CS Bhagya

Writing Portfolio. Mostly.

Cyborg Hyper-masculinity: Reading the Super-Male in Robot (2010) and Ra.One (2011)

This scholarly paper appeared in a special feature on Indian Science Fiction in the literary journal Muse India, Issue 61 May-June 2015.

In one awkwardly crass, albeit puerilely humorous moment, in the film Ra.One an almost defeated G-One (Shahrukh Khan), in the final showdown with Ra.One (Arjun Rampal), is instructed by Ra.One’s real-life child-nemesis Lucifer to lunge out at Ra.One’s “main part”. G.One, in his short, but colourful romp around the real world after his ejection from the virtual, having earlier responded to similar instructions to fulfilling effect in scuffles with petty criminals, is quite surprised when the same death blow falls flat in this occasion. After a long, uncomfortable pause, Ra.One stares at G.One’s face and enquires in a tight voice, “What are you doing G.One?” G.One, spluttering and abashed, replies, “I… don’t know.” The root of the matter –although quickly elided in the scene – is the fact that, unlike the real-life people that G-One was encountering outside of his game world, Ra.One does not possess a penis – a fail-safe last resort target in a physical brawl, his “main part”. This “main part” (or lack thereof) seems to form an inadvertently emphatic, although not explicitly stated, and certainly not highly unlikely, raison d’être of two Indian science-fiction films, S. Shankar’s Enthiran (Robot)i and Anubhav Sinha’s Ra.One – the former released in 2010 and the latter, 2011. In this paper I will be attempting to delineate the hyper-masculine contour of the cyborg body represented in the two films, and will examine how the socio-cultural milieu within which they have been pitched impacts and configures their morphological as well as psychosocial structure.

Shankar’s Enthiran has the brilliant scientist Vaseegaran working late hours strenuously to produce the multi-tasking, multi-powered cutting-edge technological innovation, an android robot, named Chitti. This robot, originally conceived as a mass-produced soldier-in-arms to be deployed at large in the Indian Army after sufficient testing and approval, is to be signalled ahead by the Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Institute. At the helm of the institute is Vaseegaran’s erstwhile mentor and arch-rival, Bohra, who envies Vaseegaran’s success in manufacturing a fully functional advanced android robot, highly proficient in a vast range of human/computational activities, accomplishing each task with flair and perfection, while his own attempt at the same has produced a rickety machine man with a stuttering gait which persists, to his great frustration, in failing miserably at assigned tasks. Chitti also forms the bone of contention between Vaseegaran (Rajnikanth) and his beloved Sana (Aishwarya Rai) who harps on about Vasee’s neglect of their relationship owing to his preoccupation with his work. Fully formed, Chitti, created in the image of Vasee then starts to appeal to Sana as he fills the spaces left absent by Vaseegaran, to the extent that, to his horror – the latter starts quickly realising – he slowly starts altogether displacing Vasee.

Anubhav Sinha’s Ra.One, on the other hand, is set in London. Although, as opposed to Enthiran set in Chennai – either as homage to the preceding sci-fi blockbuster, or rather, as a caricature of the same – it portrays a Tamil diaspora, with Shahrukh in the role of Shekhar Subramanium, a game designer in the process of creating a new game in a last bid attempt to save his company from its dying throes, as well as to impress his son who seems to detest his every move. He ends up conceptualising a game in which the antagonist is by far more powerful and alluring than the protagonist, as per Prateek’s preference. But this tryst with the cult of the anti-hero proves far more treacherous than anticipated.

Somehow, the program he has used to design Ra.One starts exhibiting strange signs of animation, begins to improvise without external programmers inserting new codes and instructions, and, finally, by exploiting a new technology that’s being developed in the laboratory simultaneously, he coalesces into an actual entity in the human world, in pursuit of Lucifer (Prateek’s gameworld alter-ego) who abandoned the game mid-way. What follows is a large-scale massacre in the wake of Ra.One chasing Prateek, leaving Akashi – Shekhar’s Chinese colleague, who first noticed Ra.One’s unusual behaviour – as well as Shekhar dead. Devastated, Shekhar’s wife Sonia (Kareena Kapoor) decides to move back to Bombay with Prateek. Now repentant at having contemptuously rejected Shekhar’s gestures of affection before his death, Prateek refuses to be unfaithful to his father’s memory, and trusting that Shekhar would have built in a defence mechanism to counter such a scenario, succeeds in summoning G.One, the protagonist of the game (made in the image of Shekhar) to life à la Ra.One.

The cyborg figure in both films, Chitti in Enthiran and, at least G.One in Ra.One are structurally similar in that, both are created and offered as potential remedies, Chitti as a warrior who can be entrusted with safeguarding the nation, while G.One as a defence against Ra.One, as a palliative to the destruction wreaked by Ra.One. The cyborg figure, as demonstrated by both G.One and Chitti, are manufactured as amalgamations of the partially human and the mechanical. As Donna Haraway succinctly observes in ‘The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,’

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction… The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation (Haraway 1991: Web).

Although Haraway, here, is speaking in another context – her use of the cyborg body engenders an emancipatory model from the gender binary that generates deep-rooted forms of entrenched gender prejudices, the cyborg as formulated by the two films here, isn’t tremendously removed from a context of material social relations, in fact it is firmly situated within the cultural milieu which exemplifies the social relationships extant within the same context and precipitates a solution to an inadequacy sensed in the same set of social relations as represented by the central characters. While Haraway’s cyborg is unmarked by the virulent processes of identity politics – and this lack of legible recognition and assimilation into the grid of a gender matrix is what produces its subversive potency – the cyborgs presented within the two films are anything but approximating the same politics combative of the status quo. Haraway’s cyborg

is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-Oedipal symbioses, unalienated labour, or seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity. […] the cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence (Haraway 1991: Web).

The utopian cyborg, which forms a liberating telos to a historical continuity marked by violence and oppression, can be then construed to be concretely presented within the present as thus a hybrid of “both [a utopian]ii imagination and material reality” (Haraway 1991: Web). But, here, when set up within a temporal gradient of the past, present and the future, while on one hand, the cyborg is a manifestation into the present of a postulated future, the cyborg is also simultaneously a crystallisation of the receded past in the present, manifested as a compensatory prosthetic to a sensed inadequacy in the past channelled into the present and remedied. But, the cyborg here, does not exist as a diffuse remedy to a macrocosmic social reality which is contained within the past generally, but the cyborg is, instead, a tangible, structured response. In the two films, both Chitti and G.One are therapeutic extensions to their counterparts, therapeutic extensions to their own creators. And in both cases, they are highly gendered alter-egos, antidotes, in fact, to less than desirable quotidian masculinities. Chitti fills the vacuum in Sana’s life which was supposed to be rightfully occupied by Vaseegaran, and G.One, in turn fills the vacuum left by Shekhar after his death. Both Chitti and G.One are masculine prosthetics, extreme versions of masculinity that aim to counteract the diminished tenor of the same in Vaseegaran and Shekhar. Vaseegaran and Shekhar, although fulfilling one possibly desirable convention of masculinity, that of the thinker (an epitome of intellect which configures the gender binary with the male as a claimant to the intellect and the woman as indebted to the body owing to her ideologically naturalised function as an innate nurturer on account of being the childbearer), are still incomplete men. Furthermore, both are again versions of yet another male stereotype of excellence in mathematical, technical skills – that thick-glassed, pimply-faced geek always glued to his computer ideating, this time graduated from the ignored adolescent to a desired adult male by dint of the direct connections of his erstwhile indulged “obsession” to a full-fledged career siphoning in great amounts of capital to the home, in turn “scoring” the most beautiful, desirable women, and firmly sealing the family unit. But, some of the earlier stigma remains, as it so appears, neither Vaseegaran nor Shekhar can declare himself to be “a Man” with a capital M and swagger, until they prove their mettle as guardians of their women.

The patriarchal, hetero-normative nature of the society that they belong to, and microcosmically illustrate in their personal lives, is patently evident in the roles performed by Chitti and G.One. Chitti is the more powerful, more dedicated alternative to Vaseegaran for Sana, who saves her from several confrontations from the local gangs, too many of them sexual assaults bordering on rape. G.One on the other hand, while he mostly saves Sonia and Prateek from the threatening clutches of Ra.One, other minor fracas ensue with local rowdies again, where Sonia is rescued and not so subtly informed of, firstly, his indispensability as a male partner and saviour, as well as, consequently, her fragility as a woman if bereft of his reassuring presence. Needless to say, the masculinities expressed by both Chitti and G.One are extreme, and repellently regressive versions which find manifestation as oppositional to and because of the relegation of their female counterparts to passive roles who are rendered into custodians of culture and chastity which behoves Chitti and G.One to safeguard at all costs. The masculinity performed here, needs to be firmly contextualised and juxtaposed each with respect to their alter-egos. If Chitti and G.One perform hypermasculinities of the order delineated, the excess in masculinity can be construed a technologically bolstered prosthetic, but the masculinity performed by Vaseegaran and Shekhar are masculinity as prosthetic nonetheless, since masculinity itself needs to be deconstructed as a “prosthetic reality – a ‘prefixing’ of the rules of gender and sexuality; an appendix or addition, that willy-nilly, supplements and suspends a “lack-in-being,” (Bhabha 1995: 57) as Homi Bhabha puts it in his piece, ‘Are you a man or a mouse?’ The construction of masculinity in the two films is uncomplicatedly binaristic and polarised, and unfolds in as a straightforward process of social conditioning, the construction of masculinity here that can be parsed into – if examining the social processes undergirding its form – a set of recognisable, dominant traits. Anne Fausto-Sterling, writing in ‘How to Build a Man,’ notes that to bring a performance of masculinity to fruition,

To begin with, normally developing little boys must be active and willing to push one another around: maleness and aggression go together. Eventually, little boys become socialised into appropriate adult behaviour, which includes heterosexual fantasy and activity. Adolescent boys do not dream of marriage, but of careers and a professional future. A healthy adolescent girl, in contrast, must fantasise about falling in love, marrying, and raising children (Fausto-Sterling 1995: 132).

Moreover, Fausto-Sterling writes, “Of course, we know already that for men the true mark of heterosexuality involves vaginal penetration with the penis. Other activities, even if they are with a woman, do not really count” (Fausto-Sterling 1995: 132). Masculinity as a prosthetic reality that is fabricated in order to mask, through excess, an underlying lack, can be interpreted in broadly two ways in Ra.One and Robot. Chitti and G.One as an enunciation of a desired version of alternate to Vaseegaran and Shekhar, to balance out the former’s lack of attention to Sana and lack of sheer physical prowess that fortifies the woman who will go on to lay the foundation for the family subsequently, while in the latter, Shekhar’s less than enchanting performance of a father figure who fails to be Prateek’s hero and role model. The locus of power, the phallus, here, is absent in both Vaseegaran and Shekhar, men who can’t swoop to the rescue of the family structure at the moment of need – here, the family structure is metonymically represented by Sana, Sonia and Prateek – but is relocated into the figures of Chitti and G.One, who exude raw power and are invincible, almost.

The caveat to their invincibility significantly conditions the limits to the masculinity embodied by the two cyborgs. The phallus, the signifier of power here seems to shift restlessly between the bodies of the different men; although Chitti and G.One are created to be reserves of physical and social power the predominance of which gets firmly reinforced and amplified when they are in the vicinity of the female leads doubly reiterating their prowess as little more than aggressive accounts of one particular type of masculinity, their masculinity is definitively undercut by the absence of the anatomical locus construed to be the original marker of the phallus in the male body – the penis. Far more significant than the diffusion of excess masculinity all over the male body constructed in the form of the cyborg, the inexorable and mandatorily masculine stipulation in order to validate masculinity is the presence of the penis which forms the bone of contention with Chitti and G.One. Chitti’s perpetual grouse is his lurking suspicion that Sana’s refusal to accept him as his lover hinges on this lack, while the same lack forms the butt of several homoerotic-verging-on-homophobic jokes in Ra.One. Thus, the instances of excessive masculinity, taking both the cases into account, is firstly assembled as a fragmentary ensemble of machine, body and personality corresponding to the male protagonist in each film – a lack identified in Vaseegaran and Shekhar; secondly, the excessive masculine prosthetic of the cyborgs in both film can be read as an explosive disguising of the central lack of the masculine anatomical phallic signifier, the penis. In fact, the elaborate ensemble that forms the morphology of the cyborg can, furthering the hermeneutic stride, be interpreted as a sophisticated, highly intricate fashioning of a fetishised masculinity. Freud’s definition of the fetish is relevant in this context.

Freud, in the 1927 piece ‘Fetishism’ delineates the process by which fetish formation occurs. Defined as a “a substitute for the penis” (Freud 1956: 152) the fetish is the casting into (often, erotic) privilege of an object as a substitute for not just any penis but a special kind of penis, which is the mother’s penis which the child originally assumed existed, but the subsequent discovery of its absence creates the source of the fear of castration. The child, according to Freud “‘scotomizes’ his perception of the lack of the penis” (Freud 1956: 153), and this disavowal of the lack of the penis manifests as the erasure of the repudiation by substitution of another object on/part of the female body – usually inanimate, but in instances fragmented body parts transformed into the fetish as well – in place of the penis, and imbued with the phallic signifier, thus fetishised. Although a feminist critique of the notion of fetishism could take issue with Freud’s contention that the boy naturally assumes that the mother was originally picturised by the boy in the sense of the same male “completion” denoted by the presence of the penis and rendered lacking in contrast, the process of substitution of power loci in the formation of the fetish provided by the framework is nevertheless interesting and productive.

The cyborg body’s excessively masculine prosthesis can then be reinterpreted as a surfeit generated by the trauma of the lack that gets sublimated into the masculinised body of the fetishised cyborg. Amanda Fernbach writes in her piece, ‘The Fetishisation of Masculinity in Science Fiction: The Cyborg and the Console Cowboy,’ that, such a cyborg body can be read as a technofetish in the vein of one of the earliest cyborg warriors in science-fiction cinema, the Terminator, the features of which can be extrapolated to both Chitti and G.One. “Ordinary masculinity lacks and the technological Terminator represents a fetishised, idealised masculinity that is a desirable alternative” (Fernbach 2000: 237). The configuration of the cyborg as a composite of technoparts is also revealing, in that,

the very excess of the filmic cyborg’s masculinity also suggests a fetishistic fantasy in which the technoparts acknowledge the very lack they also mask. More suggests less, the piling up of phallic technofetishes implies that a male anxiety is being masked. This anxiety arises from the partial nature of real bodies, the incomplete, arbitrary nature of the flesh […] The male cyborg is himself the site of fetishisation, where male lack is disavowed through the magic of the technopart (Fernbach 2000: 239).

Both Robot and Ra.One derive hugely from the Terminator films; regions of contact are wide, starting from the similarity of the cyborg figures Chitti, G.One and Ra.One in especially the first two Terminator films, to their remarkably similar mission to save one particular chosen woman/family in question. Chitti’s development into an antagonistic cyborg after Bohra rewrites his neural schema, coding in the same proportion of destructive tendencies compared to his earlier creative avatar, makes him remarkably akin to the destructive Terminator in the first film, T-800, who is sent back from the future to destroy Sarah Connor before she gives birth to John Connor. Visually as well, the composition of Chitti, with his fleshy exterior tearing off to reveal a metallic skeleton, red pinpricks for eyes, and especially, his revival after Vaseegaran dismembers him and he’s left abandoned in a garbage dump on the outskirts of the city – his sinister metallic arm shooting out of the debris – is again, a quote straight out of theTerminator films. G.One on the other hand is a rehash of the T-800 Terminator deployed by the future John Connor to save his younger self from the advanced T-1000: Prateek is a poor imitation of this younger John who G.One escapes the peripheries of the virtual world to save.

While Chitti and G.One are reiterations of desired masculinity compared to Vaseegaran and Shekhar, they are, in spite of everything still redundant vis-á-vis the social matrix into which they are introduced precisely because their mechanical character is irreconcilably at odds with the familial, reproductive impetus behind the structure, but also because the society is ineluctably anthropocentric. Sana, when wooed by Chitti, refuses it not on the count that he may be unable to satisfy her sexually or due his impotence, but, because, as she insists, the coming together of a human and machine is against nature. G.One’s is a more humble counterpoint, where he is already aware that he doesn’t belong to the human world and the onus placed on him to carry back the last remnants of Ra.One to his own universe is but a flimsy ruse to protect the anthropocentric condition. Ra.One and antagonist Chitti, thus become warnings against this mechanical liberator ushering in the future, as idealised masculinities gone wrong – the message implicit appears to be that idealised masculinity is only desirable insofar as it can be tempered by “feelings” and “emotions” and acculturation (as demonstrated by the long periods of subjecting both Chitti and G.One to the practise and acquisition of socio-cultural values), but must be, finally resisted because of the ever immanent threat of the same turning monstrous.

The techno-fetishised hypermasculine cyborg is liable to corrupt quickly, as witnessed in Chitti’s turning, and as demonstrated through the very nature of Ra.One. The promise of invincibility is rendered deceptive, and it is fragility and fallibility that decidedly govern the borders of being human. Both Chitti and G.One are products that try to imaginatively rocket out of their socio-cultural milieus on the engine of technological enhancement, but their limitations are shaped by the values disseminated by the same cultural confines. More importantly, the definitions of acculturation, alarmingly, but obviously for the patriarchal societies they both portray, are predicated upon the policing of the female body. Chitti commits an unforgivable cultural gaffe when he dares to save a naked woman from a fire and brings her out into the public gaze without bothering to cover her with clothes and thus irreversibly violates her modesty; G.One (in a supposedly hilarious moment) keeps placing his hands on Sonia’s breasts by accident and has to be taught that the woman’s body is out of bounds for anybody except a male sanctioned to cross the threshold after being legitimised by the institution of marriage.

By the end of both films, Chitti and G.One (as well as Ra.One) are neatly removed from the narratives to emphatically re-establish the sanctity of the anthropocentric Indian society. Both Chitti and G.One are perfect versions of Indian men; more parochially, Hindu men who have swallowed the scriptures whole – Chitti and G.One both recite excerpts from the Vedas/the Gita to validate their viewpoints, and, needless to say Ra.One and G.One are modelled on the Ram/Raavan rivalry from the Ramayana. The final elision of the cyborg might lead one to believe the implication to be one countering the hegemony of masculinity, but the elision of hypermasculinity performs the sly function, instead, of reinforcing normative cultural masculinities, and re-enshrines the supremacy of the heteronormative family unit that needs to be protected at all costs in order to continually rejuvenate, macrocosmically, a highly parochial, nationalisticiii, patriarchal society.

Bibliography

  • Bhabha, Homi K. 1995. ‘Are You a Man or a Mouse?’ in Constructing Masculinity. Ed. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis and Simon Watson. New York: Routledge.
  • Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 1995. ‘How to Build a Man’ in Constructing Masculinity. Ed. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis and Simon Watson. New York: Routledge.
  • Fernbach, Amanda. 2015. ‘The Fetishization of Masculinity in Science Fiction: The Cyborg and the Console Cowboy’ in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 27, No.2. (Jul 2000). 234-255. JSTOR. Web. Date of Access – 28thMarch.
  • Freud, Sigmund. 1956. ‘Fetishism’ (Trans. J. Strachey) in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press. Web. Date of Access – 28th March.
  • Haraway, Donna. ‘The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.’ The European Graduate School. Web. Date of access – 31st March 2015.
  • Ra.One. Dir. Anubhav Sinha. Perf. Shahrukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Arjun Rampal. Red Chillies Entertainment, 2011. Film.
  • Robot (Enthiran). Dir. S. Shankar. Perf. Rajnikanth, Aishwarya Rai. Sun Pictures, 2010. Film.
  • The Terminator (Franchise). Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Orion Pictures, Tri-Star Pictures, 1984–1991. Film.

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i This paper will be referring to the Hindi dub of the film, Robot, released the same year, not the Tamil original.
ii Insertion mine.
iii Not merely, as elaborated the national project being fashioned as overtly masculine and Hindu, but the national project firmly defining itself against other nations, a case in point here – Ra.One’s first avatar as the demonized Chinese colleague Akashi, who is killed by the game Ra.One in order to be able to impersonate him in the real world. Secondly, the Ra.One-Akashi cyborg who goes on a killing spree in pursuit of Prateek, on returning to Akashi’s family home, kills Akashi’s mother crudely proclaiming, “I don’t like Chinese.”

 

Online Literary Journals in India

“There aren’t too many literary journals around in India these days, especially in English – off the top of my head, only the Little Magazine and the Sahitya Akademi’s journal come to mind,” says Rahul Soni, one of the founders of Pratilipi, a multilingual, online literary journal based in India. True, the little magazine tradition in India isn’t new – one famous name to grow out of it, poet Arun Kolatkar, was first published in several small, perhaps now obscure, magazines in the 1970s. But it’s also true that an interested reader now would be hard-pressed to find magazines which dedicatedly tap into the pulse of contemporary writing in India – definitely not with ease – browsing through magazine stalls or the shelves of a neighborhood bookstore. Is the literary journal dying a slow but inevitable death? Hardly, scoff the growing number of journals that have been leading almost secret lives on the Internet: they have merely shifted locations. A simple Google search for names like Pratilipi, Muse India, Kritya, Pyrta, Out of Print, Almost Island, Coldnoon and The Four Quarters Magazine – all online literary journals steadily publishing new voices for several years now – reveals a profusion of multi-genre contemporary writing from across the country, just one click away.

While their print counterparts may be weighed down by restrictions placed by availability of investments, financial viability, limits of geography, marketing and distribution, online journals are more cost-effective and resolve the question of accessibility, at least, instantly. Pioneers in the field, literary journals Muse India and Kritya, were launched in 2005 when avenues to showcase new writing were rare. “We all felt that time was ripe to launch a web journal that would showcase Indian literature – writing in English as well as translations from all regional literatures – to a pan Indian and a global readership on the net,” says GSP Rao, Managing Editor of Muse India. Since its inception, Muse India has acquired a membership base of 5500 from over 40 countries, mostly Indians living here and elsewhere, and their website gets around 10,000 visits per month.

Muse India and most other e-journals try to publish a balance of fiction, poetry, criticism and translations, indulging an occasional theme-based issue, but for journals like Kritya and Coldnoon, theme is all-pervasive. Kritya, the first bilingual online literary journal dedicated purely to poetry, was started by Kerala-based Rati Saxena, who felt that poetry was being seriously neglected in mainstream publishing. Saxena, although lenient with the submission criteria that she employs, is impatient with writing that is too derivative. “One must read Mirabai, but simply imitating her does not make you an authentic voice,” she says. “It’s difficult to define, but poetry is something that’s contemporary to you, a strange and private thing.”

While their print counterparts may be weighed down by restrictions placed by availability of investments, financial viability, limits of geography, marketing and distribution, online journals are more cost-effective and resolve the question of accessibility, at least, instantly.
Arup K. Chatterjee’s Coldnoon, on the other hand, is a quarterly of travel poetics which aims to chart out “a coherent and voluminous poetics of travel”. He publishes non-fiction and criticism along with poetry on travel. “I look for obedience to the guidelines first,” he stresses, adding that it doesn’t necessarily limit the material he considers: he enjoys reading of metaphorical journeys as well, even if between “parts of the human body, the universe, mechanical parts of gadgets, the primary movement of electrons”. The idea is to look for travel motifs. “Some do it exactly, some abstractly,” he says. Coldnoon was launched recently, in September 2011, and started out with a 250-350 hits every day, but in six months it had doubled, en-route to a present statistic of 900-1000 hits and around 100 unique visitors per day. This is a pattern that most other journals mirror, the number of visitors peaking at the launch of a new issue and for some weeks after.

Often funded by the founders or, in some cases, sponsors or literary trusts involved in unearthing new literary talent and providing a forum for good writing, each journal has its own intimate story of origin. While Chatterjee’s journal began on a very personal and philosophical note – an epiphany during a train journey, author Janice Pariat’s Pyrta (“a journal of poetry and other things”), launched in June 2010, materialised after she’d moved back to Shillong after many years in Delhi. On meeting a dedicated group of writers and poets, both well-established and hesitant young voices, she decided she wanted Pyrta to be a space which would showcase their work alongside others from the rest of the country and the world. “They say that writers write the books they want to read. I started Pyrta because it’s the kind of literary journal that I wanted to see – beautiful text, images, sketches and artwork within a clean and elegant setting,” says Pariat, adding with a touch of pride that, apart from its content, Pyrta has also been praised for its slick, stylish look.

Journals like Out of Print(above), Pratilipi(below) and Pyrta(below) have been publishing new voices for several years now
Tagged “the short story on line”, Out of Print, whose first issue came out in September 2010, took shape when founding editor Indira Chandrasekhar, trying to place her own fiction, found that her work was being published only in literary magazines outside India. “The Indian voice in English discovers new strength, direction and relevance in the context of the contemporary climate of the subcontinent,” opines Chandrasekhar, “and the more platforms there are for this writing, the better.” Out of Print, like almost every other e-journal, despite the desire to, cannot afford to pay their writers. Chandrasekhar hopes the situation will soon change with the help of sponsors.

“Writers get noticed for good writing. And I’d consider both online and print attention to my work equally honorable and desirable,” says poet and novelist Nabina Das, who recently guest-edited the second issue of The Four Quarters magazine, a literary quarterly published from northeast India. Launched in 2011, TFQM, has rolling submissions all year round – work that is accepted but cannot find space in one issue is rolled over to the next issue. “But the notion that it’s easier to get published in an online journal is not correct,” she says.

Online literary journals may promise to accommodate new voices, but they are by no means less rigorous in their editing format than print publishers. Almost Island, for instance, publishing since 2006, champions only work that is “serious, daring, unique and unafraid to be strange or take risks”. They tend to have a fewer number of contributors to each issue, but feature a substantial selection from each contributor. By the time founding editor Sharmistha Mohanty and co-editor Vivek Narayanan decide to feature an author, they often need to be completely familiar with the author’s work and believe in it deeply. “I regularly read whole manuscripts, several dozen or even hundreds of pages of work by that writer, before making a selection of fifteen to twenty pages or more,” reveals Narayanan. “In this way we try to make a place for more serious, unique writers, writers you have to slowly teach yourself how to read, rather than rookies or one-hit wonders.”

Editors from publishing firms scouting for talent find literary journals an obvious place to look for interesting writing precisely for their editing standards – editors from these journals are looking for good work too, and the first process of selection has already taken place. “In many cases, writers themselves reach out because they’re confident about approaching publishers, having acquired a certain readership,” says Karthika V.K, Editor-in-chief, Harper Collins India. “But yes, we do keep track of journals.” If they spot an exceptional new voice, it may result in a publishing contract, like it did for Kuzhali Manickavel, author of Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. Manickavel was spotted by Rakesh Khanna – editor of the Chennai-based independent publishing house Blaft – on international online literary journals like SmokeLong Quarterly and DesiLit.

Author Mridula Koshy also published in several international online literary journals before her short story collection If It Is Sweet appeared in print. Writing in 2005, she was aware that the culture of reading at cafés to a live audience barely existed in Delhi, and publishing a book wasn’t something she anticipated would happen soon. But the lack of literary journals – online or print – at that time in India meant that the journals she submitted to were mostly North American. With online journals national boundaries don’t really matter, and publishers do pay attention to these journals, she acknowledges. “If nothing else, you get to send in your manuscript to a publisher or agent with a cover letter that has something beyond your name and return address – it has your previously published credits.” Journals, for Koshy, are important spaces which enable a writer to experiment, more so than established publishing routes, where a writer cannot always try out ideas that break new ground. “I’m not talking so much here about political ground, but literary. New ideas about how a story might be told, structurally, in terms of language it employs, need the experimental outlook of literary journals.”

Diversity – of voices, languages and writers – seems to be the buzzword for these journals. Pratilipi, for instance, was launched in 2008 to address a perceptible lack of space for writing in translation across the panoply of languages in Indian writing, say founders Rahul Soni, Giriraj Kiradoo and Shiv Kumar Gandhi. “We aimed at creating a multilingual, multiscript magazine that would provide a space for conversation and debate between diverse sorts of writing and writers,” explains Soni. Pratilipi, which has had over two lakh visitors since it began, boasts of an editorial team with consultants for a staggering array of languages ranging from English, Hindi, Bengali to Norwegian, Spanish and Catalan.

Since the readership circles of various literary journals overlaps considerably, as a side-effect of the market one may run across familiar writers everywhere, says Soni. While Pratilipi tries to avoid such “coterie-ization” through their multilingual approach, others circumvent it by consciously selecting a balance of well-known names and new writers to publish in their issues. Hugely optimistic for the future, Soni, for one, is certain that online journals on the rise are well and truly on the way to replacing print journals. “In the US, the magazine publishing trend coincided with the rise of a generation of new, astonishingly talented communities of writers,” he says. “We have not arrived at that synchronicity yet, but I get the feeling that we are on the cusp of something similar.”

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This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian on 4th May 2013. 

On The Waves

 

The Waves:  Woolf’s aesthetic of the private-political

What is political? A clearly defined, verifiable public act which can be held against recorded evidence, clarified and brought to empirical justice? Or is the originary point of the political more interior, located in the private individual? Discussions and debates which revolve around how the political gets conceptualised have been the substance of art and literature historically, devolving the issue sometimes as one denomination among others, but at other times – prominently when literary texts have to stand accountable to paradigm-altering cultural movements – foregrounding the political.

Virginia’s Woolf’s The Waves is a case in point. Considered Woolf’s most experimental work, The Waves challenges notions of the political as an exclusively socio-historical phenomenon, synchronously positing the political as an aesthetic category, hence making it possible to trace how literary experiment may be directly affiliated to a progressive political vision.

Structured around the lives of six friends, Jinny, Neville, Bernard, Louis, Rhoda and Susan, The Waves renders six lives intertwined, poignantly describing each articulated self as a refracted image of another, or of all others. In this closed world, identities are shaped and distorted by the characters’ movements which segue in and out of – and are conditioned coevally by – the society and the cityscape. Placed on a site outside the line of narrative, the seventh character Percival is the binding strand that holds together the six friends and their lives.

British novelist Jeanette Winterson, in her essay “A Veil of Words”, remarks that a geometric pattern emerges out of Woolf’s portrayal of her characters. “Susan, Jinny, Rhoda, Louis, Neville, Bernard,” for Winterson, are, “A hexagon of words. Six shades and six angles that form a crystal around the silent figure of Percival who stands perpendicular to the plane.” (86) Percival is at once inextricably embedded in the narrative, but also configures it only as an absence. One way to understand Percival’s character would be to regard him as something of a diametrical opposite to Iago’s character in Othello. Iago forms the focal point of the play; he is a socket from where the story originates, a source of language. He governs how the trajectory of action unravels in Othello as the other characters are reined into an overarching epistemology and narrative that Iago is continually in the process of creating and constructing. But Percival is a narrative void, a locus where the voices of the other six characters converge. He is the point beyond language.

Neville observes, “That is Percival, lounging on the cushions, monolithic, in giant repose. No, it is only one of his satellites, imitating his monolithic, his giant repose. He alone is unconscious of their tricks, and when he catches them at it he buffets them good-humouredly with a blow of his paw.” (Woolf 52) Percival is imitated but inimical, and it is in Percival’s character that Woolf contests claims of language, literature and questions of existence. Is it possible for language to contain the world it describes? For people to exist beyond the realm of mutual perception? For literature to remain unremittingly liable to an external, objective reality?

Georg Lukács, in his seminal essay, “Realism in the Balance”, questions whether, “’the closed integration’, the ‘totality’ of the capitalist system, of bourgeois society, with its unity of economics and ideology, really form an objective whole, independent of consciousness.” (31) For Lukács, Marx’s postulation that “The relations of production of every society form a whole,” provides the answer. In extension, for Lukács, “economic reality is a totality in itself subject to historical change.” (31) Thus, situated against a Marxist elucidation of a phenomenological world which frames the individual in an unequivocal bind, Expressionist endeavours to suggest a subjective engendering of reality were an inevitable failure.

Lukács’ vehement objections to movements like Expressionism and Surrealism are founded in a belief that they deny that “literature has any reference to objective reality.” (33) Although conceding that, “Writing from their own experience, they have often succeeded in developing a consistent and interesting mode of expression, a style of their own, in fact,” Lukács ultimately dismisses them because they fail in the context of social reality, “as it never rises above the level of immediacy, either intellectually or artistically.” (37)

Published in 1931, Woolf’s The Waves embodies queries which the Expressionists, more emblematically, the Modernist movement was grappling with. Along with writers like James Joyce and TS Eliot, among others, Woolf responds to accusations of disloyalty to the real and the political by proposing an alternate politics, one conceived entirely within the private, the aesthetic.

The Waves deliberates over the borders of the individual and the private when juxtaposed against the social and the public. Each of its characters epitomize different traits, set at a variance from the others but not completely removed, hence each character is simultaneously singular and multiple. Bernard is the storyteller for whom, “Images breed instantly. [He is] embarrassed by his own fertility. [He] could describe every chair, table, luncher here copiously, freely. [His] mind hums hither and thither with its veil of words for everything.” (Woolf 76) Neville, on the other hand, is the poet, desires other men’s affections, and the worst affected at Percival’s death as it also culminates a life-long unrequited love affair.

The relationship between the three female characters is more complex – it is in their depiction that Woolf further develops the idea that reciprocated identity conflates, but also deforms. The confident, exuberantly charming society beauty Jinny is a cause of Susan and Rhoda’s insecurities, resulting in extreme reactions in both. Jinny, who effortlessly yields to the demands of social performance, is a metonymical representation of everything Susan resents – the looming artifice of the cityscape, its immense machinery and facades – and she resists from being completely subsumed by retreating to the pastoral, the utterly domestic. “I hate linoleum,” she says, in one of her longer soliloquies. “I shall have children; I shall have maids in aprons; men with pitchforks; a kitchen where they bring the ailing lambs to warm in baskets, where the hams hang and the onions glisten. I shall be like my mother, silent in a blue apron locking up the cupboards.” (Woolf 63)

Rhoda’s quandary, though, is an existential one. From childhood, she has moved from person to person, place to place, assuming facets of other people’s personalities. Rhoda explicitly illustrates Woolf’s investigations into the nature of identity: whether the self is always born in the encounter of one consciousness with another, and as a specific response to specific geographies; whether the self too – equivalent to the multitudinous proliferation of objects in a shop window – is an artefact. But Woolf’s characters, even at their most desperate, are pitiable, redeemed by the transcendent ordinary and rejuvenated in a sense of community. Although Rhoda laments, “There is no single scent, no single body for me to follow. And I have no face.” (Woolf 85) she always returns to her friends despite the fact that doing so is almost unbearable. Susan reflects, “She dreads us, she despises us, yet comes cringing to our sides because for all our cruelty there is always some name, some face, which sheds a radiance, which lights up her pavements and makes it possible for her to replenish her dreams.” (Woolf 78)

While the Jinny, Rhoda, Susan, Neville and Bernard’s battles are firmly rooted within a terrain markedly English, Louis, who is the immigrant, has to contend with a greater crisis of identity – questions of national heritage, tradition and belonging haunt him. In a sense, the fact that his father was a banker – as opposed to the more traditional occupations of his friends’ parents – and his Australian accent, betrays his status as an outsider at any social encounter and unmoors him from his peers and the larger English society. Even when in school, he is aware, “My father is a banker in Brisbane and I speak with an Australian accent. I will wait and copy Bernard. He is English. They are all English,” (Woolf 10) because of which certain traditional routes of living are shut to him. “I shall envy them their continuance down the safe traditional ways under the shade of old yew trees while I consort with cockneys and clerks, and tap the pavements of the city.” (Woolf 42) With an ancestry which differs vastly from everyone he knows, he can never fully belong to the English society and this contributes to an excruciating sensitivity to the greater narratives of history in his soliloquies. “I have seen women carrying red pitchers to the banks of the Nile,” is Louis’ most reiterated refrain, “Yet I am not included. If I speak, imitating their accent, they prick their ears, waiting for me to speak again, in order that they may place me – if I come from Canada or Australia, I, who desire above all things to be taken to the arms with love, am alien, external.” (Woolf 61)

Divisions between the public and the private, the personal and the political, condition the thematic concerns of The Waves. Liesl Olson, in the essay “Virginia Woolf’s ‘Cotton Wool of Daily Life”, contends that, “The Waves marks Woolf’s on-going struggle with facts. Woolf represents the ordinary as entirely stripped from the external world that facts establish, testing the limits of a material-less world.” (83)

In The Waves, struggles that the characters face and its resolution are concomitant on individual choices which become modes of comprehending the world around. Rhoda’s and Louis’ fantasies of social success may have been actualised in so far as a particular section of a society may be concerned but, ultimately, it is to the self that they have to report and bear witness. “As I bend my head down over the basin, I will let the Russian Empress’s veil flow about my shoulders. The diamonds of the Imperial crown blaze on my forehead,” says Rhoda, but quickly realises that, “This is a thin dream. This is a papery tree.” (Woolf 35) Similarly with Louis, an indicator of a constant, unquenched craving for acceptance is his unswerving ambition directed toward establishing a socially putative, respectable identity. But his success only aids in further dissembling the public and redirecting attention to the private. Louis meditates,

“The maps of our undertakings confront us on the wall. We have laced the world together with our ships. The globe is strung with our lines. I am immensely respectable. All the young ladies in the office acknowledge my entrance. I can dine where I like now, and without vanity may suppose that I shall soon acquire a house in Surrey, two cars and a conservatory and some rare species of melon. But I still return, I still come back to my attic, hang up my hat and resume in solitude that curious attempt which I have made since I brought down my master’s grained oak door. I open a little book. I read one poem. One poem is enough.” (Woolf 132-3)

Woolf’s grand project for The Waves was to achieve a stream-of-consciousness narrative that, by interweaving the lives of six characters, would bring forth a possibility of representing, “the life of anybody”, but, as Olson observes, “she could only replicate the upper-class voices of the working classes.” (Olson 79) Negotiations of gender, patriarchal norms, and chronicles of imperialism – although signified only peripherally in the character of Percival who dies on a colonial quest in India – underlie the normative everyday of Woolf’s writing. But Woolf’s primary focus is precisely this negotiation, how the private, the everyday and the ordinary get conflated in response to an ever-alternating sphere of the public, how the ordinary ultimately triumphs.

Lefebvre’s theory of the everyday, in which the “quotidian is what is humble and solid” is useful in understanding Woolf. As Olson suggests, “The limitlessness of Lefebvre’s everyday becomes its most compelling quality, largely because it locates potentially subversive and political power within almost all facets of human experience.” (Introduction 12)

While, in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf introduces elements of the political in clearly distinguishable terms, embodied in the characters – for instance, Mrs Dalloway herself, who makes a choice to attune herself to a life dedicated to the prosaic private realm (by marrying Richard) and Doris Kilman, a blatantly public political figure – in The Waves, such oppositions are less distinctly visible. On the contrary, one can argue that Woolf, by creating an almost seamless consciousness out of the interlocking narratives of Rhoda, Jinny, Neville, Louis, Susan and Bernard – through extreme literary experiment – augments the stance that perhaps such distinctions are irrelevant. For Woolf, the political does not intercept the private individual by making a separate, public claim on him or her, but forms part of the quotidian. The self, inextricably connected to the world around, has to initiate change within the private realm and transmit that change exponentially to the social matrix to which it is connected – for the political, after all, is also an essentially private act.

Works Cited

Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. London: Vintage, 2004. Print.

Winterson, Jeanette. “A Veil of Words”. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. New York: Vintage

Books, 1997. Print.

Olson, Liesl. Introduction. Modernism and the Ordinary. By Olson. New York: Oxford University Press,

2009. Print.

Olson, Liesl. “Virginia Woolf’s ‘Cotton Wool of Daily Life’”. Modernism and the Ordinary. New York:

Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Lukács, Georg. “Realism in the Balance.” Lukács against Bloch. 28-59. Print.

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This piece was an assignment for a literature class (Modernism). April 2012.

Interview: Maajid Nawaz

In an email interview with CS Bhagya, author Maajid Nawaz discusses themes from his book, including fluid identities and Islam in opposition to Islamism.

 

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Tell us what you think is the dichotomy between Islam/Islamism.
Islamism is not Islam. Islam is a faith. Islamism is a modern political ideology that aspires to enforce any given interpretation of Islam over society by law. Islam started roughly 1,400 years ago. The first Islamist group was founded in 1928 in Egypt. Muslim history is full of power struggles seeking to officially establish one sect over another. However, away from sectarian struggles for dominance, the specific theo-political ambition to codify and enshrine the Muslim moral code — Shari’ah — as law using the power of the State was inspired by post-World War I European fascism. In this sense, Islamism is entirely modern, while Islam is ancient. Islam seeks moral guidance and social justice. Islamism seeks moral totalitarianism and social engineering. Islam seeks to enter the heart and govern the soul. Islamism seeks to enter the State and govern the limbs. Islam is one of the greatest religions of this planet. Islamism is the bastard child of colonialism.

Are you challenging Islamist narratives about Islam, Western narratives about Islam, or both?
The opposite of West is not Islam, but East. Western narratives about Islam include Islamist narratives, and non-Islamist narratives; they include Muslim and non-Muslim voices; they include positive and negative stereotypes, all in the ‘West’. Juxtaposing ‘West’ against Islam sounds as strange to my ears as juxtaposing the ‘East’ with Islam would sound to most. In modern times, and due to the rise of the citizenship model, the ‘West’ is merely a geographic location housing all of these opinions and more. In this debate, it’s better to compare competing phenomena of trans-national ideas than it is to compare geographical locations. A Muslim democrat should stand with a non-Muslim democratic to argue against a Muslim and non-Muslim fascist, and so on.

You have been participating in an anti-extremist conversation through your organisations Quilliam and Khudi. How is your book going to extend the conversation?
My autobiography Radical aims to turn ‘understanding extremism’ — hitherto an academic and policy fetish — into a popular story. Through the art of storytelling, in this case a true story, I’m hoping to be able to capture the imagination of the masses and popularise an understanding of what can go so horribly wrong, why it may do so, and how it can also be fixed. I’ve tried to write it in a way that pulls no punches: a mirror against society and against my own mistakes. I’ve tried to end it on a note of optimism and hope that people can see that there is also a positive way forward for us all. Now all that’s left is for us to achieve the positive together.

What sort of responses to Islam do you hope to evoke through your book?
I hope that people realise through reading Radical that the real conversations we need, as globalised citizens in a new age, are not conversations about Islam versus Christianity, or indeed around any religious theme, but around multiple identities, democratic culture, and transnational values. I hope people see that the real struggle is not between Islam and “the rest” but between democratic culture and undemocratic culture. This struggle is often shrouded in pseudo-religious garb, but underneath all the pious rhetoric and righteous indignation is a lust for power, a search for identity and a flawed response to modernity. My key aim is to discredit the modern ideology of Islamism, and to distinguish it from Islam. Once this is done, I hope to be able to help spark a theological reform conversation within Muslim religious circles about interpretation in a modern age.

What motivated you to transform your experiences into a book?
Putting my life story into a book format had been suggested to me as soon as I went public about my criticism of Islamism back in 2007. But something never felt right, and I hesitated for a long time. In a way I was waiting for closure with Egypt. Mubarak is now held in the same prison I was detained in, except of course he wasn’t tortured, thank God. I feel that the ideas I write about— that it is possible to create a democratic alternative to the old Middle-East conundrum of ‘security versus Islamism’ —have been demonstrated with a vengeance. Though the Arab uprisings eventually came to be hijacked by the same old forces, their initial spark came from liberal, young democratic youth, and it is these youth who are firmly the future.

When did you know you were ready to write a book? How difficult was it to find a voice for the book?
I wasn’t ready, but the timing of the Arab uprisings forced me to take the plunge. Initially I was perfectly happy for my co-writer Tom Bromley to interview me, write up the transcripts and order my story into a coherent piece. However, as we moved forward, both Tom and I realised that to truly engage with the culture of a 15-year-old B-Boy, a 20-year-old Islamist revolutionary and a 34-year-old counter-extremism activist isn’t that easy, for obvious reasons. I needed to genuinely revisit each stage of my life. This was a draining and exhaustive process, not to mention dangerous. Returning to traumatic experiences buried deep inside could have ended very differently, but I’m happy that with Radical at least, it seems to have borne fruit.

Upon completion, was the underlying emotion largely one of relief?
I oddly felt sadder than I had before. I had excavated certain memories, wrestled with them and then forced a voice onto them. Since doing so, these memories have started to argue back with me, and they refuse to go back to sleep. I also felt more of a sense of urgency. Writing Radical reminded me of just how much there is to do, and how little time there is to do it in.

Essex, Egypt, London, Pakistan. How have these diverse geographies affected your identity?
After everything that’s happened in my life, I find myself peculiarly comfortable among Essex wide-boys, hip-hop B-Boys, religious Muslims, Islamist agitators, Western policy experts and statesmen, disillusioned Pakistani youth and Arab revolutionaries. My language switches from colloquial Essex slang, grammar school English, the Egyptian vernacular, modern standard Arabic and anglicised Urdu. I feel enriched by my multiple identities: my very British political liberalism, my Pakistani passion, my African-American music influences, my South Asian heritage, my Arab experience and my Muslim culture and religious journey. Now all I need is a personality!

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This interview appeared in the July 14th issue (no.28) of Tehelka magazine

Interview: Gulzar

He has a Padma Bhushan, a Sahitya Akademi award, an Oscar, a Grammy and innumerable Filmfare statuettes, yet he is humbled by children. His latest offering is a book called Magical Wishes: The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, where his version of the beloved children’s story has been retold in English. In an interview with CS Bhagya, the writer, poet, director, Gulzar refused to discuss his distinguished career arc, choosing instead to highlight the urgent need to revitalise children’s literature in India.

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

What draws you to children’s literature?
One of the reasons I left film direction was my work for children. I may not get a chance later. I wasn’t born with innumerable years and this is what I want to do with the years I have left. In India, we love our children, but we haven’t done enough for them. At least where literature’s concerned, we have only provided books and translations from the West, or adapted texts for them. These are not very good efforts. In fact, it lacks genuine affection and responsibility. You have to protect what you love, but we haven’t done enough to protect our children. We leave a lot of our responsibilities to teachers, maidservants, ayahs. In joint families, grandparents would come forward and take care of children; nanas and nanis, dadas and dadis would tell stories, hum folk songs and perform small mimes for them. Especially now, when parents are working and there are no joint families anymore, parents have to ask themselves if they are satisfied with the extent of their own involvement. What we do is, we make them sit in front of the television and watch Tom and Jerry and other inane shows. Inevitably, the child is becoming more and more lonely.

Has storytelling gone out of fashion?
Earlier children would gather under a Banyan tree where a Panditji would come to narrate stories with morals. After listening for a while, they’d get distracted and start talking to each other, eat little things — one child would be sucking a tamarind, one would be running off to dive into a river for a swim, others would be playing games. But the Panditji wouldn’t mind because the real education was in interacting with nature. One good trend that has started these days is that of interactive play schools — they’re more disciplined and allow children to mingle with each other. But the drawback is that children can’t relate directly with nature anymore. This gap has to be filled. The attitude towards stories and literature needs to change — someone has to tell them that when you present gifts on a birthday or an occasion, you need not just give them eatables and mithai; food for mind is equally important. The nature of our celebrations must change.

In your new book, you are retelling a story that is immensely popular in Bengal. How do you think it’ll reflect with children today?
Simply because these are stories — it entertains them, inspires them and boosts their imagination. That’s why stories have to be told and retold. I chose a story in Bangla because it is one of the richest languages for children’s literature in India, a language which has worked more for them than, perhaps, any other language in the country.

What about other languages and translations?
Two more languages have worked a lot for children —Marathi and Malayalam. Other than these, our major languages, for example, Hindi, is totally blank. There are no children’s writers in Hindi. Those who adapt from Western stories and translate are not writing. Or it’s writing left-handedly, as an afterthought. Children are more intelligent than what’s being written for them. Except in these three languages, there are no writers who write dedicatedly for children. Nobody’s translating from one language to another either. There may be some translations from Bangla, but nothing from Marathi or Malayalam.

Generations of children have grown up reading Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. When do you think the focus will shift to our own writers?
Only when writing for children is taken more seriously. One cannot assume that just because you’re a great writer, you are capable of writing for children. Vijay Tendulkar may be a great dramatist, but don’t expect him to write for children. It’s a different medium, a different skill that you have to learn, which is more difficult than writing for adults. In adult writing, you are writing to communicate with your age group, which is only one age group. When writing for children, you’re not as independent. You have to learn how to talk to a two-year old child and then you have to learn how to write to a six-year old. The languages of a two-year old and a six-year old are different, and when the child grows to nine or 12, the language has changed again. So, you have to learn those stages of language-writing, which is more difficult. It requires you to be specific, question yourself exactly what age-group the story that you’ve written is targeted towards. If you’re an adult writer, the age group question doesn’t arise. Children’s writers think it’s easy to just write for them nonchalantly, with hardly any intelligence, for a Sunday edition or a special issue.

You have written poetry all your life. What kind of poetry do you think is relevant for children?
Even with poetry, we have to indulge children. The kind of poems which we read in textbooks— “Dekho kitney patte hai, jitne hare bhare hai, peele hai aur neele hai aur teele hai aur theele hai” — those kinds of rhymes are so silly. They may learn a few sounds from it, but nothing more. Give them a poem to play with. A poem like “Lakdi ki kaathi, kaathi pe ghoda ghode ghode ki dum pe jo maara hathauda”, on the other hand, instigates their imagination. That’s the kind of poetry that stalwarts like Sukumar Ray wrote, which we have a serious dearth of these days.

When children seem to be spoken to and taught in English, do you think it’s becoming more difficult to direct them to stories in regional languages?
Our country has 28 languages with scripts. Every regional portion of the country writes and has stories to tell. With such a rich background, why squeeze them down to only one language? I’m not denying that English is important, they have to learn the language – it’s the instrument of communication, it connects them internationally. But if they know their mother tongue, if they know the riches of their own language, they’ll find their own medium of expressing their culture, which isn’t necessarily English. Parents teach their children to do namoh, namoh to Kishen, but when it comes to stories and they say “Kishen makkhan churaata hai”, the child doesn’t have a clue what makkhan is. He’ll sit at the dining table and ask you what makkhan is.

What did you read when you were younger?
I don’t know whether I read anything when I younger. I was a bad student. But I used to listen to lots of stories, indulge in all kinds of games. When I was younger, I remember people used to go round about and tell us the same tortoise-and-rabbit stories and songs.

Will you be writing more regularly for children?
There are two more projects in the pipeline — stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba, which I’m redescribing for children. These are popular stories, but they may not immediately become relevant to children and need to be revised to suit their needs. Tagore for children might al so be one of the books I’d be writing next year. We haven’t had poetry like the kind Tagore wrote to narrate to our children.

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This interview appeared in the July 7th issue (no. 27) of Tehelka magazine.

Interview: Suman Sridhar

WHO Mumbai-based Sridhar is a singer, actor, songwriter and producer and one half of the contemporary music duo Sridhar/Thayil. She has appeared on independent albums Violet Samudra and Brown Circles, and sung soundtracks for Hindi films 404and Shaitan.

How has your family contributed to your music?
My mum would trick me into going for music class — alighting the BEST bus last minute, and leaving me to ride to class by myself. A rebel child, I could never study music as a discipline with my mother or any other teacher. However, it percolated into my life at all times. My parents would always be performing, teaching, attending concerts, in jam and recording sessions. I grew up with a 7 am aalap for an alarm.

Jazz, electro-pop and Hindustani classical. How do you fuse them?
Music happens in the silences and spaces between these categories. When musicians create, these genres are irrelevant. Genres are a product of our market-driven economy and record labels needing to slot your music into a shelf.

Who are you as a part of Sridhar/ Thayil? How are you different outside?
My material outside of Sridhar/Thayil tends to be more political and demands the audience to engage. Sridhar/Thayil, however, is deliberately more mainstream in content.

Tell us about your opera-noir.
The Flying Wallas: Opera Noir is a two-person minimalist contemporary opera; a conversation between a ghost and a soprano and the audience. Two lovers belong to the same flying trapeze company. One fails to catch the other, as the latter falls to his death. The opera opens with this death scene and a blood-curdling scream from the soprano. The story is a conversation about guilt, murder, love and loss. We deliberately used contemporary language sung in a classical operatic style; the ghost’s words were spoken in verse. The result was a being of its own — neither opera, nor drama, nor poetry, nor a concert.

How does travelling inspire your work?
Travelling means you wake up in a new place, anonymous, with few belongings, without a ringing phone. It is the natural state of being for a musician — the troubadour.

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This interview appeared in the July 14th issue (no. 28) of Tehelka magazine. 

Interview: Tritha Sinha

WHO Kolkata-born Tritha Sinha juggles three musical outfits – the solo/ acoustic TRITHA, her ethnopunk band Tritha Electric, and her Hindustani trip-hop band SPACE. She shuttles between Delhi, Kolkata and Paris, experimenting with different kinds of music.

 

How has your family influenced your music?
We’re a typical Bengali family – we love eating fish and listening to music. My grandfather wanted a girl in the family to be a singer. When I was five my parents introduced me to an Indian classical music guru. I opted for music over medicine; my parents were persuaded because I was very serious about it. I’ve been supporting myself from the age of 17 doing music. I react almost physically to it, which propels me to sing and compose.

A childhood memory?
I sang Tagore in my own way, at the age of eight, in front of horrified aunties who’d been singing Rabindra Sangeet the way it’s been sung for 50 years.

What is ethno-punk?
Ethno comes from my Indian classical roots and baul influences. Punk is an expression of my struggles and frustrations looking for independence as a woman in India. I conceptualised this with Paul Schneiter, a French drummer and producer, for my new outfit Tritha Electric.

Instruments you play?
In Tritha Electric, I play the electric guitar; use a looper and a delay-effects voice processor. My electric tanpura, the mandira, and some percussion are a constant presence. I also picked up a kazoo from Paris — it’s my mini saxophone.

How has travelling influenced you?
Living in Paris, jamming with underground jazz musicians and travelling around Europe for the last seven summers has helped me integrate African beats, trip-hop and punk in my original songs. I go back to Kolkata to rejuvenate my knowledge of classical Indian music.

Tell us about your song Pagli.
A sound engineer in Paris wanted to hear me rap in Bengali. I imagined myself as a madwoman in the streets of Kolkata, took on that role and started singing like her. I’m going to make an album of it adding more songs. A new pagli song is a punk one called Fish Market.

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This interview appeared in the June 30th issue (no. 26) of Tehelka magazine.

Going anonymous


Almost forty degrees in the afternoon on a Delhi Saturday normally means the roads won’t whisk anyone who can help steer clear of them, but Jantar Mantar is expecting at least 1500 people in response to the Anonymous Occupy India call to protest against the recent shutdown of sites like piratebay.com, vimeo, isohunt.com, etc, by major internet supplier circuits within the country – or so claims their Facebook events page. A sweaty-templed volunteer, who’s bustling around looking extremely harried, attempts to cater to the small line of participants gathering in front of him. He hands out paper print-outs of Guy Fawkes masks – which have spaces for eyes scissored out and a flimsy elastic string to hold them to the face – and simultaneously tries to inform, “I know what the Facebook page says, but balancing out ratios, I can say we can expect around 300-400 protesters to turn up.”

So a crowd of approximately fifty waits. Sure, there are those who made it a point to follow the tentatively suggested dress-code of an all-black garb, men and women in tees, there’s even one guy behind the desk in something that too-closely resembles a pair of boxers, but it seems like more than half of this crowd comprises of media persons purposefully handling multiple-lens cameras, or notebooks, milling around expectantly for a deluge of protesters, who, as time passes, never turn up. Unfazed, the present gathering forms a masked, black-swathed barrier and raises banners and placards bearing messages like, “Stand for what’s right, even if you have to stand alone”, “Raise your voice, save your voice”, and sloganeer compatible exhortations.

“The idea is that the government should be afraid of people, not the other way round. Such blanket bans of websites isn’t something we can take lying down. Moreover, the file-sharing sites are not used to share only movies, but are also a huge resource of educational videos,” reasons Saurav, one of the participants, most of whom are willing to comment only insofar as their identities remain concealed. At the most, they concede to revealing first names. A volunteer explains they prefer to remain unknown not just because they want to keep in tandem with the idea of Anonymous, which initiated the movement, but also because they don’t want to misleadingly present to the public, by revealing only certain names, an image that there is an hierarchy at work – for each participant is equally involved and important. They are also intent on dispelling the belief that Anonymous is hacking government websites. “To use the word hacking to describe what they’re doing would be to employ a misnomer,” he says. “They’re using DDoS, short for Distributed Denial of Service, which doesn’t cause any direct damage or intervention with the data on the target sites, but people are unable to access the sites due to a massive traffic directed towards it.”

When conversation veers toward the Guy Fawkes masks omnipresent at the protest, a common reaction to the question of the Guy Fawkes icon’s relevance to an Indian audience is, firstly, surprise that a number of people in the protest are actually aware of the specific Fawkes allusion rather than the more immediately apparent V for Vendetta one, followed by assurances that there is a very relevant ideological parallel, “Fawkes fought for freedom. We’re fighting for ours. If we turn a blind eye to what’s happening now – even if it seems minor, we may just pave way to something huge.” Another participant seconds, “Today they have a problem with file-sharing websites, tomorrow it might be a Facebook status update, a tweet. We don’t want India to head in the way of China.”

Interestingly, a couple of protesters have turned up in altogether different masks. “These aren’t Hanuman masks, although it might seem at first glance to be,” says one of them, keen to be accurate. “These are masks of the vaanar-sena, Hanuman’s soldiers, because Hanuman represents anonymity.” He’s distressed at the extent to which anonymity has been compromised at the protest. Mask still half on, when most of the crowd have discarded theirs, he mouths from a corner, “A threat situation has already been created in virtual space and has the government reacting which is a good thing.” But the whole point of an anonymous public protest is to unleash a more tangible force. “This protest distorts the idea of anonymity and what it can achieve – the fact that it’s uncontainable, and also allows us to engage with the public discourse in a different way. Not just ask questions about anonymous groups per se but anonymity – ‘who is the other 99%?'”

By five thirty, though, the crowd has dissipated into impromptu cliques – one group stands at the far end of the road still shouting slogans, while others lurk uncertainly in ones and twos, lapsing into desultory conversation. Siddharth, who was supposed to join the protest with friends, admits they abandoned the idea at the last moment, and he didn’t know what to do when he arrived at the venue. “I suppose the problem is that internet users tend to be upper-middle class populations who’ve never been inducted into a protest ethic. I’ve been part of Occupy Berlin and there a single message had the potential to trigger people to take to the streets in droves. It’s a little new for India, and will obviously take time.” But while Siddarth is largely hopeful for the future, believing this is just a first step and will eventually gather momentum, Arjun, another twenty-something protester, is visibly angry and disappointed. “Anonymous has done as much as it can to organise the protest and spread the message. It’s upto us to take it forward,” he says. “What’s the point if people just show solidarity online by clicking yes on Facebook event pages and then don’t actually turn up for the protest? It won’t do shit in the larger scheme of things.”

*

Had to file inputs for the magazine, but the protest was so interesting, did a story for myself instead. One of the journalists I met there, surveying the scene bemusedly, said, “Protests ought to have a beat for themselves in newspapers.” True that. 

Utterly butterly delicious (for fifty years now)

This irreverent – literally – poster-child of India was born to hoardings across the country fifty years ago when daCunha Communications decided they would slide over tantrum-throwing, high maintenance celebrities and stick with a lovable little girl in polka dots to offer Amul’s toasts to the nation. Little did they know when they started out that she would go on to become one of the most sassy witnesses of the country’s changing political and cultural landscape — whether it’s Amitabh’s iconic presence in Indian cinema, cricket mishaps, corruption commentary, scam bashing, political drama, even that infamous Lux ad with Shahrukh sprawled smugly in a bathtub brimming with rose petals, she’s been there, punned that.

For an ad agency which unapologetically places the client before itself, perhaps it’s fitting that the launch of a book — Amul’s India — commemorating half a century’s worth of campaigning for Amul was flagged off by an introduction by R.S. Sodhi — Managing Director of the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd. — to the brand’s humble beginnings as a small initiative formed to provide farmers the best gains for their dairy products. The short PowerPoint presentation by author Rahul daCunha’s on the facts and friction of creating an advertising stream which ceaselessly compressed the surrounding social milieu to a series of butter-slick, delightfully tongue-in-cheek wisecracks offered much material for the discussion, “From Cartoons to Looney Tunes” which followed. Panellists included daCunha himself – Managing and Creative Head of daCunha Communications, social commentator and author Santosh Desai, political commentator and columnist Swapan Dasgupta, and was moderated by TV journalist and columnist Barkha Dutt.

Rahul’s father Sylvester daCunha’s brainchild, the Amul girl opened to warm approval despite the fact that their earliest hoardings subversively tackled controversial topics like test tube babies, the hartals in Calcutta of the 1960s, virginity tests administered on Indian women in the 1970s, going so far as refer to the mass sterilization campaign during the emergency. It’s only more recently that the hoardings have had to face the ire of its various targets – sometimes merely ridiculous remonstrations followed by threats that they’ll to stop purchasing Amul butter, but frequently these days, scaling more serious heights with mid-night calls warning them to “be careful”. Inevitably, Rahul daCunha said, he’s now forced to wonder if the cartoon is in danger. “Do I touch upon these people’s foibles? Or do I not touch them for fear of backlash?”

Although Barkha Dutt triggered off the discussion with a wry, “Whatever else you may die of in India, you’ll never die of boredom,” the panelists’ collective concern was whether the country as a whole was losing its sense of humour. In response, Santosh Desai said, “Ethnic jokes may be more acceptable these days, but it’s only when the subjects focus on the exercise of power that things change. People in power are exceedingly quick to protect their boundaries,” but his comment was met with an instantly dismissive Swapan Dasgupta’s pat reply, “Indians don’t have a great sense of humour.” Moreover, at least when talking specifically of the Amul ads, he felt that a cultural mismatch arising directly out of the fact that Amul campaigned extensively, almost wholly, “using the subtleties of English language as one of the instruments of communication,” had to be considered. While he thought the globalising expansion of the landscape of the copywriter was one of the clearest positive developments for the advertising sphere, Dasgupta lamented over a parallel development – a seemingly prolific increase in a general willingness to acquiesce to every protest, a determination to take offense. “It almost seems there’s a desire to misunderstand.”

At the end of the launch, when Tehelka requested them to share what’s been the best thing about the Amul girl campaign, R.S. Sodhi smiled, confessing it was a relief not to have to pander to a celebrity’s whims in order to create advertisements which would reaffirm the customer’s faith in the brand. But somewhere along the way, has the Amul girl become bigger than the brand itself? “It doesn’t matter. She’s synonymous with the brand,” he said. The Amul campaign presents a constant challenge to continue his father’s legacy, admitted daCunha, to produce a creative body of work to match his. “It doesn’t stop at one hoarding. Every piece, no matter where it’s released, has to match up to its predecessor.” For Swapan Dasgupta, the Amul hoardings were part of his growing up years. “It’s been a landmark of sorts. There are a lot of things which keep changing in India, but Amul has been a constant,” he said. “It’s reassuring to see that some things don’t change.”

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An edited version of this article appeared here.

Such a Long Journey

Such a Long Journey (Rohinton Mistry)

Part of TS Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi”, the eponymous phrase “Such a Long Journey” is evocative of the protagonist Gustad Noble’s strife throughout  the course of the novel against myriad forces of poverty, political exigency, recurrent governmental influx into public life, and his struggle to sustain some semblance of equilibrium in his family life within these plural gravities.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of pre-emergency India under the rule of Indira Gandhi, the novel traces the story of Noble – a Parsi bank clerk – as the country spirals steadily into the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and is witness to the ensuing secession of East Pakistan into Bangladesh. The greater part of the novel unravels in Bombay, specifically in Khodadad Building, where Nobel lives  with his family in the midst of a large Parsi settlement. The travails of his neighbours – by turns solicitous and eccentric – are intricately knit into his personal life.

The novel begins on a note of euphoria – Noble’s eldest son Sohrab has just been accepted into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT Bombay) and celebrations seem to be in order. Sohrab, the apple of his father’s eye, has just proven right Noble’s faith in his exceeding intelligence, something that has been discerned and carefully cultivated from a very young age. Sohrab is a beacon of light for the family, their one hope out of squalor.  But the family is jolted out of this happy state of affairs by Sohrab’s sudden – and to Noble and his wife Dilnavaz, bewildering – declaration that he will not fulfil his father’s dream, refusing point blank to accept admission.

His son’s distressing infidelity is followed by a succession of private tragedies: Noble’s daughter Roshan succumbs to a mysterious, frequently relapsing illness, an old friend Major Jimmy Bilimoria’s inexplicable vanishing act, Noble’s deepening entanglement into what he suspects is a terrifyingly complex government conspiracy mediated by none other than Bilimoria, and the gradual worsening of the health and subsequent death of another cherished friend, Dinshawji. The manner in which Noble copes with these events dominates the trajectory of the narrative.

The novel’s thematic concerns are focussed on Noble’s relationship with the various characters who populate the novel multi-dimensionally, their interactions altering Noble’s perceptions of life and what it means to succeed, especially in the face of persistent betrayal of expectations. The novel derives much of its narrative breadth by elaborately exploring issues of fatherhood, religion, accountability within particular communities, notions of responsibility in the context of friendship and nationality.

Mistry’s writing is acutely conscious of the politics of language, sharpened by the fact that he is, in essence, recording in English the experience of a community which encounters English perhaps only tangentially.  First acquaintance with dialogue in the novel might suggest a certain awkwardness of usage – to the extent that it may appear forced. (“Mua thief! In the hands of the police only we should put you!” says Miss Kutpitia, accusing the milkman of mixing water in their daily supply of milk.) But Mistry assimilates this new rhythm – not uncommon to the Indian milieu – into the narrative, even using it in instances to the effect of comic relief.

Another major theme that pervades all aspects of life in novel is that of religion. For most, if not all, of the characters religion is an element essential to their conception of each other, their social liaisons and transactions. Religious rituals are organic to their everyday existence. Noble listens to the chirping of birds “every morning while reciting his kusti prayers”. Miss Kutpitia’s expression of religion finds form in the extremes of superstition, a manifestation which Dilnavaz too takes up later to a remarkable degree. Wryly humorous, Noble’s elderly neighbour Cavasji’s entreaties are to an invisible god in the sky, who he vehemently implores to, “be careful! Year after year Your floods are washing away poor people’s huts! Enough now! Where is your fairness? Have You got any brains or not? Flood the Tatas this year! Flood the Birlas, flood the Mafatlals!” Malcolm Saldanha, another of Noble’s close friends, too, articulates a religious awareness when he takes Noble to the Mount Mary church and shows him the peculiar offerings of wax imitations of limbs by devotees in the hopes of a miraculous cure for corresponding physical deformities.

A conspicuous absence of overt religious affiliation among the younger generation seems to be Mistry’s way of raising pertinent questions about the changing face of a secular India – that the younger generation seem impervious to previously indispensable rites and customs of religious practice. Alternately, Mistry may be attempting to suggest that any form of deep religious conviction – the development of a religious consciousness itself– might be a consequence of age, that one resorts to gods, makes efforts to appease them as a natural response to a more tangible awareness of one’s own mortality.

Religion is also the fertile ground over which social transgressions are mapped: the artist commissioned by Gustad to salvage the community wall from the malodorous activities of passers-by draws a melee of gods from every possible community (even Yellamma, the goddess of prostitutes, to represent the nearby House of Cages) coexisting in harmony in the same space. This wall may be read as metonymical to the larger unfolding of Noble’s relationships with friends, family, and other significant acquaintances: these relationships are established and strengthen despite socio-religious barriers, in fact, religion occasionally grows into a source of mutual inspiration and joy. But religious concord, just as developing attachments between people, is infinitely tenuous and always on the brink of collapse: “The agreeable neighbourhood and the solidity of the long, black wall were reawakening in [the artist] the usual sources of human sorrow: a yearning for permanence, for roots, for something he could call his own, something immutable. Torn between staying and leaving, he worked on, ill at ease, confused and discontented. Swami Dayananda, Swami Vivekananda, Our Lady of Fatima, Zarathustra, and numerous others assumed their places on the wall, places pre-ordained by the pavement artist; together they awaited the uncertain future.”

Integral to the plot of the novel is the parallel subplot of Major Jimmy Bilimoria, Noble’s neighbour and trusted friend who is a cause of bitterness and sorrow since he appears to have deserted his apartment next door with no explicit reason, without – the root of Noble’s grief – a single effort at explanation before leaving. The Bilimoria plot acquires girth gradually and serves to supply the novel with an aura of conspiracy, propelling the narrative forward by synthesising what was primarily a personal narrative of domestic and occupational crises with something of a crime mystery. The Bilimoria storyline is significant in as much it immediately catapults the crux of the novel from being predominantly private to the public sphere. Major Bilimoria is Noble’s most concrete connection to the political, the nation-state. His frequent disruption of Noble’s daily life through letters, requests for favours which unsettle his comfortable routine seem to invoke the idea of the nation-state’s recurrent, ineluctable demands on the citizen, that one cannot live in the nation state without relinquishing privacy, usually to a point higher than one imagines.

This narrative is also an interesting instance of personalisation of history. More often than not, people make concessions to history only to the extent that some event in its vast, complicated, inter-structural network directly intervenes in their lives. In this context, questions regarding the nation are imperative and must be asked: To what extent are we willing to sacrifice the private for the public? What toll do the inevitable compromises take on our life and dignity of living? What is the nation? More specifically, what does our idea of India comprise of? Is the nation an interruption of or an impulse of society?

Gustad’s disability – the limp he has acquired due to the accident that had occurred in an attempt to save Sohrab from being killed by oncoming traffic about nine years before the story begins is a painful, acrimonious reminder of the sacrifices he has made for his family. In metonymy, disability in the novel can also be studied as a reflection of the government’s ruthless subjection of its citizens to an unforgiving regime of power; the body registers the measured but definite erosion of morals and practices in the government, and is helpless against it.

Subsequently, Gustad’s decline in years heightens his nostalgia for the golden age of his childhood: memories of years spent in a bookstore, with luxuries which seem a far-flung dream. But the nostalgia which returns to him the beauty of a time impossible to retrieve equally resurrects fragments of the same memories he had skated over earlier. His father is reimagined, but with all his flaws, thought of with sympathy and pity and love. “Always begins after the loss is complete, the remembering,” Noble observes once, thinking of his father. Noble collects small victories as a parent, and small failures, makes tokens of them. Parental love is portrayed as a complex entity, expanding and contracting, certainly not constant, but interminably mellifluous. Parents pin their dreams to their children, children to others, later to their own children. In the process, damage each other irreparably.  But loss too redeems; loss is poetic.

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Such a Long Journey, despite being an incisive investigation into issues of nation, religion, nostalgia, memory, and a tale of human endurance, falls short in certain areas: in the tussle between personal and private history, Mistry’s insertion of the political narrative (more specifically, that of the events leading upto the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 under Indira Gandhi’s regime) into Gustad’s life with designs to blend in the two is not entirely successful. The addition is not consistently effortless, but shows strain on the plot, at times to the point of rendering the main narrative useless, as if merely a prop for a history lesson. The style of narration is languorous and effectively so, suitably complementing the pace of the story. But occasionally, Mistry’s exertions to introduce the reader to how the language has been altered and adopted by certain sections of the country seems to turn the characters into caricatures, especially since most characters already seem to be vaguely reminiscent of popular types: the old crone cast into the figure of the witch (Miss Kutpitia), the faithful housewife (Dilnavaz), the nagging, disrespectful daughter-in-law (Mrs Pastakia), the local simpleton (Tehmul). The novel fails most in its portrayal of women: they do not exceed traditional roles, express emotions or fears beyond the conventional, in fact, don’t even exceed the limits of domestic space.

Conscious of these limitations, one can conclude the novel is a meditation on what forces shape an individual: identity is not restricted to some, but issues out of a confluence of a number factors, both conscious and unconscious. It is informed by ordinary acts, moments which get sanctified in retrospect.

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This piece was an assignment – book report – for a literature (Indian Writings in English) class.