In which English and India are yoked together…

First, this utterly tiresome piece in The New York Times by Manu Joseph, on English in India. Which gushingly equates English used in Bollywood and English used by Dalits.  Jaw-droppingly cavalier journalism and writing.

Second, this brilliant response to that drivel. 

And finally, this biting review of Anand Giridhardhas’ India Calling, indeed of all books in that genre, as the opening line says: 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young Indian-American in possession of some years’ experience of India must be in want of a book contract.

Seriously though, folks, who really is to blame if our English is all the world sees?

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Rameswaram. And nostalgia.

This documentary film on the plight of the fishermen of Rameswaram (who are being fired at by the Sri Lankan navy) triggered memories of a trip to Rameswaram 10 years ago.  It was a trip to Madurai and Rameswaram actually, undertaken primarily because the spouse’s parents had been to Kaasi earlier in the year and needed to complete the cycle, i.e., holy water procured from the Ganga in Kaasi was to be ceremoniously let into the sea at Rameswaram. To appease the ancestors’ spirits or some such spooky beings. (All this water-mixing sounds mighty dubious and polluting, yes, but no matter. We held our tongues and stashed away the good karma.)

I’ve always loved train journeys, never tire of the charm, but this journey was particularly memorable because the train goes over a bridge (the Pamban bridge) across a brief stretch of the sea (Bay of Bengal)  en route to the conch-shaped island of Rameswaram from the mainland.  Being atop that bridge and staring down at the sea was both scary and breath-taking. (The Bandra-Worli sea-link just pales by comparison.)  Of course the other outstanding memory I have of that trip is that, as we left Rameswaram, everything — our bags, hair, clothes, we — stank of fish! Which can be difficult to stomach even for the fish-eating, I should think.

There is a keen atmosphere of nostalgia about Rameswaram, which anyone who’s been there has probably felt.  Maybe because of its mythological past. The place is a kind of museum for the Ramayana— the Rama Setu bridge; (there’s a Hanuman temple where you can see the stones supposedly used for this bridge; heavy stones that, inexplicably, float in water);  the Ramar Padam temple which contains stone imprints of Rama’s feet (supposedly) on the knoll atop which he is supposed to have sat and gazed across at Lanka.  And of course the Ramanathaswamy temple itself, which interestingly brings together Shaiva and Vaishnava devotees. An architectural marvel this, especially the pillared corridor, which is still etched in my memory. Then there’s the ghost town of Dhanushkodi, at the edge of the island, whose ruins eerily conjure up images of the bustling fishing hamlet that it was before the tragic cyclone of 1964.

I attribute the nostalgia to another reason as well.  For me Rameswaram is a place whose inhabitants have somehow been left behind in (or have chosen stay out of ) the inexorable march of time. These are people still eking out a livelihood through one of the oldest occupations of human civilization— fishing. Everything in Rameswaram has the air of a people caught in a time warp— the sand, the smell, the fishing, the friendly fisherfolk gawking at outsiders, the fishing nets and boats, the shops that sell just about every little trinket and curiosity rescued from the sea…One is sort of transported back in time…

Which makes the Sri Lankan navy seem that much more cruel.  As also the lack of protection from the mighty, modern Indian state. 

There’s a wizened old woman in the film I mentioned above, speaking of the cruelty of the Lankan navy, tears running down her weather-beaten face. She reminds me of Maurya, the indomitable protagonist of J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea. Like her, this woman too must have seen men lost at sea, to the fury of Nature. Like her, she too must have learned to weather such losses. It’s the price they pay for the profession they choose to be in.  But her tragedy is greater than Maurya’s. Because the Sri Lankan navy is not Fate. Nor can stoicism be a virtue here.

Perhaps the story of the fishermen of Rameswaram is not of national importance. Perhaps it’s much more than that… the right to life?

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Bowdler II

So we’re soon going to see a sanitized version of Huck Finn:

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure—…. Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation’s most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: “nigger.”

Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” Rather than see Twain’s most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the “n” word (as well as the “in” word, “Injun”) by replacing it with the word “slave.”

 Here’s one compelling argument against this Gribbenizing:

To substitute the word slave is untrue to Twain’s entire way of thinking. “Man is the only slave,” Twain wrote around 1896. “And he is the only animal who enslaves. He has always been a slave in one form or another, and has always held other slaves in bondage under him in one way or another” (Letters from the Earth, ed. Bernard DeVoto [Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1963], p. 179). To call Jim a slave is to fail to distinguish him from the other men in the novel.

And, interestingly enough, from the same blogger: why  “both the Gribbenized edition of Huckleberry Finn and the self-righteous condemnation of it are founded on the same premise.”

I’m just a cat on the wall.

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Once upon a time…

… I used to blog.

Sigh. That’s how long it’s been, no? To the small but discerning readership of this blog, apologies. (The best compliments are mutual, yes?) Far too much happened over the last year for me to cope with and blog. A change of workplace, and therefore of residence, the discovery of a hidden ailment … suffice it to say we’re settled and resigned to our lot now. Nothing like a ‘medical condition’ to remind you that life is too short and sweet to be frittered away fretting.   Ergo I shall revive this blog.

While on the subject of revival, if I had to choose the best thing that happened to me last year,  it would be the revival of my vocal cords.  I was 8 and my sister 10 when we were force-fed sangeetham, classical Carnatic music . Thrice a week a dapper old man would calmly disrupt our evening playtime and patiently acquaint us with sarigamas, Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Diskshitar, Annamayya, etc. as we sat crossly-legged, our fingers tapping in time with his, our voices drowning out both him and his sonorous shruthi box.  Four years later he died, and we stopped learning. Thereafter, education, life, a career  silenced the music. Today, with a different teacher, as each geetham and varnam and krithi is quickly and effortlessly revived from deep within my subconscious, I’m awe-struck at how firmly that old man had drilled it all  in. 

But the music is no longer the same. Which is a twistedly metonymical way of saying that I’m not the same.  I find myself looking beyond and beneath the religious and patriarchal content (for which I’ve long held a deep distaste) of these compositions .  (Not that I’m turning religious – that rubicon once crossed is crossed for good.) Rendering Andal’s Thiruppavai,  through Devulapalli Venkata Krishna Sastry’s translation, I find myself trying to understand what it meant to be a woman writing poetry in  the 8th century, trying to look for something essentially feminine in her words, to see what love and devotion and poetry must have meant to her. . .

We never enter the same river twice.

A  great new year to y’all!

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The invisible nation*

(The following is an extract from an e-mail from a friend. Thanks, PK.)

My father, who was in the army, was in Nagaland in the 60s, in Kashmir at the end of the 40s. When I was a child I heard from him about the army trying to arrest the Naga “hostiles.” His unit was patrolling in the Naga hills (every one is scared–by the forests, by the guerrilla tactics, by the idea that the Nagas are different) and somebody stepped on bamboo.

Have you heard bamboo split?

A guy fired a mortar. This was near a village. He just fired, in no particular direction, at no particular enemy.

Nobody was hurt. My father, if I remember correctly, had to have his own colleague tried.

When I went to study in Delhi, I stayed with a Kashmiri student. A Naga used to live in the next room. The room was about 6 feet by 4 and this chap–a student, too–had a music system that occupied half the room. He was extremely shy. My roommate and I went to introduce ourselves. This extremely gentle man, very courteously asked us to sit down, beamed while showing us his music system, told us what he was studying, and went on to tell his story.

“When I came to India,” he began.

I do not remember much but I do remember the landlord. The man must have been about 60 years old. He used to walk up the stairs demanding the rent. He would wear a shirt for the occasion, otherwise he would be in his striped, knee-length underpants. Some students from the northeast, boys and girls, used to live together in one of the rooms on the second floor. The landlord found it easy to collect the rent from the first floor; the Kashmiri and I spoke Hindustani. He would sigh, though, while trudging up to the second floor. “These people all sit around half-naked,” he would mutter. He would stand outside the door, trying not to look inside.

I do remember some bras giggling. Happy laughter. I was young, and never cared to find out which state they were from.

My son has recently learnt in school about the “seven sisters,” the states of the northeast. He was asking me if they were clubbed together because the people look different.

I guess they have yet to get to the “two brothers” of Kashmir.

* From a twitter comment.

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Boycotts, writers, politics


So Amitav Ghosh has accepted the Dan David prize, from Israel. Despite this open letter from some “Indian intellectuals” and this one from various organizations supporting the Global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement for Palestine entreating him to turn it down. 

Ghosh has responded to both letters;  his response and his  joint acceptance speech with Margaret Atwood are both available at  Margaret Atwood’s blog

The issue has already been debated, hotly, at Kafila, here and here, to which I have little to add. But perhaps some readers here were expecting me to say something since my last post was on Ghosh’s refusal of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.  Some coincidence, no?  And yes, it was a refusal. It saddens me to read Ghosh’s ludicrous contention (in response to the reminder about his stance on the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize) that he had “withdrawn his book from the competition” and not refused the prize.

To view the Dan David prize as ‘merely’ literary, into which nothing political  need be read, is now untenable because  in his response Ghosh tackles head-on the political reasons for the demand that he reject the prize. He strives hard, and eloquently, to walk the tight-rope between condemning the atrocities against the Palestinians and respecting the legitimacy (of the historical origins) of Israel. Certainly, as he points out, this is a delicate dilemma faced the world over.  ‘Liberation movements’ versus the ‘rights/responsibilities’ of the State: who you support depends on which side of the line you’re on. I think he makes a very telling point about the hypocrisy that many intellectuals, and the privileged, practise in their discourse on this dilemma. Why should novelists be any exception?

The trouble is that the novelist in question here is neither Zionist nor Palestinian.  Ergo one expects objectivity from him. While his letter by and large tries to present both sides of the picture, he gives himself badly away in his statements about America (and Barack Obama) being the only hope for a solution to the crisis. So you know exactly where he’s coming from. Oh yes, Ghosh’s response is political all right!

I will not insult the man by talking about the prize money. But I will say that I am disappointed, deeply disappointed. Another fallen idol.

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The wealth of nations

Seeing as how people are celebrating Rana Dasgupta’s winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize, perhaps it’s apposite to recollect that another Indian English writer (arguably the best today) turned down this prize in 2001. Here’s his letter explaining why:

18 March 2001
New York

Sandra Vince,
Prizes Manager,
Commonwealth Foundation

Dear Sandra Vince:

I have recently learned that my novel, The Glass Palace, has been named the Eurasia regional winner for the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize. I gather that this means that it is also a finalist for the overall contest to be held in April. I am, of course, gratified to know that the jury liked my book. Yet, I must admit that this particular announcement took me by surprise for I was not aware that my book had been submitted for the Commonwealth Prize. I have since discovered that publishers routinely submit books for prizes without expressly consulting their authors.

I have on many occasions publicly stated my objections to the classification of books such as mine under the term “Commonwealth Literature”. Principal among these is that this phrase anchors an area of contemporary writing not within the realities of the present day, nor within the possibilities of the future, but rather within a disputed aspect of the past. In this it is completely unlike any other literary term (would it not surprise us, for instance, if that familiar category “English literature” were to be renamed “the literature of the Norman Conquest”?).

As a grouping of nations collected from the remains of the British Empire, the Commonwealth serves as an umbrella forum in global politics. As a literary or cultural grouping however, it seems to me that “the Commonwealth” can only be a misnomer so long as it excludes the many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives of these countries (it is surely inconceivable, for example, that athletes would have to be fluent in English in order to qualify for the Commonwealth Games).

So far as I can determine, The Glass Palace is eligible for the Commonwealth Prize partly because it was written in English and partly because I happen to belong to a region that was once conquered and ruled by Imperial Britain. Of the many reasons why a book’s merits may be recognized these seem to me to be the least persuasive. That the past engenders the present is of course undeniable; it is equally undeniable that the reasons why I write in English are ultimately rooted in my country’s history. Yet, the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment. The issue of how the past is to be remembered lies at the heart of The Glass Palace and I feel that I would be betraying the spirit of my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of “the Commonwealth”. I therefore ask that I be permitted to withdraw The Glass Palace from your competition.

I would like to add that I mean no disrespect either to the competition’s judges or to previous winners of the Commonwealth Foundation’s prizes, many of whom are writers I greatly admire. I recognize also that the Commonwealth Foundation supports a number of noteworthy social causes and undertakes many invaluable development initiatives in its member countries. My objections to the term ‘Commonwealth Literature’ are mine alone, and I trust you will understand that I could hardly expect to sustain them if I allowed one of my books to gain an eponymous prize.

Finally, on a note of apology I would like to reiterate that this situation would not have arisen if I had known that my publishers were intending to submit The Glass Palace for the Commonwealth Prize. It is too late unfortunately to amend that oversight; fortunately, it is not too late for you to make other arrangements for the final competition.

Amitav Ghosh


“The awards are not a celebration of colonisation but a celebration of English as a language that binds us together,” said the minister, Shashi Tharoor, who gave away the prizes in New Delhi.  (Tharoor was also a recipient of the prize 20 years ago.)

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