The Unbearable Lightness of Being Kashmir

As an Indian who grew up in India with no interaction with the rest of the world, Kashmir was a fantasy land of beauty. However, while every summer holiday my parents picked a destination for our next trip, I used to wonder why Kashmir was never on the map. I never asked, because without knowing much it was well understood in the early 90s that Kashmir was forbidden fruit. Pakistan was the villain and the Indian government (the hero) was saving the poor Kashmiris from the Villains incessant acts of interference.

Like it or not, I grew up. I started reading and pretty much got hooked to it. My childhood beliefs were violated in many respects, with total disregard to my innocence. While I had come to believe in the crystal clear position regarding Kashmir – as told to us from India by Indians, I encountered phrases like “India occupied Kashmir”. I took offense and grew violently Indian in my views regarding the issue. I came to then believe that the Villain had got the international community on its side and the poor hero (which still was the Indian state for me) was having a tough time proving the truth. It is probably in the nature of truth to be elusive, and India became more of a superhero for me to be standing on the right side of this ambition. However, the superhero status of India was challenged practically everyday – stories of military excesses by the Indian army, stories of Kashmiris not wanting to be a part of India, stories of Nehru’s quixotic enthusiasm in promising a plebiscite and India not honoring it, etc. My defence mechanism to these stories was the same as I had to deal with the allegation of original sin having marked the human race – these were just stories.

Then something happened. To put it precisely, Bill Clinton happened. He came to India in March 2000. Despite India’s insistence on Kashmir being an internal issue, requiring no international interference or debate, we always made an exception for Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam symbolizes money, the one point passion of all developing nations including India in the contemporary times. We bend over backwards to please them; therefore, when they talk Kashmir, we forget our stand and talk back. Clinton’s visit was literally a celebrated event in India. India wanted to impress. Like young couples want to do everything to impress when their parents first visit them in their new house, India was filled with joy and nervousness. The visit went well, except for a small irritant – 36 Sikhs were massacred in Chittisinghpura in Kashmir on the eve of Clinton’s visit. There are two theories on this massacre – first, and the comfortable one to admit, that Pakistani terrorists dressed as Indian military was responsible for it. The second theory is the not so innocent one; the kind of story which robs children of their heroes and superheroes (whether they are true or not), the kind that devastates the belief in Santa. This theory, in detail studied and supported by Pankaj Mishra in the New York Review of books suggests that this was indeed the Indian military working to create the headline for the next day’s newspaper that Uncle Sam would have in his hand when he lands in India.

The Chittsinghpura massacre was solved, like every single terrorist act has been solved when it happens in Kashmir but never when it happens in the mainland India. Within a week of any terrorist act in Kashmir, there are five young Kashmiri muslims killed and flashed to the media as those responsible for the act. The same happened here, though no one (except Indians) believed them this time. It was different. In a decade long history of violence in Kashmir, the militants had left the Sikhs alone. Their fight was with the Hindus and the Indian state and they did not consider Sikhs a part of that fight. To change that stand a day before Uncle Sam (whom the militants aka Pakistan wants to impress as well) lands to declare who is right and who is not, sounded improbable. There are many sides to this story and the truth, as elusive as it always remains, will never be known. But what is true is that The Hindu (a respected Indian newspaper published dominantly from the southern parts) reprinted the Pankaj Mishra article and unfortunately, I was robbed of my innocence. I did not believe, like a true Indian, that our army could ever do this. But I felt like a mother who spots a used condom in her daughter’s wastebin when she returns after a weekend away. Pankaj Mishra’s article has haunted me ever since.

The net effect of Mishra’s article was not that I changed sides, but that an element of doubt was planted in me beyond repair. From then on, whenever violence in Kashmir was reported and the perpetrators gunned down within a week, instead of being happy as I used to be, I felt a kind of bad aftertaste in my mouth.

Eventually, what started in the 90s continues till date. Violence in Kashmir is so common that it is not even worthy of a news clipping. Now, the only time Indians and the Indian media talk of Kashmir is when Kashmiris come out of  their homes to abuse India – the separatist movement as we call it. It has happened at very regular intervals in the last couple of years. Indian policy makers dispatch a group of citizens to talk. The principle remains, any solution to the Kashmir issue shall be within the frameworks of the Indian constitution. While this stand was respected and agreed to by a substantial minority till a decade back, today the Kashmiris spit on the Indian constitution – almost unanimously. The alienation is complete. It is only not apparent to the Indians who have guarded their innocence about Kashmir against all odds. The harsh truth is that an overwhelming majority of Indians don’t give a dead rat’s ass about Kashmir as long as no one talk’s about Kashmir not being an integral part of India. Kashmir for India is a valued possession, nothing else. It is like the first Barbie doll that most girls keep for life, even though it remains rotting in some obscure cartons of long forgotten memorabilia.

One citizen of India became vocal about her support to the cause of the Kashmiris a few years back. Thanks to the fact that she has a gift for stringing words together like very few do, she had won the Booker prize in 1997. India was proud of her – unanimously so. No matter if most of us never read a single page of her novel, we had an opinion of her – she was one of the very few Indians to have won the Booker and was a matter of pride for the Indians. She commands attention in international media due to this. This was again a matter of pride. All this is the reason why it is so painful when this pride of Indian changed sides. She started criticizing the Indian state. She became the voice of dissent. Net result – we stopped reading her and started criticizing her. It went to the point where the attempt is now more to dismiss her as a crackhead than to debate what she says. She is now the enemy of the collective of innocent Indian citizens. Problem is, they don’t feel that innocent anymore. Arundhati Roy’s criticism of the Indian state carries with it a not so subtle judgment on the Indian people and their apathy. As a result, Indians are literally up in arms against her. How dare she! Turning a deaf ear and shouting at the top of one’s voice, so as not to be heard but not to hear, is the first symptom of guilt.

I hated Arundhati Roy’s first piece of dissent when she attacked the Indian nuclear tests. She commented that nuclear weapons were human race’s proclamation to the gods that what he took ages to build, we could destroy in a minute. I disagreed. Nuclear weapons are evil, not even Uncle Sam would dare deny that. However, much before India had them, others did. And the world could be destroyed in minutes even if India did not carry those tests. However, a recent re-reading of that article made me see it in another light. The argument is not that India created nuclear weapons; the argument is that in choosing to do the tests, India sided with the evil. It accepted nuclear weapons. The argument is why not be like Japan when it comes to nuclear weapons. And it is a valid argument. It is like a child’s disappointment when their parents are seen taking the not so moral route and being ‘practical’.

Arundhati got very involved with the Narmada dam issue and wrote several essays on the extraordinary impact it would have on thousands of people who would be displaced. It was a valid dissenting voice which sided with the rights of the people, most of whom neither had the means nor the intellect to be heard, against the mad rush for ‘development’ and the capital it represented. She criticized the Supreme Court’s decision on the Public Interest Litigation on the issue and was held in contempt, though with a suspended one day sentence. That was symbolic of the Indian psyche – we are not sure if you right. We don’t want to believe you have a point. So we will proclaim that you are wrong, but won’t go so far as to punish you for it, because we need to have some semblance of justice.

Then Arundhati told the story of the Indian Maoists (more of a violent tribal rights movement) with amazing empathy. By now, no one cared. Maoists were the bad guys, they used violence. This gave the Indians the right to dismiss Arundhati as a dissenter for the sake of dissent. She was labeled as a media hungry crazy owl who doctored her opinions to be shocking so that it would attract attention. Maoists were not debatable, Arundhati was crazy and the Indians lived their lives in unlivable cities without any further concern. Who cares about some tribals who were denied basic rights. As long as they peacefully objected, our hearts would go out to them. Once they started killing, they lost the cause. No need to think of the fact that when they were peaceful none in India knew of anything about violation of their rights. When they made noise with bombs, they crossed a line and we stuffed our ears with ‘nothing justifies violence’. Was Subhash Chandra Bose justified? Shut up! Don’t talk crazy. And there goes all credibility of Arundhati Roy, for ever.

Arundhati, however, was not done. She now spoke on Kashmir. Behold! She made a call for the freedom of Kashmir from ‘Indian military occupation’. She did this two years back. Then now, just before the even more charming Uncle Sam (with an anticipatory Noble under his belt) arrives in India, Arundhati shared platform with the separatist leaders of Kashmir and herself gave a call for it – the unspeakable freedom of Kashmir. Woah! Talk of lines! This was way beyond the line of control. How could my sister argue I throw away my first Barbie? And to incite a mob to take it away from me? This was sedition – plain and simple.

As expected the Indian media, the Indian people (the one that doesn’t give a dead rat’s ass…) and of course the Indian politicians are up in arms against this seditious unruly idiot of a woman whom they had dismissed as a crazy owl sometime back. Not a word has been spoken about the debate that this must have triggered. Not a word about the military excesses we have made in Kashmir. Not a word about the life of the Kashmiris, which even if viewed from the Article 21 angle of the Indian constitution, has long been lost.

Indians are fighting a lost battle. They refuse to think outside the box, the box being the Indian constitution. Unfortunately, they now want to stop anyone else living in India to think beyond the box.

I say, we have crossed a line. We did in a creeping manner when for 20 years we allowed Kashmir to be wounded and to have no option but to lick their wounds. Even if we dismiss Indian excesses, which we should not, India has lost all moral rights over Kashmir by its apathy. The only manner in which it can and still holds on to that first Barbie doll is through an unacceptable military occupation. I thought this would shock the conscience of Indians. I thought at least by now, the Indian government will find itself alone. Maybe I had misplaced trust in humanity, specially those of the Indians. I believed that only people of America could live with a Guantanamo Bay in their backyard; my incessant pride at the Indian culture made me believe that we could not. It seems we can. Yes, we can!

An Avatar of Sensibilities

In the beginning, there was praise. This was prior to its date of release. Based on trailers and all that was available in various forms of media. Many around me were excited and I often wondered what it was about. I saw the trailer, thought must be interesting but also pre-judged the movie as another ‘special effects extravaganza’ with not much else to offer.

Then came the release. Everywhere you looked, James Cameron’s Avatar ruled. Whether it was the newspapers, television, or the senseless pseudo-intellectual talk at workplace – Avatar was the point in contention. Surprisingly, everyone had an opinion. Amusingly though, most of these were negative. The only positive response I heard was from those who were truly impressed by the special effects and were ready to let go the rest.

Initially I avoided Avatar. I am not a sucker for popular stuff and often dismiss them as nonsensical. The pre-release hoopla had put me off. I am not a sucker for science-fiction either, and therefore, I thought I could let go Avatar. However, three months and countless number of bad reviews later, I decided to watch it for myself yesterday.

There is no point debating that the plot of Avatar is neither unique nor awe-inspiring. If we can let that be, I can hardly find any faults with the movie. There is almost a consensus that the special effects are dazzling and have succeeded in portraying, to the awe of audience around the world, a unique wondrous and likable forests of Pandora.

The essence of Avatar, however, lies in symbolism. The genius of the movie and its maker is that despite some of the best use of metaphors, the movie was not complex to understand and was an entertainer throughout. Despite this, if people did not find it to be anything except special effects, I guess something is wrong somewhere.

In my opinion, the movie is pretty obvious about what it portrays. The inability of human beings to look beyond material profits and the total lack of sensitivity towards its own environs will eventually lead to total destruction. And till the last day, human beings won’t change their opinions and keep blaming everything except the way they chose to establish their societies as the reason for this destruction.

The dislike of Avatar by most of these human beings is therefore not surprising. The symbolism that was staring them in the face was unlikable and to avoid it, they developed a distaste towards it. This is not the first time, it happens very often in the way things go around in our species. Most of the times, the funny part is, these people do not know that their dislike is a part of psychological defence mechanism of their prejudices.

In a mad rush towards destruction and the propaganda to justify it, it was good to see an ‘avatar’ of sensibilities.

Lack of Warmth in Summertime (TSS)

SummertimeAs I mentioned in my last post, the news that Coetzee’s Summertime was released sent me immediately to my favourite local bookstore to get my copy. However, I could get to it only a little later and have just read the last page, a few moments back.

When I first heard about Summertime and its theme, I was intrigued and awaited it patiently. It was due to release only in December 2009, but I guess the publishers wanted to cash in on the media coverage it got due to the Booker Shortlist and released it immediately after the shortlist announcement. As someone who has read and loved Coetzee’s work before, I was not complaining.

Summertime had to be a difficult book, for any memoir is difficult. However, Coetzee was no novice in the genre with Boyhood and Youth having been received well before. Still, Summertime had to be difficult. Unfortunately, that shows when you read the book as well.

Coetzee is a master of words, the nobel prize has confirmed it sometime back. For someone as accomplished in his art as Coetzee, his last novel was an inevitable experiment. A fiction that speaks through dated diary entries, without any character voice,  Diary of a Bad Year was an achievement as well. While Summertime is different for sure, it is that same experiment taken forward.

As someone who starts a story every 15 days and has never finished any, I do understand in my limited capacity the pain, discipline, and frustration of baking the final batter. You will see that Coetzee for some reason did not want to go through this process and has served you the batter with no apologies. Summertime is a half attempt. It is not that batter cannot be eaten, but cakes taste better. As one of the characters through whom Coetzee chooses to give a glimpse of himself remarks – Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion.

One of the reason I found this was a lazy attempt  is because the other works of his that I have read have left me in awe of him. From that pedestal, Summertime lacks warmth. It is no news that Coetzee shares little about himself or his inspirations in real life. He, I believe, is from the school of thought that does not have faith in public images of authors. With Summertime, Coetzee has taken that inhibition to his fiction as well. While I empathize with the thought that an author’s life has little to do with his works, my question is – Why write a memoir/biographical fiction then?

4 women, 1 colleague/friend, few dated diary entries, and a few undated fragments are what he has chosen as reflections of himself. Summertime begins with the diary entries which give a glimpse into the thoughts of Coetzee in the period (1972-1977) in which the memoir is set. A young biographer is writing a book on the nobel laureate John Coetzee, a white South African author who has recently died in Australia. The second part of the book is an interview the biographer conducts with a women named Julia. She is married, a mother and just out of adventure, gets into an adultrous relationship with Coetzee. She lives in the same neighborhood where Coetzee stays with his father. This part is in the form of an interview, though the questions are few and short and therefore the answers are more like narrations.

The third part of the book involves Margot, a cousin and childhood love of Coetzee. The biographer had interviewed her and is now reading out the narrative that he has culled out from her

Coetzee at Nobel

Coetzee at the Nobel Ceremony

answers. This, I believe, is the most powerful narrative in the book. Coetzee probably intended it so, as it is clear from the words Coetzee chooses to put in Margot’s mouth that she was the alternate that he never was. The only relationship where Coetzee admits some warmth is with Margot, the alter-ego which remained as cut-off from his real self as everyone else.

Adriana, mother of a young beautiful girl whom Coetzee teaches English in extra classes, is the most intriguing of all. In her testimony, Coetzee was in love with her and troubles her to no end. However, she cannot be trusted. Adriana is an emotion that intrigues Coetzee and he presents it to us in all its raw contradictions. He then moves to a colleague/friend who taught in the same university. He is the only person of the same sex that he chose to include, though very briefly, as his mirror. There is not much to suggest as to why is he the one man in company of four rather complex women from his life. You are only left guessing. The last mirror is a lady lecturer from France with whom he taught a course in African literature and had sexual relations for sometime. She is the one who talks about his writing, his books – but too little, yet again. It is almost like Coetzee wrote Summertime to tease his readers, his so called ‘admirers’.

Summertime is not as dry as it may sound from whatever I have said above. Despite all this, it is a book you will read through easily. It has underlying themes of life, of a father-son relationship, of the commerce of life and the soul that pays in the bargain. It is an insight into how lonely a thinking, writing soul can be. It also is a relevant insight into the complex psyche of the white South Africans who were not a part of apartheid but were silently accommodating nonetheless.

Summertime lacks nothing when it comes to Coetzee’s ability to put the right words in the right order to make the right strings in your heart or head play the right tune. But it does lack the richness of a Coetzee fiction. It is a biographical fiction by an author who does not want to tell you anything about himself after he started writing. With that disclaimer, it is not a book to let go. Though, if you have not read Coetzee before, go pick his other works. Summertime can wait.

THE LATEST ACQUISITIONS

After long, went berserk once again with book shopping. What triggered it was an email from flipkart informing me that Summertime by Coetzee, recently shortlisted for this year’s Booker, was available. A picture is worth thousand words. Not in the picture are Death On The Installment Plan by Louis-ferdinand Celine and Greenpeace: How A Group Of Journalists, Ecologists And Visionaries Changed The World by Rex Weyler ordered online at Flipkart.

The Latest Acquisitions

The Latest Acquisitions

Confessions of an Author that Never was (TSS)

From Flickr

From Flickr

I have always wanted to write. However, I have always failed to achieve much beyond self-pleasing tid-bits. Like most of us who want to be ‘authors’ without having the discipline to churn out a single short story of any decent standard, I have always blamed it on the genius of people I have already read.

After a lot of thought, it was settled that I will be the one to show that despite the madness that is the modern life, a solution to this ‘human condition’ lies in seeking a reconciliation between the creative urge and the materialistic compulsions. Ideas after ideas were mooted and rejected. Characters were created, played with, and killed. Plots ended before they began. Ultimately, I have been left with nothing but utter desperation and a huge dint on my self confidence.

Probably, I think nowadays, I was never meant to be an author. Or rather, to be consistent with my existential claims, never ‘good enough’ to be an author. By disposition, and by training, I am a lawyer and probably a good one at that. But author I definitely am not.

People say that all illusions are best when in the past. I myself have been and remain a big proponent of that school of thought. Living in absolute reality is not only a tenet I preach but also purportedly practice. While in theory, there is hardly any evidence to the contrary, it is difficult to accept that the one thing you like, the one area were you are passionate is that where you have no talent.

For now, it is settled that I shall focus on the profession of my choice and relegate my passion to write to a hobby. Whether this is ‘giving up’ or living up to reality is something time shall tell. Or maybe, time shall not. In either case, I am bound to bear the consequences of my choice.

Sunday Salon

Revisiting the Magic of Dostoevsky (TSS)

After almost a year and a half, I have finally picked up another Dostoevsky. People all over have recommended the company of Prince Myshkin and I think it was high time I finally delved into The Idiot, which I have been intending to read for a really long time now.

While I still have around two-thirds of the book left to finish, I can confidently recommend it to anyone as another masterpiece from my favourite author. After reading his three most famous works – Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, I had the choice between The Idiot and The Possessed. Since I was more inclined to visit Dostoevsky’s inquiry into an innocent mind than his take on the political upheavals in Russia, I fell for Myshkin.

Of what I have read till now, I am thankful to the good sense having prevailed over me to revisit the magical world of Dostoevsky, where gripping stories are not eternally divorced from substantive psychological or philosophical discussion. Starting with White Tiger last year, my reading trend had slowly shifted more towards ‘contemporary fiction’, a genre I had for queer reasons stayed away from earlier. However, in due course the realization has dawned upon me that no reading should be guided by the ‘genre logic’. While the beauty of a Kundera or the relevance of an Adiga deserves all the attention, the omnipotence of a Dostoevsky can be ignored at no cost.

There are very few characters in literature that live with the reader for its impact on his psyche. This is apart from those that become a part, in some ways, of the folklore. Raskalnikov, Ivan, and Alyosha are the kind of characters that will never become as famous as literary characters can be. But for most people who have read and appreciated Dostoevsky’s themes, these live with them eternally; not as people, but as questions. Dostoevsky has the uncanny ability to turn ideas that trouble him or the ones that he contemplates without an answer, into his characters. It is this ‘answerlessness’ that gives Raskalnikov, Ivan, Alyosha, and the like their luster, their opulence. Vision stops at them, the mind is forced to look beyond.

Looking beyond, however, is to be an excercise in comprehension. In the last one and a half years that I have known these three questions, every new round of contemplation has brought fresh insights. These insights in turn serve as clues for those eternally unanswerable questions whose impotrance always lie in the act of the attempt to a solution, and never the solution itself. Maybe, that is why Dostoevsky has always been a very ‘involving’ read.

The way the Prince is going, I am sure at the end of it all, I would have added one more to the question bank. I also have an inclination that these characters of Dostoevsky talk across books. In many ways Rakalnikov challenges Alyosha and Prince, while the Prince has a lot to say to Ivan. That, I guess, is something to investigate.

Posted as a part of the Sunday Salon

Reading a Golden Notebook (TSS)

Inspired by Bob Stein’s email about the ‘integrated reading experiment‘ with The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, I picked it up way back in early December 2008. Thanks to a lot of other things happening in my life, I have been getting very little time to read compared to what generally satisfies me. Ergo, I am yet to read the last chapter titled ‘The Golden Notebook’. However, this book is so rich with ideas that one may not need to finish to share one’s experience.

It is my personal opinion that though a little background on a work of literature helps our understanding of the intricacies of the work, it is generally advisable to read a book devoid of any preconceived or rather pre-propounded theories about the same. Anyone reading Lessing in our time will be struck by atleast two facts – that she won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2007 and that she is considered to be one of the leading ‘feminist’ authors of the 20th century. Neither of these are relevant to one’s being able to understand or appreciate her work.

The conciousness that Lessing is a ‘feminist’ author was something I made myself dispel within 20 pages of my reading. I realized that this fact was clouding my perception of every sentence I read. I feel, standing at the epilogue of this monumental work of literature, that Lessing has much more to convey than mere sexist themes. This is not to be misunderstood as an aversion of feminine rights in any way. Only that, I feel it is unjust to sweep away other powerful themes of such an epic merely because the feminist ones shock the male dominated society the most. Should shock and awe be a value to judge literature by?

Having said that, let me acknowledge Lessing’s masterful command over the female psyche. Probably, it is the dearth of such powerful and shameless expression by women that makes Golden Notebook relevant even after decades of its first publication. I consider Colin Wilson’s Outsider to be one of the most important books I have ever read and I remember him having observed that female ‘outsider’ artists were hard to come by. Lessing is definitely one of them.

One of the most interesting theme of this novel is the promise and disappointment of the communist revolution. She captures in all its essence, the temptation of communism to the generation of the 50s -70s, in various parts of the world. More than the feminist overtones, being able to capture with perfection the political debacle of communism and its effect on the intellectual youth of that era is the most important achievement of Lessing. Communism holds no temptation to my generation and therefore, to be able to understand its appeal in the past is a tricky task. I believe, Lessing provides an able road-map to all those who would care to.

It is too easy to pretend that communism is an evil; though it is actually insane if we do. Across borders, throughout the wide world, more than a 2/3rd majority of the intellectuals were attracted by it in the last century. Most of them today are professors in various universities teaching either the history of communism or the economics of capitalism. For anyone interested in an understanding of the 21st century world, this political history is the single most important theme to understand. For that alone, The Golden Notebook deserves a very serious read.

The feminist aspect of the book deserves to be read with passion and a will to understand, at least from the male perspective. And that is what I have attempted to do. To be able to read a matter of factly stream of conciousness passage about the various kinds of female orgasm is an education in itself. Not biological, but psychological, and more importantly social. However, I shall hold my guns for now and return to this theme in detail once I have finished the last chapter of the book.

To conclude, a warning. This is a long book and becomes long specially when the diary entries record the dry facts. There are pangs of ‘Let’s Chuck it’. If you survive them, this is a book worth all the time.

Posted as a part of the Sunday Salon