24 June 2011

Alice Albinia: Epic Trawler

While Alice Albinia, the non-fiction writer, refuses to tell a well-worn tale, Albinia the novelist succumbs easily to reductive depictions

Alice Albina’s first book was non-fiction, a historical travelogue called Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River that took birth in her head, she tells us, when she was “twenty-three years old, sitting in the heat of [her] rooftop flat in Delhi, reading the Rig Veda”. Albinia’s second book is fiction, a novel called Leela’s Book, for which, too, the idea came to her in Delhi, this time while reading the Mahabharata, “India’s devastating, adventurous epic about a warring family”, as she has recently called it.

But despite each having an ancient Hindu text as its source of original inspiration, the two books couldn’t be more different. Empires of the Indus is a diligently researched and carefully structured account of the once-great river, moving slowly back in time (from the present to 5,000 years ago) and simultaneously northwards—from Karachi, the river’s mouth, to the place traditionally considered its source, the Senge Khabab (Lion’s Mouth) in Tibet. In contrast with the dense-with-information yet leisurely pace of Empires, Leela’s Book unfolds almost breathlessly, in Hindi film fashion, during a North Indian wedding.

But the differences don’t end there. Albinia’s earlier narrative was marvellously low-key. As it wove its way from Karachi via Sindh and up into the upper reaches of Gilgit, where the language and prehistoric rock art still bear traces of the region’s Rig Vedic roots, one felt the keenness of the writer’s desire to understand the people she was writing about. More often than not, they were the most marginal groups in Pakistan: the low-caste Hindu sweepers of Clifton; the Sheedis of Thatta, who trace their origins to their slave ancestors from Zanzibar; the socialist Sufis of 17th century Sindh and the mixed crowds who come to their dargahs.

Her new novel seems low-key to begin with; it opens with a wedding not even festive enough to meet the expectations of the young Muslim girl who works as a maid in the groom’s family home: ‘There were no special lights or flower arrangements, no visiting tailors from South Delhi or jewellers from Chandni Chowk, no breathless delivery boys with huge boxes of crockery… [no] marigolds and candles, jasmine blossom and giggling girl cousins.’ But it is soon clear that the understatedness of the wedding is merely a foil for the epic drama of the events that unfold around it: involving warring patriarchs, estranged siblings reuniting, children discovering lost parents (or being adopted by new ones), and plenty of sex of all kinds — godly and mortal, straight and gay, pleasurably consensual and horrifically non-consensual.

Albinia also seems to have exchanged her interest in marginal histories for the epic Great Tradition: the Mahabharata itself. Much has been made of the relationship between Albinia’s contemporary story and the Mahabharata, but in fact there is no attempt to make the new narrative map the older epic in terms of plot or characters. All Albinia does is wrap her present-day story in a playful account of the centuries-old tug-of-war between Vyasa, author of the epic, and Ganesh, its godly scribe, both also making appearances in mortal form. Ostensibly at the core of the plot is a recurring interest in the messy business of co-authorship—whether of epics, poetry or children. But Albinia’s real concern is still what it was in Empires of the Indus: the question of how people deal with their cultural inheritance.

The characters of Leela’s Book are all driven by their differing relationships with their heritage, whether defined broadly at the level of community or nation, or at the level of individuals and families. There is Meera Bose, the Calcutta girl of the 1960s who decides to follow up her Anglophone education and Presidency College training in English literature with a stint in Shantiniketan to acquaint herself with her Bengali—and Indian—literary roots. There is her sister Leela, who is her partner in this venture, but who decides to renounce her roots by moving to America and refusing to entertain any thoughts of India, going so far as to prevent her husband Hari from naming his company “Dharma or Karma or even Bharata”, insisting on Harry Couture instead. There is Hari himself, whose move to America is resented by his brother Shiva Prasad for being so infuriatingly smooth: ‘instead of struggling with the cultural and religious void which was the USA, …instead of coming home sheepishly to the family scarred and subdued by the whole experience, Hari had seemed to flourish’. But unlike Leela, Hari has not given up on his origins; he makes secret visits to Jackson Heights and secret plans to return to India, triggered by the Kasturba Gandhi Marg house that is Leela’s inheritance (‘Does a house represent a root?’). There is the younger generation—Bharati, who does not see what is arresting about India’s anarchy, but is deeply invested in what she considers her personal poetic legacy; or Ram, who is scornful of the immediate past and only interested in the historical when it can be an extravagant form of ornamentation.

The primary dramatis personae, of course, are Shiva Prasad Sharma, Sanghi ideologue, and Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi, left-liberal Sanskrit professor with a complicated connection to Leela. Sunita, the virginal, slightly silly daughter of Shiva Prasad, is marrying Ash, promising genetics scholar and son of Vyasa. Albinia clearly intends these two upper-middle-class families — and especially their respective heads — as stand-ins for radically different ways of being in contemporary India. (She never quite dwells on the fact that both families bear North Indian Brahmin surnames, making them at some baseline level not so radically different from each other.)

Shiva Prasad is presented to us as not merely right-wing but deeply anti-Muslim (he disowns his favourite daughter Urvashi once she marries a Muslim), caste-obsessed (he thinks running a newspaper is “demeaning for a Brahmin”), a linguistic fundamentalist (it is “unpatriotic to promote the colonial language”) and anti-globalisation (it is “wicked to do business with immoral global corporations”). He is also delusional, dreaming of a political career that everyone except him knows will never materialise, and spending his days dictating an autobiography in which the crucial setpiece is his childhood career as nationalist speechifier-and-young militant Krishna. The final part of this caricature is his obsession with the ‘nascent Arya Gene Project’: a quest to identify ‘a gene in high-caste Hindus that allowed them to trace their lineage back to the race of Aryas, who had composed the Vedas thousands of years ago’ and ‘prove that these noble bearers of Arya civilisation were indigenous to India’.

Shiva Prasad is thus established as a bully, bigot and bit of a fool. But none of these things prepares us for what is to come — his brutish rape of a young woman whose sole crime is that she is Muslim: with an imagined deity showing him the route to ‘the assuaging of [his] own failings as a father, to the avenging of crimes against innocent Hindu populations, to revenge against the barbaric Muslim man who had taken virginal Urvashi as his nautch girl’. The book’s primary practising Hindu thus goes from being a figure of ridicule to an embodiment of evil, a man whose religious beliefs push him into frenzied violence against the innocent. His secular bete noir Ved Vyasa, in contrast, is not only successful but also the owner of a sharp intelligence that will always manage to trump Shiva Prasad at his own game— whether it’s speaking better Sanskrit on TV or successfully arranging an alliance between their families for his own ends.

Albinia has said in a newspaper interview that Shiva Prasad did undergo a transformation in the process of her writing the novel: “He started as a comic figure. Then I thought I can’t just have a comedy. That’s not what it was about.” The ‘it’ presumably refers to the rise of Hindutva, and the BJP’s time in power, which Albinia witnessed for over two years, from 1999 to 2002. It was an embattled time for anyone concerned with tradition; it still is. But Albinia’s presentation of secularists like Vyasa, for whom culture has little to do with religion, or worse, the ‘Lady Professor’ who goes on about ‘the inherent ridiculousness of Hinduism’ on rationalist grounds (‘A god with a blue face? An elephant-headed scribe? Phantoms of trees and mountains?’) as the only alternative to the Shiva Prasads of the world belies the very possibility of a critical but lived engagement with tradition. And it seems a pity that Albinia, whose stellar first book exhibits such a dogged refusal to tread the well-worn path and tell the well-worn tale, should have succumbed to such a reductive depiction of Hindu-ness versus secular-ness. In Empires, there is a moment when Albinia muses about ‘what it must be like to live in the Pakistan of the Indian media: a grimly religious, violently black-hearted nation, apparently the opposite of everything that pluralist India stood for’. There is much about Leela’s Book that is just as absurdly binary.

Published in Open magazine, 25th June 2011

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