Sunday, March 28, 2010


When I step through the doorway the earth is darkened
When I enter the lake the waves run away
And today when I joined the dance of the snowflakes
They turned to tears at the touch of my hand.

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Open Window

All night the leaves drift in through the window
Left open to hear the cicadas singing
To scatter like the ghosts of vanished friends
When the winds of morning are unfurled

- Hu Ming-Xiang

Friday, March 26, 2010

In Dubious Battle

or Why Arundhati Roy is a Waste of Space

The first thing that occurred to me, after I finished reading Arundhati Roy's article on the rebels in the Dantewada forest in Outlook (hat-tip: SB), was how fundamentally unconvincing the whole piece was [1]. This, it seems to me, is mostly Roy's fault. One page through the eight pages of the article it's pretty clear where Roy's sympathies lie, and those sympathies proceed to systematically undermine any credibility her article might have otherwise had.

The problem is not that Roy sympathizes with the cause of the rebels, even though that sympathy seems less about the specific problems of the people of Dantewada and more about Roy's own long-standing position against government / big business / institutions generally. The problem is that Roy seems incapable of admitting the slightest nuance into her support for the rebels. Hers in the unquestioning belief of the true zealot, and the blindness of her convictions renders her incapable of anything approaching intelligent analysis. Not only does Roy seem to enter Dantewada with an entirely uncritical perspective [2], when potential criticisms of the rebels do occur to her she provides her own justifications for their actions, without even bothering to put these criticisms to the people she is profiling. As a result, we learn what Roy thinks the rebels are thinking, rather than what they really are thinking. I can't think of a worse waste of journalistic access. The result is a piece so partisan as to be virtually propaganda.

Worse, when the rebels do tell her things, Roy seems happy to believe them without the slightest corroboration. It never seems to occur to her that there may be two sides to the stories she's being told, or that the rebels, may, in fact, be feeding her misinformation [3]. No effort is made to speak to anyone outside the rebel troops (like, say, villagers who are not part of the 'army'), nor does Roy ask any questions about how the operations of the rebels are financed, how their 'soldiers' are recruited, how decisions about attacks are made, etc. The irony here is that Roy is strident in declaring our need to be wary of official news reports about the Dantewada situation, yes she seems just as credulous when it comes to swallowing whatever she is told by the rebels.

A sense of irony, alas, is the other quality completely missing from Roy's report, a shocking omission for someone who used to write fiction. In one passage, Roy quotes a young rebel called Nilesh, describing his brother, who has become a Special Police Officer:

“He was very young,” Nilesh said, “he got an opportunity to run wild and hurt people and burn houses. He went crazy, did terrible things. Now he is stuck. He can never come back to the village. He will not be forgiven. He knows that.”

The irony, of course, is that the same description could be applied to Nilesh himself. He too is very young. He too has got an opportunity to run wild and hurt people. He too is (probably) stuck and will not be forgiven.

Again and again through the piece Roy speaks of the rebels as children, describing herself, at one point, as being "surrounded by these strange, beautiful children with their curious arsenal". Ironically, this only serves to discredit the rebels, because it raises serious questions about whether they know what they're doing. It does not, however, as Roy seems to think, make them seem less of a threat. I don't know about you, but personally I can think of few things more dangerous than sophisticated weaponry in the hands of angry children, and if that's what the rebels are (since that's what Roy seems to make them out to be) then we have even more reason to be afraid.

(I'm particularly bewildered by Roy's account of one Kamla, whose beautiful smile receives a lot of attention in the article. As though her having a beautiful smile somehow made her less violent or dangerous.)

The larger problem, I think, is that Roy's is a curiously binary world view, a world divided into good and evil, right and wrong. (Ironically, again, this is a world view shared by no one so closely as the erstwhile Bush administration that Roy claims to despise). Since government and big corporations are evil, it must follow that whoever opposes them, by whatever means, is good, and the means themselves justified. Roy's identification of the rebels with the 'people' is automatic and unswerving - it never occurs to her that there may be more than two sides to the conflict. What reason, after all, do we have to believe that the rebels represent the interests of the people of Dantewada? They claim to do so, certainly, but so does the government, and it's not clear to me that one claim is any more legitimate than the other. Terrorists everywhere are quick to claim the people's backing - are we to accept that the Taliban speaks for the Afghan people, that the Shining Path speaks for the people of Peru, that Al Qaeda speaks for Muslims everywhere? In each of these cases, the organization in question represents itself as the people's champion, yet there is considerable reason to believe that a significant majority of the people they claim to represent consider their ideas wrong-headed and their presence a source of fear. Just because the government and big corporations are evil and oppressive (and let's say, for the moment, that they are), doesn't mean the rebels aren't as well. Just because the government and big corporations don't have the people's best interests at heart, doesn't mean the rebels do.

Understand that I'm not saying that the rebels in Dantewada are like the Taliban or Al Qaeda. I'm saying that Roy's piece provides no evidence that they're not. Nothing in her report suggests that the rebels are legitimate representatives of their people's interests. On the contrary, I'm willing to bet that you could write a piece virtually identical to Roy's article about almost any terrorist organization in the world - they're all sure to have smiling, beautiful children as recruits.

I titled this post In Dubious Battle, because reading Roy's descriptions I was reminded of nothing so much as Milton's Pandemonium:

"that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur'd merit,
That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits arm'd
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd"

- Milton, Paradise Lost Book I

To recognize this is to remember that it is easy to romanticize rebellion, easy to cast the outsider as hero. If Roy's description of the Dantewada rebellion has an almost mythic quality (and it does - reading her description of the forest celebrations I found myself imagining Friar Tuck putting in an appearance, surrounded by men in Lincoln Green), it is because she sees it through red-tinted glasses (pun intended), and that is reason to be suspicious of the veracity of her account.

In her piece, Roy attempts to justify the rebel's actions on utilitarian grounds, arguing that it is the only solution available to the 'people' because all other avenues are bound to prove unsuccessful (even though it's unclear, from her account at least, whether all other avenues have, in this particular case, been tried).

Even if one were willing to accept that there were no other options, and that violence, in such a case, is justified, one is forced to ask - is violence really a solution? What, realistically, are the odds of the rebels winning? Are they significantly better than the odds of success from more peaceful means of protest? And in the meantime, are the people of Dantewada better or worse off than they would have been without the armed rebellion? Based purely on Roy's piece, it sounds to me like the rebels have only made things worse for the people of Dantewada. On the one hand, they have undermined the potential for widespread public support that a more peaceful movement that brought the plight of the Dantewada people to public attention may have enjoyed, and compromised the efforts of any and all activists trying to further the people's interests by other means [4]. On the other hand, they have made the tribal people fair game for those who are trying to oppress them / drive them out. Roy talks a lot about genocide and Salwa Judum, but could these atrocities really exist without the sceptre of the Maoists to provide them cover? It seems to me that the Salwa Judum needs the Maoists, and that by choosing the path of violence the rebels have played straight into the hands of the very interests that seek to destroy them. This is not to suggest that Salwa Judum's actions are justified, or that the rebels have brought this on themselves. It is only to say that if realpolitik be thy plea, as Roy's is here, then it is worth considering that the rebel's path leads, realistically, to a worse outcome for their alleged people than ever before.

(There is the separate question of whether, if the rebels did somehow miraculously succeed, this would actually result in empowerment of the people. Nothing in the history of communism suggests this would be true, but never mind.)

But of course, these ideas are largely Roy's own, and there is little evidence that they are shared by the rebels themselves. In fact, from Roy's account, there is little evidence of anything resembling a larger plan in the rebel's actions. For the most part, the rebels she talks to seem to be motivated by frustration catalyzed by a need for revenge. Reprisal, indeed, seems to be the dominant theme of the article, with the motif of 'they did something bad to us, so we did something bad to them' cropping up again and again (the question of what preceded the bad thing they did is, of course, never asked). These sort of childish (children again!) he-hit-me-first protestations hardly amount to a political philosophy, much less a political agenda. It seems a travesty to call these people Maoists, when from Roy's account they seem to have little idea who Mao was or what he believed in. And it seems misguided to think of this rebellion as a 'revolution' when there seems to be little evidence of a coherent end game or of strong visionary leadership.

What emerges from Roy's account, when you read beneath her naive and breathless paeans to the wonders of the forest and the beauty of the child soldiers, is a portrait of a splinter group of disenchanted people driven to embrace violence by frustration, anger and a thirst for revenge, all cloaked in trappings usurped from the Maoist playbook. What emerges is a portrait of children indoctrinated into a way of violence through the constant repetition of a litany of evils real and imagined, without any sense of the larger issues or the true history of the communist movement [5]. But most of all, what emerges is the portrait of a writer so in love with her own indignation that she's unable to ask even the basic questions that any reasonable adult would want to raise.

If you really want to learn about Maoist rebellions, watch Woody Allen's Bananas. You'll learn about as much there as you will from Roy's piece.

[1] I lie. The first thing that occurred to me was how much like the script for Avatar the whole thing sounded. But this was a close second.

[2] I have to wonder whether her being uncritical was a factor in her getting the kind of access she did.

[3] I mean seriously. If you were a rebel organization and a celebrity reporter from a major national news magazine was coming to do a cover story on you, wouldn't you manipulate every piece of information she got to make yourself look good and your enemy look bad?

[4] The other reason I titled this piece In Dubious Battle was in homage to Steinbeck's lovely novel of the same name, which deals with another group of communist workers trying to win rights for workers. Unlike the rebels, however, the means they employ do not involve using guns and explosives. Now there's a set of communist activists I'd wholeheartedly support.

[5] This is, of course, the modus operandi of terrorist organizations everywhere. It is, indeed, how Hindutva recruits its most violent followers. Take a close look at the footage of the Babri Masjid demolition and you're sure to find plenty of children with beautiful smiles.

Chang Hu

She Sings an Old Song

A lady of the palace these twenty years,
She has lived here a thousand miles from her home -
Yet ask her for this song and, with the first few words of it,
See how she tries to hold back her tears.


Of One in the Forbidden City

When the moonlight, reaching a tree by the gate,
Shows her a quiet bird on its nest,
She removes her jade hairpins and sits in the shadow
And puts out a flame where a moth was flying.

- Chang Hu (translated from the Chinese by Witter Bynner)

Cricket Poems?

Reading through Thayil's 60 Indian Poets anthology (on which more later), it suddenly occurred to me that I can't think of a single poem by an Indian poet about / involving cricket [1].

This is surprising because

a) We're supposed to be (and I would argue are) a nation obsessed with the damn game.

b) By way of contrast, I can think of several poems, and by fairly well-respected poets at that, that involve baseball

c) Though I'm not generally a fan of the game, I have to admit it has an almost ballet-like grace that should, logically, lend itself to poetry.

Are there poems out there about cricket that I've missed? Or is there a reason why nobody writes poems about cricket?

[1] On cricket poems more generally, I can do no better than direct you to the Minstrels theme: here, here, here, here and particularly here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Baby Steps

Chandrahas Choudhury's Arzee the Dwarf

[warning: some spoilers]

(The first in what may - or may not - become a series of posts about recent Indian Writing in English. Like there isn't enough of that around.)

There are many reasons to celebrate Chandrahas Choudhury's Arzee the Dwarf. First, unlike the vast majority of IWE novels I've read in recent years, this one is neither a thinly veiled recycling of the author's own life story, nor a lightly fictionalized attempt to tell the 'truth' about contemporary India. Instead, it is a genuine cut-from-whole-cloth exercise in fiction, one with no agenda other than what belongs to the novel: to tell a story, to develop characters, to bring a world to life.

Second, Chandrahas can write. A slight tendency to wax eloquent notwithstanding, the prose in Arzee fluctuates between the serviceable and the inspired, which by itself places the book head and shoulders above much of what - if, say, Penguin's First Proof series is any indicator (I just read First Proof 5, and thought it was quite bad) - is out there.

Third, Arzee is, in both plot and spirit, a comic enterprise, one that brings wry gusto and a lightness of touch to the shabby realities of its characters' lives. This is a surprise - I had expected something altogether more grim - and one that I am entirely grateful for. It would have been easy to turn the story of Arzee, a 28-year old dwarf burdened with gambling debts, impending unemployment and a broken heart, into a maudlin tale about suffering, disillusion and the resilience of hope. Instead, we get a spunky, upbeat narrative that hums along with almost Rabelaisian energy.

Most of all, though, Arzee is notable for its charm. Peopled with a cast of delightful characters - including Ranade, the ghostly stock-broker; Dashrath Tiwari, the philosophical cab-driver; Deepakbhai, the kind-hearted gangster; and Rajneesh Sharma, the sentimental seth - all orbiting around the book's magnetic protagonist, Arzee is a brisk and easy read, a glimpse into a fantasy world of crumbling movie-theaters and gleaming hair salons, where complication piles on comic complication, and disaster dances on the fringes, never seriously threatening harm. At its best, Arzee reads as though a R.K. Narayan novel had been transplanted from Malgudi to modern-day Mumbai, and was a little bewildered by the relocation.

Its best, however, is short-lived. Charming as the book is, and shot through with glimpses of true talent, Arzee is also, in many ways, a stunted and inadequate book. To begin with, there's the main character's annoying habit of incessantly breaking into internal soliloquy, as though hidden inside that dwarf body were the spirit of a character out of a Marlowe play. An example:

"So it's come to this," he mused, and his compacted body seemed to pulse with these stirrings. 'It's not the best result, but it's something, and something's better than nothing. Ha - that's what everybody always told me to believe, that something's better than nothing. They told me to be thankful that I wasn't blind, or orphaned, or jobless - that my only burden was to be small. They couldn't understand what this being small was like - it was only two words to them. But enough of crumbs! On the move! This sky's so low, I feel I could touch it with a jump. And even if I can't, I'm still going to be able to reach it in a little while, because now the room in the sky's all mine. I'll drag down the body-proud like beasts, like cattle, and leap right above them like a shooting star!'"

This sort of thing goes on, page after page. The first few times these monologues kick in, with their oh-so-obvious sentiments and their childish bombast, the effect is, admittedly, somewhat comic; but it isn't long before they start to jar. It isn't just that in these ramblings Arzee tends to run on and on, frequently repeating what the reader has already been told or has surmised, or that as records of an interior monologue these speeches (there is no other word for them) seem curiously artificial; it's also that the use of the technique itself is bewildering, since Chandrahas can, and frequently does, use indirect reports of Arzee's thoughts to good effect. It's almost as though, in trying to introduce us to Arzee's inner life, the writer found himself torn between first and third person narratives, and arrived at an unhappy compromise that does justice to neither.

And it isn't just in his own head that Arzee talks like this. Every now and then he launches into one of these monologues in the middle of a perfectly mundane conversation. Consider, for instance:

"It's not that, Deepakbhai. Even if my parents belonged to the same religion, Deepakbhai, I think I would find it hard to believe. Because...because faith in God also means faith in other human beings, Deepakbhai. It means faith in the system. That's what makes for a faith. a way dwarfhood is its own religion, Deepakbhai. If I don't belong in the world of normal people at other points, then why should I be with them when they turn to God? I won't - I'll be myself instead!"

This goes on for another half page, but you get the idea.

As a speech of Shakesperian self-awareness this is splendid [1]. As part of a casual conversation about religion with a gangster Arzee barely knows, it is bizarre. It isn't just that the words seem desperately out of context (though they do); it's also that they seem completely out of character. How does someone who shows so little self-awareness, such a complete lack of irony, as Arzee regularly does in his monologues to himself, suddenly come out with this kind of insight in the middle of an everyday exchange? And why, in a novel, with all the possibilities for exploring a character's inwardness that the form affords, does the author feel the need to stick this in the middle of a conversation?

What's particularly disappointing about this is that Chandrahas has a fine ear for dialogue when he chooses to use it. Just a dozen pages before the passage quoted above, there's a long conversation between Arzee and the head projectionist's daughter Shireen that is pitch-perfect in its appreciation for the nuance of social exchange, a mix of politeness and flirtation so expertly done that you can imagine it taking place in your own drawing room.

Nor are Arzee's monologues the only problem with the book. A second problem is that the book is padded with a great deal of description that serves little discernible purpose. Consider:

"A sombre grey light had infused the scene of his daily descent. Down below in the market shopkeepers were exaggerating, customers haggling, feet advancing and retreating, hands pointing and waggling. Any moment hissing raindrops would come pouring down, umbrellas would spout everywhere, and tarpaulins would bloom; people would take refuge beneath the shop awnings, and drenched dogs squeeze in amidst their legs. Arzee spat in a corner and went skipping down the stairway, whistling through his crooked teeth. Suddenly he stumbled on a crack in the steps, but as he was about to fly headfirst into the street, he grabbed at the railing just in time to save his skull. And at this sudden threatening motion all the pigeons amassed at the kabutarkhana under the stairway rose up around him and went skittering away into the sky with a great beating of wings, and at that very moment the first raindrops began to come down."

It's an unexceptionable description (except for the repetitive -ing sounds at the start). It is also entirely unnecessary.

The problem, I think, is that Arzee's claim to realism is too frail to bear the weight of such oppressive detail. For all its careful descriptions, the book has little sense of place, mostly because the plot and characters seem to belong in a fantasy world, some Panglossian Mumbai where gangsters are understanding and kind, bar-girls are sentimental and obliging, and all things are bound to turn out for the best. Part of this is Arzee himself - charming as the dwarf is, his charm lies primarily in his hapless naivete, which seems difficult to credit in a 28-year old living poor and disabled in Mumbai. Compare Arzee to Indra Sinha's Animal, for instance, and it's hard to escape the sense of the former as fundamentally unreal.

And then there's the plot. When the gangster sent to collect Arzee's gambling debts befriends and helps him, you raise an amused eyebrow. When Arzee drifts effortlessly into a romantic relationship with a woman who seems inexplicably yet passionately in love with him, you swallow your incredulity and tell yourself not to be cynical. But when revelation piles on revelation, and then, just as you're actually starting to feel sorry for Arzee, all the challenges he faces are brought to a pat and satisfactory resolution, it becomes simply impossible to suspend your disbelief. If Chandrahas had managed to resist the temptation to tie up every loose string (and more, to tie it up happily), this would have been a much better book. As it is, the plot of the last twenty pages reads like something out of a Terry Pratchett novel.

And that, I think, is both Arzee the Dwarf's gift and its undoing. On the one hand, the novel amuses because it presents a vision of a charmed circle of characters living in some alternate world of general optimism, kind heartedness and good fortune. On the other hand, it is precisely this unreality that detracts from any emotional power the novel might have had.

In sum, Arzee the Dwarf is a novel of considerable comic potential that suffers from being both overwrought and overplotted. In Arzee, Chandrahas has created a truly delightful protagonist, one worthy of Shakespeare's Falstaff, or the comic plays of Moliere, but in transmuting so inherently dramatic a persona to the more prosaic atmosphere of the novel, Chandrahas both diminishes the character and overheats the book.

Still, as Arzee himself says, something 's better than nothing. I, for one, look forward to a novel that combines the considerable gift for comedy on display here with a more pragmatic narrative, and a more consistent style. Now that would be a book truly worth celebrating.

[1] In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that while I've never met Chandrahas, we've exchanged a number of e-mails and he's the author of an extremely insightful and extraordinarily positive review of etudes. I'd like to think that has no influence of my assessment of his book, but you never can tell.

[2] Shakespeare, or Shakespearian speech, seems a constant presence in the book. Consider, for instance (from one of Arzee's internal monologues): "Can they deny me my kingdom, and buy my consent with their sympathies"

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Someone is waiting for you at home

...the road sign says.

Suggesting, presumably, that you should be careful, should try to get home safe.

(Though you could just as easily read it as a exhortation to hurry: someone is waiting for you at home.)

But what if it's not true? What if you're driving alone, late at night, back to an empty house? So that the sign is a taunt pushing you over the edge? So that you shut your eyes, spin the wheel wildly? The outraged cacophony of horns, the explosion of pain. Then darkness.


(This is why I don't drive)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Scare Quotes - Alt Take

Something is not right. The word startles, mid-sentence, sensing irony in the shadows, prepared to vanish at the first sign of attack.

Its upright ears a warning: be alert, be alert.

[In response to this]

Monday, March 08, 2010


It's a little past midnight on International Women's Day, and Kathryn Bigelow just became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar (yaay!).

I'm just saying. There are times to be dismissive of tokenism, but this is not one of them.

Sunday, March 07, 2010


Only a madman makes war on the dead.

What shall I do with the dust of my grief then? Shall I bury it in my heart without name or rite of language? Or throw it to the winds that howl the desert slain?

Dare I add the few grains of my tears to the general woe?

Is justice then so pure, so unyielding? So like a diamond that dazzles as it cuts? I believed in these abstractions once, now I sit in a prison of my own devising, say prism rather, a geometry of principles that refract my crimes.

Loss holds me transparent, magnified. I die with the declining sun.

Those who the gods torture cannot die.

Say it is not so. If pain be the price of living, then what price the gods? What can I offer them now but defiance, and a death unclaimed?

Only a madman makes war on the dead. If the gods live, shall I not make war on them?

And if they are dead? Oh, then we are all madmen, making war on ourselves.

Hear me, Prometheus! I, your fellow corpse, envy you. Envy you your wound, its infection borne on swift wings to burn like a fever in every hearth. But envy you also the healing. To be torn and mend and be torn again is still to be human, still to be sane. But to be consumed endlessly without reprieve is to be flesh, nothing more. A raw vein of the ancient blood.

Ancient blood. Blinded blood that flows through these histories. The line of Oedipus, forever tainted, mingled with the earth. Shall I cry out against one who returned to the bed of his birth, when I have slept and awoken in my children's graves?

No. We are all carrion. Only some of us must wait for the pain to pick us clean.

The Wizard of Zo

The difference between tyranny and democracy is that under tyranny ordinary men pretend to be monsters and under democracy monsters pretend to be ordinary men.


Power must be concentrated in the hands of a few for it to be power. Shared power is inertia, mass, nothing more. At the heart of every democracy lies a conjuring trick - true power is taken off-stage, while the illusion of power is put on display for all to see.

What makes democracy valuable is that maintaining the illusion keeps the powerful in check. The monster cannot leave his box, the puppetmaster cannot emerge from behind the curtain.


Power does not corrupt. Corruption empowers.