Thursday, October 30, 2008

If I were an Indian Hindu

by Zafar Anjum

A Singapore journalist says both major parties in India must abandon increasing communalism

"Some countries are united by a common language; India has around fifteen major languages and numberless minor ones. Nor are its people united by race, religion or culture…Does India exist? If it doesn't, the explanation is to be found in a single word: communalism. The politics of religious hatred."

—Salman Rushdie in "The Riddle of Midnight: India, August 1947" in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-91

If I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would not find it difficult to believe that the country today is threatened by the forces of Islamic terrorism— no matter what the Muslims say in their defense.

Further, I would add that the terrorizing Muslims and the evangelizing Christian missionaries are creating grave threats to India's progress, a country that is rediscovering its destiny as a superpower in the world stage.

I'm saying this because the recent terrorist bombings in many Indian cities have changed our lives. We live in fear of being blown away while shopping or traveling. How can we not blame the Muslims when members of their community have created this atmosphere of terror in the nation of peace-loving Hindus?

I know what I am talking about. I read newspapers. I watch TV. Lest you should believe that I am a dehati, I am not. I could be a government official, an IT professional, an employee of an MNC, a businessman or even a member of the diaspora. I could be anyone.

I am using the term 'regular Indian Hindu' as a classification for those Hindus in India who are not liberal (or communists or atheists or pseudo-secularists) or have not acquired liberal education in India or abroad and who are conscious of their Hindu identity. Our liberal brethren, the so called 'pseudo-secularists' (whoever invented this term must be a Indian Hindu and I want to give him shabashi for this innovative coinage) might even object to the phrase "Indian Hindu" as a contradictory duality—an Indian is an Indian, end of the matter, they'd say—but I wouldn’t have thought the worst of it.

For me it wouldn't have been difficult to bask in the glory of a resurgent India as a member of 'Hindu India' —an India that is waking up from its thousand year old slumber of inertia and slavery— first by the murderous Muslim invaders, followed by the wily British, who between them, ruled us for nearly a millennium.

But there are many who want to prick my balloon of pride. For instance, take the recent terror attacks in various Indian cities and the Muslim response to it. Let us keep our discussion confined to this topic and not get side-tracked by the issue of conversion of dalits and adivasis by the Christian missionaries, an issue that equally infuriates me.

If I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would feel the police action justified in the Batla House, Jamia Nagar police-terrorist encounter cases, no matter what people like Arundhati Roy have to say on this matter. When scores of innocents died in terrorist-planted bomb blasts in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi, what is the big deal if the Delhi police killed two Muslim terrorists in an encounter?

Some Muslims are finding holes in the manner the police conducted the encounter and arrested the terror suspects. I give two hoots about it! I have my own problems to solve, my own life to live. But if I did care about the issue, being a newspaper reader and TV news watcher type, I would have felt the demands of inquiry into the whole episode by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Group or Delhi Union of Journalists unnecessary, nothing more than an act of minority appeasement.

Why demoralize our police force, I would have asked them? After all, we lost one of our own brave policemen in the encounter, didn’t we? I would have damned the conspiracy theories circulated by these doubters and gossip mongers. They do nothing or just shed crocodile tears when bombs go off in crowded bazaars and kill scores of innocent Indians. But when one of them is killed, they ask for enquiry and provide legal aid to those terrorists? How unpatriotic!

But they are not alone in what they do. To make matters worse, (I would have thought it a matter of shame) some of our own, the pseudo-secularists, are party to the game being played by the Muslim intelligentsia and some publicity-hungry liberal minded media persons. The same way that they did after the Gujarat riots—they could not appreciate the fact that what had happened was a natural reaction to the dastardly act of burning our holy men alive on the Sabarmati Express. What did they get after doing all those exposes and investigations? All they could achieve was that they kept Narendra Modi bhai from visiting the US. That’s it. Was it worth all that muck-racking?

Therefore, clearly, if I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would have no difficulty in believing that Hinduism is under threat from Islamic terrorism. I would, in that position, seem reasonable if I believed that Indian Muslims, even after the country’s partition in 1947, have wasted all opportunities given to them. They are always looking for special treatment. They have hundreds of apologists of all kinds to make excuses on their behalf. As such, my message to fellow Hindus would be this: We have done enough for these guys, and they have performed dismally, so let us stop bothering about them.

Because of our peaceful nature, others have dominated us for centuries. They could do it because we were weak. Now we must strike back by showing that we are more aggressive even than the ones that dominated us. We have shown it in Gujarat, and elsewhere in the country. But these Muslims don’t seem to be getting the message.

If I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would have no difficulty in believing in all that that I have just said. But, as it happens, I am not.

I happen to be an Indian born in a Muslim family. And as such, the tentacles of my consciousness were trained in a different manner—different from those belonging to other communities.

Despite the difference, I find it difficult to blame my “regular Indian Hindu” friend for the way he thinks. It is not his fault—it’s my way of looking at him that makes him appear faulty. But he may not be at fault at all. Perhaps he was brought up in a certain manner and while I believed in “unity in diversity,” he believed in some other philosophy—an idea of India that was different from that conceived by Gandhi and Nehru—and as old as them, shared by those who distributed sweets on the streets hearing the news of Gandhiji’s assassination.

Perhaps he does not even hold Gandhi and Nehru in high regard. He has been fed a certain version of India’s struggle for freedom and he believes in that version, as I do in mine. Right from his childhood, he has been exposed to a certain kind of thinking: all through shishu mandirs, shakhas, ekal vidyalayas, sant samagams, television serials, the rath yatras, leaflets, videos, CDs (I have borrowed this impressive list from Shabnam Hashmi, Communalism, Centrestage in Tehelka).

Therefore, I don’t want to blame my “regular Indian Hindu” friend for he is the creation of someone’s hard work. Like I am the creation of another group’s hard work. He is as legitimate an Indian as I am, albeit with a different idea of India. What matters though and what will determine our future is where we stand today: which ‘idea of India’ has moved from the center to the periphery and vice versa and which idea of India will eventually prevail. This is something that, everyone—Indians as well as Asians—need to watch out for as it relates to the Asia’s America (a nod to Daniel Lak, India Express), Asia’s liberal superpower.


My India has always been based on ideas of multiplicity, pluralism, hybridity: ideas to which the ideologies of the communalists are diametrically opposed. To my mind, the defining image of India is the crowd, and a crowd is by its very nature superabundant, heterogeneous, many things at once. But the India of the communalists is none of these things — Salman Rushdie in “The Riddle of Midnight: India, August 1947” in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-91

As a child, I was sold on the ideas of Gandhi and Nehru. In school, I grew up on the ideals of a secular India, built on the foundations of syncretic ethos, an India where all citizens are equal before the law and where all religions are equally respected. While we wrote essays on the greatness of Gandhi and Nehru, Indira Gandhi ruled the country with an iron first. Those were the post-Emergency Congress days and everything looked normal in our small town of pre-television era.

Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, aaaps me sab bhai bhai — we were to repeat this phrase. I believed in it and continue to believe in it.

Growing up, I knew that I was living in a country where the majority of the population consisted of Hindus. But I had no problems with that. Rather I enjoyed the diversity of India. My father’s best friends were Hindus. As much as I looked forward to Eid, I looked forward to Durga Pooja and Chhat—the two major festivals in Bengal and Bihar. My village came under the cross section of these two dominant cultures. During Durga Pooja, it was a common practice for us to roam around the town, be a part of the crowd and admire the pandals. On Chhat, we all waited to taste the delicious thakwa, a kind of snack prepared on that day—equivalent of Eid’s sewaiyan. Every December, I used to wait for Christmas to see the beautifully decorated churches, and if fortunate enough, get a chance to nibble at the cakes and pastries in the homes of my Christian acquaintances.

Then came 1984. Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her own guards and all hell broke loose. Thousands of Sikhs were mercilessly massacred in Delhi. The slogan-- Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, aapas me sab bhai bhai—began to sound shaky and fake.

I passed out of school and went to Aligarh Muslim University for further education. Aligarh is a communally sensitive town. While still a student there, I saw the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed. The country’s atmosphere had completely changed.

The end of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb

But a slow change had started years even before the Babri demolition. At that point of time, I could not grasp the importance of those changes but in hindsight they seem to be damaging to the country’s secular ethos, the Ganja-Jamuni tehzeeb of India. What was happening was that slowly but surely, Muslim cultural elements, however small in significance but were taken as a given by Muslims, began to disappear from public life.

For example, take the “unity and diversity” ads taken out by the government. Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, aapas me sab bhai bhai. I used to see these national integration ads regularly in the media, in Urdu magazines and on the back of buses and on walls. Gradually these ads began to disappear. They were replaced by other slogans on the wall. One slogan that I can remember vividly is this—Bharat desh me rehna hai to vande matram kehna hoga. While some Muslims began to paste stickers like Fakhr se kaho hum Musalman hain, I also began to notice some Hindu establishments prominently displaying stickers with slogans—Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain.

Mughlai food: A vanishing act?

Along with the slogan baazi, I noticed two more things: Airbrushing of India’s Muslim, specifically Mughal, heritage and the undisputed dominance of Hindi in the common cultural space. Consequently, as the chandrabindu (dot, a sort of a diacritical mark) vanished from devnagri (Hindi), Mughlai food too disappeared from the great Indian menu.

While the Mughal and pre-Mughal Islamic architecture such as the Red Fort and Qutub Minar in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra remained untouched (except for the mad claim that the Taj was built by a Hindu ruler), Mughlai food was airbrushed from the menu. Everything became tandoori or Punjabi—this is not to deny that there is no specific Punjabi cuisine but I find the case of the missing Mughlai cuisine intriguing. Also, I don’t think somebody sat down and deliberately performed the act of erasure (like somebody in the ministries forgot to commission the ‘useless’ unity in diversity ads). However, it has happened and consequently, today, if you go to any Indian restaurant, you will see typically two broad categories of cuisine: North Indian and South Indian. And the vast part of the North Indian menu would be Punjabi food, which is not totally illegitimate. But I can’t help asking: where has the Mughlai food vanished?

The vanishing act of the Mughlai food (Superstar Shahrukh Khan once said that he loved Mughlia food, perhaps he meant Mughlai—he does not see the terminology so often so even an articulate person like him got it all mixed up) is not that big a deal but it can assume a greater significance if seen in the light of the communalization of Indian historiography. Let me give you an example from one of Rushdie’s writings again.

Muslims as ‘Mughals’?

In the introduction to his book of essays, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-91, Rushdie talks of a seminar in London in which eminent writers and historians from India were invited to speak at the festival of India in 1982. He writes: “…an eminent Indian academic delivered a paper on Indian culture that utterly ignored all minority communities. When questioned about this from the floor, the professor smiled benignly and allowed that of course India contained many diverse traditions—including Buddhists, Christians and ‘Mughals’. This characterization of Muslim culture was more than merely peculiar. It was a technique of alienation. For if Muslims were ‘Mughals’, then they were foreign invaders, and Indian Muslim culture was both imperialist and inauthentic. At the time, we made light of the gibe, but it stayed with me, pricking at me like a thorn.”

In the light of this experience, it would not seem impossible if Muslims took the airbrushing of the Mughlai food items from the Indian menu as an act of alienation.

Ghazal becomes Gajal

The same way the chandrabindu (the dot below a devnagri letter to signify pronunciation) seems to have been airbrushed from common devnagri lipi. It was meant to be a meeting ground of Urdu and Hindi, if you will—the two sister languages that also fell victim to communalization in India. The result is disastrous. The chef on TV has no compunction in pronouncing zeera (cumin seeds) as jeera. And the literature student has no problem asking: Yeh kya Galib (Ghalib) ki gajal (ghazal) hai. It grates my ears through. The interesting thing is that even no-Urdu knowing Muslims today pronounce words in this fashion.

Et tu, Bollywood?

And finally, the technique of alienation seems to have invaded the most secular of India’s cultural spaces—television and Bollywood. These are not just virtual cultural spaces but powerful engines of culture-generation. After the 1990s, as Bollywood moved from producing the cinema for the front benchers to the cinema for the yuppie, multiplex-going crowd, its stars and filmmakers began to define and set the cultural agenda of the country. Their impact on Hindus and Muslims, both off screen and on screen, are alike. As noted American political philosopher Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, it’s also interesting that Bollywood is the one place where Hindus and Muslims intermingle and intermarry and there is not any great sense of the gulf between them.

After the death of the Muslim socials in Bollywood (a natural corollary of the death of the Muslim elite), its filmmakers turned their back on Muslim characters. How many principal Muslim characters have you seen in Bollywood movies in the post Manmohan Desia era? Don’t even try to count on your fingers.

The situation is worse in TV’s case, especially the popular daily soaps on satellite TV channels. With the exception of the low-budget fantasies like Alif-Laila, in the world of Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi (which is supposed to be popular even in far and away Afghanistan) and Kahani ghar ghar ki, there are hardly any mainstream Muslim characters. It seems they are not part of the glamorous and prosperous social fabric of India which is more or less true.

These are big-ticket questions for the entertainment world. But I am asking a minor question. Like the national integration slogans, Mughlai food and the chandrabindu, one more thing has disappeared from Hindi movie, well almost: the Urdu language titles, along with Hindi and English, in the opening credits. In the last 10-15 years, I think I have seen most movies have done away with it.

I was glad to see that not all filmmakers have forgotten this tradition. Shyam Benegal prominently displayed the Urdu titles in his latest film, Welcome to Sajjanpur, in the feature’s opening credits.

I agree that these are not big issues—where do they stand in front of typically cited larger issues such as fundamentalism and terrorism?

My “regular Indian Hindu” friend might ask me how do these minor, inconsequential things matter to the Indian Muslim mind? My answer is: a lot. These are minor issues but they act as psychological symbols—symbols of our existence, participation and inclusion with the nation at large.

How these symbolic things, tokenisms, if you will, have tiptoed their way out of the public consciousness remains a mystery to me. But I would rather not have had them disappear from our public lives.

“Let us consider dispassionately the consequences which will follow if we give effect to the Pakistan scheme. India will be divided into two states, one with a majority of Muslims, and the other of Hindus. In the Hindustan State there will remain three and half crores of Muslims scattered in small minorities all over the land…they will be weaker than they are today in the Hindu majority provinces. They have had their homelands in these regions for almost a thousand years and built up well-known centres of Muslim culture and civilization there. They will awaken overnight and discover that they have become alien and foreigners. Backward industrially, educationally and economically, they will be left to the mercies to what would become an unadulterated Hindu raj.” —Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in a statement issued on 15 April 1946, responding to Muslim League’s Lahore Resolution

The prescient maulana had seen it coming more than half a century ago. After India’s independence, developments such as vote bank politics, Hindu Muslim communalism and saffronization of the Indian middle class have made the maulana’s worse fears come true. Muslims today lag behind all other communities in India. Their condition is worse than that of the dalits.

But blaming the state for all the ills of the Muslim community for the last 50 years has not got the community any further. As the Vice President of India Shri Hamid Ansari said in the recently concluded World Summit of the Aligarh Muslim University Alumni: “While Shikwa (complaint) about our condition was valid, there was no need to carry it to the point of incapacity for autonomous action. We failed to take note of, emulate and adapt, the initiatives taken by other communities in creative ventures in the field of education independent of government agencies.”

It would be a cliché to repeat that Muslim communalism has been feeding Hindu communalism. It’s good that by and large Muslims have disowned their communal leadership but have not been helped by the secular leadership—they continue to remain a rudderless community, a mere pawn in the chess board of the great Indian ‘vote-bank’ politics.

But things can’t be left where they are. The status quo must change.

One thing that Muslims must do, in order not to alienate themselves from the Hindus, is to respect Hindu sentiments, respect their religious books and culture and emphasize the syncretic values of Islam and Hinduism. A siege mentality of staying aloof will not work any longer, as it has not worked in the past. Similarly, my religion is better than yours mentality will also not work. The members of two communities have to mingle together on equal terms.

Terrorism: Indian Muslims falling in the trap of denial?

Apart from the efforts that need to be put in to ameliorate the conditions of the community, Indian Muslims also need to the face the charge of terrorism squarely, as columnist Vir Sanghvi recently asked: Are Indian Muslims falling in the trap of denial?

“This terrorism must not be allowed to drive on even bigger wedge between India’s Hindus and Muslims,” he says. “Some of this is up to the Muslim community. From what I remember of the 1980s, Muslims are reacting as many Sikhs did then: arguing that the stories of terrorism are made up and that it is all a conspiracy against their community.”

“India’s Muslims must be wary of falling into the trap of denial,” he suggests. “I am prepared to concede that some of those arrested for terrorist attacks could be innocent. I am prepared also to admit that the police do concoct cases. But can every arrested person be innocent? Can every e-mail from the Indian Mujahedeen be a fake?”

There is a lot of truth in Sanghvi’s questions. No one is arguing that the black sheep in Muslim community should be treated differently from the black sheep of other communities. However, can the entire community be held hostage for the wrong doing of misguided few? Must we profile people because of their faith? Must we incarcerate people without evidence and torture them to extract spurious proof? If not checked, will this not hasten India’s sliding into a fascist state?

Where is the moral leadership?

These are the questions that liberal Indians like Harsh Mandar and Arundhati Roy are asking today and these are the questions that both Hindus and Muslims need to ask of the police and the state. And our politicians should provide the moral leadership that is required of them at such times, not the usual vote bank politics that they are used to. After communal riots erupted in Delhi in the wake of a bloody partition of India, Gandhi went on a fast to stop people from cutting each others’ throat. No one expects today’s leaders to take such a self-sacrificial stand but some semblance of moral leadership has to be shown.

To their credit, a large number of Indian Hindus have been accommodative of the minorities. Indian Muslims, whether in India or abroad, must realize that Hindus are their best friends. Both share the same culture and are heirs to a rich 5000-year old civilization. Both have to work together to defeat the communal forces. Our sane minded leaders have tried to do so for the last hundred years or so but not with much success. It is time we took the matter in our own hands and gave communal hatred a silent burial.

Will that be easy? I have my doubts but let us make a beginning. Opening our circle of friendship to people of all faiths can be a good starting point. Everyone, all Indians, need to embrace a rational approach to civil life—don’t believe in unverified information, stop spreading rumors, and try to understand each other better.

At this juncture, India’s new elite and the technocratic middle class need to play a special role. “What I’m really discouraged by is the growing dominance of a technocratic middle class that is anti-political and for whom the suffering of excluded people doesn’t mean a lot,” said Martha Nussbaum. “This IIT mentality — become technically competent engineers, forget about human values — is very dangerous, particularly for a country like India.”

India’s new elite and the technocratic middle class need to pay heed. If they really want India to become the America of Asia, they can no longer afford to be silent and apolitical.

Published in Asian Sentinel, Hong Kong, Oct 29, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Monday, October 27, 2008

Agent Vinod

Don't know about you but like millions of others in the Hindi belt, I too grew up with Hindi and Urdu pulp fiction. Works of James Hadley Chase in Hindi (still remember one of the titles, Drum of Coco), Surendra Mohan Pathak, Ved Prakash Sharma, and even Gulshan Nanda, among others, became part of my daily literary (?) fodder. But it was Ibn-e Safi's Imran Series that was my favourite: not just for its plots but also for its wit and humour. I didn't read any English novel until I was in college, and I am not saying this with pride--such was the environment in the small town that I came from. Even though your Jackie Collinses and Harold Robbinses (English pulp) were available at the AHW bookstalls, their prices were out of my reach.

We never saw interviews of these well-known pulp writers, even though their books sold 500,000-600,000 copies easily without any pre- or post-launch publicity. They were household names in the Hindi belt.

Sadly, the once might Hindi pulp is dying in India, says columnist Mrinal Pande. This is happening, she argues, thanks to the cable television:

Cable television, the new sassy kid on the block, picked up ideas from pulp and began to jazz up romance, crime and soft porn to create soaps and programmes that bore names straight out of the Meerut novels : Sansani, Jurm, Shhhh…Koi Hai. Then came the T-Rex, the reality shows actually featuring those that have rubbed shoulders with the mysterious underworld of crime and sleaze: the Shilpa Shettys, Rahul Mahajans and Monica Bedis. After such entertainment, who needs pulp?


But looks like Bollywood too would join the fray. Sriram Raghavan who made the rocking Johnny Gaddar, is making Agent Vinod with Saif Khan. Sounds good. I hope someone will take up Ibne Safi too.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Tandoori chai, anyone?

Pot Pourri--that's where I was last Sunday. Well, as you might have guessed from the name itself or if the pictures revealed the story to you even before you began reading this post--Pot Pourri is a restaurant, tucked in a nice pre-War building on the Waterloo Street (right behind SAM).

Here's what I have to say for a short introduction: The restaurant's ambiance is beautiful, the food is simply amazing--basically Indian food with a global twist!

I have rarely written about food or restaurants on this blog, but today I am doing that.

Not because I know the restaurant's owners--Suhail (on the phone in the pic) and Naseem. Suhail has been in the food business for a number of years, so all the experience has been put to good use at this new establishment which is now more than a month old.

I am writing this post because Pot Pourri--owning to its location, setting and services--has an easy charm about it that is hard to describe. The building itself gives it a character that sets it apart from many garishly done Indian restaurants. The interiors, the furniture, the alfresco bar, the stage area for parties and functions--all give it a classy chic appearance. The result is that even on your first visit, you feel at home. By the way, according to Suhail, this is the same place from where Indochine, the famous chain of restaurants, started. So, good luck Suhail and Naseem!

Now, the best thing about a restaurant has to be about its food. As I said earlier, the food is Indian but not that spicy and has a global flavour about it--you will know what I mean when you actually dine there. The presentation is first class at prices that are hard to believe (meaning, almost there with your Anjappars and Copper Chimneys). And you know what, you get bheja masala and nalla nihari there too, anytime! Can you find that anywhere else in Singapore! Suhail told me that he gets his meat supplies from Delhi. Everyday the meat is airflown from the Indian capital on Jet Airways. That I guess is as fresh as you can get here.

During the course of the sumptuous meal, I happened to meet one of the chefs from Delhi--Chef Chandan who proudly described to me that he had worked with the legendary chef Ghulam Rasool in Delhi. He shared many anecdotes with me about his training as a chef. But there is one thing about Chandan that I must share with you.

Tandoori chai. Now, have you ever heard of it?

One of Chandan's specialties is Tandoori chai --tea made with tea leaves, sugar and milk in a polyethylene packet--yes, that's right, any polyethylene packet--boiled and prepared in a hot tandoor. Though I did not get to sample it, he claimed that the tea is delicious and the packet never bursts. Unbelievable, isn't it? Chandan even got an award for performing this unusual feat. Bravo! Next time I go there, I am going to shoot this tandoori chai making for you):

But obviously, you won't visit Pot Pourri for that chai alone. They have some of the best kebabs (from Nawabi to Gilawati) that I have tasted in Singapore, the softest butter naans and the most delicious daal, Daal Bukhara--one of chef Chandan's (picture, below, on the left) specialties. And many many more things. Check out the menu on their website.

If you can't wait for a bite there, here are the details:

Office: 68847742
Location: 42 Waterloo Street, Singapore 187951
Singapore City, Singapore

If you are on Facebook, join the Pot Pourri group here:

Friday, October 24, 2008

Between the Assassinations

Outlook reveals that The White Tiger is not, in fact, Adiga's debut novel:

Much of the hype and hoopla over Aravind Adiga's winning the Booker is about the fact that he has won it with his very first book. But The White Tiger is not, in fact, his debut novel. His first book, Between the Assassinations, had been languishing with its Indian publisher, Picador India, for over two years. They bought it from the then unknown Adiga for a modest sum, and despite it being championed by Pankaj Mishra and the literary agent, Peter Strauss, it didn't attract a single UK or US publisher. Predictably, after Adiga's Booker win, a bidding war has begun for it.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Arundhati Roy on the Jamia encounter

Bol ke lab azaad hain tere...bol zabaan ab tak teri hai:

Friday, October 17, 2008

What does the Booker win mean for Arvind Adiga?

Some Indians are upset at Arvind Adiga's Booker win because they think it was wrong of him to have exposed the dark side of India (Read: The dark horse and Roars of anger).

The truth is that the dark side of India has always been out there, provided that one was living and breathing with one's eyes open in the first place--in news reports, blogs, and non-fiction writing--it has been there all along (Forgot Pankaj Mishra's and Arundhati Roy's writings, to say the least? And they don't read Tehelka there, do they?). This could also be seen as one of the side effects (on the British consciousness) of Salman Rushdie's move to New York. The man used to keep the British up to date with the goings on of the sub-continent.

I don't know about The Guardian and other UK dailies but as far as I know, the NYT and the IHT have been regularly publishing reports on the dark side of India--communal violence, widening socio-economic divide, corruption, negligence of states like Bihar, etc. Looks like the Booker judges were not exposed to such reports--that's why it took Adiga's novel for them to get informed about this aspect of the country--one of the world's rising powers. "This book changed me," Booker judge Michael Portillo said. "It changed my view of certain things, like what is the real India and what is the nature of poverty." Good for him! At least now the learned man knows something that he ought to know.

As for India, you need not worry. Criticism is part of life and it is the job of writers and journalists to point out the social ills. As citizens, we can work to build a better India.

But to come back to the complaint, after the success stories from a rising India, it is the dark side of India that is attracting the attention of the Western junta. What's it? A feeling of “schadenfreude” against a resurgent India? Look how Jala's film (Children of the Pyre) won the best documentary film prize at the Montreal film festival. Adapting another Indian novel by Vikas Swarup, filmmaker Danny Boyle has made a film on a man from the Mumbai slums doing well but being questioned for his doing well precisely because of his origin. That film is Slum Dog Millionaire which is said to be well-received in film festivals.

I am not saying all this to take away credit from anyone involved. My message to the upset people is simply this: Expect more negative stories from India making it to the Western press and book stores. Being upset at it won't change anything.

But honestly, I don't think one can blame Arvind for writing this kind of an angry book--for going where he went for his literary material. As a writer, he wrote what caught his fancy. However, I also agree with what Nilanjan S Roy has said: "The idea that what Adiga has done is path-breaking is ridiculous. No doubt, he has written a great book and given us a character, Balram Halwai, that will stay with us. But as anyone in India who reads widely enough knows, he's not 'the first to go where no other Indian author has gone before' as reviews in the west have proclaimed."

I haven't read the book so I can't comment on its merit. But among what I have read recently, The Peacock Throne dealt with the similar class of people. And, anyway, I don't need to read a novel to know about such people as I have literally grown up with characters like Balram Halwai minus the ascribed villainy as a class trait--if that's how readers choose to read the work of fiction and work out the equation.

As a caveat, for the benefit of Portillo and others, to get the impression from this novel that all of India's poor are likely villains and throat cutters would be to get it all wrong. And to assume that India's poor have only two ways--politics and crime --to come up in life would be to believe in the naivety of the partial truth. I have seen poor Indians becoming successful businessmen and skilled workers by the dint of their hard work and smartness. I have read about the sons of rickshaw-pullers making it to the civil services. There are many stories. Arvind chose one of them to tell through his novel that he found the most compelling.

However, many critics, including Professor Amitava Kumar, have questioned the authenticity of his portrayal of a character like Balram (from the darkness, that is Bihar) in a seminal essay (Bad News: Authenticity and the South Asian political novel):
I also loved what I’d heard of Adiga’s cheeky use of the epistolary form, that the whole book was a letter from the Indian servant to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Certainly, the narrator’s voice is bold and funny...But when I started reading the book, my enthusiasm evaporated. I did not know until I began reading the novel that the protagonist, Balram Halwai, is from the state of Bihar, where I was born and grew up, and which Halwai in the course of the entire book calls by the name Darkness. But more than the name was unsettling. In the book’s opening pages, Halwai begins to tell the Chinese Premier the story of his life. We are introduced to the poverty of rural Bihar, and the evil of the feudal landlords. Halwai’s voice sounds like a curious mix of an American teen and a middle-aged Indian essayist. I find Adiga’s villains utterly cartoonish, like the characters in Bollywood melodrama. However, it is his presentation of ordinary people that seems not only trite but also offensive...As I continued, I found on nearly every page a familiar observation or a fine phrase, and on nearly every page inevitably something that sounds false. I stopped reading on page thirty-five.

No matter what, I am happy for Arvind to have won the prestigious award. The man worked hard--he left his job after a successful stint at the Time. He had the best education available to him--he too could have become an investment banker or a doctor. But he decided to become a journalist and a writer. How many people take that path?

With his Booker win, he has raised the bar so high for all young Indian writers--and especially for those geniuses who have gone to places like Oxford and Columbia. Their friends might be asking them: dude, when are you going to chuck your job and whip out that Booker winning novel? (The banking and finance sector is anyway doing poorly so the timing is right, isn't it? Ha ha, just kidding).

Here is an interesting account from Arvind's friend at the Time magazine who was there at the Guildhall when the Mangalore boy's name was announced as a winner:
For Ravi Mirchandani, who edited Adiga's book and was sitting beside him at the table, the win was especially sweet. The White Tiger was the first book he bought for Atlantic, which hired him in 2006 after he was fired from a job at Random House. The novel was shown to him by Adiga's agent, who insisted that he read it that night and make an almost instant decision about whether to bid for it. "I sat down with the manuscript and after the first six pages I was just so excited," Mirchandani said. "When you're reading a first novel, you're often thinking: 'This is fantastic, keep it up, keep it up' " — only to find the writer stumbles and falls. In Adiga's case, Mirchandani said, "The voice is fantastic and it never falters."


Amid all this hullabaloo, I have been wondering about one thing: whatever happened to the Naipaulian advice to novelists: stop bringing the news! Dickens used to do that when journalism was yet to uncover the dark side of industrialization in Britain. And imagine, Adiga's novel has actually been called Dickensian! Does it mean journalism has failed?

If yes, then this could be good news for Tehelka. Tehelka sales team, please take note. Send a sample subscription copy to Portillo and company, and thank Mr Adiga for opening a new corner of the market to you and your ilk of truth-tellers.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Arvind Adiga grabs the Booker

Arvind Adiga has done it. He has won this year's Man Booker Prize for his novel, The White Tiger.

Adiga has got this honour with his first book--that's amazing. I had no doubt about his talent ever since I had read some of his book reviews in the Time magazine. Perhaps at that time not many had noticed him but I had been impressed.

Here is the Guardian on his win:

After an "emotionally draining" and closely fought final judging session, Aravind Adiga, one of the two debut novelists on the Man Booker shortlist, was last night awarded the £50,000 prize for The White Tiger, a bracingly modern novel about the dark side of the new India.

Adiga, 33, is a surprise winner: at long odds he batted aside the claims of veteran writers on the shortlist such as Sebastian Barry and Amitav Ghosh.

He is only the fourth first-time novelist to win the Man Booker - after Keri Hulme in 1985, Arundhati Roy in 1997 and DBC Pierre in 2003 - and he is the second youngest after Ben Okri, who won in 1991 aged 32.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

From the valley to the ghats

Young Indian filmmaker Rajesh S. Jala’s new documentary Children of the Pyre (2008) has recently won the best documentary film award at this year’s Montreal Film Festival. This documentary features about 7 children working at Manikarnika, Banaras, India’s busiest, most sacred and ancient cremation ground.

Though this director-producer-cinematographer relishes the honour, it behoves his hard work. Rajesh has been making films, primarily documentaries, for the last 11 years. He has directed more than 10 documentary films and a number of television series for leading international and Indian television channels. One of his earlier documentary films Foating lamp of the shadow valley (2006) was nominated at the International Amsterdam Film Festival and was officially selected at the Palm Spring Film Festival, US and the Raindance Film Festival, London.

Here’s an exclusive interview with the young filmmaker:

How did "Children of the Pyre" come about? What attracted you to this serious theme?

For many years I was keen to make a film on Banaras. Two years back I went to Banaras for a recci and I spent a month there. And during this period I got an opportunity to meet these extraordinary 7 children. Immediately I decided to do this film. This unusual subject, children working at the busiest cremation ground in India, attracted me to do this film.

Was it a difficult subject to research and write on? Or did you shoot the film first and then edited it down to whip out a meaningful narrative?

There wasn't much of research involved. We followed the children for 18 months (off and on), and shot more than 100 hours of footage. The film is a self-narrative of these kids who narrate their lives very candidly. And it took us 7 months to edit the film.

As has been mentioned elsewhere, you took several months to shoot and edit the documentary. When you were making the documentary, what was going through your mind?

This film has left a deep impact on me. Filming at a cremation ground, where almost 150 dead bodies are cremated each day was one of the most difficult experiences I have gone through. Especially in the beginning it was an emotional torture to shoot at this cremation ground. Dead bodies coming after every 10 minutes with the chants of Ram naam satya hai (Lord Rama’s name is the truth) echoing in the air almost created a haunting environment. During the peak summer schedule last year, the temperature at the ground was above 50 degrees and we shot for many days. The whole crew got sick. Our energy was drained out. I was limping and I could hardly talk.

What sort of relationship developed between you and the principal characters of your film? Did you face any hurdles in shooting as Varansi is a religious place?

Initially the kids treated me like any other visitor but when they saw me spending most of the time with them, following them through days and nights, their perception changed and so did their approach towards me. Gradually we became friends.

Shooting at Manikarnika cremation ground was the biggest shooting challenge in my 11 years of filmmaking career. Besides physical and emotional challenges, there were lots of hurdles we had to go through. At times we had to face the wrath of the relatives accompanying the dead body. And some times the local cremators or touts would intimidate us. But gradually, we built up a good rapport with the locals and eventually, almost everybody supported us.

Did you expect to win accolades (such as the best documentary film award at Montreal film festival) when you were working on the film? How do you feel getting appreciated for your work?

When I was making the film I didn't think of winning awards. But I was hopeful that this film would generate awareness about this extreme form of childhood. Thankfully, I am getting a lot of appreciation and it really encourages me.

More here

Friday, October 10, 2008

French Writer Wins Nobel Prize

The French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, whose work reflects a seemingly insatiable restlessness and sense of wonder about other places and other cultures, won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.

This is from today's NY Times:

Asked at the news conference if he had any message to convey, Mr. Le Clézio said: “My message will be very clear; it is that I think we have to continue to read novels. Because I think that the novel is a very good means to question the current world without having an answer that is too schematic, too automatic. The novelist, he’s not a philosopher, not a technician of spoken language. He’s someone who writes, above all, and through the novel asks questions.”


Inside India’s publishing business

In the last few years, following the Booker Prize win of Arundhati Roy, there has been a phenomenal change in the publishing scene in India. According to reports, the industry is growing at the rate of twenty five per cent every year. Many multinational publishers have set shop in India. Literary festivals at places like Jaipur, Mumbai and Kolkata have created the buzz about writers and writing (and in the process, stoking some controversies too)—and I am not even mentioning the five-star book launches, peppered with Bollywood celebrities and talkative sound-bite savvy politicians. Agents and talent scouts have been making trips to India in search of the next Arundhati Roy. New names have arrived in India’s overcrowded literary marquee with a regularity and speed only to be rivaled by the cell phone penetration rate in the country. If you find that last comparison a bit off the curve, take it with a pinch of salt but I hope you get the signal (I mean, the drift of things).

There is a reason for all this rush to the Indian market. According to publishing guru David Davidar (who established Penguin India some two decades ago and now heads Penguin Canada), the Indian (English language) publishing scene in 20 years will be the second or third largest in the world overtaking Canada and Australia. “From about 7 to 8 million India will go to 30 to 40 million in the space of 15 to 20 years which means it's just going to explode,” he has said in an interview.

In a scenario like this, one would be forgiven to assume that young Indian writers—boys or girls or their adult versions—today have the world at their feet: talent hunters stalking the wannabe literary superstars, literary agents wooing the parents or grandparents of their literary children or grandchildren, hoping to help them snatch the next literary deal of the century, publishers laughing their way to the bank as they sit atop an inexhaustible literary gold mine of unsolicited manuscripts.

The truth is as far from the reality as it could be. The publishing scenario in India, especially the fiction side of it, is still a nightmare for young Indian writers, far removed from the fairy tale scene painted above. When it comes to publishing, an aspiring Indian writer (sans any literary pedigree or fancy degrees in creative writing from UK or US) is—yes, you guessed it correctly—much on his own: no agents, no literary scouts, and no willing publishers.

Well, actually there are some but the scene has perhaps not changed much ever since the days of an upstart R K Narayan (The Malgudi Days, The Guide) when he had to ask his friend to tie a stone to his unpublished, much rejected manuscript and throw it into the Thames. Now that the big brand global publishers are in India, new Indian writers don’t have to go to the Thames; they have their Ganges or the Jamuna waiting for their precious offering at a stone’s throw.

The only difference, between now and then, is that perhaps there is a lot of awareness about publishing, especially about the million dollar advances that some writers get in the west. There are some websites and email groups too that help writers share information and advice with each other—a soothing atmosphere for the wannabe novelist to cool his heels and let his hair down and cavile and complain until he sets off for another wild goose chase for a publisher.

Writers’ Side

In the given situation, is anybody doing anything to help the poor writers come out of the shadows? I was surprised to find out that an agency-- Writer's Side—is actively seeking to help new writers reach publishers in India and abroad.

“Writer's Side has been set up to counterbalance the increasing inaccessibility of Indian publishers, especially the global conglomerates that are setting up divisions here,” says the founder editor of Writer's Side, Kanishka Gupta.

Kanishka was attached to an agency based in Jaipur before he took the plunge into an inkpot to start a new literary chapter. “It took me just seven months to grow out of the concept of literary agencies in India and evolve a model that was more holistic and profitable,” says the literary entrepreneur.

His company now provides editorial and market assistance to writers. In addition, it introduces very promising talent to our contacts overseas.

He, however, clarifies that he is not a typical agent. In fact, for India’s unhealthy publishing scene, he pins some blame to the agencies. “I think the origin of agencies in India was largely an offshoot of the growing interest of foreign markets in Indian fiction,” he says. “Sadly, that interest is very volatile and fluctuates from time to time. Also, agencies in India as a business model are not viable. Apart from Osians, I've not encountered a single agent who works with proper infrastructure and support. Thus, the business model of agenting that was started to become lucrative ultimately ends up seeing the agents drag themselves into a metaphorical space of literary martyrdom. That's not something we can afford.”

“I would also question some of the choices the agents are making. It not only fails them in their cause but also makes Indian writing look increasingly suspect to foreign markets,” he adds. “One has to be very patient and has to stop hanging on the coat tails of The God of Small Things era. The market has become insanely competitive and somewhat unreliable.”

To prove his point, Kanishka gives the example of a major publishing house (he does not want to disclose the name) which has been in operation in India for over two years. “Other than established names in fiction and commissioned titles in non-fiction they haven't been able to do anything substantial,” he notes. “Most of their time is spent in formulating innovative marketing campaigns- again a very shortsighted approach for a publisher especially one who purportedly claimed to be here to find unique voices in the country.”

Kanishka thinks that for the benefit for the writers and the industry, publishers should start taking serious initiatives to nurture talent rather than simply work as money-making corporates. “It’s one thing to justify your salary at the end of the month, quite another to do it at the cost of thousands of writers who are waiting to get some sort of direction in their careers,” he points out. “I hold publishers responsible for writers abandoning their careers prematurely. In the West, consultancies like the TLC, several freelance editors and book doctors are there to help writers but there's no such system in India, maybe not even in Asia.”

I guess writers will welcome that kind of approach in India. And Indian writers won’t have much to complaint if more agencies like Writer’s Side stood by them.

So, what’s his advice to the aspiring writers? Kanishka ferrets out a long list: “Don’t follow trends. Inoculate yourself against rejections. Don’t get paranoid. Always be on the lookout for a novel idea or a novel way to tell a story. Find a mentor or a reader to nurture your talents. It may take 5 years to see your work in print but it’s worth all the effort.”

Well, it’s not that a long list but makes immense sense. If you are not in a hurry to become famous, make those five years into ten. Writers can always do with some patience and hard work.
Published in the MPH Malaysia magazine, Quill.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Writers, beware!

A word of caution from Anita Desai ('One Rip Van Winkle Sleep And...' in Outlook):

Now that worldly success has been made acceptable and popular, something to be courted, it can too easily follow that the publisher will demand books that earn back those advances and justify the expenditure on publicity and distribution, and slowly, but surely, turn the writer into a good financial bet just as one actor may prove to be such a treasure and another may not. The pressures exerted on both the publisher and the writer today simply did not exist 40 or 50 years ago. But there is no free lunch and the writer soon learns that if he wishes to earn, he must learn to please. An insidious pressure, this, not one that encourages freedom or fearlessness.