'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Two Books and A Half

April 2012 has passed quietly. This blog is a year older. I am back.

1. Pankaj Mishra is easily the modern Indian writer I find the most interesting - my reasons are not very important. I recently read his first novel 'The Romantics'.

It is well-known the novel is a reworking and elaboration of his acclaimed early essay, 'Edmund Wilson in Banaras' - they share some characters and even descriptive passages, to the word. I have read the essay more than once and think it is both inspired and inspiring. The novel, for all its beautifully phrased and structured passages (some carried over from the essay, many freshly written), falls way short of that level (*)(indeed, for someone who has read the essay, the book comes thru as bordering on the superfluous). Perhaps just to ensure that the novel is not entirely autobiographical (the essay is), Mishra kills off Samar's mother upfront - and then uses the occasion to touch upon the macabre side of Hindu cremations ('breaking the skull' and stuff). Indeed, 'Romantics' often reminded me of a Calcutta-based scholar/critic's remark: "Mishra is a remarkably sophisticated writer. But I think he writes with an exclusively western audience in mind. His opinions and even observations have a deliberate anti-Hindu and sometimes even anti-India slant - a slant that sells well in the West." In the book, Samar-Mishra seldom misses an opportunity (and manufactures some) to emphasize that he has firmly put aside his Hindu background - for example, when he remembers the his apartment, Samar has to say that the wall niches where he used to keep his books had previously held "vermillion spattered idols of Krishna and Vishnu" (**)

Mishra's descriptions of rural India and Banaras are more often harsh and severe than lyrical - of course, there would be many who would say his landscapes are 'searingly honest and dispassionate'. Some passages in the book are reminiscent of Naipaul at his most acerbic: " (As we approached Banaras) it was now naked brick houses and messy electric wires and algae-covered ponds around which sat early morning defecators, gazing up meekly at the passing train.... a fresh stench after every twenty meters or so..." Gangetic Banaras receives slightly more sympathetic treatment - hopscotch squares on the waterfront, kites in the cloudless sky and pilgrims dressing and undressing... - but the place simply is far more visually interesting (indeed arresting) than Mishra portrays it(***). One gets a clear feeling that Mishra does not really love Banaras much (of course, there is no rule that anybody should!)

My overall take: Read 'Edmund Wilson in Banaras'. And if you still have time and could do with an extended helping of high-quality prose, read 'Romantics'. I really did not care much for the novel's themes, plot, situations. And practically everything about Rajesh, by far its most interesting character, is a straight lift from the essay. To put things differently, Mishraji's essay is a great aperitif but as main course, one had better go 'To the Finland Station' with Wilson himself; 'Romantics' is like an entire cupboard of the same aperitif.

2. Sometime in the early 1990's, Oxford Superdon Felipe Fernandez-Armesto wrote a global history tome 'Millennium' assuming the imaginary viewpoint of a troop of 'Galactic Museum-keepers' in the distant future, trying to set up a display on 'Planet Earth, Second Millennium after Christ' - what broad trends they would see in the last millennium's human story, what exhibits they would choose to highlight their inferences.... And it has just been proved that there is no need to wait until a Galactic civilization decides to get interested in what we have wrought on this planet - such Museum-keepers are already very much with us. Neil McGregor and his colleagues at British Museum have come up with 'A History of the World in 100 objects'. Choosing 100 exhibits, all from the British Museum collection, McGregor has put together a maginificent one-volume work which handily beats not only 'Millennium', but every other global history book I have seen - Toynbee's meditation on Civilizations, Jared Diamond's immensely interesting but somewhat-marred-by-prolixity 'Guns Germs and Steel'...

'100 Objects' has flaws: it sometimes overdoes the political correctness. And its opinions on India are too bland and goody-goody (and the book ends up repeatedly quoting Amartya Sen to the exclusion of better-informed Desi and other commentators)-this is a surprise because the author has shown remarkable boldness in many other areas - for example, when choosing objects to trace the history of sexual mores.

An early-bird desi reviewer had gone ballistic on 'Guns...' and signed off with: "beg, borrow, steal it but read it!". I certainly won't recommend any of his approaches to '100 Objects' - including 'borrow'. Just possess it (I have been lucky on that front since I was gifted one)!

2.5. The 'half' up there comes from an on-going re-reading of 'Govardhante Yatrakal' by Keralan writer-intellectual Anand - am revisiting the book after a gap of fifteen years. A brief passage from this work, which I feel has had a strong influence on 'The Loop':

Humayun and his brother Kamran came upon an overgrown burial ground. They saw a stray-dog peeing on one of the gravestones. Kamran said: "Whoever sleeps there must have been a God-denier". Humayun answered: "And that dog must be possessed by the spirit of a fundamentalist!"


(*) in a very Bollywood sense, the book too is inspired, the source of inspiration being 'Edmund Wilson in Benaras'

(**) Some of Mishraji's recent political statements are more tellingly illustrative of his standpoint: "Bombay has ... an aggressively selfish Hindu middle class, a resentful minority of Muslims, an omnipresent mafia, religious fanatics, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats..."

If he had said the same thing about Ahmedabad, he would have been a lot closer to truth. But Bombay, well... ! At least a third of the Bombay middle-class can't care less about Hinduism. The Middle-class apart, everyone in Bombay belongs to some resentful Minority or other but only about a third of this vast and deeply fractured Human mass is Muslim. And let us not even get into the mafia etc.

In Anna Hazare, Mishra sees a "barely disguised Hindu chauvinism": - " He was ready, (Anna claimed), to go to war with Pakistan in order to maintain the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir as an “integral” part of India."

IMHO, Mishra here (deliberately?) conflates naive nationalism with religious fanaticism. The former, while no virtue, is by far the lesser evil. And I wonder how just by being Muslim-majority, Kashmir could have difficulties in being an integral part of India. And what makes me really uncomfortable is that, while opposing the undisputably bad chauvinisms, Mishraji often ends up implying 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' (and sometimes even 'Hindu' and 'Secular') are somehow antonyms to each other; he really sounds more BBC than BBC itself!

(***) Satyajit Ray's judgement: "Venice is as photogenic as Banaras!" might shock many but it carries all the weight of his wonderfully shot 'Aparajito'.


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