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Travels in Greeneland

Seven Sisters Post, Guwahati, 21 May 2012

The Man Within My Head

By Pico Iyer

Penguin, 2012

Pico Iyer is known to most Indian readers for Video Night in Kathmandu, his late-eighties rollicking account of journeys through Asian cities, in which he accurately and hilariously captured their spirit and mood. But over the years he has focused as much on his essays and books on personal and spiritual themes, as on his travel writing. In The Man Within My Head he straddles both worlds, exploring the life and writings of his ‘virtual father’, the late novelist Graham Greene, meanwhile weaving in accounts of his own journeys to exotic locations across the world. But Greene always looms in the background, sometimes in Iyer’s head, or in the form of one of his novels re-read in Bhutan or Bolivia.

At times, Iyer also makes a tentative attempt to understand his own philosopher father, Raghavan Iyer. Even in the passages about his father, Greene puts in an appearance – the last words said to Iyer by his father were about an essay written by Iyer about Greene. But, “the fathers who create us are harder to forgive than the ones we create, because they’re much harder to escape.” Unsurprisingly, then, after some hesitant approaches towards the figure of his real father, Iyer returns to the theme of Graham Greene, the literary father he has created for himself and the title of whose first novel, The Man Within, is reprised in the title of this book.

Graham Greene is undoubtedly one of the major figures of 20th-century English literature. He found popular acceptance as well as literary acclaim, and many of his novels were adapted into films, some many times over. But he remained an elusive, controversial and contradictory figure, which probably weighed against him at times – as evidenced by the fact he was never awarded the Nobel Prize, a tribute he richly deserved. Unable to settle in one place, or into long-term relationships, for very long, he was the perpetual outsider, forever journeying to exotic and dangerous locations. He often contemplated suicide, including an attempt in childhood when he played Russian roulette six times over, until he decided that he had tempted fate enough. Greene poured much of himself into his novels, and his protagonists were similarly conflicted personalities, treading uncertain moral ground both politically and personally, a territory of the soul that came to be dubbed ‘Greeneland’.

Though separated in time by two generations, there are many obvious similarities between Greene and Iyer, and it is easy to see just why Greene preoccupies Iyer, to the extent of obsession. Both were educated in England, under a system that produced those who governed empire as well as notable failures who became derelicts in the far-flung colonies of that empire. Greene was perpetually on the move, and would turn up in the most unexpected places. This is a fascination that Iyer clearly shares, having led a peripatetic existence since his childhood between boarding school in England and vacations at his home in California, leading to a lifetime of travel – and writing luminously about the experience.

Iyer shares Greene’s self-image as an ‘outsider’; in fact, he once says that he likes his life as an outsider resident in a small suburb of Japan with his Japanese wife Hiroko – precisely because he will always remain an outsider there, no matter how well he learns the language and tries to fit in. And finally there is the interest in religion. Many of the themes in Greene’s books have religious issues as an underlying theme, and questions that can only be termed spiritual, though not always explicitly recognised as such, confront and confound the protagonists of his novels. Greene’s position on this was that in this world, avoiding sinful conduct is not a central characteristic of holiness; compassion is far more important.

As a lifelong devotee, Iyer’s knowledge and empathy with both the man and the protagonists of Greene’s novels makes him a sure guide to Greeneland. He leads us through the many memorable and ambiguous characters in Greene’s novels – the ‘whisky priest’ of The Power And The Glory, Major Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, and Fowler the journalist in The Quiet American, to name a few. Tortured souls, living in lands wracked by violence, poverty and misery, they traverse an ambivalent moral universe, and yet find redemption in small acts of kindness. For Greene, religion did not mean certainty of belief or truth, but he could never repudiate it entirely, recognising that in some of its simpler values lay hope for those who could not settle down to conventional ‘good’. And his characters – shady, seedy, shiftless losers often operating on the wrong side of the law – somehow manage to retain some moral fibre amidst lives of deceit and betrayal.

While Iyer is unsinting in his praise of Greene’s novels, he is justifiably critical of his travel writings. As a travel writer, Greene took a jaundiced views of the places he visited, most notably in The Lawless Roads,his travelogue of Mexico, that preceded The Power and the Glory, set in the same land, and arguably his greatest novel. Describing it as ‘dyspeptic, loveless, savagely self-enclosed and blind’, Iyer points out that hate is the predominant note in this book. Fortunately for us, as a travel writer, Iyer is the complete opposite, and the bits of travel notes strewn through this book are a delight. Even in the most difficult and trying of situations – for example, in Sri Lanka at a time when the conflict between the LTTE and the government was at its peak, he usually finds much that is positive both in the land and the people. He writes about his meeting with Lasantha Wickramatunge, editor of The Sunday Leader, who expected to be killed for his journalistic work by agents of the government – a prediction that came true two years later.

This book is an absolute must not only for Graham Greene buffs, but even those who have read a Greene novel or two and liked it. But if one does not have at least a nodding acquaintance with Greene, it is likely to be trying and tedious. The parts about travel are excellent, but those about his father do not really come to life. Iyer’s meditations and thoughts on various subjects are insightful, but they depend always upon referencing Greene and his works. Unlike Video Night in Kathmandu, this is not a book for every reader but for the Greene fans among us.

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Celluloid suicides

Himal Southasian, October 2010

Peepli (Live)
directed by Anusha Rizvi
Aamir Khan Productions, 2010

Gabhricha Paus
directed by Satish Manwar
Pacific Entertainment, 2009

I Want My Father Back
directed by Suma Josson
Salt Films, 2006

The statistics are chilling. Over a span of 12 years – from 1997 to 2008 – almost two lakh farmers in India committed suicide. Equally well documented are the links between these deaths and the implementation of neoliberal policies in agriculture (see article by K Nagaraj in this issue). The steady move towards corporatisation of agriculture, which began with the Green Revolution of the 1960s, gained further impetus after 1991, as the nostrum of free trade took hold of agricultural policy, leaving farmers with hugely increased input costs even as the prices available for farm produce dropped sharply. Caught in a debt trap and in danger of losing their land – their only form of security – many small-scale farmers were in such despair that they committed suicide, the only way they could think of to escape the situation.

The indifference of the mainstream media was almost as scandalous as the callous policy measures that had led to the suicides. For many years the deaths went unreported and unremarked upon, despite the simultaneous media explosion that was taking place in India. As P Sainath, the first journalist to extensively cover the issue, has pointed out, even today none of the major national dailies has a senior journalist who exclusively covers rural India, and the amount of space devoted to rural affairs remains negligible. No wonder the suicides went initially unreported. However, to blame the media alone would be unfair; contributing to this neglect was the indifference of the urban elites and India’s middle classes generally to rural India and the problems of the rural poor.

The media did eventually take notice in 2006, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally visited Vidarbha, in Maharashtra, which had the highest number of farmer suicides in the country. There, he announced a package of INR 110 billion for the area, as well as grants of INR 100,000 to the families of farmers who had committed suicide. But subsequent figures show that these measures have had little impact, with deaths continuing to mount. Media interest in the issue rose again in 2008 when Rahul Gandhi, in Parliament, mentioned Kalawati Bandurkar, whose husband Parshuram had committed suicide three years earlier, leaving her to bring up their seven daughters and two sons. Somewhat far-fetchedly, Gandhi invoked Kalawati’s name during the debate on India’s nuclear deal with the US, saying that signing the agreement would ameliorate the plight of people like her. For a week or two thereafter, Kalawati received saturation coverage, but was quickly forgotten again, as was the matter of farmer suicides generally and the broader agricultural crisis itself.

Satire and realism
It is here that Peepli (Live) scores. Using the often underrated technique of satire, it succeeds in thrusting farmer suicides into the public consciousness with a bang. Two brothers, Budhia (Raghubir Yadav) and Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), mired in debt, are faced with the imminent loss of their land. The only suggestion the local political bigwig can give them is that one of them should kill himself, so that the rest of their family can avail of the INR 100,000 compensation being offered by the government. The scheming Budhia convinces the simpleton Natha that he should take up the offer; a local journalist overhears the brothers and runs a story on Natha and his impending suicide. By the mysterious processes that guide the media, the story catches the attention of Nandita Malik (Malaika Shenoy), the anchor of a national, 24-hour English-language news channel, who is under pressure to increase her ratings. Off she goes to the town of Peepli, the story appears, and media hordes begin to descend on the village, all set to find (and invent) new angles and pegs to the story – and, of course, to capture the live suicide.

The film is unsparing in its lampooning of the various players. There are the politicians involved, from the local-level fixers to central government ministers for whom farmer suicides are nothing but an opportunity for political gamesmanship; the administrators, implementing meaningless schemes that fail to address the actual problems of farmers; and, above all, the media, which is really what this film is about. In their breathless coverage of trivia and sensation around a real-life tragedy, we are reminded all too starkly of the fare that is served to us on a daily basis, where sensationalism and insensitivity rule. Think of how, for instance, cameras and mikes were thrust into the faces of the shell-shocked families of the victims of the 26 November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, while they were asked about how they ‘feel’ even as the siege of the Taj continued. Or how we are treated to inanities like ‘Amitabh ko sardi lag gayi’ (Amitabh Bachchan catches a cold) rolling across the ‘Breaking News’ ticker at the bottom of the screen.

The film has attracted criticism for trivialising the issue of farmer suicides. Some groups, claiming to represent farmers, are demanding a ban on the film; there have even been criticisms based on the fact that it is produced by megastar Aamir Khan. But these critiques miss the point: Peepli is a satire, and has to work within the limitations of the genre. With excellent direction, pitch-perfect performances by the cast (many of whom are from Chhattisgarh state’s Naya Theatre, and were trained by iconic theatre artiste Habib Tanvir himself) and a superb musical score, Peepli scores big, not least because it has succeeded in bringing attention to farmer suicides in a way that more ‘realistic’ artistic efforts have not.

It can be argued that Peepli (Live) is not really a film about farmer suicides, but rather a satire on the media. After all, director Anusha Rizvi and co-director Mahmood Farooqui earlier worked for NDTV 24×7. For better or worse, the film would probably have worked equally well if the issue of farmer suicide had been replaced by some other. As critics have pointed out, it does not give a sense of the political economy of farmers’ lives that drives them to commit or attempt to commit suicide. Not that it needs to, of course – doing so would amount to placing a burden on the film that it could ill sustain without losing its snap and drive.

Stark versus propaganda
To understand the harsh realities of agriculture in today’s India, one would have to turn to more ‘realistic’ films. An outstanding example is the Marathi production Gabhricha Paus (This Damned Rain), a dark film with black-comedic aspects, set in Vidarbha in Maharashtra, the region which has seen the maximum number of farmer suicides. The film begins with a farmer hanging himself from a tree on his farm. His neighbour, Kisna (Girish Kulkarni), is himself growing increasingly depressed due to his failing crops and his mounting debt. Kisna’s wife, Alka (Sonali Kulkarni), worried that her husband is going to go down the same road as their neighbour, tasks their six-year-old son, Dinu (Aman Attar), with keeping an eye on his father. Dinu dutifully follows Kisna everywhere, even when he goes to the fields to defecate. Meanwhile, much to Kisna’s annoyance, Alka is engaged in a desperate effort to keep up Kisna’s spirits, making delicacies that he likes and being annoyingly solicitous of his welfare.

Kisna’s attention, meanwhile, is focused on the impending monsoon. He scurries around, buying seeds and other requirements for the farm, pawning Alka’s jewellery to do so. But the rains eventually fail, and the meagre crop is taken by the moneylender, leaving Kisna worse off than before. Undaunted, though, Kisna takes another loan to dig a borewell on his land to free himself of the vagaries of the monsoon. But the borewell does not work to its capacity, and Kisna finds himself even deeper in debt – as the film moves towards its inevitable conclusion.

Gabhricha Paus is a stark portrayal of the trap in which poor farmers can quickly get stuck, with uncertain rains, ever-rising costs and non-remunerative prices for their produce. First-time director Satish Manwar, himself from Vidarbha, succeeds in weaving an effective narrative that informs without being pedantic. His film is embellished with effective performances, particularly by Girish Kulkarni and Aman Attar, the latter of whom excels as Dinu. Despite her best efforts, however, Sonali Kulkarni fails to convincingly portray a poor rural woman. This is a minor blemish, and the needs of the box office must sometimes rule; as it is, the film had huge distribution problems, and the absence of a big name such as Kulkarni would have made things worse.

Is the crisis in Indian agriculture, as depicted in Gabhricha Paus, a problem that can be corrected by economic measures – by, for instance, subsidising their input costs, giving more remunerative prices for their produce, or better irrigation facilities? Or, rather, does the issue go deeper? I Want My Father Back, a documentary directed by Suma Josson and released some years back, starts with the farmer suicides in Vidarbha, and goes on to emphatically state that mono-cropping, genetically modified seeds and free markets for agricultural produce are nothing less than a homicidal conspiracy between global agribusinesses and the state with a goal of exterminating small-scale farmers. While the film does make some valid points, and it cannot be gainsaid that agriculture is facing a deep ecological crisis, the propagandist nature of the film would be off-putting to nearly all, including the converted.

There is little doubt that mono-cropping, excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, and the phasing out of indigenous seeds are the central reasons behind the crisis in India’s (and others’) agricultural sector today. Technological improvements can only stave off the problem for some time, but a genuine shift is needed that includes a return to organic farming – if a sustainable system of agriculture is to be developed. Yet to make this point effectively in a documentary, one needs to have some dissenting voices, if only to allow them to stick their feet in their mouths.

Dark allegations about darker motives and conspiratorial games add little to the credibility of the narrative. For example, was there really no need to urgently increase yields in the late 1960s, as the film alleges? Furthermore, the film gives the go-by to the aesthetic requirements of the medium, resulting in a static camera pointed at a series of talking heads (all on one side of the ideological fence), with a few visuals to illustrate their points. While the Michael Moore style of documentary filmmaking is not to everybody’s taste, at least it manages to hold almost any viewer’s interest. It certainly does help to keep in mind that one is making a film, not churning out a propaganda pamphlet, however true the statements in the pamphlet may be.

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Goan Business Ahoy!

Herald Mirror, 9 August

By Vidyadhar Gadgil
For a state with a population of a mere million-and-a-half, Goa has a remarkably vibrant, diverse and feisty print media landscape, with numerous daily newspapers in English and Marathi, and also one in Konkani. In addition, there are weeklies and monthlies in all three major languages, resulting in a situation that would do a state 10 times as large proud.
But one lack that has often been felt has been that of a Goan business magazine, which has meant that business matters in Goa do not get the coverage they deserve. Though the existing newspapers and magazines do carry business news, they cannot compensate entirely for the lack of a magazine dedicated to this sector. This also means that Goan business ends up as a mere drop in the Indian business ocean, and does not get the coverage it merits.
This gap has now been filled by Business Goa, the brainchild of editor Harshvardhan Bhatkuly and Rajiv D’Silva. Through his advertising agency ‘Savoir Faire’, Bhatkuly has been closely involved with Goan business matters, and the depth of his and D’Silva’s knowledge of the Indian business sector can be gauged from the fact that they have excelled in the most prestigious business quizzes in India.
The inaugural issue of the magazine is a slim 38 pages (to be expanded to 60 pages over time), and yet it succeeds in packing in a host of information. The cover story is, fittingly, a tribute to six ‘modern masters’ of Goan business: Narcinva Damodar Naik, Vishwasrao Chowgule, Modu Timblo, Vasudeva Salgaocar, Pascoal Joao Menezes and Vasantrao Dempo. Selecting six ‘modern masters’ to showcase in the first issue is a process fraught with pitfalls, and while there may be quibbles about who should and should not be in this select list of six, it is certainly a representative, if not perfect, roll of honour.
Rajiv D’Silva celebrates the Geographical Indication (GI) status obtained by Goan feni, and discusses its implications with Mac Vaz of Madame Rosa Distilleries, who led the effort to obtain this coveted recognition. In an interview, Cesar Menezes, the new President of the Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, discusses various issues related to the current state of industry in Goa, and gives his suggestions on how the business environment could be made more positive.
Turning the spotlight on two successful young Goan entrepreneurs, Raj Bhandare of Nirvana and Nisha Vaz of Lava, the issue has their insights on the difficulties and joys faced by those wanting to set up greenfield businesses in the service sector, and how ‘Brand Goa’ can be leveraged to maximum effect.
The usual matters that go to make up a business magazine are also featured, if somewhat perfunctorily, but that will doubtless be attended to in future. One also wishes that a more recent book could have been found for the review section. Freakonomics, by Steven Lewitt and Stephen Dubner, though distinctly a quirky business classic of sorts, is four years old.
But these are minor niggles in a laudable initiative, and one trusts that, in the editor’s words, the rough “edges…will smoothen over time”. It is also to be hoped that in time, the magazine will develop as a critical and analytical supporter of Goan business, rather than a Public Relations exercise.
A welcome addition to Goa’s media landscape, the magazine is now before the public, the final arbiters. Goan business must come forward to extend to this effort the support it so richly deserves, and help it get through the teething pains that inevitably crop up in the initial days of such a venture.

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A Clear-Eyed View

Herald Mirror, 4 Jan 2009

By Vidyadhar Gadgil

Twenty years ago, among the varied and colourful real-life characters brought to us by adman Frank Simoes in his book ‘Glad Seasons in Goa’ was the Sarpanch of Candolim village, where Simoes was building a home to retire and settle down in. One of the most loveable characters in the book, the Sarpanch Tomazinho Cardozo, was always around with a helping hand to guide Simoes and his family through the shoals and pitfalls of life in Goa and to help out with the process of settling down.

Much time has passed since then, and the Sarpanch of Candolim has moved on with it. A multifaceted personality, over the course of a long carrer he has been teacher, writer, tiatrist, politician and social activist. He served over 30 years as a teacher, ending his teaching career as a headmaster. After a stint in active politics at the state level, which included five years (1995-2000) as the Speaker of Goa Legislative Assembly, Cardozo is now retired from active party politics. A renowned tiatrist, he has over 20 books in Konkani to his credit, including plays, short stories, poems and traditional Goan folk songs like Mandos and Dulpods. Always active in social issues, he was one of the leading lights of the Konkani movement, and continues his efforts today to ensure that Konkani in the Roman script gets equal status alongside Devanagari. Currently, he is actively involved in the movement to protect Goan identity and environment.

‘As I See It’ reveals another aspect of Cardozo’s talents – as an English-language columnist. In 2005, then Gomantak Times editor Sujay Gupta invited senior writers and professionals to write regularly for the edit page of the paper. This effort brought to us on a regular basis the writings of many personalities who are generally not known as newspaper columnists, and enriched public debate in Goa, as they brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to their writing. Since that time, Cardozo has been writing regularly for the Gomantak  Times.

‘As I See It’ is a compilation of his articles published in that paper over the period 2005-08. Classified for easy reference under various headings like Education, Art and Culture, Politics, Local Self-Government, Social Issues, Language and Personalities, these articles are a searching examination of the various issues in Goan society in this period. Approaching each topic honestly and sincerely, Cardozo manages the difficult task of passionately arguing his position (which is backed up by his work as an activist, particularly on the language issue) while retaining the ability to see the merits of the arguments of the opposing side.

What emerges is a singularly clear-eyed view of Goa today. With his rich experience in politics, he is able to examine the ills of the political system. Never one to shy away from admitting his own mistakes, he demands accountability from our politicians and decries the culture of corruption and crime that has now become the hallmark of political life. Somewhat controversially, he suggests that a system of proportional representation should replace the present first-past-the-post system. He also rails against the culture of coalition politics, claiming that it is responsible for ills like corruption, and exhorts voters to cast their vote in a fashion that would enable a two-party system to emerge. Primarily a teacher, some of the best essays in this book are on the education system, in which he tackles various pedagogical issues like punishment and overloading of children. He also looks at the ‘medium of instruction’ mess which seems to have no easy solution. Despite his commitment to Konkani, he accepts that one cannot impose Konkani as the medium of education right through school, and recognises that the decision would probably have to be in favour of English. The switch-over in medium that is forced on students when they move from primary education to secondary education is illogical. As Cardozo points out, “An individual changing his medium of instruction at different levels as per his needs is understandable. But the government pursuing this fallacy and allowing it to continue is nothing but a mockery of education in Goa.”

Probably the best section in the book is the one on ‘Social Issues’. These essays cover a range of ‘hot’ topics, particularly the issue of Goan identity and the worries about the influx of ‘non-Goans’ into Goa and the effect this is having on Goan identity. Caught between his deep commitment to nationalism and his equally deep commitment to Goa, Cardozo tries to chart a middle course between these two positions – not an easy task at the best of times, and certainly not now when the issue has become highly emotive. The honesty and integrity of the man shines through in every essay in the book, where he neither shies away from tackling difficult issues nor takes the easy way out by opting for one or other extreme position on complex matters. It is not difficult to see why Frank Simoes relied so much on Tomazinho Cardozo when setting up house in Goa and came to hold in high respect – as a guide to Goa, Cardozo has few peers.

As I See It by Tomazinho Cardozo, Published by Omor Prokaxon, Rs 200

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What Lies Beneath

Herald Mirror, 14 Dec 2008

By Vidyadhar Gadgil

The image of Goa that is projected in India and the world is a creation of the assiduous efforts of the tourism industry, with a generous measure of help from Bollywood. Thus we have a picture of a hedonist paradise, where the liquor flows fast and easy, the women are Westernised and free, and life is non-stop fun for visitors as well the ever-smiling natives. There is an implicit message sent out that sex is easily available, and that drugs can be had too.

Apart from the misrepresentation and exploitation that is an intrinsic part of the commodification of any tourist destination and its people, another problem with such hyped-up advertising is that it deliberately hides the reality that lies underneath the ecstatic advertising and the advertorials. This is not something that is confined to the tourism industry: pick up any coffee-table publication, even one of the better ones like the recently released Aparanta: Land Beyond the End, and you get an extended visual orgy showcasing the beauty and desirability of Goa, carefully skirting any examination of the dark underside. The few images of poverty that occasionally creep in are always well-composed and in soft focus, and actually end up becoming picture postcards in their own right – poverty as a ‘romantic’ aspect of Goa’s charm!

Picture-Postcard Poverty marks a significant departure from this pattern. In 12 crisp chapters, it examines the stark realities of life for a large section of the state’s population. The authors, Kalanand Mani and Frederick Noronha, are well-equipped to tackle the task of looking underneath the gloss. Mani is the Director of the Madkai-based Peaceful Society, a NGO which has been working on rural development issues in Goa for a quarter century now, and Noronha is a journalist noted for articles which depart from the beaten track and examine the lifes of the marginalised sections of society.

The book begins with examining the forced alienation of tribals from the forests which they have shared a symbiotic relationship with for centuries, and the immiseration that then becomes their lot. It then goes on to cast light on the dismal public health situation in rural Goa, the depradations wrought by liquor on individuals and families, the position of women, the destruction unleashed by the mining industry on livelihoods and environment, the difficulties faced by traditional fisherfolk, the role of caste in Goan society, and the ill-conceived policies and corruption within the government that have led to ramshackle infrastructure and disastrous ‘development’ projects. The authors do not shy away from examining issues like the demolition of the Baina slum area in 2004, something that was generally applauded by the elites and the middle classes of Goa. They show how under the guise of eradicating prostitution by demolishing this red-light area, the state violated human rights and actually helped prostitution to spread further into areas where there is no regulation and monitoring.

Some startling facts emerge from this tour: domestic violence is fairly commonplace in Goa, alcoholism is rampant and a fourth of Goan women are undernourished. The book tries to find some hope within this gloomy scenario, and traces the evolution of activism in Goa, and how grassroots movements have been trying to make a difference.

This book is an absolute must for the bookshelf of any educated Goan, where it should be put alongside the various lavishly produced ‘celebrations’ of Goa. Warts and all, if we refuse to look reality in the face, there is no hope for change for the better.

One final note: the book is released under a Creative Commons license (creativecommons.org); in fact, all the books published by the fledgling Goa 1556 have been released under one or another ‘free’ license, in an attempt to create an alternative publishing model. In our times, when copyrights are becoming increasingly irrelevant, publishers and authors need to consider whether imposing unimplementable restrictions on sharing of information and knowledge is not counter-productive. If ideas are to be disseminated freely and meaningful debates are to emerge, it is time to renovate our outdated concepts of ‘copyright’, and replace them with concepts like the ‘Copyleft’ popularised by the Free Software Movement.

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Ocean of Characters

Herald Mirror, 26 Nov 2008

The failure of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies to win the Man Booker Prize disappointed many of us in Goa, though this disappointment will have been allayed by the prize being awarded to another Indian, Arvind Adiga. While Ghosh may be a Bengali from Kolkata, he has also bought a home in Aldona, where he spends a fair bit of time every year, and plans to spend more – reason enough for Goans to have followed the Man Booker prizes with unusual interest this year. And while the novel has little to do with Goa, Ghosh obligingly provides a Goan character in the form of Steward Pinto, who refers to his cousin Miguel – from, unsurprisingly, Aldona.

Sea of Poppies is a tour de force, with Ghosh bringing together a variety of characters, ranging from Deeti, the widow of an opium addict; to Zachary, an octoroon (or metif, as he describes himself)second mate, who successfully passes off as a white man; and Paulette, who rather improbably reverses Zachary’s impersonation, masquerading as an Indian peasant woman. In between we have Baboo Nob Kissin, an Indian munshi; Raja Neel Rattan Haldar, a zamindar sentenced to transportation to Mauritius; Ah Fatt, a half-Chinese, half-Parsi convict; and Crowle, the British first mate. All these exotic characters are brought together around the Ibis, discontinued as a ‘blackbirder’ with the end of the slave trade, and now transporting a convoy of indentured labourers to Mauritius.

The fulcrum of the story, set in the period just before the first Opium War, is the opium trade that sustained and fuelled British imperialism. It is the forced cultivation of opium that has devastated the Indian peasantry and forced many of them off the land, ready to sign on as indentured labour, risking the crossing of the ‘Black Water’, with the loss of caste that this entails. It is opium that fuels the frenetic imperialism of the British, and it is opium that brings the motley cast of characters to the Ibis. We are given glimpses of the processes involved in the cultivation of poppy and its processing into opium, and, finally, its power and pernicious influence. In modern times we tend to forget how much India was influenced by the opium trade, and how it drove the engine of imperialism. Goa too was not free of the influence of opium, and historian Teotonio de Souza has written about Rogerio de Faria, a Goan opium baron, and it is said that some Goan fortunes were founded on the opium trade.

Ghosh is a consummate storyteller, and that skill is amply on display. The novel moves through a bewildering series of events – including kidnappings, court cases, flagellation, marriages, rapes, you name it – at a crackling pace, sustaining our interest throughout. Fortunately, the plot moves along without the intervention of ‘magical’ events, a device that has been excessively used by Indian writers in English since Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and which Ghosh himself was fond of in his early novels. The build-up towards the satisfying climax is smooth, and the novel leaves the Ibis intriguingly poised half-way to Mauritius. Whatever is in store for the Ibis Sea of Poppies is the first part of a proposed trilogy – it promises to be a journey that we will enjoy making with Ghosh at the helm.

This is not Ghosh’s best novel. Sea of Poppies is just too crowded with events and characters, becoming rather like a Bollywood multi-starrer, where there are so many things happening to so many people that you lose track and interest. Ghosh has tried to include a little bit of everything, and one longs for the leaner narrative of The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide, Ghosh’s best novels. A lot of research has obviously been put in, and meticulous as it is, the novel unfortunately gives us too much of it, sometimes more than the story can support.

The variety of pidgin that is used is a feat of imagination (with Hobson-Jobson and suchlike at hand), but beyond a point it gets tedious. When there are too many sentences that you have to read three or four times, not because of any profundity of meaning, but due to the unfamiliar words, there is a temptation to give it up as a bad job. This also contributes to making caricatures of the characters, a tendency which gets jarring at times, particularly with Baboo Nob Kissin and Burnham. Maybe this is an occupational hazard of writing about Asia for a primarily Western audience.

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Navhind Times, Panjim, 11 May 2008

by Vidyadhar Gadgil

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BREATHLESS IN BOMBAY
by Murzban F. Shroff
Picador India, Rs 295
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Bombay (or, officially, Mumbai) has been a muse to scores of writers. In English, the best-known in recent times have been Salman Rushdie in the fiction genre and Suketu Mehta in non-fiction. Perhaps the greatest writer for whose stories Bombay formed a regular backdrop was Sa’adat Haasan Manto, who wrote in Urdu but is easily available in excellent English translations.

Whether as backdrop or as character in its own right, Bombay continues to provide inspiration to writers. The latest to join their ranks is Murzban Shroff with his ‘concept’ collection of short stories, Breathless in Bombay. Consisting of 14 stories set in Bombay, the book is richly peopled with a variety of personae, ranging from prostitutes to workers to middle-class types to page-3 socialites. The stories range over varied terrain, but all explore the troubles in the lives of Bombayites as well as their all-too-human frailties.

One of the weaknesses of the collection is that Shroff’s working-class characters are less than fully convincing. While much research has clearly gone into understanding the lives of the underclasses, there is sometimes a forced note about the characters and situations in stories like ‘Dhobi Ghat’, ‘The Maalishwala’, or ‘Meter Down’. In ‘The Queen Guards Her Own’, there is a good build-up, but the story ends on a flat note, almost as if Manto set out to write one of his tales on the seamy side of life in Bombay and then developed cold feet at the last moment.

It is when dealing with the middle and upper classes that Shroff is at his most authentic (and most acerbic). ‘Haraami’ is a scathing yet sympathetic look at human weaknesses, while ‘Busy Sunday’ and ‘This House of Mine’ are wry accounts of the unexpected pitfalls in the lives of the middle classes of Bombay. ‘Traffic’, probably the best story in the collection, is the tale of a doomed relationship between a production assistant in Bollywood and a schizophrenic painter. The title story, ‘Breathless in Bombay’ is a blistering and entirely convincing portrayal of page-3 celebrities. One can almost hear the click of claws being unsheathed as Shroff approaches his characters, and one can only cheer him on as he sinks them in with delicious precision.

One of the biggest strengths of Shroff’s work is that he does not set himself above his characters but approaches them with empathy and understanding. This does not, fortunately, dim his insight into their frailties — including those of the narrator in some of the stories, who is clearly Shroff himself. The avuncular tone of the collection draws you in, helping you to laugh at them and yourself.

Occasionally tending to overwrite, Shroff sometimes builds his story up well, only to leave it without a successful resolution. Not that a resolution is always necessary — ‘Babu Barrah Takka’ works perfectly well without one — but ‘A Different Bhel’ and ‘Dhobi Ghat’ peter out into triviality.

Some flaws notwithstanding, this is an impressive debut by a fresh, original talent, and one looks forward with interest to his next offering.

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