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.
As a writer, and as someone who teaches writing, I’m always interested in sharing writing advice. But never before had I come across anything about writing that uses cricket as an analogy. This is gold. It comes from Tom Stoppard’s play, The Real Thing. The speaker, an established playwright, is arguing against a play that has come his way; in his opinion, the play has good intentions but it is badly written. He uses the cricket bat as a way of scoring (no pun intended) a very important point.
I’m pleased to share news about Lunch with a Bigot. It was included on a list of Ten Best Books of 2015 Published by an Academic Press. I’m particularly delighted by this excellent piece on the book in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
AMITAVA KUMAR’S collection of essays Lunch with a Bigot: The Writer in The World (2015), although organized around the topics “reading,” “writing,” “places,” and “people,” focuses primarily on intimate stories about people who have not been often represented in our media. His essays trouble our desire for intimacy, our desire that others be recognizable, familiar, and our relations with them comfortable, and instead seek parallactic intimacies — he writes stories about others about whom we’ve been silent, and about the “borders of the self.” Interested in blurring the lines between writer and rioter, Kumar finds himself at lunch in Jackson Heights with Jagdish Barotia, a founder of Hindu Unity, a right-wing website dedicated to exposing the menaces in Indian society — Muslims in particular, and even worse in Barotia’s mind, Hindus who marry Muslims — and who had put Kumar on a hit list. As Kumar listens to Barotia call him a haraami (bastard) and kutta (dog), and then give him marriage advice — “you keep fucking her! And through her, you keeping fucking Islam!” — he takes notes. Kumar provides such “details and voice” in part because he believes that “the idea of a faceless enemy is unbearable.” The intimacy he seeks is what Kumar calls a “writer’s problem.”
Scroll has posted an article about the police taking offense at a plastic cow used in an art installation in Jaipur. A couple days ago, Scroll had also published an article by me, recounting a conversation with scholar Wendy Doniger about cows and the beef controversy:
Doniger is perhaps the most renowned scholar of Hinduism in the US and perhaps the world. At dinner, while eating our roast chicken, I asked her about the recent controversy around beef. When did this conflict start?
The Cow Protection Society, Doniger said, was started in the late-19th century. After the First War of Independence in 1857, a section of the Hindus wanted to wrest power from the Muslims who, they feared, had gained power under the British. Ever since then, the cow had remained an ideological weapon in the battle to create antagonism between Hindus and Muslims.
My latest The Bookist column in HT Brunch here.
A movement has been gathering strength in India. To protest against the murder of writers and the silence of the literary body, writers are returning their awards. The recent lynching of a Muslim man on the suspicion that he had beef in his house brought back vividly the violence of the Gujarat riots that took place when the current Indian Prime Minister was the Chief Minister of that state. Below is a piece I wrote about deaths and dissent in India:
A postmortem report was posted on Twitter the other day. It said that a man named Mohammed Yakub Shaikh had died an unnatural death. This was at a Toyota Service Centre in Mumbai on September 29. The report described the cause of this unnatural death in the following terms: “Respiratory failure due to pulmonary air embolism with pressured air in large and small intestine, thoracic and abdominal cavities and scrotal sac.”
The medical language is clear but doesn’t conjure the brutality of this obscure death: Yakub Shaikh died because pressurized air was inserted into his body through his anus. His body filled-up like a balloon and his eyes appeared to pop. He was dead within seconds.
In my latest blog for The Chronicle’s Lingua Franca, I write about the widespread suspicion of self-help books and also why it might makes sense for serious writers to write in that genre:
In 1997, Alain de Botton published his book How Proust Can Change Your Life. I was charmed by it. I remember using it in a course on cultural criticism for a graduate class that had a mix of theorists and creative writers. I thought of de Botton’s book as a model we could adopt. Here was an original work of criticism that taught me something about Proust while it playfully adopted a popular or low-brow form of writing — that is, the self-help book.
Like every other self-respecting academic, I’m distrustful of self-help books. In my hometown in India, at the bookstore where I once bought a Saul Bellow novel as a teen, mostly textbooks are sold now. And self-help books, immediately recognizable because of their lurid covers, promising a bright future. Learning is replaced by the reading of instruction manuals; change narrowed to individual striving; all of human emancipation instrumentalized, reduced to the acquisition of a better attitude or a few simple skills.
In my latest column for HT Brunch, a report on writing about cities:
The Jaipur Literature Festival recently came to the US – to Boulder, Colorado, at the foothills of the tall Rockies. Partly as a result of the thin mountain air, and partly because of its wide skies and intense bright light, but maybe also because of its laws that make marijuana-consumption legal in Colorado, there is a sense of weightlessness on the streets. I enjoyed my days there.
In Boulder, there were many writers whom I had seen earlier on the grounds of Diggi Palace in Jaipur. But here we were meeting again and in new company. On this occasion, I often had a question for the writers I met: can you name a book that is a good example of writing about cities?