What is the responsibility of the writer?
Our responsibility is only to be honest, even if it means being base or wrong. I fear it is fashionable for many writers to think that they have to be right. I want to be wrong but true. Our task is to be human. – Click to read the rest.
My essay about Akhil Sharma’s writing, and his new novel Family Life, is now available on the Indian Quarterly website. Here’s an excerpt:
I have read what I have written above and am struck immediately by the thought that Sharma himself would never approach his subject in the same way that I have. His writing isn’t clogged with commentary. Instead of being academic, he reaches for the heart of the matter. A recent article by him begins, “I am not sure what caused me to start sleeping with married women, especially ones who were much older than I was.” Which is to say, his sentences, with their air of simplicity, and their energy, are also characterised by their directness. This is a part of the writer’s honesty. (Jonathan Franzen once said to me about Sharma: “His candor almost gets to be frightening but stops at exhilarating.”) Honesty in a writer doesn’t mean simply the desire to not hide anything; no, it refers to an ability to see through his characters and know what the story is really about.
On the Indian Independence Day, a post went up about my meeting with Jitan Ram Manjhi, the Musahar Chief Minister of Bihar:
Toward the end of May, I was driving on the Taconic highway and listening to a report from India on NPR. A reporter was at a bus-station in Gujarat, asking the youth selling tea there if they could become the prime minister. This was because Narendra Modi had just led his party to a massive win in the parliamentary elections. As a teenager, Modi had sold tea at a bus-station in Vadnagar. Each one of the youth being interviewed said yes.
Then, a few days later, on May 26, there was the news that Jitan Ram Manjhi had taken oath as the chief minister of Bihar in eastern India. A report in a British paper said that Manjhi had been “born into the blighted Musahar community and grew up catching and eating rats.” The report also said that Manjhi’s career represented “the most extraordinary rise of any politician in the history of India.”
When I read that line I thought of the radio interview I had heard about Modi. India allows you the luxury of a million inequalities. You can be a schoolboy selling tea to passengers sitting in a state transport bus, but you are royalty when compared to a shirtless, barefoot village boy, from what was traditionally considered an untouchable caste, living on snails and small fish, and sometimes rats.
In the Paris Review, The Daily, my piece on Harry Roseman’s photographs of businesses in Hudson Valley:
I first noticed Harry Roseman’s art while dropping off my shirts at the dry cleaner near my home. It is a photograph of the wall in the dry cleaner on which the photograph hangs. Roseman had taken the picture because the sun had thrown on the wall the shadow of the shop’s neon sign. The name is spelled in outline on the drab wallpaper: Gladmore Cleaners. The picture hangs in the same spot where the shadow had fallen.
Then I noticed another one. Shirts under plastic covers and suspended from white, metal hangers form a line behind the register. Each shirt has a yellow slip attached to it. My own shirts hang there, ready for pickup. When the owner moves a section of shirts aside, a large photograph comes into view: a tight composition of the scene that has just been disturbed—all the shirts in their neat row.
Daisy Rockwell interviewed me this month for Bookslut (I also love her illustration for the piece):
You discuss a Hindi short story in your book, in which the three kilometers the young heroine must walk to college each day is described in three phases, and represents a kind of microcosm of the trials and tribulations of making one’s way through Patna. If you were to choose a stretch of road in Patna to describe in that manner, what stretch would you choose and why?
Oh, that passage! I wish I had written it myself! I’d gladly exchange a whole book for three paragraphs of Arun Prakash. Frankly, I think his brief description of the three stages of his protagonist’s journey from her home to her college is better than many sociological treatises on cities.
Your question makes me think of the street near my house, Boring Road. I used to catch my school bus there. The house of my history teacher, a man who drank himself to death, is now a bank. Across from that building is a huge structure that also houses a new coaching institute. Next door is the Hindi paper, Prabhat Khabar. Down the road is the house of the great historian Ram Sharan Sharma, and closer than that is the home of another great historian, Surendra Gopal. This was where a great communist leader lived till his death, and a communist poet has a small apartment there. The shabby stalls selling chicken and fish are still there, and a Sudha milk-booth. Right in the middle of the chauraha is the temple, which appears bigger with each passing visit. When I was a schoolboy, it was just a shrine, coming up to my knees. The main change is the explosion of commerce on this street. New stores with their air-conditioned galleries and security guards, jewelry merchants, sweet and gift shops, even a spa. What I’d like to do is write three paragraphs naming each store and take note of how recent they were. My theory is simply that the dates of their establishment would prove a simple fact to us: in place of the old culture, including the prized place of the intelligentsia, what we have now is the sudden influx of black money. Unaccounted-for cash that proves wrong all dire observations about economic downturn. Yes, there might be no electric supply, an absence of wide roads, a general sense of pollution, even violence in the air… but in the secret lives of the people, there is industry and ambition. Too bad that it can’t always be distinguished from criminality and greed.
“A Matter of Rats” calls itself “a short biography of Patna,” the capital city of Bihar, but like Kumar’s other books, it is many (perhaps too many) things at once. A memoiristic essay that strives to reconcile his feelings for his hometown — despair on the one hand and concern on the other, for it is where his elderly parents still live. “There is no way to avoid it,” he admits. “When I step on Patna’s soil, I only want to see how much older my parents look.” It is an insider’s alternative to the scornful narratives of Patna made popular by Western writers, and which the author, with even greater scorn, calls “hysteria as travel writing.” It is also an adventure in pursuit of witnesses to stories both real and apocryphal — a 1967 visit by Marlon Brando, the rumor that Napoleon’s bed lies in a decrepit old Patna mansion. (There is a bed in Patna that belonged to a Napoleon, just not that Napoleon.)
It is, in all, an intimate and whimsical book, but one that truly shines when the author turns his gaze to the ordinary people who still live in Patna — the rat catchers of the lowly Musahar caste, the tutor who helps poor children crack the entrance tests to India’s exalted institutes of technology.
I have an article in the latest Caravan on Indian writing in English:
The elections had arrived. Each political party presented its manifesto. “Health vans will reach every part of India.” “Necessary legal framework will be created to protect and promote cow and its progeny.” “Every cycle-rickshaw puller will be given an auto-rickshaw or a solar-powered rickshaw free.” Here is my own manifesto for Indian writing. I hereby call for a literature that engages with “the real”: not just the depiction of blood on the streets, or, for that matter, the cold air of the morgue, but also the warm, somewhat moist atmosphere of unwanted intimacy in the waiting room in which we have left behind a little bit of our past. Like the political parties, I too am trying to project myself to my home base.
Culture Strike has published a brief adaptation of a section from A Matter of Rats:
A couple of days before Independence Day this year, en route to Patna, I met Aman Sethi for dinner at a Delhi restaurant. Sethi is the author of A Free Man, a wonderful account of Ashraf, a daily-wage laborer from Patna living in Delhi. Ashraf was introduced by Sethi thus: ‘Mohammed Ashraf is a short man, a slight man, a dark man with salt-and-pepper hair; a sharp man, a lithe man, a polite man with a clipped moustache and reddish eyes.’ When we meet Ashraf in Sethi’s book he is a safediwallah, a house painter, although he has followed many professions: he had sold eggs, chicken, even lottery tickets, and has worked as a butcher, tailor, and an electrician’s apprentice. The place where he lives and waits for a contractor to pick him up for a day’s labor is the Bara Tooti Chowk, but there was a time when he was a biology student in Patna, learning to dissect rats with what he calls mummy-daddy type children.
I’m delighted with this write-up by the wonderful Maud Newton in the NYT Magazine this weekend. Here is the link to the piece.
My review of Zia Haider Rahman’s “strange and brilliant” novel in the New York Times Book Review. An excerpt:
Zafar’s narration shifts registers — “this fluctuation from crystal clarity of exposition to a barely restrained fury” — and folds into lengthy but fascinating digressions. Like the narrator of W. G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn,” whose erudite riffing on anything from herrings to the execution of Roger Casement allowed him to make melancholic observations about the horrors of history, the Zafar of Rahman’s strange and brilliant novel is at ease drawing sharp lessons from subjects as varied as derivatives trading and the role of metaphor in determining the fate of pigeons.