Monday, January 24, 2011

Why Indians Are Built to Suffer in Silence

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 22nd January, 2011)


The musician’s voice climbs to a woman’s pitch, and he pauses for a second. Just as he opens his mouth to transcend the scale, the audience fills the silence with applause.

A little lost, the poor man bows and folds his palms. The audience is even more appreciative of his gesture than his pitch.

He bows again, to louder claps.

Finally, he repeats the “a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-aaaaaaaaaaa”, contorts his facial muscles into a grotesque twist and pulls his hands into claws to indicate he is about to go higher.

This time, the silence is broken by the sound of a photographer’s running boots as he captures a ‘close-up’ of the expression to publish as the image of the day.

The singer belatedly composes his features, prompting another burst of applause. Giving up, he touches his heart, encouraging the audience to increase its decibel level.

Something in our genes makes us Indians panic at the onset of silence. In our pursuit of quelling it, we’ve startled many a European string quartet, befuddled many an infant and scared many a bird.

Our idea of mourning a catastrophe is observing a ‘moment’ of silence. We stare at the floor, count to five, beam at each other in the triumph of having achieved the near-impossible, and then begin to talk all at once.

We do admire people who can stay silent, of course. The mystic Meher Baba was possibly the first person to recognise this national trait, and capitalise on it to increase his tribe.

However, we also believe that someone who hasn’t turned to higher pursuits must join the quest for conversation.

The acquired component of our programming begins early. When we’re tumbling about our cradles, every break from wailing induces the appearance of an enormous face into our spheres of vision, making sounds like, “bujeee, bujeee!”, “acheee, acheee!”, “onnnonnnoonnnnoooonooo!”, “ole, ole babyyyyyy?” We learn to interpret that as a signal that our crying is sorely missed, and promptly break into sobs again.

As we grow up, we watch adults gurgle down coffee and talk about rent, the stock market, inflation, petrol, sari shops, jewellery, the relative merits of restaurants, the prospects of marriage for sundry relatives, and draw up a list of irrelevant, incompatible subjects to be used in case of emergency.

Our languages are even equipped with phrases coined to speed up the death of silence.

When we run out of topics, we turn to our interlocutors and say, “apparum?” or “aur batao?”, forcing them to come up with something like, “did you see the paper today? Shocking, no?”

“Oh, yes, shocking, shocking. The murder, no?”

“No, the ATM robbery. What murder?”

When we finally exhaust the list of irrelevant subjects, one of us coughs.

“Oh, are you ill?” the other asks anxiously.

Relieved, the first goes on to list all the ailments currently plaguing him or her, ensuring a lively discussion on the virtues and evils of tablets, doctors, ayurveda, alopathy, pharmacies and scripture.

Worse, we believe the imposition of silence is diabolic. My father’s sternest threat to my five-year-old self was, “if you do that, I’ll stop talking to you.” I would spend the next few hours blissfully biting my nails and spilling food on myself in his presence, as he grappled with his covenant.

We take offence when a car doesn’t honk to herald its approach, or a person doesn’t clear his throat to announce his presence.

We even decide silence is a sign of mental instability. When all prospects of conversation have died out, one of us scrutinises the other, “why so silent? Is something wrong?”

The other usually sniffs thoughtfully, “can you smell something burning?”

Why Ambedkar and Indira Gandhi Should be More than Statues

(Published in I-Witness, Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express dated 23rd January, 2011, as 'Questions a Foolish Outsider Can Ask')

He is infamous for calling Gandhi 'a wily politician' in his last book on India, Liberty or Death. In his latest book, India: A Portrait, which promises to be 'the intimate biography of 1.2 billion people', Patrick French traces the lives of the Nehru-Gandhi family, speaks to ideologues from the RSS, bumps into Afzal Guru by accident, and delves into the personal stories of unlikely industry leaders. On a five-city book tour, he chats to Nandini Krishnan about his intended audience and the headlines that have baffled him.

Before I move on to the clichés, let me ask you the question that’s been playing most frequently in my head – where, when and how did you get your hands on Tamil porn?

(Laughs) In Chennai. So, I’d gone to this market, I forget its name, where there are a lot of shops, and a part of the market is underground, and I was looking at a few DVD stores, and the thing about these guys is you don’t have to say anything, you just ask ‘so what are the films you’ve got?’, and he says, ‘oh, come over here’ and so I bought some of them, and then I had the research duty of watching them. (Laughs.)

Your last book on India, Liberty or Death, did put some backs up. But to most of us, here was someone from the West, who didn’t exotify India or see it as the land of suffering and bleakness. With India: A Portrait too, your voice seems to be less that of a foreigner than of a certain privileged class of Indian. Would you agree?

That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. You know, the response to Liberty or Death in India was very generational. Almost all the people who had their backs put up were an older generation, whereas my own generation and younger seemed to have a very positive response to the book. And since then, the way in which I saw India, the way I looked at India has changed, because my wife is Indian, and I married her in between writing one book and the next. I do feel I have more of a right to speak about India.

Were you more confident writing this book? Did you have more insight into India?

Let me put it this way. I’d spent about ten years travelling in India or visiting India before I wrote Liberty or Death. So, I felt that I was ready to write, but it was still a challenging book to do. With India: A Portrait, there were lots of subjects in there like caste or the way in which Hinduism is practised, social ideas about family, which I have never written about before, and I felt it takes a long time to come to the point where you’re ready to say something about those things, they’re very difficult to understand unless you’ve grown up inside that tradition.

The tendency then is to read books. One of the things I’ve noticed actually with NRIs is that they read V S Naipaul on Hinduism, and who is V S Naipaul reading on Hinduism? He was reading Christopher Isherwood. So, you see, these ideas about the Hindu void being repeated, and then you think ‘fine, but is it really like that, is that really how a typical Hindu would think?’

But the other thing is that if you’re an outsider, even if you have the benefits of an insider, you can get away with asking questions that an Indian couldn’t. To give you an example, there was a guy who was working as a priest in the temple near the beach in Kanyakumari, and I asked him how he got this job. (Laughs.) Obviously, if you’re Indian, you can’t ask that question, you certainly can’t ask it in the same way. So, sometimes, seeming the foolish outsider means you can discover people’s views about themselves in a way you can’t if you’re Indian.

The scope of this book is vast, and not everything fits into the structure of Politics, Economy and Society. Is there anything you’ve left out, material for a spin-off, maybe?

I thought about the book for a long time before I wrote a word. So, although there were whole areas that I might have left out, for the purpose of the book I was doing, I didn’t feel it was incomplete. I don’t know about material for another book, but there’s already been a spin-off in terms of the website,, and it’s unbelievable, especially the response to the data on the family politics, it’s only been up for a fortnight and we’ve had a 150,000 hits already, it’s incredible.

If I were to write a third book on India, it would be some time away. You know, the other thing I did with this book is I tried to make it timeless. I tried to make it so that in ten years, it would still make sense. So that means at times, you avoid capturing the moment. I was trying to see what the larger picture was.

Say for example, the revolution that gave rise to Mayawati as a character, you could look at that only in terms of UP politics in the last decade or so, but in fact, it’s also about Ambedkar and his clash with Gandhi, it’s about Kanshi Ram, it’s about ideas that were deeply entrenched and began to be abandoned in the middle of the twentieth century.

One thing I was surprised you left out is the nexus between media and politics. The portrayal of the media in your book is either as the watchdog, doing sting operations, or as voyeuristic, as in the Aarushi Talwar case.

Well, I think I’d finished the book before the Niira Radia tapes came out, but it is true that there are a lot of bought journalists, and you can see it in the way that those business houses operate. It can always be done in oblique ways by giving a nominal job to the relative of someone who wants to write, or portray them in a certain way.

Well, I guess it’s part of the story, but I just happened to not want to focus on it. The thing with Indian journalism is that it’s very variable in quality. There’s exceptionally good journalism, political and financial, and then you have something like the reporting of the Aarushi Talwar case which happens even now. I mean, even in the last two weeks, there’ve been some terrible things that have been written.

Some people write things as bizarre as to suggest the Talwars weren’t behaving in the correct way grieving parents were meant to. It just made me think well, you’ve been watching too many movies. I mean, do all parents, if they’ve had the tragedy of their child dying, behave like people in the movies, sobbing and screaming? Maybe they just have a grief which is so deep they can’t even express it when someone’s pointing a TV camera in their face.

On the subject of sensationalism, your books have usually been at the receiving end. With Liberty or Death, most articles focused on your saying Gandhi was a wily politician, and with this one, people believe you’ve said Kashmiris have Dravidian genes.

(Laughs). You know what’s funny about that story? In fact, two versions came out. One called me ‘A French writer’. And another said, ‘Latest scientific discovery proves that caste is genetic’. And I had to get my publishers to call them, and I think they put in a double negative after that, so it still said the exact opposite.

In your portrayal of Nehru, you seemed a bit unsure about whether he was a good guy or bad guy, and seemed to give him the benefit of doubt in terms of his administrative abilities, and personal character.

Yes, I’d say so. I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt. He made important wrong decisions, he stayed as Prime Minister too long, which then created problems after his death, his foreign policy was misguided in certain ways, his economic policy was misguided in many ways, but the reason that I would come out admiring him as a truly great twentieth century leader is the fact that he had an inclusive vision for India, which he was able to push in every direction after he became prime minister. His willingness to get people like Rajaji or Ambedkar to be part of the project, his refusal to only promote people who came from similar background to his own... the breadth of his vision is so remarkable.

And it wasn’t just him, it was the people around him, people like Patel, who were getting the Princely States to be part of the Union. Maybe one way to look at it is to compare it to some other countries immediately after decolonisation, like some of the African countries, where you’d have a particular group in society that would assert themselves to the detriment of another group, and you’d have a civil war.

The ability to unite India a coherent nation despite containing so many different communities is something that people often take for granted, whereas it was by no means certain in the 1940s.

Both with Indira Gandhi and Sonia, there seems to have been a sudden transition from being dubbed ‘dumb doll’ to puppet-master.

It could be something that happens with women politicians, especially if they come from political families, and it’s very easy to patronise them, and underestimate them. In fact, actually I think that happens more with Sonia Gandhi, because she was a very shy, probably is still a very shy, person. She was constantly underestimated by senior figures in Congress.
One of the things I tried to share is the way in which she made very clever and sharp and wily decisions. The thing with Indira Gandhi is that she was never a great public speaker, but she did have the ability to command a crowd outside the immediate political context. That’s when her real talent came out.

I believe Sonia Gandhi’s talent is for running the organisation of the Congress, and for working out how to retain a commanding position, and the nature of that is it is all behind the scenes. You don’t see her going out there and showing people that she is in command. Her command is very quiet, and it is often done through silence. If you speak to people who work with her, you know, it’s apparent that madam’s displeasure can be shown in a very subtle way. (Laughs.)

Do you truly believe Sonia Gandhi was just trying to be a good Indian bahu, and never wanted to enter politics, or do you see the naïveté as a facade?

No, I don’t think it was a facade. It’s apparent that she and Rajiv Gandhi had a very happy marriage, and I think she was content being his wife and bringing up the children, and I certainly don’t think she ever expected or wanted to go into politics, and the reason I say that is I’ve spoken to people who knew her very early on, people who knew her when she was in her late teens and twenties, and they all say the same thing – that she’s shy, and they cannot believe the way in which she’s transformed herself. So, what I suspect is, she revealed talents to herself that she didn’t know she had, when she became Congress president. I think, when she first became Congress president, she was quite nervous of what she was doing. It could all have fallen flat on its face, but that’s not what happened. I think in the last ten years, she would have surprised herself with her own ability. That’s conjecture, but that’s what I would have thought.

Both at the Centre and the State, Indian voters feel they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Coming in outside, was it easier to remain detached, because it doesn’t affect you directly?

I don’t know. Sometimes, in a way, you have to work at being detached, to have the writer’s eye, to have the external view, to write a book like this successfully. You have to have a dispassionate view, even thought you might have quite strong feelings. So I don’t know if I always got that balance right. There’s quite a lot of emotion in the book.

But when it comes to someone like Mayawati, I can see the difference between my perception and that of an elite Indian. Despite everything that’s bad about the way in which her administration runs, I feel this deep admiration for Mayawati as a phenomenon. I’m not saying I admire her political decisions, but as a phenomenon, I do.

If you speak to a lot of Delhi journalists about Mayawati, they’re say ‘oh, she’s this stupid woman who just manages to pull wool over people’s eyes’, they’re quite contemptuous. They don’t see her achievement. I think the chopping down trees to build statues in a place as hot as Lucknow is crazy, but she wants to endure, and in her warped way, she will.

Let’s imagine you were Indian. Do you think you could have got away with writing India: A Portrait and Liberty or Death, without questions of your caste and religious affiliations coming up?

No. Because the point is, if you were Tamilian and you wrote this book, people will say oh, you’re just saying these things from that perspective. Equally, if you were another community that has a very strong identity, like a Punjabi or a Bengali, they’ll say it’s a typical Punjabi or Bengali thing to say, because that’s the natural way in which people react. But having said that, there’ll also be people who say that’s a typical foreigner’s view of India. So if you want to insult the writing, you’ll always find a way, whoever it is. (Laughs.)

The caste oppression in India is largely seen as Brahmins vs. Dalits. But then you meet someone like Venkatesh, who’s from a backward class, but says he won’t ‘interdine’ with Dalits. You have other stories of backward classes oppressing Dalits. Why do you think that conflict is not brought out?

Because people like simple stories. It’s much easier to see something as being a Dalit-Brahmin conflict, but of course, it’s so much more complicated than that. Although having said that, the kind of conflicts that you might have seen a hundred years ago might have been completely different. And then you have the way it’s played out in UP politics, where you see these kind of bizarre alliances happening. I mention in my book that Brahmins who actually sort of dressed up to look like Brahmins, complete with caste marks, touched the feet of Mayawati at a rally. And why did they do that, they did that because they were having a hard time from Mulayam Singh.

So you have the development of a whole new issue, where you have the OBCs vs. Dalits, and you have spin-offs like the fact that Muslims all of a sudden decide that their natural course of action should be to throw in their lot with Mayawati.

About Venkatesh, I think it’s human nature that people will persecute those who are in a mildly inferior position to themselves. So the fact that someone who is as vulnerable as Venkatesh (who was a chained labourer in a quarry, and now begs for a living) saying ‘I won’t interdine with the Dalits’, it’s just a way of marking his own position, you know, saying my life may be very bad, but I’m still not going to associate with ‘those kind of people’.

When you met ideologues from the RSS and the BJP, what was your instinctive reaction? Do you see it as an ideology they live by, or a political tool they use to come to power?

Hmmm...well, I don’t know. I have respect for some of those people. You know, someone like L K Advani, who’s seen in the liberal media as being the Devil Incarnate, that’s not how I perceive him. You know, he suffered the displacement of partition like millions of others, he found himself in India without a family because he’s from Sindh, and he said to me, ‘the only family I had left was the RSS’, and I had a degree of sympathy for the position he found himself in, in the 1950s.

My feeling is that the motivation for many of the people of his generation for joining an organisation like the RSS was actually quite positive. It’s usually portrayed in different spheres as being a negative organisation, I guess I see it in a rather more balanced or complex way than that. Of course, you have people in the BJP and other parties who say things for purely cynical reasons, but you get othars who live by certain quite traditional values they believe in. Advani seems to be a very restrained person, he’s in very good health for his age, and I’m sure that has to do with having eaten a strictly RSS diet, for a long time.

What was your reaction to Varun Gandhi’s now infamous speech? It took many people by surprise, because he was seen as a soft-spoken, intellectual man. Do you believe he was asked to say what he said?

No, no, I don’t think he was asked to say those things. I’d met him when I went to interview Maneka Gandhi, in 2004. Well, Varun Gandhi met me as I was walking down the path. He’d read Liberty or Death, and he wanted to talk about the book a little, and it seemed to me that there was something charismatic about him, but also unstable. So when I heard him say those things about chopping off hands, and also when I saw the video of the way in which he did that speech, I wasn’t all.

When you met Afzal Guru, what did you speak of?

No, it was a very brief conversation, only two or three minutes, through this grill, which made you feel sort of like you were at a very run-down bank, where you say can I change a hundred dollars! I didn’t really talk about his case, I spoke more about the clash of civilisations and what life is like in prison and so on. It was a bit of an unplanned conversation. If Afzal Guru sat down with us here, then what would you say to him? (Laughs.)

What do you think of the situation in Kashmir, where the Army and militants are both being blamed for atrocities, and where most people simply say they want ‘azaadi’, even as they work in metropolitan cities in India like Delhi or Mumbai?

I think the difficulty is that a lot of things would be much easier now if the Kashmir question had been settled in 1947 or 1948. Because the difficulty now is that because the Indian administration in Kashmir has been so bad for such a long time, and because Pakistan has continued to send terrorists over the border into Kashmir, you have a level of instability and a level of cruelty, which means that a large number of people, who are certainly the majority, have a feeling that they would prefer azaadi more than anything else, whatever that means, whatever form of azaadi it is, and they really don’t feel connected to India. If you read things about Kashmir published in foreign countries, in the United States where it’s quite often written about, it’s always presented as a kind of balance between the Indian point of view on the one hand and the Pakistani point of view on the other hand. But the reality is that no Indian government is ever going to say ‘Kashmir can be cut off from India’. And until there’s a recognition of that practical fact, it’s hard to find a way forward.

There’s an interesting point you made in saying Islamic extremism in the UK may’ve been partly caused by its being seen as un-British to want people to be British to have a British passport. But do you think it’s fair to suggest America’s inclusiveness is a solution, when you have David Headley, where you have the Times Square car bomb plot?

(Laughs.) Well, yes, David Headley is from America, but I think certainly proportionately, America’s not had such a problem as Britain over home-grown jihadis. I think the American model of integration is better. I also think the British multi-cultural approach comes out of a sort of colonial arrogance. Take for example the debate about immigration into Britain, which is always seen in narrow political terms. I think essentially what I’m saying is a whole lot of countries in Western Europe have got themselves tied up in knots over immigration and ethnicity and multi-culturalism. You have a generation, maybe two generations of people, who are not incorporated into the society they are a part of, and I think the American model is certainly better.

What would you say is the defining characteristic of this book?

I think this one’s different from the others I’ve done in that I wanted to write a book for everyone, a very accessible book, especially for young Indians, to whom the Ambedkar doesn’t mean much, means just a statue, and I wanted to write a book that would enable them to think in a different way about themselves. When you’re in any society, you can’t see the advantages of being in it, but despite a lot of things going badly, some amazing things are happening, and I wanted to bring that out.

My last question is, after Naipaul, is your next biography on Dr. K. Chaudhry (the man who achieved worldwide notoriety for singing MJ covers, and announced that Patrick French is writing a book about him)? You could call it ‘The World is Not Enough’...he may even sing it for you.

(Laughs.) No, my next book is not going to be about Dr. K. Since you’ve heard him ‘sing’, you know why I don’t want to do that book. My next book might be on the Himalayas, but I’m not sure just yet.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

'Shakespeare had no sense of history': Interview with Ken Follett on Fall of Giants

(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 19th December, 2010)

The audio of the interview, complete with my rather loud giggles, is here. But then, it could be a spoiler for those of you who haven't read the book. For the non-spoiler version, see the transcript below. But he did say a few things I haven't transcribed, and was very kind when I told him how the book should have ended:


He’s sold over 160 million copies of his books worldwide. Twenty of his books have been bestsellers for decades, and several have been made into films and TV series. In India on a book tour, Ken Follett chats with Nandini Krishnan about his latest novel Fall of Giants, The Century Trilogy, his penchant for making fun of the British through German eyes, and his passion for writing. Excerpts:

The majority of your bestsellers have had to do with wars, or history or both. When did your fascination with history begin?

Well, I suppose it really came out of my wanting to write novels. Because, in a novel, you’re interested in the character’s personal conflicts – his or her hopes and fears, the people they love, the people they hate. But it enlarges those characters, it makes them more admirable if they’re not just fighting for themselves, but fighting for some cause. So if they’re fighting against the Nazis or against the Communists, or they’re trying to build a cathedral, it makes the book much more engaging because the characters are related to what’s going on in their time. I’m interested in politics and current affairs and history anyway, but I started to get deeply into it because I started writing.

One thing that’s particularly striking about your books is that as you switch perspectives, irrespective of whether the character is good or bad, one feels sympathetic to him or her. Are you impartial to them or do you take sides?

Well, you want to identify with the characters at the forefront of the scene, and I just think it’s interesting to see different points of view. You know, a lot of novels are written from the point of view of one country. So a novel about the war would be written from an English point of view, and the Germans are all terrible, bad guys, and the English are all great. I don’t like to do that, partly because I’m not English! And I don’t think the English are great at everything; my country was conquered by the English. Particularly with Fall of Giants, writing about the First World War, I wanted to see it from both sides, because there are no good guys in this war anyway. It wasn’t a war for some great cause. So, I felt it was really quite important to see it from all points of view, and that enriches a novel.

Do you let a story tell itself, or do you plan it out?

I never let the story tell itself. I spend a long time making the plan, at least six months, maybe a year. And the point of that is to make sure the story is always developing and changing, so that the reader is always thinking ‘wow, I wonder what’ll happen next!’ I know most writers say I know the beginning and the end, and the middle is kind of an arc of discovery. It’s never been like that for me.

Which character came to you first in Fall of Giants?

(Thinks) I suppose it was Ethel. You know, she’s the link between the coalmining family and the aristocratic family, and she also gets to know Walter, she meets Gus. So, she’s quite central, and she’s also a version of a character who appears in most of my books – the feisty, sexy woman who is smart and gets things done.

But these women don’t always defy societal norms. They’re feminine and strong, without being radically feminist. Are there any women whom you would say inspired these?

Well, certainly my wife Barbara is just like that. I don’t know if she inspired these characters, or that’s just the kind of woman that I like, and I write about that kind of woman, and I fall for that kind of woman. (Laughs) So I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg, but these women are good characters to have in a novel, and I enjoy women like that in my life, and I’m married to that kind of woman.

In Fall of Giants, Billy Williams’ family attends a chapel exactly like the one you describe from your childhood in the preface to Pillars of the Earth. Do aspects of Billy’s character draw from yours?

Absolutely. There’s a lot of my experience in Billy’s life, especially with religion. Of course, I never worked in a coal mine! But, I was brought up going to chapel just like that, and the arguments Billy has with his father about religion were exactly the same as the arguments I had with my father.

The conflict is not so much between religion and science, as between religion and philosophy, both in Fall of Giants and Pillars of the Earth.

Ah, that’s an interesting point. Well, I suppose that’s right. Of course, it really was science that undermined Christian belief in the nineteenth century. But in my own experience, it’s the illogicality of my parents’ version of Christianity – the idea that everything in the Bible is infallibly true. So I argued, initially, within the Church. It wasn’t like I discovered science, and thought ‘Oh, my God, there’s contradiction between science and religion!’ I looked at the religion they taught me, and I said this is self-contradictory. So Billy’s like that. As for Pillars of the Earth, atheism was barely conceivable in the Middle Ages. And it’s the story of the building of a church, so there had to be a sincere, devout Christian who believes in doing this for the glory of God. But I made Prior Philip a Christian unlike any of the people I grew up with; he’s a very practical Christian. He never says to people ‘you’re suffering now, but it will be all right in heaven’. He tries to solve the problem now. And I admire that kind of Christian.

In the Century Trilogy, you’ve said you’ll go as far as the Cold War. But are you also going to go further, to the wars in the Middle East?

I don’t think so, because it’s so huge, material for another trilogy. So, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to handle it, because I certainly can’t write the story of the twentieth century without reference to the Middle East. In Fall of Giants, I have marked the moment when Jerusalem was conquered by the British army, and there are a few lines about the Balfour Declaration. So obviously I’m not going to ignore it, but I’m afraid that if I went into it too deeply, it would take over my whole book. So I think it will be something that happens off stage, and centre stage will be the Cold War.

You write about current events, non-fiction, history, and ancient history. Which is the hardest? And does any limit your scope for imagination?

Well, I suppose the thing about the twentieth century is the history is more constraining because we know more. In the Middle Ages, we don’t know where the king was everyday of the year. So if I want to say he was in Gloucester, nobody’s going to contradict me, whereas for someone like Sir Edward Grey, I can’t just say he went to Gloucester, because maybe he didn’t go to Gloucester on that day, maybe he never went to Gloucester, and somebody would know whether he ever went to Gloucester. So I have to be much more careful. On the other hand, it’s easier to find stuff out. So it has advantages and disadvantages, and I’m equally happy in either period.

And you’re a stickler for historic accuracy – you did remark that people in ancient Rome speak of guilds in Julius Caesar.

Well, that’s right. Shakespeare had no sense of history. In Julius Caesar, they have guilds, which was a mediaeval invention. They have clocks, and I think even a monastery! Now, there was barely a Christian religion at the time of Julius Caesar. And I think it’s quite interesting that Shakespeare, in that sense, had no sense of history, because he was probably a great reader for his time. But he probably hadn’t read as many books as the average nineteen-year-old today. Mediaeval people didn’t realise that people’s lives could be so different from their own, in other periods of history or other countries. And that leads you to ask where we get our sense of history, how do we know? It’s because we read. In Mediaeval times, were no novels, there were very few books. And most people couldn’t read anyway. So that tells us what literature does for us. Literature gives us a sense of the lives of other people.

You feel strongly about reading. Do you read other books while you’re writing, apart from the ones you use for research?

Oh, absolutely, all the time! My life would be a misery if I didn’t. It’s one of my greatest pleasures, and I wouldn’t dream of stopping. And some people often imagine that I would be worried that I might accidentally plagiarise something. In fact, that doesn’t worry me at all. Because if I did come across something in another novel that I really liked, and I decided to do the same thing in my novel, by the time I’m finished with it, it would be completely different anyway, because I’d just automatically transform it. So it doesn’t matter.

Back to Fall of Giants, do you believe that in the early nineteenth twentieth century, lords and ladies did take advantage of the privacy of an opera box seat or a trip to the library?

Ah! Yes, and I’ll tell you how I know. While I was living in a house in Chelsea, the diary was published of a young woman who had lived in my house in the 1890s. Now, they would have dinner in their dining room, which, by the time I lived there, was the kitchen. And there were a couple of steps down from the kitchen, which we used as a laundry, but which had been their library. This lady says in her diary that she was engaged to this man, but they were never allowed to be alone. So, when he came to dinner with the family, she and her fiancé would deliberately start an argument about something silly, like what is the capital of Bulgaria, and then they would say ‘we’ll go look it up in the encyclopaedia’, and they would go next door into the library, leaving the door open, of course, and that’s when they would kiss passionately for a minute – just a kiss, nothing else – and they would come back and say ‘Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria!’ (laughs). So there we are, they really did do it! I don’t know about the opera, I made that up.

Do you always end your books the way you want to, or tailor it to what the audience would want?

Well, the readers want a resolution. I hate books that have unresolved endings. I know it’s kind of fashionable and tricksy and ‘literary’ to have an unresolved ending, or even worse, two alternative endings as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Silly idea! I think the reader wants a resolution, the satisfaction of a resolution, I think that’s part of the fun of literature. Life, of course, often doesn’t have a resolution, but literature is supposed to be better than life. So, I wouldn’t mess about too much with the ending. You can have a sad ending, or you can have a sad element in the ending, and I think Fall of Giants has a sad element in the ending.

Do you have trouble saying goodbye your characters at the end of a book?

No, no, I don’t mind that. I know some writers do, but when I’m finished, I feel very satisfied. I usually feel the book is good, though I’m very anxious about the readers. I wait till they tell me it’s good. But I think it’s the best I can do, and I feel I’ve paid the rent for a couple of years, so I don’t regret it at all!

As someone who has broken out and explored genres, do you think the gap between literary and popular fiction can be bridged, or do you think it shouldn’t exist at all?

Well, I think it’s not as important to the readers as it is to the critics. Most readers move from popular fiction to literary fiction relatively easily. And if a literary novel is engaging, then they’ll cheerfully read that, and then read another Jeffrey Archer. Literary novels like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Remains of the Day, and A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth were enjoyed by millions of people. So my readers and Jeffrey Archer’s pick up these books, enjoy them, and then go back to reading me and Jeffrey. So it is a division, but it’s not one that matters that much.

What are your views on imperialism, since that’s such a big feature of this trilogy?

Well, I think it’s easy to come to a facile conclusion about imperialism. We know imperialism has always been terribly cruel and ruthless. You know this scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where John Cleese says ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ And people say ‘the viaduct! Education! Wine!’ Now, it’s a great scene because it’s hilarious, and it make a quite interesting political point. You know, the fact of the matter is, the Romans did a lot for the people they conquered, and they were brutal, they killed people, they crucified people, they stole their land, but imperialism brought great benefits as well as great cruelty. So I don’t think you can look at imperialism and have a simple answer.

Having written for so long, do you like your earliest books?

Oh, when look at my first ten books, I’m so pleased that I improved. But Eye of the Needle... you know, Paul McCartney was asked this question recently, in an interview that I read, and he said ‘you know, I listen to the early Beatles songs, and I think “clever boy!”’ And I think about Eye of the Needle, and I think, ‘you know, I was only twenty-seven, I was a clever boy, wasn’t I?’ (laughs)

You found success early – so money was not a problem. But what are the other vagaries that a writer’s family has to live with?

Well, I suppose book tours. You know, I’m away from my family for a week or two at a time; nobody likes that. What else? Writers tend to live in their imagination, of course, and this can be irritating for their families. The family sometimes want them to come back to the real world, dad, you’re not here anymore! (Laughs) Well, and newspapers are sometimes unkind. I don’t mind them being unkind to me, but it would affect the kids.

So many of your books have been adapted to film and television, and you’ve even played a guest role. Is it hard to give the directors a free hand, or do you enjoy seeing your books interpreted differently?

Mixed feelings. I’m very anxious about how well they’ll do the job, and I’ve had some bad ones. But also, it’s a big thrill, to see a good actor on the screen, doing things that I wrote, saying lines that I wrote. By and large, the thrill overcomes the anxiety, and it’s pretty much a positive experience for me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Worship the Cows, Blind the Bulls?

(Published in, on 22nd January 2011, retrieved from

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Every January, Tamil Nadu turns into some warped form of the Colosseum. The victims being thrown into the arena are bulls, and the wild creatures they must tackle are the wimps who believe jallikattu is a demonstration of their valour.

In the lead-up to Pongal, one usually sees protest demonstrations by villagers who believe tonsuring themselves will in some manner induce judges to wave the green flag, and allow them to conduct jallikattu sans rules.

In the days following Pongal, one reads headlines announcing a body count or listing injuries. I personally wish the brutes who rub chilli powder into the eyes of bulls, scratch them under the tails and string firecrackers to their bodies to get them into a fury were gored more often, and severely wounded. Death would be too easy. They ought to spend the larger part of their lives attached to tubes and bottles.

The most bizarre defence of this cruel ‘sport’ is that it’s a show of courage. What exactly is brave about a group of morons provoking an innocent animal and then attacking it?

And this happens in a country which worships the cow so much that it won’t allow its burger joints to sell beef.

The Indian disregard for animal life finds expression in several ways – killing for food, killing for sport, and killing for convenience.

I turned vegetarian the day I saw a gypsy kill a bird. It was a crow. As it fell out of a tree after being hit with a stone, the gypsy beat me to it, and squashed its neck with his foot. I wish I hadn’t been too stunned to drive him out and bury the crow. But I stood frozen as he packed the bird into a bag.

Most people seem to believe eating animals is an environmental duty. Apparently, without our contribution, the balance of life on the planet would be disrupted by changes in the food cycle. If that’s the case, though, why are animals being bred for the purpose of being eaten?

I wonder if any of the defenders of the food cycle could actually kill an animal and feel he or she is fulfilling a designated role.

Violence against animals isn’t restricted to consumption.

Take the ‘menace’ of stray dogs. I find most of my friends’ treasured pedigree dogs far more menacing than strays, who are happy to eat what’s left on the roads, wag their tails desolately at most people they meet, and are grateful for the slightest bit of kindness. And yet, across campuses and residential blocks, they’re being poisoned and beaten to death.

A visit to a dog shelter usually leaves one sick in the stomach. You’d think they were better off on the streets than in tiny, smelly cages, being fed a few scraps a day.

Endangered species of birds are being poisoned to death in zoos, and the administration speculates that the cause could be a stand-off over payment between zoo officials and the government.

A nation that could once boast of a rich stock of fauna is now launching sundry projects to save tigers. And who’s to blame for the disappearance of those? The Indian and British elite of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who thought going shikar was proof of blue blood.

How does hiding in trees and shooting bullets at an animal that could tear you to shreds if you were to meet face-to-face count as daring? Would any of the people who decimated the tiger population of Bengal have worked up the guts to tame a tiger by hand or spear?

And then, we tie up animal murders to religious rituals. Take the ‘camel sacrifice’ at Bakrid. This majestic animal is transported in miserable conditions across the country, held down by ropes, cut at the neck and then skinned alive, with police protection in most places.

Hindu cults aren’t any better, with ritual mass murders of animals taking place regularly at temples such as Kamakhya, in a bid to propitiate deities.

We panic about herds of wild elephant attacking villages. Have we ever thought about how we’re ruining their habitat in trying to ‘develop’ the country?

The only species in India that seems to be in no danger of having its numbers cut down is the human. And in indulging our ‘sentiments’ and avarice, we just might find ourselves to be the only fauna in the country some day.

Friday, January 21, 2011

This Author and the Knights of the Roundtanna

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated January 8, 2011)

“You know, it seems women are attracted to men who can park well,” my mother often says, and proves it by turning a little gooey-eyed every time a well-dressed man parks or reverses without scraping any other car.

Having never been drawn to any man who can drive, I’m a little lost for opinion on her theory, but I do believe the converse is true –men are attracted to women who drive as badly as, or worse than, they are expected to.

Perhaps it’s the damsel-in-distress effect. Sometimes, I wonder whether this was why the ladies of Arthurian legend rode horses side-saddle, a more precarious mount by far.

Coming back to the present century, though, I’ve grown reasonably capable behind the wheel in the years since I acquired an ill-deserved driver’s licence on my eighteenth birthday. But I choose to assert my femininity through my lack of parking skills.

I outdid myself recently. Having smiled my way into a parking slot in a commercial complex that had a supermarket, I docilely left a gap of six inches between my door and the next car, as directed by the security guard.

I climbed across to the passenger door, got out feeling proud of my agility, and came back as promised, five minutes later – to the observation that the passenger door of my car did not have an outer lock, and the discovery that while I can squeeze myself into six inches of space, I can’t quite manoeuvre myself into a car from that position.

Sniffing out my chagrin, five drivers and the security guard stood around in macho poses, contemplating measures ranging from opening the boot and worming into the car, to pushing it forward while the ignition was off.

After biting my nails and looking panicky, I finally suggested we call the owner of my car’s neighbour.

“Madam is sharp,” the security guard said approvingly, and set off to do my bidding.

“It’s that car’s fault, madam,” one of the drivers assured me, “see the gap between that and the next car.” The gap was a regulation one-and-a-half feet, clearly an extravagance in context.

Finally, the security guard came back with the owner, who reversed his car, reversed mine, and spent the next ten minutes apologising to me and my squadron of supporters.

As the coup de grace, the security guard stopped traffic outside the complex for a quarter of an hour, as I negotiated my car on to the road. Driving back home, I saw the backlog of traffic I had caused on the other side, and the concept of woman-power finally dawned on me.

Of course, the damsel-in-distress appeal holds good in most situations on the road. Every time I’ve been caught by the cops for violating a traffic rule, I look terrified, say, “no Tamil, sir” and begin to well up.

The constable breaks off his tirade on fines, looks sheepish, assures me that he was only telling me the rules for my good, and lets me off bashfully as I trill, “oh, thank you, sir!”

An incompetent driver such as myself will find that the easiest way to counter someone whose vehicle you’ve just rammed into is by apologising and quickly asking for directions. The aggression is immediately replaced by chivalry.

But my strangest knight appeared in a restaurant in Bombay, when my phone died just as I called a friend, minutes after I’d missed my train.

I walked to a family of four at the next table and laid out my predicament.

“Please, use my phone,” the father of the kids said.

“No!” his wife intervened, glaring at me, “she can use mine!” As she handed it over, her narrowed eyes seemed to say, Keep off my husband’s phone! 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Why is Secularism Relevant to the Subcontinent?

(Published in on 13 January 2010, retrieved from


It is one of the hardest words to define in the English language.

Does it mean not having a religion?

Does it mean being tolerant of every religion?

(Image Courtesy: Unauthorised reproduction  prohibited.)

Does it mean not judging someone on the basis of religion?

Does it mean not interfering in religious activity?

But the word is gaining currency in two nations that have held several ‘friendly’ talks and fought several bitter wars since they were separated at birth with a clumsy operation sixty-three years ago.

The gash that divided them continues to spurt blood today, and for the same reason they broke up all those decades ago – religion.

On January 4, 2011, the proudly unsecular Pakistan saw an assassination. The Governor of the country’s largest province, Salman Taseer, was shot dead in a manner almost identical to that of Indira Gandhi in 1984 – twenty-seven bullets pumped into his body at close range by a man employed to guard him.

While Indira Gandhi ordered a military operation at a place of worship, Salman Taseer questioned the validity of a law signed in by a dictatorial regime, a law that had condemned a young mother to death for ‘blasphemy’.

But in the eyes of their assassins, the former Indian Prime Minister and the late Pakistani Governor were guilty of the same crime – lack of respect for religion.

Even as religious minorities in Pakistan hold candlelight vigils in support of the man whose progressive ideas cost him his life, just a tad south of the border, a hotchpotch of religious tension is edging its way into newspaper headlines.

In the lull following months of violence, Srinagar is counting down to Republic Day, when an Indian flag might be hoisted at the Lal Chowk, usually the destination of separatist protest marches.

This time, though, it is the end-point of the zigzag route the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha’s ‘Rashtriya Ekta Yatra’ (dubbed the ‘Conquer Kashmir March’ by Kashmiri separatists) will take.

The BJP’s youth wing began their journey in Kolkata on January 12, with the blessings of their parent party and the censure of Jammu and Kashmir’s beleaguered Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.

According to the BJP, the move is an assertion of the unity of India, the unity of Jammu and Kashmir. But to many locals, by hoisting of an Indian flag at the Lal Chowk after nineteen years, the Saffron Party is marking its territory.

At the dawn of a new decade, the past of both countries is haunting them by morphing into their present.

In Pakistan, the amendment to a stringent law is being seen as a licence to blaspheme. In India, a party that has always used its Hindutva to propel itself to power is treading a dangerous path, while a party that brands itself as secular is too busy fighting cases against its members and allies to think about anything else.

In ‘secular’ India, everyone who is not Hindu is deemed part of a minority religion. In Pakistan, it appears that everyone who is part of a minority is seen as a potential blasphemer.

Faith is a personal sentiment. But what happens when the personal sentiments of hundreds of thousands of people are the same? And what happens when these come into conflict with the personal sentiments of hundreds of thousands of others?

What happens when patriotism and religion get intertwined?

The two events that have left the countries tense aren’t one-offs. They’re microcosmic versions of a stand-off on a much larger scale. What began as a division on religious grounds has blown up into enmity that simply exists, for a reason no one can pinpoint.

Pakistan’s secrecy on the progress of the investigations into the Mumbai blasts of November 26, 2008, is matched by India’s silence on the progress of the investigations into the Samjhauta Express blast of February 19, 2007.

Both countries are at a juncture where they must define the boundaries of faith within legislation if they hope to leave their ghosts behind.

Perhaps, at least in India, we should begin by defining ‘secularism’ in the Constitution.

Then, we can decide whether it is possible to run a country by that ideal.

But more importantly, can we ever learn not to provoke, and not to get provoked?

Friday, January 07, 2011

A Chargesheet Against the CBI

(Published in, on 6th January 2010, retrieved from

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My conjecture is that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has decided to file closure reports in all its high-profile pending cases by the end of 2011. If so, the investigative agency is off to great start.

Less than a week into the New Year, the CBI has sought to close two cases that have hogged news headlines for years – the Aarushi Talwar murder case and the payoff case against Ottavio Quattrocchi, the only surviving accused in the Bofors case.

On December 29, 2010, the CBI filed its closure report on the Aarushi case in a Ghaziabad court, citing lack of conclusive evidence. Days later, media reports said a bottle containing traces of blood from the two victims, Aarushi Talwar and the domestic help, Hemraj, was found on Aarushi’s father Rajesh Talwar’s bar counter.

While the girl’s parents berate the CBI for casting aspersions on them, and the agency’s report claims the Talwars’ relatives tried to influence the doctors conducting the post-mortem on Aarushi’s body, media reports say the three main suspects in the case – Dr Rajesh Talwar’s lab assistant Krishna, and friend’s domestic help Rajkumar and Vijay Mandal – are believed to have had alibis at the time of the murder.

One of the biggest murder mysteries of our time is being deemed not just unsolved, but unsolvable.

With the court due to decide on the case on Friday, Aarushi’s friends and schoolmates have announced a protest march from Nirman Bhavan to India Gate on Thursday, insisting that the investigation should continue.

The CBI’s stance on the case against Quattrocchi has stirred an even bigger row, with the ruling Congress and opposition BJP accusing each other of ineffectiveness.

On December 31, 2010, the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal ruled that Italian businessman Quattrocchi and his associate (Late) Win Chadha had received a commission of Rs. 41.2 crores in the Bofors gun deal in 1987.

While the BJP says the CBI’s rejection of the tribunal’s order can’t be justified, and hints darkly at connections between Quattrocchi and the Nehru-Gandhi family, Congress spokesman Janardhan Dwivedi retorts by asking why the BJP didn’t ‘do something’ about the case when the party was in power.

The court is yet to announce its decision on the closure of the case, but its statement that the tribunal was a ‘quasi-judicial forum’ seems less than promising.

The CBI’s contention that the tribunal’s order contains ‘nothing new’ and therefore shouldn’t be of account is nearly as ridiculous as its reason for seeking the court’s permission to close the case in October 2010 – that the prosecution of Quattrocchi was ‘unjustified’ after the agency had failed to extradite him from both Malaysia and Argentina, months after the CBI has asked the Interpol to withdraw its Red Corner notice against Quatrocchi.

An agency that was once considered the last word on criminal cases seems to have become a pawn in the last few decades.

From the Bhopal gas tragedy to the Hawala scandal and the Nithari killings, the nation has cried foul after court trials ended in a farce.

Every year, we are promised a new India. And every year, we find ourselves wondering who will create it. Each Independence Day, we look back on the glory of winning back the right to rule ourselves. But how successful have we been at it?

When an agency founded to keep even the government in check decides to close cases in which the facts have been thrown open, what justice can citizens hope for?

And how reassuring is it that this is the agency investigating the 2G spectrum scandal and the conduct of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee?

As election time approaches, we spend more time debating the ills of each party in contention than the possibility of a positive outcome. Will someone grab my land? Will someone tamper with the quota system? Will someone set a murderer free? Will someone burn down a media outlet for publishing a survey? Will someone chop down trees to build flyovers?

Perhaps what we need is an investigative agency that reports to the judiciary instead of the legislative branch of the government.

More importantly, we need to think about reforming the legislative branch of the government by restructuring our minds. If all of us decide to cast our votes, instead of sighing about a rock and a hard place, over time, we can and will make a difference.
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