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Fire and collapse in Bangladeshi factories are no longer unexpected news, and sweatshop scandals are too familiar. Conflicting moral, legal, and political claims abound. But there have been positives, and promises of more. The best hope for progress may be in the power of individual contracts.
“I had been out for a walk and got caught in the rain,” says Sen, smiling as he walks in to greet us. His knees do not permit him to pedal around Santiniketan as he once did. He is in a pleasant mood, in spite of the controversy surrounding his ouster from Nalanda University and his latest book, The Country of First Boys: And Other Essays, out next month.
The fifteenth of August commemorates Sri Aurobindo’s birthday, and the birth of independent India, a historical landmark where he played a significant role. Aurobindo, the founder of Purna, or Integral Yoga, is a renowned and controversial poet, educationist, and literary critic, a politician, sociologist, and mystic whose evolutionary worldview represents a breakthrough in history. Nevertheless, what is the relevance of Aurobindo nowadays?
Perhaps you are on your way to an enrollment center to be photographed, your irises to be screened, and your fingerprints to be recorded. Perhaps, you are already cursing the guys in the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) for making you sweat it out in a long line.
Is India’s foreign policy at a cusp? The question is far from trivial. Since assuming office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited well over a dozen countries ranging from India’s immediate neighborhood to places as far as Brazil. Despite this very active foreign policy agenda, not once has he or anyone in his Cabinet ever invoked the term "nonalignment". Nor, for that matter, has he once referred to India’s quest for “strategic autonomy”.
The Mumbai slums have recently achieved a weird kind of celebrity status. Whatever the considerable merits of the film Slum Dog Millionaire and the best-selling book by Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (now also a play and a film), these works have contributed to the making of a contemporary horror myth.
Congratulations on your new posting in the Punjab. Rather than riding eight-hours-a-day on horseback, suffering motion-sickness on a camel’s heaving back, or breaking your back sitting on hard wooden boards in a mail-cart, you’ll be travelling on the Bombay Government Flotilla, one of four flotillas that carry thousands of Europeans and Indians up and down the Indus.
While you may question the expenditure of a government flotilla, we assure you it’s a lot simpler than loading a squadron onto a small fleet of country boats, with indifferent crews, in varying states of repair, which might never reach their destinations. On board we’ll keeping the regiment together arriving as it started out — in one piece and maintaining proper discipline in transit.
So what can you expect on this exciting journey?
1. Expect sun and swelter. Everything you touch will be red hot. You won’t be able to go below in the daytime, but the thin awnings on deck will do little to relieve you in the 115 degree heat. Many soldiers ask whether they should sleep with a berth next to a furnace or choose a wall of heat on deck. With dry winds that come down from the ‘burnt-up hills’, laden with fine sand, everything and everyone will be covered in a layer of fine grey grit. And don’t forget the sand-flies — they bite hard.
2. Expect an uproarious time. Remember that you’re travelling on white man’s mastery of nature, so don’t expect to be the most important thing afloat. Your accommodation will be conveniently crushed between the machinery of furnaces, boilers, pistons, transmission, and paddle-wheels. Passengers trapped in close proximity to the machinery enthuse about the clamour of pistons ‘working up to four or five hundred horse-power’, the splash of paddle-wheels beating the river-water into foam, and the deafening hurricanes when engineers blow off the boiler’s steam ‘half-a-dozen times a day’. And if you’re lucky enough to have the wind blowing in your direction, look forward to being choked by the smoke, singed by the sparks, and splattered by smuts from the funnels.
3. Expect to get intimate with your fellow passengers. When moving to a theatre of war, you’ll be squashed together on the decks ‘like pigs at a market in a pen at night’. Your comrades may jostle to get enough space to lie down; the top of a hatch is a prize reserved for the best bare-knuckle fighter. Never mind about a restless colleague, you’ll be packed so tight in the gaps between the baggage, that once you’re settled down it’ll be impossible to move until the morning.
4. Expect cool nights with fresh dew. As you lay on deck with only a thin cotton awning over your head, gather round the funnel to get a little warmth. Be sure to hang on to your guttery [very thin duvet stuffed with raw cotton] as there will be no great-coats among the soldiers. Not to worry, the women and children suffer most.
5. Expect to be out of your element and out of sorts. Feeling exposed? Living on the open decks for weeks on end in the winter will reduce your resistance to all common Indian diseases. Should you be lucky enough to get an attack fever and dysentery, you’ll lay stretched upon the hard planking without anything under or over you. The sepoys’ conditions, as one would expect, are the best of all. It will be impossible to cross the deck without walking on sick and dying invalids. If they die in the night, they will be ‘instantly thrown overboard’. And after the steamer arrives in the delta, the survivors are off-loaded into sea-going ships destined for Bombay.
6. Expect unbelievable meals. Passengers praise our ‘coarse and unpalatable’ food. Everyone from the boat captains to the cooks have their special arrangements with prices too high for poorer travellers and meals ‘so indifferent’ that passengers who had paid for them refuse to eat them. Even the water is undrinkable! Perhaps your whole regiment will be reduced to foraging in the villages along the banks. Sheep and cows can be bought for a few rupees; Muslim butchers slaughter them; and you can enjoy broiling away till midnight.
7. Expect a tranquil environment. It takes a month or more to get up the whole navigable length of the Indus and they’ll be nothing to see on long stretches of the rivers, except ‘a vast dreary expanse’ of desert stretching out to the horizon, or an endless belt of tamarisk trees running along the low, muddy banks. Many villages are miles from the river to escape the floods, so it’s possible to sail all day without seeing another human being. Throughout the journey you’ll receive small stimulations from a native boat spreading its sail to taking pot shots at the largest living creatures to hand. Never mind the cost of the cartridges: simply steal rounds from the pouches of sick sepoys.
8. Expect a friendly drink or two. Fed up with watching the ‘dreary wilderness’ floating slowly past? Drink yourself stupid. As a hundred soldiers boarded the Meanee en route to the siege of Multan, one of them – delirious from drink – ‘slipped from the men who led him and fell overboard’, a second died of delirium tremens during the voyage, and a third ‘was expected to do so’. En route they ‘lost three or four in the river from drowning’. Worried the military authorities will restrict the sale of alcohol on the boats? Buy country liquor from the villagers – it has roughly the same side-effects.
9. Expect genuine thrills. The most intense excitement on a voyage on the Indus is the occasional shipwreck. Test your phlegm, and proof of national identity. Charles Stewart dismissed the danger of drowning with the utmost nonchalance on his sinking vessel. The really serious inconvenience was the interruption to his meals. React with that much aplomb, and we’ll know you’re British.
10. Expect to see people working together in new ways. Watch every latent animosity in race relations come to the surface. British captains beat Indian pilots every time a boat runs aground; engineers beat the lascars feeding logs into the furnaces if the steam pressure falls; and soldiers beat the cooks if they make a mess of the grub. Passengers straight from England are often shocked.
Remember, in an alien and often threatening environment, it’s worth paying a premium for the reassurance of a European-style cocoon: a steam-hotel, albeit a poor one, gliding along the river while the guests sit on the decks.
December 14th is Monkey Day. The origin behind Monkey Day varies depending on who you ask, but regardless, it is internationally celebrated today, especially to raise awareness for primates and everything primate-related. So in honor of Monkey Day, here are some facts you may or may not know about these creatures.
Headline image credit: Berber monkeys. Public domain via Pixabay.
The centenary of the capture of Basra offers an opportunity to reflect on the nature and impact of the first Western military intervention in Iraq, nine decades before the city once again became the focal point of British activity in the country between 2003 and 2009. The small-scale operation envisaged by British political and military planners in October 1914 morphed into one of the most protracted military campaigns outside of the European theatre of the Great War. It combined gross initial mismanagement and eventual humiliation with landmark military successes such as the occupation of Baghdad in March 1917 and the first flawed attempt at imposing an external state-building agenda in Iraq. More than 40,000 British and Indian soldiers lost their lives and were commemorated on a memorial displayed prominently near Basra until 1997, when it was moved by order of Saddam Hussein to an isolated desert outpost.
On the evening of 21 November 1914, two gunboats advanced toward Basra with detachments of Indian forces belonging to the 104th Wellesley Rifles and the 117th Mahrattas of 16th Brigade of the Indian Army’s 6th Division. Sent ashore to restore order following the outbreak of looting in the town, the capture of Basra was among the first major British successes in the Great War then entering its fourth month. Two days later, the British flag was raised over the town and a headline in the Daily Mail proclaimed proudly ‘Another Red Patch on the Map.’ Much to the delight of British officers with the Indian force, the English Club was found undisturbed by the looting that took place after the Ottoman withdrawal, and well-stocked with lager beer.
Soon after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, reports had begun to reach British officials in London that the Ottoman Army had started to mobilise in Baghdad and was seizing British property in the city. In fact, the Ottoman Army had started a general mobilisation on 3 August, and three days later the authorities in Baghdad proclaimed martial law, even though the Ottomans did not formally declare war until late-October. By mid-September, Ottoman troops in Basra were preparing defensive positions along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and limited (though unsuccessful) attempts had been made to enlist the major tribal groupings around Baghdad.
The news from Mesopotamia alarmed Sir Edmund Barrow, the Military Secretary at the India Office in London. His office, along with the Government of India, was responsible for the British-protected sheikhdoms of Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Trucial States (today the United Arab Emirates) in the Persian Gulf. Barrow feared the Ottomans’ actions might damage British prestige in the region and sway the loyalty of local tribal sheikhs, upon whose collaboration rested British commercial, political and strategic supremacy in the Gulf. Accordingly, he suggested sending a military force to the Shatt al-Arab at the northern head of the Gulf to repair local prestige and reassure any wavering local allies of British support. Furthermore, it would demonstrate British military might to regional observers, protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s installations and pipeline at Abadan on the eastern (Persian) shore of the Gulf, and cover the landing of any reinforcements which might subsequently be required. At this stage, and in striking contrast to the importance that Mesopotamia’s oil potential assumed by 1918, British interests were primarily motivated by issues of prestige, rather than the strategic control of oil-producing areas.
The 16th Indian Brigade sailed from Bombay on 16 October 1914 in a convoy headed to Egypt and then on to France to reinforce Indian troops being sent to the Western Front. However, the Brigade was ordered to detach itself from the convoy and make its way to Bahrain, where it arrived on 23 October. Once there, it encountered unexpectedly stiff local unease at its presence, which forced the 5000 men and 1200 animals to remain on their cramped troopships in hot and oppressive conditions. With the declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire imminent, 16th Brigade sailed northward to the Shatt al-Arab at the head of the Persian Gulf and prepared for an attack on the Faw Peninsula south-east of Basra. At 6am on the morning of 6 November 1914, HMS Odin fired the first shots of the campaign as it bombarded the local Ottoman fort and landed 600 men on the peninsula. The Brigade proceeded to Abadan (in Persian territory) on 9 November, where it disembarked with some difficulty, and, two days later, beat off an Ottoman counter-attack to confirm their foothold.
The British declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire on 5 November 1914 led the British military authorities in India to rapidly dispatch a second infantry brigade (the 18th) to reinforce 16th Brigade. It arrived at Abadan on 14 November. Two days later, the Cabinet in London authorised the capture of Basra on the condition that the Arab political situation and general military conditions were favourable. A sharp engagement took place at Salih on 17 November in a downpour that turned the desert ‘into a veritable sea of mud’ and claimed nearly 500 British and Indian and over 1000 Ottoman casualties. This unexpectedly costly success paved the way for the final advance to Basra, completing the initial objective of what became known as Indian Expeditionary Force D. Even at this formative stage, the seeds of local resistance were being sown as a fatwa issued by the Ottoman Sultan calling for jihad against the British occupiers was read out in every Sunni mosque in Mesopotamia. The Shiite clergy of Najaf were among the first to declare their support in response to an urgent appeal from their counterparts in Basra.
The successful capture of Basra did not lead to a halt in military operations in Mesopotamia. Instead, and largely for reasons of prestige, the campaign expanded rapidly throughout 1915. This left Indian Expeditionary Force D dangerously over-exposed across mutually unsupportable positions and dependent on a supply and transport network that creaked at the seams before breaking down completely early in 1916. Subsequent military operations in Mesopotamia until November 1918 spawned a potent array of political and economic grievances that culminated in the mass uprising against British rule known as the al-Thawra al-‘Iraqiya al-Kubra (the Great Iraqi Revolution) in 1920. A century later, with one-third of Iraq under the control of an Islamic State bent on redrawing the map of the modern Middle East that emerged from the war, the legacy of decisions made during and immediately after the First World War continue to cast their long shadow over the region.
It’s in the grip of North American winter that I often dream of escape to warmer climates. Thanks to the WordPress.com Reader and the street photography tag, I can satisfy my travel yen whenever it strikes. Here are just some of the amazing photos and photographers I stumbled upon during a recent armchair trip.
My first stop was Alexis Pazoumian’s fantastic SERIES: India at The Sundial Review. I loved the bold colors in this portrait and the man’s thoughtful expression.
In a slightly different form of care-free, we have the muddy hands of Elina Eriksson‘s son in Zambia. I love how his small hands frame his face. The gentle focus on his face and the light in the background evoke warm summer afternoons at play.
Photo by Elina Eriksson
Heading to Istanbul, check out Jeremy Witteveen‘s fun shot of this clarinetist. Whenever I see musicians, I can’t help but wonder about the song they’re playing.
Arresting in a slightly different fashion is Rob Moses‘ Ski Hill Selfie, taken in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The juxtaposition of the bold colors and patterns in the foreground against the white snow in the background caught my eye.
From Hafei, we go to Havana, Cuba, and Edith Levy‘s beautifully ethereal Edificio Elena. I found the soft pastels and gentle shadows particularly pleasing. They lend a distinctly feminine quality to the building.
Photo by Edith Levy
And finally, under the category of beautiful, is Aneek Mustafa Anwar‘s portrait, taken in Shakhari Bazar, Old Dhaka, Bangladesh. The boy’s shy smile is a wonderful representation of the word on his shirt.
Photo by Aneek Mustafa Anwar
Where do you find photographic inspiration? Take a moment to share your favorite photography blogs in the comments.
Must economic growth be privileged over ecological security? Jairam Ramesh argues that this is the wrong question to ask; the two work in concert, not in opposition, and a bright economic and political future requires a safe, protected environment. As India grows as a global power, the nation has become a leader in progressive environmental policies.
इस कविता मे एक अजन्मी बच्ची और उसकी मां का वार्तालाप है. बच्ची दुनिया का हाल देखते हुए आना ही नही चाह्ती लेकिन उसकी मां उसे हिम्मत देती है और न धबराने को कहती है उसे कहती है कि वो जब इस धरा पर आएगी तो वो धरा को जन्नत बना देंगें
When Ravi’s grandfather comes to visit from India, Ravi and his family learn a lesson about their homeland. Ravi’s grandfather tells them of the sun that is like a roaring tiger, of the wind that is like a wild horse. He tells them of the snow-tipped Himalayan mountains that are like ice cream. After a traditional Indian meal, Grandfather talks about elephants, the beautiful Indian elephants. Together. Ravi, his sister Anjali, and Grandfather drew a map of India, shaped like an elephants ear. They drew in all the animals, the big Ganges river, the elephant forest, the roaring sun and the ice cream mountains. Then Ravi played an elephant dance on his bamboo flute that he got at the market. He goes to bed, and in his dreams, as he plays his bamboo flute, an elephant does a silent dance.
I loved this book! Most people now are not able to travel as often as we would like to. It’s nice when different countries are able to be brought to our imagination with stories. Elephant Dance beautifully illustrates the rich Indian culture through a grandfather’s memory and love of a country. The illustrations are beautiful and colorful, perfectly complimentary to this fabulous story. Be sure to check out the information about India in the back of the book!
Born in the hills of Louisiana and raised in the mountains of Tennessee, Hannah Rials is an eighteen year old aspiring author and editor. Now a freshman in college, she’s been writing short stories since she was a little girl, but for the past several years, she has been writing, editing, and reediting a novel of her own that will soon be published by Audrey Press. Hannah has always loved reading and the world of books. With a librarian grandmother who can tell the most magical stories, how could she not fall in love with the written word? Her library collection and love for books grows every day.
पानी- एक गम्भीर समस्या…. कम होता पानी का भंडार … जिस तरह से पानी के भंडार की क्षमता घट रही है 2025 तक भारत पानी की कमी महसूस करने लगेगा
तापमान बढता जा रहा है और जिस तरह से पानी का भंडार कम होता जा रहा है पानी इतना ही आना कम होता जा रहा है. मुश्किल से आधा घंटा पानी आता है वो भी बूंद बूंद टपक कर… और कई नलकों से तो पानी की बजाय हवा ही आती है … ऐसे के क्या होगा … एक गम्भीर समस्या है …
पानी एक गम्भीर समस्या – 2025
नई दिल्ली। भारत में जल्द ही पानी की कमी हो जाएगी। भारत पानी की कमी को 2025 तक महसूस करने लगेगा। यह कहना है पानी के क्षेत्र की अग्रणी परामर्श कंपनी ईए-वाटर का। ईए-वाटर के विशेषज्ञों का कहना है कि भारत में तेजी से पानी के भंडार में कमी हो रही है। Read more…
प्राकृतिक संसाधनों का अन्धाधुंध दोहन यथा वृक्षों की कटाई, अत्यधिक जल दोहन, अनियंत्रित खनन, आदि से पर्यावरण प्रदूषण की समस्या विकराल रूप धारण करती जा रही है । इसी तरह बढ़ती आबादी के कारण सभी जगह की आबोहवा बिगड़ रही है.ऐसे में संकट मुंह बाए खडा है क्या करे या क्या न करें
पानी की समस्या से बचने के लिए श्रम दान
प्राचीन काल से ही श्रमदान का महत्व रहा हैं ब्रज में वर्षा खूब होती थी जिससे यमुना नदी में प्रायः बाढ़ आती रहती थी। ब्रज मैदानी भाग था यहां की अधिकांश भूमि ” गोचर ” थी पर अति वृष्टि के कारण बरसात के बाद तक यह क्षेत्र जल मग्न बना रहता था। एक बार ऐसी बाढ़ आई कि घर सम्पत्ति संभालना कठिन हो गया। लोगों ने गाये हटा दी और घर छोड़कर भागने लगे। श्रीकृष्ण ने इस स्थिति पर गम्भीरता से विचार किया तो मालूम हुआ इस तरह के गम्भीर संकटों का सामना अकेले नहीं हो सकता। उसके लिए सामूहिक श्रमदान और लोक मंगल की भावना से मिल-जुलकर काम करना आवश्यक होता है। उन्होंने वर्षा के जल और बाढ़ से गांव को बचाने के लिए उस क्षेत्र के सभी निवासियों को इकटठा कर सामूहिक श्रमदान की प्रेरणा दी और सबको पत्थर ढोने में लगा दिया। देखते ही देखते 14 मील लम्बा और आधा मील चौड़ा बांध बनकर तैयार हो गया और इस तरह ब्रज को श्रमदान के द्वारा बाढ़ की परेशानी से निजात मिल गयी । मानव जीवन एवं हमारी संस्कृति में दान का अत्यधिक महत्व है, अपनी क्षमता के अनुरूप किसी भी सुपात्र को दान देना बहुत महान कार्य है दान कई रूप में किया जा सकता है। श्रमदान भी इसी का एक हिस्सा है। श्रमदान से बढ़ा कोई दान नहीं है । श्रमदान सबसे बढ़कर है। यह दान हर कोई कर सकता हैं । धनदान धनिक ही कर सकता हैं एवं धन का उपयोग श्रम से ही होता हैं । इस दान के माध्यम से कई लोगों को राहत मिलती है। इसमें तन और मन साथ-साथ काम करते हैं। शरीर स्वस्थ रहता हैं । इससे तन और मन संकल्पित होते हैं और व्यक्ति और समाज में सकारात्मकता आती है तो क्यों न हम पर्यावरण सन्तुलन एवं जल संसाधनो की घटती संख्या को ध्यान में रखते हुए आने वाले मानसून में अपने अपने गांव, कस्बे, शहर में एक समूह बना कर वृक्षारोपण करने, परंपरागत जल स्त्रोतों को पुनजीर्वित कर अपने नगर ,कस्बे, गांव के साथ देश की तस्वीर बदलने में महती भूमिका निभा कर आने वाली पीढ़ी को सामाजिक चेतना का सन्देश दे । See more…
पानी बचाओ को के लिए सबसे महत्वपूर्ण है कि शुरुआत अपने आप से करें. फालतू पानी न बहने दे और कम पानी का भरपूर प्रयोग लें . अगर कोई पानी व्यर्थ गिरा रहा है तो उसे टोके अवश्य… क्योकि समझाना हमारा फर्ज है … बाकि आप खुद समझदार हैं … है ना
Selfie Selfie ..मोदी सरकार का एक साल पूरा हो गया है. वही आम आदमी पार्टी के अरविंद केजरीवाल के 100 दिनों से मोदी सरकार के 365 दिनों की तुलना की जा रही है. ऐसे में चिंता होनी ही स्वाभाविक है क्योकि कुछ जनता मोदी सरकार से नाखुश है और कुछ केजरीवाल से नाखुश … ऐसे में Selfie से पूछा जा रहा है कि हे Selfie तू बता कि मुझ से बेहतर है कोई …
Narendra Modis selfie with Li Keqiang
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi just tweeted another selfie—not so surprising given his love for the photo format. But who it was with, and where it was taken, are somewhat shocking. See more…
Early summer in London is heralded by the Chelsea Flower Show. This year, the winner of the Best Fresh Garden was the Dark Matter Garden, an extraordinary design by Howard Miller. Dark matter is invisible and thought to constitute much of the universe, but can only be observed through the distortion of light rays, an effect represented in the garden by a lattice of bent steel rods and lines of bamboo, swaying in the wind.
Continuing on from yesterday's post about Amit Chaudhuri's A Strange and Sublime Address (a novella included in the collection Freedom Song), here's a bit more academic writing about the book. This time, my goal is to undermine, or at least question, the common opposition of Chaudhuri's "realism" to Salman Rushdie's "magical realism". The two writers have frequently been set against each other as polar opposites, but my argument here is that they have far more in common than might be obvious at first...
In his 2009 essay “Cosmopolitanism’s Alien Face”, Amit Chaudhuri tells of a conversation he had with the Bengali poet Utpal Kumar Basu:
We were discussing, in passing, the nature of the achievement of Subimal Misra, one of the short-story writing avant-garde in 1960s Bengal. ‘He set aside the conventional Western short story with its idea of time; he was more true to our Indian sensibilities; he set aside narrative’, said Basu. ‘That’s interesting’, I observed. ‘You know, of course, that, in the last twenty years or so, it is we Indians and postcolonials who are supposed to be the storytellers, emerging as we do from our oral traditions and our millennial fairy tales’. ‘Our fairy tales are very different from theirs’, said Basu, unmoved. ‘We don’t start with, “Once upon a time”.’ (91-92)
Chaudhury goes on to explore the implications of this statement, and of the desire to solidify an idea of pure cultural identity (“Our fairy tales … We don’t start with…”) against ideas of modernism and cosmopolitanism, but here I would like to take the statements in the above paragraph more on their surface and to explore the effect of the stated and implied Once upon a time…
Salman Rushdie’s Shame does not begin with exactly those words, but the sense of a fairy tale beginning is strong: “In the remote border town of Q., which when seen from the air resembles nothing so much as an ill-proportioned dumb-bell, there once lived three lovely, and loving, sisters.” The narrator quickly assumes the role of storyteller: “…the three sisters, I should state without further delay, bore the family name of Shakil…” (3), the narrative voice here asserting, for the first of many times in Shame, the kind of presence that most European novels of the 19th century sought to vanquish in the name of realism.
The idea of realism led to third-person narratives unburdened by the presence of a narrator, and the success of that style has created a sense that storytelling was a more primitive tradition, a tradition that the 19th Century European novel first refined and then progressed beyond. The realist European novel is inextricable from a particular idea of European progress, and the aesthetic is strongly located within a specific, and quite narrow, time and place. Storytelling may be universal, written narrative may have a long and multicultural history, but the realistic novel is a particular technology. The first sentences of Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address draw from that technology: “He saw the lane. Small houses, unlovely and unremarkable, stood face to face with each other.” The narration is submerged within the perception of the character, and in these first lines we don’t even know the character’s name — the character is nothing but a gendered pronoun, and the normal, sense-making syntax of noun followed by pronoun is reversed (there is no antecedent). The first name we encounter is not that of the viewpoint character, but rather what the viewpoint character sees: “Chhotomama’s house had a pomelo tree in its tiny courtyard and madhavi creepers by its windows.” Here, the unnamed viewpoint character possesses knowledge that is not allowed to readers: Who is Chhotomama? How do we know it’s Chhotomama’s house? We begin in medias res, but not so much in the middle of events as in the middle of perceptions. Perceptions are foregrounded, and we, the outside observer, build our knowledge from them. Only once we have perceived can we be provided with even some of the necessary information for ordinary meaning to be possible, but the importance of that information is de-emphasized: our viewpoint character’s name doesn’t appear until a parenthetical remark in the final sentence of the first paragraph: “A window opened above (it was so silent for a second that Sandeep could hear someone unlocking it) and Babla’s face appeared behind the mullions” (7). The technology of the realistic novel doesn’t require this technique; the technique emphasizes a decisive rejection of the storytelling tradition. Not only is there no narrating “I” situating the reader in relationship to the tale, but there is a determined lack of information about the character.
The first paragraph of A Strange and Sublime Address thus forces readers to make connections and draw conclusions, to connect that first “He” to “Sandeep”, while also showing us what may matter in the novel and what may not. Where Shame emphasizes storytelling, A Strange and Sublime Address emphasizes perception. The apparently radical differences between the two books — and the ostensibly opposite aesthetic approaches of Rushdie and Chaudhuri — diminish if we look at the novels’ types of storytelling and thus analyze both texts as metafictions that take different paths to similar conclusions about history, place, and representation.
Saikat Majumdar applies Walter Benjamin’s concept of the flâneur to Chaudhuri, but here we might draw on some other of Benjamin’s ideas, these from the 1936 essay “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”, particularly section XVI, in which Benjamin writes of fairy tales:
The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which myth had placed upon its chest. … The liberating magic which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man. A mature man feels this complicity only occasionally — that is, when he is happy; but the child first meets it in fairy tales, and it makes him happy. (157)
This view of the fairy tale as a tool for liberation from myth is one that aligns well with Shame, but it’s harder to locate the engines of “Once upon a time…” within A Strange and Sublime Address, despite that novel mostly being presented through the point of view of a child. To find the fairy tale, we must locate the pedagogical imperative of the text. Benjamin concludes: “…the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages. He has counsel — not for a few situations, as the proverb does, but for many, like the sage. … The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself” (162). Chaudhuri clearly wants to teach readers something about perception, materiality, and history, and his writing is determinedly anti-mythic. Further, the novel is strongly concerned with how stories represent the world, and how language and perception intertwine in narrative, which is why I call it a metafiction. To limn the liberatory magic of A Strange and Sublime Address, though, we should begin with the more obvious metafiction of Shame.
Though Chapter 1 of Shame is filled with asides from the narrator, it is Chapter 2 that truly breaks out of the established narrative, bringing us into a more recognizable reality with the first sentence: “A few weeks after Russian troops entered Afghanistan, I returned home, to visit my parents and sisters and to show off my firstborn son” (19). The narrative voice here is more straightforward and unified, and the details fit Rushdie’s known biography to such an extent that some readers and critics have confidently asserted that the voice is Rushdie. It is problematic to associate the writer with a textual effect in any book, and especially so in a book as wild, imaginative, and concerned with questions of history, identity, and representation as Shame, so here I will simply call this Voice 2, as opposed to the narrator of the more obviously fantastical sections, Voice 1.
Voice 2 is intimately related to Voice 1, however, and may logically be seen as the creator of Voice 1 (“I tell myself this will be a novel of leavetaking…” ). Voice 2 is an explainer and a ruminator, and the Voice 2 sections read like personal essays. But the genre (or mode) of the novel is remarkable in its ability to contain and recontextualize other genres (and/or modes) — the personal essay becomes embedded within the novel, and so its identity as an essay can no longer be trusted, because it is being put to use for novelistic purposes. It is thus rendered impure, and in a novel about impurities of identity and the translation of being and substance. “I, too, am a translated man,” Voice 2 says. “I have been borne across” (23), and this translation, this bearing across, is as true for the voice’s genre as for the character evoked by that voice.
The problem for Voice 2 is that the storytelling force of Voice 1 comes from a different age and place, and translating the form and tendencies of old aesthetics is, like all translation, a process that deforms and reforms the original, skewing the results. Even if the original could be moved perfectly into a new time and place, the result would still get skewed, as Borges proposed with Pierre Menard’s Quixote. Voice 2 must break in because Voice 1 is inevitably doomed to fail — or, if not fail exactly, to sputter unforseen effects all over the page. Voice 2 is forced to acknowledge this late in the novel:
I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge. But the women seem to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories and comedies, obliging me to couch my narrative in all manner of sinuous complexities, to see my “male” plot refracted, so to speak, through the prisms of its reverses and “female” side. It occurs to me that the women knew precisely what they were up to — that their stories explain, and even subsume, the men’s. (180-181)
Voice 2 here blames the failures and fragmenting of Voice 1 (or, perhaps, Voice 1-1.∞, as the possible voices within Voice 1 are infinite) on “the women”, thus giving the characters an autonomy that might be better ascribed to aesthetic and ideological forces rather than to a plane of reality in which the characters are real people and not textual figures. (Voice 2 is a textual effect that ascribes blame to other textual effects for the shape of the narrative.) We might more productively say that the phantasmagoria is overtaken by what resists fantasy — the factitious overcome by the factual.
This would seem to be a triumph of realism over fantasy, but that would only be true if the fantasy were wiped out, and it is not. The majority of Shame remains phantasmagoric, but differently so, and differently in multiple ways. The reader cannot erase the knowledge of Voice 2 within Voice 1, and so, from Chapter 2 on, we read the phantasmagoria differently than we might were Voice 2 never introduced. Were the book only to include Chapter 1, we could assume a unity to Voice 1 as, simply, the narrator. The introduction of Voice 2 in Chapter 2 offers the reader another hypothesis: Voice 1 is really Voice 2, the controlling power from our own recognizable reality. Passages such as the one quoted above, though, demonstrate that Voice 1 is not entirely controlled by Voice 2, and that, rather than a single narrator, it should be perceived as an assemblage of narrators. As a textual function, then, Voice 1 is plural (though its plurality is often indeterminate) and Voice 2 is singular.
The passage I quoted above begins with the crucial phrase that is missing from the first paragraph of the novel: “Once upon a time there were two families, their destinies inseparable even by death” (180). That could have been the first sentence of the book, but instead Voice 1 fumbled around a bit more. By here, Once upon a time can begin the section, but the section it begins is one about liberation. We have located the liberatory magic. Once upon a time there were “destinies inseparable even by death”, but the past of this tale may not be — or may not have to be — the present of this novel.
We have here located what Fredric Jameson has recently called “the antinomies of realism”. Jameson’s dialectical approach sets the récit against the roman, the tale against the novel, with the récit as, philosophically, a narrative form based on ideas of destiny and fate (crucially linked to the past) and the roman as a work that creates a narrative and existential present through the use of scenes. The récit relies on telling, while the roman subsumes telling within an overall strategy of showing. (Hence the common 20th Century command to aspiring writers of narrative: “Show, don’t tell!”) The difference between the two forms is, Jameson says, important “not as récit versus roman, nor even telling versus showing; but rather destiny versus the eternal present” (26). In Shame, Voice 1 is the voice of the récit (the [story]teller), Voice 2 is the voice of the roman, with the informational moments of telling subsumed within specific scenes, most dominantly the scene of writing. While the majority of the novel is written within a storytelling mode, the presence of Voice 2 infects that mode and inflects our reading, making Voice 1 into instances of what Voice 2 seeks to show.
Yet Voice 2’s will is a construction, and “what Voice 2 seeks” is itself an instance of “showing” within the text as a whole. The novel is the story of Voice 2 constructing and wrestling with Voice 1.
Jameson points out implications to his antinomies that may be useful as we return to Chaudhuri. In a discussion of the way that an aesthetic that constructs everyday existence as exterior/outside and an aesthetic that constructs existence as interior both avoid and resist genres that impose a prototypical destiny onto lived material, Jameson writes:
It is precisely against just such a reification of destinies that the realist narrative apparatus is aimed, which reaffirms the singularity of the episodes to the point at which they can no longer fit into the narrative convention. That this is also a clash of aesthetic ideologies is made clear by the way in which older conceptions of destiny or fate are challenged by newer appeals to that equally ideological yet historically quite distinct notion of this or that “reality,” in which social and historical material rise to the surface in the form of the singular or the contingent. (143)
In Shame, the two aesthetic ideologies clash through the conflict between Voice 1 and Voice 2, and the synthesis they achieve is literally apocalyptic — the entire dialectic is blown away, making space for something new. The apocalypse synthesizes, perhaps, a new voice. Who is the blinded “I” in the final sentence (“…I can no longer see what is no longer there…” ), Voice 1 or Voice 2? We could choose to see them as merged, and thus the new possibilities of Voice 3 — or Voice ? — are born into the blank space.
The two ideologies clash in A Strange and Sublime Address, too, but not as obviously, because the text avoids any first-person narration. Nonetheless, its perspectives shift and there is a strong authorial voice guiding readers through the novel’s paths, a storyteller. We are given information by this voice, for instance: “There are several ways of spending a Sunday evening” (16). The storyteller also provides commentary: “He would become an archetype of that familiar figure who is not often described in literature — the ordinary breadwinner in his moment of unlikely glory, transformed into the centre of his universe and his home” (20). At times, the storyteller presents us with interpretations of what we are reading that are nearly as prescriptive as the interpretations offered by Voice 2 in Shame: “This kind of talk, whether at the dinner-table or in the bedroom, did not become too oppressive: it was too full of metaphors, paradoxes, wise jokes, and reminiscences to be so. It was, at bottom, a criticism of life” (48).
These examples of storytelling clash with the expectations created by the first paragraph of A Strange and Sublime Address and highlight this novel’s heteroglossia. Its polyphonies are not only at the level of narrative voice, but also of perspective, and it is through shifts in point of view that A Strange and Sublime Address makes its case for the location of reality within perception. From the first paragraph, we are set to expect the viewpoint character to be Sandeep, and certainly Sandeep is the primary viewpoint character, but the text moves away from his point of view with some regularity. Early in the novel, a mention of dust moves the narrative away from the room and out of Sandeep’s immediate perception to a simple declaration: “Calcutta is a city of dust,” which then leads to a portrayl of the servants who clean the dust from the rooms (14-15). Later, the text shifts a couple of times into Chhotomama’s point view, sometimes only for a few paragraphs (97), but once he is in the hospital, his point of view is the strongest and most defining (e.g., “But there were times, in the afternoon, when Chhotomama would wake from a nap and find himself facing a bright, hard wall. At first, it surprised him with its sheer presence. Slowly, he came to realise that it was his future he was looking at” (113).
Soon after highlighting Chhotomama’s perceptions, the text unifies the family’s perceptions as they drive away from visiting him: “Watching the lanes, they temporarily forgot their own lives, and, temporarily, their minds flowed outward into the images of the city, and became indistinguishable from them” (115).
Like Shame, A Strange and Sublime Address ends with a kind of obliteration, and one that is, in its implications, nearly as apocalyptic. Chhotomama sends Abhi and Sandeep out to the garden to look for a kokil, and his command is described as sounding “like a directive in a myth or a fable” (120). The search for the kokil puts the boys into the discourse of the pre-novel, the land of the fairy tale. They get distracted, though, and only find the kokil by mistake while playing hide-and-seek with each other. The bird is real, not a creature of myth. It has details that can be shown; it can become a character and not an archetype. The boys watch it eat an orange flower (the sort of apparently meaningless detail that creates, in Barthes’ sense, a reality effect). The first sentence of the final paragraph gives us a representation of perception tempered by probability and inductive reasoning: “But it must have sensed their presence, because it interrupted its strange meal and flew off”, which both provides us with an idea of perception and limits that perception, for it highlights that the kokil’s own perception cannot be known. The sentence is not finished, however. A dash slashes us into a revision: “—not flew off, really, but melted, disappeared, from the material world.” It’s as if the bird goes back into the mythic discourse of Chhotomama’s command. We, the readers, are left with the characters in the material world from which the bird has disappeared. What is that material world, though? It is the words of the book itself, because that is the world we share with the characters. The final sentence is mysterious: “As they watched, a delicate shyness seemed to envelop it, and draw a veil over their eyes” (121). The “it” of that sentence is nearly as mysterious as the “He” of the novel’s first sentence, and much more uncertain, because here we have no subsequent sentences to clarify it. The antecedent could be either the kokil or the material world. (Grammatically, it would be the latter, which is closer to the pronoun.) The kokil, having melted back to myth, cannot be the material world. But the ambiguous pronoun makes the force that veils the children’s eyes uncertain: is it myth or is it reality? Is it the absence of myth within reality?
The “I” of the last sentence of Shame could also have a few antecedents. The indeterminacy is meaningful because it makes us reflect on the importance of the antecedent as opposed to other elements of the sentences. Both novels offer an uncertain pronoun and a certain statement of blindness. “I can no longer see what is no longer there” could be a statement from one of the children in A Strange and Sublime Address. The voices of Shame are united in the indeterminant “I” of the end, as are the children of Chaudhuri’s novel. Both groups are blinded, and the blinding suggests that the mythic and historical past have been obliterated in favor not so much of a meaningful present as for the potential of a future. (In Chaudhuri, our group is, after all, a group of children, who, for all their claims of materiality, can’t help but stand for some sort of future.) Destiny is gone, fate is unknowable. The storyteller’s tale of the past became present voices and present details of the material world, but the present is temporary, as is perception, even when it flows out toward images of a city.
Speaking to Basu, Chaudhuri said Indian and postcolonial writers have been characterized as storytellers “emerging … from our oral traditions and our millennial fairy tales”, and the tone suggests he is skeptical or dismissive of this simplistic characterization, just as Basu is skeptical and dismissive of fairy tales beginning, “Once upon a time…” Both Shame and A Strange and Sublime Address conclude by obliterating fairy tales, myths, the past, and the present. The storyteller is a figure of the present because the story is the antecedent of the teller. The reader is more free, and may be, in fact, freed by the storyteller to shake off the nightmare of myth and the weight of history, to speculate on a future, to see a blankness, a potential, a voice marked by the question of infinity.
The paradox of once upon a time is that the storyteller’s recitation of the past may unleash the liberatory magic that we need. Once the present is named, it is past. Cities produce and receive perceptions and stories, but though their materiality may flow more slowly than perceptions and stories of that materiality do, even concrete and steel bend, weather, erode, melt, disappear. This is what the storyteller teaches, the knowledge that, in Benjamin’s terms, the righteous person keeps hidden until the story pries it loose, pulling away the veil, providing sight. Whether récit or roman, myth or material, the future always looms, a blank space like the blank page after the last sentence of a book.
Works Cited Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” Trans. Harry Zohn. Selected Writings. Ed. Michael William Jennings and Howard Eiland. Vol. 3: 1935–1938. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1996. 143–166.
Chaudhuri, Amit. A Strange and Sublime Address. Freedom Song: Three Novels. New York: Vintage International, 2000. 1–121. ---. “Cosmopolitanism’s Alien Face.”New Left Review 55 (2009): 89–106.
Remember The Edge of the Forest? I still have a few reviews that ran in that wonderful magazine that I'm reprinting here...
Leela was engaged at the age of two and married at the age of nine. Next year, when she turns thirteen, she will celebrate her anu and move into her husband’s house. Leela’s excited for her anu but when her husband is suddenly killed, everything changes.
Following Brahmin custom, Leela is forced to shave her hair, smash her bangles, and wear muddy brown saris. She will be unable to remarry and must keep corner—stay in the house—for a full year. Leela’s family is devastated by her loss and their grief permeates the household, making it impossible for Leela to imagine any sort of future.
But India is changing. Gandhi is leading the people to stand up to the English. Leela wonders how a small, old man in a dhoti can change the white men who sit so straight on their horses, but Gandhi is. Confined to the house, Leela is still caught in a struggle between the old and new as India stands on the brink of liberation—both from the English and from tradition.
Based on the true story of her great-aunt, Sheth paints a lush, vibrant picture of Indian home life. Leela’s story moves with the weather and seasons as she marks off her time before being allowed outside. Moving and honest, Leela’s tale of drawing inspiration from Gandhi to find agency in her own life is sure to strike readers and linger long after the last page.
ARC Provided by... a coworker, who picked it up at ALA (maybe? this ran back in 2007-- I don't quite remember)
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Last week the Guardian reported, “A state minister from Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party has described rape as a ‘social crime’, saying ‘sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong’, in the latest controversial remarks by an Indian politician about rape.” While horrified by these comments, I remembered that a book from OUP India’s office had recently landed on my desk and the author, Pratiksha Baxi, might be able to shed some light on the issue of rape in India for Westerners. Below is a post Baxi sent in response to my query following the story mentioned above. –Christian Purdy, Director of Publicity
By Pratiksha Baxi
In the wake of the Delhi gang rape protests in 2013-2014, a section of the western media was critiqued for representing sexual violence as a form of cultural violence. For instance, a white woman reporter said to a friend, ‘we are filming Indian women of all kinds. You look modern. Please, can you say—I am India’s daughter’. Not fazed by the angry refusal, the reporter found some other ‘modern’ looking woman to mime this script for the camera. The Delhi protests became a resource for a certain kind of racialized sexual politics, which looped back to a nationalist rhetoric decrying the tarnishing of the image of the country abroad. Indian politicians responded by blaming the media, feminists, and the protests for sensationalising rape, and producing the crisis now posed to the image of a globalising economy.
The national and international political debates ignore Indian feminists and law academics—who innovated new juridical categories such as custodial rape and power rape—leading the path to conceptualise rape as a specific technique of state and social dominance. They do not cite the learning of subaltern or Black feminists of the Global South. Nor are different jurisdictions compared to raise more serious questions about the cunning nature of law reform in neo-liberal contexts. Although there has been feminist research on rape, feminist interventions in international law and several global collaborations to combat violence against women, there seems to be an inability to carry the complexities of these debates in the national and international mainstream media.
In India, the political rhetoric on rape continues to deploy conventional scripts: boys will be boys; sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong; alcohol causes men to rape. There is a political refusal to recognise that rape is central to dominance, a routinized expression of sexualised power. Nor is it in political interest to displace the use of rape as a form of social control. Rather rape becomes a means of doing competitive party politics or as a technique of consolidating power.
Sexual assault is used as a means to control dissenting bodies. Rape is a technique of terror that is used with impunity to control social mobility, stifle dissent, reassert social control, gain political control, and target ‘hated’ communities. There is no serious attempt to challenge this kind of rape culture, which inhabits the cultures of policing. It is a political apparatus of sexual terror, not to be confused with theories of male sexuality or as evidence of cultural predispositions. Rather this rape culture rests on a political apparatus, which has several organised features.
First, it rests on a system of policing and law enforcement, which makes rape look like consensual sex, and consensual sex look like rape. For example, the use of the rape, kidnapping and abduction laws to criminalize love across caste or community is rampant, whilst rape as a form of caste dominance is scarcely taken seriously.
Second, the political apparatus of rape deploys violence to produce the public secrecy of rape: while everyone knows that women are raped, we are told no one must talk about it.
Third, this political apparatus rests on a scripted representational regime that attributes the blames of rape to women, alcohol, literacy, poverty, public access and so on—everything but the structures of dominance in a globalising economy. It institutionalises a politics of forgetting—from the traumatic histories of mass sexual violence to caste atrocities—we are told that there is no connection between everyday and mass scale sexual violence.
Fourth, it denies the link between the dispossession of the marginalised from property or land, and the growing rate of sexual violence. In the Baduan rape and lynching case, the children went out to the fields of the dominant caste to relieve themselves. The subsequent demand for bathrooms for dalit women is an expression of this dispossession, which makes them vulnerable to brutal sexual violence, murder and lynching.
Fifth, such a political apparatus acts as a thought police. It denies the right to sexual autonomy and choice. And it rewards those politicians who rape, riot, murder, censor or humiliate.
All this means that there is complicity between state and society in privileging rape as the expression of male power. The state conserves and even stokes the desire to rape as the foundational tool of male power. This is a political trait, not a cultural trait. There is an ever-expanding indifference to sexual violence survivors, which seems to be in inverse proportion to the anti-rape protests. For instance, even today a spare pair of clothes is not provided to rape survivors when their clothes are confiscated as evidence in police stations or hospitals.
Sexual violence can be prevented and redressed if this political apparatus is disbanded. To destroy this political apparatus, the doing of politics—local, national and international must change. Rather than engaging in an aggressive and masculine competition over crime statistics, politicians must engage seriously with the nature of institutional reform and response to sexual violence.
In the context of the international laws and policies on violence against women, the new government must allocate generous gender budgets to provide essential facilities to rape survivors and institute measures to prevent sexual violence. This must accompany zero tolerance for rape of women, men, sexual minorities and children. The recommendations to criminalise marital rape; repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and legislate against rape as a mass crime must be implemented. Section 377 IPC, a colonial law criminalizing homosexuality must be repealed. In other words, sexual autonomy and sexual dignity must be respected. This means that the conventional notions of sexual morality, which regulate women’s sexuality, pathologize queer sexuality and celebrate violent masculinity, must no longer lay the foundations of the Indian polity. National and international politics must recognise rape as political violence rather than cultural violence; substitute the language of ‘rescue’ with repatriation and learn from languages of social suffering rather than vocabularies of power.
I lost India, my beloved studio-mate Saturday, June 7th. I’m only now able to write about her. She was loved and maybe even a little spoiled. India was her mama’s baby but she spent the workday with me. Not only was she my work companion—as well as the official Studio 27B greeter—India made many cameo appearances in my books. I’ve compiled them here. There are probably more and I’ll add them as I find them.
Vikram Chandra's collection of interconnected stories, Love and Longing in Bombay, is a book I had thought of writing about in some detail, but I'm afraid time is not on my side with that, and a number of other writing projects need attention. One story I managed to make some notes on is "Artha", and here are those notes, in case some thoughts on the story are useful to someone else...
In thinking about Love and Longing in Bombay, I’m going to start by grasping some tiny pieces within the wholes, and see what I can do with them.
First, a single story, and a single page of that story, and not the words but the blank space.
The story: “Artha”. The page: 165 of the 1998 Back Bay Books paperback edition.
The two blank spaces between narrators and their narratives.
The first narrative is the introduction common to all of the stories, a frame that remains mysterious until “Shanti”, the final story. If we assume, as I think we can, that the narrator of the introductions is the same in each of the stories, then his name is Ranjit Sharma.
The second narrative is that spoken by Subramaniam, who has been the putative narrator (storyteller) of the previous tales within the frame.
But “Artha” becomes distinctive with the next blank space, for here we are ushered into yet another story, that told by “the young man” to Subramaniam. The young man’s name is Iqbal. He will be the narrator for the remainder of the tale.
Another item of distinction: after each blank space, the speaker is identified within parentheses. Previously, there has been no need for this. Now, though, there must be no mistake. Is the reason that there is a story-within-the-story? Possibly, but I’m not convinced of that, because the transitions into the tales are no more confusing than those in previous parts of the book, and the multiple embedded stories in the only remaining tale, “Shanti”, are, arguably, more confusing and do not have such clear, interrupting markers.
Let’s return to the idea of the blank space for a moment. Printers, or so I’ve been told, call these spaces “slugs”. I like the positive sense of that, rather than the negative of blank space. Slugs are an insertion, a something. Slugs disrupt the text from within — they give it order and shape by signaling some unspoken drift, thus taming what would otherwise be a jarring slip, an incoherence, by making it visible. The slug is a sign: Mind the gap.
Once we’ve minded that gap, though, we get a stutter in the story: “(Subramaniam said)”, “(the young man said)”. I shall now indulge in a moment of paranoid reading: Are these stutters a distancing technique inspired by the über-narrator’s fear of being mistaken for a homosexual? The parenthetical speech tags are unnecessary; they are excessive intrusions, and, unless my memory and notes are failing me, the only such intrusions into embedded narratives anywhere in a book comprised of embedded narratives. (The most complex such embeddings are achieved in “Shanti” via typographical changes — separated visually from the main text, but without their own text interrupted.)
We should note, though, that even if we assume that the parenthetical speech tags are motivated by the über-narrator’s fear-laden desire to distance himself from any perception of being a/the homosexual man, the insertion of “(the young man said)” puts those words within the homosexual text. Ranjit’s words enter Subramaniam’s story, and then Subramaniam’s words enter Iqbal’s. All of these words are part of one text, “Artha”, that is part of a larger text, Love and Longing in Bombay. The attempt to create distance from the homosexual narration has, paradoxically, done exactly the opposite. It is not the homosexual narration that desires separation, but the heterosexist; the heterosexist narration’s effort to separate and distance itself has placed it within the homosexual narration.
(Now would be the time — this would be the space — to discuss mimicry and postcolonialism. I am not going to do so. Instead, consider this paragraph a slug.)
Walter Benjamin wants to get into the conversation. Here he is, via Mark Jackson:
The arcade [says Jackson] acted as a spectacular landscape that opened up the city as an illusory, sleepy, standstill world of the phantasmagoria, while at the same time, in the form of the more intimate and decided ambiguous, street-but-not-street of the arcade, it closed around the modern subject as if a room, reassuring with “felt knowledge” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 880) intuitive semblances of domestic wish fulfillment. (39)
The idea of the arcade as street-but-not-street could be extended to the idea of Love and Longing in Bombay as an arcade, a book of x-but-not-x. How do we solve for that x? Can we locate an “illusory, sleepy, standstill world of the phantasmagoria” within the book? For Jackson-via-Benjamin, commodities are phantasmagoric, and “phantasmagoria” is a quality of mystification and even misrecognition: “Desired and consumable things, they embodied and thus represented, dreamt wish images of futurity, and, at the same time, the imminent (and immanent) undoing of that indwelling mythic aspiration” (38)
Must phantasmagoria always be mystifying? Is mystification itself always undesirable?
I would like to keep open the question of phantasmagoria’s usefulness, for as a mode of fantasy it should (shouldn’t it?) possess some of the power of fantasy to reveal structures and discourses of desire otherwise inaccessible.
Is it meaningful to suggest that the insertions of speech tags into the narrations of “Artha” are traces of phantasmagoric desire? That the otherness of Iqbal — located not only in his sexual identity, but his name, which indicates religion — is itself desired. But desired how? To what end? Perhaps the cosmopolitanism of the post-colonial/post-modern city, the place where identities can flow into each other, where mimicry and fantasy themselves create identities (for, after all, isn’t identity without any trace of mimicry and fantasy illegible?). Iqbal as we receive him is not Iqbal, but rather the voice of Iqbal mediated through the voice of Subramaniam mediated through the voice of Ranjit, and all of which is constructed by Chandra.
The arcade of voices, the phantasmagoria of identification.
For Iqbal, religious difference can be dismissed “in one smile” (198) if desire is present. Perhaps that is what the inserted speech tags, and their paradoxes, suggest. The simultanous desire not to be mistaken for a homosexual and to be part of the narrative of the homosexual.
Glossing the new book releases and early reviews, and finding a novel that gathers up far-flung place settings of nostalgic relevance to me, loaded with topics of special interest, and all in one tidy package, seemed like an invitation to further self-discovery. No Country, by Kalyan Ray, jumped out as promising. The novel is a family generational saga spanning about 150 years, beginning with the mid-nineteenth century famine years in colonial Ireland, and moving to India in the years of the British Raj, before independence from England, and finally to North America--Canada and the United States.
Over that great a span of time, there are more than a few generations to deal with. Throw in a complicating roster of intermarriage and trying to track family lines, and the average reader may feel challenged to fully appreciate the sweeping themes of a family's struggles, reversals, and successes, always at risk of being truncated into obscurity with the potential failure of any one generation. The book is only moderately long; nonetheless, Ray moves his characters through a number of epochal historic events: the famine that destroyed perhaps a quarter of the Irish population; the pestilent voyages of coffin ships that finished off a similar number fleeing the famine to North America; the years of pre-independence revolution and terror in India faced by an Irishman who fled there, and later by his Anglo-Indian descendants; and ultimately, their immigration to the New World and the tough decades following, with the inner tempering and annealing of spirit demanded for life in a new, industrial age unfolding there.
I enjoyed getting Ray's slant on some of the topics I felt somewhat familiar with, like the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mor. My Irish grandparents were born shortly after the worst of those years. and left when they reached their twenties. One can be disheartened reading about the callousness and politics that exacerbated The Great Hunger. And be no less shocked by the callousness and politics practiced by the authorities in attempting to smother the gathering storm of Indian rebellion against colonial rule by Britain. Ray uses the deliberate massacre of an unarmed civilian population at Jallianwala bagh to stunning effect. One has to remember we also had our own My Lai during the Vietnam war, lest we think modern humanity has relegated all such events to the past.
One of the topics I had been interested in was Ray's take on the life of Anglo-Indian residents living in India, which was his own life growing up there. I had worked in Pakistan (once northern India) as an engineer on a dam and had come in contact with a number of workers from the nearby mountains who stood out from their compatriots as fair-skinned, light-haired, Anglo types. I often thought of the large number of soldiers in the British Raj Army who had been recruited from Ireland. On holiday trips through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan I sometimes stopped to inspect the British Raj regimental crests chiseled into the sandstone along the Pass. Some of these seemed old enough to have been the crests of units that had participated in the British-Afghan Wars of the nineteenth century. Whole Raj armies had been swallowed up in Afghanistan, and I wondered how many of the present day Anglo-Indian, or perhaps more precisely, Hiberno-Indian, were descendants of those soldiers who fell there.
A reader can be repulsed reading of the oppressive use of police and intelligence services, paid or coerced informers, and repressive laws, in the dying period of the Raj, and in pre-independence Ireland, designed to contain perceived threats of public dissent to political and economic interests. That is perhaps not much different than what is practiced in many places today.
I think one difficulty with the structure of No Country is a blurring sweep of characters as the story moves through the generations. There's not much space to become acquainted with each character. The main progenitor, Padraig, both biological and adoptive to the cascading line of descendants, is aptly revealed in the beginning as a young man in Ireland, as well as is his best friend, Brendan. When Padraig is compelled to flee to India, the situation of Brendan and Padraig's daughter, Maeve, becomes desperate in the famine, and when there is no news of Padraig for over a year, they board one of the coffin ships for North America. We get to know young Maeve fairly well on the voyage, and it's an endearing characterization. After a harrowing ordeal they reach Canada, and that's about the last of expansive characterizations for any of the successive generations.
Another concern from a writer's viewpoint might be the introduction of startling coincidental material into an already ambitious plot. One of the young woman protagonists travels to New York to seek the young man she had known in Canada, and becomes employed in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory there, the locale of a historic fire tragedy. It was a dramatic episode in the telling, but it seems not entirely organic to the story thread. Another coincidental element was a chance crossing of paths with a psychopathic character when a Padraig-descendant's family purchases their home from the psychopath's family, which led to diabolical consequences.
All in all, No Country is an engrossing read and is well recommended.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s contribution would have had a much longer life had not members of his family systematically tarnished it. From breaking the Congress organization in 1969, to the declaration of Emergency, to the initiation of caste wars, to the encouragement of Sikh militancy, to the decision on Shah Bano, to the opening of the Babri Masjid, and the list goes on, it was Nehru’s bloodline that most effectively downgraded his memory. Experts and commentators connived in this for they were blindsided by the family connection and failed to see the break that was being repeatedly wrought on Nehru’s memory first by his daughter, then his son and then his daughter-in-law and great grandson. So when the time came, and come it would, the haters and baiters of the first Prime Minister easily positioned his memory in the short hairs of their blunderbusses and shot it down.
As it is, Nehru tripped himself up on a number of policies he had staked his reputation on. In times of economic crisis or border threats — as from China — he sidestepped non-alignment and turned to America first. Or, when it came to socialism, he made it known that he would never stand for the Soviet model and preferred the mixed economy instead. That this position was supported by India’s fledgling entrepreneurs of the time only made Nehru’s claim to be a socialist”’ somewhat contrived. Even if socialism were to be interpreted as “welfare statism”, he did precious little on issues like universal health and education.
Nehru, however, played a sterling role in keeping India together in its most critical years after Independence. He was not alone in this, but without his whole hearted support to the making of the Indian Constitution, we would have been a poorer Republic. He weighed in heavily in favour of anti- untouchability, minority rights, and the abolition of feudal privileges which, together, make our Constitution so outstanding. India was a young Republic in 1950, but it looked, talked and walked like a seasoned democratic nation-state. True, he was not alone in this, but as Prime Minister, it was Nehru, more than anybody else, who fleshed out these most singular aspects of our Constitution. It would have been the easiest thing to renege on them given the tensions and uncertainties India faced in the early post- Independence years, but Nehru remained firm.
What made Nehru stand out was his insistence on the principle of fraternity. Unfortunately, it is not difficult to undermine him on this score as fraternity is fashioned on intangibles; it is not made of brick and mortar, nor can it be measured monetarily. Yet, without this all important attribute, neither liberty nor equality makes much sense- they actually ring hollow. Nehru’s contribution to fraternity came through in his insistence on secularism which went all the way from anti-casteism to anti religious sectarianism. He made no compromises on any of these but, unfortunately for him, these can easily be shafted in the name of political expediency. And this is exactly what his daughter, grandson and the succeeding generation did. Secularism has been the single greatest casualty in the five decades of Congress rule after Nehru. It is for this reason that ‘secularism’ today has become the butt of ridicule, and even half literates have a field day in mocking it.
Nehru’s industrialization programme required a long gestation period which people, with a limited time horizon, found difficult to accept. Further, for the mixed economy to succeed, state enterprises had to be super efficient in infrastructure creation. Without laying out this groundwork it would be difficult for the other half of the mixed economy to come of age. This was the true meaning of self-reliance as Nehru saw it and all autarkic versions of it put out by his enemies, and some admirers too, are contrary to this vision. None of this could be accomplished overnight by token gestures and oratorical flourishes; they all required careful calculation, and hard core research and development. Mistakes were made, plans recalibrated, Constitutional impasses overcome and before any of these could be firmed up, Nehru was gone.
Perhaps his record as Prime Minister would have been different had he lived longer. True, he had set himself a gigantic task by standing up for India’s economic sovereignty and battling ceaselessly against traditional prejudices. Yet, sadly and oddly, he failed most monumentally in his lifetime not so much on these grounds as he did because he was an extremely prickly nationalist. Whenever India’s physical integrity faced a threat, even imaginary ones, he was unable to take a proper democratic decision. He blundered on Kashmir and we are still paying for it; he totally miscalculated on China; he did not understand the Sikhs or the sentiments that had been stirred up in the North-East. One could possibly excuse him for these sins for India had just emerged as a Nation-State and the fear of Balkanization was very real in the minds of many. In fact, he feared the breakup of India so profoundly that he was even against the formation of Maharashtra and Gujarat as well as the unilingual state of Punjab.
That is not quite all. Nehru could have set an example and kept his daughter out of politics instead of making her the Congress President. This was the first big nepotistic step in Indian politics which was later justified on all kinds of specious grounds by many Nehru acolytes. The other unpardonable thing he did was to choose Teen Murti, the biggest house in the capital, as his official residence. This encouraged pomp and splendour among ministers and bureaucrats, and this strain has only become worse over time. The subsequent conversion of Teen Murti as Nehru Memorial Museum and Library has also set up a negative precedence. Since then, children of many departed Prime Ministers and political heroes have turned their dead ancestor’s home into public monuments.
In balance, Nehru’s legacy is on its way out. It is, however, in our national interest to keep alive his devotion to the cause of “fraternity”. This can best be done if we do not see the regimes of Indira or Rajiv or Rahul as a continuation of what Nehru stood for. If ever fraternity truly becomes relevant in our country again, nobody will remember that Jawaharlal Nehru was its prime mover once upon a time.
Headline image credit: Lord Mountbatten swears in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India at the ceremony on August 15, 1947. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons