24 June 2017

Urban Legend: Paul Beatty Interview

Paul Beatty’s Booker-winning novel is a sublime, savage satire about modern-day racism in America. The author tells Trisha Gupta why no one—not even him—should be off the table to poke fun at.

Photo credit: Outlook India
In 2016, Paul Beatty became the first American writer to win the Man Booker prize. The surreal tale of an urban farmer who re-institutes segregation and slavery in his corner of Los Angeles, The Sellout was rejected by 18 UK publishers before an independent press called Oneworld took it on. The book’s whiplash wit slices through the smug fog of political correctness surrounding race, class and just about everything in America. Yet, there’s an inspired everyday lyricism to the writing, which owes something to Beatty’s past as a poet. Nothing is sacred in this book, yet everything he touches in it—from the LA public bus system to old-school Hollywood racism—feels almost spiritual.

We met Beatty at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), in January 2017, and talked about watermelons, stereotypes, life after the Booker, and why ‘intellectual’ isn’t a label he minds…

ELLE: I thought The Sellout was more brutal, much angrier, than the reviews let on. 
Paul Beatty: I don’t think of it as angry. Sad, sometimes. But it’s interesting how people read things. During the Man Booker event, the moderator said, “Paul, your book is so angry!” There was a book there about a guy serial-killing people, another about a woman who plots this murder. How come those [books] aren’t angry and mine is? I’m not saying it’s not angry...

ELLE: ...but other things are angry too. Yes, I see. A different question: what does fictionalising real stuff do for you? 
PB: In terms of its emotive present, [my book] might be authentic—the anger, the frustration, humour. But I’m not trying to duplicate reality... The thing is the imagining. I write about things I don’t know anything about. That’s the fun part: to make it seem like this person exists. I have some sense of the psychological stuff in the book. But I don’t know anything about this neighbourhood I’ve written. Or surfing. Or gardening. At the [JLF] session, a woman asked me, “Is there a question that no one asks you?” I thought, no one ever asks me about the fruit.

ELLE: You mean the watermelons your protagonist grows?
PB:
Yes, and the satsuma oranges, the peaches...

ELLE: There’s also the stunning moment when the protagonist, Bonbon, asks his dad if slavery might have been less psychologically damaging if it was called ‘gardening’. Was there something you wanted to say, about gardening?
PB: [Laughs] No, not really. I don’t garden. My mum gardens, or she used to. The fruit is an important part of my memory of California, of how I grew up, with a lemon tree in the backyard, a peach tree... For me, the book is about those details as much as the larger stuff.

ELLE: The details are often a dense web of cultural references, from Mark Twain to BBC’s Masterpiece Theatre, Eva Braun to Nina Simone. Have you always done this?
PB:
Good question. I think so. My poetry wasn’t so different. It’s a line between me and the reader. It’s a test for me, almost—who are these cultural touchstones? Who’s the right person to insert?

ELLE: Sometimes a name is enough to open up a world.
PB:
And sometimes there’s the decision of whether the narrator needs to explain something or not. I’m writing for somebody who may not understand what I’m doing, but who’s open to hearing everything

ELLE: Has your style ever been called ‘too intellectual’?
PB:
Sometimes. One angry review went, “I didn’t like the book; I had to look up all these words.” But someone else said, “That made me want to buy the book!” So nothing’s for everyone. It’s how I write. I’m not going to change.

ELLE: Does such feedback ever influence how you think about what you’re doing?
PB:
Yeah, I think about this stuff. A book that helped me was Dante’s Inferno. Beautifully written. But full of references! He’s name-dropping—these popes from the 11th century, these bishops, archbishops, artists. No one can know all of these people. But you get the lay of the land. You get a sense of his anger, his judgementalism. It’s not important that everybody knows everything.

ELLE: A writer friend of mine is miffed about this ‘explaining’, about editors who tell her, “Not everybody knows this Delhi neighbourhood”. Would anyone say that if it were a New York neighbourhood, she asks.
PB:
Yeah, and there’s something to that. There are some advantages to being American—the culture is inundated with these references. But hopefully things will start going both ways, so people have a sense of India beyond Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

ELLE: You resist labelling, and yet you have these comic riffs: on black women teacher-poets, for instance, or women who love Nina Simone. It’s hard to get away from categories.
PB: That’s how we communicate. It’s mean. But I start with ridiculing my labels for myself. I once wrote this poem called ‘Stall Me Out’, making fun of things my friends said about me, and things I know about myself. It freed me up to not take myself so seriously.

ELLE: That’s very hard to do...
PB:
Yes, because you think: if I don’t take myself seriously, no one else will. But I learnt to use myself as a dartboard. Maybe I’m rationalising, but I think I really am making fun of things that matter to me.

ELLE: India, these days, specialises in taking offence. But I also worry about us left-liberal sorts, the ones giving offence in India—we rarely laugh at ourselves.
PB:
People are trying to protect ground they’ve had to earn. I had a student, a lesbian, who said, “I want to make fun of my community, but we’ve worked so hard to get here.” But this is how you broaden your horizons. The problem is when people feel they’re progressive, and therefore must be beyond reproach.

ELLE: Do you still write poems?
PB:
No. I haven’t written a poem in 15 years. As a poet, you have to be really public. I hate that.

ELLE: Do you mean the performative part, like when you were with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe?
PB:
Yes. There was this one time I was writing a poem, and in my head I went, “They’re going to like that.” And I caught myself...

ELLE: …imagining your audience?
PB:
Exactly. And I thought, I have to stop this. I was the intellectual New York poet, I was this, I was that. People can read you however they want. But how much do I want to participate in that?

ELLE: Did studying creative writing with Allen Ginsberg shape you?
PB:
Absolutely. I’d never written a thing before I showed up [at Brooklyn College]. Allen was a gracious guy, especially if he liked you. His speech and his writing style were very similar. He was an excellent storyteller; a very good editor. His graciousness, his insistence on clarity were important to me. And his precision.

ELLE: Your book is very much about urbanity. Do you have a favourite city?
PB:
In New York, I’ve encountered stuff, especially musically, that I wouldn’t have anywhere else. Now I live in California, too, since I’ve gotten married. When I first got to New York, I could be so anonymous; I loved that. Before I started teaching [creative writing at Columbia University], I would stay home all the time. I was invisible.

ELLE: Has the Booker changed that?
PB:
Here, at something like JLF, it has. But otherwise, people don’t read, so no one knows who I am. [Laughs] And someone’s going to win next year. I’ll get shunted to the side. Next up!

Published in ELLE India, June 2017.

21 June 2017

Alone Together

My Mirror column:

Living in collectivities can not only produce new relationships, but also new forms of individuality, as two powerful European films reveal.




I write this column from a friend’s charming old wooden Himachali house: a huge open balcony to welcome the sun and tightly shuttered rooms to block out the cold. The house is only opened for the summer, when she retreats here from the heat and dust of Delhi, bringing a variety of people with her. This summer’s assemblage consists of the friend, her 15-month-old baby, her 50-something male friend (whom I met here), the baby’s 18-year-old maid, and me. There are also two friendly locals who come in to help with provisions, cleaning and additional babysitting. Barring occasional expeditions to the river or the village, the emotional and material life of the household revolves around the next meal, the cooking of which is subject to the all-important task of Feeding The Baby. It has been an interesting exercise in communal living.

Serendipitously, while I’ve been up here, two friends in Delhi have been calling with updates on their respective rental searches: where to live, is the question – and whom to live with? Most people share domestic space with others at some point in their lives. Middle class young people leaving family homes often move to organised communal quarters – school or college hostels, or shared university flats. Shared homes remain the norm in early careers, too, for financial reasons.

But if you’re single and can afford it, then living alone, it seems, is the unspoken top of the hierarchy. The older one gets, the more unusual it becomes to live with anyone who isn’t either family or a romantic partner. The socially normative heterosexual coupledom at the core of these living arrangements is so deeply embedded as to really only strike most of us in absentia.

It is true that once your personal rules are set, to live with others is to test the limits of your adaptability. Unlike youthful communal spaces, whose appeal often lies in the suspension of childhood’s rules (or in breaking institutional ones), shared domesticity in later life is likely be based on the establishment of new ones.

In Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (2016), an architecture professor called Erik Moller inherits a house he dismisses as too large for his family. “Living together is about seeing each other,” he says, telling a broker to sell it for a million. But his wife Anna and teenaged daughter Freja have other ideas. Anna loves Erik, but two decades in, she needs newness – and what better way to create it than by inviting new people into a new sort of domestic life? “You speak all the time, and it’s sweet when you do, but it’s as if I’ve heard it all before. I need to hear someone else speak, otherwise I’ll go mad,” she says to her befuddled husband, proposing that they turn the many-roomed mansion into a commune. Friends bring in other friends, and soon there is a collective, a united front interviewing potential applicants.

And so, without any rebuilding, a classically bourgeois European home becomes a space that challenges the norms of bourgeois family life. Decisions now are made not to preserve coupledom, but a more expansive domesticity. It is not that familial love ceases to exist, but rather that the commune allows difficult emotional burdens – like a child’s terminal disease – to be shared across more shoulders. Meanwhile new freedoms and new proximities mean that people fall into new relationships – and sometimes out of old ones. The self-important Erik, increasingly lonely as the commune fills Anna’s emotional needs, starts an affair with a student. Anna, shaken but deep in her own love affair with the commune, invites Erik’s lover into it, saying: “There should be room for you, too. That’s what it’s all about.”

I happened to watch The Commune within a day of watching Swiss-born director Hans Steinbichler’s 2016 German-language feature The Diary of Anne Frank, in which, too, an unlikely assortment of people find themselves holed up together – though in rather more involuntary circumstances. Steinbichler’s is the latest cinematic version of the famous diary, kept by the Jewish teenager during the Nazi-ruled wartime years that she and her family lived hidden above a workshop. Unlike the deliberate newness inaugurated in The Commune, the Franks’ communal life in the annex strives to recreate their home. It is a forced exile into which they take as many possible accoutrements of their bourgeois life, from clothes and dinner sets to books and the writing instruments that make possible Anne’s startlingly frank record of emerging selfhood.

These things – the thingness of these things – help sustain something of the illusion of normalcy, but life in the commune produces its own effects. There is something about the inauguration of a collective domestic arrangement with people you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to live with that pushes buttons and expands boundaries. We are far from the free-spirited world of Vinterberg’s childhood memories, but here, too, the new freedoms and new proximities conjure new relationships – and alter old ones.

The communal life certainly allows for more openness than the traditional family unit, and yet in its difference, it can feel closed off from the world. Both the teenaged Freja in The Commune and the teenaged Anne develop an enhanced sense of privacy, not just because they are exploring their sexuality, but because they are beginning to see themselves as separate from their parents. The breakdown of the old family unit perhaps also enables each of the girls to see her parents separately, as individuals. Embracing the collective, it turns out, can be strangely individuating.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 June 2017.

11 June 2017

The Poet-Scholar: A.K. Ramanujan


A conversation about the legendary late poet, translator and scholar AK Ramanujan, occasioned by a fine new book by Prof. Guillermo Rodriguez: When Mirrors are Windows: A View of A.K. Ramanujan's Poetics (Oxford University Press, 2016).

An excerpt from this interview was published in the Jan-Mar issue of the wonderful Indian Quarterly.


A.K. Ramanujan, location unknown (1983). Copyright: The Estate of A.K. Ramanujan
1. How did you first encounter the work of A.K. Ramanujan?

In the summer of 1993, after an overland trip from Spain to India, I was living on a houseboat in Benares and among the first books I picked up at a bookshop were A.K. Ramanujan’s volume of translations of medieval Kannada mystical poems, titled Speaking of Siva, and R. Parthasarathy’s anthology Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets, which included several poems by Ramanujan. 

I was immediately struck by the unusual imagery and magical power of suggestion of his poems, as well as by the mysterious quality of the translations which contained ancient wisdom in a surprisingly provocative fresh language and almost riddle-like form. So it was the poetry – original and translated verse –which drew me first to his multi-disciplinary genius. I wanted to know more about their hidden meanings, layers and tricks. It was only gradually that I learnt about Ramanujan's other facets as a folklorist, essay writer, scholar and mentor.

In an odd coincidence, the same summer I learnt of him, he passed away unexpectedly in a Chicago hospital (on 13th July 1993). His collection Folktales from India was published the same year, but The Collected Essays, edited by Vinay Dharwadker, came out much later in 1999, when I had already started my doctoral research on Ramanujan's poetry in English.

2. What made you decide to work on him for a PhD, and what is it about him that sustained your interest for so many years?

I made up my mind to undertake serious research on contemporary Indian poetry in English in the mid-1990s, when I was living in Chennai. I first enrolled in an M.A. course at Loyola College and completed my master's dissertation there in 1997, which was a stylistic and symbolic study of a single poem by AKR titled “Snakes” from his first poetry book The Striders (1966). I was fascinated by the way the “meaning” of the poem comes to the reader in its design, in the particular way the poet-narrator renders the “experience” through the linguistic structure, while the symbolism of the snake allows for interpretations from the psychological (Jungian), philosophical and mythological (Hindu) perspective. That was Ramanujan's trademark style. His multi-layered art and poetics came from his being exposed to, and having absorbed in his poetry, multiple traditions and disciplines, living in India during his first thirty years and then in America.

My discovery of AKR’s other talents as an influential scholar and essay writer, besides his work as a translator of classical and medieval South Indian poetry, folklorist and bilingual poet (English and Kannada), further challenged my view of his poetry in English. This prompted me to focus on his aesthetics and poetics as the topic of my Ph.D. research under the University of Kerala and the University of Valladolid, Spain. As I travelled all over India for my research, at a crucial moment I met Girish Karnad, who had been Ramanujan's friend since the 1950s.

Girish encouraged me to travel to Chicago to research the A.K. Ramanujan Papers that had been deposited at the University of Chicago in 1994. These had never been described before in any publication, and contained a treasure trove of data and unpublished notebooks, diaries, journals and letters which enriched my understanding of AKR as a poet-scholar and spurred my intellectual curiosity. The Papers are indeed a repository of the contribution to the fields of linguistics, anthropology and Indian folklore, culture and literature by one of India's most versatile and seminal intellectuals and poets.

3. Your book is titled When Mirrors Are Windows, which I believe is also the name of an essay by AKR. Why did you choose this phrase as the title?

AKR’s essay, published in 1989, is in fact titled “Where Mirrors Are Windows: An Anthology of Reflections on Indian Literatures.” In this imaginative paper he gives some examples of how the concentric concepts of akam (love poems, domestic) and puram (war poems, public) operate in classical Tamil Sangam literature (first century BC to third century AD), and also points to different types of co-relations (“responsive,” “reflective” and “self-reflexive”) between and within structures and systems in Indian languages and literatures. I changed this phrase slightly and chose “When Mirrors Are Windows” for the title of my book, borrowing it as a fitting metaphor and critical tool to assess AKR’s own (private and scholarly) writings and their intertextuality.

In another sense of the phrase, it was only now that readers could get a glimpse of his unpublished diaries and other private writings. So by exposing them in my book, these diaries, originally meant for no one else but himself (self-reflexive “mirrors”), had become “windows” -- opening up new vistas into AKR`s intimate world and creative process.

Moreover, AKR was quite obsessed with the metaphors of glass and mirror. They appear throughout his poetic oeuvre, such as in the famous “Self-Portrait” poem which I reproduce in manuscript form in the opening of my book. Ultimately, the mirror/window-glass metaphor stands for the self and for poetry, for as AKR observed: “Poetry contains, transforms, and returns our reality to us, and us to reality, in oblique ways.”

4. Your book contains a quote from Ramanujan that runs: “I write in two traditions and I belong to at least three.” He seems to bring together the Indian classical, the regional and the Western traditions in a way that might be unique. Could you say a little about these different influences on him, and how they emerged in his work?

As a Tamil Brahmin who grew up in Mysore, AKR was surrounded by four languages (Kannada, English, Tamil, Sanskrit) and received a trilingual formal education (Kannada, English, and to a less extent Tamil). He did not learn Sanskrit formally, but absorbed it as a religious language from his father. He wrote poetry in two languages -- English and Kannada -- and translated mainly from Kannada and Tamil into English. His father was a mathematician and was also steeped in Indian philosophy. Kannada was AKR's first literary language and he wrote plays in Kannada in his early college days in the 1940s, before becoming part of the navya (new) modernist poetry scene in Kannada in the 1950s. He was also deeply influenced by the oral literatures and the medieval Virasaiva Kannada bhakti poetry which appealed to his rebellious nature in his youth. By the time he was 30 he had become somewhat tired of being a professor of English in Indian provincial towns, and in 1959 he went to the US as a Fulbright scholar to pursue his studies in linguistics. It was there that he studied Tamil formally and learned to translate the Tamil classics.

As I state in the book, many Indian writers of the twentieth century had been brought up in a similar milieu of multiple layers (regional, pan-Indian, English). What is unique about AKR is how he made use of these traditions in a profoundly rich, yet apparently simple, natural way; how he creatively absorbed and displayed these layers in his English-language poetry; and the success with which he translated between these languages (of different cultures and literary periods). More so, he relentlessly encouraged others to do the same, at a time when no one paid attention to some of the lesser-known Indian regional and oral traditions.

5. How do we think about his Brahminical upbringing – including his fathers Sanskrit training – with what he himself chose to study as a scholar: Dravidian linguistics and folklore? Was it an oppositional stance?

AKR renounced his Brahmin-ness as a teenager in 1946, throwing away his sacred thread. As a young student he evinced an innate urge to compare and contrast divergent points of view and he never embraced any particular dogma. As U.R. Ananthamurthy once told me, Ramanujan was “a man of ideas, not of ideology... he liked to play with opposite ideas.”

From his formative years, he was drawn to what he called the 'mother-tongue’ traditions, including folk wisdom, women's tales and diverse oral literatures. And he was fascinated by the anti-establishment of the Kannada poets of the medieval Virasaiva bhakti tradition.

But I would not define this as an oppositional stance. Throughout his life and career, AKR strove to come to terms with his (father's) Brahminical heritage and explored the complex issues of identity as an Indian living in a modern western world. In fact his entire scholarly work aims to project a model for Indian literature that is not based on opposition but on dialogue (which includes quarrels, of course), permeable membranes and intertextuality in a cross-fertilising network of traditions. And I think these issues are still very relevant today in Indian literary and cultural studies.

6. How did his multilinguality – or what he calls his multiple monolinguality -- affect his worldview and his work? How did he fit languages to genres he wrote in, or vice versa? What we might be in danger of losing as a younger generation of poets and scholars in India seems to be becoming increasingly monolingual?

In the interviews and notes AKR explains how each of his several languages “specialised” in a particular “area of experience” and simultaneously engaged the other in a continuous dialogue. The practice of reading and writing in Kannada and English in such dissimilar cultural contexts as India and the US implied a degree of code-switching and exchange in his writing (structural, stylistic, thematic) that is yet to be addressed by critics of his work in English and Kannada. Though AKR felt like an “alternating monolingual” in each of the languages he wrote in, it was not his aim to separate them: “All my writing, of course, is concerned with the three languages I have… they are constantly interacting,” he said. And it was more of a cultural, rather than purely linguistic, interface between the three languages he worked in. It was both an unconscious and conscious process.

As a poet, for instance, he believed that the use of one language or another was determined by a complex combination of personal, cultural and contextual factors. Writing a poem in a particular language was not a question of choice or control, as poems could not be willed into one language or another. They were originally triggered by a particular situation, an incident, a real experience. And then, once the poem was nurtured, groomed and polished, it had a delightful mosaic-like quality, wrapped up in a deceptively simple, conversational style. It is this richness of cultural reverberations in his verse that present-day Indian writers who may not be exposed to more than one language, or one culture, are in the danger of losing.

7. You've studied both Ramanujan's poetry in English and his English translations of the Sangam poets and the poetry of Nammalvar (from Tamil) and the medieval mystic Virasaiva poets (from Kannada). How did his poetics inform his translations – and vice versa?

There are multiple techniques, images, motifs, styles and themes that AKR absorbed into his English-language poetry which derive from the Indian poetic traditions he translated. To name just a few, he imitated conventions from Tamil classical literature such as the Sangam poetics (metonymic “inner landscapes,” understatement, poetic economy, dramatic scenes, poetry cycles etc.), the Tamil prayer forms (in mock prayer-poems such as “Prayer to Lord Murugan”), and the fourth century Tamil Kural (in the couplets used in poetic sequences in his collection Second Sight). He also emulated the meta-poetic play with words as “body,” poetry as possession, and the changing “flow” of forms and metaphorical “immersion” of the Tamil Alvar saints. And much of his poetry was preoccupied with the concept of “grace” and anubhāva (mystical experience) found in the medieval Kannada Virasaiva poets, and the paradoxical notion of poetic inspiration as an “ordinary mystery”.

On the other hand, his double vocation as a poet and linguist was decisive in his translation work. Though he believed that “only poems can translate a poems”, his training in linguistics was fundamental to “transpose” the original faithfully into a new “poetic body” making use of syntactic devices, modulation, but also structural and visual design, texture, and images.

Some have charged AKR with infusing his translations, especially the early 1970s renderings of the Virasaiva vachanas (sayings) with a modernist, ironic style which distorts the original voices. These critics say he could not free himself from his Western modernist attitude a la Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound. But we should not forget that he was living in Chicago and translating into the idiom of the American reader of the 1970s. His translations, widely admired as marvels of exquisite craftsmanship, were said to communicate the spirit of the original as only true poetry can. They made these unknown South Indian poetic traditions come alive in a contemporary language. Even the British poet Ted Hughes was profoundly influenced by them. And his translational technique had an enormous impact on a whole generation of translators.

8. Would you explain the Akam-Puram divide, and how and why you find it useful in analysing Ramanujan's body of work?

Akam and puram traditionally denote two poetic genres in Tamil Sangam poetry, poems of love and poems of war, but the terms also stand for the private and public spheres in life, that is, for the world of the self and that of others, and for the codes of conduct and expression appropriate to one or the other.

I adopt these concentric concepts as two converging approaches to analyse AKR. He was a scholar and a poet, and his writings contain personal matters (private diaries, journals etc.) and academic material (published essays, linguistics etc.).The akam-puram paradigm is therefore not a divide, but a conceptual model that provides two different entry points into the same world of mirror reflections and textual interplay in AKR`s work. One can look at AKR`s aesthetics and poetics through his “inner” forms (life experience, his first thirty years in India, family, etc) or through the “outer” forms (linguistics, anthropology and other scholarly disciplines). Yet, as he himself observed, “they are continuous with each other” -- and more often than not, he could not “tell what comes from where”.

9. A related binary that Ramanujan occupied both sides of was the scholarly and the creative. You suggest that there were several instances in his lectures and scholarly texts where “biographical and domestic elements enter the public sphere”. Did the academic self ever percolate into his poetry?

Indeed in his classroom presentations and public lectures it was quite typical of AKR to disclose personal details and autobiographical stories to place himself as the specimen, the object within the scholarly exposition. He used this method also in some of the published papers where he discloses incidents about himself and his multilingual upbringing, his childhood, the family house, mother or father, to illustrate an idea. In the inverse direction, AKR occasionally muses over academic issues and scientific questions in his private journals and diaries.

But the “academic self” enters his poetry only in as far as the act of writing is a natural extension of a person's entire learning: “A poem comes out of everything one learns, not just a little part of you,” was AKR's conviction. As a linguist he was of course very much aware of the language structure and texture, and it shows in his clinically polished verse. But according to him, there cannot be anything like “academic” poetry; it would not be poetry. Most of the poetic process was not a self-conscious act, though “the conscious and unconscious elements are very hard to de-segregate.” This unrelenting openness to miscellaneous areas of knowledge (academic and scientific matters, life experiences, stories, even television) kept his scholarly mind as well as his poetic creativity in constant motion.

10. Did moving to the US shaped Ramanujan's writing, or his sense of self?

It was linguistics that took AKR to America in 1959. He became Professor of Dravidian Studies at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s. His was a self-chosen exile, and he took it as a mediating role between Indian and American scholarship and as a dialogue in himself. Being suspended between two worlds was both a double resource and a source of tension for him. Despite inevitable disconnections from his native culture, family relations, etc, he believed that no part of the self could be isolated from the other. And this notion permeates his creative writing, where the different components of his cultural knowledge (America, English literature and diverse Indian traditions) interacted in a creative give-and-take. He even called himself half-seriously “the hyphen in Indo-American Studies” to illustrate the “splits and connections” that nurtured his existence as a poet and scholar equally at home in America and India.

In fact, the experience of being between worlds added another skill to his “miscellaneous criss-crossing:” he became an expert in the art of translating little-known ancient texts into a contemporary English idiom, or rather, a specialist in 'transposing' his readers – and himself -- into other cultures, voices and literary traditions. At the University of Chicago his two-fold academic and poetic vocation was able to thrive in a natural extension of the early environments of his past. And ironically, it was in the US that AKR discovered Tamil classical poetry when, in 1962, he chanced upon an anthology of Sangam poets in the basement of University of Chicago Library. That’s his story of creative twists and turns, just like a good folktale, or poem…

11. And finally, which of his writings would you recommend as a starting point -- for someone who has never read any Ramanujan?

Among the essays, I would start by recommending “Where Mirrors Are Windows: An Anthology of Reflections on Indian Literatures” (1989) and “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking. An Informal Essay” (1989). These are two of his most influential essays and the opening pieces in his Collected Essays (OUP, 1999). Lovers of folklore and popular wisdom should not miss his marvellous collection Folktales from India: A Selection of Oral Tales from twenty- two Languages, first brought out by Penguin in 1991. Of his books of translation Speaking of Siva (first published in 1973 by Penguin) quickly became a backpacker's favourite -- and has by now turned into a classic. One should not fail to read the introduction to this anthology, for its insights into bhakti poetry as well as his own poetic preoccupations.

The Collected Poems of A.K. Ramanujan (OUP 1995) covers all of the poems published during his lifetime and some of the posthumous compositions. The poems do not need to be read chronologically, but it is interesting to observe how his early poems (for instance “Self-Portrait”, The Striders”, “Snakes”, “Anxiety” or “Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House”) share a common “language within a language” with the later poems, such as “Chicago Zen”, “The Black Hen” and “Children, Dreams, Theorems.” We find AKR in a continuous dialogue of selves, always quarrelling with the work of art, with memory/images, and with his multiple 'reflections'.

An excerpt from this conversation was published in the Indian Quarterly, Jan-March 2017 issue.

4 June 2017

This Dappled Light

My Mirror column:

Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut eschews high drama for a gentle chiaroscuro of abandon and watchfulness.



The blue Ambassador that transports a Calcutta family into the semi-rural wilderness of 1970s McCluskieganj places Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut in a longstanding tradition of Bengali holiday fictions. One of the earliest parts of India to be colonised and enter into capitalist time, Bengal’s employed white collar denizens treat the chhuti (vacation) with almost as much reverence as the chakri (office job).

So although the dialogue is mostly in English (a fact that fits Sen Sharma’s smoking-drinking-Auld-Lang-Syne-singing assemblage of Anglophone Calcuttans perfectly), A Death in the Gunj clearly draws on the particular historical relationship between the middle-class Bengali vacationer escaping the urban chaos of Calcutta and the unspoilt nearby hinterland of not-too-distant locations in Orissa and Bihar (now partly Jharkhand). Many of Satyajit Ray’s short stories – and several of Saradindu’s Byomkesh Bakshi ones – used journeys to these milieus to presage the unfurling of a mystery. Leaving the city for the jungle or some remote rural outpost, as is seen in so many of these stories, is a fictional trope that enables the emergence of suppressed selves.

Sen Sharma’s film, unlike in the above instances, makes her cinematic travellers a family group: complete with an eight-year-old child, a slightly slutty cousin and a poor relation who is a rather pretty boy. In a beautifully observed set of vignettes, we see how the dynamics of power, class, sex and age are at work within the family, often being set into motion by the arrival of non-familial male visitors – Ranvir Shorey’s belligerently charming Vikram, and Jim Sarbh’s mild-mannered Brian. 


Vikram, in particular, is the catalyst for many reactions. Kalki Koechlin’s Mimi amps up her sexiness in an ever-so-carelessly careful way around him, the older woman of the house (Tanuja) is somewhat flattered by his gift-giving, and even the married Bonnie (Tilottama Shome) can feel mildly slighted by his attention to Mimi. More crucially, though, Vikram embodies a certain masculine aggression: something to which Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) responds by wanting to match up to him, to prove he’s just as fearless – while the gentler Shutu’s reaction is to retreat into his shell.

Shutu – played to perfection by Vikrant Massey – is the emotional centre of the film. He’s the poor sensitive cousin who spends much of his time with his notebook, sketching frogs and making private lists of words he likes beginning with ‘e’, when he is not hanging out with the actual child in the group, Tani. He is 23 and has just lost a father and failed an exam, but his vulnerability seems to work like some kind of taunt to the older men, who couch their bullying of him as some kind of initiation ritual that will force him to “toughen up”.

I recently watched another film about a troubled young man at the cusp of adulthood – the Marathi film Kaasav (Turtle), directed by Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar, which won a National Award for Best Feature last year. Kaasav’s plot, such as it is, feels much more contrived: a young man in bermuda shorts and a backpack tries to slit his wrists, is rescued, escapes from the hospital and coincidentally washes up at the doorstep of an older woman (Irawati Harshe) who is just in the process of recovering from her own experience of suicidal depression.

A painfully repetitive pattern of brattish behaviour on the part of the young man and selfless acceptance on the part of the older woman ensues, made somewhat watchable by the presence of a beautifully calming Konkan coastline and a rather sweet child who offers the innocence quotient. The film is wonderfully well-intentioned and finally leads us out of the impasse by making the protagonist recognise something of his own strength.

Unlike the sanitised, asexual matrix of pure humanity within which Kaasav operates, A Death in the Gunj offers a fleshed out universe of characters, none of whom are evil – yet we are forced to grapple with their darker sides. Along with the companionable lightness and warmth that the family offers, it can also force its less forceful members into preconceived slots, too quick to judge, too preoccupied to pay attention, neglecting to give them the space they might need to be – or become – themselves. 


A woman who really wants to accompany a search party is left behind because she is perceived as too emotionally fraught to be taken – while a man who really does not want to go along is hijacked into the expedition. Sen Sharma’s film is full of moments like these, making us watch as people ignore each other’s needs, or worse, blithely use another person to fulfil their own. Watching it is an exercise in sensitive observation; its particular tragedies may unfold in the slow time of a long-ago vacation, but they could so easily be our own.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4 June 2017.

Book Review: Uttara—The Book Of Answers

Ramayan's backstories

If we could stop trying to prove the truth of the epic, it can tell us much about ourselves. 


Uttara—The Book Of Answers. By Arshia Sattar, Penguin Books India, 286 pages, Rs 499.

I staunchly believe that Lord Ram travelled in the Pushpak Viman. There were no Wright brothers at that time. But the Pushpak Viman existed. We need to prove this now.” So said Jigar Inamdar, a senate member of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, to The Indian Express on 24 March, defending the university’s issuance of an annual diary and planner that credited mythical Hindu sages with scientific inventions. It may seem odd to begin a book review with a quote from the newspaper. But Inamdar’s assertion lets us see how the Ramayan has become something more than a great civilizational legacy in contemporary India—and something much less than one.


A multilayered literary treasure is being flattened into something that must be defended rather than actually read. The Ramayan is no longer an ethically complex story to be experienced in a variety of ways, as believers and non-believers in India’s many regions and subcultures have done for centuries, but something to be pushed on to us as religious and scientific truth.
It is in this terrifying context that we must read Uttara: The Book Of Answers. Arshia Sattar has rendered the Uttara Kanda, the seventh book of Valmiki’s Ramayan, from Sanskrit into eloquent, yet lucid English, and included some thoughtful essays on the text. Uttara seems a natural progression for Sattar, who translated Valmiki’s Ramayan in 1996, and who has since published a Ramayan for children, as well as Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish, a fine set of essays on Ram’s sense of self. But as she writes in her acknowledgements, Sattar did not always find the Uttara Kanda interesting. For her 1996 Ramayana, she shaved its heft down to what she then saw as its few significant events: “Sita’s banishment, Ram’s reunion with his sons and Sita’s final and irrevocable departure.”
In her current Introduction, too, Sattar acknowledges that the Uttara Kanda might be read as recording a dull time after the tumultuous events of Ram’s life, his exile, and the biggest battles are really over: This is a text in which “nothing much happens”. In terms of style as well, she points out that the Uttara Kanda and Bala Kanda (the first book of the Ramayan, dealing with Ram’s childhood) do not have the glorious poetic verve of the epic’s central sections, and read more like the sectarian Puranas “in both language and attitude”.
Much of the Uttara Kanda consists of Ram asking questions of the sages, and backstories being related to him in return. If the five middle kandas—Ayodhya, Aranya, Kishkindha, Sundara, Yuddha—gave us the splendid narrative and rich characters we know so well, the Uttara Kanda is like a coda designed to explain why these characters acted as they did. So we return to Hanuman’s infancy, to explain why he did not know his own strength. Or we hear of Vedavati, who leaps into a fire to escape Ravana’s harassment, and whose return to earth as Sita is foretold “for the destruction of that rakshasa”.
The Uttara Kanda’s backstories revolve around boons, curses and past lives, thus shifting the characters’ decisions towards predestination and away from free choice. For instance, it tells of how Ravana once raped the apsara Rambha and was cursed that “his head (would) split into seven pieces” if he ever took another woman against her will. This becomes the uttara (answer) to the implicit question: Why did Ravana not violate Sita while she was his prisoner?
The Uttara Kanda thus robs Ravana of a rare redeeming characteristic—that he does not think of raping Sita. Departing radically from the Sundara Kanda, where Ravana’s effulgence is such that even Hanuman says he “has all the signs of a great king”, the Uttara Kanda portrays him as a harasser of women and belligerent challenger of kings and gods, placing him in a long genealogy of aggressive rakshasas.
Meanwhile, Ram gets treated less and less like a human being with frailties, and more and more as a god. He is Vishnu, and he can do no wrong. So even when he abandons a pregnant Sita because of the common people’s “vulgar talk”, Lakshman is persuaded to stop questioning Ram’s actions by his charioteer Sumantra, because the sage Durvasas predicted this fate. Ram’s kingliness is now also tied actively to caste: In the text’s most shocking moment, he kills a man “performing the best of penances” simply for being a Shudra, and is congratulated by rishi Agastya for having restored the caste order.
On a lighter note, reading Uttara can tell you why the peacock has a patterned tail, or serve as a much needed reminder of Indic standards of beauty, where “lovely hips” always win. If we could just stop trying to prove the truth of the Pushpak Viman, the epic can tell us many truths about ourselves.
Published in Mint Lounge, 3 June 2017.

PS: If Ramayana books interest you, my 2013 review of Devdutt Pattanaik's Sita (also for Mint Lounge) may be of interest.

29 May 2017

The Romantic Realist

My Mirror column:

KA Abbas, who left us 30 years ago this June 1, spent a lifetime seeking to turn the dross of city life into fictional gold.

The opening scene of Bambai Raat ki Baahon Mein has the hero Amar Kumar (Vimal Ahuja) wading carefully into aswamp, his eyes fixed to the viewfinder of his camera. He takes a few shots – people washing in the dirty water, or attempting to clean their clothes on the edge. When he’s done, some locals ask if he has observed the poverty and pollution in which they are living. “Yes, I saw, and the eye of my camera also saw.”

KA Abbas wrote and directed Bambai Raat ki Baahon Mein (‘Bombay in the Arms of Night’) in 1967, creating a romantically-named suspense thriller charged with his characteristic ethical quandaries – here in the shape of a journalist who finds himself in an ethical dilemma. Amar’s expose of the pitiable condition of workers in Daleriawadi catches the eye of the factory owner Seth Sonachand Daleria, who invites him to Delhi and tries to buy him off. What Daleria offers Amar is much more than a bribe: he holds out the salary and perks of what is essentially a corporate communications job – a free house, free car, and tickets to New York, London, Paris.


The scene between Amar and the usually mild-mannered AK Hangal as the wily Daleria is one of the best things about the film – partly because Abbas, who would have known Hangal personally from the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), could see him as a slightly sleazy old man long before Shaukeen (1981), and as a seasoned businessman long before Garam Hava (1974). But also because of the wryly convincing detail with which Daleria sets up the terms of Amar’s quandary: “Beinsaafi sirf mill mazdooron ke saath hi nahi ho rahi, tum jaise kaabil journaliston ke saath bhi ho rahi hai. Itne acche lekh likhne wale ko sirf 500 rupaye mahina? Usmein se bhi 50 rupaye income tax aur provident fund mein kat jaate hain... [Injustice is not being done only to the factory workers, it is also being done to a capable journalist like you. Only 500 rupees a month to a writer of such fine pieces? And of that too, 50 rupees goes to income tax and provident fund...].”

It is no coincidence that Abbas spent much of his working life as a journalist. Born in Panipat as the great-grandson of Muslim poet and reformer Mohammad Altaf Hussain Hali, Abbas started bringing out a university newsletter while still a student of law at Aligarh Muslim University, while also writing articles and letters to the editors of various publications -- “using different pseudonyms to avoid identification,” according to his translator-editor Suresh Kohli.

Law did not work out, and he moved to Bombay, taking a job at the Bombay Chronicle. Even after he started to write plays (beginning with IPTA’s Zubeidaa) and then film scripts (starting with Dharti Ke Lal, also IPTA, and like Zubeidaa, involving Balraj Sahni), Abbas remained committed to journalism, writing what used to be the longest-running weekly column in India: 'The Last Word', in Russi Karanjia's Blitz. The column also appeared in Urdu under the title Azad Kalam (‘The Free Pen’), which is the name of the newspaper at which Amar works in Bambai Raat.



Although he was the director of 14 features, Abbas’s directorial abilities were uneven and most of his films sank at the box office. Perhaps partly as a consequence of this, until a few years ago, I thought of him as primarily a scriptwriter for Raj Kapoor films, including one of my all-time favourites, Shree 420.

A film that captured the Nehruvian zeitgeist like few others, Shree 420 also centres around an honest hero whom the big city tempts sorely, a young man torn between his genuine feeling for Bombay’s poor and the attractions of the high life. Watching Bambai Raat for the first time at an Abbas retrospective at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi this week, I could see the same dynamic in action quite clearly. There are other recognisable tropes – the evil capitalist is called Seth Sonachand in both films, while the young lovers find romantic fulfilment in the 10 paise ki chai on the street. The high life – and the lowness of that high life – is embodied in the figures of various women, and often mocked for its hypocrisy: in Bambai Raat, there is a “Dance, Dinner and Fashion Parade” organised to raise money for the Bihar famine, under the shadow of an exceptionally fine linocut of starving peasants, likely by the great artist Chittoprasad.

Despite its noirish aspirations – rain-slicked streets, fast cars, chases, party girls and even the stylish debutante Jalal Agha as a tragically hopeful party boy — there remains something prosaic about Bambai Raat. Abbas was well aware of his limitations -- but didn’t see them as such. In his autobiography he wrote: “My forays into the sanctified field of literature and even into the rarefied field of cinema have been described, and dismissed, as only the projections of my journalism... But good, imaginative, inspired journalism has always been indistinguishable from realistic, purposeful, contemporary literature.”


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 28 May 2017.

Note: Two other recent columns on journalists and journalism in Hindi cinema, here and here