quiet on the Alpine front
Review by Rumina Sethi
by John Berger. Bloomsbury, London. Pages 180. £ 13.99.
"Photocopies", a collection of essays, John Berger
traces in words moments lived in Europe at the conclusion of the
millennium. These moments are not invented stories. They came to
pass. As he wrote them, Berger sometimes imagined a frieze of
photocopies set alongside, giving future readers a panoramic
vision of what this moment in history was like when it was
lived. Each photocopy is about somebody for whom Berger
experienced a kind of love, but the book becomes an
unpremeditated portrait of the author as well.
He meets a
woman from Galicia, an unknown restorer of frescoes, for five
minutes at a public reading in Madrid where she hands him a gift
of a drawing and then disappears. Before he can ask her
anything, she has vanished. He has not even had the chance to
ask her anything, and the name on the drawing is too smudged to
decipher her name. Then one day she unexpectedly returns. He
discovers that her drawings are about animals; in fact she lives
with animals: "She lives with them as she lives with her
own kidneys, her own esophagus, her own gall bladder. If she
were dissected on an operating table, her animals would no
longer be there just as when the timber of a forest is felled,
the wood-cutters never find boars or foxes or woodpeckers."
Berger looks at
her as she examines the painting on the wall and almost creates
a photocopy of her standing there: "She didn’t say
anything or make any sign. Her face was turned away. Simply her
body announced she was familiar with it. Her body made no
movement. No gesture. Just a withdrawal which might be mistaken
for insolence." Before she leaves she takes a photograph of
both of them holding hands standing before her ancient pinhole
camera: "Minutes passed. Whilst we stood there, we
reflected the light, and what we reflected went through the
black hole into the dark box. It’ll be of us, she said, and we
waited expectantly." And here the story ends, rather tender
and yet deeply gripping.
Rambling on all
across Europe, Berger halts at one place to give a helping hand
to a peasant in the Alps, or probes a scarecrow which he
discovers in the Ramblas of Barcelona. He patiently gives a
receptive ear to a girl on the coach from Dublin to Derry or
goes on to deliberate on the softness of flesh. Here is an
admirable attempt to assemble a Europe through fragments of
lived occurrence in his encounters with his old friends in the
beautiful and warm Alpine community where he has lived for a
number of years.
fascinated with mountain meadows, called alpages, that spread
out below the permanent snow line and give the range its name.
The Alpine turf, which bears grass, shrubs and flowers, has
captured his being. The clear Alpine lakes, set among
magnificent mountain landscapes, are among the places he has
spent most of his travelling years.
intensely at home with the distinctive forms of Alpine music,
poetry and dance. He is adept at yodeling, a kind of singing,
which is marked by rapid switching of the voice to and from
falsetto. These are the reminders of his fixation with the
peasantry of Europe which seems to be rapidly becoming extinct
or changing its unforgettable complexion. This is visible in
"Pig Earth" which is a study in stories, poems and
narratives of the dilemma of the French peasant facing the
menace of vagrant industrialised labour. His persuasive writings
are replete with this inveterate desire to recapture the
simplicity of existence in the country life of Europe. Berger
has dwelt convincingly and with utter effortlessness on the
instinctive yet cultured physicality of their daily life.
It is here that
he is most sincere and straightforward in portraying a way of
life that he is so familiar and at home with. His old friends,
Angeline and Theophile, are not living any more. The account
about the house designed by Le Corbusier is a sad story about
his Russian friend André who has to reluctantly leave owing to
a transfer; the unknown to him seems more threatening than the
known, even when the latter is intolerable.
There are many
more friends whom he meets and who are close to the grave almost
like him who is almost 80 years now. But it becomes apparent
from these moving accounts in the book that he would always care
and love all whom he has met or known somewhere in his heart.
writings like the paintings of one of his friends are meant only
for self gratification. The idea of monetary gains is never
there as is obvious from his statement about artist Sven, his
friend for 40 years: "We, however, each in his own fashion,
were chronically unfashionable, or, to put it more baldly, we
didn’t sell much. We weren’t somewhere between success and
failure, we were elsewhere." Sven’s paintings, once
complete, were packed away in an ever rising pile of canvases in
the attic. It is these paintings that become carefree. They now
need "no frames, no dealers, no museums, no literature, no
He meets Sven
in Paris, they go to Room 19 (the title of the essay) which has
a yellowish wallpaper that is both bleak and friendly "like
a vest which the room slept in and never took off."
before they would walk through the melon fields of Vaucluse,
Sven with his paint box and he with a camera, a Voejtlander. And
now these two elderly men in rather crumpled clothes edge their
weary way crab-like along the narrow path around the bed in Room
19. Intently, critically and silently, Berger reminiscences
about that afternoon spent in the company of his dying friend.
But what is remarkable is not the sadness of the moment, but the
music that he hears looking at the colours and the lights and
darks on the canvas, so unmistakably a drawing by his friend.
And like his
friend, the unassuming Berger paints with words, his eyes open,
observing thoughtlessly and never asking why. Nothing false ever
creeps into such authenticity of narration. This was apparent in
his book entitled "G " which received the Booker Prize
in 1972 but did not appeal to a wide circle of readers, although
I admire its highly self-conscious experimental style.
Novelist, film scriptwriter and
art critic, John Berger now lives in a small pastoral community
in the French Alps. He is the author of numerous novels
including "A Painter of Our Time" (1958), "The
Foot of Clive" (1962) and "Corker’s Freedom"
(1964). Some other important works are "About
Looking", "Ways of Seeing", and "Art and
Revolution". Most recently he has published the trilogy
"Into Their Labors", consisting of "Pig
Earth", "Once in Europa" and "Lilac and
Flag". His latest novel is "To the Wedding".
rights in folklore
Review by Harjinder Singh
Woman: Tradition, Legend and Punjabi Drama
by Pankaj K. Singh. Indian Institute of Advanced Studies,
Shimla. Pages. xi+192. Rs 325.
pragmatics of folk sensibility has emerged as an active area of
work in South Asian studies in recent times. In a rapidly
changing world that South Asia presents, intra-civilisational
debates are essential for maintaining a balance of perspectives.
Especially in drama, the multiplicity of canons that performers
invoke demands a thorough analysis. Much of it is a subversion
of the traditional stereotype and challenging the status quo.
There are varieties of magical realism in Punjabi folk tradition
- in the swangs, in qawalis at pirgahs, in the range of drama
performed in religious to political folk theater. Punjabi
society is not highly literate and oral forms remain highly
popular. The political theatre of activists like Gursharan Singh
draws thousands when performing in villages and small towns.
Pankaj K. Singh
has evolved a context with the construction of woman in two
different textualities of legend and drama, juxtaposed against
each other. Particularly in the context of love, sexuality and
marriage, the Punjabi tradition has an exceptional richness in
celebrating rebellion against paradigms of patriarchy. This can
also be seen in modern writings of Amrita Pritam ("Dr
Dev") and Krishna Sobti ("Mitro Marjani") and
others. The interest in gender issues in South Asian folk
expressions is very recent. Pankaj Singh chooses contemporary
interpretations of the four major legends central to Punjabi
cultural heritage - Hir Ranjha, Mirza Sahiban, Puran Bhagat and
hegemony of the conservative and patriarchal modern middle class
thinking, these classics have remained exceptionally resilient.
Though Pankaj Singh has taken a large region defined by a
mainstream ethnic identity, these four classics also present a
heteroglossic world in the variety of dialect and
socio-religious fluidity they possess.
has used her experience and exposure to post-modern methods of
literary criticism as a teacher of English literature and an
associate editor of the IIAS journal, Summerhill, in writing a
book using contemporary tools of analysis. She looks at drama as
a special form of literary-cultural tradition, where binary
opposites — illusion and reality, fact and fiction, the verbal
and the non-verbal, the mimetic and the metaphoric — are
reconciled into an aesthetic composition with a spontaneously
evolved purpose. Unlike the patronised forms of literature,
legend and folk drama are spontaneously diverse and in the
context of Punjab, singularly secular.
this, the reader should now become aware that though the author
expresses keen interest in participating in the contemporary
folk studies, especially as a part of women’s studies, her
analysis of drama is mostly of modern writing based on the folk
classics. Naturally, it is in interpretations that her attention
is centred on. This also means that traditional tools of
criticism do not suffice and newer methods are necessarily
most interesting of the four chapters in this book is the last
one titled "Interrogating Tradition: Reconstruction of
Puran Bhagat and Raja Rasalu". It starts very appropriately
with a quote of Habib Tanvir proclaiming art to be like the
hilsa fish swimming against the fast currents of the Padma
river, thus necessarily subversive and engaged in
reconstruction. The eighth century legends of Puran Bhagat and
Raja Rasalu are tales of misogyny hidden in sweeping depiction
of morality and male virtues. The women are portrayed as
characters different from the stereotype framework of suffering
and hardship. Here they take control and display human emotions
that shake up the norms of morality.
contemporary interpretations, Pankaj Singh has presented a
deconstructionist notion of a woman defying the specific nature
of gender categorisation prevalent in the Punjabi psyche. The
textual, historic and interpretive details that these two
legends and their performances to this day offer constitute an
endless khazana for the students of folk expressions.
Puran by Atamjit, Luna by Shiv Kumar (Batalvi) and Salwan by
Ajmer Singh Aulakh and reveals the desiring Luna as a human
being trapped in a desperate search of self-identity and
expression of life. Her commentary is an exercise in literary
criticism with differences in the approach of the playwrights
elaborated and perhaps mapped to the consciousness of her times.
The different interpretations of the characters are reflective
of the ideological perspectives of the playwrights and their
reduction in the other extreme is the representation during the
nationalist phase. This is described in the second chapter of
the book. Simplistic and of a social reformist or revivalist
nature, the pre-independence Punjabi drama was immature and in
the process of becoming. The author falters here like most
native narrators of the colonial period and cannot avoid
glorifying what was essentially of low quality compared to drama
in many other parts of the country, notable in Bengal, the state
of Bombay and places likeVaranasi. She does mention, albeit in a
passing manner, that the nationalist spirit "invariably led
to an uncritical revival of the past, accepting the traditional
paradigms of power therein, patriarchy and monarchy included,
and frequently idealising the past rather romantically to serve
the immediate political purpose". Truthful reflections on
history, if made as passing comments, remain submerged in bodies
of other forms of descriptions.
It is important
for every conscious commentator to recognise this, especially in
these times of mindless state-sponsored revivalist efforts.
Nonetheless, the chapter provides a good outline of the history
of play-writing in the early 20th century Punjab.
A whole chapter
is dedicated to the classics of Heer Ranjha and Mirza Sahiban.
These two legends of Punjab defy the commonly accepted
conservative notion that the Indian tradition does not allow
freedom in love. Though the male lovers, "conditioned by
the prescribed gender role, fail the beloved at the crucial
moments", there is no part of Punjab and neighbouring areas
where the spirits of Heer and Sahiban do not haunt the living
Love as an
anarchist mode of rebellion is at its climax in these variants
from a common tradition of folklore in the greater region that
stretches from West Asia to the hills of Shivalik. In
contemporary interpretations, these women are represented as
"more complete, complex and humane persons in comparison
with the men who, blinded by their egos, have only a partial
understanding of life..."
Works of this
nature are important because they make us aware of the richness
of expressions in the folk tradition and the need to preserve
it. They have survived over centuries as stories told mostly by
women to young men and women in domestic settings or in
community performances. This form of perpetuation by the
nonprofessional narrators is now at danger with the onslaught of
modernity in all its forms, including the electronic media.
This is where
the role of the contemporary playwright comes in. Rethinking and
creatively reconstructing these folk classics provides an
insight into the past, that is essential for critical
understanding of our present.
This work is
also important because of the gender context. It is important to
understand gender issues in folk traditions because that helps
us to remind ourselves how gender operates in our own individual
and social activities. The author proclaims that the book
belongs to the area of women’s studies, perhaps more to
underline the separate attention that such works need. Put
together with more general areas of literary criticism, it is
likely to be subsumed by more dominant male models.
Pankaj Singh cites an
impressive bibliography. Other than a complete bibliography at
the end, each chapter has a fairly large, appropriately chosen
and relevant set of references. One can only praise the quality
of editing. An important work missing is the comprehensive one
by Nahar Singh in Punjabi, that the author should find useful in
her future efforts. The book has an excellent index at the end
— a pleasant surprise for a book published in India. It also
has an appendix consisting of two Punjabi playwrights, Manjit
Pal Kaur and Balwant Gargi. Naturally one feels the writer could
have interviewed a few more playwrights, especially Neelam Man
Singh Chaudhary, who has blended in her casting of European
classics, Punjabi folk forms and modern feminine sensibilities.
view of identity
Review by M.L. Raina
Exception: Everyday Life
and Post-Colonial Identity
by Keya Ganguly, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Pages ix+213. $ 35.
they die, people keep adjusting to new ways of life." Amit
Chaudhari in "New World".
as obscurantist as you can decently get away with without your
stuff going absolutely unread." This is rule one of Terry
Eagleton’s proposed handbook for post-colonial theorists.
post-colonial cultural theory is like a heart beating in
systole. Working at high-pressure it turns out books and
monographs, and organises conferences and gatherings in
metropolitan cities with a quasi-religious fervour. It has
young, eager Third World academics willing to act as
cheerleaders for what is perceived as a multicultural world
It has its own
pantheon of secular deities, its own meta-language and
mythography. It rewards the faithful, as evidenced by the
considerable number of Indian teachers in America lecturing and
publishing in this area. It is, as the Americans would say, a
"ticket" to a minor celebrity status.
Not always in
major western universities though, but certainly at home where
they expect to massage our torpid universities back to health.
An Indian lecturer at Rutgers, where I taught for several
summers, once hit me for a six: "Indian universities must
replace antiquated literature courses with cultural
studies." She herself taught only composition classes!
What is less
obvious is the diastolic drawing-in of cultures, the quiet and
pervasive ways they affect each other in our era of
globalisation (the epigraph from Chaudhari’s new novel about
immigrants sums it up). While expatriate academics strut about
with a renovatory zeal, unobtrusive changes are visible in all
cultures affected by globalisation. The cross-fertilisation of
living styles across the world is a fact, though our theorists
sweat hard to "problematise","’thematise"and
"theorise" it. Globalisation causes tremors and
heartaches whose essential human aspect escapes our new
Keya Ganguly is
an India-born academic who has lived in America for some time
now and steeped herself in the entire scripture of post-colonial
theory. She invokes her oracles, Said, Bhaba, Spivak and Fanon
the way disciples at our gurukuls used to chant Vedic texts —
with the regularity of a metronome..
In fact, the
whole book is a reprise of their weighty pronouncements with
extended occasional gloss by the author. Besides, she is
impressively au courant with the work of the Frankfurt
School theorists, Adorno and Walter Benjamin, who provide her
arguments assurance and prestige. With Lukacs and Jameson also
around, she can call up awesome weaponry to stun her graduate
students and make her lesser peers at Third World institutions
red in the face
This book uses
theory for a purpose other than to read works of literature,
both canonical and non-canonical. This is welcome relief from
the ennui of reading the same interpretations of the same
mediocre texts fifty times over. Ganguly wishes to understand
what post-colonial identity is in metropolitan locations. Does
it convey definite behaviour traits among those designated as
post-colonial by historians and literary critics? Are these
traits uniform and do they constitute post-colonial experience
in any given situation?
not answer these questions directly but dons the robes of an
ethnographer: she chooses to study the everyday life of an
Indian immigrant community in New Jersey in order to find out
how much of post-colonial consciousness they had imbibed. She is
aware of the differences between studying Balinese cockfights
(Clifford Geertz’s classic foray into ethnographic inquiry)
and examining the daily life experiences of a prosperous New
Jersey community. But everyday experience itself proves a red
herring for her.
She leans on
Geertz’s comparison between "experience-near" and
"experience-distant", the former connoting unmediated
"authentic" experience and the latter an expert report
on it. Besides, she is beset by her own placement within the
dialectic of post-colonial identity. She is what Gayatri Spivak,
the ruling czarina of cultural studies in the West, would call
"the native informant" ("Critique of
Post-colonial Reason"). The native informant is some one
like Spivak and Ganguly and interprets the Third World in the
First World terms. How much of the information is descriptive
and how much judgmental is the dilemma, which, neither Spivak
nor Ganguly is able to resolve to our satisfaction.
fact that Ganguly is aware of it complicates the problem of the
rationale of immigrant experience in America. The complication
is in the post-colonial identity hovering between the lure of
the new and the pull of the old in the people Ganguly mentions
as her interlocutors. In the three chapters on her interaction
with them, however, she neither succeeds in pinpointing the
precise nature of the identity in question, nor convinces us
about the relevance of her "field work",
have been a clear enough fact of alienation in a different
culture is sought to be presented as a major discovery.
"The estrangement from prior community, from links with
tradition; along with the distracted interactions of everyday
life: such are the peculiarities of everyday life: such are the
peculiarities of modern, reified existence…the present-day
condition of the dislocated post-colonial…entrapped in
capitalist alienation." Except for the bit about
"capitalist alienation", any one who straddles
different cultures could have told Ganguly this.
with such broad-brush generalisation is that in spite of the
inquirer’s best intentions, the inquiry is limited by the
composition of the interlocutor community, the biases of the
inquirer and the contexts in which the ethnographer conducts the
fieldwork. She admits that her interlocutors were
"gender-divided": the men had one set of notions about
their new identities and women another. The men welcomed their
new freedoms in America, the women harked back to the past in
India. The men said that they were better off here, the women
believed the opposite. Reading this, I remembered a
septuagenarian Panjabi-American housewife telling me in New
York: "Pra ji, inan kol sub kuch hai par sabita nahin."
position with her interlocutors is somewhat questionable. She is
an articulate academic moving among people who, though
professionally well qualified, lack her critical self-awareness.
Whereas she tries to accommodate them into her notions of
"alienation", derived mostly from Ernst Bloch’s
premises and Walter Banjamin’s idea of the flaneur,
they refuse to be so accommodated. When she attributes the
feeling of’ shock to her interlocutors as a result of their
dual existence in the diaspora, she and her kind are clearly
exempted by virtue of their privileged status in the academy.
The polarity of
views about their condition is too visible to need comment.
Without her open admission, the paradox of theory and practice
is all too clear. Echoing the Elizabethan dramatist, Robert
Greene, the general (Kenneth Branagh) says in
"Conspiracy", the Kieth Pierson film about the
liquidation of Jews by the Nazis, "theories are grey. Real
life is green". Ganguly chooses not to listen.
She is silent
on those segments of the immigrant populations that are tied
down to their low-paid unskilled jobs, are less fluent in
English and get harassed by their fellow immigrant employers. It
is they who come out in large numbers to participate in the
India Day parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue, with a movie star
from India as the grand marshal.
do not celebrate their "multicultural" incarnation in
a new land, but nostalgia for the things they liked back home
(like Ganguly’s women interlocutors). I have been watching
this parade for several years now and have not seen the likes of
Ms Ganguly’s interlocutors around. E.San Juan made such
populations the focus of his more convincing study of post–colonial
identity among Filipino immigrants.
in Ganguly’s investigation deepens further in the chapter on
the food habits of her interlocutors. She gives an elaborate
account of the symbolism of food and dinner gatherings. Basing
her description on Roland Barthes’s references to the food
fetishes among the French, Ganguly lays down two points, neither
of them new. One, dinner gatherings are social occasions and are
celebrated with zeal. Understandably, beef remains taboo on
these occasions. "The Indian example is all but
unique", she claims without adducing any reasons.
food functions metonymically in relation to Indian identity
because the whiff of belongingness…is carried along by the
taste and aroma of various dishes...Of course this has
everything to do with the vastness and diversity of the
sub-continent which...transports its linguistic as well as
culinary diversity to its diaspora here and everywhere."
I quote these
remarks just to remind Ms Ganguly that food has always been a
source of sociality in most cultures .She has to open her
English novels "Tom Jones" and "Great
Expectations" to see Fielding and Dickens use food
symbolically: Squire Western and Joe Gargery represent the
ultimate culinary triumphs as does the idea of hospitality among
Muslims and Christians.
The fact that
the Indian diaspora carries these habits (or habitus pace
Ganguly’s Bourdieu) with them only goes to show that the
idea of multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity, which sends
post-colonial theorists into raptures, is at best a
self-begotten delusion common in the western academy. Even as
Indian cuisine is becoming popular in American and British
restaurants, the Indian chefs always tell you with glee that the
real thing eludes the firangis. In spite of what the
media said, Tony Blair’s success in the last election did not
depend on the curry revolution!
studies her interlocutors’s responses to Peter Brooks’s
Mahabharata, the clash of identities is further sharpened.
Quoting liberally from the contributors to David William’s
symposium on the epic, she records the reactions of her
interlocutors to the adaptation.
endorses their negative judgment of the PBS production, but for
political not religious reasons, as did her interlocutors.
Without explicitly saying so, she demonstrates the polarities in
her own attitude to Brooks. Compare this with the media
reactions to Branagh’s colour-blind, race-blind 1996 film
Hamlet and the cultural fissures become impassable.
This time she
notices that the polarities are not gender-based but reflect a
certain "essential" Indianness violated by the
production."In the case of Mahabharta", she says,
"the centrality of a time- bound consciousness… sense of
the synchronic as an opportunity…represents a certain
aesthetic as well as an ethic of everyday life".
Here the very
same "essentialism" that is derided by the
post-colonial theory project is brought back reinforced by the
author’s own biases. In other words, the resistance of the
conditioned Indian psyche stymies the effort of locating
post-colonial "identity" across the cultural divide.
admitting her incapacity to justify hybridity, syncretism and
non-exclusivity — the pet dreams of the sponsors of
multi-ethnic identities — Ganguly shifts the blame onto the
"totality of capitalist globalisation in its abstract and
equipment notwithstanding, she is unable to reconcile the claims
of everyday life with the impulse towards systemisation. She has
neglected the admonitions of Henri Lefevbre not to ignore the
contradictions of actual living for the sake of the system.
exposes the pitfalls of inveigling abstractions to the
discussion of everyday living. That, however, is also its
negative virtue. But its major failure is its gothic prose.
Hobbled by excessive dependence upon Ganguly’s ideological
mentors whose apercus cling like gargoyles to every page,
the prose lumbers, only to fitfully recover in non-theoretical
descriptions of actual conversations between the author and her
Is not this condition
symptomatic of all post-colonial theory practised on
metropolitan campuses? Ironically if somewhat ruefully, Eagleton
implies as much in the above epigraph, from the inaugural number
of "Interventions", the flagship journal of
post-colonial cultural theory.
Talking much, saying
K.C. Yadav reacts from
have read with interest Ram Vir’s "reaction" to
the review of my book "The Laloo Phenomenon: Paradoxes of
Changing India" by J.S. Yadav (The Tribune, August 12). I
congratulate Mr Ram Vir on two counts: one, for his reacting
without reading the book and, two, for keeping alive a great
old tradition that Alberuni found our people practicing around
1000 AD expounding extensively on subjects that they knew
absolutely nothing about.
efforts people invariably go loquacious. Their discourses come
long on rhetorics and short on substance. Ram Vir has raised
many questions and answered on the authority of a Bihari
"rickshaw puller I (Vir) happen to hire". The
"social revolution" happening in Bihar is
responsible, he says, for the out-migration of the poor people
of Bihar to the cities of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Kolkata,
etc. How is that, he asks, that the fertile land of Bihar
needs no harvesters? I have provided answers to all these and
several other questions in my book. I have also discussed
there at length as to who are responsible for Bihar’s
sorrows and suffering, deprivation, and dearth, poverty and
biased against issues relating to social justice, persons like
Ram Vir see in Bihar what they want to see but surely there is
a lot there which is a great deal different. A "social
revolution" is going on in Bihar, and Laloo Prasad’s
contribution therein is not small. That explains as to why he
is, despite his weaknesses and minus points where he is for
such a long time! That is why the poor and powerless vote him
to power election after election.
Ram Vir is
wounded and dented all over, to use an old Punjabi phrase,
seeing, "small men" rising to "big
heights". In his scheme of things persons like Laloo
Prasad and Phoolan Devi had no business to be shepherds. They
were born to be sheep and sheep they should remain.
Last, Ram Vir’s
dig — "in half jest and half seriousness" — on
the subject of the book, the author and the reviewer being
Yadavs. Surely, to a person wearing dark glasses the world
will appear to be dark. Ram Vir should have judged us on the
strength of our merit rather than on the fact of our caste.
Ram Vir is being unfair. Tomorrow, he will say a Brahmin
teacher should not examine a Brahmin student; a book on India,
written by an Indian should not be reviewed by an Indian, and
In sum, Ram
Vir’s reaction brings home the truth that when we talk much,
very little is said.
Yadav responds from Kurukshetra
reference to Mr Ram Vir’s reaction to my review of the book
"The Laloo Phenomenon: Paradoxes of changing India"
by K.C. Yadav. Before I read the book, I held Bihar and Laloo
Prasad more or less in the same light that Ram Vir does. But
the book has changed my perceptions. Indeed, Laloo Prasad is
not a light weight as people usually take him to be. Not
everything that is going on in Bihar is rotten and retrograde.
A perusal of
Ram Vir’s Reaction to my review shows that he has penned it
without reading the book. Had he gone through the "Laloo
Phenomenon", the author as well as I would have been
saved, I think, of most of the adverse comments that he has
made. He says, at the very outset, that we have painted Laloo
Prasad as a prophet. No way he is in the book as well as in
the review a political activist, a leader of the masses with
strengths and weaknesses, wisdom and follies, pluses and
minuses of ordinary human beings.
Ram Vir does
not see any social revolution in Bihar. He sees poor Biharis
leaving the state for Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, etc. For him,
Bihar has come to earn a bad name and Biharis a lower rank
thanks to Laloo Prasad in the estimation of their countrymen
elsewhere. This is absurd! Bihar is a social laboratory where
a new India is taking shape. The poor, the down-trodden, the
backward and the marginalised are marching towards the centre
stage. They are asking for their rights and privileges. The
vested interests refuse to give them their due. There is a
struggle which appears to be "caste wars’"to Ram
commentator has made a case against the "social
revolution" and Laloo Prasad on the basis of migration of
poor from Bihar. There are three things here. (I) migrations
are not always bad, more often they serve a very useful
purpose; (ii) it is not only poor people, others also move out
of Bihar in good number; and (iii) it is not Laloo Prasad but
the high caste/class minority (13.2 per cent) that holds the
state’s almost total resources drive the poor Biharis out of
their state. This has been explained at length by K.C. Yadav
in the book under review.
Ram Vir comes
to the rescue of the CBI, albeit implicitly, again without any
evidence or supporting material. Is it for the reason that it
is persecuting Laloo Prasad? But the author of the book does
it for different reasons like its bending low to serve the
commands of its masters. It is about time this process came to
a halt. Let institutions like the CBI function freely and
Ram Vir also
attacks Mulayam Singh Yadav for taking Phoolan Devi to
Parliament; although it is not relevant to the book under
review. Ram Vir is so unhappy with chhota log going up
that he could not help giving vent to his irrelevant feelings.
People like him cannot see Phoolan’s victory as the triumph
of social justice, human honour and dignity. They cannot
perceive it as a challenge to the perpetrators of zulum
on the weak and the vulnerable!
Last about Ram Vir’s
comment on the Yadav trio — Laloo Prasad Yadav, author and
reviewer — in half jest and half seriousness the less said
the better. It is a manifestation of his being:one who
believes in casteism must see it everywhere, in everything. I
was not even conscious of this coincidence when I reviewed the
book. I did it all on merit — academic merit, to be precise.
And this is what we do in universities, but what Ram Vir does
and sees in his "world", I would not know; so no
tale of three wars as seen by a General
Review by Bimal Bhatia
& Glory: Wars Fought by India 1947-1999
by Jagjit Singh. Lancer Publishers, New Delhi. Pages 347. Rs
and Pakistan have fought four wars against each other since
Independence. How is it that Pakistan, a country one-fourth
the size of India, has always been the first to start the war?
Is J&K the core issue as Pakistan proclaims to the world?
These are some posers by the author, a retired Major-General.
of two gallantry awards, Jagjit Singh started his military
career as an officer in the Royal Indian Navy, seeing
anti-submarine action in World War II. He later joined the
Indian Army and had a distinguished career as a seasoned
gunner. He was Brigade Major of 114 Infantry Brigade in Ladakh
during the Sino-Indian war in 1962. An expert in the Russian
language, he served as military attache in erstwhile Soviet
Union. After premature retirement in 1977 he is now a
dedicated educationist. Authored by him earlier are two books
"The Saga of Ladakh — 1962" and "Indian
Gunners at War: The Western Front — 1971".".
failed to overrun the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-48;
it did not succeed in 1965; lost more territory than it could
capture along the international border in 1971; and, finally,
in 1999 Pakistan was humiliated at the Kargil heights despite
the initial advantage of achieving total surprise.
neatly organised in crisp chapters, the author takes the
reader through these wars. But just over a page covers the
historic battle of Rezang La where the entire company under
the heroic Major Shaitan Singh, save 12 soldiers, perished in
a stunning display of valour. From an officer who happened to
be the Brigade Major of the formation under which this battle
was fought, one would expect a more real military history and
slices of human interest accounts.
Of the 1965
war Jagjit Singh narrates an interesting conversation between
two Pakistani commanders. After the initial reverse suffered
by India, resulting in the loss of Khem Karan, 2 (Independent)
Armoured Brigade blunted the offensive at Asal Uttar, which
was turned into a graveyard of American Patton tanks with
which Pakistan’s elite 1 Armoured Division was equipped.
themselves in this battle were 3 Cavalry, the Deccan Horse and
40 Medium Regiment, with the medium gunners earning the
titular honour "Asal Uttar". Sample this
conversation between the Pakistani commanders, indicating
their desperation during the course of this offensive.
Commander: "It is most important that the advance is
continued. Therefore, in the name of Islam, Pakistan and
Hilal-e-Jurat, I command you to get up and go forward."
To this the Brigade Commander quipped: "I will try my
best. As things are, I do not know how the hell I am going to
do that. The bloody enemy artillery is knocking the hell out
of us and I am afraid, at the moment, I cannot do any better
It was in the
1965 war that the strategic Haji Pir Pass was captured by
India, aimed at blocking a vital infiltration route to the
Kashmir valley. Unfortunately this gain was frittered away at
Tashkent. In Jagjit Singh’s opinion, had a senior General
accompanied Lal Bahadur Shastri to Tashkent, the strategic
importance of the Haji Pir Pass would have been duly stressed,
and India may well have retained this vital area. Regrettably,
what the Indian soldier had won with so much loss of blood was
given away at the political table.
canvas of the Indo-Pak 1971 war, Jagjit Singh gives the
overall picture with relative ease. Major battles on the
eastern and western fronts are encapsulated, accompanied with
simple, neat sketches.
Just as the
Pakistani defences in the east were crumbling, Major General
Nagra took the initiative and sent his ADC and two other
officers to Lieut-Gen Niazi, whom he had known earlier during
his tenure as military attache to Pakistan. The message read:
"My dear Abdullah, I am here. The game is up, I suggest
you give yourself up to me and I will look after you."
response was immediate and Nagra, along with his leading
Brigade Commanders, Kler and Sant Singh, drove to Niazi’s
headquarters. Sobbing over Nagra’s shoulders Niazi
commented: Pindi mein baithe huye haramzadon ne marva diya."
(Those bastards in higher headquarters at Rawalpindi have let
me down.) A few hours later Lieut-Gen Jacob flew to Dacca to
finalise the surrender terms.
returned 13,309 sq km of captured territory to Pakistan and
got back 916 sq km of its own. Also repatriated were Pakistan’s
prisoners. Jagjit Singh laments the lack of military and
political interface: "Regrettably, Indira Gandhi fumbled
at the negotiating table at Shimla. What has never been
explained to the militarymen, who shed their blood in the
paddy fields of Bangladesh, is the reason for the return of
93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war without solving the Kashmir
problem... If only Sam Manekshaw, representing the Indian
military, had also been present as India’s military advisor,
the outcome at Shimla might have been different. In
consequence, Indian officers and soldiers are still losing
their lives in J&K.
But the core
motivation for this book is the Kargil intrusion.. Wanting to
grasp the various facets of this unique operation, the author
wished to delve into the enormity of the problems involved and
how they were overcome. Also the grey areas in India’s
defence and decision-making process needed to be explored. The
author requested the then army chief Gen V.P. Malik for a
foreward for this book. "I would be happy to do so,"
he replied. "But please do make sure that what you write
is factually correct." With ample assistance from senior
functionaries at Army Headquarters you can be sure that the
battle accounts contained in this volume are close to official
as Prime Minister Vajpayee embraced Nawaz Sharif at Wagah,
Pakistani troops were preparing to intrude into Kargil. In
essence, Pakistan’s Operation Badr was a follow-up of the
concept of waging a proxy war against India, conceived by
General Zia-ul-Haq. While the Kashmir valley had been the
centre of militant activity over the years, the Kargil region
had remained relatively peaceful. In the 140 km portion
opposite Pakistan’s Northern Areas, wide gaps and the
vacation of some posts during winter were exploited by
factored in a weak Indian response from a care-taker
government and an army that was assumed to be a "tired
force" as a consequence of long years of combating
insurgency. Pakistan did achieve total strategic and tactical
refuses to become part of history. The nation rallied behind
the effort to evict the Pakistani army intruders sought to be
made out as the handiwork of "Kashmiri Mujahideen".
The utmost daring of our soldiers and junior leaders rewrote
the saga of military valour.
officers led their men from the front into missions which were
often suicidal. Massive use was made of the artillery as never
before — in direct role to the extent possible — to
destroy enemy defences and break its will to fight. And never
before in military history had an air force engaged ground
targets, well defended by enemy weapons, at heights of the
mountain peaks of Kargil. Internationally isolated and without
any support from its close ally China and egged on by Bill
Clinton to withdraw, Pakistan faced yet another military
defeat at India’s hands.
In his analysis of the
country’s strengths and weaknesses affecting national
security, the author indicts the intelligence and points out
the lack of an interface between the political leadership and
the military. Further, a bureaucracy that wields authority
without accountability dominates the decision-making
apparatus. But the mainstay of the Indian state has been the
soldier. He had acquitted himself with honour and glory,
despite many handicaps.
Katha in different cultures
Review by Akshaya Kumar
Ramayanas: A South Indian Tradition
edited by Paula Richman. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Pages 432. Rs 595.
appropriation of tradition by reactionary forces for political
ends is dangerous; its outright dismissal by the so-called
emancipated secular intelligentsia is no less alarming.
Tradition is neither a trope of political rhetoric, nor is it a
deadwood for any puerile academic autopsy. To relegate tradition
to a remote past is an unredeemable cultural harakiri. Its
projection as an unqualified construct of total or superior
knowledge is equally lop-sided. Ram Katha as a grand narrative,
informing the dynamics of our tradition in recent times, has
suffered as much at the hands of our secular critics as from its
rabid fundamentalist flag-bearers.
edited book "Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition
takes on the secular critics as well as the sacred priests of
Ram Katha for generating misgivings about its possible role and
relevance in the "continuous" making of a dynamic
cultural consciousness specific to South Asia. The basic
reactions for and against Ram Katha stem from a fallacy that it
is taken to be "a" canonical tale, a fable without its
local variants. It is a fallacy that both secularists and
fundamentalists so fondly harbour and even propagate in the
pursuit of their narrow political ends. The secularists lose
their face the moment they concede the open-endedness of the
tradition of Ram Katha, the fundamentalists too suffer the same
predicament the moment they accept the multiplicity of Ram Katha.
The book under review consistently argues for the diversity of
Ram Katha as it is and has been told over the centuries across
different sub-cultures of South Asia.
In her foreword
Romila Thapar argues for a closer study of different versions of
Ram Katha in their specific socio-historic contexts. It is not
important to determine the historicity of any of the so-called
"authentic" Ram Katha, what is important is to
understand the social, political and cultural contexts of each
of these versions. Narratives, she writes, "acquire
historical encrustations", and it is important for us to
understand the nature of these encrustations and the
"processes" by which these change our perceptions of
Such a shift in
focus will help us negotiate with the diversity and
self-reflexivity built in the tradition of Ram Katha. Neither
Valmiki’s Ramayana, nor Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas, nor even
Ramanand Sagar’s tele-Ramayana, is authentic; authentic are
the different renderings of Ram Katha sung, recited and
performed by the various people at grassroots level.
suggests two models of Ram Katha tradition — one, "the
geneological model" which creates a hierarchy of tellings
in comparison to Valmiki’s text, another "the many
Ramayanas" model (suggested by the late A.K. Ramanujan)
that assigns independent status to each of the variants. Paula
Richman opts for the latter model for it offers a new
perspective on the complexity of Ram Katha tradition. While
speculating on the presence of counter-Ram Kathas in the local
languages, she observes that within the canonical Ram Katha,
there are inconsistencies in character and doubts about the
morality of some of the actions of Rama and other characters
which subsequently make way for the different renditions.
In fact, there
has been a shankavali ("Garland of Doubts") tradition
closely linked to Ram Katha. Under this tradition, ordinary
readers/listeners ask question to learned scholars on various
discrepancies, literal as well as implied, in the received
version of the Katha. Linda Hess, in her contribution, refers to
a number of shaka-smadhan ratnavalis (jewel-garland of
solutions to manas-doubts) in which questions pertaining to maryada
and bhakti figure prominently. She furnishes the
details of four such ratnavalis — 1. Manas
shankavali of Vandan Pathak (the 1840s), containing 120
doubts, 2. Manas shanka-mochan of Babu Jang Bahadur Sinha
containing 185 doubts published around 1899, 3. Manas shanka
smadhan of Jayaram Das "Din", 1942, containing 39 shankas,
and finally 4. The four-volume Manas shanka smadhan ratnavali
of Pandit Ramkumar Das, published between 1962 and 1987,
containing more than 400 doubts.
mentioned shankavalis prove beyond doubt the scope of
questioning within the Ram Katha tradition. The "pervasive
mode of doubt", though does not really radically disrupt
the brahmanical forebearings of Ram Katha, it speaks volumes of
internal deconstructive dynamics of tradition as such.
Even within the
Sanskrit tradition of Ram Katha, there are different
configurations of Valmiki’s Ramayana. In Bhavbhuti’s Uttara
Rama Charita, Rama stands witness to his own story through a
number of devices — first he is made to visit a gallery of
paintings and murals on his own life; then he is made to pass
through the same path through which he had travelled in the
forest during his exile and, finally, he is made a spectator of
a play on his own life. David Shulman sums up this unique
situation of Rama being an actor and spectator at one and the
same time as "the set that is a member of itself".
Among the post-Valmiki
tellings, Ananda Ramayana, a voluminous Sanskrit text of nine
cantos and 36 thousand slokas or verses, interpolates some
stories pertaining to the progressive ideas of justice, equality
and compassion. "Rama’s ban on laughter" is one such
story through which the anonymous writer highlights the ananda-aspect
of Ramayan as against the shokabhav of the war-centered
crying dog" brings to focus the abstract concept of
equitable justice. Robert Goldman in his contribution undertakes
a closer examination of the epic tale’s dialectic of
indulgence and restraint in the areas of food and sex.
The book is
divided into four thematic parts — "Forms of
questioning", "Assertion of social rank",
"Modalities of saying" and "applied Ramayanas".
In the second part, the stories of Rama are read from a
subaltern perspective. Philip Lutgendorf discusses the cultural
politics that goes into the making of Shabari episode through a
comparative analysis of Valmiki’s, Tulsi’s and Sagar’s Ram
Katha Valmiki, he discovers, is "spare in his description
of Shabari", Tulsi uses this episode more or less as a
subterfuge to introduce his concept of ninefold bhakti, Sagar
also takes "a softer line" on the social status of
Shabari. He informs that it is only in later texts like
Bhaktamal by Nabhadas (1624), Bhaktirasbodhini by Priyadas
(1712) and Mana-piyus by Anjaninandan Sharan (1925-26) that one
finds a detailed description of Shabari.
takes a closer look at the lower caste and the higher caste
tellings of Ram Katha, particularly by the women of both
categories. Women’s tellings, in general, often present a
contrary account of well-established events in Tulsidas. In
Bhojpuri and Awadhi folk-songs, Kaushalya and Sita empower
themselves through some of the non-vedic, non-male-officiated
rituals. Among the songs sung by lower caste women (kahar and
nai in particular), sexuality of Sita is asserted through her
amorous relationship with Lakshamana. Sita is seen as an
ordinary woman, a subaltern lost in the drudgery of household,
Kaushalya is seen as a figure of authority and the employer.
In South India,
the Dravadian/Aryan divide lends different twists to Ram Katha.
Most of the versions in the pre-colonial period, even the ones
composed by non-Brahmins, remain, more or less, subservient to
canonical texts. Velchuri Narayan Rao in his paper refers to
Bhaktisation and iconisation of Rama’s story in Andhra region
around the 19th century. He cites the example of the mid-20th
century Ramayana Sri Krishna Ramayanamu by Sripada Krishnamurti
wherein the writer deliberately underplays all problematic
incidents to avoid any caste or race acrimony. Ahalya is
depicted as a chaste woman, Shambuka is not killed, etc.
caste consciousness, Telugu Rama stories become politically
surcharged and constitute what may be termed as anti-Ramayana
discourse. Ramasvami Chaudari’s Sambuka Vadha depicts the
killing of Dravadian Shambuka as a murder committed by the Aryan
king Rama at the behest of his Aryan Brahmin advisers. Narla
Venketeswara Rao’s Sita Josyam (1979) and Muppala
Ranganayakamma’s Ramayana Visavrksam, take umbrage at both
high caste feudal Hindus and patriarchy in general.
Bali is another
very controversial character in Rama Katha. In the Malabar
region, in the Teyyattam festival of rites of possession, Bali
is shown in two contradictory ways. There is one Bali who
prefers death to living with injustice he has suffered through
the acts of an Aryan lord; there is another Bali who seems
converted by the lecture he receives on karmic orchestration of
life, he seems to believe in the "gracious boon of
dying", observes Rich Freeman. The question of Bali vadha
is also taken up by a Muslim scholar from Tamil Nadu Justice
Ismail in his 410-page-long "Munru Vinakkal".
Bengali Ramayana, like other local Ramayanas, gives a critical
twist to Uttar Kanda. Stewart and Dimock in their joint
presentation, refer to some of the stories incorporated in the
Uttar Kanda, which offer a negative critique of Ramrajya. The
model of kingship which Rama presents is deemed unfit for
Bengal. In fact, in this Bengali version, Rama’s rule after
the exile is termed as adharmic. Banishment of pregnant
Sita is disapproved in non-ambiguous terms.
feminist interpretations of Ram Katha of late. According to
Sally J. Goldman, Sundara Kanda is intensely patriarchal,
wherein Sita is projected as a highly vulnerable and subdued
woman. Rama, Ravana and Hanuman — with their varying levels of
muscularity — seems to treat Sita either as an object of
possession or protection. Madhu Kishwar, through a survey of
housewives across a cross-section of social segments comes to
the conclusion that Sita continues to be an arch-model of
perfect wife. Rama as a husband is found wanting, almost by all.
Interestingly it is Shiva who is reckoned as ideal husband.
The chapters on
the political application of Ram Katha by the Indian diaspora
both in England and Fiji do add fresh dimension to the onward
extension of this, beyond South Asia. Southhall Black Sisters (SBS)
Ramlila with its satirical references to gender, caste and race
politics, vindicates the deployment of Ram Katha as a
post-colonial text. In fact in different colonial periods Ravana
has been perceived as a coloniser.
however some contestable propositions made by the different
contributors in the volume. First, to hold Ramanand Sagar’s
televised Ramayana as the third most significant Ram Katha after
that of Valmiki and Tulsidas is overstatement. Second, if
canonical authenticity of Ram Katha cannot be stretched beyond
the point, its diversity too cannot be lionised.
tremendous sweep, there are significant omissions in the book.
What is significance of Ram Katha in Sikhism? There are
reference to Dasratha Jataka in which Sita is depicted as bother
of Rama, but on the whole, the book does not explain the exact
place of Ram Katha in Buddhist worldview. Jaina response to Ram
Katha is altogether missing. The chapter on Kamban’s
Iramavataram, and its subsequent use by various Muslim scholars
of Tamil Nadu fails to explain the exact nature of Muslim
response to Ram Katha.
The book overlooks the recent
creative efforts of poets who have in their own specific ways
re-written the archetypal Ram Katha. In Hindi for instance,
Maithilisharan does revive the story of Ram in a didactic frame,
in his "Saket" he offers a very "different"
perspective of the Ramayana. Humanisation of the persona of Rama
begins in Nirala’s "Ram ki Shakti Pooja", and
continues till Naresh Mehta’s "Sanshay ki ek Raat".
a spirited nomad to a
degenerate noble woman
Review by Ram Varma
of Noble Rot
by Uzma Aslam Khan. Penguin Books New Delhi. Pages 217. Rs 200
flowering of a new crop of the young men and women in Pakistan
as in India, who have had brush with the West by being born to
immigrant parents, is truly remarkable. They have acquired a
real speech pattern an authentic voice. The great Urdu poet
Firaq Gorakhpuri, who made his living by teaching the English
language and literature at Allahabad University (and what an
eloquent and outstanding teacher!), once told me that we in
India have been rendered a language-less people by a quirk of
history, inasmuch as the language we know best, English, is
not our mother tongue, and the vernacular is too gross to be a
fit vehicle for conveying the nuances of feeling unless loaded
with words from Sanskrit or Persian, making it artificial.
had referred to the same predicament in one of her poems:
"Don’t write in English, they said, English is not,
your mother tongue. Why not leave me alone, critics, friends,
visiting cousins, Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
any language I like? The language I speak Becomes mine....
does not torment the new generation of Indians and Pakistanis,
and they have taken the English literary scene by storm, as it
were. Uzma Aslam Khan, a young writer from Pakistan, has
crafted this strange tale, as intricate as a Persian carpet.
She has taken for her theme the new temptations that arise
before the upwardly mobile women of Pakistan’s traditional
It is an
incredible tale of this woman Hinna who has come a long way.
She grew up among nomads roaming the vastness of the
Baluchistan desert, imbibing the myth and folklore of her
gypsy life. She was used to a harsh and precarious existence,
trudging the unending sand dunes, pitching tents at nightfall
near some water source, eating a sparse meal, and sleeping
sandwiched among elderly women narrating weird tales of jinns
She is given
in marriage to this wealthy man from Karachi who pays a good
price to her family for her beauty, and comes to live in his
palatial house with French windows opening onto a long
driveway, clipped lawns, and sprinklers playing in unison.
Sitting in the luxury of her living room, she would gaze
insatiably at this newfound wonder world. She named the house
Masood Paradise, after her husband and benefactor.
cannot believe her luck, transported as she is from her
impoverished past, her heart is among the nomads, who scan the
sky for a hint of rain or the horizon for a trace of an oasis.
runs a carpet factory, and is looking for a market in France.
The French are enchanted by the sheer richness of design and
texture of the handcrafted carpets. But there is a snag. They
are revolted by the fact that hundreds of, little urchins have
been employed as weavers. Mr Masood overcomes this by feasting
his foreign guests, serving choicest French wine, and offering
them partnership in his company. As if to clinch the deal, the
Frenchman’s young son falls for the exotic charms of their
nubile daughter. The little matter of child labour gets
evaporated in the fumes of Chateaux d’Yquem. The sweetness
in the wine comes from the Frenchman explained, from the
grayish mould that the crushed grapes attract called, pourriture
noble the noble rot."
The red wines
kept by her husband in a cabinet in the living room tantalise
her no end. "It is sinful for her to drink" has been
drummed into her ears, but one fine morning she pours herself
a drink from a bottle of sherry. Its thick scent mingled with
the perfume of the sandalwood table and the sweet song of
free-flowing water. "She threw off her slippers and
delved with her bare toes into the warmth of the burgundy
rug... She tilted her glass so the amber liquid brushed her
tongue like velvet, like the silken wool closing around her
foot... The wine crystallised in the pockets of her taste buds
like pearls in a shell. The pearls sank soundlessly to the
spongy depths of her tongue, to the seabed... She took another
sip, and another..."
That was her
undoing. The guilt stays with her. The taste of the wine, at
once sweet and searing, lingers on her tongue. The phantoms of
her childhood beliefs arose from the dark recesses of her mind
to torment and punish her for this trespass. The churail,
Soomla, took the shape of a maidservants, her "noble
rot" and extracted a heavy sum from her services, which
cut into the dowry of her daughter. But she could not help
savouring the wine again, and she imagined she was falling
into a bottomless pit, "a sinner with a rotting,
maidservant, Malika turned into witch Soomla, is another
story. She represents the cocky breed with an indubitable
spirit, who knowns that the antediluvian sahiblog
living in large houses cannot survive without them. In
a strange reversal of roles, the slave begins to enslave the
master. In the process, she saves her six-year-old son, Momin,
from the inhuman drudgery of a weaver in Mr Masood’s
factory, and her carpenter-craftsman husband, Chaudry from
being fleeced by Mrs Masood’s greed.
have their own logic and sometimes hurtle down unpredictably,
which even witches cannot control. I find the metamorphosis of
Malika into a tormentor and Mrs Masood into a willing victim
somewhat hard to digest. But the tale is told imaginatively.
It inexorably leads to a horrific denouement. It is a tale
where the past clings to the present to the point of
obliterating it, where the surreal shapes the real in its own
shows dexterity in juxtaposing the opulence of the banquet at
Masood house with the simple meal of roti-subzi at carpenter,
Chaudry’s with which he lovingly feeds his wife, Malika. The
contrast is staggering. These subtle touches show the yawning
abyss of inequality that exists in Pakistani society. The
exploitation of the artisanand the practice of child labour go
on, the dawning of the new millennium and the dictates of the
WTO notwithstanding. The insensitivity of the rich and the
hypocrisy of the West come through in deft touches of irony.
The steam of
consciousness technique that was developed by Virginia Woolfe
and perfected by James Joyce has now been internalised by
modern novelists and is used to great effect in throwing juicy
bits of sex life of the protagonists in the narrative. It
brings in dollops of realism and teaches a thing or two to the
uninitiated. Uzma Khan makes good use of this convention, one
to shock her readers in Pakistan steeped in prudery
and, two, to give depth to the characters. The Pathan
gardener, with his sundappled eyes, and a torso like a bronze lingam,
would not have come alive, as it were, but for his adulterous
fling with Malika. She has also brought unintended (?)
hilarity in the final scene where Mrs Masood is hurtling to
her doom, and intermixed with her discovery of a "full,
unveiled moon and the circle of gold that ringed it" and
"miles of shimmering sand stretched" in front of
her, Chaudry and Malika are enacting an extended love scene on
the exquisite bed Chaudry has crafted for the Masood’s
daughter’s wedding. I don’t know whether it enhances or
takes away from the poignancy of the final scene.
On the whole,
it is an amusing, shocking, haunting novel. As a debut, it is
first rate. Uzma Khan has a way about imagery. "That
night Malika dreamed she entered a room damp as wound."
As she goes on to describe the dream and vividly brings out
its palpable horror, one realises how appropriate the imagery
Penguin India usually does a
good job in bringing out books. But this time they seem to
have tripped. I find that some pages have not been printed at
all, and blank pages stare the reader uncannily (pages 90, 98,
99, 102, 103).