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Such a Long Journey

 

I am tempted to  summarize my thoughts about Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey with his own words – quite a bit of a journey, but that would both be highly unoriginal and oversimplified, if not completely untrue. There is much that I enjoyed about the book and little that I can honestly kick up a fuss about.

Such a Long Journey (1991) is set in the early 1970s and its characters are overwhelmingly and colorfully Parsi and middle-class. The protagonist, Gustad Noble, is a middle-aged bank employee whose life, if not quite beset by tragedy, has been singularly unsatisfactory. He works hard to achieve respectability despite struggling to manage the needs of his family (a wife and three kids) on his small income. Already embittered by his circumstances, Gustad’s frustrations are aggravated by his eldest son who refuses to join the prestigious IIT and instead elects to pursue a lowly arts degree; by what he perceives as betrayal by one of his closest friends; by his daughter’s persistent sickness which weighs heavily on the family’s finances; by the suffering of his ailing colleague and office clown; and a host of other everyday problems, including his building’s wall being used as an open toilet. There are many, many characters: colleagues, neighbors, friends, community members, some eccentric, some pitiable,  and some mysterious. Although Mistry takes the time to develop Gustad’s character and explore his past, his weaknesses, his thoughts and actions, I felt that he could have delved more deeply into some other (non-minor) characters and their motivations.

Politics, both local and national, provide a backdrop of unrest and disquiet, and Mistry’s characters frequently criticize the Shiv Sena, and the policies of Indira Gandhi and her “car manufacturer” son, RAW (India’s intelligence agency), and deplore the (East-Pakistan) refugee situation and the resulting mandatory refugee tax. Mistry pretends prescience when a vengeful character declares a thinly veiled threat:

I may collect my payment tomorrow, or next year, or after ten years. From whoever is responsible. If it’s the car manufacturer, he will have to pay. Lots of possibilities – his car might explode, for instance. He also likes to fly aeroplanes, so: bhoom, crash, the end…Mummy herself has many enemies. Makes more and more every day, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu. Any one of them could do it.

The “car manufacturer” died in air crash in 1980, and “mummy”, of course, was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984.

India’s unsuccessful war with China, and its ongoing war with Pakistan are also a frequent topic of office banter. Mistry seems to presume a fair amount of knowledge of the politics of the Indian subcontinent. For those unfamiliar with it, some homework is definitely called for.

Mistry excels at capturing the everyday difficulties of the common man, the dynamics between the various members of the Noble family, as well as their interaction with others, as does he shine at depicting the close-knit Parsi community and its practices. I enjoyed his description of the clinical setting and methods of traditional bonesetters; but had mixed feelings towards the “black magic” that is employed by Noble’s wife  to try to manage their wayward son. While the concept, in an Indian context, is not quite alien to me, I was mildly disturbed by the use of nail clippings and lizard tails to ward off the evil eye.

But for me, the segment that provoked most thought was the debate around the traditional Parsi system of disposing off the dead – The Tower of Silence – a flat open air auditorium with three concentric circles, where dead men, women and children are left to be consumed by vultures, and their bones bleached by the sun. Parsis, traditionally, are averse to cremation, burial, or submergence because they consider fire, land and water to be sacred, and corpses to be unclean. However, the ancient ritual is often incongruous with glamorous luxury high rises. Vultures scattering titbits and body parts on million rupee balconies do nothing to endear the practice to city dwellers. Moreover, traditionally, scavenging birds consumed the body in a matter of hours. With the  dwindling vulture population, this process is often protracted and bodies lie decomposing on the tower, and raising quite a stink. Aviaries to breed vultures, and solar reflectors to accelerate the decomposition notwithstanding, this subject continues to evoke a raging debate between the orthodox, or “vulturists” as Mistry calls them, and the reformists.

Gustad Noble’s is a long journey, from troubled to accepting, from bitter to considerate, and though a tad slow, I found Mistry’s drama to be engaging and rich in details.

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Train to Pakistan

15 August 1947 marked the divisive moment when Pakistan in the North-west , and Pakistan in the far East which later became Bangladesh, were separated from India. It was a botched up surgical operation. India’s arms were chopped off without any anaesthetic, and streams of blood swamped the land of the five rivers known as Punjab.

Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, first published in 1956, is a grim account of Mano Majra, a tiny, fictional, predominantly Sikh and Muslim village located somewhere on the border between the newly torn India, and the newly born Pakistan. As the harrowing birthing culminates in arguably unprecedented hostility and wanton slaughter, Mano Majrans continue to go about their lives in relative peace. Their bubble bursts rudely when a train full of dead Sikhs mysteriously arrives at the local station. Although the incident in shrouded in secrecy, the villagers know why they are asked to contribute kerosene oil (to burn the corpses) and see plenty of evidence of massacres. As throbbing mobs enter the village, gushing hate and sowing revenge, Mano Majrans are torn between loyalty towards their erstwhile Muslim neighbors, vengeful payback and self-preservation, and their entire world is in danger of brutal annihilation. Khushwant Singh’s description of the explosive atmosphere and the spiralling terror is masterful. I was impressed with his writing. A passage of particular interest is his exceptionally skilled narration of the Indian monsoon – four pages of poetry on paper, the only segment in the entire book that is not distressing.

I happened to pick up the anniversary edition of the book, published in 2007, fifty years after it was originally published. This edition includes photographs taken by Margaret Bourke-White, a pioneering photojournalist, who chronicled the Partition in her stark, black and white pictures of death and suffering.

The division of India into two separate nations – based on religious differences – blew fanaticism to such heat that great caravans of desperate, terror-stricken refugees began to crawl along the inadequate roads, millions of them, Hindus and Sikhs to India. Muslims to Pakistan. They had almost no defences against the hazards that beset them – famine, cholera, gangsters, and exhaustion. Thousands on thousands perished. This inhumanity was described as an “exchange of population”.

– Margaret Bourke-White

If her pictures of streets littered with corpses in various stages of decay, and venues of vultures, some heavy with food and roosting on roofs, other flocks pecking at the corpses, does not inspire horror and misery, I don’t know what will.

The only conclusion that we can draw from the experience of Partition in 1947 is that such things must never happen again.

“Never again” is a sentiment voiced over and over again in the wake of such man-made disasters, genocides, massacres, and terrorism. And yet, pictures like Bourke-White’s are not things of the past. Tells you a lot about people.

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About two months ago, I received an Early Reviewers copy of Akash Kapur’s India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, courtesy LibraryThing. I chose the book for obvious reasons: I am Indian with a keen interest in contemporary India, not as much politically as the life of the common man or woman. I did not suspect that the book would hit so close to home, literally.

Akash Kapur has a rather unique vantage point when observing and writing about Indians in India. Born in India, he moves to the United States in 1991 at the age of 16. Somewhat less impressed with his life in America, he returns to his place of birth after twelve years, only to find it, surprise, changed. Changed into America, almost. And changing still. Kapur is not your average Indian by any means. Not only is he the product of Indian and American parentage, but he was raised not in a typical Indian city (or village), but an atypical, experimental, universal township called Auroville. Situated near Pondicherry, a former French colony, Auroville has half as many French as Indian, and nearly as many German as French residents. Auroville is about 160 kilometres from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, where some of the story is set (and where I’m from, I might add). Surrounded by village settlements, Auroville is unlike any other town in India.

When Kapur returns to India in 2003, he finds India in development mode. He senses that a small segment of people, mostly rural, mostly older, are critical about the transformation, but is himself enthusiastic about the apparent progress seeing how the young, educated workforce are able to cross social and financial bridges and live the good life, sort of the Indian version of the American dream. However, upon conversations with a medley of subjects –  rural Indians, urban Indians, and everybody in between, Kapur becomes less elated and more skeptical about India’s new shine. Development, he comes to understand is …

…a form of creative destruction. For everyone whose life was being regenerated or rejuvenated in modern India, there was someone, as well, whose life was being destroyed.

Kapur touches upon many social issues affecting contemporary, modern India – a crumbling feudal system, casteism, untouchability, homosexuality, atheism, the changing position of women in society, general lawlessness, urbanization, and booming real estate. He also expresses alarm at ecological time bombs – rampant pollution. He wonders at the irony of a “a population capable of maintaining ritualistic levels of hygiene at home, yet that dumped its garbage on the streets without compunction”. He comments on what has historically been India’s attitude towards the environment – poverty eradication seen as an imperative, and ecological activism as “luxury for the rich”. Kapur’s subjects have viewpoints all over the spectrum – strongly for, strongly against, ambivalent; and can be considered representative of at least a part of the vast and diverse population.

However, what seems most at the root of it all is the constant tension between the city and the country, between urban living and rural living, between technology, shopping malls and the fields, between real estate and agriculture. Kapur begins his book  on the East Coast Road. Once “a potholed tar road that meandered across the South Indian countryside, cutting through rice fields and coconut plantations and sleepy fishing villages”, this national highway now leads thousands of young professionals to their busy days at technology companies. I have been around when this piece of the world suddenly became visible, became a suburb, and then got absorbed into the city itself. My familiarity with this road spans from the 1990s through mid 2000s, when software and outsourcing companies started setting up shop along its length. I have traversed the East Coast Road (or at least a part of it) on my way to my first job for a few years. While employees waited in designated bus stops all along the highway, the 45-minute journey almost always led to encounters with herds of cows relaxing right in the middle of the road, and mangled remains of stray dogs having being run over by nighttime truckers. Kapur is really talking about home here.

The title India Becoming seems incomplete to me. Rather than use any of the several words for change – transformation, transition, evolution, Kapur has chosen to use the word becoming as if to imply a definite end point. America? India, a socialist nation has embraced capitalism with so much gusto that Kapur “began to feel that the country was being engulfed in its encounter with capitalism, swallowed by a great wave of consumerism and materialism that threatened to corrode the famous Indian soul”. Famous Indian Soul aside, development has been a mixed blessing. With new opportunities, higher salaries, the ability to purchase first and even second homes, cars, the power the send the kids to the best private schools, to be able to think nothing of spending a month’s salary at one of those fancy malls, to cross social boundaries that previously left some oppressed on caste/gender based grounds, progress certainly seems sweet. Kapur writes that cities, however, “nurtured the ambition but they also fed the anxiety”.

…thought came to me that Bangalore was India’s America: a chance at a new life, a beacon on a hill that attracted the young and the ambitious and the talented from across the globe.

I suspect that the same can be said of most Indian cities.

However, this large scale migration of people into the cities (where all those opportunities are) has seriously undermined the villages. In a country where a large segment of the population still relies on agriculture and allied sectors, this does not bode well. Farming is not nearly as lucrative,  but farmlands can make good money as real estate. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver writes of the antipathy between the city slickers and the clodhoppers. She quotes Wendell Berry:

 Eaters, that is, must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.

If everyone feels that farming has no future, where is all the food going to come from? If all agricultural lands are made unusable, and converted into apartment complexes with swimming pools, what is going to feed a burgeoning population? Besides pointing out, rightly, that India’s development has ignored crucial issues of sustainability and has only widened the gap between the rich and the poor, Kapur has little to say about what he sees India becoming, or what can be done to address the real issues that he writes about. Although the title hints at India’s future, the book is strongly rooted in the present.

Kapur’s prose in uneven, sometimes beautifully eloquent and at other times flat and inadequate. In general, Kapur does a better job of depicting a nation in flux than describing his subjects. Local slang can be tricky -in one episode, a man who has deliberately committed a parking violation, responds to being questioned with a haughty ‘What goes of yours?’. I am fairly sure that the original utterance was ‘tera kya jaatha hai?’, roughly translated from Hindi as ‘what is your problem?’. Kapur provides just the literal translation, which deemphasizes the arrogance in the reply and probably only makes people wonder that they do speak funny English in India.

Over the course of the book, Kapur shifts from being enthusiastic, then ambivalent, and later alarmed at the state of affairs in India. The central theme of the book is his feeling conflicted between exhilaration on one hand, and profound sadness on the other. He finally decides to quell his uneasiness, sit back and enjoy a pivotal moment in India’s future. I myself am unable to shake aside my concerns and take on the role of an eager audience. I am unable to find peace in my ambivalence and am still torn between feeling a sense of loss and pride.

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