28 September 2009

The Provocateur: Rajendra Yadav

I met Rajendra Yadav for Tehelka's 'Elixir of Youth' issue in 2009. (This is all that came of it, but there was plenty more there):


Age: 80

Profession: Hindi fiction writer and pioneer of the Nayi Kahani movement, editor of Hans

Secret quirk: He used a typewriter for 25 years, then returned to writing by hand

Rajendra Yadav’s views on old age and history are inseparable. “I don’t suffer from nostalgia. People who reminisce about past greatness and a golden age are making it all up,” he announces. “People don’t learn from history, only from mistakes. I don’t believe in looking backwards. Vision means looking towards the future.”

The enfant terrible of Hindi literature, for whom ‘values’ are “a disciplinary way to protect status quo,” has always been a merciless critic of hypocrisy, whether in the realm of class, caste, gender or sex. The blowback has included accusations of sexism, misogyny and politicking, as well as a 2004 biography titled Hamare Yug ka Khalnayak (The Villain of Our Age). But moral outrage bounces off him.

“I always knew the old person I didn’t want to be – the kind who goes on about his sacrifices, doing khich-khich all day, nagging female relatives,” he says. A painful sciatic nerve makes movement difficult, but he remains mentally agile. His days go in managing Hans, Premchand’s literary journal that he revived in 1986. Evenings can mean a literary event or meeting friends for drinks and gossip. He’s fond of watching television and is quite enjoying Sach ka Saamna these days. Ask him about old age and he has a joke ready: “Someone asked an 80-year-old woman, ‘Amma, do sexual desires disappear with age?’ She replied innocently, ‘How can I say? I’m only 80!’”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 37, Dated September 19, 2009

The Insomniac: Krishna Sobti

A short profile of Krishna Sobti that I did for Tehelka's 'Elixir of Youth' issue.

Age: 84

Profession: Hindi fiction writer and essayist

Secret lifestyle choice: She writes from 11 at night to 4.30 in the morning, wakes up to read the day’s editorials, then goes back to sleep for most of the afternoon

KRISHNA SOBTI doesn’t choose to answer my question about whether, when she was younger, she ever thought about getting old. But her remarkable novel, Ai Ladki, written largely in the disconcerting voice of an old lady who alternates between rambling self-pity, paranoia and sudden lucidity, is a pretty good indication that she did think about it. And (if one is allowed to speculate) she’s taken great pains to avoid growing into that character (who was very likely modelled on her mother).

So Sobti is possibly the sunniest 84-year-old you’ll ever meet. She is happy to chat, with almost girlish excitement, about everything from the latest political upheaval in the BJP, to her great love, the mountains (“If I’m ever stuck in my writing, I go waste some money in a hill station and come back with a clear mind”). And yet no one could accuse her of being out of touch with reality. “I know I cannot go trekking in Ladakh as I did even at 65. I used to go for a walk every day, now I manage it rarely. But every season comes to a close. There’s no point thinking about it. I have had a vivid time, an exciting time.”

She certainly has. Born in Gujrat, Pakistan, Sobti grew up in Shimla and Delhi (where she still lives), with her civil servant father passing on a rich sense of the past. “I’ve been lucky enough to witness the colonial era, the time of independence, and the post-independence period. And we never felt like bystanders.” From the keenly-observed 1920s Delhi of Dil-o-Danish to the magisterially recreated rural Punjab of Zindaginama, Sobti’s work has reflected this sense of being a participant in history. She’s also a keen Delhizen. In fact, her upcoming book, Maarfat Delhi, is about the city’s literary landscape from the 1950s to 1970s.

Sobti has consistently refused to be slotted as a “woman writer”. Creativity, she believes, requires one to access both the male and the female aspects of one’s persona, “to be an ardhanarishwar of sorts”. In her personal life, too, Sobti has kept her distance from conventional domesticity. “Household chores sap women’s energies. If the family becomes the limit of your world, then you cannot think big,” she says in her gentle but firm manner. “As a writer, sometimes you need isolation; but when you sit down to write at night, the whole world must be with you at your desk.” The world is still her oyster.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 37, Dated September 19, 2009

‘I Want To Disengage From The Activist Mindset’

Mizo poet Mona Zote, 36, shuns both the overtly political and the sentimental

THE QUICKEST WAY to introduce Mona Zote is to describe her double life: by day, she works in the Income Tax department; by night, she’s a poet. But Mona is quick to refuse easy romanticisations. “It is discordant but having this job keeps me balanced. You meet people with different needs: it keeps you connected to everyday life here”. Reading her poetry, one sees what she means. In ‘What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril’, she writes, “Poetry must be raw, like a side of beef/ should drip blood, remind you of sweat/ and dusty slaughter...” In another poem, ‘Rez’, her voice is even more bitter, ironic: “if they ask you about life on the reservation/ if they say they want to hear about stilt houses/ and the dry clack of rain on bamboo/ and the preservation of tribal ways/ give them a slaughter.”

But Zote gleefully informs you that ‘Rez’ came out of an obscure news item about a shootout on a Native American reservation. She does acknowledge she was “wrestling with things here too – but not just the Northeast. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we’re all in our own reservations.” An IAS officer’s daughter, Mona spent her childhood in Bihar before moving to Mizoram in her 20s. “Maybe I came with fresh eyes,” she muses. “But if you’re sensitive and wield a pen, you can’t help writing about things around you.” The violence, the museumisation of tribal life, the stifling grip of the Church have all figured in her work. But she’s ready to move on. “I want to disengage from the activist mindset,” she says, “but I don’t quite know what will come after.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009

‘I Write In A Language The Elite Frowns Upon’

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, 45, writes in Khasi and English. His work in both is fuelled by the Khasi land and language

TIMES HAVE CHANGED/ the sound of our lives/ dwindles into different tongues/ and every day, tongues/ lap up our sound.” One first heard the poet of these lines at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2009, reading — aptly — in two tongues: the clipped, steady rhythm of his Khasi followed by a sharp and robust English. Kynpham is that rare thing, a truly bilingual writer. A Reader in English at North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), he has 12 books in Khasi and seven in English, the most recent being Around the Hearth (Penguin 2008), a retelling of Khasi legends. He has just published the first-ever book of Khasi haikus, and has a volume of poetry out with HarperCollins next year. “The desire to be read by my people makes me wish to write in Khasi,” he writes. “But how can one write in a language whose writings are, without being read, frowned upon as biblia abiblia by the elite? Most of my poems are begun in Khasi, simultaneously translated into English, and the Khasi thoughts often directly transformed into English. The creation of each poem becomes the birth of twins.”

His poems can provide an acerbic take on contemporary life in the Northeast (“the timid afternoon/ was slinking out like peace/ from this town”), but he returns constantly to the idea of roots – sometimes couched in the figure of a mother, sometimes as land or language itself. If the lyrical ‘Ren’ retells the Khasi tale of a fisherman who “loved so madly” that he left home for a river nymph, the scathing ‘Agartala Nights’ declares, “I learnt/ that the most effective way of silencing races/ was to cram them with one’s mother tongue”. He might count among his influences figures as far-ranging as Neruda, Seferis, Arghezi, Milosz, Amichai and Darwish, but his writing, he says, emerges from “the roots of my beloved land; the roots of my times; and most of all, the roots of the past that is ‘lost’ to me.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009
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‘Don’t Read Me To Improve Your General Knowledge’

Graphic novelist Parismita Singh, 30, says she will always be Assamese but wriggles away from a Northeastern ‘slot’

PARISMITA SINGH ISN’T good with labels. She is amazed at a review that called her book, The Hotel at the End of the World (Penguin 2009), “an Assamese graphic novel”. She used to describe herself as “working on a comic book”. Now that she’s resigned herself to the more heavyweight “graphic novelist”, occasionally “woman writer”, there’s a new tag to deal with. “I will always be Assamese,” she says. “But the book is in English, and I consciously haven’t located it anywhere. What’s fun for me as an author is for people to read the book and make their guesses.”

Certainly, Parismita’s droll, angular, often scratchy images of this black-andwhite nowhereland are strewn with cultural references and visual cues that would satisfy the most dogged graduate student. A bridge to China, a mythic floating island that is everything to everyone, constant rain that blocks mobile phone networks, the ghosts of Japanese soldiers who dream of the snows of Echigo while fighting in a “land of rain and jungle”– if these aren’t enough to make one think of the Northeast, what is? She doesn’t deny the references, but is stunned at people’s desire for authenticity. “I’m not retelling folktales. It’s not anthropology!” she says despairingly. “Yes, the night walker – whom Death sends to gather people’s souls – is a familiar figure, and Kona and Kuja are Assamese folktale characters. But a lady in Guwahati kindly informed me that the ‘original’ Kuja is a hunchback, not legless. But that’s the point! The names are the same, but that’s it. At the AIIMS crossing in Delhi, I once saw a man carrying another on his shoulders. That image is as much to do with my Kona and Kuja.”

Part of her reluctance to be pinned down as representing the Northeast is a discomfort with ‘serious things’. “I don’t want people reading me to improve their GK, or fulfil some national responsibility!” she shudders. “I’d be very flattered if people in Assam decided I was an ‘Assamese writer.’” Then, with a flash of characteristic self-deprecation, “But with the comic book, I’m probably not a writer anyway.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009

6 September 2009

Book Review: Karan Mahajan's Family Planning

Karan Mahajan's debut novel Family Planning is an ambitious tragicomic amalgam of themes that might conceivably be listed under the umbrella moniker of Contemporary Urban India: our manic cities, with their ballooning populations and even more swiftly escalating traffic; our obsession with high-pitched television soap operas; our political leaders, whose real-life performances are more dramatic than those on our soaps; our love-hate relationship with America. But at the core of it all lies that staple of Indian life – and consequently, Indian novels: a family.

And it is no ordinary family. A brood of thirteen children sired by Rakesh, the still black-haired but already pot-bellied Minister of Urban Development, aided by the labour (yes, both kinds) of his placid, mattress-like wife Sangita, the Ahujas are a kind of crazed contemporary take on the great Indian parivaar: nuclear in name but not in numbers, modern in form but not in content. There are no grandparents in the book, for example – but the idea of the joint family haunts the characters. Rakesh Ahuja, IIT-trained and America-returned politician, gives the redoubtable Mrs. Rupa Bhalla, doyenne of the KJSZP(H202) party and Super Prime Minister (SPM) of the country, the status of grandmother to his children. "Look, my children don’t have anyone except their parents. My whole family is gone. I was an only child. My father was an only child. No grandparents on either side. They love you. They want you to be their Dadi. Over time, the children had become a cult; Rakesh’s party had become a family. Governors and chief ministers and party secretaries and freedom fighters and judges were known not by name but by their prefixes: Mama, Mami, Dada, Dada, Chacha, Chachi, Taiji."

Meanwhile Rakesh’s eldest son, Arjun Ahuja, St. Columba’s School student, ministerial scion and aspiring rockstar, has so long led a secret life as nursemaid to his parents’ ever-increasing battalion of babies that he is never comfortable “until he had at least three younger siblings to order around and collectively corner the waiters who never otherwise served snacks or drinks to children”. Mahajan captures with a ferocious truthfulness what belonging to a large family can feel like: that sense of one’s fate being irrevocably bound up with the fates of others, while simultaneously being the lone actor perpetually performing on an imagined domestic stage. But while Ahuja senior has spent a lifetime wreaking revenge on his parents without quite understanding why, Ahuja junior recognizes early on that the family may be a mirror in which one sees oneself reflected, but the distance is crucial. "He had had a vision [of] Mr. Ahuja driving up on the opposite slope of the flyover, …the lights of the vehicle floodlighting the band as the eight children huddled inside screamed with delight – those children that were his audience, his fans, his dire siblings. The family at its most pleasant: watching from a distance while you sank into yourself, you imploded, you were finally alive."

Karan Mahajan’s surefooted prose leads us carefully through a madcap maze of a plot, cajoling us into a suspension of disbelief with an exaggeratedness carefully calibrated to teeter on the brink of our reality without quite tipping over the edge. The reason for the continuous production of little Ahujas is that Mr. Ahuja is only attracted to Mrs. Ahuja when she’s pregnant; a whole cabinet of Central Government ministers resigns because a character in the television series The Vengeful Daughter-in-Law has been killed off by the producers; in an act of sweet revenge, Mrs. Rupa Bhalla installs the actor who used to play that character as Prime Minister of the country… Mahajan taps brilliantly into the stream of insanity that runs through Indian lives, both domestic and public; just turning the tap on full, so that his characters remain real and vulnerable even as they bob up and down on a crazed tide of events. The comic image of Rakesh Ahuja, hurtling towards his wife in helpless lust as he blitzkriegs through a nursery full of babies, becomes suddenly poignant as he faces the realization that he knows practically nothing about this woman, his wife of fifteen-odd years. “Vague details, yes – the tough jackfruits of her elbows, the sullen hump of her jaw, the bulbous nose she had proudly passed on to each child except for Arjun, TV, clean clothes, T-series cassettes, a fierce protection of her Right to Eat at the table – but nothing more.”

But Mahajan’s real success lies in his brutally honest (but never unsympathetic) unpacking of Delhi, that city so reviled by those who live there – and even more by those who do not. The unquestioning acceptance of hierarchy that characterizes social life in Delhi is sharply pointed out in every context that the book touches upon. For instance, Mahajan’s description of a road accident involving underage driving and the consequent episode in hospital, where the lines between victim and perpetrator, guilty and innocent, right and wrong, are subjugated to the unfailingly superior criteria of power, connections and “smartness”, is painfully accurate – but also achingly funny. “A smart father would have avoided the inevitable chitchat with the policeman who would register the accident. Failing this, a smart father would take the policeman aside and thrust a folded one-thousand-rupee note into his grubby hand. A smart father would not argue with authority. Arjun knew because he had a smart father. Genetic impulses propelled him to intervene.” Another arena of entrenched, almost ceremonial hierarchy is the political-bureaucratic world of the government office: the touching of feet, the requisite flattery, the pressing of the buzzer – Mr. Ahuja’s “preferred weapon of choice for reprimanding and demanding” (One thinks here of another tragicomic Delhi fiction, Uday Prakash’s Dattatreya ke Dukh, which dwells on the buzzer rather more seriously as a dehumanizing form of technology.) The world of the Lutyens’ bungalow is also deftly evoked: “its awnings and verandahs making it a haven for loiterers, right-hand men, chamchas, servants, maids, shawl-sellers, bored bodyguards...” Domestic conversations between the minister and his wife are most naturally peppered with references to the misdemeanours of maids and drivers. (One must note here that, as always, the wife emerges as petty and miserly while the husband, who never has to deal with the grubby everyday business of running the household, can be both politically correct and benevolently patriarchal towards domestic help). Mahajan is clearly insider enough in an upper middle class world built upon the services of servants to be able to draw an intimate, dark and funny portrait of it – though he strives to be outsider enough to be able to make us register its strange, invisibilising violence.

Astutely having made his protagonist the Minister for Urban Development, Mahajan is able to explore the city as a series of images that are also an extension, an echo of the ministerial state of mind. In one particularly unforgettable image, Rakesh Ahuja looks at his reflection in the tinted glass of his ministerial window and observes that “if you brought your face closer and closer to a glass, you would stop seeing your own reflection; eventually you’d be so close to your own ghost in the polished surface that you could… only see the city spread out ahead of you, a palimpsest for the cities to come, a teeming, fertile ground where you could sow concrete and watch it sprout into strange, often hideous shapes.” Elsewhere, sixteen-year-olds play desultory video games in GK parlours, a man “loads five children mass-suicidally onto the back of his scooter”, a pretty convent schoolgirl walks around Nizamuddin and declares she’d like to be Muslim, a government peon lures wasps onto the illuminated surface of a photocopier in order to hammer them to death. Out of this mass of almost-but-not-quite realistic details emerges a knowing, deeply felt portrait of a Third World city at the beginning of the twenty-first century, careening crazily as it is catapulted simultaneously towards several conflicting visions of the future.

The most concrete – and the most deeply symbolic – of these futuristic images is the flyover. It is the sublime and ridiculous acme of our – and Rakesh Ahuja’s – ambitions for the city: a distraction so stolid, so undeniably real, that we are unable (or unwilling?) to see the escapist fantasy on which it is founded. Ahuja (and is it entirely a coincidence, this naming of the flyover-building technocrat Minister by the same name as the also flyover-building, corrupt businessman in the 1983 cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron?) remains somehow wide-eyed about flyovers while recognizing that they are not the panacea he is presenting them as. At one point, he ascends the Jangpura flyover, built in 1982 before the Asian Games, “a wide concrete lung that gently breathed the car up eye level with treetops and flocks of pigeons” to realize that he is crawling. “This was to be the simultaneous beauty and tragedy of the flyovers: you’d escape the red lights, but the traffic was growing so fast that you’d still be jammed, your only consolation a view of Delhi from a height.” But he still experiences a pride in having created a whole new monumental network of columns and arches which beggars and runaway children could shelter under, a sense “of having recolonised the city”, of having built a set of future ruins that would tower over the rest.

There are some glitches unforgivable in a book that gets so much right – Lodi Estate Road on p.1 becomes Modi Estate Road by p.209 (not to mention that there are at least three Lodi Estate Roads, Nos. 1, 2 and 3), Paranthewali Gali is referred to as Paranthe Wale Kee Gulley, why on earth is Mrs. Ahuja described as wearing as a grey sari and having her head covered with a dupatta, and what is Arjun doing with a butter knife when he’s eating dal and alu-gobhi? But these are minor quibbles. Mahajan’s debut novel is both assured and refreshingly irreverent, and he succeeds in creating a blend of the farcical and the thought provoking that would count as ambitious for writers far more experienced.

First published in Biblio VOL. XIV, NOS. 7 & 8, JULY - AUGUST 2009

3 September 2009

An Auto Sonata

TRISHA GUPTA meets the man who made the sound of Delhi’s auto-rickshaws part of the India Art Summit

IT’S A regular Saturday in New Delhi’s Connaught Place. A post-lunch crowd ambles along, window-shopping. The soft murmur of afternoon traffic on the Inner Circle is slowly turning into a louder buzz. Suddenly, above the cars, buses, auto-rickshaws and taxis comes a series of honks – sharp and staccato ones followed by a long, low-pitched tone. A cavalcade of flag-embellished auto-rickshaws is turning past E Block, honking in choreographed unison. Passers-by stop to look, someone tries to hail one, while one autowallah waves as he drives past. Things are already odd enough, but then a white man in yellow pyjamas darts nimbly into the street, holding up a hand as if to stop the traffic. It takes a minute to realize that he’s only taking a photo.

The pyjama-clad man is Geert-Jan Hobijn, and the honking autos are his idea. Hobijn is known in international music circles as the founder of Staalplaat Soundsystem, an Amsterdam-based initiative that he began with friends in 1982. Staalplaat (Dutch for steelplate; ‘plaat’ also means disc, thus record) has a reputation for supporting weird and wonderful sounds, “expanding the boundaries of what we call ‘music’”. One piece Hobijn remembers fondly was inspired by Dadaist poetry: a voice repeating ad infinitum the phrase, “The minister regrets these statements”, removing one syllable each time round so the sound becomes less intelligible and more abstract. Another was an Austrian yodeling song, cut up and reassembled. “This was before digital editing,” he points out.

Staalplaat is now a forum for sound artists, an organisation network with a music label, an e-zine, a radio program, a shop and a distribution company and Hobijn has moved from being a dogged releaser of other people’s quirky sounds to creating his own. “In 2000, I began making music with objects not usually seen as ‘musical’ – vacuum cleaners, kitchen mixers, tumble dryers.” In 2005, a museum in the north German city of Kiel invited him to “use the building as an instrument”. The idea of an increase in scale was exciting, but not easy. “You can’t bang on a building, or drill holes in it.” What he finally created involved moving soundboxes, some placed on children’s tricycles. “People could hear thuds and sirens, but couldn’t see where they were coming from. Of course, the Germans thought it was about the war,” Hobijn smiles wryly.

HOBIJN ISN’T keen on art being message-y: “Like this 48C festival you had in Delhi, it was too political, too environmental for me. I’d say, leave that to Greenpeace.” Yet his work is clearly connected to what’s around him. “Man’s first compositions were based on the birds. But now we are alienated from the sounds around us, ‘noise’, we call it. As a contemporary urban person, I want to make music from these sounds.” When he arrived in Delhi last October to do a residency with Khoj, the first thing that struck him was the traffic. “That’s the sound of Delhi. Of most modern cities, actually. Only here, it’s louder.” He decided to take the city’s chaotic sounds and overlay them with something seemingly similar, but actually structured and discrete. The performance involved remotely triggering the horns of 30 auto-rickshaws as they moved around the concentric circles of Connaught Place, creating a “moving sound choreography”. “When you hear a single horn, you think: that’s loud! When you hear 30 horns in synch, you think: hmm, why isn’t that louder? I just want to make people listen differently.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 35, Dated September 05, 2009

‘My Ram Is Kabir’s Ram, Not The BJP’s’

Subodh Kerkar tells TRISHA GUPTA why his Ganeshas should outrage no one

Goa-based artist Subodh Kerkar is being hounded by the Sangh Parivar for his recent Ganesha exhibition. He defends his work:

Could you tell us about your Ganesha exhibition?
The first part was an installation: a 15 foot tall mud Ganesha planted with grass, and a few plastic bags strewn around. The day after a festival, our religious spaces are filthy. Do devotees feel that the god inside the image is blind? My idea was to make Ganesha a messiah for cleanliness. In the second part, I took Ganesha on a world tour of various cultures. His very name is Ganapati – the leader of the gana, the people. So he walks on water like Jesus, he becomes a sphinx in Egypt, an Oscar statue in the US.

And what response did you get from the Hindu right?
Three of my Ganeshas were published in Dainik Lokmat before my exhibition opened on August 20 in Goa. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Sanatan Sanstha called me a dharmadrohi (a traitor to religion) and labelled my paintings obscene. They published my phone numbers in their mouthpiece Sanatan Prabhat and I got thousands of threatening phone calls and SMSes, including people saying they would kill me, or chop my fingers off. 100 people came and shouted slogans outside my exhibition.

You’ve used religious imagery before. Why have the Ganeshas created outrage?
It’s not really about the paintings. The Hindu right wanted the only MF Husain painting in the Goa Museum removed. I came out strongly against it. I published a cartoon in Lokmat: a painting of Ramdas Swami with his kamandal but in a suit, with an artist saying, “I didn’t want to hurt religious sentiments, so I made him wear a suit.” They didn’t like my making fun of them.

Would you say you’re a practicing Hindu?
Hinduism gives you so many possibilities. You can be an atheist and still be a Hindu. In my house, I have an altar with Ram, Jesus, Ambedkar and the Kaaba. I am a Ram bhakt, but my Ram isn’t the BJP’s: it’s Gandhi’s Ram, Kabir’s Ram.

Would you locate your work within an Indian iconography of gods and goddesses?
Well, I have done nothing new. There are all kinds of Ganesha images everywhere, in Chaturthi celebrations all over: Ganesha skating, Ganesha as astronaut. Of course, they object to those too.

What is your response to those who say you have hurt Hindu sentiments?
I’m often asked, “Will you draw the Prophet like this, or Jesus Christ?” Catholic bodies in Goa objected to The Da Vinci Code so the government banned it; India was one of the first countries to ban Midnight’s Children. Organisations like the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti spit venom against Muslims, but they’re aping Muslim fundamentalists. They get more like Al Qaeda every day. Hinduism has always been open. Tukaram felt so close to Vitthal (Vishnu) that he could even abuse him. I just wanted to use Ganesha to take my message to the people.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 35, Dated September 05, 2009