Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Githa Hariharan: Stories to Die for

It is said that the scientist looks at the extraordinary and explains it in terms of the ordinary, whereas it takes a poet to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary. "Art of Dying", by Githa Hariharan, promises to do the latter, and though a compilation of short stories, in parts it is pure poetry.

A short story writer is like a miniature artist - with a few strokes she must sketch out enough of the narrative to draw in the reader. I thought Githa Hariharan was primarily a novelist - her novel The thousand stories of night had won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Novel, and In Times of Siege had been recommended to me (though I haven't gotten around to reading either). But here she reveals herself as a master of the short narrative as well.

this directs you to the shop who took the trouble to make the image available
This is a thin volume - twenty stories - most of them seven or eight pages long. A quick read, but it had been sitting on my shelf for five years perhaps, before I finally got around to reading it. But was I glad that I did!

It was an astonishing read. I was left stunned. There is no preponderance of drama, just a quiet narrative, highlighting the dramatic in the everyday humdrum of a daughter looking after a dying mother, or a young boy becoming aware of his budding sexuality. Despite the title, it is a tenacious affirmation of life, rather than death, that drives these stories home. It is one of the most moving story collections I have read in a long time.

The stories are unobtrusively set in a vivid south Asian context: ironing a sari ("the kind of counterfeit silk sari we have always given servants when there is a marriage among them"), the brahmin widow lusting for cakes containing egg, killing a mosquito ("it leaves behind a small blotch of brownish-red, stale blood on the white net"); and yet there is the touch of the universal, as in this paean to an aging mother:
The tenor of my life --wifing, childbearing -- has been determined by the subtle undulating waves... Bleed, dry up; expand with life, contract with completion.
Many of the stories do deal with death. In the opening story, Unfinished poem, a retired tubelight-salesman, a poet at heart, and his wife, are trying to kill a rat that has been vandalizing their garden. He sits at his desk, pen in hand, but words elude him; he has only platitudes:

Tell me, koel, when you heard him last
My little boy in the wooded past --

Meanwhile, every night the rat attacks the roots and stems in the garden, but does not eat them - "it is a song of pure destruction." Finally, the poet decides to sleep outside, next to the creeping jasmine, and try to capture the creature directly. The rat's "thick, slicky slime of his blood" becomes his last poem.

Some other stories, like Remains of the Feast, while dealing with death, are really about the repressed desire in an widow.

The theme of death forms a subtle backdrop to the title story, which is one of the most moving stories here. The sparkling first-person narrative focuses on her aging mother, still caught up in the untimely death of her beloved son, balancing it with some vignettes from her own experience as a psychiatric councillor. Several case histories are sketched, in tight, crisp, detail.

One sexual history is reminiscent of Sudhir Kakar: A couple comes to see her; though married for four years, they can't have a baby. She sends them to a doctor, who pronounces her fine, but a virgin. It is only on their subsequent visit that

He says, the words tumbling out of his thick lips: She calls out to my mother when I touch her.

And what does your mother do? I asked.

She has been sleeping between us every night for the last four years, he replied, his hands still at last, clasped furtively on his lap.

These stories live in these nuances; the furtive hand, the gecko's eating the moth. In the title story, her mother's illness moves slowly, and there are flashbacks to the dead brother and his white girlfriend, Janet: "He was not sure whether he wanted to marry her." Several times in the story, she talks of memory as a Time Machine that can only move back, to the days when one is younger:

when my body was something precious, not just a machine
to be oiled and exercised at the right times, but
examined, caressed, even, on occasion, flaunted -- I
had a buffer between me, that living, demanding thing,
and death.

But while tending to her bed-ridden mother on her last days, she has a furtive wish to to "relieve the burden... It would be simpler to help her forward. It would take only a minute or two to give her what her heart yearns for. ... Her real self, the young, full-blooded woman with long, thick, hair... He [her son Ram] awaits her, his chest as broad, his face as unlined as in his framed photograph, the eternal lover."

The themes range well beyond death; in "Field Trip", a city boy, "ten and a half years old", is laughed at by the village boys for his delicate ways, and feels tormented when he is given a bath by a woman, her tight blouse inches from his face. He feels "an empty throbbing sensation in the pit of his stomach... like the time he had looked out of the twelfth-floor balcony in Bombay."

One point that struck me in several stories is a references to children, brothers, mothers, but the absence of a husband. Later a friend mentioned to me that Hariharan had won a celebrated case which empowered children in India to be named after their mother; clearly she has little need for a husband.

On the whole, these stories constitute and an amazingly accurate, insightful portrayal of everyday life in India. It may not carry the magic realism of Rushdie, or even the nuanced grace of plot as in Ghosh, but it is nonetheless among the more powerful stories I have encountered. One wishes it would find publishers outside India as well, which seems to be the quickest way for Indian writers to get noticed in the world!

The Art of Dying and Other Stories, by Githa Hariharan,
Penguin Books 1993, 166 pages
ISBN:0140233393 [buy]

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Democracy, Censorship, and Political Correctness :
Aaja Nachle and Taslima Nasrin

the greek word demos means "common people", and has the connotation of "a mob". in india, democracy (from demos + kratos,strength,rule) means little more than rule by a mob. this is what i am thinking as i listen to the title song of the film aaja nachle.

from the recurring strains of the sarangi playing a bangla folk tune (dAdA melA theke bou ene de), to the syncopated rhythm of the jhanak jhanak dance bol, and then sunidhi chauhan's sonorous rhythmic rendering in a dehati patois, this song composed by the salim-sulaiman duo is a statement of a distinctly indian ethos fused into the rhythmic and harmonic combinations typical of bollywood masala music. as salim and sulaiman say in this video, the songs have a folk / sufi base. the music is competent, and sunidhi chauhan's singing does lift the song out of mediocrity, in the end, it is not the most appealing of this year's musical oeuvre from bollywood.

but it is the lyrics of this song, by piyush mishra, which have made the song controversial.

the relevant stanza goes:

maine galti kari thi meri nathni padi thi
ke sone me usko rangA gayi
main rangA ke atariyA pe A gayi
mohalle me kaisi mAr-a-mAr hai
bole mochi bhi khud ko sonAr hai
sabko nacha ke nachle

a rough translation may be:

mistakenly, i had worn my nosering
and it's colours got mixed into the gold
and then i was playing colours of holi
and everyone was up in arms, saying
even the cobbler is calling himself a goldsmith!
come, let's forget all this, let's just dance

thus this stanza appears to be comparing cobblers with base metals (as in a nosegay) and goldsmiths with gold. Apparently, the Jatavs, who are a scheduled caste, took offence, and the film was banned on its inaugural day (November 30, 2007) in Uttar Pradesh, a state ruled by a party that claims to represent the backward castes.

subsequently, the producers of the film agreed to remove these contentious lines from the version that is being released.

what is interesting is that on the same day, the bangladeshi author taslima nasrin who had been hounded out of kolkata by islamic groups agitating for her ouster from india, felt sufficiently pressurized to withdraw two controversial pages from her book dwikhandita, in which she had made some remarks about the many wives of prophet muhammad. the west bengal government, with its dyed-in-red leftist intellectual stance, was known in the past for harbouring intellectuals across a wide spectrum, but in taslima's case, it faltered, and the state police washed their hands and unceremoniously deported her to rajasthan.

at some point, the pressure on her became so intense that she felt compelled to state that she was withdrawing two pages from this, the most controversial of her books. thus, in both these cases, a group of people, let's just call them a mob, through their agitation, managed to bring two creative artists to their knees, and have them retract part of an work of art.

what does this say about democracy? while most people are busy deriding the muslims and the jatavs for their intolerant attitude, i think that lurking in it somewhere is a more positive sign than most people give credit for.

if an artist glorifies murder or rape or child abuse, and incites others to kill, or to procure children for sexual acts, society would be up in arms about such art, calling it sedition or pornography, or other labels by which the courts can find the person guilty, despite "freedom of expression". at the same time, the very fact that some people in some situations claim it is offensive to them, makes the statement politically incorrect, and therefore indefensible. if child pornography as art is 9 out of 10 on a scale of despicability, casting aspersions on a cobbler's caste, even as a metaphor, may qualify as 2, or at least some type of fraction, say 0.1, depending on where you are coming from. however, it cannot be denied that it is still incorrect.

so where do we draw the line? who decides what is 9 on a indecency scale, and who decides it is 0.1. the answer to this may be more complex than appears at first. it is decided not necessarily by the majority, but by the opinion-forming group, who may be in sync with the majority, but then they may not.

despite being a person aspiring to some creativity myself, i cannot but think that the victory of these often marginalized voices is in some sense a victory for democracy, evidence that these groups, who felt marginalized earlier, are now gaining a voice in governance. perhaps they are a bit quick to take umbrage, and perhaps this sort of offence against metaphorical language is perhaps not called for. but at least it is a move towards greater respectability and self-esteem among these groups.

but then, if this continues, political correctness will become yet another cage in which we will be forced to constrain our creative impulses? wouldn't it be sad?

surely, but my dream is for a future where we will have left politicalcorrectness behind us, where everyone is so well respected, that they can take offences such as this type of language, or reference to their prophet intheir stride. i doubt the brahmins would take offence if a story portrayedsome stereotype - e.g. that they were scheming or greedy. this is because the upper castes are somewhat more secure in their self esteem. in the western world, the majority are already so secure in their identities, that they do not feel threatened by such acts, and flag burning and desecratory art works on christ are an everyday affair. but before they got there, they had to go through the inquisition.

our inquisition continues even today, because we have not been able to provide enough opportunities and self-esteem for our people. but the greater tragedy will be if this posturing is mere political tokenism, and is not followed up by any real measures of upliftment such as better primary education. Nonetheless the fact that it is a democratic inquisition, still gives me hope.

political incorrectness can be punished in many ways. during the lifetime of muhammad, the first artistic voice to be silenced was that of the poetess Asma bint Marwan, who had written some popular verses disparaging Muhammad’s violent ways. it is said that her assassin killed her even as she was nursing a child. at least today's poets are being spared that fate.

today the term "political correctness" has acquired a pejorative sense in the english language. thus, it is being politically correct (or PC) that is increasingly perceived as a mild social crime! perhaps a day will come in india, when we too will develop such notions, and saying correct things just so that a particular caste might take offence, will be a thing of the past, even in the indian heartbelt. already, in terms of fame and fortune, controversy has certainly helped taslima, and may help aaja nachle. maybe someday sunidhi chauhan may even sing about it, mixing indian and western in her inimitable lilt.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Why we write in English

Everytime we write, we are saying something about ourselves.

What we write says something. But how we write may be saying more - for instance, the language we are writing in.

Indians who write in English speak other languages too - Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Marathi. For most of us, in the first few years of life, this other was what we learned, it was our "mother tongue".

At some point our parents thrust us, at an age when we had little or no control of our destiny, into schools where we learned English.

Today we write in English, at least I do, because of the little competence we had achieved in this language. It made us feel good about ourselves. After all, writing is about feeling good, even - or maybe especially - when you are sad.

Today, across india, in newspapers, magazines, and literary forums, thousands of Indians are writing in English. We have made English a part of our identity. Most of us revel in its glory, seeing it as a choice we are making. But think about it carefully, and you might agree with me that this was not a conscious choice. It was a decision made for us by our pragmatic parents, and sustained by the prestige we acquired through our mastery of this language. Like so many other things that "happen to us", English was something that just "happened".

However fluently bilingual we may be today, most of us are not "simultaneous" bilinguals - we learnt English somewhat after we were already speaking another language. what this means is that somewhere in the convoluted recesses of our mind, this other language, this other identity, still colours our English. we drop things - "in way we use the definite articles in English", and reduplicatives like "give them one one mark each" tend to slip into our speech.

The heart of language reveals itself in poetry. It was in our mother language that we learned the first nursery rhymes, our tottering entry into the world of cadence. It was much later that we learned the subtle connection of rhythm and sense; by then we were in English:
"I wandered lonely as a cloud"
sounded great, but
"I wandered like a lonely cloud"
didn't. Discovering the mysteries of sound filled us with exuberance - how an emphasis, falling on moody syllables like "lone", can create a somber tone. In English.

At the same time, deep in our souls, we were keenly aware that the experience of "daffodil" was something we could never have, something that we were forced to experience vicariously. Staring into the urban sprawl from the windows of our privileged school buses, names like "Lake District" began to evoke a faint yearning in many of us.

By now we had started experimenting with this language, stretching our creative muscles, producing essays for homework and poems for the school magazine. The world wanted our English writing, and we were only too eager fill this need. We didn't know at the time, but we were also filling an universal human need, an inner urge to reveal ourselves to the world, to be seen for who we are.

It was clear even then, that the content of our learning would progress better if learned in the mother tongue. For my first year of primary school, my father put me in a village school, where a single schoolmaster supervised our synchronized chanting as we sat on the four verandahs flanking the single classroom. That single year was the end of this experiment however, for English schools simply had better pedagogic processes. Also, it was evident that English was the language of success. I remember as a class VI student, discovering how even our maid padmA-di was paying hard-earned cash to send her son to an English medium school.

Meanwhile, we continued our journey through literature. Beyond the Enid Blyton's and the Alistair Maclean's, in those years when our dreams were gathering shape, Ayn Rand came to us waving the rebel flag of iconoclasts like Howard Roark. Love was stirring in our hearts, and surreptitiously we devoured Lady Chatterley and wondered about the forces that power that moved Jim and Della in "The Gift of the Magi." But access to the other gender was socially restricted, and after our first fumbling overtures most of began to feel that desire itself, like daffodils, was to be experienced only vicariously.

We reincarnated ourselves, our identity, in impotence. When we interred our sexual passion, we also entombed all other passions, the passion for beauty, the passion of dreams. Arundhati Roy says it best:
[becoming Anglophile was] a war that we have won and lost. The very worst sort of war. A war that captures dreams and re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves... Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys never happy enough. Our dreams never big enough. Our lives never important enough. To matter.
But somewhere down the line, the rich smells and colours of our own world began to colour our dreams, pushing out Lake District. Our world began to invade our language. We discovered our own Howard Roark's who were inventing new languages. "To be born again, first you have to die. 'ho ji! ho ji! to land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. tat-taa! taka-thun!" shouted Salman Rushdie. Amitabh Ghosh's Alu spoke Bengali all through Circle of Reason, and by the time we came to Arundhati Roy, even the "prer nun sea ayshun" was Malayalam.

At last, we could stand up and be counted. Yes, we are Indian. And yes, we write in English. But see how we can be passionate - even in English.

Some are born English, some achieve English-ness, and some have English thrust upon them. We may have had English thrust on us, but perhaps we are now achieving a certain English-ness. Our very own kind.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Just a few words on love

by Sunil Gangopadhyay

Mere ambrosia of immortality - nah - don't want that -
Frappe-ed lightly with some green chilly, salt, maybe -
Just like in love one has to mix some flavours of doubt.

Talking of love - let's praise those who have never known love -
All through their lives
What a mystery it is - yet their staying alive!
Do you realize there are so many that never know -
Living their lives doubt-free, achieving and climbing.

The children born of loveless marriages
Even now you can hear it in their voices
Their entire life is an unfinished death sentence
Pearls glitter all around us, but they can't find even one.

Those who have never known love - they all like climbing stairs
If you look closely, you'll find their fingers are all the same size
Even those with ring-encrusted thumbs are joining the war
They will now rid the world of all those
Who put up this chintzy exhibition called love.

But it's not so easy is it?
For those who have known love have already drank
Their ambrosia mixed with a teaspoon of poison.
          - translated amitabha mukerjee

Sunil Gangopadhyay is the winner of the Ananda Puraskar (twice)
and also a Sahitya Akademi awardee (1985).

original Bengali poem in বাঙলা and in Latin transliteration

এই একটু ভালবাসার কথা
সুনীল গঙ্গোপাধ্যায়

নিছক অমৃতে স্বাদ নেই, একটু আধটু নুন মরিচ মিশিয়ে নিতে হয়
ভালবাসার সঙ্গে যেমন দু তিন রকমের দ্বিধা ।

ভালবাসার কথা মনে পড়লো, যারা সারাটা জীবন ভালবাসার কথা
জানলোই না
তাদের জীবন জাপনের রহস্যটা কী?
জান না, অনেকেই জানতে পারে না
নির্দ্বিধায় যারা কত কান্ড করছে, তারা কারা?

ভালবাসাহীন দম্পতির যে সব সন্তান জন্মায়
তাদের গলার আওয়াজ শুনলেই চেনা যায়
সারা জীবন তারা ঝয কত অর্দ্ধসমাপ্ত বাক্য বলে
বেনা বনে অজস্র মুক্ত ছড়ানো আছে, তারা একটাও খুঁজে পায় না

ভালবাসাহীন মানুষরা সবাই সিঁড়ি পছন্দ করে
একটু লক্ষ করলে দেখা যাবে, তাদের সব আঙ্গুল সমান
বুড়ো আঙ্গুলেও আঙটিপরা মানুষেরা নেমে পড়বে সমরাঙ্গণে
যারা ভালবাসা নিয়ে আদিখ্যেতা করে, তাদের নির্মূল করে দেবে
পৃথিবী থেকে ।

অত সহজ নয়
যারা ভালবেসেছে তারা অমৃতের সাথে একটু বিষ মিশিয়ে
আগেই তো খেয়ে নিয়েছে যে!


ei ekTu bhAlobAsAr kathA
sunIl gaMgopAdhyAy

nichhak amr.te svAd nei, ekTu AdhTu nun marich mishiye nite hay
bhAlobAsAr saNgge Jeman du tin rakamer dvidhA.

bhalobasar kathA mane paRlo, JARA sArATA jIban bhAlobAsAr kathA
jAnloi nA
tAder jIban JApaner rahasJaTA kI?
jAna nA, anekei jAnte pAre nA
nirdvidhAy JArA kata kANDa karchhe, tArA kArA?

bhAlobAsAhIn dampatir Je-sab santAn janmAy
tAder galAr AoyAj shunlei chenA JAy
sArA jIban tArA Je kata ardhasamApta bAkJa bale
benA bane ajasra mukto chhaRAno Achhe, tArA ekTAo khum~je pAy nA

bhAlobAsAhIn mAnuShrA sabAi sim~Ri pachhanda kare
ekTu lakSha karle dekhA JAbe, tAder sab ANgul samAn
buRo AMguleo ANgTi-parA mAnuSherA neme paRbe samarANggaNe
JArA bhAlobAsA niye AdikhJetA kare, tAder nirmUl kare debe
pr.thibI theke.

ata sahaj nay
JArA bhAlobesechhe tArA amr.ter sAthe ekTu biSh mishiye
Agei to kheye niyechhe Je!

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Jackfruit letter

A possibly apocryphal letter, allegedly written around 1909,
displaying a remarkable brand of clerical Indian English.

Dear Sir,

I am arrive by passenger train at Ahmedpore station,
and my belly is too much full of jack fruit. I am
therefore went to privy, Just as I doing the
nuisance, that guard making whistle blow for train to
go off and I am running with lotah in one hand and
dhotie in the next hand. I am fall over and expose my
shockings to man, females, woman on platform. I am
get leaved at Ahmedpore station.

This too much bad, if passenger go to make dung, that
dam guard no wait train 5 minutes for him. I am
therefore pray your honour to make big fine on that
guard for public sake, otherwise I am making big
report to papers.

Your faithful servant,

Okhil Ch. Sen

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Using an alien Language : Violence

There is a violence in the very language, American English, that
we have to face, even as we work to make it ours, decolonize it
so that it will express the truth of bodies beaten and
banned. After all, for such as we are the territories are not
free. (199) - Meera Alexander, Fault Lines

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

we speak like this only

languages in contact often transform into other languages over centuries (prAkr.t becomes hindi or bengali or marathi) by adapting to the structures of other languages and by other organic changes such as simplification (e.g. dropping case markers from old english to modern english). today, most english users in india resist such change, preferring a "purer" form of the language, but who knows what language we may be speaking here in 2205? in spoken english, already, these intrusions proliferate. here are some of the changes we often use in indian english, as observed in the oxford companion to the english language.
  1. Interrogative constructions without subject/auxiliary inversion: What you would like to buy?
  2. Definite article often used as if the conventions have been reversed: It is the nature's way; Office is closed today.
  3. One used rather than the indefinite article: He gave me one book.
  4. Stative verbs given progressive forms: Lila is having two books; You must be knowing my cousin-brother Mohan.
  5. Reduplication used for emphasis and to indicate a distributive meaning: I bought some small small things; Why you don't give them one one piece of cake?
  6. Yes and no as question tags: He is coming, yes?; She was helping you, no?
  7. Isn't it? as a generalized question tag: They are coming tomorrow, isn't it?
  8. Reflexive pronouns and only used for emphasis: It was God's order itself It was God's own order, They live like that only That is how they live.
  9. Present perfect rather than simple past: I have bought the book yesterday.
These have different levels of acceptability among users of Indian English. While much more can be said if a formal study was available, one may venture to guess that alternations (I would rather not call them "errors" or "mistakes") as in 6, 8, and 9 have more wider usage and thereby possibly somewhat higher acceptability, than for example, 4.

It would be interesting to present this data to several user groups across the country and have them mark the sentences for the degree of acceptability etc.