age of 33, at the height of her popularity. However, before the corpse could be housed in a mausoleum for public display, Juan Perón was overthrown in a military coup, and thus began the after- life journey of Eva Perón, as the incumbent military government wondered what to do with the embalmed body.

To bury the corpse could have, they feared, incited the loyal Perónists and even the masses. And Eva dead was perceived as more dangerous than the living one.

Even a few replicas were created to mislead any followers, and attempts were made to bury them. For over a decade, the corpse and the replicas changed hands and locations, traversing within Argentina and to Europe- one replica was buried in Bonn and the actual corpse in Milan, Italy from where it was finally recovered and returned to Juan Perón after his return from exile in Spain.

Martínez recounts the stories of all those that came in contact with the corpse, and the often calamitous ends that they came to. Insidious accidents wait those entrusted with the corpse.

Some were haunted till death, some met with unexplicable accidents and others were relentlessly followed by a mysterious person called the ‘Commander of Vengeance’.

It is characteristic of Martínez to write a novel that takes the after- life of Eva Perón rather than her not less eventful life as its theme. He does show us slices of her life too but often as flashbacks and in recollections of those that he meets with.

In a sense, therefore, he underlines the persona that outlived Eva Perón herself.

This is akin to his previous novel, the redoubtable The Perón Novel, where he focussed not so much on Peron’s politically active years, but the seemingly innocuous journey of an exiled dictator returning to his home country in old age.

Santa Evita is a novel within a non- fictional account where Martínez goes out in serach of information about Eva Perón’s corpse- the story emerges as he interviews people associated with Eva or later with her restless corpse.

He makes the reader an accomplice in this journey of discovery- it becomes very much like a mystery in which the reader has as many, and more often as few, clues as the writer. This makes the novel extremely readable, if not racy.

Santa Evita turned out to be unputdownable, and I finished it within a week. Along with The Perón Novel , it has been one of my best reads from Latin America in the last one year.

[Cross posted at Bhaswati Ghosh’s blog: At Home, Writing]

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Ayodhya 6 December 1992 by PV Narasimha Rao

Barring Jawaharlal Nehru, it is unusual for Indian Prime Ministers to have authored books giving their political perspectives. P.V. Narasimha Rao was an exception. He authored a novel, The Insider during his own lifetime. The book under review Ayodhya 6 December 1992 appears posthumously.

The author’s objective for writing the book is stated unambiguously in the Introduction:

…this book attempts to examine the broad factual, Constitutional, judicial, legal and political aspects of the events that culminated in the tragedy of 6 December 1992. It is not intended as an exercise in self- righteousness or justification of anything done or not done.

It is a tribue to PV as a writer that he has distilled from a vast amount of material to put together a racy, 188 page book without compromising the seriousness of the topic. There are less than a dozen pages that are tedious- mainly because of the long quotes from judicial and other reports whose complete text has been incorporated in the appendices.

PV does a meticulous job in the first six chapters recounting the history of the dispute, interspersing what could have become a dry narrative with perceptive insights. He points out, for example, that the RJM was already gathering significant momentum at the time of Indira Gandhi’s assassination that brought the DCM Toyota yatra to a grinding halt inflcting a temporary setback to the movement.

He is also fair enough to credit Mulayam Singh Yadav’s firm handling of the Ayodhya crisis in 1989 when he effectively used Central forces to halt Advani’s jaggernaut.

It is in the later chapters, specially, ” Ayodhya 6 December 1992″ and “Why was Article 356 not invoked” that PV’s book is at its weakest as it loses its initial promise of not being a self justification on the inaction of the Central government to thwart the destruction of the Babri Masjid on the fateful day.

Paragraph after paragraph, PV gets into hair splitting details as a defence for his and his government’s inaction. The objectivity of the initial chapters gives way here to repetitive citing of facts, rhetorical questions and labyrinthine arguments.

In not too subtle a language, he indicates that he was “betrayed” by the Kalyan Singh government, that there were insincere machinations by leaders of his own party, the unique and unprecedented situation that 6 December presented in the history of the Republic, the dubious role played by the non Congress, non BJP parties and the perceived lapses on part of the Supreme court.

In other words, all the stars conspired to paralyse the government into inaction.

Even as PV swings from one argument to another, sometimes contradicting himself (for example, on the “crucial” role of logistics on page 174 only to point out, a few pages later, that it was not the crucial factor), he slips in a sentence that this reviewer feels is central to understanding the reasons for the paralysis of his government. PV here lets the cat out of the bag as it were.

He indicates that the BJP leaders stepped up the aggressiveness of the movement when they felt that PV was getting too close to the sants and the sadhus, in the four months before 6 December. These sants and sandhus consitituted the vast and dispersed middle leadership that expanded the reach of the previously urban based party.

This “subtle aspect of the RJM”, as PV terms it, not only indicates that PV was hobnobbing with these elements, but in the very next sentence shows his own susceptibilities to the Hindutva cause: ” … the undeniable fact that while Hindu masses were swayed by their devotion to Ram and their intense desire for the temple, the political forces behind the issue could not care less for the temple.”

Earlier, he had promised to construct a Ram temple in his Independence Day speech.

In other words, he was trying to display a holier than thou attitude with the BJP and hijack its agenda. He clearly failed in his calculations or machinations, the BJP trumped him in any case. He evidently had no workable backup plan.

This political failure lies at the heart of the problem- the beginning of the 1980s was marked by Indira Gandhi’s tilt away from the Left, if not to the Right, progressing during the years of Rajiv Gandhi to a confused dalliance with both Hindu and Muslim communalism.

PV’s era marked a consolidation of this swing towards Hindutva- culminating in the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Interestingly, PV does not use the word “Babri Masjid” anywhere in the book (though he does in his speeches in the appendices)- it is referred to as a “structure” or as the “Babri structure”.

Despite the scholarly collection of facts, that well document the main events culminating on the single biggest attack on Indian secularism after Partition, PV’s defence is unconvincing and one cannot but help recall Shakespeare:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

***

Related posts: review of “The Anatomy of a Confrontation: The Babri masjid- Ram Janmabhumi Controversy”

Cross posted at Desicritics.

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The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Time of the Hero was published in 1961 when Llosa was 25- it was immediately burned by the authorities for exposing the perversities of the Military Academy that was supposed to churn out candidates who would then hopefully join the military.
The novel is tedious in the first half, and begins to make better sense after the first 250 pages. The patience is worth it- all the elements of the future Llosa are there, even as the impact of William Faulker is very much evident.

There are multiple narratives, shifts in time and space, and in the battle between the reader and the writer, the initial incursive strides of the reader in the first 250 pages are shortlived.

The triumph of the writer thereafter is rapid, and unassailable.

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Distant Stars by Roberto Bolano

Roberto Bolaño died three years ago at the relatively young age of 50 , at the pinnacle of his career as a writer and before he could be better known in the English knowing world.

The translation into English of his By Night in Chile a few years ago marked his arrival in the English world. Distant Stars is the next book translated into English. His collection of short stories Last Evenings on Earth has been published recently and the translation of his most ambitious posthumus work 2666 is eagerly awaited.

The theme of Distant Stars is the same as the By Night in Chile, the over two decades of unbridled exercise of power by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet after the violent overthrow of the socialist government of Salvador Allende on that other, less remembered, 9/11 of 1973.

The theme has been attempted by other writers, notably by Ariel Dorfman in The Last Song of Manuel Sendero, who made a vastly more experimental attempt at capturing the brutality of those years. In contrast, Distant Stars is a relatively simpler novel, closer to Dr Faustus by Thomas Mann, but less verbose and less tedious.

Mann had taken the analogy of the folk legend of Faust and Mephistopheles where a musician signs a pact with the devil (in this case Nazi Germany), to illustrate the immorality of those who had been accomplices of the Nazi regime. Bolaño, in this work, takes the case of an avant garde poet, Carlos Wieder. In the process he also offers insights into the lives of that generation of poets that was torn apart by the dictatorship: “Madness was not exceptional at that time,” he remarks, when Carlos Wieder inaugurates a new form of poetry by writing one and two liners poems in the sky on an airplane.

While Carlos wins accolades from the regime, other poets meet with a different fate. “The good news was that we had been expelled from the university, the bad was that almost all of our friends have disappered”, the narrator’s friend Bibiano observes. There are many incidents that recount the “melancholy folklore of exile- made up of stories that are fabrications or pale copies of what really happened”.

Carlos meanwhile goes on to experiment with other forms of ‘literature’ till it becomes so grotesque that even the supportive regime finds it difficult to continue to stand by him. Bolaño unmasks the gory details, and Wieder’s participation in the brutalization of the Chilean soceity during the dictatorship. Wieder’s unwritten pact with the devil becomes evident.

Bolaño scores with the fact that he is able to evoke a series of sub texts that are pregnant with possiblities. The following narration, for example, by the Indian maid of one the victims of the Wieder’s murderous crimes indicates a new trajectory that deserves a different treatment altogether.

The maid makes an appearance in the court against the defendent Carlos Weider when his crimes are discovered.

Over the years her Spanish had dwindled. When she spoke every second word was in Mapuche… in her memory the night of the crime was one in the long history of killing and injustice. Her account of the event was swept up in a cyclical, epic poem, which, as her dumbfounded listeners came to realize, was partly her story, the story of the Chilean citizen Amalia Maluenda, who used to work for the Garmendias, and partly the story of the Chilean nation. A story of terror…. Remembering the dark of the crime, she said she had heard the music of the Spanish. When asked to clarify what she meant by “the music of the Spanish,” she replied: ” Sheer rage, sir, sheer, futile rage”.

Cross posted here.

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Under the Shadow of Kamakhya

Mamoni Raisom Goswami (aka Indira Goswami) is most well known for her novel The Moth Eaten Saddle (Howrah) of the Tusker, where she weaved the whole tapestry of life around a Vaishnavite satara (religious institution). Her writings represent a some of the finest in the much broader stream of literature from her home state of Asom (formerly Assam).

Under the Shadow of Kamakhya is a collection of eight of her short stories, some of which have appeared in other anthologies.

In all the stories, Mamoni Raisom enthralls one with the kaleidoscopic descriptions of her land and people. The details of the birds, the flora and fauna are vividly described with the flourish of a poet. The characters absorb the ambience of the landscape and are shaped by it:

“Her silk garmets shone like the phosphorescent foam on the turbulent waters of the Brahmaputra during the monsoon”

(Under the Stadow of Kamakhya)

Similarly, the landscape also acquires shades of the characters:

The bulbuls on the Hijol tree started chirping noisily. The sun rose above the Brahmaputra. Wreaths of violet and brown clouds clung to it, making it look like the pinched and pale face of a hapless prostitute, blushing at the thought of having to spend time with an unwanted stranger. The clouds seemed to lay bare the strange combination of helplessness and indomitable strength on this face.

The cinders of the burnout chest were scattered all over the place. In the morning sunshine this resembled the hide of a freshly butchered goat, spread out on the earth to dry.

(The Chest)

The Brahmaputra and the Kamakhya temple occupy a centerstage in the stories.

The most powerful story is undoubtedly the one named in the title: Under the Shadow of Kamakhya where the chief protagonist Padmapriya is sent back to her parent’s home when her husband’s family wrongly suspects that she has an incurable disease. The husband finally comes back to take her home and at his moment of glory of accepting her back is shocked to know about the strands in his wife’s life during the two years of his absence.

In The Chest Toradoi burns the wooden chest that belonged to the man who she believes never married because he loved her but could not marry her because of caste restrictions. Her brother’s revelation about the man shatters the last flickr of a misplaced illusion.

In The Journey, Mamoni Raisom poignantly weaves the personal story of an emaciated tea shop owner and his family in the background of the liberation struggle for Asom led by the ULFA.

The Beasts is about the unpredictability of people, the capitulation of a principled man who sells his trust among a Rubha tribeswoman to an unscrupulous but powerful merchant. The story is narrated through a mute character. It is a strory of betrayal.

Dwarka and his Gun shows the power of an uncertain, open ended story where the reader’s imagination is left free to soar.

Mamoni Raisom displays her mastery over the craft of the short story that would rank her with some of the best in the world today. They also bring out the concerns of this extremely talented writer and illustrate the enduring place for realism.

In Parasu’s Well, a greedy Kabuliwallah moneylender melts when he sees the hard work put in by the dull, almost wretched character of Parasu, and the sad condition of his sick brother.

Mamoni Raisom always manages to rescue humanism from the clutches of the rigmarole, the grind of daily life, misunderstandings and human failings.

[Cross-posted at Desicritics.org]

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Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages

Best known for the novel Kiss of the Spider Woman, and about whom the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa once said : “Of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig (1932-90).”

The plot of Manuel’s novel (the first one that he wrote in English) Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages is seemingly staightforward.

An Argentenian revolutionary, a trade union- organizer actually, is tortured after the military coup in 1976. He manages to find his way to a sanatorium in the United States via a human rights organization. Here he is allotted an attendant who takes him around in his wheelchair. The novel is little more than a series of conversations, a continuous dialogue between the two as the attendant Larry takes Ramirez around New York.

But as the novel progressed, I found the plot somewhat convoluted and the novel crashing to an uncertain end- the reader is urged on not so much by the plot but by the layers of reality and unreality that are unsheathed between the dialogues.

The novel has no other text except 223 pages of dialogue, five letters, one will and one job application.

The plot is rendered meaningless in the web of psychological trajectories that Puig weaves for the reader.

There is nothing sinister about the novel itself despite the title. But it has dark undertones throughout, peppered and enlivened with deep insights that make one aware of the sensitivities of this writer “least interested in literature.”

I found the novel stylistically very innovative and confirmed the view that Latin American Literature is not all about magical realism. It is enriched by a galaxy of writers with very distinctive styles.

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Review of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution by Richard Gott


I came upon Bolívar, one long morning
in Madrid, at the entrance to the Fifth Regiment
Father, I said to him, are you, or are you not, or who are you?
And, looking at the Mountain Barrak, he said:
‘I awake every hundred years when the people awake’

– excerpt from the poem a Song for Bolívar by Pablo Neruda, quoted in the book

As the coup to topple Hugo Chávez gathered pace on the night of 11 APril 2002, Fidel Castro heard about it and called up Chávez at midnight. The veteran warrior from Cuba provided distilled wisdom to the young socialist crusader:

‘Save your people and save yourself. Do what you have to do. Negotiate with dignity. Do not sacrifice yourself, Chávez, because this is not going to end. You must not sacrifice yourself.’

Chavez was too important a figure for the future of Latin America, Castro argued, for him to allow himself to be killed off in a coup. The advise was timely and wise.

Castro evidently had the experience of the 1973 sacrifice of Salvador Allende and his government- and the long dark years that followed the coup.

Chávez turned out to be a sharp learner who not only survived the coup but also emerged as an astute politician who is poised to succeed Fidel Castro as the leading voice of dissent against neo- imperialism and globalization as defined by the West.

Richard Gott brings such quotes- like the telephonic message from Castro- and many a historical insight to explain the phenomenon of Hugo Chávez.

Chávez is an advocate of New Socialism for the 21st century and has initiated a number of changes in his country to translate that vision into reality.

Having said this, it is important to remember, as Gott points out in this extremely necessary book- that Chávez and his concept of Socialism is derived much more from the Latin American experience of the last three centuries than from the Marxist- Leninist or Stalin- Maoist models.

Simón Bolívar has often been derided by Marxist writers as bourgeois- even Garcia Marquez ruffled a few feathers by his implicit criticism of ‘The Liberator’ in his The General in his Labyrinth. But Chavez considers Bolívar as an important part of the Left wing tradition in South America.

Left scholarship has traditionally seen Bolívar as securing liberation from Spain but with the help of the British- having subsequently handed over the continent over for exploitation by English capitalism.

Chávez, on the other hand has incorporated Simón Bolívar into the Left tradition and thereby brought in a heavier dose of nationalism into the ideology of the Left.

However, he does not share the pessimism of even the Liberator who is said to have remarked on his deathbed: ‘America is ungovernable. Those in the service of the revolution have ploughed the sea.’

‘The contradictions in Bolívar’s thought are not the determining factor’, argues Chávez, ‘What we can see in the period of history between 1810 and 1830, are the outlines of a national project for Spanish America’. Chávez evidently plans to pursue that project with renewed energy.

Another historical personality that Chávez looks upto is Simón Rodríguez, sometimes called the Robinson Crusoe of Spanish America.

Rodríguez was a schoolteacher with unorthodox views on education and commerce far in advance of his time. he also had a passionate belief in the need to integrate the indigenous people’s of Latin America, and the black slaves brought from outside, into the societies of the future independent states.

Rodríguez’s ideas about education for the indigenous population of South America and the role of the underclass are crucial for Chávez- himself a mestizo.

The third major influence on Chávez has been the revolutionary soldier Ezequiel Zamora, a provincial radical who became a soldier and strategist. He advocated far reaching land reforms for the peasants and was passionately hostile against the land owning oligarchy. But more than that, the crucial element from his thought that Hugo Chávez has internalized and that has become the axis of the Chávezista phenomenon is his advocacy of the combined role of the soldiers and civilians in his struggle and the Bolivarian dream of combining with like- minded forces across South America.

Having traced the idelogolical roots of Chávez, Gott goes on to give us an extremely well crafted narrative of the rise of Chávez, his failed coup and subsequent rise as a democrat. The new constitution that the National Assembly in Venezuela wrote under his leadership has to be read in the context of these influences on the progress of the Venezuelian revolution led by Chávez.

Another distinguishing feature of this revolution- which marks it out from previous socialist projects in Europe and Asia is the lack of an organized political party- the Movement for Socialism that Chávez leads is an amalgamation of various Left wing groups and patriotic elements from the military, the latter is explained well by Gott:

For many people outside Latin America, particularly in the quarter of a century since General Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende in September 1973, it has been almost impossible to think of a military leader without conjuring up the image of the gorila, the general and his military junta in dark glasses presiding over an authoritarian and repressive regime. Few recall the handful of leftist military rulers to have taken the side of the poor and the peasants, and pushed through radical reforms in the teeth of fierce opposition from local oligarchs and the United States. Few remember that Allende recruited progressive officers to serve in his government.

The extent of the opposition that he has invited from the previous ruling circles in his own country and the repeated coup attempts against his government are explained in the context of far reaching changes that he has brought about in nationalizing specially the oil industry, providing rights to indigenous people and in his efforts to decentralize development works.

He has repeatedly invited the wrath of the United States as his policies place him in the anti- globalization league.

Revolutionaries in every age are threatended by twin forces. On the one hand, every revolution spawns a counter- revolution as Marx observed somewhere, on the other, as the experience of the socialist revolutions of the 20th century have demonstrated, every revolution devours its own children.

The Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela is threatened more from the former at the moment, though the latter may soon be a threat too.

For all those who wear of a patch of red on their heart, the success of socialism in Venezuela and in rest of South America is extremely important.

Its continuous progress opens up new vistas for the revival of the socialist project that suffered a dramatic, if temporary, defeat after the fall of ‘existing’ socialism in the Soviet Union.

An interview with Richard Gott here.

Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution by Richard Gott
Publisher: Verso

Edition: 2005
Pages 315

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The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov

The classical Russian novel was more than a work of literature, it was more often than not a means for communicating ideas and for philosophical discourse. There is also a remarkable continuity of themes with Russian writers taking up, as it were, themes from a previous novel by a different writer and taking them forward.

In that Andrey Platonov followed in the footsteps of the other great Russian novelists and used the medium of the novel to comment on the progress of the Russian Revolution. Once its enthusiast- he came from a working class background and immediately after the revolution graduated as an engineer and worked towards the electrification plans, he was sensitive to the brutality of its implementation.

His enthusiasm was soon to be curbed and his disenchantment was to be reflected in the novels that he subsequently wrote. His major works were to be published decades after his death in 1951. He was working as a window cleaner in the Soviet Writer’s building when he died.

The Foundation Pit
is the most well known of Platonov’s novels. It describes the impact of the forced collectivization that Stalin introduced in 1927. There are over a dozen major characters and is mainly a novel of action and development, there are few soliloquies or psychological portraits of the characters. That is for good reason and is indicated right in the beginning of the novel.

The pace is set by the first paragraph of the novel where Voshchev is discharged from his job in a machine factory “because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work”. Subsequently, no character in the novel makes that mistake again as the Party activist goes about forcing the poor and the small/ middle peasantry into the kholkoz, the collectivised farm.

He also gets them to dig the foundation pit for a massive building that would house the future socialist citizenry. The pit finally becomes the burial ground for the little girl Nastya, who is born of a “kulak” woman and therefore of “capitalist scum.” But her dying mother ingrains in her daughter the noble virtues of socialism and the little girl imbibes all the right words and ideas.

She describes her own capitalist tainted origin to the loyal Party excavator Chiklin thus: “I didn’t want to get born- I was afraid my mother would be bourgeois.” Later, as she is taken to school and where she “learned to love the Soviet government and began collecting trash for reuse”, she writes to Chiklin, the overseer of the foundation pit:

Liquidate the kulak as a class. Long live Lenin, Kozlov and Safranov.
Regards to the poor kolkhoz, but not to the kulaks.

At the end of the novel the Revolution finally devours its own child and she is buried in the pit by Chiklin.

Platonov’s style is very direct in this novel, it was to tone down dramatically in later works like The Soul and Happy Moscow that dealt with later Five Year Plan periods and where his style is more implicit (specially in the very effective use of the rhetoric in Happy Moscow.)

The Foundation Pit reflects the confusion of the 1920s that unleashed a great deal of creative energies among the intelligentsia specially of those coming from poorer and working class families. It also showed them the limits of that euphoria. By the 1930’s the State’s control was firmly established and by 1937 Stalin was to confidently go and finish of the bulk of the Party leadership, including “Lenin’s son” Nikolai Bukharin- something that led another disillusioned communist Arthur Koestler to chronicle in Darkness at Noon.

Platonov brings forth the Party slogans that were established and were executed with meticulous haste by the rank and file, only to be rescinded later with a different set, if not opposite ones. Former local leaders, once decorated for their result effectiveness, were now identified as having misinterpreted the Party Line and hence he is “liquidated.”

These are indeed themes that have occured in many works about Russia of the last century- what lends crecedence to Platonov his is physical presence during the times (unlike that of Western writes notably Koestler and Orwell) but also his ability to both write objectively on a progress of which he was a sympathiser of and maintain his belief that communism needs to proceed on a more humanistic basis than it did under Stalin. That rescues Platonov from succumbing to the disillusion of a Koestler and the propagandistic overtones in Orwell and enhances the authenticity of his work.

His own subsequent treatment and his elimination as a writer in the Soviet Union make him out as a martyr.

The Foundation Pit (as also his previous, longer novel Chevengur), follow up the themes that were previous treated by Dostoevesky in The Possessed and by Josef Conrad his near- prophetic Under Western Eyes. Post- revolution, the novel marks a continuity with Zamyatin’s We that was published in 1920.

The universality of this work lies in the fact that similar mechanisms continue to be employed in the contemporary world, whether it is in attempts at exporting democracy or exporting globalization and IMF diktats to the Third World in Capital’s thirst for markets. The vocabulary has changed, but the language remains the same- of violence against people en masse. The tragedy was more grotesque in the case of the Soviet Union of the 1920 and 1930s because socialism was supposed to have rescued the masses from the evils of exploitation.

Finally, a note on the length of the novel. Russian novels are generally long and run into hundreds of pages, with Tolstoy and Dostoevesky probably taking the cake. Only a Turgenev could write as concisely as Flaubert covering a whole gamut of human experiences in a novel of a hundred or so pages. In The Foundation Pit, Platonov follows Turgenev and achieves a veritable literary crescendo in a novel that is merely 140 pages long.

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Review of The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

Argumentative, But Not Enough

The Argumentative Indian
Amartya Sen
Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity
Allen Lane (Penguin) Rs. 650In the collection of essays in the book under review, Sen is at his finest when slicing an idea, displaying a sleight of hand in posing the same question differently, much like a photographer who likes to first take a picture upfront from a commonplace view and then takes a few measured, deliberate steps and gives a picture of the same subject from a devastatingly precise and alternative angle. From looking into a pool of muddy water, the camera suddenly wafts towards the blue sky as it were. The brown disappears, and a clear azure reigns.

The picture is,however, still deceptive …the book is, ultimately not argumentative enough as it does not address three of the most pertinent contemporary contrarian ideas and ideologies- caste (Dalit upsurge), globalization and environment/ecology.

The immediate motivation for writing this book, Amartya Sen explains at the outset, is to provide a ‘social and political understanding of India’ and restore the ‘long argumentative tradition in India’. Sen uses the word ‘argumentative’ interchageably (and somewhat ambigiously) in the sense of debate, critical thinking, heterodoxy and the dialectic, which he sees as a ‘powerful tool in resisting social inequalities and in removing poverty and deprivation’.

The selection of the word ‘argumentative’ in lieu of the many other words available is apparently a matter of ‘choice’ and Sen does not really address the question why he chose the particular term ‘argumentative’ and it takes at least a few pages before the reader can discern its usage in the intended sense.

The collection of the 16 essays is divided into four sections with four essays in each. Between these four sections, Sen attempts to show the methodological and historical relevance of the dialogic and pluralism in the evolution of India.

The Tradition of Argumentation

The first four essays attempt to restore the argumentative tradition in India by tracing its history.

He sets the pace by illustrating the debate between Lord Krishna and Arjun from the Bhagvat Gita. Arjuna is reticent in fighting the war, alarmed by its consequences; Krishna wins the argument between the two and convinces the Pandava ace- fighter to fight the war. Arjuna therefore lost the argument, but Sen says that the results of the war did indeed prove his doubts and reasoning to have been correct. Hence, says Sen,

“Arjuna’s contrary arguments are not really vanquished, no matter what the ‘message’ of the Bhagavad Gita is meant to be. ….There will be, in this essay and in the others to follow, to examine the reach and significance of many of the debates and altercations that have figured prominently in the Indian argumentative tradition. We have to take note not only of the opinions that won- or allegedly won- in the debates, but also of the other points of view that were presented and are recorded or remembered. A defeated argument that refuses to be obliterated can remain very alive.”

Similarly, Javali, a pundit, does not mere not treat Rama as God, but calls his actions ‘foolish’ (‘especially for’, as Javali puts it, ‘an intelligent and wise man’). Javali also explains that ‘there is no afterworld, not any religious practice for attaining that’, and that ‘the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts and penance have been laid down in the sastras (scriptures) by clever people, just to rule over (other) people’.

These provide the ground for Sen’s criticism of the syndicated Hinduism propagated by the BJP and its Hindutva allies.

Sen goes on to illustrate the continuous tradition of heterodoxy and dissent n Indian history and notes that many of the heretical points of view during the middle ages came from the working class- like Kabir (weaver), Dadu (cotton carder), Ravi- dass (shoe- maker) and Sena (barber). There were a few women too, like Mira- bai, Andal, Sahajo- bai and Ksema.

He follows this up, like Nehru, with the crucial and central role of Ashoka and Akbar in establishing pluralism.

Sen quotes James Buchanan’s definition of democracy: ‘as “government by discussion” implies that individual values can and do change in the process of decision- making’. He underlines that the expression of values in a democracy also determines the values themselves, as illustrated by he very Indian form of secularism, sublimated according to him, in the championing of pluralism by none other than the Mughal emperor Akbar who organized debates and public dialogues between the followers of different religious faiths of his time (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsees, Jains, Jews and even atheists).

Akbar’s overarching thesis that ‘the pursuit of reason’ rather than ‘reliance on tradition’ is the way to address difficult problems of social harmony included a robust celebration of reasoned dialogues.”

In the realm of science, Sen debunks the India of the popular Western imagination as a land of mysticism and religion. His excursions into Aryabhata’s works is particularly fascinating, he points to the fact that not only did Aryabhata at the young age of 23 publish his most important work explaining the lunar and solar eclipses in terms of the earth’s movement and but also indicated the very initial understanding of the phenomenon of gravity.

He also drives home the gains of the only agnostic religion in the world and also the one that originated in India- Buddhism. He also comments that nearly all attempts at printing were undertaken by Buddhist technologists in an effort to expand public communication. The first ever printed book was the Chinese translation of an Indian Budhist work, whose introductory note explicitly explained that it was made for ‘universal free distribution’.

Modern Traditions of Argumentation

The next four deal with the role of communication, including the dissemination of the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore and the brilliant usage of the film media by Satyajit Ray, the ‘imagination of India’ by the West and the fascinating history of the intellectual exchanges between India and China in the first millennium. This section is by far the richest section of the book, and the three essays on Tagore, Satyajit Ray and the one on China and India probably tie for the best essay in the collection. He illustrates how the argumentative tradition has been carried forth by Tagore:

Tagore’s criticism of patriotism is a persistent theme in his writings….’Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter, my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live’.

Argumentation in Contemporary India

The third section deals with contemporary politics and is certainly the weakest section in the collection. Sen recollects the promises made in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech, the issue of class and gender and the nuclearization in the sub- continent particularly after 1998.

Reasoning and Indian Identity

The final section has four essays that deal with the ‘Reach of Reason’, secularism and its discontents, India through its calendars and the question of the Indian identity. All of these, except ‘India through its Calendars’ fail to excite either because of the repetition in previous sections but also because Sen does not go beyond the mundane.

Above all, in the last essay on the question of ‘The Indian identity’ where he assumes a very narrow meaning of the term ‘globalization’ in a very general sense as a movement or exchange of people and ideas across countries throughout history and hence concludes that globalization is a positive thing.

“Even though contemporary attacks on intellectual globalization tend to come not only from traditional isolationists but also from modern separatists, we have to recognize that our global civilization is a world heritage- not just a collection of disparate local cultures.”

While the intent of the professor is good, he does not place ‘globalization’ in the specific historical context of contemporary capitalism. Even in a social- cultural context, there is no indication of hegemonizing cultural overtones of triumphant Americanism after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Conclusion: Not Argumentative Enough

In the book under review, the author emerges as the quintessential liberal intellectual from the fifties. His world is populated by the categories of nationalism, secularism and nuclearization. The essays are erudite and persuasive and there are attempts at an understated humour as should be in any good essay though Sen is clearly not very comfortable in this zone.

He is at his finest when slicing an idea, displaying a sleight of hand in posing the same question differently, much like a photographer who likes to first take a picture upfront from a commonplace view and then takes measured,deliberate steps and gives a picture of the same subject from a devastatingly precise and alternative angle. From looking into a pool of muddy water, the camera suddenly wafts towards the blue sky as it were. The brown disappears, and a clear azure reigns.

The picture is still deceptive, however. One reason is that Sen tries to handle a certainly complex problem of what is India and Indian-ness not as an exercise in system building but rather as a series of intellectual skirmishes, each of which delight with their scintillating didactic forcefulness, but fall short in painting a more complete picture.

He deals very well, for example, with the issues of Indian inclusiveness, its interactions on a global scale, specially with China in the first millennium, the modernizing ideas of Rabindranath Tagore, a thinker much ignored both in India and the West, the localized turf but the global influence in the cinema of Satyajit Ray and India’s rich tradition of heterodoxy and multi- culturalism to which he brings Ashoka’s and Akbar’s experiences to the front.

But there is much that is missing in the collection of essays that seeks to deal with the heterodox, debating and hence ‘argumentative’ traditions in India.

He does not attempt to understand, for example, why despite the thousand year long sway Buddhism (a very strong ‘argumentative tradition’ according to Sen), ultimately could not sustain. D.D. Kosambi had tried to explain the phenomenon in his The Decline of Buddhism in India in his equally stimulating collection of Exasperating Essays: Exercises in the Dialectical Method published almost half a century ago.

On the contemporary scene, it is very interesting, for one, that Sen has practically nothing to say on the issue of Dalit identity and movements and there is complete nonchalance, apart from a few nodding asides, on the issue of caste oppression in India either in the past or the contemporary times. This reminds one of the Indian communist leadership that lamented the condition of the working class and the insulated and the humiliated, nevertheless ensuring that the leadership of the communist parties remained within the dominant castes.

The same was true of the entire leadership of the Indian freedom struggle, apart from Ambedkar’s understandably vitriolic outbursts and Gandhiji’s paternalism towards the ‘Harijan’s as he termed the Dalits.

Despite the caste question occupying a central place in the political discourse in contemporary India Sen seems to miss the evident.

Similarly Sen is silent on the other central point of conflict in the last decade and half- that of globalization. In the last essay in this collection, he conveniently ignores the use of the term ‘globalization’ in contemporary discussions in the economic sense, not to say its use as an economic ideology of contemporary capitalism that has much in common with the globalization of a hundred years ago.

Sen seems to consider any interchange of ideas between countries at all times in world history as the process of ‘globalization’, including, for example, the exchange of ideas between the Arab world and India about a thousand years ago. This is a very simplistic view of globalization. Nowhere does Sen consider the contradictory and debilitating impact of globalization in India in the past 15 years.

Similarly, Sen does not have anything to say on the ecological and alternative movements in contemporary India.

The book is ultimately not argumentative enough as it does not address some of the most important contrarian ideas and ideologies that have shaped contemporary India.

This, however, is not to berate or understate his achievements. It is just that he has attempted something very big and with his reputation as an intellectual who is more than a dry economist, one perhaps expected something more. At the end of the book, Sen leaves the reader with a number of interesting facts and perspectives about India’s past and for a liberal of any hue, he leaves them with their convictions confirmed.

El Infierno by Carlos Martinez Moreno

El Infierno
by Carlos Martinez Moreno

readers international, 1981

El Infierno is a chapter by chapter descent into the hell that Uruguay was during the military dictatorship in the seventies. Carlos Martinez Moreno, along with Eduardo Galeano is one the important Uruguayan writers of the 20th century.

The novel is an account of the ‘operations’ of the government as well as the leftist gurrillas. It is in the nature of a fictionalized documentary, and black and dark besides. Martinez Moreno was a defense lawyer and, as the blurb says, created his Dantesque vision from the evidence available to him as part of the many legal cases that he handled.

The theme of political upheavals, military dictatorships and Left- wing and millenarian opposition to the establishment in Latin America has been explored elsewhere in the more well known works of Garcia Marquez (the brilliant ‘Autumn of the Patriarch’ and ‘The General in his Labyrinth’), Mario Vargas Llosa (‘The Feast of the Goat’, ‘The Real Life of Aljandro Mayta’, the epic novel ‘The War of the End of the World’), Ariel Dorfman (‘The Last Song of Manuel Sendora’) and Carlos Fuentes, and of course by Eduardo Galeano himself. While extremely readable (and quite short at 266 pages), I would not place El Infierno in the same class though.

A banker kidnapped by leftist guerillas recollects in the novel:

Once they (the kidnappers) tested my sense of humour by quoting from Bertold Brecht’s phrase about which was worse crime: robbing a bank or founding one. ‘Well, you may well be doing something to close it right now.’ They laughed. They were amazed that a banker had heard of Brecht. They liked the story about the German who remained indifferent when they came for the Communists because he was not one, and when they came for the Jews because he was not one, and saw it was too late when the Nazis came for him. We are often astonished by what others, incredibly know…

This conversation during the Cold War era could have been held anywhere in the world, when the Left had a shared folklore and iconic heroes like Che, Salvador Allende and Ho Chi Minh. During the last 15 years, the advocates of a more just world no longer have such heroes while world- capitalism has its ‘universal’ icons. I think it was Manuel Castells in ‘The Rise of the Networked Society’, who referred to the fact that while capital is increasingly centralized, the forces in opposition to it are increasingly fragmented.

Incidentally, this day while the world rightly remembers 11 September 2001, a few also remember another tragedy that lasted 17 years following the coup in Chile on 11 September 1973.

The Feast of the Goat

Here is a review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel that I wrote three years ago. Somewhat ‘dated’ by blogging standards it sure is, but then one has to be fair to one’s favourite author…

The Feast of the Goat
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Edith Grossman
Faber and Faber, London, 2001
£ 10.99, Indian Price £ 6.50

In an interview given to Gabriel Garcia Marquez sometime after the Zapatista peasant rebellion in Mexico in 1995, its masked Marxist leader sub commandante Marcos explained that after Cervantes and Shakespeare it were the contemporary Latin American writers who moulded the minds of his generation. Besides Garcia himself and others, he named Mario Vargas Llosa, quickly adding that he influenced, “despite his ideas”.

This somewhat cryptic comment heightens the tribute to Llosa as he was the right wing presidential candidate during the Peruvian elections in 1990- an election that brought Alberto Fujimoro to power and infamy. But more than that, Llosa has been for decades the most eloquent literary voice from Peru, its leading storyteller, a novelist in the magical realist genre of Jose Borges, Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende and a host of other Latin American novelists.

The novel under review is the latest offering from Llosa- it is a tale woven around the last days of the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the tiny country with an iron hand for thirty-one years before his assassination in 1961. For most part of his reign he had been supported by the US administration and hailed as the bulwark against Communism in Latin America. His brutality and ruthlessness was legendary as was his mania for cleanliness.

It was in the backdrop of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Cuban revolutionary movement that the US started to distance itself from a dictator who had destroyed all institutions in the country and supplanted them with a single one- himself. His highly blemished record on human rights left little options even for the US to support him.

The novel, in Llosa’s trademark style of interleaving multiple narratives and sequencing of events across time describes the events as seen through the eyes of his detractors and conspirators, Trujillo himself and most pertinently, through the eyes of Urania Cabral, daughter of a former Trujillo confidant and who left the country at the age of 14 after her father had fallen into disgrace.

The conspirators are mostly drawn from the circle of the middle level functionaries in the Trujillo administration and personify the old adage that a system falls not only when those who have been left out in the cold oppose it, but when those at the helm realize that the system is no longer sustainable and their convictions crystallize sufficiently for them to join hands and overturn it. Trujillo’s assassins are mostly the second-generation beneficiaries of the regime, those who have not known any other system except Trujillo’s blood- sucking tyranny.

On the other hand, Trujillo sees himself as a man of destiny who has been directed by God Himself to lead his country out of the darkness into a modern civilized nation. He fancies that his countrymen would still be living in the dark ages were it not for him. Indeed with the help of his benefactor, the United States, he did manage to bring symbols and elements of modern life to his country.

Urania Cabral who returns to visit her country for a week provides the third perspective. She returns to the Dominican Republic after 35 years as a 49- year old spinster, a leading professional who has worked with the World Bank and now lives and works in Manhattan with a leading law firm. Why has Urania never married? Why has she never responded to the numerous letters written by her father, relatives and friends over the years? Why does she continue to detest her father who supported her financially as long as he could and helped her to leave the county?

Llosa keeps the reader guessing as he leads him into the intricate maze of the plot and sub- plots. Llosa’s style has elements of a classical symphony- a fugue that keeps on playing till it stretches the reader, only to reward him with a crescendo as Urania’s reasons for her strange behaviour become chillingly transparent.

The novel ends with Trujillo’s assassins being let down by the Chief of the Armed Forces who had agreed to proclaim a civil- military takeover after Trujillo’s assassination. He has been so tamed in all these years that he finds himself incapable of taking the right decision at the opportune moment and only ends up being implicated and brutally tortured and killed by the former dictator’s vengeful son. All but two of the conspirators meet an identical fate.

Trujillo’s family is allowed by the former puppet President Ballaguer to shift millions of dollars out of the country (a step that Trujillo never took himself nor allowed his family to take). The former dictator’s protégés transition the country to a democratic state, under the benevolent eyes of the US administration.

Who finally won? Was it Trujillo who all said and done and despite his brutal assassination at the age of 70 had had the opportunity to put his country on the fast track to his conception of a modern country, whatever be the actual effects of his regime?

Was it the conspirators who despite their capture managed bring an end to the brutal regime? Or was it the protégés who followed the dictator all his life, reaped the benefits under his tutelage and then survived his assassination to emerge as the leaders of the democratic nation?
Urania Cabral, despite the horror that will hang over her all her life does manage to escape to the US and live an independent life.

Is it, yet once again, the victory of political chicanery that wins over courage and brilliance?
Llosa does not pose this question himself but the reader is automatically led to it. It is the same question that Llosa has asked again and again in his works. Most notably in his epic tragedy “The War of the End of the World” as well as lesser known works like “Death in the Andes” and in “The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta”, a novel that places itself in a sort of a trilogy with Joseph Conrad’s “Under Western Eyes” and Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”.

In his attempt at examination of a Latin American dictator and paint his fictional portrait, Llosa brings to mind, most obviously, Garcia Marquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch”. In its portrayal of those close to Trujillo the novel brings to mind Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The First Circle”.

In the story that Llosa has chosen to tell in this novel, the reader is left with multiple versions of the truth and no one-dimensional answers. As in his other works, the reader is left perplexed. Llosa has raised as always, disturbing questions that haunt and leave us groping for answers.

The Last Song of Manuel Sendero by Ariel Dorfman

An Experimental Novel on a Real Tragedy

I started reading the book with gusto and expectation. I had heard a lot about this Argentina born, Chilean citizen who had grown up in the United States of America and now lives in Chile ‘whenever possible.’ Then the book itself is about the Chilean socialist and democratic revoultion of September 1973. Salvador Allende, the Socialist President who came to power by democratic means and whose rule within weeks was overturned by the military Junta supported by the United States and much of the ‘civilized world’. Dorfman was supporter of Allende. Allende himself, as is well- known, preferred to die a heroic death defying the upstart Chilean army- he was the stuff that legends are made of.

But the novel was somewhat of a letdown, and despite my grim determination to read through the novel, and many years after I renounced another novel midway- The Satanic Verses by Rushdie whom I admire as much as I do Dorfman. Like the Verses, the Last Song is allegorical, and is populated by a number of characters that defy space and time and a lot of rationality besides. The main theme of the novel is that a number of babies in their mothers’ wombs decide not to be born till the world is worth living. There is Grandfather who joins in with the babies, apparently he is able to be their contemporary by his ability to live in nostalgia. Then there are characters who find documents from the time of Pinochet’s regime ten thousand years henceforth and try to construct a historical record of the period.

Also in the bovel is a character called Carl Barks, evidently the opposite of Karl Marx. He is a cartoonist from the Walt Disney corporation and is hired by the Pinochet regime to create the image of the contemporary Chilean man. Obviously, as a caricature.

The novel brims with ideas and creative techniques, except that there are just too many of them and the novel seems to jump across them without seeming to tie the threads together.

I found the maze undecipherable and too stressful even for my not so limited patience. I spend a number of months trying to persist in reading a work- fiction or otherwise- if required, but finally, as I was mid- flight to San Francisco, and gazed down at miles after miles of the ravines in New Mexico and the deserts of Nevada, I gave up.

May be I will return to the novel again.

On the theme, however, I found ‘In Chile by the Night’ by Roberto Bolano a far better, simpler and enjoyable read. I didn’t review the novel then, and you may be referred to the amazon site for the same.

The Greatest Mover and Shaker of the 19th century

The last decade and half have not been the happiest of times for those on the Left, specifically the Marxists among them. It has been a long receeding low tide for them, interuppted happily only by old man Marx getting voted, now and then, as the greatest thinker ever. It is often forgotten that it was after all Lenin who is responsible for launching Marx into the 20th century.On Lenin, perhaps a little later, but Francis Wheen’s talk in the BBC’s Radio 4 reminded me of his biography of Marx that he wrote five years back, and reviewed by this Reader for The Tribune then.
KARL MARX: A LIFE
By Francis Wheen
W.W. Norton and Company, New York
Price $27.95 Pages 431

It is not incidental that a biography of Karl Marx should appear a decade after the fall of ‘existing’ socialism in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Pop prophecies that followed the demise of bureaucratic socialism have had no more than a fleeting existence. The much-celebrated Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ was quickly succeeded by what Samuel Huntington termed as the clash of civilisations. Robert Kaplan warns of what he terms as ‘the coming anarchy’.

The Left, caused unawares by the Titanic shift in world systems, is still in a state of defensive confusion, even if it has somewhat recovered from a state of shock. Perry Anderson articulates the dominant Left view that neo- liberalism is still in full deluge, while Eric Hobsbawm has confidently put forward the proposition that globalisation and the neo- liberalism riding piggyback on it is reaching its limits.

It is in this background that the need ‘to go back to Marx’ is evident in the book under review. Karl Marx, “the red terror doctor”- as he came to be known in his own lifetime- and who outlived all his contemporary revolutionists and opponents like Ferdinand Lassalle and Mikhail Bakunin, may as well outlive the current breed of neo- liberal proponents.

Wheen’s Marx comes across not only a person, whose life was identical with the history of contemporary socialism, as Isaiah Berlin treated his subject in his biography of Marx. Wheen’s Marx emerges as a man who loved his family, loved a drink, smoked continuously, chased his opponents with vehemence, was a voracious reader, an assiduous scholar and above all a revolutionary.

He married his childhood sweetheart and five years his senior Jenny Westphalen, adored his daughters and in old age was a grandfather who missed the company of his grandchildren when they were not around. At a different plane, his life long friendship with Frederic Engels that each cherished till the end, is touching and possibly unsurpassed.

Marx was also, and Wheen spends considerable effort on reminding us of this, the father of an illegitimate son whom he loathed. Engels practically owned up and adopted the son of Marx and his faithful housekeeper Helene Demuth. His son died in 1929 in a working class district of London, aged 77, not knowing that he was the son of the person in whose name the world shaking Bolshevik revolution had been carried out in his own lifetime.

On the whole, Wheen succeeds in this first biography of Marx to appear after the end of the Cold War in rescuing Marx from both the demonology that characterised sections of Western scholarship as well as the hagiography that Soviet biographers subjected him to. In an age when we are being told by post- modernists that Marx and Marxism are nothing more than any other ‘text’ and need to be merely ‘read’ as such, or writers who insist on ‘reading vampires in Capital’ in an exercise to understand the man or account for his tomes in his Jewish self- hatred, Wheen has come out with a very balanced biography. The lacuna, however, is evident when the author tries to explain some of Marx’s concepts in simplistic terms. From that perspective, Berlin’s 1939 (revised last in 1978) ‘Karl Marx’ still remains an essential reading (David Mcllean’s biography being out of print for a number of years now, Berlin’s is the easiest one to get).

The only other deficiency that one can identify is the blurring of the growing up years of Marx, between the ages of 10 to about 22. The Marx that we see after this age is a well developed thinker, immensely well read and already hailed by those who knew him firsthand to be the most promising living philosopher and successor to Hegel. How this happened is not dealt with in detail. The reason may be a sound one- not much information is available on this period of Marx’s life.

Did Marx’s own personality, powerful as it was, leave any imprint on his thought and the movements that it spawned? Though the author does not raise this question directly, there is enough material in the book to enable one to judge for himself.

On the downside, it was Marx’s abrasive, sometimes almost offensive and vituperative manner of attacking those who opposed him. Undoubtedly most of his opponents were pygmies in comparison with ‘the Moor’, and he made no bones about it, attacking them with the ferocity of an unleashed hurricane. His followers, at least for the better part of the 20th century, did indeed emulate their master in this regard, often with equal ardour against their own dissenting comrades. It may well be argued, though, that in this respect Marx was as much a product of the revolutionary circles of his age as its progenitor.

On the upside, it has been his exemplary self- sacrifice for the ideas that his reasoning led to. Perpetual poverty, constant illness and the resultant tragedies in his family did not deter Marx from pursuing what he believed to be the rational way of human emancipation. Perhaps the last of the great Enlightenment thinkers, he was the only true prophet of the second millennium, his sacrifices overarched only by the breadth of his thought and the appeal of his vision.

Many of his followers, including the Old Bolsheviks sent to the gallows or shot by Stalin in the 1937 purges, firmly believed till the end that their ideology, seemingly vindictive it had been on themselves, deserved any amount of sacrifice. Man does not live for himself alone, and there are causes that are higher than selling one’s labour each day.

But by far the most enduring stamp that his personality left was that of erudition and detailed study. No social and political movement has sent so many of its followers scurrying into libraries as Marxist socialism has. No other organised movement (except perhaps the anti- Nazi resistance movement in France) has also sent many an armchair philosopher into political battlefield.

What epitaph would Marx have chosen for himself? Wheen recounts an incident at the end of Marx’s life in lieu of an answer.

‘While holidaying in Ramsgate in the summer of 1880 Marx had met the American journalist John Swinton who was writing a series on ‘travels in France and England’ for the New York Sun. Swinton watched the old patriarch playing on the beach with his grand- children and then at dusk was granted an interview. He reported:

‘The talk was of the world, and of man, and of time, and of ideas as our glasses tinkled over the sea. The railway train waits for no man, and night is at hand. Over the thought of the babblement and the scenes of the evening, arose in my mind one question touching upon the final law of being, for which I would seek answer from this sage. Going down to the depths of language and rising to the height of emphasis, during an intersperse of silence, I interrupted the revolutionist and philosopher in these fateful words: What is?’

‘And it seemed as though his mind was inverted for a moment while he looked upon the roaring sea in front and the restless multitude upon the beach. ‘What is?’ I had inquired, to which in deep and solemn tone, he replied: ‘Struggle!’

At first it seemed as though I had heard the echo of despair, but peradventure it was the law of life.’

The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa

Giuseppe Di Lampedusa wrote only one novel (The Leopard) in his lifetime and that too was published posthumously. Thus one of the most important 20th century novel in the Italian language was never seen in print by the author himself.

The novel is situated during the time of the Italian re-unification, the rise of Garibaldi and his Red Shirt movement and the decline and subsequent transformation of the feudal nobility in the late nineteenth century. Di Lampedusa was himself was himself a descendent of one the noble families and the story that he narrates is ostensibly that of his grandfather. The Leopard is the symbol of the family of which Prince Fabrizio, the principal character in the novel, is the head.

The novel reminded me of a couple of other such works, one of which is surely the Century in Scarlet by the Hungarian writer Lajos Zilahy. Both deal with more or less the same theme, though from somewhat different sides. Zilahy’s novel too deals with the coming into being of the Hungarian nation in the twentieth century- thus both deal with the coming into being of modern nation states and identities of two nations that were probably at the far end of the nation forming processes that were set into motion a century or more earlier in some of the other European states. I am not sure how comprehensive the novels are from a sociological or political point of view, but both do provide the nearest equivalent in a literary form.

Both the novels are very straightforward in nature and though written in the 20th century, they are in the nature of the 19th century novel, with a linear narrative structure and few complexities in terms of the underlying ideas they seek to communicate. The style is closest to Balzac’s, more in case of The Leopard than perhaps The Century in Scarlet. This is not the place to go in for a deeper analysis of The Century in Scarlet, but here are a few words on The Leopard.

The story is straight forward, that of Prince Fabrizio who is forced to relinquish the control of his estates in the light of the advance of Garbaldi’s republican forces. His ambitious nephew Tancredi moves over to the new forces, calculatedly marrying the daughter of a rising rich, though uncouth merchant Don Calogero who is eager to establish a ‘lineage’ for himself by marrying into the family of a noble, in the process spurning Fabrizio’s own daughter’s hand .

“Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”

-he informs his uncle, even as he looks at his uncle with the ‘affectionate irony that youth accords to age’.

That Prince Fabrizio aids and abets his nephew in his cunning endeavors speaks much of the Prince’s own instinct for survival. “The bourgeois revolution climbing his stairs in Don Calogero’s tail coat”, as the Prince thinks while observing Don Calogero in his house.

And historically speaking he is right, the decline of the nobility is complete and the power has shifted decisively in favour of the commercial bourgeoise, with the corresponding shift from the monarchy to a republic and the ideological shift from the church- when the nobility’s land is ostensibly ‘the patrimony of the poor’- to the republican ideals.

With the story being as simple as that what holds the reader is the author’s effusive description of some of the lesser known areas of Europe- Siciliy in this case. Added to that is the author’s deep insight into human nature, which renders the novel a universal appeal and finally his smooth, delectable, almost tropical prose. His metaphors are particularly imaginative and I suppose that probably owes something to the richness of the original language itself.

Here is a description of the Prince’s family as they sit down for dinner:

“The girls plump, glowing, with gay dimples, and between the forehead and the nose the frown which was the hereditary mark of the Salinas; the males slim but wiry, wearing an expression of fashionable melancholy as they wielded knives and forks with subdued violence.”

And that of the Prince Fabrizio himself:

“…in his blood also fermented other German strains particularly disturbing to a Sicilian aristocrat in the year 1860, however attractive his fair skin and hair amid all that olive and black: an authoritarian temperament, a certain rigidity in morals and a propensity for abstract ideas; these in the relaxing atmosphere of Palermo society, had changed respectively into capricious arrogance, recurring moral scruples, and contempt for his own relatives and friends, all of whom seemed to him mere driftwood in the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism… Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jovelike frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make any move toward saving it.”

This in essence also sums up the novel itself.

There are a number of insightful sentences that are a delight for a reader. Though the novel may beg comparison with, say, a War and Peace, to say nothing of a novel like Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World which is far more complex in the treatment of a similar theme. Nevertheless The Leoprad establishes itself as a minor classic of the 20th century and hence an important novel to those trying to understand the evolution of nations in an era that seems to be dissolving a number of attributes of what have been associated with the nation and national identities.

TKR: The Portrait of an Editor

TKR: The Portrait of an Editor

I.

Over the last fourteen years I had the opportunity to know T.K. Ramasamy, as an editor, a person, a friend and even as ‘a spinner of yarns’- all at the same time. As I attempt to write about him I can only hope that my perspectives will help to construct or conjure at least a part of the person himself.

Let me begin by admitting that my experience with TKR was above all, highly educative- he instigated one to write but also plodded, corrected and showed the way forward.

As an editor, TKR worked hard on some of the articles and book reviews that he received. In my case, my very first one was substantially changed- for good reasons, for after he had read my review he asked me (rather maliciously as I imagined it then): is it a book review, an article or an essay? I didn’t know the answer. However, I more than understood when I saw the review in print. That was my first lesson in writing.

Subsequently, my relations ship with him was more like an Urdu poet of yore sending his couplets to his ustad, who would bring about corrections here and there and for which one would wait impatiently. Over the years these corrections became less frequent and increasingly nuanced. Once he told me that he had to work very hard on a review that I wrote on a book on Indian nationalism. On reading my published review, I commented that I saw no change to what I had written. He only smiled.

Later when I compared my original review with the published one, I realized that he had indeed modified it: he had cut off its rough edges, chiseled it with an adroitness that smoothed out the words and brought it to an even tenor. Subsequently, it forced me to look for every tittle that he changed- it was an education that one started taking for granted. It upsets me today to think that what I write will not pass through the clinical gaze of TKR. It feels as if a pillar that one had got accustomed to lean on has disappeared.

TKR was a teacher in another way. Having studied engineering at college my forays into social science and literature was mostly by self- learning- an unstructured learning guided by the study of Marxist classics in the company of equally amateurish activist students. It was the Marxist ideologue Mohit Sen, and next only to him, TKR who provided a more mature appreciation of theory. Both, however, were contrasting in their methods. While the former provided, as he continues to provide, broad sweeps and direction, TKR was concerned more with the nuts and bolts. While the former was always convinced about his formulations, allowing little space for disagreement, TKR always retained a streak for skepticism.

TKR’s criticism of a point that I would make was in pointing out small, dark recesses of the argument- rarely a direct or frontal attack. Instead, he would make a statement of fact or offer an opinion countering a seemingly irrelevant point in the case that I would have built. He left extending the argument to its logical conclusion open. In other words, he would leave its generalizations and theorization to me.

Slowly, as I began to understand his method, it often shook me as the flaws in my argument dawned on me. Sometimes, it was overwhelming- because I thought that by making a minor criticism and not questioning my broader argument, he had conceded my main point. Little did I realize that his seeming surrender had been, in fact, a conquest.

Going over to Ramasamy’s house on the weekends that I was in Chandigarh, especially the last few years, had taken on something of a ritualistic rendezvous. I often found him with his regular set of friends, and there would be discussions on everything under the sun, always illuminating.

On less crowded days, he would quiz me about computer viruses or how the Internet worked. I tried to explain the more intricate technologies involved, rather clumsily I suppose. I would get my own back, quite gainfully, when he explained terms and processes in economics, a subject of which I was completely ignorant.

Sometimes the topic would span different terrains- I particularly remember once when he discussed how change in technology affects journalism, in fact, the thought process of the journalist and therefore the content itself. Journalists of his age, he remarked, usually thought out everything in their mind, revised and altered it a number of times in their minds before sitting down behind a typewriter to put them on paper in a single shot- a process that took only the time that depended on the typing speed of the person behind the typewriter.

Not having known many journalists of his times, I am not sure if this applies to everyone, but it surely did for him. The actual time that he took to churn out an editorial was a few minutes- for he had composed and refined it over and over again in his mind.

His own initial opposition to computers melted into a grudging learning of the technology and later to a comfortable co- existence as he tried to learn new features and use the computer for his daily work.

He had his idiosyncrasies. He would insist on using my full name in the byline, while I preferred only the first name. I could never decide what I could buy for him as I scoured the malls and specialty stores abroad. His needs were few, and gifting him something that went beyond those would have offended him. I always came back empty handed.

He would also dislike certain traits in people but suffered them in silence. He would take his drink slowly and avoided eating much, even as he relished talking about delicacies and intricacies of recipes.

What, however, appeared as idiosyncrasies were mostly a manifestation of the world outlook of the man, which was a confluence of many streams- customs of his native South Indian upbringing, his ideological moorings and his liberal dispensation. The last two were especially important, and interesting because while he remained on what he considered to be the more radical version of Marxism, and therefore should have been, I felt, to be more sectarian and less accommodative of contrary opinions, he was quite the opposite.

As I moved quickly in the four years at college from fringe versions of Naxalism to Soviet Marxism and still later to what TKR generously termed as the liberal left, I realize that it was actually TKR who assisted with the transition and made me question a number of my premises. I feel that he never renounced the core of his beliefs as much out of conviction as because of loyalty even as he refused to force others to kowtow his line of thought.
II.

For TKR, like for many others of his generation, Marxism was the contemporary face of humanism. Their embracing of Marxism had involved among other things, a deep commitment to its ideals and a substantive break with the past.

He saw himself as part of a larger army that comprised some of the finest minds of his generation. They felt that not only the future was bright, not only that they had deciphered the genetic code of history and hence mastered the future but also they were its harbingers- the future belonged to them! Only the details had to be worked out. They had a role in shaping this future.

However, unlike many others who aspired or placed themselves at the head of this movement, TKR was content to be a foot soldier. His area of operation remained at the molecular level.

As the years went by to give way to doubts and eventually the smothering of their dreams as fort after fort of ‘existing’ socialism collapsed like a house of cards and their Indian vision began to give way to popular neo- liberal propagandists, it was clear that the dream had soured. The general optimism was giving place to a pessimism- but TKR did not let pessimism lead him into the labyrinth of cynicism.

It did not mean an abandonment of his core beliefs- for him Marxism combined intellectual rigour with an abiding ethical appeal for the underdog. For those like TKR, as he once wrote about himself, who wore their heart firmly on the left, it took on the form a religion in the affirmative sense- a religion for the modern world, a religion whose belief rested in iconoclasm. ‘De omnibus dubitandum’ (‘Doubt everything’), as Marx had put it.

In addition, it imposed a code of personal conduct, Stalin himself had firmly instructed the then Indian communist leadership of Sripad Dange, Rajeshwar Rao and B.T. Ranadive when they went to see him: above all, renounce your personal interests.

TKR’s formative years also coincided with the emergence of the newly independent country. A general optimism suffused the air.

The more impatient ones opted for Marxism as frustration with the relatively bland flavour offered by Nehru-ism became evident. The historic split in the Indian communist movement found TKR on the more radical wing. This was surprising and somewhat contradictory for in his writings he was always balanced and mild. One exception was a eulogy that he wrote on the death of B.T. Ranadive, whom he admired.

At the risk of a hyperbole and over- stretching a historical analogy, one cannot help feeling that while his age produced its fair share of Bazarovs and Rudins, it is yet to produce its Turgenevs.

TKR worked all his life with small newspapers, and before he joined the Tribune, with ideologically left of center papers.

His professional life was guided by ideas and his ideas were moulded in the fire of Marxism, his puritanism a part of not only his moorings in the Old Left but also his Brahmanical upbringing in a South Indian family- a legacy whose living content he continued to uphold and, mediating through his new glasses, channel them in new directions. As a small aside, one can remark that his knowledge of classical music, for example, helped him savour the Punjabi Sufiana qalam of a Puran Shahkoti or the Wadali brothers in whose singing he found a confluence of the classical with the folk, though he did not fully know the language.

To Chandigarh, a city devoid of history and traditions in a country where time is measured not in centuries but in millenniums, TKR brought a part of that history, traces of that tradition and inklings of the social and political struggles that had raged there. He adapted himself and them into the local conditions. Without him, the city is devoid of a piece of architecture that Le Corbusier forgot to design- an edifice of the mindscape.

III.

TKR changed in certain respects over the years, at least with me. The early years (in late 1980s and early 1990s) of debate and verbal criticism gave way when he would recount his days in Nagpur- as a child and as a student. His escapades conjured up images of a little Swamy, not in Malgudi, but in Nagpur as he waded with his listeners through the lanes and by lanes of Nagpur with flourishing portraits of the people he had known.

My last meeting with him was three weeks before his death. I was meeting him after nearly five months and I felt a substantial change in him. He was much weaker physically and somewhat incoherent.

I had noticed, for the past few weeks, small spelling mistakes or a stray typographical error on the book review page- these should have been an indicator enough of his health, so immaculately was this page normally done, which he insisted on doing all by himself. But that winter evening, as we clinked our glasses, my eyes briefly met his- and in that moment I discerned a softness that betrayed resignation. The final news came as a vindication of that momentary encounter when one had desperately hoped for a refutation.

But then death and tragedy had stalked Ramasamy’s home for the last few years of his life. Illness and fatal accidents claimed, first his nephew, then his youngest brother and then the disappearance and presumed death of his remaining younger brother two years ago- all making for a gory sequence that would have made any other person of his age turn to superstition and mysticism. TKR felt emotionally depleted but tried to make as little of this as possible. ‘My grief is my personal grief’, he remarked to a friend, ‘No one can share it.’

Bhupinder Singh
07 March, 2002