Friday, May 03, 2013

The Akhond has moved house...

...lock, stock and smoking barrels. All of Swat can be accessed at:, where the Akhond,
Hurree Babu and N Roy live in peaceful coexistence.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Speaking Volumes: Emperors, apostates and absences

(Published in the Business Standard, August 14, 2012)

The price Raja Rammohan Roy paid in the early 19th century for expressing his views on Hinduism and sati was not minor. His mother ostracized the Brahmo reformer, and declared that he should not be allowed to inherit family property because he was an ‘apostate’.

The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohan Roy chronicles the anger of the Hindu community. The Raja’s criticism of Hindu traditions prompted some Hindus to throw the bones of cows into his courtyard. The reformer asked the women of the house to ignore them, though the practice continued for months.

In the words of the book, “…Great excitement was produced in Hindu society, and the orthodox feeling against Rammohun soon became very hostile”. Raja Rammohan Roy’s weapon was his knowledge of scripture (he translated the Upanishads, for instance), his zest for debate, and his ability to gather strong allies around him. He survived threats, excommunication attempts and much scurrilous gossip.

There were two kinds of persecution, however, that writers like Raja Rammohan Roy didn’t have to face—the direct death threat, or the threat that his views had incensed his assailants so much that they would relieve their emotions by attacking innocent members of the public. That distinctly medieval reaction has become such a commonplace today that it is now considered unremarkable.

For Indian writers, one of the saddest truths about living in this moment is the acceptance that they write with a gun held to their heads, if they are any kind of radicals. Last week, the poet, novelist and editor Jeet Thayil wrote a reflective piece in The Guardian after he was told that the opera Babur In London (with a libretto by him) could not be performed in India, because of fears of protests or violence.

The merits or demerits of Babur In London are not the subject of my column; the fact that most of the sentiments expressed by the Emperor’s ghost in the opera may be found in the Baburnama or in the emperor’s letters is no defence in these times.

It was the writing of histories, especially of Hindu mythological figures and historical heroes, that shut down first, after increasingly trenchant attacks on academics from Romila Thapar and AK Ramanujan to Wendy Doniger and James Laine. (Except for the Mughals, few historical figures are safe territory in India, and most publishers will not touch anything controversial, in the face of the very real fear of protests, riots, court cases and worse.) In the absence of true histories, what the Indian reader now has is pulp retellings of myth, unchallenging but safe.

The next to go were the plays: the late Habib Tanvir’s oeuvre was a repeated target, and many plays, especially some of Vijay Tendulkar’s more incendiary ones, seemed to fade from the stage. More books were challenged, and more disappeared from the shelves, from Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey to AK Ramanujan’s Collected Essays.

Each decade brought not just more book bans, but a slow tightening of the net as more subjects became effectively taboo, and almost literally, unthinkable. In the present, congratulatory state of Indian writing, where we celebrate the power of the mass market bestseller, literary festivals will soon start editing out the more inconvenient authors--the security risks, the arsonists--just as the mainstream has. Some dissent is tolerated, because it allows a judicious blindness: we can safely ignore those who are no longer welcome at the banquet, if we have a few genuine activists to leaven the lump.

This is not China, to lay that classic, knee-jerk argument to rest, and perhaps one of the reasons why what Thayil calls the rise of self-censorship is so insidious is because we’re more like Turkey or Malaysia. Authors have a buffet line of acceptable subjects to pick and choose from—the butter paneer of India travelogues, the savoury khichdi of intelligent fiction that stops just short of being truly challenging.

It’s hard to see what is lost when there’s so much still there; it is only the empty shelves that act as reminders. The shelves of the non-fiction missing from the Indian canon because it is impossible to write an honest life of Shivaji—or even Rammohan Roy—without stepping into controversy, the novels not written and thoughts left unarticulated because they might be too incendiary, disturbing the peace. The freedom of intellectual inquiry once claimed by Ramanujan, of complete creative fearlessness, claimed by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, the freedom to voice desire and discontent, claimed by Lal Ded or Andal: few writers living in India could confidently claim these freedoms today.

As Thayil says, quoting Nissim Ezekiel, most authors accept that no book is worth dying for—even when the author is not the person who wields the gun, the knife, calls up the mobs. And so we live with absences and silent ghosts, the permanent tenants of the censored mind.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

All creatures great and small

(This post was sparked by a story in The New York Times on the stray dog "menace" in India; and by reading Jai Arjun's post on human cruelty/ indifference towards animals.)

Naming the problem: Stray dog populations have risen in India over the last few years; as the population rises, some urban and rural areas see a rise in territorial, aggressive behavior among the dogs. The fear of rabies, dog bites and attacks has led to a growing demand in the media that the “stray dog menace” be tackled.

For people who have been bitten, know someone who has died of rabies or are just afraid of animals, the fear of strays is very real, and needs to be acknowledged. A death from rabies is particularly horrifying, and India has among the highest incidences of rabies cases in the world. But it should also be acknowledged that most stray dogs are not feral, or vicious; the majority are surprisingly forgiving, very affectionate and make loyal friends.

… and accepting responsibility for it: Calling it the stray dog problem or menace ducks a central issue. Humans are responsible for the rise in the stray dog population—not the dogs. From 2004 onwards, scientists and then journalists began tracking the apparently inexplicable deaths of vultures, carrion birds who used to be ubiquitous across India. By 2008, The New Scientist estimated that India had lost 95 % of its vulture population. The vultures were dying because they were feeding on dead cattle that had been given diclofenac, a drug that is toxic to many species of vultures. With the chief scavengers gone, stray dogs began to feed on dead cattle—and cases of rabies among dogs rose, even as the population of strays rose.

There’s a chain of cruelty at work here that most humans who talk about the stray dog “menace” don’t want to see. Diclofan is often given to cows in the last stages of their lives, because it reduces joint pain and prolongs their working lives. Even though there’s a ban on the drug, even after it was demonstrated that it killed vultures, diclofan continues to be used. The few vultures left are still in peril; the dogs who contract rabies from the carcasses of dead cows die just as horribly as humans do.

…our solution, having killed the vultures, is to want to kill the stray dogs. The problem with this solution is not just that the cold cruelty involved in culling dogs is abhorrent. (Most municipal councils don’t have the funds for painless euthanasia, so when dogs are culled, they are often poisoned—or, as happened in Bangalore, bludgeoned to death.) The problem, as wildlife experts have pointed out time and time again, is that this doesn’t work.

As Delhi knows with its urban monkey problem, removing animals from their territory—either by transporting them elsewhere, as is done with monkeys, or by killing them, as many want done with stray dogs—is ineffective. The langurs and monkeys of Delhi shuffle around in a constant arc of movement, as unsettled as this city’s beggars and slum-dwellers. Shift the old monkeys or dogs out, and new ones come in. Succeed in killing all of them, and other predators have an open run—rats, for instance.

Stray dogs are an easy target, because they’re not protected by religion. Monkeys, especially in parts of urban India, are far more aggressive than most dogs; cows are as ubiquitous. But in Hinduism, cows are sacred, and monkeys are seen as incarnations of Hanuman. The dog has no temples, and does not accompany any of the Gods. People who would not dream of demanding that monkeys be killed or cows be culled have no problem with demanding the death of dogs.

The garbage menace: The Indian practice of leaving mounds of garbage out in the open acts as restaurants for dogs, leopards, monkeys and other animals, with temples, hotels, restaurants, vegetable markets and meat shops being major offenders. If we were serious about making a particular neighbourhood unattractive for stray dogs and other animals, it would help if we cleaned up our backyards first.

Effective solutions versus visible solutions: One of the reasons why the dogcatcher’s van, or culling, appeals to many Indians as a solution is because they can see steps being taken, hear dogs yelping as they’re carted off to be killed. It will take at least some months before other strays move in, and for those months, people feel like they’ve achieved something. But most animal’s rights organisations are aware of the problems that accompany a drastic rise in animal populations. They’re also aware that a more permanent way to deal with high populations is threefold: a) neuter the dogs so that populations drop over time b) vaccinate the dogs so that even in the event of a scuffle, humans will not run the risk of rabies c) and this, for many Indians, is counterintuitive, be kind to the strays in your area and they will accept you far more easily as a member of the “family”, not to be harmed.

Dominion, and its opposite: This last argument is never a popular one, but it might be worthwhile making it anyway. The assumption that the world — and our neighbourhoods — belong exclusively to humans is not just arrogant, it’s untrue. Many Indians are ferocious in their expression of the view that animal rights should not matter more than human rights. Fair enough. But how about caring *almost* as much about animals? How about accepting that most neighbourhoods in India have had their animal settlers—cows, sparrows, bulbuls, dogs, cats, insects, cheels—for at least as long as they have had human settlers?

I often wonder why we’re so attached to the idea that the world was built for the exclusive use of humans. We’re not the fastest, prettiest, most astonishing or even most resourceful species. We’re not the only ones with the capacity to love our young, and our kind, or even the only animals with the capacity for empathy.

We’re the ones with the most weapons, though, and with the most control over the earth’s surface, and with the biggest egos. We assume that we have a right to do what we please with other species: because animals are voiceless, and because we can.

But there are few human pleasures greater than being able to connect with members of another species, to feel the simple pleasure of sharing the world with more than just your own kind. “The stray dog menace” sounds unpleasantly like “the Jewish problem”, or “the slum encroachments”. And in that, there is consistency: we’re as rough on the weak, the voiceless and the voteless among humans as we are on animals.

Eight years have gone by since the first vultures started dying from diclofan. In that time, we could have put our resources towards sorting out our garbage problem, really banning diclofan and creating better habitats for vultures, or trapping, neutering and vaccinating dogs. All of this would probably also have created better living conditions for humans. Over the next eight years, we could go on demonizing stray dogs, and then deal with whatever species rolls in after them. Or we might want to take responsibility, and change our own behaviour.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Shiny new website...

...over at It is Kolynos Kleen, Kolynos Bright, Kolynos Super Sparkling White: go visit.

Thank you :)

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Sangam House residencies: last date July 31

The applications for the Sangam House Residencies for 2012/ 2013 are online. The last date to apply is July 31.

I spent two weeks at their Tranquebar residency last year. It was a beautiful place, and we were lucky enough to have huge rooms at Neemrana’s Bungalow-on-the-Beach. I wrote all day, and went for long, peaceful walks, listening to the sea break over the black jagged rocks of the shoreline, watching the fishermen mend their nets. In the evening, a loose coalition of Danish and Indian writers shared conversation, and food, and stories.

But it wasn’t just a memorable experience. The Sangam Residency is perhaps the only working writing residency in India. Everyone wants to run literary festivals, companies want to sponsor literary prizes, but fewer people want to work on the unglamorous bits--the building of good public libraries, the steady running of writing residencies, all of that back-end stuff that goes into the making of writers.

It was the first time in my life that someone had given me the freedom to write. The deadlines, the cooking, the niggling business of daily life were erased for two weeks. After years spent pleasantly enough as a hack journalist, here was the luxury of someone else giving me the time I needed to work on writing that wasn't intended for a newspaper or a magazine. After Tranquebar, I learned, as everyone does, to make that time—by waking up an hour earlier, or doing fewer columns, or letting the books on the shelves go undusted so that you might write your own book for a change. But without that gift of space from strangers, I would never have made the time, because until then, it had seemed so indulgent to take time off to write for myself.

And I would never have met Arshia Sattar and DW Gibson. Arshia—writer, editor, translator, actor in her own right—hung around at the airport for two hours to greet all of us personally, and then handed each of us the biggest snack pack I’ve ever seen. There were sandwiches and cake and chips and bananas and fruit juices and Bombay khara biscuits and oranges and Coke and lemonade and patties and more fruit and – well, she was worried we’d be hungry on the drive.

DW Gibson, who’s just finished his book Not Working, ambled around, settling all of us in, never letting on that he, his wife and Arshia had taken the smallest, shabbiest rooms, leaving the large, comfortable, sea-facing or garden-facing ones to all of us. I’m sure there are fancier five-star residencies elsewhere in the world, but there is only one residency I know of where two writers will give up their own precious writing time in order to make a bunch of strangers feel at home. Go apply.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Speaking Volumes: Fifty Shades of Gah

(Published in the Business Standard, June 2012)

By the end of June, Fifty Shades of Grey had become such a runaway bestseller that EL James’ Sadism 101 manual had reached the most unexpected places. It was on sale in a Mapusa supermarket, at all airport bookstores, available at Delhi traffic lights where young children hawked copies: “Grey, Darker, Freed—take all together for discount, madam!”

Were these volumes of cleverly packaged bondage fantasies feminist, in their exploration of middle-aged Fantasyland soft porn, or anti-feminist, in their insistence that the woman’s role be essentially submissive? If you, like me, fondly call the book Fifty Shades of Gah in tribute to the scenes where the English language is tied up, flogged and ruthlessly dominated by the excessive use of exclamation marks, are we disastrously out of step with the mainstream?

It doesn’t matter, because the key to the surprising success of Fifty Shades is that it isn’t about the quality of EL James’s writing. As a bestseller, it’s surprising only because it’s succeeded in print; it’s an indicator of how powerful fan fiction/ reader-driven fiction has become in the last five to seven years.

Fan fiction began as an Internet phenomenon, where viewers of TV serials, films or engaged readers contributed their own homages to the series. Fan fiction writers might rewrite the plot of some episodes of a TV soap, or use characters made already famous—Harry Potter, Mr Spock—to create their own mashup. Soon, sites devoted entirely to fan fiction began to attract large and active communities, but there was more to this Internet phenomenon than just the homage to TV serials.

Think of it this way. In the pre-Gutenberg era, the power of the written word rested in the hands of those who controlled monasteries, and the scribes who laboriously copied manuscripts. Post-Gutenberg, power shifted first to the publisher and the printer, and then, as printing presses became less rare and more ubiquitous, power transferred to the writer. (The writer would argue that in the 21st century, it shifted back to agents and large publishing conglomerates, but that’s another discussion.)

For more than two centuries, to be a writer meant that you had started your apprenticeship as a reader. Most writers had the required 10,000 hours worth of writing under their belts when they began publishing, in the shape of unpublished short stories and abandoned first drafts of novels. But they also, for the main part, had 10,000 hours worth of reading behind them.

This view of writing is based on the idea that skill is essential, craft important.
But in order to enjoy the best that literature (which means no more or less than “things made from letters”) has to offer, the ideal reader would also have his or her 10,000 hours of reading. Without that apprenticeship, few of the greatest writers are accessible—not Tagore and Premchand, with their long descriptive passages, not Coetzee’s challenging ideas, nor Pamuk’s playfulness, nor Murakami’s magical landscapes.

This just doesn’t work for readers who deal with present-day challenges. One of these is the easy availability of less demanding entertainment, from the glass tit of television to the micro-stories of the Twitter feed. Another is the stressed attention span; recent studies show that contrary to popular belief, we cannot really multi-task.

Take the average intelligent person, force him or her to fragment their attention across the insistent demands of 21st century life, and what you have is someone who lacks the time or the attention demanded by the most challenging books. Add to this an unpopular but true fact: even as people develop better social media skills, gaming skills and visual skills, the average vocabulary level drops sharply, unless you make an active effort to sharpen your verbal skills.

The number of writing communities and story sharing sites on the Internet make a few basics clear. There is no lack of demand for stories in this age, and there is no lack of readership. But today’s readers are more comfortable following intricate plot twists than they are following stories that require engagement with a complex internal world, or writers who use very complex language. Fifty Shades of Grey reads like an omnibus of fantasies easily available online, compiled in one place by a writer who understands that today’s Marquis de Sade would have to communicate differently, in simpler, more basic language, to reach the same audience.

And if it has a lesson—aside from the basic one about not wearing leather in the Delhi heat unless you’re a practicing masochist—it’s a useful one. For those who insist that popularity is an index of literary worth, Fifty Shades of Grey is the only rebuttal you need. Reading it was chastisement enough. I am now hard at work on a piece of fan fiction in tribute to plumbers (so difficult to find in Delhi), called Fifty Shades of Grout.

Speaking Volumes: The Happiest Bloomsday Ever

(Published just after Bloomsday, in the Business Standard)

The official menu for Bloomsday is not kind to vegetarians. To celebrate James Joyce’s Ulysses in the manner of Leopold Bloom, start with thick giblet soup and nutty gizzards, move on to “a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes”.

The grilled mutton kidneys (which gave Bloom’s palate, memorably, a “fine tang of faintly scented urine) are optional for the squeamish, but then the squeamish are rarely among Joyce’s fans. This Sunday, when Bloomsday was celebrated in Ireland and elsewhere, the diehard Joycean had an excellent excuse to stuff himself—this is the year when Ulysses, and all of Joyce’s works, become public property.

Never was there a more jealous guardian of a literary work than Stephen Joyce. He was not so much heir to Joyce’s work as the dragon at the gates. He refused permission for scholars, biographers and dramatists to quote any more than the parsimonious allowance of words set down by the Copyright Act. He refused permission for James Joyce’s papers to be read or scrutinized, and he waged long and acrimonious battles against those who went ahead and wrote about Joyce, or Dubliners, or Molly Bloom, or Finnegan’s Wake anyway.

Under Stephen Joyce’s reign, few writers—even a newspaper columnist—would have felt free enough to quote passages from the works long enough to incur Stephen Joyce’s bitter wrath.

The end result, though Joyce’s books remained easily accessible, was to chop up his work into memorable phrases: “They are coming, waves. The whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled, the steeds of Mananaan.” “The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.” “Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa! Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa! Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa!”

In much of the public imagination, this is what remained of Ulysses, these slivers of Joyce—the gimmicks, but not the heart and the swift juxtapositions that made him such a great, sensitive writer. Here is Stephen Dedalus, thinking of his mother, now dead, no more than “an odour of rosewood and ashes”. In his mind, he continues: “A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.”

So many years after it was first published (and reviled, and then reclaimed), Ulysses remains surprisingly fresh, untarnished by time. The writers Joyce spawned did less well; Joyce, who was begat by Tristram Shandy, begat far too many bad imitators, who rise up in experimental flares every decade and are rapidly forgotten. Some, like GV Desani, whose Hatterr received permission for his linguistic exuberance from Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, have survived and are still admired. But All About H Hatterr, for all of its wonders, has dated and acquired a creaky patina that Ulysses never did. Molly Bloom stirs in bed, Leopold Bloom buys a cake of soap that smells of sweet lemony wax and eats the liver and kidneys, stately, plump Buck Mulligan bears his bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed; and the story Joyce tells, against the background of the ancient story of Odysseus, Greece dissolving into Ireland’s streets, remains sharp and clear.

The ones who did well among Joyce’s literary descendants weren’t those who tried to imitate his style, but those who understood why he had moved from the straightforward, hungrily observed stories of the Dubliners to the structural heights and freedom of Ulysses, until he finally demolished language itself in Finnegan’s Wake. The first school spawned a rash of writers who turned out passages of the “Thrash, kick, bite. Thrash, kick, slap” sort under the impression that they were being Joycean. Which is a little dangerous, like assuming you bought madeleines at the bakery and can now write like Proust.

The second school includes an enormous range of writers, from Arun Kolatkar to David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami, who sensibly cultivated their own particular, indelible styles, but understood what Joyce was trying to do in Ulysses—to capture all of life, instead of interpreting it. He crafts Ulysses with such skill that it seems to present life as it happens, in all of its inescapable, tangled, human messiness.

There are two ways to look at your existence, said Joyce in Ulysses. One is to see it as a short, nasty business: “Bridebed, childbed, bed of death, ghostcandled.” The other was to celebrate the “warm beds: the warm fullblooded life”. He gave both of them to his readers, in dense paragraphs that ran on for two pages or fragmented sentences, and let them choose.

And on this Bloomsday, this year, with an end to Stephen Joyce’s petty tyrannies, the choice was easy. “Heavenly weather really. If life was always like that. Cricket weather. Sit around under sunshades. Over after over. Out.”
Visit to discover Indian blogs