Wednesday, February 07, 2007

This Blog has moved to Wordpress

Wordpress's new import utility was too hard to resist, and 'a reader's words' has moved to its new location at

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

With Borges by Alberto Manguel

More knowledgeable friends have often expressed consternation, if not contempt, for the fact that I have never quite 'taken to' Borges.

Silly as it may sound, but the fact is that I could not proceed beyond a few (well, actually just a couple) of his stories that I don't even remember.

My reasoning is that I am a reader of the novel, not the short story, and then also novels in the tradition of the 19th century novel at least in their concern for social and political issues.

Borges does neither.

In fact, I was surprised by a statement attributed to him- that the novel is an unnecessary form since a good writer can express the same in a short story (or words to that effect) .

Jorge Luis Borges himself was a master of the short form.

His genre is also the fantasy, something that does not appeal to me for similar reasons.

It turns out that my views are not exactly original. In his early years, Borges was criticized on these very grounds (which makes me feel ancient.)

This and much else comes to light in Alberto Manguel's slim, almost Borgesian volume, With Borges whose English translation came out last October.

Manguel read to the great Spanish writer when the latter was fifty eight years and had turned blind, and Manguel himself was sixteen years old. He was one of the many people who had the privilege of reading to Borges and it is very clear that these four years at that impressionable age left a lifelong imprint on his mind and his style of writing.

With Borges is part recollection and part an insightful literary excursion into the writings of Borges.

He brings out in one breathless sweep, the great man's wide reading, his ability to correlate different works and ideas, his love for 'inventive memories', his disdain for convention when it came to writing, or reading for that matter, and his belief that the universe is a book.
There are writers who attempt to put the world in a book. There are others, rarer, for whom the world is a book, a book that they attempt to read for themselves and for others. Borges was one of those writers. He believed, against all odds, that our moral duty was to be happy, and he believed that happiness could be found in book, even though he was unable to explain why this was so.
Elsewhere he remarks:
For Borges, the core of reality lay in books; reading books, writing books, talking about books. In a visceral way, he was conscious of continuing a dialogs begun thousands of years before and which he believed would never end. Books restored the past.
Borges considered himself to be, above all, to be a reader.
...reading is, for Borges, a way to be all those men he knows he'll never be: men of action, great lovers, great warriors. For him reading is a form of pantheism.
For anyone who is a fan of Borges already, this is a delightful book with incisive insights into their favorite writer's mind and for those still not converted to the cult, it is a gentle reminder to go and read him carefully, and more generously.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

An Interview with the Tango Singer

Maya Jaggi interviews Tomás Eloy Martínez, whose The Tango Singer, was one my own best reads last year.
...the novel aims to "draw a map of the city of Buenos Aires that can't be seen, an urban topography of the unknown", though the labyrinth he depicts is one in time, not space. "A large part of Argentinian history concludes with an act of violence," he says in London. "The dictatorship ended with a war - the Malvinas - with 30,000 desaparecidos in the concentration camps. All stories are contaminated with violence."

He had been asked to write a factual book about the capital, but it came to him as a novel, in a dream. Set in late 2001, the story unfolds amid Argentina's financial crash, with spiralling inflation, a bizarre succession of five presidents within 15 days, and 30 people killed in rioting in Buenos Aires. Bruno, who leaves Manhattan just before September 11, finds Argentina's meltdown more urgent and astonishing than the terrorist strike on the twin towers. For Martínez, too, who was visiting as "the country was on the verge of collapse", it was a "more absorbing reality that a whole country was disappearing from the map. Why must what happens in the US be more important than the terrible things that happen in Buenos Aires or Baghdad?"
Related links:

Review of Santa Evita by Tomas Eloy Martinez
Review of The Peron Novel by Tomas Eloy Martinez
A review of The Tango Singer (from Independent)

Link via Literary Saloon

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Nuclear Power and Environment

Environmental guru James Lovelock, who created a flutter in the 1970s with his researches on the ozone-consuming fluorochlorohydrocarbons (FCHC) believes that sustainable development is nonsense and the world cannot do without nuclear power.

Lovelock has nothing but ridicule for environmentalists' favorite issues, such as "sustainable development" and "renewable energy," calling them "well-meaning nonsense." He is convinced that wind and solar energy will never be even remotely capable of meeting worldwide energy needs. In China alone, for example, a new large coal power plant is put into operation every five days, imposing additional burdens on the atmosphere. The only solution, according to Lovelock, is the massive expansion of nuclear energy worldwide.

A reliable supply of electricity, says Lovelock, is the key issue when it comes to survival on a warmer planet. He loses no sleep over the risks of nuclear power.

"Show me the mass graves of Chernobyl," he demands provocatively. No more than a few thousand people died after the 1986 meltdown -- a small price to pay, he says, compared to the millions who could fall victim to CO2. He adds that compact nuclear waste is vastly easier to control than the close to 30 billion tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere each year by the burning of fossil fuels.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Literary Journey to Brazil

Jorge Amado, Brazil's most celebrated novelist, was, like the country, larger than life. His novels ("Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon" and "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" were reissued this past fall by Vintage; "Tent of Miracles" and "Tieta" in 2003 by University of Wisconsin Press) burst with energy -- rollicking, robust, earthy tales from the northeast port cities of Ilheus and Salvador, of worker strikes, rubber booms and busts, and mulatto beauties. (The film versions of "Dona Flor" and "Gabriela," incidentally, are classic '70s softcore fare, starring the sumptuous Sonia Braga.) Amado, embraced in the U.S. during the Latin boom era of the '60s and '70s, had been pumping out hardy, proletarian-style novels since the '30s, though by the '50s they had turned more comic, lighthearted and bawdy.
Over at Salon, Anderson Tepper writes about the literary journey to Brazil. My own reading of literature from Brazil is limited to Jorge Amado's Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (that I did not quite catch), Twelve Fingers by Jo Soares and The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Rozaa, a detective novel which was left incomplete.

The best reading on Brazil, however, was Mario Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World.

Related Post

link via Splatlit

Saturday, January 27, 2007

20 Years Later: A Requiem for Perestroika

Dateline: Jan. 27, 1987

At a Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party plenum, Gorbachev announces his perestroika program, aimed at "restructuring" Soviet economic and political policies. "We need democracy just like we need air to breathe," he said.
As a young student, while wading through the eerily desolate aisles of the University library and the dusty thick volumes on the deliberations of the CPSU Congresses of the 1950s and 60s, I was bemused that the Party resolutions from those years that confidently spoke about achieving communism in the next 20 years. I was, of course, wiser and knew, in that tumultuous decade of the 1980s that it was a wrong analysis. Communism would be a long haul.

I was very confident that this long haul would still be achievable in my lifetime, it was just a matter of another decade or two, maybe three, but then, all of us are allowed the illusions of our youth.

While I was walking up and down the aisles of the library that City that is both meticulous and drab in its imitation of European sensibilities of city architecture, that the CPSU General Secretary Gorbachev was ushering in Glasnost and Perestroika in the Soviet Union. Today(27January ) marks the 20th anniversary of the two words that brought down the superpower, the flag bearer of 'existing socialism.'

But in those years, Perestroika and Glasnost was music to my ears, and I believe, to many of my generation. It brought the shine back to those glorious names as it invoked the trinity of Lenin, Bukharin and Trotsky. It also brought into the tradition of the Old Left, questions of what in those years was termed as the Scientific and Technological Revolution and Environment.

It brought an immediate sense of urgency for ending the nuclear arms race. It raised questions on the limitations of class analysis and issues that transcended class-these had been the themes of the New Left in Europe in the 1960s, but ignored by the most organized global political movement of the 20th century.

Perestroika and Glasnost meant hope.

The Gorbachev of those years,confident, smiling, youthful if not cherubic remains the face of that last, and grossly failed, attempt of socialism with a human face.

Inside his own country, Gorbachev had opened a Pandora's box with its myriad of seemingly unsolvable problems.
In August 1987, a minister reported that there were still 1.3 million people in prison in the Soviet Union -- almost three times as many as in the United States -- and that 10,000 crimes were being committed each year in the prison camps alone. "Our prisons," an agitated Gorbachev commented, "are producing hundreds of thousands of thugs and furious opponents of Soviet power. Millions of people have passed through the camps -- the best sort of school for turning them into hopeless criminals."

At that point his perestroika had been going for almost two and a half years. And virtually nothing had changed. It was like tilting at windmills -- in a country that was being plagued with a new disaster on an almost weekly basis. link
Increasingly sidelined in the face of opposition from his own Party (which he called, at one time, "mangy, rabid dog") and the liberals under the leadership of Yeltsin, Gorbachev was, fighting losing battle and his outbursts against the Yeltsin ultra liberals came too late.

Yeltsin, the then speaker of the Russian parliament, who had left the Communist Party three months earlier and had since emerged as the shining light of the great Soviet republic, had given the Kremlin an ultimatum the night before: His republic would no longer consider itself subservient to the Soviet leadership. Yeltsin was threatening Gorbachev with secession...

Gorbachev was at the meeting and, as Chernyayev wrote, he "listened, depressed and moved at the same time." But he was mostly silent. Only as he was leaving did he angrily strike out at Yeltsin and his supporters: "They ought to be punched in the face." But it was a moment in which he probably sensed that perestroika, his great historic project, was coming to an end. link
Russia, the primary successor nation to the Soviet Union, has since then borne brunt the neo- liberal onslaught which has resulted in a human catastrophe. The dominant media continues to portray as a legacy of the socialist state, rather than locating it in the disastrous recipes churned out by the West for the former superpower. Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out:
"The scale of the human catastrophe that has struck Russia is something we simply don't understand in the West. It is the complete reversal of historical trends: the life expectancy of men has dropped by ten years over the last decade and a large part of the economy has been reduced to subsistence agriculture. I don't believe there has been anything comparable in the twentieth century… I believe it is (entirely due to the application of free market rules)if for no other reason than that free market rules, even if adapted, require a certain kind of society. If that kind of society does not exist, the result is disaster". link
Alongside the wholesale destruction of Russian society in the last decade and half, it has also played havoc with the Russian intelligentsia, a phenomenon to which Perry Anderson has drawn attention to in his recent sweeping article in LRB:
Fifteen years later, what has become of this intelligentsia?Economically speaking, much of it has fallen victim to what it took to be the foundation of the freedom to come, as the market has scythed through its institutional supports. In the Soviet system, universities and academies were decently financed; publishing houses, film studios, orchestras all received substantial state funding. These privileges came at the cost of censorship and a good deal of padding. But the tension bred by ideological controls also kept alive the spirit of opposition that had defined the Russian intelligentsia since the 19th century – and for long periods been its virtual raison d’ être. link
This decimation of the intelligentsia is also on a world scale which drew much from the unique position that the Russian intelligentsia has occupied since Napolean's armies left a burnt down Moscow. Its ambivalent position as part of the Western world found an echo in those who too were placed in an ambivalent situation with respect to the West, especially in the former colonial world.

But above all, the failure of Perestroika and Glasnost robbed socialists of dreaming- of dreaming big, of dreaming of carrying out world shaking events leaving that to neo- liberal globalizers. Socialists now need to be content with incremental changes, tweaking here and there, sometimes looking at the liberal heaven in Sweden, and sometimes to the Chavezistas in Venezuela for inspiration.

Gorbachev is now memorable for little more than the advertisement for Pizza Hut.

Not altogether uncharacteristic for a man who, whatever may have been his intentions, who ended up as a pizza deliveryman for capitalism.

Was the collapse of the might CPSU inevitable? Most opinion seems to favor this view, Manuel Castells in his celebrated three volume Rise of the Network Society provided gist to the idea that the Soviet Union had failed to catch up in the knowledge, network based economy and had collapsed under its dead weight. Roy Medvedev in Post-Soviet Russia, however has pointed out it has been was possible to reform the Soviet State- in a work that has been neglected.

Stephen Cohen, in a recent article in The Nation, too has argued on similar lines.
Political and economic alternatives still existed in Russia after 1991. Other fateful struggles and decisions lay ahead. And none of the factors contributing to the end of the Soviet Union were inexorable or deterministic. But even if authentic democratic and market aspirations were among them, so were cravings for power, political coups, elite avarice, extremist ideas and widespread perceptions of illegitimacy and betrayal. All of these factors continued to play a role after 1991, but it should already have been clear which would prevail. (link)
Altogether, the failure of Perestroika and Glasnost left behind them, a sea of uncertainty and a world that no longer has the option, in Rosa Luxemburg's evocative phrase, the choice between barbarism and socialism. Barbarism rules. Anarchism, if at all it is an option, is still available for those who cannot do without one.

Perestroika and Glasnost left behind a world that is no longer safe for socialists.

Image Acknowledgement: No Road

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Left, Caste and Dalits: A Troubled Relationship

(This post appeared at Jack Stephen's blog, The Mustard Seed. My thanks to Jack for having invited me for writing the post).

The Indian Left has had a troubled association with the caste question.

The major reason, in case of the Left has been the over arching importance that Marxism has attached to class and class conciousness. This has been true of the Marxist Left which includes the original and later CPI, the CPM and even most of the Maoist formations. The socialist parties, specially under Ram Manohar Lohia and to a lesser extent Acharya Narendra Dev acknowledged the issue of caste since the fifties though from the backward caste, and not a Dalit perspective.

This post, however, focuses on the relationship between the Marxist Left and Dalit politics.

The class based approach of the Marxist Left gave little importance to caste, and even saw it as an impediment for growth of class consciousness. It's mass fronts consisted of the trade unions, the peasant associations, landless agricultural workers. Outside these class based fronts were those for women, students and the cultural wing (the famous Indian People's Theater Association).

No scope was seen for a Dalit or any other caste based association. In fact, when the DS4 of Kanshi Ram began to grow in the 1980s, it was seen, even by those cadres in the existing communist parties who came from a Dalit background, as reactionary and dangerous- since these threatened to break the unity of the class based fronts along casteist lines. At no time, till the Mandal Commission forced it to take a firm stand, did the Indian Left see centrality of the caste question in India.

Within the CPI and the CPM, the leadership has been, even till recently, primarily drawn from the Brahmins or the local dominant castes, with very few exceptions. Neither have these parties made any conscious attempt to bring cadre from the Dalit strata into leadership positions. Instead, they have recreated in their internal structures the imbalances of society.

This is not to deny the fact that they have also been relatively less susceptible to casteism, and many among their cadre continue to be within these parties because of the relative absence of casteism within these parties in comparison with others. This is especially so where Dalit movement has been weak or non- existent.

In comparison with some other countries, the Indian communists' participation and acceptance of parliamentary politics has been long and unquestionable. However the stress of political action also blunted the social and mass based actions that these parties should have been involved in.

This came out very clearly when, after the CPI(M) Congress in 1998, in reply to a question as to why the Left had failed to strike roots in Uttar Pradesh, the then party General Secretary H.S. Surjeet explained the reasons thus:
"There has been no social reform movement in the state".
This surely is a case of putting the cart before the horse, since for those on left of the political spectrum, reforms are only a part of a much more comprehensive radical agenda. The task of the left is to carry out changes that go beyond reforms and not wait for others to carry out the job. Surjeet's words raise an existential question for the CPI(M).

Another reason of this dichotomy between the Left and the Dalit movement has been that Dr. Ambedkar, by far the most towering leader of the Dalit movement if not its only one till the rise of Kanshi Ram, had been an opponent of Marxism. His focus remained the social upliftment of the Dalits and as a politician his sensibilities honed in English liberalism restricted his view. W.N. Kuber puts it thus:
In 1937, (Ambedkar) founded the Independent Labour Party, for sometime joined hands with the communists in the labor field but did not take consistent attitude and fight class battles. Though his community was downtrodden and landless and mostly wage- earners, still he could not make them class- conscious, because of the weakness in his inherent thinking. After the Poona Pact he tried to lead the working class, but failed and left the field forever, and chose to become the leader of his community.
(source: Ambedkar: A Critical Study by W.N. Kuber, 1973. Page 304)

His insistence on Buddhism as an alternative to Marxism also did not help to build bridges.
Buddhistic countries that have gone over to communism do not understand what communism is. Communism of the Russian type aims at bringing it about by a bloody revolution. The Buddhist communism brings it about by a bloodless revolution. The South East Asians should give a political form to Buddha's teaching.... Poverty cannot be an excuse for sacrificing human freedom.

(Source: Ambedkar, Life and Mission, page 487, quoted in Kuber).

To the over arching importance that Dr. Ambedkar gave to conversion as a salvation for the Dalits (then called the Depressed Classes), the scholarly CPI leader Hiren Mukerjee commented:
But merely by changing one's religion, one cannot bring a solution, particularly to the kind of problem that we have in our country. That is why I say the conversion to Buddhism was a gesture, a moral gesture, with certain conceptual connotations of its own. Buddhism is a magnificent religion, but somehow it was eased out of India. If by some miracle, Buddhism is brought back again, well and good. But things do not happen in real life like that.
(source: Hiren Mukerjee: Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Extirpation of Untouchability, page 46, quoted in Kuber)

If the Left parties are more sensitive to the caste question in recent years, it is because of the battle lines that were drawn in the aftermath of the Mandal Commission and also because of the political base that caste based parties, especially the Bahujan Samaj Party have been to create for themselves. While these made a dent in the following of all existing parties, the ones specially impacted were the Congress and the Left.

The second reason is the recognition of near absolute identity of the Dalits as one of the more oppressed sections in the country. Earlier observers, even among the most radicals ones, disdained this. Groomed in the modernist, Nehruvian framework in the backdrop of global appeal of Marxism, the caste factor was pushed under the carpet. It was even seen as an obstacle in establishing class-consciousness.

This has now changed, and rightly so. The communists and the Dalit movement share a complementary role. While the Dalit movement has articulated the social and political aspirations of the oppressed community, it has lacked a firm economic program, with the result that once power is gained (in Uttar Pradesh, for example), the lack of a class based theoretical perspective restricts it to either parliamentary politics or the perspective, often narrow, of a single leader. A Marxist understanding and placing the Dalit movement within a larger national and world wide struggle for emancipation complements this social and political approach.

It is not that this has not been attempted, it was there during the brief existence of the Dalit Panthers Movement in the 1970s before its disintegration. It was also there in the approach of Sharad Patil who broke away from the CPM to form the Satyashodak Communist Party in Maharastra in the 1980s.

Given the ossification in the dominant Left, however, this dialogue will have to be initiated by the cadre of the Dalit movement and independent Marxists.

(This post owes much to Raghbir Singh, with whom I've had numerous discussions on the topic. He had first "warned" me about the "threat" from DS4 way back in 1987. Needless to say, we have both substantially revised our understanding since then.)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Perry Anderson on Russia Today

Perry Anderson has a long, illuminating take on Russia under Putin encompassing arts, culture, literature the state of the intelligentsia and political analysis.
Such tensions have certainly not silenced the arts. Fiction aiming at more than entertainment has never avoided the Soviet experience. Since the 1990s, however, representations of it have tended to become volatilised in the blender of de-realisations that typifies much current literature. Russian fiction has always had strong strains of the fantastic, the grotesque, the supernatural and the utopian, in a line that includes not only Gogol and Bulgakov – presently the two most fashionable masters – but such diverse figures as Chernyshevsky, Leskov, Bely, Zamiatin, Nabokov, Platonov and others. What is new in the current versions of this tradition is their cocktail of heterogeneous genres and tropes of an alternative reality, which seeks to maximise provocation and dépaysement. But such formal ingenuity, however startling, tends to leave its objects curiously untouched. The same techniques can dispose of Communist and post-Communist realities alike, as a single continuum. In Viktor Pelevin’s most lyrical work, The Clay Machine-Gun, the Cheka of the Civil War, the bombardment of the White House and the contemporary Russian mafia dance and merge in the same phantasmagoria. At its best, such literature is splendidly acrobatic. But, satirical and playful, most of it is too lightweight to impinge on deeper structures of feeling about the past. Scholarship is another story.
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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Inventing India

Arvind N Das, who died seven years ago at a tragically young age at 52, nevertheless packed a lot in his intense life. A product of the "Spring Thunder over India" in the late 1960s, he was part of the brilliant team at the Times of India in the late 1980s which is when one became acquainted with his insightful writings.

Trained as a historian, he moved, first to print journalism and then to the medium of TV setting up Asia Pacific Communications to produce a nuanced documentary on the history of India. In the documentary, as in his writings, he showed himself as a student of DD Kosambi to whom he dedicated the documentary that appeared in 13 parts on Doordarshan. He remained an engaged social historian in the tradition of DD Kosambi and EP Thompson.

In his book "India Invented", he made the observation that India is not something waiting to be discovered, as Jawaharlal Nehru had treated it in his Discovery of India, but something that is to be constantly invented in the process of understanding it- that was his statement of praxis.

The first part of the documentary is now available at google videos. It is also available from Asia Pacific Communications and can be ordered, I believe, from the address given at the google videos site.

Link to Google Videos

Needless to say, it is a very ennobling, and educative experience to be able to watch this documentary once again. One of the best in the series is the one where Das delves into the emergence and decadence of Buddhism (part 5), though this one doesn't seem to be available online as yet. DD Kosambi had himself written very insightfully on the decline of Buddhism in India in his collection of essays Exasperating Essays.

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A New Blog for DD Kosambi

I had set up a site on the Indian historian D.D. Kosambi many years back, perhaps in the late nineties, as a tribute to a man who has contributed so much to applying the dialectical method in investigating ancient Indian history. In my student days, it was very inspiring to read his books starting with The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline. Over the years I have received a number of emails on the site which only indicates the interest that still exists in Kosambi.

A lot more material is now available on the internet about D.D. Kosambi than when I started out. My initial project was to scan and make available on the internet works by the number of Marxists that have contributed to our understanding of India and its history. For various reasons, the original project never beyond putting up some of his works online.

Only a few months back, I was amazed to find that Arvind Gupta has made available all the significant works by Kosambi on the internet. It lessens my feeling of guilt at not having completed my initial project.

Since his death in 1966, many of Kosambi's formulations have been disapproved. Still, his works retain their significance for their pioneering efforts and rigour that has laid the foundations of modern Indian historiography.

His quintessentially humanistic streak that still inspires many to read his works is best reflected in his own words.
"The subtle mystic philosophies, torturous religions, ornate literature, monuments teeming with intricate sculpture and delicate music of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed of the ‘cultured’ strata, sullen, uncoordinated discontent among the workers, general demoralization, misery, squalor and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other, one is the expression of the other…it is necessary to understand that history is not a sequence of haphazard events but is made by human beings in the satisfaction of daily needs."
This blog will serve the purpose of collecting links to internet resources on Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi and his works. There is a Wikipedia entry on Kosambi now, and has a number of useful links, this blog will supplement the Wiki entry and link to a wider range of information on the internet.

The new blog is here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Literary Thaw in South America

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa make up after a brawl thirty years ago. I am personally very delighted since both are my favorites.
A special edition of García Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, to mark this year's 40th anniversary of its publication, is to include a prologue by Vargas Llosa. "Both men are in agreement over this," a spokesman for Spain's Royal Academy, which is publishing the edition, told the Guardian yesterday.

The agreement comes despite the fact the two have not spoken since they came to blows in a Mexican cinema in 1976. The book is to be published in March, when it will be presented to a meeting of national Spanish language academies from around the world at Medellín in Colombia.

The introduction is reported to be an excerpt from Vargas Llosa's laudatory book on García Marquez, published when the two were friends in 1971, called History of a Deicide. The Peruvian writer had apparently refused to allow the book to be republished after his falling out with García Marquez. He finally relented last year, adding it to a collection of his complete works in Spain. "There is no point in censoring a part of your life," he said at the time. Both writers have remained silent about the reasons for their brawl, except to say it was about something personal.
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Link via Literary Saloon

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Is Blogging Nihilism?

Is blogging a citizens or an alternative media? Or is it a post modern condition with nihilism as its central imperative? Are blogs conversations or are they the foundations of forming virtual communities?

Media theorist and internet activist Geert Lovink formulates a theory of the weblogs and concludes that "it is this state of ongoing affairs (as a media observer) that causes nihilism, and not revolutions, to occur."
Caught in the daily grind of blogging, there is a sense that the Network is the alternative. It is not correct to judge blogs merely on the basis of their content. Media theory has never done this and should also in this case shy away from this method. Blogging is a nihilistic venture precisely because the ownership structure of mass media is questioned and then attacked. Blogging is a bleed-to-death strategy. Implosion is not the right word. Implosion implies a tragedy and spectacle that is not present here. Blogging is the opposite of the spectacle. It is flat (and yet meaningful). Blogging is not a digital clone of the "letter to the editor". Instead of complaining and arguing, the blogger puts him or herself in the perversely pleasurable position of media observer.

The commenting on mainstream culture, its values and products, should be read as an open withdrawal of attention. The eyeballs that once patiently looked at all reports and ads have gone on strike. According to the utopian blog philosophy, mass media are doomed. Their role will be taken over by "participatory media". The terminal diagnosis has been made and it states: closed top-down organizations no longer work, knowledge cannot be "managed", today's work is collaborative and networked. However, despite continuous warning signs, the system successfully continues to (dys)function. Is top-down really on its way out? Where does the Hegelian certainty come from that the old-media paradigm will be overthrown? There is little factual evidence of this. And it is this state of ongoing affairs that causes nihilism, and not revolutions, to occur.

kisan bhai lage raho in 2007 too

kisan bhai lage raho in 2007 too- this new year resolution is a macabre comment on the continuing farmer's suicides in Vidarbha and elsewhere.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Year Gone By: 2006

Picture of the year: A Halloween Buddha (see note at end of the post)

The most significant book that one read this year was undoubtedly One China, Many Paths. It brings out the tumultuous changes happening in China and generally ignored by popular media that is too focussed on the neo- liberal paradise that China apparently is. The book not only indicates the reversal to capitalism (and a most horrendous one at that) that is being accomplished under the Chinese Communist Party but also that this neo- liberal euphoria rests on a rather slippery base.

The diversity of contributors, and that of their ideas, makes me feel that some very important developments in the realm of ideas is likely to come from China, it is mind boggling to see the sources that the Chinese who are in their thirties and forties are able to draw from, including, but not limited to the Marxist tradition.

The other book on China was Andre Malraux's classic La Condition Humaine, written after the failed 1927 communist uprising in Shangai. In a metaphorical way, this could well be about the China of the 1990s.

Andrey Platonov's grim allegory in The Foundation Pit confirms the universality of the work- the grotesque picture that he paints is based on the forced collectivization under Stalin in the 1920s, but the conclusions seems to be as relevant today when something similar is being attempted by the onslaught of neo- liberalism.

In the novel the character Voshchev is discharged from his job in a machine factory "because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work", something that is continuously sought to be acheived not by a propagandistic state but by the increasingly proliferating "entertainment" industry.

The most pleasant experience in the year was my discovery of three writers from Argentina: the well known Manuel Puig (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Eternal Curse on the Reader of these Pages) whom I read for the first time, Tomás Eloy Martínez (all three novels published till date in English- The Peron Novel, Santa Evita and The Tango Singer, the last one published earlier this year), and Cesar Aira (his An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, 2006).

Roberto Bolano's Distant Stars and to a lesser extent his collection of short stories published earlier this year, Last Evenings on Earth, did not surprise with his ability to weave the political tapestry of Chile in the aftermath of the coup in 1973.

In Indian fiction, Asomiya writer Indira Goswami's Under the Shadow of Kamakhya reaffirmed for me her stature as a major Indian writer.

Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapathy's Six acres and Half, considered to be the first modern Oriya novel. In a series of short, funny, delectable chapters he paints the social structure in Orissa in the 19th century.

Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines showcases Ghosh's talent for writing and for creating some memorable characters, but on the basic idea- the inadequacy of the nation state in defining identity- it was disappointing, the treatment remains for most part at an emotional level.

PV Narasimha Rao's 6 December 1992 gave the then Prime minister's views on the run up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid, and much else, without shedding any new light though.

One ends this long year,on a cloudy, rainy evening with some books still unfinished: Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, Juan Rulfo's The Burning Plain, Andre Malraux's Anti- memoirs and Salvoj Zizek's The Parallax View.

Each, in it's own manner, was not completed by the deadline that I set for them.

Words, it seems, refuse to follow calendars.

Related Post: The Year Gone By: 2005

Bibliophil Link for the list of books that I read this year.

About the Image: A Halloween Buddha. I found it interesting that someone should use Buddha for Halloween. Does it still remain Halloween?

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sewer Divers of Mumbai, Dalits and Technology

Technology is rarely seen as liberating for Dalits, most discussions are around social distinctions, and of late, around reservations and violence against Dalits.

Mulk Raj Anand, in his novel 'Untouchable' written in 1935 had opined the use of technology- like the usage of water closets and a drainage system to do away with many of the jobs that Dalits do. 70 years on, the situation has not changed dramatically.

While people will discuss about the 100 dollar laptop, no one will talk about simple technologies that impact those doing the most unproductive, if not filthy jobs.

It was this post by KA Muston writing at Daily Kos that led me to this observation- looking at technology from the point of view of the Dalit is something that is matter of fact for an American, not so for those writing on Dalits in India, from whatever perspective.
Each year about one hundred Dalit men across India die from breathing methane or drowning in filthy water. (There are no figures collected on the Dalit women who empty the thousands of village cesspits.) Worse, there is no count of the workers who die from respiratory diseases, urinary tract, skin and eye infections, gastrointestinal ailments and lung cancer. Fewer than 14% of them live to the age of 50. What a backward people the Indian people are. George Bush is right. We have a moral responsibility to deliver these people out of ignorance and into the enlightened path of democracy.

When they first built the London sewer (in the 1860’s) large metal balls just a few millimeters narrower than the diameter of the sewers were periodically fed through the brick tubes, driven by water current and driving all blockages before them. These balls are still used to maintain the sewers in London and Paris. Why couldn’t the people of New Deli (sic) (now Mumbai) have come up with a similar system? The answer is that in India people have always been cheaper than technology.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

The Secret of Mirza Ghalib's Poetry

We now know the secret of the bard's poetry, well, it was the ...mangoes
...with his stunning memory and deep study of Ghalib's life, Hali was the winner in proving that Ghalib had in fact tasted most of the 4,000 varieties of mangoes grown in India. This might be a funny incident but the truth is that Ghalib was the one who loved eating mangoes in sweltering summers more than composing his couplets.

The varieties of mangoes that Ghalib mentioned in 63 letters written to his friends are - Malda, Fasli, Chausa, Zard Aaloo, Jahangir, Dasehri, Rehmat-e-Khas, Sarauli, Malghoba, Aziz Pasand, Mahmood Samar, Sultan-us-Samar, Ram Kela, Bombay Green, Ratol, Safeda Mallihabadi, Dil Pasand, Husan Aara, Nazuk Pasand, Kishan Bhog, Neelam, Khudadad, Hamlet, Tota Pari, Nishati, Zafrani, Sinduri, Khatta Meetha, Barah Masi, Langra, Alfonso, Fajri Samar Bahisht, Gulabakhsh, Bishop, Xavier, Rumani and Badami. Ghalib had tasted all these.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Understanding the Spirit of Indian Politics

(This unusually long post was written at Krish's blog in four parts. The last part appeared today.
Thanks to Krish for having provided the space and opportunity to write there.)

Defining the Ethos of Indian Politics

Indian politics after Independence has to be seen in the context of the national struggle for freedom.

The Indian freedom struggle was marked by few characteristics that ingrained a certain ethos or spirit that has continued for more than the past half a century though interrupted intermittently- most powerfully in the six years under the shadow of the mushroom cloud that rose up in 1998.

The key to this ethos was acceptance of India as not only a territorial concept but also one that was united by its common struggle against economic drain by British colonialism, an acceptance of its unity in diversity and also of its identification with worldwide struggle against imperialism.

Today, much of this may sound as Leftist banter. But none of these were the product of the Left in India, which, in its contemporary Marxist incarnation came into being only in the 1920s and acquired some political organization in the aftermath of the Civil Disobedience Movement, which also coincided with the worldwide crescendo of the Marxist Left in the aftermath of the Depression. What the Left provided was a deeper and stronger thrust on these elements and a firmer theoretical basis based on Lenin’s analysis of Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism.

It was the Indian nationalists starting with Dadabhai Naoroji and RC Dutt who pointed to the economic basis of (un)British rule in India than indulging in a xenophobic or religious phobia. It’s acceptance of “unity in diversity” was articulated by Mahatma Gandhi himself- sometimes going to the other extreme, for example, during the Khilafat movement, but what stands out is the inclusiveness that permeated Gandhiji’s vision. It was accepted only to differing degrees within the Indian National Congress leadership- itself a conglomeration of various forces and groups, more of an umbrella organization rather than a political party.

Its identification with other movements against imperialism came, admittedly, only after 1927 after Jawaharlal Nehru attended the Brussels Congress against Imperialism. But the opposite, that is, the participation of non Indians in the INC had been a reality since much earlier (I need not list the names, but some of them come instantly to mind are Madame Blavatsky, CF Andrews, Meeraben).

Within the INC leadership, it was Jawaharlal Nehru who, above all, and almost single-handedly carried forward this ethos in all respects. He differed fundamentally with Mahatma Gandhi on many issues but most strategically on the question of modernization. While Gandhiji advocated an essentially Narodnik (or ‘back to an idealized village economy’) approach, Jawaharlal advocated an uncategorical acceptance of modernization (”dams are the temples of modern India”).

Jawaharlal’s own fascination of Socialism specially under the influence of Professor Harold Laski, was clear, even if shifting in its stress at various times. The 1955 Avadi session of the INC outlined “Our Basic Approach

‘In order to realise the object of the Congress as laid down in Article I of the Congress constitution, planning should take place with a view to the establishment of a socialistic pattern of society, where the principal means of production are under social ownership or control, production is progressively speeded up and there is equitable distribution of the national wealth.’ On the Five Year Plans the resolution read, ‘The First Five Year Plan was based on a public sector and a private sector. The public sector must play a progressively greater part, more particularly, in the establishment of basic industries.
In reality, the “socialistic pattern” came to mean no more than “nationalization”, that is, state ownership of industries. Jawaharlal insisted that increasing productive capacities of the nation in the making had to be built before the question of distribution could be taken up. This model was called “mixed economy”, which referred not so much to the question of distribution that the State was, on the whole, to ignore during his reign, but merely to the question to ownership. ‘Socialism’ was a vague intent for the State (”socialistic pattern”, not even “socialism”) and not a matter of policy for the government.

The idea was to nurture Indian capitalism by channeling public funds to build a state- owned industrial base. This was an experiment that had been carried out in “socialist” USSR, a model then for all industrially backward countries. Indeed, the USSR’s model gave rise to many variants, and with the benefit of hindsight, the Indian model of mixed economy was rather creative, combining planning within a capitalist framework.

More on this later. At this point it is sufficient to make the point that of all the Congress leaders, only Jawaharlal had given enough thought to the economic foundation of the country. Gandhiji’s own ideas on this (articulated most pithily in his Hind Swaraj) were at best ignored by all except his least influential admirers). It is no coincidence that post- 1947, this fringe of Gandhians were left with practically no agenda after independence had been won.

The only other persons in the INC who were modern in their outlook were Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Subhas Chandra Bose. That Jinnah fell victim to communalism, and indeed, became the Muslim League’s nationally acceptable face, is a sad story that needs separate treatment altogether.

I am not sure what Subhas Chandra Bose’s ideas on economic development were, possibly they were close to Nehru’s but he was not in the picture during the decisive years of 1947-55. All other major leaders like Vallabhbhai Patel, C Rajgopalachary and Maulana Azad were either organizers of the party (Patel) or regional or section satraps/ representatives (CR, the Maulana to some extent). Those who were to come to prominence in 1969 and form the Syndicate bloc in 1969 came from this wing.

Despite the fact that Gandhiji shared his social conservatism with Patel and CR, it was Jawaharlal that he passed on the mantle to: “Jawaharlal will speak my language when I am gone.” This was nothing but Gandhiji’s acceptance of modernization, in his own- some will say,convoluted- manner.

Jawaharlal continued the discourse on economics that had been started by Dadabhai Naoroji and the other critics of colonial economics. He built on this borrowing contemporary themes- from Fabian socialism as well as Marxism and later Russian “socialism”, but unswervingly committed to building capitalism.

It was this state- capitalist structure whose dismantling began in 1991 and continues. It is at best amusing, if not outright hilarious,to see the proponents of neo- liberalism criticize “Nehruvian socialism”, when no such thing existed.

The Challenge to the Ethos

Despite the broad hegemony that the INC was able to achieve, it was challenged by radical voices from the fringes even during the national struggle for freedom. These were the Communist Party, the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and BR Ambedkar’s Depressed Classes movement.

The Communist influence was partly because of reflected glory of the Russian Revolution (it should not be forgotten that to the outside world, the USSR was an undiluted “success story” in the thirties) but also because of the much strongly committed intelligentsia that it was able to rally around itself and who carried the influence of socialist ideas much greater than warranted by the numerical strength of the CP.

In terms of organization, the Communists were far ahead of realizing the significance of an organized assault on political power and had some of the most committed cadre. Bhagat Singh’s sacrifice at the tender age of 23, and his espousal of socialism led to many of his associates to join the CP (among his jailed compatriots was Ajoy Ghosh, the future General Secretary of the CPI).

The Communists, while they may have had tactical disagreements with the INC at some points, were the radical wing of the Indian struggle for freedom. This came from their understanding of imperialism as well as the fact that in many states the communists were those young men and women who felt that the INC’s goal of political freedom was limited. In some states the a number of INC leaders came over to the CPI (Kerala, for example), and in some others maintained participation in both the INC and the CPI.

The Congress Socialist Party (CSP) within the INC represented a more organized wing, and perhaps even a bridge with the CPI. The CSP was to emerge as a separate, though peripheral force in the 1950s, and only after the 1990s did it get re- incarnated in shapes and forms that someone like Acharya Narendra Deva could not have envisaged then. But more on this later.

The Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Depressed Classes movement shared a perspective that was different and even opposed to these three fundamental aspects. All these formations saw internal enemies as more immediate and major threats and the British as a stabilizing force, even feeling that the British were better than their “other”- the Muslim League was scared of a Hindu dominated Congress leadership, the Hindu Mahasabha was scared of the Muslim “snakes” and the Depressed Classes of the dominant upper caste (if not Brahmin) domination of the Congress. The Depressed Classes did have a point- the leadership of the INC, the CPI and the Hindu Mahasabha were indeed Brahmin dominated.

It also needs to be remembered here that the RSS, the major formation of the Hindutva Right was formed as much to counter the lower caste upsurge in Maharashtra specifically in Nagpur, as to fight the Muslims.

Sumit Sarkat et al have provided insight on the RSS in their tract “Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags”:
“The centrally of Maharashtra In the formation of the ideology and organisation of Hindutva in the mid -1920’s might appear rather surprising, as Muslims were a small minority and hardly active, and there had been no major riots in the region during the early 1920′8. But Maharashtra had witnessed a powerful anti -Brahmin movement of backward castes from the 1870’s onwards when Jyotiba Phule had founded his Satyashodhak Samaj.

By the 1920′8, the Dalits too had started organising themselves under Ambedkar. Hindutva in 1925 and in 1990-91; was an upper caste bid to restore a slipping hegemony: RSS’s self -image of its own history makes this abundantly clear. There was, in addition, the distrust felt for the new Gandhian Congress on the part of a section of the predominantly Chitpavan Brahmin Tilakites. It is symptomatic that B.S.Monje, an old associate of Tilak, was one of the five who founded what became the RSS on Vijaya Dashami day, 1925″ {pg10-11).
The Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Depressed Classes movement, each of these focused on sectional interests rather than on an over arching “national” interest. despite a much firmer theoretical understanding of colonialism and imperialism, the Communists were restricted by their dogmatism derived from MN Roy and later RPD’s “India Today”.

This is not to deny that some of the sectional fears and the reality of contradictions between various classes and sections in India existed at the time, but the fact is that they did not see the common principal enemy of the Indian peasant- which was colonialism.

Negation of the Ethos

Post independence, with the Muslim League practically out of the picture, the major political formations were the INC- now re-incarnated as a political party, the CPI, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (with its lone representative S. Mukherjee), the “Socialists” who now advocated an essentially backward caste politics (Ram Manohar Lohia) and the (c)overtly capitalist PSP.

For all of Ambedkar’s qualities, he remained in political backwaters and also led his followers into the same- something that was to change a few decades after his death (and hence the significance of Kanshi Ram).

This framework was sustained more or less in its 1950s form till the late eighties. A lot of change in social structures had taken place in the meanwhile; the Green Revolution had altered the social base of the peasantry in many states in the country led to the emergence of new political parties or of hitherto marginal ones.

Most of these parties are in some way or the other linked to their predecessors of the 1950s in one way or the other. The INC and the CPI/CPM remained perhaps the only one with direct lineages to the 1950s, and even to the days before independence.

The Lohiate groups manifested themselves in various ways, generally these are led by one or few personalities and have “Janta” and/or “socialist” in their names, the major ones being the Samajwadi Party, Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janta Dal, and the Nitish Kumar led Janta Dal (U). The only significant exception is the Bahujan Samaj Party. Though it can, technically speaking, trace itself to Ambedkar’s Indian Labour Party and later the RPI), it had practically nothing to start off with in the states where it is powerful today (UP and MP).

South and East India has shown relatively more resilience in terms of older political parties continuing to remain the major players,though the TDP’s rise in 1980 was certainly spectacular (marking the rise of both Telugu sub- nationalism and the emergence of new castes (the Kammas) in politics.)

The second major emergence at the same time was that of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), which was amazingly, able to build hysteria against the Muslims. The fact that Muslims are worse off than even the Dalits, indicates not only the communal anti- Muslim nature of the BJP but also its essentially anti- poor nature.

Much to the chagrin of Marxists, the developments in the last few decades generally over the world, but particularly in India, have indicated the rise of identity based movements. It places them in a difficult situation where class consciousness and not primordial identities determine the nature of political alliances. It places them in a difficult situation where primordial identities and not class consciousness determine the nature of political alliances. It is all the more piquant when identity overlaps with broad economic classes. This, in the background of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic model of “existing socialism” placed them in a state of stupor, of a paralysis. Communist influence between 1962- 1990 was in a state of stifling stagnation and actually declined in many areas like Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab.

The INC also underwent a massive crisis in the face of the rise of the BJP and the OBC political parties especially in the “BIMARU” states (also called the “Hindi heartland”). Decades of power had corrupted the party to such an extent that a mere hint of failure at the polls makes Congressmen flock to the BJP in hordes. Ideological loyalty had over the years given place to personal loyalties, and even this was based on favors and when the source of those favors- political power at the Center- seemed to dry up, an exodus happened, particularly to the BJP.

What amazed all political analysts was the dramatic rise of the BJP, of course the oft cited comparison with 2 MPs to 88 MPs in 1991 elections is an exaggeration since the Jana Sangh component during the Janta Party rule had been considerable. But still the rise of the BJP was something unexpected and unforeseen. The CPI and the CPM had treated both the Congress, the representative of the bourgeoisie and the BJP, the representative of communal fascism as not only equal, but the Left also entered into an unholy alliance with it within the National Front in 1989.

It took the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and the grisly riots in other states in the interim period for them to realize the difference between the two parties. The Left support to the present UPA government, therefore, is based on the realization that despite the differences with the INC especially on economic policies, the Left and the Congress share the same political ethos.

The present day BJP traces its origin to the Bhartiya Jana Sangh though for a brief period some of its leaders merged into the Janta Party in the seventies (I believe that the BJS, and its founder leader Balraj Madhok both exist, at least on paper). Even before that, it can be linked to the Hindu Mahasabha. One of the Hindu Mahasabha’s leader Shyama Prasad Mukerjee was to later found the BJS. Nathu Ram Godse, another member of the same outfit, had assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.

The RSS itself had focused its energies in galvanizing Hindu youth against the Muslim “enemies”, since its formation in 1925. The Hindu Mahasabha, too had directed its energies towards the same goal. In terms of its overall, it came closer to the Muslim League than to the INC.

After Gandhiji’s assasination in 1948, the RSS was indicted by the judicial commission investigating the Mahatma’s assassination for creating an atmosphere where a group of political activists planned and carried the assassination of the most outstanding advocate of ahimsa. Because of the repercussions that the Sangh faced in the immediate aftermath of the murder, it’s castigation of the Mahatama became oblique. So, while Jawaharlal comes in for direct rebuke in Golwalkar’s “Bunch of Thoughts”, his abuse of Gandhi is implied though unmistakable.

Golwalkar says:
“Those who declare ‘No swaraj without Hindu- Muslim unity’ have thus perpetrated the greatest treason to our society. They have committed the most heinous sin of killing the life- spirit of a
great and ancient people. To preach impotency to a society which gave rise to Shivaji who, in the words of the historian Jadunath Sarkar, ‘proved to the whole world that the Hindu has drunk the elixir of immortality’ and to break the self- confident and proud spirit of such a great and virile society has no parallel in the history of the world for sheer magnitude of its betrayal”.(page 150,151, 1966 edition of Bunch of Thoughts)
His criticism of the Mahatma is more than evident, despite the thin veneer. His criticism of Jawaharlal, indeed, a perverted hatred for the man and what he symbolized in the same book provides the backdrop to the later hatred for Jawaharlal that came into prominence.

This leads me to some conclusive summarization of the ideological character of the assault on India and its concept in the last two decades, since the launch of the infamous Toyota yatra.

This assault has been on both economic and the political fronts, the first one manifested as reneging on “Nehru’s socialism” and the second one, sometimes covertly in cultural terms, but more often than not in showing the Muslims, Christians and minorities in general as the enemies, the fifth columnists in the country- in other words, it harked back to the days of the nationalist struggle where the internal enemies, and not the colonial state were seen as the enemies.

It is a perversity of our times, that a party that had no role to play in one of the greatest movement of men and women in the 20th century next only, in terms of the populations involved, to the Chinese Revolution in 1949, took on the garb of a “nationalist” party!

The inter relation of the two- the assault on the basic premises of the Indian Nation, its inclusiveness and modern vision rooted in the elements of Enlightenment from within the Indian tradition and the overwhelming fascination with neo- liberal economics is hard to miss.Under the globalization that came to be synonymous with neo- liberalism of the 1980s the only major opponent is the national state.

Despite the quintessentially capitalist nature of the Indian state established during the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, it also embodies the anti- imperialist and anti- colonial elements.

It is these elements that have been assault since 1991, by elements from within the INC but most rabidly by the Hindutva BJP. While much was wrong, and stifled development especially after the 70s, and needed to be corrected, the last 15 years have seen the shrill assault against everything. The baby is being thrown out along with the bathwater.

In the backdrop of a decrease in the euphoria over the defeat of ‘existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe in the West, even its decrease in the “war against terror” (another term for war against Islam), it is strange that many in India still seem to clap to its otherwise fading echo. There are sounds from other parts of the world that it needs to wake up to, most resoundingly in South America where majority of the countries have turned to the Left.

As the early part of the 21st century comes to resemble, more and more, the early part of the 20th century, it serves neo- liberalism (another term for neo- colonialism) to forget the struggle against the colonialism. The cause is expedited by a party that wants to erase the struggle of the Indian freedom fighters and replace it with those situated in a mythical past.

Recovering the Ethos

The Left world wide has historically voiced the concerns against the dominant classes. It has set itself as its goal, the emancipation of the working people, of the subjugated against ruling classes. It is the Left that in India has to recover, and leverage, the ethos of the Indian freedom struggle. It will be represented not only the Communist Parties but also any other group, political party and movement that carries forward that ethos.

The success of Marxist theory between 1917 to the sixties was so great (spawning Marxist schools of thought in many disciplines) that it became difficult to separate the Marxist method from the theory. And classical Marxist theory had very little patience with both the ‘nation’ and identity based movements, except in class based context. This is something that was rectified to a large extent in many other countries but not sufficiently in India, primarily because in India, the communist movement was not without successes and it never felt the need to question its basic premises, and hence there has been no ‘New Left’ in India.

The Left is situates itself the fact that one cannot be “left” in certain aspects while being “right” on others and that xenophopia (manifested in India by Hindutva) and globalization are two faces of the same animal.

The Left in India will be made of up of the many movements that will work sometimes in a contradictory manner. It will be built up of organic intellectuals from a Dalit resurgence, from the backward castes, the middle and poor classes and from the sensitive intelligentsia from the ruling classes who realize both the immorality of the increasing gaps between the rich and the poor and the unsustainable nature of “development” fostered by neo- liberalism.

The intellectual tradition for an Indian Left consists of the path breaking method and theories of Karl Marx and F. Engels and the political intensity of Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci. It also draws from the literature and traditions of dissent from within India and South Asia, of Charvaka and Sufism, of the Buddha and Kabir. The political traditions that it carries forward are not only political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhagat Singh, but also Babasaheb Ambedkar and the subaltern protests of Birsa Munda. It cannot but find itself within the fraternity of those who struggle for the weakest of the weakest even as they also sympathise with similar movements across the world that wage a daily struggle against oppression, including the working people in the West who lose their jobs as corporates look for profits in the poorer nations.

The Left in India will embrace internationalism- the universal brotherhood of mankind, not the forced corporatization of the world that goes under the name of globalization.

It will have its heretics. It will learn from them as well.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Indian Vendors of the American Dream

Girish Mishra questions the basis of the American Dream being transplanted by its Indian vendors:
Ever since the beginning of the economic reforms mandated by the Washington Consensus, the gap between the rich and the poor has rapidly increased. Similarly, regional economic disparities are largest since Independence. The new jobs that have been generated require the skills that cannot be acquired by the poor, especially from the rural areas. Most educational institutions in rural areas do not have furniture, proper buildings, teachers, blackboards and electricity. They cannot afford computers even in their dreams. In this situation, the American Dream has no relevance for them. Maybe it can inspire the young people in higher income groups who can think of emulating their counterparts in the USA.

On a personal note, I am very happy to have discovered Girish Mishra's site, having been an avid reader of his column in New Wave that used to be published from New Delhi many years back. Along with Girish Mathur's articles, it used to be something to look forward to.

Girish Mishra has taught Economics at Kirori Mal College in Delhi and has been a voice of wisdom from the Left for a long time. It gives me a sense of deja vu to find his articles available on the internet.

I would urge you to bookmark his site and read the online articles at his site as well as the Znet site.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Happy Birthday, Mirza Ghalib

(On the 209th birth anniversary of Mirza Assadullah Khan Ghalib- 27 Dec)

Over the last fifteen years, there is only one book that has always accompanied me. I had bought it in 1991 for rupees twenty, a pretty neat sum considering my first job paid me a microscopic amount. The cover has seen more than one adhesive tape 'bandages' on the sides, many pages have threatened to tear out and have been supplicated to be in their place with glue and tape. The pages of my copy of Diwan e Ghalib have, over these years, turned yellow, even brown.

My attempts to learn Urdu have been erratic in a persistent sort of way.

But the magic of the words has never changed over the years.

I have often wondered what is it about Ghalib that makes him so eternal? His language is certainly more difficult than of many others, he belongs to the "high" tradition that used a very Persianized form of Urdu, unlike Mir his sheyrs in the short behr (length) are few, his concerns, again unlike Mir, are often didactic and even his collection of ghazals and sheyrs is much smaller than that of many others.

So why is it that Ghalib appeals not only to such great poets like Allama Iqbal (who, like me, or me, like him, always carried a copy of the Diwan e Ghalib with him) and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose first book of verse bore a title after Ghalib's ibtidayi sheyr of the Diwan, as well as the commoner folk?

I think one of the reasons is that Ghalib roars over and above his predecessors as well as successors. He rarely whimpers. He is a lively, even a gregarious character. For a long time and especially till the age of twentyfive, Ghalib refused to consider any criticism of his poetry. Consider the following sheyr:

Bandagi men bhi vuh azada o khud-bin hain ki ham
Ulte phir ae dar I kaba agar va na hua.

(We serve You, yet our independent self regard is such
We shall at once turn back if we would find the Kaba closed)

Another is his irreverence. Ghalib was hardly a 'good' Muslim. For one, he drank wine, as is famously known (French wine, in case you were wondering). He did not keep fasts or say his prayers or go on pilgrimage. In this he follows other Urdu poets who stand on the verge of transgression or beyond. For instance, Mir had said:

Mir ke deen-o-mazhab ko, ab poochtey kya ho, unney toh
Kashka khaincha, dair main baitha, kab ka tark islam kiya

(Do not ask what Mir's religion is, he has
Put on the sacred mark on the forehead (tilak), sits in the idol house, and has given up Islam)

Ghalib wrote much that ridiculed and often put to serious cross-examination many of the religious and Islamic concepts. One of his somewhat cryptic posers is:

na tha kuch, toh khuda tha, na hoga kuch toh khuda hoga
Na thaa kuch to khuda thaa, kuch na hota to khuda hota

duboya mujhko hooney ney, na hota main, toh kya hota?

(When nothing was, then God was there; had nothing been, God would have been,
My being has defeated me, had I not been what would have been? )

This irreverence was driven by a spirit of transgression, of crossing the accepted norms of society that excited Ghalib. He echoed in his poetry a popular Punjabi saying:

Jo had tapey so auliya, behad tapey so pir
Jo had, behad dono tapey, us noon aakhan fakir

(The one who crosses all boundaries attains the exalted title Auliya, the one who crosses non- boundaries becomes the Pir,
The one who crosses both boundaries as well as non- boundaries, becomes a Fakir)

And Ghalib, of course, prided himself on being a fakir. He remarked:

Banakar fakeeron ka hum bheys ghalib,
Tamasha-e-ahl-e-karam dekhtey hain

(Taking on the garb of a fakir, Ghalib
I watch the goings on of the world with a detached air)

That is why Ghalib continues to surprise- there are frontiers that we become aware of only when we cross them with his poetry.

Even as I browse his diwan umpteenth time, I find myself marking sheyrs that had escaped my attention earlier.

Here is a selection of some that have been marked in my copy over the years, a handful of selection, of course:

Naqsh fariyaadee hai kiskee shokhee-e-tehreer ka
Kaaghazee hai pairhan har paikar-e-tasveer ka

Ghalib zamanaa mujh ko mitaataa hey kiss liyay,
Loh-e-jahaan peh herf-e-mukerrer naheen hoon main

(Ghalib the world should not erase or displace me, since I am the ‘word’ not to be written twice on the Eternal Slate)

Bas ke hun Ghalib, asiri main bhi aatash zer e pa
moo e atash deeda, hai halka meri zanjeer ka

Ishk taasir se naumeed nahin
Jaan supari shajar e bed nahin

Bhaagey the hum bahut, so usi ki saza hai yeh
hokar aseer daabtey hain, rahzan ke paon

Ishk ne pakda na tha abhi vehshat ka rang
rah gaya tha dil main jo kuch, zauk e khawari hai hai

Saaya mera mujh se misl e dood bhaagey hai, Asad
paas mujh aatash bazan ke, kis se thehra jaaye hai

A related post.

Source of Mirza Ghalib's image

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines (1998) is an intense and anguished meditation on the creation of modern states in South Asia.

There are two streams in the novel- one that of the narrator who has heard about England from a cousin who lived there for sometime and his own discovery of the country when he visits it later in life.

The other stream is that of his grandmother visiting her old home in Dhaka, her nostalgia and the discovery of alienation from what she had remembered before Dhaka became part of Pakistan. I found the second stream to be far more readable than the first one, especially the grandmother's character as seen by her young grandson (the narrator).

The grandmother goes to Dhaka to bring 'home' her uncle who had decided to stay on in Dhaka after the partition in 1947. He obdurately refuses, delivering one of the finest dialogs in the novel:
Move? the old man said incredulously. Move to what?

It's not safe for you here, my grandmother said urgently. I know these people look after you well, but it's not the same thing. You don't understand.

I understand very well, the old man muttered. I know everything, I understand everything. Once you start moving, you never stop. That's what I told my sons when they took the trains. I don't believe in this India- Shindia. It's all very well, you are going away now, but suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then? Where will you move to? No one will have you anywhere. As for me, I was born here, and will die here.
Even then, the grandmother tries to take her away from Dhaka when riots break out in the city and he is killed along with the narrator's cousin Tridib and the rickshaw puller Khalil who had been looking after the old man.

It is an engrossing read, and shares a few elements with Midnight's Children, though the latter is on a broader canvas. The Shadow Lines is written effortlessly and without the baggage of 'magical realism' that Rushdie carried even in his first novel. Ghosh's prose is evocative and realist.

Nevertheless, what I found disconcerting at the end of the novel is the author's treatment of the modern nation in South Asia as a given, and not historically formed entity. So the madness of the continuing riots is seen as inexplicable, and the humanist effort on part of his cousin to rescue his grandfather from the rioting mob, as fatal and meaningless.

Take this rumination of Tridib's brother when he is reminded of Tridib's death in a Bangladeshi restaurant in England, fifteen years later. It more then sums up the cynicism towards the nation states, towards the borders- the 'shadow lines.'
And then I think to myself why don't they draw thousands of little lines through the whole subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? The whole thing is a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide memory? If freedom was possible, surely Tridib's death would have set me free.
For some reason, after finishing it my immediate urge was to reach out for VS Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now, because I think it helps to explain better the significance of shadow lines and why they are being continually redrawn, in physical geography as well as geographies of minds.