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April 3, 2016 / Vandita

Shambling the Bramble

Autumnal spring’s zonking through our town that wears its heart on its sleeve like well-toned abs. Mahua leaves sprint the airscape competing with flowers brambling through nooks and crannies. It’s all hombre. This year we’re tripping through the softness of the revolutionary sixties and seventies: last year we were sunning on the beaches of traditional insouciance. The cool warmth of spring on autumnal branches shambles us on and we ramble. The traffic suddenly mellows down to a purr and autumn whirrs its magic on some of us crazied footloose. Cities and towns simply chug through with people all enervated and euphoric. One of us suddenly realizes “March, madness and hare”. We throttle our laughs.
The madness is on them. We were crazy as always: books were sun-kissed brambles for us and we shambled through them shamelessly wrenching out our future lives from them. Dancing through the spring filled with falling leaves, sighing with the loaded brief of vernal green we were stalwarts at predicting who’d be the next whos who. The banners they march with and the soft dreams they pelt us with are as porous as yesteryears. The summer floods embrace no one but tingle the nippy air to underwrite promises.
Life goes on. Closed for a long time, schools unlock their bars. Holidays mist. Life comes to a circle… we watch excited, furtive. Those were the years we never knew we would never end up as another brick in the wall. The spring rips the trees of their last sap and enlivens the air.
Sojourners trek our metropolis intermittently and shrug at the halted life. But we know, life’s a stroll and a tread so we trek. And, as always, we ken change is constant because we are adrift on similar shots of diachronic time-spools.

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March 30, 2014 / Vandita

Fiddlers on Language Roofs

Languages are miasmic pools of indulgence where the minute trajectories intersect there are either wars or fraternal bonds. Language is a game that underwrites community coda which goes on to shape the praxis of interrelationships within and without the community periphery. Each one of us has a native tongue and some of us feel extremely passionate about it. Surprisingly, the ones who refuse to be party to language politics are the ones who are its worst whipping lads. Simplistically speaking, the majority of us are civilized. We presume that civilized is apposite to qualities associated with tolerance, catholicity and broad mindedness. It is so very pertinent that todays civilized take a jab at the uncouth. You bet it is becoming of the civilized folks to show derision towards them who come from different quarters. Why? Well, because my language taught me certain ceremonies of speech – it becomes my prerogative to kick folks who can at best sham my lingua. Snobs and cultural snoots have one common denominator. They go out of their way to prove their cultural largesse. And it rarely matters to them that some of this gets our goat. Therefore, when folks point you to correct lisibles you have to tell them where they’re headed. They are at best scavengers who just don’t give two hoots to language diversities and spoken pluralities. It’s improbable to them that the uncouth have fine language traditions, even if these are not organized by a suave academia. The fact that my language reeks of garbage does not translate into me being garbage.  I guess it’s anyone’s guess that language veterans are to conformism what language barbarians are to experimentation. The former are insular to ways in which languages can explode phenomenally to include each one of us despite our being differently abled or challenged by sight and speech impairment. The backwaters presumably bring in muck. What escapes the culturally trained eye is that the muck is the result of denial and forced exceptions. Because some of us are socially, physically or/and psychologically different, we do not get our share of the lingual pie. Some of us never make it to the propah language rooms just because they are just those – for the cultured and abled propah. Pluralities within a language ought to assimilate and progressively incorporate different ways of communicating. Across the higher education canopy we remain in a limbo: we ask for language heterogeneity only to get the carpet pulled off from under. Is it impossible to have no other but a language which the mainstream-abled are capable of flexing? How long before the civilized language veterans refuse to be savages to innovation?

February 27, 2013 / Vandita

The Bleak Indian Academia

Language is a carnival of thoughts threaded through and across the threshold of life where polite is synonymous with power and rudeness a tag to atrophy the ordinary. You are allowed to step into the world of elite only and if you qualify their coda. Surprisingly, only certain stylized – even stymied – approaches to interpretative studies are accredited worthy of the academic brand. This is the only reason why the street and the hovel are reduced to curios, and the academia sneers at the mundane and everyday lingo. Across universities in India, correctness in language usage is anathematic towards the spontaneous outbursts of people who are not formally educated. It is an extremely sad state of affairs. It seriously needs to be examined why we do not let people who cannot read or write but are perfectly wholesome thinkers in a spoken/ oral culture into the hallowed precincts of the university.

Universities are a shrinking space where qualifications have become far more pertinent than the ability to think, examine and analyze. Around me on the roads and streets of Indian cities I come across extremely brilliant thinkers with zero formal education who nevertheless ply rickshaws or work as unskilled labour. It is hardly out of the ordinary to find children who zing through complex puzzles and have natty imagination which does not let them into the portals of either the university or the jobs accessible to those who excel academically. Academics is not and ought not to be the sole criterion to an individual’s acumen. Surprisingly, educationists in India have refused to look into the matter where literacy has become an exercise to further repetitive and rote learning and to add to the archetonics of what ‘is’. Where is our sense of orality and the need to include the peripheral in the mainstream? Why is it that those who cannot read or write are not allowed the privilege to speak and engage the world of thought at large? Is it that as nation with a spiritual backyard we cannot take cognisance of the formally illiterate till they are marginalized or cornered into being a special case/ category that we can be savant saviours to?

 

September 29, 2012 / Vandita

Masquerading Criminals and the Gothic Panoptic Democracy: Poe’s Tales and the Unravelling of American Trauma

Heroes cleaved from the vestiges of gentility – smouldering with the derridum of the nameless, forsaken abused – stripped off the right to be human people the pages of Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction. Brought up by slaves, disinherited by his foster father, Poe tunnelled into the world of desperadoes – social outcasts, the marginalized natives and the African slaves – to dramatize their story of struggle for freedom in the face of brutal unletting violence. Tale after tale that Poe penned chronicled the pain and the anguish of the mass of humanity in America in the eighteenth and the nineteenth century whose crime was the crime of being non-White. He spoke for those for whom social, cultural or political redress was impossible and Gothic became his chosen genre. Gothic’s weave of supernatural terror and crime enabled its writer to explore, probe and analyse explosive and subversive issues without the fear of censure.

The Cask of Amontillado is a spine chilling tale of murder in which the murderer’s motive remains vague. On a nameless carnival day, the anti-hero of this story, Montressor beguiles and coaxes his friend, Fortunato, an anonymous nobleman into a catacomb to taste and assess a wine, Amontillado. Once in the catacomb that is reached after a protracted journey into the earth’s recess, Montressor shoves his friend into a cellar, throws a burning flambeaux behind him and walls him within. Montressor claims that he does not repent his inglorious crime. In this eerie tale of vendetta those of us who understand the dynamics of language can see that Poe indicts the cultural panoply that has an exclusive self-centric vision. Poe’s America was a state that was built on arrogation of the natural rights of American natives and he dehumanisation of the enslaved Africans. Montressor enacts the probable reprisal of the disenfranchised – a reprisal that was now gradually surfacing. The murderer in this story is aptly named Montressor, a name that brings to mind Montressor Place in Howick, an eastern suburb of Auckland in New Zealand. This place is “perhaps Auckland’s most historically conscious place.” The British established military posts in this area – called Fencibles under the pretext that they would provide the native Maori protection against other tribes such as the Ngapuhi and Waikato. With characteristic colonial ingenuity the British signed a treaty with the Maoris in 1835 (the Treaty of Waitangi) which under the false pretext of granting land rights and British protection to the Maoris divested the Maoris of their land. The name Fortunato is a throwback to ‘Fortunatus’, “a hero of a popular European tale” who receives from Fortune a purse which can never be emptied and who is enabled to indulge his every whim. Seemingly, Maoris were getting a fair deal. In reality, the British gained full control of New Zealand by the 1870s, effectively squashing the Maori revolution for many years. By the 1890s, fewer than 45,000 Maori survived. The Cask of Amontillado craftily fences with the sneaky White cultural hegemonic arrogation. The walling, masquerading and the burning torch are indices to further crimes that had become the cultural norm in Poe’s America that was branded as an ‘Era of Good Feelings.’ In 1805, America had become embroiled in a political diplomatic war with Britain and France who had imposed several restrictions on the American overseas trade. America retaliated by imposing an embargo on all American exports. To enforce the embargo it became imperative to suppress civil liberties. The worst hit was the black-slave population in the West Indies who suffered mass starvation. The Jeffersonians were indifferent towards the occurrence since they considered it as an apt punitive measure against the slaves who had earlier successfully revolted in San Domingo. Montressor’s plot replicates Jefferson’s government’s successful imposition of the export embargo. After extended brilliant strategic manoeuvres, Montressor beguiles Fortunato to the nether point where the latter is fettered to and walled into a cold, damp niche. In an exact corollary, Jefferson, after having repeatedly mouthed statements in favour of fraternity, brotherhood and equality, did not shy from stabbing the Negro slave population on the sly. The crime-fantasy in the “Cask of Amontillado” serves the purpose of exposing “that which has been repressed, and… inexpressible… the bourgeois negative rationality.”

Carnival is the tale’s backdrop. Montressor murders his friend during the carnival when Fortunato is dressed as a motley fool and out celebrating. Why the carnival season? In 1840, the first Carnival ever was celebrated in Brazil. Brazil’s capital, Rio de Janeiro, remained a Portugal’s colonial capital until 1808 whereby a number of inhabitants were rendered homeless to accommodate the royals. There was a large influx of African slaves to Rio de Janeiro: in 1819, there were 145,000 slaves; by 1840, the number reached 220,000. South American slave-hunting expeditions, called bandeiras, were captained by the Portuguese. From 1580–1670 the Bandeirantes focused on slave hunting. One of their favourite practices was to encircle the huts of the natives and ask them to surrender to slavery. If there was resistance the huts were torched. Escape was impossible. It was a constricting straitjacket between servitude and death. Many critics believe that the name, ‘Montressor’ is a play on the word monster and the French, mon tresor that translates to a humungous “my treasure.” It hardly needs a genius to figure out that Fortunato first tastes ‘De Grave’: like the native Americans who were the natural rightful inheritors of America, they had their first taste of defeat at the hands of those who paid lip service to ideals of equality, brotherhood and liberty all the while burying them in the very earth which was their land of nativity.

Imp of the Perverse and Tell-Tale Heart read like companion pieces. They are like haunting musical pieces that reverberate with nuances. Imp of the Perverse has been consistently read, analysed and critiqued as a dramatization of madness, with the intent to make readers understand the complex mental gymnastics of a psychopathic murderer. This kind of critical reading does not credit the brilliant social dynamics camouflaged by the tale. Our first cue to the socio-cultural intent of this tale is the murderer’s use of the theological term, ‘supererogation’ to categorize and describe his homicidal act. By dubbing his seemingly wilful murder as supererogation, the murderer claims his act to be amoral, and coloured by extreme religiosity – a call beyond the call of duty – which makes him a criminal since his act is the rarest of the rare. Interestingly, like most of the narrators of his tales, Poe keeps the narrator in this tale nameless. But he does call him an imp. Imps are short, mischievous, barely tolerable creatures of the fairy world – a world apparently innocent, pure and paradisal. Poe’s America was being paraded as the New World full of potential and promise – a virtual fairyland. However, this paradise was compromised by slavery. The physical stature of the imps is an instant throwback to Article 1, Section 2, of the antebellum constitution, drafted in 1780, which included the nefarious Three-Fifths Compromise, where slave states counted their slaves as “3/5 of a person.”

If an African slave revolted, he was a hero among his men but a criminal to his White masters. The narrator of this tale is erudite, rational and analytical. He tells us that his master’s quarters were ill-ventilated which suggests that the master was the White man’s proxy – a former slave, now a free man with special prerogatives. To kill one of your brethren is perverse, and the narrator apparently commits the unnatural act of fratricide. Poe cues us to the narrator’s social status: the narrator tells us that the idea for his fool-proof murder came to him while reading the memoirs of Pilau, a French lady who was accidently murdered by a poisoned candle. Pilau means “hump” in native American dialect, and “stench, filthy and dirty” in Hawaii. The narrator felt a subconscious connect with Pilau since it brought to mind his own impoverished filthy tenements. Diasporic African communities in exile created a new form of worship, voodoo, which included rituals and beliefs from their ancestral religion and Christianity. Candles and dolls are used to cast spells in voodoo; Madam Pilau’s death by candle fumes must have struck a chord in the narrator. He tells us, “I substituted, in his bed-room candle-stand, a wax-light of my own making.” Lonely, without friends, in an alien land, this murderer confesses his heinous crime in all probability to get sympathy. However the tale ends on a cautionary note, “To-day I wear these chains, and am here! To-morrow I shall be fetterless! — but where?” which makes an appeal to all those who condone violence to be prepared for consequences that may be unsavoury. This line also reverberates with the anxiety that coursed through the enslaved Americans who were still trying to define their freedom – it was extremely poignant that most of them had not seen their homeland and many of them were illegitimate offspring of their White lords. Very aptly, the narrator is called an imp since in Old English it means grafted; he is quintessentially an imp of the perverse for he hails form a generation of bondsmen who were perverting, i.e. changing, the tide of enslavement to freedom.

“What happens to a dream deferred…” is the shaping metaphor of The Tell-Tale Heart, a tale which has once again an anonymous narrator who murders and later confesses. However, unlike the almost sensual non-bloody murder in Imp of the Perverse, the murder here is extremely gory and cruel. In the earlier tale we are informed only about the victim’s dwelling area and know nothing about his person, in this tale we are told that the victim was an old man. The relationship between the murderer and the victim is not defined though we infer a sense on inter dependency between the two. Whenever the narrator-murderer enters the old man’s room, there is shifting play of light and shadows with a focus on the blue colour of the victim’s eye. Only one eye is described which suggests some kind of blindness or obdurateness, even something sinister. It is probable that the murderer is the old man’s guard or manservant, or the old man is the former’s captive. The narrator tells us that he had kept a vigil on the old man for seven days and murdered him on the eighth. There is something definitely diabolical in this. Sabbath is the day of rest following which all debts are considered forgiven so that work starts afresh. To murder someone deliberately on this day violates the spirit of Christianity. It is stark that the murderer and the victim come from different races and religions. The old man seems to be a European while his murderer appears to be a non-White. The latter is constantly irked by the blue colour of his victim’s eye which he calls alternatively the “vulture eye” and “the evil eye.” This helps us identify the murderer as someone from Africa – someone who was indoctrinated against a stranger’s evil eye. Whenever he comes into the old man’s room, it is midnight and the room is unlit and his own shadow describes him against the backdrop of an eerie moonlit night. Intriguingly, the intruder carries a covered lantern. We are told that it takes this person an excruciating half an hour just to get his head inside the room, and tremendous effort to enter the room without making a noise. Once inside, he opens the lantern just so, so that merely a shaft of thin light falls upon the old man who sleeps undisturbed for seven consecutive nights. But on the eighth night, the narrator’s finger slips on the lantern’s tin cover. The noise frightens the old man into waking. The narrator tells us that he could empathise with the old man’s fear and angst: “just as I have” felt “night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.” Apparently, there is a suggestion of a panoptic prison which the narrator must have been guarding. It is implicit that this must have been an imposition not a choice since there is a pronounced antipathy between the narrator and the old man. Poe invites us into the dark psychological recess of a privileged outcast. To betray the trust of your own and to be used by the outsider who never accepts you is a racking experience. Under the White man’s scrutiny, in a double bind, the narrator lives in mortal dread and guilt. An entire social order is indicted and undermined by the crime that is committed on the day after Sabbath. Poe insinuates that recourse to religion or proselyting or mouthing high ideals of brotherhood and liberty cannot fool the dispossessed. Violation of a man’s natural rights will have a brutal backlash. Freedom consequent to a life of indentured, inhumane labour will not bring forgiveness but extreme rebellion. Across America free men of colour were leading secret and open revolts against servitude.

On the eighth night once the old man quietens, the narrator waits for an inordinately long time after which he lets a thin shaft of light fall directly on the old man’s face. He is terrified when he sees that the old man was awake. The light falls on his blue eye, the “evil eye” which provokes him uncontrollably. He yells and leaps at the old man who shrieks out in terror. The narrator tells us that he kills the old man mercilessly by pulling “the heavy bed over him.” The extent of his rage is unimaginable for what he does next is sheer barbaric. He mutilates the corpse and buries it. With brilliance, the camera eye does a subtle shift. The narrator is undone by his bloody act.

An eye for an eye can never be justified. To right a wrong, one ought not to commit a crime for then the redresser becomes the abettor and the perpetrator. His guilt so unsettles him that the narrator feels he can hear the old man’s heartbeats as though the ticking of a clock muffled in cotton. The analogy is complex. Africans were brought to work in cotton plantations where they could not escape the White man’s vigil. Everything African was demeaned and the only probable redemption was accepting the White man’s religion, and a decent education. The old man’s “vulture eyes” epitomise the White overweening ambition that trampled the rights of natural citizenship. Not only the enslaved African diaspora but the native Indians all had to bear the brunt of this aggressive colonisation. ‘Right of discovery’ was declared sacrosanct over and above the ‘right to ownership’ which resulted in dispossessing American Indians of their rightful land. The American constitutionalists, lawmakers and the law enforcers connived in making legal restitution impossible. Once the renegades were tracked down, they were forced to confess. Punishments ranged from flogging to being packed to undisclosed destinations from where none returned. As such, under police scrutiny, the murderer confesses. The pathos of the tale lies in the axiomatic irony that when crimes are punished, the innocent are scathed: the narrator tells us at the tale’s inception, “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me… I think it was his eye… He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye.”

Deferred dreams and thwarted rights frustrate us and the divide between justice and crime dims. Hop-Frog is an acrid tale of soured dreams that find vent in violent retaliation. Inhumane treatment creates regicides who revolt through the most unnatural acts imaginable. A freak of nature, dubbed Hop Frog by the king and his courtiers, Hop Frog’s retaliation mirrors the depth of his angst and bitterness. Hop Frog was a pint sized hunchback who could barely walk. We are told that he had been brought as war booty from a vanquished foreign land to entertain a depraved court. What saw him through this ordeal was another fellow dwarf and his own extraordinary courage and the ability to expertly manoeuvre his crippled body. Despite his physical handicap, Hop Frog was endowed with superhuman agility which provided much merriment to the court and also their chastisement. Hop Frog’s fellow companion was Trippetta, an extraordinarily beautiful dwarf. Hop Frog’s endurance reaches a breaking point when the courtiers humiliate her. Hop Frog had zero tolerance to alcohol which the courtiers force down his throat. Trippetta tries to intervene on her friend’s behalf which annoys the courtiers who fling alcohol into her face and humiliate her. Hop Frog is enraged and vows vengeance. The king needed help to plan a masquerade. Hop Frog comes up with a master plan to entertain the guests by providing a unique disguise to the corpulent king and his seven courtiers. He gets the eight of them costumed as chained Ourang-Outangs to scare the guests into thinking that the animals had escaped from a zoo. He coats the eight of them with tar and flax. On the eventful night he sets the ballroom on fire and escapes with Trippetta, after declaring, “I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester – and this is my last jest.”” We are told that two “effected their escape to their own country: for neither was seen again.” Through this tale we are once again pitted into a world where crime and self-obsession is the norm. Poe paints for us the social holocaust consequent to othering. Cultures variant to ones own should be respected. Treating the stranger as an alien or a monstrosity results in misunderstandings and cultural conflagration. This is a rare tale in which the murderer escapes persecution and finds a haven. Perhaps, this is because the narrator does not act in a fit of passion: his vendetta is planned out in detail; it is also perhaps because the wronged person has a friend and confidante. Poe warns us through Hop-Frog that rebellions could only be quelled by disallowing intimate ties among the disaffected. Humans form intimacies naturally, and sooner or later the shared network foments trouble for the persecutors. Every culture has its peculiarities. Poe suggests that we should accept differences and not treat them contemptuously.

Disclaimer: This paper was first presented at an Internation Conference, ‘Body of Evidence’ at St. Stephens College (Univ. of Delhi), Feb. 2012

This paper researched Internet sources and library material at American Library, Delhi, CCS University, Meerut (U.P.), Harper College and Streamwoods, Chicago

 

September 14, 2012 / Vandita

Women, Racism and Queer Male Androgyny in Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra and Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare’s age was a cataclysm of religion, gender refashioning, and one in which camouflage, in the public and private sphere was inevitable to survival. Shakespeare’s father was in the suspect and dubious profession of money lending, doubly crossed since they were Catholics in a largely Protestant Elizabethan England. Without a trace of doubt, to remain in the Queen’s favour, Shakespeare consistently uses extremely sophisticated double talk and ambiguities in character exposition. Three plays by Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Merchant of Venice and Hamlet recover the incongruities that have apparently gone undetected in critical parlance.

Hamlet, per se, satires Queen Elizabeth’s seemingly catholic regime where massacre and regicide was the norm. As such, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude microscopes the pathos of contemporary Britain, prostituting its religo-socio identity in order to survive under the monograph, Great Britain. Claudius provides Shakespeare a brilliant razor-sharp smoke screen to critique Queen Elizabeth, while senior Hamlet becomes the playwright’s trajectory to study the ineffectuaility of the gory, ambitious Queen Mary. Young Hamlet is Shakespeare’s vision of an emaciated England that would be the stillborn child of a complacent and passive England under the aegis of parochial monarchs.

A similar gender deconstruct becomes the intellectual playground of Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra at the “scarcely bearded” Caesar’s mercy is a powerful portraiture of the benevolent monarch, Elizabeth’s despotic subtlety in bringing her political neighbours and rivals to heel: Cleopatra is the proverbial Mary Magdalene who would have been better off committing suicide, condemned by all sects of Christianity, than submitting to the Queen. Antony’s ineffectual, though romantic, bravado is the bard’s lyre singing the sorrowful pliant against Britain’s courtiers like Lord Arran and his band of co-conspirators who became Elizabeth’s pawns in her politia.

Renaissance was an era that broke down boundaries to discover new horizons in every sphere – intellectual, social, political, economic and sexual. Merchant of Venice explores the myth of woman’s domesticity, male superiority and euro-centricism. “All that glitters is not gold” is the cornerstone of Elizabethan ethics where the fissure between appearances and reality is pronounced. The Prince of Morocco in the play takes us back in history to the poignant Edward the Sixth who was rejected by Queen Elizabeth, but only after she had sent him her photograph. The French noble, who comes to woo Portia, with his doublets undone is a humorous portrait of Lord Eisenhower. Last but not the least, Portia in a verbal debacle with Shylock is William Shakespeare’s homage and salutation to the brilliant woman monarch, Elizabeth who in 1589 had penned the un-impeachable verse

Never think you fortune can bear the sway

               Where virtue’s force can cause her to obey.

September 9, 2012 / Vandita

Ideolect of Metafiction in The Great Indian Novel and Karma Kola (A Paper presented in Daulat Ram College Conference, National Conference on ‘Language, Literature and Culture’, 17th to 19th October 2006)

Pan Indianisation is the vogue today. As a nation we are modestly ecstatic over our brilliantly subtle cultural hegemony. International music divas and political icons rave over their adapting to Indian themes, Indian dresses and Indian ceremonies. To be Indian is fashionable. What interestingly complements this is the struggle Indians and non-Indians experience in coming to terms with the land per se, with its the ugly squalor and rowdiness. Where the globe is riveted by India’s unprecedented worship and glorification of female pantheons, it remains restive over the country’s glibness at the ironical iconisation of women which subsequently victimises her as a prized object. Today, India is apologetic over its near incontestable pool of unemployed people while it brags of being home to the world’s wealthiest. Interestingly, where Indian authors are increasingly talking about such double standards and dualities in India’s social set up, their vanguard is peopled by the ilk of Indian-English writers. As the trendiest well heeled intellectual elite, the latter group’s dada is the evolved Indian religious myth. The post modern Indian-English writer consistently splays his/her work with overt and oblique references to the land’s intellectual-cultural alma mater: its religious and historical heritage. The language and content of novels like The Great Indian Novel and Karma Kola exhume the Indian paradox of gawky national pride and insouciant egg headedness.

Published in nineteen eighties and sixties, these novels seam the borderline that demarcates the post modern from the modern in Indian English literature. This was a time when Indian English writers could feel the glory and guts of nationhood – a time when its prime minister was assassinated and when the country was among the top ten industrialised nations. Shashi Tharoor and Gita Mehta scandalise with their fictional weave that intersperses a tale with Indian mythic sentience. Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel is a fiction in the true sense: it exposes the fiction of Great India. In similar though more obvious pronouncement, Mehta’s Karma Kola cues us to the Karmic soft drink of Kola nuts, where her emphasis is on the nut not the drink. The two novels literally debowel the jingoism that underlies the philanthropic Indian amity, brotherhood and Dharma. Karma Kola is the underbelly of international tourism to India, while the tacit obverse that refracts Gandhian philosophy is The Great Indian Novel’s expose. Both the novels sequin the dialectic play of ideologies in the Indian context to enunciate how a national fictional treatise becomes an international gargantuan. Using slang, contemporary political and social verbiage, and parlance of myths across India’s terrain, Tharoor and Mehta develop an ideolect that gives ideology a happening dialect.

Tharoor’s tour de force, The Great Indian Novel begins with a purported heresy, “They tell me India is an underdeveloped country” only to qualify it as otiose with the observation that India is thick with “overdeveloped… bureaucracy… and… the women.” The speaker here is Ved Vyas, the author of Mahabharata, transposed to the present times and befittingly transformed into a man of dubious but critical acumen. He justifies his narrative with the claim:

History… is full of ifs and buts. I prefer… other conjunctions with destiny.

The novel paints and plummets through the ifs and avers that there can be no final declarations since “the story of life” has “no end” and an ending is “a contemporary conceit”. Gajapati his scribe, caricatures Ganesha, India’s elephant-God, who remains confined to being curious, impatient and long nosed. The narrative plumbs India’s colonial identity with a mock-epic’s theatrical flourish. The novel minuscules mythic Indian heroes as the alter egos of British viceroys and senior British officers, the latter absolute emasculate wimps. The first chapter titled ‘The Twice-Born Tale’ puns Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, a collection of Gothic short stories, stressing Tharoor’s intent to travesty the real and take the lid off the social neurotic bathos. Tharoor refuses to be complacent about Mahabharata’s home truths: ancestral Indian families were polyandrous and polygamous; the novelist makes no bones over the issue, the novel luridly lucid on this count.

The novel’s socio-historic backdrop triggers an inevitable duel with the proverbial crown. Language as a gauge for authenticity and snobbery provides comic relief while it makes transparent identity politics. Very subtly, Tharoor bares the programme of Othering the non-Europeans which colonialists took to be their prerogative and missionary burden. The novel jabs Rudyard Kipling who gave the globe the phrase, “White Man’s Burden” in 1889, on the heels of the 1857 Indian national war of independence, which made it pertinent to colonisation, especially in India. Ironically, this European observation, for all its cultural arrogation, made little difference to the Indian heartland where Rudyard or Kipling remained names, and the White man’s burden the baggage lugged by coolies. The writer says that to the average Indian theories matter little to the same extent as crimes in the name of the imperial, now First World Peace Corps, matter to the West. Tharoor obliquely refers to the British callousness in handling the Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre in mock heroic tones:

perhaps the Great Magistrate had decreed that the sentence of death

fall not on the man who had ordered his soldiers to fire on an unarmed

assembly but he who had so vilely insulted an entire nation.

The novel’s dialectical structure axes politics – politics of presentation, language politics, politics of gendering and politics of nationhood. Ganga Datta, one of the senior most patriarchs on the battlefield in Mahabharata cast in the novel as the most principled of its pantheon of actors, believes that rightness of a political act is “only a matter of opinion”. Indians politicians prove pastmasters in neo colonial tactics in the pre-, post-, and modern India. Ved Vyas, the narrator of, and commentator in, the mock epic, The Great Indian Novel pointedly jeers at Indian democracy with its “pluralist system” that made mandatory “a plurality of leaders”. Ganga Datta gradates into Gandhi’s understudy that enables Tharoor to disinter non-violence as a credo with a tacit agenda to exploit the powers of silence:

by upholding abstract canons of Truth and justice, he was laying nothing

more than his beliefs on the line…

Ganga Datta as Gandhi’s stand in declares “Fasting is my business”, a statement that cheapens in the novel’s socio-political history into “a slogan” marvelled at by the West as “altruistic self-denial”. The novel’s literary parabola unabashedly addresses the West as its final parameter and declares India to be an “agitation-ridden land”, reviles Sanskrit as a language whose sole conceivable merit is its alliteration: “after all it is one thing you can do… ”. Discoveries are a result of erring at the right time. Europe found America and India the decimal, zero. In the novel, India’s quintessential Guru Dronacharya’s modern avatar, Jayprakash Drona talks of the decimal’s value, declares it as the “locus of the universe”, “everything and nothing”, and “very Indian”. The story of India remains “An Indian story, with so many preambles and no conclusion”. The novel’s snide, the “masses” are “assess”, gives Shakespeare’s depiction of mob mentality in his history plays a peculiarly Indian flavour; the Indian crowd disperses “slowly, like ants abandoning a crumb”. “Moral politics… is not always good mathematics” sums up the novel’s ideolect. Subsuming Indian patriotism as a mass whimsy where “the sublime degenerates into the sub-slime”, Tharoor asks his readers to re-assess “our national struggle, make of it what you will”. The novel’s seventh and eighth book The Son Also Rises and Midnight’s Parents showcase the divisive consequences of the neo-colonial politic. The novel insinuates that Indian leader’s self serving expedience and nepotism boomeranged into partition: Pakistan was the outcome of the Indian political zoo, “a collection of has-beens, never-wases and never-will-bees”. Religion evolved into a seething political ferment because of India’s electoral sectoring by the British. “In those days… lines meant lives” underscores the ugly reality of partition. Tharoor is unrelenting in his scalding of Indian sentiments: he rhetorically whiplashes Indian fatalism by excusing Pakistan’s creation on the karma of its creators, the Muslim League.

Tharoor’s post-independent India is neo-colonial bathos “which many outside thought to be atrophied”. Here the act and the spirit rarely shake hands, and if they do, the act is exploited to further the handshake, a meaningless polite act, to benefit the political leaders. Indian nationhood was realised by integrating the princely states. The novel humorously, even farcically, uncorks the wily political scruple that got many an unwilling royalty to fall in line. Ved Vyas’s earlier disclaimer, “in our greed for office we sacrificed the integrity of the nation… willing to wait and to compromise.… That’s absolute cow-dung. Or its male equivalent” becomes an axiomatic political expedient. Indian politics intrigues the foreigner with its mindless centric centrifugal acts; Indian diplomacy comes across as “the love-making of an Indian elephant… the results are not known for three years”. Their social etiquette and power-play is guided by the principle:

A tiger shows power all along… Any weakness must be concealed…

The novel’s fourteenth book, The Rigged Veda subtly satirises Nehru’s “concept of non-alignment” as an “insincere Brahminical ploy”, “a canny camouflage for the capitalist course… beneath India’s veneer of democratic socialism”, “a refusal to take sides in an immoral and destructive competition”, the Cold War. Tharoor pointedly says that “He belonged to the ages, but the instruments of his failure did not”, a failure that led to wars with Pakistan and China. In the novel, Mahabharata’s Draupadi occasions an absolute metaphor for Indian democracy. The idiomatic socio-religious slant of the novel limns her not only as a victim of polyandrous marriage in a patriarchal setup, but one whose exploitation and abuse is barely avoided by divine intervention. It is significant that this divinity, Krishna, is topographically removed from the scene: he remains in Kerala while Draupadi is violated in the North. “Ours is a darker democracy” is Vyas’s unabashed reference to Draupadi and India’s lack of finesse in dealing with what is exotic, dark and mysterious. Passages through India lead eventually to the reign of terror in which Yudhishtir’s ideals absolve him of irresponsibility and recklessness.

India apparently cannot have villains per se because, Dharma, the preternatural and celestial figurehead in the novel declares everything to be an illusion, and Yudhishtir hoists certitudes and urges the need to

“Let each man live by his code of conduct…. Admit there

 is more than one Truth, more than one Right”.

Saying this he reverts to his mongrel appearance in which he had first appeared. In a similar though more cavalier vein, Karma Kola, with its atavistic bent, inveigles Dharma as a “mythological osmosis” – a state where distinctions cease and “You are the Law”. The novel explodes the concepts, Karma and Dharma as ingenious fabrications for and by the Hindu piety to promote their cause, make money and gain a foothold in power politics. It is intriguing to read the novel and see its novelist’s canny understanding of the political, religious and social nexus. Gita Mehta’s novel reads like a spiritual amphitheatre where foreigners, voluntarily become unwitting victims to India’s spiritual chimera and its corrupt gurus, in an enactment of Kipling’s observation “that India is the grim stepmother of the world. Nuclear holocaust finds its justification, like everything can, in India’s spiritual armoury, where “we turn karma into a soft option fee for a post-Armageddon utopia”.

International fascination with Indian spirituality goes back to Beatles, John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley. What India did get out of the transit was the drug scene, which was celebrated in the lyrics,

Take a drag. I’m wiped out.

Hare Krishna Hare Ram.

Gita Mehta has a dig at the foreign fascination with the Indian religious acceptance of sexuality, calling it “the ecstasy of being”. This ecstasy is incomprehensibly profound to the non-Indian for he does not have “the Indian consolation of knowing that everything is a con, and worse, a self-induced con… Maya”, beyond which lies the absolute Nirvana. To the initiate who comes from the West, the step from illusion to disillusion is mystifying; Gita Mehta says it is commonplace to find mentally unhinged, religiously inclined foreigners in India, from those who think they are Buddha’s charioteer to those who are propelled to suicide and child homicide. The novel’s metafictional compass tracks contemporary instances of homosexuality and promiscuity to India; Allen Ginsberg, with his drugs and experimental sexuality is called a self professed “Dharma Bum”. The quintessential “street hustler” from America who has incorporated “our most complicated philosophical concepts” in his everyday slang is pitted against the erudite Sanskrit scholar:

Whose interpretation should be accepted as final authority –

                          the Sanskrit scholar’s or the street hustler’s?

Indian devoutness is construed as a “whimsy” and as much a curio as the Peruvian Inca civilisation that flourished around 5B.C. in the novel’s pages; Wallace Steven’s ‘Disillusionment of Ten O’ Clock’ is suggested as a symbol for the spiritual confusion which disillusions and still rivets the West. Nietzsche’s disenchantment with Europe led him to compare Europe to India’s spiritual desideratum and Gita Mehta to not only quote him ad hoc but to conclude

This is also known as rock and roll.

Both the novels, The Great Indian Novel and Karma Kola “rock and roll” with a political and social cocktail spiced with sexuality. Where the latter strips Hinduism of its spiritual glamour, the former bares the smug complacency in the Indian political scenario. The average, the suave, and the street wise, all are opportunists in differing degree in these novels. Where, a smug Indian response “we” are “still three hundred years behind in our use of the English language” helps an Indian to overcome awkwardness if in a fix over Spenser in The Great Indian Novel, Karma Kola posits the wise counsel “Go from zero to hero”. Undeniably we enter the seamless world of metafiction that leads us to a modern, contemporary idiolect.

August 19, 2012 / Vandita

The Hermeneutics of a Heretic I

Trust is a much abused inflated truism that implicitly presumes warmth, innocence and acceptance at its most un-conniving level. Some of us post post-moderns contend very strongly that the answer to the chaotic bramble of postmodern nada lies in straightening the path with good old sense and sensibility. Acceptance is all. Paradoxically this acceptance of “in good faith” has no space for schismatic thinking which cannot but see fissures, gaps, and the censored and the incised. Traditionalists are wholesome but then iconoclasts and idolaters are equally salubrious. It’s the slant and the trajectory that sometimes makes you claim that the other is skewed, especially when the other consistently possesses an uncanny incised insight which constantly spades into the accepted and shovels up the unspeakable, the unexpected, the un-worded and sometimes what cannot be pigeonholed into the traditional squares.
One literary work that’s incredible in its kaleidoscopic fracturing of the seams of the seeming is Hamlet. In it criminality from a varying vantage ceases to be criminal in the traditional legal-social sense. Here, Claudius the traditional villain is a man who gains a kingdom’s trust, his people’s support, his sister-in-laws affections. But his life’s legal lacuna is his murdering his elder brother. What asks for interrogation is the reason behind the murder and why is Claudius the way he is. Trust society to brand an intelligent man criminal in its impatience to give space to the other. In each of his tragedies, Shakespeare limns a villain with shadows in his soul – an individual like Othello – who could have been good had society been more accepting and accommodating.
Today crimes against the vulnerable sections of society and the not-so economically progressive nations are on the rise. Class oppression, national bigotry and gender strait jacketing have reached historically unprecedented phenomenal proportions. The emergent salve to such an explosive situation cannot and should not be anything but a hermeneutics of suspicion. It will not be of any consequence to go back to tradition and historicising since histories per se have changed their hue completely. “My heart beats to a different music and feels differently because I think and act to a different motivari”. Internet, satellite and global networking have drastically re-defined the contours of morality, and the public and the private. Because I feel for co-denizens of the world and share intimacies with them, I do not believe in anything like adultery. Love for me is not sheer monogamy. Surprisingly, polygamy or polyandry is seen as delinquent and as culpable as giving short shrift to ones partner, married or otherwise. Are we losing sense of perspective here? When we believe with blindfolded eyes that the traditionalists are right we refuse to give platform to the aberrant.
Maiming and killing by soldiers in war is socially glorified despite the bloodshed in its wake. We encourage the youth to join the armed forces and we expect complete unquestioning acquiescence in this belief. Trust the nation to discourage people who question the politics of patriotism – an unaccommodating stance that provokes global terrorism at its worst and social schizophrenia at its best. Classrooms cannot and should not encourage students to explicitly believe in the utterance or the text. It is imperative to question the logic that goes into the construction, to dismantle and to re-figure so that nuances which may have escaped the not-so discerning eye reveal the contradictory and the suppressed. It is extremely pertinent that across the globe teachers and intellectuals cajole the minds they mentor to break the seams of trust and come forth with a new idiom that will someday help ford rivers to a much-needed new ethos. We cannot now encourage the protégée to call a spade a spade. But then we cannot but ask them to accept the people who call a spade a spade and interrogate why it is so. Suspicion is a must and the byword to making this world a more all-encompassing global space for all.

January 26, 2012 / Vandita

Hindsight for shamelessness?

Hindsight for shamelessness?.

January 24, 2012 / Vandita

Hindsight for shamelessness?

“Scavenging the past to trash it and trashing the present to scavenge whatever is worth giving the boot” is the cultural hobby horse of today’s thinking elite. Without an exception, the thumb rule to getting an entry into the elitist intellectual coterie is to malign tradition, the average and the ordinary. If you are happy with the present set up you have to be a dork, and if you come from a set that does not sneer at the orthodox you’re plain regressive. Today liberal is synonymous with the queer and the refusal to fit in, while regressive is synonymous with the hearth, the home, the home maker.
In a conference that I attended today, I was aghast at the intense anti-national sentiment of the very well placed comfortable Indians. I seriously could not relate to the nation that was sketched before my eyes. I live in North India and around me in a city like Meerut or Delhi I find young women going to work or staying back at home happy with their situation. Very few women I know resent their state but the media and the academic texts consistently paint patriarchy as naturally dehumanising vis a vis women. I have serious qualms over structures of thought that squarely blame the men and male-centric social structures for regression. Why would matriarchy be liberating? Are female-centric societies intrinsically good and guarantors of justice? It is incredibly stunning that Anna Hazare gets blacklisted because he’s a patriarch.
We’re Indians and we love to shout from our rooftops that we’re corrupt. I’m not corrupt and most of the people I know aren’t either – we risk getting classed as mindless and unthinking. After all the ordinary, the nice is boring. I touch my elders’ feet to show my respect, but therein lies a tale: respect per se is shallow and retrograde. To grab and to trash is the norm today.
We love identifying ourselves as the glorified excreta of the global backwaters for we want us scavenged, overthrown and trashed. Welcome to brand India where you have to be deprived and throttled to get defined as Indian.

November 7, 2011 / Vandita

Indian Heartbeats: Road to Happiness

To be or not to be quintessentially Indian ought not to be at stake. Metropolis culture with its uniform roads, disciplined traffic and mind numbing coda takes a stunning catwalk that leaves me high and dry. I can actually see the wholesome kitchen grate dousing its fire because the missionary megalopolis says so! Sometimes when in our typical village courtyard, at the onset of winters I sleep cocooned under oversized thick quilts I dream of the British police batons swinging o’er my head. I’m the quintessential Indian squirming when the screw is tightened with a veracity that only the Europeans are heir to. I’m from the metropolis hinterland where noise is a way of life, traffic-signals a poetry to unravel, and life a good hearted journey in brazenness.
Spare the rod and let be. We are Indians. Our roads have music – a language that makes zero sense to the jaded. It’s heartening that India’s organized chaos rippled through the Formula One racers. Some of us who’ve never been integral to the metro culture would like to encourage the highest bureaucratic and government echelons, and their confidants, to study how Indian cities and Indian villages have the time of their lives despite snarls and consistent honking of horns in crowded and not so crowded areas.
It is time the world shifted to a multipolar management so that life on and off the road becomes a delightful journey, where the police is typically small town types – indulgent like a parent who lets the child be. Not batons but warm smiles will assuage the ills that plague our metropolis. Can the judiciary say cheese? Could the government laugh a bit? And, on a wishful note, could professors be less militant? After all we don’t want cultural snarls. The roads are jammed, let colleges be happy places. I have just one regret, I never studied in my village where laughter is infectious and the teacher a strict indulgent mentor: everyone emerges a winner with an incorrigible sense of humour.