In my final The Bookist column I write about the testimonies offered by Dalits and others.
A letter came from Los Angeles. It had been written by an upper-caste Marathi chemist. From this letter, an untouchable poet in Maharashtra found out that Indians in America were treated like dogs. This, I imagine, was in the 1950s or early ’60s, before Ravi Shankar had played with the Beatles or Hollywood had used Gandhi to sell popcorn to millions.
The poet reading the letter was Daya Pawar. Beside a dusty rose bush in what was then called Bombay, with the news on the radio close by, our poet read the letter. His joy made him cry. He sat down to write a reply. “I feel so damn good,” he wrote in Marathi. “Now, you’ve had a taste of what we’ve suffered in this country for far too long.”
I received the story I have told above nearly 30 years ago. I was a new graduate student in the States. The friend who told me the story, a white woman from Minnesota, was translating Dalit writing into English. That is how Daya Pawar came into my life. I put his story into a long poem I was writing and didn’t read Pawar again till, just last week, I devoured with great hunger his autobiography, Baluta.
Here’s my latest blog-post for The Chronicle’s Lingua Franca:
When the writer Jim Harrison died last month, I came across the following quote from one of his books:
“I wasn’t very long at Stony Brook,” he writes in Off to the Side, “when it occurred to me that the English department had all the charm of a streetfight where no one actually landed a punch.”
I promptly put this quote up on Facebook. Those words appealed to me. They revealed the tensions that make academic interactions so very fraught, and they also told me that all the warring that goes on is quite pathetic and achieves little. There was a macho swagger to Harrison’s statement, sure, but I was prepared to overlook it in favor of its honesty. Or what I was calling its honesty, because of my belief, as a naturalized citizen of an English department, that we fight, often for small stakes, and without any real result.
But is there a recognizable style to our fighting?
My latest “The Bookist” column for HT Brunch:
“Eight Essential Tips for Writers” or “10 Rules for Writing Fiction” or “Advice from Writers” – such bland compilations often include the following line from Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
But then you come across novels like Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, in which any urgent desire would appear extravagant or immodest. This is partly because the narrator is idle, he doesn’t go to work, he isn’t yearning for love. Shanbagh tells the story of a tiny joint family that owns a spice business. Ghachar Ghochar belongs to the genre that we lazily, sometimes even in admiration, describe as “books in which nothing happens.”
Here’s a piece that I published this morning about asking my students to do bad writing. Teju Cole makes a guest appearance.
An invitation came by email to contribute to a teaching volume. A brief piece, only a few hundred words long, was needed. Describe a favorite teaching exercise from your literature classes. The word “fun” was also used. I responded immediately. The previous semester I had asked my creative-writing students to do a simple exercise in class. They were required to produce bad writing.
In listening to Kanhaiya, I remember Safdar. Rohith, Chandrashekhar, Safdar. They are all martyrs. The martrys aren’t just the soldiers at the border or the farmers committing suicide.
I typed “Kanhaiya speech” on Google and that fetched 1,310,000 results.
There is exuberance in the return on those numbers, but why isn’t there a more ominous sense of doom in the questions being asked about the speech? Of course there have been threats, more stupid than dangerous, about rewarding anyone who cuts Kanhaiya’s tongue, but what is more insidious and demoralizing is the sense that the might of the State will not brook dissent.
In my case, it is precisely an apprehension of the power of the demagogues holding office that makes me applaud Kanhaiya’s courage. What had moved us during those 40-odd minutes that the young man from Bihar delivered his speech? I had been affected as much by the slogans and the chanting as I was by the audacious display of attitude. He knew the power of the State, he had after all just been released from prison, but wanted to convey to everyone who was listening the sheer elation of breathing the pure air of freedom.
In my latest The Bookist column for HT Brunch, I have reviewed the literature that is critical of the nation-state and its violence.
If the police were to burst into your room while you were sleeping and, putting a gun to your head, ask you to name a literary work that was critical of the idea of the nation, which title would you reveal?
Those who read Saadat Hasan Manto in school will go back to that early memory. We all remember Toba Tek Singh: the occupants of the lunatic asylum not being able to comprehend the Partition, and the old Sikh Bishan Singh dying in no man’s land between the borders of the two countries, unable to decide where he belonged.
But the memory of this story is for me mixed with the white of my school uniform, the safety of home, and the taste of cornflakes in the morning. Which means the call of the nation begins to seem merely like nostalgia for lost childhood. Nationalism in this scenario becomes only an appeal to sentiment.
Let us go further afield, then, to a far country, to look for the literature of sedition.
On a recent visit to Kolkata, I went in search of a writer of “anti-stories,” Subimal Misra. Misra is an unusual writer, not only because he has avoided the limelight but also because he is has found a form that contests narrative conventions. He has said during an interview: “While watching Sholay, I only wanted to know the name of Gabbar Singh’s horse.” Here is my latest “The Bookist” column for HT Brunch:
I wanted to meet him. The problem was that I had been told he doesn’t see anyone. He is also quite sick, an invalid, confined to his bed. But I had a piece of paper with his address on it and I was standing at his doorstep in an ordinary housing estate near Jinjira Bazar on the fringes of Kolkata.
His name is Subimal Misra. He writes his stories in Bengali; over the last few years his work has appeared in English translation. When I read him for the first time, I saw that his stories rebelled against dominant literary conventions. His stories were anti-stories, a violent mix of fragmentary narratives and essays, even statistics, juxtaposed together to deliver a shocking statement. “The bloodier the Naxalite movement in West Bengal grows, Vidyasagar’s visage gets chopped off again and again, and the more the pavements of Kolkata become infested with sex-magazines.”
It was revealing that the first of his translated works carried the following dedication: “To Jean-Luc Godard, who taught me language.” Like the French filmmaker, Misra offered a montage of images. In one of his celebrated stories, the rotting corpse of a peasant’s wife keeps appearing in unlikely places, including inside the crate that has brought Gandhi’s golden statue from America.
I have just returned from Delhi (see evidence of my stay above) and delighted to see that Advice to Writers has posted an interview I did with Jon Winokur recently (I have long been a fan of that popular site).
How did you become a writer?
I must have been fifteen or sixteen. I had recently moved to Delhi, the capital city, and I had decided that I needed better English. I read an essay in the school text-book by George Orwell. The British writer had been born near my own village in eastern India, in 1903, but I hadn’t known this connection at that time. The essay was “Why I Write.” Orwell had written that there was a voice in his head describing what he was doing and what was going on around him. This also became true of me. I could be in a bus and a voice running in my head would name the objects I saw being sold on the streets, their colors, the looks in the eyes of the sellers. That basic desire, to use words to give shape to the world around me, made me a writer.
My latest column for the Hindustan Times is on the literature of small towns.
Politicians offer propaganda in a loud voice. Ditto for pundits. I love the small voice of literature. As Joan Didion said, we tell ourselves stories in order to live.
The writing about small towns or about provincial life is appealing because it too brings the gift of small particularities. RK Narayan built his entire career around it. However, a cultivation of quaintness in his fiction kept me at a distance. Then the kaleidoscope turned and, at least for me, the picture changed with Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, a wildly comic account of a metropolitan Indian, a young bureaucrat, in a mofussil town. And the language! The staidness of colonial English tickled, harassed, abused, and caressed by an irreverent writer for whom there were no sacred cows.
A few years passed and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy landed with a suitable thud, a grand achievement and not only for its portrait of life in the provinces. Set in a town in Uttar Pradesh, it spoke in a voice that possessed all the nearness and transparency of a novel written in Hindustani. In its pages, English no longer sounded as a sociolect designed to set the elite apart from the unwashed masses.