26 April 2016

With a little help from my friends by Dev Lahiri

Energetic mud-fest

This is the depressing story of a brilliant man who faced many struggles. Though he writes with affection and gratitude of certain people and events, the persecution he describes at different points of his career appears to have dominated his life. His heart condition resulted in numerous dramatic collapses and hospital internments. It is also unfortunate that Dev Lahiri, a Rhodes Scholar and member of the heyday staff of Oxford University Press, has his memoirs strewn with proofreading and design disasters.
This book has 222 pages, of which 66 are devoted to the horrors he faced while trying to bring reforms to The Lawrence School, Lovedale, between 1991 and 2000. Later, at Welham Boys’ School, Dehradun, things went bad for him again. Lahiri describes his victimisation in detail, blithely naming perpetrators and valiantly trying to clear his reputation with an energetic mud-fest.
This review is not concerned with what actually happened, but cannot help observing that the inaccuracy and exaggeration in the book reduces its credibility. Lahiri sneers at a career in marketing, mocking the enthusiastic selling of soap. However, his book exposes him as a master of the glib half-truth. A few examples follow.
He says he gave up his job as a tea planter in a few weeks because: “I just felt uncomfortable dealing with plants. I realized I needed to do something with people.” Hmm! A tea planter’s job requires sound fundamentals of agriculture, but it is in fact through the management of labour in the field and factory that the job gets done and it is actually more about people than plants.
He also claims to have been the first headmaster of Lawrence “to have actually allowed” a girl student to lead the Founders Day Parade. Not true. Rohini Gopalan, a girl student, led the parade in May 1977.
Lahiri writes, “My daughter was followed into the town, her photos taken and morphed. Matters got worse. Anonymous letters started arriving addressed to the student body, accusing me, among other things, of sleeping with the lady teachers and Indrani of sleeping with the men.” But in the 1990s, morphing photos was still only science fiction! Even if we allow that a headmaster might have inadvertently used an anachronism and his daughter had actually felt disgraced by misuse of her photo, by what standard could anonymous letters, however scurrilous, make matters worse?
Lahiri also quotes a report which states that it was he who made Lawrence “one of the most famous schools of the country”. Well: Lawrence School, Lovedale, was founded in 1858. When I joined, in 1971, it had long been recognized as one of the best schools in India.
Every institution has its ups and downs, consequent on the people who lead and manage it. Evaluation and improvement may vary in consistency but they are continuous processes, never the work of just one person.
This memoir is neither a work of literature nor a source of inspiration to coming generations. When slotted as a ‘tell-all exposé ’, it could provoke a careful reader to question whether the author (even if his intentions were blameless) had the emotional strength and stability required to implement reforms effectively.

This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 24 April 2016. It can be viewed online here.

15 April 2016

Forgotten Stories from my Village, Harwai by Hari Govind Narayan Dubey

A precious but forgotten world

One evening a few days ago, sitting on the warm parapet to enjoy the unique charms of Marine Drive, Mumbai, we noticed two buildings across the road: Firdaus and Ganga Vihar. 
Why would anyone name a Marine Drive art deco building facing the Arabian Sea “Ganga Vihar”? As soon as the thought entered my mind, I realised with a pleasant jolt of surprise that I did know who must have done so. It had to have been Lal Singh and Man Singh, the Rajput brothers who had come to Bombay from Mainpuri District in the erstwhile United Provinces in 1910 or thereabouts, to earn their living.
I heard about Lal Singh and Man Singh from Hari Govind Narayan Dubey in the course of working with him to produce his book Forgotten Stories from my Village, Harwai.
The book tells the story of his father’s life and work in and around the Mainpuri District in the decades leading up to Independence. Dubey is a skilled storyteller and his book is more than just the life of Pandit Ram Narayan Azad. It is a tribute to the many brave men and women who sacrificed everything they had to their vision of an India where every citizen would lead a life of dignity and personal choices. Their stories have long faded away, and replaced by simplistic icons such as ‘Mahatma' Gandhi and ‘Chacha' Nehru. Revived here, they offer charming tableaux of life in an Indian village and involvement in various aspects of India’s freedom struggle.

Lal Singh and Man Singh found employment with a wealthy Parsi gentleman who owned one of the prominent jewellery stores in Bombay. Dubey told me that the Parsi gentleman lived in a building of his own, Firdaus, on Marine Drive. However, he hesitated in mentioning the name in the book since he, ninety-two years old, felt it was a risk to put into print any information which he could not verify. What was relevant to the story was that it was through them that Pandit Ram Narayan Azad got the opportunity to meet Jinnah. How this was possible forms one of the many charming stories in the book. 
Lal Singh and Man Singh had arrived in Bombay and in course of time, one of them became the cook of the Parsi gentleman and the other his security guard. The gentleman was old and had no heir. He fell ill and came to the end of his days. The registrar was sent for, to ascertain his wishes regarding the disposition of his assets. When the registrar entered his bedroom, the gentleman stared at him intently, raised his arm and pointed at the ceiling. He then collapsed and was found to be dead.
The registrar sent the subordinates who had accompanied him to the higher floor. There, Lal Singh was in the kitchen. They called him down and informed him that his employee was no more – and that he had inherited his entire estate.
When Lal Singh and Man Singh next came to visit their village, they came as wealthy men. Over the years, they contributed considerably to the development of Mainpuri, starting a training school for trade skills as well as separate intermediate colleges for boys and girls. They also constructed a ten-mile road connecting their village, Bhawant, to Mainpuri town – something that the Government of India had neglected to do. These facts are known to Hari Govind Narayan Dubey. However, was it really Lal Singh and Man Singh who named their home Ganga Vihar?

11 April 2016

The Living by Anjali Joseph

Illuminating the beauty of all our lives 

One can usually tell that a book is bad in just a few pages but to tell that a book is good, you do have to read right through to the end. I held my breath as I read this one. Its first few pages held the kind of promise that an eager reader prays will last. 
I enjoyed the book very much, and enjoyed interviewing Anjali Joseph for Hindustan Times. In the course of the interview, which I’ve pasted below, I realised, with growing horror, that I was the longsuffering mother of the person with whom Ms Joseph was accosting young men outside a bakery in the evening, to find out more about ‘haathbhatti’. A coincidence, I promise, but in the interest of full disclosure and all.

Why footwear, why these particular cities?
For me, the impetus to write a novel comes in two forms. The primary one is an image; the secondary is an idea or a question. For Saraswati Park I had an image of a man at a secondhand book stall in Flora Fountain in Mumbai, looking for books with marginal notations just before evening rush hour. And I knew I wanted to write about the daydreaming, book-reading, middle-class Bombay where I’d spent my early years and where my parents and grandparents had lived. For this book I had the image of a man making a pair of chappals. I’ve been wearing Kolhapuris since I was a child. The first pair I had was brought for me by my grandfather from a work trip to Kolhapur when I was three or four. I still wear Kolhapuris all the time, and find them both beautiful and practical, and I knew I wanted to write about the idea of daily work, of craft, and of some of the parts of life with which fiction deals less frequently: routine, habit, and ruptures in both. I also had an image of a woman in Norwich, originally in a place called Lion Wood, which appears in the novel. I realized she worked in a shoe factory, a profession that’s now anachronistic but which used to be one of the main trades in Norwich, where I was living when I started writing this novel.

Could you describe the reader you were writing for?
I don’t really know, but I did want to write a book that plausibly might carry the voices of these two people – the kind of working class people who don’t consider themselves especially interesting and wouldn’t see their lives as the stuff of fiction. I am more interested in those lives than in the apparently exceptional or heroic, and I suppose my larger project is to illuminate the beauty of all of our lives, even (especially?) in their humdrum moments: everyday magic.

Then you’re not writing for a particular reader as some writers say they do?
I don't think about anything other than the writing while I am writing. The reader-writer connection does matter to me – as a reader to begin with, and also as a writer. It's a small miraculous thing, the possibility of connecting with someone you may never meet. It's a real connection.

I enjoyed your poetic translation of Akashvani, any examples I may have missed because I didn’t have the context?
I did use a few bits of Norwich speech, though Claire, the first narrator doesn’t talk in full Norfolk dialect, since she’s grown up in the city. ‘There was weather’, for example, means ‘The weather was bad’. I was also inspired by some of the things I’d seen when growing up in England in the mid and late 1980s: canned Alphabetti Spaghetti, for example, or corner shops. Those things are part of the furniture of the novel.

Did you find your characters changing as you wrote, or did they stay true to your early conception of them?
Arun was initially more sarcastic, less tender, less nagging; Claire’s relationship with her son is something that became much warmer than I’d initially predicated. The process of writing a novel involves getting to know characters: their facades and what’s inside.

Any interesting stories about the research you did to get all this together?
I spent a week in a shoe factory in Norwich, in January a few years ago. The people who worked there were generous with their time and attention and let me watch them work, and chat to them as they did; I found out the things I would rather not make up, like what it feels like when the bells go for breaks, or how the light falls at different times of day; how the shop floor, as it’s called, smells when the roughing machines come on in the morning. I also visited Kolhapur and nearby Miraj twice. Once I met chappal makers, thanks to the kindness of Vinayak Kadam of Adarsh Charmodyog Centre in Kolhapur. Most of the chappal makers work at home so I went around their houses with him and watched them work a little, and talked to them. The second time I visited, I wanted particularly to do two things. One was visit a country liquor bar in the area where the chappal makers live and work, because I knew Arun, the second narrator, had been an alcoholic for many years. The other was to find a small temple in a field that I’d dreamt of his visiting as a child. It was good that I went to Kolhapur because I realized that unlike Bombay it doesn’t have that many country liquor bars; government authorized country liquor is sold by certain people in certain areas, and then illegal, much cheaper and stronger ‘haathbhatti’ is sold as homebrew. A kind young man, a non-drinker himself, helped me find some haathbhatti when I accosted him outside a bakery one evening and asked where the country liquor bars were. He was worried my friend and I would get into trouble so he chivalrously escorted us to buy haathbhatti, then pleaded with me not to make a regular habit of drinking it. And the next day, while we were aimlessly driving around in the morning, we found the temple in the fields, basically as a gift.

I was going to say, ‘hmm why so much sexual activity!’ but also wanted to note my appreciation of your female interpretations of the sexual act.
Sex is a big part of life, isn’t it? For Claire I think it represents a new opening out of her life after a long period of essentially mourning the teenage relationship that resulted in and ended with the birth of her son. For Arun I think it represents one of the few unregimented parts of his life. Everything else – work, marriage, eating, sleeping – is somehow inevitable. He loves his wife; he loves his family. But the randomness of unplanned extra-marital sex creates a rupture in that, and brings both a sense of freedom and sadness and guilt. I’m not sure what to say about a female experience of sex in general. I think for Claire there’s an experimental quality to the relationships she has. In her youth love was simple, but it ended. In her thirties, it’s not so simple for a while, but she also has a few transgresive encounters with a much younger man, her son’s friend, and there are no repercussions from that. That idea, which somehow seems normal for a male character, is something I found interesting. Part of the matter of factness of these characters and the lives they lead, in which time is parceled out in units that they make, is expressed in this experience that at times sex is just sex. At other times, of course, it brings emotions: wonder, surprise, grief.

Sexual acts in the public domain invariably describe men as experiencing mindless enjoyment whereas Claire does seem capable of thought during the process, could that be a feminine statement?
I don't know. Now that you say it I seem to remember Molly Bloom doesn't stop chatting to herself during sex either. Perhaps it is a type of mind, not a gender-based difference?

Amit Chaudhuri gave The Living a rave review in The Guardian and a disgruntled reader wrote in to say that, as your former teacher and mentor, he must be biased?
I was glad and grateful to read the review – it was written by one of my favourite writers. I hadn't asked for it to be written, or tried to influence what it said. Huffington Post wrote about the incident and asked for my response, but I didn't see why I should engage with accusations levied in anonymous emails. In any case, it’s for a reader to flip through the book and decide if it seems to speak to him, or her.

A few years ago, I wrote about Anjali Joseph’s debut novel Saraswati Park in this blog after reading it aloud to my friend Gladys, once a librarian but no longer able to read. We both admired its literary skill, and did not feel the need for more action than it has. This is relevant because critical reviews at the time complained that the reviewer had read on, waiting, but nothing exciting had happened and therefore concluded that this was not a good book. We wondered what these people would have had to say about Jane Austen if they were reading her for the first time, before all the hype, and congratulated ourselves smugly when Saraswati Park went on to win the Betty Trask Prize, the Desmond Eliot Prize – and in time the Vodafone Crossword Prize too.
With The Living, Anjali Joseph has surpassed her skill of saying so very much with so very few words. I look forward to reading it to Gladys – and to hearing about the prizes that come its way!