Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why torture is wrong, and the people who love them

I saw this play at the public theatre today and found it relevant and distressing at the same time.

Don’t feel guilty about laughing so hard at “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them,” Christopher Durang’s hilarious and disturbing new comedy about all-American violence. Though it tackles and practically tickles to death subjects that are sensitive to the point of rawness just now, the production, which opened on Monday night at the Public Theater, has a healthier heart and conscience than many a more pious play.

"Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them," with Laura Benanti and Amir Arison, opened on Monday at the Public Theater.
It’s just that Mr. Durang chooses to wear his morality not as a minister’s black robe but as a jester’s crazy motley. There are occasions when this is perfectly correct attire for playwrights of good faith, especially when they’re visiting matters that have started to seem too serious to be taken seriously. Like guns in the hands of angry and irrational people, and torture as a first-resort means of interrogation, and raging paranoia as an accepted worldview.

Scary is funny this season in the New York theater. Mr. Durang’s work (henceforth to be referred to as “Torture,” though watching it is not) is the latest offering in a trifecta of aggressively dark comedies that have opened in recent weeks, shows that draw gasping laughs from grim topics.

Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” considers the loneliness in the everyman-for-himself savagery that lurks beneath civilized relationships, while the Broadway revival of Eugène Ionesco’s “Exit the King” is about people’s refusal to face their own deaths.

“Torture,” though, moves beyond brooding abstractions to the specifics of its title activity — with graphic onstage demonstrations — and of the idea of trigger-happiness as a conditioned reflex in masculine culture. Given recent accounts of prisoners tortured in the C.I.A. detention program and the mass killing by a gunman at an immigration services center in Binghamton, N.Y., you might think no sensible theatergoer would want to attend a play in which a young man is tied to a chair to be beaten bloody and a leading character points a rifle at the audience, musing on spraying it with bullets.

Yet “Torture,” directed with just the right balance of crudeness and finesse by Nicholas Martin, turns such scenes into occasions for one of the most releasing forms of laughter: the kind that encourages the spewing of the anger, fear and helpless indignation that build up in anyone who still reads or watches serious world news.

Little spurts of such laughter are provided by mock-news shows and sketch satire on television. But Mr. Durang, bless his heart, believes that no other art form can offer the communal catharsis — and consolation — that theater does, a point he makes quite directly (between bouts of violence) in “Torture.”

This is the playwright, after all, who turned his own unhappy childhood into works (“Baby With the Bathwater,” “The Marriage of Bette and Boo”) that became templates for that increasingly fashionable genre, the comedy of domestic dysfunction. With the blissfully grisly “Betty’s Summer Vacation” (1999, also directed by Mr. Martin), he broadened his focus to explore (and condemn) the American appetite for entertainment at all costs.

Like “Betty’s” (which until now I regarded as Mr. Durang’s funniest play), “Torture” places at its center a sensible-seeming young woman to whom the sort of things happen that more typically befall virginal heroines of splatter movies. In the play’s first scene the hopefully named Felicity (Laura Benanti, in a lovely anchoring performance) wakes up in a cheap hotel room to learn that she has married a quick-tempered chap named Zamir (Amir Arison), who says he is Irish and is given to pronouncements like, “It’s a flaw in my character, but all the women in my family are dead.”

You’re no doubt familiar with this situation. (I mean, from movies and television, not from personal experience.) And for the play’s first few minutes, I feared it might turn into a morning-after sitcom. Then again, there are all those unsettling references to Zamir’s predilection for violence, date-rape drugs and mysterious midnight errands involving money hidden under rocks.

Imagine the relief when the action switches to the cozy New Jersey living room of Felicity’s mother, Luella (Kristine Nielsen), first seen raptly contemplating a flower arrangement. Of course that relief evaporates when Felicity’s dad, Leonard (Richard Poe, deliciously channeling George C. Scott in highest dudgeon), strides in to explain that that burning smell is not French toast, but some squirrels he incinerated with a napalm blaster. He then puts a gun to the head of Zamir, who responds by threatening to use his cellphone to make the whole house explode.

That takes us only to Scene 2, but I won’t describe the plot any further. Suffice it to say that things get really crazy from then on, with references to a shadow government and ominous Supreme Court rulings; a description of the incapacitated Terri Schiavo as the ideal wife; a prim woman in a Republican red suit walking with her panties around her ankles; and people using code names taken from Looney Toons characters. I can honestly say I know of no other show in which a man (played by a priceless David Aaron Baker) gleefully yells, “Bweak da fingah. Bweak da fingah,” in the voice of Elmer Fudd.

This is all carried out in the highest, giddiest style imaginable, what with David Korins’s marvelous revolving set functioning as a whirligig fun house for this fang-toothed farce. (Best set-inspired moment: when Felicity discovers her father’s secret sanctuary.)

And Mr. Martin has drawn precise, Marx Brothers-esque anarchy from his spot-on ensemble, which also includes John Pankow (as a pornography-making minister), Audrie Neenan (as the woman with the panty problem) and a multifarious Mr. Baker.

But within the theatrical fun and games is the subliminal, creepy buzz generated by an addiction to violence that transcends cultures but is apparently coded in the male chromosome. Mr. Durang lets neither American nor Arabic men off the hook for their bone-breaking problem-solving methods and their treatment of their women. No wonder that Luella — played by Ms. Nielsen, a longtime Durang muse, with the marvelously addled air of a thwarted actress in retreat from reality — goes to the theater in hopes of learning “what normal is.”

Felicity says she has no use for the theater, which after all has become so expensive and so darn Anglo-Irish. (There are jokes about people committing suicide during plays by Tom Stoppard and Brian Friel.) But Felicity is oh, so wrong. The theater is what lets a playwright like Mr. Durang heighten absurd, vicious human behavior into detoxifying Absurdity and — for a few silly, happy moments — create an artificial world in which all wrongs are righted, and mutually respectful couples go dancing in the dark without crashing.


By Christopher Durang; directed by Nicholas Martin; sets by David Korins; costumes by Gabriel Berry; lighting by Ben Stanton; music by Mark Bennett; sound by Drew Levy; production stage manager, Stephen M. Kaus; general manager, Andrea Nellis; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Jenny Gersten; director of production, Ruth E. Sternberg. Presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Andrew D. Hamingson, executive director. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, East Village; (212) 967-7555. Through April 26. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

WITH: Amir Arison (Zamir), David Aaron Baker (Voice), Laura Benanti (Felicity), Audrie Neenan (Hildegarde), Kristine Nielsen (Luella), John Pankow (Reverend Mike) and Richard Poe (Leonard).

Here is another review.
During the last couple of weeks, the actress Kristine Nielsen has noticed a change in the audiences at Christopher Durang’s satirical new play, “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them,” especially in the second act, when blood appears on the T-shirt of a suspected terrorist and on the blouse of one of his comically daffy interrogators.

In a relatively rare confluence of theater and politics, the critically lauded production of “Torture” opened nine days before the Justice Department, on April 15, made public four memos that described brutal interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration. The furor over those methods, which included waterboarding, has only intensified during the run of the play (which ends on May 10), as President Obama, former Vice President Dick Cheney and others in Washington have debated whether it is necessary to hold public hearings and possibly prosecute those involved in the interrogations.

For Mr. Durang, who has been writing satires of American society for three decades — he took on religion in “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” in 1979 and suicide in “Miss Witherspoon” in 2005 — the unusually timely resonance of his latest work has come as a kind of relief. He has been so angry at the Bush administration for so long, he said, that he is thrilled to see the issue of torture in the spotlight, onstage and off.

“I myself feel that the play is a catharsis, a comic catharsis, for the last eight years,” Mr. Durang said in an interview this week. “What’s particularly strange and unusual, though, is the play running when all of a sudden all these torture memos are released and discussed. It feels like I wrote some of these scenes yesterday.”

Mr. Durang did not set out to write about torture. In 2007, as an exercise for a class he teaches at Juilliard, he wrote what would become the first scene of the play: a woman named Felicity (now played by Laura Benanti) wakes up in bed with a man named Zamir (Amir Arison), whom she doesn’t remember, yet whom she married the night before (and who, in addition, drops hints that he might be a terrorist). In the next scene Felicity introduces Zamir to her parents, Luella and Leonard (Richard Poe). Tensions soon flare between Zamir and Leonard, who is a deeply emotional political conservative.

“At first my thought was to get into the red state-blue state stuff between these two men, who are both so hot-headed and have strongly held feelings,” Mr. Durang said.

“But as I was writing — and I don’t write with an outline — I had this idea of Leonard offstage in a private room that supposedly contains his ‘butterfly collection,’ a room he doesn’t let anyone else see, and then I started thinking about secrets and deception, and my thoughts about the play started to shift,” he continued.

The interview with Mr. Durang was conducted in the so-called butterfly room on the stage of the Public — a room that, as the play reveals, is actually an attic torture chamber full of guns, swords and grenades, and where Leonard and his ally Hildegarde (Audrie Neenan) end up interrogating Zamir.

Before that scene, Leonard and Hildegarde huddle in the butterfly room to discuss how they will handle Zamir, an exchange that Mr. Durang says was inspired by a now-infamous interrogation memo written by John Yoo, an official in the Justice Department during the Bush presidency.

LEONARD: We’ll stick to John Yoo’s torture definition very closely.

HILDEGARDE: I’ve forgotten what that is.

LEONARD: How could you forget such a significant thing? John Yoo from the Justice Department wrote a torture memo saying that it isn’t torture unless it causes organ failure. And even if it does that, as long as the president says the words “war on terror,” it’s A-O.K.

HILDEGARDE: Oh that’s right. He’s such a brilliant lawyer, John Yoo, and how I love the Federalist Society.

The archness of this dialogue — and the absurdity of other scenes featuring Mr. Durang’s two torturers and their role in a “shadow government” — closely reflect the playwright’s real political sensibilities and suspicions. In an hourlong interview he railed against Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Yoo and others at great length, though none of his characters were based on them.

“Once I came upon the shadow government idea for the play, I really did think of Cheney, because he was fairly secretive,” Mr. Durang said. “But I also was choosing not to base the people on Bush and Cheney, because I thought that would tie me down too much.”

Striking a balance between the satire in Mr. Durang’s play and the gravity of its subject matter fell chiefly to the production’s director, Nicholas Martin. He said that he and his actors and designers had lengthy conversations about “treading a very careful line to maintain the play’s humor” while also using clothing, props, lighting and — in selected ways — fake blood.

“One particularly important point was about which clothing garments would be bloody, and how bloody they would be,” Mr. Martin said. “I initially thought there should be less blood on the clothes, but that really would have diluted the truth of what was happening to Zamir. And when the father produces a baggie containing three human fingers and an ear, well — we knew we couldn’t stint on the blood.”

The play’s unusual ending — in which Felicity stops the action onstage and suggests changing all that has come before, because the torture of Zamir pains her — was meant by Mr. Durang to comfort the audience. But Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public, offered another interpretation.

“Someone said to me that the play’s ending captures our desire to undo the last eight years,” Mr. Eustis said. “I do think Chris was tapping into a longing in this country that is very deep to redo things, to say, ‘Torture is not who we are.’ ”

New York Magazine- Rich People Things

Chris Lehmann
writes about the social, class and power that New York Magazine represents. I find the magazine vacuous, gossipy and centered in downtown Manhattan reality.

My ill-starred tenure at New York magazine was, among other things, a crash course in the staggering unselfawareness of Manhattan class privilege. Sure, there was the magazine’s adoring, casual fascination with the “money culture”—a term deployed in editorial meetings without the faintest whiff of disapproval or critical distance. But more than that, there was the sashaying mood of preppy smugness that permeated nearly every interaction among the magazine’s editorial directorate—as when one majordomo tried to make awkward small talk with me by asking what it was like attending an urban public high school, or when another scion of the power elite would blithely take the credit for other people’s work and comically strategize to be seated prominently at the National Magazine Awards luncheon.

Since decamping from that scheming hovel of status, I’ve tried to write it off as a ludicrous resume misfire, gnashing my teeth at the odd “Look Book” entry or wildly off-key Kurt Andersen column. But as the “money culture” collapses into a smoldering ruin, Adam Moss’s weekly catalog of plutocratic self-regard has become harder and harder to ignore. Week in and week out, New York sends out panicked instructions for scraping by when the cash spigots have dried up, and dispatches survival strategies for the equally deranging state of affairs where no one believes that the social hierarchies founded on the fancies of the paper economy command awed reverence—or indeed, should be permitted to continue at all. If conservative Middle America greets bailouts and the specter of slight marginal tax hikes kicking in two years from now with Tea Parties, New York has been hosting its own months-long encounter group for the super-rich laid low—the revolt of the “are nots,” if you will, protesting a world where they are neither especially elite nor powerful.

And like any encounter group leader, the magazine’s editorship traffics in a comforting jargon—a sort of class privilege all its own. The operative terms in its reckoning with the fallout from the last decade’s pillaging always describe subjective moods and feelings, not actual privation or suffering. In place of mass layoffs, repossessions or hijacked pensions, there is diffuse “envy,” “resentment” and “rage”—moods that with the proper forensic understanding can somehow be channeled, one senses, back into reassuring class deference, in much the same way that a clumsy faux-pas could be passed over at the court of Versailles. You will recall that even New York’s arch takedown of the upstart social arbiters of the blogging world was given the nonsensical headline “The Rage of the Creative Underclass”—masking the magazine’s own palpable class-based derision in the sociological feelspeak of the seminar room. (I have no doubt that, should any senior big thinker at the magazine stumble on these ruminations, I’ll be dissected in much the same fashion—I went to a public high school, after all.)

And this week’s special cover package on the “Rage of the Rich” neatly distills all these editorial impulses into one handy ur-Text. Gabriel Sherman’s lead piece, “The Wail of the 1%,” (subtitled—wait for it—“As the privileged class loses its privileges, a collective moan rises from the canyons of Wall Street”) recounts the raw anger of today’s cohort of investment honchos deprived of what they see as their hard-won fair wages. Sherman may claim possession of the piece’s byline (a distinction that may prove to have the long-term value of an AIG stock bonus circa 2009), but the lavishly emotivist text bears all the thumbprints of the magazine’s money-obsessed braintrust. Is there the tone of puzzled hurt? Oh yes, there is: The celebrated resignation letter penned by AIG commodities trader Jake DeSantis and later run as a New York Times op-ed was “passionate and wounded,” the piece marvels. Yes, its language was also “oddly out of touch with ordinary Americans”—but look at its therapeutic value! DeSantis’ letter “put a human face on Wall Street’s anger”—something that precisely no American not named Rick Santelli was clamoring for, but let that pass. There is, after all, a larger moral here: “In a witch hunt, the witches have feelings, too. As populist rage has erupted around the country, stoked by canny politicians, an opposite rage has built on Wall Street and other arenas where the wealthy hold sway” (and yes, I could not help but picture a Tuesday morning New York magazine edit meeting here; my own therapeutic progress has been, alas, more halting than I might have hoped).

In any event, we are now penetrating to the intolerable inner conflict at the heart of the pathology: Wall Street rage, in its “expression is more furtive and it’s often mixed with a kind of sublimated shame,” Doktor Sherman explains, “but it can be every bit as vitrioloic.” Yes, our subjects are “difficult” candidates for sympathy, he continues elsewhere, “but you can understand their shock: Their world has been turned on its head. After years of enjoying favorable tax rates, they are facing an administration that wants to redistribute their wealth”—it never appearing to occur to Sherman’s sources, Sherman himself, or least of all his editors that these favorable tax rates are themselves mechanisms for redistributing wealth, and making it “theirs” in the first place. But again, let us not be detained by policy particulars—on to the feelings! “No one know what Wall Street will look like in a few years,” Sherman darkly incants, as though the head of the US Treasury Department were not an investor-appeasing former chairman of the New York Fed. And how, please, are the raging bankers reacting? “They are anxious, and their anxiety is making them mad.”

Sherman’s piece is generously bedecked with self-pitying anonymous quotes from indignant traders and bankers to bear out this clinical view. (They are also, one surmises, the link bait that has made Sherman’s story the most frequently emailed on the magazine’s site; it turns out that the preppy magazine class, no less than “canny politicians” can make with the strategically leveraged “populist rage.”) But really, these clueless whingeing sentiments are the pulpy B-roll footage here; yes, these are hypocrites who seem to have forgotten that their “industry” owes its continued existence to a titanic government bailout; yes, it’s easy to hate on the going-Galt rhetoric of Sherman’s nameless Spartacuses of the are-not revolt (“JP Morgan and all these guys should go on strike,” one fumes, “see what happens to the country without Wall Street”; “The government wants me to be a slave,” another laments, contemplating the horror of the return of Clinton-era tax rates).

But such cheap Schadenfreude misses the main point, which Sherman spells out with admirable, if analytically bankrupt, clarity. The secret conviction coursing through Wall Strteet’s caverns is this, he writes: “Those who select careers in finance play an exceptional role in our society. They distribute capital to where it’s most effective, and by some Ayn Rand-ian logic, the virtue of efficient markets distributing capital to where it is most needed justifies extreme salaries—these are the wages of the meritocracy.”

Now, the widespread abuse of the term “meritocracy”—a term of satire coined in a novel by a British socialist—is a sermon for another occasion. But consider the plain wrongness of the surrounding fluff: By no measure, was capital distributed “efficiently”—let alone to places “where it was most effective” in the investor-invented calamity known as the mortgage meltdown. What’s more, the question of where capital “is most needed” is inherently a political one. Post-Katrina New Orleans certainly could make do with a whole lot of efficiently delivered private capital, but somehow it was never kicked up, even in the headiest days of the housing bubble. Likewise, the “exceptional role” played by the nation’s princeling capital-herders, as the piece goes on to ploddingly rehearse, consists largely of emailing to their foreign-market counterparts at odd off-work hours; what they’re really up in arms about—with their New York magazine enablers feverishly goading them on—is seeing their social status in free-fall. “No offense to Middle America,” one of these firebreathing social prophets emails, “but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?”

Well, no offense taken here, pal! It’s all just part of the process, after all: “In this conversation about money, there’s a lot to work through,” Sherman counsels in the piece’s wind-up. “Just months ago, the masses kept what anger they had to themselves, and the bankers were close-lipped about what they thought they were owed by society. There wasn’t much of a dialogue about the haves and have-nots and who was entitled to what. For the privileged, it was a lot more comfortable when things remained unspoken. Almost more than the loss of money, they are concerned with the loss of status and pride.”

Well, of course they are—for the simple reason that nothing else really exists in the Mossian wonderland of New York money. It’s not as though the financial industry lobbied for decades to repeal consumer bankruptcy protections—or mounted a concerted political donorship campaign to secure the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall act, which oversaw the disastrous conversion of non-bank entities like AIG into bond trading enterprises in the first place. It’s not as though the first Bush appointee to head the SEC, William Donaldson, was cashiered in favor of corporate toady Christopher Cox because precisely these same market elites demanded Donaldson’s head for the sin of proposing more regulation of financial markets.

No, in New York magazine land, there are simply organic social hierarchies, and the way that the titans who once lorded over them feel about their sundered patrimony. There is a “dialogue” to be had about “the haves and have nots” and a “conversation about money” to work though—precisely because these are the preferred narcissistic entertainments of people who have had never had to worry about money at anything other than a conversational level. Conversations involve no transfer of power, after all, and dialogues are not pitched at demonstrating the social utility of one conversation partner’s core assumptions about “who was entitled to what.” So long as no one is setting a viable industrial policy, redressing enormous deficits in education, urban development and universal health coverage for the nation’s vast majority of non-Wharton graduates, conversation is just that—talk, and talk that overwhelmingly serves the interests of the people who have muscled their way into positions of social predation.

But you know what? Go ahead and talk amongst yourselves, masters of the universe—and let your therapists-manqué at New York transcribe your every mawkishly aggrieved word. Every phony social revolution needs its Joe the Plumber, after all—and Messrs. Moss, Sherman et al fit the bill nicely. Watch the decibel level, though—it turns out that a lot of people went to public

Juan Cole writes an intelligent response to the situation in Pakistan

Juan Cole writes this on his blog...

Pakistan Crisis and Social Statistics

Readers have written me asking what I think of the rash of almost apocalyptic pronouncements on the security situation in Pakistan issuing from the New York Times, The Telegraph, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in recent days.

And Stephen Walt also is asking why there are such varying assessments of Pakistan's security prospects. He suggests that one problem is the difficulty of predicting a revolutionary situation. But Pakistan just had a revolution against the military dictatorship! The polling, the behavior in the voting booth, the history of political geography, aren't these data relevant to the issue? Why does no one instance them?

As I have said before, although the rise of the Pakistani Taliban in the Pushtun areas and in some districts of Punjab is worrisome, the cosmic level of concern being expressed makes no sense to me. Some 55 percent of Pakistanis are Punjabi, and with the exception of some northern hardscrabble areas, I can't see any evidence that the vast majority of them has the slightest interest in Talibanism. Most are religious traditionalists, Sufis, Shiites, Sufi-Shiites, or urban modernists. At the federal level, they mainly voted in February 2008 for the Pakistan People's Party or the Muslim League, neither of them fundamentalist. The issue that excercised them most powerfully recently was the need to reinstate the civilian Supreme Court justices dismissed by a military dictatorship, who preside over a largely secular legal system.

Another major province is Sindh, with nearly 50 mn. of Pakistan's 165 mn. population. It is divided between Urdu-speakers and the largely rural Sindhis who are religious traditionalists, many of the anti-Taliban Barelvi school. They voted overwhelmingly for the centrist, mostly secular Pakistan People's Party in the recent parliamentary elections. Then there are the Urdu-speakers originally from India who mostly live in Karachi and a few other cities. In the past couple of decades the Urdu-speakers have tended to vote for the secular MQM party.

Residents of Sindh and Punjab constitute some 85% of Pakistan's population, and while these provinces have some Muslim extremists, they are a small fringe there.

Pakistan has a professional bureaucracy. It has doubled its literacy rate in the past three decades. Rural electrification has increased enormously. The urban middle class has doubled since 2000. The country has many, many problems, but it is hardly the Somalia some observers seem to imagine.

Opinion polling shows that even before the rounds of violence of the past two years, most Pakistanis rejected Muslim radicalism and violence. The stock of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda plummeted after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

The Pakistani Taliban are largely a phenomenon of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas west of the North-West Frontier Province, and of a few districts within the NWFP itself. These are largely Pushtun ethnically. The NYT's breathless observation that there are Taliban a hundred miles from Islamabad doesn't actually tell us very much, since Islamabad is geographically close to the Pushtun regions without that implying that Pushtuns dominate or could dominate it. It is like saying that Lynchburg, Va., is close to Washington DC and thereby implying that Jerry Falwell's movement is about to take over the latter.

The Pakistani Taliban amount to a few thousand fighters who lack tanks, armored vehicles, and an air force.

The Pakistani military is the world's sixth largest, with 550,000 active duty troops and is well equipped and well-trained. It in the past has acquitted itself well against India, a country ten times Pakistan's size population-wise. It is the backbone of the country, and has excellent command and control, never having suffered an internal mutiny of any significance.

So what is being alleged? That some rural Pushtun tribesmen turned Taliban are about to sweep into Islamabad and overthrow the government of Pakistan? Frankly ridiculous. Wouldn't the government bring some tank formations up from the Indian border and stop them?

Or is it being alleged that the Pakistani army won't fight the Taliban? But then explain the long and destructive Bajaur campaign.

Or is the fear that some junior officers in the army are more or less Taliban and that they might make a coup? But the Pakistani military has typically sought a US alliance after every coup it has made. Who would support Talibanized officers? Not China, not the US, the major patrons of Islamabad.

If that is the fear, in any case, then the US should strengthen the civilian, elected government, which was installed against US wishes by a popular movement during the past two years. The officers should be strictly instructed that they are to stay in their barracks.

What I see is a Washington that is uncomfortable with anything like democracy and civilian rule in Pakistan; which seems not to realize that the Pakistani Taliban are a small, poorly armed fringe of Pushtuns, who are a minority; and I suspect US policy-makers of secretly desiring to find some pretext for removing Pakistan's nuclear capacity.

All the talk about the Pakistani government falling within 6 months, or of a Taliban takeover, flies in the face of everything we know about the character of Pakistani politics and institutions during the past two years.

My guess is that the alarmism is also being promoted from within Pakistan by Pervez Musharraf, who wants to make another military coup; and by civilian politicians in Islamabad, who want to extract more money from the US to fight the Taliban that they are secretly also bribing to attack Afghanistan.

Advice to Obama: Pakistan is being configured for you in ways that benefit some narrow sectional interests. Caveat emptor.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mallika Sarabai for the Lok Sabha

Here is her Manifesto. I wish she wins. Gujarat needs another voice, a saner voice than the fascist Narinder Modi.I recently saw Firaaq, directed by the brilliant Nandita Das. The movie is depressing but honest about what happened in Gujarat after the 2002 riots. And how people react to "the other".

Internationally acclaimed classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai is taking on India's main opposition leader LK Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general elections from Gujarat. The BBC's Soutik Biswas hits the campaign trail with the feisty artiste in Gandhinagar.

A little over a fortnight ago, Mallika Sarabhai woke early one weekday morning and heard what she called an "inner voice".

Over the weekend, a group of NGOs had approached her, promising to back her if she contested the general elections as an independent candidate.

The proposal left the busy Ms Sarabhai in a spin: she had been in the middle of recording a TV quiz involving schoolchildren in western Gujarat state, where she lives and works.

She mulled over the proposal; such invitations were not new to her. Since 1984, she says, the Congress party has approached her at every election to contest its ticket.

"I always turned them down, saying that I was not ready," she says. "And I have never considered contesting an election as an independent because I knew independents have very little chance in our political system."

Ms Sarabhai says politics has reached its nadir in India

But this time, the "inner voice" intervened.

"The time is now, the voice told me," says Ms Sarabhai.

This is how she finds herself in the maelstrom of an Indian election. This is also how she finds herself pitted against the leader of the main opposition BJP and prime ministerial candidate LK Advani in the Gandhinagar constituency.

"This is how," says Ms Sarabhai, "within 15 days my life has changed. I have been doing 16-hour workdays and already have met over 100,000 people in my campaign."

We are sitting in her tasteful red-brick office near a thriving performing arts academy that India's most celebrated independent politician has built on the banks of the Sabarmati, which flows through the city of Ahmedabad.

"I am not ruling out a win. I might get one vote or I may get 500,000 votes. But I am going to fight. Politics has reached its nadir in India," she says, punching away furiously on her BlackBerry.

As a battle between political rivals, the fight for Gandhinagar cannot be more unequal - the Indian version of David and Goliath.

Mr Advani is the 81-year-old veteran of Indian politics. He is the shadow prime minister, leads a conservative Hindu nationalist party and is backed by powerful and rich party machinery.

The challenge is formidable - LK Advani is a powerhouse

Ms Sarabhai, 54, is a political greenhorn with no party but a lot of energy and an enviable reputation.

She is India's best known dancer-actor-activist, has an MBA and doctorate from the country's best business school and is the daughter of a renowned space scientist.

She is also the scion of one of the country's most progressive business families, a feisty liberal and a divorced mother of two.

Ms Sarabhai is also putting up a spirited fight with her army of plucky young volunteers.

They sing songs, dance, perform theatre on the streets and use their formidable online networking skills to spread the campaign far and wide.

There are satirical digs at her rival's second name - Advani, in Gujarati, means "don't touch".

"I have no money to fight an election," she says. "But we are managing."

Youthful energy

Ms Sarabhai's snazzy election site solicits donations and publishes data on the contributions - more than 600,000 rupees ($12,000) have poured in in a fortnight, the site says.

Her supporters say she is a symbol for change

There is no lack of pluck. A trenchant critic of the BJP government's "inaction" during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, she was hounded by the state government, who slapped charges of "human trafficking" on her only to drop them after a national outrage.

Now she has challenged Mr Advani to a public debate. For the most part, Mr Advani and his party have ignored her.

But Ms Sarabhai is a consummate performer and communicator: on her walkabouts, she works the crowds, breaking into song and dance, in city neighbourhoods and shantytowns alike.

"She is a symbol of change," says Wilson Battu, a New York-based retail management consultant and friend, who says he helped in the Obama campaign and is now assisting Ms Sarabhai.

The Sarabhai campaign has an element of the hip - a youthful energy not usually associated with Indian politics.

Many of the young volunteers who have signed up for her - numbering about 700 - talk about tips they picked up from the Obama campaign.

What development is the government talking about? Whose development?"

Mallika Sarabhai

Catchy songs specially composed for the campaign blare out of speakers when she hits the road.

A campaign film and a mobile video van to ferry her message around the countryside is in the works.

Volunteers are turned out in the campaign tricolour - red, white and purple - or wearing scarves. The campaign is on Facebook and Twitter.

In the morning, she is working middle-class households in the city in what she calls "network meetings".

"What would we prefer - a clean society or a filthy one?" she asks a group of local denizens who have gathered in a musty room.

When dusk falls and the heat abates, she travels across her sprawling constituency, home to 1.5 million voters and, among other things, the factory making the Nano, the world's cheapest car.

Ms Sarabhai says her campaign has been a learning experience - of what she calls "exploitative and unequal" conditions in what is hyped as India's most economically developed state.

She says she has met struggling government health workers with earnings that violate the state's own minimum wage, and a Muslim driver who wept after she offered him a job because he had been "rejected 40 times because of his religion".

"And 70% of the villages and slums I have visited in my constituency have no toilets. What development is the government talking about? Whose development?"

Campaign badges and stickers show a beaming Ms Sarabhai asking: "Won't you support me? Won't you vote for me."

Three weeks from now, she - and her countless admirers - will know. But even if she loses, Mallika Sarabhai promises to be back - she swears she is not going to be an accidental politician.

This from the BBC.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Happy George Day

Juan Cole writes about George today celebrated in Barcelona, where women give men books and men give women flowers.

Friday, April 24, 2009
A Modest Proposal: George's Day and Saving Bookstores (and not bad for Florists either)

There is a delightful custom in Barcelona. On April 23, St. George's Day, men give their girlfriends or wives a rose. And the women give their male beloved a book. The gift of the book is said to have been initiated in 1926 as a commemoration of Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote

The rose is more traditional. It is said that after St. George killed the dragon to save the maiden, a droplet of its blood sprouted into a rose.

Perhaps under Catalonian influence, April 23 has already been adopted by UNESCO as the International Day of the Book. However, I don't think very many people know about this day.

The advantage of the way the Barcelonans do it is that it ties book-giving to individual romance, and so makes it universal. Obviously the precise Catalonian custom, however quaint and colorful, is pretty sexist and needs updating. But if it is altered slightly, I think we have here a commemoration worth widely adopting.

I propose that whoever loves someone else romantically of any sex give the loved one both a book and a rose for George's Day.

If we do it that way, I think George's Day could be promulgated successfully as a day internationally observed by individuals, just as Valentine's Day has become.

April 23 has the advantage of falling at a time of year when there is little to drive customers to bookstores. Moreover, despite UNESCO's effort, there is no popularly recognized special day for book-buying. One can give a book on lots of occasions, but it is just one possible gift among many. Having a special day on which only a book will do as a gift would be a great good thing. And, of course, buying someone a Kindle file would also work.

It is true that St. George is a Catholic saint and so on the surface not suited to universal commemoration. But I know of nothing objectionable about him, and the main legend associated with him is that of killing the dragon. That is of course a mythic deed common in world mythology-- Indra and Vrta, Faridun and Zohak, Thor and the Midgaard serpent. Killing the dragon of ignorance on behalf of the Book is a universal.

Besides, in the US we don't have a problem widely commemorating St. Valentine's Day. And then there is our appropriation from Catholic sources of St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Mardi Gras, and virtually any other excuse to get tipsy, so why not at least put one saint to literate use?

What say you, bloggers and bibliophiles? Shall we push George's Day, April 23, with all the vigor that the jewelers put into Valentine's Day?

It isn't too late even this year. After all, we could start with a vague St. George's season (and the Eastern Orthodox observe dates other than April 23). But next year we could push to make it really big.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sikhs in Swat to pay Jizia tax

Sikhs in Swat are being asked to pay Jizia tax to the Taliban.

The Daily Times, Lahore, of April 15 carried the following as reported by Abdul Saboor Khan:

"Sikh families leave Orakzai after Taliban demand jizia

"HANGU: Sikh families living in Orakzai Agency have left the agency after the Taliban demanded Rs 50 million as jizia (tax) from them, official sources and locals said on Tuesday.

"Residents of Ferozekhel area in Lower Orakzai Agency told Daily Times on Tuesday that around 10 Sikh families left the agency after the demand by the Taliban, who said they were a minority and liable to pay the tax for living in the area in accordance with sharia.

"Locals said the Taliban had notified the Sikh families about the ‘tax’ around a week ago. They said of the 15 Sikh families in Ferozekhel, 10 had shifted while the remaining were preparing to do so.

"The locals said the families were impoverished and had left the area to avoid any Taliban action."

The following day, April 16, appeared another report by the same correspondent:

"Sikhs in Orakzai pay Rs 20 million jizia to Taliban

"HANGU: The Sikh community living in Orakzai Agency on Wednesday conceded to Taliban demand to pay them jizia – tax levied on non-Muslims living under Islamic rule – and paid Rs 20 million to Taliban in return for ‘protection’.

"Officials told Daily Times that the Taliban also released Sikh leader Sardar Saiwang Singh and vacated the community’s houses after the Sikhs accepted the Taliban demand.

"The officials said the Taliban announced that the Sikhs were now free to live anywhere in the agency.

"They also announced protection for the Sikh community, saying that no one would harm them after they paid jizia. Sikhs who had left the agency would now return to their houses and resume their business in the agency, the officials said."

A week has passed, but I have not seen any comment on the above in the three Urdu newspapers from Pakistan that I fairly regularly check: Jang, Nawa-i-Waqt, and Daily Express. And if the Daily Times or Dawn carried an editorial on the plight of the smallest and most powerless group of Pakistani citizens, I must have missed it. Here I must note that while Jang failed to carry the news about the Pakistani Sikhs, it twice reported on the special arrangements made for security and hospitality for the Sikh pilgrims from India.

The Pakistani lawyers who took to the streets to bring back an independent judiciary might not have read the news, busy as they must be with important matters, for none issued even a statement of regret or sympathy. As for the newly established ‘independent judiciary,’ personified by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and its Chief Justice—it took notice, suo motu, of the case of the whipping of a married woman and then only the other day declared that the penalty for ‘blasphemy’ should be death in the Islamic nation—it too preferred to ignore the Sikhs. The nation’s President and Prime Minister, of course, saw nothing wrong in what the Taliban had done—the two now co-share authority—and made not the slightest noise. Of course the guardians of Islam’s honour in Pakistan, the muftis and maulanas, made not the slightest protest. Most likely they saw in the incident just one more triumph of their vision of Islam’s glory in Pakistan. If anything, they showed remarkable restraint when they didn’t make a public celebration of it, as they had done when President Zardari’s father-in-law had the Ahmadis declared non-Muslim.

Who knows but the mullahs might be planning secretly to demand that the same shari’a should now be enforced on the equally helpless and minute population of Hindus in Sindh.

What surprises me, however, is that none of the maulanas and muftis made an issue of the exact amount of money when so many avenues of argumentation were open to them. Was the amount extorted from the Sikhs right according to all the major schools of Islamic jurisprudence? Wasn’t it less? Wasn’t it more? Shouldn’t the amount be equivalent to the value of a certain weight in gold? And what about the requirement, according to many jurists, that the dhimmis must additionally be publicly humiliated and made to display some distinct marker to separate them from the pure and virtuous? Shouldn’t the dhimmis be disbarred from riding a motorbike now, and limited only to riding a bicycle? So many valid questions of fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] were available to the reverends for the purpose of displaying their brilliance. Further, the newspaper report does not indicate if a similar payment would be demanded again next year. Perhaps not, but then is it valid under shari’ah to extort jizia in a lump sum? Are not the Talibans guilty of a bid’ah [sinful innovation] in this instance? Surely a few fatwas are needed to settle that issue?

Another question that the newspaper report left in the dark is: have the champions of shari’ah simultaneously levied an ‘ushr on local Muslims? Not to do so, while collecting jizia from non-Muslims would be an affront to Islamic ‘adl that so many opinion columns and editorials have recently praised. It would amount to one more bid’ah, to say the least.

Since the maulanas and muftis of Pakistan have seeming failed to do a proper job of establishing shari’ah with all its ramifications in Orakzai, I urge the Pakistani Supreme Court to take notice, suo motu, and make sure the Taliban also levied an ‘ushr on all local Muslims, including themselves. The learned court only recently decided that the penalty for ‘blasphemy’ in Pakistan should indeed be death; it should, therefore, have no trouble deciding what punishment should be meted out in such grave cases of bid’ah. Islamic ‘adl demands nothing less.

thanks to Chapati Mystery

Amrit Singh

In the swirling controversy surrounding the legal memos relating to the use of various forms of torture, Ms. Amrit Singh is getting attention for the work she did in documenting the practices at various detention centers and related policies. Ms. Singh is a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The following link to ACLU's site has information about "Administration of Torture," a book co-authored by Ms. Singh:

More on Singh, who happens to be the daughter of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, below.

Administration of Torture is the most detailed account thus far of what took place in America's overseas detention centers and why. Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh draw the connection between the policies adopted by senior civilian and military officials and the torture and abuse that took place on the ground. They also collect and reproduce hundreds of government documents—including interrogation directives, FBI e-mails, autopsy reports, and investigative files—obtained by the ACLU and its partners through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents show that abuse of prisoners was not limited to Abu Ghraib but was pervasive in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay. Even more disturbing, the documents reveal that senior officials endorsed the abuse of prisoners as a matter of policy-sometimes by tolerating it, sometimes by encouraging it, and sometimes by expressly authorizing it. The documents constitute both an important historical record and a profound indictment of the Bush administration's policies with respect to the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody abroad.

Amrit Singh is a Staff Attorney at the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, where she has litigated cases relating to the torture and abuse of prisoners held in U.S. custody abroad, the government's use of diplomatic assurances to return individuals to countries known to employ torture, the indefinite and mandatory detention of immigrants, and post 9/11 discrimination against immigrants. She is counsel, among other cases, in ACLU v. Dep't of Defense, litigation under the Freedom of Information Act for records concerning the treatment and detention of prisoners held by the U.S. in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantánamo Bay and other locations abroad; and Ali v. Rumsfeld, a lawsuit brought against senior U.S. government officials on behalf of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners who were tortured in U.S. custody. Prior to joining the Immigrants' Rights Project, Singh litigated a variety of racial justice issues as the Karpatkin Fellow at the National Legal Department of the ACLU, including post 9/11 airline discrimination against brown-skinned passengers and the failure of the state of Montana to provide adequate legal counsel to indigent criminal defendants. Prior to joining the ACLU, she served as a law clerk to the Hon. Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Singh is a graduate of Cambridge University, Oxford University, and Yale Law School.

From Saja

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Kahani Movement

Check this site about the Kahani Movement, where first generation South Asians write about their experiences in America. Sanjay Gupta of CNN fame is one of the cofounders of this social networking site!

This from Sepia Mutiny.

I’m borderline obsessed with the ideas of documenting the history of South Asian Americans, and am completely fascinated with how this project is merging documentary with social networking with user generated content. There is so much potential.

The Kahani Movement…ties the concept of StoryCorps to the technology of Web 2.0 by inspiring Indian Americans to tell stories of their early days in the U.S. from the comfort of their own kitchen tables and then share this content on a newly developed social network.
The project takes a Hollywood 2.0 approach to sharing these stories by motivating young Indian Americans to pick up a camera, interview their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and then post that footage to Kahani’s web platform. The eventual audience for this content is a generation of people who may never have the benefit of a real conversation with their immigrant ancestors. [sajaforum]

I’ve been working on documenting my maternal grandparents’ story, and this is a space where I knew I would have been able to share it…that is if it weren’t an “Indian” space, but a South Asian one. My only critique of the site, which I think is substantial considering how integrated the South Asian American migration and historical experience is.

London Book Fair- Focus on Indian Writing

The London Book Fair is hosting a conference on Indian writing. Amit Chaudhuri reviews it here.

In search of India This year's London book fair celebrates the diversity of contemporary Indian writing. How much do the novelists of the new generation have in common, asks Amit Chaudhuri. Writers and publishers recommend old favourites and rising stars
Amit Chaudhuri
The Guardian, Saturday 18 April 2009
Article history

The theme of the London book fair this year is Indian writing. Vikram Seth, Amartya Sen, William Dalrymple and other writers in frequent circulation in this country are going to be joined by writers - K Satchidanandan, Javed Akhtar - distinguished or popular on their own terrain but less known here, for five days of discussions and celebrations. Something like this happened in 2006 to the Frankfurt book fair, when planeloads of Indian novelists and poets descended on the Intercontinental Hotel, waved to each other over breakfast, and then read from their work to courteous audiences in the afternoons and evenings.

The theme then, too, was India; and the "idea of India" acted as a catalyst to a process that might have already begun, but received, at that moment, a recognisable impetus - the confluence, in one place, of literary and intellectual dialogue with what is basically business activity, each bringing magic and movement to the other. The India-themed Paris book fair followed swiftly.

Both these events proved a few things. Firstly, you were reminded of the variety of genres that Indian writers - especially those who write in languages other than English - had practised for much of the 20th century. In the hotel lobbies, the cafés and restaurants in adjoining streets, not to speak of the venues, you kept running into poets, critics, short-story writers, historians, playwrights from the many Indian literatures; and, of course, novelists. The English language had, it would seem, only thrown up novelists in India in the last 30 years; the truth is that there were and are excellent English-language poets, but few, or none, had been invited.

As to the writers from the more troubled regions outside the metropolitan suburbs in which English alone was spoken, you could see, if you scratched the surface of their slightly bureaucratic veneer, that they possessed an eclecticism of taste and literary predilections, a formal curiosity, as well as a true multilingualism, that made them quite akin - paradoxically for brown men wandering about the streets of Frankfurt and Paris - to the breed of writers once called "European". However, no one, I think, asked them about their relationship to Europe, though each of them would have had an answer to the question; this was a reminder of the odd discrepancy between language - and I don't just mean English and French and Hindi - and vantage-point and intention that sometimes characterised interactions between audiences and writers.

The other thing that hit you was the amount of money the Indian government had to spare for culture; it was one of the main sponsors of these events, and had made these migratory, crowded, but characteristically desultory congregations possible. Why now? And just how much thought had gone into the meetings and readings? Perhaps a great deal more could have been done over the decades following independence to give us a greater and more acute sense of our literary history as moderns, especially as more funding seemed to have been available than had been assumed. We in India have no equivalent of the Modern Library, for instance, nor anything like the Penguin Modern European Poets series, let alone properly influential critical and scholarly work on 20th-century literature. Are the book fairs, with their new kind of commingling, sending out a hint - perhaps an unintended one - about the timeliness of such initiatives to their organisers?

Another revealing aspect of Frankfurt and Paris was the evidently unconstricted and even unpredictable way foreign rights were sold by Indian publishers (without, necessarily, British mediation) to European countries: this explained the random mix of celebrities and little-known practitioners, of the "latest thing" in Indian writing in English as well as the older and occasionally infirm writers (members of a deceased avant-garde) in the Indian languages. Some of these people have hardly been translated into English, but are often available in French or German, and there are students writing doctorates on their work. The putative common pool of the Indo-European languages (established at first in the late 18th century by a Welshman, William Jones, and put into circulation in Europe by the Germans Schlegel, Schiller, Goethe and later Max Mueller) probably - who knows? - still stirs faintly in the memory of European academia as it hardly does in the Anglo-Saxon world. Or, possibly, the fact that these countries have less of a direct relationship with India than Britain allows for the frequently hit-or-miss but sometimes surprising nature of the Indian list on the European publishers' catalogues.

What will London bring that Frankfurt and Paris haven't? Certainly, it seems to have taken the cue from the two European cities in at least one regard: it hasn't invited only those writers who are published in this country - that is, Anglophone writers of prose. So, for instance, we will have, besides Vikram Seth, Ramachandra Guha and Patrick French, the Urdu-language theorist Gopi Chand Narang, the Bengali poet and novelist Sunil Ganguly, and the English-language poet and novelist Mamang Dai from the idyllic, remote Arunachal Pradesh. In other words, the book fair should bring some intimation to audiences in London of an explosion in writing that is not 30 but perhaps 200 years old, the consequence of a venerable, many-tongued, and still astonishing lineage in modernism.

There will also be two writers who have aired their disagreements with each other in these pages - the Englishman William Radice, poet, translator of Tagore, and, until recently, poet laureate-aspirant, and the younger Jeet Thayil, poet, critic, editor of an anthology of Indian poetry in English, and defender (odd but instructive that it should need defending even now, in a way that Indian fiction no longer does) of the continued viability of Indian English poetry. Not all of these choices are risky ones; many of these writers (myself included) now spend a fair amount of time in the ghostly, mnemonic world of international book fairs, in their guise as crowded transit lounges for the nation; here we wait, eat, talk to each other, ignore acquaintances, as the difference between airport, venue and hotel gradually diminishes. But does this journey lead somewhere? Will it change the way Indian writing is configured within British publishing?

How does travel shape and qualify writing and nationality (a common enough conundrum), especially when they take on this form - the transcontinental literary event; the book reading in a foreign location? And how do these writers cohere and relate to each other in our minds: what is it, besides the book fair and perhaps the place of birth on their passports or some long-standing enthusiasm, that makes K Satchidanandan and Tarun J Tejpal and Dalrymple all, in some sense, "Indian" writers? One thing we do know is that travel is not only about bringing your particular skills, wares, identity and lineage to a place, but being changed by, and learning from, the act of travelling and facing up to foreignness. In roughly the past 20 years India has changed from being a Nehruvian nation-state - an experiment and ideal in democracy - to a portable mode of existence, as well as a form of self-justification for a curious mixture of free-market opportunism and a slyly conservative provincialism. This means that Indians, as they travel, migrate and resettle, have increasingly begun to deflect the problem - and the rewards - of encountering foreignness, and strangeness, and the notion of "India" has helped them in (has, in fact, been crucial to) this deflection. The so-called Indian diaspora ceased, really, to want either to integrate with, or radically revise, the landscape they moved to in the 1980s and 90s (usually, the United States, succeeding the earlier wave of immigration to Britain); instead, they wished to conform silently and, simultaneously, to continue as themselves. This has led to a unique combination of acceptance and denial.

In 2002, spending some months in America, I found an array of young first-generation Indian settlers in the more well-to-do suburbs of New Jersey and Atlanta, almost entirely, and pretty aggressively, committed to American foreign policy and the Bush dispensation, and yet also clinging to Indian film songs and DVDs and food and marriages, a universe on which contemporary American culture, and Americans themselves, impinged only rarely. This was one of the many recognisable versions of "India" that have sprung up in the last two decades, where "foreignness" does not actually occur in any compelling way. Jhumpa Lahiri has only recently begun to hint - with a delicate abstention from the obvious - at the silence that surrounds this microcosm, in the stories in her bestselling collection Unaccustomed Earth

So much of what the Indian middle class sees as its ideal present and its possible future, including its thoughts on the role of literature, emanates from, or emerges in relation to, these American suburbs. In a survey undertaken last year, it turned out that India lagged behind America alone in its love for that country and for George Bush. ("India" here is a metonym for the middle class, and vice versa.) In the Clinton era, and even more pronouncedly in the Bush era, the US came to be seen as a facilitator of India's own teeming, importunate ambitions, for its true place in the world, and, therefore, as a familial figure, in keeping with the Indian middle class's interpretation of family, as an institution that is primarily a guarantor of self-interest. When India looks at America, it sees a comforting or discomfiting (according to the phase of history it then inhabits) extension of its own welfare - much in the way that a child invents its mother.

This version of the familial also seems to direct the way a large number of Anglophone Indians view what they think of as literature. Their incongruously intimate, emotion-prone and proprietorial relationship with the Booker prize is a case in point. Here, feelings of self-approbation and self-doubt characterise the response to the outcome; and rarely was this inability to escape anxieties to do with prestige clearer than in 2008, when there were two Indians on the shortlist. An uneasy family drama ensued in India, with scorn being poured on one Indian, Aravind Adiga, and felicitations being made prematurely to the other, Amitav Ghosh. When Adiga won, there was patrician outrage; national - or family - pride had been violated. Word had soon got out in the British press that the other serious contender for the prize besides Adiga, as far as the judges were concerned, was Sebastian Barry. This Irish writer, however, hardly penetrated the Indian consciousness, and nor had the others on the list besides the two mentioned; the heterogeneity of Anglophone writing is not something that Indians are any longer prepared to do business with. Similarly, there's a sense, in the context of the new, middle-class Indian, of an end to the notion of travel as disjunction and discovery.

Travel, anyway, shapes the literary festival, the book fair, in paradoxically enclosing ways, and with a degree of unreality. You cover great distances, sometimes, to arrive at the literary festival, but the festival itself is a province, an enclosure. This special provincialism and curious lack of movement becomes more intense when the theme is nationality, or a national literature, as has been the case with the "international" festivals concerning India this century.

It started in 2002 at Neemrana, a heritage fort outside Delhi converted into a luxury hotel, where the Indian Council for Cultural Relations hosted the first India-themed literary conference, a gathering of well-known writers with the polarising figure of VS Naipaul at the centre. For three days, the writers read from and discussed their work to and with each other; there was access neither to the public nor to the world outside the ancient fortress walls. It was a bit like a Walter de la Mare ghost story, with several sinister and incredible possibilities hanging in the air simultaneously; and the feeling of circularity and repetition was confirmed later, when the conference moved to Delhi and was opened to the public, and India turned out to be almost the only point of reference in the conversations and the questions and answers.

Personally, I think I could find out more about myself by asking Ian Jack (to take a random example; he wasn't present at Neemrana) what he thinks about Hugh MacDiarmid or Muriel Spark, or the Scottish education system in the 60s, or his experiences as a newspaper editor in Thatcher's England, than by interrogating him on India; this is because we're both - as a Bengali and a Scotsman - historical beings invested and implicated in the 20th and unfolding 21st centuries, and will address each other most profoundly, despite our differences, only by addressing our own deepest memories about ourselves. I think the Scotsman understands this, which is why he doesn't constantly ask me what I think about Scotland; but I wonder if the Indian does. To constantly look for yourself even when you encounter the foreign is never to travel; while we know that it's in observing and overhearing others as we journey that we often discover unexpected dimensions of ourselves.

The question, then, is whether, and in what ways, the literary festival or book fair (in Frankfurt or Paris or Delhi or London) can open up to the fact of foreignness and travel.

In Paris, I remember, most of us stayed in our hotel rooms, or idly explored the huge, over-populated venue; on the bus between hotel and venue, I said to the Kannada novelist UR Anantha Murthy (who will be present in London), "Is that the real Eiffel tower?" - for we'd seen it from many angles outside the bus window in the last day and a half, illuminated during the night, deceptively proximate by daylight, a consoling fiction. Anantha Murthy shook his head gravely at its dogged ubiquity, at the very fact that the tower outside the window denoted at once that we were irrefutably in Paris and yet never in it, and said: "To escape the Eiffel tower you have to go inside it," adding, with a smile: "I think it was Barthes who said that." Much the same could be said of identity and nationality; that, for their monumental, visible qualities to evaporate, you have to somehow disappear into them. Anantha Murthy's (for me, utterly surprising) remark made me aware, momentarily, of the contingencies of travel and literature in a way that few of the seminars did: that I knew almost as little, or as much, about his sensibility as I did about Paris.

This admission brings me back to the question: how are Indian writers located within a single space - a hotel lobby; a seminar room; a tradition - actually related to each other? I asked myself this for the first time as I began to put together, at the beginning of the 2000s, The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature: what, for example, connected the 19th-century Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt to Salman Rushdie, Rushdie to UR Anantha Murthy, and Anantha Murthy to Vikram Seth? The generic word "Indian" by itself provided no key. But the idea of travel did - not just travel within these writers' lives, but form and canon and genre themselves being kinds of travel, of experiencing the foreign. Anantha Murthy had discovered his subject-matter - an existential tale about a Brahmin set in rural Karnataka - while watching Bergman's The Seventh Seal, without subtitles, in Birmingham with his supervisor Malcolm Bradbury; Rushdie had read The Tin Drum in an almost auditory mode (he could hear the resounding drumbeat) and had also been studying Buñuel and Satyajit Ray; Dutt, in the early 1860s, had begun to refine the sonnet in the Bengali language in the melancholy of Versailles; while Seth, more than a 100 years later, had been struck by the ebullience of Pushkin's use of the tetrameter and the sonnet in Eugene Onegin. All this - that is, the movements and paths along which Indian literature had been shaped in the past 200 years - had occurred before fax machines and the internet had come into existence; before the knowledge that accrues with travel had become information, and when travel was still a code for survival and daydreaming, and almost an unspoken faith.

Tagore came to England as an unhappy teenager in 1878, and heard western music properly almost for the first time; more than 40 years later, in what might be read as a gesture of reciprocity, he arranged for the Bauhaus artists' works to be exhibited in Calcutta. In the early 1960s, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky came to India, hung out with the avant-garde Calcutta poets (of whom one, Sunil Ganguly, will be attending the London book fair in a more canonical incarnation), went to Bombay and met, among others, the poets Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawalla and Nissim Ezekiel, and returned to America with various manifestos and poems ready for translation. Around this time, and very soon after Robert Lowell published his Imitations, the bilingual Arun Kolatkar (who died five years ago) had begun to compose his extraordinary contemporary versions in English of the Marathi medieval devotional saint-poet Tukaram.

When I think of these moments, I'm reminded afresh of the emergence of literature as a network and a form of complex, far-flung exchange, long before the emergence of "information" and present-day modes of travel. It's this mystery that informs the list of "favourite" writers Kolatkar provides for an Indian interviewer in a mood of exasperation and mischievousness, a list in which the dead and the living, like and unlike, mingle disconcertingly: "Whitman, Mardhekar, Manmohan, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Kafka, Baudelaire, Heine, Catullus, Villon, Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Janabai, Eknath, Tukaram, Wang Wei. Tu Fu, Han Shan ... Mandelshtam, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Babel, Apollinaire, Breton, Brecht, Neruda, Ginsberg ... Henry Miller, Nabokov, Namdeo Dhasal, Patthe Bapurav, Rabelais ... Rex Stout, Agatha Christie ... Bhalchandra Nemade ... Lewis Carroll, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Godse Bhatji ... Kabir, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker ... Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Truffaut, Woody Guthrie, Laurel and Hardy."

This is probably as good an intellectual history of Indian literature as any other. Uncontained by either genre or nationality, it happens to contain two figures - the "untouchable" Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal and the Marathi novelist-critic Bhalchandra Nemade - who'll also be making their way this week to London. It remains to be seen if any of the others mentioned will put in an appearance.

'Many have a unique sense of voice - vibrant, down-to-earth, alive'
I recommend Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld (1972-2006). It is raw, disturbing stuff. I don't agree with his politics now (he supports the Hindutva brigade), but his work should be read because it tells of what a brutal society we live in.
Arundhati Roy, novelist

Published in England by the Hogarth Press in 1940 - and championed by Woolf and Forster - Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi was one of the first Indian novels to create a stir among literary circles in England. And not just among literary circles - the printers refused, at first, to publish it because of its critical comments about colonial rule. Set in Old Delhi in 1911 at the time of George V's coronation ceremony, it describes the life of Mir Nihal and his family. They live in a world conscious that its glory days (during the Mughal empire) have long since passed. Ali's style may seem ornate to some readers, but his description of the dying world of Delhi is gloriously atmospheric, and the rhythms of the language pull you in.
Kamila Shamsie, novelist

Qurratulain Hyder, novelist, short story writer and prose stylist of rare accomplishment, is one of Urdu's greatest writers. Literary critic Aamer Hussein has compared her to her contemporaries, Milan Kundera and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as "one of the world's major writers: eclectic, iconoclastic and versatile". In her 30s, she wrote her magnum opus, Aag ka Darya - published in English for the first time in 1998 as River of Fire - a great river of a novel, majestic in its sweep, grand in its vision. She maintained that writing can encompass "fact, reportage, imagination, documentary presentation, the epistolary form", even cinematic treatment. All her novels, novellas and short stories are a testament to this belief, as well as to her cosmopolitanism and uncompromising secularism.
Ritu Menon, founder of Women Unlimited, India's oldest feminist press

Daniyal Mueenuddin's outstanding collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is rooted in a rural landscape, like the stories of RK Narayan, but is far blacker than Narayan's work, with the trajectory of each story ending in a shell-burst of loss and tragedy. Mueenuddin looks for inspiration not to the writing of south Asia but to Turgenev and Chekov, and the bleakness of vision of Dostoyevsky or Gogol. His Pakistan is visually beautiful - there are wonderful sketches of the rhythms of the landscape with its clouds and banyan trees and mango orchards, its sugar-cane fields and the sound of "water running through the reeds in the canal" - but it is also brutal and savage. Other Rooms is quite unlike anything recently published in India, and throws the gauntlet down to a new generation of Indian writers. Pakistan as a force in literature seems to be gaining greater momentum every day.
William Dalrymple, writer

Few writers have travelled so far - literally and metaphorically - as a young woman born in 1968 in a village in the Tiruchy district of Tamil Nadu in southern India. Rokkaiah dropped out of school in the 9th grade, and was married off early and against her will to a conservative Muslim family (like her own). She started writing poetry at the age of 13, and, despite strong familial pressure to stop, continued - writing under cover of night, and publishing under a pseudonym, Salma, that would soon be known throughout the state and beyond. Salma has published two collections of poetry, Oru Malaiyum, Innoru Malaiyum ("One Evening, Another Evening") and Pachai Devadhai ("The Green Goddess") - powerful, lyrical and explicit explorations of women's lives trapped in their homes. Along with three other poets, Salma in 2003 faced charges of obscenity (as well as death-threats). A female Muslim writer in India is a rarity; one who writes with such frankness about sex and sexuality is even rarer. On top of this, being an active and respected local politician and social activist makes Salma unique.
Anita Roy, Zubaan Books

Nirad C Chaudhuri is seen as an anachronism now, though in the 1960s VS Naipaul wrote that his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian was "the one great book to come out of the Indo-English encounter". Chaudhuri loved to be a controversialist, "to make mischief", as he put it, and he spent the last half of his very long life (1897-1999) upsetting as many people and orthodoxies as he could find the time to meet or examine. Chaudhuri was a genuine polymath. He wrote studies of Hinduism and biographies of Robert Clive and Max Mueller, and most of his work was marked by pugnacious and often wrong-headed judgments. But Autobiography and its sequel Thy Hand, Great Anarch! give a wonderful picture of Indian life in the first half of the last century, as well as of the author's remarkable progress from a Bengali village to a flat in north Oxford. No other Indian author has written so interestingly or frankly about himself, at least in the English language. Take the scene on the bridal bed after Chaudhuri and his new wife have just gone through their wedding rituals and are tentatively trying to get to know each other. As a great Europhile, Chaudhuri wants to know if she's heard any western classical music. She indicates that she hasn't. But has she heard of Beethoven? Yes. Can she perhaps spell his name? "She said slowly: 'B, E, E, T, H, O, V, E, N.' I felt very encouraged. After that we talked about other things aimlessly and dozed off."
Ian Jack, writer and editor

Sadaat Hasan Manto, who worked primarily as a scriptwriter in Bombay before partition, and moved to Pakistan, is the Indian Isaac Babel, a writer of dark, savage beauty, who portrayed the underbelly of Indian life like no other. I believe that the fiction coming out of Pakistan at the moment - by writers such as Mohammed Hanif, Moni Mohsin and Daniyal Mueenuddin - is the most interesting in the subcontinent. These writers are telling stories that we haven't heard before.
Chiki Sarkar, editor-in-chief, Random House India

Between history and memory lies the other side of Euclid's line in which Bhasha writers spin their magical worlds. Whether it is Vijaydan Detha or Naiyer Masud, Krishna Sobti or Paul Zacharia, they craft bold, alternative worlds. Yes, their writings stand for myriad imaginations across 3,300,000sq km of a linguistically exciting map. And yes, many talk of poverty and deprivation - but this is part of the global human predicament. But Bhasha writers are much more than just this. Many have a unique sense of humour and voice - vibrant, down-to-earth, alive. Dig deep with them to find where truth lies in the bewildering heterogeneity that is India.
Geeta Dharmarajan, founder of the social organisation Katha

Govardhan's Travels, by Anand (translated from Malayalam by Gita Krishnakutty) is a funny, skilful tale about the fate of the "common man". Bitingly satirical, Anand's novel (his real name is P Sachidanandan) is familiar to virtually every reader in the author's home state of Kerala, but unfortunately little known outside. The Bengali writer Mahashveta Devi calls it "the most memorable literary event of my experience".
Urvashi Butalia, director and co-founder of Kali for Women

The novels behind Satyajit Ray's films are great literature - Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's Apu books, the works of Rabindranath Tagore, and others - many available in translation. Ray was an advertising man, tall and senatorial, a fan of Billy Wilder, and he wrote delightful children's books. His best-known are the Feluda series. The books tap into a childhood longing for mystery and detective work, but they appeal to all ages. Collections of his stories for adults remain available. His best-known book, however, is on films: Our Films Their Films
Shruti Debi, editor, Picador India

Published bilingually in English and Hindi, Diddi - My mother's Voice was written by Ira Pande as a tribute to her mother, the Hindi writer Shivani. The author of more than 40 books, many of which were serialised in the literary magazine Dharmayug, Shivani had a fanatical following among her millions of readers. After her death in 2003, her daughter Ira translated a selection of her writings into English, with a commentary on her charismatic mother, and their proud and eccentric Brahmin family. She wrote the same commentary in Hindi, interspersing the original stories with personal insights. Set in the Kumaon hills in the lower Himalayas, her narrative brings fiction and memoir together into a compelling portrait of a changing society.
Namita Gokhale, writer and co-director of the Jaipur literature festival

Poet, short story writer, essayist, novelist, script writer and director, Premendra Mitra (1904-1988) was a prominent figure in the cultural life of Bengal. His outstanding contribution to Bengali literature was the character Ghanshyam Das or Ghana-da. Living in an all-male hostel and rarely stepping out of it, Ghana-da spins tall tales that take us to exotic locations: the Malaysian rainforests, the South Sea Islands, the Arctic and the Antarctic. There is a constant supply of food - several rounds of mutton chops and prawn cutlets - and cigarettes as this ageless raconteur mesmerises his listeners with stories of his bravado. This lovable, legendary character, reminiscent of Baron Münchausen, and as delightful as Hergé's Tintin, is an all-time favourite.
Diya Kar Hazra, editor, Penguin India

• For further information on the British Council's India '09 at the London book fair, go to: or

thanks to 3qd for the link

Monday, April 20, 2009

Khushwant Singh 94 and Rockin

Khushwant Singh just released another book.

At 94, the grand old man of Indian journalism, Khushwant Singh, is still in scintillating form. Talking to him on the release of his book Why I supported the Emergency, edited by our Sheela Reddy, I suggested (borrowing from Malcolm Muggeridge) that "Indians have sex on their brain, and that is the wrong place to have it". He promptly corrected Muggeridge saying you need to have it both on the brain and the body.
And who, among living public figures, does he admire most? "Manmohan Singh," he replied. Then something slightly unusual happened. In the Le Meridien Hotel banquet hall, the largely upmarket crowd cutting across party lines broke into spontaneous applause. Is there a message in the clapping?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Jagdish Tytler- Killer of Sikhs

Jagdish Tytler has been axed in running for elections. I guess Jarnail Singh's shoe throwing worked!

Jagdish Tytler is a symptom of the unfinished business of 1984. HARINDER BAWEJA examines why the Congress had to axe him once again

SOMETIMES, WORDS can haunt even decades later and become a powerful leitmotif. Rajiv Gandhi’s infamous words — when a big tree falls, the earth shakes — during the brutal massacre of Sikhs in 1984 is one such sentence. It has peppered discussions and debates for 25 long years and it is this chillingly cold analogy that still records a high nine on the emotional Richter scale, so powerful is its recall.

The past will not forget Congress candidate Jagdish Tytler had to step down due to party pressure

This time, the earth shook again, but under the Congress’ feet. One boot thrown at the Home Minister P Chidambaram by a journalist was enough to uncork the lava and focus attention straight and square on the anti-Sikh riots once again. But this time, if the earth shook it was because of the timing of the shoe-throwing incident. It came in the midst of the general election, a crucial election in which the Congress-led UPA is fighting to reclaim power.

It has been an election issue even earlier. Both Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, have in the past made a political point of apologizing to the Sikh community in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the most-revered gurudwara. The shoe was a mere reminder that Carnage 1984 still has the potency to trigger an election flashpoint.

As soon as the shoe was thrown, various Congress leaders were besieged with frantic phone calls from Punjab and its state unit in Delhi. Every single one of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab is linked to the Sikh vote bank and nobody in the Congress high command could afford to alienate a community that comprises 59.9 percent of the state’s population. No one could afford to overlook the negative impact of fielding Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, the two most prominent and maligned faces of 1984 from the Capital city of Delhi where Sikhs were slaughtered in the worst massacre. Sikh votes add up to 25 percent of the total votes in Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha segments.

Till the day the journalist flung his shoe, it was all about winnability, not accountability; about victory in the public arena, not justice in the courtroom. Till then, the Congress was looking at the Sikh vote bank differently — Tytler had won the Delhi Sadar seat four consecutive times, beaten Vijay Goel, the formidable BJP candidate in 2004 by 16,000 votes and, in any case, the Sikh votes total a mere 1.20 percent, the least in Delhi. In the case of Sajjan Kumar too, the Sikh votes comprise only two percent and his victory margin was much larger — he had won the outer Delhi seat by an overwhelming two lakh votes, defeating former BJP chief minister, Sahib Singh Verma.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Amy Rosenberg reviews Adichie's new book, The thing around your neck.

The Thing Around Your Neck
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Fourth Estate

In a 1962 radio interview, Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s best-known novelist, explained that he started writing out of anger over Mister Johnson, a 1939 novel by the white British author Joyce Cary. The title character is an ambitious but clownish Nigerian clerk who blindly and cheerfully enmeshes himself in larceny, graft and murder while trying to gain the respect of his colonial superiors.

Of the much-praised novel, Achebe said: “It was clear to me that this was a most superficial picture of – not only of the country, but even of the Nigerian character. I thought… someone ought to try and look at this from the inside.” Forty-five years later, during a talk at Harvard, another Nigerian novelist explained that she began writing because she was startled, as a young child who had devoured books by Enid Blyton, to stumble across Achebe’s work and realise that novels also could be about black people. “Things Fall Apart is the book that gave me permission to tell my own stories,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said.

Achebe and Adichie’s tales are part of the same story, one that encompasses both Nigeria’s development as a modern, independent nation and the idea of the novel as a force for social and personal transformation. When Achebe made his statement, the Nigerian novel was only about 10 years old; the country had been independent for only two years; and the conflicts that would explode into civil war five years later were just simmering. By the time Adichie made hers, Nigerian literary life had blossomed: Wole Soyinka had won the Nobel Prize, and Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ben Okri and Chris Abani, to name a few, had gained international recognition.

But these achievements came in the aftermath of the civil war of 1967 to 1970, which killed between one and two million people, most of them Igbo. The Igbos, largely Christian, comprise one of the main ethnic groups in Nigeria; the Hausa and the Fulani, mostly Muslim, and the Yoruba, a mix of Christian and Muslim, comprise the others. Massacred during hate campaigns before and during the war, the Igbos seceded, carving out the southeastern corner of their country to create the short-lived nation of Biafra. Following Biafra’s collapse in 1970, Nigeria suffered a series of coups and dictatorships, which ended only in 1999; the democratic governments that have been in power since have been thin in democracy and thick in corruption, riding the revenues of an oil boom that has created a rich elite without redressing the country’s essential problems.

Adichie’s first two novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2007), addressed some of these historical complexities. In the former, a masterful coming-of-age story about a girl whose religious father abuses her while government corruption threatens to destroy the entire family, Adichie acknowledged her debt to Achebe with the opening line: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.” In The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie’s rich and thoughtful new collection of short stories, the 32-year-old writer turns her attention to the present. The book focuses on independent Nigeria’s grown-up grandchildren – granddaughters, mostly – who came of age right around the time their country adopted democracy, who are middle class or better, but whose lives are rarely comfortable.

For this group, the West beckons; nine of the book’s 12 stories take place in, or are in some way connected to, America. But having grown up in the double shadows of colonialism and failed secession, with the additional burdens of patriarchy and religious oppression, the characters in these stories cannot rest easy with America, even when they are drawn to it. They have too much history for a country that pretends history is irrelevant. The problem is laid out neatly in Ghosts, which features the only protagonist in the book who is not a young woman, a 71-year-old retired mathematics professor nicknamed Prof. He scoffs at his daughter’s campaign to move him from his Nigerian university town to Connecticut, where she lives with her son and works as a doctor. “I will be forced to live a life... littered with what we call ‘opportunities’,” he says. For Prof, there is a difference between American-style opportunity and what he and his generation once had, then lost: “time immersed in possibility”, the hope of creating a new nation for an oppressed minority.

One day Prof runs into a former colleague he thought had been killed 37 years earlier during the war. As the two catch up, a picture of a difficult life emerges. Prof watched his first daughter, a little girl at the time, die during the war. He left his university town when it was evacuated at the start of the war and returned three years later to find that his books had been burnt and his personal belongings defiled. He saw his wife die a preventable death because she was given fake drugs to treat an illness. Each month, he is turned away from the university bursary, where he goes to pick up his pension, because the vice-chancellor is using the pension funds to buy new cars for himself. Still, he refuses to leave Nigeria.

For his daughter’s generation, the story is different. Lacking firsthand memory of a clear cause like the nation of Biafra, reeling from the decades of coups, oil scandals, human rights abuses and hard-grinding life, many younger people chose to move to America, a country where, as Adichie writes in Imitation, “you could drive at night and not fear armed robbers, where restaurants served one person enough food for three”. Members of this generation saw what America had (safety, plenty, possibility) and wanted it too.

But making it to America does not entail the automatic achievement of wealth, let alone carefree daily living and fulfilment. Money is certainly an issue for Adichie’s characters – especially for Akunna, the protagonist of the collection’s title story, a young woman from a lower-middle class family who wins a visa lottery and is sent to live in a small town in Maine – but most of the immigrants described here are students, doctors, art dealers and their wives, not working-class newcomers struggling to get by. As members of the global middle class, they wrestle more with psychological afflictions than material want.

Akunna, for example, moves in with her “uncle” – really her father’s sister’s husband’s brother – who shows her how to apply for a cashier job, enrols her in community college, and attempts to molest her in his basement. She strikes out on her own, taking a Greyhound bus to its final destination somewhere in Connecticut. The story is narrated in the second person, a choice that imbues the tale with a sense of inevitability – an I-know-exactly-how-this-all-ends feeling – and also creates a discomfiting intimacy between the protagonist and the reader.

At the community college Akunna attended in Maine, other girls were curious about her, asking ignorant questions: “They gawped at your hair. Does it stand up or fall down when you take out the braids?… All of it stands up? How? Why?” It is easy to imagine one of these well-intentioned classmates affably asking, in reference to an elaborate African necklace, “What’s that thing around your neck?” But Adichie’s title ends up referring to something else altogether:

“Nobody knew where you were, because you told no one. Sometimes you felt invisible and tried to walk through your room wall into the hallway, and when you bumped into the wall, it left bruises on your arm…. At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.”

That suffocating loneliness afflicts many of the characters in the collection, especially the wives who are brought to America because of their husbands’ work, or, more chillingly, who are brought to America, dumped in big suburban houses, and left there by husbands who want to join “the coveted league, the Rich Nigerian Men Who Sent Their Wives to America to Have Their Babies League”. Nkem, in Imitation, is one such woman. Her art-dealer husband visits her and their two children in their house in Pennsylvania for a couple months each year. He collects imitations of ancient Nigerian statues and masks, but the real imitation in this story is Nkem’s life. It looks similar to the lives her neighbours lead —“lives [her husband] often called ‘plastic’” – but it’s filled with suppressed desire for the smells and sights of Lagos, the touch of a dusty harmattan wind. Like many of the angry, sad or lonely women in this collection, Nkem cannot speak about her emotions; she barely acknowledges them to herself. Perhaps she, and some others, have found safety and plenty, perhaps even “opportunity”, but the price has been steep: their dreams, their voices, even their names (as with Chinaza Udenwa, in The Arrangers of Marriage, whose husband forces her to become Agatha Bell).

Adichie offers some respite from her characters’ silence by giving them the power to act. This is true especially for those who have not left for America, as if staying in Nigeria connects them to a source of strength. One young woman throws a rock at the windscreen of her parents’ car rather than explain why she doesn’t want to visit her brother in prison. Another, whose journalist husband has been chased out of the country and whose four-year-old son has been shot by government thugs, turns away from the American visa interviewer assessing her application for asylum and heads to the village burial ground where her son’s body lies. When a young writer on a retreat designed for African writers by a lecherous, white Englishman can no longer stand to be lectured on what is allowable in African fiction, she stands up at the dinner table, laughs uncontrollably, and leaves the room.

Adichie is at her best when she’s with these characters, the ones who haven’t left yet. Her descriptions of their lives are suffused with tenderness and longing – perhaps the longing of a writer who has crossed the border to the West herself (Adichie currently lives between the United States and Nigeria). In the stories set in her home country, the pace picks up, the sentences breathe more freely, the nuanced simplicity with which Adichie writes becomes less simple, more nuanced. This quality builds throughout the collection, so that the final story feels almost like the climax of a novel. It takes place entirely in Nigeria, and it’s the only one that shifts its gaze fully from the present to Nigeria’s colonial past, spanning from the late 19th century to the 1970s. It recounts the life of a village woman who sends her son to a missionary school and lives to regret his subsequent harsh Christianity – his turning away from her and their African way of life. At the end, however, the woman’s granddaughter simultaneously moves forward and turns back to the past. She defies the expectations of family, friends and Church by earning a university degree, studying in London, divorcing her husband – then returning home, writing a book about a reclaimed history of southern Nigeria, and changing her name from Grace to Afamefuna. She embraces her homeland, and, in doing so, she finds a kind of modest empowerment that has eluded many who left.

Amy Rosenberg is a writer living in New York.

thanks to Amitava for the link.

the corruption of priviledge

David Cameron