Thursday, 29 May 2014

Loneliness in Diasporic Life as Depicted by Anita Desai

It is not too preposterous to claim that no single person in the so-called civilized world is a native, all are migrants. The validity of the point made can be ascertained by outlining the history of the human race since the pre-historic time, when all land was Pangea. From Pangea’s “heart of darkness” originated the human race and migrated to different parts. During the glacial phases of the “Quaternary or Pleistocene Age” (Butlin et al 1-2), the local migration within a geographically defined single landmass was transformed into cross-continental migration (Clark 1-18).

When the continental plates separated out, the local migration within a geographically defined single landmass was transformed into cross-continental migration. Aided by the tectonics of the earth, the earliest human beings became great migrants but they were not yet ‘civilized’ and hence when the first civilizations cropped up they became the first ‘civilized’ natives. Still, the civilizations of Indus valley (India), Yangtze-Kiang valley (China), Tigris-Euphrates basin (Mesopotamia) and Nile basin (Egypt) cannot be said to have been inhabited by the original natives as they were periodically over-run by newer migrant groups (Toynbee 535, 543 & Clark 18 ). The newer migrant groups either scattered the former groups or amalgamated with them to become the new natives.

The process went on for ages and allied with the increase in population, it ultimately gave rise to the concept of a “melting pot”. India became the first melting pot of the world and since the coming of the Aryans, India has received invaders, traders and refugees in various migratory patterns. There are the Greeks and the Macedonians who came with Alexander; then the spread of Mohammedanism saw the displacement of the whole Parsi community from Persia to India; then came the Arab traders followed by Persians, Afghans and Turkish traders as well as invaders, and finally came the Mughals. All these migratory people have undergone such assimilation in the melting pot of India that they have become its natives. Even the colonial powers did not escape effects of the melting pot. The Anglo-Indian community in India is more Indian than anything else. Of late the second world war saw the migration of some Jews to India; the 1970s saw the coming of “hippies” and all along there has been constant migration of traders and refugees from India’s neighboring countries like China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Burma. These latter groups are still in the process of assimilation.

As previously stated, the “melting pot” is not an isolated concept related to India. The United Kingdom is also an example of one. Since the early Phoenicians to the Angles, the Jutes, the Saxons, the Normans and the Romans, all have become the natives of Britain (Butlin & Dodgshon 55). The later day migrants from the British colonies of Africa and Asia along with the Irish, Poles, Jews and those from the Commonwealth countries have made British society multicultural. The United States of America is perhaps the most active melting pot of the world. Clark also explains that the Red-Indians, the original inhabitants of that territory, were not even as “civilized” as the Incas of South America (World Prehistory in New Perspective 352). The migrant population from Europe, especially UK, along with the indentured laborers they brought from Africa now constitutes the native population of USA. The newer migrants like the Jews, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans and so on are providing constant fuel to keep the multi-ethnic melting pot of the American society to boil. Peter Kivisto in the ‘Introduction’ to his book, Multiculturalism in a Global Society depicts five major world migration patterns in the 1990s: from Asia to US and Canada; from Central America to Canada; from Africa to Europe; from Asia to Europe; and from India and South-East Asia to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. What this indicates is that migration is as good as any natural phenomenon.

The treatment of the migrant condition in literature is the most engrossing topic exciting intellectual debate. The postmodernist world has seen the emergence of interdisciplinary and cultural studies as the major thrust areas of academic exploration. As Elleke Boehmer states, “the postcolonial and migrant novels are seen as appropriate texts for such explorations because they offer multi-voiced resistance to the idea of boundaries and present texts open to transgressive and non-authoritative reading” (243). Thus, in a world where identity, origin and truth are seen in postmodernist terminology as structureless assemblages, the writer Anita Desai appears as a very good example in that regard. Desai’s mother was a German Christian and her father was a Bengali Indian. Her mother, Antoinette Nime, could trace her origin to France, and her father, Dhiren Mazumdar’s native place was Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) but he had settled in New Delhi. This mixed parentage of complex origin gives Anita Desai the advantage of having double perspective when writing about India and Indians and as well as about migrants in India and Indian migrants to the West. She is both an outsider, if seen from her mother’s side, and a native, if seen from her father’s side. Desai has enjoyed her unique position living in India for a considerable part of her life after which she went to Girton College, Cambridge, UK, followed by her shift to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. Becoming a global citizen has chiseled her perspectives still further and also made her explore the condition of the Diaspora in her fiction in a better way. Desai has dealt with a group of diasporic Indians in Britain of the late 1960s in her novel Bye-Bye Blackbird (1969); she has also dealt with the character of a migrant Austrian Jew in India in her novel Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988). In the novel, Journey to Ithaca, she has shown an Egyptian acculturated in India along with an Italian spiritual seeker in the subcontinent (1995). Finally, she has also shown the predicament of a lonely Indian, Arun in USA, in her novel Fasting, Feasting (1999).

Anita Desai’s fictions are generally existentialist studies of individuals and hence background, politicality, historicity, social settings, class, cross-cultural pluralities are all only incidental. But being incidental does not mean that they are essentially extraneous. Their study is not only as important as the study of ‘human condition’ in Desai’s fiction but in fact, they are intrinsic to the latter study. Basically, it is the tension between what is to be included and what to be excluded from the study of literary text that makes it all the more interesting. This is especially relevant when the fiction deals with the condition of being in a Diaspora about migrant existence. The solitude that Desai depicts in her diasporic characters is a result of the inner psyche of the characters as also their external circumstances. Loneliness is a manifestation of both inner and outer conditions and hence, its sense can be evoked even in the middle of society.

The Jew, Hugo Baumgartner in the novel Baumgartner’s Bombay had spent his childhood in his native Germany with his parents. Even as a child a sense of loneliness gnaws at his being and is evoked at his crucial moments of triumph. On his first day at school when his mother comes to fetch him with a cone of bonbons for him, he holds up his prize for the others to see but already “the other children were vanishing down the street” and “no one saw his triumph”. He accuses his mother for being late and complains: You don’t look like everyone else’s mother” (33). Hugo’s loneliness as a child, in the midst of society comes because of the lack of identification. Even when he is not neglected he feels the same loneliness as is evident from the Christmas incident in the school when all his classmates were sent gifts by their parents to be distributed to them by their teacher. Hugo longs for the red glass globe that adorns the top of the Christmas tree. When the teacher makes it up as his gift he instinctively realizes that his parents have not sent any gift for him and he stubbornly disinclines from accepting it even though goaded by his classmates to take it. It is perhaps this sense of loneliness experienced by the Jewish community in Germany that helped Hitler fuel his Aryan myth and transform loneliness into fear. The Baumgartner family lives in fear in Nazi Germany and fear is an acute form of loneliness.

By Amit Saha


Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Muriel Spark: the author as dictator

While she was at school in Edinburgh in the Thirties, Muriel Spark met a teacher who profoundly influenced her fiction. It was not Christina Kay, the model for Spark’s most famous character, Jean Brodie, but her science teacher Sandy Buchan. As Spark recalled 50 years later in her memoir Curriculum Vitae, Buchan “impressed on us the dangers of trusting in appearances, especially when colourless, odourless and tasteless matter was concerned”. She continued: “I reflected then, and still reflect, that there could be people like that: no colour, no taste, no smell. The moral is, avoid them; they might be poison.”
The young Spark, if we trust the author’s recollection, had already perfected the unruffled moral certainty that makes her prose such a pleasure. In nearly all her 22 novels, the narrative voice sounds like a witty judge summing up a case: characters are hauled up, humorously belittled and then dragged away for punishment.
In Sparkworld, the novelist observes what appears innocuous – colourless, you might say – and sniffs out the poison. In her fifth novel, The Bachelors (1960), the pale Patrick Seton plots the murder of his pregnant girlfriend; in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, published the same year, a man working at a textile factory might actually be Satan. Spark’s vivid types belong more to the world of a Ben Jonson satire than the modern psychological novel.
Exemplary in this regard is her wonderful third novel, Memento Mori (1959). Set among a group of geriatrics, the story begins with what appears to be an ordinary crime and ends up a metaphysical mystery. An anonymous caller repeatedly disturbs the elderly men and women with the message: “Remember you must die.” The way each character reacts to the warning shapes how we are supposed to view them. “He must be a maniac,” scoffs Godfrey Colston. Unsurprisingly, Godfrey turns out to be a pervert and a bully who, when he hears someone has gone to her reward, remarks: “She always was a bitch,” as though, the narrator caustically adds, “her death were the ultimate proof of it”. In contrast, Jean Taylor responds to the phone call with peaceable equanimity: “You might, perhaps, try to remember you must die,” she suggests to one tormented lady. Unlike Godfrey, who looks in vain for the culprit, Miss Taylor realises that the caller is not human but Death himself, “the first of the four last things to be ever remembered”.
In her introduction to the 2009 Virago edition of the novel, AL Kennedy argues that Spark knows we are all destined for destruction yet are still “deserving of compassion”. But this is a comforting humanist gloss on a novel that strictly limits compassion to the righteous: Jean Taylor, for example, or the novelist Charmian. (It is worth noting that both women, like Spark, are Roman Catholic converts.) For Godfrey, though, there is no salvation. Typically, his fatal car crash takes two innocents with him. Rather than extending our empathy to the flawed, as novelists often claim to be doing, Spark expertly, and hilariously, dissects our basest desires.
Evelyn Waugh might have called her a saint, but Spark’s acerbic style throws some critics off-balance. Reviewing her career in 1968, Christopher Ricks complained that her novels were guilty of the same lack of humanity they so eagerly ferreted out. “Human beings cannot but be opaque,” he wrote, “so ought our artistic ideal be, above all, to see through them?” Only in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, he acknowledged, had she created a central character with enough charisma to challenge the author’s authority.
Two years later Spark defended herself in a lecture now reproduced in The Golden Fleece, a new posthumous non-fiction collection edited by her long-time companion Penelope Jardine. As you might expect, there is little shilly-shallying: “The literature of sentiment and emotion, however beautiful in itself, however stirring in its depiction of actuality, has to go.” When people’s sympathies are aroused for the underdog, Spark argued, they might cry salt tears but their moral world remains undisturbed; the next morning they rise “refreshed, more determined than ever to be the overdog”. In place of sympathy, Spark proposed ridicule: the masses should have laughed at Hitler and Mussolini, not been moved by them. (Recall Jean Brodie’s trembling admiration for Il Duce.) Skilled mockery “can leave a salutary scar. It is unnerving. It can paralyse its object.”

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Wilkie Collins’s page-turners

There is nothing like a good read. And Wilkie Collins was the master of the Victorian page-turner, the long, heavily plotted “sensation novel” that revealed the secrets lurking beneath the surface of seemingly placid households, each chapter irresistibly leading to the next. In the words of a contemporary critic, “Nobody leaves one of his tales unfinished.” Collins was the ultimate craftsman of the controlled ratcheting of suspense and surprise. Who can ever forget the build-up to Walter Hartwright’s first breakfast room meeting with Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White: “The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!”
In the burgeoning world of Victorian print, Collins pioneered the English detective novel, cleverly framing the twisting storyline by passing the narrative from one hand to another, enticing his reader into following every clue to solve the mystery alongside the protagonist. In the words of an appreciative T. S. Eliot, Collins was a “master of plot and situation, of those elements of drama which are most essential to melodrama” at a time when “highbrow” and “melodrama” were not ineluctably opposed. But Collins also had the faults of a genre writer who was not especially strong in the creation of character. As that anonymous critic also said, once the reader’s curiosity is satisfied, “the charm is gone” and “all that is left is to admire the art with which the curiosity was excited.” Of Collins’s novels, “very few feel at all inclined to read them a second time.” Or, as T. S. Eliot remarked with deadly accuracy, Collins “was a Dickens without genius.”
William Wilkie Collins was born in London in 1824, the eldest son of the successful landscape painter William Collins, and grew up in a household well-connected to literary and artistic circles, as well as to the world of conservative Anglicanism. He spent his childhood on the move between houses in Italy and England until his family returned to London for good in 1838. An indifferent student, Wilkie left school at seventeen and was apprenticed by his father to a London tea merchant who was apparently unperturbed by the fact that his clerk spent much of his time writing a novel about child sacrifice in Tahiti. In 1846, the young Collins moved on from tea to law and entered Lincoln’s Inn, where he gained the legal knowledge that served him so well in his literary career, both in plot devices and in negotiations with publishers. Although he never practiced, he was called to the bar in 1851. At about the same time, Collins made a half-hearted stab at a career as a painter—he exhibited a landscape at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1849, and many of his literary descriptions retain a painterly quality—but after the 1848 publication of a biography of his recently deceased father and the 1850 publication of a well-reviewed novel,Antonina, or the Fall of Rome, he set upon life as a writer.
In 1851, while still basking in the success of Antonina, Collins met Charles Dickens; they were both acting in a production of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’sNot So Bad As We Seem. This was the turning point in Collins’s career. The two became professional collaborators, close friends, traveling companions, confidants, and partners in visits to the demi-monde of Paris. In the ensuing decade, Collins produced novels at the rate of one every two years and contributed short fiction, travel pieces, and journalism to Dickens’s periodicals, Household Words and its successor, All the Year Round. The two even published an account of their rambles in rural England as The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices (1857).
Collins’s great breakthrough came when Dickens commissioned The Woman in White to run as the successor to A Tale of Two Cities in Household Words. The novel was a runaway success. The future Prime Minister William Gladstone cancelled a theater engagement in order to continue reading it. Trollope spent a day devouring it. The book spawned a merchandising boom: Readers could douse themselves in Woman in Whiteperfume, adorn themselves in Woman in White fashions, and dance toWoman in White quadrilles. Capitalizing on its popularity, Collins quickly followed with some of his best known works, No Name (1862–63),Armadale (1864–66), and The Moonstone (1868), each of which ran as a serial and was then published in the inexpensive multivolume format favored by popular lending libraries.
Collins’s public reveled in a world of the outrĂ© and he met its tastes amply. The books are replete with exotic households. The Woman in Whiteassembles a dubious aristocrat, a mustached lady, an effete hypochondriac who winces at every sound, and an obese Italian count with a fondness for jam tarts, canaries, and white mice. The Moonstone features a trio of clairvoyant Brahmin priests disguised as jugglers, a hunchback maid with a criminal past, a gem looted in India from the head of an idol, and a houseguest gone rogue. Poor Miss Finch (1873) gathers under a single roof the widow of a South American Revolutionary, a congenitally blind heroine, a nasty German oculist, and a pair of identical twins, one of whom has turned himself blue by drinking silver nitrate to cure his epilepsy (hence the blind heroine). They are also filled with indispositions to rival Collins’s own. Apart from the aforementioned characters, there is the telepathic Scotswoman inThe Two Destinies (1876), whom daylight burns like acid after a mysterious illness; the terminally ill doctor, Ezra Jennings, whose opium-fuelled nightmares drive The Moonstone; and the legless Miserrimus Dexter, who holds the secret of The Law and the Lady (1875), spending much of his time cavorting about on his hands claiming to be Napoleon or Shakespeare. Even ordinary spaces turn against their occupants; “The room would have given a nervous man the headache, before he had been in it a quarter of an hour,” complains the hero of Basil (1852).

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Pankaj Mishra: Narendra Modi and the new face of India

In A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth writes with affection of a placid India's first general election in 1951, and the egalitarian spirit it momentarily bestowed on an electorate deeply riven by class and caste: "the great washed and unwashed public, sceptical and gullible", but all "endowed with universal adult suffrage". India's 16th general election this month, held against a background of economic jolts and titanic corruption scandals, and tainted by the nastiest campaign yet, announces a new turbulent phase for the country – arguably, the most sinister since its independence from British rule in 1947. Back then, it would have been inconceivable that a figure such as Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat accused, along with his closest aides, of complicity in crimes ranging from an anti-Muslim pogrom in his state in 2002 to extrajudicial killings, and barred from entering the US, may occupy India's highest political office.
Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founder's belief that Nazi Germany had manifested "race pride at its highest" by purging the Jews is by no means unexceptional among the votaries of Hindutva, or "Hinduness". In 1948, a former member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims. The outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant woman and extracted her foetus. Modi himself described the relief camps housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslims as "child-breeding centres".
Such rhetoric has helped Modi sweep one election after another in Gujarat. A senior American diplomat described him, in cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, as an "insular, distrustful person" who "reigns by fear and intimidation"; his neo-Hindu devotees on Facebook and Twitter continue to render the air mephitic with hate and malice, populating the paranoid world of both have-nots and haves with fresh enemies – "terrorists", "jihadis", "Pakistani agents", "pseudo-secularists", "sickulars", "socialists" and "commies". Modi's own electoral strategy as prime ministerial candidate, however, has been more polished, despite his appeals, both dog-whistled and overt, to Hindu solidarity against menacing aliens and outsiders, such as the Italian-born leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, Bangladeshi "infiltrators" and those who eat the holy cow.
Modi exhorts his largely young supporters – more than two-thirds of India's population is under the age of 35 – to join a revolution that will destroy the corrupt old political order and uproot its moral and ideological foundations while buttressing the essential framework, the market economy, of a glorious New India. In an apparently ungovernable country, where many revere the author of Mein Kampf for his tremendous will to power and organisation, he has shrewdly deployed the idioms of management, national security and civilisational glory.
Boasting of his 56-inch chest, Modi has replaced Mahatma Gandhi, the icon of non-violence, with Vivekananda, the 19th-century Hindu revivalist who was obsessed with making Indians a "manly" nation. Vivekananda's garlanded statue or portrait is as ubiquitous in Modi's public appearances as his dandyish pastel waistcoats. But Modi is never less convincing than when he presents himself as a humble tea-vendor, the son-of-the-soil challenger to the Congress's haughty dynasts. His record as chief minister is predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or outright gifts – of national resources to the country's biggest corporations. His closest allies – India's biggest businessmen – have accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee – Marxism and tradition in 1960s India

Neel Mukherjee's very ambitious and very successful novel is set in Calcutta and the ricefields on the edge of the jungle in the west of West Bengal. It takes place in the second half of the 1960s and centres on the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family, whose head, Prafullanath, owns various paper mills. The eldest grandson, Supratik, has left home and joined the CPI(M) (Communist Party of India, Marxist), and is working secretly to mobilise the peasants against the landlords. Letters from him to an unnamed correspondent form one thread of narrative. The other is an intricate account of events and relationships on the various floors of the Ghosh house. There are tragedies and comedies, deaths and births, disasters and feasts. The story is marked by marriages, and the failure of Chhayha to marry because she is too dark-skinned. The cast is huge and the reader spends time, at one point or another, with most of them. It takes a while to get to know all the men, women and children, but the story is always gripping, and there are various time-bombs that suddenly change the way we see the book's whole world.

One of Mukherjee's great gifts is precisely his capacity to imagine the lives of others. He can move from inside one head to inside another in a conversation or conflict and take the reader with him. He isn't really an omniscient narrator, there is no authorial voice – just an imagination that is more than adequate to its task. There is a scene in which Prafullanath goes in a large car to confront the massed and angry workers at a mill he has closed. Mukherjee sees this dangerous moment from every point of view – the workers who have not been paid for a year, the factory owner whose world has slipped out of his grip, Prafullanath's anxious sons. One of these, a hopeful writer, nevertheless manages to think up an ornate metaphor of "a fully reared-up snake, hood engorged, waiting to strike" for the workers, and to wonder if he could use it. The reader does not lose sight of the moral rights of the workers, but must imagine so much more.
Supratik is possessed by a single-minded moral horror at the lives of the starving and helpless. Early in the book he attacks his mother about food. "Don't you agree we eat too much?" She is baffled. "Everyone eats like this." He attacks again: not the servants. Not the poor. The novel gives us not only Supratik's revulsion but his mother's sense of what has always been as it is. His departure will cause her to break down completely. The novelist inhabits both worlds. Throughout, there are delicious descriptions of lovingly prepared food – as well as descriptions of the stale food eaten by the less favoured family members. There are also precise descriptions of the diet that Supratik is barely able to subsist on among the peasants, who do not have meals that can satisfy their hunger.
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Monday, 12 May 2014

Amit Chaudri: The second time

Although one of them lived in Kensington and the other in Bayswater, they didn’t know each other. It was that evening, when he’d come out of the Underground and walked down the road glittering with light and rain, and gone back home to speak to his parents on the telephone, that he’d first heard about her. A second marriage! What was marriage, after all? The back of his overcoat was velvety with moisture as it lay drying on the sofa, where it had been roughly put aside. Once, after a couple of meetings, it was agreed that the idea of a second marriage was congenial to both of them, they decided to put it to execution. They had no idea, really, what it was all about; members of both sides of the family became like co-conspirators and decided to keep the fact a secret till they had an inkling as to what the shape and features of a second marriage were. As far as they were concerned, it was still as formless as the rain on Kensington High Street. Last time, the rituals, like some vast fabric whose provenance they knew little about, had woven them into the marriage, without their having to enquire deeply into it; Arun remembered, from long ago, the car that had come to pick him up, his eyes smarting from the smoke from the fire, the web of flowers over everything, including the bed, the stage, even the car. The first marriage had been like a book into which everyone, including they, had been written, melding unconsciously and without resistance into the characters in it that everyone was always supposed to be.
They met at an old pub near Knightsbridge, and ordered two coffees. This time Prajapati, or Brahma, would not preside with wings unfurled from the sky or the dark over their marriage; nor would this wedding be in that ageless lineage that had begun when Shiva had importunately stormed in to marry Parvati. This time the gods would be no more than an invisible presence between their conversation. They sat there, two individuals, rather lonely, both carrying their broken marriages like the rumours of children.

"Sugar?" she said, with the air of one who was conversant with his habits. He was shyer than she was, as if he needed to prove something.

"Two," he said, managing to sound bold and nervous at once. They were like two film directors who had with them, in script, a plan, but nothing else. There was both exhaustion and hope in their eyes and gestures, which the waitress, saying "Thank you!" cheerfully, hadn’t noticed.

"Two?" she said, noting that he was overweight. A gentle affection for him had preceded, in her, any permanent bond. It was as if it would almost not matter if they never saw each other again.

"Are you all right?" said the waitress, coming back after a while.

"Oh we’re fine!" he said, his English accent impeccable. "Maybe you could bring me a few cookies."

The cookies were pale, star-shaped squiggles, or chocolate-dark circles. They had brought a list of invitees with them.

"This is Bodo Jethu," she said, pointing at the name, A. Sarkar, on the top of a piece of paper. "You’ll see him during the ashirbaad at Calcutta."

Withdrawing her finger and looking at a name, she said, "That’s my only mama." He stared at the name she was looking at.

Six years ago, these very people, six years younger, had blessed her at the ashirbaad ceremony before her first marriage. Now they would have to be summoned again, like figures brought to life a second time from a wooden panel where they’d been frozen, resurrected from their armchairs, or old age homes, or holiday resorts, or wherever they happened to be. The embarrassment, the fatigue, of blessing a niece, or a grandniece, or a daughter, a second time! Some of them had developed a few aches and pains, inexorable, since the first time; though all of them were still there. Now they’d be brought back like soldiers who had been disbanded and were caught loitering happily and absently.


Saturday, 10 May 2014

At Home Abroad Jhumpa Lahiri turns her gaze to history

A hush fell over the large dining room at the stately Guildhall in London when Robert Macfarlane, the British travel writer who chaired the jury for the Man Booker Prize this year, walked to the podium with the name of the winner known only to him and four other judges. This was the last year Britain’s most prestigious literary prize would go to a writer exclusively from the Commonwealth.

From next year, the doors would open to the United States—the only large English-speaking country whose authors don’t qualify for the prize. Writers from the Commonwealth would still be eligible, but opening the prize to Americans raises two risks—one, that American authors might win the prize easily; the other, that fiction from Commonwealth countries, which has to struggle hard to get noticed, and which has had a good run at the Booker, will now suffer. American prizes, such as the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards, are open only to Americans. Man Booker runs the risk of becoming the Commonwealth version of that very British institution, Wimbledon, where outsiders dominate.

To some critics, the barbarians were already at the gate. Three of the short-listed novelists this year have lived a large part of their lives in America, and their connection with the Commonwealth is not strong: NoViolet Bulawayo, born in Zimbabwe (no longer a Commonwealth member), lives in the United States, and Ruth Ozeki was born in Connecticut to Japanese and American parents, and has taken Canadian nationality. And then there is Jhumpa Lahiri, born to Indian parents in Britain, who moved to the United States at the age of two, and has recently moved to Italy.

Many critics have strong views about the Man Booker Prize opening its doors to American authors. “Well that’s the end of the Booker Prize, then,” wrote the novelist Philip Hensher in The Guardian, quoting a London literary agent. Hensher was a judge in 2001, long-listed the following year (for The Mulberry Empire) and short-listed in 2008 (for The Northern Clemency). He lamented: “It is hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate. Not through excellence, necessarily, but simply through an economic super-power exerting its own literary tastes…” He added, with writers like Lahiri in his mind: “Curiously, all these novels, effectively written by American-based authors about exotic places, were unable to do so without placing the exotic places in the reassuring context of an American suburb. The novel written by an Indian, living in India, about India, without reference to his later life in Cincinnati was dead this year.” 

In 2013 at least, the prize followed the expected script, and the winner was 28-year-old Eleanor Catton, the youngest writer to win the prize, for her 832-page novel about New Zealand’s gold rush, The Luminaries. As Catton made her way to the stage, I wondered what Lahiri might have felt. Writers of Indian origin have had a good run with the prize—winners include VS Naipaul (1971), Salman Rushdie (1981), Arundhati Roy (1997), Kiran Desai (2006), and Aravind Adiga (2008). Naipaul (1979), Anita Desai (1980, 1984 and 1999), Rushdie (1983, 1988 and 1995), Rohinton Mistry (1991, 1996 and 2002), Indra Sinha (2007), Amitav Ghosh (2008), and Jeet Thayil (2012) have been short-listed.
I asked a friend who was at the dinner to keep an eye on Lahiri. “Her face was impassive; she was inscrutable,” she reported. In London, at least, few had expected her to win. According to punters, a mere £24 had been placed on her novel, The Lowland, with odds of 9/1the lowest stakes ever placed on a contender.

Two weeks earlier, I had seen her twice in London, speaking to full-house audiences at promotional events at The Guardian newspaper and the South Bank Centre. There, she fielded questions politely, but revealed little of her personality. She looked as though she would rather be elsewhere. When the critic John Mullan, who chaired the discussion at The Guardian, asked her an intricate question about a particular story from her 2008 collection, Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri needed time to think of the answer; once, she stumbled remembering a character’s name. When a woman from the audience pointed out that women formed the majority of her audience that evening, and asked if that meant she wrote for a specific audience (such as women or immigrants), Lahiri looked pained. She smiled briefly, her lips arcing momentarily before returning to their horizontal repose, and said: “I don’t think of an audience. It is known that more women read in general. When I write I am alone at work and I’m not thinking of resurfacing; I do not know who is going to read what I write. Writing remains a private matter, like meditation.” She replied to questions she was not interested in with politeness and without enthusiasm. (Lahiri did not respond to several interview requests for this essay.)

Some critics, while they find her short fiction to be polished and accomplished, have uncharitably said she is the poster child of American creative writing classes—where students learn the craft of honing and sharpening the stories that will appeal to editors at magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic, all publications with decided and distinct tastes, and among the few major English language outlets in the world which regularly publish short stories in defiance of conventional commercial wisdom. Lahiri, who graduated from Boston University with a PhD in Renaissance Studies, also holds degrees in comparative literature and creative writing.


Saturday, 3 May 2014

A Solitary Life Is Still Worth Living - Anita Brookner

AT a crucial point in ''Hotel du Lac,'' the winner of England's 1984 Booker Prize, a rich and attractive man leans toward a woman and says, ''You may feel better if you tell me about it.' '' '' 'Oh, do you think that is true?' she enquired, breathing rather hard. 'And even if it is, do you guarantee that the results will be immediately felt? Like those obscure advertisements for ointment that help you to 'obtain relief.' One is never quite sure from what.' ''
It's a conversation that might have come straight from a Barbara Pym novel: the man all intensity, the woman devastatingly down-to- earth. In fact, Anita Brookner has often been compared with Pym - less because of style, one supposes, than because of her cast of players. Her central character is invariably a mild-mannered English spinster, pleasant to look at, if not very striking, and impeccably dressed. She is so correct, so self-controlled and punctilious, that weare surprised to learn how young she is - not yet out of her 30's. Not too old to look up in a quick, alert, veiled way whenever an unattached man wanders past.
But what she sees when she looks at the man - well, till now, that's where she differed from most of the women in Pym's books. Pym's heroine would generally see someone appealing but comically flawed (as all men are, she would reflect with a smile). Miss Brookner's always saw a rescuer. Pym's heroine would be rueful, self-mocking. Miss Brookner's was seriously hopeful, and seriously cast down when her hopes failed to materialize.
In Miss Brookner's first novel, ''The Debut,'' the heroine was induced by a literary tradition of filial duty to give up all claims to a personal future and settle dismally into the role of faithful daughter. In ''Look at Me,'' an unmarried librarian befriended by a glittering Beautiful Couple was eventually dropped, abandoned to a lonely middle age. In ''Providence,'' a woman in love with a professor discovered that the professor did not love her back, and the story ended abruptly with her disillusionment. The final mood has always been bleak, even accusatory - a sort of ''Why me, God?'' that left the reader slightly alienated.
But in ''Hotel du Lac,'' Miss Brookner's most absorbing novel, the heroine is more philosophical from the outset, more self-reliant, more conscious that a solitary life is not, after all, an unmitigated tragedy. Edith Hope receives two proposals of marriage during the course of the story. Both would-be husbands are flawed - one is too dull, one too pragmatic - but the earlier heroines, we suspect, would have settled for one or the other nonetheless. Edith ends up accepting neither. Ironically, it is she, the producer of pulp novels (''a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name''), who is the first of Miss Brookner's heroines to arrive at a nonromantic, wryly realistic appreciation of her single state.
The hotel of the title is a conservative family establishment on the shore of a Swiss lake, and it is here that Edith has been packed off to reassemble herself after committing an ''unfortunate lapse.'' What this lapse was we're not told immediately, but when it is revealed - at just the right moment - it turns out to be entirely in keeping with her character, as well as with the tone of the book: oddly detached, very small-scale, faintly humorous. Edith's real sin, when you get right down to it, is that she has failed to adhere to the path that officious friends have mapped out for her.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Nadeem Aslam: a life in writing

Nadeem Aslam was years into his second novel when the 11 September attacks took place. "Many writers said the books they were writing were now worthless," he recalls. Martin Amis, for one, felt his work in progress had been reduced to a "pitiable babble". But Aslam's saddened reaction to 9/11 was one of recognition. "I thought, that's Maps for Lost Lovers – that's the book I'm writing."

The link might seem tenuous to a novel set many miles from the twin towers or Bin Laden's lair, in an almost cocooned urban community of Pakistani migrants and their offspring in the north of England, where Aslam grew up from the age of 14. The novel was almost pastoral in its tracing of the seasons, with riffs on jazz, painting and spectacular moths. Each chapter was as minutely embellished as the Persian and Mughal miniatures Aslam has in well-thumbed volumes on his coffee table. But the plot turns on a so-called honour killing, as an unforgiving brand of Islam takes hold. In his view, and above all for women, "we were experiencing low-level September 11s every day."
Maps for Lost Lovers, which took 11 years to write, and was published in 2004, won the Encore and Kiriyama awards (the latter recognises books that contribute to greater understanding of the Pacific Rim and South Asia). It was shortlisted for the Dublin Impac prize and longlisted for the Man Booker prize. His debut, Season of the Rainbirds (1993), set in small-town Pakistan, had also won prizes, and been shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel award. The books confirmed Aslam as a novelist of ravishing poetry and poise – admired by other writers including Salman Rushdie and AS Byatt.
In "Where to Begin", an essay for Granta's Pakistan issue in 2010, Aslam wrote that literature is a "public act", and a "powerful instrument against injustice". Yet his heart is in revealing how his chosen subject matter – whether, he says now, "honour killings, female infanticide or Afghanistan" – connects "to a flesh and blood human being".
Looking back from the point when western forces began bombing Tora Bora in October 2001, The Wasted Vigil (2008) traces decades of Afghan history, through Russian, American and British outsiders and a young Talib, all of whom had lost something there, in a "companionship of the wound". Largely mapped out before 2001, the novel was fed by conversations with 200 Afghan refugees in Britain, and travels in Afghanistan. While the novelist Mohammed Hanif praised it as a "poetic meditation on the destructive urges that bind us together", some were uneasy about its twinning of beauty and brutality. For Aslam, "beauty is a way of mourning the dead", while his lament for lost art, such as the Bamiyan Buddhas blown up by the Taliban, "in no way takes away from the deaths".