Wednesday, October 20, 2010

protesting the protesters

A version of this post appeared on the Mint website today.

I spent this Monday afternoon hanging on the edge of a capacity crowd at the Mumbai Press Club, at a reading of Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey organized by the Citizens’ Initiative for Peace. Interspersed with the readings, people stood up to speak variously about the unravelling political fabric of the city and the country, the sanctity of the academic process, the creeping fascism of the majority, the mendaciousness of the Shiv Sena in general and Aditya Thackeray in particular, the declining respect for the rule of law and the dubious qualifications of University Vice-Chancellor Ranjan Welukar – “or whatever his name is,” as one speaker said irritably. Someone quoted Beckett.

The discreet and utterly predictable charm of the bourgeoisie? Someone encroaches on our constitutional right to expression and the only people who turn up to protest are greying Gandhians and earnest college students. Since the capacity of the Press Club terrace is about eighty on a cold day, and it is shaded by the trees on the edge of the Oval Maidan, it’s not hard to feel a little self-righteous, hemmed in and apparently cut off from the currents of the city at large, as though we are forced by virtue of our beliefs to confine ourselves to this shrinking Anglophile circle of light in an ocean of unreason.

This was far from the truth, of course. My fellow audience was made up of fine upstanding public – in the Mumbai sense of the word – many of whom have fought hard to break out of the sort of imposed elitism that various bastions of Indian leadership have been great at leveraging against its critics. How else to describe the predicament of Anand Patwardhan, a filmmaker whose Ayodhya documentary, Ram Ke Naam, has shown exactly once on cable TV in the last 18 years, because it has been banned, or channels too scared to run it? Patwardhan and artistes like him are not alien ideologues who pop into public life expressly to endanger people’s interests. Their mandate, in a broad sense, is to reflect, and comment on, public sentiment. Not exactly the work of the bon-bon eating classes.

Patwardhan was there to read out the statement Rohinton Mistry mailed in from Canada, reproduced extensively across Mumbai papers on Tuesday morning. Mistry harangues Welukar and the University with a very resonant moral seriousness. Paternalistically, he ended with some recommended reading for Aditya Thackeray, Mistry’s fellow-Xavierite and Mumbai University-kar. Even the book-burning fraternity can quote Tagore by heart, but Mistry’s other piece of advice was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, never easily taught in post-colonial academic circles. Did he particularly remember the book’s history, as one recast from sacrosanct classic to questionable, even hurtful object lesson, thanks to Chinua Achebe’s magnificent excoriation? If he did, I salute him for making the recommendation.

It’s not hard to see why Such A Long Journey offends people who haven’t read it. Quoted out of context, that stuff about Marathas and bhaiyyas can give anyone a headache. It is the sort of book that should ignite debate, that calls for public polemic about the faultlines of a city that, call it Bombay or Mumbai, has always and tragically accommodated as many variants of disunity as it has of solidarity. It invites comment on why those whose real grievances at real linguistic and cultural divisions are represented via bizarre political theatre, instead of finding voices in lecture halls and newspaper editorials.

It is, in short, an apt cornerstone for questions that crop up endlessly and in different languages outside the Press Club terrace, questions perhaps too broad and too complex to be covered over the debate – such as it is – over one circus of faux-Falangists and their minions. But there are cracks in every wall. I was sitting behind a crowd of the earnest college students I mentioned earlier. Several turned up in spite of ongoing midterms, and I recognised more than one as part of the same group who has been instrumental in drafting and publicising this online petition, a document as sober and serious as Mistry himself might have wrought. They are waiting, they told me, to get through exams before they can reach out to organise their fellow students. They sat politely through the readings and initial speeches, all conducted by people several decades older than them. As the event wore on, they leaned forward, tapped their chins, mumbled, muttered, rolled their eyes, and, once the third or fourth deploration of the ideology of the Sena had occurred, began to mutter amongst themselves.

‘This is not the point,’ I heard more than one of them say. ‘This is really not helping.’ ‘Say something!’ ‘Why isn’t someone saying something?’ ‘Were you going to make the same point?’ ‘Why aren’t you saying something?’

Finally, one girl stood up and marched to the front of the terrace. “If we’re going to go off into discussions of the book’s literary merit or whatever, this is never going to end,” she said. “This is a procedural issue. If we don’t treat it like that, we’ll never get anything done.”

Amazingly, she had the last word. I liked her and her fellow students, who applauded her unequivocally. They know their outrage legitimises nothing. Perhaps they agree with their opponents that the forums of debate afforded them are already skewed. They are not the ones drawing the battle lines in a fake battle. They can only claim their rightful place as part of the public, as much as their sword-carrying classmates. They know they have to get stuff done, the way Patwardhan did for Ram Ke Naam, court by court and channel by channel. I wish them luck. This is not the time to keel over rasping ‘The horror, the horror.’

Friday, October 08, 2010

on leela naidu

I wrote this for Verve's Annual Best-Dressed Issue, which is this October 2010's issue currently on stands, as a consideration of Leela Naidu's aesthetic influence. Since I read this book earlier this year and failed to review it, I'm also cheating and marking this as a Book Munch entry.

#84 Leela: A Patchwork Life, Leela Naidu and Jerry Pinto

It happens all too rarely, but sometimes, when you are reading a book on your daily commute in a packed Mumbai local, someone will detach themselves from the hive of bodies to ask you about it. The cause will generally be a book that has made you laugh out loud, or weep in public, or the latest Chetan Bhagat. The pleasures of Leela Naidu's biography, Leela: A Patchwork Life, published earlier this year, are more refined; but all the same, it caused more than one lady to lean over, examine the cover, and then ask me how I had procured it, and how much it cost, and did I – visibly from a giddy generation of the post-Sush-and-Ash era – know who Leela Naidu had really been?

Who, indeed? Leela Naidu remained famous in India long after the siege engines of PR machines and the dissolving limits of the news cycle captured celebrity culture. To the post-pageant public, she was always the Miss India (1954) who had made it to a definitive list of the ten most beautiful women in the world, back in an age when the Indian woman came somewhere above elephants and snake charmers, and perhaps ranked a little below bejewelled maharajahs and austere freedom fighters, as exotic representatives of their country to the West at large.

Her appeal to her compatriots was, in all likelihood, touched a little by the same ideas of foreignness, too. She was a biracial woman, as much at home in Europe (her mother was an Irish Indologist, with Franco-Swiss roots) as she was in India. Her career spanned a multitude of roles. From making documentary films for JRD Tata, to dubbing for Chinese martial arts films in Hong Kong and acting as unpaid secretary – her words – to husband Dom Moraes, to being the muse on whom Salvador Dali's Madonna was modelled, to acting in the handful of films that established her legend as one of the loveliest women ever to grace the Indian screen.

For a woman less serenely honest and less elegant, the word 'dilettante' may have come to mind. How else to explain someone who had started out at more or less the same time as Madhubala and Waheeda Rahman, but whose body of work was a mere fraction of theirs: a woman who, according to her biography, was spotted by Raj Kapoor and lined up to be a marquee name for his RK banner – only to turn him down? It may be impossible today to imagine a beautiful woman becoming an icon for seeking less attention, rather than more. But Naidu was only being true to her sense of aesthetics, which found little common ground with commercial cinema.

She was a woman truly at home in the world, and her photographs from the time confirm it. In the simple drapes of her saris, free of make-up travelled through the country with poet-writer Moraes, whether she was taking dictation from Indira Gandhi or protesting on behalf of landless Dalits, she was the consummate face of an enlightened, independent India, still fired by the ideals of independence, impatient with consumerism and wary of social exhibitionism. The same appeal was evident in those films of hers, chosen judiciously across the decades – Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anuradha, Merchant-Ivory's The Householder, and Shyam Benegal's 1985 classic, Trikaal. Years later, Benegal would say that she 'breathed innocence and tranquility' into her performance. It was a succinct description of what she represents in those black-and-white frames of her early life.

But she was equally at home in couture. The 1960s and 70s, the decades of the birth of cool, were portended in the casual grace with which she carried herself in the fashions of Europe and the USA. There were compliments from Ingrid Bergman and salutes from Jean Renoir and David Lean. It wasn't about switching cultural codes: in the girlish frocks and evening gowns of her modelling shots, she was as Indian as she was in saris, and that was the beauty of it. Writing after her death, Vikram Doctor said, 'Naidu was one of a group of beautiful Indian women who, from the Forties to the early Sixties, helped create an idea of a beautiful, elegant and accomplished new nation. This included Rani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, the other name that people remember from that '10 most beautiful women' list and Nayantara Sahgal .... All these women shared a certain style. While unmistakably Indian and nearly always dressed in saris, there was also a Western air to them as well. They all had Western connections ... and they presented themselves in a mix of Indian and European styles.' The mix, in Naidu's case, was pitch-perfect. She rose beyond the traditional definitions of signature style as a single classic look or a set of influences. Her style was not about fashion; it was about feeling.

The very thought of a woman in rayon saris and flared skirts rising to the top of a list of classical beauties seems idiosyncratic today. We are used to seeing beautiful women who are not only icons of taste, but also of accomplishment. They are women who act in films and walk the ramp; they work as designers and news channel pundits and high-profile entrepreneurs; they head famous families and corporations; they are photographed at parties; they define the labels they wear. If Naidu did any of those things over the last decade, she managed to avoid all attention to it.

We don't think of the starry radiance of Gayatri Devi or Audrey Hepburn when we think of her, nor yet the sun-drenched charm of Madhubala or Sophia Loren. Hers is a cool, chameleonic appeal: gracious, reserved and supremely unruffled. The cover photo of her biography, taken in her youth, is a shot overflowing with joie de vivre – gamine grin, jaunty bob, and all. Her legend had, in later years, taken on the air of melancholy that affects the image of so many people who guard the secrets of their private lives. But her parting shot, as she said, was not going to be 'a narrative of feminine pain.' The narrative, packed with anecdotes and wry asides, lives up to its title: it is assembled like the dazzling patchwork of things and events that made up her life, career and style. It is an alternate iconography of beauty, and it is her legacy to Indian women and their modernity. The films, the labels and the corporations are there for us to define, but our identities can be independent of their existence, too. In Leela Naidu's legend, as in the MacLeish poem, beauty does not need to mean, but be.

on coke studio

This is the full draft of a story I wrote about Coke Studio for Open Magazine last month; a version of it appeared here. My thanks to many fellow bloggers and Tweeters who helped with it, including Ahmer Naqvi, Ahsan Butt, Manan Ahmed, Omar Bilal Akhtar, and Venkat Ananth, from whose tweets I first learned of the show.


In the call-and-response flow of abuse that makes up the majority of comments on that bedrock of the Internet, YouTube, few battles are more depressing and vacuous than the long-running flamewar between Indian and Pakistani users. The shared popular culture and social history of the two countries covers vast quantities of desi-generated content – films, cricket highlights, news shows, Atif Aslam superhits – that find their way, only sometimes legitimately, on to the video sharing site. These videos go on to form the incidental background to the sort of foam-flecked rage, expressed in a multitude of – also shared – languages, that approximates the level of discourse usually achieved at a Shiv Sena block party.

But in this seemingly endless deadlock of trolls, a d├ętente is achieved in the comment threads under the videos of one particular phenomenon. Against the spectacularly-viewed and keenly-discussed music of the Karachi-based TV show Coke Studio, they put down their cudgels, shake hands across the aisle, and find themselves united in love and admiration – and even, on the Indian side, a wistful envy. The most common refrain after variations of 'Wow, I love this' is not the inevitable YouTube corollary of 'Wow, this sucks,' but 'Why can't we do this in India?'

The Coke Studio juggernaut rolled out of the blocks in a Karachi studio in the summer of 2008. Its visionary and executive producer Rohail Hyatt was one of Pakistani pop's early legends, an U-19 Rawalpindi cricketer turned singer turned impresario. "It had been done before," says producer-filmmaker Nofil Naqvi, who worked with Hyatt and his wife Umber, "In a couple of other places, but never on such a large scale." The show, similar in spirit to the British performance series Live from Abbey Road, was a meticulously curated series of live sets featuring combinations of musical acts – sometimes unlikely – reinventing old songs, sampling other genres, melding two or more distinct styles, and putting out an altogether new work. The five episodes of its first season, shot over four days in February 2008, became a hit, featuring collaborations of unprecedented quality, such as the raga-rock fusion of Garaj Baras between Ali Azmat – former frontman of the enormously popular Junoon – and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, who had sung the original in Bollywood for 2007's Paap. Under Hyatt's supervision, the band Strings remodelled the melody of their chiming, high-tension megahit Duur in collaboration with classical vocalist Ustad Hussein Baksh Gullo. Rahat's voice soaring on ambient retakes of hits like Shaman Paiyan and Dildara electrified audiences, and the charming, more lightweight sets by acts like Sajid and Zeeshan or the band Mauj, were glimpses into the generally high standards of Pakistan's pop scene.

And then Season Two rolled around.

"2009 was a dark time for artistes," Naqvi explains. "Safety concerns within the country were rising – it was a very different atmosphere from the one during the last military dictatorship, when security was easier to handle for concert venues and live acts. Business in India had dried up in the aftermath of the November 2008 attacks, which was an even more serious financial hit." Catastrophe was looming. It was in this situation that Coke Studio pulled out all the stops. After the success of Season One, the show secured a deal that allowed them to air simultaneously on every – yes, every – major TV networks and radio channels. This may have seemed like a puzzlingly large-scale gamble on the success of what was, after all, a volatile format: but Hyatt and his backers knew it was going to be special.

"Back during Season One, the only other friend who knew about it was an RJ," remembers blogger and Coke Studio enthusiast Ahmer Naqvi. "But I vividly remember the first episode of the second season. My wife and I were driving and we didn't know what show was on, but when we started listening to it, we were ecstatic." The episode featured some of Coke Studio's biggest hits, including, Naqvi remembers, "eclectic covers by reigning pop kings - Ali Zafar and Atif Aslam. Memorable for the shock value among other things, as no one really could imagine either of them doing such versatile stuff." Aslam is a genuine subcontinental superstar - his songs for Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani in late 2009 were among the year's biggest hits, and had the India embargo for lunch. Like most superstars, his appeal is nonexistent to the bon-bon eating classes on both sides of the border. "That was also why a lot of my friends who were very serious about their music immediately abhorred Coke Studio," Ahmer says. "The presence of a corporate logo, plus teeny-bopper singers, put many purists off."

But the lid had blown off the phenomenon. On the same episode as Zafar and Aslam, the show also featured arguably its flat-out finest production, the reworking of a Bulleh Shah kalam, Aik Alif, by the veteran Sufi musician Saeein Zahoor and the rock band Noori. Cynicism was clearly going to be difficult. High expectations were repeatedly met an surpassed. Aslam covered Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Zafar sang Punjabi folk, a far cry from their fan demographic's usual staples. For many Pakistanis, it was a reaffirmation of a long-held belief: their country made kickass music. "Music is perhaps the only area in the arts where Pakistan produces world-class stuff regularly and which gets local appreciation," Ahmer says. "Coke Studio got the kind of response that authors, filmmakers, and drama serial producers would die for."

It's true that Daniyal Mueenuddin or Mohammed Hanif would be hard-pressed to do with their material what Coke Studio did with theirs. In addition to blanket broadcast coverage, their music and videos were instantly and legally downloadable for free on the Coke Studio website. In a country where returns on recorded music were even less dependable than concert revenues, it was a smart move. Coke Studio became irresistible in cities and along the highways, constantly on replay via mobiles, in vehicle stereos and on the radio. Crucially, it also became available to the diaspora, an influential demographic on social networks and blogs. Word spread. The official Coke Studio fan page on Facebook has just under 300,000 fans, and the official YouTube channel – the videos, of course, proliferate via other IDs too, often with value-added services such as English subtitles, or portfolio shots of the stars interspersed with the broadcast – counts about 8.5 million views. The numbers may not seem like much in comparison to successes in fully digitised media cultures like the USA, or massive markets like India, but they represent a unique force for Pakistani music. And unlike, say, the aggregate Twitter following for a Bollywood star, this population contained a large number of those serious fans not put off by the dubious sponsorship and ice-lolly pop quotients. Writing in the Financial Times shortly after news of this monsoon's floods started to bubble up in worldwide media, the novelist Mohsin Hamid earnestly examined of the possibilities of hope for Pakistan.

'Hope takes many small forms. One of these is Coke Studio, a televised jam session that throws together unexpected musical combinations … It is part of a vast and downloadable music scene ... I have heard its songs as the ringtones of people ranging from bankers and shopkeepers to carpenters.'

Now three seasons down, Coke Studio has dealt with extremes of popularity and backlash. Some of those inveterate downloaders and caller-tune aficionados have excoriated the last season, which aired this July, for a variety of reasons, ranging from esotericism – with more folk and experimental sets than the last two seasons – to a certain feeling of pedestrianism after the unusual achievements of Season 2. Not even the appearances of Sufi legend Abida Parveen has shielded the show from criticism. But the music industry seems content to be philosophical. Omar Bilal Akhtar, vocalist of season 3 rock performers Aunty Disco Project, says, "Obviously with such massive exposure we get some pretty extreme reactions, but we've made more new fans than we could ever have imagined. Being on Coke Studio also lends a degree of credibility to being a musician in Pakistan. Before CS, if you told someone you were in a desi rock band, you got sympathy or condescension. We actually get people calling us back now."

It's not hard to extrapolate a future of eventual doom for such a monolith of cultural capital. How long before artistes who don't get a chance to establish their credentials via the show start to look for alternatives? How long before networks start to feel the tyranny of the show's distribution model? How long before the murmurs of more-of-the-sameness that circulated last month grow into ennui? Akhtar offers an insider's perspective of the benefits that offset these questions. "First, it's definitely raised the bar in terms of quality. We have artistes really pushing themselves to capture the audience's attention. CS has paved the way for experimentation. Popstars can sing with folk musicians, young female rockers can cover classic folk songs, song lengths can be greater than 3.5 mins. Second: it's improved standards for artistes themselves. I have never encountered the kind of professionalism nor seen the kind of equipment that was used in CS anywhere in Pakistan. Having worked with the best, the mainstream artistes in CS can now demand higher standards from the people around them, whether it's media promotion or audio engineering or recording."

Third, and perhaps most significantly in the short term, "there has been a resurgence in ethnic, Pakistani music. It's always been one of Rohail's goals to promote indigenous music. He's introduced my generation to our own country's music in a non-demagogical, refreshing way. It's cool to like folk and qawwali music now."

Akhtar and Aunty Disco Project may enjoy the cult status that all good rock acts aspire to – their Coke Studio song, Sultanat, is outrageously catchy – but as in the rest of the subcontinent, this is at some distance from the mainstream. The real revolution occurred in Hyatt's successfully bringing genuine fusion into the spotlight. It is by no means unheard of or unsuccessful in the subcontinent, particularly in A R Rahman-era Bollywood. But no matter how edgy film music gets, it is always grounded in its context: it is meant to be a background score for a movie and for its stars. By its very nature, fusion in film music is a metaphor for palatability, and the success of Rahman and his colleagues rests unabashedly on that. To imagine the effect of, say, that Strings-Ustad Gullo collaboration, Indians cannot rely on the sound of the movies. They will have to refer to their own live scene and its longtime experimenters like Shubha Mudgal or Ustad Sultan Khan, Indian Ocean and Mrigya. That platform is fortunately vibrant, but also limited in its reach.

By putting fusion front and centre on Pakistani prime-time television, Coke Studio changed the rules of engagement with an older tradition of subcontinental indie. Hyatt and his swanky studio equipment may have rearranged their framework, but the voices of Sindhi fakirs like Fakir Juman Shah, the words of Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah, and restylings of the tradition from vocalists Tina Sani and Arieb Azhar, wafted out of speakers louder and clearer than they ever had before.

And it is this sound that has repeatedly transfixed the YouTube trolls, and sustained a muted but anecdotally significant conversation in India since last year's breakout season. Rabbi Shergill's 2004 version of the Bulleh Shah poem Bulla ki Jaana was a genuine crossover hit, and perhaps one of the few recent instances where pop fusion achieved overwhelming mainstream acceptance, but it came with little context of its history for the vast numbers of the uninitiated, and remained a one-off. By contrast, Coke Studio's music hints at a vast shared context. At last year's TED India conference in Mysore, Pakistani delegates handed out Coke Studio CDs to Indian Fellows. Fans discover and re-discover individual sets through exchanges on Facebook and Twitter, joining in the largely English-language Pakistani chatter to geek out over the music. This networked population is partially deaf to the sound of televised musical contests produced in Mumbai, sceptical of MTV, and critically demanding of the output of Bollywood and urban indie alike. Coke Studio's folk throwback opens up new vistas for these Indian listeners, in much the same way that an array of bands from Junoon to Strings put Indian fans in touch with the astonishing range and accomplishments of the Pak-rock scene over the years.

"The show allows many Pakistanis to present an image of themselves to the rest of the world," Ahmer comments, "One which is simultaneously modern enough to be admitted into the pantheon of international-standard productions, and yet also fiercely embraces local music and tolerant, peace-loving lyrics, so that those nagging questions about identity can be put to bed by both secularists and Islamists, and everyone in between."

It is possible to stumble on a gem of a YouTube video that records Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's rendition of the Kalam-e-bahu and be enraptured by an artefact from a notionally common past. But to hear part of the same text in a glitzy, rocked-out performance of Alif Allah, Chambey di Booti by Arif Lohar and Meesha Shafi (the folkster and ex-model of Hamid's writing) is to clearly relate to that commonality in a language that is still mutually understood. It is not the equivalent of Pakistanis watching Hindi films, or the two countries meeting on the cricket field – it is an awareness that predates both those forms. It may make the question of 'why we don't have this' in India seem urgent, but it also simultaneously makes it banal and self-involved, and a little irrelevant.

anosh irani, dahanu road

A version of this review first appeared on, here

#83 Dahanu Road, Anosh Irani

To many residents of Mumbai, Dahanu is an area slightly more of a cypher than parts of Delhi or Chennai. It is a fruit-growing, amenity-inhibited outpost that will someday be swallowed up by the city, an exurb connected to the metropolis at the very last stop on the suburban Western line. Nothing could seem further flung from the diverse, super-urbane neighbourhoods in South and Southwest Mumbai built and occupied by the city's venerated Zoroastrian community. Yet, Dahanu is also a Zoroastrian enclave. As Indo-Canadian author Anosh Irani explains to his readers, it is the settler colony of a more recent diaspora of Persian exiles: the Iranis who fled Arab persecution in the 20th rather than the 10th century, and followed their ancestors to India's west coast. The history of their diaspora is distinct from that of the Parsis of urban Mumbai, and the conflict of those identities flickers in and out of the book in a string of bright, unsteady backstories for the Iranis who populate its pages.

But the Dahanu of Dahanu Road, with its sun-warmed orchards and open sea can also be stifling, a soil that can only sustain one kind of growth. Like the chickoo trees they farm, the Iranis have flourished here. In doing so, they have disenfranchised the Warli tribals who are the land's original inhabitants. The result is a proto-feudal society in which the Warlis provide labour to their prosperous Irani landlords, and receive little pay, less security and no social justice for their troubles. This is the background against which Anosh Irani sets his story, a history in which his clan of fictional Iranis assume the position of chief actors, as well as observers. The protagonist Zairos is a charming young man whose days are spent biking around the farmlands he stands to inherit, shuttling from family home to family home, and spending the day in the company of other charming men who have presumably never worked a collective day in their lives. The Iranis may have their differences with the Parsis, but the author's character sketches evoke the familiar figures of other fictional Zoroastrians - a community that occupies no small part in the canon of cinema and writing about Mumbai - in their dissolute, self-avowedly eccentric personae. Zairos' friends and relations are aware of their detachment from the currents of community life in the big city, and the glowing Parsi record of social and economic achievement. To characters like Zairos' father Aspi, this becomes the cornerstone of a perverse joy in the rough edges of Irani life out in the mofussil. To those like his grandfather Shapur, a first-generation immigrant from Iran, it is a shadow over his primal connection with Dahanu, the first land he is able to possess and call his own. Shapur marries a Parsi woman, Banu, and brings her to live out in the wilds where his chickoo orchards are taking root. Banu dies a young woman, under mysterious circumstances, leaving Shapur with a lifelong grief, and the beginnings of a dynasty.

Zairos, the youngest of that line, is the keeper of the stories an aged Shapur recounts to him on the family verandah. The Iranis' history of oppressing the Warlis may not stretch beyond a few decades, but it carries with it all the heft and consequence of colonial atrocity, sanctioned by law where law exists, and assuming the grim outlines of cowboys-and-Indians narratives where it doesn't. Few of these stories stir Zairos, though, until he sets eyes on Kusum, the daughter of an old labourer and the wife of an abusive husband. Their growing relationship involves a negotiation of boundaries Zairos has never sought to breach before. Through its fulfillment, the novel suggests, change may come to Dahanu.

Irani operates in a register that should be familiar to regular readers of the South Asian saga. Dahanu Road tells a big, messy story about a small place, covering some fresh ground in the process. The novel strikes the reader as a rare experiment in mapping the space between India's urban and rural communities; so also the overlap between communities that are popularly considered to be made up of fundamentally urban or rural people. There is a wide gap between the Irani and Warli stories, and the novel attempts to address this. But in attempting to write a Warli story, the author is on far shakier ground than when he sticks with his Irani protagonists. For an earnest shot at fictionalising a history of Warli oppression, there are few moments in which the writing presents the Warli characters with any sort of directness. For most of them – and especially all the Warli men – there is little existence outside a vicious cycle of poverty, bondage, alcoholism and unemployment. In looking at Irani-Warli relations through, among other things, the lens of gender, the narrative is gendered, too. It falls into several familiar traps. In attempting to portray a society destroyed by outside greed and prejudice, we revisit a scenario excused all too readily in fiction because it is easy to presume that it conforms to reality: the only characters with voices are the ones who serve to further the protagonists' narratives. Even Kusum, the female protagonist, appears to us so largely through Zairos' point of view, that her own inner life - revealed when the authorial voice occasionally switches points of view away from Shapur or Zairos - appears tangential.

No doubt this narrative, and others like it, are important, but they are also incomplete. By staying so close to the perspectives of its oppressors -- the Dahanu equivalent of nice guys though they may be -- Dahanu Road constructs itself explicitly as a narrative of guilt, for familial crimes as well as social ones. A narrative of guilt is also a narrative of redemption, and that is ultimately what Dahanu Road seeks to bestow on its central characters. Unfortunately, redemption is not a literary commodity that is easy to control. We live in days when we are continually reminded that the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice. Perhaps the gendering in Dahanu Road is meant to remind us that as in life, justice and redemption are neither available equally to all, nor able to erase the gap between the unequal. Shapur and Zairos are the focal points of the story, but the women, Banu and Kusum, are its axes. They are divided by a deep and poisoned gulf of class and history, but it is remarkable how alike their fates are. At the end of the novel, Zairos climbs the hill of Bahrot, sacred to the history of Indian Zoroastrianism, to make peace with his legacies. His forbidden bond with Kusum - the link to his future - is legitimised as he revisits the past. For Kusum herself, as for the wistful shade of his Parsi grandmother, no such redemption is readily available. There are some lights in which the distance between eras seem very short indeed.

an announcement, a review

So that joblessness thing did not work out very well. Not only did I NOT have a chance to write a single book update for this blog, I did not have the chance to READ more than a couple of books all the way through last month. But now that I have a new job, I should get my time management completely wrong all over again, and updates should be frequent! Yay! Right?

Anyway. I did write a couple of reviews for the books section of CNN-IBN's website, last month. Here's one of them.

#82 Tiger Hills, Sarita Mandanna

There are several characteristics of the Indian novel in English that Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills commandeers in all seriousness, perhaps aiming for their reinvention among the hills and plantations of Coorg. If there are readers who have never before read a novel full of lush Indian crops, rained-on Indian villages and sprawling Indian houses inhabited by agonised but fecund Indian families, they should have no trouble knowing them by heart, as it were, within pages of Tiger Hills. Mandanna treats the reader to a reiteration of the Great Indian Novel, many of whose norms are now so familiar that they have passed into the realm of parody. Yet, if she is aware that omens of foreboding, floral analogies for sex, far-sighted grandmothers and illicit affairs with white people are a bit 1990s, she writes in defiance of that awareness.

So the birth of Devi, the tempestuous and beautiful heroine, is heralded by the circling of a flock of herons, who will make their appearance repeatedly through the book at moments of especial doom in her life. Her love affairs are conducted in bowers of laburnum flowers. Devanna – her best friend and eventually the architect of her destiny – is mentored by a kindly German missionary who is secretly a tortured gay man. The bald facts of narrative do not occur in a vacuum: every repetition of a familiar image is an anchor of its overall effect, and Tiger Hills aims for nothing more than unreconstructed nostalgia, and unexamined, heaving-bosom notions of grand passions.

And of what? The book's publicists explicitly drew a connection between Tiger Hills and Gone With The Wind, which is a popular classic because, not in spite of, the sterotypes of place and race that it perpetuates. There are glancing familiarities between the two: both feature strong-willed, unsympathetic heroines, tempestuous love triangles, and multi-generational consequences for the mistakes of a few. But more pervasive yet is the presence of a stifling, objectifying point of view that reduces the landscape and history of a place under the guise of authorial love, an emotional investment that, at least in Tiger Hills, succeeds only in being overwrought and essentialising. Early in the book, the German missionary Gundert, writing on the Coorgs, is quoted:

"They constitute a highland clan, free from the trammels of caste, with the manly bearing and independent spirit natural in those who have been, from time immemorial, true lords of the soil...I have often been approached by them, demonstrating a frank, open curiosity in my antecendents and in a refreshing departure from the obsequiousness so readily found elsewhere, with no hesitation in taking my hand in a grip as firm as any I have experienced."

Tiger Hills upholds this imagined positivism. The Coorgs of the novel are passionate, sexualised beings, with speech full of local colour, destinies predicated on violence and solemn vows, and little inner life that does not relate to any of the above. As sprawling and elaborate as the plots of the novel are, it also mirrors Gone With The Wind in its romanticisation of rape – nowhere near as egregious as the 'Rhett Butler, Animal Lover' moment of Mitchell's novel, but in its elided use as a tool of coincidence, to further the narrative and even, laughably, to elicit post-facto sympathy for the suffering rapist.

Writers – particularly in the Great Indian Novel tradition – are often accused of exoticising India for foreign audiences, but perhaps it's time to look at Mandanna's book not merely as another instance of the 'mango-motifs' narratives which are produced and presumably read in the West, but as a product of a late Indian obsession with self-consciousness. Tiger Hills is just as reminiscent of ironic self-parodies of old Hindi films in nu-age Bollywood, or the indefatigable reproduction of everything from dabbawaalas to autorickshaws in popular art. Its appeal is the appeal of kitsch, in both form and content. Its invocation of, and affection for history go so far, but no further. It may recall Gone With The Wind without the overt racism; but it also does recall Om Shanti Om without the comedy track.

A version of this review first appeared on, here.