The nights are real, the days, lies

The nights are real, the days, lies

John Eliya

Scratch out my eyes if you will, I’ll never let go of my dreams

Neither their comforts nor their tortures will drive me to break my promises

New vistas do not dwell in the suburbs of the eyes

Must I also lose the treasures of my imagination?

Yes, my dreams detest the cold and shadowy implications of your mornings

Those mornings were only the shimmering and dizzying cycle of winter’s steam,

Of all of the suns that have ever been sold at evening’s counter

Like my night of dreams, burning, blazing nights

And each day of these icily condensed implications, is good and is true,

By which the blurry orbit of brilliance turns into a 360-degree illness

My darknesses are true, too

And your “albinism” is also a lie

The nights are real, the days, lies

As long as the days are lies, as long

Bear the nights and live in your dreams

They are better than dream-bleaching days

No, I won’t wrap myself in temptation’s fog

Scratch out my eyes if you will, I’ll still never let go of my dreams

I won’t break my promises

This is enough, it is my everything

The predation of months and years is my nemesis

Its reputation has been measured against my life

Let whatever happen, until my last breath let whatever happen

راتیں سچی ہیں، دن جھوٹے ہیں

چاہے تم میری بینائی کھرچ ڈالو پھر بھی میں اپنے خواب نہیں چھوڑوں گا
اِن کی لذت اور اذیت سے میں اپنا عہد نہیں توڑوں گا
تیز نظر نابیناؤں کی آبادی میں ،
کیا میں اپنے دھیان کی یہ پونجی بھی گنوا دوں
ہاں میرے خوابوں کو تمھاری صبحوں کی سرد اور سایہ گوں تعبیر
اِن صبحوں نے شام کے ہاتھوں اب تک جتنے سورج بیچے
وہ سب اک برفانی بھاپ کی چمکیلی اور چکر کھاتی گولائی تھے
سو میرے خوابوں کی راتیں جلتی اور دہکتی راتیں
ایسی یخ بستہ تعبیر کے ہر دن سے اچھی ہیں اور سچی بھی ہیں
جس میں دھندلا چکر کھاتا چمکیلا پن چھ اطراف کا روگ بنا ہے
میرے اندھیرے بھی سچے ہیں
اور تمھارے روگ اُجالے بھی جھوٹے ہیں
راتیں سچی ، دن جھوٹے
جب تک دن جھوٹے ہیں جب تک
راتیں سہنا اور اپنے خوابوں میں رہنا
خوابوں کو بہانے والے دن کے اجالے سے اچھے ہے
ہاں میں بہکاؤں کی دھند سے اڑھوں گا
چاہے تم میری بینائی کھرچ ڈالو میں پھر بھی اپنے خواب نہیں چھوڑوں گا
اپنا عہد نہیں توڑوں گا
یہی تو بس میرا سب کچھ ہے
ماہ و سال کے غارت گر سے میری ٹھنی ہے
میری جان پر آن بنی ہے
چاہے کچھ ہو میرے آخری سانس تلک اب چاہے کچھ ہو

The Spider’s Proverb

An attempt at a translation …

مقولہ عنکبوت

جون ایلیا‎

میں پیا پے جو موجود ہوں

صرف موجود ہوں

صرف موجود ہونے کی حالت میں ہونے کو جو حوصلہ چاہیے

وہ خدایا خدا میں بھی شاید نہ ہو

:عنکبوت رواق کہن کامرے یہ مقولہ ہے

ہے بھی نہیں

اور تھا بھی نہیں

The spider’s proverb

Jon Elia

I am present — on this web

Only present

Perhaps God does not even possess

The courage which existence requires

By virtue of mere presence

Such is the saying of my ancient line of arachnids:

He isn’t even

And He never even was

AuthentiCity and AlieNation — a review of Zadie Smith’s NW

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In a controversial essay penned in 2008, Zadie Smith campaigned for a shift in the way that we understand and read novels.  Her New York Review of Books essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” took the dominant tradition of lyrical, realist writing to task for its reliance on deeply held pieties: “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.”  The novels which have been promoted by the critics in the twentieth century belong squarely to this tradition.

Smith’s rejoinder to this long-standing preference for realism is an inversion of the argument first made by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy:  now that God is dead, literature and its God, the lyrical self, must become the stuff of our new religion.  Smith’s retort to the Arnoldian penchant for “sweetness and light” is devastating: “But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?”

This is also in part a novelistic rejoinder to Jean-Paul Sartre, himself another kind of advocate for the lyrical realist tradition.  Sartre’s injunction that we eschew the fiction of our own unfreedom (what he called “bad faith”) and embrace the dizzying, nauseating reality that we are always free to choose has given succor to the confident, novelistic self, which finds that when it is being most authentic it is also being its most beautiful.  The problem, as Zadie Smith contends, is that authenticity can also be an alibi, a narrative that we produce about ourselves to reconcile ourselves to our choices, that hides us from the reality that we are rarely as heroic as we appear in the rear-view mirrors of our epics.  It is interesting, isn’t it, that we become the most self-congratulatory, inflated, even eloquent when we feel we are being our most authentic, as if there were any correlation between morality and beauty anymore?

The vision that this leaves us with is perhaps bleak: we are not ultimately or consistently noble creatures, and the stories that we tell ourselves about our choices, even when they are authentic, may not actually help us understand our own place in the world.  Authenticity is another kind of hubris, in Smith’s telling, when most of us are defined by our deep familiarity with its twin: alienation.  But how do you predicate the Bildungsroman, that acme of the lyrical self, on the language of alienation?  Doesn’t this risk turning all literary endeavor into the flat rubble of antihumanism?  And haven’t Pynchon, Delillo, and their coterie of American postmodern novelists done this already?

Smith most recent novel, NW, while retracing steps taken by the postmodernists attempts to steer clear of both the easy course of modernist heroism—the legacy of Woolf and Joyce that hang heavily over this work—and the detritus of postmodernism by shifting the focus of the novel from the self in crisis to the anxieties of place.  The novel follows the lives of four people, all from a council estate called Caldwell in northwest London, as their lives go in directions that none imagined for themselves.  Each of the characters is confronted with the contradiction between a desired because unobtained ideal life, the dissatisfactions of the present, and the nostalgic selves which others remember because they have all shared a geography.  As a result, NW becomes a novel in which the only way to feel better about the sorry selves that we are is to find ways of reconnecting to the places that we inhabit.

The novel begins by taking apart an aphorism of authenticity and hollowing it out: “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.”  It quickly turns into incantation and then meaninglessness:

I am the sole

I am the sole author

And later,

I am the

the sole

And even,

I am the sole. The sole. The sole.

The joke is Shakespearean in reverse (“I am a mender of worn soles”), undoing all of the work of literature to shore up the self as the unique confirmation of human heroism.  The anti-lyricism of the line, its emphasis on seriality and repetition, reflects back the emptiness at the center of human alienation rather than seeking out comforts in the fineness of literary revelation.    Later in the novel the same incantation is repeated with more desperation when it comes to mean that the self has no one else to blame for its ruin.  There is no revelatory self which can snatch from this rubble a jewel of good writing: lyricism cannot be a bulwark against radical possibility.

The inauthentic selves, but very real characters, that haunt NW: Leah Hanwell (an Anglo-Irish philosophy major turned public servant who is desperately unhappy about her marriage); Natalie (nee Keisha) Blake (the descendant of Caribbean immigrants who “wills” herself through law school and a family that she also recklessly endangers); Felix Cooper (the painfully optimistic filmmaker/drug dealer whose death becomes the crisis the rest of the novel seeks to understand); and Nathan Bogle (the high school athlete and heart throb turned into homeless pimp).  All of them take drugs, all of them went to the same school, and all of them find it impossible to bear the contradiction between their desires and their realities.  This line could have been written about anyone of them—“She was on the run from herself”; it happens to describe Leah.

The novel is best when it tears apart the fictions of self.  Keisha and her first boyfriend, savagely: “They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization.”  Leah at a dinner party, pathetically: “While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.”  Nathan Bogle, angrily: “See but that’s how you see it—I don’t see it like that.  To me it’s just truth.  She was trying to tell me something true.  But you don’t want to hear that.  You want to hear some other shit.  Oh Nathan I remember when you were this and that and you were all fucking sweet and shit, you get me?  Nice memory.  Last time I was in your yard I was ten.”  And unable find consolation in the omnipresence of their alienation, they can only see in each other reminders that the stories about the selves to which we all cling ring tinny when anyone else speaks them.

This deep attention to the agony of alienation, to the partial lives and devastated ambitions of her characters, prevents the novel from careening into antihumanism by replacing the obvious nihilistic conclusions with a ruthless anti-literariness.  This is a novel peopled by the failure of literary representations, and so its critiques are ruthless and daring: almost every figure of the canon is here politely acknowledged and then surpassed.  Dickens is too earnest; Donne too transcendent; and William Morris is just plain fodder: “The Cock Tavern. MacDonalds. The old Woolworths. The betting shop. The State Empire. Willesden Lane. The cemetery. Whoever said these were fixed coordinates to which she had to be forever faithful? How could she play them false? Freedom was absolute and everywhere, constantly moving location.”

Perhaps it is more precise to say that NW reveals something that we have all suspected but never been able to articulate so clearly: the novelistic tradition’s dependence on the individual (bourgeois) subject makes it too easy to show the seams and joints of its formal choices.  Having abandoned the subject to its own breakdown, NW, variously, becomes a novel in search of authentic form.  And in some ways, this displacement of authenticity from character to location helps to explain the novel’s seriality, pace, and movement; it wants to unsettle in all the ways it can.  After all, the problem with authenticity in the contemporary world is that we imagine it to be both imminent and immanent, which is why we experience it as an adjective (authentic) and a verb (authenticate), as a fact and as a process.

NW is easily the most significant novel of the last decade because it so frontally challenges and excruciatingly interrogates the fiction of fiction, and finds that selves and literature may both benefit from a more gentle anti-heroism.  It allows Smith to challenge some of the odd pieties we have inherited about multiculturalism and neoliberalism without faltering into reactionary clichés about personal uplift.  And in so doing she not only lays bare the dangerous seductions of literature as aesthetic ideology, as a snake oil for the ailing conscience, she also offers the promise of the “real” as an antipode to the literary: “If candor were a thing in the world that a person could hold and retain, if it were an object, maybe Natalie Blake would have seen that the perfect gift at this moment was an honest account of her own difficulties and ambivalences, clearly stated, without disguise, embellishment or prettification.”

The Ghosts of Dumbledore

Casual Vacancy

JK Rowlings

Little, Brown & Co., 2012

512pp.

The best thing that JK Rowling’s new novel, Casual Vacancy, has going for it is the success of the author’s Harry Potter franchise. Having created a loyal fan-base from a widely successful multivolume series, it is not surprising that her next venture would receive substantial attention and would force the critics to ask the necessary questions about comparison.

What made the Harry Potter series a success, in large part, was Rowling’s deep sensitivity to the real conflicts that plague young people. To the long tradition of English public school fiction, Rowling added something new by reversing the trend of depicting children as merely powerless and petty. There was the real possibility that they could accomplish something meaningful and important and define their own identities rather than succumb to the definitions that were imposed on them from above, even when prophesied. The forces that they faced were larger than mean-spirited teachers or unflinchingly severe bullies: they were defying racial eugenics, pervasive attacks on civil liberties, the standardization of education, and they were winning. That was the real magic of those stories.

Casual Vacancy, on the other hand, has none of the possibility, the sense of transformation, or the shining ambition of rebellion that the Potter novels possess. In part, this is because the novel is a reflection of the utter failure of Labourism in England, both as social agenda and as political philosophy. The England of today is not the England of the Potter novels, which was, at a minimum, the England that was turning away from Thatcherism and trying to imagine itself without neoliberalism: If Voldemort was the novel’s Enoch Powell, then Dumbledore was its Robin Cook. The switch from magic to realism in Rowling’s novel is in some sense a reflection of the fact that in every sense, things have gotten much worse. One of the reasons that you can’t go back to Harry Potter is that you can’t go back to the Labour Party—the magic is simply gone, if it was ever there at all.

Read the rest of the review here.

City of Irreverents

Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis

Penguin Press, 2012, 304 pp.

It’s difficult not to like Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, not the least because the novel irreverently does what few in Maharashtra (or in India) are able to do without bringing down the ire of certain political supremos: it defies the unofficial ban on calling the city by its more cosmopolitan moniker, “Bombay.”  This is, incidentally, the first and last word of the novel.

And the irreverence continues, in ways (and with words) that would make a Mumbaikar cringe.  The novel takes such pleasure in describing the proper way to consume opium in a long pipe (“The length is very important, it cools the smoke as it travels”), what sex is like for a hijra (“I feel pleasure but not, what’s the word?, relief”), and the pleasures of random acts of violence (“what he was unprepared for the joy that shuddered up from his hands into his brain”) that it is nigh on impossible not to follow it wherever it turns.

In fact, what is so thrilling about the irreverence of a novel like Narcopolis is the sheer audacity of attempting to understand the dramatic changes Bombay undergoes since independence by tracing the history of the city as a node in the global traffic of opium.  This also helps to explain the novel’s (and our) enduring fascination with a performance like Zeenat Aman’s “Dum Maro Dum” in Hare Rama, Hare Krishna. Bombay’s transformation from colonial port to decadent cultural capital, in Thayil’s rendering, is a story of the rise and fall of certain kinds ofnasha, before they lose out to their faster, harder cousins: heroin, cocaine, and the synthetics.

In this telling, Bombay becomes a city populated by characters that could be taken straight from Sa’adat Hassan Manto’s world and rendered sensitively in a modern light: a Chinese dissident fleeing Communist Party rule with his traditional opium pipes; a lapsed Muslim who owns an opium den; a religiously ecumenical hijra (dare we say Amar, Akbar, Anthony); a wife-beating middle manager; a Bengali babu who manages the accounts; and a thinly veiled surrogate for the author, a Keralan Christian addict and artiste who spends substantial time abroad.  It is also a portrait of Bombay in which Mumbaikers are not at the center.

As a result, the novel is able to do things with language and form that are definitely innovative.  The soporific style and the narcotic haze in which the plot of the novel is delivered (and it’s important to say that this is a novel with the thinnest of plots) are remarkable in their distance from the expected formulas of Mumbai noir or Filmfare glitterati speak.  But it is also able to do this by linking Bombay up to the global traffic in narcotics as it stretches from China, through Southeast Asia, and into Pakistan and Afghanistan, making the story of Bombay an international story spoken in international English.  In every sense, Thayil’s Bombay has not yet been written, and even perhaps seen.

The book has been much in the news in the past several days because it made the long list for the Man Booker Prize, the unacknowledged kingmaker of contemporary Indian fiction in English.  But even here, the novel is supposed to be irreverent, flouting the longstanding tradition of historical allegories, wordplay, and leftist politics which have characterized the blockbuster novels in English.  I say “supposed to” intentionally—despite the stylistic and thematic differences from the Rushdie-Roy-Ghosh trimurti, there are plenty of similarities, as well (“Satan/Shaitan/Shat On”).

The problem with the novel’s impious attitude towards literature and politics (and it’s fetishization of irreverence in general) is that it mistakes novelty for insight and titillation for drama.  The novel’s greatest strength, it bears underlining, is its sensitive rendering of characters that are rarely deemed deserving of ink, and it brings a deeply humanist skill at portraiture to bear in giving flesh to otherwise caricatured types.

But one of the pitfalls of such an approach is that the novel is also mesmerized by the aphoristic nuggets produced by these characters in their drug-induced stupor.  So what is supposed to be philosophical (in the way that hallucination and religious revelry are kins) turns out to be clichéd and underwhelming, the drug at the end of its high, not at its height.  So we learn that “women are more evolved biologically and emotionally” than men are or that “childhood was a kind of affliction, certainly physical and possibly mental” as if these were quotable truths suspended in the fog of the narrative.

The other pitfall is that the novel misses the important role drugs played in transforming the economy of the city.  The characters in Narcopolis are more victims than agents, and so by the end of the novel almost all of them are (spoiler alert!) dead as the narrator nostalgically hopes to recreate the world that was centered on opium in his distaste for the world that is built on cocaine, a world of cheap shimmer and dead surfaces.  But opium was not a victimless indulgence, especially not for the owners of the opium dens, whose children become in the new Bombay the inheritors of a vast criminal operation.

Narcopolis, though, is definitely worth a read, despite some of these shortcomings, because it attempts to make sense of Bombay from the margins, from the transformations taking place in the brothel and the opium den, as opposed to from the Ambani skyscraper or the Imperial Towers.  It’s a reminder of both the seductions and the dangers inherent in all acts of irreverence, and why understanding the libertarian utopia of the addict (“are addicts free? Are they in fact the freest of men?”) is not, ultimately, sustainable or durable, even as it is preferable to some of the darker realities of Mumbai.

The Infinite Regress of Translation

Translation from Hindi of high canonical literature poses some really interesting challenges.  I’m currently working on a novel by Ajneya (Sachhidanand Vatsayan) with this very interesting line:

चीन की एक पुराणी कविता है, जिसका भावार्थ है, “व्यक्ति क्यों यह इच्छा लेकर अलसाया पड़ा रहे की उसकी हड्डियाँ भी उसके पिता की हड्डियों के साथ समाधिस्थ हों?  जहा भी कोई चला जाय, वहीं कोई शस्य-श्यामला पहाड़ी मिल सकती है.”

This is both what is really cool about Ajneya and maddening.  So the sentence begins by saying that there is an ancient Chinese poem that he’s about to translate for his reader (I don’t know what ancient Chinese poetry Ajneya had access to, so I tried to google it … with little success).  So I have to operate on the idea that his translation is good, though he is likely reading a translation of the Chinese (probably into English) and then working back to the Hindi.

Then as the passage continues, he throws in “शस्य-श्यामला” (shasya-shyaamalaa) which is famous for every post-independence Indian as a phrase from the opening verse of the former national anthem (“Vande Mataram“) written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.  My knowledge of Indian poetry is limited to the stuff that I read in classes or the stuff I read for my research, but the presence of the phrase is distinctive, something like coming across “amber waves of grain” in a random bit of prose.

So Ajneya is using Bankim’s phrase in a translation of an (imaginary?) ancient Chinese poem, my guess is to give the idea in the passage some ancient-cultural wisdom that doesn’t have a corollary in Hindi by connecting it to something that everyone would recognize as Indian.  Something like compensating for a familiarity deficit with a familiarity surplus.  Most Indians I know don’t know what “shasya shyaamalaa” means despite knowing the line from the poem (one could say something about how religious and patriotic memorization works here).

Here’s my attempt at a translation:

There’s an ancient Chinese poem which roughly says, “Should a man be lulled into a stupor by the desire that his bones be buried in the same tomb as his father’s?  Wherever one goes, one can find rolling hills ‘dark with the crops of harvest.’”

So he needs it to be a Chinese poem to get the idea of family burial grounds into the novel (Ajneya’s worldview is pretty well-framed by Hinduism of a particular kind, and I don’t know where he might have turned to in order to find that particular idea in Hindi or Sanskrit … he seems to have avoided, too, English poems which could have contained similar ideas).
But the presence of “शस्य-श्यामला” is interesting because it’s so connected to the former national anthem and to a history of vernacular poetry in India. It’s not quite the same as “amber waves of grain” which sounds to me like a bit of purple prose more than good poetry, while “शस्य-श्यामला” still has something of the high poetic feel to it.
So in a passage that is about not needing to return home to die, he smuggles in a phrase about the beautiful landscapes of the country (the Bankim poem is about the nation as mother, figured like the Goddess Durga) in order to talk about his obviously Oedipal relationship to his father.  But when he wrote the passage (early 1940s), Vande Mataram was not the national anthem, even though it was famous (Tagore read the poem aloud in a meeting of the Indian National Congress).  So I am not really sure how the phrase would have felt to Ajneya or his earliest readers — perhaps it would be immediately recognized, perhaps it would just sound familiar?
I settled on using Aurobindo Ghose‘s translation of Bankim’s phrase for the language in the passage, in part because it is the official translation of the poem that the Government of India uses.

I show gratitude to thee, Mother,
richly-watered, richly-fruited,
cool with the winds of the south,
dark with the crops of the harvests,
The Mother!

Her nights rejoicing in the glory of the moonlight,
her lands clothed beautifully with her trees in flowering bloom,
sweet of laughter, sweet of speech,
The Mother, giver of boons, giver of bliss.

But there are two parallel problems that are not resolvable, for me, simultaneously.
One is the chain of associations that are interesting but hard to collapse back into manageable prose:
home-Kashmir-father-death
nation-land-mother-poetry
(Is the canon of poetry the thing you are trying to run away from when you compare Kashmir to Bankim-as-father?  Is it the nation yet, since he’s in Punjab when he has this thought about Kashmir, using a phrase from a Bengali poem?)
The second is the translation within a translation problem:
Hindi prose–ancient Chinese poem–Bankim’s Bengali turned into Hindi
 The ancient Chinese poem thing is relatively easy since in English “ancient Chinese poem” means more or less the same thing as it would mean to a Hindi reader (ancient wisdom turned into pithy aphorism).  But no matter what phrase I use for “shasya-shyamala” I can’t get the association to work in English.  I might have taken a cheap shortcut (put a footnote, use the official translation) but it seems like the only way to leave a trace of the readerly problem one might encounter with the line.  But then the feeling seems so remote, even to me, of homesickness for a land (I certainly don’t feel that way about Houston for obvious reasons) while living in another part of the same land (India?) while using a poem about the unity of those two pieces of land figured about yet another piece of land (Bengal).
There’s also a problem with geography, since I don’t know if Kashmir ever has hills that are dark with grain (at least not in the way that they are in Bengal), since the line in Bankim is probably referring to thick rice paddy (I’m just guessing here) and not wheat fields (which is the only thing, I think, that could have the same association).  But noticing that seems more like a critical problem than a translation problem, so I avoided doing anything about it.
I don’t think that I’ve ever been as close a reader as when I am translating from Hindi.

Thoughts on nationalism and culture (in response to KN Panikkar)

The most recent issue of Frontline has a very interesting reprint of a lecture by K.N. Panikkar, a scholar whose work I very much admire.  (Incidentally, his father was also quite an important historian).  The lecture (“Role of Culture and Language in the Making of a Nation”) was given at the University of Mumbai , and I suppose that accounts for the general tone of the piece which is directed at making a criticism of religious nationalism (i.e. Hindutva-style chauvinism).   There is also a critique of “modernist” nationalism in the piece, by which I’m assuming Pannikar means Congress-style nationalism, in which the demands of ethnic minorities and the low caste were not taken seriously.

Because I work on theories of nationalism and on much of the same material that Panikkar covers I found the essay interesting, but there are some problems with it as there are with most left-wing defenses of nationalism.  Here’s the problem as I see it: no matter how you slice it, nationalism has both progressive and reactionary content that cannot be willed away; the progressive content opens the door to the more chauvinist content in periods of economic hardship or political demobilization.  The nation-state similarly has both a progressive and reactionary use: it is a useful demand in the fight against colonialism and empire, but also an effective tool for the consolidation of national capital and the disciplining of a labor force.  Culture is the primary way that the progressive credentials of the nation-state are shored up so that the reactionary project can continue (sometimes openly, sometimes quietly).

So when Panikkar defends a particular variety of cultural nationalism (secular, composite, progressive) you want to be on board.  In fact, it’s hard not to subscribe to many of the claims that he makes in the face of the ideological rot that is allowed to pass for culture in much of India.  Here are the concluding parts of the lecture:

In the making of the nation, culture affords multiple possibilities. A popular and revivalist tendency is to romanticise the past and attribute to it a religious character, which in turn opens the doors to a supremacist ideology. An alternative view would recognise the culturally plural character of society as evolved through complex historical experience. More ideally, it could lead to a multicultural society by accepting the equality of all constituent cultures of the nation. All these possibilities are inherent in the relationship between culture and nation. As Ernest Gellner observed, “Nations as a natural, god-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is reality, for better or worse, and in general, an inescapable one.”  India is not yet a nation; it is a nation in the making, as Surendranath Banerjea, an early nationalist leader, observed almost 200 years ago. Even when all objective conditions are met, a nation like India can achieve nationhood, even if inadequately, only when cultural equality is established.

This view is elegant, and it has all of the hallmarks of much of Indian secularism over the last 60 years, but it also has some of its main contradictions.  For instance, the more you want to talk about the composite culture of India, the more you find yourself doing weird things like defending feudalism and certain “good” kings or valorizing certain literary texts, even when they were composed by people deeply embedded in class and religious chauvinism.  Yes, I love Tagore, but you can’t take the landlord out of the poetry no matter how hard you try.  So the process of equality that Panikkar is describing is based on the occlusion of class differentiation that persists in and through cultural “tradition” and not merely picking one, more egalitarian version of nationalism over another.

But it’s the place where he ends that gives me the most trouble, because the implicit assumption is that the nation-state is here to stay (if you read the rest of the essay, you get the sense that Panikkar prefers the nation-state as a bulwark against the ravages of global capitalism, a title it has yet to earn in any serious way).  I think that nation-states are engines of capitalist accumulation, and even in the fight against imperialism, they become the demand of a developing bourgeoisie that needs a different state form in order to accumulate successfully.  But in order to do that, the bourgeoisie needs the “nation” to get behind its demands and so it is willing to enter into a compromise with the more radical section of the middle-class (these are the cultural figures that Panikkar references) to develop a story about the nation that is compelling.  And the middle-class of course does this happily.  They chafe at the racism of empire as well as the restrictions of religion, the problems of sexism, and the oppressions of all marginalized sections of society and they try to unite all of them together into as large a unit as possible.  I’ll characterize it like this: the most capacious and effective bond of solidarity that any middle-class can imagine is cultural.  That is both its strength and its weakness.

About the problems of this kind of capacious solidarity, Panikkar provides a helpful description:

The attempts to relate culture and nationalism during the colonial period betrayed two general tendencies. The first was homogenisation and the second was exclusion. As a part of the first, a national culture was invented which invariably comprised the practices of the upper castes. The revival of Hindu classical tradition, be it in music or dance, privileged an Indian culture which was earlier the preserve of the upper castes. What is national, therefore, came to be equated with the Brahminical. In the process, the cultural practices of the lower castes were excluded from the national. Nationalism by definition is inclusive, but Indian nationalism did not develop an inclusive character based on equality. Secondly, the cultural perspective was very elitist, as a result of which culture was defined in terms of either mental refinement or the creative. Everyday practices and the creative elements within them were not reckoned as culture. As a result, the symbolic representation of the nation was confined to the achievements of the privileged, and the life of ordinary people did not figure in the nationalist pantheon. While Koodiyattam, Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Carnatic music and several other upper-caste forms were accorded national status, the dances of tribal people and Dalit music did not receive the same consideration.

The idea that nationalism could “develop an inclusive character based on equality” is a non-starter, though.  Nationalism attempts to build a provisional unity precisely by masking diverging aspirations in anticolonial struggles.  This is both what makes it elegant and dangerous – it is simultaneously a necessary tool in fighting against empire and an intellectual dead-end for solving problems of inequality and oppression in the nation-state.  In other places, I’ve preferred to talk about this problem as a specific problem of class and the confidence that certain sections of the middle class have in thinking about the ability of class struggle to alter radically social and political structures in the present.

If you look at what is developing in Egypt, for instance, you can also see what was developing in India in the late colonial period.  As the struggle for political change heats up, the debates between various visions of the future open up.  Nationalists try as hard as they can to paper over these differences, but it’s hard to pretend that they don’t exist or that they all share something in common that can be called “nationalism.”  Gramsci’s essays on Italian reunification are perhaps the most useful for me in thinking about this problem, where the middle-class radicals essentially fail to see in the nation-state the conditions for the reversing of all their radical aspirations, and the goal for Gramsci and others, was the creation of an organized collective that understood both the need for the nation-state and the impending betrayal by the bourgeoisie so that it could fight against both.

In the end, Panikkar’s essay is a product of the pessimism that seeped into middle-class radicals in the 1980s and 1990s in India when nationalism meant aggressive neoliberalism and cultural/religious chauvinism, neither of which could be effectively resisted.  And so intellectuals retreated into the domain of culture to find resistance there.  The idea that there could be more durable bonds of solidarity that were imagined not in isolated cultural artifacts but in the kinds of collaborative actions on the shop-floor, in urban slums, in the forests, etc. in which new kinds of culture were being forged, too, seems never to enter Panikkar’s thinking, since for him nationalism is still necessary as a way for him to relate to the broader masses in India and imagine that they all have the same interests.

The problem is that they do and they don’t – or rather, that they won’t until they manufacture it for themselves, piecing things together from the past and understanding them anew.  It might involve Odissi dance and Kumarasambhava or it might not – but it will involve a common resistance to the state and national capital, both of which are also good at using the cultural past to preserve their vision of the present.  Without a dialectical understanding of the relationship between culture and the nation, anti-imperialists become liberals, hoping that ideas can change the nation.

I imagine, too, that part of Panikkar’s complaint is also rooted in the ways that contemporary India increasingly appears to be discarding its interest in culture.  Take this piece in DNA India describing the difference between Indian and UK education:

Knowledge just for the sake of knowledge? Na, not anymore. Ask David Levinson, senior careers adviser in the Newcastle University, he would say: As everywhere else, education is witnessing a sea change in the UK as well. “Gone are the days of narrow mindedness and traditional thinking, now, educational institutions are changing to teach students how to apply the knowledge acquired and are preparing them for careers.” Levinson explains: “Earlier, it used to be like, people study English literature and become clerks, politicians or whatever they want to. That trend is waning.”

It’s true – one used to study English to get a job in the IAS or ICS in India but then you felt absolutely destroyed by the banality of the position you got (read Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August to get a sense of that).  And part of Panikkar’s plea seems to be connected to the fact that most people in India no longer take either history or literature seriously any more.  I don’t think they ever did (education and literacy have never been really directed at the kinds of liberal humanism that Panikkar imagines) so bemoaning it doesn’t really help.

And I came across this piece, too, about farmer suicides in India:

In Maharashtra’s Gondia district, 25,000 tonnes of rice procured by cooperative societies are lying in the open. “It’s difficult to carry on,” a distraught Harne, a postgraduate in Marathi literature, scribbled in his signed parting note. “I have unpaid loans.” Harne was meticulous in keeping records. His ledger showed he had suffered losses of about Rs 10,000 for each of the six acres he cultivated —- Rs 60,000 in all. Together with his outstanding loans of around Rs 2.5 lakh, the going had looked tough.

Postgraduates in literature are massively indebted.  The conditions in India look not dissimilar from the ones that produced the conflicts in Egypt and Tunisia.  They will produce explosive political movements – the aim of which needs to be the abolition of the state form and free flourishing of culture, nationalist or otherwise.

Makhdoom Mohinuddin in translation

(a joint effort with Pranav Jani)

“Ask the soldier who’s leaving for war” by Makhdoom Mohinuddin (apologies for not posting it in Nastaliq characters, too).

जाने वाले  सिपाही  से  पूछो
वो  कहाँ  जा  रहा  है
जाने वाले सिपाही से पूछो
वो कहाँ जा रहा है

Ask the soldier who’s leaving for war

Where he’s going

Ask the soldier who’s leaving for war

Where he’s going

इश्क है कातिल -इ -ज़िन्दगानी
खून से तर है उस्की जवानी
हाय मासूम बचपन की यादें
हाय दो रोज़ की नौजवानी
जाने वाले …

Love is life’s murderer

His youthfulness is blood-soaked

Oh, the memories of a carefree childhood

Oh, the too short days of innocence

कैसे सहमे हुए हैं नज़ारे
कैसे डर डर के चलते हैं तारे
क्या जवानी का खून हो रहा है
सुर्ख है आंचलों के किनारे
जाने वाले …

Look at how trepidatious everything seems

How the stars move across the sky in fear

Love is being slaughtered

And the hems of our saris are bloodied

कौन दुखिया है जो गा रही है
भूखे बच्चों को बहला रही है
लाश जलने की बू आ रही है
ज़िन्दगी है की चिल्ला रही है
जाने वाले …

Who is that sad woman singing

Trying to calm her starving children

The stench of burning corpses everywhere

And life is nothing but screaming

गिर रहा है सियाही का डेरा
हो रहा है मेरी जाँ सवेरा
ओ वतन छोड़कर जाने वाले
खुल गया इंक़लाबी फरेरा

The wall of darkness is falling

The dawn, my love, is breaking

Oh you who’ve left your country

The banner of revolution is unfurling

Here it is being performed in “Us Ne Kaha Tha” (1960) sung by Manna Dey (with a verse missing):

And here it is being performed by Sumangala Damodaran with some context:

Translation in Progress

From current work (but I liked it too much not to share it):

लोग कहते है, विद्रोही के विचार संकुचित हैं, उसका मस्तिष्क कमजोर हैं, उसका हृदय टेढा हें।  लोग यह भी कहते हैं कि उसके स्वप्न छूँछे, आदर्शवादी, असंभव। यह सब शायद थिक हैं।  लेकिन वह पतितों ओर असहायों को सम्मानता से देख सकता हैं, उसका हृदय गिरे हुओं को उठा सकता हैं, उसका मस्तिष्क एक समूचे राष्ट्र को चला सकता। और अपने स्वप्नों के लिये सच्चाई और दृढता के साथ लड सकता हैं, और उसके स्वप्न सच्चे हो सकते हैं।

People say that a revolutionary is narrow-minded, that his mind is weak, his heart is off.  People also say that his dreams are hollow, idealistic, and impossible.  They might be right.  But he is able to look at the marginalized and the helpless with respect, his heart can lift the downfallen, his mind can run an entire nation.  And for his dreams he will fight with truth and tenacity, and his dreams can come true.

My copy of the new Adiga novel hasn’t arrived yet …

… but I’m becoming intrigued as I read the reviews.  Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead meets a critique of Bombay development-mania …

I should say at the outset, that I enjoyed The White Tiger immensely and most of my students who read the book enjoy it immensely.  It’s mostly a critique of class divisions in India, but it is quite cynical and dark, depicting crime as the only real way out of poverty (there is a vague reference to social revolution at the end of the novel, but it’s so inchoate as to be fanciful).  So I’m of course interested in the new novel which is supposed to be about a housing developer in Bombay (I refuse to call it Mumbai, because unlike the other India cities that are going back to their precolonial names, there was no precolonial city called “Mumbai” — it was entirely a colonial invention, and I refuse to be cowed by the Shiv Sena) who tries to get people to leave their homes in an apartment building in order to build luxury apartments there.  The Last Man in the Tower refers to the one hold-out who keeps the development plan from moving forward.

Reviews like this one from the Independent get me excited (but that’s because I have a spot for social realism):

Dominating the narrative is Mumbai itself, once again one of the mightiest cities on earth. The macrocosm for the novel is the countless millions of workers who endure nightmarishly crammed commuter trains each day and pack themselves into teeming communal housing each evening. But we are also taken to the fragile democracy of Versova Beach, where bankers and film producers jog alongside homeless people performing their ablutions; to the foetid slums, opulent high-rises, venerable temples; and in and around streets packed with a kaleidoscopic range of inhabitants. Adiga lays out this most frenetic of megalopolises before us, by turns fascinating, sensual and horrifying, as his writing takes an impressive step onwards.

But what’s also interesting is that book seems to have been inspired by actual social movements in Bombay agitating against slum clearance and corruption:

We tried to get the reticent writer, who once called Mumbai’s rental market “a bigot’s paradise”, to tell us whether his new work is an attempt at exposing the nexus between builders, politicians and bureaucrats. “I’m afraid I have to pass on this question,” was all he was willing to say. Social activist YP Singh calls the book significant. “Coming in the backdrop of several controversial redevelopment projects which displaced many, this will be an eagerly awaited book,” said the man who is responsible for exposing several housing scams.

At the same time, in discussions of the new book, Adiga openly declares himself in support of the economic neoliberalism of Manmohan Singh and Narasimha Rao (i.e. his preference for aggressively capitalist Congress Party economics as opposed to aggressive state-led capitalist development of earlier Congress leaders):

I wish I were a child of Nehru’s India! But I was born in 1974. I was a child of the harsher socialist regime imposed by Mrs Gandhi. I am not — and will never be — an opponent of the great economic boom initiated by Dr Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. In fact, I think it saved India from ruin and stagnation. I remember we had to bribe people in Mangalore in the old days just to get a confirmed ticket on Indian Airlines.
In 1990, I stood first in Karnataka in the annual SSLC (year 10) exams. When I came to Bangaloreto collect an award from the education minister, I was humiliated by the rich boys there — all of whom I had beaten — because I had a thick accent when I spoke English and I did not know whoLionel Richie was.
The divisions between small town and big city India have been broken down by liberalisation. I’m grateful for this…I do think people have a right to question how fast liberalisation is going and whether it’s damaging some sections of society. In the short term, India might lag China if we’re more introspective about our growth — but in the long term, we will surely outrun them. Those who interpret my novels as opposing liberalisation are misreading them. They’re marked by ambivalence, not opposition, to the changes… Money itself is amoral. It can liberate people as easily as it can destroy them. As I said, I’m not opposed to the great economic boom going on now. My role as a novelist is only to dramatize certain conflicts taking place because of the generation of so much new wealth. In “Last Man in Tower”, I urge people not to regard the developer simply as the villain, but to consider his positive attributes as well. Nor is Masterji, his opponent, a spokesman for me. He has his failings.

I’m actually looking forward to figuring out what I think of Adiga’s liberal critique of liberalism, and why the novel takes the social movements that are currently afoot against Bombay developers and turns them into this kind of humanist conflict (everyone is a hero and a villain rolled into one).

I confess that I am usually annoyed by the constant references to western writers when writing about Adiga’s work (even though I am occasionally guilty of doing the same.  The Guardian’s review is particularly egregious:

His targets here are similar: the web-like social structures that surround citizens, creating a stasis that defies attempts at progress; the vacuum created by misgovernance that allows greed and envy to flourish; the bureaucracy – represented here by a double-talking lawyer straight from the pages of Dickens – that creates the illusion of order and justice while perpetuating the opposite. “You and I were trapped,” the real-estate broker Mr Ajwani, one of the novel’s most ambiguous figures, tells Mrs Rego, “but we wanted to be trapped,” and the novel goes the distance in exploring the attraction of collusion.

Last Man in Tower has a broader and more forgiving feel than The White Tiger, incorporating a gentler comic tone that finds affection as well as despair in poking fun at its characters’ pretensions and frailties. But Adiga’s anger at the India he describes – cities in which rapid economic expansion comes at an impossible price for a vast swath of their inhabitants, and in which the slow fading of the caste system has not been accompanied by a rise in social egalitarianism – remains undimmed. Describing his childhood reading in Mangalore, Adiga once professed his early enthusiasm for the works of Golding, Orwell and Shaw, three writers with a keen appreciation of the muddy intersections between individual and political will. In this complex and multi-layered novel, he continues his project of shining a light on the changing face of India, bringing us a picture that is as compelling as it is complex to decipher.

The Mumbai Mirror, for instance, seems to be bored by the idea of another book about housing developments in Bombay:

While his publishers are billing this as the new v/s old India narrative, to us it sounds like one of the smashing stories this newspaper often breaks. Vastly expanded no doubt, and we must admit, with fewer typos.

I have nothing but contempt for pieces like the one penned by Abhineeta Raghunath, for whom the only question worth asking seems to be will the novel sell as many books as its predecessor (The White Tiger):

White Tiger may have been a major hit, showering laurels upon the Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga. The book had a great impact on book lovers everywhere. His latest book Last Man in Tower, which is to be released by the end of this month is being pre-ordered in large numbers across major stores in the city.

If you want a laugh, read the Wall Street Journal’s ridiculously vapid review of the book here, because the only thing that the Wall Street Journal can detect in the novel is its own journalism.

And if you want to see how a critique of western Orientalism now functions as the central theme of right-wingers, take a look at this nationalist piece in the Evening Standard:

An unfortunate tendency among Indian writers who achieve recognition in the West is to crown themselves as the moral custodians of their country – sermonising against its inconsistencies and iniquities, while paying little attention to why so many Indians (yes, poor ones, too) actually love their country and feel great optimism for it.

Vikas Swarup (of Q&A fame) added his two cents, too, in the Financial Times (though don’t expect to be blown away).