Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Blogging pause brought on by moving house.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Rushdie, Rushdie

'The most striking thing about Shalimar the Clown is its effort - generous, one might say, given Rushdie's background - to paint if not a sympathetic then at least an empathetic portrait of the sort of young men once called upon to kill him', says Emma Brockes in this interview with Salman Rushdie in the Guardian. Says Rushdie: 'There's an argument which is that to humanise [terrorists] is a kind of exoneration. And obviously I don't think that. It's wrong to say that by understanding people you somehow let them off the hook. There was a recent film about the last days of Hitler, Downfall, and it showed all of them, Hitler and Eva Braun etc, as rounded characters, with moments of affection. It kind of makes it worse, when you can see that these are not cartoon villains, but are real people making these hideous decisions. In a way it does the opposite of exonerating them.'

Rushdie clashes with George Galloway in a debate about TV and religion. Galloway cautions about the need to refrain from offending people's beliefs, while Rushdie asks caustically: 'The simple fact is that any system of ideas that decides you have to ringfence it, that you cannot discuss it in fundamental terms, that you can't say that this bit of it is junk, or that bit is oppressive ... we are supposed to respect that?' I have to say I'm with Rushdie on this one.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Kartography

Interesting book (so far), but Kamila Shamsie needs to hang out with 13 year old kids a little more before she starts writing dialogue that purports to be between them. Either that or this book is about particularly precocious brats whose levels of self-awareness make me dizzy:

'Listen, [Raheen says] 'We're adolescents. We're supposed to be rebellious for the sake of it. So if you just want something that has nothing to do with making linen, that's really fine and in keeping with this stage of life and all that. But there are more interesting options than latitudes and longitudes...'

[More Raheen]: 'You are dismissed as incontinent, irreverent and immaterialistic...' [God, at least make her use the words as if she's just discovered them.]

And Zia driving a Merc at thirteen [spank these brats, I say]...

Oh and if you discover adult Pakistani men (apart from Asif Memon) referring to each other as 'mate' a decade and a half after leaving England, please refer these curious creatures to me. As I said, interesting book but KS needs to think about her characters more before she makes them speak.

Proud to be a faggot

Three cheers for Farah Baria for writing this: 'How ironic that in a country where criminals seem to go scot-free for roasting 14 people alive in a bakery, national leaders are acquitted for abetting the carnage of 3,000 Sikhs, scores are maimed or blinded because they belong to a ‘‘lower’’ caste, women are wantonly assaulted on city streets, and many, many marriages are alibis for legalized violence and rape, our government wants to ‘‘protect’’ us from law abiding citizens, whose only ‘‘crime’’ is their sexual preference!'

And read about why Bhupen Khakhar's friends will never forget him.

Moral of the story: read the Indian Express more, for reasons apart from the fact that my sister works there. Oh and in case you're wondering, yes I am (proud I mean).

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Short story

Two pieces, which I havn't had time to read yet, on the short story.

Any recommendations?

s: Raymond Carver

thariel: Borges (not that I've read any, but he's quoted all over the place...), Premchand

elizabeth: the astonishing sherman alexie, a.s. byatt, angela carter, lorrie moore, marquez, carver, jhumpa lahiri

kaashyapeya: Rana Dasgupta, Joyce

Der Fremde a.k.a. Somak: Borges (the undisputed Master), Kafka, James,Tagore and in that order.

Pathways to peace?

I posted something about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra earlier. Here's another, largely laudatory, piece with some alternative perspectives: 'while most Palestinians welcome Barenboim's commitment, which has involved setting up a musical kindergarten in Ramallah in memory of Edward Said, many artists passionately feel that their purpose is to tell Palestinian stories in their own way, that it is dishonest to gesture towards reconciliation in art before political reconciliation is achieved. And sometimes they need to rage.'

Raj balance sheet

Manmohan's Oxford speech continues to generate commentary. From the pages of the EPW comes this perspective that says many interesting things, of which at least two are worthy of note: (i) the criticisms of both the Marxist left and ultra-nationalist right are derivative discourses (derived, respectively, from a European intellectual who wrote in the tranquil environs of the British Museum, and the ideologues of European fascist regimes); (ii) recent, more nuanced and introspective evaluations of the Raj may unsettle those who feel that it takes the edge off our neo-nationalism at a time when this is needed to cope with the perceived onslaught of neo-colonialism.

Gaza disengagement

From one of my favourite news sources on Palestine - electronic Intifada - comes this view of the 'disengagement' as seen from Gaza: a victory for Palestinians, tempered with the knowledge that disengagement from Gaza is intended to further entrench settlements in the West Bank, that Gaza represents only 1.6% of historic Palestine and has never been of any strategic or biblical importance to Israel and - perhaps most depressingly - that the real motivation for disengagement is the desire to redress Israel's 'demographic problem'. Disengagement cuts off 1.3 million Palestinians from Israel's responsibility at the cost of removing only 8,000 of the 400,000 illegal settlers in the Occupied Territories. As a consequentialist I am pleased; as a deontologist, I cannot help but think of this as ethnic housekeeping.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Arts roundup

Dogville remains one of the most riveting pieces of cinema I have ever seen - bare bones, naked, the cinematic equivalent of the Lloyds building's 'truth in architecture'. I'm not sure I fully understood what it was about - I saw the 'she kills them to save them' theme as a parable about humanitarian intervention, but that could just have been me foisting my pre-occupations on the movie. I didn't fully understand it, but I thought it was brilliant. Does that makes sense? (I was also impressed with Nicole Kidman's winning streak - Moulin Rouge, The Hours, Dogville - she was the best thing in Hollywood at the time.) Now we have the sequel, but without Kidman.

Mexican film-maker Carlos Reygadas has a horror of pretence, and of technique in acting, preferring his cast to simply 'be' - hence his decision to use non-professionals. In practical terms, he says, the cast are not told about the story before shooting, far less given the script to read. 'I don't give them any knowledge regarding feelings; I give them spatial and temporal indications, when and where to say things...I tell them to look into the distance and they can do so with their own gaze, expression and feeling. They just are, and they are what they are...' He doesn't like the theatre because of the fact that 'the actors are representing roles'; and he thinks 'most of what we call cinema is not cinema. It's really film theatre...[because] the characters are just technical people representing something.' Sounds strange to me, but Reygadas is placed in the same class as Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Alejandro Gonzalez (Amores Perros), so must be worth watching out for!

While on the subject of Mexico, there is an entire community of bloggers who list, under 'Favourite Films', 'anything with Gael Garcia Bernal'.

Staying with Mexico, the Frida exhibition at the Tate Modern in London is worth a visit. Among the 80 or so works that are on display, I liked the explicitly political works that show her off as a postcolonial artist - a picture of her straddling the border of Mexico and the US, a collage of the US with her empty traditional Mexican dress hanging amidst it all, and another of her sitting in a cafe in Mexico with two faceless men and scenes of tradition and modernity hanging behind her with a portrait of the Mexican revolutionary leader Villa in between. Besides being political, much of the work is very obviously personal - there is much self-portraiture (see Germaine Greer's acerbic essay on this) and there is much pain (something that the Hollywood biopic allowed one to forget because it was so aesthetically beautiful).

Fulfilling a long-cherished dream, the East-West Divan orchestra performs in Ramallah before a packed auditorium ('In the end people were sitting three-deep in the aisles and standing at the sides and the back of the hall, even the great and the good of Ramallah reduced to a perch on the floor.') Founded in 1998 by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, this youth orchestra was intended to give young Arabs and Israelis the chance to work together. Yet it is not a political project and Said is reported to have commented unsentimentally, 'It doesn't pretend to be building bridges and all that hokey stuff. But there it is: a paradigm of coherent and intelligent living together.' I heard them last year and they were fantastic.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Cry, beloved Brazil

Lula is embroiled in a corruption scandal which is edging ever closer to him. Now we are told that Lula knew of the scandal before it became public knowledge.

Movimento Sem Terra (MST), Latin America's largest social movement and the primary social movement linked to the ruling Workers' Party (PT), has reacted to news of the scandal with unequivocal disgust: 'this government has been distorted. We are not dealing any more with the same government that we elected in 2002. We do not have a government of the left, nor of the center-left. We have a centrist government, since the right controls economic policy. We can say goodbye to the Workers Party government and its historic commitments. We are suffering the consequences of an ambiguous government, composed of political forces in society that range from the right to the left and that has very little to offer.'

The New Left Review contains a balance sheet of the Lula government as it approaches the final year of its mandate; finality may be closer then we think: there are already murmurings of impeachment. Another assessment of Lula's performance (before the corruption scandal broke) can be found here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Killing the Salman

First, go read Kitabkhana's hilarious Brave New Rules of Indian writing. Then decide how many of those I am breaking or observing.

This was written in January 2005, and the final version published in The Itinerant Indian, ed. Aruna Nambiar (Bangalore: Unisun, 2005).

The Enigma of Arrival: Midnight’s grandchildren in the belly of the Raj

Dear Mr. Rushdie,

Your Midnight’s Children is badly in need of updating. It is a good book, but much water has flowed under the bridge since then. I was born smack in the middle of the Emergency. This entitles me to write the sequel. Ok ok I won’t steal your thunder. You can write it. But let it be about me. I’ve had quite close contact with more than a few major public personalities of our time, so you won’t even have to rack your brains for those tangential connections between protagonist and larger historical context that you are so fond of. Here’s the plug: (Granta, 2008?)

Fine, I’ll admit it. Before you ferret around for my birth certificate, I was not born in the midst of the drama of the Emergency. If truth were told, I popped out into the world during the reign of a simple-living, high-thinking, urine-drinking Prime Minister. But hey – I’m sure you weren’t born on the 15th of August 1947 at the stroke of midnight, so we’re quits. And I suppose before I begin blowing my own trumpet, I should acknowledge that I was born the great-grandson of zamindars and courtiers, the grandson of civil servants and soldiers. Native collaborators all. No freedom fighters in my genealogy, no Quit India veterans (not even a roadside Romeo great-uncle who might have seen it as the biggest bunking opportunity of the century).

Thanks to my wily ancestors, I was born with a very high quality stainless steel spoon in my mouth, so that when the time was right, I was well positioned to make that most predictable of moves for the aimless bratpack-lok: Go Abroad. Between me, and the ivy-covered stone walls with their manicured lawns and Benetton-ad groups of laughing students in baseball caps that I aspired to be part of, stood a bewildering flurry of acronyms – GRE, TOEFL, USIS, I20. A significantly less complicated route – if you managed to snag it – were the Rhodes scholarships to Oxford (no acronyms, just an interview). Different destination perhaps, steeped in history, but I would still get the things that were important to me: ivy, lawns, Benetton people. Preparing for the interview, I suspected that I would have to know something about the scholarships and their Founder.

I read so much about Cecil Rhodes that, perhaps taking pity on me, in the week preceding the interview he visited me frequently. Every night he gave me a PowerPoint presentation outlining, in rather abrupt bullet points, his expansive vision for the world and my place in it. On the first night, he bragged about being one of the most successful British (ad)venture capitalists of all time and – like a benevolent mentor sharing business tips – divulged to me gleefully the sordid details of how he had managed to hoodwink African chiefs into granting him concessions to mine for diamonds in the 19th century. He droned on about the vast fortune that this had allowed him to amass and even offered to present the latest annual report of his beloved De Beers, but I had never been good at economics and feared that talk of non-performing assets would only make me more nervous. On the second night, he took me a video tour of his estates, boasting that he had virtually pioneered the system of apartheid by separating the Africans working in his mines from the outside world. On the third night he was more intimate, chuckling blithely as he revealed that one of his favourite Sunday pastimes was to throw shilling coins into a swimming pool and watch natives dive to retrieve them for his amusement. On the fourth night he declared, in his pompous and oratorical voice, that he had dedicated his life to re-establishing British dominion over Africa ‘from the Cape to Cairo’, and regretted that he had only managed to grab what are now Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe back in the days when he was still able-bodied. On the fifth night, he explained that he had left the bulk of his fortune to bring young men from the United States, the British Empire and Germany to Oxford, in the hope that mutual contact between potential leaders in these countries would facilitate understanding among the three great powers that he considered fit to run the world. The sixth night was more of the same, but somewhere along the line he started off about the Anglo-Saxon race being ‘the best, the most human, most honourable race the world possesses’; and when I looked at him quizzically, he clarified hastily that while I might never be blond and blue-eyed enough to actually be Teutonic, if I went to Oxford and did well there, I might at least be like them. Plus I could help run the world. On the seventh night, he wished me luck.

It should have been a perfect fit. Children of native collaborating elite go knocking on the imperial door. We’ve done your bidding, we’re almost like you, let us in, at least a little. Social climbing in the global pecking order. Essential, if one is to attain moksha from the cycle of birth and (relative) marginality and eventual nirvana. Plus it all made sense. I was exactly the kind of person the Founder might have wanted.

So I’m not sure what it was – upbringing? socialisation? nationalist propaganda? self-loathing? – that led me to throw a spanner in the works and begin my supplication to the Rhodes Scholarship India Selection Committee with something along the following lines: ‘I’m grateful that Cecil Rhodes does not sit on this selection committee. He might have listened with interest as I pontificated on the problems that the world faces today, but that interest would surely have turned to condescension – if not outright horror – if he heard what I thought ought to be done about them.’ Remarkably, the head of my regional selection committee nodded empathetically, remarking that the poor (little rich) man would be rolling in his grave if he could see who they were giving his money to: women! (post-)colonials in countries he couldn’t even have named! (they didn’t exist at the time).

Factoid (while we’re on the subject of Cecil Rhodes’ grave): In the midst of one of his lunatic and murderous outbursts against all things non-Zimbabwean – nay, against all things non-Zanu PF – Robert Mugabe demanded that Rhodes’ bones be dug up from their resting place in the Matopos Hills of the erstwhile state of Rhodesia and repatriated to Britain. I often wondered how exactly the macabre handover would be effected, if it ever came to that. Would the pale-faced John Rowett – then Warden and self-styled CEO of the Rhodes Trust – simply throw open the great metal doors on the pillared portico of Rhodes House, stretch his hands out to reach for the proffered gunny sack, with a grateful ‘Cheers, Bob’?

I am running ahead of me (but you do this all the time). But this is important. Because when I finally got to Oxford, no matter how many times we Rhodents were reminded in hushed and reverential tones of ‘the values of The Founder’, no matter what moral sophistry was employed in defence of The Founder (‘a man of his time’ – or the quite different tack: ‘if you don’t like him, why take his money?’), no matter how prominent a place The Founder’s portrait occupied in Rhodes House’s grand Milner Hall, and no matter that a tapestry of The Founder hung opposite one of Nelson Mandela – grotesquely positing a sort of equivalence between the two men – my Selection Committee and I (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) had a contract. To be sure, the terms of that contract were vague and open-ended, but they were clear enough: be everything that Rhodes was not.

I asked to go to Balliol College, and that is where I ended up. I’m not sure why I chose Balliol, seeing as I knew very little about it at the time, beyond the fact that it was founded in 1263. Having just graduated from a 13-year old law school, the prospect of joining an institution that had been a going concern since about the time of Genghis Khan, was strangely appealing. So it was with little information and few preconceptions that I wandered into what continues to be my academic home. I remember flinging open the door to Balliol’s dining hall and stopping dead in my tracks. I had seen it before. The same three endlessly long tables with long backless benches on either side, arranged longitudinally in a large room with a high table at the far end about a foot above the ground, where the More Important People ate (better food?). (I would soon discover on the walls of other Oxford college dining halls, the same black and white photographs of sports teams posing in the same ways with the obligatory two languid figures sprawled in the foreground on either side of the same trophies.) Same, same, same as in the old dining hall of Bishop Cotton Boys’ School on St. Mark’s Road in Bangalore.

Factoid: (while we’re on the subject of school and college): Three-and-a-half years after joining Balliol, while stumbling around the chapel one cold February afternoon, I would gasp in astonishment to find the name of George Uglow Pope engraved on a plaque in the north wall antechapel. Pope was Warden of Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, Bangalore (1871-1882), before going on to become – apparently – Chaplain of Balliol College, Oxford (1886).

As my North American friends exclaimed at this weird and wonderful sight, using phrases like ‘culture shock’ and that sole adjective in their vocabulary – ‘awesome’ – I could only think, petulantly, that I had wanted to go somewhere different. There were differences of course – the spooky organ that played Jaws-like music at our Fresher’s dinner, the massive stained glass windows and the general exponential increase in magnificence and grandeur. But these only made me feel more wretched, almost cheated, as if I’d had to make do with a pale imitation all these years, like the hundredth photocopy of the class topper’s notes distributed the day before an exam. Then I pinched myself and thought: ‘Do not become a cantankerous brown sahib like Mr. Naipaul’ (hee hee! I don’t like him either). The only mitigating factor in all this was that the food in Balliol hall was much worse than anything I had ever had before (‘chips, mash or potato wedges?’, ‘chips, mash or potato wedges?’, ‘chips, mash or…’).

Munching on my forty-sixth soggy potato wedge, my eyes came to rest on Lord Curzon. Hanging on the wall. Pupil of Balliol, Partitioner of Bengal, husband of the Patron of Bowring (hospital in Bangalore). I was later to read that three successive Viceroys of India (1888-1905) had been Balliol men. 19th century India had been run by Balliol men. Of course I knew that places like this had been feeder institutions for the Raj, but the proximity to these characters, the following-in-the-footsteps-ness of the whole experience was more than slightly discomfiting. What on earth was I doing in this place? Had anything changed?

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheek is pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim once a week.

Factoid (while we’re on the subject of Blenheim): Blenheim Palace is grand for day-long getaways from Oxford on rare sunny days. On its lush manicured grounds sits the vast stately mansion in which Winston Churchill was born. Yes, the same Winston Churchill who, when he lived in Bangalore in 1896, described it as ‘a garrison town which resembles a third rate watering place’, started a butterfly collection, and left unpaid bills that you can still see proudly displayed in Bangalore Club on Residency Road, just outside the still-existing men-only bar that the Club is also very proud of.

‘Hi! I’m a Balliol transgendered person’, someone said, digging me in the ribs and offering me his hand in greeting, jolting me out of my reverie. ‘But I thought we were all supposed to be Balliol men.’ ‘Oh no! Balliol women were invented in 1979.’ 716 years after it’s founding, I thought. So there was hope for Bangalore Club yet. Curzon, potato wedges and Balliol men notwithstanding, I was soon to realise that Balliol was exactly the right place for me, for three very important reasons (this is, incidentally, how we are supposed to write Oxford essays – I can no longer communicate in any other way). First, it does not require one to wear academic gowns for meals – so it is possible to eat without looking like an erudite bat. Second, it allows students (indeed, all living creatures) to walk on the grass - unlike a certain Oxbridge college which permits only fellows to walk on the grass and has - to preserve the sanctity of the rule – designated all college ducks as fellows (better that than the other way round, surely). Third, it has (or had, till very recently) a tortoise called Rosa Luxembourg, who could often be seen eating her way around the college quad at the rate of a few feet a year. Now that Rosa has disappeared, I have no doubt that a replacement will be found and appropriately named Subcomandante Marcos or something like that.

Factoid (while we’re on the subject of Balliol’s appropriateness): When Rhodes came to Oxford to receive an honorary degree in 1899, the Master of Balliol, Edward Caird, was the lead signatory of a letter of protest to the Vice-Chancellor. Of the 92 signatures attached to the protest, 18 were of Balliol dons, more than from any other college.

So I was in the right place, but to do what? I had come Up to Oxford ostensibly to Read for a degree in international relations, but little that I learnt in class seemed to bear any relation to events in the world outside. Inside, I was reading about World War 1 in the most infuriating detail (at 9:05 Bethmann-Hollweg picked up the phone and dialled the Russian Ambassador), without the faintest idea even of who was on which side. Outside, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of pre-emptive defence, it was the age of offence, it was the season of Us, it was the season of The Terrorists, it was post-Cold War, it was like Crusade Four, We were all going direct to Heaven, They were all going direct the other way. There was a sick king and a librarian queen on the throne in the White House; there was a slick king and a lawyer queen on the throne near Whitehall.

By day, I pondered questions of theory (‘but is It empire?’), as argument and counter-argument flew between my classmates – who, incidentally, included the delightfully down-to-earth Chelsea Clinton (see? I’m much better connected than Saleem Sinai or Moor Zogoiby or any of your fictional creations). By afternoon, I read about imperial continuities in US foreign policy, including during the retrospectively halcyon presidency of one Bill Clinton (fellow-Rhodent). By night, in the company of the flamboyant and operatic François Tanguay-Renaud, the dread locked free radical Vincent Bouchard, the dreamy and enigmatic Bilal Siddiqi, the lithe and go-getting Oeindrila Dube, the energetic and fast-talking Elizabeth Angell and the always reliably gossipy Antara Datta, I was provoked to reach answers and practice. And practice we did, as an entire Oxford subculture mushroomed in response to the events of the time, like the multicoloured fungus that my friend Alex Luck seemed so fond of growing over his left-over food. As war clouds gathered and the news was full of weapons inspections and Council resolutions, aluminium tubes and enriched uranium, we spawned a jargon of our own: affinity groups, non-hierarchical networks, spokes-council meetings, Direct Action. The more paranoid among us insisted that Big Brother was always watching, so that emails would only remind the faithful to meet you-know-where at you-know-what time, to disrupt you-know-which event.

When the first missiles hit Baghdad, we were ready on Manzil Way – demonstrating, drumming, dancing, dying-in on Cornmarket Street splattered with fake-blood, staging mock weddings between Bush and Blair replete with death vows. A delegation of Rhodents trooped off to meet the second-in-command at the US Embassy in London to convince him of the folly of his Commander-in-Chief, only to be entertained by an avalanche of crocodile tears as the reptilian Glyn Davies claimed fidelity to the rule of law since time immemorial on behalf of his beleaguered nation. Back in Oxford, those who put less store by talk offered up their bodies as traffic barricades, forming human chains and causing maximum disruption by lying down on the ever-so-narrow arterial roads that led into and out of the city. As anacondas of protesters met police cordons, one heard snatches of conversation between the two lines that only the surreally-polite British could sustain through grimaces and clenched teeth (‘Sorry, but would you mind telling me when I start doing something arrestable?’ ‘Sure luv.’) Others staged acts of commercial sabotage, chaining petrol pump handles to their stations and rendering them temporarily useless, as co-conspirators distracted pump attendants with silly questions about ball bearings and phone cards to Bangladesh. Still others wrote. Some did all of the above. (Contract partially fulfilled.)

On the fifteenth of February 2003 we became part of a statistic: one in sixty people who lived in the British Isles visited London that day with the express purpose of saying no to the then impending war on Iraq. Investment bankers and trade unionists, pink-haired punks and black burqhas, bearded skull-capped Muslims and bearded skull-capped Jews made common cause.

Say hey! HEY! Say ho! HO! Bush and Blair have got to go!

At least that was better than ‘No attack on Iraq!’, which didn’t even rhyme when I said it – given that I actually could pronounce the name of that country. I relented eventually, trying out ‘No a-tark on Iraq!’ and then settling on the more hegemonic ‘No attack on I-rack!’ No one heard me get off my high dissonant horse as my voice mingled with a million others, buoyed by whistles and samba bands and tin pots, the sound magnified a hundredfold beneath every bridge that we marched under. As this vast, seething mass of humanity crawled down the Thames Embankment with Big Ben looming ahead of us, I wondered if this was what the storming of the Bastille had been like. But we were (largely) British remember? So we skirted politely around Westminster and turned into Whitehall where civil servant faces huddled at windows peered down at us – some, I imagine, cheered us on, while on others, upper lips quivered even more stiffly than usual. As for us, very little of the sloganeering seemed to be about ‘us’ – not many ‘bring our boys home’; lots more ‘no war for oil’, ‘save the children’, etc. ‘These people built an empire?’, I wondered incredulously. I might have been proud to be British on a day like this, I found myself thinking, blasphemously. Walking between London’s impassive public buildings, past great white palaces and museums and offices – trappings of Empire all, built on Indian indigo and Cairo cotton, on Jamaican sugar and Malayan rubber, on weaver’s thumbs and opium wars – I found myself wondering, like Asya in Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, why I felt little resentment. It wasn’t simply that this was a very changed Britain – it was also that some part of me had been made in this place, even before I had arrived, even before I had been born. Overlapping geographies, intertwined histories. The contract still made sense, but perhaps its mode of performance needed to be renegotiated.

At a press conference held later that day, the ghost of John Stuart Mill was seen floating around the head of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. As Straw ducked in bewilderment, journalists rushed forward with big furry microphones yelling ‘Mr. Mill, Mr. Mill – the largest demonstration in British history gathered today in solidarity with the barbarians. What is your reaction?’

Proud to be British on February 15? That’s what I should have said to Queen Elizabeth II, when I met her several months later. It would have been the perfect thing to say: polite, even flattering, but subversive, honest. Instead, I gave a thoroughly undistinguished performance – worse, I behaved like a fawning imperial courtier. As part of the centenary celebration of the Rhodes scholarships, all Rhodents-in-residence had been invited to Buckingham Palace for an audience with the Queen and Prince Philip. ‘Wear your sherwani!’ everyone had said, but that is where I had put my foot down. I was not going to look like some miserable princeling at the Delhi Durbar, like just another ethnic pawn in Her Majesty’s Commonwealth chess set. So, rather blandly attired in jacket and tie, I went, intending to blend into the background, just to see what it was like. We stood around for an eternity in large state rooms with gilt-framed Renoirs (maybe? I know nothing about art), talking mostly to each other and the occasional palace official and drinking copious amounts of very dilute whisky. Having walked through a succession of such rooms, I staggered around a corner and straight into QEII (I thought she would be at the very end of a long room on a throne and that we would have to walk down a long carpeted aisle and bow low before her, saying ‘I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty’s humble and obedient servant’. I had been practising all sorts of ways in which I might subtly avoid the bowing and scraping, but I simply had not been expecting her to stand near the door like the host at a common dinner party). She held out a white-gloved hand (was I to kiss it?) and smiled at me like a postage stamp, but the evening had begun on a less than graceful note.

Later she circulated, surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting. These were larger than life Barbara Cartland-like figures with dazzling smiles and coiffed hair, each of whom could have been a minor celebrity in her own right. It was hard to get a good view of anyone noteworthy as each was surrounded by huddles of chattering, gnawing Rhodents. This was going to be a case of survival of the fittest and after much manoeuvring, the Canadians seemed to have made a breakthrough. Since I was often to be found in the company of these warm friendly creatures from a cold frigid land – and this evening was no exception – I soon found myself in the path of QEII, who was steaming inexorably towards me. I edged forward slightly so that she might dock before me. She did so and looked at me expectantly.

[Oh my god. What now?]
QEII: [after an eternity] Hello
RR: [God. She’s stern.] Erm…Hello
QEII: Where are you from?
RR: [Isn’t it obvious? Damn! Should have worn that sherwani.] Er…India.
QEII: [Long pause. Why oh why can I think of nothing to fill the silence?] What do you study?
RR: International Relations
QEII: [She lists to starboard, as if to hear me more clearly.] Ah! Very important subject. And you can meet people from all over, here, and talk to each other and solve the world’s problems.
RR: [Oh no. She’s drawing on her stock of platitudes. That must mean I’m boring and unimpressive] Yes.
QEII: [Another long, stern look. Jesus, she really thinks I’m dumb.] And what do you want to do after your studies?
RR: [Oh shit. That question again. What do I say? Pragmatic revolutionary? No. Inchoate. Silly. And rude? Public intellectual? Too pretentious. No one sets out wanting to be that anyway. Naipaul types, maybe. Oh come on. Say something dammit. Dimwit.] Oh…ah…Foreign Service. I want to join the Foreign Service. [I cannot believe my ears. I don’t want to join the Foreign Service. I have never wanted to join the Foreign Service. I just want to say something that sounds impressive. Something that I think she thinks is impressive.]
[QEII nods and steams on.]

There is an audible collective gasp in the air and several pairs of eyebrows arch skyward. Anarchist jaws drop. Tongues wag. Later, emails will fly. Allegiances will shift. Dazzled by the splendour of the state, I have sold out. I have collaborated. Liberals look at me with newfound interest. I am wishy-washy enough for them.

Pussycat pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to see the queen.
Pussycat pussycat, what did you there?
I was the little mouse under her chair.

Undistinguished as it may have been, I have nevertheless had an Audience with the Queen. I am not doing too badly in Western Society. (must go easy on the upper case. danger of morphing into arundhati roy.) What more fitting role to be cast in than Othello? ‘It is the cause [vodka shot], it is the cause [vodka shot], my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars [yeah, right]. It is the cause.’ I have not shed her blood, but by the end of the cast party I have puked all over her bed sheets. I am forgiven because we have done six outdoor performances – the last one especially good – over the past week in the quad of Oriel College, thus concluding its Garden Shakespeare summer season. It has been a tiring but thoroughly enjoyable experience. At least I have been able to speak in my own voice – unlike in Frank McGuiness’ Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, where I tried, desperately, to be Northern Irish. This was accomplished with the help of an intrepid voice coach who had me say ‘Hoy Noy Broyn Coy’ every morning, so that slowly but surely, I acquired enough of a Protestant Northern Irish vocabulary to start a sectarian riot in Belfast. Apparently ‘Jay-ams, the Catholic tray-tor’, was all that this would require.

When I wasn’t reading, writing, fawning over or fighting, empire, I went to bops. (Salman: if we make this into a movie, I’d like to do a sort of anthropologist-among-the-savages bit here.) Bops are a uniquely Oxbridge institution (not even understood in nearby London), where people starved of a late night social scene gather to bounce around to their parents’ music. Madonna has an American accent, Kylie is in Neighbours, Michael Jackson is still black and Freddie Mercury not yet dead. (In Wadham College, every bop ends with ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, so I really, seriously, rest my case.) Balls are the more upscale, but less frequent, alternative to bops - guests in black tie (even at the Hindu Society’s Diwali Ball), ticket prices sky high, all manner of entertainment (jugglers, a capella singing, bouncy castles, masseurs) but always the same music (Madonna, Kylie, MJ, Freddie). Ball themes are a favourite source of controversy – the merest suggestion of a non-Western theme (Africa, 19th century Ottomania, or the Orient Express) will bring on a collective wringing of hands from hyper-compensatory white liberals and hyper-defensive postcolonials. Edward Said (poor man) will be dragged out of context and used to explicate the sensitivity of such themes. Non-western culture becomes off limits – curate! don’t celebrate! – and the only ‘safe’ themes end up being Anglo-Saxon. This almost always implies – you guessed it – more Madonna, Kylie, MJ and Freddie. Anyway, Freddie was at least born in Bombay.

One night after a particularly raucous bop at Trinity College in The Other Place (Cambridge), I saw Thomas Babington Macaulay stagger out past the porter’s lodge. Two hundred and four years old, he insisted on attending every social event at his old college – not that he enjoyed them very much – just to see if everyone was behaving themselves. ‘Lord Macaulay!’, I exclaimed, ‘What a surprise’. He was pleased to see that I could string together a sentence in his language, though slightly perturbed that I had not set my sights on becoming a babu in the civil service. ‘Oh but now the best babus go to the IMF’, I told him. ‘Now that would really be your kind of place. They have this one-size-fits all policy to make their work really easy. It’s sort of like the Penal Code you wrote that all the colonies ended up with’ (I had discovered only the day before that the fraud section in the Nigerian Penal Code was 419, not so far off from our chaar-sau-bees). ‘I should warn you, though, that we’ve really messed up your language’, I continued. ‘I wish we’d done the same with the Penal Code. We’ve still got your favourite s. 377, even though homosexuality was legalised in Britain in the ‘60s. It’s a bit like the hunting scenes that still hang in my house, even after hunting’s been banned in Britain. And the flourishing of cricket in India, even after… You should come to India now, Lord Macaulay. You’d love it!’

Come to India, come to India,
India teri hei! Hai!
Hind, hind, hind, hind…

Do I have to say something about sport? I suppose I do, though it’s not a subject I tend to bring up of my own accord. It does crop up every so often though. You see, The Founder (may his bones rest in Matopos) thought it fit to require, as a criterion for selection as a Rhodes scholar, ‘fondness of and success in manly outdoor sports such as cricket, football and the like’. In 1976, the word ‘manly’ was deleted in a move that not only paved the way for the opening of the scholarship to women, but also, I suspect, legions of men who would not otherwise have made it. At any rate, the issue still hovers over selection committees and I was about to charge out of my interview in relief that it had not come up, only to be dragged back and questioned about my sporting prowess. This I addressed (‘I run for fun’) while studiously avoiding eye contact with Ranjit Bhatia (who represented India in the 10,000 m. and the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics). For the record, I continue to run for fun, mostly in Oxford’s misty dream-like Port Meadow over fields and streams, dodging geese and cows. Because ‘fun’ is the key word, I was decidedly vague when I was questioned relentlessly over coffee the other day by a charming elderly gentleman whom I had never met before and who sat at my table because there were no other seats available in the QI coffee shop. Half an hour into the conversation:

??: So, you’re a Rhodes Scholar. What sports do you play?
RR: Er…I run.
??: What distance?
RR: Oh…er…middle distance.
??: Do you use the Iffley Road track?
RR: No, I don’t like running round and round the same place.
??: Where do you go then?
RR: Oh…just…here and there, really.
[45 minutes later]
??: Oh, by the way my name’s Roger Bannister. What’s yours?

I am clearly hopeless at this celebrity thing. That’s why I’m writing to you Salman. (Gosh, I’m not sure when exactly I got on to a first-name basis with you, but you don’t mind do you? I still can’t call my supervisor Andy.) So do you think there’s a story here? I’m not sure how it’s going to end. Obviously, this is still a work in progress.

Love,
!@#$%

PS – You may not agree with my politics – actually, I’ve been somewhat disturbed by some of your post-9/11 stuff. But we can agree to disagree. Remember, I’m the character. You’re just the author.

PPS – You were great in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Oscar avant le Nobel?

If you liked this, you will enjoy the rest of this volume. The Itinerant Indian is available for purchase from major Indian bookshops; in the UK, from Star Books, 55 Warren Street, London WIT 5NW, phone: 020-7380 0622, fax: 020-7419 9169, email: indbooks@spuduk.fsnet.co.uk

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A different kind of 1984

This comes via Indianwriting - Siddharth Varadarajan's comment on the Nanavati inquiry into the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi: 'In an essay on the challenges posed by the Holocaust to philosophy, the German sociologist Rainer C. Baum described moral indifference as the definitive form of modern evil. Even if Mr. Justice Nanavati is correct in saying there is no evidence connecting Rajiv Gandhi or other senior leaders to the killings, their moral guilt is manifest from their behaviour both during the violence and after. At no time did either Rajiv Gandhi or any other senior Minister display the slightest interest in understanding how such a terrible crime could have been committed on their watch, in ordering an inquiry, in ensuring that forensic and other forms of evidence were collected in a timely fashion so that the guilt of the perpetrators could be established swiftly. This is the way a leadership that was genuinely unaware of what was going on would have acted after the event. Conversely, it is only a government that knew it had something dreadful to hide that could behave the way the Rajiv Gandhi Government did in the weeks, months, and even years following November 1984.'

A rootable boy


Oh who cares if this was written 6 years ago?! Read this Guardian profile of Vikram Seth, on the Doon School website no less. Don't miss how he disses Doon (including, SG tells me, at a prize-giving function to which he was invited as chief guest). Also, his memories of Oxford give much cause for comfort:

There were no exams, it was a joke, hardly any term-time. I didn't attend tutorials, went to perhaps 15 lectures in my three years, read a lot, went for walks, thought a lot." He had started writing poems, but "so badly, so fake, too self-regarding, I didn't see the world, I was incredibly unskillful.

Note, also, how wrong this profile ends up being about An Equal Music - 'It makes for a curiously un-Seth-like book, a book that might disappoint' - but how generally insightful it is about his writing style and method (c.f. Amitava Kumar's criticism of Rushdie as an 'academic' writer):

For Seth, writing is a simple business that has been muddied by academic critics and diverted from its original course by an obsession with style and modernist knowingness. "I don't read a lot of modern fiction, but it seems to me that too much of it is thesis fodder," he says. "Since the rise of the academic critic, writing has had to have an increasing sophistication, as if subjects such as love, ambition and family are worthy only of the airport novel. Writers come out of university courses and carry into their writing academic concerns rather than the concerns of the general reader.

No wonder Seth's characters stay and stay and stay with me and I'm thrilled to hear him say:

There's still so much to write about India. I don't think I would want to do a straight sequel to A Suitable Boy. But perhaps a story about Lata when she is a grandmother. Or a prequel, a series of small prequels rather, because the characters hadn't come together yet, small stories, 200 pages, about Mrs Rupa Mehra and her husband the saintly Raghubir Mehra, Mahesh Kapoor's fight against the English, the youth of Nawab Sahib.

Oh go the read the whole thing.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Lakshman Kadirgamar assassinated

Lakshman Kadirgamar, foreign minister of Sri Lanka, is assassinated. Today's Hindu editorial remembers him, while raising concerns about how the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire has allowed the LTTE to consolidate its military hold and eliminate its opponents with ruthless impunity. Kadirgamar is mourned by his nation (and his old college), even as politicians in Sri Lanka sing from tired scripts about civilisation, barbarity and terrorism.

Determined to set itself up as the 'sole representative of Tamils', the LTTE has reportedly been behind a series of recent attacks on non-LTTE Tamil organisations and leaders. The killing of Kadirgamar - son of Jaffna Tamil parents - could be part of this broader campaign. The Independent reports that the LTTE has denied involvement, but suggests that - given Kadirgamar's prominent role in the drying up of international support for the organisation - whoever killed him, the LTTE had good reason to want him dead. The sophistication of the operation is also said to point to LTTE involvement (although most reports mention the relative lack of security around LK's private residence). Yet beyond the obvious desire to eliminate the most high-profile Tamil in the government, there are reasons to wonder what the LTTE (if it is in fact behind this) would have hoped to gain: analysts point out that they are not in the best position to resume active hostilities. Both government and LTTE maintain that they want to observe the fragile ceasefire, but prospects for meaningful peace talks now look bleaker than ever.

Finally, in this age of so-called 'Islamic' terrorism, it is worth pointing out that suicide bombing as a terrorist technique was pioneered by the (mostly Hindu) Tamil Tigers. As were female suicide bombers.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

24 hours to the Gaza withdrawal...

From SP-S (a classmate), comes this piece of eyewitness political analysis:

With 24 hours to go before the Gaza withdrawal begins, the mood here in Israel
is extremely tense. The U.S. State Department has issued a warning to all of
us U.S. citizens here in Israel telling us to be careful and stay away from
potentially violent settlers protesting the pullout. The irony, of course, is
that a huge number of the gun-toting ultra right-wing settlers in Gaza and the
West Bank who have been running around the country wearing orange T-shirts, headbands and even muzzles to protest the disengagement are, you guessed it, Americans! They are now being warned to beware of themselves. If only they would listen. (To the government’s credit, they did deport one 18-year old American settler after he attended the funeral of the Jewish terrorist who murdered four Israeli Arabs last week.) Something tells me the rest of his comrades are too busy plotting how to prevent the army from carrying out a law passed by a democratically elected government with 60 percent public support to read the State Department website. Or, as settler leader Sheera Yuval threatened in her weekly Ha’aretz column earlier this week “to turn the country upside down.”

Bibi Netanyahu upped the ante by withdrawing from the government a few days ago to protest the disengagement, which was interpreted by most as a future challenge to Sharon for leadership of the Likud party. But the settlers see it as an immediate challenge to Sharon and are now gleefully calling for elections because polls show that Netanyahu would beat Sharon in a Likud primary held today; this, they hope, could stop the withdrawal. Fortunately, Netanyahu seems to have undermined his chances by royally fucking up the economy as Finance Minister; stats released last week show that 33% of Israeli children now live below the poverty line, the highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world. He has also made the politically astute decision to leave the country for a family vacation in the U.S. while Israel prepares to go through its biggest crisis in decades.

The real question in the next 24 hours is whether Sharon will have the balls to arrest and disperse the settlers and other anti-pullout demonstrators, many of whom have infiltrated the Gush Katif bloc of settlements in Gaza in the last few days even though they do not live there. Interestingly, most of the Gaza settlers being evacuated are cooperating and preparing to leave. It's the West Bank settlers who have gone down there to show solidarity who are causing real problems. So far the army has been extremely delicate with the right-wing extremists who are openly threatening to disrupt the withdrawal from Gaza and are advocating violence against the state. By contrast, in the last few days, the IDF has used tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful demonstrations against the separation wall by left-wing Israelis, Palestinians and foreign nationals near the West Bank town of Qalqilya. The army has close ties with the settlers and is being extremely soft on them because protecting them has been the IDF’s primary task in the region for many years. The last time the army put on its kid gloves, the militant right succeeded in thwarting withdrawal from the illegal settlement of Sebastia in 1975. Go here for an excellent Haaretz editorial on the danger of the army appeasing the extreme right.

There were 150,000 of the Orange people (“the fascists” as my Israeli cousins here prefer to call them) in Tel Aviv two nights ago demonstrating and vowing to stop the disengagement by any means necessary. The real problem is that the police are not arresting people who are inciting violence against the army, namely the settler rabbis and YESHA Council leaders (YESHA is a Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria, Gaza). If they stop the leadership of the settler opposition, it will scare the followers. The army has acknowledged that even if only 1/4 of Thursday’s protesters go down to Gaza tomorrow night they could become a serious obstacle because the army is using only 42,000 UNARMED troops in an effort to keep the withdrawal peaceful. But the settlers are generally heavily armed and many of them have given up only their army-issued weapons and not their personal arsenals. It is worth noting that if the protesters were Palestinian the IDF would shoot them with rubber (or real) bullets. Because there is a glaring double standard that won't happen (nor do I advocate it).

To make matters more complicated, Sunday is Tisha b'Av, the 9th of Av, a very solemn holiday and a fast similar to the one on Yom Kippur. It commemorates the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples, as well as various other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on this date, such as King Ferdinand's 1492 expulsion of the Spanish Jews. The settlers are no doubt going to exploit this for all its worth and frame disengagement as yet another catastrophe for the Jewish people (Sharon certainly could have picked a less provocative date to avoid playing into their hands rhetorically). Meanwhile, the Israeli Arab leadership has called a mass rally to protest the murder of four Arabs by a Jew last week and to “defend the Haram al-Sharif” (whence Mohammed ascended to heaven) against the right wing Jewish settlers who consider it an abomination and openly advocate blowing it up (settlers last attempted this in the mid-1980s and have since been released from prison). There will be tens of 1000s of very hungry and thirsty religious Jews praying and protesting at the Western Wall at the same time tomorrow evening, which is directly below the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. It's a recipe for disaster if you ask me. Jerusalem will be on high alert tomorrow morning with helicopter patrols and 1000s of troops deployed throughout the old city. If the security forces had any sense they would ban both demonstrations. Otherwise we could see a civil war and a third intifada start on the same day.

Let’s hope that I’m wrong
--Sasha

Big Brother II

OK I officially declare myself as having my finger on the pulse of this nation. Anthony won and I pretty much said he would on July 20.

Friday, August 12, 2005

high culture low culture?

ANTHONY ANTHONY ANTHONY!!!

More posts peripherally related to Big Brother here, here, here and here.

Desert island, good book

Nick Hornby, on the High Down prison reading group, winner of the Penguin/Orange Book Club of the Year award: 'For those of us who still believe that books add value and meaning to a life, then, a prison reading group is surely the ultimate examination of that belief: these are lives that could use as much added value as they can find. I'm sure there are many excellent groups all over the country reading their socks off, but it's hard to imagine that there are any more deserving recipients of the Penguin/Orange Reading Group Award than the 10 men who meet in High Down library every month.'

For the last five years, winners of the award have been given a trip to the Edinburgh festival as their prize. This year, the realities of incarceration meant that they had to do things differently; so the author came to them.

Rushdie, Seth: a comparative rant

In weeks to come, I am sure we will be subject to much comparison of these two contemporary greats as their reading publics await the release of Shalimar the Clown and Two Lives. I’m too lazy to find links to any of these discussions, but Kitabkhana is usually the best place to look. Amitava Kumar has pieces on Rushdie and Seth on his website. I’m no literary critic, but here’s my comparative rant.

I found Rushdie very difficult to read to begin with. I had to re-start Midnight's Children three times over before I got past the first 50 pages. And I still think it's quite hard to get through some of his stuff. It's a bit like walking through a very crowded bazaar with all these subplots pulling at your sleeve, haggling for your attention, and the only way to survive it all is to ignore the bits that don't interest you. But Rushdie grew on me very quickly. His voice struck me as so audacious and irreverent, and there were so many points where I nodded in furious assent - at descriptions of places or people or food or attitudes - that I thought he was writing for an audience of one: me. I first visited Bombay at the age of 22 and saw most of South Bombay through Rushdie-tinted lenses, so that the place where I was to stay with my friend Archana wasn’t simply next to Colaba Post Office opposite the Afghan Church: it was the exact spot where Aurora Zogoiby’s car hit the guy who ended up working in her house. Then when Rushdie used the words 'susu' and 'kakka' somewhere, I decided that he was, in fact, one of the greatest Indian writers in English. This was, very simply, the way we spoke. (Where 'we' meant urban, middle-class, English-speaking India.) The qualification is actually too important to be parenthetical - Rushdie writes about (and for) metropolitan India, he writes much less well about mofussil India (I can’t for the life of me remember the name of Aurora’s employee, but maybe that’s my own Woolf-like elitism), and he doesnt write very well when he's not writing about India. That's fine, but it should put in perspective voices that lionise him out of all proportion.

The audaciousness isn’t just in the use of language of course – it’s in the very cheek of writing autobiography-as-national-narrative (that Rushdie does this not just in fiction but also in ‘real’ life is what seems to irritate a young Amitava Kumar most: what business does Rushdie have turning the official reaction to The Satanic Verses in India, into a referendum on the state of Indian democracy?)

But for all this, Seth is – for me – the greater writer. It is Seth who seems capable of greater feats of ventriloquism, creating entire worlds in which there is no one quite like himself (Amit Chatterjee apart). And what different worlds they are – from the fictional Purva Pradesh of 1950s India, to California of the 1980s, to the rather more genteel world of western classical music lovers spanning London, Vienna and Venice. It does of course help that Seth has lived in all of these places, but that cannot at all detract from the achievement of having rendered them all so persuasively. With Rushdie, magic realism is sometimes a cop out – with the magic being resorted to when he doesn’t know enough about something or someone to make it real. Seth cannot, and does not, take easy ways out. Every new work is a complete re-invention of voice and genre and undertakes an exploration of new themes, demonstrating a staggering versatility that Rushdie has not managed. Seth’s treatment of themes is also visionary – as I have said earlier, he strikes me as a writer of post-gay fiction, accomplishing the superb feat of writing about India of the 1950s in post-gay fashion, when gay Indian fiction is only just beginning to emerge as a body of work that warrants independent shelves in (progressive) bookshops. In some ways, Seth almost seems ahead of his time.

I actually think that it is time to move beyond describing the immigrant experience solely in the terms and registers that Rushdie and most immigrant authors employ. As an alien in Britain, I do of course feel out of place in all the usual ways. But there are innumerable ways in which I do not feel out place, many moments when I have not felt like an outsider who needed permission to be here, but more like a part-shareholder with something approaching a right to be here if I so chose. This isn’t just a normative position (I ought to feel like this for my own good, in order to better fit in, etc.); it has often been a feeling that has snuck up on me in a curiously unconscious and unreflective way. Coming to Britain for the first time was emphatically not like coming to an alien place that I had never visited before. Much of it was deeply familiar, reminding me of how culturally creole I actually was, of how I had been born into, and brought up in, contexts that had partly been fashioned in these distant isles. I am acutely aware that this may not capture the majority immigrant experience, that it may have everything to do with my class position at ‘home’. That makes my experience a privileged minority experience perhaps, but one that is real nevertheless (ok I’ll say it – and in need of representation). All of this, it seems to me, makes the case for a post-immigrant fiction – not to describe fourth-generation immigrants who feel like they simply cannot be from anywhere else because their folks have been here for so long, but to describe an experience of familiarity and alienation that begins from the moment one steps off the boat, so to speak.

I should probably stop. Someone once accused me of suffering from a bad case of Vikramitis. I stand guilty as charged. Rushdie convinces me that we all have stories inside of us that are worth telling; he makes me feel as if I, too, could write a novel about myself. Seth leaves me in awe, I am star-struck, his mastery seems less easily attainable. (In real life, the two seem to have quite the opposite effect on people they meet.)

Monday, August 08, 2005

India-US

I revise my opinion on the third story in this earlier post slightly. Apparently, on a recent diplomatic mission to the US, the Indian delegation made clear New Delhi's incomprehension of the American stance on three issues: Iraq, Iran, and the UN. And read further for evidence that parliamentarians do do their reading before going to work. Good to know.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Sunday (mostly literary) picks

Kamla Bhasin on nominating 1000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize. I want to see the India list!

Ravi Vyas on George Orwell's Animal Farm: 'Orwell's politics embraced a number of issues: the essential nature of all dictatorships, both of the Left and the Right, politics and the corruption of language, the ephemeral nature of human relationships or the only form of real angst, the menace of bureaucracies, but, above all, the commitment of language as the partner of truth.' See other posts on Orwell.

Mahesh Dattani - 'a voice unafraid to joust with a bleak today'.

And since these are all from the Hindu Literary review, I have to add that Middlesex is keeping me up into the small hours of the morning.

Jason Cowley in the Observer, on what a good time this is for British fiction: 'this is, I think, perhaps the richest year for contemporary British and Commonwealth fiction since the launch of the Booker Prize in 1969, with most of our best novelists - Ian McEwan (Saturday), Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go), Zadie Smith (On Beauty), JM Coetzee (Slow Man), Julian Barnes (Arthur & George), Salman Rushdie (Shalimar the Clown), Hilary Mantel (Beyond Black) - publishing exceptional new works.'

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Don McCullin, photographer

Is it a compliment to say that someone is an 'instinctively great photographer'? The bit where he gets the Observer interested because he has photographs of the gang of which he was once a part is a scene straight out of Cidade de Deus (City of God).

Multiculturalism

Tory shadow home secretary David Davis inaugurates a debate on multiculturalism with his piece in the Telegraph earlier this week, arguing that multiculturalism as practised in Britain - 'allowing people of different cultures to settle without expecting them to integrate into society' - is not working; the American version supposedly works better, inculcating greater pride in the nation's values among minorities. (But public culture in general (schools, workplaces, churches) in the US pays much greater fealty to the 'nation's values', both in times of war and peace, than in Europe. Indeed, this difference is frequently a matter of disdainful pride for West Europeans who think they have successfully and rightly buried the genie of nationalism. The real difference between both sides of the Atlantic isn't so much in their policies towards minorities, but in the place that nation and nationalism occupy in everyday public culture at large.) Then there are Davis' precarious distinctions between good imams and bad imams, the 'true Muslim faith', etc. Time to read Mahmood Mamdani, perhaps.

Hanif Kureishi: 'Religions may be illusions, but these are important and profound illusions. And they will modify as they come into contact with other ideas. This is what an effective multiculturalism is: not a superficial exchange of festivals and food, but a robust and committed exchange of ideas...When it comes to teaching the young, we have the human duty to inform them that there is more than one book in the world, and more than one voice, and that if they wish to have their voices heard by others, everyone else is entitled to the same thing.' There is much wisdom in this short piece, particularly the observation that political and social systems have to define themselves in terms of what they exclude, 'and conservative Islam is leaving out a lot' - 'not only sexuality...but the whole carnival of culture that comes from human desire'. That's why Mohja Kahf's Sex and the Umma column is not just enjoyable reading, but a vital act of resistance.

Julian Baggini's poppadom paradox reminds me of the annoyance I felt on this trip when, dining at a restaurant in Selcuk only minutes from the impressive ruins of Ephesus, I was subjected to Madonna, the complete works. Oh why can't they play Turkish music, I thought, after we've come all this way.

Friday, August 05, 2005

notes from a cosmopolis - II

This was written just under a year ago, and the final version published in The Itinerant Indian, ed. Aruna Nambiar (Bangalore: Unisun, 2005).

Itching in Istanbul

Every holiday has its epiphanic moments. I would like to say mine came as I sunbathed on a gorgeous Mediterranean beach in Bodrum. But actually I was cowering in the cool dark recesses of a seaside restaurant, trying desperately to position myself in the path of the room’s only fan, and avoiding – much to the bemusement of waiters and guests alike – Bodrum’s chief attraction: the sun. ‘Would you like a table outside?’ a waiter asks me, gesturing to an empty spot under a beach umbrella, from where I could have looked out west over the sparkling azure waters of the Aegean Sea and up and down Bodrum’s charming, if somewhat overcrowded, seafront. I shake my head miserably, squeezing big globs of sunscreen onto my palms and rubbing them over my red, mottled, blistering and itchy forearms and thighs, wretchedly recalling the 45 pound sterling diagnosis that a Turkish doctor had pronounced only hours before: ‘Sun is guilty!’

But back to the epiphanies – actually there were two. One was that while the more assimilated NRIs and ABCDs in the West – ABveryCDs – are called coconuts (brown skin, white consciousness), I was turning out to be more like an egg: white on the outside, and somewhat messy inside. After three years in Britain, where summer is a few hours of apologetic sunshine peeking out of dense, unremitting cloud cover, my skin was going Caucasian.

Second epiphany: I am admiring the view – a beautiful indented coastline in two graceful sweeping curves, with the 15th century Castle of St. Peter built by the Crusader Knights of St. John on a promontory jutting out into the sea where the two curves meet. As I watch a woman take off her bikini top to reveal, well, two more graceful sweeping curves, I hear the unmistakable cry of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from a neighbouring mosque: ‘Allah, Hu Akbar!’ he cries; ‘Welcome to Turkey’, I think.

I am in Turkey with Oxford friends and flatmates – the Bengali-Malayali Niharika (very clever, fishy, giggles uncontrollably at terrible jokes) and the Scots-Irish Sinead (Scottish when intellectual, Irish when inebriated; projects image of brittle, tragic and brilliant Hollywood star; warm and fuzzy deep down inside). We are here to visit our friend Elizabeth (hyperactive, subversive, bibliophile, Seattle-born refugee from Bushistan) who is attending a two-month language course at Istanbul’s Bogazici University. Everything I have read about Turkey so far abounds in clichés about the place being a bridge between Europe and Asia, a meeting point of civilisations. This is all slightly annoying for me. The guidebooks make it sound like West never met East anywhere else, making me want to say ‘erm…colonialism?’ Nonetheless, there is something unique about Turkey: the cultural contrasts are starker, more abrupt, the pieces more jagged and their juxtapositions more unexpected than anywhere else I have been. Partly this has to do with its history, with the monumental change effected almost overnight in 1923 from decadent, crumbling Ottoman empire to modern, secular Turkish republic, and more recently with the efforts of this 99.8% Muslim country to enter the European Union. All of this makes for some curious contrasts: where else, my guide book asks rhetorically, would you find that the chief imam’s cübbe (ceremonial robe) had been redesigned by an openly gay fashion designer?

Istanbul exemplifies all of these contradictions, feeling very much like a mosaic of neighbourhoods from different parts of the world – and all within easy walking distance of one another. Elizabeth has a large airy flat in Beyoglu, which will be home to us during our time in Istanbul. With its high ceilings and wooden floors and large windows and its location in the heart of one of Istanbul’s most lively neighbourhoods, this is like one of those Parsi flats in Bombay that you could only hope to inherit. Although with a malfunctioning toilet, a shower behind a pile of bricks in a corner of the bedroom, curtain rails that fell off at the slightest tug and no magnificent rosewood furniture, this is a Parsi on welfare from the Panchayat (we were all on student budgets). But our location more than makes up for these trifling inconveniences. We live on what is possibly the noisiest side street in Beyoglu, our neighbours comprising a bookstore, several restaurants and bars, a nargile (hookah) café and a club that advertises itself as Latin/Afro-Caribbean. This last’s choice of music turns out to be somewhat more eclectic, featuring a generous nightly dose of Panjabi M.C. and Euro-cheese. The DJ also seems to have an unfortunate affinity for long sessions of techno-trance that begin as early as noon, reaching a bone-rattling climax at 4 a.m. every morning.

One night when, after a nocturnal ramble, Sinead, Elizabeth and I are locked out of the flat and unable to yell above the din to rouse the evidently sleeping Niharika inside, this will require us to enter the building on the opposite side of the street, batter down the door of the third-floor leftist outfit whose windows open onto our own, explain to its sleepy but surprisingly good-natured occupants in broken Turkish that we cannot enter our flat and that it is imperative that we wake up our friend, attempt to do so by bellowing ‘Ni-harika! Ni-harika!’ into the night air, and finally in utter desperation throw objects including large old Turkish coins at the window. ‘Harika’ being the Turkish world for ‘wonderful’ and with money raining down in the street, one can only wonder at the impression we created.

The centrepiece of Beyoglu is its main pedestrianised boulevard – Istiklal Caddesi – teeming with life at all hours of the day and night. There is a faded, crumbling elegance about Istiklal, with its neo-classical facades featuring intricate wrought iron balconies and other delightful embellishments. Even the local Starbucks has an impressive two-tier chandelier and beautiful black and white floor mosaics. Alternating with brash new storefronts flaunting the latest high-end brands are old churches (hidden from street view by elaborate brick and stone screens because of a restriction forbidding non-Muslim religious buildings to appear on the city skyline, in effect until the 19th century), embassies and consulates in period buildings, restaurants, bars, cafes and sweetshops, bookstores and shops selling old maps and calligraphy, the old French Lycée and markets in colonnaded arcades. But my most treasured find is undoubtedly the Markiz Pastahanesi. With its art nouveau interiors and ceramic tile panels depicting the four seasons and quiet restrained jazz, it is hauntingly evocative of turn of the century Europe. And it sells the richest, thickest, most decadent chocolate cake I have ever sunk my teeth into.

Istiklal Caddesi slopes down sharply through what feels like an entire district of music shops and hardware stores, past the conical capped Galata Tower built by the Genoese in the 14th century, taking you finally to the water: the Golden Horn or Haliç, a channel that bisects the European side of Istanbul. At this point, I am tempted to say something dramatic like ‘crossing the Haliç is like going from Barcelona to Baghdad’, but nothing in Istanbul is quite that cut and dry. All the bewilderingly diverse elements in this city bleed into each other like masalas in some complicated and slow-cooking curry. Nevertheless, there is something dramatically different about the southern shore of the Haliç. After the recreational pace of Beyoglu, Eminönü feels like one of those long-exposure photographs where the lights make bright streaky lines and even stationary objects look like they’re moving at high speed. Everybody is going from somewhere to somewhere else, with Eminönü itself serving as a vast transit lounge for the city. People scurry to and fro, hopping on and off buses, ferries, cabs, and trams, darting into subway tunnels, pausing only long enough to enjoy a quick doner kebab or corn on the cob. Only the fishermen on Galata Bridge and the pigeon sellers around the Yeni Cami (New Mosque, circa 1598) are virtually motionless, their respective transactions across species boundaries seeming to require infinitely more patience and serenity than is in evidence around them. Pausing for a moment on the bridge, we are treated to a stunning view of what must be one of the world’s most spectacular urban skylines: red roofs tumbling higgledy-piggledy down steep slopes towards the water, punctuated by moments of splendour and seriousness provided by a thicket of minarets pegging down some grand Ottoman mosque or palace, and all of this sliced up by the shimmering blue of the Haliç and the Bosphorous Straits meeting each other at right angles in a watery T-junction.

Walking uphill from Eminönü, we pass Sirkeci station, which served as the last stop in Europe for trains from the west including the legendary Orient Express immortalised in Agatha Christie’s famous mystery novel. I wander into its cool, dark waiting room –

…the sun drives me into cool dark spaces at every opportunity, although prior to the Bodrum diagnosis, I labour under the illusion that I am suffering from some sort of allergy and therefore take refuge in anti-histamine pills instead of sunscreen. ‘It’s symmetrical!’ I exclaim triumphantly, vaguely recalling my mother explaining to me that allergies were often symmetrical, but forgetting that sunburn is also symmetrical unless you are wearing something very haute couture and asymmetrical (which needless to say, I am not)…

- to admire its beautiful wooden wall panelling and circular porthole-like stained glass windows. The frontage, unfortunately, is marred by an extension in what any Indian would recognise as the PWD style of architecture.

But all this is quickly forgotten when a short tram ride up the hill, we are deposited amidst the grandeur of Sultanahmet – the heart of Byzantine and Ottoman Istanbul. Here we visit Topkapi Palace, which hitherto has existed in my imagination only as a seedy restaurant on top of Bangalore’s Utility Building. Built at a slight elevation on an outcrop of land surrounded by water on three sides, the real Topkapi was the home of the Ottoman sultans for over three centuries. I have been reading Orhan Pamuk’s intricate and spellbinding My Name is Red, set in the workshops of the imperial miniaturists of 16th century Istanbul, and as I move deeper into the palace grounds through its labyrinthine network of courtyards and pavilions, I can almost see clutches of scheming artisans huddled together in the corridors, plotting away their next intellectual coup. Sinead loses herself in the imperial harem, convinced that she would have thrived in its luxurious and devious environs. I am less sanguine about her prospects, finding it difficult to imagine her sharing her living quarters – not to mention the Sultan – with three hundred other concubines. On the other hand, I surmise, it might be precisely that need for exclusivity that would drive her to become a modern day Roxelana (wife of Süleyman the Magnificent), out-manoeuvring her fellow concubines, banishing their progeny to the far corners of the empire (and perhaps eventually having them strangled), assassinating jealous court officials who oppose her rise to power and generally pushing, plotting and poisoning her way up the palace pecking order. Yes, Sinead would have been fantastic.

Later, in the Grand Bazaar, she goes looking for harem pants. I’m not entirely sure what these are meant to be, but she is shown and urged to try on a variety of costumes that would have made a samba dancer in Rio blush. These (usually) lecherous offers are brushed off with a stiff ‘no thank you’, but one vender takes great exception: ‘I am a designer, not a salesman’ he snaps, as if to say ‘I seek to undress you for the greater glory of art.’ Sinead remains unpersuaded. Other transactions are more amiable: Elizabeth buys gomleks (kurtas), Niharika wrangles out of one shopkeeper an exquisite turquoise bowl decorated with tulips (a recurring motif in 18th century Ottoman art), and I – rejecting the mass-produced ready-to-hang block prints being sold in a government bookshop – return to a tiny hole in the wall to purchase a piece of Arabic calligraphy of dubious pedigree and authenticity. What I am buying is almost less important than where I am buying it: the world’s oldest shopping centre, a half-millennium old market, where the shops still pay their rent in gold. Despite my passionate dislike for shopping, particularly on vacation, I could have wandered endlessly through the maze of interconnecting vaulted passageways that is the Grand Bazaar, marvelling at the smorgasbord of traditional handicrafts, everyday necessities and sheer junk on offer. Jewellery, leather goods, bath accessories, metal and coloured glass lamps, Turkish rugs, souvenirs, ceramics, tea sets, silks, nargiles, sweets and savouries, chess sets, furniture, prayer beads, icons, football T-shirts, miniatures, old coins, nuts and dates and raisins, dried fish, kitschy trinkets, heaps of spices, old silverware and belly-dancer costumes leap out at us, fighting with each other to demand our attention, answering needs we didn’t even know we had.

One need that I am always acutely aware of is the imperative of periodic retreat into cool, dark spaces where I can attend to the blistering copper-red parchment that my skin has become. It is this, as much as their architectural and religious significance, that takes me into Sultanahmet’s numerous mosques. While the others admire AyaSofya’s marvellous dome adorned with black and gold Arabic calligraphy and its Byzantine mosaics and revel retrospectively in its historical importance as world centre of Orthodox Christendom and then Islam, I am considerably more preoccupied with the increasingly cracked mosaic-like appearance that my skin is taking on. While the devout line up to place a hand inside a cold, clammy hole in a pillar and pray for fertility, world peace and other trifles, I wish fervently that my itching would cease. Someone remarks on the Sultanahmet mosque’s six minarets (unprecedented at the time and necessitating the construction of a seventh minaret at Mecca so that it could retain its pre-eminence); I can only think, Red Riding Hood-like, ‘what big scratching posts’…When subaltern historians get around to publishing their urban studies anthology (‘The Leper’s Jerusalem’?), let not be excluded this account of Istanbul through the eyes of an itching itinerant.

There is something about Ottoman mosques that makes them look rather like Sumo wrestlers. They sit low and squat on the ground, their multiple domes looking like so many rolls of fat cascading down on every side. The illusion is quickly dispelled inside by their cavernous unified spaces, surmounted by magnificent central domes – delicate and detailed in ethereal blue in the Sultanahmet mosque and richer, warmer colours in the Süleymaniye. Vast circular wrought iron chandeliers, in size the diameter of the dome itself, hang low over the centre, casting a light that plays with the sunbeams refracted through stained glass windows to give the entire place a sort of dappled brilliance. Ottoman tombs are considerably less inspiring structures, particularly if one arrives expecting the drama of Mughal mausoleums. Here instead are cramped polygonal structures, packed with monstrous graves (the monstrosity of the grave being directly proportional to the importance of the deceased) with a ceramic-tile: wall-surface ratio so high as to create the impression of a bathroom. Government tourist board-like signs extol the virtues and eclipse the vices of each Sultan in bombastic language.

(The state, incidentally, is everywhere in the form of a picture of Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic, who, hitherto has existed in my imagination only as my grandfather’s much loved horse. The more I look at his stern but sometimes kindly, weathered face, the more he begins to look like my grandfather – until slowly but surely, I begin to see my grandfather everywhere: inspecting military parades, on banknotes, teaching children the modern Turkish alphabet, drinking coffee, making speeches, signing treaties.)

Determined to get off the tourist trail, Niharika and I venture into the Western districts of Fatih, Fener and Balat. Poorer and reputedly more conservative, these are fascinating areas of the city testifying to a not-so-distant past when Christians and Jews made up nearly 40% of its population. Walking through Fener – the old Greek part of the city – we pass the high walled and inscrutable Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the neo-Gothic, cast-iron St. Stephen of the Bulgars built for Istanbul’s Bulgarian community and still used by Macedonian Christians. Making our way through a warren of streets too narrow to show up on our map, we find ourselves in Balat –the old Jewish quarter. The Ahrida synagogue is closed and there is little to indicate that this was once a Jewish area, barring the old woman with distinctly Semitic features who squints at us fiercely from a high window. But we stumble upon an Armenian Orthodox Church not five steps away, where incense burns in hanging brass lamps and the weekly mass is being conducted to the strains of chanting for the tiny congregation that remains. There is a sort of cheek-by-jowl cosmopolitanism to this place, so characteristic of imperial trading cities. Yet despite the unique history of the area that drew this extraordinary hotchpotch of people together, in its outward appearance I cannot help but think (in the slightly modified words of the Beautiful South) ‘This could be Shivajinagar, or anywhere…’ The same hardware stores and wholesale depots selling the same utensils and plastic buckets and ball bearings, the same shop fronts and signs and fonts. I am very much at home.

But home is where the heart is, to use a cheesy cliché, and if Samuel Huntington forces me to chose from the vague continental-civilisational identities on offer in his thoroughly over-cited Clash of Civilisations, I suppose I’d be Asian. Straddling as it does – however nominally – both Europe and Asia, Istanbul is about the only place on earth where I can ‘test’ this simply by leaping from one continent to the other. We take a ferry from Eminönü, stopping at Arnavutköy (the ‘Albanian Village’, still on the European side) to admire its pretty waterfront of timber Ottoman mansions, then pass under an enormous suspension bridge connecting the European and Asian landmasses, and finally disembark at Kadiköy on the Asian side. I fall to my knees and kiss the earth, I text my mother, I sniff the air – but alas, I feel no organic connection with the elements. There is an incredible sameness about the Asian side – not one thing I could point to that was radically different. Elated that I have scored a point (admittedly cheap and academically un-rigorous) against Huntington, Niall Ferguson and all the coffee-table gatekeepers of Western identity, I vow to bring them to Istanbul to rub their faces in the confusing, disorienting identity melange that is Turkey.

Perhaps Turkey’s Asianness would have become more apparent if I had looked hard enough over the next few days, when we managed to tear ourselves away from Istanbul to venture east into Anatolia. Our first stop, however, is Cappadocia, where nature is so distracting that I fail to make any significant observations about how people live. Famed for its canyons and gorges, we spend hours tramping through valleys in which wind and water have relentlessly carved the volcanic landscape into unimaginably weird and fantastic shapes. I name them arbitrarily – but, I think, appropriately – as we go along: Lemon Meringue Ridge, Wigwam County, Ku Klux Klan Milliners, Fairy Chimney Land, and – most impressively – the Valley of the Giant Circumcised Penises. More intriguingly, local communities, seeking refuge from marauding hordes, dug entire subterranean towns in the soft rock – most of which, I discover to my discomfort, were built for very short people.

But imagine being able to spend all your life in a cool, dark place – ah, bliss! Surely you want to know how my skin is doing? Cappadocia is simply awful, skin-wise. If Istanbul is hot, Cappadocia is baking, the occasional scrub vegetation affording little shade and the lack of human habitation providing few opportunities for retreat. Nivea lotion, Aloe vera gel and (finally!) sunscreen are the soothers of the moment, but their repeated and alternating application is quite literally confusing the life out of my skin cells, which are undergoing a rapid inflammation-contraction-sudden-death-and-flake-off cycle in alarming numbers. I observe, worriedly, that I am beginning to look like a bronzed god.

Our most interesting encounter with a human being in Cappadocia is with the (apparently) charming and helpful man who rents us a car, which we use to explore rock-cut churches, monasteries and cities in the countryside around our base in Göreme. Our day is uneventful – which is to say I drive brilliantly, barring occasional tense moments when I am on the wrong side of the road (in my defence, I have never driven on the right before), or when I reach down for the gearshift with my left hand only to hit the driver’s door, or when I try to start the car (unsuccessfully) with the key to the dickey, or when I am stopped by police for a breathalyser test. Having negotiated all hurdles successfully, it is not without a trace of smugness that I deliver the car back to the rental agency just in time (we think) for us to catch our bus to Bodrum. Aforementioned Charming & Helpful clerk inspects the car, sticks his head under it, starts it again and then, listening to the engine, asks darkly and mysteriously, ‘Can you hear that?’ ‘Hear what?’ (this has more to do with my complete ignorance about cars, than with any attempt to feign blamelessness – i.e. being dumb, rather than playing dumb). An argument ensues, the upshot of which is that we cannot leave till Mr. Charming-n-Helpful has contacted his manager and asked him what to do with us since we have ‘destroyed’ his car. My defence comprises the words ‘wheel’, ‘axle’, ‘engine’, ‘tuning’, ‘old’ and ‘car’ strung together in various permutations and combinations (language is not an issue as we both speak fluent English). Located next door to the bus company and knowing full well that our bus is just about to depart (and, therefore, that he has us by the metaphorical balls), Charming-n-Helpful delivers an ultimatum: ‘I will let you go if you pay me 200 million lire.’ Normally this would sound like a ransom line out of a high-stakes mafia movie, but in Turkey – thanks to a severely devalued currency – this is actually quite reasonable, as extortion goes. Not one to be outwitted and even less willing to reject a movie role, I threaten to call the American Embassy. No one stops to ponder what exactly a US diplomatic representative could and would do for us – it is enough that we have been able to summon all the wrath and majesty of the world’s only superpower – but C & H roars in furious impotence: ‘Get out of Turkey and never come back!’

We flee to Bodrum, as planned. The only things of consequence that happen here are: (a) the epiphanies; (b) the diagnosis. Beautiful as the landscape is, Bodrum is synonymous with boredom, and bursting with beet-red boorish Brits, baking on the beach in bikini-briefs. Not a pretty sight.

Our penultimate stop is Ephesus, which all the guidebooks inform us is the largest and best-preserved ancient city around the Mediterranean. This is certainly true, with the ruins rivalling those of the Forum in Rome in extent and intactness. Now I am no archaeologist, but sometimes ‘preservation’ seems to imply putting together whatever is lying around, however mismatched, with large quantities of cement. Happily, this cannot be said of the superbly restored façade of the Celsus Library which – with the perfect symmetry of its massive Corinthian columns and triangular pediments – does not fail to impress even the most sunburnt. I want to go home, but having bought sunscreen of the appropriate strength, am somewhat relieved that the healing process has begun. We spend the night in the neighbouring town of Selçuk, where we are the guests of a warmly welcoming and highly knowledgeable gentleman who talks us to exhaustion, threatens to deny us a single moment of privacy (‘You want pizza? I take you; You want kebab? I take you’), and is something of a control freak (‘How many spoons of sugar would you like in your coffee day-after-tomorrow?’). Niharika is deputed to communicate with him on our behalf, as the rest of us – exploding into spluttering laughter at each new question or piece of information that he volunteers – lack the forbearance that this seems to require. She does so admirably, using the patient voice that is usually reserved for a lovable but slightly demented child. Nevertheless, she too invariably splutters and with much tee-hee-ing and haw-haw-ing, we manage to extricate ourselves from the overwhelming hospitality of our garrulous host.

No journey to Turkey is complete without a trip to a Turkish bath or hamam, and on returning to Istanbul – since my skin was on the mend – I decide that a visit is in order. Much more than just baths, hamams are integral to Turkish social life in a number of ways – many are closely linked to mosques; in patriarchal Ottoman society they were rare autonomous spaces for women, and they continue to be favoured places for such things as arranging marriages. My hamam, it turned out, was a front for rather more amorous activities – and not ones that your parents or family elders arranged for you. ‘Massage? Ma-ssage?’’, the front-of-house man asked puzzled, playing with the word as if it were a strange, unfamiliar concept that I ought to be pursuing elsewhere. ‘No massage’, he said finally, waving me through a door into a large, square, tiled room in which men in various stages of undress poured water, suggestively, over their bodies. All my politically progressive instincts militate against my adding to five hundred years of writing about the decadent ‘Orient’, but it was very clear to me at this moment that East was East and East was hot and West was coming East to get it. And some men were women (and quite possibly, some women men), for did not Virginia Woolf choose Constantinople (as Istanbul was then called) as the location for her androgynous Orlando’s pivotal change from man to woman? Of course literature and postcolonial studies were uppermost in my mind.

Two weeks have sped by and I am on a plane bound for London. I am sad to leave, but for once I relish the prospect of returning to the coldest and darkest place in the world. Finally, I think, an end to dermatological misery. Istanbul will, however, continue to haunt me for many a night. Unknown to me at the time, even as I step onto Air France flight 2391, I am infested with body lice. I am a walking zoo. How? Bed sheets? Bus seats? Hamam? Haram? Who knows? I am still itching as I write this.

- September 2004

If you liked this, you will enjoy the rest of this volume. The Itinerant Indian is available for purchase from major Indian bookshops; in the UK, from Star Books, 55 Warren Street, London WIT 5NW, phone: 020-7380 0622, fax: 020-7419 9169, email: indbooks@spuduk.fsnet.co.uk

Sylvia, Ted

A sketch of Ted Hughes by Sylvia Plath goes on sale.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

So much for the cosmopolis

It can be a mean, uncaring, stupid place.

Turtles, Teamsters, Terrorists?

This editorial in today's NYT says in simple words what academic work on the subject has been saying for a while: 'the conflict between the jihadists and the West is a conflict within the modern, globalized world. The extremists are the sort of utopian rebels modern societies have long produced.' The author also uses Olivier Roy's book, Globalised Islam, to make intriguing and persuasive comparisons between radical Islam and the 'anti-globalisation' movement: 'Ideologically, Islamic neofundamentalism occupies the same militant space that was once occupied by Marxism. It draws the same sorts of recruits (educated second-generation immigrants, for example), uses some of the same symbols and vilifies some of the same enemies (imperialism and capitalism).' It also uses similar methods of organisation (anarchic, decentralised, independently operating cells remind me of affinity groups and spokescouncils). Similar targets, similar recruitment pool, analogous methods of organisation - but hugely different utopias and different ideas about legitimate means. Still, both are engaged in the project of encouraging long-distance motivation - no prizes for guessing which one seems more successful at the present moment.

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