Before Lawrence Wright published his epic Looming Tower, about the individuals and events that led to September 11, he found a way into Saudi Arabia as a newspaper editor—after initial attempts to enter the country had failed. He wrote about his time there in a New Yorker article (titled ‘The Kingdom of Silence’. His time here was important for the perspective it provided on the country, and how it shaped people who changed the world. I had long wanted to understand how he reported in West Asia, a place where questions are discouraged, and government press releases are taken to be fact. Goes without saying he didn’t have much time; the interview lasted 15 minutes.
When you were there as an editor, and you had these reporters under you, did you feel like they were ready to look at the world in a different way?
I felt that my reporters were at a transitional point in Saudi history. They were very modern in their ways. And because they worked at an English-speaking newspaper, they were more oriented towards the West than most Saudis. But they were also surprisingly traditional. One of the things that surprised me was that when I went back to Saudi Arabia a couple of years later, when they had gotten a little older, they had become even more conservative. In fact, some of my male reporters were opposed to women driving, which surprised me, because they had not been this way when they were my reporters. As they got older, they adopted more traditional Saudi views. So even though I still see them as being a transitional generation, I think the transition’s going to take a long time.
Was what you experienced with them at the paper an extreme form of what happens in West Asian media?
Well, I don’t want to lump all the Arab countries together. The Arab media is an interesting study by itself. Saudi Arabia had extremely restricted media until the first Gulf War. They had only two government channels, and they restricted everything else. But suddenly they had this war on their border, and one day, without explanation, they had to let CNN come on television, without any announcement at all. And this was a way of alerting people to what was happening. The official media couldn’t even admit it. And once satellite media was allowed to broadcast, it liberated a lot of the print media, because people could see something on television, and that allowed newspapers to write about it. This doesn’t mean that the press in Saudi Arabia or much of the Arab world is free. It’s ironic, because you can express opinions… the newspapers are almost like the blogosphere. You can say what you want, but the government is very careful in Saudi Arabia to limit access to facts. Facts are dangerous; opinions are not.
That’s surprising, because one assumes that ideas are dangerous things, and so opinions would be suppressed…
…But it’s the other way round. Why do you think that happens?
Well, as long as there are opinions, there’s a level of abstraction about it. Or instance, one of the stories I was working on with my reporters was about expat workers. There was a taxi company that had its own jail. And they would bring in workers mainly from the subcontinent who thought they were getting one job and were given another. In some cases they couldn’t even drive. Yet suddenly they were chauffeurs and taxi drivers and they were trapped there. Their papers were seized, and so on. And if they rebelled, the owner of the taxi company would put them in his private jail. Now, I thought that was a big story. But we weren’t allowed to publish it. Now you could say in an opinion piece, in an editorial, ‘it’s shameful, the way expat workers are treated’. But if you were to expose a Saudi businessman who physically abused his workers and failed to pay them and then imprisoned them when they try to escape and get their freedom, that’s a different matter. That, I think, is the crucial difference.
Given your experience as an editor, are you satisfied with the coverage coming out of a place like Dubai?
No. Not entirely. I had an editor of one of the largest Arab-language papers in the world make a confession to me. He said, ‘There will always be a footnote to my name, because we never wrote about the hijackers. I’m ashamed of it’. And I said, ‘Why didn’t you?’ And he said, ‘I met this Egyptian writer very briefly, he disappeared. He wrote against the government, and he was a satirist. He made fun of the government. One day he disappeared, and he’s never been found’. My friend said, ‘I don’t want to be that guy. Not because he was killed. I’m used to death threats and all that. But nobody ever speaks of him. His absence has gone unremarked.’
That, I think, is still a reality in the Arab world. Somebody can be eliminated, and it’s just a lesson that chills the entire press, including the editor of a very important paper in the Arab world.
What about you? Is it safe for you to go back to the Arab world, given all that you’ve reported there?
I never really think about those things. How do you know whether you’re safe or not? You just don’t know. I’ve always been treated pretty well, and so I assume that everybody loves me. I don’t want to succumb to paranoia, and I have a ton of friends in the Arab world, so I think that attitude serves me well. I’m going there in good faith, and I hope that people can see that.
How did you manage to stay under the radar there? Because word tends to get around.
I know. But it was a little mysterious to me. They wouldn’t let me in as a reporter…
That was pretty amazing. That you thought of getting in as an editor.
I just had to get in. I just had to get in. And so I started looking for a job, and I was really lucky that a friend of mine had been the professor of the editor of the Saudi Gazette and she knew that he was looking for someone to train his reporters. And I was like ‘wow, that’s it. That’s perfect!’ I wasn’t sure that it was actually going to happen up until the last minute. As soon as I got the visa, I just got on the plane. It was perfect for me because I was much more a part of the fabric of society, and secondly, the minister for information didn’t know that I was there. I was an expat worker beneath notice, and it gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, even though the newspaper was Prince Naif’s. I was inside his own tent, and he wasn’t really paying attention to me.
So your name wasn’t on the masthead.
Nope. There were several reporters who wanted to write about me, but I didn’t really want to call any attention to myself.
In a discussion titled ‘The myth about short stories’, Nilanjana Roy, who hosted the panel, had a moment as she took questions:
“Okay, we’re running out of time but we have time for just one more question… Renuka there has a question, and there’s, uh, Jyoti.
Is this what they mean when they say our literary circles are incestuous? We even know the questioners [by name].”
‘Short stories are not an apprentice form’
And they don’t get written in ten days. On the panel were Mridula Koshy and Nighat Gandhi (who showed her collection of stories around for a decade before they were published), who discussed the merits and pain of writing short stories.
Nighat Gandhi. The thing about writing short stories, at least the way I write them, is that I write a lot. When you rewrite/edit your own words, you chop off more than 50 per cent… Sometimes it takes me a year to write a short story. I write it, keep it away, revisit it. Anybody who thinks you can write a page a day and have a short story in ten days is wrong. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a difficult and trying thing to do, to go to your desk day after day and look at those 15 pages and say ‘what do I need to cut out? What needs to be left unsaid?’
Mridula Koshy. Like Raymond Carver, in this one respect, I often know the end of my story before I begin. Almost always, because it’s almost always an image of something I’ve seen, and I don’t know, when I’m writing it, what the point of it is, except that I need to arrive at this destination. After arriving at the destination, I can revisit it by speaking to other writers and editors. But at the time, it is not so clear. One thing that is clear, though, is that the form, having picked me …umm, the story will not fit any other form. Does that make sense? I could not choose to write a novel given what I was interested in writing about. It wasn’t because I only had a certain amount of time as a mother or a housewife or between work, to squeeze out a short story.
Louis de Bernières’ afternoon session with Sunil Sethi was interesting because Bernieres was so singleminded about it. Frequently interrupted by Sethi, he would invariably recover and rephrase the answers the questions demanded. Praise be for that. Here’s Bernières in his own words:
On the nationality of his stories. I always have a problem with seeing my country as at all interesting. And that’s one reason why I tend to set my stories abroad. I never seem to find any stories at home. One day I went to a book festival in France, and I met an artist called Jacques, and he said to me, ‘I love Great Britain’. I asked ‘why?’ He said, ‘Because it’s so exotic!’ He said, ‘wherever I go in Europe—France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany—they all seem to me the same. [But] Great Britain is an immense lunatic asylum.’
On why we’re all unhinged. I have my own theories about why we’re all unhinged. We develop strong attachments to ideas and thoughts that are completely implausible. There is nothing more absurd than nationalism, is there? But you could just flick a switch and become a nationalist. The moment some foreigner says something negative about your country, you become really angry, even though you really agree with them.
On religion. The wonderful thing about religion is that it makes you feel at home in the world. But it also sets you up with a whole lot of instant enemies.
On Ataturk. I learned that you couldn’t satirise him because he wasn’t remotely ridiculous. There wasn’t really anything lunatic about him… I once vaguely angered a Turkish friend of mine by saying they should replace the Prophet with Ataturk. He was the only dictator in the history of the world who wanted his country to get smaller. He’s also the only dictator in the world who set up his own opposition party, and when it didn’t oppose him effectively, he abolished it and established another.
On the problem with Latin America. …my publishers have the rights to all Hispanic-speaking countries, and they absolutely refuse to take into account the fact that in different Latin American countries, different things have different meanings. In one country you could ask for sex, and in another you could use the same words to ask them for a cigarette.
On the cuatro. (he’s very good on the cuatro. Ask anyone who saw him play the instrument today.)
During a quiet conversation last night, far away from the noise of the festival, my wife and I talked about what was, for us, the most notable session of the day. I thought Basharat Peer made an incredibly cool moderator, for the way he stewarded a session that could have gone anywhere. But the wife was struck by Lawrence Wright. “You know,” she said, “I loved the way he described Al Qaeda. He made them sound like family.”
The more I thought about this, the truer it somehow seemed: Wright demystified the group for a lot of us, and he made them sound like a bunch of guys trying to get their stuff together. It wasn’t the sort of figured-out-to-a-T terror machine that the newspapers made it seem. I felt this first when Wright talked about the desperation with which AQ claimed responsibility for 9/11, but it really sank in when he said this:
“We all think about how frustrating it is for the West to fight Al Qaeda, but it has its own set of problems. Dr Fadl (Sayyid Imam al-Sharif’s nom de guerre) was [Ayman al-] Zawahiri’s [inaudible] in Al Jihad, which was a terror organisation. He wrote the books that Al Qaeda used to indoctrinate its recruits. So he is the main theologian in Al Qaeda. He was picked up after 9/11. He had fallen out with Zawahiri, accusing him of plagiarism. It was a literary spat. As one writer to another, they had a falling out. Writers do that.”
The crowd burst out laughing. Wright had shared this before, but we had never heard it put this way. ‘Al Qaeda’. Just say it again. The name is so synonymous with fear that that’s all most of us feel; we forget its follies. As Wright spoke, a bit like an uncle sharing gossip, I felt lighter. It felt good to know that while they plotted and schemed, they also had problems of their own.
One of the little thrills of this festival is to catch hold of novelists and journalists (the delegate kind) and let rip the questions. And so, when we found ourselves in a room with Alexander McCall Smith, our first instinct was to lock the door from inside (to deter PR reps from reminding us of the time), and settle in for a long conversation. But an agent outside frantically poked at her wrist, and 15 minutes was all we had.
Once we were past how he writes, how much he does, and if he has ever missed a deadline (he hasn’t), the conversation turned to questions of morality. Morality is often in play in Smith’s books, and we wanted to know where it came from.
Smith didn’t go to church very much. But he has a keen interest in spirituality. “I have a very broad theology. In the sense that I think having a spiritual dimension to one’s life is very important, but I think that one can find that in all sorts of ways. Some people find it through music, poetry or religion. What I find depressing is that some people have put the spiritual out of their life. That I find rather narrow and sad in a way.”
He’s intrigued by the evolution of agony columns from being forums where people could cry their heart out to places where people question the little things in life. “I’m very interested in ethics. I’m interested in moral philosophy. I think the question of how we lead our lives is interesting for most of us. It’s significant that some newspapers used to have agony aunts and now have agony philosophers. I think people find it fascinating to think about the ordinary implications of life. How we treat our friends, and when, if ever, it is alright to lie. These are tiny problems that are of intense interest to people, and that comes out in these books. Dalhousie (He’s currently working on the seventh of the Isabel Dalhousie mystery series) has a lot of those issues. It’s also about her relationship with a younger man, which raises [those] issues for her. And she’s interested in when you can say, when people come in contact with us, that your problems are my problems.”
There are worlds between Botswana and Edinburgh, where Smith’s protagonists operate. And while there’s a strong sense of morality in both places, his characters tackle it in different ways. Isabel Dalhousie, for instance, is a trained philosopher, while Mma Ramotswe hasn’t had much of a formal education. “Dalhousie looks at things as a trained philosopher would. Mma Ramotswe would have been educated to, say, 15 or something like that. But she often reaches the right solution based on her intuitive understanding. The code of morality is very important in Botswana. Because it was a moral system based on respect for others. And it played down selfishness. And that was one of the interesting things about African societies—that attitude to sharing, which is very, very fine.”
“Al Qaeda Is Failing”
The morning was dominated by Steve Coll, Lawrence Wright and Max Rodenbeck’s discussion on the decline of Al Qaeda. “There are as many people here as there are left in Al Qaeda,” Coll said at one point. Wright saw the humor in the group’s predicament as it lost influence steadily on either side of September 11, 2001. He mimicked the likely panic they felt when their work was threatened by conspiracy theories in the aftermath. “They were like, ‘no, no! We did it! We’re responsible!’” Describing their declining influence and the tiny measures the group was taking to stay relevant, Coll reasoned that they could only pass on bomb-making skills for so long before somebody thought they were a liability and ousted them. It’s like having a manufacturing partner in China, Coll said. Once you tell them how you did it, you’re out.
“Al Qaeda is failing today,” Coll said. “The political claims that AQ made are just as resonant now as they were back then, but people are done with Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda wanted to be the vanguard of a revolution 20 years ago. Now they’re nowhere. It’s ambitions have come to a roadblock. Is that the end? I hope so. But as long as you have the spore of AQ intact, it’s a continuing danger. It will probably find new ways [of announcing itself].
Asked to describe Gaza’s importance, where he recently spent three weeks during a total lockdown by the Israelis, Wright said, “Well, it’s important to Bin Laden,” before talking about why Al Qaeda wasn’t important to the Palestinians. “He mentions Palestine in nearly all his speeches because it draws upon the anger of the Muslim world. But excluding Abu Zubeida, there are no Palestinians in Al Qaeda. Because it doesn’t offer a solution to their problems.”
Later in the discussion, Basharat Peer, who made for an excellent moderator, asked Coll if he was saying that Al Qaeda was of no value any more to other groups. Coll replied, “Their value is in their brand.” The group’s media operations churn out 150-200 finished videos each year, according to Coll. He spoke about the way AQ and especially the Taliban had evolved. “The Taliban’s media operations are many orders greater than that [of Al Qaeda’s]. There was a great scene in Lawrence’s book at Bin Laden’s son wedding, in 2000, when he finds Taliban guests and he really wants a family video tape of it, but he’s afraid that the Taliban guests will see him using a video camera, so he actually has someone shooting it hiding a camera under a robe. That’s where the Taliban were. And 10 years later, they’re the most prolific video-laptop-generated media operation in the borderlands.”
The Art of Moderation
Basharat Peer (right) with Lawrence Wright
The festival has seen some discussions that seemed promising at first go awry because the moderators were ineffective or plain inattentive. One moderator continued to refer to both her panelists as novelists, even after she was made aware by one of them that the book was not a novel, but historical non-fiction. Another used the platform to advertise his publication’s achievements for a quarter of the speaking time. Basharat Peer, however, was a masterstroke. While he spoke softly and haltingly, his questions were clear, direct and relevant, and they took the discussion forward. This was in stark contrast to last evening, when a discussion hosted by Barkha Dutt stood no chance against the argument that the Kindle could not be taken to the bathroom and that it did not smell like a book.
Tenzin Tsundue, the Tibetan activist, had an afternoon reading with Isabel Hilton. I sensed a nervous shuffle in the audience when he announced that he would read his poetry. Then he began, and his audience was in.
Tsundue, in his own quiet way, knows how to work a crowd. People who don’t know him come to know him quickly, and meetings with skeptics leave them slightly changed. Thirteen months ago, I spent some time with him in Dharamsala, trying to understand more about the famous march to Tibet he had organised earlier that year. Stories and conversations with him suggested they had come within a hundred meters of the border that separates India from what used to be Tibet. If it hadn’t been for a burst tyre and a motel owner ratting them out, the small group of marchers, who had so far avoided arrest and detention, would have crossed over.
The following excerpt is from a journal I had kept in Dharamsala in November 2008. The first few paragraphs describe how he prepared for the march. The last is about what happened on the afternoon the journal entry was made.
“On a frosty December morning in Dharamsala, Tenzin Tsundue gave away his totem pole in preparation of his final journey. Only months from then, he would be among hundreds, if not thousands, to march across India, gathering the like-minded and the inspired. The march would rumble through five northern states and a capital territory, adding to its numbers like a magnet, and eventually a march the size of two regiments would overwhelm (peacefully) border guards and surge across the line into what maps call China, but what Tsundue and his friends in exile call Tibet. That, in effect, was the plan.
So his room was cluttered, as dwellings in transition are. Every object, every scrap of paper, would disappear in due course. Most of these things were dedicated to the study of Tibet and its great oppressor. Tsundue had little else. The clothes on his back, yes, and the red bandana he wore in protest. There were also pictures—little reminders of a life lived. In one of these, he was snapped from below, foreshortened, with his soles and hands and face visible above the ledge he stood on, the wave of the flag in his hands frozen mid-flutter, as uniformed arms reached out to pull him to safety. In another, shot at a similar angle, Tsundue is unfurling a large red banner outside a window at the Oberoi. Once again, he will come in. The picture does not reveal the faces of Chinese diplomats inside the hotel room beneath, from where is not visible. Where they stand, the word ‘Tibet’ is enough, and which Chinese diplomat does not understand what that means?
The totem pole was a gift. Now it is an inconvenience, for all he wants is one thing, a thing he can’t have. In talk and in action, Tsundue conveys his unhappiness. Yes, this is a democracy, a tolerant society (sort of). But what he’d like is incomprehensible to all but the most empathetic outsider.
A year later, a group of students from Woodstock in Mussorie sit one afternoon on a terrace beneath snowcapped peaks. Some giggle before he begins. In a corner, one gnaws at his sugarcane fiercely. Tsundue, seated with school officials, is treated as they would be—with harmless inattention. He starts off by telling them about the Tibet that is oppressed, that is a loosely defined geographic sore point. He tells them about His Holiness’ ideas and the non-violence of his own cause. But to the children, this is editorialising. They cannot relate. They cannot see. So far, Tsundue has given them nothing. Then, as if he realises the precarious position he is in with this audience, he switches from monologue to narrator in a movie. He tells them his own story, in which he left his Dharamsala home for Tibet without telling anyone. He tells them that he imagined living in a migrant community on a vast white plateau, on his own soil, the Tibetan soil. Of course nothing of the sort happened. He was imprisoned. They interrogated him every day, “nine Chinese officers for this chit of a boy”. Every day he told them the same story. Every day his jailers tossed him a newsletter chronicling the regime’s benevolence in Tibet, and shouted ‘learn this’ as they walked by.
Tsundue walks circles in his cell for exercise, uttering prayers he learned long ago, and singing Hindi songs. The kids laugh. One kid has taken off his dark glasses. The boy attacking his sugarcane has kept it on his lap. Tsundue has them now. He always does, at this point.”
By all accounts, the festival isn’t what it used to be. It seems the event had a whimsy and charm about it, especially as veterans describe the past four years. Now, amid the banners and stalls, with schoolchildren, authors, security, and overdressed Rajasthanis, there’s firm evidence that the enterprise isn’t the homely thing it used to be. Crowds jam into the main Durbar Hall, and if you try finding a seat ten minutes after the start of a session, don’t bother. At this festival, you don’t sit.
There’s something wrong here. Between the Mughal tent and the Baithak, there’s a crowd swarming around Girish Karnad’s table. He signs their copies and sends them off with silly smiles. Meanwhile, Tishani Doshi languishes at a table behind him.
The Mughal tent is now called the Merrill Lynch Mughal tent. This morning, quite aptly, the Merrill Lynch tent hosts Lawrence Wright, Tunku Vardarajan, Max Rodenbeck and Kai Bird, who discuss why West Asia is susceptible to conspiracy theories. Pithy observations are made, as in when Wright replies to one question with, “Well, Islam is under attack from the West because it attacked the West. So it was self-fulfilling.” He talks about how Bin Laden’s (by the way, Wright interviewed 600 people for his 9/11 book The Looming Tower. Get your head around that number) inability to bring down the house of Saud, and attacking America instead ended up creating the sort of siege of Islam he had always accused them of. “He pulled us into it,” Wright says. Rodenbeck, who writes for The Economist, says that the conspiracies people subscribe to are dependent on their political allegiance. That makes sense.
Wright touches upon his time as an editor in a Saudi Arabia newspaper. (His first visa application was rejected. He succeeded in entering the country as a newspaper editor. Ah, here’s the story: http://www.lawrencewright.com/art-saudi.html ) “Opinions are alright,” he says. “In the Middle East you can voice an opinion. But you can’t report the facts.”
But all of this is lost on a crowd that sees an ‘alternative truth’ in conspiracies. One bearded young man succeeds in attacking the panel, accusing the participants of all kinds of things.
“Firstly, it felt like you people were spokespersons for the mainstream media. Like it was a Fox News or CNN programme. Secondly, the accusations you made against the alternative media are made without any facts, figures or evidence. It was pure rhetoric. We have all read Chomsky—he’s a popular figure, he’s a cult figure. We know that our mainstream media is company-controlled. We know that companies and nation states have their own vested interests. So when the alternative media comes out with some truth/ fact, why do people like you dismiss it as amateur/conspiracy theory? You people were using bitter rhetoric and promoting stereotypes,” he concludes to an ovation, with aunties in the front row turning around to take in the brave questioner, no doubt imagining what a fine young son-in-law he will make.
“Well, I’d like to answer that,” Wright rises to it, clearly in disagreement with the aunties. “…conspiracy thinkers follow me around for my speeches. They want to make points similar to yours—that there’s an alternative truth. And I’ve spent a lot of time trying to talk to these people, because I spent five years of my life investigating the facts, and talking to 600 people about what really happened. It was not just a casual thing on my part. It was a mission to find out what really happened. Those conspiracy thinkers were not on a mission. They wanted to propound their point of view. Often, like in the case of 9/11, they take an idea such as ‘if an airplane struck a tower, it would not fall in that way’. This is behind most 9/11 conspiracy thinking. Now, the experiment of having a fully loaded airplane run into a tower at 500 miles an hour hasn’t been run many times. Twice, that I know of. And in both cases, the towers fell! Evidently that is what happens when you run an airplane into a tower. But from the conspiracy thinkers’ point of view, it couldn’t have happened that way, and if you studied it, it would look like there had been an explosion. It all fell down in one big heap. If that’s true, there must have been explosives placed in the tower. Therefore somebody knew that the airplanes were going to hit, but that they were going to fail. And in order to make it succeed, they had to put the explosives. Who could do that? Well, only the CIA. So they must have known that Osama bin Laden or somebody was going to fly airplanes that day into the Twin Towers, but they weren’t going to succeed, because we wanted to attack the Islamic world. So it goes on and on and on, and ultimately gets to anti-Semitism, because the guy who owned the Twin Towers was a Jew.
But I defend the process of hard-working journalists—who are supported by magazines and book publishers at great expense—going out into the world to find out what actually happened rather than imagining what happened from their chairs in their offices.”
The reply got applause, but not as much as the questioner did.
The Jaipur Literature Festival is on—with more people and fewer authors than the organisers expected. The Delhi fog played a major role in several delays, including the absence of Girish Karnad, the keynote speaker, as well as at least one queen, who is reportedly somewhere inside Delhi airport.
What resulted was an entertaining hour in which William Dalrymple, the explorer of dream lands, explained how quickly the festival had grown (“In 2006, we had 18 authors and Hari Kunzru, who was on his way to meet his girlfriend in New Zealand.”), why Louis de Bernières was not present (His passport was sent by the Indian high commission to a jewellery magazine in Brighton, four hours away from where he lived. Upon its recovery, he realised that the passport had no visa in it. And so on), the dilemma of whether to keep the focus on Pakistani writing talent in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.
Namita Gokhale then took stage and talked about writers who do not write in English. There’s a definite attempt to put the limelight on non-English language writers this year. Last night, at the pre-festival dinner at Diggi Palace, one organiser said, “The biggest story this year is going to come from the language writers, the Dalit writers. When I told him I was personally curious about the Sindhi writing session, he said they had invited over 300 Sindhi families living in Jaipur. Having seen what happens when large groups of Sindhis come together, I wonder what will happen to the festival during the session. Anyway, that’s days later. (Meanwhile, the keynote turned low-key. Hence the digression.)
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra took stage then, and right before he opened his mouth to take the crowd through 2,500 years of poetry, someone thought it was a good time to start a festival promotional video. For a second there, and only for a second, it looked like Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, the wise and witty head of the English department at Allahabad University, was producing finished music from deep within.
He recovered ably and recited poems for the rest of the hour. Most of them were by Kabir, and a high percentage contained death. One was especially cheery—it was a poem about life, and I think it ends with a man being run over by a truck.
And there you had it. Death, delays, a speeding truck, a girlfriend in New Zealand, and 300 Sindhi families—all this is the stuff of literature festivals.
The Art of Criticism
(or what’s wrong with Indian criticism and why one hour isn’t enough)
Shortly after the keynote, a book’s throw away from the main hall, Nilanjana Roy, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitava Kumar, and Geoff Dyer talked about criticism. Chaudhuri thought India did not have a compelling literary journal. My interpretation of his explanation was that there’s no culture of criticism here. Which is something a lot of writers have said, adding that a lot of critics here have no culture. Dyer stepped up to say that 20 years ago a book would fail in accordance with reviews. It wasn’t clear if he was unhappy about this.
Then, as most conversations about criticism do, the talk veered to the joy of a good demolition job. The audience laughed. A good demolition job has the same satisfaction as a well-aimed grenade in a videogame. No victims. “Demolition has to be done interestingly,” Chaudhuri said, and added that he remembered only thuggery. Dyer spoke of how he demolished Julian Barnes once (that’s strike one, Mr Dyer), and then thought it was so well done that he’d do it again. But age has left him with less time. Rather, he now understands that a good demolition requires comprehensive reading. What they didn’t say, and what a lot of writers will tell you on the side, is that they don’t expect comprehensive reading from Indian reviewers; all they ask is that reviewers read the book they’re reviewing.
Before it ended far too soon, Mehrotra made an appearance. “I don’t think we should bother with this country,” he said. He made the point that Indian reviewing is handicapped by its reviewers. Were they around, a library full of writers would have agreed.
(For good reviews, you could do worse than www.jaiarjun.blogspot.com, www.middlestage.blogspot.com. If you have to start at the very beginning, they’re a very good place to start.
Fighting the Whitewash
During an engrossing discussion between Anne Applebaum, the author of Gulag, and Tunku Vardarajan, a columnist for The Daily Beast, she talked about the peculiar reactions Russians had when she told them she was researching a book on the gulags.
“I took a boat trip once across the White Sea in September, when it was very, very cold. It was an overnight trip but it was a tourist boat. I was on it going to [some] islands where the first political prisons were. Everybody else was going because it was pretty there. So they were all very curious about who I was, and what I was doing there. And they asked me…they were curious about what an American was doing on their boat in winter. And they were all very excited. They had me at their table and it was a kind of cruise. When I told them I was writing about the gulag, and there was this instant drawback [pushes herself away from imaginary table for effect]. I later came to know it was one of four reactions. One is, ‘you foreigners, why do you write about bad things in our history. Why don’t you write about our space programme? We sent our astronauts to space before you did. Write about that!’
That was one reaction. Another was, ‘Let’s not talk about it. I don’t think we should be having this discussion at all’. Another one was ‘I can’t believe you’re wasting your time on this. It doesn’t matter! There are so many other problems. There are other things to do in Russia.’
And the last reaction was ‘oh, that’s so interesting. I wish I could read your book’”.
As she described the first three reactions, there were chuckles in the audience. You could see why. Replace Russia with India, and Russians with Indians. The impulse to whitewash is strong. More power to the Applebaums of this world.
In one of his excellent GQ columns, Rajeev Masand wrote about the futility of keeping time when it came to Bollywood. Very funny, I thought then. I recently discovered that it’s a riot when you’re the one being stood up. Yeah. A real gas.
Research for a story on plagiarism naturally led me to call Pritam, whose compositions range from Bombay Vikings-type songs to seriously good stuff. When he heard it was about plagiarism (“It’s not just about plagiarism,” I explained earnestly, “but about why it happens.”), his response was more encouraging than I expected. With instructions to call him the next day, I was a happy man. As far as I was concerned, Pritam was a role model (“Yes, he plagiarises, but then he’s so... so open about it!” *Gush*).
Anyway, the man ditched. And so I called him again. He ditched again. And I called him yet again, and it was amazing because he picked up his phone every time, and if he didn’t, he made it a point to call back and explain that he was sick/in a recording/performing at a show at that moment. Every single time. This went on a while, in which time it became clear that I was this time terrorist’s hostage—because a plagiarism story without Pritam is not a plagiarism story—and we both laughed when he answered my phone because we both knew what would happen next. It was like phone Stockholm Syndrome. I started calling him up purely out of routine, just to say hello and ask whether he preferred to give me a false meeting time now or later. We even talked about kids and family.
Then one day colleagues reminded me that the story was several weeks overdue. So I called him one final time and pleaded. “If you’re a night bird and you’re up at three, I can be there at three! Just tell me and let’s get it done.” He laughed and said, “In that case, let’s do it! Three is grrrreat for me! Call me at 11:30 and I’ll tell you where we can meet!” I had a good feeling about all these exclamation marks, and I was warm inside about the superb interview that would soon happen (In my imagination all my subjects break down into tears and confess everything).
Of course nothing happened. For the first time in our phone relationship, he didn’t answer, and he didn’t call back. There was no news of his demise, which meant he was alive.
So that left only the writers to write about. And like every other time, the Bollywood writers got it in the neck.
He did a far better job of gaining knowledge of the larger sweep of history than any of his contemporaries. The confidence with which we condemn Nehru exposes the narrowness of our certainties more than it detracts from his achievements
Aatish Taseer's new novel, The Way Things Were, is an Indian classic spanning the eventful decades between the Emergency and the advent of Modi, set in Lutyens' Delhi. The novelist in conversation with the Editor of Open magazine