Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature and Premchand's Shatranj ke Khiladi

The last time I checked on Amazon, no one had reviewed The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature. But that may be because the book is a difficult read, because in its six hundred or so pages the editor Amit Chaudhri anthologizes all the major writing in India in the last century and a half. Amit Chaudhri’s effort is nothing short of astonishing; he must have read through hundreds of translations from the multitude of Indian languages to assemble such a wide-ranging anthology as this. The collection is more meticulous and well researched than Salman Rushdie’s Mirrorwork, which proclaims that the best Indian writing since independence has been in English. Certainly, a lot of good writing has been in English, but the vernacular was and still remains a powerful medium for creative expression.

(In May 1999, the literary critic Pankaj Mishra in an article for the New York Review of Books wrote that despite the success of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which sold 100,00o copies, the market for Indian writing in English in India hasn’t really opened up (as opposed to the West where there seems to be a significant audience for Indian writing). For instance, Amit Chaudhri’s novel, Freedom Song sold a modest 4000 copies in India while literary novels in Malayalam or Marathi sell tens of thousands of copies. )

I was leafing through Chaudhri’s anthology, and in the section on Hindi I saw a short story by Premchand. The Chess Players was written in 1924 but is set in a much earlier time. I read the first two sentences and felt a stab of nostalgic yearning for the Hindi stories that I had read in high school. For years now I haven’t read even a page in Hindi and I have to labor through a paragraph when I see one. As I read more of the Premchand story, I wished I had a copy of it in Hindi with me, so I could be closer to the subtle rhythms of the language that Premchand must have used.

Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Raushan Ali are the chess players of the story, obsessed with the game. Indeed this is the story that Satyajit Ray used for his well-known Shatranj ke Khiladi. It is set in Lucknow of the mid nineteenth century when it was the principal city of the Awadh province, ruled by the Muslim king Wajid Ali Khan. The Lucknow that Premchand depicts in the story is in a sensual stupor, its residents far too busy in indulgent pursuits to be aware of the political ferment of the time.

Like others with their own preoccupations – reveling in opium induced ecstasy or betting on quail and partridge fights – Mirza Ali and Mir Ali too are absorbed in their long chess games every day. This goes on until domestic pestilences – such as Mirza Ali’s wife who disallows any chess games in the house – force them to escape one day to the desolate countryside where they play in an abandoned mosque. But that same day, the soldiers of the East India Company march through the countryside on their way to Lucknow. Curiously – and this is perhaps the central theme of the story: the extraordinary insouciance of the two players in face of all the tumult around them – the political maneuvering that will bring Lucknow under British control does not interest them, but the maneuvers on the chess board that shall affect no one do. So even as Wajid Ali Khan surrenders to the British army without so much as a whimper, the two chess players continue to fight a pitched battle. Such is the intensity of their game that they start a quarrel over their moves; they start to fight with their swords and slay each other.

The ending struck me as rather contrived and abrupt, out of step with the nuanced story, its irony, humor and well-thought out historical setting. In the movie, Ray presents a different, a more poignant climax: the two chess players do get to the point where they could have killed each other – in fact Mirza even fires a shot at Mir – but miraculously both survive uninjured. In the last few seconds of the movie, Mirza (played by Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir (played by Saeed Jaffrey) have expressions of deep disquiet, as the enormity of where the game of chess has led them slowly sinks in.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Of William Prescott and Aztec misnomers

When William Hickling Prescott, the historian who documented the rise and fall of the Spanish empire, died in 1859, he could not have known that four years later a fledging town in American Southwest, a region he had never visited, would be named after him. He might have been pleased by this commemoration of his historical acumen that his then extremely popular book “A History of the Conquest of Mexico” did much to advance. But had he known that not only had his book caused a town to be named after him, but that the impressive and then unexplained ruins of the southwest were given Aztec names based on the conclusions of his book, he might have been doubly pleased for having left an imprint by sheer virtue of his scholarly work.

And had he lived on, the same indispensable curiosity that had brought him this far might have egged him on to research the region further, perhaps even visit it, to see that while many Aztec influences might have been absorbed by the Native Americans of the southwest, their communities – quite diverse themselves – had their own distinct identities and cultural accomplishments, developed and sustained independently of the Aztec. But that, of course, was not to be; Prescott was destined to rest in his grave, and I’ll permit myself to imagine that his left eye that had been bizarrely blinded by a hard crust of bread – hurled at dinnertime by a Harvard classmate; apparently there had been a fracas that night in the Commons– still twitches with excitement as the many dimensions of the histories of Mexico and Peru and other Native American empires are unraveled.

Prescott’s work and the other articles that posited the Arizona origins of the Aztec engendered a slew of misnomers that exist to this day. The town of Aztec in New Mexico famous for its centuries-old ruins, also called Aztec – in fact the latter inspired the former – is one example. The Native Americans who once lived and built their houses and ceremonial structures there are today referred to as the “Anasazi” or “Pueblo” (these names, too, have their own stories). The Puebloans had nothing to do with the Aztec. Neither did the Sinagua whose cliff dwelling in the Central Highlands region of Arizona is called Montezuma Castle, after the Aztec king. (The view that people living in relatively close proximity had “nothing to do” with each other cannot be literally true. Ideas are sure to have diffused through the vast trade networks that existed then; ideas as profoundly transformational as the cultivation of corn. But certainly there is uniqueness in how a community shapes external influences.)

One is justified in asking: What’s in a name, after all? Should these mistakes be panned so much when history was and still is a work in progress? The issue is not so much with the errors themselves as with the notions that lie behind them. Kirk Peterson, a ranger at the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park (also in New Mexico, a 3-hour drive from Aztec) articulated this well: “There was a school of thought that the natives who lived here were not capable building these structures.” He was referring to the ruins of the massive houses constructed from the eighth to tenth centuries. “And so it was natural to look to the nearest empire that could have.”

In addition to its architectural feats, Chaco canyon is also known for its sophisticated solstice marker on Fajada Butte (unfortunately the butte is off limits for visitors). And then there is the Great North Road that is within half of degree of being exactly north. The woman at the Visitors Center at Aztec where we had stopped by to get some information before proceeding to Chaco told us of her own visits to Chaco. “These were no rock pounding Indians,” she said, obviously quite impressed with what she had seen. But implicit in her remark is a slight of another kind.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Argumentative Indian, by Amartya Sen

In this collection of essays on Indian history, culture and identity the economist Amartya Sen attempts to illustrate the heterodoxy that has persisted in Indian traditions for last three thousand years, and the role that skepticism and reasoning have played in them. Sen repeatedly recalls the tolerant edicts of Asoka, and Akbar’s decidedly multicultural pursuits; he also quotes from classical texts to make his point. Even the Vedas, he writes, have verses that are deeply doubtful and skeptical their own explanation of the creation of the world:
“Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who knows whence it has arisen?
When this creation has arisen – perhaps it has formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.”
A good part of Sen’s motivation for his essays seems to stem the urge to correct “exoticist” and excessively spiritual perceptions of the history and religions of South Asia that exist in the West and that are also influential in the way the people of the Indian subcontinent view themselves. And Sen’s point also seems to be that the argumentative tradition needs to be better appreciated and effectively used to correct the sharp inequities – pertaining to class, caste, gender – prevalent today.

The essays are written in a tone that is “benignly professorial” – as Pankaj Mishra in his review of the book for the Outlook magazine describes it – but the academic solemnity of his writing seamlessly transforms itself, when the occasion demands, into something sharp and ironic. For instance, Sen notes in one of his well-researched articles on types of gender inequities (Women and Men) that in the 1970s the much-used Handbook for Human Nutrition Requirement, drafted by a high level expert committee from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), chose to classify household work as a ‘sedentary activity’. Sen’s contempt at this classification is evident in his own assessment: “It was hard not to think that the lack of experience of household work on the part of the patrician members of that august committee might have had a role in the remarkable diagnosis that household work was ‘sedentary’.”