Thursday, August 17, 2017

Kiran Nagarkar, a perfect storm

Brilliant, inspirational, inexplicably underrated.

(Published on August 12, 2017 in Business Standard)


Kiran Nagarkar’s novel Saat Sakkam Trechalis, written in Marathi, won the HN Apte award for best debut novel in 1974. Forty-three years later, the novel is being re-released in an English translation titled Seven Sixes are Forty Three. The room was reasonably full, but nowhere nearly as full as it should have been for a literary supernova. 

Literary supernova, you say? Kiran who, again? 

The evening was unpleasantly monsoon-sticky, but I—and maybe Nagarkar himself—would chalk up the middling attendance to his being, by my lights—and perhaps also by his—the most underrated and overlooked writer in the tiny hothouse world of English-language Indian novelists. He has never been appreciated fully or widely enough, and his lousy luck with the influential Indian literary establishment must have been at its lousiest when his masterpiece novel, Cuckold, was published in the same year that Arundhati Roy blew every other literary name and event out of the water by winning the Booker for The God of Small Things.

I will say upfront that I am an ardent fan of Nagarkar, and have been from the moment I read Cuckold all those years ago. It blew my mind. And it bombed in the market. “I consider it an absolute classic,” he told an interviewer in 2015. “If nobody agrees with that, it is too bad.” Does that sound like arrogance? I think it’s simple self-recognition, and you know it's real when an author remains sure of his ability and achievement despite being widely ill-received (one critic, on hearing of the English translation of Saat Sakkam Trechalis asked, Shouldn’t it be translated into Marathi first?). I don’t think Nagarkar is above being upset by ill-will and lack of recognition, but I suspect that he remains grounded in the certainty of his superpower, which is the ability to inhabit and express every shade of human feeling and expression from the most rarefied exaltation to the filthiest gutter low.

He has said that he would love to receive an award every day; yet, when he once got notification about an award, he forwarded it to someone else—and inadvertently back to the sender—darkly mocking it as spam. (I can’t now recall which award it was; Nagarkar has won a Sahitya Akademi Award for Cuckold, and an Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, which is Germany’s highest tribute to individuals). 

That frictional cohabitation of self-belief and self-doubt is only one of the many multitudes he contains—he strikes me as both controlled and wild, both prim and bawdy, wild with both grief and joy, both depressive and high-spirited prankster, mannered and savage, earnest as well as ironic, both elegant and potty-mouthed, self-possessed and adrift, a bon vivant as well as an ascetic, capable of both exaltation and desecration, tragic and comic both. 

It is, of course, his gift. He’s a Rabelaisian rampage on legs, a walking carnival, at once blaze and blackness. It’s as if someone stuffed into his thin, tall, stork-like frame a cosmic storm—as if, if he opened his mouth, you would see all the terrifying universes.   

I wondered what a writer like Nagarkar would want to do, about a national historical moment he is so sad and angry about—a moment in which, forget literary criticism, people like him might well be demonised as immoral blasphemers, a moment in which the exciting potential of literature, history, science, education, and human behaviour is all being trimmed and harnessed into the service of a narrow, controlling politics. I asked him if he had an answer to what one can do about that.

He had only one answer: I don’t know, but don’t give up. 

I got from that event exactly what I needed just at that moment: a bit of hope and a bit of inspiration. The hope that many people are individually multitudinous and recognise that things are not simply black and white; that many, many people resonate to the freedom of their own loves and griefs, made or unmade autonomously, regardless of circumstance. Not everyone can express it all the way Kiran Nagarkar can, but they defend it by living it.

And the inspiration of a soft-spoken 75-year-old (on stage alongside the steely, ballsy 90-year-old Nayantara Sehgal), still filled with fire and fury and love and cackling laughter, refusing—absolutely refusing—to give in or give up.


Life is generous, like that. It throws all kinds of horror at you, but also the things you need to get through it.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

PG-13 nation

No adults please, we’re proud Indians

(Published today in Business Standard)

Another day, another state. The Opposition alliance stands shell-shocked at the altar as Nitish Kumar runs in slo-mo through tulip fields, hair streaming prettily, into the arms of his old flame the BJP. Much has been forgiven and forgotten. As @atti_cus observed on Twitter, Nitish suddenly remembered that Lalu is corrupt, and suddenly forgot that Modi is communal. With Bihar in the bag, the Opposition alliance in shreds, and a friendly President at the head of the Republic, things are looking bright and shiny for the BJP and Sangh Parivar in their relentless quest to turn India into a PG-13 country with a mean streak.

Besides cynically using soldiers on the border, besides tacitly-approved lynching, besides failing to make any economic headway, besides creating communal tinderboxes, besides trying to get everyone to accept Hindi as the national language, the thing that most irritates Indians is the way in which we are being culturally infantilised and sanitised.

Fully grown Indians are being nannied by patriarchal relics like Pahlaj Nihalani at the Central Board of Film Certification, who upholds his loopy version of family values by, for example, saving ladies from themselves. The CBFC refused to certify Lipstick Under My Burqa on the following grounds: “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy about life. There are continuous sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused [sic to all of that].” The Film Certification Appellate Tribunal overturned the decision, and the film is currently in theatres, but my god, should the arts be at the mercy of people like Nihalani?

We’re being supervised by people like Dinanath Batra, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh educator and educational activist who advocates post-truth textbooks that re-design history in alignment with the Sangh’s views. He’s willing to junk scholarship and academic integrity wholesale, in favour of propaganda. Kids really don’t need to know too much about Nehru or Tagore. Manmohan Singh’s public apology about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi should be removed because it was only put there to make the Congress look good—plus, it automatically makes everyone’s eyeballs swivel to where Mr Modi stands, not being contrite about the 2002 Gujarat riots. Kids don’t need to know that Hindu society didn’t treat women well, or that Mughal rulers could be benevolent, or that the destruction of the Babri Masjid helped the BJP grow. And why not tell the kids that Maharana Pratap, not emperor Akbar, won the legendary battle of Haldighati? Truth is entirely expendable in the all-consuming quest to somehow, by whatever means possible, feel proud.

We’re being administered by a central government whose opinion of Indians is that we are too poor and socially backward to deserve a fundamental right to privacy, and should instead be proud and happy to let proud and happy businesses exploit our data. This is not only the very definition of paternalism, but also at sharp and confusing odds with the same government’s insistence on our mega-global-super-greatness.

We’re being ordered, by our courts, to love and respect India—or, since that’s not enforceable, being ordered to put on ritualistic displays of such love and respect by standing for the anthem and singing patriotic songs and installing flagpoles and bits of military hardware in universities.

Confident countries that believe in themselves don’t feel the need to regulate citizens in this pathological fashion. It is the ferment of plurality, dissent, individuality, and liberty that fosters creativity, innovation, betterment, and excellence. It’s the feeling of being free, and treated fairly, that makes people feel they have a stake in their country. That feeling, of having skin in the game, is the definition of patriotism, and it is earned, not legislated.

The Sangh seems tormented by self-esteem that is not just low, but infected and seeping. How terrible this unquenchable thirst for cultural validation, a thirst so great that you’d think that the Hindu right has been a tiny muzzled minority since Independence. They now have the political and possibly even the cultural majority. Why, then, are they still hankering to be included by the despised left-leaning media? Pride typically manifests in calmly and confidently going about normal life, so why are they spending their time insisting on red-eyed, frothy-mouthed assertions of pride? If their worldview is so self-evident, why are they having to force people into their way of life? Why so much bluster?


The Sangh stayed largely aloof from the freedom struggle. It may be that its own preferences are for structure and instruction over freedom. Its version of freedom may be the freedom to be culturally restrictive. But you can boss around fully grown adults for only so long before they turn around and start giving you lip.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Being liberal in #NewIndia

Don’t let the right wing yank your chain.

(Published on July 15, 2017 in Business Standard)

There was a moment, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Amarnath yatris in Jammu & Kashmir, when it seemed as if social harmony in India might be in serious trouble. But of course, it was just one more piece of kindling tucked into what is already a raging conflagration.

On Twitter the next day, the right was aquiver with rage—but over liberals, not over the attack. It spent its time accusing people of not condemning the incident, as if individuals have the same duties as political spokespeople. Political PR channels thought the most trenchant question was: Where is the award wapsi gang?

You’d think that liberals would recognise this kind of baiting as designed to distract, and ignore it. But liberals are widely painted as hypocrites, and the charge of hypocrisy sparks a reflexive indignation in those good liberals who hold to principle, not party. It makes people who don’t need to prove a thing, spend their time proving things.

So liberals lined up for inspection by denouncing the attack not just from the heart, but scrupulously, as if lives lost are not clearly saddening. The heartfelt #NotInMyName campaign against lynch mobs, which attracted significant crowds, coverage, and right wing ire at their spontaneous protest in June, came out again to protest the attack in J&K. Good for them, but I would like to think that they didn’t do so under pressure to stave off the charge of hypocrisy. A terrorist attack is not in anyone’s name.

Amid the rubble and smoke on social media, too few people focused on the only consequential issue: investigating and questioning the security failure.

Well, dear liberals, that’s a mug’s game. Why are we allowing ourselves to become entirely reactive, squashed into tiny-minded terms set by people whose first and last recourse is whataboutery?

The liberal heart—by and large, let me not presume to speak for all—sticks up for things like non-violence, peace, diversity, freedom, and inclusiveness. It’s kind of a given that we don’t want anybody to be beaten up, murdered, or exiled, to be terrified, to live as second-class citizens, to perpetrate or be subjected to violence, to be discriminated against, to be oppressed by poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and illness. It’s a given that we see freedom, rationality, and constitutional rights as a good.

Why, then, are we constantly giving in to the pressure to display these beliefs constantly in any way other than living them by refraining from violence and hate? There is no need to jump when some anonymous troll snaps his or her fingers. We should feel free to engage out of choice, or to not engage at all. We should stop worrying that our beliefs will be worth less if we stop polishing them up for people who spit on them anyway. Liberal politics is live and let live, though comment is free. How you live serves as a much better track record than your timeline.

It is Hindutva, by definition, that seeks to exclude, dominate, censor, and interfere in private citizens’ lives. It is Hindutva that demands homogeneity, conservatism, obedience, deference to authority, censorship, and patriotic one-upmanship, in the name of aggressive nationalism. It is Hindutva that wants to drag us into the public square, and place on us the burden of proving that we belong. That politics—which bows to the state without respecting the Constitution—is too busy tending to its psychic wounds by justifying violence, to feel compelled to condemn violence. Hindutva’s political leaders, who do have a public duty to be seen and heard, say nothing, or make hateful statements—yet somehow, it is liberals who feel pushed on to the back foot.

Time spent being defensive about what we do not do, rather than on simply doing what we do, is time straight down the cosmic toilet. A healthy liberal society spends its waking time working, playing, keeping house, loving, innovating, expressing itself, learning, staying healthy, respecting rights and the law, holding power accountable, and meeting its friends. It does not spend its time trying to persuade heckling strangers that it isn’t murdering Hindus, or getting paid by Italians, or working for ISIS. It just lives and lets live. 

That doesn’t mean ceding vocal public space. It just means that it’s time to step back from the toxic paranoia, gas-lighting and straight up lies on social media, stop being manipulated and provoked. It’s time to take a breath, and refocus on the issues nobody wants us to focus on: unemployment, economic and agricultural crises, the destruction of our institutions, the death spiral in education, the shredding of our social fabric, the slow choking of diversity, and the rapid sacralisation of the state. 


I’m not saying we can’t get online to poke a few bears, just for fun. But we should choose to.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A response to Swapan Dasgupta's Times of India blog

(Published on July 2, 2017 in NDTV Opinion)


Swapan Dasgupta has an extraordinary blog piece in this morning's The Times Of India. In it, he lists the philosophical and temperamental sins of liberals who, to use his word, "flaunted" Not In My Name placards at the protests organised across India on Thursday against the recent cluster of lynchings that have sickened India and the world. The violence has mostly been in the context of people transporting cattle, or people suspected of eating beef, neither of which is illegal. The victims have been mostly Dalit or Muslim.

Dasgupta frames this anti-lynching protest as an expression of aesthetic more than moral outrage. This is presumably because "aesthetic" can be dismissed as a slighter, more frivolous philosophical obsession, confined to those few rich enough to have time and space for such minor preoccupations. 

After spending half his time quite reasonably agreeing that in addition to political violence, there is, in fact, much ugliness and violence in Indian civic society, Dasgupta presents two major arguments for why protesting this ugly lawlessness, and the Prime Minister's silence, is self-defeating. 

His first argument is that the protest displayed politically-coloured "selective indignation". Dasgupta cites the protesters' silence on the lynching of Kashmiri police officer Ayub Pandith in Srinagar just a few days earlier, the inference being that liberals don't mind murderous mobs as long as they are Muslim. This is just factually incorrect. Either Dasgupta wasn't there, or he wasn't listening, because Ayub Pandith was mentioned several times on stage. And there were certainly politics there, but they were entirely personal. I'm pretty sure it's normal for people to have political opinions. It's very helpful at the ballot box.

More broadly, Dasgupta accuses the protesters of repeatedly invoking "the beef controversy", as if this constitutes needless overreach in a protest against killing people for eating or being associated with beef. He says the murder of a teenaged Muslim boy on a train in Haryana is a reflection of popular mentality, not of politics - as though no BJP leader has ever enabled and encouraged this mentality by demonising Muslims as aliens to India, as Hindu-murderers, and as a community Hindus can never live with (Exhibit A: Chief Minister of UP Adityanath, appointed by PM Modi); as though no BJP political figure has ever legitimised the murder of an innocent Muslim by draping the corpse of his murderer in the tricolour (Exhibit B: Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma); as though no BJP leaders have ever attended meetings where people were exhorted to kill Muslims (Exhibit C: A Sangh meeting in Agra in 2016 attended by several BJP leaders); as though there is no such thing as Hindutva-affiliated groups in Uttar Pradesh running camps to arm and train children to hate and kill Muslims.

But citizens join the dots for themselves, whether or not they are particularly political animals, and many of us don't like what we see. Politically-obligated entities like Dasgupta much prefer the fiction that all dots are isolated incidents that do not amount to a pattern. This is his political task, as an ardent supporter of the BJP, and that too is perfectly transparent to citizens.


His second argument is the "generous measure of social condescension" he witnessed - not at the protest, but on social media chatter - which indicates, to him, that liberals are more concerned about lunching than lynching (I paraphrase). He says that the protesters represent a "rootless cosmopolitanism" which attempts to use the Constitution to sanction beef-eating in the face of common decency, since "the prohibition on beef carries a large measure of social sanction." To make this argument, he has to brush aside the BJP's brazen doublespeak on beef in the Northeast and Kerala with a low-volume "some states apart", and completely ignore the inconvenient fact that if social sanction were sacrosanct, we would not have laws against sati, gender violence, rape, and child labour.

Somehow he determines that all of this anti-murder protesting is aimed at fostering Hindu self-flagellation. This beats me, though not in the Hindu self-flagellating way. Stripped to the bone, his argument is that a confident Hindu would be radiant with understanding about the mob's feelings, rather than whining about murder. That if liberals weren't so culturally out of it, and had a "more evolved sense of rootedness", they wouldn't think the lynchings displayed a lack of humanity.


Dasgupta's piece would be inane, but unremarkable, if it stayed in this region, limiting itself to right wing cant and the journalistic equivalent of poking snails with a stick to see if he can hassle them into retreating into their shells. 

But he goes further, bookending his piece with an attempt to frame the anti-lynching protest as treachery. His opening quote about aesthetics is from a Le Carré novel, spoken by a British intelligence officer turned Soviet mole, explaining why he betrayed his country: '"It was," Haydon replied unhesitatingly, "an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so ugly."' Dasgupta's ending sentence is: "India may be imperfect, but it isn't so ugly as to warrant emotional treachery."

This is such a wonderfully whacked-out thing to say that, in another social climate, it would get a big laugh, but in today's climate of unthinking hyper-nationalism and political pseudo-nationalism, it is far more pernicious. For a Rajya Sabha member to gently, gently draw a link between liberals and treason, is nothing short of gentle, gentle incitement. It's disappointing at best, and wilfully irresponsible at worst. Swapan Dasgupta knows very well that the greatest fight in India today is the fight over who does and does not belong in India, and under what conditions, and that those who do not enjoy what he calls "social sanction" are  vulnerable to the mob.

There are many such isolated instances of the Indian right wing painting liberals as traitors, either directly or by insinuation. All of us, right, left, and centre, can join the dots.