Friday, April 30, 2010

[...and mumbai] mehta: alice in bhuleshwar

#42 Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood, Kaiwan Mehta

I won't, and you will see why, but I could hug this book for a number of reasons. Its passion for its subject, the old 'native' neighbourhood of Bhuleshwar in South Bombay, practically runs off the page. Its ideas are subtle. Its presentation of modern-day challenges is clear-eyed but not prescriptive or hectoring. Its research is astounding: from the backstories of individual wadis [compounds, or colonies, or co-ops, as we might understand them], to the popular art and literature in a multitude of languages that originated from Bhuleshwar, it packs in so many little facets, so many illuminating histories of the neighbourhood, that anyone interested in Bombay could perhaps only wish for a series of similar books about other neighbourhoods in the city: ones with longer or shorter histories, with different immigrant cultures, and with different histories of labour and land relations - yet so clearly bound by some of the same glue that has stuck Bhuleshwar together.

Bhuleshwar is an amorphous area - it represents the small but stunningly diverse edge of what was once Bombay's white neighbourhood, the old commercial and government district at the southernmost tip of the island, running off left on the north-west to include the residential districts of Malabar Hill and Napean Sea Road. Across and beyond these lay the native town of the labourers, the tradesmen, and the shopkeepers, starting uncertainly from the green fringe of what is today called Azad Maidan, and hemmed in between Marine Lines and Charni Road stations [a distance that is covered in three minutes by a train on the Western line]. In Mehta's walk through this area, he employs a variety of different disciplines to try and uncover its logic - a difficult and limiting term, he warns us at the very outset. Can it be explained by its architecture? Its economics? Its history? Its art? The oral testimonies of its residents? He says,

At this point I would wish to discuss the 'experience' of a city...This is not for documentation or descriptive purposes, but to understand the structure of experiences, the forms in which this experience is structures, the articulations of this experience, for it is the images of this experience - the one we experience and the one we imagine and fantasise about - that is the structure of urbanity and city-ness essentially.

And sadly, this is how the book becomes unreadable, except as an intelligent but somewhat unintelligble jumble. Mehta clearly has ideas and stories coming out of his ears, and he has hypotheses and flights of fancy to lighten up virtually every single page of this little book. But it is about as coherent as a map of Bandra West, which as everyone knows is a rabbit warren masquerading as a neighbourhood. This is obviously what Mehta wants to indicate, as evident in his title: that even the a-ha! moment of identification we experience, whether as tourists or as inhabitants, is solipsistic. But in this case, 'show not tell' is a mistaken strategy. I come away with no lasting impressions of the book, except perhaps that an editor with a gimlet eye and a red pen might have done something truly wonderful with this material. Perhaps I need to tackle it again, with a highlighter and a bunch of post-its this time, just to see what is in it. Damn it, Bombay, THIS IS LIKE LIVED CRITICISM OR SOMETHING.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
Human Voices
Heir to the Glimmering World
Chasing the Sun: Stories from Africa
Fire Sale
The Leopard

[great cities, ii] al aswany: the yacoubian building

#41 The Yacoubian Building, Alaa al Aswany, trans. Humphrey Davies

This is an unobtrusive and beautiful translation of a strange, sad, sometimes lovely novel. The Yacoubian building, the translator's note tells us, does in fact exist in Cairo, but the real one is very different from the block where al Aswany's characters flourish, mingle and decay. Each character is his or her own little Cairo in this novel: exiled from the past, detached from other, crueller parts of Egypt, or cut off from a future, they all linger in the uncertain present of a city that is almost too old to have a history. Former aristocrats, who remember the colonial city, a cosmopolitan and high-bred haven for the upper classes, struggle bitterly with the new realities of Cairo, while new immigrants to the city find themselves alienated without money or education, huddled on the terraces of the building, above the apartments of those they serve. It is incredibly hard to be poor in this Cairo, and even harder to be a poor woman. No matter how harshly the line is drawn between man and woman, or gay and straight, the ultimate and insurmountable hurdle is class. Sustaining that hurdle [in an ur-text that echoes a clear and present strain in Indian popular culture] is the omnipresent corruption: in government systems, of religion, and of course, in relationships.

But The Yacoubian Building is not grim, even if it is harsh. It builds itself on small, almost light-hearted human dramas, in which the lives of the building's residents - ranging across classes and cultures - criss-cross with each other. Some of the stories end on a note of unexpected sweetness, but the frustrations of the novel surface in the way not enough do. The narrative voice is ironic and cool, but it folds a strong sense of justice in between the lines. None of the stories set out to make amends for inujstice, or serve anyone their just desserts, either: we are led to sympathise with each character, we are not promised, nor do we receive, sympathetic ends to all their stories. Nor is al Aswany ready to build barricades against any single kind or class of person, except perhaps for the evident dissatisfaction, universal among the characters, for Egypt's dictatorial government and its inability to serve any of its citizens well.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

[great cities, i] stangalino, jakubowski: rome noir

#40 Rome Noir, edited by Chiara Stangalino and Maxim Jakubowski, translated by Anne Milano Appel, Ann Goldstein and Kathrine Jason

Against all available evidence I always feel like I could be at home in Italy, in most places except two. One is Venice, which I readily admit is a failure of imagination: of course it is no mere maze of romantic canals. Venice's history is long and complex enough to turn the screws on any irresponsible tourist, and I suppose going there simply to ride in a gondola is about as enlightened as touristing to Varanasi to find ~inner peace~. My other blind spot is Rome; I don't know why. It is indisputably one of the world's own cities. It has everything you could hope for, PLUS two great football clubs*. And yet I never imagined Rome and myself as having anything to do with each other, until I read this collection, part of Akashic Books' series of noir anthologies.

Many of these stories foreswear the stylisation of noir, while engaging with its consciousness of the absurd. Their protagonists are universally driven by some sort of obsession, all of them bending reality in varying degrees of consciousness; all trying to make Rome, or Romans, fit around them. So marked is the emphasis on the inner life, so much do many of the narrators here live in their own heads, that it may often seem like their location is incidental to the narrative. This is one aspect of the collection that I am not convinced I like. Noir as people like me understand it is heavily reliant on the particulars of urbanity [rather than just the particulars of locality]. To me noir is also a very visual medium: Los Angeles and New York, and of course Bombay, have a noir aesthetic that I can understand because I have absorbed these cues through film, even before literature. Many of Rome Noir's stories are unconcerned by the visual element, or call it up in heavily ironic and self-reflexive ways [as in the story where a historian must interpret the gruesome hallucinations of tourists taken sick around the Colosseum]. But I guess urban noir is about representing the alienation of the self in a colossal and complex system, and not really about explaining it. Part of the tension urbanity creates is in how this inevitable alienation rubs up against our inevitable intimacies with others. A city is simply a network of relations in one sense, after all; what sets us adrift within these landscapes?

The more I read these stories, the more I began to appreciate the resistance of many stories to rely on cultural cliches. But I do wish there had been a stronger organisation against the psychological cliches, of which there are many. Doomed lovers, weak fathers, crazy cops. Yada yada, you know? And many stories touch upon a physical alienation, of the immigrant communities of Roma, Chinese, Africans and South Asians. Yet, the stories that engage with this are about the attitudes of other Italians to these new settlers: not a single narrator or protagonist, as far as I made out, actually comes from these populations. Few stories revolve around the young or the old; and for one of the foundational locations of Western politics, not one of these Roman stories is overtly concerned with politics. A diversity of thought and voice would have strengthened this collection immeasurably.

Clever, nuanced and often polished, none of the translations are really memorable, except for those of my two favourite stories. There is a lovely suppleness to the last one in the collection, Nicola Lagioia's 1988, translated by Ann Goldstein. This is a memoir of teenage crime, a polished, atmospheric gem of a story, totally absorbing and almost flawless. The seams are invisible here. And inevitably, they are all too plainly on display in the opening story, my other favourite, Nicoletta Vallorani's Pasolini's Shadow. The filmmaker's legend appears twice in two different stories in this book, and Vallorani's story almost places his shade as a watcher over the other characters. In a surreal, poetic narrative, we hear of the last night of Pasolini's life in his own voice. And Pasolini the artist, the foreigner to Rome, is the one protagonist in this book purely concerned with the city as a symbol. It is a highly stylised, dramatic, heartbreaking piece of writing, and its best achievement is to take the familiar elements of mythology - of Rome, of Romans, even of Pasolini's tragic death - and render it into something eerie and yes, alien. At that moment the whole edifice is completely horrifying and completely familiar. The Romans, as Pasolini reminds us, were builders of roads. In his voice, the reiteration of this bromide opens all roads up to Rome -- and Rome up to everyone.

* - alright you can make your Cisco Roma joke now.

eta Aha, Aishwarya has written about the Delhi number, Delhi Noir, here.

Monday, April 26, 2010

wharton, wharton and ashraf

#37 The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

Books are generally a tissue of lies. Old age and hard use inure your finer feelings to their manipulative effects, especially if you are reading them on the 9.10 Churchgate fast local. So it is an unpleasant surprise to come across a book that can not only pierce through the calluses of a lifetime's experience of Books That Lie, but do it so thoroughly that it can ruin your whole week. This is exactly what The House of Mirth achieves. For an unpleasant and untrue book, its effect on the tear glands is remarkable. It is almost as though the reader has a secret self-indulgent, self-pitying streak buried deep, hidden away alongside the beauty and brilliancy underappreciated by a dishonest world.

What am I describing here? What did I just read that so affected me? A novel about a rich woman incurring gambling debts that she is eventually unable to pay? Trying and failing to catch a wealthy husband? Falling into social and financial ruin thanks to a villainous and unfeeling world that consists of about thirty people who seem to lie about giving parties all day? A doomed romance? Oh girl. Are you kidding me? A heroine who is 'bred for ornamentation only'? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I mean maybe its just me, but if George Eliot went before me in telling the stories of rich women [and men] whose education and philosophies can completely betray them, sometimes even to the point of death, I would have some shame before I sat down to write The House of Mirth, you know?

I'm not trying to pull some version of the BOOTSTRAPS! argument on this book and on Lily Bart. Of course, women's lives are circumscribed in ways that not even the most liberated, or even the recklessly brave, are able to always escape. Of course anyone who fell into ruin in the way Lily does in the course of the book could not always pick herself up and dust herself off and become an adventuring pirate with numerous devoted and buff gentleman callers crowding the deck of the barge. And of course - to acknowledge the soul of the book - I do not mean that a person in a book, any more than one in life, is to be despised for being unable to exchange ideas for expediency. But surely such characters are not to be pitied, either. And Lily is not a principled ideologue*. She's really not very much of anything, as Wharton is keen to emphasise. Not much of anything, that is, except a victim of her circumstances. I leave it to you to guess how much I love books in which heroines have nothing left to do in the last five pages but die protracted deaths for no fault of their own.

Of course a big and perhaps quite well-highlighted flaw in the Wharton worldview is its insufferable snobbishness. Perhaps no reader of novels can justifiably escape being a snob of some sort, but Wharton's is not the Ideal Snobbery. It's more - well, more a tissue of snobbery. While symptomatic in books like the one I describe below, which is set in a world where poor people don't exist, the tissue is present and pulsing in The House of Mirth, which must perforce describe the scenery flying past as Lily tumbles down the socio-economic ladder. Equally unforgivable to me, in spite of Wharton's partially-redeeming use of the character later in the book, is her 'that little Jew' treatment of Simon Rosedale.

And yet, WTF. There's just something so compelling in this elegant trainwreck, in this tissue, indeed, of trainwreckery, that by the time you've caught the 8.52 Borivali fast and are nearing home you have to shut the book on the last few pages, when Lily, betrayed and bereft by those she once considered friends, is fucking up sewing sequins on a hat in a millinery factory, because you can't cross the overbridge with streaming eyes. There is something so thrillingly sad about Lily's downfall, because she both does and does not deserve it, and because Wharton is so mercilessly able to sacrifice her in order to criticise the falsehoods of the alien, ancient world Lily - and once, Wharton - depended on, you find yourself compelled by the strange notion that whether or not this tragedy deserves your pity, it is completely justified in evoking your terror.

But what a cheat, nonetheless. What the hell, woman, EVERYONE ELSE IN THE FACTORY IS MAKING HATS FOR A LIVING. Why are you so bad at it that only an OD in a strange bedroom can close your story with proper eclat?

#38 The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton [re-read]

As I have hated The House of Mirth on first read [and will return to it time after time to examine more closely what it is about it that is so readable nonetheless], so I have loved The Age of Innocence, which I first read as an impressionable young person who liked anything with Daniel Day-Lewis in its movie version. A foolish, sentimental, manipulative, gorgeously-written book - just like The House of Mirth, actually - it had, when I first read it, something miserably sweet about it; the idea that two people doomed never to be together could find a way to be principled and even happy, in spite of doom etc., for the sake of the world around them. You know, men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

But again this book shocked me in a way it did not a decade ago.

WTF is up with May Welland?

How is this doomed etc. romance, set up between two people of grace and sensibility, so thoroughly wrecked by someone characterised so poorly by Wharton that she can only be described as a POD PERSON?

May Welland is bland. May Welland is stupid. May Welland is narrow-minded. May Welland is a mean bitch. Is there anything she does not do to oblige Newland Archer - her eventual husband and one half of the doomed etc romance, the other being May's cousin, the married and melancholy Ellen Olenska - to despise her? Could a book with such a sharp eye for how a family or a society can repress individuals be MORE clueless when it comes to the treatment of one of its own central characters? At the end of the book Daniel Day-Lewis was a forgotten fancy; Michelle Pfeiffer was a gorgeous dream. I was rooting to SET MAY FREE. Send her a cruise to Monte Carlo! Bring on the rakish gamblers! The inheritance! The underground archery club! Run, Winona, run!

Someday I will write that story.

Until then, I just hope no one is still teaching Edith Wharton in classes on feminism.

#39 The Beast (Numberdar ka Neela), Syed Muhammad Ashraf, trans. Musharraf Ali Farooqi

What a satire. This is a fantastic novella about a village in which the rapacious Thakur Udal Singh takes advantage of a rare blue bull to evoke fright and doubt among the people of his village, and how his plans - and Neela the bull - eventually slip out of his control. The narrative voice is almost dispassionate, but it frames a very righteous anger burning its way through the book, about how power accrues with the powerful, and how religion, poverty and corruption can serve a very narrow but instiable greed. It is also a great story about the madness of the exploiter meeting the madness of the exploited. This is not a story concerned with justice, except in its reliable absence.

The translation was curiously jaw-droppingly good at some points, and frustratingly clumsy in some details, but on the whole, I thought it was an excellent, even-handed job: it borrowed some of the authenticity of a setting so alien to English. Good stuff, and it is one of the few books from this quarter of Book Munch that I can wholly recommend.

* - Man, I hate those.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
Alice in Bhuleshwar
The Yacoubian Building
Human Voices
Roman Noir
Heir to the Glimmering World
Chasing the Sun: Stories from Africa

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

the april shit-list

The first few books I read this month were largely disheartening, and I can't bring myself to write much about any of them [apart from Danielle Steele, obviously] so I'm making post-its, rather than notes, about them.

#32 Songs of Blood and Sword, Fatima Bhutto

English-language popular history is something with which the subcontinent could always do, particularly stuff not explicitly written to please MBAs and religious fundies, so I looked forward to this book since the minute I heard about it. Again, it seems false advertising got the better of me, since it is not so much a history as a hagiography of the author's grandfather, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto [not exactly the world's nicest prime minister] and her father Murtaza. A book like this has every right to exist, and even to be conditionally applauded for daring to frame an exceptional harangue against Pakistani president and the author's uncle-by-marriage, Asif Ali Zardari -- even if that harangue carries unpleasant overtones of classist entitlement. There it ends. It is rather obviously a very personal piece of writing, because of which I will be amazed if people without a deeply personal interest in the fortunes of the Bhutto family [as opposed to Karachi, or Sindh, or Pakistan, or indeed the subcontinent] have found anything to like very strongly about it.

#33 Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis

Some melancholy writer-type befriends a salt-of-the-earth jack-of-all-trades, moves with him to Crete, gets him to work the mines on his land while he sits about and contemplates existence, and learns valuable lessons about life, love and the world from this working-class hero. Tiresome, dated, classist, sexist Rabelais-fail that even manages to make modern Greece [MODERN GREECE!] boring. No saving grace whatsoever. I'm about to read The Last Temptation soon and it had better make up for this hideously boring nonsense times ten.

#34 Raffles, E. W. Hornung

Here is George Orwell's essay on Raffles. This is the classic book of stories about an ace cricketer and burglar, on whom many of the beloved British dandy-adventurers of the 1900s are based, including James Bond and the Scarlet Pimpernel. The book is dedicated to the author's brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle, and I read somewhere that Raffles, to the late Victorian reading public, formed a sort of elegant doppelganger to that eminent thief-catcher Sherlock Holmes. It even has worshipful bromance in the form of Raffles' sidekick, Bunny. How you can make such exciting material and context so bloody rubbish is a question that plagued me through the first story. I assumed it would get better. Then on the first page of the second story I came across a shockingly anti-Semitic caricature as well as the casual use of the word 'Kaffir' within paragraphs of each other! So not only did it not get better, IT GOT WORSE! Never ever EVER read this book even if someone pays you to do it. It will rot you.

#35 Loving, Danielle Steele

Okay, I lied about this being a shit-list. This is actually a brilliant instance of its genre and has probably set cosmic standards of excellence that leaves all other books of its ilk crouching in the shadow of its magnificence. It has surpassed anything I have ever read by Danielle Steele, including the one where the farm girl has an illegitimate baby with the Congressman, or the one with clones, or the one with the Japanese-American girl who has to go to an internment camp during World War II. It has handsome rakish love interests. It has a beautiful and fragile young girl for a heroine, who has gorgeous clothes and an interesting past, instead of a personality. It has this heroine marry her way out of financial trouble, like, FOUR TIMES. It has exceptionally cruel villains. It has everything! Why would you not love it?

And I have to say this for Danielle Steele, she is really not afraid to let things get downright messy, emotionally and otherwise, in her books. If it's something another writer would feel awkward or shy about putting in her book, Danielle Steele will write it out in letters of flame on the page and having writ, move on airily to the next Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree. It's really great. If you're reading a section and thinking gosh, now this old guy has the hots for his dead friend's daughter whose guardian he purportedly is, that's really sort of improper, then on the next page Steele will have her heroine think, 'It was almost like incest...but!' [exclamation mark mine]. If she wants a medical crisis in the middle of the book she puts in an evil obstetrician who ties the heroine down to the bed in the middle of labour. If you think at some point of time in the book that a divorce would be the wrongest thing to happen to the heroine - she's divorced within three pages. If you think, 'OMG, girl, do not sleep with that sleazebag,' she has slept with the sleazebag before you can say 'sex.' No matter what you may think of this book or yourself after you have closed it [and put it in the drawer that contains your school slam books and old threatening letters from banks], while it is going on it is for the win. For the bloody win. It even has a green card marriage.

#36 Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers & The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe

Okay, guys, I love reading snark about clueless American hipsters as much as the next person, and I know that Tom Wolfe is capable of being a bewitching writer [something all the other writers - apart from Danielle Motherfucking Steele - on this post could learn]. But this is a sad, corrosive pair of essays. Radical Chic starts off as an absolutely acidic indictment of upper-class, white New York society's private reasons for fundraising for the Black Panthers, but can't really sustain this critique, and ends up rambling on about poor Lenny Bernstein and his other upper-class white New Yorker friends in a way that has absolutely no purpose but to make the reader feel better about themselves. And the second essay, Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers about minority groups in San Francisco scamming white authorities by playing on social guilt, is just unreadable. Wolfe is good at mimicking the voices of his peers, but not those different from him.

The Painted Word is his comment on New York's pretentious art world in the Seventies. I'm generally a fan of the deflation of artistic ideals, since I can never be 19 again, and Wolfe is good at tracing how ideas themselves are captives of the market. But his is the style of the rhetorician, and the rhetorician, particularly the rhetorician who is also a satirist, cannot be a historian. I laughed through it, but in the end I wasn't sure why I did, since I don't know anything about Jackson Pollock, anyway.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
The Age of Innocence
The House of Mirth
Alice in Bhuleshwar
The Beast
The Yacoubian Building
Human Voices

Monday, April 19, 2010

a poem for the hungry and the psocialist


Translated by Alastair Reid - Wuthering (1988) Love: Ten Poems By Pablo Neruda

When they were called to the table,
the tyrants came rushing
with their temporary ladies,
it was fine to watch the women pass
like wasps with big bosoms
followed by those pale
and unfortunate public tigers.

The peasant in the field ate
his poor quota of bread,
he was alone, it was late,
he was surrounded by wheat,
but he had no more bread;
he ate it with grim teeth,
looking at it with hard eyes.

In the blue hour of eating,
the infinite hour of the roast,
the poet abandons his lyre,
takes up his knife and fork, puts his glass on the table,
and the fishermen attend
the little sea of the soup bowl.
Burning potatoes protest
among the tongues of oil.

The lamb is gold on its coals
and the onion undresses.
It is sad to eat in dinner clothes,
like eating in a coffin,
but eating in convents
is like eating underground.
Eating alone is a disappointment,
but not eating matters more,
is hollow and green, has thorns
like a child of fish-hooks
trailing from the heart,
clawing at your insides.

Hunger feels like pincers,
like the bite of crabs,
it burns and has no fire.
Hunger is a cold fire.
Let us sit down to eat
with all those who haven't eaten;
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.

For now I ask no more
than the justice of eating.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

nagarkar: ravan and eddie

I found myself thinking about this in tandem with a novel I have not re-read in very long. I blame Fury. I always will, possibly for everything wrong with the world.

#31 Ravan and Eddie, Kiran Nagarkar [re-read]

I first read Midnight's Children when I was about 16, and it changed my life, expectedly. Not only its English but also its images were so intensely familiar, in a way that no other book I had read in school was, that it made literature, for the first time, possible. It was possible to borrow its nostalgia and its complexes. It was a book too good to make a reader feel self-important, but it made one matter.

I read Ravan and Eddie a couple of years after that. Since that time, I have re-read Midnight's Children once, and Ravan and Eddie about eight times at least. It is one of the least nostalgic*, least familiarity-breeding novels I have ever read. When I read it for the first time I also thought it was one of the funniest books ever written. But I think it is one of those novels that get less funny as you get closer to its truth. On successive readings I have always found myself horrified, disturbed and sad in turns at the way it narrates the casual ugliness of sex, the pervasiveness of violence, the marriage of worshipfulness and nauseating hatred in men's attitudes to women, and above all, the relentless worry that distinguishes its milieu. Nagarkar's way of telling the story is to make it as grim as he possibly can, and put a lot of jokes in to really turn the screws. You laugh as you might in life - you also find a compassion that you tend to in life.

Since Midnight's Children is about twinning, and since I've already started this post by pairing Rushdie's book with this one, and since you've already read the title of this novel, it will come as a complete shock to you that this book is about two boys whose fates are linked. Ravan lives on the Marathi Hindu floor of the Central Works Department chawl in Mazgaon; Eddie on the Catholic floor. They are both traitors to their identities in different ways; they also hate each other passionately, and never stop. It is stupidly obvious that they have more things in common than either of them realise. Nagarkar does not take it upon himself to milk this for tragedy or redemption: he just lets the praxis sit there and grow, relishing its trivialities. It is possible to see how the tumult of class, caste and gender relations in the bustling throng of the CWD chawl might be characterised as fragile and temporal: its emotional energies are as hand-to-mouth as existence itself can be in the CWD chawl. Nagarkar sees through their little self-preserving hypocrisies and their circularity. Life in a Nagarkar book is always brutal, but at least his characters are guaranteed not to be patronised. It is possible, in the Nagarkar worldview, to earn happiness, even in its fragile and temporal glory, and value it in spite of the frustratingly low returns on investment, as though it is the only important thing in the world. Conversely, grief interests Nagarkar but melancholy bores him; who has the time, the novel seems to say? Ultimately these are the things that propel the novel, even after the stencilling starts to show on Ravan, Eddie, their formidable mothers, their absent fathers and their distant and flawed gurus.

Nagarkar's language is one of my favourite things about this novel and his writing in general. Without inaccuracy or incoherence, he writes an English as far from its received register as can be. It is perfectly intelligible and largely unmixed with other languages [unlike Rushdie's chutneyfication] and yet it reads exactly as an unposh Indian accent sounds: part-colonial, part-native, with a syntax that echoes a local language without quite eschewing the structure of British English, rounded, but stiff. He is less impressive when you are reading with a clear head and able to see what a mess the novel is structurally. Is it meant to be episodic? Am I supposed to let it wash over me, or keep track as it goes back and forth in time? Is it supposed to be read in chunks? It is an annoying display of seams in an otherwise convincing display of sprezzatura. Perhaps more control over these things would have made it a better book. But of course, I still think it is a very good book.

At 16, just as you can enter Rushdie's rarefied, cosmopolitan upper-class Mumbai circa 1950 with no trouble at all, you can also borrow the CWD chawl, with its compressed, anxious and self-segregating layers of the working class. On successive readings it is possible to retain some self-awareness even as you lose yourself in the terror and the chaos of these respective worlds. Rushdie's work has not just gained the pedestal of the definitive Bombay novel in English; it brought the pedestal, nailed it to the ground, and stood up on it, all while being a novel that actually traversed a pretty large stretch of the subcontinent. Yet for me, Ravan and Eddie has been the city novel since the minute I read it. Why is that? Do I believe that CWD chawl Mazgaon is a Mumbai more 'real' than Warden Road? I do not. But Ravan and Eddie is a more realistic novel, to use the term in its narrowest sense, than Midnight's Children; it represents its subject more literally** than Midnight's Children does. It is first and foremost a story about its chosen slice of Mumbai while Midnight's Children, of course, is first and foremost about the imagination it sprang from. This time, I read it in two-hour long commutes between home and work in a crowded local, with the sound of women fighting, talking, praying and working all around me, echoing through the book and mingling perfectly with its undercurrents. Of course it is about those boring things that you worry about all the time as an adult in Mumbai: about how little space you have, how little time you have, how little control you have, and how, no matter what you are doing, you will never escape being someone's neighbour.

* - I mean that. In spite of the fact that it is a wildly immersive experience and glories in exploring the different country that was newly independent India, where Goa was still a Portuguese colony and Cuticura Talcum Powder a luxury talc, the writing is only ever indulgent in service of something else, and hardly ever of itself.

** - that must be the first time in years I've used that word correctly.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
Songs of Blood and Sword
Zorba the Greek
The Age of Innocence
Alice in Bhuleshwar
The Beast
The Yacoubian Building
Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers
Human Voices

Saturday, April 10, 2010

jasanoff: edge of empire

#30 Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture and Conquest in the East, 1750 - 1850, Maya Jasanoff

A history of art collectors in the earliest days of the British Empire, in India and Egypt: how could a book like this rise above its context of plunder and appropriation? Jasanoff is also concerned with this. At the end of her preface, she says:

In no way do I wish to make an advertisement or an apology for empire, past, present or future. But empires are a fact of world history. The important question for this book is not whether they are "good" or "bad," but what they do, whom they affect, and how.'

It may not be immediately clear how someone who wishes to liberate a study of empire from an ethical context can also be so categorical in stating that she is not going to be an apologist. In fact, I'm not sure how the book actually succeeds at what it does. But it is a success. How does she do it?

Her book is a tightrope act. The stories of the marginal men she collects in this book - scholars, dilettants, bounty-hunters and artful dodgers - are propelled by orientalism: both in the Saidian formulation of this basic facet of empire-building, as well as her own understanding of how orientalism develops in an imperial culture. Her goal is to focus on the accumulation and loss of power through cultural artefacts for individuals. Because the book travels on foot, so to speak, a lot of the tensions of race and conquest unspool into something less domineering than the edifice of Empire at the institutional level. Her subjects are fascinating men driven to the cosmopolitan mess of late-1700s India, a battlefield of interests that in many ways absorbs the tensions of that other great battlefield of the time: Europe. In the stories of men like Claude Martin (well-known to Indians thanks to his La Martiniere schools, which are still around and - I think, judging by their regular appearance on the Bournvita Quiz Contests - flourishing) and Antoine Polier, both Frenchmen in Lucknow under the reign of the dissipate Asaf-ud-Daula, Jasanoff is also telling the history of empire as a history of land and wealth collected as spoils in a global war between England and France. It is a history of pettiness, bureaucratic tangles, and the desperation of mercenary tricksters trying to fashion themselves through the works of beauty they acquired.

And they are fantastic stories without exception. Jasanoff goes from men like Robert Clive, Empire's Number One man and a frantic social climber, to women like his daughter-in-law Henrietta, travelling through Srirangapatnam in the wake of Tipu Sultan's death, describing wide-eyed the changes taking place in the landscape around her, and acquiring plants, animals and - of course - art, along her route to and from Madras. The men collecting in Egypt are even less savoury, but no less interesting, from the pathetic Henry Salt, to the Savoyard strongman Belzoni, both of whose names are still carved as graffiti into the wall of the Ramesseum at Thebes. The scale of the presumptuousness of the Egyptian collectors is offset by the enormity of its situation as a theatre of war: between the Mameluke governors and the restless Arab population, the Ottomans overseeing the country and their shifting alliances, the British and - most memorably of all - Napoleon. At the time of invasion Napoleon circulated the Arabic 'Proclamation to All Egyptians', and Jasanoff quotes it in a section called 'Abdallah Bonaparte'.

You have been told that I have come to this land only with the intention of eradicating your religion. But that is a clear lie; do not believe it. tell the slanderers that I have come to you only to rescue your rights from the hands of the oppressors. I, more than any Mamluk, worship God, glory be to Him, and respect His Prophet and the great Quran ... O you shaykhs, judges, imams, jurbajjiya and leading men of the country, tell your nation that the French are also sincere Muslims. A confirmation of this is that they entered Rome and there destroyed the throne of the Pope, who had always urged Christians to combat Islam. Then they marched on Malta, whence they expelled the knights, who claimed that God, exalted is He, sought of them that they fight the Muslims. Moreover, the French continued to be sincere friends of His Excellency the Ottoman Sultan and the enemies of his enemies ... All Egyptians must be grateful to God ... for the termination of the dynasty of the Mamluks, saying loudly, "May God perpetuate the paying of honour to the Ottoman Sultan, may God perpetuate the paying of honour to the French army, may God curse the Mamluks, and may He ameliorate the condition of the Egyptian nation."

You try that on for size, Nicolas Sarkozy. [And the whole letter is on the Internets, here.]

My favourite bit, of course, is the chapter on Srirangapatnam, with its thrilling account of Tipu Sultan's friendships with France on the cusp of Revolution. From the Bourbons he received an array of Sevres porcelain, and from Napoleon, letters of support against the hated British. A Jacobin Club of Seringapatam was actually in existence back in the day. This is what they did on Republic Day in 1797, in Tipu's capital, in the middle of eighty-two gun salutes and so on:

"Behold my acknowledgement of the Standard of your country," said Tipu when the guns fell silent, "which is dear to me, and to which I am allied, it shall always be supported in my Country, as it has been in that of the Republic, my Sister!"

The club members then planted a liberty tree (a Maypole-like post that was the centrepiece of many revolutionary festivals) and listened to an impassioned sermon from their president, Ripaud, on the sublimity of republican values, the "barbarity and atrocity' of the perfidious English, and the treachery of counterrevolutionary rebels. "Citizens!" he intoned in fervent climax. "Do you Swear, Hatred to all Kings except Tippoo Sultaun the Victorious, the Ally of the French Republic. War against all Tyrants and love towards your country, and that of Citizen Tippoo." "Yes!" the chorus of voices, European and Indian both, swelled enthusiastically back: "We swear to live free or die!"

In retelling the story of Tipu and Srirangapatnam, its fabled hordes of jewels and how they - and Tipu - were used to construct the legitimacy of Empire to the British public, Jasanoff writes one of the most insightful and complex explanations of this history.

And this is really her trump card. She is a superb writer. Her voice comes through without quite the elegant authoritativeness of Linda Colley, but does capture some of its stateliness and poise (and it turns out that Colley happens to be one of her teachers). The book cannot help being episodic as it builds its rather limited thesis - of individual collecting reflecting on the collection of an empire - but that does not stop this from being absorbing. Shock and absurdity are dealt with coolly; the bombast of Empire continually punctured; the study of individuals inclined towards the dignity of human aspiration, on all sides of the divide.

Perhaps this is where Jasanoff's attempt at chronicling the transactions of empire rather than critiquing it hollows out. Empire as a conflict of race is not a unidimensional behemoth, especially at the time she writes about. But what about empire as an act of economic exploitation? Jasanoff takes the classic liberal view of capitalism as something valuable when individuals practice it to improve themselves. The men Jasanoff focusses on collected their fortunes, and their identities, only sometimes on behalf of the Empire. Often, they collected in spite of it. But the nature of the beast is that breaking the bonds of class is not always an act of empowerment. Indeed, it may end up enslaving others to a degree that the acts of those who are already free (or freer), need not.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
Songs of Blood and Sword
Zorba the Greek
Ravan and Eddie
The Age of Innocence
Alice in Bhuleshwar
The Beast
The Yacoubian Building
Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers
Human Voices

So many of these are so frustrating, I'm putting this out to make myself writes notes on all of these.