Saturday, May 13, 2006

Desai unravels economics of Pound
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghDURING his recent visit to India, Lord Meghnad Desai of St Clement Danes and his pretty, Punjabi second wife Kishwar Ahluwalia (nee Rosha) gave me his recently published book The Route of All Evil: the Political Economy of Ezra Pound (Faber). I had no intention of reading it. I do not understand political economy and I heartily loathe Ezra Pound. However, since Meghnad asked me to let him know what I thought about it, and I knew he would question me about it, I thought it best to read some of it.

Meghnad Desai
Meghnad Desai 

In any case it was only 140 pages. I was comforted by the thought it would take me no more than three-four hours of reading. I know he is not only an eminent economist Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics and Member of the House of Lords but also interested in Indian films. He’s done a book on Dilip Kumar and is working on one on Sunil Dutt and Nargis.

But I was totally unaware of his interest in modern English poetry of which Ezra Pound is regarded by many as a father-figure. Pound also had strong views on politics and economics. I had put him out of reckoning as a crackpot because he was a Jew-baiter, fascist and traitor to his own country (America): he escaped the electric chair as the court found him unfit to stand a trial and sent him to a lunatic asylum.

On the back of Desai’s book is a quote from Pound reading: “Most social evils are at root economic. I personally know of no social evil that cannot be cured, or very largely cured economically? How true? Among the top social evils that plague and blacken India’s face are the caste system and female foeticide. If you take a closer look at them, you can see at the root the reasons are economic. So they were of sati.”

Pound could not make up his mind about the role of money in economy but he had no doubt that banking and interest on loans were unmitigated evils. Both the Bible and the Koran condemned usury. But can modern economy run without banks, credits and interests on loans? No answer. Some dabbling with social credit and other guesswork schemes were discussed and rejected. Desai deals with them in as lucid a manner as a good teacher would to his students. In between, he skilfully interweaves details of the life of Ezra Pound as the guru of poets of his time.

Ezra Waston Loomis Pound was born in Idaho of Quaker parents in 1885. He was educated in Hamilton College, Pennsylvania, married Hilda Doolittle and published his first collection of poems A Lume Spento in 1908 at his own expense. The couple moved to London where Pound taught in Regent Polytechnic, produced more collections of poems and quickly became a cult figure.

Desai describes his outlandish appearance: red-brown hair, blue eyes set in pink face and purple nose. He wore a bright pink shirt and green trousers and a ring in one ear. He became a familiar figure in Bloomsbury. Also, respected as a good poet and adviser. Among many who sought his advice were W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce.

He opened up new vistas for England’s literary elite by translating Chinese and Japanese poetry. In 1920, he with his now English wife Dorothy Shakespeare moved to Paris, where they stayed for four years. Among those who sought his advice were Gertrude Stein and Hemmingway.

In 1925, the couple moved to Rapallo (Italy) and lived there for many years. He continued writing poetry, became an admirer of Mussolini and bitterly anti-Semitic. During World War II, he broadcast anti-Allies speeches on Italian radio. In 1945, he was arrested and taken to Washington to be tried for treason. He was declared insane. In 1958, he returned to Italy where he died in 1972 and is buried.

I cannot fathom why Desai had to write about Ezra Pound. Evidently it was more of Pound’s dabbling in economic problems than his poetry, he quotes a few lines from one of his cantos. I found his analysis of economic ills that beset the world during Pound’s life illuminating and easy to read.

Haryanvi humour

I’ve often complained about the difficulty of translating humour of different regions in English: it loses most of its rustic flavour. Even when it comes to English, you have to tell cockney jokes in cockney accents to get the best. They sound utterly flat in Queen’s English. I find the same problem translating Punjabi and Haryanvi jokes.

Haryana has a distinct dialect of its own. Most of its humour centres round chaupals — open air meeting places under a big tree where villagers gather in the evening to exchange gossip. They also have their own fun figures.

Punjabis have Santa and Banta; Haryanvis have Natthoo and Surja; their elders are tau or chaudhary. Women are often named Rampiyari. Many jokes are similar to the Punjabi ones, which are based on naive simplicity bordering on stupidity. I read Rajbir Deswal’s compilation of Haryanvi humour in English. Now I have Shamim Sharma’s Chaupal Kay Makhaul in Hindi. For me reading Hindi is hard enough; to read Hindi in Hisar dialect made the task doubly difficult. However, I managed to go through her compilation and enjoy it. The one I thought most representative of simplistic rustic humour was in her forwarding letter.

“Natthoo climbed up a neem tree. A monkey sitting on one of its branches asked him, “Natthoo what are you doing up here on my tree?” Natthoo replied, “I have come to eat some apples.” The monkey said: “Natthoo you are a gadha (donkey): This is not an apple tree; this is a mango tree.” Undaunted by the snub, Natthoo replied “Never mind, I’ve brought an apple with me.”

A matter of choice

An English padre was seated next to a Sardarji on a flight to Mumbai. After the plane was airborne, orders for drinks were taken. The Sardarji asked for a rum and coke, which was poured and placed before him. The flight attendant then asked the church minister if he would like a drink. He replied in disgust, “I’d rather be raped by a dozen whores than let liquor touch my lips.” The Sardarji then handed his drink back to the attendant and said, “Me too. I didn’t know we had a choice.

(Contributed by Vipin Bucksey, N Delhi)

Khushwant Singh is away. There will be no column for the next two weeks.