Thursday, July 28, 2011

Should Politicians Rewrite History?

(Published as 'Propaganda in the Classroom' in, retrieved from

Growing up in the nineties, as a student of a Central Board school in Chennai, I knew Gandhi as the Father of the Nation, the self-sacrificial drinker of goat milk and spinner of wheels.
Thanks to our textbooks, we subscribed to his euphemism for Untouchables – Harijans – unaware of the patronising nature of that designation. We weren’t taught about his racial prejudices, and naturally, we didn’t have a clue about his experiments with celibacy.
Most importantly, we didn’t read about his – or Nehru’s – role in the partition of India, and the war over Kashmir in 1947-48, in which they called for intervention from the United Nations when India was on the brink of victory.
It seems that, since Independence, Central and State governments have been manipulating history through schoolbooks, eliminating and embellishing particular incidents in the lives of their leaders, and the nation.
We were taught that the British were cruel, but they generously gave us the post and railways – without the East India Company, we would have been flying pigeons and riding horses! It made me wonder at the time whether people who thought of roadways as far back as the Indus Valley civilisation couldn’t have come up with railways, if left to themselves. Later, it made me wonder whether those textbooks – which were updated every few decades – weren’t India’s baby steps at building a rapport with developed countries.
Perhaps because Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to foster unity among religions, we only knew that Mughal invaders built monuments, not that they had destroyed temples. We learnt of the magnanimity of kings, not of their brutal conquests and claiming of women as war bounty, or of the Shaivite-Vaishnavite wars that saw them razing down each other’s temples. We didn’t read about the Chinese conquest of Tibet. Come on, Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai.
World history was remarkably rounded, though. We knew Hitler could have spent his life painting canvases instead of building gas chambers if his father hadn’t forced him into technical school. It’s rather bizarre that students who could resolve the artist-fascist conflict couldn’t be trusted to make their own judgments about the rulers of India in earlier times.
The issue is now in close focus in Tamil Nadu, where, for nearly two months, over twelve million students have been attending school without textbooks, while the ruling ADMK government and the ousted DMK regime fight over the syllabus.
While former Chief Minister Karunanidhi claims the new textbooks introduced under the Uniform School Education (USE) system enhance “social justice and quality education”, his successor and ADMK leader Jayalalithaa says they eulogise DMK leaders, including Karunanidhi and his daughter, the 2G scam accused Kanimozhi. The Madras High Court has ruled that the USE must be implemented this year, and the government has appealed in the Supreme Court.
But the glorification of politicians from the state in textbooks isn’t new either.
My exposure to the state syllabus came through my ‘Second Language’ – Tamil. Our lessons included flattering biographies of Dravida leaders, most of whom were known by epithets, such as ‘Periyar’ (Elder/ Great One), or, in Karunanidhi’s case, ‘Kalaignar’ (Artist), coined by sycophantic party workers.
Later, we would find out that these ‘leaders’ cemented the barriers between castes by building vote banks. The goons of some of these politicians chased down members of the so-called ‘upper castes’ to tear off the sacred threads that were perceived as caste-identifiers.
Should generations of Indian students spend their school years believing politicians to be heroes, especially given that most of the current crop’s claims to valour comprise two-hour fasts, complete with air coolers, lime juice and ambulances?
It’s hard to separate politics from anything in India, but education needs to be pulled out of the grasp of the politicians.

Why Everyone Should Take a Leaf Out of Kalmadi's Book

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Remember those wonderful old black and white films, where the fathers always died of shock when they:
·         Suffered a loss in business?
·         Were told (mistakenly) that their sons had died?
·         Found out their daughters were pregnant, out of wedlock?
Well, sometimes, of course, they didn’t actually die. They just had heart attacks, which complicated the plot further. Now, they could not take any more stunners. So, if they survived, no one could break it to them for the next twenty years that:
·         The business had actually turned profitable
·         Their sons had actually survived
·         Their daughters had been married secretly, and so the babies were not illegitimate
That would lead to the tragic and continued misery of their wives, sons and daughters, till the end of the movie, where the villain would let the (metaphorical) bomb drop, and the (still) ailing father would overhear it, summon up the strength to sort it all out, usually witness a wedding, and then die, so that everyone’s tears of joy would mingle with the sorrow of their bereavement.
Taking a cue from this, for decades, our arrestees suffered cardiac arrests, minutes before or after they were remanded in police custody.
But here’s where Suresh Kalmadi beats everyone. While they drew inspiration from the fathers, he turned to the mother.
Remember the Indian mother, who either lost her memory after being hit on the head or tripped on her feet by the villain and then lost her kids because she couldn’t recognise them, or lost her kids at a fair and then lost her memory from the trauma, and couldn’t recognise them for the next twenty years, while one became the villain’s henchman and the other his long-lost father’s secretary, and then she got her memory back when she hit her head again on a rock after they all met on a cliff face?
Now, given that Tihar Jail’s hosting something of a Parliamentarian alumni jamboree, there’s a good chance someone tripped or hit Suresh Kalmadi. Given the girth of the man’s thinning hair, a friendly pat on the head may have done the trick.
What one can’t figure out is why the other scam-accused – let’s say, the arguably bigger 2G scam accused – haven’t taken a leaf out of his book. Take Raja for instance.
First, he announces that Etisalat buying a stake in Swan Telecom and Telenor buying a stake in Unitech Wireless were cleared by the Finance Minister in the presence of the Prime Minister.
Then, he counters it with his lawyer saying, on his behalf, “main kisi ko phasana nahi chahta thaa” (I didn’t set out to frame anyone). Then, he wonders if there was a conspiracy involved in the Prime Minister’s decision not to constitute a GoM.
Come on Raja, it’s not too late. Suresh Kalmadi, who was recently awarded the Razzie for Worst MP, has belatedly discovered that he was suffering from dementia. In this case, ironically enough, the delay supports the contention.
You could ask someone why he didn’t state right away that he was demented.
“Um, I forgot,” he would say.
“So, are you saying you don’t remember anything?”
“Is that what I said? I’m sorry, I’m not sure.”
“Well, are you saying then, that there is a possibility that you may have embezzled funds, or cheated taxpayers?”
“Objection, Your Honour, the prosecution is leading my client!”
Sounds convincing enough, eh? We’ve seen those courtroom scenes in the movies often enough to know what happens next. Someone from the CBI may burst in at the end, with a bunch of tapes, and hurl them at the judge.
“Your Honour, all the evidence is here!”
The judge would look at it in wonder, then, and say “wow, you’re correct. All the evidence is here. I hereby sentence...”
But, if the dramatic entry were to be delayed long enough for everyone involved in the 2G scam to make a case for their case to be thrown out, the bench may well be reduced to tears, like in those family dramas.
“Your Honour, I forgot my Daddy’s eighty-eighth birthday.”
“Your Honour, I don’t even remember where I live, so I couldn’t possibly have overseen a telephone exchange from home, leading to my brother’s TV channel.”
“Your Honour, not just my Daddy’s, I forgot my son’s birthday too.”
“Your Honour, I don’t even know my own telephone number!”
The judge would mop his eyes with a wet handkerchief, and recall an incident from his own past, “I believe you. The reason I believe you is, once, long ago, when I was a little child, I forgot the door number of my house, and wandered the streets. At the time, I stumbled into a film studio, and a kindly man wrote me into his script. I did a courtroom scene, and that inspired me to become what I am today. Lady, that kindly man was your father!”
The judge would proceed to have an impromptu heart attack, and everyone in the courtroom would be wailing, as the CBI’s man rushed in with the damning evidence.
“What a damp squib,” he would mutter, and leave.

Friday, July 22, 2011

'Did Siddharth Kiss Deepika?' - How We Kill Good Journalism

(Published on 21 July, on, retrieved from

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Fourteen years ago, a Princess died trying to escape the paparazzi as she spent an evening out with her partner.
Now, a best-selling tabloid shuts down, its top executives get arrested, and two of Scotland Yard’s highest-ranking policemen resign.
As UK Prime Minister David Cameron calls an emergency session of the House of Commons and Rupert Murdoch’s name becomes less synonymous with ‘media mogul’ as with ‘hacking scandal’, we continue to pretend to be shocked that News of the World was tapping phones.
For decades now, papers and channels have been quoting anonymous sources. For decades now, media outlets across the world have been getting sued and paying settlements that are a fraction of the gains they made from the allegedly defamatory information they published.
It’s easy to wrinkle our noses at the opportunism and sensationalism flaunted by these tabloids and news channels.  But then, the fact that scandal sells makes us nearly as culpable as the middlemen.
Perhaps the human race is, by nature, voyeuristic. We have evidence dating back millennia. Aristotle explained that the purpose of tragedy is catharsis. The tragic hero was haunted by hubris – pride – and hamartia – fatal flaw, brought about either by circumstance or character – and would end up losing everything that mattered to him. The audience would cry with him and go home, and return promptly for the next show.
Now, we have the luxury of cinema – and pornography – that allows us to play fly-on-the-wall, watching lives designed to be spied on.
But that wasn’t good enough for us, so we wanted reality shows.
But we found out those were staged, so we sought real grief, real sorrow, real heartache, and real drama.
With that, the purpose of the press seems to have changed. Yes, you give the audience information, but they also want entertainment. So you spin the two together, make up a fancy-sounding term – infotainment – and stalk misfortune.
Trainee journalists are asked to speak to bereaved families, irrespective of the cause of death. The first time someone snaps, “with your permission, may I cremate my daughter before I answer your question?”, the trainee is left disillusioned and disgusted at the career s/he has chosen.
However, a few incidents and TRPs later – say, an Aarushi Talwar murder case later – the journalist begins to see himself or herself as a crusader, and the public joins the campaign for ‘justice’.
The next thing we know, the real issues – suicide, murder, dowry harassment, sexual misconduct, corporal punishment – and the frivolous ones – whom does the mother suspect, whom did the victim last have a fight with, what do his or her best friends think – have been mixed up, and the walls have been bugged.
While News of the World has made no bones about hacking phones earlier, it was the revelations about the paper hiring detectives to listen in on calls made by the families of murder victim Milly Dowler, of the casualties of the London tube bombings of 2005, and of soldiers killled in Iraq and Afghanistan that resulted in a public outcry and eventually caused the paper to shut down.
One wonders whether it's acceptable, then, to hack the phones of celebrities. Do we really need to know who they’re dating, or grab hold of exclusive pictures from their weddings, or sneak a peek at their babies? Does it really matter to us whether Siddharth Mallya kissed Deepika Padukone, or Bipasha Basu dumped John Abraham?
There is no doubt that some people are accountable to the public – such as politicians and civil servants – and the media has exposed corruption often enough, as in the case of the 2G spectrum scam in the India and the MPs’ housing scam in Britain. The fact that the whole country knows what’s going on in the corridors of power has certainly plied pressure on the government and judiciary to take concrete action.
However, it’s important not just for media houses, but we the consumers, to focus on the point of the news they dish out. Does it inform? Does it help? Does it alert? Is it necessary?
Because it’s only when we stop being voyeurs that the media will stop selling privacy. When we find an article that is a breach of privacy, maybe we shouldn’t simply wrinkle our noses, but actually write in to the paper, and put our objections up on our blogs too. Because when we read what the media has learnt from invading people’s homes and phones to squeeze the juice out of their sorrow, we’re abetting their actions.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Wandering Falcon makes a killing

Published as 'A debut at 78 offers an astute peep into tribal lives in AfPak' in The Financial World, Tehelka, retrieved from

Title: The Wandering Falcon

Author: Jamil Ahmad
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs. 399
Pages: 180

When a 78-year-old man writes his first book, one wonders what he has to say that took so long to articulate. Upon reading that he was a member of the Civil Service in Pakistan, one assumes the book is based on his experiences.
However, The Wandering Falcon is no memoir. It’s a charmingly insightful peep into the lives of the tribes that live in the arid areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The author avoids explaining the obvious – the book doesn’t say where the tribals got their machine guns or how they learnt to fire them – but shows us an aspect of their existence we have no way of knowing.
In nine short chapters, Jamil Ahmad subtly weaves together a patchwork of varied lives. Each story is almost a symbol, and the common thread is Tor Baz – a child born to a fugitive couple and raised by several lonely, loving characters.
Sometimes poignant and sometimes funny, the book makes the weathered tribals seem easy-going even in their barbarism. Remarkably understated both in terms of language and content, The Wandering Falcon traces the changes politics has inflicted on the lives of nomadic tribes in the 1960s and ’70s – a world where wanderers with no home need papers to cross the borders, and where tribal laws come into conflict with the judiciary.
And yet, there is no romanticising of the tribal life. The Sardar of a tribe plans a trip to the mission eye hospital – just as soon as he is done with avenging the killing of his tribesmen. The son of a tribesman, making his first trip to the land of his father, watches two old women firing guns at each other’s houses to keep up an old family feud while the men are away – a sight he is more likely to remember than the story of a firing squad being assembled to destroy an ungodly transistor.
Jamil Ahmad takes a couple of digs at the people of the hill tribes. Here’s one: “In these mountain areas, the poorer the family, the more high sounding names it gave its children.” But he allows them to use their lovely idioms, such as “Wailing in a man is like honey in a pot. As honey attracts flies, so does wailing attract trouble” and “Conscience is like a poor relation living in a rich man’s house. It has to remain cheerful all the time for fear of being thrown out.”
The story of government officials fooling tribals into thinking they’re going to sit down to a negotiation, only to sentence them to death, is offset by another about a chieftain snubbing a young police officer with an allegoric fable.
There is a hilarious interlude about two boys who are destined for a revenge killing. They stave off the prospective avenger by wearing children’s long shirts instead of shalwars well into their teens, exploiting the mandate that no man can kill a woman or child.
This book does not lament the intrusion of civilisation into the lives of the Noble Savage. The author observes that the tribes have their own hierarchy. Among the members, those who possess buffaloes look down upon those who have only goats. Those with patches of land won’t marry those that don’t have any. The ones who have no land or animals are pitiable beings that live on charity.
But Jamil Ahmad leaves one with a feeling that the marriage of modernisation and antiquity can be volatile. It makes tribes suspicious, and it makes the government wary. Somewhere along the way, one figures out why it is so important for politicians to strike deals with the people on the fringe, to allow them to follow their own laws.  
The Wandering Falcon is not meant to be didactic or analytical. It is simple and evocative – certainly one for the bookshelf.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Kasab, Afzal Guru and Other Symbols of How India Works

(Published in on 14 July, retrieved from

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It happened in 1993, it happened in 2003, it happened in 2006, 2008 and 2011.
Everyone knows the pattern now. The Home Minister appears on TV, followed by the top cops. Journalists troop to the spot, news editors launch tirades against the cowardliness of jihadis, cameramen scour hospitals for images of misery, and desk hands intersperse these with reports of heart-warming gestures.
Someone drove a bleeding someone else to hospital in his new Porsche, yet another Samaritan threw open the doors of his home to strangers.
Ram Gopal Varma and Amitabh Bachchan tweeted, and Wikipedia got confused about Kasab’s birthday. In the next few days, Mumbaikars will take out a candlelight vigil, and everyone will celebrate the spirit of Mumbai.
There is mild speculation about how this will impact India-Pakistan talks, and whether the two countries will play cricket again. But the UPA and PPP will kiss and make up, dissociate Kashmir from the 60-year-long battle for Kashmir and watch the World Cup together.
After all, terrorists are stateless actors, and home-grown terror is one of the common points we can bond over. Well, that and the fact that a bunch of our political leaders were born in each other’s countries.
In the middle of this love-hate drama, the Opposition will scream that Afzal Guru should be hanged, and the ruling coalition will patiently explain – again – that, at all costs, order must be maintained, and Afzal Guru and Ajmal Amir Kasab must feast on biryani until the time comes for them to be led to the gallows.
No one can accuse our parliamentarians of conceit. They may think they deserve hikes while Army salaries should have a ceiling, but they certainly don’t think a terrorist who tries to annihilate them is more...umm, shall we say hang-worthy than a terrorist who fires at regular citizens.
But these two men who sit in prison, quite literally eating up crores of taxpayers’ money, have become symbols of India’s ineptitude. You can bomb this country again and again. Some people will make films based on those, and other people will lose their lives and limbs, but nothing will get in the way of camaraderie and cricket.
Somewhere down the line, a retired-intelligence-officer-turned-strategy-analyst will reveal that there was prior warning of an impending attack, but that it got lost in the maze of bureaucracy. Because that’s how India works.
You can bomb this country or hold its people hostage when you want something – for example, the release of terrorists like Maulana Masood Azhar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar. In that case, you might consider hijacking an aircraft. Your buddies will be given a grand send-off, and India’s politicians may even consider saluting their battle standard or whatever else they use, and they will be free to start terror organisations and kidnap and kill American journalists.
Or, you could simply do it for fun – in which case, you might want to barge into a few hotels. Our TV crew will keep you updated on how our National Security Guards plan to get you – it’s like an in-built cheat code! Wow.
Then, you have two options – you can escape back to your own country (if you weren’t raised in India), or you can get caught by the police here.
If you decide to go back home, India won’t succeed in extraditing you. Why, if you play your cards right, we may even see you home, scratch our heads, and want you back. If you’ve escaped to the US, you can strike a deal that prevents authorities from extraditing you to India. If you’ve flown off to Denmark, the courts won’t want you to catch Delhi Belly in India, so they’ll keep you snug and safe back home.
And if you do decide to surrender, you’ll be put on narcotics for a while. People will get in touch with your childhood friends, and find out you were a peace-loving, soft-spoken child, and that evil terror camps – some started by the terrorists we released (whoa, what a coincidence!) – brainwashed you. Then, we’ll feed you better than we can feed our homeless hordes.
I mean, it’s not like we’re America. We don’t try to smoke you out of your cave, or bomb your safe house by breaching someone else’s airspace. Come on, it’s not like you don’t have democratic rights. And who says you weren’t born here, anyway? Which means you havemore democratic rights.
In time, maybe you can work out a deal for exclusive interviews and even book contracts with our media.
You don’t believe me? Look at Afzal Guru and Ajmal Amira Kasab. What, they didn’t jump ship? Fine, then look at David Coleman Headley and Kim Davy. What, they’re in a soup in other countries? All right, look at Maulana Masood Azhar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sailing the High Seas: My Interview with Amitav Ghosh

(Published in on July 8, 2011, retrieved from

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He has been winning awards practically since he began to write. His debut novelThe Circle of Reason was given the Prix Medicis √Čtrang√®re, and his The Shadow Lines received the prestigious Sahitya Akademi's Annual Award. Having won the Israeli Dan David Prize in 2010 and Canadian Blue Metropolis Grand Prix for Lifetime Achievement in 2011, Amitav Ghosh is busy sailing the high seas with his Ibis Trilogywhich follows the fates of the passengers of a cargo ship, The Ibis, all of whose lives have been changed by the opium trade. River of Smoke, the just-released sequel to the 2009 Booker-shortlisted Sea of Poppies, focuses on the lives of a fugitive, exiled zamindar, Neel Rattan Halder, a young botanist Paulette Lambert and a Parsi businessman Bahramji Modi. In the middle of a whirlwind promotional tour, and recovering from a throat infection, the author sits down to an exclusive chat with Nandini Krishnan, who discovers how he got started on the series, what he thinks about Maoists, why he writes about imperialism, where he met a snake, and that he tends to answer pseudo intellectual questions with witty one-liners and a chuckle.

Was ‘Buddha Jumps over the Wall’ really the name of a dish that was popular in China in the nineteenth century? It sounds like a cocktail!
Yes, yes, it’s still popular now, but it started being popular back then. I didn’t make that up. (Laughs) The Chinese have wonderfully imaginative names for things!
Now that you’ve written two-thirds of the Ibis Trilogy, what is the most abiding image of the Ibis, to you?
I think it would have to be when Deeti first sees it, has a vision of it. The first line of Sea of Poppies.
Sea of Poppies has so much a larger canvas than River of Smoke that it’s hard to believe the second was actually longer. But did you deliberately choose to focus on a limited geographical and social milieu?
Well, you know, it’s just the book that it is. I never intended for these to be continuations – even in structure, or anything. You know, I was really thinking more along the lines of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, where the books have a tangential relationship with each other, and so each of them will have its own form, its own characters, its own logic, and I think you can start anywhere. When they’re all done, each of them will be a book in its own right, and they can be picked up and read, and then you could go back to the other books.
And do you think you can actually tie all the loose ends in a single book? 
It’s impossible for me to say. I don’t feel that I have to write a book just tying up the ends. That will not be a very interesting thing to do. (Laughs) So, I feel like I’m free to go in whatever direction I like.
Are you working on the third part now, or do you plan to take a break between this and the next one?
You know, right now, I’m doing this – launches, and interviews. I just finished writing River of Smoke a few months ago. So, I haven’t really had the time to think about the next. I have absolutely no idea where it’s going to go.
Your acceptance of the Dan David Prize became controversial in some circles, because of Israel’s role in the Gaza strip.  Having lived abroad, where one tends to dissociate nationality from the politics of a nation, did the outrage over your acceptance of the award surprise you?
I don’t think there was much outrage. I mean, I got lots of letters of support. And it was basically just one small group of academics who got worked up. There wasn’t a single writer or artist in India who signed the thing. It was just academics from one or two universities, and most of them were CPM types. (Laughs)
In the Ibis trilogy, you’ve looked at slightly different aspects of colonisation – indentured labour, the “free trade” involving opium which would eventually lead to the ‘Cutting of the Chinese melon’. Do you think these are issues that are still, in some ways, unresolved? There is a huge Indian Diaspora because of indentured labour, and one country controlling another through trade, or sanctions, is not uncommon.
You know, just writing about it, you can’t escape the echoes today. You know, I opened the paper this morning, and it’s kind of interesting, you have Jagdish Bhagwati defending free trade – economists love their models, and to them, those models make sense. At the same time, on the same page, you see these riots in four different countries. In England, you have massive strikes. In Greece, you have a general strike leading to this huge outburst of violence. You have massive demonstrations in Egypt right now. You have things going on in Spain, and all of it, is in some sense directed against the enormous wave of liberalisation that happened in the last ten years. So, you know, on the one hand, you have the economists with their ideas. And on the other hand, you have ordinary people, who are not so happy about those ideas.
There is so much description in River of Smoke ­– of the interiors, of courses served at dinners and even little mannerisms of the characters – so it reads almost like a screenplay. Is there a film offer in the pipeline for the series?
Well, for this one, not yet, since it’s just come out. But for Sea of Poppies, there have been many.
And do you plan to take up any of them?
Well, you know, they have to show us what they’re planning. Film stuff is taken care of by my agent, really. But I can tell you there has been a lot of interest, right from the start. If someone shows us an interesting plan, then, of course I’d be happy to see it go ahead. But I should say also that I’m in no hurry about films, you know. I think the film part can be my legacy to my children! (Laughs)
There are some moments in the Ibis series that stand out as powerful indicators of the time they are set in. For example, the treatments of the convicts on the ship – the way they’re made to work, while dragging around metal balls, how one of them is tempted with what he thinks is opium to turn against the other...
Oh, yes! That was kind of a horrible scene, wasn’t it? And yet, of course, much worse things than that happened. In general, I would say that I’ve really toned down the sort of violence and horror of what happened, because actually, the violence, horror and brutality of those times, and especially those ships, is beyond conceiving. People wouldn’t believe it if you wrote about it realistically.
Did you find it too unpalatable to write about?
It’s not even really a question of palatability. It’s just that people wouldn’t believe you. I mean, you’re writing in the twenty-first century about something that happened two centuries ago, and the conditions of life are so different. You were just asking me about films. One of the filmmakers who’s interested wrote to me and asked ‘How large was the Ibis?’ And I told him it’s a hundred and twenty feet, and I’d sort of enlarged it a little. Then, he did some mathematics, and got back to me, and said ‘You know, that’s just too small. That’s less than one square foot per person’. And I told him, ‘Yes, and I enlarged it to make it believable in our time. But in fact, such a ship would have been much smaller’. If you go on to one of the few preserved ships of the time that remain, you cannot believe the conditions, really.
There’s a tremendous amount of research that goes into each book you write, just to establish the social and temporal setting. Is it hard for you to decide what to leave out?
Yes, very difficult.  But it’s not quite like that. I mean, if I follow a line of research, it’s because it interests me. And my line of inclusion and exclusion is quite simple. If it’s interesting to me, then I put it in. (Laughs) That’s just about all!
But there’s another consideration, right? Even if it’s interesting, it can interrupt the story. How do you strike a balance between informing the reader and telling the story? Do you ever feel ‘all right, this is too much detail’ and cut something out?
I cut things all the time. But, you know, I can’t say that it’s such a conscious thing. (Laughs)
Was it a conscious thing to model one of the rooms of the hotel in Canton on the one you yourself stayed in, in Egypt? Your book In an Antique Land mentions that your quarters were converted from a chicken coop, and so was the room in River of Smoke.
Ah! It’s interesting that you got that. Because, I sometimes – you know, I guess, having written so many books – I sometimes hide little things in there, which are, like, private jokes. I find it interesting when people get that! (Laughs)
Are your descriptions of this vibrant marketplace in Canton, where you have people selling crickets inside walnuts which have been carved into cages, and all these ‘hongs’ which have offices attached to living quarters, going deep inside from narrow entrances, imagined or real?
Actually, I described it as accurately as I could, because we have a very extensive visual record of the hongs, and the market, and Old China Street, and New China Street.
I don’t particularly like asking who your audience is, because you seem to write for everyone, and you’ve translated the Hindusthani and Bengali throughout. But in River of Smoke, you don’t translate the Chinese conversations. Is there any reason for this?
Well, because they’re all these gandi gandi gaaliyas.
Why did ‘Neel’ give up hopes of publishing his own Celestial Chrestomathy, even though he seems to have got pretty far along, and has an entire section on your website?
Because he came across the other Chrestomathy of the Pidgin Languages, already published by an Englishman. But, you know, he’s still struggling along. (Laughs)
Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke seem to be foils to each other. You parody the significance of omens through a gomustawho believes the Second Mate of the ship is an avatar of Lord Krishna in Sea of Poppies. But in River of Smoke, all the bad omens seem to have potency.
That’s an interesting idea! Hmm...I think you have to make of it what you will. In real life, if I look at the way people think, they often retrospectively imagine that they saw prefigurings of something. (Laughs)
Do you read the previous book or books thoroughly before you write?
Oh, no, good god, no!
But there are so many characters, with such complicated lives – isn’t it hard to remember who’s done what?
Well, I suppose since it all came out of my head, I have some grasp of it. (Laughs) I’ve written almost nothing between the two books – I’ve written maybe one essay. But, yeah, I had lost track of a couple of details and so on. Mind you, angry readers point them out to me all the time!
You seem to be writing a lot about your early influences in your later novels. You’ve spoken about how much you loved piratical fiction such as the Captain Blood series in your boyhood. And a lot of your later novels, including The Hungry Tide are based in and around your childhood home. Is it nostalgia, or have you been waiting to crystallise those memories?
Well, I’ve always been a voracious reader, and yeah, I think it’s true that all these things that are in my head, stuff that I’ve been reading since I was a kid, have kind of come together, making their presence felt. Early books, early, now, they all go into the books!
The Sunderbans seem to work their way into almost every novel of yours. How often have you been there?
Many, many times – since my childhood. That’s how I wrote The Hungry Tide. There have been so many memorable journeys. The Sunderbans are completely unforgettable. It’s an astonishing place.
Has there been any incident, or any journey, that you would call particularly memorable?
Umm, all these were way back in my childhood. My uncle was the manager of an estate in the Sunderbans. So that’s how I used to go there so often. An incident? Well, I don’t quite remember, but my mother talks about this all the time – we were sleeping with a mosquito net over the bed, and suddenly, a snake dropped on top of the net. And this was inside the house. It dropped from the roof!
You’re spending a lot more time in India these days. Do you plan to write about the political situation here?
No, not really. I mean, it’s not that I don’t have strong feelings about it. I do, just as, I’m sure, you do and everybody does. But a long time ago, I made a kind of pact with myself, that I would not become a talking head. Because I think that’s a very easy thing to do. I mean, people are constantly asking you to be on their TV shows.! (Laughs)
While we’re on the subject of politics – in The Hungry Tide, you raised the issue of Morichjhanpi, where these migrants had settled down illegally in the Sunderbans, but had worked hard to tame the place and make it habitable.  Then, there was the brutal crackdown by the CPM government. That incident has echoes today too, don’t you think?
Well, I wrote about Morichjhanpi in The Hungry Tide, which came out in 2004. And actually, you know, the incident of Morichjhanpi had completely faded from memory in Bengal. And it’s interesting that now, when I was in Bengal about ten days ago, everyone was telling me ‘you brought up this thing which was so similar to Singur and Nandigram’. And it’s true, the CPM’s tenure has been book-ended on the one hand by Morichjhanpi, and on the other by Singur and Nandigram. And they’re absolutely similar, in so many ways. Here, you have this party claiming to be the party of the dispossessed, actually savagely turning upon the dispossessed. So, you know, it’s a strange sort of swansong for a certain kind of Stalinist Left.
Now, you have a similar situation with the Maoists, who’ve grabbed more than 40,000 sq km of government land. What is your opinion on this?
That is a difficult and complicated subject. On the question of the Maoist insurgency, let me put it like this – I think the issue of what is happening to India’s forests is the most pressing issue facing India. And I really celebrate Arundhati for having brought it to public attention. I don’t agree with her prescriptions, but I think the fact that she’s brought it to public attention in a way that many of us have been trying to do for years – but none of us has succeeded and Arundhati has – is a great thing. I think that article she wrote was perhaps her finest article.
And where I would say I would depart from her thinking about this is two things. One is, the problem for India in relation to the forests is that the indigenous people were dispossessed of their lands in the 1850s, by the British legislation on forests which essentially declared the forests, which had been common land, which the tribal people had treated as their common property, as state land, which thereafter was run by something called the Forest Department. And this Forest Department still exists, and it controls 20 percent of India’s land surface. That’s as big as Akbar’s empire. It’s as big as Punjab and Haryana put together. It’s an enormous swathe of territory.
We talk of India being a democracy and this and that. But within this area, people cannot actually exercise their democratic rights. They have no property rights, they have no democratic rights. Anyone who has been inside the forests knows that the Forest Department operates as a, what shall I say – as a squeeze agency. It loots the forests, and squeezes these people. It’s a ghastly thing.
So, where I say I disagree with Arundhati – well, not even disagree, it’s just that Arundhati points this out in her article too, but doesn’t take it to its logical conclusion, which is that in fact, this issue could be largely addressed if there were administrative reforms of the Forest Department, going from top to bottom.  I think that would be one way that we could radically change the situation in the forested areas of India. The problem is that it’s actually inconceivable.
Why do you feel it’s inconceivable?
Well, because the Forest Department itself is an incredibly powerful lobby at the Centre, and it has the backing of several important MPs. So that’s where we see it completely stymied. So, I think it’s completely understandable that the indigenous people have taken to resistance.
At the same time, the form that this resistance has taken, being led by Naxalites, is a very depressing form, you know, because these forms of power, though they may initially represent some sort of legitimate grievance, in the end become power-seeking entities in their own right.
So, what will it lead to? I think it will lead to some sort of warlordism. And I’ve seen this so much in Burma and elsewhere that it just leads me to despair.
But I do think there are clear, straightforward ways of addressing this, as I said, administratively, if we do a sort of thorough-going reform in the Forest Department.
But there is nobody even talking about these issues. The ideologues in Delhi are completely cocooned. They’re busy thinking about India being a superpower – whereas India doesn’t even control its own territory anymore. What is the talk about a superpower? It’s nonsense, no?

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