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“Love in Mumbai” by Zireaux

Love in Mumbai
by
Zireaux

(from Kamal, Book One)

To M.

My dear New Zealand, so tiny and so distant…!

It seems a “killing” (so to speak) is made / when thieves in manhole covers trade.

‘It seems a “killing” (so to speak) is made / when thieves in manhole covers trade.’

Recently I read, with these persistent
rains we’ve had, that unsuspecting walkers
wading through the murky liquid streets
— a trishaw driver, a serenading hawker,
a bride with gold-bejeweled hands and feet
— will suddenly vanish, as if an unseen stalker
snatched them from below; and — gulp — a treat!

It seems a “killing” (so to speak) is made
when thieves in manhole covers trade.

And even I, on reading this, was struck
by how these unsuspecting people, sucked
into the ground, amused my comic sense
— until I read the part about their bloated
bodies, several hours later, dispensed
into the ocean mire. This was, I noted
to Sheela afterward, a crime against
potential readers! So there and then we voted
(Sheela, Camera Joe and I) to use
my growing fame to sell these views.

And just last week, on live T.V., in front
of cheering fans, my call to action was blunt:

“Enough of this manhole madness! We can’t just shrug
our shoulders and ignore it! How many dead
will we accept expelled like grotesque slugs
into the violent sea? Deplore it!” I said.
Cry out! Complain! And my ‘Campaign to Plug
the Plunge’ – or CaPP – which I myself will head,
is meant to give a voice to those who feel
a safer fate is ours to seal!”

I gave an example of a recent victim
(a twelve-year-old girl!), recited Donnean dictums
on why one needs to take a stand (“No man’s
an island to himself,” etc.) and heard
an orchestra of sniffles. I mentioned plans
to punish thieves; and cheers drowned every word.
A lady stood up: “The fault is Pakistan’s!”
she said – but she was shouted down, which stirred
up chants assailing crime, corruption, fraud.
“Zireaux, Zireaux hai zindabad!”

And on the drive back from the new Doordarshan
studios — beside the re-claimed marsh in
which the Worli slums distend and simmer —
Sheela took my hand.

                                                        “A thoughtful, brave
performance tonight,” she said, a tiny glimmer
in her eyes despite a twilight clave
by tinted glass, which made the dim yet dimmer.
Her bangles were subdued. Her necklace gave
no glint of life, the gems no longer shone.
Just dimples on a neck of stone.

The Oberoi Hotel, Mumbai, India

The Oberoi Hotel, Mumbai, India

Her crushed silk sari, too, was now the shade
of night-sedated lake, or somber glade
(which once – an hour before — was bright with dew
reflecting studio lights). A black ice sheet,
it froze upon her curves and slipped into
the darker mystery depths around our feet.
No, just her eyes, her eyes were all that drew
the muted lights around our shared backseat,
compressed them into tiny snowball sparks
to pitch at me with her remarks.

Those eyes caught every muffled source of light
that passed outside: the phosphorescent white
of open “chemist” stalls and “sweet-mart” stores
and “ladies tailors” sashed with silk and sequins,
the clinquant jewelry shops with guarded doors;
each blazing blue-tongued welder’s torch, delinquent
cooking fires, the aircraft lights that soared
across the sunroof’s starless space, the frequent
lamps and flames of makeshift camps and each
snack-seller on Chowpatty Beach;

a smoldering moon above the Arabian Sea,
the streetlights lacing Marine Drive as we
stood still in traffic; and a double row
of faces gazing outward from their bus
like photograph transparencies; the glow
of second-story rooms; the blue stardust
of diesel fumes which hovered near, as though
to spy its kindred cloud inside with us;
Diwali sparklers tossed by servant boys.
The driveway of the Oberoi.

Where we pulled in — “Good evening to you, sir;”
and from our air-conditioned claire-obscure
we hatched into a brilliant vestibule.
And Sheela’s costume suddenly dispersed
a swarm of luminescent animalcules
around her pink silk sari; others burst
out from her spangled purse and dangling jewels.
We still held hands! We drank a nightcap first;
and then — my room. And as we talked and teased,
her eyes cast out the light they’d seized.

“This country’s, like — in love with you,” she gushed.
More drinks. More fingers squeezed. More lightly brushed
together knees.

"In every kiss a wish to die" -- Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looking very serious in Casablanca.

"In every kiss a wish to die" -- Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman near to a kiss in Casablanca.

                                      “With me? Or my words? And tell
me, please — just what is ‘country’? Land? A figment
of the mind? A fiction meant to quell
aggression toward a mother god, as Sigmund
Freud might say? A place? A people?”

                                                                                 “Well,”
she stopped to reason what my verbal tricks meant.
“I’d have to say I mean the people of
a country when I speak of love.”

“Astutely said,” I said. “And cutely.”

                                                                                 This caused
a smile – a smile just inches from mine. We paused.
The ocean lay in clumsy camouflage
outside, the lights of passing boats too bright
against the starless cosmos. Her soft massage
of fingers.

                           “The people, Sheela?” I whispered. “Might
I not include you in that entourage?”

Her zaffer eyelids drooped. Her smile took flight;
How strange is passion! Reckless, clumsy, delirious,
absurd, insane…and yet, so serious.

Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai near to a kiss in Dhoom 2.

Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai near to a kiss in Dhoom 2.

As if our bodies grasp the repercussions
of their act; as if the fevered flush in
which we weightless grope is less a furnace
in our glands than some new atmosphere
of circumstance which heats (and burns!) us
in our mad approach. And it’s this fear,
this dread of how our lives will change that turns us
into solemn, stone-faced clowns, content to smear
ourselves in flaming streaks across the sky.
In every kiss a wish to die.

I wax too lyrical. Fact is, most lives
are serious, with heartbreak, loss — and wives
and kids; and “Sheela…I –” but just before
we plunged into the blue ionosphere
and neared that no returning point, some snore,
or constant wheeze, which we could clearly hear
but which we’d both decided to ignore,
erupted like a tractor shifting gear,
and spluttered, gurgled, hacked then brayed no more.

A shadow rose beside us. “You’re back already.”
It lifted a camera. Held it steady.

I must admit relief that Camera Joe
had woken up just when he did. Although
my will is strong, I might have found it hard
to formulate a courteous excuse.
As Sheela knew – our threesome knew – we bards
are unpredictable and might produce
immortal rhymes upon a calling card
at 3am; then thinking it refuse,
discard it somewhere, never to be found.
But not with Camera Joe around.

Portrait of Edward John Trelawny by Joseph Severn

Portrait of Edward John Trelawny by the English painter, Joseph Severn

He films each couplet mumbled in my sleep,
(“Afflatus glossed and turned,” I’ve joked) to keep
my special quirks for curious Posterity.
Why not? All Byron’s news Trelawny dispatched.
And Sterne with good La Fleur produced a parity.
And Johnson with adoring Boswell was matched.
And me? I have my Camera Joe – a rarity:
A Sony lens with grown-up body attached.
Each night he fills up half my king-size bed.

So Sheela headed home instead.

 
_____
Published as part of the dVerse Poetry Group.

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Filed under Kamal, Book One, Poetry by Zireaux

“On Being Duped by Indian Reality TV” (Returning to Auckland Tomorrow) by Zireaux

Amitabh Bachchan hosting the Crorepatti TV games how

A Turning Point in Indian TV: Amitabh Bachchan hosting the hugely popular Crorepatti TV game show

I do not write of love that’s unrequited.
No! I write of love attained then blighted.

Of beauty gained then lost; of pleasure’s throne
ascended, a million paradises owned;
of oceans crossed and golden fleeces found;
I write of Sheba bedded, children crowned;
of iridescent flashes chased and netted
and twitching with survival’s lust;
of sea-nymphs caught and dragons petted
— and all of it, alas, to dust!
The rose de-petalled, the muse beheaded!
Be clear! Be clear unthrottled throat!
Was it Stendhal or Proust who wrote
that love is sweeter in the past? But what
of love unfairly severed, cruelly cut?

Just look at this, my room -– the richly-toweled
bath, the plush sage carpet, double-doweled
furniture of fine mahogany,
the pair of tufted ottomans — and me
behind this glass-topped desk. For fifteen days
I’ve worked alone, with luke-warm thalis
served on silver-handled trays
that ride atop the housemaid’s trolleys.
That jasmine scent of Sheela Ray’s
no more infuses evening meals —
indeed no scent of hers appeals
to memory, a faithful sniffer-hound.
And Camera Joe (her mutt) is not around.1

But now I’d rather show than tell. I’ll switch
the TV on and you can see the witch
and her associate yourself…

                                              a guy,
that Irwin bloke in khaki shirt
and shorts – I cannot say exactly why
he jumps on crocs. Perhaps it hurts
their pride more than he knows? But I
say careful, mate. For untamed friends
can lead to unexpected ends!
Now this, I love. Just when you think their song
can sound no worse, and they have ceased, along

the next contestant comes to croon some more!
In fact – and it was several days before
I figured out the game – it’s not to please
our ears that these contestants whine and wheeze
(such “Idols” sing on other shows)
but rather to regale our minds with all
the Hindi songs they know
and can so speedily recall.
A Cricket clown with zinc-white nose.
Oh here’s a show, a daily serial;
the Telugu is immaterial.
One needn’t understand the words to guess
the plot – a replica of Hardy’s Tess!2

Onida's Mascot -- the Devil

Onida's advertising mascot -- a devil

“Imported genius sold to those who seek
fresh thoughts” – the definition of unique.
Originality: “A cargo traded
on seas we know not of; or think blockaded.”
Last night I saw a Hindi film, each scene
a rip-off from The Great Escape.
With booming Bachchan as McQueen;
though both these men were paid to ape
the real mastermind, I mean,
the guy who died in unpaid glory
for acting out the real story.
That’s Bachchan there, the host. His stardom stalled
but not his greed. Crorepatti it is called.

That’s Switzerland, the Pennine Alps, I think.
They must be cold. Each time the camera blinks,
her sari changes color –- watch. Were they
to flirt and frolic round those hills that way -–
she in her pink and mustard tinsel dresses
and he in flashy shirt and cape,
and all her “no”s met with his “yes”es,
the guy would be accused of rape.
O India! Your throbbing breast is
aflame with patriotic fervor!
Yet dreamers make unsound observers.
And O how worse it is –- a great charade! -–
when people pine for beauties foreign-made.

The “Midas Game.” They play for gold (how mad
this country is for gold!) And what’s this ad?
The car looks nice, but where to find such roads?
These solemn Ramayana episodes;
She spins. Her yellow frock turns Nirma-white.3
Reports of something called a “Naxalite.”4
Where are you Sheela Ray? You’re bound to be
amidst this Chyavanprash and Parlay-G!5
I found you here last week among these channels
Same time it was. A Cuban dupe.
A bumptious chef in tattered flannels
and smoking cigs. This nincompoop
was placed on academic panels
and asked for his hypotheses
on this, and his philosophies
on that, and made to think he could outsmart
the likes of Hagel, Kant, Camus, Descarte!

The show is called “False Destiny,” but I’m —
another ad, we’re running out of time
(this ad, I must admit, is quite unique.
A sneering, fork-tailed, hoofed and red-horned freak
plays mascot to a range of new TVs,
for here, I guess, the devil’s not
the villain he is overseas!) –-
but I’m afraid each fingered shot
I take, this trigger that I squeeze,
is missing –- wait! That’s her! Her show!
Look close, my reader; so you can know
the wickedness to which I’ve been subjected!
To have one’s heart exposed, impaled, dissected

"What gives us cracked Quixotes away?"

"What gives us cracked Quixotes away?"

It’s all the rage. How much the masses love
to see a foreigner made mockery of.
The premise of “False Destiny.” And there’s
Ms. Ray — this scorching sorceress ensnares
her prey by traveling to a far-off land
and picking out the perfect Frank
or Franz, Fidel or Ferdinand,
on which to play her little prank.
The first few days proceed as planned;
She stalks the streets, a tigress on
the prowl, to kill not just a fawn
but something weaker still: A talking fusion
of mediocrity and self-delusion.

What gives us cracked Quixotes away, I wonder?
What facial flush or tic demarks this blunder
of the brain? I’ve searched my face. I find
a crease from hairline to my chin, a kind
of DMZ between two warring sides6
(it even cleaves my nose’s peak!),
as though my mind were split. Two wide,
and lashless eyes, their brows oblique,
as if expression can’t decide
which way to go — and cries and laughs
at once! What other facial gaffes?
In these, my cold-ham lips, did Sheela see
the fleshly gold of gullibility?

Or maybe there’s some other misproportion?
My head is very big, like Welles’s (Orson);
and maybe one can guess the thoughts inside
from a phrenology so magnified.
In any case, this heated hostess prowls
the town in search of men like me
whose lives it seems have run afoul;
who spend each day prosaically,
convinced their talent is an owl
that flies unlighted by the sun
and thus unknown to everyone
— to everyone but this Minerva of
the East, who finds the owl in the dove.

(I’m returning to Auckland tomorrow).

 
1Read more on Camera Joe.
2The producers of Indian TV serials regularly steal their plots from classic English novels, confident their audience won’t have read them anywhere before.
3Nirma washing powder, a popular brand of soap.
4Common term for communist rebel groups in India.
5Chyawanprash is a popular Ayurvedic health tonic in India; and Parle-G is the most well-known biscuit brand.
6De-Militorized Zone (DMZ)

 
Read how I met Sheela Ray at Orbits Restaurant in Auckland

 

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“On Reading in Mumbai” (continued) by Zireaux

The Oberoi Hotel, Mumbai, India

The Oberoi Hotel, Mumbai, India

…continued

a smoldering moon above the Arabian Sea,
the streetlights lacing Marine Drive as we
stood still in traffic; and a double row

of faces gazing outward from their bus
like photograph transparencies; the glow
of second-story rooms; the blue stardust
of diesel fumes which hovered near, as though
to spy its kindred cloud inside with us;
Diwali sparklers tossed by servant boys.
The driveway of the Oberoi.

Where we pulled in — “Good evening to you, sir;”
and from our air-conditioned claire-obscure
we hatched into a brilliant vestibule.
And Sheela’s costume suddenly dispersed
a swarm of luminescent animalcules
around her pink silk sari; others burst
out from her spangled purse and dangling jewels.
We still held hands! We drank a nightcap first;
and then — my room. And as we talked and teased,
her eyes cast out the light they’d seized.

“This country’s, like — in love with you,” she gushed.
More drinks. More fingers squeezed. More lightly brushed
together knees.

"In every kiss a wish to die" -- Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looking very serious in Casablanca.

"In every kiss a wish to die" -- Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman near to a kiss in Casablanca.

                        “With me? Or my words? And tell
me, please — just what is ‘country’? Land? A figment
of the mind? A fiction meant to quell
aggression toward a mother god, as Sigmund
Freud might say? A place? A people?”

                                                          “Well,”
she stopped to reason what my verbal tricks meant.
“I’d have to say I mean the people of
a country when I speak of love.”

“Astutely said,” I said. “And cutely.”

                                                          This caused
a smile – a smile just inches from mine. We paused.
The ocean lay in clumsy camouflage
outside, the lights of passing boats too bright
against the starless cosmos. Her soft massage
of fingers.

                   “The people, Sheela?” I whispered. “Might
I not include you in that entourage?”

Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai near to a kiss in Dhoom 2.

Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai near to a kiss in Dhoom 2.

Her zaffer eyelids drooped. Her smile took flight;
How strange is passion! Reckless, clumsy, delirious,
absurd, insane…and yet, so serious.

As if our bodies grasp the repercussions
of their act; as if the fevered flush in
which we weightless grope is less a furnace
in our glands than some new atmosphere
of circumstance which heats (and burns!) us
in our mad approach. And it’s this fear,
this dread of how our lives will change that turns us
into solemn, stone-faced clowns, content to smear
ourselves in flaming streaks across the sky.
In every kiss a wish to die.

I wax too lyrical. Fact is, most lives
are serious, with heartbreak, loss — and wives
and kids; and “Sheela…I” – but just before
we plunged into the blue ionosphere
and neared that no returning point, some snore,
or constant wheeze, which we could clearly hear
but which we’d both decided to ignore,
erupted like a tractor shifting gear,
and spluttered, gurgled, hacked then brayed no more.

A shadow rose beside us. “You’re back already.”
It lifted a camera. Held it steady.

Portrait of Edward John Trelawny by Joseph Severn

Portrait of Edward John Trelawny by the English painter, Joseph Severn

I must admit relief that Camera Joe
had woken up just when he did. Although
my will is strong, I might have found it hard
to formulate a courteous excuse.
As Sheela knew – our threesome knew – we bards
are unpredictable and might produce
immortal rhymes upon a calling card
at 3am; then thinking it refuse,
discard it somewhere, never to be found.
But not with Camera Joe around.

He films each couplet mumbled in my sleep,
(“Afflatus glossed and turned,” I’ve joked) to keep
my special quirks for curious Posterity.
Why not? All Byron’s news Trelawny dispatched.
And Sterne with good La Fleur produced a parity.
And Johnson with adoring Boswell was matched.
And me? I have my Camera Joe – a rarity:
A Sony lens with grown-up body attached.
Each night he fills up half my king-size bed.

So Sheela headed home instead.

 
Read previous poem about how I met Sheela Ray at Orbits Restaurant in Auckland.

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“A Dream Before Leaving to India” by Zireaux

Ernst-Rudolph-The-Harem-Bath

The Harem Bath by Ernst Rudolph

Some lines about a dream I had last night:
Its theme makes sense, for I’ve just booked a flight
to foreign lands. The travel agent’s walls
had posters of some well-known sights — the Arc
de Triumph
, a Turkish Mosque, Victoria Falls.
“You mean, Mumbai” — the agent’s cold remark
to my ebullient greeting: “Duty calls
me to the mystic East! I must embark
(for I’m a famous poet) straight away
to Kipling’s childhood home: Bombay”

And in this dream last night, a one-eyed king
was watching a preposterous camel bring
me up the palace steps – O what a fool
that dream director! Camels in Tibet?
And naked odalisques in pools and jewel-
encrusted divans? And Sheela, dazzling, wet,
a kind of teacher at a harem/school
where I would play both royal bard and pet.
And yet, does not this crazy dream reflect
the life which I myself direct?

I own my dreams. My brain’s their sole creator;
and yet it seems some secret and much greater
force – a vulgar, fat, avuncular boss,
with bulbous nose and large caruncular ears —
an underworld controls my visions across
a dingy desk. “Tibet,” the Dream Don sneers.
Tibet? “That’s right. Majestic mountains glossed
with snow. A palace, pink and gold, appears
like frozen fire upon the vast plateau.
That’s what you’re meant to dream now. Go.”

I leave tomorrow, reader, happ’ly stuck
with Sheela and her Joe. Please wish me luck.

 

…continued on Jan 4, 2011.

 
Read previous poem about how I met Sheela Ray at Orbits Restaurant in Auckland.

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Part III — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

Part III

Mind you, ELECTRA (not to be confused with Freud’s misinterpretation of the goddess), although lacking in most Indian customs, is not a bad place to live.  Joyce, Proust, Melville – the world’s finest writers have vacation homes there.  But these writers, writers who really have composed enormous tracts of their native landscapes, do not take well to a poorly sketched character “feeling a glow of happiness” or faces that work like emoto-meters, as in the case of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s howler, “On the faces of Mr and Mrs Kairon could be discerned a daze, an initial shock, and an inchoate ethnic guilt.”  Therefore many of the writers whose subject matter doesn’t appeal to the Indian audience would be as quickly turned away from ELECTRA and humiliatingly redirected to collegiate writing programs in middle America.

Categorising by readership or amorphous ideas of nationhood, of course, is as absurd as categorising by surname.  One should question this need to drape nationalistic sashes over the shoulders of writers and turn their fiction into pageantry.  I cannot help but attribute the impulse to the fundamental disappointment many of the ELECTRA-type Indian-English writers must feel, when, after having their personal visions of India so warmly embraced by western editors, they come home to relatives who know nothing of their art, family members who – as you read them a page or two of your latest novel, editing out the sex bits and translating the difficult words as best you can – interrupt to ask, so how much money are you making?  Isn’t it time you got married?  Or worse, the book is set afire by angry Indian mobs and banned by the Indian courts.

Your natural reaction is to raise your awkward oriflamme of Indian ancestry and proclaim that your art and your self are inseparable, that because your self is as Indian as any Allahabadian Sandman or Delhian Sylvie, your art must be Indian too (never mind that it speaks a language the majority of Indians don’t understand).  And look, just look at the growing number of other Indian-English writers — a whole collection of them! — who are carving out a similar territory, graphically describing all sorts of previously unspoken material (most of it pulled, coincidentally, out of a very British-American sexual closet), making an impact on the English literary scene, winning international awards, creating, as Rushdie puts it, “the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.”

But what a tremendous contribution India would make to the world of cooking if Indian mothers would just start serving their pappadams with ketchup and cheese dip.

You might even say India has made a valuable contribution to the world of beauty since its  string of successes in the Miss World and Miss Universe contests – never mind that the traditional Indian concept of beauty would easily fit two modern beauty queens into the same traditional dress, or that the average Indian female wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a swimsuit.  When the German-Indian rap star Apache Indian sang his hit song, “I am an Indian” (the video of which, interestingly, became a kind of national anthem on Indian television because of its “unity-through-diversity” theme – hey, everyone’s an Indian!), he was not singing about the Indian identity, or even the German identity, because he was performing like a young American.

And thus the Indian-English author, in trying at once to serve the recipe of India in the dining room of English literature, faces a conundrum, the most common solution to which is the Indianization of the performance — the tuxedoed waiters serve fried samosas and chutney-covered canapés, the punch bowls are filled with mango lassi and todi juice, the candelabras fitted with bright Divali sparklers, and all the while the writer entertains the company with clever conversation, an endless stream of cross-cultural teasing and wordplay.  But the general shape of the literature, the reason, form and purpose behind the entertainment – the aforementioned celebration of self — remains fixed; in fact it becomes more entrenched, more exclusive, because now it is suddenly rejuvenated with a new and exotic party game.  Like Karoke.  Or Bangra music.

Which is why the indigenous Indian-English metaphor, a more Tagorian creature in which an image matures entirely outside the English literary imagination – the base of a banyan tree spread like the sari of a seated women, a river rising to embrace a village with the passion of a young wife returning for the first time to her parent’s home — is such a rare and endangered species.

Apart from some whispers sounding like “neem leaves brushing the sandstone ceiling” (Parera’s second indigenous Indian-English metaphor, a record-setting two in five pages), I didn’t find another specimen in the entire Rushdie-West collection.  I admit to having skimmed much of Firdauz Kanga’s most exasperating “Trying to Grow,” (Up?) which, reading like an Internet chat session, is as misplaced in Indian Writing as Nehru’s spoken piece of non-writing.  Amitav Ghosh’s reflections on his anthropological study of a village in Egypt squirms uncomfortably in this Rushdiesque reserve and betrays the false nativity of the collected subject matter.  The sample could as easily fit into a collection of Egyptian-English Writing, or Bangladeshi-English Writing, and Ghosh – usually quite suspicious of border-defined states – would have been wise to follow V.S.Naipaul’s example and disallow the patriotic representation of his craft by forbidding Rushdie and West to capture his work altogether.

The chapter excerpted from Arundhuti Roy’s Booker Prize winning The God of Small Things could be said to contain an indigenous Indian-English metaphorical conceit – the comparison of human sperm to those syrupy soft drinks sold in Indian movie theatres and carnivals.  But here we have a case of an Indian packaging of a foreign commodity.  While sperm may tropologically inhabit British and American phraseology, one doesn’t often hear it mentioned in public Indian-English discourse – although perhaps I mix with the wrong crowd.  To her credit, of all the demonstrations of, as Devani puts it, “fascination of the male anatomy” (no less than five of the stories include descriptions of penile emissions), Roy’s may be the most artful.

Since publication of The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, another decade of novels and poetry written by Indian nationals has emerged in numerous languages and styles, and I expect I’ll comment on some of these eventually, but my initial impression is thus: India’s trade liberalization policies since Indian Writing’s appearance, the huge increase of London- and New York-based literary agents representing India-based authors, the mass influx of foreign tourists and businesses into India over the last decade, the availability of the Internet and cell phones across the country, satellite television, foreign ownership of Indian media, the explosion of young Indians wanting to be writers, filmmakers, artists, entrepreneurs and so forth (rather than the civil servants of old), the Indian-English accent on the telephone support call, the newfound sense of career ambition and the whole amusing illusion that our fast-expanding world is somehow shrinking – all of this will likely transform India, in Rushdie’s mind, into an even larger presence, a greater contributor to the world of books; but it’s unlikely to help infuse English literature with anywhere near the richness, the beauty, the immensity of life which India, the country, is capable of.  For every Indian author who navigates the treacherous migration to an American or British readership, an unknown number of beauties will fly into windscreens or find themselves left with nowhere to feed.

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Part II — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

Part II

By contrast, for a writer like G.V. Desani, whose excerpt from “All About H. Hatterr” is more healthily represented (twenty-eight pages) as entry number four in Indian Writing, the English literary cathedral cannot be ignored.  It is an overwhelming feature of his imagination, his task being to redecorate it with personal artefacts.  The issue at hand is the “dhobin; viz., my Indian washerwomen,” who H. Hatterr believes has “a crush” on him, and his friend Bannerji is now responding to the revelation:

“Good luck to her.  Whereas, I deplore and deprecate sensual love, I am wholeheartedly for romance.  Is her name Priscilla, or is it Daphne?…I am anxious to know if you could concur with the bard Walt Whitman, and sing to her, As I lay my head in your lap, camerado?…it might be a genuine Darby and Joan feeling.  If so, Mr. Robert Bridges rightly protests, Quit in a single kiss?…Does she suffer from a morbid fascination of the male anatomy?  Is she an Elephant?”

Like his dialogue, Desani’s prose leaps and dances – an almost spontaneous exuberance which was cloyingly repeated by such Indian writers as Rushdie, I Alan Sealy, Shashi Tharoor, Kiran Desai and many others not included in this collection.  Here, the affections of an Indian dhobin are cast into a flashy mosaic of Greek Mythology, 18th century love ballads, the quotations of 19th and early 20th century American and English poets.

Throughout his H. Hatterr, Desani refers to an array of Indian settings, characters, fashions and foods, but describes them in foreign terms — opera, bull-fighting, African music, beer, champagne, European literature and sport.   I did encounter two possible indigenous Indian metaphors in these twenty-eight pages of play: 1) a man approaching the narrator like a “wild elephant’s trunk with the intent to pounce,” and 2) a swarm of mosquitoes making an “Indian pipe-like sound.”  I left them alone, however, because the first, apart from being mixed (half elephant, half cat), was unnaturally glossy, stolen perhaps from a travel brochure; while the second was not at all native.  An Indian pipe in India would not possibly be called “Indian” – it would be called a sannai, or a nadaswaram, or an instrument certain barbers in certain villages will play at weddings.

Born, raised, fed on India, you spend all day cooking a traditional Indian meal for some foreign guests, diligently mixing spices so that the butter chicken, the menthi dal, the Hyderabadi rice taste exactly as they did when the Moghul Emperor Akbar ate them in the 17th century. You are showered with compliments, of course, but dipping your pappadams (which you bought at a store) into the dal, like nachos into a dip, your guests — attempting only to flatter – say you could make a lot of money if you marketed them as a kind of potato chip.

Rushdie’s argument – common amongst many expatriate Indian authors – that his writing is Indian because he is Indian steps in perfect time with much of the popular English literary parade, a gaudy collection of forced individuality in which one’s writing should express one’s self, the uniform one wears should provide insight into the character underneath it.  (I see Narayan sitting worn out on a bench, having marched that street in a different era, wearing a suit and tie because the local tailor from his village insisted the great writer look impeccable for such an important “English” occasion).

Rushdie also knows that once you accept his premise, as most modern critics do, his argument settles well with the climate of his mother-country.  India is a plurality, after all, a unidiverse, a kind of protean battlefield strewn with the remains of one invading culture after another; and the passports of the naked sadhu who buries his head in the sand of Kanyakumari and the wealthy transvestite hairstylist in Delhi named Sylvie will bear the same three-headed lion embossed on the covers.  Indeed, how can we possibly define, question or refute one’s Indianness?

But what if we define Indian writing another way – not by the people who write it, but by the people who read it?  I suddenly see most of the writers in this volume haggling with visa officials at the Indian Writing High Commission, growing irate and finally being tossed out by dutiful guards.  Only six writers out of the thirty-two in the Rushdie-West collection would be granted permanent citizenship — Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Kamala Markandaya, Saadat Hasan Manto (who has written one of the best “Partition” pieces I’ve read), Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Satyajit Ray.

A few writers, such as Vikram Seth and Anjana Appachana, are offered the option of dual citizenship, a remarkable compliment, really, to their story-telling ability.  But the rest — Rushdie included — are hastily told to apply for nationality at, well, let’s call it something like the English Literary Establishment of Cultural Transience, Rebellion and Alienation (ELECTRA), down the road, where their themes of intellectual angst, so-called self-discovery, religious disillusionment, familial breakdown, bodily liberation, alcohol and sexual abuse will be met with greater appreciation.  (…continued…)

Go to Part III — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

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The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

Part I

Let us now commemorate, or at least acknowledge the 10th anniversary of this 50th anniversary collection of Indian English writing first with a review of the book itself, and then, later perhaps, with a comparative look at whether Indian English prose continues its loud and triumphant parade toward early extermination.

I want you to imagine Jim Corbett, India’s legendary tiger hunter and conservationist, returning from the dead to visit the few remaining hectares of India’s jungle a century after spotting his first big cat as a small boy.  Like the ghosts of rural England, India’s tigers are so rare and endangered that their fiery eyes and fearful symmetry, once roaming as poetically in Rajput kingdoms as in art, now exist only, albeit quite dramatically, in the story-filled tea-stall chats of India’s remotest villages.

Welcome to the The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, where “fifty years of Indian Writing” – what should be the literary equivalent of 50,000 Bengal tigers inhabiting a wilderness as large and unconquerable as Moby Dick’s (a billion people, 16 official languages, a few of which, excluding English, offer some of the most remarkable writing on the planet) — is like a tattered signpost pointing the way to “Tiger Reserve.”

And only when we enter this domesticated literary parkland does our talented tour guide, Salman Rushdie, inform us that herein lies the “best possible selection from what is presently available [in India] in the English language.”  In other words, a safely-enclosed, second-rate safari where the tired animals can be fed through car windows.  For as much as Rushdie’s literary agent might wish otherwise, Indian English writing does not, nor will it ever, represent Indian writing (an argument I will wrestle with later);

My own search for the indigenous Indian metaphor, specimens of which I’ve been collecting for years now, took me 186 pages, about one-third of the book to a sentence by Padma Parera, in her finely observed story, “Dr. Salaam”:

The only sound then was of the wind lifting the branches of the neem trees – gently, as a woman will lift her hair with her hand to cool the nape of her neck.

To reach this sentence – admittedly a poor specimen given that I’ve seen a similar gesture animate sunburnt, bikini-clad blondes on Californian beaches, but indigenous in its adorning all females with lengthy tresses — I had to trudge through a dry, empty, desolate terrain.

The tour began with a misplaced piece of political rhetoric, Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “Tryst With Destiny,” the speech immortalized not for being a piece of Indian writing at all, but quite the opposite — a spontaneous, heart-felt example of brilliant oration.  As if to emphasise the mood, Nehru’s historic speech is immediately followed by Nayantara Sahgal’s nepotistic, hagiographic memoir about India and its founding fathers (her uncle Nehru and his close friend Mahatma Gandhi).  Their inclusion here as a thematic trailhead helps clarify the misbegotten purpose behind Rushdie’s and Elizabeth West’s collection — not so much Indian writing as fifty years of a place called India.  Thus triply confined – 1) written in English, 2) conceived by people with Indian surnames 3) heeding Nehru’s call “to work hard…to build a noble mansion of free India” – the ensuing samples of prose seem pitiably unnatural in this artificial landscape, what could also be called Rushdie’s Theme Park.

After the patriotic intro, my pursuit of the indigenous Indian metaphor took me through eleven more entries, including the masterful works of such legendary writers as Nirad C. Chowdhury, Mulk Raj Anand and Satyajit Ray – but oh how defeated they looked!  Their tender, careful renditions of deified rivers, rhapsodical servants, the Jurassic adventures of a simple pair of Calcuttan Babus (Ray, as with his extra-terrestrial story “The Little Martian,” once again scooping Spielberg) seem covered with a kind of mange, forced as they are to coexist with the scabrous angst of comparatively minor specimens by such writers as Upamanyu Chatterjee, Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga, Arundhatti Roy and Kiran Desai.

And how pale and emaciated dear R.K. Narayan!  India’s greatest English author confined to seven pages.  Had all 578 pages of the collection contained only Narayan’s work the cover might then have merited the hyperbole “Indian Writing,” for here is a writer who truly represents a place, a people, a culture (something, ironically, the country itself has trouble doing).

In the Rushdie-West selection, a sunny, refreshing meadow of a story entitled “Fellow Feeling,” Narayan’s gentle, god-fearing protagonist tells an irascible, bullying train passenger that if he doesn’t behave,

“I will slap your right cheek and at the same time tug your left ear, and your mouth which is now under your nose, will suddenly find itself under your left ear, and, what is more, stay there.  I assure you, you won’t feel any pain.”

You can see Narayan’s familiar paw-print in the words, “your mouth, which is now under your nose,” because in Narayan’s world, where characters are so dependent on the people around them that if you separated them they would die within a week, some men need to be reminded where their mouths are.  This kind of affectionate portrayal, where characters are composed of and celebrated for their deficiencies, runs counter to the general post-Joycean literary trend in which characters operate their bodies with the entire universe stuffed inside their bellies, their borborygmus playing the music of the cosmos, the act of going to the toilet or masturbating producing a wealth of philosophical compounds.

Nor does metaphorical fauna flourish in an environment where English is a language of class affirmation, bureaucratic negotiation, neighbours trying to act “uppity.”  Too much art in the English medium would only ostracise a writer like Narayan (who, like a good author, suffered from every deficiency except the ability to record timeless stories) from the people he met and talked to during his ritualised morning walks in Madras.  Too much stain and artistic design in the window, no matter how Indian the colours and patterns, would only draw our attention away from Narayan’s native pastoral view to what, for Narayan and the people he writes about, is an alien art form. (…continued…)

Go to Part II — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

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