Monday, August 31, 2009

On autobiographical elements in novels

Visiting Professor Amitava Kumar's blog is always a good trip--it results in my coming back with some new information, novel insights.

In one of his recent posts (inter alia, referring to a post at Maud Newton), he talks about William Maxwell and his mining of experiences from his own life and dressing them up as fiction. Is that a moral hazard? Are there any limits of doing it? Many questions arise.

Then I follow a link to Maud Newton's blog and to an article on Maxwell in The Washington Post. It's a review of Maxwell's novel, 'So Long, See You Tomorrow'. Some sentences strike me further: The reviewer makes fun of memoir as a genre: "But Maxwell doesn't use this lurid tale to launch on the kind of self-dramatizing sleuthing that has made the memoir more of a recovery workbook than a literary genre."

Anita Jain, author of Marrying Anita, had mocked at certain kind of novelists when she was in Singapore: Why do they hide behind novels when they could write a memoir, she had asked.

Is there something in here for Anita, I innocently wonder.

"In talking about the past," Maxwell writes, "we lie with every breath we draw."

Does it mean that even if we write something from our own lives, it changes in writing: the mere acting of putting "the reality" in words changes the reality?

Maxwell says: "I wrote about my life in less and less disguise as I grew older, and finally with no disguise — except the disguise we create for ourselves, which is self-deception."

This reminds me of one of my own short stories, The Revolt. In the story, a character rises against the writer in revolt and takes his revenge on him for portraying him in a certain light (obviously, not very flattering). It was written some years ago--before I had heard of Pirandello.

Anyway, here's an example of how Maxwell changed reality (of a character) in one of his novels.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Crasta Sutra


Among the bunch of famous Indian novelists and writers, Richard Crasta’s name might not be as widely recognized as that of a Seth or a Rushdie, but few would come close to him in being funny, witty, satirical and daring–all at the same time. If you don’t believe me, I can get American legendary novelist Kurt Vonnegut to vouch for him who found his first novel, The Revised Kama Sutra, “very funny”. After Khushwant Singh (who is 90 plus old but still active as a below the belt heavy hitter), if any Indian writer has pushed the boundaries of satirical writing, with dollops of sexual humour (and satirical writing on a lot of other serious stuff) in his own distinctive style, it’s Richard. But, in fairness, his writing is more than that, and multifaceted, covering areas as wide as, in his own words, “autobiography, humor, satire, political critique, sexual critique, and literary criticism.”

In the early 1990s, when a new breed of Indian writers in English were taking birth (most of them midwifed by Penguin Books, India, under the watch of David Davidar), bursting forth with all kinds of coming of age or cultural or exoticised tales from Indian life, Richard Crasta chose to take a daring look at Indian sexuality. One of the funniest and most talked about novels to come out of India, he subtitled The Revised Kama Sutra, as a “Novel of Colonialism and Desire with Arbitrary Footnotes and a Whimsical Glossary”. It was one of the most talked about books when it came out, and was loved as much, if not more, as Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. By the way, both the novelists are from Indian Civil Services, the only difference is that Crasta is now an ex (civil servant).

Richard’s writing is uniquely hilarious, and believe me you, this is not a hyperbole. But in terms of recognition, the man was just a blip in India’s literary firmament. For years, he has been out of the Indian mainstream media’s radar. What went wrong? Plenty, we are told. He was embroiled in controversies. Mainstream publishers shunned him. He became a writer without a platform.

But Crasta did not feel crestfallen. He was in the USA, doing his own stuff–writing more books and publishing them from a publishing house that he owns. And ever since, he has kept at it. After writing 6 full-bloodied books, his latest book is The Killing of an Author, of which veteran journalist Kuldeep Nayar says that this is a must read.

In this exclusive freewheeling interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum, Crasta not only talks about his new book but also looks back at his past, his beginning as a writer, his tribulations and his future plans. For the readers in South East Asia, the good news is that one of his in-the-works novels is based in Thailand and Indonesia, and is, in his words, “almost as funny and sexually daring as The Revised Kama Sutra.”

True to his name, Richard in this interview is bitingly honest, lucid but insightful, funny and provocative. Here is the transcript of the interview. Have fun!

When your first novel The Revised Kamasutra appeared in India , it made quite a splash. Is it fair to say that the books that followed your debut novel did not get that much attention in the country of your birth? Was there any particular reason for this kind of reception?

I feel gratified that the huge response to my novel came from common readers and middle-class reviewers. It was not engineered from the top, or from London or New York; Indians found themselves loving the book, though they were shocked and sometimes embarrassed by the title or the contents, and its reputation spread by word of mouth. With many later writers, the hype started with a megabucks Western advance. Hype has a way of becoming self-fulfilling, and one can never be sure how those books would have performed had the huge advances and media coverage not preceded the reading of the books themselves.

To be fair, I spent eight years on The Revised Kama Sutra and an average of 18 months for the subsequent books, so the former is naturally richer, denser, and more multi-faceted. Having noted this, there was still, for other reasons, a difference between the reception for the first book and subsequent books: Because The Revised Kama Sutra is fiction, and some people—including my Penguin India editor—thought the book would become a worldwide sensation, and make plenty of money, they could wink at its anti-Establishment tone, which did not directly target either my publisher or his Indian friends. Also, the humor was a cloak, which allowed you to treat the book as a joke. This changed with the second and third books, Beauty Queens and Impressing the Whites; the latter is a no-holds barred satire on the culture of sycophancy and subservience and of giving white people and Western honors far greater legitimacy and respect than equivalent Indian ones. Once my second and third books hit home, my fourth, fifth, and sixth books, especially What We All Need and The Killing of an Author, simply didn’t have a chance.

Read the complete interview here

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On Ayn Rand, capitalism, and altruism

Professor Amartya Sen says that it is good to have debates and discussions and it is good to argue with others on topics of importance. I didn’t have exactly this in mind when I forwarded an article, “Why Ayn Rand Is Still Relevant”, to one of my Singaporean colleagues (I have given his name here as K). He has been recently reading books by Ayn Rand and I thought he might be interested in it. I had read one or two books by her when I was in college and by now I did not exactly remember what she preached in those books which were very popular among the English-speaking students (what I remembered was that she preached capitalism even though it meant the rule of the robber barons). K got back with some feedback on that article and I reverted with my own comments and this way we had a good exchange. Here is the transcript of that exchange.

After this exchange, which ended in an honorable disagreement, I watched some interviews of Ayn Rand and got to know her philosophy better. You can find many videos on her on YouTube. I don’t think major economists or philosophers have taken her philosophy that seriously. And I am sure there are many, like this scholar, who have challenged her views. I have my own philosophy which, in Rand’s epistemology, can be called rational-mythological. Share with us what you think of Ayn Rand and how is her philosophy relevant today?

Her theory or philosophy, to me, comes across as anti-egalitarianism and anti-welfarism (the greater common good is not important for her) and she says many things that Milton Friedman also has said later on.

Me: "From the time we’re young we are taught that the essence of morality is to sacrifice one’s own interests for the sake of others, and that to focus on one’s own interests is immoral and destructive...."

I ask, if this is the essence of capitalism (according to Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism), how can it be reconciled with Biblical teachings? I think both extremes (extreme capitalism on one hand, extreme socialism or collectivism on the other hand) are bad. There has to be a balance. Middle path, preached by prophets like Buddha and Mohammad, are more reasonable. Enterprise with humanity is more reasonable than enterprise supported by rapacious laws (think of debt prisons or seizure of properties).

From K:

The intriguing perspective I feel I'm taking in regards to Ayn Rand's views and how it would connect to the Biblical perspective is that at the end of the day, sacrifice is not the best ends to make things work out in our relationships to people and ourselves. Perhaps sacrifice is required in many scenarios, but just because 2 - 1 = 1 on the other side of the equation doesn't mean it's the best methodology to help others. Her view that in being 'selfish' to our own goals, we invariably create conditions that would help others as a by result. It's a pictorial of the golden goose - a goose lay eggs not because of sacrifice but self-interest and preservation, yet but lying the eggs, others benefit from her production and output. To sacrifice her for a meal would surely be beneficial for a moment to others, but the cost is great. I recall Jesus saying that when he was hindered by the religious community in healing a man on the Sabbath, he asked,'Is the Sabbath for man, or man for the Sabbath?' The crowd wanted to sacrifice the sick man's welfare in order to preserve their 'religious laws' but Jesus' response was that they got the idea all wrong.

I think beneath the common call for sacrifice, one might sometimes do better by taking a rational view of how other methods might be more effective and proper towards the end result. The Bible mentions that 'as a man thinks, so he is' - that isn't all that different from what Ayn Rand's John Galt is preaching. I think I'm attracted to her views because it's extreme... somehow, I think that might actually be a good medicine for society, which tends to self-destruct and most of the time while it's doing so, lukewarm theories hardly have a chance in altering their march to death.

Just my views though :)

Me: Interesting views and this is exactly how the world is working, and this is where we are headed. Capitalism marches on. But in my view, it is not an absolute view or solution.

Here is my understanding of things:

It is not just sacrifice or just profit. The two don't necessarily have to clash. That's my point. When Jesus says Sabbath for man or man for Sabbath, he is perhaps talking about making a choice. So you have to make a choice--a rational choice depending on the circumstances. But if it is just the profit motive, is infinite profit the good thing? That's my question.

If you are smart/powerful and you amass all the goodies and all your neighbours are hungry, what will you do? You will share your things with your hungry neighbours or you just won't do anything?

The capitalist will open a bank and the socialist will open a cooperative. But you need a government in both the cases to ensure that there is no injustice/rapaciousness in the system. How little or how big the govt will be, let the people decide. The extreme capitalist (free market advocate) will say--very little govt so that it can exploit everybody--make you work as a cheap worker, with minimal rights. It will break the families, make everyone a worker and create a consumerist society and culture (free to pursue what makes you happy). And when people begin to fail to pay the bank debts because they lose jobs (because of its in-built cyclical booms and downturns), they will be put in debt prisons. Then they will use the "little govt." to catch the small guy and put him in jail or seize his property.

I am not saying you sacrifice everything (You can have both--profit with underpinnings of morality). But you MUST have a check on the capitalist. Don't let the market run amok. That's my point. No matter what Ayn Rand and her acolytes say, that is what the current downturn has proved.

K: Indeed, there're multiple views to the idea. But I think it can be easy to dismiss Ayn Rand's views simply due to the unfavourable 'words' she has used to establish and evangelise her cause. Her view of capitalism is not about just inifinite profit, but 'earned' profits - money that one exchanges on a fair weighting based on the simple laws of economics - supply/demand/scarcity/abundance. If a capitalist would exploit people, then it's simply a 'looter' in her terms - the exchange is not fair, but forced. Look to the man of Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged - he is a capitalist in every sense, yet nowhere do we see exploitation. It's easy to be biased and think that when one man is made rich, the rest will surely suffer. That is what perhaps she is trying to fight - that the idea of true capitalism is not a dirty word, and any other variant (corrupted) of capitalism that does not base its exchange fairly is not true capitalism at all.

Should the people decide? I've heard from my parents each time the election is near to cast the vote for the opposition, from countless taxi drivers that we should have more say. Ayn Rand's argument is that the voice of the crowds doesn't necessarily count as just, and I agree with it. If Lee Kuan Yew gave in to every whim of the people, where would we be? Can democracy really be the answer? I remember reading somewhere in a crowd psychology book that says the level of the crowd is as high as its weakest link. I read about the witch hunting that led to the massacre of innocent people. I read about how women are abused and oppressed in Tehran for ages because of such a voice.

Are what we view easily as 'oppression' today really that? When a man fails and gets into debts, what proportion of that disaster is his responsibility? None? No, if he is true he understands the risks of his undertakings, both good and bad. So many have preached that the world is to be a fair place, but is it? How do we view justice? Ideal or practical reality? The fact that in Atlas Shrugged all the true capitalists pulled out and went into hiding was because of the misguided voice of the crowd. Is the market amok today because of 'capitalism', or is it really just an easy scapegoat so the masses can point a finger at when things go wrong? Did the average retailer make accusations when times were good? Did the average person refrain from excess when he had bonuses and payouts? The masses' failure to embark on Joseph's lesson from the Bible of using the '7 years of good to prepare for the 7 years of lack' is what caused them their misery today, not capitalism.

If capitalism is truly evil, then the children of Africa should have been spared. The children of China should not be progressing onwards to this evil since Mao. They should be blessed in their previous run, why rush towards capitalism like lemmings to their fall? The current downturn is not to me a byproduct of capitalism, but of foolish indulgence. It's like the kid who screwed his life up with drugs and stuff and points at his own family and calls them dysfunctional and responsible for his downfall. It's the evading of responsibility that has cost us, not the desire for self-interest. If a country suffers, the people cannot evade responsibility. Whether they are ruled by a dictator or not, the truth remains - Hitler is an easy scapegoat, the true culprits are the masses who appointed him their puppet for the promise of a chicken in their pot.

To think otherwise, is to insult the martyrs and revoluntionaries who paid for the truth and their responsibility in blood.
P.S. Seriously though, by not allowing banks and crap companies to fall, isn't it beginning to look like Atlas Shrugged deja vu?

Me: Good debate.

I can see where you are coming from. But you are confusing a lot of issues--I can see that too. The systems (mark that word systems pls) in US, Singapore and Iran are very different. I will not go into details.

I don't know what exactly Ayn Rand preached (but can take her as a preacher of free markets), but perhaps I have some understanding of capitalism (and free markets). Capitalism is just not about money or banks--it is the whole ecosystem that you see in a society. The American kid that grew up there, learnt to have drugs and learnt to run his life on credit--did all that within that system. Who taught him that? Why did he behave in that way? Why did others in other countries not behave that way? Ask yourself that question.

So, you can see where I am coming from.

By blaming the masses for their choices (are there real choices? Even that is debatable) you are delinking democracy from capitalism. That is again a big subject. And let us not go into China or totalitarianism (Hitler, etc).

So, basically, answer these two questions:

1. You believe in capitalism without democracy? If there is no democracy, what will be the form of govt.?
2. If a poor guy, because of his stupidity or for some systemic reason (say downturns or layoffs), falls on bad times, will you let him suffer and die or will you extend a helping hand to him?

With answers to these two questions, we can conclude this discussion.

K: Ok,

1. I believe in capitalism, and the freedom to every man for himself. Let each man govern and be fully responsible for their own actions. Perhaps that may lead us down the trail towards the survival of the fittest, but nature hasn't complain for a while, maybe it's not too bad.

2. I refer to the proverb - 'Give a man a fish, you feed him a day. Give the man a rod, you feed him for life.' I believe in extending a helping hand if he can embrace change and help himself, or else better die a victim, then live a persistent fool.

Africa and the New Colonialism

In his brilliantly written essay Capital Gains (Granta), novelist Rana Dasgupta makes us meet MC who is just 28. He operates five shopping malls across India, and he has another 1,400 acres under development. MC tells Rana that "that is just the beginning" and that "he is moving on to much bigger plans". What are these bigger plans? Let me quote from the essay:

‘We’ve just leased 700,000 acres for seventy-five years; we’re opening up food processing, sugar and flower plantations.’

He is so matter of fact that I’m not sure if I’ve heard correctly. We have already discussed how laborious it is to acquire land in India, buying from farmers at five or ten acres a time. I can’t imagine where he could get hold of land on that scale.

‘Where?’ I ask.

‘Ethiopia. My father has a friend who bought land from the Ethiopian president for a cattle ranch there. The President told him he had other land for sale. My dad said, This is it, this is what we’ve been looking for, let’s go for it. We’re going in there with [exiled Russian oligarch] Boris Berezovsky. Africa is amazing. That’s where it’s at. You’re talking about numbers that can’t even fit into your mind yet. Reliance, Tata, all the big Indian corporations are setting up there, but we’re still ahead of the curve. I’m going to run this thing myself for the next eight years, that’s what I’ve decided. I’m not giving this to any CEO until it meets my vision. It’s going to be amazing. You should see this land: lush, green. Black soil, rivers.’

MC tells me how he has one hundred farmers from Punjab ready with their passports to set off for Ethiopia as soon as all the papers are signed.

‘Africans can’t do this work. Punjabi farmers are good because they’re used to farming big plots. They’re not scared of farming 5,000 acres. Meanwhile, I’ll go there and set up polytechnics to train the Africans so when the sugar mills start up they’ll be ready.’

Shipping farmers from Punjab to work on African plantations is a plan of imperial proportions. And there’s something imperial about the way he says Africans. I’m stunned. I tell him so.

‘Thank you,’ he says.

‘What is on that land right now?’ I ask, already knowing that his response, too, will be imperial.


If you read the essay, and you should, you will also find MC later admitting that there are many many super rich young businessmen like him in India.

It's not just MC and rich businessmen like him who are eying Africa. There are many countries who are leasing land in Africa to ensure their food security. A new land grab is on as food is becoming the new oil:

Governments and investment funds are buying up farmland in Africa and Asia to grow food -- a profitable business, with a growing global population and rapidly rising prices. The high-stakes game of real-life Monopoly is leading to a modern colonialism to which many poor countries submit out of necessity.


But what happens, as Horand Knaup and Juliane von Mittelstaedt ask, in a globalized world when colonies arise once again? We will have to wait and see but it may not be a peaceful reaction.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Naseeruddin Shah on Theatre and Dastangoi

These days I have been reading some of the plays written by Singapore playwright and director Elangovan. He often goes for very provocative themes (The Gandhis of India being the subject of his latest production) which sometimes lands his plays in unsavoury situations. Most of his plays have politics for theme which is always interesting but a risky exercise. I assume that he enjoys that element of risk and provocation in his creative work--he is an adventure sportsman of theatre, if I may say so. And when I say this, I'm not being mean or disparaging.

His plays, I found, are rich in information but that makes them very verbose (he would have made a great investigative journalist). I don't know how his actors manage to deliver their lines as dialogues in his plays sometimes run to several paragraphs or even more than a page! A tough act! Nevertheless, his plays are important because they record things that nobody else will say or write.

But this post is not about him or his plays. Maybe I will write about that in future. What I want to relate here is that in Singapore, I got the opportunity to watch some theatre, follow some action in this line and I intend to keep doing that.

I had very little exposure to good theatre in school or even in college. At Aligarh, some of my friends were doing theatre but I hardly went to see any. I wanted to join theatre in college but unfortunately I did not read the list of selected candidates for the drama group@JNU and lost my chance. Never tried again. I was too lazy or too worried about my career. So, Mumbai, you are one 'struggler' less. More on that some other time again.

This post is about a man, an actor, who I have always admired. One of India's greatest actors, Naseeruddin Shah reminisces his past and present engagement with theatre as an art form, in a personal piece in Tehelka. Here, he reveals his love and respect for Geoffrey Kendall and his group Shakespeareana. In this piece, he also talks about Jerzy Grotowski, a great theatre actor, director and teacher whose style of theatre expounded in his book Towards a Poor Theatre greatly influenced Naseer:

Grotowski had extreme contempt for Broadway. Theatre can never match cinema’s illusion, so why was it competing to be the same? He asked three big questions: Is what theatre could do being done better than cinema? The answer was no. Then what was it that theatre used to do before the advent of cinema? And third, where had theatre sprung from? Theatre, he said, began with man’s need to communicate, not to dazzle. And in order to communicate, you don’t need huge castles disappearing on stage and helicopters and gondolas. The essential magic of theatre was to stimulate the imagination. Our poverty of resources should be our strength, not our weakness, he argued. If you remove everything extraneous – sets, lights, props, costumes – all you need is one actor in a black suit willing to work his butt off, and you have theatre. When you have two people who meet and talk, you have theatre. In his later life, Grotowski extended this argument so far, he began to dispense even with dialogue. He went on a different trip, searching for the primal state and sound. Theatre became synonymous with life – to a point where you couldn’t get a straight answer from him to any question, like what time of day it was.


Now, Naseer wants to stick to Dastangoi. I am eager to see him do it--I hope his group performs in Singapore in future. View this dastangoi clip (the only one I could find on Youtube) and tell me what you think of it. Do you also think that something like this could have inspired the great Dev Anand to speak the way he does (he delivers his dialgoues in a trademark Dev Anand style) or vice versa? I don't mean any disrespect to anyone but that's what came to my mind when I saw it.