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Amitava Kumar

Amitava Kumar is the editor of World Bank Literature
(Minnesota) and the author of Bombay-London-New York
(Routledge) and, most recently, Husband of a Fanatic, forthcoming from the New Press in January.


  • Non-fiction November 9, 2006

    A Civilizing Mission

    The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad collects the work of one of our finest postcolonialist critics.

    Amitava Kumar

  • Autobiography and Memoir September 30, 2004

    The Enigma of Return

    In the largest exodus in recorded history, millions of refugees migrated across the brand new border after India was partitioned in 1947.

    Amitava Kumar

  • Fiction July 31, 2003

    Thieves Like Us

    In March 2001 a small Internet website in Delhi, tehelka.com, revealed that two of its reporters had used a secret camera to tape senior defense officials and political leaders accepting bribes

    Amitava Kumar

  • Fiction May 30, 2002

    ‘Trembling…Can Be Heard’

    A young man of 16, visiting his cousins in Calcutta in a house in a "middle-middle-class area," has just published his first poem. This not-yet-poet from Bombay is the narrator of Amit Chaudhuri's short story "Portrait of an Artist." The artist in the story is not the visiting youth, however, but an older man, the English tutor who comes each week to instruct the cousins. This man is respectfully called mastermoshai.

    Mastermoshai has already been shown the narrator's poem. (One of the cousins reports that the teacher was "very impressed.") On a Saturday morning, the budding poet meets mastermoshai. He has a "very Bengali face" with "spectacles that belonged to his face as much as his eyes did" and "teeth that jutted out from under his lip, making his face belong to the preorthodontal days." The cousins, and also the narrator, wait for mastermoshai to say something about the poem. When two literary men meet in Bengal, they do not indulge in small talk but instead "straightaway enter realms of the abstract and articulate," we are advised. Fittingly, mastermoshai's first question to the poet, in a Bengali-inflected English, is, "Are you profoundly influenced by Eliot?"

    "It was mastermoshai who first spoke to me of Baudelaire," the narrator says, and there are other discoveries in this induction into the literary life. When the older man takes the poet to an editor's house in another part of Calcutta, Chaudhuri's portrait of the artist shades into a portrait of private homes and of the city as a whole. In Calcutta, our poet discovers, clerks and accountants nurture an intellectual or literary life, not only in English but also Bengali. The city appears provincial, but it also reveals, like Joyce's Dublin, its particularity.

    The literary passions that this city with a colonial past breeds are already obsolete elsewhere. Yet they inspire a romance that is real and productive. That is what the young poet feels after the years have passed. By then, mastermoshai has faded into the oblivion of insanity. His interest in Eliot and Baudelaire is seen by the narrator as a "transitional" time during which, after the early losses of his life, mastermoshai had returned to his "youthful enthusiasms." You realize that the story is not so much about the space of literature, which like the city itself offers surprises that serve as a refuge from the general claustrophobia and madness. Instead, it is about the patient and sometimes crazy, and mostly anonymous, striving in the former colonies--and also about the tribute we need to pay to mentors in a literary culture that functions without the trappings of creative writing programs and, in the case of the poor, even ordinary colleges and schools.

    Chaudhuri's other stories in this debut collection, Real Time, also concern themselves with the conditions under which art is born or the circumstances in which artists live. The book's closing story is about Mohanji, a gentle and gifted singer trained in classical Hindustani music. He makes a living by teaching affluent housewives in Bombay how to sing devotional bhajans and ghazals. Mohanji's life now is "a round of middle-aged women" in Bombay's affluent districts like Cuffe Parade and Malabar Hill. At night, he takes the fast train back to his home in a ghetto in distant Dadar.

    Lately, Mohanji has been feeling ill. He believes he has an ulcer. He also suffers from tension. This tension comes "from constantly having to lie to the ladies he taught--white lies, flattery--and from not having a choice in the matter."

    Mohanji's student Mrs. Chatterjee does not always have the time to practice. But, she would like to sing. She tells her teacher that she wishes she could sing like him. Mohanji is "always surprised" that the rich had desires for "what couldn't be theirs." He is also amused that "it wasn't enough for Mrs. Chatterjee that she, in one sense, possessed him; she must possess his gift as well."

    This sudden sharpness on Mohanji's part, like his illness, reveals a malaise. The gentleness in the guru, a quality to which Mrs. Chatterjee had grown so accustomed, is now shown to be the result of great restraint and even artistic discipline. The story's presentation of Mohanji's speech and his silence ushers us into the domain of criticism.

    We get a clue here to Chaudhuri's own art. He belongs to a very small group of Indian writers in English who are as good critics as they are storytellers. This skill at criticism is not a result of close reading--though that ability is in fine evidence in The Picador Book of Indian Literature, which Chaudhuri has edited--but of a serious search for a reading public. Chaudhuri's writing, both critical and fictional, subtly demonstrates for this public (which is yet unborn) its most responsible function.

    There is a great need for such acts in India. Recently, at a literary festival in Delhi, I heard a well-known writer telling her audience that there were only two literary critics in Punjabi in the whole country. But this wasn't the worst. She said that one of the two critics was a university professor who was interested only in promoting the female students who were doing their doctorates under him. The other was a man in Chandigarh who wrote exclusively about other writers from his own Jat caste. The writer said, "Since I am neither a pretty face nor a Jat, I am ignored."

    I thought about the Punjabi writer, and about Chaudhuri, who was also there at the festival, when I was awakened past midnight in my hotel room in Delhi by a call from London. It was someone from the BBC. Earlier that day, V.S. Naipaul had been rude to another writer. Now the BBC wanted to know if I believed that "Naipaul had lost it."

    I wasn't able to provide gossip. But, as I lay awake in bed after the call, I remember wondering whether I hadn't made a mistake thinking that the problem of building a critical culture was India's alone. Did Britain, for example, have a vibrant literary public sphere? Why then was the BBC not rousing people from sleep to ask about the solitude of a writer working in Punjabi, a language that is used by millions, and endowed with a rich literary past, but now possessing no critics?

    Fifteen short stories and a reminiscence-in-verse make up Real Time. Not all the pieces are as strong as the ones mentioned above. A few of the short stories, like the one in the voice of a humiliated demon from the Ramayana, are clever sketches but call for a more extended treatment in order to be satisfying. There is a first-person account of a housewife who is writing a memoir--a story meant to mock the Indian writing scene, where, it seems, a new writer is born every day. But Chaudhuri's wit is suited to a more muted, or perhaps just more nuanced, register, and here the mockery falls flat.

    "Words, silences," a story about two male friends who are meeting each other after a long time, contains a hint of a half-understood homosexual exchange between them in their boyhood. But the story, in its reticence, offers too little, the author's silence acting like a silencing of its own. A couple of other stories in the autobiographical mode work better, recalling the lyricism and humor of Chaudhuri's earlier fiction. His first three novels, published in a single volume in the United States under the title Freedom Song, won a Los Angeles Times book award in 2000. That year Chaudhuri also published a novel, A New World, about an expatriate Indian's return to Calcutta after his divorce.

    A real gem in the present collection is the title story "Real Time," which along with the account of Mohanji was first published in the British magazine Granta. This elegantly crafted story recounts an executive's visit to a house in Calcutta where a shraddha, or memorial ceremony, is being held. The ceremony is for a young married woman who has committed suicide by jumping from the third-floor balcony of her parents' house.

    The visitor and his wife--the latter is related to the family--have been able to find the house only with some difficulty. They have bought tuberoses on the way, having bargained the price down from sixteen to fourteen rupees. The rituals of mourning are not clear in the case of a suicide. The narrative supplies very little conventional pathos, and yet pathos is present in the story, always in tension with other quotidian details that intrude upon the consciousness of the narrator. The visitor spots an acquaintance and they fall into a conversation about "the recent changes in their companies," their own children and even "a brief disagreement about whether civil engineering had a future as a career today."

    Death produces a great absence, but here, in the story, the absence has more to do with the fact that the visiting couple know very little about the suicide. They had learned of the death from an item in the newspaper. Grief remains remote. More than death, it is this distance that produces a blankness, which, however, slowly gets filled with ordinariness, and even trivia. The narrative is so precise that it is with a tiny jolt that the reader realizes that this inconsequential ordinariness is what we usually call life.

    Jacques Derrida has written that the Moroccan Abdelkebir Khatibi does not speak of his mother tongue "without a trembling that can be heard," a "discreet tremor of language that undersigns the poetic resonance of his entire work." The same can be said of Chaudhuri. In his prose, history always happens elsewhere. It is like an earthquake in the heart of the earth. What the writing registers is only the shock and the falling buildings.

    In early 1993, a short while after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and the riots that had followed, Chaudhuri wrote a travel essay about this return to India from Oxford. In that essay, he described how the metal nameplates in the house where his father had lived in Bombay were now all blank. This had been done to protect the Muslims living in the building. "Small, accidental sensations, too small to be called incidents," he wrote, "told me I was now living in a slightly altered world."

    The trip on which Chaudhuri discovered the small detail of blank metal nameplates sowed the seed for his novel Freedom Song. While reading his earlier novels, I had been struck by the way in which Chaudhuri's evocative, Proustian sentences accumulated visual details. I thought of Bengali cinema, the moment of its modernity and the movement of the camera recording the texture of middle-class life. But there was also an aural element to this writing. It was punctuated with delicate pauses that made the prose musical. The sentences were marked by spaces of silence and filled with near-poetry.

    It was only when reading Freedom Song, however, that I got a more vivid sense of Chaudhuri's unique and flawed aesthetic. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism and the changes ushered in by market liberalization provide the immediate occasion for the novelist to examine the changes that affect a small group of relatives and friends. These changes are not overwhelming; they are subtle variations on a more settled routine. The technique works because it saves history from the banality of a slogan. At the same time, it also carries the danger of slipping into a mannerism. Both the strength and, on occasion, the weakness are present in the stories of Real Time.

    In recent weeks, hundreds have died in India in religious riots orchestrated by the Hindu right in retaliation for the burning alive of fifty-eight Hindus in a train. These events have challenged the democratic credentials of the Indian nation-state. But they also pose a question for intellectuals and artists, and this is the question of seeking a powerful and imaginative response to the carnage.

    What is our response in "real time"? And how does this time find breath in our writing? Chaudhuri, in his attention to the imaginative use of language, makes the search for the answers a process of magical discovery. Let me end with a passage from Freedom Song that captures the inertness but also the dynamism of the life that Chaudhuri sees unfolding around him:

    It was afternoon. And in a small lane, in front of a pavement, with the movement of a wrist, something like a curve began to appear, it was not clear what pattern was forming, then the letter D appeared upon a wall of a two-storey house, in black paint, and then U, and N, until DUNKEL had been formed, in the English language, which seemed to blazon itself for its curious purpose; then it began again, and I and M and F began to appear in another corner. Afternoon; no one saw them; it was too hot; on the main road cars went past, up and down; a few people rested; they had eaten; beggars dozed, blind to the heat and shadows, their heads bent to the stomach.

    Amitava Kumar

  • Politics November 8, 2001

    The Bend in Their Rivers

    Amitava Kumar reviews Salman Rushdie's Fury and V.S. Naipaul's Half a Life.

    Amitava Kumar

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  • Politics April 5, 2001

    Bristling on the Subcontinent

    The conflict in Kargil took place in the summer of 1999. It was the fourth war between India and Pakistan since their emergence as independent nations in 1947, but this was the first that the two had fought as nuclear powers. A few months after the cease-fire, Bill Clinton made a trip, the last official visit of his presidency to the Indian subcontinent. Before leaving the United States, he described the region he was about to visit as "the most dangerous place in the world today."

    Around the time of Clinton's visit to India, a small incident took place in a town called Marcel, near Goa. An Indian schoolteacher named Dharmanand Kholkar was assaulted because of a question he had posed on a test. Kholkar had asked his students to imagine a fictional scenario. An Indian soldier, injured during the Kargil war, finds himself in a Pakistani hospital. The soldier is surprised to be alive and asks why he has been shown such consideration. A Pakistani soldier replies that they are both soldiers and human beings. Kholkar asked his students to state the moral of the story.

    Angered by this presentation of the Pakistani soldier in a good light, a mob attacked Kholkar and blackened his face. The attackers were members of the Sangh Parivar, the fundamentalist Hindu group close to India's ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP. This brand of ultranationalism and sectarian politics has taken root in both India and Pakistan, a phenomenon explained thusly by the late Eqbal Ahmad in a book of collected interviews, Confronting Empire: "We are so-and-so because we are not the Other. We are what we are because we are different from the West, or from the Muslims, or from the Hindus, or from the Jews, or from the Christians. It necessarily leads to extreme distortions."

    The distortions that Ahmad is speaking of are actually part of the official, sanctioned histories. They claim as casualties not only truth but also the education of youth in the rival nations when they are taught in schools to hate--a theme implicit not just in Ahmad's final work but in books by Indian journalists Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik, and the academic Urvashi Butalia as well, albeit from very different approaches.

    A Pakistani newspaper reported last year that the objectives enshrined in the federal curriculum for the education of a 12-year-old child include the "ability to: 1. understand the Hinduand Muslim differences and the resultant need for Pakistan; 2. know all about India's evil designs against Pakistan; 3. acknowledge and identify forces that may be working against Pakistan; 4. demonstrate by actions a belief in the fear of Allah; 5. demonstrate the desire to preserve the ideology, integrity and security of Pakistan; 6. make speeches on jihad and shahadat; 7. guard against rumor mongers who spread false news and to stage dramas signifying the evils of rumors; 8. understand the Kashmir problem; 9. collect pictures of policemen, soldiers and National Guards."

    Conversely, in Delhi, a BJP minister responsible for education declared that history textbooks in India should be "enthused with national spirit." The minister would no doubt approve of a text on conversation given to students in Rajasthan. Its example: "Student: 'Master, what has India achieved by doing the nuclear tests? Was it a right step?' Teacher: 'Undoubtedly it was correct, India has achieved a huge success.' Student: 'What success? Economic sanctions have been slapped on.' Teacher: 'Economic sanctions do not matter. The country should first become powerful. Only the powerful are listened to. Now we can talk about world peace aggressively.'"

    The case of Dharmanand Kholkar and his crowd-blackened face was on my mind when I went to talk to Indian and Pakistani schoolchildren recently. I first went to a school in Bihar, in India, where I had been a student many years ago; then I traveled to Karachi, where my wife, a Pakistani citizen, had gone to school. I asked the students in the schools I visited to write letters to those that they were being taught to think of as enemies.

    In Patna, a student wrote, "Please be peaceful and love us." Another student asked, "Why don't you all change the attitude of your mind? Why don't you all think in a positive way?" In this letter, the demand for peace was actually an accusation. It found the Pakistanis solely responsible for war--and for peace. A similar impulse, in reverse, was at work in a letter written some days later by a student in Pakistan. That letter began: "Dear Indians, First of all hello!! I am a Pakistani Muslim and I want to inform you that you are liars."

    I laughed when I read some of the letters--in the absence of any opportunities for dialogue, it would seem that Indians and Pakistanis haven't even had a chance to abuse each other properly. There is some official trade between the two countries, as well as illicit trafficking in music and videocassettes. But the common people on both sides have been starved of contact. The result has been ignorance and suspicion as much as hostility. A boy in Karachi Grammar School raised his hand and asked me, "How did you convince your wife that you were not the enemy?" And yet, there is a shared desire for peace. One of the students in Pakistan wrote in her letter: "Once I went to the Lahore border, where I saw so many Sikhs on the other side. I waved to them and they also waved back. They were so friendly."

    The border at Wagah, near Lahore, is the only entry point by road for the whole of approximately 1,250 miles that make up the length of the India-Pakistan frontier. What the name Wagah conjures in the minds of many people in the subcontinent is the memory of the partition, arguably the largest migration in human history and certainly the bloodiest. The trains, laden with corpses, crossed the border at Wagah in 1947. It was also past places like Wagah that the sinuous human columns had passed on foot: The longest of these bedraggled columns is said to have consisted of 400,000 people. That procession of the displaced took as many as eight days to cross a given spot.

    The partition is the bloody underside of independence. It is the name for the division of British India into two independent nations, one Muslim and the other secular but predominantly Hindu. It is also the name of the riots and rape and slaughter that accompanied that division. It is the story of the people who, just as they were told they were free, also learned that they had lost their homes. They were now living in a country where, on account of their religion, they did not belong. The partition was marked by many tragic ironies. One of them was that the new borders were lines drawn by a hastily summoned British official, Cyril Radcliffe, who, writes one contemporary writer, "knew nothing about India other than the five perspiring weeks he spent there."

    The horror of the partition and even its dark ironies have long been the concern of writers in the subcontinent, beginning with names like Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Qurratulain Hyder, Khushwant Singh and others. Despite the currency of contemporary Indian writing in the West--fueled by a migration of Indians to cities like London and New York--it is the earlier migration of writers, from India to Pakistan and vice versa, that gave birth to independent India's first wave of vital writing. At their best, the writers of the partition threw into crisis the claims of the nation-state; they raised questions about the relation to the broader world of the men and women living inside the new nations' boundaries. Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence seeks a place in that older, somewhat forgotten, canon.

    About 50,000 Muslim women and an estimated 35,000 Hindu and Sikh women are believed to have been abducted during the partition. Where are their voices in the annals of nationalist historiography? Butalia is a pioneer in feminist publishing in India. She is especially alert to the presence--and absence--of marginal voices. Her book, a collection of oral narratives of the survivors of partition, is supplemented by meditations on the limits of conventional history. Although its more academic sections lack the raw power of many of the oral narratives, and sometimes seem a bit repetitive, the study of popular interpretations of violence as well as the persistence of memory makes this book a critical, self-reflective work. It may seem paradoxical, but the book's freshness comes also from the fact that it examines wounds that have festered for more than fifty years.

    "To understand what happened in Kargil you have to go back half a century, to the colossal and premature sundering of the subcontinent known as Partition," writes Suketu Mehta in his essay "A Fatal Love." He adds: "The men who killed each other over Tiger Hill and Drass and Batalik were dealing with the unfinished business of Partition."

    The unresolved issues of the past in India are locked in the pain of the partition. In Pakistan, however, the division doesn't loom quite so large. There, despite the upheaval, there was also the creation of a new identity and a new nation. Nevertheless, the past as "unfinished business" in Pakistan can be swiftly conjured with another name. That name is Kashmir.

    In one of the letters I brought back with me from Karachi, a student wrote: "Kashmir is a Muslim majority province and India promised that they will occupy Kashmir for some period...but they betrayed. Can't they see the Kashmiri mothers bitterly crying before their children's dead bodies?" There were similar passages in other letters, written in a language borrowed from Pakistani news reports. One letter, although it didn't take into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people themselves, took a creative step toward peace: "I wrote a poem sometime before in which I put forth the idea that just as our parents and teachers have told us that sharing is a very good habit, why can't India and Pakistan share Kashmir and make it a place to visit for everyone?"

    One is never far away from the possibility of sharing, and more important, from the struggle for peace, when reading the words of Eqbal Ahmad in Confronting Empire. Like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Ahmad was a great teacher and a luminary of the academic left in the United States. The collected interviews range over all the passions that filled his politics--his voice moves effortlessly from the demands of peace in the Middle East to revolutionary poetry, and from the politics of Islam to offering career advice to V.S. Naipaul.

    As a child, Ahmad met Gandhi. In the 1960s, he joined the National Liberation Front and worked with Frantz Fanon in Algeria; later, in America, he opposed the Vietnam War and was indicted with the Berrigan brothers on charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger. (The charges were dismissed.) Ahmad was also engaged in conversations with Yasir Arafat and other members of the PLO; Edward Said, who was responsible for this alliance, describes Ahmad as a "genius at sympathy." When he died in Islamabad in 1999, just days before the Kargil war broke out, he was working to establish an independent, alternative university in Pakistan.

    Ahmad was still a boy during the partition in 1947. His family had been living in their ancestral village in Bihar, India, and Ahmad was witness to his father's murder as he lay beside him in bed. In the company of his elder brothers, Ahmad then migrated to Pakistan. Their mother, however, stayed behind in India; Ahmad would not see her again until 1972, when she was on her deathbed, too ill to speak.

    I often thought of Ahmad while reading the letters of the Indian and Pakistani schoolchildren. In Confronting Empire, Ahmad, in conversation with well-known radio activist David Barsamian, returns again and again to the divisions erected by nationalism. His critique is against the embrace of Western-style nationalism--often by those who fought so hard against Western imperialism. It is his readiness to distance himself from the nationalist desire for possessing disputed territories that allows him to recommend that Kashmir serve "as the starting point of normalizing relations between India and Pakistan."

    Ahmad's proposal is that the part of Kashmir under Pakistani control should be left as it is; Jammu and Ladakh, which do not share the premises of Kashmiri nationalism, should remain a part of India; the valley of Kashmir, where a ten-year-old uprising continues today, should be given independence. More radically, Ahmad envisioned a unified Kashmir with divided sovereignty. There would be no more lines of control and border patrols, and the ruling entities would be jointly responsible for defense. Ahmad concludes by saying, "In fact, the longer we delay normalization of relations between India and Pakistan and the resolution of the Kashmir conflict, the more we are creating an environment for the spread of Islamic and Hindu militancy."

    The nuclearization of the subcontinent earns Ahmad's denunciation as well: "We are living in modern times throughout the world and yet are dominated by medieval minds," as he put it. At the same time, he was also able to see very clearly that this is not happening without protest. He pointed out, "In Calcutta, 250,000 people came out against nuclear weapons. In Delhi, 30,000." It is precisely this critical stance--what Gramsci called "the pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will"--that animates the pages of Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik's New Nukes, a public account of the real costs of nuclearization. In their powerful book, the authors note that the Kargil conflict cost India $2.5 billion in direct economic expenses. Hundreds of soldiers on both sides came back in body bags. If patrolling is now increased around Kargil, that region will become another Siachen--the Himalayan glacier where India and Pakistan have lost more than 10,000 troops since 1984 and spend more than $10 million on patrolling each day. (All of this, as Bidwai and Vanaik rightly point out, in two of the world's poorest societies.)

    Both Bidwai and Vanaik are respected Indian journalists and veteran peace activists; they perceive very clearly the systemic implications of nuclearism, including the growth of religious fundamentalism in both countries. Other heavy social costs include revivified militarism and male supremacy; the growth of media manipulation and intolerance; the suppression of debate and dissent. But while charting in historical detail India's and Pakistan's descent into the nuclear club, Bidwai and Vanaik also note the growth of movements for peace since the mid-1990s. These have been in the main people's movements, with particular contribution by South Asian feminists who have "a strong awareness of the connections between nuclearism and patriarchy, and between militarism and suppression of women's rights." According to Bidwai and Vanaik, only two months after the May 1998 nuclear tests in India, 72.8 percent of the people polled there opposed the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons.

    New Nukes is a comprehensive handbook on nuclear deterrence. Using India and Pakistan as its immediate context, it maps a global history of nuclearization. The book is very distinctively a view from the South, with a stringent critique of the cold war era as well as of the role of the United States and Western imperialism. It should also be added that Bidwai and Vanaik represent a departure from the Indian, specifically Gandhian, strains of pacificism. That earlier form of appeal for nonviolence was content to call for peace in the abstract; the programmatic, interconnected plans that are at the heart of the analyses in New Nukes make peace a part of a process that is less spiritual and more political. After all, the authors stress, "Indian and Pakistani leaders exchanged direct or indirect nuclear threats no less than thirteen times in just five weeks during the Kargil crisis." In fact--and this is their crucial assertion--Kargil "dramatically highlighted South Asia as the most likely place in the world for a nuclear exchange to take place."

    Once again I return to the students, from across all classes, whom I met in India and Pakistan. How many of them can remain in school in a nuclearized subcontinent? What is the future into which they will grow? According to Bidwai and Vanaik, after the nuclear tests, "India's education ministry quietly decided to slow down the program to universalize primary education, even as the government raised the military spending allocation by fourteen percent." Which make the voices of Ahmad and the writers of the partition collected by Butalia all the more important--and, sadly, plaintive.

    As Arundhati Roy writes in her introduction to New Nukes (an essay that appeared in The Nation on September 28, 1998): "Making bombs will only destroy us. It doesn't matter whether we use them or not.... India's nuclear bomb is the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people. However many garlands we heap on our scientists, however many medals we pin to their chests, the truth is that it's far easier to make a bomb than to educate 400 million people."

    Amitava Kumar

  • Fiction October 19, 2000

    The Kiss

    You may find reading Akhil Sharma's debut novel akin to having your head held underwater. Attendant with feelings of a relentless, choking panic, though, will be an almost preternatural awareness of the details suffusing the experience.

    In Sharma's An Obedient Father, a stunning work that is both personal and political, you hear a man say, "Misery often makes me want to look away from the present and leads me to nostalgia." The misery of the present is born out of the political trials of India in the early eighties. The escape that the narrator wishes for is driven by yearning for a rural past: "As I swallowed my heart medicine in the blue dark of the common room, I imagined walking through Beri's sugarcane fields and sitting beneath a mango tree. I wanted to be a child again, with the future a wide, still river in the afternoon." What makes this nostalgia for an unsullied past both poignant and problematic is that it is the desire of a man who cannot escape the memory of the newspapers soaking up the blood beneath his daughter's thighs each night after he has raped her.

    The protagonist, Ram Karan, is a corrupt official in the Education Department in Delhi. He is a widower living with his newly widowed daughter, Anita, and his young granddaughter. Anita is the child he raped repeatedly twenty years earlier. Most of the book is in Karan's voice.

    The experience of an intimacy so often violent, of being a witness to what is routinely hidden but is here plainly visible, is a result of the quality of the narrator's voice. Lucid and perverse, like the solipsistic narrator of Nabokov's Lolita, the confessions of Sharma's antihero are sharp, even empathetic, and loathsome. (Recall Nabokov's H.H.: "I had possessed her--and she never knew it. All right. But would it not tell sometime later? Had I not tampered with her fate by involving her image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and terrible wonder.")

    The social backdrop of the novel is also enriched by the tussle for the Delhi seat between a dying Congress Party and an emergent, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Karan is the money man, the bribe-collector, for one of the candidates in the parliamentary election. The petty political intrigues and their murderous fallouts provide a distraction from the less public drama that is played out inside the three-member Karan home.

    It is to Sharma's great credit as a novelist that I was as often horrified by Karan's abuses and compulsive degradations as I was held captive by his pellucid dissection of shame that exposes a geography of self-delusion and national wrongdoing. There can be no doubt that Ram Karan is evil, but because he almost always is given voice, he also remains in some measure human.

    This is the book's most disturbing feature but also its most powerful triumph. As a result, An Obedient Father poses a serious challenge to a reviewer who is tempted to take refuge in the easiest, moralizing dismissal of this unusual novel. There is reason to be dismayed by its brutality, and not everyone can savor its black humor; but it cannot be denied that the maddening narrative voice is as darkly hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky.

    Sharma also pulls off the trick of showing that a collective political degradation is intertwined seamlessly with personal turpitude. Indira Gandhi's dictatorial "emergency," imposed twenty-five years ago, suspended civil rights and gave a free hand to an inner circle of politicos in Delhi. The emergency didn't tamper only with democratic institutions; its depredations made more base our responses to those weaker than we are. Sharma's novel bears the scars of that trauma and its aftermath on Karan, but also on his daughter: "Money would make everything negotiable.... The more years Indira Gandhi spent in office, the more my income grew, for more and more things fell under the government's aegis and we civil servants were the gatekeepers. I bought a toaster, a blender, a refrigerator, and a television. Anita went through higher secondary and into college. She grew up shy and easily panicked, but there was nothing that marked her as damaged."

    If Kafka's K. located power in the distant castle, Sharma shows us mercilessly that such castles are our homes, so to speak, in our bedrooms. In fact, when you overhear Ram Karan's confessions about his political sins to his daughter each evening after the English news, you also realize that the political is a deflection from the interrogation of the personal. Karan understands this well: "I thought that providing her with something to rage about openly would be a way to keep us from the topic of what I had done to her."

    Incest has enjoyed a popular run in Indian fiction recently. An Obedient Father is perhaps the novel that, some might say, Arundhati Roy had wanted to write when she wrote The God of Small Things. It is certainly the novel that Raj Kamal Jha came close to writing when in The Blue Bedspread he plumbed the dark ambiguities of abuse and incest. Sharma's novel is part of a brilliant coming of age in Indian fiction.

    The dust jacket of the book informs us that its author is an investment banker who lives in Manhattan. He was born in India but grew up in Edison, New Jersey, studied at Princeton and later Stanford. He has won two O. Henry awards for his short fiction and worked as a scriptwriter for Steven Spielberg.What is most remarkable about this profile is not the youth (he's 29) or even the impressive array of accomplishments; rather, it is the fact that a writer who has lived most of his life outside India is able to write about life in Delhi with such sensitivity and flair. The brothels of Delhi's GB Road, the roads and shops of Kamla Nagar, the alleys of Old Delhi, in the changing light and temperature of the seasons, all come alive in this book's pages. Even the evocation of Karan's childhood in a village before India's independence is exact and intriguing:

    I remembered that when my mother and I waited by the side of the road for a bus, I would tell my mother to move back, not because I was worried about her safety, but because this was one of the few ways I had to show my love.... Violence was common. Grown men used to rub kerosene on a bitch's nipples and watch it bite itself to death.

    Does this sharpness of outline in the book, its confidence in its own voice and descriptions, put an end to the debate about the authenticity of Indian expatriate writers? An Obedient Father demonstrates that magical realism à la Salman Rushdie is not the indispensable tool of the Indian writer living abroad and, second, that unmagical realism à la Rohinton Mistry is insignificant if it does not scratch away at wounds that are covered over by the scabs of silence.

    Unlike Rushdie and Mistry, both of whom have written about Indira Gandhi's emergency, Sharma produces nothing that could have been culled from the pages of a newspaper. Neither magical nor dull, his writing transgresses the borders of earlier, celebrated fictions, and he makes connections that are both vivid and dislocating: "Every night I had dreams of humiliation, of people catching me with Anita. When I saw a rooster picking at a pile of dung, I wondered what he was eating. Around this time I also began imagining sucking the penises of powerful men."

    We learn early about Karan's death, but there is little consolation in this. The ironies of the victimizer becoming a victim, at the novel's end, are plainly discernible. Yet such ironies are overshadowed by the more gloomy evidence of damaged lives and their unsettled grief. And after Karan's death, I missed his eye for detail. I could not let go of the thought that of all the people in the room when Anita informs her extended family of what happened in her past, Karan is the only one who notices that everyone, in their desire to help, had ignored Anita's own desires. (Nabokov's H.H. was similarly cognizant of deeper absences: "I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.")

    I tried to think again about one of Karan's earlier statements: "All the things that might mark me as unusual and explain what I did to Anita were present in other people." Did I not see the signs in my own life?

    I was returning to college one summer from my hometown in Bihar, India. The train stopped at Aligarh. We were running late and it was hot outside. I looked up from my reading when an old man appeared and began to claim in a loud voice that he was Jawaharlal Nehru. The train began to move. There were many new passengers, daily commuters with their bags and their loads of merchandise. Some of them began joking with the old man. The Aligarh passengers, all men, settled down to a game of cards. They asked the old man a question or two and then teased him. Like many others in the compartment, I was amused by this teasing.

    The old man, sensing that he was being mocked, shouted louder; one of the men slapped him from the upper berth and told him to be quiet. The old man was wearing a white cotton cap, as Nehru did in photographs. The cap had been knocked down. The old man picked it up and turned on the others with filthy abuses.

    This was all the provocation the men needed. All down the narrow pathway between the berths, violent blows rained on the old man, who swore and spat viciously. His head began to bleed. One man gave his rubber slipper to the old man and asked him to use it to sweep the floor. "Do that, Jawaharlal," he said. When the old man tried to use the slipper to hit back, the man pulled his dhoti, leaving the old man naked from the waist down.

    My fellow passengers, many of whom had been sitting till then, crowded around the old man and tore off his shirt. They kicked his genitals. Someone on a nearby berth asked that this be stopped, but this appeal had no effect.

    There was a stink coming from the corner in which the old man had been pushed. As I said, it was very hot outside, and it was hot in the compartment too. I did not want to move. I thought of the old man when I got to my hostel and was preparing to sleep, but I don't think I've thought of him for any length of time ever again till I was reading An Obedient Father. That memory of derangement and violence was evoked by the book, no doubt, but also evoked was the claustrophobia of our closed lives, our bitterness and the collective nakedness ringing with abuse.

    Amitava Kumar

  • Fiction April 5, 2000

    Passages to India

    In the early 1920s, E.M.

    Amitava Kumar

  • Fiction June 17, 1999

    Indian Music, Sans Sitar

    I am an artless serf of Cupid. So are you and your mama--but not Vikram Seth.

    Amitava Kumar