Monday, May 7, 2012

Enlightened Path: Rabindranath

Even though his 150 birth anniversary has been celebrated with much fanfare by the government, seven decades after his death, Rabindranath Thakur’s legacy seems largely restricted to Bengal. Even in Bengal, as well as in Bangladesh, his chief legacy seems to be his songs. In reality, Rabindranath(1861-1941), the greatest flower of Bengal Renaissance, defined much that is modern in Indian cultural life.

Born in a wealthy and aristocratic Bengali family, he was home tutored and taught music from an early age. His grandfather Dwarkanath - a self-made businessman - was the richest Indian of his time. His father Debendranath was the leader of Brahmo Samaj. His eldest brother Satyendranath was the first Indian ICS officer. All his family members were deeply immersed in cultural activities. Women of Thakurbari were also equally accomplished and trendsetters in various fields. His elder sister Swarnakumari was probably the first Indian woman novelist. Writing poetry from an early age, Rabindranath ushered in a romantic classical age in Bengali literature single-handedly. The language he crafted was a modern one, compared to the heavily Sanskrit-influenced Bengali of earlier generation. Deep humanism, love for nature and philosophical content lent a magical quality to his poetry. A prolific writer and musician, he wrote and set to tune more than 2200 songs, which are known today as Rabindrasangeet.

Apart from poems and songs, he wrote numerous essays (which established modern Bengali language as a powerful medium of expression), eight novels and four novellas, including Chaturanga, Chokher Bali and Ghare Baire. He was the first author to write proper short stories in Bengali – it was in his short stories that he introduced everyday language (chalit bhasha) for the first time instead of formal sadhu bhasha. Throughout his life, he experimented with forms and style – Chaturanga was the first Indian psychological novel, where action takes place in the minds of characters. He wrote and acted in a series of plays and dance-drama. It was the participation of Thakur family members in open theatre, which brought respect to Indian theatre for the first time and also its acceptability for the middle class audience. After experimenting with different metres, he was the first Bengali poet to write free verses when he was well past sixty. In his last novel Sesher Kabita – published in 1929 when he was nearly 70 – he criticizes his own past works as conservative and advocates romantic love without any societal restraint.
It was mainly due to his efforts that men and women from middle class households started participating in dance performances and classical dance was elevated to the pedestal of high art. Manipuri classical dance form was revived and popularized from Shantiniketan. It was his vision of global friendship, which found expression in Viswa Bharati University at Shantiniketan. Here, along with the best of western and oriental civilizations, he nurtured the best of Indian minds too – one of the first Bhavans(Schools) to be set up at Shantiniketan was the Hindi Bhavan, where the first director was Hazari Prasad Dwivedi.

In late 1920s, Rabindranath along with Amrita Shergil heralded modernism in Indian painting.  It is amazing that he formally started painting and held his first exhibition when he was more than sixty years old. It was even more amazing to know that he was partially colour blind. His genius extended to calligraphy (his Bengali handwriting, widely copied at that time – set the standard for future generations) and architecture (he designed the buildings at Shantiniketan himself). He also set up a school for agriculture and rural development at Shantiniketan with an American teacher. The only field of artistic expression, where his genius failed was cinema – his lone attempt at direction Natir Puja - was nothing but a stage drama, captured in celluloid.

His serene personality, versatility as an artist, deep philosophical nature of his poetry and his elegant appearance made him look like an Eastern sage to romantic Western intellectuals. But after 1920, in World War ravaged Europe, such messages of peace and romantic idealism lost significance. Also poor quality of his own English translation has often been blamed for his waning appeal in the West.

Rabindranath in Hungary, on his side close friends Prashanta and Rani Mahalanobis
But the picture was quite different in Asia. In 1913, when he became the first Asian to win Noble Prize, it was a moment of proud acknowledgment for Asian culture. It is well known that he composed national anthems of both India and Bangladesh. Ananda Samarakoon, who wrote the Sri Lankan national anthem – was a student of VIswa Bharati. The song(Namo Namo Matha) itself was deeply influenced by Rabindranath. Rabindranath visited Sri Lanka thrice and was a major inspiration behind Sri Lankan cultural renaissance. Samarakoon, influenced by Rabindra Sangeet, pioneered a new form of artistic Sinhala music.
Rabindranath visited China in 1924 and was deeply influenced by Chinese culture, which led to the establishment of the Cheena Bhavan at Shantiniketan. His visit has been described as a great event in modern Chinese cultural history. He remains the most widely read Indian author in China even today. He took a cultural delegation with him when he visited South-East Asia. It was this team of artists, linguists and writers, who re-discovered the close cultural connection between India and the region. They brought with them batik printing, South-East Asian paintings and handicrafts and rediscovered the Buddhist connection. Despite repeated invitations, Rabindranath failed to visit Korea but wrote a famous four line poem called Eastern Light, celebrating the Korean Civilization. In Korea, which was then under Japanese occupation, this became a rallying point for Korean intellectuals to believe in their own culture. Even today this poem is part of South Korean school syllabus, highlighting the immense significance of Rabindranath in Korean cultural history.

But for Rabindranath, the most important country was Japan, which he visited four times. Interaction between him and the famous Japanese artist Okakura in Calcutta in the early twentieth century inaugurated the Indo-Japan relations in modern times. Rabindranath was hailed as a symbol of rising Asia in Japan and was every time accorded warmest welcome. His stringent criticism of rabid nationalism compelled Japanese intellectuals in turn to criticize him and begin their own introspection. Japanese culture left an indelible imprint in Rabindranath’s mind – he started writing short poems in Japanese fashion (haiku) and introduced in Shantiniketan, Japanese style ink and wash paintings, flower-designing (Ikebana), marshal art (Jujutsu) and carpentry with Japanese teachers.

At the age of 12, he got to travel for the first time as his father took him to the Himalayas. Since then, he was an intrepid traveler till almost the end. Apart from his extensive travel within the country, he went to more than 30 countries in five continents. He travelled to Europe and USA a number of times. In 1930, he travelled to Russia and wrote a series of insightful letters, later collected as Russiar Chitthi, providing one of the first glimpses of Soviet systems to Indian readers. Even at his death-bed in 1941, he wanted to know details about the Second World War and prophesied that the Russians would defeat the German demons. Already widely translated and popular in Spanish, Rabindranath went to Latin America at the invitation of the Peruvian government. But due to illness he had to stop at Buenos Aires and came back after a prolonged stay there. He had a deep impact on later day writers like Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz.

Ami chini go chini tomai, ogo bideshini: With Victoria Ocampo at Buenos Aires
Perhaps his biggest contribution was to give confidence to a subjugated country in its own culture by claiming its rightful position in the world. Today as India once again strives to reach out to the world; it is high time that we re-discover our greatest cultural icon and his global legacy.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Smoke Without Fire

It is difficult to watch the fall of your hero. I have been a devoted fan of Amitav Ghosh for long and until recently it has been an immensely satisfactory voyage with him. As an erudite novelist he reached a certain creative height with The Glass Palace (2000) and then continued to enthrall us with The Hungry Tide (2005) and Sea of Poppies (2008). But River of Smoke – his latest and the second book in his promised Ibis trilogy after Sea of Poppies – is an absolute disaster.
Sea of Poppies traces the journey of opium from the poppy fields of a remote village in North India to Calcutta via the famous Ghazipur Opium factory. There is a rich cast of characters starting with unfortunate but strong-willed house wife Deeti. She escapes from immolation at her husband’s funeral pyre with the help of a lower caste man, Kalua. Fear of persecution forced the couple to run away and finally sign up as indentured labourers bound for plantations in faraway Mauritius. They reach Calcutta to board Ibis, commanded by a black American, Zachary Reid or malum zikri to his crew – who is fighting his own battle for identity. Then there is the former Raja (actually a large zamindar) of Rashkhali, Neel Rattan Halder. Accused of forgery, Neel has been sentenced to indentured labour in Mauritius. He is joined in the prison cell of Ibis by a half-Chinese, half-Parsi Ah Fatt. We meet evangelist opium trader Benjamin Burnham and his colourful agent Babu Nobokissen. Burnham is also the man behind the sham trial of Neel. Then there is the orphaned daughter of a French botanist, Paulette and her Bengali brother Jodu. Midway through the voyage, Ibis faces a severe cyclonic storm. When the storm subsides it comes to light that Kalua (who was accused of some misdemeanour and made a prisoner onboard), Neel, Ah Fatt and Jodu are missing along with some of the crew members.
At the beginning of River of Smoke, we find an ageing matriarch Deeti presiding over her brood in a trip to her “temple of memory” in some corner of Mauritius, where every significant incident and character of her life have been drawn in charcoal sketches. After this till the very end, where she makes a brief re-entry, there is no trace of Deeti or for that matter, other passengers of Ibis. But the reader stumbles here at the very beginning itself – the author empties out entire Hobson-Jobson on the hapless reader and then garnishes it further with Creole and patois.
The real story of River of Smoke is actually that of a Parsi merchant, Bahram Modi, father of Ah Fatt. Bahram, poor son-in-law of an illustrious family has now risen to become the pre-eminent Parsi merchant in China trade. His ship Anahita is handcrafted by his father-in-law, the leading ship-builder of Bombay – here is a side story clearly inspired by the real life story of famous Wadia master-builders of Mazagaon (today’s Bombay Dyeing family). Anahita in this journey is carrying the largest ever opium consignment from Bombay to Canton. After much trial and tribulations, Bahram manages to meet his son Ah Fatt in Singapore, learns about the unfortunate death of his Chinese “wife”, takes Neel as his new Munshi and reaches Canton. Paulette is the only other passenger of Ibis to feature in the main narrative. She manages to get a botanist’s job on board another ship Redruth, which is also headed towards China but its aim is limited to botanical diplomacy. Finally the story reaches an amazing place called Fanqui town on the riverbank of Canton – it is actually a very small enclave of foreign merchants, which over time has built up its unique and vibrant business culture and social custom.
In Ghosh’s writing, Fanqui town comes alive in all its vivid hues and sing-song pidgin language. This is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the novel. The narrative is set against the growing tension between foreign opium merchants on one hand and the Chinese authorities on the other – this would soon lead to the first Opium War. Dark clouds of that impending disaster hang ominously over the Pearl River as we get to see the world of Fanqui town through the eyes of Bahram, Neel and Robin Chinnery, a bastard son of a famous British painter. The book ends with the death of Bahram after all the opium consignments are seized by the Chinese authorities and burnt.
But the book as a whole implodes – crumbling under the weight of Ghosh’s formidable scholarship on every possible subject, from botany to Parsi religious practices, from minute aspects of dress design to ingredients of Chinese cooking. So far in most of his novels, his research has added depth to his narrative but not overshadowed it. Here he loses the balance completely. The other major problem is of course language. In his previous book also, there was a fair bit of laskars’ language – spoken by the mixed crew in ships in and around India-South East Asia. Here in addition he uses pidgin, Creole and patois and then totally unnecessarily writes a large number of Hindustani/Bengali words in strange spelling, which even an Indian reader would struggle with. A fatal combination of over-information and jerky language completely saps the reader’s energy.
Amitav Ghosh has been a master story-teller but here he finds an exotic backdrop, does more than adequate research and then forgets that he is writing a novel and not a work of non-fiction. With the sole exception of Bahram other characters are not properly developed. Even in case of Bahram, one gets the feeling that extraneous details like the geography of Singapore or his chance meeting with Napoleon assume more importance than the character itself. Not only other characters are neglected, worst still at times you do not even know why they are there and what is the story. He undermines his own power as a narrator by employing an amateurish technique of story-telling through (lengthy and at times downright silly) letters from Robin to Paulette.
It is not like a typical second book in a trilogy, where often the story meanders through to build an appropriate climax for the final book because here the deviation is so much that it deserves to be treated more as a stand-alone novel rather than a sequel of Sea of Poppies. No writer can stay at the zenith of his creativity forever. Yet this fall of Amitav Ghosh is more difficult to bear because such basic flaws should have been apparent to him and his editor. Were these overlooked because of demands of deadline and market forces? I am also dismayed to find that most of the reviews published in well known newspapers and magazines do not actually tear it apart – when the author’s brand name becomes bigger than his creativity then it is a serious loss for literature.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Life and Times of Thomas Cromwell

In the Living Hall of the Frick Collection in New York, on both sides of a fireplace one would encounter portraits of Thomas Cromwell and his arch enemy, Sir Thomas More (both by the same painter, Hans Holbien). Pictures speak for themselves – often more effectively than a thousand words – Cromwell in this portrait looks like a big built menacing man (a murderer, someone says in the novel) and More, a gentle, always politically correct sort of a minister. Hillary Mantel tries to change this general impression to a large extent in her novel, Wolf Hall. But for me, this book starts with a completely different picture – in our class room in Presidency College, there was a framed map of London painted on cloth. For me the most uninteresting paper of our History syllabus was Tudor and Stuart England – only saving grace was that my favourite teacher used to teach the Tudor part. For once I was reading history only with the aim of clearing the exam and honestly even today I know next to nothing about the Stuart period and the Civil War. Even for the Tudor period, I don’t remember reading anything but SC’s notes and Elton. I encountered Master Thomas Cromwell for the first time in that classroom. 

Thomas More                              Thomas Cromwell

It was Elton, who for the first time portrayed Cromwell as the man behind the Tudor Revolution in Government, who not only liquidated the Catholic Church but also founded a modern bureaucratic structure and injected a spirit of modernism in the English political system. However a number of historians have differed with Elton on the exact role played by Cromwell in Tudor Revolution. In this Booker Prize-winning novel, Hillary Mantel draws a most sympathetic portrait of Thomas Cromwell – a crafty lawyer and negotiator, maverick financier, reliable friend and a smooth talker; a person, who could be trusted under any circumstances to deliver – Cromwell is an absolute hero here.
The book starts with a dramatic description of young Thomas being beaten up by his rogue father Walter, a blacksmith. Then we find lawyer Cromwell aged around 35-40, at the service of Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor of England. In flashbacks, we learn about his exploits in the Continent, where he fought for the French, worked in a Florentine bank, gained knowledge about textile trade in different cities of Italy and the Low Countries and made love to a lady named Anslema in faraway Cyprus. Cromwell survives the loss of his beloved wife Liz Wykys and young daughters and then the fall of his mentor, Wolsey but rises to become the top adviser of Henry VIII.
Henry, without a legitimate male heir from his queen Catherine of Aragon, is desperately seeking a decree of divorce from the Pope, so he can marry Anne Boleyn. Pope under the protection of the Emperor simply cannot do anything to harm the interest of Catherine, who is Emperor’s aunt. To establish their case, both the sides argue on finer points of Christian law as well as minute biological details (Catherine was earlier married to Henry’s elder brother Arthur, who died shortly after marriage, if it could be proved that Arthur and Katherine had sex then even after 15 years as man and wife, Henry’s marriage to Catherine could be still nullified!!). Hidden behind this volatile admixture of marriage and diplomacy is a struggle for enormous resources controlled by the Church in England – questions are raised, why every year so much revenue should flow out from England to Rome?
Brilliant Wolsey failed to secure the divorce and fell out of favour. Same thing happened with his successor Sir Thomas More. Cromwell, who broke almost all the rigid rules of English Upper Crust in his rise to power, rides roughshod over Parliament, ignores Pope and secures Henry’s marriage to Anne. He also improves Henry’s finances to make him a wealthy King, almost at par with King Francois, if not the Emperor. And much of this wealth comes from dissolution of the monasteries. Cromwell is hated by Catholic clergy, who is not only forced to give up their resources but also to swear allegiance to the King as the head of Church of England instead of Rome. Though Anne fails to produce a male heir, Cromwell cements his position as the second most important person in England. The novel ends with Cromwell at the height of his power - he drafts all the legislations, is in charge of King’s finances and occupies an unprecedented position of Vice-regent in matters related to Church.
Through its 650 pages of dense prose, this story unfolds almost like a movie - such is her gift of storytelling and eye for details. You can almost visualize its rich cast of Kings and queens, Lords and soldiers, poets, artists and diplomats as they move in circles around the absolute hero, Cromwell. In so many places, Cromwell is simply “he” – even at times creating confusion about who says what – such is the centrality of Cromwell in the narrative. It is questionable whether in real life Cromwell was so central to the events, which were later to be described as Tudor Revolution. Cromwell’s home at Austin Friars comes alive with its medley of characters and the same is true about the royal court. Main characters are drawn with close attentions even though questions can be raised about the qualities she bestows upon some of them – apart from Cromwell and More, I do find it difficult to accept Henry as such a humane character. Henricus Rex, the King, who kills or causes death to almost all his main advisors (starting with his father’s advisors Empson and Dudley, immediately after accession; Wolsey –dies of illness after being thrown out and humiliated; More and later even Cromwell - it falls beyond the timeline of the book) and wives, including Anne Boleyn – it is difficult to accept him as such a warm person as seen in his visit to Austin Friars. Though it manages to catch the spirit of a pre-modern state in the first half of the 16th century, the book fails to capture the big picture of history. A reader without any background of Tudor History will not have an idea about the greatness of diplomat Wolsey or the significance of the historical context of Reformation against which the rich cast of Wolf Hall plays out their parts.
It is also a deeply psychological novel and Hillary Mantel explores the depth of human nature with a practiced ease. In so many ways this novel poignantly fleshes out the main characters of the Tudor Revolution that it actually complements our reading of Geoffrey Elton. And it goes to her credit that even after 650 pages, almost every reader is now looking forward to her sequel on Cromwell.
I have never gone back to either Elton or to Tudor history once my Part II exams were over. In a remarkable coincidence, a day after I started reading Wolf Hall, I happened to meet SC and asked him whether he has read the book. He was surprised and told me that he has also just started reading it. While reading the book, so many times I remembered a particular event or the significance of it – the way SC had described it and compared it with the novel. So many times (like the dissolution of monasteries), I distinctly felt that Mantel has not done justice to the event and similarly so many times I felt elated in discovering something significant, which either I did not know or had completely forgotten. We did not have internet to complement our readings and class notes. I am sure this book will someday be turned into a wonderful movie and that will help the students even more, but I am not sure whether future students will have such astonishing teachers. My gratitude to Hillary Mantel for bringing back those wonderful memories. I wish just for once I could go back to that room with large windows and the map of London on the wall and listen to SC’s analysis of Wolf Hall and Elton.

Friday, June 10, 2011


It is perhaps double blasphemy – for someone born in the land of Rabindranath-Jibanananda, my favourite poem is in English and then secondly, it is not written by any of the great Romantic poets. Well, if you have seen the Clint Eastwood produced movie Invictus (2009), then you will instantly know the power of poetry. Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) - who famously recited this poem to his fellow prisoners in Robben Island in real life - inspires South African Rugby team captain (Matt Damon) in the movie by repeatedly referring to this poem. Again in real life, after meeting with Mandela, an inspired post-apartheid racially mixed South African Rugby team – underdog for the tournament – finally went on to win the 2005 World Cup. For more than a century now, this poem has inspired millions across the world to live and fight on.
Even for those familiar with the poem, the name William Ernest Henley fails to ring a bell. Henley (1849-1903) was an English poet, writer, editor and critic. He was well known in contemporary literary circle and counted Robert Louis Stevenson as one of his close friends. Along with collections of poems, he also published at least three plays co-written with Stevenson. But it was this single poem – Invictus, which made William Ernest Henley immortal.
Affected by bone tuberculosis at the age of 12, Henley had a difficult life. He had to spend long years in hospital and one of his legs had to be amputated. Later on, when doctors suggested his second leg also should be surgically removed, he refused to do so and sought the advice of Joseph Lister. Lister, pioneer of anti-septic surgery (Listerine is named after him) treated him well enough not only to save his leg but to allow him to lead an almost normal life for nearly three decades after that. Henley’s sickly daughter Margaret, who died at the age of 5, was immortalized as Wendy in J M Barrie’s Peter Pan (she used to call Barrie fwendy-wendy).
This poem, written in hospital, was published for the first time in 1875 without any title in a book simply called Book of Verses. When it was compiled in Oxford Book of English Verses in 1902, Arthur Quiller-Couch gave it the present title. Invictus in Latin means Unconquerable.
A piece of literature becomes a favourite when you can either identify with the sentiments expressed or get inspiration from it. For most of us in a moment of utter despair, Invictus helps to steel ourselves and tells us to carry on.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Other Side of Jasmine Revolution

Reading an outstanding work of fiction about a country in turmoil adds many more layers to it. I just finished reading Libyan author Hisham Matar’s debut novel In the Country of Men as we watched more bombing of Libyan targets by allied forces and continuous unfolding of a tragedy in this North African country. Jasmine Revolution might sound very romantic in newspaper headline but hidden behind that are stories of brutal autocratic regimes and innumerable human tragedies, which have hardly travelled to the outside world.

As you read through the book, it is difficult to accept that it is a debut novel – he tells a touching story in such a simple yet elegant prose. The story of a blazing hot summer in Tripoli in 1979 is seen through the 9 year old boy Suleiman and narrated by his older self. In between playing with his neighbourhood friends and discovering the joy of eating Mulberries, Suleiman discovers a world of grown ups, where things do not exactly add up. He is sure he has seen his father in the centre of the city, when he is supposed to be abroad. His father and his friends and colleagues are political dissidents, who aspire to throw the Qadafi regime out. His father’s political activities take a toll on his mother. Whenever Suleiman’s father is away, his mother gets into chain smoking and drinking. And not only that, in her depression, she blurts out her story to the 9 year old boy – as a 14 year old girl how she was hastily married off by her family, including her well educated brothers. Her crime – she was sharing coffee with a boy of same age in an Italian café. As her dreams came crushing under a very different authoritarian rule, young and beautiful Najwa worries about her husband and finds her world in her boy even though in her drunken narrative her husband is described as the punisher chosen by her family and her son as the one, whose arrival “sealed her faith”.

Soon there is a crackdown. Nameless men of Secret Service appear on Suleiman’s locality – Mulberry Street. Father of his best friend and next door neighbour Kareem is picked up, tortured and seen confessing under duress on national television. Soon he is hanged in a stadium in full public view and the execution is broadcast live on television. But he refuses to divulge the name of Fayaz – Suleiman’s father. Suleiman’s father goes missing and his associates are also in grave danger. In Mulberry Street, a shadow falls even on the games innocent children play. Instead of standing with Kareem, Suleiman ends up spilling his secret and losing his best friend. Suleiman’s father comes back but pays a price heavier than death. And soon Suleiman is sent away to Egypt for good. The story is told by a 24 year old Suleinman, working as a pharmacist in Cairo as he waits for his mother to arrive after his father passes away.

Hisham Matar was born in New York in 1970. His father was a Libyan diplomat but after they returned to Tripoli his father was persecuted for his political views, forcing the family to flee to Egypt. Hisham grew up in Egypt and is settled in London for many years now. The book however by no means is an autobiography. There is often a very thin line between real life and fiction. Hisham Matar is a very crafty writer, whose narration is powerful yet restrained. His description of even an execution is wonderfully nuanced. On the other hand when he describes Suleiman’s world of vivid imagination he paints pictures with his effortless words.

The best part of the book is perhaps the portrayal of Suleiman’s relationship with his mother Najwa. As the unbearable heat outside crushes their world inside, Suleiman runs to her arms in distress and joy, hoping everything would be all right in mother’s embrace. At the same time Suleiman worries about his mother, protects her and promises to unite her with that 14 year old boy in that Italian café, who perhaps would bring freedom to her. Hisham brings a rare poignancy in this relationship, which perhaps assumes more significance in the grim backdrop.

The real strength of this novel is how Hisham brings the human tragedy in Qadafi’s Libya alive even though he never talks about history or events as a news report. To a large extent the story is political in nature, yet the way it is told, adds a different dimension to the political tragedy and elevates it to a human one. He writes with great deal of maturity and sensitivity and invests a lot of true emotion in his main characters – Suleiman and Najwa.

In 1990, Hisham’s father Jaballa was kidnapped by Egyptian Secret Service and handed over to Libyan authorities. He remains untraceable till date. After many years Hisham’s family received two letters from his father informing them that he has been held captive in an infamous prison in Tripoli. Later on Hisham also received confirmation that his father was at least alive till 2002 – that simply meant to his family that he survived a massacre of political prisoners in 1996, when more than 1200 dissidents were killed in captivity. As the news of Libyan protests broke out a few months back, Hisham’s flat in London was converted into a make shift newsroom to channelize information flow. This coincided with the publication of his second novel Anatomy of a Disappearance in March this year. Hisham has however clarified that the book is not autobiographical in nature. Undoubtedly Hisham is a gifted writer and his ability to rise above his personal tragedy and write wonderful works of fiction is astonishing.

Western world for many decades ostracized Qadafi regime in Libya. In recent years, Western powers sought to reverse that and attempted to build bridges with Qadafi – resulting in among other things, dubious release of Lockerbie bombers in Britain and Berlusconi’s grand reception of Qadafi in Italy. As battle broke out on the streets of Tripoli and Bengazi - and Qadafi, as usual, did not hesitate to unleash his terror machine on innocent protesters - Western powers suddenly discovered a new morality and decided to launch aerial attacks against Qadafi’s forces. As news of more massacres come in from Mishrata and battle degenerates into a more painful stalemate on the roads of Bengazi, we feel like asking Kareem how he is coping with the tragedy – for the outside world, Hisham Matar has provided a human face to the tragedy called Libya.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Under The Biafran Sun

As a child, Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie lived in a house in the University town of Nsukka, where Chinua Achebe lived years before. I do not know how it looks like now but surely that house at Nsukka deserves to be declared something like a World Literature landmark. There should be a blue plaque in front of the house mentioning how the two of the most important novels ever written in English on colonial and post-colonial experiences of Nigeria were connected with that house.
Well, at a very young age (born 1977), Chimamanda has written an astonishing book called Half of a Yellow Sun. The novel is set in one of the most difficult periods of recent Nigerian history - the Biafran War (1967-70). It is a story of human fallibility and misery in a stark landscape of poverty, rampant corruption and post-colonial battle of identity-politics. There is a conscious effort to stay clear of big picture history, even though in its moving portrayal of the time and characters it does manage to capture the true horror of the period. Like her ideal Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda writes in a completely unsentimental tone; never, not even for once, taking sides. A long time after reading Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, what remains in our mind is a deeply moving story of how colonial invasion ravaged a traditional society. Almost in a similar way a long time after you finish Half of a Yellow Sun, what would remain in your mind is how all the post-colonial societies in Africa (to a large extent in Asia and Latin America as well) struggled with myriad fractured legacies of their colonial experience. There were only definite losers in that struggle and they were the millions of ordinary people across the continent.
Like many other present day African states, British Colonial administration fashioned a huge state of Nigeria out of many ethnic-linguistic-culturally diverse areas. After Nigeria became independent in 1960, like other newly independent countries, it struggled to strike a proper balance among the various institutions of Parliamentary democracy as well as among the major ethnic and regional groups. This resulted in two coups in 1966, first allegedly by Igbo officers, and then they were toppled by Hausa officers. This ultimately resulted in formation of a breakaway state in the Southeast called the Republic of Biafra in May 1967. For Igbos, Biafra represented realization of a cherished dream of equality and development. But they were ill-prepared to counter the onslaught of Nigerian Police action; soon Biafra was cut off from the rest of the world. After initial blitzkrieg, war degenerated into a stalemate plunging millions in the encircled territory in a humanitarian catastrophe. There were haunting images of dying children and unattended wounded soldiers in the Western media - but as the title of Ugwu’s book (in the novel) rightly notes - World Was Silent when We Were Dying. Finally the stalemate ended with the crushing of the rebels in 1970 – Nigeria was united again and there was not a single Igbo family, who did not lose their near and dear ones as well as their material possessions. Chinua Achebe worked as an ambassador for the Republic of Biafra and Chimamanda lost both her grandfathers in the War.
Against this backdrop, Chimamanda tells an essentially domestic story of love, infidelity and human compassion. The world is seen through the eyes of two completely dissimilar twin sisters of a rich Igbo businessman – beautiful Olanna and sharp-tongued plain Jane, Kainene. Just before their world of opulence and privilege falls apart, they choose completely different paths for themselves – Olanna settles for her “revolutionary” lover, mathematics professor Odenigbo and academics while pragmatic Kainene decides to join dad’s business and starts indulging an Englishman genuinely interested in Nigerian heritage, Richard Churchill (“no relation of Sir Winston”). Of course there is also the most delightful character of the book, teenager Ugwu – Odenigbo’s intelligent “houseboy”. The events of early and late sixties (ending with the fall of Biafra) are seen mainly through the eyes of Olanna, Richard and Ugwu with Kainene and Odenigbo reduced to supporting roles. After Olanna decides to leave the life of privilege in the capital for essentially middle-class life with Odenigbo, fate conspires with politics to take her down in rapid successions to the level of a helpless mother fighting with others just for a pouch of dry milk powder. Idealism comes completely undone in the face of terrible reality of war – Odenigbo takes refuge in alcohol and tries to avoid his infidelities from Olanna. At the end of the war, Olanna survives with both her husband and baby on her side but loses perhaps everything she stood for. Kainene goes missing even as the war was drawing to a close – but before that she comes across as a better survivor of the two sisters. Ugwu - the intelligent boy from a  poor  family and lucky to  find shelter with Odenigbo and Olanna - comes of age against this backdrop. We see a lot through his eyes – most importantly perhaps, we get to see the lost opportunities for millions of such young stars in Africa and how the dreams of a young nation were lost.
Chimamanda underlines the horrors of war and all associated human tragedies in a masterly restrained style. But this is also perhaps the biggest drawback of the book – her persistent silence about big picture history. She does not even once directly criticize the abysmal failure of the Biafran government or mention the fact that their revered head of state finally fled to safety in Ivory Coast leaving his hungry millions to die unprotected. Shying away from history perhaps fails to lift this novel to a true classic. On the other hand, her narrative skills are her greatest strength along with her power for intimate portraiture –most evident in the case of Olanna, Kainene and Ugwu. Even minor characters like Colonel Madu or Hausa Prince and Olanna’s former lover Mohammad or cooks or gardeners even Odenigbo’s mother are drawn with a few but beautiful strokes of her brush. But neither Richard Churchill as a sixties radical nor Odenigbo as a revolutionary mathematics professor appear very credible. One gets the feeling that insertion of Richard was somewhat artificial, allowing for a Western eye in the narrative. But the overall treatment of the story would have made it universal in any case so from that point of view it is difficult to justify such a Western eye.
I read her first book Purple Hibiscus, after I finished Half of a Yellow Sun. Her debut novel looks ordinary, but the other way of looking at it how much she has improved in such a short time span. Her great ability in portraying characters are visible in Purple Hibiscus also, but what was lacking was perhaps the experience of living life without which no one can write a great novel. In Half of a Yellow Sun, she also had a long cherished story to tell. Every great author announces his/her arrival on world stage with one extraordinary novel – for Chimamanda Half of a Yellow Sun is that book. We will definitely look forward to more outstanding works from such a talented young writer.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

 Everyone has got secrets. The challenge is how to dig them out.
I am talking about the world’s latest favourite pair in search of secrets – Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander. Well, I know I am at least one year late to write a review of the Millennium Trilogy. But I felt it is absolutely necessary to pay my respect to Froken Sallander, Kalle Blomkvist and above all to Herr Larsson.
Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, is a close shadow of Stieg Larsson in real life. He is the part owner and the lead journalist of the Millennium magazine. Single and single-minded in investigation, Blomkvist, called Kalle Blomkvist by many (after a famous character of a Swedish children’s book – Blomkvist himself does not like the name), shares a cozy relation with Editor-in-chief Erika Berger. Berger has an open marriage with an artist and for more than two decades – they met at the journalism school - Blomkvist and Berger have been lovers, business partners and best friends. Middle-aged Blomkvist is likeable but his habit of sleeping around in the middle of a dangerous investigation – James Bond style – is quite annoying at times. At the end of the third volume Blomkvist seems headed for a more settled relationship with an athletically beautiful police woman – aptly named – Monica Figuerola.
On the other hand Larsson’s real creativity comes out in drawing Lisbeth Salander – all of 40kgs and at 5 feet from the sea level – Salander packs an incredible punch. One of the best hackers in business, paranoid about her privacy and bisexual (her same sex partner Mirium Wu is another interesting package) – Salander provides the shock and awe treatment to the readers. Salander also has no inhibition in sex but at least she does not sleep around in the middle of an investigation (except, of course, with Blomkvist in the first book). Salander has a past, which is one of the central threads of the series and which also makes her determination admirable. But this 21st century - Modesty Blaise - meets - Charlie's angels keeps you hooked in the trilogy spanning nearly 2000 pages (the third book – at least the edition I read was double the size of a normal paperback, so therefore I am calculating around 2000 pages, otherwise all the books have around 500-600 pages each).
Larsson draws a supporting cast with wonderful eyes for details – so you can almost visualize the small staff of the Millennium magazine, office of Dragan Armansky’s Milton Security (where Salander used to work), Police Inspector Bublanski and of course Erika Berger. In the first story the small island of Hedestad comes alive in such a way that an alert reader could almost walk across the road and look around at various spots, where Harriet Vanger might have sat or walked on that fateful day more than 20 years back. As a crime fiction writer, Larsson’s greatest strength is giving out so much information and in such a neat fashion, yet holding it on till the last page (well, almost) and most importantly, a casual reader will not be able to find any contradictory or non-supportive piece of information anywhere in these massive tomes.
Millennium trilogy consists of three Blomkvist-Salander adventures - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Out of these three, the last two are actually the same story – last volume in fact starts from the precise point where the second volume gets over. If one looks at it closely then perhaps only the first one is a crime fiction, the other two being more like thrillers. In the first book, Blomkvist, discredited and sentenced to prison for defamation, heads to a small town with a curious assignment of finding out what happened on a day more than twenty years back when a girl from a prominent business family disappeared mysteriously. The way Blomkvist and Salander solves the crime is a wonderful piece of fictional detection. As I said earlier also as a detective writer Larsson puts up his best show in this book, yet there is one important weakness. At a crucial juncture in the story Blomkvist’s pre-teen daughter opens up her father’s eyes, thereby paving the way for a whole new perspective – this is one interjection Larsson could have avoided as it did not come into the story in a logical way. Second story (that is the second and third book) starts with the problem of human trafficking and prostitution rackets but soon catches up with Salander’s past. Both the books are pulsating thrillers but there are scenes where Larsson clearly goes overboard and makes it too unreal, particularly at the end of the second volume. It is in last two volumes that Larsson raises serious questions about the limit of a welfare state vis-à-vis notions of individual liberty. He also forces conscious readers to think about unfettered freedom intelligence agencies and such holy cows are often allowed to enjoy even in a democracy.
Of course these are the questions Stieg Larsson (15th Aug 1954 - 9th Nov, 2004) tried to grapple with all his adult life. Larsson, a journalist with TT Wire Agency, editor of Expo magazine, a leading science fiction fan and an expert on right wing movement died shortly after delivering three Salander manuscripts to his Swedish publisher. These are the stories he wrote for fun after his day’s work was done. A large part of the fourth novel was also found in his laptop after his death. He reportedly planned to write ten novels in this series. Larsson was a Trotskyist in his political belief (I thought in today’s world such categories exist only in Calcutta!), reportedly trained Eritrean Women guerrillas in the use of grenade launchers (in late 1970s) and spent years under police protection as his life was under threat from various neo-Nazi groups. At the age of 15, he was witness to gang rape of a girl named Lisbeth – he always blamed himself for not being able to help that girl. Since then he had been deeply concerned about atrocities against women. Overall, this is a very 21st century crime fiction/thriller series in terms of subjects, context and mentality. Like a true chartbuster all the spicy ingredients of a popular fiction are here. Still no one can deny Larsson the credit of putting it together as a unique crime series, despite obvious weaknesses of such a package.
Reading Salander and looking for more such stories I came to know a little bit about the Scandinavian crime fiction tradition, which has been thriving at least since the Second World War. Geography specific sub-categorization of crime fiction with their special characteristics is a theme, which never struck me before. We generally tend to put all crime fictions/thrillers we read in English under a general category making allowance only for individual writer but not in terms of geography (Nordic crime fiction or Canadian crime fiction). But Salander forced me to accept unconsciously that it is patently wrong to overlook the geo-tagging of crime fiction. What Larsson’s success has done – going by the storm in the web world – is to highlight the entire genre of Nordic crime fiction, which despite the success of Kurt Wallander and Inspector Norse never captured the imagination of global readership in such a way.
In a recent study of crime fictions – Imagination of the Evil – author Mary Evans looks for factors behind the setting of crime fictions. Cold climates of Scandinavia, sparse and mechanical lifestyle along with a typical Nordic tendency of holding on to your emotions create an altogether different context from the late nineteenth century cobbled gas-lit streets of London, where Sherlock Holmes used to operate. I have grown up reading a whole host of amiable bhadralok Bengali Goyendas (detectives) – who abhorred violence, guns and to a large extent tried to avoid the other sex. Sub-genre of Bengali crime fiction is not very well known outside Bengal but thanks to some good English translation, a lot of people are now aware of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda (often more a typical Bengali adda story than a serious crime fiction) and one TV series has made the best Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi (written by Sharadindu Bandopadhyay) famous to at least two generations of Indians. There are a number of others from Kiriti Roy to Kakababu – but all of them, now I realize, are someway typically Bengali in terms of imagination of the evil and tackling it.