Archive for August, 2011

‘Day-Scholar’ by Siddharth Chowdhury

August 17, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (4)

 

 

Day-Scholar by Siddharth Chowdhury (Picador, 2010)

An enjoyable tale of life in Delhi University in the 1990s. I was struck by how much the university, and indeed, the cultural climate of Delhi, had already changed since my own university days in the 1970s. Siddharth Chowdhury’s protagonist goes to book-readings and there seems to exist some kind of literary culture that makes it possible to discuss writing, publishing and the like.

In the 1970s book-readings were unheard of in Delhi, and to talk about writing (or even reading) was considered pretentious in the extreme: these were secrets whispered behind closed doors.

 

 

 


August 16th

August 16, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

 

There are days that exhaust one’s capacity for outrage: this is one such. The arrest of Anna Hazare to begin with: one does not need to be a follower of Anna Hazare in order to be amazed and appalled by the sheer excess of the measures taken by the government. Astonishing also was the hubris of the Home Minister’s statement: ‘Laws cannot be made by social activists in a maidan.’

Well, actually the Republic of India owes its very existence to social activists in maidans.

A verse in the Bible begins: ‘For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.’

I was in college, in Delhi, when the Jayaprakash Narayan movement swept the country. Today the government has sown another such movement: one can only hope that it will not lead to a similar outcome.

The verse I quoted above continues: ‘it hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up.’

I thought of those words – ‘the strangers shall swallow it up’ – when I read about the assassination of Shehla Masood, an environmental activist, who was on her way to join the Anna Hazare protests in Bhopal. Here are some excerpts of a letter I was sent:

‘Shehla Masood, a Madhya Pradesh based civil rights and environmental rights activist was was shot dead  by an unidentified person in front of her residence in Koh-e-Fiza locality in Bhopal around 11 AM on 16th August, 2011.

‘She was active to save the watershed of the Panna Tiger Reserve and the Shyamri River, one of the cleanest in the country from Rio Tinto’s mining activity along with other activists.

‘The mining block is inside a forest which is the northernmost tip of the best corridor of teak forests south of the Gangetic plain. It is an established law that mining is non-forestry activity. There is an immediate need for a probe to determine who allowed the mining to take place in such an ecologically fragile area.

‘The Bunder mine project, near the city of Chhatarpur in Madhya Pradesh, about 500 kilometres south-east of Delhi, is likely to be one of the largest diamond reserves in the world. It is estimated that there is a ”inferred resource” of 27.4 million carats, a diamonds resource seven times richer than the Panna mine, country’s only working diamond mine.

‘We have learnt from senior journalists that two Collectors have been transferred to facilitate the ongoing illegal mining and the fact that the new Collector has allowed mining which came to light when a PIL [Public Interest Litigation] was filed stating that Rio Tinto has been carrying on exploitation of mineral resources in Chattarpur district violating the prescribed  provisions.’

At the end of the letter there was this picture of Shehla Masood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


‘Brazilian Adventure’ by Peter Fleming

August 15, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)


Published in 1933, Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure is an immensely entertaining account of a hare-brained expedition into the interior of Brazil. The expedition was mounted, ostensibly, to search for traces of one Colonel Fawcett, a British explorer, who had disappeared in the interior of the Matto Grosso in 1925, with a party of two (including his own son).

Peter Fleming, who also wrote the better-known News From Tartary, was the older brother of Ian Fleming: were I inclined to read a biography of the latter I would not be at all surprised to learn that James Bond owed a thing or two to his inventor’s adventurous sibling. Bond and Peter Fleming certainly have much in common – an off-handedly knowing cosmopolitanism; a keen loyalty to school and country; a partiality for the racial vocabulary of the time; a sort of self-deprecating daredevilry; and, not least, a sure hand with a gun. Fleming may also have partaken of Bond’s proficiency in what a friend of mine calls ‘the Venusian Arts’: he was to marry one of the most famous film-stars of his time – Celia Johnson (best known for her role in David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’).

But Peter Fleming was a more interesting character than James Bond – and he was certainly a far better writer than his younger brother. Brazilian Adventure is compulsively readable and the author comes across as enormously likeable – an impression that is probably the result of a happy union between ingenuousness and artifice. He promises no adventures: ‘As chapter gives place to chapter, and still no arrows stick quivering in the tent-pole, and still no tomtoms throb their beastly summons to the night assault, the observant reader will get pretty fed up. ‘This chap’, he will say, ‘led me to suppose that, once in the interior of Brazil, he would be under almost continuous fire from his dusky brethren. And now here he is in the last chapter proposing to lay down his pen without having sustained so much as a flesh wound from their primitive weapons.’

Fleming and his fellow-explorers are often delayed by mishaps and accidents of one kind or another: ‘When we got back to our hotel, they told us there had been a revolution. It had broken out the night before, and was now in full swing. This meant that there was not a hope of our starting up-country the next day, for the banks were shut and the train service dislocated. We were very much annoyed.’

Fleming is not a man who puts much store in being ‘On The Spot’. In much the same way that people now speak of CNN, he says: ‘Everything nowadays takes place at such long range that the man on the spot ha[s] often less chance of seeing both sides of the medal than the man at a distance… About the Civil War (for it was something more than a revolution) … I was hardly any the wiser for having been to Brazil’. (Can it be that I find this particularly refreshing because of a surfeit of overwrought articles about the recent middle-eastern ‘revolutions’?).

The Fleming expedition is dogged from the start by delays, some of which are mechanical: ‘It was a very hot day. We had a breakdown: it was one of those breakdowns … which everyone believes will be remedied if only the car is pushed along the road for a certain distance. We tried this remedy, several times; but no one – certainly not the car – was any the better for it. We resorted to hanky-panky with a spanner and to grovelling… underneath the vehicle; and in the end this was successful. The car started with a triumphant roar. A quarter of a mile further on we had a puncture.’

But the explorers persevere and are sustained by ‘our sense of Parody… If Indians approached us, we referred to them as the Oncoming Savages. We never said, ‘Was that a shot?’ but always, ‘Was that the well-known bark of a Mauser?’ All insects of harmless nature and ridiculous appearance we pointed out to each other as creatures ‘whose slightest glance spelt Death’. Any bird larger than a thrush we credited with the ability to ‘break a man’s arm with a single blow of its powerful wing.’ We spoke of water always as the ‘Precious Fluid’. We referred to ourselves, not as eating meals, but as doing ‘Ample Justice to a Frugal Repast’.’

On the way, Fleming takes a detour to explain why he has seceded to the ‘Nullah (or Ravine) School’ of Literature: ‘I have always regarded the larding of one’s pages with foreign words an affectation not less deplorable than the plastering of one’s luggage with foreign labels. I swore that if ever I was misguided enough to write a book of travel my italics would be all my own; my saga would be void of nullahs. But I find now that this self-denial is not altogether possible. It appears, after all, that the zareba-mongers had some excuse. Let me try, at any rate, to make out for myself. … First of all, there are the words like batalõa and rapadura and mutum, which denote things unknown outside Brazil, and which it is therefore impossible to translate…. Secondly, there are the words of which a literal translation is for one reason or another inadequate. The word sandbank, for instance,  gives you a very niggardly idea of what a praia is, and the word plage, which conveys an image nearer the truth, has unsuitable associations. Similarly, an urubú is a far more scurvy and less spectacular creature than the popular conception of a vulture. Thirdly, there are a few words which can be translated perfectly well, but which we, in conversation, never did translate: words like jacaré and arara… So it is easier and more natural, when writing of these things, to give them the names under which they live in my memory’ (it strikes me that the Nullah School could use this passage as a standard rejoinder, to be mailed to disgruntled readers who write to complain about unfamiliar words).

Even for a profligate age, Fleming’s disregard for wildlife is breathtaking: ‘Perhaps we expected too much from the alligators. I know that we were disappointed, and acquired so great a contempt for these unenterprising creatures that, after we had killed well over one hundred in a month, we almost gave up shooting them’. (I was reminded of the great British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace (who anticipated many of Darwin’s ideas). Travelling into the interior of Sarawak, Wallace’s attention was caught by orangutans. Week after week, he shot every orangutan that came within range of his gun. Unaccustomed to being threatened in their own habitat, the animals seemed almost to co-operate: “They do not seem much alarmed at man,” Wallace tells us, “as they often stared down upon me for several minutes, and then only moved away slowly to an adjacent tree. After seeing one, I often had to go half a mile or more to fetch my gun, and in nearly every case have found it on the same tree, or within a hundred yards when I returned.” The one problem the animals posed was that they tended to die high up in the forest canopy, so that Wallace had to call upon the tree-climbing skills of the local people in order to gain access to the carcasses. The process of reducing the animals to perfect skeletons was made more complicated than need be by the local dogs. “I had a great iron pan, in which I boiled the bones to make skeletons, and at night I covered this over with boards, and put heavy stones upon it; but the dogs managed to remove these and carried away the greater part of one of my specimens.” Despite these nuisances, Wallace killed seventeen orang-utans in the space of a few weeks, and succeeded in reducing the majority to ‘perfect skeletons’. Most of these ended up in museums in Britain: the town of Derby counted itself fortunate in receiving not one but several perfect orang-utan skeletons.¹)

To return to Brazil: the irony of  Fleming’s story is that its narrative is sustained neither by the hardships of the Matto Grasso, nor by the discovery of the lost Colonel Fawcett. The tale is propelled rather by a fast-developing antagonism between the author and the self-appointed leader of the expedition, an Englishman by the name of Major Pingle. Their mutual hostility reaches a point where the expedition breaks up, and the two factions resort to a wild race down the Araguaya-Tocantins river system.

It is a tribute to Fleming’s gifts as a writer that he succeeds in turning this absurd chase into a gripping narrative. To give away the end would be unfair to the reader: suffice it to say that Fleming’s summation of the expedition could well be applied to the book –  ‘intrinsically valueless and … absolutely satisfying.’

 

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¹Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago.

 

 

 

 


BB King and Bihar

August 13, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

 

 

For several months now I’ve been looking forward  to the publication of Taj Mahal Foxtrot: A Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age by Naresh Fernandes. The extracts I read were prefaced by this brief description: ‘The book listens to Indian history through the ears of jazz musicians and jazz fans, such as the journalist Dosoo Karaka, a fierce critic of Nehru who wrote about political scandals and popular music with equal glee. The book opens in 1935, when Leon Abbey’s first “all negro band” visited the subcontinent, and comes to a close in1967, when rock and roll blasted into town. It tells a story of India – and especially of the city of Bombay – through a menagerie of geniuses, strivers and eccentrics.’

The extracts were fascinating – intensively researched and extremely well written (the book already has its own website. Amongst much else, the book will I think, open up some interesting issues concerning the making of culture in the 20th century: it turns out that the CIA (which was also busy promoting Abstract Expressionism at the time) played a considerable part in sending jazz groups around the world!

In any event, the extracts started me thinking in many different directions, so when I saw the names ‘Joe Bihari’ and ‘Jules Bihari’ listed as the composers on BB King’s ‘If I lost You’ and ‘Shake it up and Go’ I began to wonder whether there might now be some sort of connection between blues music and the girmitiya diaspora in the Caribbean (after all Louisiana, Trinidad and Jamaica are not far from each other).

I wasted no time in writing to Naresh – but only to be disappointed:

Dear Amitav,
Your query got me all excited and I wondered if there was a forgotten link between the blues and chutney music. Alas not. But I discovered something I didn’t know — that Bihar is a place in Hungary, from where Joe and Jules emigrated:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bihar_County
There’s a novel there somewhere, with a title like Bihari Goulash…

 


Sundarbans journal, January 19, 2000

August 1, 2011 in Journals | Comments (2)

 

 

 

January 19, 2000

On board the Megha

Sundarbans

 

 

Stopped for the night at ‘Gerafitola’, after leaving Netidhopani and passing through Chamta Island. On the way, Haldipari – going down the Mayadwip river – then just after sunset we came across a fishing boat and stopped. A group of about eight fishermen – our ‘guide’ hectored them into giving us some fish; we insisted on paying, despite his protests.

 

 

The fishermen went back to drag their nets along the shore again, and we arranged to moor the bhotbhoti (motor-boat) alongside theirs for the night. We pulled into a small khal and anchored midstream. After a while they pulled up beside us. Bright moonlight. The mangrove covered shore eerily close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the kind of place that the Forest Dept’s guards are terrified of but our boatmen seem quite unconcerned and very happy to anchor here. We could have anchored on the river, which is very wide, but they were worried about sudden gales.

 

 

A fishing boat came up and moored itself to our bhotbhoti. We saw in the distance, the lights of another boat approaching up the khal; it turned out to be our friend from Satjelia – Mohanlal the Baule [or ‘bauliya’ – spell-maker] and his son Subhash.

 

 

We are now sitting in his boat as I write; he is cutting fish, has caught only two today.

 

 

 

 

 

Mohanlal knows many mantras that are effective with animals but he says that no mantras are ever said during fishing because that would freeze the fish and close their mouths. His boat is a nauka, covered with a chhoi –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

reeds hooped over curved bamboo. The floor, or deck, is made from switches of goran-kath and planks of phulkath [two kinds of mangrove wood].

 

 

 

 

Earlier in the day we saw the family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

collecting firewood near the village.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They’ve brought along a stock so they won’t have to go ashore to collect any more.

It’s taken them one and a half-hours to come here from Satjelia, with their one sail hoisted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They had the wind behind them – Mohanlal explains that they cannot go against the wind with this sail. It is square, primitive – he calls its charkona paal or chouko paal [square sail].

 

 

But he does know of a sail which can be used against the wind – he calls it kaanir badam; it is evidently a kind of lateen sail, tall and triangular. It is widely available, he says, and not necessarily expensive, but it is not possible to attach it to a boat like his. It draws very hard and might upset a small boat like this one. As he says this, he is kindling his unon [stove].

 

Now a third boat fishing boat is approaching. Mohanlal’s  jamai [son-in-law] and his shejochhele [2nd oldest son] are in it. They have caught a big fish with a line: they call it jaba – it is a very beautiful fish. It would sell in Basanti for Rs 40/- a kg and in Kolkata for Rs 60/-. But most of the money would go to middlemen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a strangely serendipitous meeting, deep in the forest, absolute stillness everywhere, the curtain of mangrove just a few feet away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both boats will light their fires; they will cook separately but will eat together. Mohanlal says that other fishermen always gather around his boat because they know that he will be able to protect the khal [creek] against danger – this is called para bondhi [closing the neighbourhood]. It is like a little floating village around our boat now, with all the little boats moored together in the middle of the khal.

 

 

Mohanlal’s father and grandfather also ‘went into the jungle’ (jongol korto), and his grandfather was also a bauliya [spell-maker].

 

Mohanlal and his sons, five years later (2005)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mohanlal explains that bauliyas know many different kinds of mantras: the khilen mantra shuts the tiger’s mouth; the alesh mantra makes the tiger drowsy; the chalan mantra drives the tiger away (he always says this in places where he spends the night). The jalan mantra gives the tiger a burning sensation and compels it to run away.

 

Before Mohanlal says the mantras he has to say the names of five fakirs (Ali Madhob Fakir; Moghlesh Fokir; Jalal Fakir; Mongolesh Fakir and Moniruddin Fakir) and five bibis (Bon Bibi, Phul Bibi, Gulal Bibi, Dulal Bibi and Fatima Bibi).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mohanlal says that Bauliyas like himself often fall prey to tigers. This is because the Bauliya is intimate with tigers, and also interferes with them – shutting their mouths, keeping them away – so he courts danger. It is the same as when you exorcise a ghost in someone’s house, he says – that ghost is likely to follow you to your own house. Whether it is a bhoot [ghost] or bagh [tiger] it will look for an opportunity to haunt you. That’s why you have to be very careful with your mantras. You should not say them on Purnima [full moon] or Amabosya [moonless] nights; or on Fridays – because it is the Jumma for Muslims. Similarly a Bauliya cannot eat crabs, tortoises, and pork – for these things are all haraam for Muslims. If he eats crabs his ears will pop and make noises. Because of all this, he says, tigers are both attracted to and repelled by Bauliyas.

 

Bon Bibi and her retinue (including Dukhey and the crocodile)

[for the story, see chapter titled ‘The Glory of Bon Bibi’ in The Hungry Tide]

 

Mohanlal  calls his spells maal [goods/cargo]. Before you do the maal you have to pick up a little bit of earth and put it on a lead. There are many other rules to be followed. A bidi can’t be thrown away, either on land or the water – it must be put back on the boat. Blackened pots cannot be put into the water, or charred wood. It is only when these rules are broken, says Mohanlal, that the tiger gets its chance.

 

 

 




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