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Writing beyond English: The Challenges of Inventing Non-English Worlds in English-Language Novels

World Literature Today has published my observations on what it meant for me to invent a Tamil world in English in my most recent novel Ghost in the Tamarind. Language, politics, translation–the essay touches on these and other challenges. “Writing beyond English” started as a presentation at this year’s AWP, so a shout-out to my most exemplary co-panelits Nandi Odhiambo, Stephanie Han, Samrat Upadhyay, and Peter Kimani.

You can find the essay here.

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The Story of Ashoka, the King Who Gave Up Conquest (or Embracing Possibility in an Age of Hopelessness)

Paris / 11.13.2015
Beirut / 11.12.2015
Gaza / July 2014
Abu Ghraib / 2003
Gujarat / February 2002
New York /9.11.2001
Sri Lanka / July 1983
[Fill in place and date of your choice]

We tell stories—we are what our stories make of us.

We have a right to the oil under distant desert sands because we are a modern and industrious people—that is a story.

Terrorism is necessary to fight the empire—another story.

We have the right to kill those who abuse our religion—a story.

No place for idealism in governing. Ruling and exercising power requires making hard and unsentimental choices—the most insidious of stories, a story meant to make us helpless, disorient us morally. A story that has given us drone strikes and torture and extraordinary rendition.

I remember other stories.

As the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe often said, the special work of the storyteller is to keep the stories we care about from disappearing. So here is a story I want to keep from disappearing.

Once upon a time there was a king who gave up conquest, committed himself to nonviolence, and embraced wholeheartedly the welfare of his subjects. That king’s name was Ashoka and he ruled from 268 to 232 BCE in that part of the world we now call India.

Early in his life, Ashoka was a bloodthirsty conqueror. In 260 BCE, this warrior king fought a ferocious battle to subdue stubborn Kalinga. Ashoka won. Kalinga was subdued. But the morning after his victory, as Ashoka picked his way through the rotting and crow-pecked bodies littering the battlefield, the great king was brought low by grief. Shocked at the devastation wrought by his violent quest to expand his empire, Ashoka resolved to give up conquest and to devote himself to rule through ahimsa, or nonviolence. He resolved to choose compassion and the welfare of his people over the vainglorious expansion of his empire. This new resolve of the king you can still find etched as edicts on rocks scattered across what was once his vast empire.

Ashoka ruled for nearly forty years. His name means “one without grief.”

This is a story about the happy union of the ideal and the possible. This is the story I choose to remember today.

The Literature and Politics of Shit (Shit Does Not Happen, It Is Allowed to Happen)

I

This might be the blog post nobody reads. Who wants to read about shit? (Yes, I too am wrinkling my nose.) But for reasons mentioned in this important Human Rights Watch report prepared by researcher Shikha Bhattacharjee there is no getting away from writing about it, especially now: http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/25/india-caste-forced-clean-human-waste.

There is no getting away from shit, period. It is the most human of things, and also the most inhuman.

II

I can remember visits as a child to the home of relatives in Thirunelveli in South India during which the inhumanity of shit in all its domesticated ordinariness was illustrated for me through a toilet. The toilet in this old and rambling house was an outhouse in the back, open to the sky and without a door. When in use, a chombu of water placed strategically on a wall was warning enough to await your turn. Inside was a long dry trough I remember well, only too well. It was cleaned manually by a scavenger (you should not have to ask me about this person’s social status), who daily came early in the morning before anyone in the house had need to go.

What does it mean that I remember this outhouse so vividly decades later? Let us just say that on my visits I woke up as early as I could.

III

This very outhouse makes a brief appearance in my last novel No End to the Journey, which is set in a similar village. But the most famous Indian novel in English about shit and manual scavenging is of course Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, written nearly eighty years ago. In that novel, Anand, writing in the midst of the Indian nationalist movement, depicts the life of Bakha, an “untouchable” boy who is a manual scavenger. Towards the end of the novel, Anand has Bakha imagine the flush toilet as the utopian solution to his life of degradation. Technology, Bakha imagines, will free him from a desperate profession through which the untouchability of shit is reconstituted as the untouchability of his body and identity. Eighty years later, and manual scavenging still goes on in India. The technological solutions exist, as do the financial resources; still the horror of manual scavenging has not ended.

The simple truth about shit is that it doesn’t just happen, it is allowed to happen. Read the Human Rights Watch report.

IV

Some of my fellow Indians have no doubt begun to groan by now. They are thinking: One more bit of writing on shit in India! Hasn’t V. S. Naipaul done this already? Haven’t we had enough?

No, we haven’t—not as long as the outrage of manual scavenging exists. I’m no Naipaul. Long ago I wrote critically about him for his silly and ignorant declamations about shit and India. I am not about to join his camp. There are many things of which we Indians should justly be proud. I have written about some of them in earlier posts. Manual scavenging, however, is not one of them.

V

Manual scavenging is shameful, but the shame of it sticks to us (Indian and non-Indian, frankly) rather than the scavengers. Thank you, dear reader, for getting to the end of this post even if only with wrinkled nose.

Who cares about Palestine? (The Magical Arithmetic of Moral Imagination)

I do, and so should you.

The dividers of humanity will say: what is Palestine to you? You are not Palestinian, or an Israeli. You are from India and live in Hawai’i.

They will say: why don’t you care about the undocumented Central American children being rounded up on the US-Mexican border?

They will say: why don’t you write about the Dalit girls raped in the villages of India?

I do, and I have, and I will. I do care about those children and girls, and so should you.

But does that mean I can’t care about Palestinians today?

I’m talking about moral imagination, you understand. I know there are only so many hours in the day, and so many days in a week. Everyone can’t do everything. I get that. But how much time does it really take to expand your moral imaginative capacity (a good starting place)?

Here’s the crux of the matter. Most things in the world get smaller when you divide them. Money, land, water, oil. These get smaller when you spread them out amongst many people. That’s the tragedy—the war, the political economy, if you get my drift—of the world.

And then there is the call of moral imagination—which is in its own way a magical kind of answer to the tragedy and the war and the political economy. Do you really think if you divided your capacity for caring between two things rather than showering it on one you would care less? Do you really think your compassion for others would shrivel if you cared for the homeless and terrorized in Gaza? That it will now be impossible for you to be moved when you read Primo Levi or Anne Frank? (I am moved when I read them, and so should you.)

Here’s the crux of the matter. Most things in the world get smaller when you spread them out, when you divide them. But some things get bigger. That’s the magic: sometimes division multiplies! And then it multiplies you too in all the right, the magical, ways.

What does it matter if I am not a Palestinian or an Israeli? What does it matter where I am from, or where I live?

I care about what is happening in Palestine, and so, magically, should you.

Teaching and Learning from Nadine Gordimer

Inarguably, Nadine Gordimer, who died recently, is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. She is not an easy writer to read. I should know since I teach her books often. Most of my students, undergraduate and graduate, have to be taught to appreciate novels like Burger’s Daughter—brilliant, dense, formally and politically challenging novels that demand the reader work to comprehend (for in Gordimer comprehending cannot be separated from working).

Gordimer, to my mind, is a writer’s writer. You could do worse than read her to learn the craft of writing. No doubt, in the school of Gordimer you would not learn “workshop” prose—none of that apolitical realism written in smooth prose taught in creative writing workshops. Alongside stunning feats of technical virtuosity, you would find a certain kind of didacticism. You would learn about being didactic in all the right ways, in ways we have ceased to expect of our “literary fiction,” which we have exiled to professionalized creative writing programs.

Gordimer’s unfamiliar marriage of ethics and aesthetics, earnestness and nuance, is part of her toughness. In Gordimer, didacticism is not the enemy of art. On the contrary, unlike the bad variety, Gordimer’s didacticism is internal to her aesthetic vision. I think this is what she means when she says in interviews that her writing took her to politics rather than the other way round. If your artistic vision helps you produce richly imagined political characters or, for that matter, apolitical characters confronted by deeply political situations, politics will necessarily enter your novel. And then you as a novelist have no need to be didactic, for your characters are didactic for you. This is what I try to get my students to see with a novel like July’s People, beginning with that didactic epigraph from the great Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci.

Gordimer often said that she did not set out to be political. Rather, politics entered her work because of the nature of her preeminent subject matter—life in apartheid South Africa. She is an unusual postcolonial writer—a white writer fully deserving of the term. This too provides great opportunities in the classroom. It is instructive to teach her alongside her peers Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ousmane Sembene—extraordinary African contemporaries who too in very different ways struggle with the tension between art and politics.

Wherever the art of the word is honored as a challenging and deeply ethical practice, Nadine Gordimer will continue to be read.

Learning Soccer in Nigeria: Reflections, Prompted by the World Cup, on the Beauty and the Morality of Sports

I learned my soccer in Nigeria, at St. Gregory’s, the school I attended in Lagos in the 1970s. I remember one game in particular in which I scored from a half-back position, bursting uncharacteristically through opposing defensive lines to score a goal. It was an exhilarating moment of pure physical exertion. As the teams trudged back to their respective halves for kick-off, a rival player ran up and demanded, “What? You’re scoring nuclear goals now?” It was only after the game that I found out India had detonated an atomic device at Pokhran, thereby announcing its nuclear ambitions to the world. My Nigerian schoolmate, clearly more aware of world news, was alluding to this event in his irate challenge to me.

I confess I later, oblivious to the immorality of nuclear weaponization, swelled with pride at this acknowledgement of my prowess on the field. I was a postcolonial Indian boy in postcolonial Nigeria, not at all a simple thing to be, united with as well as separated from my Nigerian schoolmate in myriad ways by a global colonial history (subject for a future blog). Let us just say that the encounter on that Nigerian soccer field was overdetermined.

By now, you might be thinking I want to draw conclusions about sports and geopolitics but, no, this is a blog that heads in another direction. We know the intimate links sports has with identity—the ways in which, for example, nationalistic decolonizing movements were and are intertwined with sports. Global sports events, such as the cricket or soccer world cups, can hardly be free of these entanglements—indeed, they might very well be primary modes of establishing and advancing identitarian claims.

We know all this. As the soccer world cup in Brazil concludes, as a fan I want to ask rather about the converse—about what might be called the aesthetics of sports. What does it take to isolate the utter beauty of a great sporting event from its political connotations? What does it take to isolate my enjoyment of my own humble goal decades ago on a soccer field in Lagos from the postcolonial context in which it was scored? And what form might a defense of such aesthetic value take? Students of literary criticism will recognize the familiarity of these questions.

Fathers and Fatherhood: A Report

This is what I have discovered about fatherhood as a son.

A father is a person that you know well, sometimes too well. Perhaps a father is even that person you helplessly grow into. That way in which you hold the newspaper when you read it? Yes, it’s true, that’s the way your father read his newspaper. You have decided never to worry about money (even as the unpaid bills rise ever higher on your desk)? That, as you no doubt know even if you won’t think about it, is exactly what your father would never have done. In this way, a father is never a complete mystery, for your father is in you. Pride or shame or indifference—whatever your assessment of your father, you move inexorably towards a knowledge of him.

But that is not the whole truth, is it? For your movement into knowledge over the years is asymptotical—you are that curved line that approaches the straight line of your father without ever touching except, as the mathematicians say, at infinity. At a certain point, if events proceed in a natural order, a father dies (as mine did a few years ago), and you recognize what you should have always known, that your curving knowledge, ever bending towards your father, will never make its ordained connection. So you will never know your father after all. Your father will always be an unavoidable mystery.

So much for what I know as a son. And then there is that which I have discovered as a father myself.

To be a father is to encounter a mystery that rivals the mystery that is your father—and that mystery is yourself. There is no handbook on how to be a father. You figure it out yourself, whether well or poorly or indifferently, as the case might be. At some point, your son will become eighteen (as my son will in a few weeks). He will become his own person. You have managed to get him there, to the threshold of adulthood. How did you manage it? There is no final answer to that question. But there are many small answers along the way—answers that amount to knowing yourself just a little bit more.

All life is a bending towards a knowledge of yourself. And you will know yourself, as you will know your father, at infinity.

Tamil Cinema: Ten Essential Titles for New Fans of Indian Movies Who Want to Venture beyond Bombay

Because I spent a good part of my childhood in Delhi and Bombay rather than Chennai, I grew up knowing Hindi movies better than Tamil. I am talking about a time before video cassette players. When you saw movies, you went to theaters. So it was only on vacations in Tamil Nadu that I got to watch a few MGR and Shivaji Ganesan movies. I recall going to Thanga Pathakam with my family while visiting my uncle, aunt and cousin in Salem in the late Seventies. Afterward, on the lawn outside the theater, a heated discussion of Shivaji Ganesan’s (over)acting raged over roasted peanuts with shredded coconut and slices of spiced green mango.

Thanga Pathakam is a good reminder that no cinema in India is more masala than Tamil cinema (okay, maybe Telugu is). And no film tradition is more interesting historically and sociologically. Much has been written about the links between Tamil cinema and the Dravidian movements that transformed politics in Tamil India, and indeed eventually across all of the country. One might say that Tamil film personalities (C. N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, MGR, amongst others) pioneered the political uses of cinema. Call what they did masala with politics. If you are familiar with the “crepes” with potatoes that many associate with Tamil cuisine, call it masala dosa cinema.

Of course, not all Tamil cinema is masala dosa cinema. Most Tamil films, especially today, are simply masala, not masala dosa—brashly commercial and apolitical. And though Tamil cinema is famous for lacking the kind of auteur-driven film traditions found in Kerala and Bengal, there are even films that may be classified as alternative.

Here, then, are ten essential masala, masala dosa and alternative titles from Tamil cinema, with brief annotations. Translations of titles are mine; official DVDs might have alternative translations. When not translated, titles are proper nouns.

  1. Parasakthi (The Goddess Parasakthi)

1952. The original masala dosa film. Written by M. Karunanidhi, later Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, with covert political themes and directed by the team of Krishnan-Panju. Main role brilliantly acted by Shivaji Ganesan.

  1. Kadalika Neramillai (No Time for Love)

1964. A brilliant metacinematic comedy directed by C. V. Sridhar. Show stolen by Nagesh in the role of an aspiring film director.

  1. Server Sundaram (Sundaram the Waiter)

1964. Melodrama by the directorial team of Krishnan-Panju. Nagesh is brilliant in the title role of a poor waiter who rises to become a film star.

  1. Enga Veetu Pillai (Our Son)

1965. Perhaps the most famous of MGR films. MGR, also later Chief Minister, in a double role at a time when he was rapidly transitioning from a film icon to a political heavyweight. The song “Naan Annai Itaal” played a big part in that transformation.

  1. Thaneer, Thaneer (Water)

1981. Film adaptation of a classic Tamil play of the same title by Komal Swaminathan (English translation by me). Directed by K. Balachander, who carved out a niche between masala movies and alternative cinema often referred to as “middle cinema.”

  1. Terrorist

1998. Written and directed by Santosh Sivan, one of the most acclaimed cinematographers in Indian cinema. A thought-provoking and beautifully shot study of a female suicide bomber. Definitely alternative cinema.

  1. Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Seen)

2000. Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility by director Rajiv Menon. With an early Aishwarya Rai and with Malayalam superstar Mamooty. Music by A. R. Rahman.

  1. Bombay

1995. Directed by Mani Ratnam, perhaps the most renowned of current directors working mainly in Tamil and inheritor of the mantle of “middle cinema director” from K. Balachander. A torn-from-the-headlines fictional account of the religious riots in Bombay in the early Nineties. Equally renowned for the music by A. R. Rahman.

  1. Sivaji

2007. Huge Rajnikanth hit about a do-gooding entrepreneur. What list of essential Tamil movies could be complete without Stylemaster Rajnikanth? Pure masala.

10. Subramaniapuram

2008. Typical of a contemporary trend towards low-budget offbeat films. Directed by M. Sasikumar. A study of young men drawn into a culture of violence. Acclaimed for its direction and authenticity of presentation.

 

No list of ten could ever do justice to such a long and distinguished film tradition. If you are a fan of Tamil cinema, feel free to share your favorites.

Don’t Call It Bollywood! (Call It a Masala Movie)

What’s in a name? Everything of course. Why call India’s popular cinema Bollywood when there is a perfectly good name that most Indians have grown up with? Bollywood suggests that Indian popular cinema is derivative of Hollywood. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Indian popular film is a completely different artistic product than Hollywood. And there’s a word that captures this difference perfectly—masala.

I grew up watching and loving masala movies, not Bollywood. (I love India’s alternative cinema too, but that is grist for another blog.) A movie is masala when it gives you hours of spicy entertainment for your hard-earned rupees. This is the recipe for a masala movie—a little melodrama, a little song, a little dance, ground together for a visual extravaganza that stimulates every one of your artistic taste buds. In the hands of a great director and great stars (as in, for example, Yash Chopra’s Hindi-language Deewaar with Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay) the result is a spectacular work of art.

There is no shame in melodrama, a genre with deep historical roots. And there are other kinds of artistic integrity than that prized in Hollywood. When I teach Deewaar, I often focus attention in class on that great scene in which Ravi (played by Shashi Kapoor) and Sumitra Devi (played by NIrupa Roy) storm out of Vijay’s palatial mansion forever without stopping to grab even a single personal item (toothbrush, change of clothes, a necessary document like the ration card, a beloved photograph).

Psychologically implausible? Of course. No Hollywood film worth its Oscar ambition would ever have such a scene. But the masala movie would—because the grand truths it pursues (if it is a work of art, not all are of course) would be diluted by a slavish and narrow adherence to psychological plausibility.

So don’t call it Bollywood. Call it a masala movie. Indian popular cinema cannot be understood by reference to Hollywood. Masala is an Indian word comprehended all over India, and increasingly outside. There is a history of applying the word to Indian popular films. As far as I am concerned, these are reasons enough to jettison the tendentious Bollywood and go back to masala movie.

(Next blog—return in a couple of weeks for notes on Tamil masala movies, about which so little is known amongst international audiences.)

Fred Ho, Bandung, and the Idea of Afro-Asia (the Time for Remembering is Now)

I did not know Fred Ho well, but I knew him enough to mourn his passing. Fred, like the clothes he often wore, was bold and unforgettable in life and I have no doubt he will remain so in death through his music and his writings. The handful of times I heard him on his saxophone I was blown away by his virtuosity, though certainly a technical appreciation of his music is best left to those better qualified. What I know to value more deliberately is Fred’s politics, an exhilarating mix of this, that and the other radicalism—matriarchy meets ecosocialism meets Black Power meets Asian Pride. Did these diverse subversive strains of thought coexist in Fred’s thinking in coherent harmony? At one level, that is the wrong question. What matters is Fred’s impetus in bringing these ways of being in the world together.

To understand this impetus you might have to go back to an idea of Afro-Asian solidarity traceable to Bandung. Bandung is a town in Indonesia where leaders of countries from across what we would now call the postcolonial world or the Global South gathered in 1952. The meeting was a ringing declaration of decolonizing intent. Leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Zhao Enlai of China, Sukarno of Indonesia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt met to carve out a geopolitical space free of the influence of the great colonial powers. No matter the actual achievements of the non-aligned movement that followed (or for that matter these leaders), Bandung represents a pivotal moment in the cultural history of radicalism. Recognizing its importance, Richard Wright, the great African American novelist, traveled from his exile in Paris to Bandung as an observer, entitling his subsequent report The Color Curtain in order to draw a parallel with the Iron Curtain separating the capitalist First World and the socialist Second World. He went on to famously describe Bandung as a “meeting of the rejected [that] was in itself a kind of judgment upon the Western world!”

Bandung echoed through the Sixties and the Seventies, exerting enormous cultural influence by offering a global vision for the wretched of the earth. This is the vision Fred too claimed, upheld in his inimitable way, and worked to grow into a movement (go here for an upcoming Fred Ho event: https://www.facebook.com/events/677215905667784/). I fear its passing in our solipsistic times. The time for remembering and preserving is now.