Thursday, September 13, 2012

Passage To India: A South Asia Special

Arising as a consequence of recent peregrinations...


Gita Mehta – Karma Cola (1979)

No doubt in 1979 an important antidote to Western Orientalism about the 'inherent spirituality' of India, these days it reads like a string of snarky and clich├ęd anecdotes about the dubious aspects of spirituality in the context of East-meets-West globalisation.

William Dalrymple – The Age of Kali (1998)
White Mughals (2002)
The Last Mughal (2006)

Dalrymple is, of course, at heart a colonialist sympathiser – though not of the same unrepentant and black-and-white ilk of, say, a Niall Ferguson, he clearly sees the Raj (at least in the early days) as replete with heroic eccentric humanists (despite a few bad apples), and misses the 'order' and rule of law that he thinks India had under the later period of British rule. Yet he is a wonderful, oldfashioned storyteller and an engaging travel writer. The Age of Kali is a series of essays on various aspects of his reporting from India, some of which now seem a bit dated in their discussion of the unexpected juxtapositions of globalisation (reminiscent of Pico Iyer's Video Night In Kathmandu), but featuring some interesting political moments. Far more engrossing, however, are White Mughals and The Last Mughal – the former dealing with a marriage between the British representative in Hyderabad in the late 1700s to a Mughal princess, and the latter with Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, the Sepoy Rebellion and the siege of Delhi in the mid-1800s. Both are rich and tragic narratives, but for my money the latter is the pick – with its Emperor-esque (Kapuscinski) glimpses of the last days of the Mughal court and of important figures such as Ghalib, and its harrowing tales of the atrocities of the siege, tales which bring to mind J. G. Farrell's Siege of Krishnapur, but with the addition of the attempt to give various sides of the story (though sadly the perspective of the sepoys themselves, as opposed to the British and the Mughal court, is lacking).

Yasmin Khan – The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (2007)

I've long been interested in Partition from my perspective as a genocide studies scholar – and my personal interest in India, on the one hand due to childhood Orientalism and on the other as a Buddhist. Deciding on a specific book about Partition was difficult, but I settled on Khan's. Khan's work is not limited to high politics or the personalities of the leaders involved; she deals both with everyday experience, and with the specific context and events which happened in different areas. Particularly interesting is her analysis of the fluidity of meaning in terms and concepts like swaraj ('self-rule') or 'Pakistan,' and the outcome of this indeterminateness in terms of human suffering. There is a strong sense of the contingency of the fact that partition happened at all. Khan consciously tries to extend analysis beyond the Punjab, usually seen as the 'ground zero' of Partition or the 'place where Partition happened.' In tone and style, it's somewhere between an academic work and a work of popular history. Without having read other books specifically on Partition it's hard to judge what criticisms might be levelled – the kind which always exist around controversial events such as Partition – but for me this seemed like a thorough introduction which had no obvious agenda in relation to nationalism or religion, and which examined the complexities of the situation within a work of manageable length accessible to the non-specialist.

Katherine Boo – Behind The Beautiful Forevers (2012)

Boo tells a New Journalism-style story of Annawadi, a small slum near an airport, following a number of inhabitants. Boo's previous work had been related to quality journalism about poverty in the United States – here, she transfers this interest to Mumbai. Based on years of participant-observation and thorough examination of sources to corroborate her personal interviews and observations, the book is written in novelistic style, except for an afterword in which Boo speaks in her own voice. It's an interesting story, though at times the pace flags, and also an interesting exercise, but one which raises questions about the choice of presentation which are not addressed, reminiscent of those around works like Capote's In Cold Blood – doesn't the presence of the author change events, and shouldn't it be at least acknowledged in the text, rather than given from a 'God's eye view' with an inevitable whiff of colonialism? How are we to know that the claims made on the basis of interviews and documentary corroboration actually stand up if they are not even discussed? Nonetheless, it's a fascinating and admirable work.


Bhisham Sahni – Tamas ('Darkness,' 1974)

Sahni's is an emblematic work on Partition, and has been filmed for television (on 1986). The novel is a lightly fictionalised version of his personal experiences as a young man during the events depicted, in Rawalpinid in the Punjab (today, part of Pakistan). It's not an easy novel – not only because of the violence and trauma of the subject matter, but also because it reads as do accounts of real life events, episodic, and dealing with a plethora of characters. The voice is impersonal, the eye jaundiced, and the tale without redemption, as befits the events in question.

Aravind Adiga – The White Tiger (2008)
Last Man In Tower (2011)

Despite the Booker, I wasn't particularly impressed by White Tiger, a story of the entrepreneurial and murderous rise of village boy Balram Halwai – it was entertaining enough, but lacking urgency in its narrative, somewhat unsophisticated in terms of language (even taking into account the first-person narration), and a little too knowingly clever in tone. Last Man In Tower, however, is another thing altogether – an impressive and deeply moving story (set in Mumbai) of a lone hold-out who refuses to leave a crumbling apartment building to make way for a gleaming new tower block, and the fate that befalls him. Up there with the best of Rohinton Mistry. Speaking of whom…

Rohinton Mistry – Such A Long Journey (1991)
Family Matters (2002)

Unless and until he publishes further, A Fine Balance will remain Mistry's masterpiece. But his other works are not far behind. As with Mistry's other works, each deals with Parsi families – Such A Long Journey in Mumbai in the 70s, with the backdrop of Indira Gandhi's machinations and the war with Pakistan, while Family Matters is set in the same city 90s. Each display Mistry's talent for baroque Victorian narrative and observation of everyday detail intertwined with the bigger picture of Indian socio-politics. The former was withdrawn from the University of Mumbai's syllabus in 2010 after complaints from the family of Hindu nationalist politician Bal Thackeray – in typical fashion, reading the views experessed by characters as if they were expressed directly by the author.