TRKTRK

 


 

 

T R K

1996

 

A Visit to Florence and Venice –

THE BANKERS OF SIENA AND THE BARINGS’ SCANDAL

 

I was on holiday in Florence and Siena like a time traveller temporarily inhabiting Italy’s twin medieval towns once ruled by a dynasty of bankers. The Sienese bankers who gave the world of banking some of its best known terminology and useful financial instruments, dominated the world of European trade for four centuries from their august palaces, and financed the bloody crusades of the middle ages. It was in a sense a suitable and fitting place to be in when Barings Bank, the oldest and one of the most venerable of city financial institutions which has the Queen as one of its clients, went bust. Even the most prescient writer of financial thrillers could not have included such an event in a plot of financial skulduggery. Barings was founded in 1762 by two Baring brothers, when the Florentine banks still dominated Europe. It nearly went under once before in 1890 when its adventurous loans to Argentina were found to be irrecoverable. Barings employees whose average pay is around £100000 a year, had a package of £100 million in bonus awards just a week before its sudden and catastrophic demise.

Palazzo-Vecchio(Old-Palace-Florence) Florence-Ponte-Vecchio

1.Palazzo Vecchio(Old Palace) 2.Ponte Vecchio -one of the Bridges

Duomo Rome-St-Peter's-Square

3.The Duomo-Church of Santa Maria del Fiore. 4St.Peters Square _ Rome

Speculators in futures and currency in particular, have held countries hostage to the whims of this casino, with international banking greedy for overnight profits supporting this global activity. Now a great bank has been hoisted on its own petard and as a warning to others has sent shock waves throughout the financial world. One single dealer in these futures called derivatives, 28 year old Nick Leeson, the son of a plasterer from Watford, in these days of high-speed computer network has managed to lose a billion dollars and bust a venerable bank. The commodity that Leeson purchased with such abandon using serious money was the Nikkei 225, a representative basket of Japanese equities, like the American Dow Jones.  When he started on his slippery way down, the average price of each of these futures contracts for the Nikkei 225 was US $196,000. Within a week it was worth no more than $183,000 with a paper loss exceeding $400 million. The final estimated losses when Leeson disappeared were expected to exceed a billion US dollars.  The total purchases position that Leeson took was a staggering $27 billion.
An international newspaper described this as trading mania that afflicts large international banks and financial institutions whose primary duty should be to use their money to fund commercial and industrial activity. The newspaper goes on to say unequivocally that this kind of speculation termed arbitrage, is nothing but decadence and silliness. The Bank of England did not, as in 1890, bail out Barings. Meanwhile a survey of 200 Britain’s leading financial institutions by accountants Touche Ross has revealed that 58% of these admitted that their own systems for monitoring risks on derivatives trading were inadequate.  Germany alone among the European countries has been to able to assert that such a catastrophe could not happen to them. The Government watchdog of US commodities, the Futures Trading Commission was unable to give such comforting assurances.
Back in Siena and Florence, the latter a city of the Medicis, the Monte de Pascis, the Pittis and all those other bankers, I was immersed in history, architecture that defies description and an incredible treasure of art. I recalled the longing I had felt as a youngster in an Indian village for Renaissance Europe and its museums and its palaces and cathedrals. My resource then was an abridged Encyclopedia of unknown provenance, as its binding and cover pages were missing; and a travelogue by the Kanarese novelist, aesthete and polymath Shivaram Karanth, Apurva Pashchima- the Incredible West.
Florence is a war-wounded city. but the damage inflicted by the bombing of the second world war and the great flood of 1966 is no longer visible. Although it was early March, Florence and Siena and the medieval village of  San Giminiano preserved in aspic, were full of tourists. It was impossible to get into the Uffizi museum, the most famous picture Gallery in Italy, as the queues stretched round the corridors of this monumental structure even at nine in the morning. I had to content myself with picture postcards and a calendar of Botticelli paintings and yearn unreasonably to be in the front of this queue snaking round the museum. There were, it seemed, thousands of young Japanese girls in fashionable European clothes displaying a very European body language making up most of these line-ups. As I had seen an exhibition of the 18th century Venetian paintings at the Royal Academy in London recently, my regrets at not being able to get into the Uffizi were somewhat assuaged. I settled for the Palazzo Pitti, an imposing structure dating back to the 15th century, and enlarged in the 16th under the patronage of the Medici family. A morning in the Palatine Gallery, with a brisk tour through rooms filled with the paintings, frescoes, tapestries and sculptures is frustrating. Each room, and there are hundreds of them, deserve a day of patient and pleasurable occupation. Florence is a city that should be lived in; not just visited for a few days.
It occurred to me during this short visit that compared with the massive and highly visible presence of the young Japanese and the older American tourists in Europe, the Indians are virtually invisible in the seasonal throng that descends on Europe’s piazzas. I am told that enterprising tour operators from India with links in England organize specially tailored coach tours of Europe for the increasingly affluent middle class of India, with all matters of special needs like food taken care of. There are regional chefs travelling with each of these coaches, well versed in the fastidious culinary tastes and religious constraints of the Indian tourists. However ignorance of European cuisine, a lack of interest in European history and culture, a general inability and unwillingness to adapt can be serious impediments to Indian tourists in Europe.
Wednesday, the 8 of March was officially International Women’s Day. British newspapers were awash with highly charged versions of the history of this shift of power from men to women, about the gender battle and a new optimistic ideal that women would achieve equality by working with men, in a new partnership. It would seem that the extreme agenda of the 70s feminists which gave rise to descriptive terms like “strident, man-hating, unfeminine and ugly” have been replaced by anonymous feminism that does not wear its credo on its lapel. There is an awareness of the global context of women’s plight in a world with wholly different social and political conditions. The true aspirations of women in countries like Iran, Algeria, the Middle East with theocratic imperatives, and to a lesser degree in Pakistan and Bangladesh, are a world apart from the agenda of the anti-abortionists lobby of the Christian West. Here the imperatives are those of the Papal encyclicals. In India, as is often pointed out, the inequality is caused in essence more by a difference in caste than gender.
The Scotsman, a respected daily newspaper published in Scotland renamed itself the Scotswoman for just a day on the 8 of March. Its current acting editor is in fact a woman, Lesley Riddoch who planned this surprise edition for its readers. She sees women as having been far more interested in real issues and what lies behind news stories, than in speculative analysis of tedious speeches by male politicians.
It is not often that a book on economics published as a hardback and costing £17 becomes a runaway best-seller, with five reprints in as many weeks. Will Hutton, the highly respected Economics editor of the Guardian whom I have referred to several times in my previous despatches, (like J.K.Galbraith, Anthony Sampson and the antipodean journalist John Pilger) has argued for an economic agenda that has a wholly different historical perspective. It reveals Western capitalism as a king without clothes. The book, The State We Are In has been praised widely even by economists in the opposite camp as a radical economic and political blueprint for the next Labour Government in Britain. At the heart of his argument is Hutton’s belief that Britain in run by a consensual gentlemanly capitalism of city institutions, landed estates and boardrooms, full of old boy net works that use their massive investment portfolios for short time returns at the expense of investing in manufacturing which is essentially long term and in welfare which underpins society’s essential wellbeing and contentment. Larger macro-economic events in Mexico, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Republic and its former satellites make Hutton’s thesis dated already, by being relevantto a very small number of European countries.

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1996

A Visit to Oxford –

ENCHANTMENT AND EDUCATION

 

I must have been 15 years old, in a remote little village in India when I first read S.K.Chettur’s book on idiomatic English and what he termed “Indianisms”. Subsequently I read his memoirs, the greater part of which was about his time at Oxford as an undergraduate before the second World War. I was enchanted and spellbound by his description of this Gothic town, this 13th century University left unchanged through the mist of times like a large tent held together by geodesic “dreaming spires.”
Then there was this fabled river Isis (a footling stream, I was to discover later) flowing through this crenellated stone built town, with students in espadrilles and boaters resting languorously on its banks!
When I first arrived in England penniless, after a 40 day trek by road from India, one of the first friendships I made was with Adil Jussawalla, an Indian who had just “come down” from Oxford and was establishing himself as a poet. Adil had friends who had all “come down” and were variously looking for jobs in journalism and publishing; all of them had this air of genteel disdain and general poverty.
One of the ex-Oxonians I met in England was Dom Moraes who wrote kindly and flatteringly about my adventure in his “A Letter from London” column in the Times of India. Dark and brooding, this young and famous poet of few words had a stormy period as an undergraduate at Oxford. He got nearly “sent down” for long absences without permission and the company he kept whilst away from his college. A fellow Indian at Oxford in 1956-59 period who practised this mixture of disdain and high jinx was Ved Mehta, the blind writer, who has just published a book of memoirs of his time :” UP AT OXFORD”. He recalls this feel brilliantly: “Not seeking amusement, drinking like fish, or talking volubly, we were vainly struggling with abstractions beyond our years, yet the struggles helped us to think on our feet, sharpen our wits, develop a certain lightness of touch, and cement friendships”.
Up at Oxford on a series of revisits with Adil I discovered dozens of Indian students utterly at ease in classless student gear of corduroys and polo neck sweaters, carrying what seemed like entire collected editions of Balzac or Russell under their fragile arms. These were the privileged sons and daughters of Indian meritocracy: the parents had to be elitist, with subtle one-up-manship, and ambitious for their children; they had to have serious money.
One incident stands out in my mind from this period. I was always taking visiting Indian friends on day trips to Oxford. Once it was my ex-News Editor from New Delhi whose thoroughly practised unkindnesses to me during my period in his paper rankled. He was a changed man in my care: affable, conversational,full of unkind and scandalous gossip about his colleagues. I fretted with anger and discomfort and hoped he would do something so silly that I could laugh in his face and finally forgive him. We got quite outrageously drunk in a dark cavernous pub in Oxford, before we realized it was three in the afternoon. This is the mandatory hour when all pubs shut their doors and expel their reluctant drunks. We found ourselves on the kerb without having eaten or visited the pub’s toilets. My News Editor friend needed to “go” as a matter of great urgency. There was no where in sight on a crowded Saturday afternoon where this comfort was available. All the dignity of my friend deserted him completely. I saw him by the curb, against the grand backdrop of Christ Church college, shaking like a leaf, with a stream of water running down his trouser legs into the gutter in an unceasing flow for several minutes. Then he lit a cigarette and looked at me craven-faced. I could not laugh, but I had forgiven him.
Oxford today has hardly changed. Privileged sons and daughters of the Indian rich still come. The intake is minuscule compared to the total student population or to the total number of overseas students. The figures are however interesting: In 1989 there were 34 applications from India and 6 acceptances; in 1990 total applications of 42 and 12 acceptances. The figures for 1991 are 38 and 5; for 1992 there were 38 hopefuls and 6 admitted; and for 1993 these had dropped dramatically to 20 applications and 2 final selections. These two acceptances will begin their first term this October in 1994. The fees are £9000 and £10,000 respectively for the Arts and Science subjects and a further £4000 per annum for accommodation in the college. This latter figure does not include food or travel from India. An Indian parent enduring a 3 year spell of expenditure to educate their scions in this enchanted place would need some 20 Lakhs of Rupees in reserve!
On a re-visit to Oxford in search of these children of privilege, I was once again struck by its architecturally deceptive beauty. You penetrate this medieval magic box lying innocently behind Gothic stone with increasing astonishment. You discover a tranquil nest of quadrangles and designer Victorian gardens stretching for acres. (Trinity, Christ Church, New College) The old tomb like stone work clad in shrubs and climbers often hides delightful, magical Fellows garden which is out of bounds for a casual visitor. At dusk as street lights come on, it is medievally monastic as you hear the college chapel bells ringing in unison, and the faint sounds of the organ like a haze laid over this tableau. The city of Oxford which began as a river crossing in Anglo-Saxon Times, soon had gatherings of English scholars who had been banned by Henry II from studying at the University of Paris.
All undergraduates of Oxford University are “members” of one of its twenty eight undergraduate colleges or seven Permanent Private Halls, with resounding names like Corpus Christi, Oriel, Magdalen, Keble, Balliol, Lincoln.
There were the Indian students I had come in search of, dressed in jeans and torn sweaters, cotton denim shirts and the occassional scarf jauntily thrown across the shoulder, carrying as usual large obscure tomes, often concealed by an immodestly short scholar’s gown which is de rigueur if one dined in hall. They mostly looked utterly carefree, un-rebellious without the mock maturity and general air of disdain I was so familiar with, in the 60s students.
Oxford like Cambridge is certainly a very desirable place to go to as a student. There have been a crop of students who left an indelible mark behind are well-remembered with pride by people still working in the Students’ Admissions offices and certainly in the Oxford Union.
Tariq Ali and Benazir Bhutto are arguably the most famous from the Indian sub-continent, as both rose to become presidents of this great debating forum. I understand that whilst losing none of its combative presence, the Union now has a “social side” to its activities. I quizzed Mrs Edna Clark at the Oxford Union (who remembered every Asian name associated with the Union going back some two decades) what this meant. “Theatre and music?” I queried. “No, no. Parties” was the answer.
I should be “down there” once again on a visit when the term opens on the 10th of October to speak to some of the Indian students who are lucky to have made it. That would be the amusing subject of another letter from London.
Anyone wishing to apply to Oxford University for undergraduate admissions for 1995 term should write to: Oxford Colleges Admissions Office, University Offices, Wellington Square, Oxford OX1 2JD. Tel: Oxford (0865 270207)

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1996

AMBEDKAR AND THE PUZZLE OF MASS CONVERSIONS

 

ambedkarGood old-fashioned scholarship, a centenary celebration and the Indian Government’s patronage brought about an unique seminar on Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in London. I have been reading a book on Ambedkar and Buddhism by Venerable Sangharakshita, an extraordinary English Buddhist monk who played an important role in Ambedkar’s late conversion to Buddhism and his dramatic public conversion of some half a million untouchables in India Imageto this pacifist and classless region at a mass rally. The ceremony was conducted by U Chandramani who had been recommended by Sangharakshita as the senior-most Buddhist monk at the time in India.

Ambedkar’s daring and public act only six weeks prior to his death makes sense when viewed in the context of his Hindu Code Bill which was rejected by the Indian Parliament in 1951, only two years after Ambedkar had been hailed as the New Manu, the architect of India’s secular Constitution.  A giant statue of Ambedkar now stands a silent witness outside India’s temple of democracy, the Parliament Building in New Delhi. His arm is outstretched pointing his index finger towards the Parliament. Ironically and tragically, India turned him into a saint and ostracised him from its democratic forums.

The seminar held in the august surroundings of the Nehru centre in London brought together what India’s learned High Commissioner Dr.L.M. Singhvi, a scholar diplomat with the common touch, called a “collection of difficult and durable eggheads”. Ironically however, the well-meaning participants came to praise, canonise Ambedkar, but also to bury the memory of Ambedkar’s passionate and angry war with the Hindu hierarchy in his later years. It failed to make a connection with the brilliant radicalism of his strategy of mass conversion. No one remembered or referred to Sangharakshita, a great Buddhist scholar and a senior Buddhist monk, whose organization in India continues to work with the untouchables.

I met Sangharakshita in his East London Offices of the Friends of the Western Buddhists Order, a fort-like conversion of an old London fire station and talked to him about Ambedkar, his association and his private memories of the great man. What has intrigued me and worried me was that in his great compassion Ambedkar might have used his very personal conversion to a new religion as an ill-prepared and ill-conceived means of liberating his people. Ambedkar himself was the scion of a class of Marath untouchables. I pointed out to Sangharakshita the sociological and class imperatives that made a converted group merely carry across their baggage of casteism. Any change was merely a new labelling  as the underlying divisions of caste and class and economic realities remained unchanged.

The eminent academic Prof.M.S.Agwani, a member of the Minorities Commission and an ex-Vice Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, argued lucidly and relevantly about the conversion of lower class Hindus to Islam in Northern India. This had not cleansed them of their class and caste mark or their traditional occupation like working in the leather trade; the converts simply re-arranged themselves, says Agwani into the same sub-structure of higher or lower caste moslems and intermarriage and social co-habitation between them within a single religion remains unthinkable. Ever since the earliest Moslem invasions, the hierarchical pecking order had a descending structure with the Syeds at the top, followed by the Sheiks, the Mughals and the Pathans similar to Hindu caste structure.  Agwani had argued, I told Sangharakshita, that any reform and aid and positive discrimination given to Hindu untouchables and scheduled castes should be extended to the millions of Moslems converted a century ago, only to be trapped in a social grouping similar to the untouchables.

Sangharakshita addressed my disquiet with his usual thoroughness. “I see the mass conversion as a revolutionary event. Ambedkar was very conscious of the religious, social, economic and educational drawbacks suffered by the scheduled castes. Initially, he was more of a social reformer. He wanted to reform Hinduism and for 20 years he pursued this tack. He appealed to the Hindu leaders. He could not succeed. He became disillusioned. He rejected Communism. He was himself a deeply religious man. He acknowledged that a purely secular communistic solution would not do: there had to be a religious solution. He was deeply convinced that religion lay at the roots of all human activity, where man could find the source of inspiration. He looked around for several years and even looked at Sikhism. Christianity he considered alien to the Indian temperament; and he rejected Islam because it would exacerbate the existing divisions. He was concerned with the unity of India.”

Obliquely, Sangharakshita tried to answer my disquiet about a mass conversion leaving the underlying caste structures intact. If Ambedkar’s experiment did not fully succeed, it was because of lack of time to train successors to his religious vision, although he had many political lieutenants who simply could not successfully carry on his religious dimension. Ambedkar had a poor opinion of Buddhist Bhikkus from South East Asia, who presented Buddhism in a traditional way. He could not entrust them with the imparting of the great tenets of Buddhism to a mass of new converts. For a while however Sanghrakshita played a key role in picking up the challenge and giving teachings to the masses of converted untouchables.

Although Sangharakshita returned to England in the mid sixties, his Friends of the Western Buddhist Order has developed strong links with the Indian Buddhist Society and a wholly Indian Buddhist group called Vibhas which continues Ambedkar’s work in all seriousness. Large retreats are held and basic teachings disseminated. Buddhism is not an easy religion to fathom, although its basic tenets are eminently accessible: the universality of suffering and its cure; the acceptance of impermanence of all phenomenon and the inevitability of change. However the Buddha’s radical conception of “Anatma” has been misinterpreted as nihilism and atheism. The dialectic has concealed the radical dynamic of Nirvana -liberation. That was the hardest concept to grasp. How could a million untouchables without the benefit of education understand this central philosophy of Buddhism and draw nourishment from this intellectual religion?

Sangharakshita says that the new converts’ knowledge of the essentials of this liberating religion is firmly implanted. “Even if they do not know all the main tenets of Buddhism, very often they know what it is not” says Sangharakshita in simple clarification. In those heady days, Sangharakshita himself led a conversion of some 200,000 untouchables at a mass rally. I have no access to demographic figures, but the state of Maharashtra alone has some 4 to 5 million converted ex-untouchables, with their own Viharas, equivalents of Hindu Shrines. Although the frontline members of Ambedkar’s Dalit masses may not wholly believe in Buddhism or in non-violence, specially in matters of self-defence, the memory of Ambedkar is immovably enshrined in their hearts.

Sangharakshita affirmed that Ambedkar had studied Buddhism since the early age of 16 and had a strong personal devotion to the Buddha as the bedrock of his faith. However it took him a life time to realize that he would never be accepted as a reformer of Hinduism, in spite of his reformist zeal. He became a bitter and disappointed person, and all too human.

In conclusion discussing the dynamics of Ambedkar’s use of religion in politics, Sangharakshita says “In India religion is politics. If someone becomes a Moslem it is a political gesture. Ambedkar said that the people of India should be grateful that these mass conversions were not done to a more militant religion”

Sangharakshita’s synergetic involvement in this historical event is but a small part of the extraordinary story of this extraordinary monk. He walked the length of India on foot as a mendicant with a begging bowl for two years prior to his own ordination in 1949. I would be doing a fuller profile of Sangharakshita in one of my future despatches.

Back at the seminar we were pleased to hear that the Dalit community in England were faring well. A large number of them had gone into leather and shoe-making trades, turning their traditional skills into successful businesses. It was heartening to hear that the Indian Ministry of Welfare was fully involved in a robust programme aimed at the untouchables, using Ambedkar centenary as a springboard. The keynote address by Mr. Mata Prasad, Secretary to the Ministry of Welfare dealt comprehensively with the ongoing work, supported by ample statistics. As it is not my role as a London based columnist to delve and analyze these, I trust fellow journalists in India will find time to look at the story of Ambedkar’s legacy and role of the Indian Ministry of Welfare with some care.

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ANIL SAARI ARORA – a failure or a flawed genius?

AnilSaari
My friend Anil Saari has died. He was a considerable poet, a brilliant journalist with a prose style free of clichés and media jargon, Some of his peers who managed to secure high office in the media world of India were unable to fathom this maverick genius, were uncomfortable with this iconoclast and did not hesitate to call Anil a “failure”. They should sit down in shame and read some of the poems in Nomads & Other Moments and look into its clear depths.
A friend remembers meeting Anil Saari in 1963 for the first time at the offices of the Patriot, the newly launched English language daily which screamed its left wing pro Soviet sympathies unashamedly from its banner headlines. Anil was 19 and still looked very much a fat school boy with close cropped hair; he carried with him a sheaf of his writing on folded foolscap paper. He had himself requested an interview for a position as a features writer for the paper on the strength of a bunch of poems which he duly presented to the News editor. The general consensus prevailing then, perhaps now, was that anyone with a leaning towards creative writing was an unwelcome presence. Faced with the poems, all typed in lower case, Anil’s friend was strongly reminded of e.e. cummings.This style of lower case presentation continued to remain the distinctive hallmark of all of Anil’s poems, owing nothing further to e.e.cummings.
The following three decades saw Anil develop as a serious journalist, a cine theorist and critic. He believed that celebrity-chasing cine journalism underestimated the intelligence of the average film goer. Anil learnt his craft in the early 70s as a reporter for Screen then edited by the outspoken, charismatic SS Pillai. Anil often chose deliberately to sleep in the doorways of the city of Bombay in preference to his flat, to express his solidarity with the homeless in such a vulgarly affluent city. These decades are worth documenting and I hope someone undertakes this work.
1995 was a great year for Anil, as he launched Blackmuse Books, a publishing venture, along with his long time friends, Hindi poet Girdhar Rathi, painter Rajesh Mehra, and writer Anees Chishti. It may have been an over ambitious project, sadly under capitalised, hardly likely to turn in a profit for several years. However, there were several media interviews when the first book was published, appropriately a collection of Anil’s poems spanning a quarter of a century from 1970 to 1994, instinctively titled “NOMADS and Other Moments”.
Poonam Saxena wrote at length in a half page spread with a beaming bearded picture of Anil in the centre in Asian Age, exulting “An Idealist of the Sixties: It is not too late to publish and flourish”. The interview was far from anodyne and Anil was expectedly combative and critical of current establishment. He felt that what was being published widely was either “derivative or just non-poetry”. The publishing venture was well received by the media and written about at length. J.M.Iyer wrote a cautiously welcoming piece in the Pioneer (Saturday July 1). Another review by Kavita A Sharma in the Hindu (Sunday June 4th 1995) says that Anil Saari presents an insider view of the “pettiness of the modern middle class” in his poems. Generally the review is adulatory and quotes extensively from the book. In a Sunday Times of India review dated 28th May 1995, Nihkat Kazmi calls the poems a “Reflection of Urban Angst”, with echoes of Eliot’s Wasteland, a terrain that the urban guerrilla stakes out. Anil made it his own, calling it a “No Nonsense Country”, where “the river has turned black,” where “it does not run anymore, it simply curls under the table”. Asian Age dated 16th July 1995 devotes him considerable space under the Variety/Poetry page header, and prints three of the poems: “Stabbed!” , “The Non Nonsense Country” and “The Rain Is A Symbol”.
Anil’s poems in Nomads are reductive: these poems capture the sensuous in minimalist sharp-edged angular phrasing. It is less like the sonorous elegance and alliterative music of Paul Valery: “La Mer, la Mer toujours recommencée”: “The sea, the sea always reappears” but more the reductive simplicity and staccato rhythm of Rainer Maria Rilke: “lie down again and again among the flowers, face to face with the sky.”
One begins to wonder: where on earth did Anil learn to write such fine poems? Since he lays claim to no literary influence, and in fact spent years iconoclastically denying he ever read the 20th century greats like Ezra Pound, T.S.Eliot, Robert Lowell, John Berryman. Anil’s surrealistic free form poetry is so stunningly original that it is hard indeed to trace it to obvious influences.
As he grew older Anil’s physical appearance became an amalgam two personas: of a Hindu and a Moslem, a UP upper class bohemian scholar and a bon vivant aristocrat. With a greying beard, an attire of kurta pyjamas, you could easily mistake him for an academic from Aligarh Muslim University. He also re-evaluated his fraught relationship with his deceased father and came to appreciate his ideology, his achievements, his passionate advocacy of the industrial workers as a Rajya Sabha M.P. in the first post-independence parliament.
He took back his family name once again, declaring an emotional completeness, a reconciliation and healing of a familial wound. Beneath this scholar aristocrat mask which sent confusing signals to others, Anil’s demons continued to seethe in the depths of his unquiet heart. His marriage had broken up resulting in two decades of separation. Anil however was a romantic lover in classical Urdu love poetry mould, unknowingly moving towards a search for love as the enduring language of poetry.
A year later, after the impact of the fulsome publicity had subsided, Anil was once again a disenchanted outsider and said as much in a letter to a friend in London: “Unfortunately for many of us who stayed back here in India, the modern Indian state – to use VS Naipaul’s phrase – had dedicated itself to mediocrity during the late nineteen-seventies. In our naiveté, or for reasons beyond one’s understanding, guys like me refused to accept this as an inevitable course and went about trying to swim against the mainstream. Therefore I should have no regrets about not having achieved much in terms of position or worldly status. These days I feel happy enough listening to somebody like Godavaribai Munde singing Kabir’s great verses in her robust folk style, and the musical recitations of traditional Sikh raagis. These are what I spend a lot of my time on and this gives me as much satisfaction as a sense of power/money power would give a more successful writer. Particularly because I feel that I’m not a patch on Kabir as a poet.”
Here is part of a poem titled “Confessions”, written “in the footsteps of Sant Tukaram :
the simple things bring me to you.
it is your sudden revelations of the breath of life that bring me to the doorstep –
the simple Good Morning, namaskar
of a neighbour who returns from your shrine with a heart full of prasad and a face full of smiles.
However the small group of friends and readers whose high estimate of Anil’s genius never wavered were aware that Anil’s poetry was definitively moving away from human love to the divine, the seeking of love finally finding haven in bhakti – via a transference of erotic human love daydreaming of physical union (see “Seminars, Daydreams” – page 19 Nomads) to divine love. Mirza Ghalib whom Anil revered had delivered Anil’s alter ego lover into the hands of Kabir and Tukaram, Meera and Tulsidas.
This was not by any means a quasi religious late life conversion. He kept up a long exchange of e-mails with a few of his chosen friends feeding them with his new poems, uncertain and apprehensive about their reception. For a while Hanuman’s love and devotion to Lord Rama became emblematic of this new found love. His openly left wing political sympathies continued to lace his new “devotional” poetry.
Here is an example:
Hanuman ji
You are the god of the underdog, are you not?
A monkey god, A leader of the unseen tribals – India’s invisible men.
A messiah of the forgotten folk cast beneath the shroud of poverty like so much dust,
God of the losers – the multitudes of our land,
their faces battered in the jungle of deprivation, looking like a monkey-god!
Hanuman ji,
Like you I want to wrap my tail with fire
and burn down the world that chokes me,
like you I want to have no family of despairs or greed,
like you I want to fly over the sea and breathe life into a new empire of emotions.
One must point out that Anil had to come out of the closet with two poems about Lord Hanuman because there had been a recent debate and some controversy in literary and media circles about writer Rajendra Yadav’s description of Hanuman as the first terrorist, who burnt Ravana’s city.
A lifetime of work by such a significant writer should not be allowed to vanish. Wouldn’t it be good if an Indian University bought all the significant papers of Anil Saari Arora, his unpublished manuscripts, and even the considerable amount of writing he did for web based literary magazines like Crimson Feet (www.crimsonfeet.com, also http://www.zine5.com and http://www.chowk.com). There may have been several other such online magazines showcasing creative writing. These need to be collected together, and even the letters he wrote to his friends and strangers. This could form a comprehensive archive for painstaking editing and gradual phased publication. Such an archive could also provide rich material for a media studies course or a literature Masters or a doctoral thesis. This would enable a fortunate student to take some of Anil’s demons for an outing.
In July 2001 Anil Saari wrote to his friend in London:
“However, being an Non Resident Indian you cannot understand something about me. Let me try and explain:
You know, there are two intellectual traditions. The first one is the conventional, mainstream tradition which offers its devotees baskets of money, influence and power.
There is another tradition in India, starting from the rishi and the muni of ancient times, as frequently mentioned in the Ramayan and the Mahabharata. These rishi-muni stayed away from the palace and court. Around the 6th century A.D. a wave of devotional poets emerged in Tamil Nadu. Their tradition moved up north, through Maharashtra where we had the devotional poets and wandering reformers like Sant Dnyaneshwar and Sant Tukaram. In the 15th century the Bhakti movement had spread across the subcontinent. In the north the two major poets/reformers were Kabir and Guru Nanak.
Now many of us in contemporary India belong to this tradition. We just happen to belong to this tradition! So we are not in the race at the centres of powers/in the corridors of power. As a result of the influence the Kabir tradition has had on me, I am just not keen on worldly success.
Kabir says in one of his verses:
“Sayi itna kijiye Jay mein kutumbh sambhaal Main bhi bhooka na rahoon Sadhu na bhooka jaaye.”
(Be involved in the business of life to the extent that you can look after your family and you don’t starve, and you can give something to those who are gyani (the knowledgeable ones/the holy ones.)”
Days before he died he told his wife who had taken him back with her and nursed him till the end: “As a poet, I’m up there with Kabir but people are far too blind to see that”.

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1996
LONDON LETTER

ASIAN NEWSPAPERS IN ENGLAND

 

Away from India for 30 years, I still miss my daily intake of the contents of a literate English language daily from India, where over a cup of coffee I could imbibe the news about India. Media here gives no more than half a column to news from the Indian sub-continent, then buries it somewhere in its Overseas page. Often it is a thoroughly de-natured agency copy, trimmed by an over-zealous sub editor. Any news that transcends this treatment of marginalization, like the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi makes the front page for a few days.

Now there is an alternative. There are a growing number of English papers directed to a population of some 2 million Asians living in England. They are from diverse origins: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, East Africa, the West Indies and even Fiji. They are held together by their undoubted allegiance to an unified image of the sub-continent.

30 years ago, there were no serious English language papers to cover this largest single band, that would reach across the linguistic, religious and cultural divide. INDIA WEEKLY, started in the Sixties by pioneering journalist Dr.Tarapada Basu, who dominated the Indian Journalists’ forum for over two decades, is still in business. As a weekly journal it is a jejune paste-up of colourless news items, with a rare import of a feature, often without a byline. I was an “insider-outsider” of this publication during its early days off Fleet street, when the smell of newsprint, the printers’ ink, beer, cigarettes and the Victorian detritus inscribed itself on my memory forever.

Three intervening decades have seen the arrival and disappearance of several new ventures. The 1990s however have seen a boom in the establishments of new media including cable TV, radio stations, and a multiplicity of Indian language and English dailies and weeklies directed at the British Asian community.
The most unusual among these is  ASIAN AGE, which is not strictly a UK paper, as it is published primarily in India and then through the miracle of digital technology faxed to a UK specialist printer NEWS FAX (which incidentally prints the INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE and US TODAY) for a re-print. I spoke to Miss Sajeda Momin, the self-assured Bureau-chief of ASIAN AGE about its progress. Sajeda was matter of fact in her optimistic prognosis. In six months the paper has made its mark as a family paper “that identified simultaneously the key person in such a family unit as an Asian professional person”.  The paper is printed as a daily. It has a sizeable entertainment section on Saturdays, made up mainly of adulatory interviews of Indian film stars: stories of their rise and fall, their opinions and their high jinx. Fashion, an agony column, and even the occasional short story give it the appearance of comprehensiveness, if not relevance. Large sections of the paper filled with Agency copy and the Herald Tribune and Washington Post features used as page fillers make this annoyingly irrelevant to readers’ expectations.

ASIAN AGE has a circulation at present of about 10000 copies, which Sajeda  tells me is good news. The brain-child of M.J.Akbar, the venerable eminence grise of Indian journalism, its commercial arrangements are certainly unusual. It was confirmed to me that the UK facsimile edition was in fact a “franchise”, that gives a part ownership in the UK side of this venture to an Asian businessman, Suresh Nanda. The paper generally has a contractual arrangement with the INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE for some of its News and Features, and its distribution facilities. HERALD TRIBUNE has a proven formulaic success, much copied by others including an Arab paper faxed to Cairo from London for distribution in the region. Such a pastiche cannot be anything but “neutral, politically unbiased”, inspite of its “pro-India stance”, as Sajeda claimed. The London bureau has three reporters and takes on board occassional freelance contributions.

There is a considerable sea-change in reading EASTERN EYE, a garish tabloid modelled after our own SUN and DAILY MIRROR, that emblazons trivia across its front page, and packs a confection of sensational soundbites on its inside pages: “Terror on the Big One” “Officers Beat up a Family of Three”, “Imran Sued” and so on. I spoke to Sarwar Ahmed, its Editor, who denied that EASTERN EYE had any cultural or religious or ideological bias. I reminded him that the references I had seen to Salman Rushdie and the Bangladesh writer Taslima Nasreen were expressing an ethnic outrage and were far from unbiased. Ahmed had no difficulty in siding with the sense of offence collectively felt by the British Asian community. “I feel sorry for Rushdie’s predicament. But he did not take the chance given to redeem himself”. Whilst being pro-active to what he calls the “British Asian Politics”, there is little campaigning zeal in its printed word. Its columnist Thufayel Ahmed calls ASIAN AGE the worst British News paper, in a defensive riposte, whilst getting its name wrong as the INDIAN AGE. Ahmed gave me his circulation figure as being 25000 copies with a possible readership of 100,000. EASTERN EYE which started life modestly in 1989 is celebrating its 5th anniversary with a re-launch with two additional sections for women and entertainment. It has a sister publication Surma in Bengali, a much muted, middlebrow tabloid directed at an older age group: “more like the Daily Mail”. It is distributed through Market Force, a large network with access to major newspapers retailers like W.H.Smith and Menzies.

By contrast, the ASIAN TIMES is an old-fashioned tabloid that calls itself a  “Campaigning Weekly”. Its readership is, according to Kashif Ali, its Editorial director, “opinion makers, teachers and lecturers, social workers, and people involved professionally in the UK  Asian community at all levels”. With a circulation of 28,000, with the Caribbean Times a sister publication in tow, Hansib Publishing has been active in educational and travel related publications of books. I asked Kashif Ali what their campaigning stance implied. “We are not content with merely reporting” he said to me, “we upset as many people as possible, on issues that matter to our community: like racism, job opportunity, the Police, immigration policies, women’s role”. The classical medley of a left-of-centre campaigner, in short. They have been close to Asian and black MPs like Keith Vaz, and Bernie Grant, as well as the Labour Party’s Shadow Cabinet. The house of Hansib provides a free legal advisory service to Asian and the Caribbean community. ASIAN TIMES subscribes to Xinhua, the Chinese News Agency service, as being broad-based without high cost. It emerged that Arif Ali, a grass roots activist and campaigner and the founder of the paper was in fact Kashif’s father. This modest but growing group employs some 40 people. They are distributed through Sun Distribution, although plans are afoot to do their own distribution.

The Asian newspaper and the magazine market seems to me to be ready for new comers, with substantial journalistic pedigrees and proven skills, certainly from India. They would have to be prepared to research and study the way the UKs own media has changed and matured. There has been a wholesale revamp of all the major papers, stylistically, which is more than merely cosmetic.  The British papers stopped looking like a paste-up of a global sweep of Agency ticker tape, the way Indian papers continue to look like. News is selectively imported, with a benefit of in depth analysis by established commentators who are not always journalists.  There is always an undercurrent of satire and an ability to laugh at oneself. The quality of writing, at least in the broadsheets like the GUARDIAN, THE TIMES, the INDEPENDENT and the TELEGRAPH is impressively high. ASIAN AGE has set out on this road, using the obvious maturity of India’s journalistic fathers, but it still has that ticker tape collage look, and irrelevant features. If any Indian Newspaper publishers are serious about reaching a part of this two million market, they could do no better than sending their good editors on a month-long rest and research sabbatical to England.

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1996
London Letter

KIPLING AND KHANNA

Balraj Khanna – Indian Painter in the UK

 

I was browsing through dog-eared fiction paperbacks at my local library books repaired with glue and tape, with gently browning paper and a smell of oxidation and mould. I came across a 1985 Penguin paperback, a novel  called A NATION OF FOOLS by Balraj Khanna, with a pleasing set of reviews used as blurb. One of them compared Khanna’s novel to A CATCHER IN THE RYE, that legendary first novel by J.D.Salinger, a little epic about an American boy’s slow maturation to adulthood and loss of innocence along the way.
I had heard about Balraj Khanna, a well-known and financially successful Indian painter living in England since 1963. I remembered him as a handsome, sober-suited Punjabi with dark flashing eyes and an arrogant demeanour.
The novel is an uproar. It is a no-holds-barred , picaresque, A Catcher in Punjab Wheatfields, and a description of maturation of Omi, the only son of Khatri , a Hindu refugee sweet-meat-Halwai, who settles down near Chandigarh in a no-hope dusty camp with his family.
I rang Khanna and arranged to meet him for a drink at my Club. I referred to his novel in mildly adulatory terms over the phone. “Did you laugh” Khanna was concerned to find out. I had never laughed so much in a long while, reading a book of fiction, I told him truthfully. “So did I” came his reply, “while I was writing it!”.
We discovered that we had met before. We were nearly the same age, both having arrived on these shores within a year of each other. We were both married to French women. We were both greying handsomely, or so I thought.  Khanna exudes not arrogance, I realised, but the hauteur of success. In the throes of writing my own first novel, 30 years after I had set course for London to do just that, I was anxious to find out about the mechanics of creation, and share the despair of failing again and again to rouse the Muses. Khanna vanquished my hopes of hearing that he suffered too. “Writing was easy, it just came, it wrote itself. I laughed so much writing that my family looked at me with alarm and concern”. Then he threw me a life-line. “Write from your heart” he said with uncomplicated directness, “Rely on your intuition and instinct. Just write”.
I referred to my surprise at the simplicity of his writing, the economy of words, fluent use of dialogue with picturesque transcription of Punjabi swear-words. This small novel has a vista that is epic in its unfolding: sexual awakening of Omi the boy hero, against the backdrop of his ambitious Halwai father Khatri’s struggle to succeed in setting up a shop in nascent Chandigarh. The machinations and the skulduggery that accompanies it, the high price that Khatri pays in achieving his status, his awareness of the pleasures of his craft as a mitthaiwalla, his pride rooted in the quality of his efforts, his final solution to the dilemma of living with success provide the rich matrix of the story. Omi on his side surprises even himself as an achiever; as an auto didact, growing out of the coarseness of a camp-dweller to a polished undergraduate of Chandighar College (where Khanna also studied), eager to be on equal terms with the sons and daughters of the Simla Public Schools set. It is a baptism of fire, emotionally and romantically for Omi. Khanna himself is no mean mitthaiwalla: layers upon layers of sweet and subtle and rich confection of relationships are lovingly assembled: between husband and wife, the fervour of open sexuality; between mother and son, the mutual helplessness to influence events; irreconcilable division of loyalties between the families of Khatri and his wife; the perfect chiselling of minor characters like the local police chief Chandu with his unerring sense of instant justice that he demonstrates to an errant man in the camp who ritually beats his wife; the high jinks of no-hope kids on these enchanted banks of childhood and approaching youth. The book is a treat.
If one were to read Kipling’s Kim set in almost identical geographical boundaries, along the Grand Trunk road, it is possible to imagine Kim anticipating Omi some fifty years earlier.
Khanna has had a further success with his second novel SWEET CHILIES and his third novel set in Simla about the public school set with their hot-house values, provisionally titled The Simla Tigers is near completion.
I have not seen Khanna’s work as a painter. I would like to use such an opportunity in the future, to see how our community of Indian painters living here since the sixties have been getting on. Dozens of names spring to mind: Souza, Laxman Pai, Lancelot Ribeiro, Rama Rao, Khanna, Dhawan, Vidya Sagar.  Painters, I am constantly told in mitigation, are individualists needing to act on a platform of high ego, generally uncomfortable with fellow artists, eager for self-promotion, racked by petty jealousies. When I met a number of these burgeoning artists in a dark upstairs moslem cantina in Connaught Circus in Delhi in the mid sixties, you could not hope to meet a finer bunch of comrades. I have dreamt of re-unions of these artists under a similar backdrop with myself as a fly-on-the-wall observer of this tableau. Perhaps a word portrait of this place and these times would in part restore this torn tapestry. I shall return to paint that picture in a future despatch.
The news of pneumonic plague sweeping India filled our television screens with telling pictures of India’s general state of public hygiene. All one could see were piles of human detritus, mid-screen, being swept up and burnt. This to any European is the grossest assault on the senses. I underwent a serious “culture shock” and a mental decline when I returned to India after a 5 year absence in Europe. It was not just a matter of the mountains of refuse of a metropolis waiting on street-corners to be collected. This you see in England any summer, when the street sweepers and refuse collectors agree on some form of go-slow.  It was total lack of basic civic sense in the ordinary shop keeper or householder with a public street front, who keenly swept his own little personal space to a sparkle and flung out the debris on to the street in front of him. The mental boundaries of sanitation were selfishly practised and enforced. A beautiful city like Jaipur had, when I last walked down its crowded and colourful markets, unsanitary refuse and overflowing open gutters choking and swamping its streets. It seemed to me that the direct  result of this medieval epidemic would be a shock therapy and an induction of a sense of responsibility towards civic sanitation, beyond personal thresholds.
I have just read for the first time Ruth Prawer Jabvala’s OUT OF INDIA, a collection of short stories, with an introduction titled “Myself in India”. Although this collection was published in 1987, I cannot date this introductory piece which first appeared in London Magazine. A highly gifted, sensitive and cultured foreigner living amongst Indians, immured in an emotional prison of her own making, Jabvala is irritable and irritated by all that is India. There is a fierce honesty in all her anger at the lassitude of Indians at large; at the meretricious hollowness of foreign-educated children of India’s elite re-embracing and accommodating their “ancient” culture as a centre-piece of their party-culture, whilst reciting Herbert Marcuse dialectics. Can one lose sight of the fact, rages Jabvala, that this beast of a society is still very poor, and anyone who insulates oneself against this, pretending to live in peace, is living on the back of a giant diseased and wounded animal.

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1996

THE BANDIT QUEEN

 

bandit-queenBandit Queen, a film from India which had its world premiere at the Cannes Filmbandit queen image Festival last May has caused a minor sensation at the Berlin Film Festival. The subject variously called “radical, angry, shocking, potentially inflammatory”, is about the treatment of women of the lower castes in India, seen as “domination through violence.” This causes a current to run through the veins of feminists, and their agenda of seeking ” a reform in the apartheid of gender.”
Shekhar Kapur who started his working life training to be an accountant  in England 25 years ago, gave up a safe future as a dull and prosperous life in English suburbia for a career in films in Bombay. Once again, Kapur has given up the safe berth of family entertainment films for a controversial theme that requires a wholly new approach. Kapur says that the larger truth of the Hindu caste system and the social brutalities it promotes had to be aired.
The true story of Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen, a child bride sold to a rapacious man, provided Kapur a subject to explore his concern.  However Kapur is no Satyajit Ray. Explicit scenes of sexual sadism, starting with the rape of the child bride would challenge the judgement of censors, even in liberal Europe.
I understand that India’s censors have refused to allow Bandit Queen to be shown uncut, with the central and dramatically crucial central scene of rape. The camera is perceived to be uncompromisingly voyeuristic throughout the film. Full nudity on screen has never been shown in Indian films before. Even the British censors would not consider showing what amounts to an illegal act of child abuse, which is what Phoolan Devi undergoes as a child bride. Seema Biswas, the actress who played Phoolan Devi is said to have had a nervous breakdown after these testing scenes. Shekar Kapur, the director is much more sanguine and matter of fact about the turn of events that have ended in Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen  disowning the film as an invasion of her privacy.  “They are raping me all over again” she is alleged to have said. Kapur maintains that the film does not romanticise her or any of her activities. He blames the urban India’s media instead, for turning her into a “raven-headed, blue-eyed Amazonian beauty”.
A leading British film critic Alexander Walker who saw the film at the Cannes Film festival in May 1994 compared the Bandit Queen to Francesco Rossi’s 1962 movie Salvatore Giuliano, the film that converted the @mythology@ of a bandit leader into a frontal attack on poverty and corruption in the Italian society. Kapur the director has not flinched from showing violence of sex and the bloody revenge that Phoolan Devi wreaks in a climatic scene of massacre of her old tormentors. Hard on the heels of a series of films that celebrate violence like Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction, Kapur’s film might find an unexpected and wider audience.
The script described as being “brisk, episodic”, and based on the prison diaries of Phoolan Devi is by Mala Sen, an old friend of mine, who had her first encounter with the burning bush of political enlightenment in the mid sixties. As a hazel eyed aristocratic 19 year old scion of India’s elite, Mala willingly traded in her birth rights of class and wealth and a comfortable if mindless return to India’s high society for a life of long dedication in England to the causes of the black immigrant population and to feminism.  I have not met Mala for a decade or more, but her passionate defence of her ideals using subtle Marcusian dialectics with a remarkable lack of fanaticism or rancour is quite unforgettable

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1996

BBC WORLD SERVICE: A MODERN DAY TOWER OF BABEL

 

BBC World Service is a modern day Tower of Babel filling the ether with Radio noise in 41 languages, six of which are from the Indian subcontinent. With an annual budget of some 173 million pounds and over 2000 employees in four corners of the globe, through Radio and the World Service Television it is heard by some 130 million people in over 120 countries.
Recently I visited this astonishing ship of a building beached in London’s Aldwych, next to India House, filled with the activity and bustle of a cruiser ablaze with light. After half a day in the company of a few producers, editors, technicians and broadcasters involved in this task, all I could sense was the rich matrix of cultures, languages, ethnic and national groups each one with a story to retail that would add up to a thousand testaments. I am surprised that no latter day Isaac Singer or Saul Bellow has trawled these waters for a rich, inexhaustible and polyglot harvest of stories.
Heather Bond, a senior producer of South Asian Services, listened to by some 52 million representing a massive 42 percent of World Services audience typifies the dedication and the silent dynamism of the World Service. Heather Bond bustles around with immense energy; soothing the frayed nerves of its editors, technicians, its collection of journalists and its guests, and its announcers whom one sees through a glass darkly.  There are days, she told me when she steps into the breach of an absentee announcer or a journalist and unflappably conducts interviews, does link announcements, her voice poised mid pitch in classless BBC-speak as she takes over the microphone. A visit to the studios beaming to a sleepy Indian subcontinent in Urdu and Hindi, critically aware of the time slot that was available showed the skills required to keep the broadcast on course. This was like an ambidextrous jeweller threading pearls, and I was made aware with increasing astonishment how a slack of some 30 seconds with no material to fill was in itself a technical hitch that the silent watchfulness of the producer concealed. An extended jingle took care of the gap. Like a Jumbo taxiing perfectly to a stop, the programme ended on time without a hair our of place. In minutes the studio was empty ready for the next broadcasters to thread their pearls. A large number of World Service staff seem to have spent a lifetime in these corridors: Heather’s husband Peter, now retired was himself a broadcaster specialising in Sports. At 60 something, he had not lost any of his BBC voice, rich and resonant without being theatrical, and as expected he was a raconteur of stories from times past, and such times they were too!
A visit to the BBC Club full of World Service staff and sundry visitors has the effect of being immersed in a giant vat of polyglot syllables, effectively drowning me from all sides. Bulgarian to Pushtu, Swahili and Afrikaans at the same table; Dutch and languages of the African diaspora, a microcosm of mankind at play. I was not to be disappointed in my fantastical surmise that this would be a rich and fertile ground for a thousand life-stories. A senior editor of the 53 year old Bengali service joined us and genuine hospitality flowed as more drinks arrived and life stories unfolded effortlessly. This sober-suited and youthful editor’s persona concealed a compelling story teller. His was the story of transformation from a soldier in the Pakistani Army in 1970, notionally required to wage a war against his own fellow Bengalis in what was to be the future Bangladesh. The swift conclusion of this historical war that created Bangladesh left him interned as a hostage of war in a prison near Khyber Pass for two years, and used as a pawn in the game of political bartering to release some 90,000 Pakistani soldiers who were India’s prisoners of war. After a happy ending, this enterprising young man joined and stayed for a decade in the Bangladeshi army, coming to England on a British Government fellowship in 1983. Once again the genuine talent and boundless dynamism, true hallmarks of the journalists I have met on the international circuit were in full evidence here. He variously edited a newspaper, worked in a factory, did a Business Management placement course in Hungary and worked as a marketing executive for a pharmaceutical company in Dacca and finally came back to England to complete a Doctorate at King’s College, which is virtually across the road from BBC’s Bush House. One evening fate intervened in a local pub where he met a fellow Bengali who turned out to be a senior editor of South Asia Service. He is now likely to be a “lifer” with the World Service.
In relation to the Indian subcontinent, the BBC World Service has Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Nepali and Sinhala, in addition to English as the main languages in which it broadcasts, and Telugu as an experimental new service produced and broadcast from its major studio complex in Delhi. This new service generated some 2500 letters over a five week period, and has encouraged the South Asia section to consider launching new regional services.
In London, to maintain a regional cohesion, the editors of all these sections along with their colleagues from the South East Asia sections meet each day to agree on the core news bulletin of the day. Typically, on a 2 hour broadcast a day in any one of these languages, core news takes about 20 minutes followed by 12 minutes of a magazine programme of interviews and talks on a wide band of subjects  of interest to women, children and on matters as varied as the 21 century technology and child care perhaps in Calcutta nurseries. Then the service hands back to its regional office for a 20 minute trawl through sports, finance, even University campus news. The Bengali broadcast for example is audible on short wave from Japan to the Red Sea. The news bulletins go their own way to news stories about their regional neighbours, after the core news provided by the BBC’ World Service’s giant news-gathering machine is read. I understand that the whole of the BBC South Asia staff including stringers are meeting for what is a first time training session, but in truth a beano for these dedicated men and women on the ground to meet each other.
The BBC World Service has six divisions covering South Asia, the Americas (including South America), Asia-Pacific (Japan, Korea), the former Soviet Union and Central Europe. In India there is a major bureau in Delhi with studios in Madras, Calcutta and Dacca, linked to a network of “sponsored” stringers who are essentially BBC employees and freelancers scattered throughout, providing pre-scripted “packages” of news and comment from the ground.
This Tower of Babel that even resembles Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s medieval painting of this mythical structure, has been a beacon to millions of people through war and peace, its voice hopefully unblemished by partisan geo-political interests, purveying news about their own countries to civilians beleaguered in war zones, and to silenced citizens living under brutal tyrannies.

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1996
LONDON LETTER

BUDDHISM COMES WEST

 

The Dalai Lama was once again in London at budda imagethe beginning of September, doing his round of lectures and public teachings which are hugely attended. Arguably the best known High Priest of Buddhism in the West, he is regarded even now as a mythic being from a place called Tibet: a science fiction monk from an antiquarian Shangrila of the future. This Nobel Peace Prize winner is amazingly at ease with Quantum physicists, modern philosophers, cosmologists, moral physicians dealing with death and mortality of the Western citizenry. Through his ecumenical diplomacy he has tried to spiritualise the Western political drive with the Buddhist Mahayana entreaties for “Universal Compassion”. He has the ears of the largest international forums like the United Nations. Even non-Buddhists seem to venerate him in a way that could even be termed an expression of irrepressible gratitude that such a compassionate man in simple maroon robes lives among us. World Church leaders flock to listen to him talk about Madhyamaka dialectics. And yet until late 1991 no British Prime Minister had consented to receive him officially, because British relationship with China would be upset.
These speculations bring me to the subject of how Buddhism has come West and established itself so very firmly, whilst retaining its purity, along well defined institutional lines, where the teaching and individuality of various sects seems to have been rigorously re-planted. Without doubt this “intellectual religion” has appealed to thousands of middle class Westerners, who are demonstrably capable of distinguishing between the saffron of a Hare Krishna groupie and that of a Tibetan Buddhist monk, as the bereaved parents in Seattle in Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha” know when they have to lose their son to these weather-beaten delegation of Tibetans at their front door-step.
My friend Chip somehow typifies fully this “conversion” of a middle class educated Westerner. He is a Boston “Brahmin” by birth and temperament, with a doctorate in psychology.  The only use he could find for his skills was to work as a social worker on the mean streets of New York with the drug addicts dependent on the merciless villainy of the drug dealers. Very soon Chip was targeted by the Underworld. As an escapee he arrived in England and settled in an artists’ colony in St Ives in Devon and spent several Bohemian years practising as a musician, when he had first intimations of dissatisfaction with life, awareness  of constant change and impermanence, of utter pointlessness of a culture of ambition in the Western sense. This was in the mid-seventies, when I met him on a ten day meditation retreat in an Oxfordshire mansion set in the midst of some 100 acres of woodlands. The retreat was harder , we all felt than a 10 day trek across wild uncharted terrain as a bunch of trainee soldiers, but it was over-subscribed. The hundred odd retreatants who crowded the shrine-room each morning at 4 am were all Westerners, except myself. The teacher was an American in saffron Theravada cotton robes, a Vietnam veteran, visibly Californian in his drawl and ease of manners, but strict in his observance of the Buddhist Vinaya. There were none of the incantatory revivalist themes that you usually encounter at such contemplative retreats. Moreover it was free, with dormitory accommodation, breakfast and lunch before noon, as the last meal of the day. I wondered what spiritual crisis afflicted these 100 individuals so deeply that they were prepared to observe the eight strict rules of avoiding sex, alcohol, all forms of entertainment like music and TV, high beds, any forms of lying or killing, observe total silence, to sit cross legged for up to 12 hours each day looking into the deep abyss called the mind. Fifteen years later Chip is a shaven-headed monk in a deep-red Tibetan habit, with no money but great joy of action and speech.
Today there are over 250 Buddhist groups and centres throughout England (more in Europe) from the Dharma Study group in Brixham in Devon, to the Rigpa Centre, the Throssel Hole Zen Priory, the Madhyamaka Centre in York. Some of these have magnificent temples like the Thai temple in Wimbledon in London and the Samye Ling Karmapa temple in Scotland; and other like the Amaravati in Hertfordshire is a prefab converted ex-school for Western Theravada monks in training and for lay supporters.
I could not help noticing during a recent visit to some of these centres in search of a pictorial feature-article for an European magazine, that there has been a major paradigm shift, a wholesale purification and transformation of this 2500 year old “religion” at the hands of Westerners. Barring a few exceptions of self-styled Buddhist “Masters”, discipline or Vinaya as codified by the Buddha himself remains the sheet anchor of these new Buddhist groups. There is very little of the 60s Beatnik and hippy idiom or influence infiltrating these groups. Serious scholastic work has been going on quietly at many of these centres, like the Manjushri in Cumbria, the Madhyamaka Centre in York, and major centres throughout America, some with their own publishing houses, printing presses and a team of translators. A Scottish friend of mine, outwardly an ordinary University fellow in Sanskrit and Tibetan scholarship attached to London University has recently spent 14 years working with the head of Nyingma Sect of Tibetan Buddhism in Paris, on a translation of the definitive  history and philosophy of this red-hatted sect. An international Buddhist directory published in 1985 listed  over 1000 such centres in the Western World.
There is a prophecy in the Buddhist apocrypha attributed to the Buddha: “When the Iron Bird flies in the sky, Buddhism will go West to the land of red-faced people.”  The prophecy seems to have come true and India’s spiritual gifts to the world seem unending.

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LONDON LETTER

A TASTE OF INDIA

Curries in the West

 

Puritans have always maintained that food, like sex is an overrated preoccupation. But there are those among us who have stubbornly refused to be cured of these primal afflictions. I have spent three decades in Europe as a shameless epicurean in search of newer culinary experiences. A evening in Budapest, lunches in Bordeaux and Strasbourg, dinner in Rome overlooking the Appian Way, great Indian feasts in Birmingham and London’s Southall. It has been time well spent in the company of fellow gourmets, sharing our passions and indulging our addictive frenzies.
Indian cuisine which has come to be rated highly in recent times has seen a wholesale transformation during these three decades, surprising even its most ardent and discriminating converts. Shafi, the restaurant that called itself the oldest Indian restaurant in England nestled in Gerrard Street in London’s Bohemian Soho, next door to the renowned Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and a wine bar called La Cave. The owner of this dark and cavernous establishment embalmed in twenty years of Eastern promise was a curmudgeonly fogey whom we called Mr. Shafi. He was always dressed in what appeared to be a blood-stained apron, and he would give his large hands a generous wipe on this piece of chef’s flannel before shaking hands with his celebrity guests. I remember seeing Robert Morley eating alone and talking to himself in great explosive slurps; Alec Guiness incognito in a raincoat, with a lady in dark glasses; famous writers, critics and Fleet street hacks. I met novelist Raja Rao (of Serpent and the Rope fame) with his editor from publisher John Murray in La Cave before adjourning to Shafi’s for a dinner.
The menu was what came to be derided as the curry pot; dismissed as curry on tap: meat, chicken, fish or vegetable were drowned in generous portions of one of three identical dark brown sauces, medium, hot and very hot, Eastern brews from the pre-war galleys of merchant shipping. The first generation Bengalis from the small district of Sylhet in what was then India, with no culinary tradition, were the owners of this entrepreneurial culture in England. Tandoori was all but unknown; the wonderful unleavened breads of the Punjab had not put in an appearance.  However these pungent, rich, cheap and plentiful sauces which went by the generic name of curry, a term unknown to me in India, set Anglo-Saxon palates on a journey of insidious and new addiction. It has taken two decades for the biochemists to establish that the chilli in the Indian curry is indeed addictive. Chilli causes pain, and the body releases pain-killing endorphins which are addictive.
Yet the second generation of this enterprise culture has boldly borrowed from Indian’s regional culinary repertoire. Whilst not always getting it right the menus now reflect this change: tandoori salmon, trout and quail; kohlrabi greens and lotus root dishes in a cream and spice sauce; nans and rumali rotis from Peshawar; piquant fish curry from Mangalore; the lists have borrowed the best from India’s four corners and its crowded culinary culture. The diners are generally discriminating, widely travelled and demand high standards.
Over a decade ago, a young Bengali who barely spoke English opened a Restaurant called The Red Fort, abandoning publicly the curry-pot tradition, replacing it with dishes from the North West of the Indian subcontinent, with uncompromising attention to their authenticity. Ali Mia, the young chef became a celebrity himself and a darling of the food critics for a decade and more, and forced his fellow Bengalis to raise their own standards. Great chefs from the Punjab opened new restaurants, often in Asian strongholds like Southall, away from the fashionable theatreland of the West End of London. The Taj Hotel group saw an ever-growing market for this newly purified and fashionable cuisine and opened the Bombay Brasserie. Its genius formula was the lunch time buffet in its Kensington fastness, where London’s cognoscenti queue patiently to indulge in a culinary feast of Goan, Bengali, Gujerati, Tamil and Gujerati dishes laid out as if for a King.
These twin themes of authenticity to the vast regional repertoire and the high and meticulous standards of cooking have given rise to a new genre of pseudo-cultural styles of Indian cooking in England. The names are inventive, comical and challenge one’s credulousness. The kitchens of the Anglo-Indian ayya and the governess that gave us the mango chutney and the mulligatawny soup have given London Chutney Mary in fashionable Chelsea harbour, UK’s first such restaurant. Dishes speak of invention and marriage of cultures and the Raj nostalgia. The kitchens of Birmingham with a large population of Asians, bored with convention, “discovered” balti cooking, curries in a bucket. Uncompromisingly rich and spicy dishes are finished seconds before serving in Chinese style woks with the final addition of sweet peppers and ginger, and brought sizzling to the table with accompanying assortment of breads. Diners are expected to abandon all table manners, dispense with fork and knife and size mouthfuls with a roll of their hands, requiring ambidextrous skills. The prosperous Gujerati community, many of whom are vegetarian, has taken to South Indian masala dosas, chutney, idlis and sambar and vadas with a zeal that has extended to owning these establishments and even adding these to their own Gujerati culinary repertoire. Woodlands with its Udipi brahmanical roots has assembled an exquisite if puritanical and spartan thali that teases the palates of the most critical of aficionados of Indian food, at a price that would give visiting Indians palpitations!
The Sloane Rangers of India, the public school educated Simla elite have unknowingly given their name to a new faddish restaurant chain, the Shimla Pinks. If the publicity is to be believed, this deviant of the Anglo-Indian tradition that borrows from all the regional repertoire, then alters and burnishes the dishes with the technical panache of the new generation chefs, is set to invade Britain.
India’s own celebrities often play a public role in promoting this passion. Ismail Merchant, the celebrated producer of Ivory Merchant duo appeared recently in a TV programme produced by himself, nailing his colours to the mast of this renaissance. He claims that he seduces his European and American financiers and fellow producers with an Indian culinary spread that appears magically, effortlessly from his kitchen. It would make a comical scene in one of his own films if Ismail Merchant, cast in his own self-promoted image as culinary artist sent out for these fully finished and effortless creations from the local Indian takeaway, delivered to his back door to be served to his unsuspecting but adulatory bankers. A decade ago, Syed Jaffrey, arguably the best known Indian actor in England played a lugubrious and harassed Indian restaurateur in Farrukh Dhondy’s Tandoori Nights. This was meant to be a send-up of the heavy and indiscriminate borrowing by restaurant industry from the British Raj phrase book. There were dozens of Jewels in the Crown,  and Tastes of the Raj, dotted round Britain’s high streets.
The Indian food tradition has also created its own media communicators, who became TV’s super cooks, with several sumptuously printed coffee table cook books as a spin off from the TV series. Madhur Jaffrey, a super cook and a talented actress who appears in wonderful cameo roles, is now India’s culinary ambassador, with a genuine enthusiasm for her craft. She has made Europe and America aware of the diversity of the cuisine from the Indian subcontinent, by assembling recipes from countless unsung mothers, housewives straight from the hearths of India. It is every foodies’ fantasy to be taken out to lunch by Madhur Jaffrey. She does not need a “Portrait of A Super Cook” by me to further her career, but I would not mind.
There is a serious need for a film producer like Ismail Merchant and a gifted actress and super-cook like Madhur Jaffrey to consider teaming up to produce an epic film about the obsessional discovery of Indian food, very much like Tampopo, a film set in Japan that explores mercilessly the sublimation of sex drive into gluttony. The semantics of India’s high-table, the insidious chilli-factor that seduces book critics to indulge in hyperbole about a novel like Reef by Romesh Gunesekere that was all about cooking, the secret of this craft, the journey that delivers a Babette’s Feast to our tables; these could be the themes of such a seductive film.
In retrospect, it seems that many like me have spent a lifetime in restaurants, Indian restaurants in particular, remembering the rich and sumptuous wedding feasts of India, in the company of friends. We reminisced about the humble dubbas of lunch-time Bombay with its mooli pickles and its corn rotis, the back street Moslem cantinas of Old Delhi, getting one’s fingers round the meat stew with a piece of rumali roti, the pungent broth that all UP-wallahs called an “e-stew”, and the Mughal eateries of India’s five star hotels.

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A SPANISH INTERLUDE

 

England has a large invisible army of workers whom you rarely see during working hours in a capital city like London. Some of these are like a secret army going about the skyscrapers of the City of London, with brooms, buckets and polish. Once in a while there is a scandal about illegal immigrant workers from Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, working in the wee hours to keep the brass, marble and the carpets of our corporations shining. Some of them, quite legally, come from that part of northern Spain near La Coruna that populates our newly fashionable Spanish Tapas bars and their kitchens, and our hotel basements as porters who moonlight as cleaners, plumbers and builders and furniture restorers, turning a dab hand to anything that needs refurbishment. Manuel was a shining example of such a Spaniard, with an unbridled spirit of free enterprise.
I remembered Manuel today quite suddenly when some of our book shelves started to come off the wall. If Manuel, our all-purpose man-about-the house had not gone back to Spain so irrevocably, he would have been there, at some ungodly hour of the day or night with an unsuitable suite of tools and a grin on his handsome youthful face. “Your shelves in trouble, innit?” he would have said with a passable adaptation of his favourite estuarian bi-syllable, with which he ended all his speculative statements. My wife, a cultured French linguist, came so close to using this dismissive word herself in all her conversations with her peers that I was afraid she would soon be mistaken for a continental charwoman posing as a translator. Now and then, in moments of stress or when no other word would be emphatic enough, I find myself using this book-end of a word.
Manuel was a stocky, broad-shouldered Spaniard with mongrel blond hair and eyelashes, from that part of Northern Spain near La Coruna that populates our Tapas kitchens with chefs and our Hotel basements with porters. He arrived on the doorstep of our Dulwich home early one morning, shadowed a few paces behind by a tall rangy black young man wearing wire-rimmed glasses that enlarged his eyes and swept the lenses with a close up of his eye lashes whenever he blinked.  The soft exterior of Manuel running to fat belied several horse power of brute strength, as we discovered when he ferried what seemed a quarter ton of loose bricks on his back in a broken dustbin, or when he bent a metal pipe thick as a man’s wrist on his knee. If application of excessive force would do a job, Manuel did not use any tools. If objects under such bald treatment balked and spat back, Manuel would swear “—ing stupid innit?”, lick his bruise, re-adjust his hold and carry on as before. Many times I came across him poking his ambidextrous extremities into an assortment of electrical fuses and wires exposed for close inspection. Whilst he went about this, swearing softly under his breath, he had the heroic aspect of a young James Bond debating to himself in guttural Scots tones, which wire to cut to de-activate a device that is about to nuke the Western World.
Desmond, the young black man who followed his master’s injunctions to the letter, turned out to be a surprisingly knowledgeable autodidact with a secret passion for obscure ideologies. He was studying sculpture at the London School of Printing and Arts in Southwark. A youth of few words, he would turn on the radio that never left his side, as soon as he picked up the first tool of the day and listened to Radio 4. As the day wore on the soft drawl of American economists like Galbraith would be replaced by the cut-glass tones of an English musicologist talking about medieval instruments. Then there was the unaccustomed rural sounds of the Archers, filling our home with an unselective trawl through a sea of radio-speak.
The other part of Manuel was his unbridled admiration of wealth and class. In a strange sort of way I was one of his heroes. Undoubtedly he believed that through all the absorptive adulation of the paintings on our walls and the furniture in our home and cars in our drive, he would bask himself some day in the glow of such possessions.
One Sunday he rang our bell at six in the morning, bearing a gift wrapped in several empty brown paper sacks that had formerly carried a load of Pentland Javelins.
“I’ve brought you something” he said without apologies for getting us out of bed, “I know you’ll like it, innit?”, with a grin of someone bent to please  at any price. He unravelled an antiquarian picture frame, perhaps worth something, if only he had not thought of burnishing its appearance with a thick coat of brown Dulux gloss paint. I was speechless. As I bundled Manuel and his picture frame back into his van, I could not have hurt a more generous friend. Over the years he kept bringing me these perfectly useless pieces of kitsch, some which I could not refuse.
Manuel managed to acquire a large terraced house behind Warren Street and immediately set about tearing it down and re-building it with a grant from the local Council. Desmond and Manuel  began removing load-bearing walls and excavating the basement to enlarge its appearance. He sublet several rooms  to indigent students in the meantime, whilst truck-loads of cement and bricolage and giant industrial skips stationed themselves on the street overnight, bringing a gaggle of building inspectors from the Council to his doorstep. His tenants found they could not go out for a time, except by creeping along a ledge on the roof and climbing down a neighbour’s fire escape into the well of a back yard which had further walls to be scaled to get to street level. Desmond meanwhile drilled into a major electrical cable in the basement and nearly fried himself to a frazzle. Manuel took to storing the giga-weight of his builders’ material on the fourth floor to pre-empt theft and the scrutiny of Council inspectors. Not much later, the fourth floor caved in and slipped all the way in to the basement, burying his electrical sparkler.
I visited Manuel just once in his first floor flat in this dangerously deshabille house near Warren Street. His wife opened the door, a drink in her jewelled hand. She was an impeccable diva, hair coiled and piled in a delectable meringue of gold and lacquer and her very Spanish features covered in a Max Factor mask. She was dressed in a toga, made it seemed of red and gold Moorish rug. I stepped into the room and gasped at the sheer daring of the largest collection of repro-kitsch I had ever seen in one place since my brief stay in a downtown Las Vegas Hotel.
Manuel decided to pack it all in, and at least for a while go back to Spain and “re-build his house”. He came to see me dishevelled but composed with his usual grin to collect some money that was long overdue. He expressed his trust in me simply: “Rich people always pay, innit”. He had a large bag of new potatoes as a going-away present for me. He had it seemed, walked a long way with them. “It is my —ing Van” he extrapolated,” it caught fire, innit? You can’t depend on these —ing Ford Transits.”, he beamed. He explained that he had abandoned his incandescent Transit van in the middle of a road somewhere and walked the rest of way with a sack of potatoes to complete his mission.
I never saw Manuel again. Desmond took off next summer to help him build his dream house near Santander. Manuel had always dreamt of owning a large house signalling his changed status to his peers who had never been abroad. After some contemplation on issues of design and the imperatives of size adequate to impress, Manuel conceived a unique design solution.  He encased his small house with its mud floors and minute rooms in a large facade of outer walls and blind windows, giving the appearance of a substantial and affluent villa. This was Manuel’s act of genius. Desmond played Sancho Panza to Manuel’s Quixote.
Desmond told me that he was moved to indignant tears when he witnessed this broad-shouldered Spaniard, who could bend a metal pipe between his teeth or play a deadly end-game with fuse boxes with his bare fingers, lose his nerve completely when he was half-way through decapitating a large cockerel for a celebratory dinner. He dropped his butcher’s knife swearing:” —ing tough Cock, innit?” and stalked off to the loca
l village bar for a drink, leaving his Desmond to finish the be-heading.

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1996

ROMESH GUNESEKERA: AN APPRAISAL

An Assesment of the Booker short list

 

Writers of fiction of the Indian diaspora, in which one can include Sri Lanka succeed in attracting and seducing European literary critics by burnishing their stories with a colonial longing for the lost Empire. The calling card is always colonial. The fictional landscape with its towns and the countryside is still as the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British left it: sun-drenched villas with modest Georgian porticos, hung heavy with frangipane and bougainvillaea; latticed mat curtains dowsed in cool water from the well in the garden, a punka driven by Victorian electrics, the smell of musk, of cinnamon and cloves, dust, heat, cow dung and the wilting jasmine of the ladies of the night. One might be forgiven for thinking that Somerset Maugham was back in fashion. Romesh Gunesekera, whose first novel “REEF” was on the Booker Prize short list it seems, is no exception to this rule of seduction.
When “Reef” his first novel was published in 1994, the book joined the mysterious process of selection for the Booker prize award, arguably the biggest literary event of the year for British publishing.
The Booker Prize pageant that has duly took place in October 1994, was televised live from the Guild Hall in the City of London. This venue is much used for glittering occasions like these, including the one where the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes his annual keynote speech, surrounded by the Treasury and the Bank of England advisers.
A panel of literary egg heads that included feminist Germaine Greer, poet Tom Paulin, novelist and  a Booker Prize winner herself, Antonia Byatt discussed the merits of the six short-listed books. Romesh Gunesekera’s “REEF”, was described by Tom Paulin with a bon mot, as a “Pacific novel”. I had met Romesh Gunesekera earlier the previous week for an anticipatory chat. Gunesekera with his slim good looks and a pile of well coiffeured head of hair looks ridiculously young for a 40 year-old. He seemed cautious if not aloof, sorrowful if not remote. Another interviewer had remarked that he looked unusually calm and unexcited for someone whose first novel had made the Booker short-list. A graduate of Liverpool University, Gunesekera now works for the British Council having failed to get into Publishing. He has had a book of short stories published previously by Granta and reprinted as a Penguin paperback here and in India, although I have seen no references to this elsewhere. The story is about a young Sri Lankan who works as a houseboy and cook and comes of age under the kind and watchful patronage of Mr.Salgado, a mysterious auto-didact and a Marine Biologist. My tentative suggestion that Salgado resembled another long term Sri Lanka resident, expatriate Science Fiction writer Arthur C. Clark, a polymath even down to his preoccupation with marine biology produced a mild demur. The treasure trove of books and magazines (Readers Digest, Life, the Almanac) and conversations overheard (Chaos Theory, cooking) provide Triton the young boy a mental room of his own, “where voice is bundled in paper, inscribing the soft grey tissues of my brain.”
The book has enchanted almost all the critics, some of them novelists of good standing. “Lovely, subtle, sensuous, poised”. “Slight but accomplished”. “has a great surface.” According to Tom Paulin again, “a prose symbolist poem about the art of cooking”!   The chili-factor in this seduction of the Anglo Saxon palates seems an insidious device.  Triton grows up and fetches up in England where Mr. Salgado sets him up as a snack-bar owner. The “great good place” that was Sri Lanka is lost through emigration. The main criticism of this otherwise fine novel (“a novella, not a novel”) is its self-conscious description of “the colonial world as exotic”, made even more strange by the description of the little known Burger community of the Dutch and the Portuguese in Sri Lanka. Germaine Greer again:” A slippery little book.”  There is a bigger, better book from where this one came, says Antonia Byatt, and I agree.
Gunesekera told me that he was averse to writing Tolstoyian epics, as they are dauntingly large and ever really read to the end. He feels that he would rather be read. He countered the rebuke of the critics that the pace of the story accelerated to a “galloping conclusion” and ended unsatisfactorily.  The late reviewers might have read the book too hastily and misread the intent of the final chapters. It took Gunesekera two years, several revisions and a near fifty percent excision to finally produce this astonishingly beautiful novel.  Although it did not win the Booker Prize with a 5:1 odds from the bookmakers, I understand that it is being translated into six languages and an Indian hard back has just been published. Coincidentally, 1995 is the 60th anniversary of Penguin Books, a much thumbed publisher available throughout the Commonwealth  during this period. “Reef” is one of the paperbacks that inaugurate this celebration.
Reef is deft and economical; it evokes and subsumes descriptions of card parties, half-heard snatches of conversations in a sun dappled colonial house where Mr.Salgado experiences the end of an affair. All this provides the rich humus for the self awakening of Triton: he is content in his role as a subservient and becomes accomplished in the crafts he learns. His collection of arts are all feminine: cooking, housekeeping, making festive lanterns. His love for his master is very typical of such relationships in Asian countries: an unselfish and innocent longing, without undertones of sexuality, towards a surrogate father figure.
Gunesekera made his literary debut with a collection short stories “Monkfish Moon”, that have an exemplary text book structure beneath their accomplished surface.  It takes a slice of life without a beginning or an end: the anxiety of imminent dislocation of the Sri Lankan middle class underpins these narratives. The distant civil war turns into urban terrorism. In a House In the Country, Ray, a middle class Sinhalese who chooses to return to Sri Lanka from England strikes up an uncertain relationship with Siri, a rootless peasant from the Sri Lankan outback. His talents as a builder-carpenter give Ray time to dream boldly of a house in Siri’s lost countryside: a joint venture of Ray’s money and Siri’s skills. The urban war gets too close and scorches the dream. A local newsagent and his shop are incinerated for the political incorrectness of not taking sides. Siri’s brother, so the brief news reaching him confirms, has been executed by hanging in the countryside where the house was going to be built.

“Storm Petrel” is a deft portrait of a Sinhalese in London dreaming about his imminent return home to Sri Lanka to run a few cabanas for tourists and in the process be absorbed by his crowded culture. In just a few bold outlines, the returning native’s longing predicates imminent disappointment. A few inadvertent splashes from the brush conclude the story.
On a larger scale, people fail to communicate. War has riven a wedge, even between a Sinhalese wife and her Tamil husband living in London in Batik. The inn keeper in Captives smokes with romantic and sexual longing for an English woman guest at his hotel.  He has no doubts about his high minded suitability.
Gunesekera’s prose, as his readers have discovered “pulses with deceptively simple precision”. His observation is “as close as the stare of a voyeur”. James Wood writing in the Guardian praised “Reef” obliquely as the only novel “that makes cooking a turkey as thrilling as a murder.” The gifted novelist Candia Mcwilliam, who missed making the Booker short-list herself with her book A Debatable Land, said that Reef was “a book of the deepest human interest and moral poise”. Penelope Lively in the Daily Telegraph says that the flavour of the book stays in the mind, “as pungent as the chilli in Triton’s lovingly contrived dishes”. Tom Adair, another critic wrote of “Reef”: “It sings like a glassy fountain; beads of pure light.”

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AN AUTUMN OF ARTS AND FESTIVALS

Kalighat Paintings

 

A collection of water colours by a group of 19th century artists from Calcutta was on show this week until January at the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This group of anonymous Kalighat painters, sold their work mostly to the pilgrims visiting the temple of Kali. Traditionally they had painted stories from the Hindu Puranas on hand-made paper joined together into scrolls to be used as a visual aid to public story-telling. As far back as the early 19th century the Kalighat artists, Bengali Hindus of the Patua community abandoned this tradition and begun painting on factory made paper in watercolours.
At the preview  some 500 aficionados from the world of Art and media gathered with glasses of wine in their hands and seemed stunned by the vitality and vibrancy of what to most of them was a discovery of an entire oeuvre. It did not surprise me to hear that multi-talented painter and novelist Balraj Khanna whom I wrote about recently had “curated” the show and painstakingly put together the exhibition.
I consider myself to be art-blind, in the sense people are colour-blind or tone-deaf; I am unable to tell great from good, and bad from mediocre. It has always seemed to me that unlike in writing, it is always hard to make quality and value judgements when you look at paintings. I envy critics on the other hand who can pronounce fluently on what they see in full flow of metaphors. But this collection spoke to me louder than words. Initially there is an awful moment of deja vu and even a double take when you see the solid shapes of Leger and even contours of a Matisse in these sure-handed lines and uncontrived fluency of drawing. Then you see the origins of calendar Art, much influenced as it was by Victorian tastes for decorative art. You see Modigliani’s ellipses in the apple of a courtesan’s face. You see humorous caricatures, one where a pack of Rats are holding a court to judge a Cat’s conduct as its enemy. You see drawings anticipating Gemini Roy’s lines and forms some fifty years earlier. We all collectively wondered why we had not heard of this astonishingly modernist collection with its idiomatic consistency before this? And yet these Kalighat artists pre-date our twentieth century Modernists. In fact Rudyard Kipling was the first to donate a collection to the Victoria and Albert in 1917.
I enjoyed being a fly-on-the wall  at this preview, listening to bursts of unselfconscious, animated cries of the London’s demi-monde. “Hullo, Sabine darling”, piped a modish cut-glass voice, ” How are you! Kiss kiss!” ” Hullo Mohan! Fancy seeing you here. Kiss, Kiss, must meet soon”
There seems to be a renaissance of Indian Arts and Drama in England this autumn. The BBC Radio Drama are broadcasting ten episodes of Ramayana, our mega Hindu epic with ever-present Saeed Jaffrey and Shashi Kapoor, the latter making his debut as a radio artiste.The music composed by Wilfredo Acosta, I understand is hauntingly splendid. This is a synergetic accomplishment of a group of Asian actors on a Radio Drama Equal Opportunities Training programme and a well known gifted director Alby James. This serialisation starts on Radio 4 on Monday the 31 October. Anyone who is familiar with the Hindu mythology knows the vastness and the cosmic dimensions of the stage on which these stories are enacted.
A decade ago, Peter Brook produced a 6 hour mega stage production of Mahabharata, which he later filmed creating a spell-binding magic lantern version. Elephant-headed Ganesa as a child playing scribe to a wise narrator of the epic Vyasa inhabiting a timeless zone retailing the unfolding story of Mahabharata, as a device is unparalleled. Channel 4 showed the whole uncut work bravely. My regret is that these visionary interpretations are generally not shown in India, where the filmic tradition merely permits a parading of card-board cut-outs of our calendar gods, acting out a ghastly parody of our Bombay films.
I understand that octogenarian Indian novelist Shankar Menon Marath is currently on a visit to India. It is unlikely that he would be feted in India’s literary salons, who I am told write only about writers with pent-houses and swimming pools. I first met Menon Marath in the mid sixties when he was coming to the end of a life-long career as a civil servant. Kind, aloof and amused, he was pleased that someone somewhere had heard of him. He has not had the literary critical recognition of his literary peers of Indians writing in English: like R.K.Narayan, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, Nirad Chaudhuri, nor the benefit of a redemptive blurb from Graham Greene which elevated Narayan.
He has only three published novels to his credit. Menon Marath is a slow writer. At 89 he lives in the riverside suburb of Teddington in London. His first novel Wound of Spring was published in 1960 when he was 54. The novel is set in pre-independent India, in Kerala in a feudal matrilineal society. His other two published novels are more sparely written. The Sale of an Island is about the feudal imperatives of a society of landlords, tenant farmers and migrant workers locked in a fatal struggle. Janu his last published novel is about an orphaned girl seeking the freedoms of recognition as an equal, in friendship and in love. Janu could prove to be a commendable addition to a list of classic feminist resurrections that India’s publishing house like KALI could look at with benefit. Menon Marath has held an elite group of Indian feminists in his spell. They cannot come to terms with a male novelists sympathetic portrayal of Janu, an inarticulate, uneducated Indian woman, who is abandoned, enslaved, raped and expelled, but discovers the secret of living forever in the present at the very heart of human moral quandaries in empathy with her aggressors and friends. Menon Marath certainly deserves new attention and a careful critical re-appraisal.
The festival of Divali is here again, and the Indian community in England celebrate it in some pomp and style. In a sense it has become all things all men: a Hindu New Year, an Indian Christmas, a time of reconciliation and renewal of friendships, of acts of charity, public and private celebrations. A group of Asian businessmen led by our own Swaraj Paul, who has been much in the news with his generous donation to the London Zoo, live it up with a magnificent dinner at the London Hilton. The Goddess of prosperity is not far from their minds, and Lakshmi is rightfully invited to cross the threshold, whilst our scribes open new book-keeping ledgers and inscribe an OM on page one. It coincides uniquely with the very British Guy Fawkes day, celebrating another story, another folk villain – from another time.

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LONDON LETTER
1996

A Conversation With MUKUL KESAVAN:

A Historian or a Novelist?

 

Mukul Kesavan’s first novel just published here in the U.K. by Chatto & Windus, Looking Through Glass is a long and sustained dream of a virtual past by a 1990s young photographer from Delhi falling inadvertently into the pre-independence 1940s. The nameless protagonist is a career hungry young man, who acquires an expensive camera with all the telephoto lenses by borrowing his Dadi’s pension from the State, given to her as a thank you gesture to all the freedom fighters. Proud Dadi however has a secret guilt about her own inadequate role in the independence struggle. A great book-keeper of all manners of human conduct, she initially refuses to accept this pension, then accepts it only because this enables our hero to purchase his camera on credit linked her pension.  Dadi is now an institution full of uncertain memories.  After Dadi’s death, our protagonist volunteers to take her ashes, not in a traditional urn, but a Thermos flask, strapped dutifully across his chest to the confluence of the Ganges and its sister rivers in Benares for a very Hindu prescriptive ritual. He also has an assignment from a Delhi Journal to photograph the stucco work of Mughal buildings in Lucknow. Our public school educated 90s Delhi-ranger however falls off the iron girders of the railway bridge near Lucknow, clutching symbolically his Dadi’s ashes, and his camera (another trite and archaic symbol of an uncertain voyeur) into a ten cent worth of a slide show of 1940’s India.

The adventure begins, as historian novelist Kesavan who teaches Islamic history at Jamia Milia University in Delhi plays the puppet master and frets and agonizes over alternative versions of India’s history and the imperatives and untruths that led to partition. Our time traveller is now beached in his Dadi’s time. The theme is spectacularly potent. The device breath-taking. This is no magic-realist attempt to exhume the bones of history or to perform a magi’s post-mortuum resurrection.

Kesavan deserves the highest praise for his 10 year long struggle at dreaming this landscape and giving it some sort of life. But repeatedly his glib language on its flat bed of enumeration fails his theme; his technique like an out of control toboggan deserts him. A short sabbatical at a creative writing course at any one of mid west American universities would have demonstrated to Kesavan why even important and accomplished novelists like Updike,       and Patricia High Smith gave such importance to technical problems of credible construction in fiction: the art and craft of constructing a plot, of investigating motivations, of narrative consistency in tone and language; of not losing control through inadvertence. Kesavan’s plot meanders, taking the alluvium with it. In his wandering this North Indian landscape, the protagonist is painstakingly in search of characters and an entertaining storyline to explicate Kesavan’s search. The search is for a validation of his historian’s hunch about the Congress party’s relationship with the moslems of North India. This is not a Hogarthian fable, with a  fable’s generic freedoms and devices of linguistic sorcery. Ultimately the device of our hero falling into the past with his secular agenda that repeatedly prevents him from asking questions, or declaring a post temporal interest in the events unfolding around him, prevent him from interacting with his past that becomes his painful present. He is unable to change direction or abandon his quest or declare his identity.

My first encounter with Kesavan was at the launch of his novel by his publishers Chatto & Windus in London. At such events, the author who is in the full glare of publicity, having to read a chapter to a sniffy audience and answer often irrelevant questions has a daunting assignation. At first it seemed as if Kesavan was pointedly casual, even down to his clothes: corduroy jeans, open neck  shirt, a knapsack on his shoulders, accompanied by his young children, family and friends. His performance was public school-confident. However, instead of concealing, it starkly magnified what another novelist in the audience sadly called a “pedestrian narrative” (at least on the evidence of the first chapter that was read aloud) that failed to get inside the characters and hint at motivations. It seemed, unfairly perhaps, that were hitching a ride on a wagon without an engine. The use of first person singular made this even more difficult.

I met Kesavan at his literary agents and adjourned to a nearby pub for a conversation. Kesavan, I realised was not just public-school confident; it is his natural display of well-formed views on politics, writing, and fellow writers which he offers in a non-polemical tentativeness. Addressing my disquiet about a sense of not being able to see in to his characters, he admitted that they had no” explicit inner lives, no reflection, no sense in which action is seen as issuing from the characters or from the internal constitution of a person.” Kesavan is lightheartedly firm about his conviction that what we can know about people “the way they know about themselves” is not tenable.

I asked him why he chose fiction as a medium; if he was a compulsive writer. As an admirer of the Paris Review style of literary interviews, I was particularly pernickety about Kesavan’s writing habits, whether he had an easy passage; if he wrote longhand. He started his novel when he was 26 and took five years to complete the first draft. The story did not form itself; his motives for pushing on with the writing, he admits frankly were completely “un-exalted.” He wanted very much to see his name on the spine of a book. He managed to salvage just about two chapters from the first draft for a further stint of five more years.

The central theme, it had seemed, was not adventure for its own sake. It was a second guess at the history of India’s troubled decade leading to independence and the way the gulf between the moslem and Hindu India widened and political opinions polarised enabling personal destinies to be predicated. Kesavan is ambiguous if the novel is about the dynamics of the partition of India. ” It is about people in the midst of great change” he says, “about ordinary people who do not have any great lasting convictions, people who are attached to the lives they lead.” The dynamic of the novel implies, through a series of incidents where moslems once nourished on the idea of a Congress Party that was aware of the realities on the ground, turn into one-dimensional beings, mere wall posters on hearing the new and eclectic secular agenda of the Congress Party. If Kesavan’s interpretation of history is right, millions of moslems did not know if demographic displacement through migration was what they sought. Their identities were firmly secured in the multi-religious societies in which they had lived for generations. Congress Party by disregarding their unspoken appeal for a direction had marginalised them. They had been greyed out. They felt increasingly insecure. Kesavan’s novel, then, is about people who were moved by these ” ideological fantasies.” Kesavan says that Nehru’s idealism and a brand of touch-me-not secularism, his unwillingness to attend to contingencies often in the name of anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism and socialism drove a wedge between a people who did not want to trade their secure fastnesses for a world that did not exist. Jinnah appears in the novel as a panjandrum figure, a dandy-ascetic fastidious down to his two-tone brogues and attended on by an overweight Liyakat Ali Khan, fussing over his political master. These sepia vignettes are wonderful magic-lantern items; you do not wish to see them in three-dimension or colour. The protagonist witnesses this historical slide show of strongmen of the Congress Party like Vallabhai. Patel and Pant  come and go. The temptation falls short of hitching a ride on the Nehru-Gandhi bandwagon, or playing a wallflower to Nehru’s historical speech at midnight hour on the 15th of August.  Kesavan then abandons all attempts at tying up technical loose ends, and offering a probable solution to a time traveller’s classic paradox of approaching his own birth.

Kesavan is at his best when through sheer accumulation of minutiae, he reveals layer upon layer of half-told stories, each one of which would merit a separate unzipping. Hasan, the Coffee house manager, born a Hindu Brahmin in South India, marginalised by the constraints of his upper caste imitates a migratory life-style of thousands like him in India, and acquires worldly competence through a moslem name. These half told stories have echoes of R.K.Narayan’s subset of characters. Once again some of these excursions like the attempt to summarise the history of Ganjoo clan, who play hosts to our hero, races unsatisfactorily to a footnote ending. If the novel has succeeded, it could be said to have succeeded through its finely focused attention to mundane details. Often Kesavan is openly experimenting with form. He is like a Scout trying to light damp tinder with a flint; after repeated public failures, has a wonderful fire going.

It occurred to me that Kesavan’s literary sensibilities worked strictly within a social and political context. There is no demon driving him. He would make a successful Victorian biographer, like Gissing and Gaskell, fussed by the social conduct and the mores of their peers, irritated by their ignorance of their destiny within history, but not touched by the magic of language.

I asked Kesavan about his literary influences. We talked about contemporary writers. Unsurprisingly, the novelists he most admired were the ones with a social-political agenda. Gunter Grass, Gabriel Marquez, Mario Vargas Lhosas. I mentioned William Styron, a direct inheritor of William Faulkner’s tradition of Biblical rhetoric. I mentioned Nabokov, arguably the greatest novelist of the 20th century. The appalling central dilemma in Styron’s Sofie’s Choice might be a great idea, says Kesavan, but Styron’s writing is not his taste. Kesavan’s novel, it is worth reminding, has been described first and foremost as a “picaresque” work. Saul Bellow to whom Kesavan might be hastily if inadvertently compared, because Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March was a genre-setting “picaresque” novel had not worked his magic on Kesavan.  Kesavan says that Bellow moves between Chicago demotic and a high Mandarin manner. This switch between these mandarin reflections and streetwise confessions does not work for him.

Naipaul, flagged more than once for a Nobel prize for literature, seemed an obvious subject. I had just ben reading A Bend In the River, almost fancying it to be a 20th century postscript to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The definitive context to me was the use of language by Naipaul’s protagonist, Salim, who is an Indian shopkeeper in West Africa; not greatly gifted, a consciousness that is not necessarily cultivated, and yet there was this subtlety of thought that through observation translated itself into a penetrating text of considerable beauty, beguilingly getting greater as the story evolved. Firstly, Kesavan dismissed Conrad simply, whom he found irritating because of his trick of a bunch of cronies telling stories to each other. The historian in Kesavan however finds Naipaul’s images of black people divided between the bush and the civilization, the obsession with the idea of a world of culture threatened by barbarism, a systematically offensive metaphor. He finds the strange images of Africans canoeing up the river from the bush as cartoon figures.

If there is a context in which Kesavan has found his literary roots, they are in the kind of new writing that his friend and fellow writer Amitav Ghose exemplifies. His work, Kesavan finds “hugely enabling of new writers”, breaking mental frontiers “like Roger Bannister”, the sprinter: an odd simile from the world of competitive sports.

I told Kesavan in parting for what it was worth, that the novel with its great possibilities had needed a critical and close revision by a friend fellow writer with an eye for infelicities of technique, to iron out flaws.

“My novel is flawed, like the Pentium Chip, you mean?”, Kesavan said in parting, without irony above the din of the pub.

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1996

AN OASIS IN LONDON’S WEST END

Oriental Club – A Very British Institution

 

Often I would wander down Oxford Street, to get away for a while from the stress and insanity of owning and running a business. I would turn off across the road from Bond Street Underground station, into Stratford Place. The Oasis I was heading for was a grand house at the far end of this short street fronted by an elegant row of Georgian houses, gleamingly painted, with long damask curtains mostly open, revealing large high-ceilinged front rooms, perhaps a chandelier.

The Oriental Club, a very British, men-only institution defies easy description: straddling the blind end of this pretty street, Palladian and imposing, like a scaled down version of the British Museum without its portico and pillars. Here was a Raj gin palace, with its discreet brass name plate with the imprimatur of an Indian elephant on it.

The Club was founded by and for the benefit of members of the East India Company in 1824. The founding members included the Duke of Wellington and Sir John Malcolm. Stratford House, its present location was built around 1770. It is a typical Georgian house, and even with all the alterations during late 19th century still retains it original character. It has had a number of distinguished owners, including the Grand Duke Nicholas, son of the Czar of Russia! The facilities include two drawing-rooms, two smoking-rooms, a card-room, a TV room, two dining rooms, a snooker room, a private dining-room and 35 bedrooms.

Inside were a motley collection of ageing colonials, ex-Bankers, ex-directors of Commonwealth corporations, retired Tea estate managers from Coorg and Shillong and Darjeling, the odd Maharajah in a Saville Row suit and certainly a number of Asians entitled to be addressed as Your Excellencies. This archetypical gentleman’s Club (women are not allowed in the Bar with its magnificent ceiling and with the painting of Tippu Sultan surveying it from the far end, or into the smoking-room or the dining-room at lunch time) boasted once that unlike other Clubs a stone’s throw away in St James, the Oriental was refreshingly free of media celebrities and politicians. It was never mentioned in gossip columns and did not have to blackball unsuitable social climbers applying for membership.

That was in the very early 1970s when as a guest of an English member of the club, I drank and dined at the Club as frequently as one would visit a local British pub. My friend Ian was a perfect paradigm of all the qualities you expected of a member of the Oriental. He was born in Kanpur, educated later in Simla and Dehra Doon, and sailed to England at 18, having witnessed the Hindu-Moslem riots and the carnage as a young school boy arriving at Delhi Railway station in 1947. Ian was always dressed in impeccable pinstripes. He wore a bowler and carried a silver-topped walking stick that his grandfather had acquired in India.  Ian  always drank Pink Gin, at the members’ bar on the ground floor, past the famous carved teak chair of Tippu in the lobby.

It was easy for me always to find Ian, if I needed this tranquil fastness, a wink away from the frantic hypermarkets of Oxford Street. When the bar closed, he would repair to the dining room, accompanied very often by a fellow member. The Club lunch menu always included Kedgeree, Egg Curry, Mulligatawny, Dover Sole, the British traditional roast, sausages and mash and the Club claret was certainly cheap enough to be consumed in serious quantities. A little later, he would go up a magnificent sweep of stairs, past a bill board festooned with a confetti of Reuters News telexes, past the magnificent library, past the russet, green and gold paintings of Raj days in India, in to the sombre and dark womblike space of the Smoking room.

This was the room I loved to be in with my friends. I would always find Ian seated in his favourite chair near the window overlooking the Members’ free car park; close enough to the call bell for the Club waiters to be summoned. Dark green leather armchairs usually accommodated a host of members, some fast asleep with half opened newspapers, in front of a glass of port. The hubbub of the voices of the plantation Managers and the old Raj civil servants, the smell of cigar smoke, laced with the mild apple of French brandy completed the picture. This to me was a paradise where you could withdraw into the community or stay apart and write letters to your aunts and sisters in India on the Club stationery with its emblem of an elephant, and its telegraphic address of “Ganpath”. During these 25 long years I had no need to be a member; I never sought it or thought about it. It was my club by association: my friend Ian would always be there, regular as the dainty clockwork of his yellowing gold watch, either at the Members’ bar or somewhere within the deep silence of the Club. Then early in 1994 Ian had a brainstorm. He was selling up his London home and all his worldly possessions, save what he had brought with him from India as his heirloom. At 60-something he was setting sail to India, never to return. He declared that he was deeply uncomfortable in the 1990s England; its market place values were not something he could abide. I was coerced by Ian and his friends to join the Club. I needed two sponsors and four co-sponsors who knew me well. I had no problems after 25 years as a guest.

Today there is a diminishing number of discreet ex-colonials at the bar at noon; instead there are young Bankers in expensive Sidi suits, Patek watches and Italian shoes, entertaining their American banking fraternity. I have seen note-book computers and pocket phones making surreptitious appearance in the dark corners of the smoking room, although these are strictly forbidden by Club rules. The elegant cloakroom with its endless supply of hand towels and it mechanical shoe-shine is where you are expected to leave behind your business gadgetry. Once I committed the ultimate faux pas by presenting a sheaf of papers to a non-member business-friend at the bar, for a discreet, snappy inspection. A venerable fellow member fixed me with a rebuking stare that certainly encouraged me to terminate this un-clubman-like conduct. The Club is there for members to converse, drink, and enjoy themselves. Perhaps these are the values enshrined inside these palladian havens for men to club together. It is never unseemly to lose your sobriety here in public, but it is a cardinal sin to transact business, even sotto voce.

Perhaps it is all those memories of afternoons whiled away with friends in pleasantly escalating inebriation, or perhaps it is the calm splendour of its cosy interior, its discretion and its old world virtues of an overt gentleman, the Oriental is where I retreat to get away from the insanity and stresses of modern living.

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RACE AND POLITICS OF COMPASSION

A talk with Peter Shore

 

On Thursday the 17th of November a British Court sentenced 17 year old Nicky Hall to a nominal 11 months custodial sentence for being part of a racially motivated brutal attack on Mukhta Ahmed, a 19 year old Bengali student living in East London. As Nicky Hall had already served 6 months in detention awaiting trial, he walked free whilst 19 of his accomplices who participated in this grim act of violence remain untried and unconvicted.

The attack was not just another act of harassment – some 1200 such incidents were reported this year. The gang of white youths chased and set upon Mukhta and kicked his head “like a football”, until his scalp was torn off his skull. Mukhta was lucky to survive. He was in a coma for two days and spent the next 6 months in hospital recovering from this savagery. He now has the look of someone who has been comprehensively aggravated with a flame-thrower. His face is the mask of a war-wounded soldier.

Mukhta has survived, but there are 37,000 Bengalis living in the Borough of Tower Hamlets encircled by the dark ring of racism. On the front line are the foot-soldiers of the white youth culture, nourished by the Council funded youth clubs, where the consensus of racism is reinforced. Late night discos are where, fuelled by alcohol and perhaps drugs, this roaming pack of thugs acquire the necessary courage for their irrational attacks on their Bengali neighbours.

Nursing the problems of this community in the constituency of Tower Hamlets is the Right Honourable Peter Shore, their M.P. for four decades. He is one of the two last surviving members of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government Cabinet of 1964, after the euphoric election victory that year. The other is Tony Wedgewood Benn. Shore’s libertarian benevolence and deep humanity has its roots in socialism’s evangelists like George Lansbury and Harold Laski, who invested this political ideology with the essentials of pluralism, equality and compassion.

The Asian immigrant population is now nudging 2 million in a country with a total population of 53 million. The Asians, it is argued, do not assimilate into the host culture, almost as a deliberate cultural stand-off. Outwardly the host culture could be said to be non-interfering, accommodating and benevolent. This distant perception dissolves on a closer examination. Libertarian politicians of any political faith are generally anxious to appear impartial on all issues of race and non-christian cultures. The middle rank of the Tory Party that makes up the bulk of the front-line of Government ministers feign indifference to issues of race, whilst assiduously cultivating the tiny Asian business community who generally vote Tory. This exclusive community would like to think of themselves as a select pressure group but are of little help to the Asian working class inhabiting ghettoes in Tower Hamlets, Leicester, Bradford and Liverpool.

Although there are major differences between Asian minority groups like the Bengalis in the East End of London and the Punjabis and Pakistanis in Bradford, there are overwhelming similarities in their isolation, their ghetto culture and therefore the problems they come with to a member of Parliament ministering such constituencies.

I talked to Peter Shore in the august surroundings of the Houses of Parliament. The particular subject I had come to speak to Shore about was the problems of the Bengali community: encompassing immigration, housing, racial harassment, educational problems in the new context of Islamic revivalism, the fevered religiosity of its educationists, the activities of the various pressure groups including the Asian business community; problems of the youth gangs among the generation of Bengalis who were born in England; the larger subject of crime and violence from within, the treatment of an ageing population by its children. The general subject was however the dynamics of Asian politics in England.

I had written earlier to Peter Shore in general terms suggesting that I would like to be an observer, a wall flower at one of his “surgeries” where MPs meet their constituents on their home ground. At our meeting in the Houses of Parliament in a basement visitor’s room, (where presumably Guy Fawkes was held, so I fantasised), Shore wondered if this would be practical as his fortnightly “surgeries”, were conducted in small cramped offices and were exhaustingly long.

Peter Shore set out to confirm that the problems brought to him from the Bengali community in his “parish” had “overwhelmingly to do with immigration”  In the euphoria of the 1964 election victory for the Labour Party heralding
the heady sixties, it might have seemed that all artificial controls were intrinsically illiberal. But Peter Shore affirmed to me that if the Labour Party held this view, it was soon replaced by 1966 with the framework of immigration law, very much as we have it today. Work permits were the order of the day and then only for persons with qualifications indispensable to Britain. However, the rights of a person who had acquired British citizenship lawfully to marry in his country of origin and bring back spouse, children born abroad and elderly dependants remained enshrined in British law. Almost all of Bengali constituents who come to Shore are trapped by the fine interpretation of the law and its guidelines. Whilst it is easier for a male to marry abroad and bring his bride back to the UK, women who marry back in their country have invariably to prove that “the primary purpose of the marriage” was not for creating legal rights of entry and residence to a non-citizen. To try and prove the negative is quite “a task”, especially as such marriages are pre-arranged with the couple never having met even once prior to marriage. Another requirement is evidence establishing “devotion” between the couple. All this would be hilarious if only the thrust of such questions was even half serious.  A large number of such application for entry go to an  adjudicator, and after the first refusal to a tribunal. If it is a dependent, the now fashionable DNA testing is de rigueur. When all else fails Shore as their MP is expected to perform miracles by writing to the Home Secretary who has the power to delay, review or override a Tribunal decision “exceptionally, outside the rule.” Shore expresses the hope that whilst the laws of immigration would remain in place and be seen to be operating fairly, real compassion would be in “easing details of control.”

Housing has remained the other insuperable problem because of the withdrawal of Government financial support to Local government. In Greater London government funded new housing has fallen from its peak of 1000 houses a year to a couple of dozen. Bengali housing needs typically tend to be large in keeping with large families. Unsurprisingly Tower Hamlets was the only Borough in London that registered a rise in population between the decennial census of 1981 and 1991. Local Government has virtually given up building new housing, says Shore.  Against this background, the racist right wing British National Party (BNP)  won seats by scape-goating the Bengali community, although the underlying resentment caused by Central Government indifference  and housing shortage is very real.

A further paradox was the composition of the local Council which until the latest local government elections that routed them, was led by the Liberal Democrats. This was the Trojan horse which brought in racists on a crypto-Liberal Democrat ticket.  Their brazen-faced strategy was to “endear themselves to the white majority in Tower Hamlets, against the Liberal Party ethos”. This led to rows with the local and National Liberal Party. To vindicate the libertarian roots of the Liberal party, the councillors were expelled and the Liberal Party nationally expiated its sins of racism by setting up a committee of investigation chaired by an eminent Q.C. and Liberal Peer, Lord Lester. The new Council has no Tory presence; in fact the fascist BNP polled better. There are 8 Bengali councillors among the 42 Labour councillors and 7 Liberal Democrats in this dramatic re-arrangement.

Peter Shore may be a compassionate politician, who would undoubtedly place equality and human rights above party politics. But he is a pragmatist. He foresees an ongoing war of nerves between a minority of racists in Tower Hamlets and the Bengalis who he fears might be incited to take “revenge action” instead of using political militancy purely as a defensive posture.

When I visited Brick Lane, the colourful Asian artery in the middle of this square mile, smelling of patchouli and sweet spice during the day time, the mood of the Bengalis I met was sombre. There were whispered rumours about young Asian youth gangs that ruled the square mile at night. There were patrician businessmen who encouraged and managed them, I was told by Bengali waiters: they wanted to get out of this confrontational stranglehold and make good elsewhere in the middle class shires of tolerant England in which they believed.

I finally addressed the question of Islamic revivalism that demanded an Islamic educational framework for their children. “There is a danger” Shore admits “Even in Bangladesh there is an Islamic Party in power. But I am surprised how little pressure is put on me by fundamentalist elements. Obviously there is still a healthy secularism in the Bengali community. The Awami League is a secular party and they have considerable influence within the area.”

Peter Shore remembered visiting Sylhet in Bangladesh, the one town which seems to have shipped all its citizens to England, and being recognized and greeted  and spoken to like an old friend. It is an extraordinary phenomenon of the late 20th century, Shore muses: “The immigrant community that travels back to their country of origin almost annually and repatriates capital regularly. Thanks to air travel and modern telecommunications”

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Rashme Sehgal

Rashme-Sehgal

A Tale of Two Morals

A review of Rashme Sehgal’s first novel “Hacks and Headlines”, an IndiaInk imprint

 

RashmeSehgal’s first novel is not just a  heady mixture of political and sexual power games, It is an insider view of the way the fourth estate operates in India, ideally placed in New Delhi where all the power broking goes on behind closed doors. It is shown that the Indian media owners are complicit in these corrupt machinations. Rashme Sehgal is a successful journalist who worked on several major Delhi based newspapers and, for two decades, she has had a ringside seat on the arena of events she describes.
The novel begins chillingly with the public execution of an upper class girl, Paro and of her lower caste lover Jano by their  relatives, with the witnessing village remaining complicitly silent. There is no intricate social explanation of this gruesome event: the indifferent witnessing of the entire village is shown to be ordinary. The description of these murders is  almost banal, the sentences are staccato and short, as if the music had suddenly stopped. This however is a deliberate device and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
The news of these brutal murders is routinely reported by Dalip Jha, a veteran Delhi based  reporter for a Calcutta paper. Media baron Vikram Aggarwal who owns the rival The Indian Sentinel and  whose family’s financial dealings are under investigation uses this as an opportunity to hijack the story and ultimately engineer the downfall of the coalition government, providing a pretext to install his own uncle as the new prime minister. However the premise that these media barons can overturn a unstable coalition government is moot

There is a veritable cavalcade of characters a number of politicians including a Prime Minister, a Chief Minister of U.P., their kleptocrat lackeys, a large gaggle of journalists (hacks) that includes a fine portrait of rapacious reporter Raveena Bedi, all of them driven by an insatiable desire to further their career by any means.; Kiplingesque Gulabo Pathan, a Mafia god father stranded in his old Delhi fastness, much diminished by age and illness; Ram Bharose, his duplicitous acolyte, a hired assassin ; Attar Singh a small-time money lender who gets caught in the web, various family members and minor characters with the ultimate flotsam represented by office peons and finally by the villagers themselves.
There is a moral vacuum enveloping almost all the characters. Cynicism and pervasive corruption dictates the conduct of almost all of them. There is an unanswerable moral argument for the re-instatement of public and private morality raging unspoken between the lines.
There is a much larger novel almost echoing  A Suitable Boy in tone and mood, which has been sadly abandoned in favour of a much shorter fictional précis . It is a pity that often a fine novel like Hacks and Headlines has to bear the burden of  such high expectations placed on it since the Pulitzer Prize Winner work by Jhumpa Lahiri and the Booker Prize won  by Arundhati Roy for her first novel. It is also significant that a substantial number of new young writers based in India are publishing promising work. It is a challenging gauntlet for Rashme Sehgal to run.
An earlier pre-publication review went on to allege that“this novel seldom rises above the hack writing which it condemns, and the deadpan realism never quite takes off”. This is an unfounded criticism. This is similar to accusing that A Catcher in the Rye fails to rise above an adolescent monotone.  The critic fails to see how clever the stylistic device is in using often the exhausted phraseology  of hack writing. Hence phrases like,  “radiant with energy”; “her provocative smile “; “eyes shone with a rare intensity” proliferate with a deliberate precision. Media demotic suits the theme of the novel well.
Rashme Sehgal is right in deliberately choosing to use a succession of “trite” idioms to describe a talentless mediocre bunch of kleptocrats, and an accompanying culture of two track morals (public euphemisms of declarations of honour and honesty and private corruption) that goes from the top to the very roots of public and private conduct. Demonstrably, the fear that deliberate triteness might undermine the whole novel turns out to be unfounded.
Rashme Sehgal’s prose is marvellously crisp and moves at a lithe and efficient pace, in the process illuminating the fine details. It is astonishing to realise how each character gets a cursorily bare physiognomic inspection/description, and yet the few deft words  engrave each  of them  vividly.
Here are a few deft portraits drawn no doubt  from real life: There is concupiscent Dalip Jha, the veteran reporter unctuously seeking to “mount” (a surprisingly archaic word)  his younger female colleagues where ever he can find such solace. He is a lovable, ultimately vulnerable philanderer who is trying to find  sex in a setting of peaceful domesticity. When he is discovered by his wife Seema in his new found sexual partner Kiki’s flat, the mood is any thing but erotic, with Dalip deep in reading the daily newspapers in a moment of post-coital domesticity. There is petulant Seema, Dalip’s third wife who takes Dalip on a white knuckle ride by making false accusations against him and  his family of demanding a dowry (which is illegal), in an electrifying episode. On a  grander scale Leelawati, Chief Miniser of an Indian state with her orchestrated entourage deserves a fictional Bollywood Oscar. She is  meticulously described as  a gross but exact thespian caricature  on an epic  feeding and self grooming frenzy for status and power and money.
Another dominating character adding a demonic dimension to the story is Kala Muthu.  He is a self  assured and thrusting young buck from Chennai. He weaves his way through the Delhi elite and proves himself to be an adept blackmailer whose sole ruthless ambition is furthering his career with a bold prowess in bed  and knowing when to strike.
A memorably smoky New Delhi is the magical backdrop to this mini saga, with its salubrious villas shrouded in an explosion of bougainvilleas; the description alludes to the borderland between the old parts of Delhi separated by a Mughal gate where stall keepers hold their posts right through day and night even during bone chilling winters. This  provides a meeting ground for night workers, money lenders, assassins for hire, informers, corporate spies, impecunious office workers &  young reporters on night watch..
The front cover predictably shows a stack of newspapers with the words “a novel” quirkily turned upside down disrupting an otherwise acceptable design. The back page blurb thoughtlessly gives away the final outcome of the novel, if not the gory event that precedes it. Although the book’s title is accurate in affirming the central role that hacks and headlines occupy  in the novel, a better title, less precise but more evocative could have been found. One assumes that the editors of Indian publishing houses do not go for the traditional handholding and nurturing of their authors to alleviate their self doubt and  sinking morale.
One is left yearning to know how some of the characters got on:  Dalip Jha and Simi and their tempestuous marriage; Raveena with her insatiable appetite for power and sex;  Rajan’s wife Arati, a narcissistic socialite and Rajan, a Chanakya-like  character closest to Vikram  Aggarwal; the media Mughal himself always sunk in a  reverie; Ajay Singh, the idealistic and talented Hindi journalist who sacrifices his career on a matter of principle; predatory  Kalu Mutu, the ruthless self promoter; and sundry characters.
One hopes there is a powerful sequel with a redemptive message for the corrupt soul of Indian body politic.

A selection of Rashme Sehgal’s poems can be found here:

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A JOURNEY HOME -RETURN OF THE NATIVE
– Story of Ian

1994
In 1947 July, a young English school boy stepped off a Simla to Delhi train at the Old Delhi Railway station and was to witness a most macabre scene. He was expecting to be met by his father’s factotum-servant-driver; perhaps accompanied by his Ayah, who he hoped would gift him surreptitiously with his favourite mango halva. Delhi however was in flames.Ian Grant the young boy had travelled a day and a half, changing on the way from a narrow gauge toy train, descending through the forested riverbanks infested with malaria; into the  humid plains of India;into Delhi numbed by the sudden dawning of Independence.  The anarchic volcano of religious dissensions had erupted into riots of unimaginable cruelty and dimension.Ian now recalls how untouched he felt; excusably only having experienced kindness from all the Indians he had met; unable perhaps to comprehend the tides socio-political events which led to the partition of India. He recalls vividly however, as if seen in a shadow puppet play, Sikhs brandishing kirpans; Hindus with rock and blade mounted on axe handles; moslems uniquely identifiable in their checkered lungi and beards; women and children streaming in a torrent into the old Delhi station, with a life time of possessions in bulging metal trunks and gunnybag sacks; some piled high onto anything on wheels; dead bodies draping the street-ends: a Bertolucci freeze-frame of history on the march; an apocalyptic J.G. Ballard vision of hell.
No one paid any attention to the young English boy with his trunk and his school boy satchel strapped round his shoulders, waiting impatiently for the servant to arrive and whisper that every thing was Ok.
Years later at the age of 18 Ian having spent a great part of his adolescence in Conoor in South India where his father was an accountant, set sail to London, English to his fingertips in appearance; but Indian at heart.
Today at 60,eccentrically dressed in pinstripes, a dressy shirt with a vivid bow tie, a flower patterned silk waistcoat; a seasonal hat(from a jaunty boater to a bowler) gleamingly polished shoes, and a military bearing enhanced by a rosewood walking stick, topped in silver (Ian joined the Grenadier Guards soon after his arrival in England and stayed with them for  years, working for a time on duty at Windsor Castle, being worried by Her Majesty’s corgis), has packed his bags,sold his house where he  he has lived for over 18 years, and is setting sail again to India,on a way one way ticket, declaring that he will never return.
Ian made an exploratory first trip back to India 2 years ago; 40 years after he left India. He was suffering at the time from bouts of ME. He says that the effect of arriving in Madras, with the impact of heat; the street scenes hardly different from the way he remembered them, the smell of spice and dung; and the new industrial smell of machine oil pervading the senses was simply galvanizing. His stumbling fatigue vanished overnight. Friendships were swiftly revived. local Madras Club, a much seedier version of the British Clubs in St James’ visited with satisfaction; hot peppers and Tamil curries acting as a restorative shot in the arm.Ian recalls restful Indian afternoons; and the pleasure of many new friendships made at family dinner parties.
Ian has shot the lights out of his English home,metaphorically; sold all his furniture and acquisitions, save what he brought with him , his parents heirloom.
As an insurance broker for the last 30 years of his life, Ian has been a friend of hundreds of Indian families, where he is received with affection as a member of the family, business relationships maturing into life long friendships. Most of them would agree that Ian is doing the right thing in going home to India. His English friends however who would  miss him equally, see him significantly differently. Ian, they say, lives in a time-warp: a Tardis of his own values and romantic vision of India which is no longer there; Ian  his taste for Pink Gin in some serious quantities are inseparable. His friends worry that India provides the perfect black hole into which even novice  lovers of alcohol would surely sink. The Indian middle class friends that Ian feels close to, are now ruled by new-world ambitions and by a system of etiquette which cannot accommodate the faux pas of an out of date romantic. Once the novelty of Ian’s value as a “society showpiece” has worn, he would be marginalised and left alone.
I remember seeing with absolute delight a TV documentary about an expatriate Englishman in Kenya, by the androgynous name of Hilary Hook. At the very end of his career he is forced to leave the country he loved and considered his own; expelled from his rented house of a life time.There are 2 scenes of inevitable fade outs. Hilary Hook gets mournfully, aggressively drunk and gets out his hunter’s rifle and shoots out all the lights in the house. A scene later  shows him captive in a mean flat in English suburbia; talking to himself, perhaps to the camera, his Blighty Trevor Howard vowels rounding fulsomely on choice swear words expressing distaste; then you see him staggering into the local supermarket, bewildered by the packaged bounty on the shelves; staggering out again with a shopping basket loaded only with bottles of gin and vodka.
It is easy to compare  Ian ungenerously, and unfavourably with this archetype. The idea of staying on In India underpins the anxiety of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson portrayal of folks left to cope with being lonely in a crowded culture.
I see Ian differently; I see him shedding a good deal of his hothouse values acquired in his English Tardis turning native in the nicest sense of the word; re-acquiring a true sense of what this crowd and chaos is all about; seeing the gentleness of the individual and the shyness of friendships: perhaps the real dynamic of life and liberation.
I trust he will take to sending frequent gifts of letters from India to his friends he has left behind. Without the benefit of an editors’s quill, they should be eminently readable.

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S. MENON MARATH :

(An Appraisal Of A Novelist That The World Forgot)
1996

Marath,-Menon

The opening page of Menon Marath’s first novel published in 1960 when he was 54, has an epigram from Li Tai Po (“Dawn reddens in the wake of night, but the days of our life return not. The eye contains a far horizon, but the wound of spring lies deep in the heart”), which lances the heart cruelly of all hopes of immortality. If he did not know it himself then, when he published “The Wound Of Spring”, this quasi-existentialist theme runs like an unseen stream through all his three novels.

The novel is set in pre-independent India, in Kerala, (then comprising Malabar, Cochin and Travancore), in a feudal, matrilineal society. Using the history of India’s early days of struggle for independence as a mere echo, the equal protagonists are set firmly mid stage, with a story to enact; in a womb-like space of cool action. Krishna Menon, the patriarch of the “tharawad”, the sprawling joint family  hive, runs this hostellary of several separate families all confined to their rooms with their brood of children and infants with occasional night guests of husbands, claiming their visiting rights . Families co-here during dinners. There is the ritual total recall of the Nayar’s glorious past as a soldier-warrior clan, whose ancestral armoury of swords and shields are enshrined in an unlit room in the house. The new generation of Govindan, his younger brother Unni, and  his sister Meenakshi, and all sundry unnamed cousins and friends have heard the distant thunder of Gandhi’s call for non-violent struggle for independence, of demolishing  boundaries of caste and inequality. This reverberates in the hearts of everyone, imbuing the older members with moral outrage, the middle-aged with moral anxiety, the young with the dreams and dilemmas of rebellion. The Nayar “tharawar” is no longer a tranquil fastness; it is a prison about to implode, and ultimately disintegrate.

Unni is the youngest son of the family whose mother had broken away from the iron clasp  of tradition  30 years earlier, by electing to train as a singer. Unni is untainted by bigotry of privilege,of class and tradition. His awkward love for his mother and his sister is free of judgement; his playfulness with the family’s servants is a cool and just acknowledgement of equality of all human beings.

Unni runs away from home, rejected emotionally by his mother Parvathi, whose egotism as a singer, selfishness as a person cannot touch the source of her love for Unni. She discriminates in favour of her elder son Govindan,not much older than Unni, who is soon to become the “Karanavar”, the manager patriarch of the family, only to feed his humourless ego.
The world outside the safe boundaries of Nayar home is in violent turmoil. Moslem Moplahs have risen in armed revolt against centuries of servitude and disadvantage. The Nayar middle class secure in their privileges resents the Gandhian inspiration behind the Moplah uprising. Unni joins the roving circus visiting his town, like perhaps hundreds of youngsters before him, as the perfect, magical escape. Abused and enslaved by the circus owner, he  jumps off the train and finds himself in the heart of the Moplah revolt. He witnesses the torching of Hindu homesteads, and the  looting. He undergoes the final humiliation of being branded a spy  by the escaping contingent of Moplahs on the run, returning from a fire bombing foray. Soldiers who do not even speak his local language capture the Moplahs, and Unni. He is once again transported  in an airless train carriage with the rebels, to an unknown fate. Chance intervenes; Unni and others are thrown out in a confused getaway, and he is shot in the elbow.
Menon Marath charts the course of his characters faultlessly, if ponderously; evoking and subsuming as he goes along, switching narrators fluently. Unni is rescued, nursed and repaired by a family of untouchables. As tenant farmers they work ceaselessly, unquestioningly; acceptance of their role keeps them in this solitude of bondage. They are confused and anxious at having a member of the master class of Nayars as a house guest. Unni, works in the field alongside them in an expression of wordless bond between their hearts. Unni sees them open up and accept him, transcending the divide of caste. He falls in love with the loquacious  18 year daughter of the family, Cheethu. He marries her and fatalistically wills his return to his joint family home. Govindan is now the insecure despotic Karanavar. Parvathi from the retreat of her moral indifference, suddenly redeems herself shedding the armour of her selfishness, in a scene scorched by a sudden passion for justice, and recognition of love as being transcendent to scripted loyalty to tradition. She leaves home with her bedding and her silver, with Unni and his untouchable wife Cheethu to the banishment of a remote home in the wilderness . Govidan’s unforgiving greed, fear, incomprehension, in a Machiavellian alliance with tradition takes swift, punitive revenge.
Menon Marath’s writing is measured, and thoroughly old-fashioned. Descriptions are chiselled with the lucent care of a Victorian essayist. At its keenest, his narrative rescues life and detail from the chaos of its own echoes.
Menon Marath says he is a slow writer.  At 88, he lives in the  riverside suburb of Teddington; in the silence of old age, he is writing his fifth novel, the fourth is still trawling  the literary agents’ corridors in search of a publisher. It is easy to describe  Menon Marath as an un-discovered Isac Singer, although he is unable to accept the comparison.
Menon Marath is a scion of the warrior class from the northern part of Kerala. The middle name of Menon was a title traditionally accorded by the King of Cochin, to all Nayar warriors who excelled as scribes and accountants.He graduated from the Christian College in Madras,and acquiring at this age  his deep sense of the history of his land of Malabar from a reading of K.P. Padmanabha Verum’s History of Kerala( not epigraphical, but anecdotal, he says). He sailed to England in 1934 to be a postgraduate student at Kings College London. Unable to complete his studies, with a marriage and children soon to follow, finding a job to sustain a family became his priority.
I first met Menon Marath in the mid 60s when he was coming to the end of a life- long career as a middle-ranking civil servant. Very kind, aloof and amused, he was pleased that someone somewhere had heard of him, had read him. I met him 20 years later working part time as a librarian at the Buddhist Society in Pimlico.Amused aloofness was still in evidence. Yet this time, I sought the intimacy of friendship boldly and was given it easily.
He has not had the critical recognition of his literary peers of Indians writing in English: like R.K.Narayan, Ruth Prawer Jhabhvala, Raja Rao( praised by Lawrence Durrell) Nirad Chaudhuri, Mulk Raj Anand; nor the benifit of a redemptive blurb from the likes of Graham Greene that elevated Narayan. An elite readership has occasionally sought Menon Marath out to quiz and relate to his vision : of impermanence, of mortality, of justice and of equality; awareness of the tyranny of class, wealth and education; the redemptive power of love  and the intimacy of compassion.He hides this and his general air of agnosticism expertly by weaving them, like Isac Singer, into a flawless structure of his good story telling.
His two other published novels are more sparely written. “The Sale of an Island” his second novel, published four years after the first is a political allegory. Its land owners, tenant farmers, and migrant workers are locked in an implacable fatal dance of feudal imperatives. The island is about to be sold off by the landlord with no regard for its several families of tenants, who have lived on the island, perhaps for generations. Legal and moral rights are infringed, and battle lines are drawn.
Menon Marath launches into an investigation of ultimate morals, and yet this transcendent theme is weighed down by its infelicitous actors. One of the protagonists declares at the end that there are no ultimate winners, or losers: History and Time are indifferent to all outcomes.
One can easily see Menon Marath all agog with his questions: when does a Man’s responsibility to his fellow human beings cease; what are the boundaries of Man’s sense of equity, is there absolute justice? Should one stand up to transgressions of human morals? What is honour, what is compromise, what is cowardice? And yet the grand theme burdens the inhabitants of this small insignificant island, foregrounding a small insignificant town, somewhere in Kerala, with a script that leaves them one -dimensional and tongue-tied. A novel so sparely written deserves a careful reading if only to regret the loss of an opportunity for Menon Marath to have written it differently.
The theme, in deceptive disguise carries across to JANU, his last published novel. It is about an orphaned girl seeking the freedoms of recognition as an equal, in friendship, in love. It is a heavyweight pre-occupation for minor actors; but Menon Marath transfigures them
Janu loses her father and then her mother early in life and is brought up in her father’s brother’s household, where she is more a servant than a relative. She is raped by her cousin; eventually she goes back to her old home, where she encounters a man, who is a political terrorist in hiding.Janu marries him, finds happiness. It ends once again, with the death of her husband. She takes to the road, and finally comes to a Shiva temple, where she surrenders herself to a life with a personal God.
Once again inanimate objects, trees, rocks, cloud cover and rain, the hum of the world come alive with foreboding, and enforce ground rules. Fortunately, unlike in A Sale Of An Island, they are not interventionist, they are light, almost lyrical. Reading Janu, one is chilled by the cold passage of these descriptions, this transference of emotions to external objects, reminiscent of Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp. Janu’s transcendence is a mirror-like empathy of her whole being. Menon Marath’s description of Janu’s rape is an example:
“Then there was he, crossing the floor and coming towards her. Janu felt she had to wait. Then his arms were around her and his ravenous lips on her breasts. He dragged her to his bed into whose softness their tow bodies were thrown. His face was cold; as it approached hers she saw that behind the wet skin there was a strange sad terror. Lying beside her he was a much diminished,rather ludicrous and coarse man. He no longer commanded, he begged and grovelled. The room which was his private universe now rejected and expelled him: it was a small long room with only furniture in it. Even his passion was halted. Because he had gone beyond what was right there was no longer any dignified retreat for him. Her resistance would be unbearably humiliating to him. That would be too painful to witness. Because she was so full of pity for him, she was able almost to see everything that was happening in that room from within his world.”
Menon Marath told me that he attempted to “shake the burden of chronology” in writing JANU. I had wondered if the Publishers had demanded parts of JANU to be cut, as editorial joinery seemed to be in evidence. The novel takes into account a ” processsion of time”, and not a “progression of time”, says Menon Marath. It could prove to be a commendable addition to a list of classic feminist resurrections. Menon Marath has held an elite group of Indian feminists in a spell. They cannot come to terms with a male novelist’s sympathetic portrayal of JANU, an inarticulate, uneducated Indian woman, abandoned, orphaned, enslaved, raped, expelled, visibly falling down a chasm. How did Janu discover the secret of living forever in the present, at the very heart of human moral quandaries, equally in empathy with her aggressors, and friends?

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1996

THE GREAT FLOOD AND INDIA ABROAD

LONDON LETTER

 

It is the last week of January and the Great Flood is here. Most of Northern Europe is under several metres of water. It is an unbelievable sight :archetypal German cities like Cologne and Bonn are set adrift in a landscape of water, although they always appeared as if born fully-formed in Gothic stone-cladding, solidly bulwarked against even the great Noye’s Fludde. It is not inconceivable to imagine the Ark on the flooded horizon wending its way through German, Dutch, Belgian and French towns and villages with just the church spires showing above water, collecting all living species for Noah’s great genetic bank.

Europe was unprepared for this sudden  downpour, this Biblical deluge. In Holland, a generation of engineers had transformed these lowlands lying well below sea-level in to a relatively safe haven, by building a skilful labyrinth of dykes and dams and gentle coaxing away of the direction of its rivers. A newer generation of environmentalists put a stop to all that, persuading the authorities that these man-made defences were environmentally intrusive, and ecologically damaging and unfriendly, and that they disfigured the land. They accused the grandfathers of dam builders of over-zealousness. Now the dykes have been found to be insufficient and giving way all over Netherlands. In one night on the 30th of January, some 100,000 people had to be evacuated from town and villages to the relative safety of high ground. Environmental moralists seem to have lost their high ground, at least for the time being.
France is in the throes of a similar downpour, with 40,000 homes destroyed in the Ardenne alone.

It is worth speculating, ensconced in the safety of an imaginary Mount Ararat, how the Western world was so readily pejorative in their pronouncements about the great earthquake of Kobe in Japan. Tens of thousands of citizens of the most prosperous and advanced country on the planet, it was alleged, were left to cope for themselves, without food or shelter in a bitter Japanese winter. The rescue efforts were derisory and arrived too late. This would never happen in the West. The Californian earthquake, exactly a year earlier to the date was a perfect example of the speedy mobilization of rescue and re-housing and re-construction. What the West conveniently forgot to notice was the exemplary patience of the Japanese, a total absence of looting, a civic sense of mutual responsibility that drove even the much-feared Japanese Mafia to forge a remarkable link and provide aid on a significant scale. I am by now used to the well-meaning derision from our experts about floods and typhoons in Bangladesh, the Philippines and China. And yet a night of heavy snowfall in Northern England grounded half the country in a helpless gridlock of ice and resulted in several associated deaths.  An internationally important city like London is wholly unprepared for sustained snowfall. Its basic services are pared down to the bone, and chaos ensues within a day.

As a columnist I have to read a whole lot of British, American and European newspapers and periodicals. I find it amazing that so very little is written about India, the largest democracy on earth, still experimenting with its reforms and tinkering with its democratic institutions in what often appears to be a free-for-all. My one week’s news-watch during late January yielded just a few items: several of them were not about India at all, but  about Indian affairs in England.

The Taj Mahal, if a report in the Sunday Times is to be believed is about to be the “centre-piece  of a tourist theme-park, complete with fake moonlight, cable cars, fast food restaurants and a boating lake. “Arguably the discolouring and erosion caused to this magical monument by industrial pollution has caused deep dismay worldwide. An Indian “environmentalist lawyer” Mahesh Chandra Mehta (obviously of a new legion of combative foot-soldiers of the movement) says that he has found greater support abroad for his Save the Taj Campaign than in India. The Sunday Times reports that vested interests at all levels seem to be saying that a “perfect Taj Mahal is a luxury they cannot afford”. They want to squeeze the last ounce of its tourist potential to create a micro-economic boom in Agra.

A musical soiree featuring the South Indian classical violin maestro Lakshminarayana Subramaniam and the jazz legend and violinist Stephan Grapelli at London’s Albert Hall on Wednesday 18 January was the subject of a full page review in the Arts section of the Daily Telegraph. “Mani” Subramaniam, like Ravi Shankar before him and a whole generation of Indian musicians since, have astutely discovered and experimented with a free format of interaction, a musical chit-chat, generously termed “global fusion” and found themselves performing on an international stage. Mani Subramaniam, a gifted classical violinist has improvised in a non-classical free format, linking “melodic and rhythmic structures” of the Indian music to the “harmony and counterpoint” of Western music. He has played alongside jazz greats like Herbie Hancock and Joe Sample; and with Yehudi Menuhin under the baton of Zubin Mehta. I understand that Subramaniam now lives in Los Angeles, not Madras.

I recall the 60s and early 70s experimentation in East Meets West musical formats between Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin. A climate of enormous goodwill and great musicianship on both sides enabled them to speak to each other musically, although their languages remained exclusive of each other. Much more daring and somewhat surrealistic was the reading of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs des Mal by Yvette Mimieaux, the golden girl of French Films to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s Sarod, a medley that is merely of historical interest now. The great and the famous musical egg-heads across a cultural and musical divide somehow felt compelled to perform on a single stage, but in disparate voices. Often these cross-cultural jam-sessions failed woefully. “Indo-Jazz”, a term that a gifted publicity man invented, has remained the most enduring of these syncretisms. It is as breath-taking as a headlong ski-run to hear Joe Harriot on the saxophone, John Meyer on the violin taking turns with a quintet of Indian instrumentalists on the flute, Veena and Sitar. They slide effortlessly from what is almost a classical fugue to haunting trad-jazz, intimations of the big band sounds, with the percussive tabla syncopating this anarchical but celebratory uproar.

Mid-January also saw international cricketer and playboy Imran Khan’s “public conversion to Islamic fundamentalism”, and reputedly heading for political high office in Pakistan. Wearing the “rough woollen cloaks of the Punjab” in place of designer suits, Imran’s conversion began after an epic walk with armed Afghan tribesman two years ago. In a long article in the Evening Standard of London on the 13 January, written with considerable sadness and irony, the British Labour M.P. George Galloway mourns the passing of Imran the lovable internationalist and the birth of a “holy warrior” who has repudiated all things Western. Galloway says that Imran has “perhaps inadvertently walked into this dangerous precinct” and he concludes that “he might merely be a lipstick on the ugly face of another dictatorship”.

The Independent (a non-partisan broadsheet going through a fall in circulation and just saved from a certain closure by a Mirror Group Newspapers investment) has written a leader about the embattled Hare Krishna temple in the midst of a sleepy English hamlet. The original planning permission for this temple was obtained for a “theological college” for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in 1973. The temple now attracts thousands of Hindus seasonally six times a year during religious festivities. The village of Letchmore Heath is naturally outraged, says the Independent. The local Authority is considering an extension of planning permission and a proposal by the temple for an imaginative scheme to build their own road to the nearest highway, bypassing the village altogether. The leader says that at best the planning law is an obtuse instrument, but this “very obtuseness also suits it to the English tradition of compromise and the Hindu tradition of syncretism.” The cautionary conclusion is that a win for the temple would be a warning to other sleepy villages of England not to be as tolerant as Letchmore Heath.

I have just missed the “Festival of Films” of Yavar Abbas organized by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London. Yavar Abbas the film maker is riding high on critical approval from the late Satyajit Ray (who liked “the truth of observation and its sincerity”) and universal praise from the British and European cine-culture aesthetes who write in influential papers. Abbas’s India, My India and Mother Ganges have been called variously: “beautiful and human”; “ravishingly beautiful” and as “real-life” films portraying India from within. I also understand that Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, once the bastion of K.M.Munshi and Leela Munshi, the legendary political duo and Hindu revivalists of the Nehru era, has been active here for decades. I still recall reading Bhavan’s Journal alongside copies of Time and the Reader’s Digest in my youth and being strangely drawn to a much heralded “new dawn” of Vedic and Puranic Hinduism.

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1996

Writers of theIndian Diaspora

 

I have been reading an extraordinary critique of Asian writers in English by a group of literary academics. The book, Writers of the Indian Diaspora attempts appraisals of the works of 58 writers, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, although the Indian diaspora takes in Asians from far-flung places like Fiji, the West Indies, Africa, Europe and America. There are several surprises. The only writer born in the 19th century and still living and writing, in Oxford, is Nirad Chaudhuri. Represented alongside are writers of undoubted literary sensibilities, but minor writers. The central theme is the assumption that as members of the Indian diaspora, we all share the same “diasporic consciousness”.  The editor Emmannuel S. Nelson has been tracking these and other writers for a decade, in search of the “shared sensibility generated by a complex network of historical connections, spiritual affinities and cultural memories”, all of which manifest as a thematic consistency in the works of these writers.

The other interesting fact to emerge is how the North American universities have provided a safe harbour and financial shelter for a number of these writers. Raja Rao who is now 87, has continued to live in Austin,Texas, ever since his appointment at the University of Texas to teach Philosophy.  R.Parthasarathy, the poet who suffered from a wholesale disenchantment with England and all things British was rescued by such a placement in the USA. His bitter reaction against his infatuation with things English, expressed forcefully in his essay “Whoring After English Gods”, is now mellowed. He now lives and teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Zulfikar Ghose, the poet and novelist deserted England for the US in 1969 for a teaching job at the University of Texas. He has been hugely prolific with half a dozen works of fiction and several collections of poetry. Several others have scaled the literary academia, paradoxically to teach creative writing to American students at several US universities, like Padma Hejmadi, Bharati  Mukherjee, Mena Alexander and several others. I was some what surprised to find that Shankar Menon Marath, now 89 and living and still writing in England has been missed, as he would have exemplified the “diasporic consciousness” more fully than most included in this otherwise excellent work. Some of the other familiar names included are Kamala Markhandeya, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghose, Prafulla Mohanti, Rustom Cowasjee, Dom Moraes, Farrukh Dhondy, V.S. and Shiva Naipaul. Omissions like Adil Jussawalla, one of the finest poets who lived and wrote in England for over a decade is glaring. Amit Chaudhury is another new generation novelist who has been missed. He lives and teaches at an Oxford College. His two novels An Afternoon Raag and A Sublime Address have had the highest critical praise heaped on them. I am currently reading these two wonderful books with increasing pleasure and astonishment, if only to discover how well-crafted and beautifully written they are. I am currently writing an appraisal of Amit Chaudhury’s work and hope to interview him on one of my periodic re-visits to Oxford.

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