Friday, June 29, 2007

Stabbing A Mighty Heart

In this reaction piece in The Outlook magazine, Asra Q. Nomani, Muslim thinker, writer and journalism teacher, takes a look at the transmutation of reality (of her friend Daniel Pearl's murder) by the Hollywood machine:

For me, watching the movie was like having people enter my home, rearrange the furniture and reprogram my memory. I'd known it was a gamble when I agreed to help with a Hollywood version of Danny's kidnapping, but I'd done it because I thought the movie had the potential to be meaningful. I'd hoped it could honor the man I'd worked alongside for nine years at the Journal by explaining why he was so passionate about his work as a reporter. I'd hoped that it would tell the story of the unique team of law enforcement agents, government officials and journalists -- of varying religions, nationalities and cultures -- that had searched for him. And I hoped it could spark a search for the truth behind Danny's death.

But the moviemakers and their PR machine seemed intent on two very different and much shallower goals: creating a mega-star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, who plays Mariane, and promoting the glib and clichéd idea that both Danny and Mariane were "ordinary heroes."

I think Danny would have rolled his eyes at that.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Colours of Allah

I had read Akbar Ahmed's Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise in my university days. I was immediately drawn to the book as the book sought to find Islam's relevance and connection to the fast-changing world where no value or philosophy seemed to hold water. Everything was so transient. And Akbar talked about Madonna and Stallone in a language that made sense to me. As a young Muslim, I wanted to know and talk about these things, as my worldview was still getting informed.

After making a film on Jinnah, and some more books later, Akbar Ahmed has come out with Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalisation.

The book talks about the Aligarh (my alma mater), Deoband and Ajmer models of Islam, and how the once modern Aligarh model has failed (spawned by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, after the 1857 Indian mutiny or War of Independence). Akbar is advocating a marriage of the inclusive (sufi) model of Ajmer and a pared down but orthodox model of Deoband.

I find this concept very interesting as I myself have seen the transition of the Ajmer model in my hometown (in India) into the Deoband model (after the influence of the Tablighi Jamat). It is the transition of the soft Islam into a hard Islam and the people who are engaged in it are, in my opinion, perhaps unaware of the impact it is bringing about on the society at large. Of course, it is a sociological as well as religious issue and warrants an indepth study on its own, so I won't dewll on it any further.

I am yet to read the book but the review here is whetting my apetite.

The main purpose of the book, therefore, is to give western readers a more three-dimensional picture of the Islamic world, enabling them to engage with real-life Muslims and acknowledge "their common humanity". Ahmed's device for doing this is to introduce us to three "models" of contemporary Islam, which he associates with three rival centres - all in India, as it happens - that he and his team visit.

Aligarh, seat of the university founded on the Oxbridge model by the great 19th-century Muslim reformer in British-ruled India, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, stands for strengthening Islam by learning from the west. Deoband, a major madrasa in India, also founded in reaction to Islam's 19th-century crisis, stands for an almost opposite philosophy, one of asserting mainstream or orthodox beliefs and traditions. (Ahmed more or less equates this with the austere Wahhabi trend promoted by Saudi Arabia.) And finally Ajmer, shrine of the 12th-century Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, stands for a more quietist, mystical Islam, stressing inner calm, transcendence of earthly passion through direct apprehension of the divine, and openness to other forms of spirituality such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Again and again Ahmed confronts the crisis of the Aligarh model on which he himself was brought up. Its leaders seem to have lost all conviction, or become little more than corrupt dictators manoeuvring, sometimes adroitly, between American power and an ever more stridently anti-American public opinion. At Aligarh itself his American companions find the students insecure, defensive and unfriendly, whereas at Deoband, once they break through an initial barrier of suspicion and reserve, they find great courtesy, hospitality and willingness to engage in dialogue. Their host and guide at Deoband is in fact the fire-breathing Aijaz Qasmi, who later morphs into an advocate of peace and a respectful Ahmed disciple.

Crudely summarised, Ahmed's message to western leaders is to rely less on Aligarh products like his younger self, and to engage in more direct dialogue with the Deobandis - those in the Muslim world who at first sight seem most fanatically hostile. (No doubt, if asked, he would also have advised the UK government not to fan an almost-extinct controversy back into flames by giving a knighthood to Salman Rushdie.) But on the personal level he discovers a mystic streak within himself and a strong affinity with the Ajmer model. In the end, his advice to Muslims is to seek a synthesis of all three: "The accepting nature of the Ajmer model must be buttressed by the commitment and fervour that Deoband can provide, along with the skill and dexterity to negotiate with governments, organisations and political parties that is characteristic of Aligarh." Perhaps his next book should be a Journey into the West, on which his fellow travellers will be students from the Islamic world.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Post-colonial humour?

[Thanks Abbas Raza @ Three Qaurks Daily]

Need a mentor?

Local writers keen on learning from the masters will be spoilt for choice in the weeks ahead.

The National Arts Council (NAC) will re-launch the Mentor Access Project (MAP) this Saturday at the National Library.

Meanwhile, TheatreWorks Writers Lab is holding two playwriting tilts: The 24-Hour Playwriting Competition and the Singapore Young Dramatist Award (SYDA) 2007.

Writers 18 years and above chosen for the MAP will be given an 18-month mentorship with well-known local and Singapore-based poets, playwrights and fictionists in any of the four official languages.

Among the mentors are Cyril Wong, Surat Markasan, Eleanor Wong, and new additions Aaron Maniam, Yeng Pway Ngon, Anuar Othman, Chairul Fahmy Hussaini and Yeow Kai Chai.

Read more here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Debunking some great Indian myths

My friend Yousuf, who is a secularism activist, and convenor of Mediawatch group in India, keeps sending me interesting emails. Most of these are often media articles that either misrepresent communities in India or are biased against a community.

Recently, Yousuf sent me this interesting piece that appeared in The Times News Network. Quoting historians, this piece tries to debunk some of the great myths of Indian history. It has nuggets of information some of which even I was not aware of.
Read it to see if you believed in one of these myths, knowingly or unknowingly:

When UPA presidential nominee Pratibha Patil mentioned
that the purdah had been in existence since Mughal
times, she was being historically inaccurate, but
voicing a commonly held misconception.

In fact, according to N R Farooqi, professor of
History at Allahabad University, the Mughals probably
borrowed purdah from the Rajputs. Historian Harbans
Mukhia, in his book, The Mughals of India, cites the
Baburnama and the Humayunnama to state that the
Mughals were never in purdah. Farooqi says Mughal
women were introduced to the purdah only after Akbar
married a Rajput princess, who may have brought this
custom along with her.

Many other popular perceptions are often mistaken for
historical fact, such as Islam being brought to India
by Muslim invaders. Most historians concur that
India’s introduction to Islam was, in fact, through
Arab traders.

It’s not surprising that tales abound in India, since
our culture has a tradition of storytelling. Myths,
however, become intertwined with history, often
overshadowing it. That’s why the fictional
Salim-Anarkali romance is more popular than the real
Jahangir-Noorjahan love story.

Even stories which have an element of truth can be
blown out of proportion. Like Asoka slaying his 100
brothers, which historians believe was exaggerated,
though there probably was a struggle for the throne.


'Trade, not invasion brought Islam to India'

Irish dramatist Denis Johnston once said that myths
are not created, they create themselves and then find
expression in that which serves their purpose. Perhaps
it’s time we helped dispel some popular

Islam was brought to India by Muslim invaders

Most historians now agree that India’s introduction to
Islam was through Arab traders and not Muslim
invaders, as is generally believed. The Arabs had been
coming to the Malabar coast in southern India as
traders for a long time, well before Islam had been
introduced in Arabia.

Writes H G Rawlinson, in his book, ‘Ancient and
Medieval History of India’, "The first Arab Muslims
began settling in the towns on the Indian coast in the
last part of the 7th century." They married Indian
women and were treated with respect and allowed to
propagate their faith. According to B P Sahu, head of
the department of history of Delhi University, Arab
Muslims began occupying positions of prominence in the
areas where they had settled by the 8th and 9th

In fact, the first mosque in the county was built by
an Arab trader at Kodungallur, in what is now Kerala,
in 629 AD. Interestingly, Prophet Mohammed was alive
at that time and this mosque in India would probably
have been one of the first few mosques in the world,
thus highlighting the presence of Islam in India long
before the Muslim invaders arrived.

Asoka killed his 100 brothers to claim the throne

In his book, The Oxford History of India, Vincent
Smith writes that the story told by the Buddhist monks
of Ceylon that Asoka slaughtered 98 or 99 of his
brothers in order to clear his way to the throne is
absurd and obviously concocted to highlight Asoka’s
alleged abnormal wickedness prior to his conversion to

In fact, Asoka, says Smith, took good care of his
brothers long after his succession, evidence of which
is found in his rock edicts. However, according to
Nayanjot Lahiri, professor in the department of
history at Delhi University, this is a legend which
can’t be summarily dismissed and it probably has a
grain of truth.

Although the reference to 100 brothers seems purely
metaphorical, there are references in one Indian and
two Sri Lankan literary texts that there was a
protracted struggle between Asoka and his brothers for
the throne. Since Asoka’s formal consecration was also
delayed for some four years after the death of his
father Bindusara, it indicates that his ascension to
the throne was contested, says Lahiri. How many
brothers were slain, or whether any were slain at all,
is however a question that is still debatable.

Buddhist monks were vegetarians

Most people associate Buddhism with non-violence and
imagine that Buddhist monks and nuns never consumed
animal food. However, according to Nayanjot Lahiri,
the idea that meat and its products were not allowed
to Buddhist monks is a myth. For instance, in case of
sickness, raw flesh and blood could be used by the

Fish and meat were mentioned among the five superior
and delicate foods that a monk who was unwell was
allowed to eat. Irfan Habib, former professor of
history at Aligarh Muslim University, agreed that
monks could eat meat. The only restriction, however,
was that they could not eat the meat of animals
especially slaughtered for them. Buddhist sutras also
mention that one may, with a clear conscience,
receive, cook and eat meat either freely offered by
someone else, or that which came from an animal which
had died of natural causes, but not of that which had
been especially slaughtered for eating. Even the
archaeology of Buddhism provides some evidence on
this, says Lahiri, as animal bones have been recorded
from two famous Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka—the
Abhayagiri vihara at Anuradhapura and the Sigiriya
vihara—which indicate that Buddhist monks were not

The love story of Salim and Anarkali

A lowly courtesan falls in love with the crown prince
of the Mughal empire who, in turn, is ready to defy
his father’s will for the sake of his beloved. This is
the story of Salim and Anarkali, made popular by films
like ‘Mughal-e-Azam’. The tragedy, however, is that
the epic romance was probably just a work of fiction.

For, Anarkali never existed. Or, even if she did, she
was probably a slave girl who had no proven connection
with either Salim or his father, the Emperor Akbar.
According to Irfan Habib, the legend of Anarkali came
into being some four years after Jahangir’s death,
when she was mentioned briefly in some texts of the
1630s. After that, there’s no mention of her anywhere
and there is no reference to her in Jahangir’s
autobiography either. Yet, Anarkali’s name remains
closely linked with Salim and she is probably more
popular than even his wife, the historical Noorjahan,
was. What probably fanned this popular imagination,
says N R Farooqi, professor at Allahabad University,
was circumstantial evidence like a tomb, believed to
be that of Anarkali’s, situated in Lahore which was
built by Jahangir. Or tales spread by European
travellers and later picked up by popular culture,
thus cementing the legend of Salim and Anarkali in
people’s imagination.

Jodha Bai was the name of Akbar’s Rajput wife

Akbar’s first Rajput wife, it is believed, was the
eldest daughter of Bhar Mal, the Raja of Amber.
Popular perception has it that her name was Jodha Bai
and that she was Jahangir’s mother. History, however,
suggests otherwise.

According to Irfan Habib, there is no mention of
Akbar’s Rajput wife anywhere in any Mughal text. Abul
Fazal, in his ‘Akbarnama’, does not mention her name
as Akbar’s wife. Nor does Jahangir, in his
autobiography, ‘Tuzk-e-Jahangiri’, mention Jodha Bai
as his mother. This is because, according to N R
Farooqi, Jodha Bai was not the name of Akbar’s Rajput
queen. It was, in fact, the name of Jahangir’s Rajput
wife, whose real name was Jagat Gosain. Since she
belonged to the royal family of Jodhpur, she was also
referred to as Jodha Bai.

According to Farooqi, she was a very important woman
in the royal household. Besides being married to the
emperor, she was also the mother of Khurram, who later
became Emperor Shah Jahan. The myth of Jodha Bai being
Akbar’s Rajput wife, says Irfan Habib, probably gained
credence during the 19th century when guides at
Fatehpur Sikri gave her the mantle of Akbar’s wife, a
perception which is prevalent even today.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

"The Islamist Underworld"

In this short essay in The New Statesman, writer Ed Hussain makes a forceful point that unless the rising tide (aided by cyber warriors) of radical Islamist rhetoric, a prelude to jihadism, is stemmed in Britain, the carnage of Baghdad may well erupt in Bradford and Birmingham.

He also feels that his life is under threat for exposing some Islamist groups:

In my book, The Islamist, I try to reclaim Islam from Islamism and separate the ancient spiritual path from a post-colonial political ideology. Condemnation of the book, mainly by Islamists, has not ceased for over a month.

In Manchester in April, Hassan Butt, a one-time jihadist who is now opposed to extremism, was stabbed and beaten for speaking out against fanaticism. He now lives in hiding. Why was this not reported in the mainstream media?

The Islamist underworld is assisted greatly by cyberspace - from Baghdad to Birmingham, Islamists and their jihadist twin brothers exchange information and coded messages on the web. Before Hassan's stabbing, his interview with an American media outlet condemning terrorism had been circulated on the web.

In internet chatrooms and discussion threads the Islamists break news of beheadings in Iraq, the downing of US helicopters and discuss who is next on their agenda of killing and destruction. The mainstream media is bewilderingly unaware of this fast-moving, influential underworld.

Here's a very good review of Ed Hussain's book, The Islamist.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Knighted and benighted

Good news for Indian writers (or shall I say writers of Indian origin?).

While novelist Salman Rushdie has been knighted in the UK, former Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran has won the £30,000 Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize for his book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

The Guardian describes the book as “a book chronicling the chaos and cronyism that characterised the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority's government of Iraq…the book says that more than $1.6bn (£800m) of Iraq's oil revenue was paid to the US vice-president Dick Cheney's old firm Halliburton; that the Baghdad stock exchange was put in the hands of a 24-year-old who had never worked in finance; and that the Iraqi capital's new traffic regulations were based on the laws of the state of Maryland, downloaded from the internet.”

Pretty interesting, isn't it? Can't wait to read it. After all, his journalism/writing has been put at par with that of Hersey and Capote by the judges. That's saying a lot.

I guess this win calls for a celebration as India has found another fine non-fiction writer after Suketu Mehta (Maximum City).

There have been rumours that Rajiv’s book may be turned into a film, to be directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93).

But Rajiv has denied the same in Feb 2007.

Update: Here's a write up by Rajiv on his winning the award.

Rushdie’s Knighthood, on the other hand, has drawn horror from Pakistan and Iran—but that’s not something unexpected, right?

Plainly speaking, the ‘poor’ novelist has suffered for 19 years, so why take away this little pleasure from him? After the fatwa, while he became a big-time celebrity, his creative powers have been negatively affected. He has missed so many Bookers and international Bookers and IMPACs. So, why deny him this moment of elation?

However, it would be interesting to note that awards and honours do not exist in a moral vacuum. For instance, poet Benjamin Zephaniah had turned down the OBE, refusing to join “the oppressor’s club.” Similarly, novelist Amitav Ghosh had turned down the Commonwealth Prize for somewhat similar reasons (and sorry for the digression but didn’t Rushdie write the powerful essay, Does Commonwealth Literature Exist?).

I know the OBE and the Commonwealth Prize are different animals but both owe their existence to the idea of colonialism (hence, post-colonial literarture?) and (the glorification of) imperialism.

In Sir Salman's Long Journey, Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches in the English faculty at Cambridge University and is the author of Literary Radicalism in India, makes a very important point about Rushdie's acceptance of this British honour:

To see the knighthood as "belated" endorsement by the British establishment is to miss the point entirely...

Sir Salman... is partly the creation of the fatwa that played its role in strengthening the self-fulfilling "clash of civilisations" that both Bush and Osama bin Laden find so handy. Driven underground and into despair by zealotry, Rushdie finally emerged blinking into New York sunshine shortly before the towers came tumbling down. Those formidable literary powers would now be deployed not against, but in the service of, an American regime that had declared its own fundamentalist monopoly on the meanings of "freedom" and "liberation". The Sir Salman recognised for his services to literature is certainly no neocon but is iconic of a more pernicous trend: liberal literati who have assented to the notion that humane values, tolerance and freedom are fundamentally western ideas that have to be defended as such.

Vociferously supporting the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on "humane" grounds, condemning criticism of the war on terror as "petulant anti-Americanism" and above all, aligning tyranny and violence solely with Islam, Rushdie has abdicated his own understanding of the novelist's task as "giving the lie to official facts". Now he recalls his own creation Baal, the talented poet who becomes a giggling hack coralled into attacking his ruler's enemies. Denuded of texture and complexity, it is no accident that this fiction since the early 90s has disappeared into a critical wasteland. The mutation of this relevant and stentorian writer into a pallid chorister is a tragic allegory of our benighted times, of the kind he once narrated so vividly.

Read the last line carefully. That says it all.

Indians in Malaysia

My article in Little India, US:

It's late Saturday afternoon in Kuala Lumpur. In an upmarket suburban condo, two Indian couples are huddled before a television set watching a Bollywood film. There are drinks, plenty of Indian snacks to go around, and a great deal of bonhomie.

If there is something off key here, it is that while one couple is Indian, the other is mixed.

Read the full text of the article here.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

When the twin towers fell on that fateful day, I knew that something earth-shattering had happened. I was at work when it all began to happen. Interestingly, at that time, I was working for an American publishing firm in Delhi. The entire office was enveloped in a silence that itself was foreboding. By the time I reached home and switched on the TV, the images of the falling towers were being shown over and over again. A little later, a feral Bush came out with this epoch-defining line: The world will not remain the same.

The words were not only prophetic, there was a certain determinism about them.

In his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, when Mohsin Hamid’s US-educated Pakistani protagonist Changez witnesses on TV in a Philippines hotel room the WTC towers falling, he breaks into an unlikely smile: “Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.”

And from there, we begin to foresee how Changez, a Princeton-educated smart ass who is doing great with a top US finance firm, would turn his back on America (even though he loves certain things American) and the injustices it inflicts on the world, despite his earning a lucrative American salary, and his infatuation with an American woman, Erica. “No country inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, frightens so many people so far away, as America,” says Changez at one point to the unnamed American he is addressing in this monologue of a novel.

Changez is a modern Muslim, hailing from a well-to-do Pakistani family. He drinks and fornicates without any religious qualms. He is marked for a life of American success and affluence. But his Muslim identity, in the wake of the 9/11, begins to overwhelm him albeit in a slightly different way. More than being hurt in a religious sense, Changez's disillusionment is at a humane and secular (or even economic) level--and this kind of an approach towards character development in the light of the subject matter chosen exposes some of the weaknesses in the novelist's craft but more on that later.

From Manila, Changez returns to the US only to be treated by the immigration staff as a suspect—just because of his identity. He continues with his job although his doubts keeps growing, but in the narrative scheme, his blinders are yet to finally come off, his arc of vision yet to be broadened. Through his firm’s dealings, he is yet to see “the constant striving to realize a financial future” and “no thought being spared for “the critical personal and political issues” that affected “one’s emotional present.”

For this to happen, Changez is taken to a Latin American country where his vision finally becomes clear. He meets Juan-Bautista, the publisher whose firm he is evaluating for a sale. Over lunch, Juan-Bautista sees that Changez is upset for some reason and tells him about the janissaries (is it from the Persian word, Jaan-nisar, or self-sacrifice?): “the Christian boys who were captured and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world…they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to”.

Changez realizes that he is a modern day janissary, “a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war.” (The choice of the word 'kinship' here is significant--the author is circumspect to bring in the words Islam and Muslim--Kinship in this context sounds rather stand-offish, less emotional and less engaging. Is this because Mohsin is trying to show how rational, and not emotional, this Princeton-educated Pakistani Muslim is?)

His world view changes with this remarkable conversation. Meanwhile, the only thing that could have held him back in the US, his girlfriend Erica, who suffered from psychological disorders on account of her past lover, vanishes one day. He returns to his own folks, his own country, rejecting the American dream.

That summarizes the basic plot of the novel which is interesting and makes the book readable. In fact, I finished it in two or three sitting within two days (usually I take longer to read a novel, maybe days and weeks--I work full-time).

However, the very readability of the novel makes it appear weak, as if it’s just skimming the surface and not going deep enough. The issues that engage Changez’s mind and soul have more or less just been touched whereas they needed to be thoroughly built up and explored.

As the author has explained in some of the interviews, he had written the novel before 9/11 but after that watershed event he had felt compelled to revise it as circumstances changed. Probably this has watered down the narrative's power, resulting in a reading experience that is less richer, and characters appear to be less gray and more black and white. I would even say that the effort to make it readable, perhaps to win a larger readership, has turned the novel effeminate. Like Erica’s novel in the novel, which Changez had expected to be meaty, The Reluctant Fundamentalist comes across as a half-hearted attempt at capturing the genesis of a modern Muslim’s disgust with the American empire.

The novel’s central point is the hubris of the American empire which is built on the guts of finance: “Finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised its power.” But even this issue has been perfunctorily dealt with. Mohsin has not exposed the ills of the American financial system in close ups—all we get is a larger, generalized picture. I am not an expert in this area myself but where are the deeper questions on corporate practices that are undermining America itself: the triumph of "managers' capitalism" over "owners' capitalism," the power of the imperial chief executives with "their jet planes...their pension plans, their club dues, their Park Avenue apartments," self-serving executives being abetted by self-serving directors, securities analysts, auditors, lenders, investment bankers, and others, while shareholders have suffered—the rot in the corporate system.

Finally, I have not enjoyed the form of the narrative device (monologue) that Mohsin has chosen for this work. He has tried to do something that Camus did with one of his novels but unfortunately, at least for me, this device does not work here. The entire novel is addressed to an American in a bazaar in Pakistan. The device, when it comes in between the narrative flow, breaks the “continuous and uninterrupted dream” in the novel. I rather like those chapters where Mohsin has tried least to address the American. Then it flows effortlessly and one appreciates the lyrical use of the language and acute observation.

The best chapters of the novel are the ones about Erica. In fact, those would have made a great novel in itself. On another level, the relationship between Changez and Erica works like a metaphor of the relationship between Changez (Muslims?) and America (Am-Erica): with time Erica begins to lose her mind and Changez grows apart from her. If Mohsin had intended this juxtaposition to work, then it has.

The ending of the novel is vague but I like it--it's almost noirish. The lack of a suitable literary structure apart, the novel would have risen to great literature had Moshin cared to add some more layers to the narrative, added depth to the events, characters and their motives.

P.S.: I had thought of writing a NYRB style of review for this novel, but then after weeks of dithering I decided against it. Why, I'll tell you. It would have taken me weeks to ponder, days to write, hours to revise, and seconds to realise that it is not there at all. So, you know):

Friday, June 15, 2007

I'm a Gandhi, not a Gandhian

Recently, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Professor Ramchandra Gandhi, 70, was found dead in Delhi's India International Center. It was reported that he was inside the room no. 15 of the IIC and the room was locked from inside.

Sanjay Baru, media advisor to India's prime minister, has written a beautiful piece in the memory of Prof Gandhi in The Hindustan Times (June 15). Obits like these are rarely so well-written:

Like millions of Indians, I was brought up to revere Mahatma Gandhi. So I was not prepared for my first encounter with his grandson in a seedy bar in Hyderabad. It was the winter of 1979. I had just joined the faculty of the University of Hyderabad. My colleagues, the historian Gyanendra Pandey and the writer Alok Bhalla, and I walked into the dim-lit Three Castles Bar down the road from the University. Alok found a friend who waved to him. We joined him at the table and ordered our beers.

“Have you met Ramu?” Gyan asked, introducing me to the professor of philosophy. “Bhai, teen beer lao aur Don ka gaana lagao,” shouted Ramu to the bearer. A university don humming Kishore Kumar’s ‘... main hoon Don’? I was amused. Alok whispered into my ear, “He’s Gandhiji’s grandson.” I fell off my chair!

Read the full piece. It only gets more interesting.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


The question is so old one can even be called stupid to have asked it in the first place. And arguments range from approval to disapproval on both sides of the aisle.

A favourite quote here, for example, by James M. Cain, former editor of New Yorker and writer of classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity (let's not get into the genre vs literary fiction debate): This bunkum and stinkum of college creative-writing courses! The creative writing teachers should know that the only thing that you can do to help someone write is to buy him a typewriter.

Well, make it a laptop for this day and age.

But why am I asking this question today?

Because it looks like the MFA brigade (I mean candidates from creative writing classes) is doing very well in the literary market (in this age of globalization, everything has become a market). But again, you can say as a counter argument that we hear only about success stories. What about the rest of the class?

Never mind that. That happens all the time.

Any way, it all started when I read this brilliant story (Sweetheart Sorrow) in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue by David Hoon Kim. Turns out the guy is from Iowa Writers’ Program. Not a crime. It’s impressive that the first story he ever published has come out in the New Yorker magazine.

And David is in great company. Look at some of the recent literary successes: Chimamda Ngozi (Orange Prize winner), Kiran Desai (Booker Prize winner), Jhumpa Lahiri (Pulitzer Prize winner), Mohsin Hamid (Betty Trask Award), Akhil Sharma (Wallace Stegner Fellow in creative writing at Stanford, author of An Obedient Father), Tash Aw (Booker nominee), Rattawat Lapcharoensap (Asian American Literary Award and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award), just to name a few familiar names. They have all come from some creative writing courses, either in US or UK.

Not just them. Such writers as Philip Roth, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Ford, Lorrie Moore, Jane Smiley, Michael Chabon, Rick Russo, Mona Simpson and, more recently, Alice Sebold and Aimee Bender all did time in writing programs and credit their teachers for much of their success.

Related to creative writing courses is also this amazing essay by Peter Carey here (thanks Prof Amitava Kumar) where he questions the whole publishing set up of today:

And here is what seems most insane—young and not-so-young writers take out student loans to get M.F.A.’s in creative writing. This does not add up. I once taught in the M.F.A. program at Columbia, and so I know the extraordinary gifts that student debt can confer. But the Marshian in me says it’s impossible to start a life committed to literary fiction when you are $60,000 in debt. The very size of the loan assumes there is a market, a business to go into, a living to make. But the hard truth is that only a sucker writes literature with the intention of making money. This was so obvious in Australia in 1961, you never needed to say it. Today, when people seem to be breaking through all around you, it might be good to bear in mind that the only reward you can rely on is in the work itself. And, of course, they do know that. A while ago, I went down to Strand with my then 13-year-old son and we were, of course, selling books and we watched the buyer separating the sheep from the goats, without understanding which was which. When the judgment was made, he pushed back at us a pile of really good novels. These, it turned out, were the goats. I said, “But surely you can sell Rohinton Mistry.” And he said, “We don’t need fiction.” And I thought, Where am I?

Does it make a difference? What do you think?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The wonder that is India

Amid all the hoopla of India shining, which is not something to be ashamed of as an Indian, we need writers like Pankaj Mishra who provide us with much-needed reality checks.

His review of The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future
by Martha C. Nussbaum is more than a review. It provides great insights into the communal problem in India. It is definitely a must read for all those who are concerned about India's future and understand how peace and communal harmony is significant for the country's uninterrupted progress.

Her interviews with prominent right-wing Hindus yield some shrewd psychological insights, particularly into Arun Shourie, an economist and investigative journalist who, famous initially for his intrepid exposés of corruption, became a cabinet minister and close adviser to BJP prime minister Vajpayee. She suggests that the anti-Muslim views of Shourie, who is otherwise capable of intelligent commentary, may owe to "something volatile and emotionally violent in his character...something that lashes out at a perceived threat and refuses to take seriously the evidence that it might not be a threat."

In a chapter that forms the core of the book, she examines the ideas and legacies of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Rabindranath Tagore, founding fathers of India's democracy. Her admiration for Tagore and Gandhi is deep. However, she offers only qualified praise for Nehru, India's resolutely rationalist first prime minister. Nussbaum laments that Nehru neglected "the cultivation of liberal religion and the emotional bases of a respectful pluralistic society"—a failure that she thinks left the opportunity wide open for the BJP's "public culture of exclusion and hate."

I find this point about the (failure of) "cultivation of liberal religion" pertinent. In fact, even if it is partly true, one of the factors for growing communalisation, I feel, is the failure of the public education system (read India's sarkari schools). You go to any town in India, big or small, the sarkari schools are the worst in terms of teaching quality and infrastructure--and these were the institutions that were supposed to shape the hearts and minds of India's generations. Instead, there are more mercenary style private schools that attract the better pupils (who can afford to pay the fees) where the emphasis is on getting good grades and hardly any concern is shown to develop "emotional bases of a respectful pluralistic society."

India's middle class, which is enjoying the economic boom today, is mainly a product of such private schools (I'm not saying all of them are bad) and they have no understanding of religions other than their own--so misunderstandings and misconceptions about "others" abound which are later on systematically exploited by the politicians.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Miss Sunshine

She's just 29 and she has won the Orange Prize for fiction this year. Writes The Guardian:

For the second year running, the £30,000 Orange Broadband prize for fiction has been awarded to a young writer already acquiring prodigious literary celebrity.

Two years younger than last year's winner Zadie Smith and with one book fewer under her belt, Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 29, took it for her domestic epic of the Biafra war, Half of a Yellow Sun.

Her triumph vindicated the readers who have bought 187,000 copies since the paperback was published in January, and the bookmakers William Hill who made her odds-on favourite at 13/8.

Everyone who knew her at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope, including me, cannot be more elated. It's a great moment for us all, and we are proud of her achievement. Congrats Chimamanda!

Here is the BBC report on her win and here are some pics from the ceremony by fellow blogger Molara Wood.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Ondaatje's art of fiction

Came across this interesting review of Michael Ondaatje's new novel, Divisadero(Knopf; $25) by Louis Menand in the New Yorker magazine. I like the way it tries to dissect Ondaatje's approach to fiction writing:

Ondaatje is an enemy of the linear. He has called his novels “Cubist,” and we are almost commanded not to try to iron out the kinks. It’s not easy to extract a continuous narrative from his books, anyway, because events bounce around chronologically, styles and points of view shift, and there are gaps and stray threads.

The reviewer tells us that this new novel is named "for a street in San Francisco where one of the book’s characters, Anna, once lived. None of the action takes place there, and the street is mentioned only twice, in passing."

Interesting, isn't it? But why did he do this?

Ondaatje was asked recently why he chose the title. “It suggests division, and the concept of looking at something from afar, the way the writer Anna does,” he explained. “It is a book of separations and divisions, of two stories that link up.” This is not entirely helpful, but it does give a hint about how Ondaatje writes his novels and how he wants them to be read. He is not telling stories; he is using the elements of storytelling to gesture in the direction of a constellation of moods, themes, and images. He is creating the literary equivalent of a Cornell box or a rock garden or a floral arrangement.

This is what Jhumpa Lahiri has to say about this novel:

My life always stops for a new book by Michael Ondaatje. I began Divisadero as soon as it came into my possession and over the course of a few evenings was captivated by Ondaatje’s finest novel to date . . . Divisadero is a deeply ordered, full-bodied work, illuminating both what it means to belong to a family and what it means to be alone in the world . . . Like Nabokov, another master of twinning, Ondaatje’s method is deliberate but discreet, and it was only in rereading this beautiful book–which I wanted to do as soon as I finished it–that the intricate play of doubles was revealed. Every sign of the author’s genius is here: the searing imagery, the incandescent writing, the calm probing of life’s most turbulent and devastating experiences. No one writes as affectingly about passion, about time and memory, about violence, subjects that have shaped Ondaatje’s previous novels. But there is a greater muscularity to Divisadero, an intensity born from its restraint. Episodes are boiled down to their essential elements, distilled but dramatic, resulting in a mosaic of profound dignity, with an elegiac quietude that only the greatest of writers can achieve.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Black Friday

I have been a fan of Anurag Kashyap even before I had seen his directorial debut, Black Friday (2004, as per IMDB records). Actually, his directorial debut was Paanch which was never released (not yet at least).

Anurag has been doing terrific work with directors like Ram Gopal Varma (Satya), Mani Ratnam (Yuva) and Deepa Mehta (Water), among others. But I've been a fan simply because of his doggedness to his purpose. Such a talented man and yet he had to wait for nearly one and half decades for his film to see the light of the day. But he never gave up. He was extremely depressed but he kept on walking. And finally, he has made it. Anyone who sees Black Friday will recognize the talent that he is. Even if we have had half a dozen filmmakers like Anurag in Bombay, the face of Hindi cinema would change. Look what has happenend to great Indian filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, Muzaffar Ali, Gulzar, and Govind Nihalani--they are either spent forces or they don't get the financial backing for the kind of projects they want to do. But they seem to be living in a time warp, and they don't have the idiom to portray the dangerous realities of contemporay lives (or maybe they have become complacent--been there, done that kind of feeling).

I don't have much hope from filmmakers like Aditya Chopra (he looked promising in Mohabbatein), Sanjay Ghadvi (Dhoom 1 and 2) and Karan Johar and co. They are all into commecial cinema, big budget, big bucks cinema. I thought Ram Gopal Varma was India's Tarantino but he too seems to have got enticed by the business of filmmaking at the cost of its artistic side.

Similarly, after showing talent in Black, Sanjay L Bhansali has got back to the tested and tried stuff, as in his upcoming Saawariya. I respect Bhansali, not because he did a great job in Black (which he did) but because he let Ravi K Chandran take such beautiful shots throughout the film. Each and every frame was mindblowing (not in a realistic way though, not the kind of realistic cinematography that you would see in a Satyajit Ray film) but beautiful in its own right.

I had great hopes from Shekhar Kapur too (after Bandit Queen) but he seemed to have lost it after he made his foray in Hollywood. But thank God, after watching the trailer of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, I am confident that Shekhar will bounce back with his best work ever.

Sorry for the digression. All I wanted to say was that Anurag is a great talent and he should not waver from his integrity and purposefullness. I hope he emerges as India's Oliver Stone (yes, I too hate these comparisions but how else can I say it).

Black Friday is just perfect. The film, based on Hussain Zaidi's book tracing the origins of the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts, can be summed up by the first and last lines (quotes/titles) of the film. The film begins with Gandhi's quote: An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. And it ends with the title card: And now Bombay is called Mumbai. In between lies the truth, told from the persective of police investigators and the statements issued by the Muslim "terrorists". The acting is natural, and Pavan Malhotra, Aditya Srivastava and Kay Kay are amazing. Pavan too could have become as good as Irfan Khan but he perhaps lost it somewhere.

I have only one minor grouse aganist the film. What is it with the red filters Mr Kashyap? They look so odd, and give the viewers a feeling of discomfort. Just because some South East Asian filmmakers use it does not make it automatically cool. Please follow your own instintcs.