Categories
Books India Literature Novel

A Tepid Fire

It’s not that I didn’t like Megha Majumdar’s 2020 debut novel A Burning.

It’s more like the book let me down after reviewers lifted it up, somewhat sky-high.

Among the extollers is the New Yorker‘s James Wood, a literary critic par excellence, whose recommends I try to follow up on diligently. Wood places Majumdar’s debut novel as a gem of craftsmanship, a worthy successor of William Faulkner’s multidimensional legend “As I Lay Dying” in its dividing of the labor of telling the story of contemporary India amongst a plurality of voices. Moreover, he praises Majumdar’s rendition of characters and their lives as “palpable, vital and voiced”, reminiscent of   the early V.S. Naipaul.

After finishing the novel in a week of bathroom-throne reading, I came out ambivalently oriented toward both craft characterization in “A Burning”. (The ambivalence has nothing to do with me reading the book while atop the throne, dispensing you-know-what. The throne is actually in a comfortable, well-lighted nook in a large bathroom that by god’s grace, I’m blessed to have access to for the last 8 months of my peripatetic existence)

Reviewers rave about “A Burning” as not only a bildungsroman of its main character, Jivan, but also as a window into 21st century India. I beg to differ with the raving.

Jivan is very unlike the lively, “palpable” people in V.S. Naipaul’s “Miguel Street” (the book James Wood alludes as the work of the “early” Naipaul), who come across as exemplarily unmediated by authorial intention. “Hat” and “Bogart” among others, are sprung organically from the soil of the cosmos of Trinidad, or the sliver of Trinidad portrayed by Naipaul. We hear, see and feel them as we hear, see and feel people in the flesh and blood in our own cosmoses. Jivan, Lovely, P.T. Sir, Bimala, a few of the characters who people the multiverse of Kolkata in “A Burning” are lively even. Jivan is the aspiring everygirl, born and raised in poverty, in the slums of Kolkata, believing that knowing English will help her break the prison bars of class. But she is also the Muslim girl, a representative member of Hindu nationalistic India’s endangered species—the Muslim. That the Hindu national state apparatus scapegoats her as a “terrorist” and eventually hangs her for crimes against the nation that she didn’t commit, is a predictable fate for Jivan. In other words, Majumdar’s motive in “A Burning” is not to create characters who live and breathe on their own terms (as the early Naipaul’s characters do), but to insert them at convenient moments in the novel’s overall political plot of an India whose secular fabric is teetering on the brink of being ravaged by burgeoning right wing Hindu totalitarianism. The novel stands up for secularism and refuses the podium of RSS-inspired flag waving of “Hindu-first”. Its card-carrying Hindus have a ravenous anti-Muslim appetite, sometimes for no reason at all. The “Jana Kalyan” party—a rough approximation of India’s ruling party, the BJP—that comes to power on the back of Muslim slaughter and communal violence, is ruthless. At the end, the party wins Bengal’s elections hands down just as Jivan is executed like a puppet whom the marionette chooses to de-string itself from. It’s as though Jivan lived a precarious life and died a scapegoat for the sake of decrying religious fundamentalism.

Jivan is very unlike the lively, “palpable” people in V.S. Naipaul’s “Miguel Street” (the book James Wood alludes as the work of the “early” Naipaul), who come across as exemplarily unmediated by authorial intention. “Hat” and “Bogart” among others, are sprung organically from the soil of the cosmos of Trinidad, or the sliver of Trinidad portrayed by Naipaul. We hear, see and feel them as we hear, see and feel people in the flesh and blood in our own cosmoses. Jivan, Lovely, P.T. Sir, Bimala, a few of the characters who people the multiverse of Kolkata in “A Burning” are lively even. Jivan is the aspiring everygirl, born and raised in poverty, in the slums of Kolkata, believing that knowing English will help her break the prison bars of class. But she is also the Muslim girl, a representative member of Hindu nationalistic India’s endangered species—the Muslim. That the Hindu national state apparatus scapegoats her as a “terrorist” and eventually hangs her for crimes against the nation that she didn’t commit, is a predictable fate for Jivan. In other words, Majumdar’s motive in “A Burning” is not to create characters who live and breathe on their own terms (as the early Naipaul’s characters do), but to insert them at convenient moments in the novel’s overall political plot of an India whose secular fabric is teetering on the brink of being ravaged by burgeoning right wing Hindu totalitarianism. The novel stands up for secularism and refuses the podium of RSS-inspired flag waving of “Hindu-first”. Its card-carrying Hindus have a ravenous anti-Muslim appetite, sometimes for no reason at all. The “Jana Kalyan” party—a rough approximation of India’s ruling party, the BJP—that comes to power on the back of Muslim slaughter and communal violence, is ruthless. At the end, the party wins Bengal’s elections hands down just as Jivan is executed like a puppet whom the marionette chooses to de-string itself from. It’s as though Jivan lived a precarious life and died a scapegoat for the sake of decrying religious fundamentalism.

I mean to say that the characters in “A Burning” are puppets danced around in the service of the novel’s larger plot. What reviewers have ascertained as authentically Indian—the inability of the poor to battle the carceral conditions of poverty and political disenfranchisement—is exquisite puppeteering where only Muslims turn out to be victims of the aforementioned conditions. Even a Hijra or a transgender like Lovely, is spared the rod of state violence as long as she allies herself with the Hindu nationalists by disavowing Jivan, the Muslim scapegoat. Indeed the fact that Lovely realizes her dream of Bollywood stardom through the plot-artifice of a WhatsApp video, is a validation of India’s culture of tolerance towards the differently-gendered, but is Lovely even a real Hijra in the novel? Having read countless novel’s in which the narrative voices are those of societies’ “Others”, I found Lovely to be not more than a character with a quirky perspective and a propensity for vernacular English (she narrates in a present tense even when the events narrated are from the past). Her eyes are not in the least bit informed by her transgendered identity. She is a token. The tokenism of Lovely could very well have emerged from Majumdar’s own class status: She has read about hijras, she has surveyed them enough to use them as an interesting addition to the multiverse that is contemporary India, but she hasn’t had the chance to savor their particular life worlds to capture the specific nuances of their voices, individually (Lovely) or collectively (the tribe of Arjuni Ma).

If diversity is Majumdar’s goal in “A Burning” then she has attained the goal successfully. The inclusiveness of the novel pleases her Western audience, as is evidenced from the reviews. But, I, as a reader with that thang called “double consciousness” don’t care that much for diversity or equitable representation in a work of art as much as I care for precisely what Faulkner gives us—real structural innovation—and the early Naipaul  gifts us with—characters that speak to us in raw, unfiltered voices.

As Wood writes, Majumdar has structural innovation in her debut novel. One area of innovation being choosing multiple narrative voices so that multiple perspectives are injected into the telling of the story of contemporary India. However, I also believe that she goes overboard in dividing the labor of narration among too many voices. The division of narrative labor is so dispersed that none of the voices stay with me. They blur into a cacophony that’s not necessarily rambunctious or vibrant all the time. Sometime they bore and feel affected. As a result I get a skimmed milk version of a 21st century India instead of a whole one. “A Burning’s” India is not a multiverse India, it’s a uni-verse one of an India grist to the mill of Hindu nationalism that victimizes Muslim minorities. Besides the events unfold in Bengal and specifically Kolkata, which is hardly a bastion of the RSS. If Majumdar intended to use Kolkata as a synecdoche for the nation, then that simply does not hold. Hindu totalitarianism will not easily gain a foothold in Kolkata, just as white nationalism won’t in New York City, at least not anytime soon. The Kolkata of “A Burning” is not wholly Kolkata, but a placeholder for the political churning that’s at the center of “A Burning”. It’s an everyplace, emptied of the specificities of Kolkata that we get in Amitav Ghosh’s “Shadow Lines”, a novel set against the twin Bengali cities of Dhaka and Kolkata, whose wholeness is fractured by the Indo-Pak war of 1963-64, that led to the creation of Bangladesh.    

I began by registering my ambivalence about Megha Majumdar’s debut novel “A Burning” by framing it within the reviews the novel has received, almost all of them showering this pandemic era novel with a profusion of praise. It’s as though the levers of a gigantic machinery of positivity was let loose on the novel, which is a good novel, but in my estimation not “flawless” or unconditionally “brilliant”. What could be identified as “brilliant” however, is the maneuvering tactic on the part of the publisher in getting the novel to the desks of the best liberal Western reviewers.    

Categories
Climate Change Environment

There is no Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow

Birds fell dead from the skies of South Western U.S. and Western Canada.

In an Alfred Hitchcock movie “Birds” based on a short story of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier, birds attack humans in a paradisiacal California Hamlet.

The story and the film haunted my imagination as I would see crows, fluttering plentifully in the scorched skies of Kolkata, my home town, and sit in rows on overhead wires. I have been shat upon many a times by crows and pigeons while walking along the congested alleys of old Kolkata.

In short, I held an insalubrious if not outright threatening view of birds for a long time.

Then I got educated. I mean really educated.

I learnt that the human species have traditionally monstrosized the non-human ones, represented them as the “other” to narrow-mindedly promote the goodness of the human race.

Thanks to Pixar, now our public consciousness is flooded with stories of goody two shoes birds more often than not victimized by human cruelty.

Between falsity and overcompensation there is a compelling objectivity supported by the science of ornithology.

Birds like us are creatures of migration, survival and death with the difference that unlike humans, birds typically don’t have the wherewithal to “fight” against and “conquer” adversity.

In September of 2020, certain migratory birds like Flycatchers, swallows and warblers, fell out of the skies of South Western U.S. while migrating long distance from the tundra landscapes of Alaska and Canada to reach winter grounds in Central and South America. En route they’d pass over the skies of the American South West, including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas. But in September 2020 the birds had to re route their flight path to avoid the fire zone that was engulfing the resource-rich coastal areas of the American South West, and go further inland into the parched deserts of New Mexico (Chihuahua). There they starved and thirsted to death because the climate of the Chihuahuan desert is antithetical to avian life.

Climate change, caused by human actions is responsible for the death of these migratory birds who are simply following nature’s course.

We need a “Birds 2.0” with humans as the monstrous invading army killing off birds.

Categories
Books Fiction Literature Novel

The Sign of a Good Novel

“The author creates a world and when she moves her hand away, the world is still in motion. The idea being that, in the very best novels, every important detail is so lovingly attended to that the novelist’s intention is as invisible and as powerful as gravity. Long after you’ve read the last line, the (novel’s) universe continues to spin.”

I stole these lovely lines from here. They resonate with my long term belief that a novelist creates a cosmos, albeit a largely linguistic and imagistic one.

Categories
War

War: From Cradle to Grave

The New York Times
The New York Times

Categories
America Politics

When Woke Was Well

“Woke” has fallen into disrepute.

Once upon a time it was a word for vigilance, as in the pre civil rights era blacks asked fellow blacks to be woke against physical assault on the streets of America. Thereafter the word’s political valence has waxed and waned as linguist John Mcworter writes in the New York Times.

Right now, “woke” is trending at sneer.

Erykah Badu (whom the now-departed TV morning talk show host Regis Philbin sneered at along with sushi) sings above of wokeness during wokeness’ better days.

Categories
Contemporary Culture History Human life Personal

Knowing…In Fragments

I like to know about things and people. Regarding people, I have my biases. I’m more interested in members of my species that have been on their own, raised themselves, in a manner of speaking, by self-watering and self-feeding, let’s add to that self-suturing too.

Low-maintenance, high vision, people.

But I like knowing about things more, it’s just that things come wrapped in the histories of people.

Modern life runs on electricity; I run on knowing. Every day I wake up to a new day of knowing.

What’s love to you, if you run on love, knowing is to me.

I’d love to know about the different kinds of love that people have experienced over time. My mind expands and I feel more human when I learn eros is not the only love available. Eros is beautiful, but it’s not fair that eros dominates the cosmos of love.

There is philia, agape, storge, mania, ludus, pragma, philautia. The ancient Greeks built their civilization out of a mélange of loves, thus making it, in my opinion a balanced civilization, oriented pragmatically toward the existence of the many, instead of harping on just the one.

I wouldn’t mind learning about love from Michael Hardt.

From love my curiosity zooms over into artisanal ice cream. Amazed to know about the economy of the farm-to-table ice cream, expensive, misunderstood to be fatless, flavorful, and an industry of teeming Davids competing with the muscle power of Goliaths like Ben and Jerry, now owned by Unilever.

The “shoot first then ask” policy of the police is not limited to big cities or to black men getting shot and killed. There is a mounting roster of white males–mostly poor and in the margins of society–in rural Eastern Kentucky. Sadly, these killings don’t mobilize mass action as folks in these parts tend to single out bad cops instead of perceiving police shooting as systematic.

A knowing that dismays and makes me shudder with contempt at the systems that shore up modern American society, is here. I had heard of imperialism in this light; In George Orwell’s writing, especially the outstanding piece, “Shooting an Elephant”, there is the subtext of the moral degradation of the people who were burdened with the task of performing empire’s “dirty work.” The brave one’s like Orwell himself, quit, but in the structure of modern day American imperialism, running on a criminal justice system that criminalizes any “aberration” from the norm (liberty is a myth), the “dirty” jobs are unquittable because the jobholders have to pay rent.

I know about electroconvulsive therapy that brought back a writer from the cradle of suicide to normal living.

Pakistani-born writer Hurmat Kazmi, with a shlock of training in the craft of writing from the Iowa Writing Workshop, puts me off with his style in his short fiction. But I don’t mind the putting-off, for in Kazmi’s story are jewels of information, even if they are passed on to the reader through the filter of a writer’s subjective bias. So the story is about the oversized ego of Pakistan’s army and how the average Pakistani serves to boost its pride. When Pakistani boys fail to be doctors and engineers or U.S. minted-MBA’s, they join the army regardless of the acute homophobia and Shia-Sunni divide in its ranks. The army homogenizes the boys into paragons of patriotic masculinity.

Categories
Climate Change Fiction Literature

Reflections on Water

Says Nina Munteanu, Canadian ecologist, limnologist and novelist, and most recently the writer of “A Diary in the Age of Water”,

“Today we control water on a massive scale. Reservoirs round the world hold 10,000 cubic kilometers of water; 5 times the water of all the rivers of the earth. Most of these great reservoirs lie in the northern hemisphere, and the extra weight has slightly changed how the earth spins on its axis, speeding its rotation and shortening the day by eight millioneth of a second in the last forty years.

Millenia ago, we adapted and lived by the rhythms of the global water cycle. We have since harnessed the power of water; we have captured it and diverted it and changed it in ways to suit our rhythms. Our unprecedented power of the planet’s water has advanced our civilizations immeasurably. But water remains our Achilles heel; it has the potential to limit our ambition like no other resource on earth.”

Categories
Literature

The Water-Wealthy of an American Future

The opening lines of the novel are firecrackers of ingenuity.

“There were stories in sweat. The sweat of a woman bent double in an onion field, working fourteen hours under the hot sun was different from the sweat of a man as he approached a check point in Mexico praying to La Santa Muerte that the federales weren’t on the payroll of the enemies he was fleeing. What is sweat? Sweat is a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they could survive another day.”

For a brief summary of the novel, I’d look here.

Categories
Books Literature

Struggle Rhapsody

All struggles

Are essentially

power struggles.

Who will rule,

Who will lead,

Who will define,

refine,

confine,

design,

Who will dominate.

All struggles

Are essentially power struggles,

And most are no more intellectual

than two rams

knocking their heads together.

–Octavia Butler, Earthseed: The Books of the Living

Categories
India

The Invisible Indians

I am interested in the story of the undocumented Indians in the United States.

“An estimated 475,000 unauthorized Indians lived in the United States in 2017, a number that grew by 140,000 between 2007 and 2016. Indians are among both the fastest growing and largest groups of unauthorized immigrants.

Yet, this group’s diverse experiences with the U.S. immigration system are not well understood. Instead, Indians are “high-skilled” workers, rich doctors, or IT professionals — “good” immigrants who contribute disproportionately to the economy. The stories of those who don’t fit these tropes are often rendered invisible.”

Tanvi Misra reports in the magazine on South Asian affairs, Juggernaut