Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A few good books about gunpowder, masala, and other forms of "impurity"

[my latest Bookshelves column for First Post]

A few weeks ago I was at the Gothenburg Book Fair, participating – with the writers Anjum Hasan and Girish Shahane, and the editor Ann Ighe – in a short conversation around the theme “Europe and India: how do these parts of the world look at each other today?” I was jetlagged and less than coherent (and not fully sure what I wanted to say anyway), but one obvious point to stress – for the mainly non-Indian audience – was that thinking of India as a culturally homogenous country would be a big mistake: that it is in many ways as diverse as Europe.

My own encounters with this cultural diversity have taken many forms over the decades – it has been intimidating, enriching and humbling in turn. Trying to understand what “Indianness” might be necessarily means learning new things all the time; you’re a student for life, constantly re-evaluating your assumptions. And for someone who has grown up in mainly Anglophone environments and led a circumscribed life in some ways, the learning process has many twists and turns. For instance: as a child you might love Hindi cinema (while reading almost exclusively in English, about enchanted woods and quaint European towns that bear little relation to the world you live in); later, you might be so sated by the excesses of Hindi movies that you shift to more restrained cinematic idioms; but later still, you return and relish the language of melodrama from a more open-minded and well-rounded perspective; meanwhile, as a reader, you start to discover literature from other parts of India.

In recent months, when I began watching some of the outstanding work in current Malayalam cinema, I re-experienced something of what it was like as a teenager getting into “independent” cinema for the first time. But if films from across India are more easily available now (and have good subtitles), it has also been an exciting few years for anyone working on the books beat. We have higher-quality translations than we had, say, 20 years ago – for those of us who read mostly in English, there is greater access to what we call “regional” literature. A large proportion of my fiction reading in the past few years has been translated works by contemporary writers, ranging from the books of Perumal Murugan (One Part Woman, Pyre) and Benyamin (Goat Days), to KR Meera (Hangwoman) and, most recently, Manoranjan Byapari’s enthralling There’s Gunpowder in the Air (translated from Bengali to English by Arunava Sinha). And almost invariably, such reading has caused me to rethink my ideas about literary form and structure while also learning new things about other places.

Which is a longwinded way of saying that cultural variedness is one of the most daunting as well as one of the most appealing things about this country. And this variedness has been under threat for a while now, thanks to a determined ongoing drive towards the notion of a pure Hindu past – glorious and uncontaminated, before all the “invaders” came in – as well as the idea that a single language can be imposed across the country.

I was thinking about these things again while preparing for another upcoming talk – a discussion around the theme of “purity in text” at the Chandigarh Literature Festival next week. To take just a short sample of recent books that deal with the purity-impurity theme in one way or the other (and starting with my fellow panellists in Chandigarh):

Jonathan Gil Harris’s Masala Shakespeare is a celebration of the tonal disunities – and the revitalising aspects of “masala” – in the plays of Shakespeare as well as in the best of popular Hindi cinema; by extension, it looks at the colourful multiplicity (or “more-than-oneness”, as Harris puts it) of India as a country. Meanwhile, Annie Zaidi’s allegorical Prelude to a Riot, told in multiple voices, deals with many ways of living in India. In one passage, a group calling itself the Self Respect Forum writes a letter to a newspaper editor objecting to the publication of certain “vulgar” poems about Goddesses and mothers; in her polite but firm reply, the editor alludes to the importance of "a river-like flow of culture and ideas" and the ability to recognise the fluidity of human beings.

Such fluidity has often been expressed in the many different interpretations of our mythology, including the great epics. Though the proponents of militant Hindutva would prefer to shut their eyes to this, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata shape-shift constantly as you move from one part of the country to another; heroes become villains and vice versa, a familiar episode becomes unfamiliar and unsettling when viewed through the eyes of a specific character. Among the recent books that stress this variability are Aditya Iyengar’s Bhumika, about Sita experiencing what her life would have been if she hadn't met and married Rama. In this alternate telling, she does meet him eventually, but it's on a battlefield, on opposite sides of an ideological divide; conventional ideas of Rama and Sita (or “Rama-ness” and “Sita-ness”, if you like) are challenged, and there is a neat twist on the Agni-pariksha (which, after all, is also about a very rigid view of purity).

Other books I have in mind include the anthology Which of Us are Aryans? (with essays by Romila Thapar and Kai Friese, among others) and Tony Joseph’s Early Indians, both of which in different ways question the very idea of national pride based on “purity” by looking at the much deeper history of our species – through the archaeological and genetic evidence that can be discomfiting for those who need to believe that Vedic culture grew “organically” out of Indian soil. As these books remind us, larger time-scales, including geological ones, can make utter nonsense of our parochial pride in belonging to this or that “group”.

But there is always a more poetic view of variedness too, rooted in the here and now – such as the one provided in a book I mentioned above, There’s Gunpowder in the Air. Though set in the most confined of places, a prison in 1970s Bengal, this enthralling narrative is also, in its own distinct way, about diversity: about how life’s rich pageant – and the many ways of thinking about oneself and others – may be discovered even within narrow walls, and how a jail can become a microcosm for the world. These are all books that make you thrill to the possibilities of being impure or unfixed.

[Earlier First Post columns are here]

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