The stories I get the most satisfaction from are usually about the neglected margins of India, where struggle is enmeshed with life. The ones I will upload have been written for The Sunday Guardian and (the now defunct) Covert Magazine. I'll be putting up any articles here at least until The Sunday Guardian website is up in a couple of months. Thank you for reading.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dousing India in Kerosene

In English, August, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s superb novel about a year in the life of a young Stephanian who has just joined the Civil Service, there is a revealing passage where the District Collector of Madna, Ravi Srivastava, refers to a sweaty underling of theirs as “just a promotee”. In the uniquely abstruse language of the Indian Adminstrative Service, a promotee is someone who joins the Service via promotion from one of the lower grades of the Administrative Services, usually State-level; an officer who has not cleared the much-hyped annual Civil Service exam but works his way up the ladder. It is testament to Chatterjee’s skill as a novelist that he is able to show through a single throwaway remark the sneering disregard officers of Srivastava’s ilk have for these junior officers. But, having come through the State ranks, often these junior officers are the ones who know the areas they serve best. Their knowledge of the minutiae of the political, social – and criminal – dynamic in an area can be of invaluable aid to the Collectors and Additional District Collectors who hop from posting to posting around the country. Additional Collector of Malegaon Yashwant Sonawane was one of these “promotees”.

“This matter will be taken very seriously. He was a very upright officer and this probe will continue until we take all the required action.” - P. Velarasu, District Collector, Malegaon.

Smack in the middle of that quote crops up another favourite word in the IAS lexicon, though their officers have less cause to use it: “upright”. From the use of this adjective, the astute reader will immediately understand that Sonawane, in contrast to the wide majority of his colleagues, was impeccably honest, dilligent and guided by such foolish values as patriotic pride and right and wrong. A look at his years in government reveals that Sonawane was all that and much more; it is open to conjecture, but it is just as likely that he was not only the most “upright” officer in Malegaon, but in all of Maharashtra.

By every account Sonawane was a truly remarkable man. Born into a poverty-line poor rural Dalit family, he managed after college to get himself a job as a clerk in the Mantralaya in 1988. In 1994 he cleared the state civil services exam, where he worked dutifully for fifteen years before being promoted to the IAS rank of Additional Collector in Malegaon.

Recognising that one of the major impediments to development in Malegaon was Hindu-Muslim tension, he worked hard to reduce the faultline, campaigning hard for a branch of Aligarh Muslim University to be set up there. He was also the driving force behind a plan to set up a unit of Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation there. If his life had not been so cruelly interrupted, he would have had the chance to do a great deal of good in one of India’s most troubled areas.

At the very least, Sonawane’s story should strike against those who oppose caste-based reservations in low-level government jobs (self-regarding elitists like Anish Trivedi, please note). Here was a man who worked himself up from penury to a position of undeniable influence by dint of hard work and honesty. He lost his life taking on a dangerous mafia because he was fighting for poor people’s right to government-subsidised kerosene. How easy it would have been for him to turn a blind eye and extend an open palm, as surely most of the other administrators, “promotee” or not, were in the area.

Sonawane believed he could alone wage a war against the venality of India. Yet we continue to laud a system when he has been proven so tragically wrong.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review: Serious Men by Manu Joseph

One of the recurring themes debutante novelist Manu Joseph explores in Serious Men is the nature of marital love. He tells the story of two couples of vastly different backgrounds into whose conjugal lives the arrival of third parties threaten havoc. For the Dalit hero of the book, Ayyan Mani, it is his cherished son Adi who signposts the damping of his wife’s ardour; this is when Ayyan recognises the paucity of the life he has given Oja. For his boss Arvinda Acharya, an ancient pachyderm of a physicist who once almost won the Nobel Prize and now heads the Institute of Theory and Research, it is meeting the young, voluptuous astrobiologist Oparna Goshmaulik that throws into sharp relief his decades long union with his patient, loving wife Lavanya.

As the title indicates, it is not so much a story of the couples as it is of the two men, Ayyan and Acharya. And as the novel progresses, both these serious men embark on elaborate deceptions. Ayyan Mani, who defines his Dalit idenity through anti-Brahmanism, needs to prove to his wife that there is life beyond BDD, the tenement slum in which they live. So he teaches Adi, a lonely boy with a hearing disability, to blurt out words like ‘Fibonacci’ in class, and ask questions about Relativity as his peers learn about fractions. Through periodic, inspired, prods by Ayyan, the myth of the Dalit boy-genius spreads, and Ayyan and his wife’s stature in their community grows. Newspaper and TV reporters arrive in their slum, and his wife Oja once again begins to believe her husband is a man of worth.

Ayyan Mani is a fascinating character, a poor Dalit with tremendous powers of observation and ready intelligence. His overwhelming desire, apart from creating a better life for his son than he had, is to be mistaken for a member of the middle class. So he drops his son to school in taxis he can barely afford, practices phrases in English, carefully reads everything he can get his hands on.

The genius of this book lies in the observation of people and the different worlds they build. One short scene between Ayyan and wife climbed beneath my skin, in a few lines forcing me to contemplate how we – the educated, assimilated rich – draw artificial, unseen lines, separating sophistication from vulgarity, tasteful from tawdry. Husband and wife are dressing for a function in their son’s school, and Oja wants to wear her shiniest sari and thickest gold chain. But Mani convinces her otherwise (‘Important does not mean gold any more.’) Then she says to him: “’You should wear that coat you have. You look like a hero in it.’ ‘No, no,’ he replies. ‘You are not supposed to wear a coat for something like this. You are supposed to look like you don’t care much.’

A little like the unparalleled Russian Mikhail Bulgakov, Joseph has the uncanny ability to mock those things “sophisticates” hold most dear. Science, high art, fine cuisine, literature, love; the things the educated world chooses to elevate to unnatural standing are picked apart time and again by his witty pen, and exposed, at their naked core, to be the hollow pursuits of people, not necessarily more noble or absurd than the activities of the peon who answers the phones, the journalist who writes stories for sale, the guard who covers the boss’s head with an umbrella as he scurries from his car in the rain.

Joseph is a fine political journalist (he is the Deputy Editor of Open Magazine) but this is his first novel, and I felt parts of the book began to drag, especially as he seeks to extract a nugget of philosophy out of the smallest things, such as the shape of an umbrella. It is the exposition of difference where he is strongest. Apart from the glaring material disparity between a Dalit peon and a near-Nobel winning physicist, Joseph also subtly and cleverly shows the difference their intellectual standing provides in their marriages. Ayyan is constantly relating to his wife information he has read and heard, so she could “marvel at a world so strange and at her man who knew so much.” Acharya, instead, has no longer any need to impress his wife. Years of achievement have taken care of that. Only once, when they are first married, is he as keen to dazzle as any man, and at their wedding pandaal he tells her something he has learned about the speed of light.

For a book at least notionally about science, some of the scientific thought is quite strange. Which near Nobel-winning physicist would seriously suggest that alien life could exist, impervious, in the dark vacuum of space, without the sustenance that a home like Earth can provide? Yet this construction is a reminder of the possibilities of fiction, where the only logic that must remain undisturbed is that of the narrative. Joseph is by no means a magical realist, yet his tale recognises that aligning the fictional world with the world we know is neither necessary nor even to be desired, no matter how much they resemble each other. In this book, physicists gaze out from their balconies at the stars and contemplate hot air balloons that will return to Earth with alien life forms. That is the world that Joseph must keep in balance, and he does so admirably.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010: The Year of Complicit Corruption

(this piece appeared as the edit in The Sunday Guardian on 2 January)

2010 provided India with a multitude of options in which to define the decade to come. The decade just past was about creation of opportunity and extension of influence. We learnt, much to many of our surprise, that as India’s economic importance grew, the care with which the world addressed our concerns would also grow. No other country expanded its soft power as successfully as India did these ten years. The attention the world paid to both our folly and our triumph was notable because, finally, we were globally newsworthy. If that meant Suresh Kalmadi’s name found headlines in newspapers in every corner of the world, it also meant that Slate, perhaps the most popular magazine on the Web, could now happily devote a long editorial towards examining the enigmatic, Apocalyptic charisma of Rajnikanth.

Yet 2010 came to mean something quite different to the Indian public. This was the year of Complicit Corruption. We learnt, this time not to anyone’s surprise, that almost every avenue of influence in India was open to a most endemic form of subversion. If public outrage became the leitmotif of the year, it was not unjustified. Everywhere there was power there was skullduggery, and everywhere there was influence there was silent shenanigan. The Indian public was betrayed time and again by the people they had reposed their faith in.

The Radia tapes illuminated this most clearly. It came at the end of a year beset by scandal, yet what hurt the prevailing sentiment most was the callous, casual disregard that two of Indian media’s most trusted sentinels had for the Constitution and the role of the Fourth Estate. That the powers-to-be were for sale many people have long suspected. That those who had been tasked with bringing light to political misdeeds were equally complicit was a betrayal that became too much to bear. Traditional media, already a creaking behemoth in an age demanding nimble, reactive feet, was dealt a body blow by its own collusive tendencies. But Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi were only the manifest representations of a culture that has seeped into news media for years. Front page space and analysis is being purchased by telecom and oil companies and their proxies at the same time the features pages are being bought by art galleries, restaurants and nightclubs. The World Wide Web democratised the dissemination of information; 2010 was the year that much of India’s Web-savvy population decided they no longer needed to be preached to by charlatans.

Yet the media is only one theatre for our uniquely Indian way of conducting the affairs of state. Cricket, housing for war widows, the Commonwealth Games, black money in Swiss banks, Mining, telecom, even the sale of food in a desperately poor state like Uttar Pradesh: everything was available to be bought and sold in India by a gathering of fifteen percenters in khadi. Many people cite the personal probity of our Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, which even in this besmirched age has thankfully never been in doubt. Dr Singh has helped bring to pass some of the best policies India has, such as the RTI and the NREGA. Yet he sits at the helm of a system that cultivates corruption and underhandedness. Perhaps he feels it is too much for one person to revolutionise the way government works in India. But if he is honest with himself, he will know that such rampaging thievery is the most insidious virus in the country. And now, the people are watching.