Sahir Ludhianvi on the stupidity of war

खून अपना हो या पराया हो
नस्ल ए आदम का खून है आखिर
जंग मशरिक में हो या मगरिब में
अम्न ए आलम का खून है आख़िरबम घरों पर गिरें कि सरहद पर
रूहे-तामीर जख्म खाती है
खेत अपने जलें या औरों के
जीस्त फाकों से तिलमिलाती है

जंग तो खुद ही एक मसला है टैंक आगे बढ़ें या पीछे हटें
कोख धरती की बांझ होती है
फतेह का जश्न हो या हार का सोग
जिंदगी मय्यतों पे रोती है

जंग क्या मसअलों का हल देगी
खून ओर आग आज बरसेगी
भूख ओर एहतियाज कल देगी
इसलिए ए शरीफ इंसानों
जंग टलती रहे तो बेहतर है
आप ओर हम सभी के आंगन में
शम्मा जलती रहे तो बेहतर है

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.