20 November 2013

Post Facto: The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

My Sunday Guardian column this month:

Upendranath Ashk

The late Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk has a great story called 'The Dal Eaters'. First published in 1955, 'Daliye' only came to my notice earlier this year when I read Hats and Doctors, a selection of Ashk's short stories in Daisy Rockwell's impeccable translation. 'The Dal Eaters' is about North Indian tourists in Kashmir. Early on, two little girls on a bus from Pathankot to Srinagar "shriek" and "squawk" until the narrator caustically suggests they be enrolled in a school to nurture their musical genius. "That's what I think too," says Mr. Bhalla, oblivious to the sarcasm, "but right now they just get their education from the movie theatre nearby."
Setting his story in the tourist economy of 1950s Kashmir allows Ashk to do something literature does far too infrequently – talk about money. Mr. Bhalla's remark about the 'free coaching' his daughters receive from the cinema is of a piece with the scathing characterisation of the Bhallas as misers and freeloaders. 'Daliye', the story's title, is the contemptuous Kashmiri term for tourists like the Bhallas — "people who take pleasure in the paradise of Kashmir while eating only tandoori rotis that come with free dal." "If only tourists like them started coming here, who would buy all these Kashmiri almonds and walnuts, peaches and apricots, apples and pears, shawls, woodcuts and papier mache?" wonders Mr. Chopra.
The monetary theme is established right at the story's start, when Mr. Chopra, strolling along on the banks of the Lidder in Pahalgam, introduces the narrator to his brother-in-law. "He's a very famous artist from Delhi," [says Chopra], "his pictures should be in the President's Mansion, but he doesn't even care, he just makes them and hands them out to his friends. But believe you me, whoever has a painting of his in his hands has a fortune worth thousands of rupees." Of course we've come a very long way since 1955 with regard to the monetisation of art – and with regard to the sums of money that might be considered a fortune. But the sensibility which judges art primarily – even only – in terms of money is immediately and unsettlingly recognizable as being alive and well in our times.
I refer, of course, to the way in which the idea of writing transformed in the Indian public eye from something quiet, dull and penurious to the source of a potential jackpot (codeword: Arundhati Roy). That conversation — with the slow gleam dawning in a great-uncle's eye — is one many of us have encountered at the extended family gathering, and Mira Nair cottoned onto it perfectly in Monsoon Wedding. But it goes deep into the childhood psyche, this stuff. In New York in the mid-2000s, I went to an opening at one of the only two galleries that showed South Asian art then, and found one wall covered with the artistic outpourings of the offspring of potential (NRI) art investors, the result of a workshop that had been conducted that day. On the verge of being charmed by a rarefied space like an art gallery having allowed itself to become the site of a home-style proud-parent display, I went closer. And discovered that the little squiggles on each crayon mess weren't just 'signatures': they were 'signatures' accompanied by an imaginary price tag, each and every 'price' ending in several zeroes.
                                                                               ***
Another novel I recently read, John Lanchester's excellent 2012 novel Capital, is an insightful unravelling of the world wide web of money via a truly superb slice of London life on a fictional street. In December 2006, when the novel begins, real estate prices have risen so spectacularly that everyone who owns a house on Pepys Road is now rich. Some of these are people like Roger and Arabella Yount, who up until Roger's pre-Christmas-2006 bonus fiasco were the sort of people "who could unthinkingly afford a £3.5 million house" — and even after said fiasco, remained the sort of people who think nothing of buying a new table to spruce up a bedroom to make the house they're having to sell "more saleable".
But Lanchester also gives us people like Matya, the Younts' lovely Hungarian nanny, and Zbigniew, the Polish plumber, who Matya decides is much more right for her than the really rich man of her fantasies because he'll know what it's like to lose a £30 Oystercard. The book also counts among its central characters a hugely talented young Senegalese footballer whose only capital is his long, loping football stride, and a "performance and installation artist and all-round art-world legend" whose "anonymity was his most interesting artefact".
Ashk's dal-eaters, who scrounge on hotels and food, grossly underpay the shikarawallas and never pay the poor tour guides at all, are described as people who own their own fifty-thousand-rupee homes in Delhi's Patel Nagar. These were well-off people oblivious to the poverty of others, but also seemingly oblivious to their own wealth. In the world of Capital, the richest of the rich – like Arabella Yount – are so used to being rich that they remain oblivious even to their own impending poverty.

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