29 June 2015

CineVoice of the Nation

My Mirror column:

Continuing my short history of the Indian film magazine in
 English: editor Burjor K Karanjia and his many publications.

In last week's column ("Stars, Scandals and Fandom", Jun 21, 2015), I began a short history of the English-language Hindi film magazine. Starting in the 1930s, I brought the story down to the 1970s, when a series of new magazines altered the tone and texture of Indian film journalism in English.

But in 1970, the highest-circulating English magazine about Hindi cinema was Filmfare. It was edited by the late Burjor K Karanjia, whose politeness, erudition and general gentlemanliness were legendary. Karanjia was an unlikely film journalist: a Parsi from Quetta, Karanjia qualified for the much-prized Indian Civil Service in 1943, but got quickly bored and decided to abandon a potential bureaucratic career to explore other options. 

In his memoir, Counting My Blessings (Penguin, 2005), he describes how his fascination with cinema, first kindled in his Wilson College years by a chance witnessing of Franz Osten directing the lovely Devika Rani on the sets of his film Always Tell Your Wife, grew into a serious interest in film journalism. Being from a moneyed family, the 27-year-old Burjor decided to enter the field by launching a magazine. (Burjor's brother Russi Karanjia had already founded the investigative news tabloid Blitz, to which Anurag Kashyap's Bombay Velvet recently paid fictional homage.) 

Cinevoice, launched on June 7, 1947 at the Taj Mahal Hotel, in a glittering ceremony attended by many film grandees, was meant to "represent the industry's point of view" and fight its battles, while also being, in Karanjia's own words, "a journal that was clean, that was constructive and that had a conscience". Among the 'battles' waged in the pages of Cinevoice was a campaign "to plead for social recognition of the film community". It may seem difficult to imagine in our Bollywood-besotted era, but in those days, writes Karanjia, "film stars found it difficult to secure flats in decent localities in the city. No club, moreover, would admit film stars as members." Motilal, and later David Abraham, were the first actors to be admitted to the Cricket Club of India. Cinevoice also tried to gain film folk respectability by marshalling them into national political participation. He credits his colleague Ram Aurangabadkar with the idea of getting three contemporary actresses -- Nargis, Snehprabha Pradhan and Veera -- to attend the first All India Congress Committee (AICC) session held after Independence, and report on it for Cinevoice. 

Karanjia is also credited with instituting a system of film awards as early as 1949 - the Cinevoice Indian Motion Picture Awards (CIMPA) - and for programming a live charity show to raise money for "Kashmir Relief and Troop Comforts", called "A Nite with the Stars." Neither of these ventures quite took off independently, but both live shows with the stars, and film awards (which Karanjia managed to run with greater success as Filmfare editor), have proliferated to such a degree that our cinematic culture is unimaginable without either. Cinevoice did not last long, and neither did Karanjia's other self-funded journalistic venture, Movie Times.

But with the editorship of Filmfare came a certain stability. The magazine was a commercial publication that gladly put Hema Malini or Rajesh Khanna or a bikini-clad Sharmila Tagore on the cover, but also allowed Karanjia the space to do what he had set out to in Cinevoice: represent the voice of the film industry.

In the February 13, 1970 issue, while applauding the liberal attitude taken towards film censorship by the Khosla Committee Report, Karanjia's editorial called it out for equating commercial considerations with dishonesty, and wrote that the charge "betrays an ignorance of the many complex factors that have made film-making in India an adventure and a gamble, and that have attracted to it the wrong type of finance and the wrong type of filmmaker." 

Karanjia also combined in his person roles that today might seem impossibly divergent: he edited Filmfare for 18 years (and Screen for ten), while being Chairman of the Film Finance Corporation (FFC, later to become NFDC). The same February 13, 1970 issue of Filmfare, for instance, reported a press conference at which film director Basu Chatterjee discussed the film he had just finished shooting, with a loan from the FFC: Sara Akash. Chatterjee, the report noted, was a well-known Blitz cartoonist who had adapted Rajendra Yadav's Hindi novel into a film with an all-new cast and "a determination to steer away from songs, dances and other cliches of the Hindi cinema". 

The magazine quoted its own editor as having stated at the press conference that "Audiences, I think, are ready... The question no longer should be where these films will be screened, but what sort of films should now be made." The report went on: "The Corporation, he revealed, has already sent a proposal to the government for securing a network of theatres based not on opulence, but utility." 

As editor, he was credited with almost doubling Filmfare's circulation, and making a genuine effort to return the Filmfare Awards to their early prestige. He went on to write even sharper editorials for Screen.

Karanjia resigned from his position as FFC Chairman during VC Shukla's unsavoury reign as Minister for Information and Broadcasting during the Emergency, in January 1976 (though he did later become NFDC Chairman). But what distinguished BKK was a rare combination of traits: an enthusiasm for helping finance a new kind of cinema, but never being disdainful of commerce.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 29 Jun 2015.

Book Review: Regret -- by Ikramullah

Published in ScrollWith ‘Regret’, Urdu fiction in translation reveals a writer of courage and beauty.

The two novellas in this volume are defined by Partition without being ‘about’ it.

In his Introduction, co-translator Muhammad Umar Memon writes that when Penguin asked for an author photograph and an endorsement for the back cover of the book, he realised there was barely anything written on Ikramullah in English. Ikramullah’s own response was wonderful: “Dear Mr Memon, I am not in favour of printing an author's photograph on the book. No comments of famous writers are presently available. I do not preserve such writings.” An image and a quote were eventually found. But no wonder that I had never heard of Ikramullah before this book.

A great year for Urdu in translation

The last year in Indian publishing has been particularly good for new English translations from Urdu: in 2014, we got The Sun That Rose From the Earth, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi's own translation of his story collection Savaar aur Doosre Afsaane, published in Urdu in 2001 by Aaj Ki Kitabein, a Karachi publishing house.

Also in 2014, HarperCollins brought out Rakhshanda Jalil's translation of the legendary Intizar Husain's stories, entitled The Death of Sheherzad. This year, there has already been a buzz around Ali Akbar Natiq, whose short stories were published by Penguin in Ali Madeeh Hashmi's translation as What Will You Give For This Beauty? and Yoda Books’s Rococo and Other Worlds: The Poems of Afzal Ahmed Syed, translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi.

Many of the Urdu writers getting translated now have reached a venerable old age: Intizar Husain, who lives in Lahore, was born in UP in 1925 and migrated to Pakistan in 1947; Faruqi, who lives in Allahabad, was born in 1935; Syed was born in Ghazipur in 1946 and has lived in Karachi since 1976. Natiq – born in 1976, “in village 32/2-L near Okara” – is the youthful exception, and also the only one of these recently-translated Pakistani writers who was born in Pakistan.

Intizar Husain, Afzal Ahmed Syed and Ikramullah himself were born on this side of the border, in a pre-Partition subcontinent. At 76, Ikramullah is just a little younger than S.R. Faruqi. He was born in 1939 in Jandiala village, near Jalandhar, and finished school in Amritsar before moving with his family to Multan.

It’s always the Partition, as it must be

This biographical detail sparked my interest because both the novellas in this volume – 
Regret, originally Pashemaani, published in Sawa Neze Par Suraj in 1998, and Out of Sight, originallyAankh Ojhal, published in Bar-e Digar – are haunted by the Partition. And if you're thinking, “Oh, not another Partition narrative”, let me say two things.

First, that we need many more, not just because the Partition is the most harrowing thing to have happened on this subcontinent, but because we are still far from having come to terms with its effects. The more stories we tell, the more films we make, the more memories we muster, the better. Without them, we are fooling ourselves to think we can move on.

And second, the effectiveness of this book lies in the fact that it is not “about” the Partition in any way you might imagine. In fact, you could say that neither of the novellas here is particularly invested in plot. The Partition is not picked out as grand historical tragedy – and yet the protagonists are more changed by their experience of it than by anything that happens to them since.

Regret is an affecting first-person account of a boyhood friendship. Ikramullah conjures up his world in a single summer afternoon, which begins when the narrator invites his friend Ehsaan to eat “qulcha and spicy curried grams”. (The translators' choices here are inexplicable: “qulcha”, “aamla” and “bhang-bathu” are retained without explanation, but kofta becomes “meatball” and chhole/chane, “curried grams”.) Ehsaan “had absolutely no interest in stories”, but he inhabits the newspapers with all his imagination: a fan of Kemal Pasha and General Rommel, he is a tracker of trains, and so struck by images of the Bengal Famine that he feels like “taking off” for Bengal.

Ikramullah writes without flourish, and is a master of the telling detail: the exhausted qulfi seller dozing off in the heat, the Lala who reads the newspaper while his workers make puris, the Cold Well with crystal glasses for Hindus and Sikhs and a tin cup for Muslims, the coal-gathering Lali and Toti who have no Begum or Khanam in their names. Rioting, departures for Pakistan and negotiations for evacuee property all feature later, but the register in which Regret remains unequalled is as a discovery of class, social and political difference through children's eyes.

Out of Sight, in contrast, takes the threat of an anti-Ahmadi riot in a Pakistani town as the trigger for an outpouring of deeply adult guilt. It is narrated in the voice of Ismail, who as a young man managed to get away to safety in Amritsar while his family and townsmen were killed in Partition violence.

This novella is a quietly persuasive account of how groups of people are incited to violence, and how the consciousness of power can incite a majority to behave with a minority. Yes, it does not have the evocative power of Regret. But this slim volume reveals a writer of courage and beauty. One hopes more of Ikramullah will come our way in English before too long.

RegretIkramullah, translated by Faruq Hassan and Muhammad Umar Memon, Penguin Books India, 2015.

26 June 2015

Book Review: To the Farthest Rock

A book review published in last week's BL Ink:

Travelling Light
An impeccable translation of the Hindi writer Mohan Rakesh’s travelogue Aakhiri Chattan Tak brings 1950s India vividly to life

At the age of 27, having quit his recently-acquired position as Hindi teacher at the Bishop Cotton school in Shimla, Mohan Rakesh decided to travel. Here is how he describes it: “I had long wanted to travel by coastal roads along the sea. Sometimes I had time, sometimes money, but seldom both together. Then I resigned from my teaching job and time and a little money became available. I set out for the seacoast immediately.”
It was December 1952. To the Farthest Rock, translated from Rakesh’s Aakhiri Chattan Tak, details his three-month journey along India’s western coast, starting with a train ride from Delhi to Bombay, and ending in Kanyakumari. Rakesh went on to become a major Hindi writer — his best-known works are the Delhi-set novel Andhere Bandh Kamre, and the plays Adhe Adhure, Ashadh ka Ek Din and Lehron ke Rajhans, all regarded as 20th-century classics. At the time he made this journey, though, he had published only one book of stories: Insan ke Khandahar.
But reading this book, one does not often feel that one is reading a 27-year-old. If anything, there is an admirable maturity in the way Rakesh holds out against the temptation to hold forth. There is a definite authorial voice here: observant, sensitive, and open to experience. But his refusal to marshal authority — either journalistic or writerly — is what makes this an unusual travelogue. It is not that Rakesh isn’t interested in places, or history, or art; it is rather that he is more interested, always, in people.
There is no ‘point’ to this book except as the travel diary of a young writer. It goes where he decides to go, and much of it unfolds as everyday conversations between strangers, on trains, in boats, in hotels, or just walking around a village. It has little in common with the judgmental audacity of a similar travelogue written by a young Indian man at the start of his writing career: Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. The sympathetic, observational tone put me more in mind of Upendranath Ashk’s 1940 short story ‘Furlough’, also set in a train compartment, a decade or so before Rakesh. 
To the Farthest Rock, by Mohan Rakesh
Translated from Hindi by Satti Khanna
Rs. 299, 192 pages, HarperCollins, 2015.
There is no pretence here of neutrality, of being a fly on the wall. Of course, Rakesh describes what he sees and hears, and does so with both precision and poetry. But what makes his pen-portraits of encounters with people so appealing is that he is always present in them: a quiet, sometimes surprised, occasionally irritable interlocutor. 
The muscular old boatman who rows him across the Bhopal lake, for instance, only gradually acquires a personality — and Rakesh describes the process with charming transparency: “We had been addressing him as ‘Boatman’. At the end of his recitation of Ghalib I asked him his name. “My name is Abdul Jabbar Pathan,” he replied, emphasising the surname Pathan.” When Rakesh says to Abdul Jabbar, “I would not have expected somebody your age to enjoy romantic poetry,” he is being candid about his own youthful tactlessness. Later, when Abdul Jabbar says he has “sworn off carnal desires”, and asks if they have the time to listen to “something different”, Rakesh again lets us in on his eyeroll: “I thought we were in for Sufi preaching”, before telling us how wrong he was.
While it does not consciously seek to locate itself in time, To the Farthest Rock is charged with a post-independence melancholy. There is the teenager travelling ticketless, who describes his life’s Partition upheavals with not a glimmer of complaint. The many unemployed young men Rakesh meets in Kerala are perhaps the strongest indicator of the national mood: an English-speaking, Sanskrit-reciting beggar; the jobless ‘debating society’ that gathers at Tellicherry’s railway station.
But even those who have jobs seem to have all the time in the world. Perhaps this is what the world was like in the 1950s, or perhaps it would still be like this if we were to only try getting on a train without a hotel booking or a return ticket. From the middle-class Karvakar, who persuades him to stay a night in Vasco, in his house, to the labourer Govindan who leaves his work to show Rakesh a coffee plantation, locals seem to go out of their way to spend time with him. Perhaps because Rakesh seems genuinely interested in their lives — from the young man who has decided not to marry “to avoid changes in his and his mother’s peaceful routine”, to the travelling salesman whose work keeps him away from his wife and child, the less he asks of people, the more they confide in him. But he also captures, with quiet poignancy, the experience of linguistic alienness.
The mention of language brings me to what is perhaps the most attractive thing about this book: the writing. I have not read the Hindi original, but in Satti Khanna’s excellent rendering, the language feels crisp even when the thought is meditative. The descriptions are crystal-clear, never indulgent with imagery. When there is an image, it is memorable. “Waves rose from the water like sharks.” Or when describing a spontaneous harmonica competition on a steamer from Goa to Mangalore, he writes: “The contest shifted from the quality of playing to the volume of ovation.”
The black-and-white sketches by Trinankur Banerjee add an attractive new layer of imagery. Satti Khanna’s ‘PS’ — a wonderful feature of HarperCollins’ translations — insightfully locates Rakesh in the Hindi literary context, and adds another visual layer: photographs, among which I was delighted to discover one of Rakesh with Ashk. It made for a perfect end to a book of companionable conversations.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 19 June, 2015.

21 June 2015

Stars, scandals and fandom

Today's Mirror column:

Reading in English about Hindi movies: a very brief history of the Indian film magazine as we know it.

Writing about films is one thing; writing about film stars is quite another. There are those who do both with aplomb. But in India, most long-running film magazines have been much more interested in the lives of film celebrities than the content of films.

The first Indian magazine completely devoted to cinema coverage was the Gujarati Mauj Majah, first published in 1924. Among English magazines, Baburao Patel's well-regarded monthly FilmIndia, published from 1935 to 1961, was one of the first. (The legendary and indefatigable Patel, who produced the entire content of the magazine himself – later aided and finally replaced by his wife Sushila – is the subject of a new book called The Patels of FilmIndia, which I'm looking forward to reading).

This was followed by the first trade publications, like KayTee Reports and Tradeguide, concerned not with stars but with predicting the commercial success or failure of particular films. In 1951 came Screen, launched by the Indian Express group in a colour broadsheet format. Screen, because it was concerned both with recent events in the industry and with films under production, could “be situated somewhere between the trade and the fan magazines”, writes film scholar Rachel Dwyer.

Close on Screen's heels came Filmfare, launched by the Times of India group in 1952. Filmfarewas glossy and upmarket, but it intended to be a family magazine and a sophisticated one. The first issue contained a manifesto that stated, “This magazine represents the first serious effort in film journalism in India. It is a movie magazine – with a difference. The difference lies in our realisation that the film as a composite art medium calls for serious study and constructive criticism and appreciation from the industry as also from the public.” This noble intention was cemented by the institution of the Filmfare Awards in 1953. Filmfare remained biweekly until 1988, when financial troubles forced it to become a monthly, which it has been since.

But the big moment of change in English-language film journalism in India was the 1970s, when a clutch of new magazines changed both the way we related to the stars and the language in which we were meant to do it. Jerry Pinto summed up the 70s magazine scene in his superb bitchy-funny Introduction to The Greatest Show on Earth, a spectacular anthology of writing on Hindi cinema that he edited in 2011. “Filmfare was the grand old lady, still published in an improbable size that meant you couldn't open it fully in a crowded bus or train. Stardust was the snazzy newcomer with a hint of middle-class contempt for the arrivistes and outsiders that made up the film industry. Cine Blitz came later and launched itself on the unsuspecting public with Protima Bedi – a Bollywood citizen through her open marriage with Kabir Bedi – running nude on a city beach. In between, for a brief while, there was Super, which had an almost indecipherable column, written as a letter, by Bubbles. Since Bubbles assumed we all knew the stars' nicknames, I often read it wondering at what was really happening and who was doing what to whom. When one did know (Daboo was Randhir Kapoor and Kaka was Rajesh Khanna) one felt validated in one's knowledge.”

Stardust, writes Dwyer, was founded in 1971 by Nari Hira of the Magna Publications group “as a marketing opportunity for his advertising business”. It was meant to be something along the lines of the American celebrity gossip mag Photoplay, more salacious than the then-staid Filmfare. Dwyer's 2001 essay contains the following wonderful account: “Twenty-three year old Shobha Rajadhyaksha (later De), who had been working for Hira for eighteen months as a trainee copywriter, was hired as the first editor. She had no interest in the movie world and had never worked as a journalist, but was hired on the strength of an imaginary interview with Shashi Kapoor, whom she had never met.” The imaginary interview was clearly a thing, combining an opportunity for writerly showing-off with a jokey fantasy that indulged the star's fans. Jerry Pinto cites one ridiculously risqué one with Bindu, from the now-defunct Film Mirror, which ends with the “reporter” waking from a dream. But more of that in another column.

To return to Shobhaa De, she apparently produced the first Stardust issue alone (with one paste-up man). She was later joined by a production staff of three and a team of freelance reporters who “collected stories which she wrote up”: a one-woman show not far from Baburao Patel. But De seems to have stayed put in her office, somewhat unusual for a young journalist. In her memoir Selective Memory: Stories from My Life, De's version of it is: “My eyes and ears were so attuned to reportage that I preferred my colleagues' version of their meetings with the stars to personal encounters.” Dwyer puts it somewhat differently. “De stubbornly refused to move in the film world, only meeting the stars if they came into the office,” she writes, making one envisage a scenario that seems nearly unimaginable today, when a respected and senior film journalist told me that even he finds it difficult to get interview appointments with current stars. Most stars, he added, seem in such a huge rush to finish the interview that it can barely become a conversation.

Super, too, was founded by an exceptionally young team that included Bhavana Somaya and Namita Gokhale. Gokhale, then 20, encountered Dev Anand some four decades later at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and was amazed to have him recall the last time they had met. “It was in 1981, I think,” he mused. “You were with your editor Rauf Ahmed – what was the magazine called...?” Whether it was the fact that these young people were just exceptionally memorable, or that stars in those days met less journalists, I don't know.

Book Review: Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing

Published in the Indian Express:

A Book of One's Own

To represent the immense variety of texts produced by Indian women over the last 2,000 years — in 350-odd pages — is no mean feat.

Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing
Ed: Annie Zaidi
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: 372 
Price: Rs 595

First things first: in assembling this anthology, Annie Zaidi has accomplished a mammoth task. To represent the immense variety of texts produced by Indian women over the last 2,000 years — in 350-odd pages — is no mean feat.

As with any anthology, both its pleasures and its perils lie in personal choice: the editor’s love of a particular piece will eventually determine what makes the cut. With a project as ambitious as this one, there are also all sorts of less personal variables to consider. Should it include anonymous folk literature in a feminine voice? Does “Indian” include writers who later became Pakistani or Bangladeshi citizens? Does it include diaspora writers? “Indian” wasn’t the only word that Zaidi had to define: “writer”, she decided, couldn’t include columnists, speech-writers and letter-writers, and for 20th century writers, they needed to have “a body of work”. When it came to genre, though, Zaidi cast her net wide, including excerpts from novels, stories, non-fiction, essays, speeches, travelogues, memoirs and plays. A poet herself, she gives a lot of space to poems. A different editor might have decided differently. But Zaidi’s careful introduction lays out her criteria with such scrupulous honesty that disagreements seem churlish.
In any case, it is indisputable that this volume contains many more gems than duds, and a reader dipping into it at random will net enough unexpected pleasures. Some are famous names you have somehow never read: for me, these included Kamala Markandeya, the surprisingly vivid Cornelia Sorabji, Sarojini Naidu (represented not by her poetry but by a superb speech) and Bhakti poets like Bahinabai and Akka Mahadevi. Others I had never heard of, like Vibhavari Shirurkar (1905-2001), whose lovely excerpt from Kharemaster has a husband wooing his teenaged wife, or Pratibha Ray, whose Yagnaseni is a provocative Oriya retelling of the Mahabharata in Draupadi’s voice. There are several well-known writers I admire — Vaidehi, with one of her most brilliant stories, 'Gulabi Talkies', about the coming of the cinema to a small town; Krishna Sobti, with an extract from Surajmukhi Andhere Ke, which I wouldn’t have chosen, but which is rare for its frank, intimate depiction of sex; Mrinal Pande, whose Bibbo is a delightfully sardonic tale of an upper class couple’s domestic help; or Easterine Kire, whose excerpt from Bitter Wormwood offers a sharp, sweet sense of what it was to hear about Gandhi’s death in Nagaland.

The question whether such an anthology deserves to exist is answerable in two ways. One is historical: given the traditional disadvantages Indian women have battled in terms of even gaining literacy, it seems worth mapping what they have concerned themselves with when in the privileged position of publishing books. One hopes that the ongoing transformation of women’s lives (and of publishing) will make such a project seem ridiculously broad, 50 years from now. The second answer is that women’s writing is writing by women — it need not be about them. This could have been the answer provided by this book, and to some extent it is: the selections reveal that women, even when constrained by domesticity, embrace the world. It is here, though, that I must strike a note of disagreement with the organising scheme, which seems to give “female” thematics more space than gender-neutral ones. 

Still, some of her sections hold together beautifully, like ‘Food’, ‘Children’, and ‘Ends’ (which should be ‘Bodies’, since that is what ends in almost every piece). Often, though, the themes feel unnecessarily constrained. Why, for instance, must we separate ‘Spiritual Love’ from ‘Secular Love’ when our traditions of poetic writing, especially the Sufi and Bhakti poets who dominate the ‘Spiritual’ section, have never done so? Why is ‘Secular Love’ necessarily outside ‘Marriage’, with the latter so exclusively given over to depressing accounts of widowhood, marital angst, patriarchal in-laws? Conversely, some section heads are so broadly metaphorical — ‘Identity’, ‘Battles’, or ‘Journeys’ — that many pieces seem switchable. Iravati Karve’s brilliant unpacking of the Khandava fire could be in ‘Myth and Fable’ as much as ‘Battles’. Mahadevi Varma’s underwhelming piece on a Chinese peddler in ‘Journeys’ seems rather statically about ‘Identity’ to me. I could go on. 

My other problem is that in trying to fit in over 100 authors, each is allotted barely three pages. Poems benefit, while stories and essays seem cruelly cut short. I’d also have liked the date of original publication under each piece: an index isn’t the same thing. Unbound is a labour of love, and a tantalising glimpse of wonderful writers we must read. But for an introduction that offers both authoritative critical heft and delightful biographical detail, I would still return to the two-volume Women Writing in India, edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalita (1991-93) and thankfully, still in print. 

15 June 2015

Post Facto: Wake up and smell the fish: perfume and plebeian stinks

My Sunday Guardian column this month:

"When he regained consciousness, the first thing that hit Ali was the smell of fish. Rich, pungent and briny — with a hint of decay. This was not the mild, innocent fish that was tandooried every evening by his neighbourhood kebab vendor. This was formidable fish, fish that boldly declared its presence, fish that, once consumed, would stamp itself on you at the cellular level and define your character in strange, unpredictable ways. This was fish whose odour could transform, cleanse and purify you."

That’s a passage from Shovon Chowdhury’s superbly funny 2013 novel, The Competent AuthorityDescribing a smell is a great way to transport the reader. It’s even better when you have a time-travelling protagonist just coming to, in a place he doesn’t recognise. We’re forced to think on our feet, like Ali. We inhale the very air he’s breathing, until the smell reveals where we are. Of course, it’s Calcutta.

Smell really is about time-travel. Most people will have had the uncanny experience of entering a place for the first time and having their nostrils assailed by a deep, distinctive sense of familiarity. A trace of some remembered scent is often all that’s needed to throw one into another space, another time. The whiff of mothballs in a long-closed cupboard, the steamy smell of starched clothes being ironed, the damp Cuticura scent of a swimming pool changing-room — these are smells that can propel me with unstoppable force into my own Calcutta childhood.

Eventually, though, those are mild smells. Let us return to fish, which is the very definition of odorousness — to many people, not in a good way. The very expression “smelling fishy” suggests dubiousness, odd though it is that the phrase comes to us from an island whose biggest culinary export to the world is fish and chips. But then fish-eating doesn’t necessarily acclimatise people to the smell of fish. In his 1950s travelogue Aakhiri Chattan Tak, recently translated as To the Farthest Rock, the Hindi writer Mohan Rakesh returns to Mumbai after a mere two-year gap, and is confused by “the overpowering smell of fish”. As Vir Sanghvi recently wrote in an accusatory column, North Indians seem to want to eat fish without the taste and smell of it.

Some of this aversion to strong smells is directly proportional to the degree of our post-liberalisation poshness. Even in Mumbai, where Sanghvi would agree with Rakesh that “the smell of fish was never very far away” some decades back, fish-buying has now become a “plastic-wrapped affair”. And when Sanghvi applauds the Bengali man for treating fish-buying as a sacred ritual, one can only wonder how long this proud act of baajaar will hold out against gentrification’s olfactory dictates.

I was surprised that Sanghvi didn’t mention the Malayalis, the other grand fish-eating, fish-inhaling community in the country. I sometimes think of Malayalis and Bengalis as engaged in a silent fish-eating contest, one which occasionally breaks out into fervent arguments about sea fish versus river fish. Then comes the invariable question of frying fish before putting it in a curry, and both sides decide there’s no point talking. Cue return to the silent contest. (In case you’re wondering, other fish-eaters — Maharashtra, Kashmir, Assam, and so on — are barred from competing.)

Anyway. I recently watched a Malayalam play called Matthi, where the sharp smell of fish was key to innovative stagecraft. The LTG Auditorium in Delhi was redolent of sardines when we took our seats. “Yes, the name of this small, cheap and popular fish is Matthi. A poor fish. Not to chide you, but some things have to be said to make people understand,” said the supertitles. As in Seema Pahwa’s wonderful one-woman show Saag Meat, the eponymous item was cooked on stage, and offered to the audience afterwards. Although wrecked by an inchoate politics that bundled a maudlin working class nostalgia with anti-outsider prejudice, the play managed to make the tang of matthi a stand-in for the life of the poor. “Don’t wash off the smell using soap,” one character urged the other. “Some smells remain even after us,” said another man.

Some smells certainly do. The writer Mrinal Pande has often spoken of how the lack of ventilation in the old-style Pahari houses of her childhood gave rise to a specialised vocabulary of smell. There was a word for the stench of burnt cloth, a word for the lingering odour of urine, and so on.

But if some smells are hard to get rid of, we have also spent millennia producing substances that can transform how we smell. In Delhi this January, the historian Emma Flatt spoke on the multifarious perfume palette of the medieval Deccan. According to the Itr-I-Nauras-Shahi, a remarkable treatise on perfumery written for legendary Bijapur sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah, it was “incumbent that all created beings, particularly the followers of the Prophet, use perfumes and share them with one another.” Deccani poetry suggests that floral smells, like rose and jasmine, were prized, as were animal compounds like musk and amber. Paan was highly approved: bad breath didn’t just indicate lack of etiquette, but of social status. Of course, as Flatt pointed out, perfumes and unguents were—and are—a luxury. But if poorer people smell stronger, it’s not because they can’t afford perfumes. It’s because work means sweat, and they don’t have the luxury of spending their summers in fragrant khus-cooled (or air-dried) chambers. And so, to the many privileges of the rich, is added that of smelling better than the poor. And coining phrases like “the great unwashed”.

14 June 2015

Bengali writers know that unless they reach London, nothing will happen: Sankar

My interview with Sankar, published in Scroll.

Sankar (Mani Sankar Mukherjee) is perhaps Bengal's best-selling contemporary writer. Born in 1933, Sankar has published over 70 books, including 37 novels, 5 travelogues, biographies, essays and stories for children. His most widely-read book is Chowringhee (1962), a slice-of-life narrative set in and around a fictitious hotel in central Calcutta. With its cast of colourful characters, Chowringhee was a perfect choice for big screen adaptation, and sure enough, the 1968 film starring Uttam Kumar was a huge hit.

Two more of Sankar's novels, Jana Aranya (The Middleman) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited), were made into films by Satyajit Ray. In recent years, several of his books have also done well in English translation, winning awards and new readers in India and elsewhere. Here he talks about his fraught relationship with the Bengali literary establishment, about being translated, and why English is the gateway to the world.

Did you start your fiction career writing for literary journals and periodicals, or did you first publish directly in book form? 

Since the 1950s, the practice in Bengal is to get serialised in magazines, and that is how my first novel, Kato Ajanare, was also first published. It appeared in instalments in the well-known literary magazine Desh, in 1955. Later it was published in book form.

Did your books become popular with Bangla readers quite early? Were your book sales connected to book reviews, press coverage or literary awards in Bangla? 

Bengali reviewers have been historically very mean-spirited towards me. (laughs) In fact, reviewers would spread canards of every sort about my books. Those who controlled the market were fond of dismissing me. Many of them said I was a one-book author. My books have only received one award in Bangla: for excellent binding.

But your books have always sold astoundingly well. I believe you did some marketing of your own books? I read on your Wikipedia entry that you sold collections of your books in blue packets under the name 'Ek Bag Sankar'?

I never did that. Ek Bag Sankar is just the name of my collection of stories for children. It is a bestselling book. I think it has sold some 100,000 copies, easily. It sold so well that I myself was embarrassed.

When were you first translated?
There was not much English translation in those days, when I started writing. At one point someone thought that the best of Bengal should be translated. But the editor of a Bengali magazine called Achal Patra, he was dead against it. He said, I will fast unto death, because if this English translation happens, then the world will find out from where Bengali writers have been stealing their stories.

Fast unto death!? Seriously?
It was a joke, but only partly. Bengalis, you know, they only talk, they do nothing. (Laughs)

But really, since Tagore's Gitanjali, Bengali writers have known that translation is the gateway to world success. Unless they reach London, nothing will happen.

But you didn't try to get your books translated?

Not really. When Arunava Sinha – he was my daughter's contemporary – said he wanted to translate it in English, I said, if he wants to waste his time, go ahead. And so he had done a translation but it was not published. Many years later, when Penguin Books approached me through my Bangla publisher, I said, there is already an English translation.

The Hindi translation of Chowringhee came out almost immediately after the book was published, and Vikram Seth and Khushwant Singh had both read the book in Hindi. They recommended it to Penguin. Vikram Seth is such a humble person, he was very nice when I met him in London.

In London also, they asked me this question: why so late with the translation? I quoted a Horlicks ad to them, which I once saw in the Statesman: “It is not available, but it is worth waiting for”.

What about the Indian readership for English translations? Do you think it has grown larger/ more interested in Indian language writers, in recent years?

Well, I can say that I got many readers across the country, and the critical attention also helped in getting new Bengali readers. In Generation Next, even the Bengalis don't read Bangla, so having an English edition that they can read is a great thing.

How was the media reception to the English editions of your books different from the Bengali press?

I was in London for the London Book Fair, and Chowringhee got raving half-page reviews in the British press. People say, this one book has given Calcutta a calling card. And good literature cannot survive on scandal value. Who Lady Pakrashi was is of no consequence. (Interviewer: Mrs. Pakrashi is an important character in Chowringhee, and apparently the publication of the novel led to some speculation about her 'real' identity.)

Critics in English write with an open mind. In Bengal, not so. And there is no advertising or marketing of Bengali books. Sometimes it's just a notice.

Could you give me a rough sense of the number of copies sold of your books? For instance, of Chowringhee in English versus Bengali? And if you have the numbers, of any of your other books that have been translated?

Chowringhee in Bangla has sold over 100,000 copies for sure. (Interviewer: The English edition it has sold 30,000 copies, according to Penguin Books India.) And as for Bangladesh, the pirated edition sold in huge numbers. I don't think there is anyone from Bangladesh I have met who has not read Chowringhee! Now, thankfully, there is a legitimate Bangladeshi edition, and that is also doing well.

More recently, there is a non-fiction book of mine on Vivekananda, that has sold 1,70,000 copies in Bangla. It has also been translated in English, The Monk as Man: The Unknown Life of Swami Vivekananda. Who knows why, he is a phenomenon, and I am just an old man. I get incredible phone calls from all over the country. Two days back a reader called from Gujarat, and said, tell me, why did Vivekananda choose to wear gerua colour? Was it because it takes long to get dirty?

Do you think having your writing available in English has changed things for you as a writer?

English is a storehouse of all the ideas of the world. People are reading in it and remembering a language that has not yet conveyed itself to the world. Once you reach English, you can reach even China. So why would you want to write something where the train will not move beyond Asansol?

I believe in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the whole world is one family. Hotel Shahjahan and its characters belong to the world, and not only to Calcutta. 

Taking the shine off India

My Mumbai Mirror column this morning:
Does revisiting Raj Kapoor’s 1950s classic Boot Polish in light of Kaaka Muttai, the superb new Tamil film about two slum children, show us how little distance we have really travelled?

Boot Polish is on my mind for two reasons. One, because I only recently discovered, amid all of this year's Cannes excitement, that exactly 60 years ago, in the summer of 1955, we sent Boot Polish to Cannes to compete for the Palm d'Or. (No, it didn't win. But it did come home with a Special Distinction for the sparkling performance of one of its two child actors: Baby Naaz.) And two, because watching the lovely Kaaka Muttai (The Crow's Egg), which released across India last week with English subtitles, made me think of this much older film, also about a pair of siblings who live in a slum.
But there, it would seem, any similarity ends. Kaaka Muttai has a neat, well-defined premise that seems almost cheerful – the kids want to eat pizza. The film is witty and subtle and wants to keep things light, even as it slices sharply though the zeitgeist – while my memory of Boot Polish was of a song-filled tearjerker about the cruelty of a world in which children had to fend for themselves.

But what emerged from re-watching Boot Polish surprised me. Of course the tone is very different, but like Kaaka Muttai, the 1954 film constantly leavens pathos with humour. In a tragic opening scene, the orphaned brother and sister Bhola and Belu are abandoned at the doorstep of their vengeful aunt Kamla, who proceeds to force the hapless boy and his baby sister almost immediately into beggary. But in the next scene, we see the children, slightly older and cannier, begging on a bus, and the song they sing is impossible not to smile at:

“Dhela hi dila de baba, dhela hi dila de.
Dhela na dega, teri chori ho jayegi.
Chori jo hogi thane tu jaega,
Thane tu jaake rapat likhayega,
Itna jo karega, baba, dhela hi dila de...
Dhela na dega, teri nani mar jayegi.
Nani jo maregi Hardwar jayega...
Hardwar jaake pandon ko khilayega,
Itna jo karega, humein dhela hi dila de”.

A dhela was half a paisa, the very smallest denomination at the time. The begging song combines an appeal for “just a dhela” with a hilarious set of curses predicting the fate that will befall the person if they don't pay up, all of which would mean more money lost. So, goes the chorus, “you might as well give us a dhela”.

Later, as the wicked aunt slaps Belu around to make her perfect her “blind” beggar's chant, the little girl gets confused. She's meant to say, “Subah se bhookhi, janam se andhi”. You can't help but giggle as she says, “Subah se andhi hoon” (I've been blind since morning) and bites her tongue.

Some of the humour shines blacker than black. Such as when a nasty astrologer gleefully proclaims to Bhola (Rattan), “Tu jootiyan ragdega saari zindagi” (You'll polish shoes all your life), only to have the boy leap up in joy saying “Ab toh dhanda khoob chalega!” (Now the business is sure to run!) That polishing shoes for a living can seem like freedom is further underlined by the children's spontaneous declaration when they manage to buy a brush and polish to set up their “business”: “Aaj se Hindustan aazaad hua. Bheekh maangna bandh!” (Hindustan is now free. No more begging!)

It's not as if the film isn't melodramatic. The deeply principled Bhola might have been an inspiration for the khuddaar street urchin that most of us recognise from countless 80s and 90s films, best encapsulated by Amitabh Bachchan's “Main phenke huye paise nahi uthata” (I don't pick up money thrown at me). In Boot Polish, it is the children's one adult sympathiser, John Chacha (David), who strengthens Belu and Bhola's resolve to reject a life of beggary for one of labour: “Bheekh maangne ke liye yeh mutthi kabhi mat kholna, chahe kuchh bhi ho jaye.” (Don’t ever unclose your fist to beg, come what may.)

But as in most class-focused Hindi melodrama, the film's personalised solution for its protagonists belies the socialist optimism of its crowd scenes and anthems, like the famous “Nanhe munhe bachhe”, (Little child) which goes: “Na bhookhon ki bheed hogi, na dukhon ka raj hoga/ Badlega zamana yeh sitaron pe likha hai” (There will be no hungry throngs, nor will sorrow rule/ The tide will turn; it’s written in the stars). Writer-director Prakash Arora decides to save Belu from the fate of her companions like every popular writer before and after Dickens: via a kind, rich benefactor. And then he squeezes every ounce of tears out of the temporary contrast between the fates of Belu and Bhola: think visual matches between Belu asleep on a soft bed amid marble pillars and Bhola on the footpath. Later, as Bhola is failing to lift his coolie's load, we cut to the adult servant in Belu's new home lifting luggage: the film's turnaround even on the dignity of labour is complete (though the child-adult contrast makes it possibly justifiable).

By the end of Kaaka Muttai, much has happened, but all that has changed is that the kids have eaten a pizza – and learnt that the image has more punch than the real thing. The media fracas set off by their filmed encounter with a nasty pizza parlour manager leads us to the same conclusion. Boot Polish's epic arc, in contrast, leads its protagonists from extreme deprivation to an almost mythical new start.

And yet, there are moments when we see glimpses of suppressed complexity. “
Ba se ber,” (B for ber, a small fruit) says Belu, reading the alphabet to her adoring new mother. “Mujhe ber bahot pasand hai. Chocolate nahi. Papa roz chocolate laate hain, ber kyon nahi laate?” (I like ber very much, not chocolate. Papa brings me chocolate every day, but why doesn’t he bring me ber?) She is already in the position of the two well-off children in Kaaka Muttai, who willingly trade their mall-bought new clothes for panipuri. But when the Kaaka Muttai kids decide dosa tastes better than pizza after all, the film’s end feels a little bit wishful.

12 June 2015

Book Review: The Long Voyage of the Ibis

My (long) review of Amitav Ghosh's Flood of Fire. Published in the Wire.

A recent article in Slate on the surprising survival of “the very long novel” suggested that it works as counterprogramming. In these times of avowed attention deficit, reading a VLN feels ever more like resistance. The novels that make up Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, at 550-600 pages each, don’t quite qualify as VLNs. But a trilogy goes one further, by returning us to the committed seriality that was once de rigueur for literary consumption.
At the Delhi launch of Flood of Fire, one gentleman in the audience managed to ask the question on many people’s minds. “If I want to read this book, do I have to first buy and read the other two books?” Ghosh smiled and assured him that he didn’t. I wasn’t quite convinced: as one of those devoted Ghosh readers who read Sea of Poppies with great excitement and River of Smoke with a patience born of waiting, I’m not the ideal candidate to test this claim. But having now read Flood of Fire, I think it actually does manage to be a stand-alone narrative. This is a remarkable feat, given that it is also within these 600-odd pages that all surviving loose threads from the previous two books must be tied up.
Several characters from the previous books reappear, many having transformed themselves, chameleon-like, as they travel through time and space. Neel, an English-educated Bengali who was once the Raja of Raskhali, is now a translator in Canton; the Bengali-speaking French orphan Puggly has emerged fully formed as the botanical collector Paulette; the ‘half-caste’ son of a Parsi seth and a Chinese woman has gone from being the convict Ah Fatt to the rather less threatening Freddy Lee. Among those who undergo truly radical change in this book are Mrs. Burnham, who acquires both a past and an interiority one might never have suspected, and Seth Bahram Modi’s wife, who emerges from a sequestered, literally purdahed existence at the top of the Bombay mansion she was born in, to take her place in a new world. (Ghosh helps her along, slyly dropping the “Shirinbai” of the previous books for the more contemporary “Shirin”.)
There are new characters, too, none more important than Kesri Singh, the elder brother of Deeti,  who was the centre of the first book, and whose invisible presence continues to haunt the third. I will refrain from naming the other new characters, but what is remarkable to me is the degree to which Ghosh is invested, in this book, in chance reunions. The coincidental coming together of long-lost characters–lovers, siblings, parents, children–after a long and complex plot involving their separation, is very much among this book’s narrative pleasures, both Shakespearian and filmi.
A petarrah of words
One of the other pleasures of the Ibis Trilogy has been the joyful proliferation of multiple Englishes, allowing the hybrid speech of a polyglot colonial world to roll off our tongues. Sea of Poppies made enjoyable use of this, having characters switch from one sort of language to another—I think particularly of ship’s mate Zachary, moving from the slangy American “What the hell you pesticatin me for at this time o’night?” to the sahebi civility of “If I may be so bold”. River of Smoke contained not just negotiations, but even flirtation and lovemaking in the pidgin-English of Canton’s boat-people. Flood of Fire is no different. Some characters make do with a couple of signature interjections, like the young banjee-boy Dicky’s use of “ya” and “bugger”, and Freddy Lee’s “lah” and “ne”. But the book bubbles over with the vocabulary of the Raj, in which English met Hindustani to create a unique lingo used not just between English masters and native servants, but between white colonialists themselves: the Burnhams, thus, are looking for a mystery (mistri) for the purpose of bunnowing (banaoing) their boat, and are willing to offer a good tuncaw (tankhwah).
Certain aspects of Raj life threw up a greater number of hybrid words, such as the British Indian army, whose workings form the most engaging chunk of Flood of Fire. Within the first two pages of the book, we’ve already seen the tamasha of a paltan going by, with ox-drawn bylees and a host of army camp-followers: dandiawallas, syces, berry-wallahs, bhisties, naach-girls, mess-consummers (a combination of the English ‘mess’ and the Hindustani ‘khansaama’) and bangy-burdars (“men who are each obliged to carry forty pound weight, in small wooden or tin boxes, called petarrahs,” says my Hobson-Jobson). On page 5, we encounter ‘badmashes’, ‘coolie’ and ‘subedar’ as part of a (fictitious) report in the Calcutta Gazette. By page 22, Ghosh brings this linguistic hybridity explicitly into his narrative, when Neel is asked for help by an Englishman in Canton who is puzzling over the many Indian words in an article on opium production in the Chinese Repository: maund, tola, seer, chittack (all weights and measures), arkati (a kind of agent), ryot (raiyat, peasant) and carcanna (karkhana, meaning workshop or factory).
In Ghosh’s compelling vision, words emerge as aides to love—and to war. We giggle at Mrs. Burnham’s Hindustani-inflected sexual banter, describing her lover’s “bahawder sepoy” as “a lathee always ready to be lagaoed” and informing him that “In India, chartering is what you do with… your jib”. We also wonder at how conflict can result from deliberate misconstruals, even at the level of states: as when Compton accuses inaccurate translators of “twisting the Chinese language in order to make trouble” with the British. Still, when Neel writes of being “besotted with words”, one imagines Ghosh’s own voice, reaching out to readers who might share that particular intoxication.
Not quite a peace pipe
Although the trilogy is named for the Ibis, the schooner on which its disparate cast of characters first come together, the ship plays less of a role in the second and third books. What in fact does unite the books is opium. Opening in the poppy fields of Ghazipur, by the Ganga, the first book offered an arresting account of opium production: how the sap from ripe poppy bulbs was harvested to be made into opium in the East India Company’s factory. The second book described its transportation, and how large a role opium played in financing British rule in India. In Flood of Fire, more layers emerge: we observe an opium auction in Calcutta, discover a trade in opium futures, and learn that Indian sepoys often took a form of opium known as maajun to calm their nerves before battle.
Opium is the intricate web that links these characters: Deeti and Kesri belong to a district where most fields have been opium-growing since they were children; there is Deeti’s addicted first husband, and her discovery of how the opium she harvests for a living can be put to more surreptitious uses. There are Bahram Mody and Benjamin Burnham, whose trade is built on opium exports to China, and Ah Fatt, who smokes it. Opium, finally, is the link that brings Britain, India and China together—or drives them apart—in the First Opium War.
That war forms the climax of Flood of Fire, and much of the book’s second half is taken up with the slow-burn build-up, as merchants, soldiers and ordinary folk prepare themselves for upheaval. One of the reasons why River of Smoke didn’t entirely work was that it felt like a middle, and often a slow, meandering one. Also, despite its vivid descriptions of Fanqui-town and its strange rules (no foreign women, for instance, were allowed in), or the flowering plants that went from Canton to the West, the primary characters – Paulette and her botanist mentor, Bahram and the Co-Hong merchants, and the overly chatty Robin Chinnery – just weren’t that interesting. Or they needed a grander Grand Finale.
Flood of Fire moves much more purposefully. As I said, it is full of uncanny reunions, and the outbreak of war provides a crescendo of sorts (although Ghosh is not the writer to pretend that everything happened in one fell swoop; he plays the war out, with at least some of the tortuous waiting that it actually involves). But the new characters, too, take you along with them. The strongest of these is Kesri Singh, through whose eyes Ghosh offers a fine-grained sense of the life of an East India Company sepoy.
Castes of mind
I cannot begin to describe here the book’s impeccable research (as a snarky friend once said, Amitav Ghosh writes novels for graduate students). But unlike in The Hungry Tide, or River of Smoke, the historical detail never weighs this book down. Let me offer one example: that of caste in the army.
In a superb monologue early on, an army recruiter explains to Kesri’s father that the English, contrary to his anxieties, care “more about the dharma of caste than any of our nawabs and rajas ever did”. Earlier armies, he points out, were routes for caste mobility, but the Angrez are very clear about hiring only Brahmins and Rajputs. “Under the sahib’s guidance every caste will once again become an iron cage,” the recruiter says, and one can only applaud how Ghosh distils years of academic scholarship by the likes of Bernard Cohn into the fictive brilliance of this passage. Later,  a group of Ghazipur-born sepoys decide to act as a caste-panchayat, which is also an informal court martial. And caste is the unspoken reason for sepoys balking at carrying loads.
Why is this important? To anyone who reads the Trilogy—or in fact anyone who’s read In An Antique Land, or The Shadow Lines—it will be clear that for Ghosh, the draw of historical fiction is to create a version of the past in which old shackles are broken, and unexpected connections made. This can lead him to underplay or ignore the ways in which his characters might realistically have behaved with each other. One feels this less in Flood of Fire. Here, when a memsahib recognizes a sepoy, or a Rajput lets an untouchable feed him when sick, the characters are strong enough to make us believe in the uniqueness of their actions. Perhaps because we have seen how stratified their world is, we strive – with Ghosh – for them to forge another.