Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rusdie's Akbar isn't so great

Rushdie's Akbar isn't so great
In the day's last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveller coming this way at sunset -- this traveller, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road-might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests. And as big as the lake of gold was, it must only be a drop drawn from the sea of the larger fortune..."
Thus begins Salman Rushdie's tenth novel, The Enchantress of Florence (Random House), with the arrival of Mogor dell'Amore (Mughal of Love) at Fatehpur Sikri, the red sandstone capital city of Emperor Akbar. Mogor dell'Amore is carrying with him a secret so startling that, once told to the emperor, it will force another secret to come tumbling out of the royal family's musty cupboards stuffed with nasty tales of gore and lofty stories of Mughal glory, forcing Akbar to order the redrawing of his genealogical tree by the palace artist, a brooding man given to dark thoughts.
Rushdie has tried to recreate life in two cities separated by land and sea. There's Fatehpur Sikri, where Akbar agonised over faith, fidelity and filial loyalty -- when and how would Salim, remarkably cruel as a young boy, turn on him? -- while unbridled hedonism prevailed in the bed chambers of princes, princesses and others less privileged. Then there's Niccolo Machiavelli's Florence where seductive mistresses cast magical spells -- tulips painted on underclothes -- and authority is exercised through appalling torture even as humanist philosophy sprouts from its violence scorched soil. What is common to both places is the brutality of power.
Mogor dell'Amore, with his distinctive European features and yellow hair, gets to tell his secret to Akbar after demonstrating his 'magical powers': He is the son of a Mughal princess, the forgotten youngest half-sister (the Mughal court, let's not forget, till it lasted, was teeming with half-siblings, each conspiring against the other) of Babar, the grandfather of Akbar. How Qara Koz (Lady Black Eyes) becomes the mistress of Argalia, a Florentine soldier of fortune, and the rest of the tale is told in the manner of The Thousand and One Nights. But Rushdie, for all his efforts to create magic through words -- "His hair was long and black as evil and his lips were full and red as blood"; "It was as if every man in the city had turned werewolf and was howling at the moon"; "So it was that Shah Ismail of Persia drowned in the 17-year-old princess's black eyes"; "She unleashed the beauty she had kept veiled and he was lost" -- fails to take his readers (or at least this reader) on a magical mystery tour. His first historical novel, woven around romance and fantasy, heavily researched (as the detailed bibliography shows) and strenuously crafted, does not quite add weight to his admirable repertoire of fiction. Rushdie began to slip with The Moor's Last Sigh, and hasn't quite stopped sliding down the hill since then. His ethereal Jodha Bai, who satiated the mortal Akbar's desire by scratching him -- "she was adept at the seven types of unguiculation, which is to say the art of using the nails to enhance the act of love" -- is a pathetic parody of history. Was there ever a Jodha Bai in Akbar's palace? "She existed," writes Rushdie, "She was immortal, because she had been created by love."
To his credit, though, Rushdie stops short of venerating Akbar, and mocks at those who refer to him as 'Akbar the Great', for that would be tautology and utterly silly. And when Akbar would say, "Allah-o-Akbar", as he did before chopping off the "unnecessary head" of a "pompous little twerp", the Rana of Cooch Naheen (that's what Hindu rulers, including in brave Rajputana where tales of valour outnumber the grains of the desert's sand, had allowed themselves to be reduced to under Mughal tutelage) did he mean "God is Great" or "God is Akbar"? That's a question nobody would dare ask, for secular myth-making has placed a glowing halo around the head of Akbar, who in real life was as great and merciful as his god but of which little is mentioned in our history books.
In an interview to Reuters, Rushdie said writing The Enchantress of Florence "saved him from the wreckage of his divorce last year from fourth wife Padma Lakshmi". By spinning a yarn from palace intrigue and bedroom politics, by taking refuge in magical realism, he managed to escape the real world which, at that moment, had turned cold to him. "It was a good place to go at a time when my private life was in a state of wreckage, and yes it was, I suppose, a bit of a refuge," Rushdie told Reuters. "I think in the end what got me through it was the long familiarity of the necessary discipline of writing a novel. I found that in the end a lifetime's habit of just going to my desk and doing a day's work and not allowing myself not to do it is what got me back on track. I was derailed for a while. I was in bad shape and it brought me back to myself," the writer explained.
While that cathartic experience may have helped him survive a personal crisis, it has not really produced a book that's worth comparing to his early novels. But then, it does provide a glimpse of what life may have been like within the walls of Akbar's city where charlatans and philanderers, flatterers and chatterers, connived and plotted as a Mughal megalomaniac, not quite sure of his faith as also that of others -- "In the melancholy after battle, as evening fell upon the empty dead, below the broken fortress melting into blood, within earshot of a little waterfall's nightingale song... the emperor in his brocade tent sipped watered wine and lamented his gory genealogy... He was not only a barbarian philosopher and a crybaby killer, but an egotist addicted to obsequuiousness and sycophancy... He felt burdened by the names of the marauders past, the names from which his name descended in cascades of human blood", presided over the destiny of Hindustan. As for life in Florence, we will leave that for another day.

Coffee Break / Sunday Pioneer / April 27, 2008.

Monday, April 21, 2008

India crawls before China

Torch relay was a pathetic farce
Early last week the popular news portal,, carried a delightful story about how China’s men in blue, who are accompanying the Olympic torch on its journey from Oympia to Beijing, threw Indian journalists out of IOC president Suresh Kalmadi’s office. A connected apocryphal story doing the rounds is that Mr Kalmadi did not so much as express a whimper of protest at this obnoxious behaviour by members of China’s elite People’s Armed Police whose primary job is to ‘control riots’ and ‘maintain domestic stability’. Seventy of these tough cops have been selected to form the ‘Flame Protection Squad’ and travel to 21 countries while their comrades patrol the streets of Lhasa ‘controlling riots’ and ‘maintaining domestic stability’ using means that have understandably met the approval of Gen Pervez Musharraf.
The chairman of the 2012 London Olympics organising committee, Mr Sebastian Coe, has described these men in blue tracksuits with snarling faces as “thugs” while Mr David Douillet, a French Olympic official, has lashed out at them for “not knowing how to handle protests and acting as robots or watchdogs”. Mr Douillet should have known better: There are no protests in China and at the slightest hint of dissent, authorities unleash retribution which is so brutal that not only the dissenters but the rest of the world is also shocked and awed. The men in blue, or whatever, were raring to have a go at protesters in Delhi. Thankfully, by barricading central Delhi, making it a no-entry zone, and deploying 21,000 security personnel, including NSG commandos who are trained to take on hijackers and terrorists, the organisers of Thursday’s tamasha made sure there was no contact between protesters and the ‘Flame Protection Squad’. So severe were the restrictions that the stalls were empty and the torch-bearers ran the 2.3-km distance between Vijay Chowk and India Gate with only a handful of children and officials cheering them.
There were far more people — and many of them Indians — at the protest rallies elsewhere than at the venue of the torch relay. Everybody else steered clear of Lutyens’ Delhi or stayed at home and watched a movie. On Tuesday, the Home Ministry issued a circular, virtually shutting down all offices in the vicinity, including the Prime Minister’s Office, on Thursday. “All windows and doors of all buildings opening towards Rajpath must be closed between 1 pm and 6 pm,” the circular said. Strangely, the directive added, “It must be ensured that no smoke is allowed to emanate from these buildings.” Incinerators installed on the roofs of North Block and South Block, used for destroying old files, had to be shut down. Members of Parliament could not attend the ongoing session. The actual schedule of the relay was kept a top secret even from ‘VIP guests’ who, barring a handful, did not turn up for the event. Mr Kalmadi, of course, looked important and busy, and later held up traffic to Indira Gandhi International Airport — he even managed to delay 20 flights, including many to foreign destinations. Mr Kalmadi is no doubt pleased as Punch and thinks the relay has been a grand success, as do those in Government who cravenly made a mockery of India’s democratic credentials to keep China in good humour.
On Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement, appreciating the “great efforts” by the Government of India for the smooth torch run. “China expresses its thanks for the warm support and participation of the Indian people and the great efforts by the Indian side,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s office told PTI. Participation of the Indian people? The state-run Chinese media, hailed the ‘smooth’ relay, and Global Times, a publication of People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, claimed “Tibetan separatist forces were frustrated”. No they weren’t; the Rajghat to Jantar Mantar protest march bears evidence to this fact. The China Daily reported the Olympic torch was welcomed in Delhi with “traditional pomp and pageantry”. Presumably by 21,000 security personnel! Along with its cock-and-bull report, the China Daily carried on its front page a photograph of Aamir Khan running with the torch.
We don’t know whether Aamir Khan, while trotting with the Olympic torch and posing for camerapersons, had a prayer in his heart for Tibet, but he surely had Coca-Cola on his mind. The stretch between Vijay Chowk and India Gate was carved up among corporate sponsors, including Coke and Lenovo, many of whom are also sponsoring the Beijing Olympics. In a BusinessWeek article headlined ‘Tibet could sap Coke’s Olympic zing’, Chi-Chu Tschang writes, “Coke, along with Chinese computer company Lenovo and South Korean electronics giant Samsung, has spent millions of dollars (the companies won’t disclose the exact amounts) to sponsor the relay. Lenovo designed the torch and provided free laptops to Olympic officials.”
But let’s get back to Aamir Khan and Coca-Cola. If you think he ran with the torch to uphold the ancient Grecian spirit of the Olympic Games, as his publicists, apologists of China in the Government of India and assorted friends of China would have us believe, you are absolutely wrong. The Hindustan Times has quoted Mr Venkatesh Kini, vice-president, marketing, Coca-Cola India, as saying, “Aamir Khan is our brand ambassador; people associate our brand with his face.” Similarly, Lenovo fielded Saif Ali Khan. Mr Prasanna Savnoor, general manager, marketing, Lenovo India, has been quoted as saying, “Saif Ali Khan has been associated with Lenovo for a long time. He represents the suave, intelligent, modern Indian man.” So, it wasn’t about promoting the spirit of the games after all; it was about getting paid for promoting Coca-Cola and Lenovo. They and their ilk are truly ‘modern Indian men’ — their lack of scruples is more than made up by their love for lucre.
The Olympic Games have not only been politicised but also commercialised. China will cynically use the Beijing games to make a larger political statement of Chinese power while sponsors will use it to promote consumer products. Where does the ‘Olympic spirit’ fit into such crass display of political might and financial clout?
Coffee Break / The Pioneer / April 20, 2008

Hunger stares us in the face

Hungry kya? But
there’s no food
It’s been a week of disconcerting news. Events at home and abroad, along with grim predictions by those who should know, would suggest that the human race is heading for a Malthusian disaster. The ‘checks’ that the British demographer elaborated on, based on his thesis of rising subsistence levels leading to increasing population growth till the supply of food can no longer meet demand, appear to be coming true. We could, in the not so distant future, find ourselves fighting for rapidly dwindling food supplies. The catastrophic consequences defy imagination.
At home, the most worrying news about hunger and looming starvation has been emanating from two Communist-ruled States, Kerala and West Bengal. Since both are at a distance from Delhi, our so-called ‘national’ media, especially 24x7 news channels, have chosen to gloss over what’s happening in the eastern and southern hinterland. Ms Mayawati calling Mr Rahul Gandhi names and babus demanding more money for their exacting job of spinning red tape, apart from titillating details of the glittering high life of the bold and the beautiful, have been grabbing more media space and time than the spectre of hunger that is stalking vast tracts of West Bengal and Kerala.
It’s difficult to imagine verdant Kerala with its undulating paddy fields, toddy-rich palms, lagoons and backwaters teeming with fish, dazzling jewellery stores the size of shopping malls, booming real estate fuelled by millions of dollars that are dutifully sent to families back home by expatriate Malayalees, could find itself in the vice-like grip of a food crisis that’s worsening by the day. But it’s true. People in ‘God’s Own Country’ are alarmed by the prospect of returning empty-handed from grocery stories, many of which have already put up ‘Rice Not Available’ signs.
According to conservative estimates, Kerala’s annual demand for rice, the staple for Malayali meals, hovers around 30 million tonnes. The State, perched on the Malabar coast, has limited cultivable land and can at best produce up to five million tonnes of rice. The remaining has to be imported from other rice-producing States. Till last year, the bulk of the shortfall was met with imports from Andhra Pradesh, but the situation has radically changed this year.
A new law in Andhra Pradesh limits the export of rice to 25 per cent of the actual produce. This has obviously done with the purpose of increasing supplies, and thus depressing prices, within the State. There is nothing wrong with this approach; after all, the Government of Andhra Pradesh has to look after the State’s interests before it can look after those of Kerala. But the sudden fall in supplies from Andhra Pradesh has left Kerala in a jam. Two other factors have coalesced to make a bad situation worse: The Food Corporation of India has trimmed the amount of rice supplied through the public distribution system by a whopping 96,000 tonnes; and, unexpected heavy rain has destroyed one lakh tonne of processed paddy.
So, Malayalees are now forced to pay an ever-increasing price for rice that is fast disappearing from the markets. Three of the four major markets for rice – Kochi, Kollam, Kozhikode and Thrissur – have run out of stocks; stocks at Kozhikode are depleting fast. On Saturday, parboiled rice in Kerala was selling between Rs 22 and Rs 23 a kilo, way above what it was selling for a couple of months ago. The CPI(M)-led Left Front Government, loathe to admit that there is a food crisis and people, more so the economically disadvantaged, could soon face hunger, however insists that rice is selling for Rs 18.50 a kilo. For once Marxist propaganda stands exposed as fiction, even among the party faithful.
Ironically, retail stores run by Reliance, which have been at the receiving end of Marxist ire and the anger of traders dependent on small retailers, have seized upon this crisis to convert it into a publicity opportunity. Friends tell me that Reliance stores are selling rice at Rs 17.50 a kilo, which is a rupee less than the price touted by the Government and far less than the market price. But such gimmicks are unsustainable and sooner or later Reliance stores will also have to put up ‘Rice Not Available’ signs. Meanwhile, Malayalees are pinning their hopes to promises made by Orissa and Chhattisgarh to supply rice -- by when and how much is anybody’s guess.
In West Bengal, tales of hunger and starvation emanating from districts that witnessed food riots last autumn and where cereals have all but disappeared from ration shops, have a tragic sociological twist to them. Many of the men and women who are on the verge of starvation are elderly and, needless to add, indigent. Abandoned by families which have migrated to Delhi and Mumbai, they can neither work for a living nor afford the prices demanded by hoarders who also happen to be, not so coincidentally, local party bosses on whose support and ill-gotten wealth the CPI(M) is pathetically dependent for its survival in power.
The Left Front Government has opened some feeding centres, but there are reports that only those who are known to vote for the CPI(M) are being allowed access to these emergency facilities. With panchayat elections scheduled for next month, the CPI(M) has decided to cynically exploit the distress of the starving masses to ensure its hold over rural Bengal remains as firm as ever. Earlier, it was the fear of Marxist terror that would make people vote for the CPI(M). This time it is the fear of starving to death.
What is scary is that soon all of India, riding the crest of inflation, could be faced with the grim prospect of food scarcity. Our buffer stocks are not in great health. And given the reality of dwindling international supplies, importing food is no longer an easy option. Mr Jacques Diouf, Director-General of FAO, was in Delhi last week with some frightening statistics: The world’s food grain stock at the moment is just about enough to feed the global population for eight weeks.
To make it last longer till fresh supplies arrive, a whole lot of us will have to go hungry. And hunger does not necessarily kill. It also breeds irrepressible, destructive anger. Witness the food riots that are erupting in country after country.

Coffee Break / The Pioneer / April 13, 2008

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Childhood memories of Kaal Boishakhi

Lost evenings of Kaal Boishakhi
There was no intimation of a storm when I left home for work last Thursday. It was only after I hit National Highway 24, which is an apology for an inter-State highway that mocks at our tall claims of ‘progress’ and ‘development’, that I spotted the dark, menacing storm, roaring across the highrise-dotted dust plains that separate Delhi from Uttar Pradesh. Within seconds an all-engulfing darkness descended at high noon and gale force winds swept down, whooshing their way through malnourished trees and scrub, scooping up dirt and millions of discarded plastic bags, and sending them swirling in the gathering gloom. It was not a pretty sight to see garbage and filth of various descriptions, dumped every day along the highway as part of an officially endorsed waste disposal ‘system’, being tossed around.
Mercifully, the rain came soon after. First there were fat drops that plonked dully on the windscreen and turned into streaks of black-brown grime. There was a distant roll of thunder, and then the skies opened up, sending a downpour that came crashing like a sheet of water. Within seconds, the stench of festering garbage had been washed away and the plastic bags had disappeared, weighed down by the rain. By the time I crossed Nizamuddin Bridge into Delhi, the roads were flooded and traffic was crawling at a speed lower than usual. Everybody was cranky, which was not unusual. It rained for the next couple of hours, and then drizzled for a long while.
Later that night, the roads looked fresh and clean, with puddles glistening under streetlights and the damp air redolent with the smell of rain. I rolled down the car windows and breathed deeply. You can’t do that very often in this part of the country. For all its pretensions of being ‘world class’, the National Capital Region, barring Lutyens’ Delhi, is really a sprawling, polluted concrete slum, pock-marked by ghastly glass-and-chrome malls. Next day’s newspapers described the thunder squall as “unseasonal rain” and carried photographs of stalled autorickshaws, cars, buses and trucks with motorcyclists trying to clamber over and across them.
Similar storms at this time of the year are joyously greeted in the eastern hinterland, especially in rural Bengal where they herald the advent of summer. As Choitro gives way to Boishakh, marking the end of spring, Kaal Boishakhis, or nor’westers, make their annual, almost ritual, appearance. The skies turn dark, egrets take flight, their sparkling white plume standing out in sharp contrast to the ink black clouds, and the wind comes roaring, whistling through coconut and palm trees, in a strong blast that lasts for about five to ten minutes. This is followed by a sharp drizzle that drenches the soil, dampens the air and cools the evening breeze which makes east India so very different from the rest of the country, more so Delhi, India’s dust bowl.
Decades ago, while growing up in Jamshedpur, my friends and I would wait for Kaal Boishakhis with bated anticipation. The immediate hour after a Kaal Boishakhi would be spent collecting green mangoes, raw and sour, which were otherwise forbidden, torn off their tender stalks by the raging wind. There was something Darwinian about the mango trees in our colony: The fittest fruit survived the frenzied storms of Boishakh to mature into delightfully sweet mangoes in the scorching heat of Joishtho. But they never tasted as good as the forbidden fruit.
It was during those years of growing up in a small Singhbhum town that we learned the art of grating a seashell on a rock with a rough surface to fashion a peeler for the green mangoes we would surreptitiously collect from Mrs Chowdhury’s garden. She had a dog whom she fed Ovaltine and milk for breakfast; Badshah slept all the time and wagged his tail furiously while we stole Mrs Chowdhury’s mangoes. She would be busy dusting her house — which she kept spotlessly clean — after the storm. Even if Badshah barked, which was a rarity and I can’t recall having heard him bark even once, she wouldn’t have heard him. As soon as a Kaal Boishakhi would pass, Mrs Chowdhury would switch on her gramophone at full volume and listen to Rabindrasangeet on 78 rpm records. Her favourite was ‘Esho hey Boishakh, esho esho...”
On Kaal Boishakhi evenings, dinner would be predictable — and, I guess, they still are predictable in Bengali homes that have not traded their Bangaliana for tandoori chicken and daal makhni. It would invariably arrive on the table in the form of steaming khichuri, begun bhaja and papor bhaja. The highlight of the meal would be an omelette. On some nights, the omelette would be replaced by fried hilsa from Kolaghat. Many years later, I was invited to a dinner hosted by a professor at University of California, Berkley. He and his wife had sought to recreate the ambience of a post-Kaal Boishakhi dinner. There was ‘Esho hey Boishakh, esho esho...’ playing on his hi-fi system, curtains had been drawn to shut out the bright evening light, and there was much rustling of brocade and Banarasi silk. Instead of hilsa, they served crisply fried American shad with khichuri made with aromatic Basmati rice. The professor recalled his childhood in Birbhum, of how he would run wild in paddy fields with his friends as a Kaal Boishakhi raged. Later, he wept copiously into his tumbler of bourbon. The charms of America had obviously proved more seductive for him than the harsh climes of Birbhum.
Just as the ersatz benefits of living in Delhi stops me from going back to the land of Kaal Boishakhis where I could teach my daughters how to make peelers from seashells and they could smell the fragrance of rain-sodden earth while collecting green mangoes and chasing dragonflies in the purple light of east India’s dusk before settling down for a steaming meal of khichuri, begun bhaja and omelette, listening to the strains of ‘Esho hey Boishakh, esho esho…’ playing on a neighbour’s gramophone.

07 April, 2008