अनिल एकलव्य ⇔ Anil Eklavya

December 1, 2011

The Original Mark Twain

A day or two ago Google put on its search engine interface what they call a doodle. It was for celebrating the 176th birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. I used to have trouble recalling his real name, so commonly known and popular his pen name has become, something like that of George Orwell, who, by the way, wrote an essay about him titled ‘The Licensed Jester’ (note this down as evidence of contradiction).

I had read Huckleberry Finn during my first college degree days. At that time I was aware of the fact that Mark Twain was a famous writer. I had read a few short things by him in English text books. I had also read a part of Tom Sawyer, but couldn’t finish it because it had to be returned. But I did not know about this book, Huck Finn. I didn’t know that it was considered the first Great American Novel. But even before finishing that shortish novel, I had no doubt that it was one of the best American novels ever written.

Note the self-referentiality and pomposity and keep it in mind while reading the rest of this article.

But this article is going to be more of a cut-and-paste (copy-and-paste, to be exact) job. That’s because this is the only way to do justice to what I want to say here. And there is no editor and a board of reviewers to look over my shoulder, so that makes it easy. The source is also in public domain, so no legal problems. If you are a fair use fanatic, go read something else.

If even people like me have trouble recalling his real name, it can be expected that few people (other than literary scholars and may be some other literary geeks) know the story of the origin of his pen name. Those who do know, only know a part of it, and that too the part that is less interesting.

Now I can add here that there is a theory among scholars that this story is perhaps not factual. I am not aware of their arguments and since Mark Twain himself explained in detail why he became Mark Twain, and I also know him to be one of most honest people in literature or elsewhere, I will ignore that theory and get on with the one that I like.

In fact, when I first read this story it made such a great impression on me that I have been aching ever since to write about it. The story forms Chapter 50 of another of his great books, Life on the Mississippi. I read it some years after I had read Huck Finn and this time I had borrowed the book (from the British Library, if I remember correctly: note this down for your later judgement). Since I had it in my own name and was ready to pay the fine for late fees (which I did very frequently and they were substantial sums for me at that time), I was able to finish this much longer book (I was as busy as anyone can be in those days: note it down). I liked it almost as much as Huck Finn. For the record, I completed reading Tom Sawyer much later and didn’t like it that much. No match for Huck Finn.

The story, or the part of the story that is commonly presented and known, is also given on the Wikipedia page about Mark Twain:

He maintained that his primary pen name came from his years working on Mississippi riverboats, where two fathoms, a depth indicating safe water for passage of boat, was measured on the sounding line. A fathom is a maritime unit of depth, equivalent to two yards (1.8 m); twain is an archaic term for “two.” The riverboatman’s cry was mark twain or, more fully, by the mark twain, meaning “according to the mark [on the line], [the depth is] two [fathoms],” that is, “The water is 12 feet (3.7 m) deep and it is safe to pass.”

The Wikipedia page goes on to say that he “claimed that his famous pen name was not entirely his invention” and that “In Life on the Mississippi, he wrote:”

Captain Isaiah Sellers was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river, and sign them “MARK TWAIN,” and give them to the New Orleans Picayune. They related to the stage and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; … At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands – a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

As I said, the complete story forms a full chapter of the said book. The title of the chapter is “The ‘Original Jacobs'”.

Mark Twain was not faultless, of course, and he was also not one of those who only seem to become faultless by adopting the current orthodoxy about political and social correctness, taking no risks of their own, and having done that, they entitle themselves to judge and sentence anyone from the present or the past, say, for having shown a little bit of racist tendencies in the seventeenth century or of being a little sexist in the first half of the 20th century.

That is not to say that he did not do some nasty things in his time. In fact, the interesting part of the story is about just that. Then there is also the fact that he displayed considerable literary/stylistic prescriptivism in blasting some writers and critics of his time, but I am not going to go into that.

The introduction to the story is that there was another man who had used the pen name Mark Twain. He wasn’t a literary writer, but he was something impressive: impressive enough for Mark Twain to say that it was an honor to be the only one hated by him.

So here comes the copy-and-paste of the 50th chapter of Life on the Mississippi (I have left out the final paragraph, which is not relevant to the story):

Chapter 50 The ‘Original Jacobs’

WE had some talk about Captain Isaiah Sellers, now many years dead. He
was a fine man, a high-minded man, and greatly respected both ashore and
on the river. He was very tall, well built, and handsome; and in his old
age–as I remember him–his hair was as black as an Indian’s, and his
eye and hand were as strong and steady and his nerve and judgment as
firm and clear as anybody’s, young or old, among the fraternity of
pilots. He was the patriarch of the craft; he had been a keelboat pilot
before the day of steamboats; and a steamboat pilot before any other
steamboat pilot, still surviving at the time I speak of, had ever turned
a wheel. Consequently his brethren held him in the sort of awe in
which illustrious survivors of a bygone age are always held by their
associates. He knew how he was regarded, and perhaps this fact added
some trifle of stiffening to his natural dignity, which had been
sufficiently stiff in its original state.

He left a diary behind him; but apparently it did not date back to his
first steamboat trip, which was said to be 1811, the year the first
steamboat disturbed the waters of the Mississippi. At the time of his
death a correspondent of the ‘St. Louis Republican’ culled the following
items from the diary–

‘In February, 1825, he shipped on board the steamer “Rambler,” at
Florence, Ala., and made during that year three trips to New Orleans and
back–this on the “Gen. Carrol,” between Nashville and New Orleans. It
was during his stay on this boat that Captain Sellers introduced the tap
of the bell as a signal to heave the lead, previous to which time it was
the custom for the pilot to speak to the men below when soundings were
wanted. The proximity of the forecastle to the pilot-house, no doubt,
rendered this an easy matter; but how different on one of our palaces of
the present day.

‘In 1827 we find him on board the “President,” a boat of two hundred and
eighty-five tons burden, and plying between Smithland and New Orleans.
Thence he joined the “Jubilee” in 1828, and on this boat he did his
first piloting in the St. Louis trade; his first watch extending from
Herculaneum to St. Genevieve. On May 26, 1836, he completed and left
Pittsburgh in charge of the steamer “Prairie,” a boat of four hundred
tons, and the first steamer with a STATE-ROOM CABIN ever seen at St.
Louis. In 1857 he introduced the signal for meeting boats, and which
has, with some slight change, been the universal custom of this day; in
fact, is rendered obligatory by act of Congress.

‘As general items of river history, we quote the following marginal
notes from his general log–

‘In March, 1825, Gen. Lafayette left New Orleans for St. Louis on the
low-pressure steamer “Natchez.”

‘In January, 1828, twenty-one steamers left the New Orleans wharf to
celebrate the occasion of Gen. Jackson’s visit to that city.

‘In 1830 the “North American” made the run from New Orleans to Memphis
in six days–best time on record to that date. It has since been made in
two days and ten hours.

‘In 1831 the Red River cut-off formed.

‘In 1832 steamer “Hudson” made the run from White River to Helena, a
distance of seventy-five miles, in twelve hours. This was the source of
much talk and speculation among parties directly interested.

‘In 1839 Great Horseshoe cut-off formed.

‘Up to the present time, a term of thirty-five years, we ascertain, by
reference to the diary, he has made four hundred and sixty round trips
to New Orleans, which gives a distance of one million one hundred and
four thousand miles, or an average of eighty-six miles a day.’

Whenever Captain Sellers approached a body of gossiping pilots, a chill
fell there, and talking ceased. For this reason: whenever six pilots
were gathered together, there would always be one or two newly fledged
ones in the lot, and the elder ones would be always ‘showing off’ before
these poor fellows; making them sorrowfully feel how callow they were,
how recent their nobility, and how humble their degree, by talking
largely and vaporously of old-time experiences on the river; always
making it a point to date everything back as far as they could, so as to
make the new men feel their newness to the sharpest degree possible,
and envy the old stagers in the like degree. And how these complacent
baldheads WOULD swell, and brag, and lie, and date back–ten, fifteen,
twenty years,–and how they did enjoy the effect produced upon the
marveling and envying youngsters!

And perhaps just at this happy stage of the proceedings, the stately
figure of Captain Isaiah Sellers, that real and only genuine Son of
Antiquity, would drift solemnly into the midst. Imagine the size of the
silence that would result on the instant. And imagine the feelings of
those bald-heads, and the exultation of their recent audience when the
ancient captain would begin to drop casual and indifferent remarks of a
reminiscent nature–about islands that had disappeared, and cutoffs that
had been made, a generation before the oldest bald-head in the company
had ever set his foot in a pilot-house!

Many and many a time did this ancient mariner appear on the scene in the
above fashion, and spread disaster and humiliation around him. If one
might believe the pilots, he always dated his islands back to the misty
dawn of river history; and he never used the same island twice; and
never did he employ an island that still existed, or give one a name
which anybody present was old enough to have heard of before. If you
might believe the pilots, he was always conscientiously particular about
little details; never spoke of ‘the State of Mississippi,’ for instance
–no, he would say, ‘When the State of Mississippi was where Arkansas
now is,’ and would never speak of Louisiana or Missouri in a general
way, and leave an incorrect impression on your mind–no, he would say,
‘When Louisiana was up the river farther,’ or ‘When Missouri was on the
Illinois side.’

The old gentleman was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used
to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the
river, and sign them ‘MARK TWAIN,’ and give them to the ‘New Orleans
Picayune.’ They related to the stage and condition of the river, and
were accurate and valuable; and thus far, they contained no poison.
But in speaking of the stage of the river to-day, at a given point, the
captain was pretty apt to drop in a little remark about this being the
first time he had seen the water so high or so low at that particular
point for forty-nine years; and now and then he would mention Island
So-and-so, and follow it, in parentheses, with some such observation
as ‘disappeared in 1807, if I remember rightly.’ In these antique
interjections lay poison and bitterness for the other old pilots, and
they used to chaff the ‘Mark Twain’ paragraphs with unsparing mockery.

It so chanced that one of these paragraphs–{footnote [The original MS.
of it, in the captain’s own hand, has been sent to me from New Orleans.
It reads as follows–

VICKSBURG May 4, 1859.

‘My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New Orleans: The water
is higher this far up than it has been since 8. My opinion is that the
water will be feet deep in Canal street before the first of next June.
Mrs. Turner’s plantation at the head of Big Black Island is all under
water, and it has not been since 1815.

‘I. Sellers.’]}

became the text for my first newspaper article. I burlesqued it broadly,
very broadly, stringing my fantastics out to the extent of eight hundred
or a thousand words. I was a ‘cub’ at the time. I showed my performance
to some pilots, and they eagerly rushed it into print in the ‘New
Orleans True Delta.’ It was a great pity; for it did nobody any worthy
service, and it sent a pang deep into a good man’s heart. There was no
malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at a man
to whom such a thing was new and strange and dreadful. I did not know
then, though I do now, that there is no suffering comparable with that
which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in
print.

Captain Sellers did me the honor to profoundly detest me from that day
forth. When I say he did me the honor, I am not using empty words. It
was a very real honor to be in the thoughts of so great a man as Captain
Sellers, and I had wit enough to appreciate it and be proud of it. It
was distinction to be loved by such a man; but it was a much greater
distinction to be hated by him, because he loved scores of people; but
he didn’t sit up nights to hate anybody but me.

He never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never again
signed ‘Mark Twain’ to anything. At the time that the telegraph brought
the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new
journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient
mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it
was in his hands–a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found
in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I
have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

The captain had an honorable pride in his profession and an abiding love
for it. He ordered his monument before he died, and kept it near
him until he did die. It stands over his grave now, in Bellefontaine
cemetery, St. Louis. It is his image, in marble, standing on duty at
the pilot wheel; and worthy to stand and confront criticism, for it
represents a man who in life would have stayed there till he burned to a
cinder, if duty required it.

I find it interesting that the part that this chapter focuses on is always left out from the usual accounts, as far as I know (I am not a Mark Twain scholar, so I am only talking about what I have read).

I also feel that there is a lesson somewhere in this story for those who are receptive. How many would be receptive to such a lesson is something depressing to think about these days.

As a bonus for having read thus far, I invite you to read this, which was not published in his lifetime and about which he said, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”.

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November 17, 2010

So Dissent is Just a Disease After All

If you are even a little bit well read, you might have come across the name of Bertolt Brecht, even if you don’t recall it now. He is well known as one of the most important figures of twentieth century theatre (theater for the more dominant party). But his influence goes far beyond theatre. It extends to movies, literature, poetry (he was also a poet), political thought and so on (not excluding the Monty Pythons). It even goes beyond the boundaries of the East-West or the North-South divides. I wasn’t surprised at all when I read yesterday that there are ’30 something’ MA theses in South Korea alone (written in Korean) on Brecht. In India, he has been widely written about and heavily quoted by intellectuals, especially those writing in Indian languages. One of the most respected Hindi poets, Nagarjun, even wrote a poem about Brecht. I would have loved to provide a translation of that poem here, but I don’t feel equal to the task as the poem uses words whose equivalents in English I am unable to think of. Some poems are translatable, some are not.

Brecht has been on my mind these days as I have translated some of his poems (from English) into Hindi in the last few days. This excercise included a bit of surfing the Net for his name too and as a result, I came across something that made me write this. Or, at least, acted as a catalyst or the precipitating agent for writing this.

I don’t mean to present a brief bio of the man here. You can easily find plenty of material about him on the Internet and in any good library. I am not even a minor expert (in the technical sense) on him or his works. But I might mention here that some of the things he is known specifically for, include these:

  • His plays and his active theatre work (in particular the ‘epic theatre’ works like The Life of Galileo, The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage and Her Children)
  • His theory about theatre, which is centred around the idea of the ‘alienation effect’
  • His poetry
  • His affiliation to Marxism (though of the dissident kind)

It should not be hard to guess now (if you were unfamiliar with him earlier) that it is the fourth point that would get most people interested, either approvingly or otherwise. You write plays, you do theatre, you pen poems, that’s all quite alright. No problem. Have your fun. Let us have some too. We can spend time discussing and arguing about it too. But being a Marxist is taking this business to a different territory. That’s politics. That might lead to talk of revolution. Or, at least, to that of radical change.

And so it does. Intellectuals, artists and activists around the world who are not satisfied of being a real or potential (‘wannabe’) Salman Rushdie or V. S. Naipaul and who want to do or say something more about the injustices in the world, in the society, in the institutions, have almost all paid at least some attention to this guy. Some disagreed and turned away, some agreed wholeheartedly and became loyal followers and some agreed partly and adapted his ideas and techniques according to their own taste and their own views about things. One from the last kind is also someone with whom I have happened to be concerned recently. That one was Fassbinder, a prolific filmmaker from the same part of the world as Brecht. Another filmmaker (from India) of this kind was Ritwik Ghatak. But about them, later.

Brecht’s ideas about ‘epic theatre’ (the quotes are there because it is a specific theory or a specific kind of theatre, not necessarily what you would guess from the words: it is a technical term) were a result of synthesizing and extending the ideas of Erwin Piscator and Vsevolod Meyerhold.

About the alienation effect, this excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Brecht gives a fairly good introduction:

One of Brecht’s most important principles was what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as “defamiliarization effect”, “distancing effect”, or “estrangement effect”, and often mistranslated as “alienation effect”). This involved, Brecht wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”. To this end, Brecht employed techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, and, in rehearsals, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense, and speaking the stage directions out loud.

But more than this somewhat technical aspect, what attracts me to the ‘Brechtian’ art, was expressed extremely well by Erwin Piscator in 1929:

For us, man portrayed on the stage is significant as a social function. It is not his relationship to himself, nor his relationship to God, but his relationship to society which is central. Whenever he appears, his class or social stratum appears with him. His moral, spiritual or sexual conflicts are conflicts with society.

I read this only today, but as my (few) readers might have noticed (which I explicitly expressed once), almost all of what I write here is about ‘Individual and Society’ (which is also one of the most common tags that I use). For me, the above is the crux of the Brechtian enterprise. But I should add that in my opinion the Brechtian technique, along with its variants, is not the only technique for achieving the goal (for expression in art as well as for scholarly investigation) outlined in the above quotation. Still, I can’t resist saying here that it is the key to understanding Fassbinder. Many a reviewer of Fassbinder movies has made a fool of himself by ignoring this.

Having provided this little context, I will move now to the thing that precipitated this article. Yesterday, after posting one more of the translations of his poems on a blog, I came across a post that pointed me to a news story from Reuters. Since it is from Reuters, it has been carried by many other news outlets.

The story reports that a researcher from the University of Manchester “has uncovered the truth behind the death of German playwright Bertolt Brecht”. It goes on to say:

Professor Stephen Parker … said the playwright died from an undiagnosed rheumatic fever which attacked his heart and motorneural system, eventually leading to a fatal heart failure in 1956.

Previously it was thought his death in 1956 aged 58 had been caused by a heart attack.

So far, so good. But here is the precious bit:

Parker said the playwright’s symptoms such as increased heart size, erratic movements of the limbs and facial grimace and chronic sore throats followed by cardiac and motorneural problems, were consistent with a modern diagnosis of the condition.

“When he was young no one could get near the diagnosis,” Parker, 55, told Reuters. “Brecht was labeled as a nervous child with a ‘dicky’ heart, and doctors thought he was a hypochondriac.”

Brecht’s childhood condition continued to affect him as an adult, making him more susceptible to bacterial infections such as endocarditis which affected his already weakened heart, and kidney infections which plagued him until the end of his life.

Parker believed that his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted.

“It affected his behavior, making him more exaggerated in his actions, and prone to over-reaction,” he said. “He carried the problem all his life and compensated for this underlying weakness by projecting a macho image to show himself as strong.”

I have quoted at this length because I didn’t want to lose anything in the paraphrase. So this researcher is a medical doctor? Wrong. He is an expert in German Literature. And he derived all these conclusions from Brecht’s medical records. The report ends with this gem:

“Going into this project I felt I didn’t really fully understand Brecht,” he said. “This knowledge about his death opens a lot of new cracks about the playwright, and gives us a new angle on the man.”

As the Americans (and now even the Indians) say, Wow!

The Superman might have been fictional, but we now have a Super Researcher. Nothing short of real superpowers could have made him achieve this amazing feat: “his underlying health altered the way the playwright felt and acted”. Felt and acted! That is a nice summing up of the whole business of existence. The key to all this was rheumatic fever! This would make a nice present to an absurdist poet looking for ideas. An expert in German Literature goes through the medical records of a man who was born in 1898 and died in 1956, having lived in various countries during one of the most tumultuous periods in history (when there were no computers: well, hardly). He (the Expert) felt “he didn’t really fully understand” Brecht and by going through these medical records (one of the key exhibits being an X-ray) and found out that all this ‘epic theatre’ and the ‘alienation effect’ and affiliation to Marxism and his poetry and his immeasurable influence on a large fraction of the best minds of the world for the last three quarters of a century was just the result of his rheumatic fever. All his politics was just a simple disease.

As if this wasn’t enough, there is something else that would have caused cries of “Conspiracy theory!” if a different party was involved in the affair. His research shows that the 1951 X-ray report, which showed an enlargement to the left side of Brecht’s heart, was never shown to the playwright or known about by his doctors and it may have been (emphasis mine) held back by the German security services, the Stasi, who had a grudge against the playwright.

So all of you loony lefties, you commie fairies, this idol of yours was just a sick man. And if he was not, well, then he was at least (indirectly) killed by a communist government. So wake up, man! Give up all this talk about the individual and the society and injustice and imperialism etc. Get back on track and let’s live up the market dream together. We can change things. Yes, we can.

To be fair to Professor Parker, he has written a ‘literary biography’ of Brecht and it might be that he is not really claiming all of the above. However, what matters in the world outside the closed academic circle of experts on German Literature, is the effect of the reports of this study on the common readers. And what appears in these reports is, to use a word from the report itself, quite a sinister subtext. The Indian media right now is full of such reports (often of a much cruder, laughably cruder, moronically cruder variety) with similar, barely concealed subtexts, with obvious relevance to the current political situation in the country.

The ‘study’ apparently says nothing about the effect that his blacklisting in Hollywood might have had on him. Did the FBI (or any of the other agencies) had a grudge against him? Here was one of the most admired and influential playwright who had sketched notes for numerous films, but he got to write the script of only one movie that was directed by Fritz Lang. He was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and decided to leave the US after that. He lived during the period when his country went mad and so did the world, with millions upon millions dying. He saw Germany descend from relative decency into barbarism. He later also saw the degeneration of the revolution in the Eastern Block. Did all that have anything to do with what he was and may be even with why he died relatively young? Parker doesn’t seem interested in such trivialities and externalities. At least Reuters doesn’t, because I don’t have access to the complete and original ‘study’ as written by Parker.

Very long ago, I had read one of the novels by that great favourite of those looking for gentlemanly humour, P. G. Wodehouse. In that novel (whose name I don’t remember), one of the main characters (Jeeves, perhaps) decides to go, for some reason, on a kind of fast. And from the time of the very next meal, his whole personality starts changing. He becomes dissatisfied with lot of things. He starts finding faults in everything. His good nature is all gone. In short, he becomes the caricature of a dissenter.

Finally, when things go beyond a point, the plot has him give up the fast, may be with some persuasion from others. As soon as he has had a good meal again, he reverts to his usual self. The dissenter is gone. Then comes an editorial comment from the narrator which goes something like this: If only Gandhi (no ‘Red Top’, as you probably know) were to give up his fasting antics, he won’t be creating so many unnecessary problems. As far as Wodehouse is concerned, he has won the argument against the whole idea of Indian independence and whatever else Gandhi said he was fighting for.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on poor Wodehouse, as cautioned by Orwell in his defense, because, for one thing, the humourist was just too innocent of political awareness.

A scholar of Brecht and one of the biggest news agencies in the world, however, belong to a different category.

But this is not such a unique event. Parker has just given a new meaning to the idea of pathologizing troublesome people. To the idea of ‘finding dirt’ on people who don’t follow the rules of the game. It is just a sophisticated version of the understated witch hunt against Julian Asange. A small attempt at rewriting History in somewhat Orwellian sense. The motivation is all there, as more and more people start talking about the ‘churning’ and ‘renewed stirrings’ for a more fair world. Yet another facet of the psychological operations (psyops) in these times of the gold rush.

(Using Bob Dylan’s words, we could say that Professor Parker is perhaps just a pawn in their game, but of a different kind than Wodehouse was for the Nazis.)

 

One of the significant influences on Brecht was Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush.

Life is full of poetry and drama.

And melodrama.

January 12, 2009

Picture of the Future

Orwell described a picture of the future rather bleakly as:

There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face … forever. (1984 by George Orwell: Part III, Chapter III)

This, I believed, was a dystopian picture. I still do. I have my own picture of the future, which has remained almost unchanged for the last decade (at least). Three recent events somehow seem to me to be describing my picture of the future.

The picture is mine, but the future need not necessarily be mine.

But it can very well be.

The first is the unbelievably and blatantly criminal assault by Israel on all Palestinians: man, woman and child. I won’t give references for this. It’s there prominently even in the mainstream media and has been there for some time now.

The second is a recent call by the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Commission chief (Chairman) for “legislation to prosecute parents with diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV, leprosy and dyslexia should they, knowing that they have the disease, have children”.

Inhuman Rights Commission?

The third is the news, or rather the lack of it, about the recent death of a Hindi writer living in Jaipur (yes, the connection with ‘your’ places does make it worse) Lavleen (लवलीन) who was relatively young. She had a reputation as a ‘bold’ writer and woman. She hadn’t really established herself as a great writer, but she was known among the Hindi literary circles. Let alone the Indian English media, (it has been pointed out) even the ‘biggest Hindi daily’ Dainik Bhaskar didn’t report it, even after many requests. And even the small but very vibrant and inter-connected world of Hindi blogging (which is very enthusiastic about events like the wedding of someone’s relative among them) mostly ignored it, though they are trying very hard to find out who ‘the real Tau’ (असली ताऊ) is. Like a lot of other writers, she died with the dream of some day writing a masterpiece.

(But still, I came to know about this from a Hindi writer’s blog).

And, no, I didn’t personally know her. Nor do I know the A. P. Human Rights Commission Chairman. Nor have I ever been to Israel, though a large percentage of the people (in History) I admire happen to be Jewish and most of them (I am sure) would have or have been horrified by what Israel is doing.

I don’t know why but these three events (or should I say sets of events: being a ‘professional’ practitioner of language sciences, crafts and arts is tough when it comes to writing anything) somehow represent for me the picture of the future.

This picture is not quite as horrible as that painted by Orwell (actually, by O’Brien the character, whether or not by the author).

But it doesn’t seem very pleasant.

December 9, 2008

Talking about The Invaders

I am down with (relatively high) fever after a long time. This blog (before this one) had 99 posts. It seems nice to have the 100th. Round figures. The Decimal System of Indian Origin. A milestone. You get the picture. The number. The destination.

Or may be you don’t. What can I do about that?

I am still not sure why Catch 22. Or why Room 101 for that matter.

But I don’t feel like writing a post. So what I will do is, I will reproduce (with some proof reading of my comments) a post by someone else to which I had made many comments. Why do I reproduce? Can’t I simply provide a link to it (I already have)? Well, the reason is that I had a long exchange of comments on the same blog earlier on a matter that seemed important to me. But the post as well as the comment are now gone from that blog.

So, just in case something like that happens again, the exchange can be available here.

The Invaders

By Arfi

They met deep in the jungle almost every other weekend.

They were a motley group of men and women of all ages and professions who had found each other over the Internet. And over time, through discussions in forums or by way of certain books they had all been drawn to the movement. A movement that promised to restore to them, what they believed, had once rightfully been theirs. They met in the small forested area that lay on the outskirts of the city – away from prying eyes and curious onlookers.

That particular morning, at the edge of the forest, about 15 of them had turned up. They had all been sent e-mails in advance intimating them about the time and place of the meet. For some in the group this was their very first meeting and it showed in the nervous twitches that afflicted their fingers. Looking at them, you would not be wrong if you concluded that they seemed overtly secretive about these gatherings. The leader of the group – a gaunt bearded man somewhere in his fifties and clad in old jeans and a khadi kurta – had the air of the old revolutionary about him. He carefully scanned their faces, perhaps looking for signs that could tell him which of them would make good foot-soldiers for the movement. But even he seemed jumpy and constantly looked over his shoulders, as if he couldn’t wait to get out of the open and into the woods.

After waiting a few more minutes for any stragglers that might still show up, he signalled them and they all filed silently behind him. The group started moving into the forest. He had asked them to walk in silence and make as little noise as possible. The morning mist hung in the canopy of trees and the whole atmosphere oozed, of mystery – if not of revolution, as yet. Bird calls could be heard, and now and then, the sharp sound of a dry twig snapping under a pair of purposeful feet would pierce the morning air.

After a fifteen minute trek, they reached a natural clearing in the forest encircled by trees on all sides. The filtered morning light that fell into this clearing had a strange ethereal quality to it. The more spiritually inclined amongst them took it as a sign that their cause was just. In the middle of the clearing, the remains of a dead fire could be seen. The leader deep in thought and running his hand through his beard circled it a few times and poked at the ashes with a twig. He then looked around and suspiciously sniffed at the winter air. The others, looked at each-other in turn. A mixture of fear and excitement played on their faces.

The leader motioned them to form a circle around him. He then pulled out a sheaf of papers from the jhola he was carrying and was engrossed in them for a few minutes. They all waited in silence, nervously shifting on their feet. The leader then stepped onto the small mound of charred wood and ash which had inadvertently become the centre of this human circle, and though hardly a few inches overground, now acted as his pedestal.

He waved the sheets of paper in his hand and addressed them in an impassioned voice.

“Do you know what this tells me ? It tells me we have been invaded. If you read this, you would realise the level of threat we are under. And I am not talking about something that can be left for the government to deal with. They would never acknowledge this and they have already branded us as troublemakers anyway. We need affirmative action and we need it now because what I am talking about is nothing less than the threat of extinction. Extinction from our land. The invasion of our country. And it is time that those of us who understand this, step up and deal with it. Let me read out to you.”

He then read out the summary of the report to them. Having finished, he put the papers back into his jhola and picked up the twig instead. He started waving it around like a conductor, to the ebb and flow of his own rage and continued.

“They came to this country in waves. You could say they were even brought here by our own people in some cases and now look all around you. They have taken over this land, have pushed back the natives. These aliens, aggressive by nature and forever sucking the earth dry, have spread and multiplied right under our noses and what have we ever done about it. Nothing. They are vicious and cunning, quick to adapt and blend in, but do not be fooled because with every passing moment they are forcing the natives out. They breed – if I can even call it breeding – like rats and change the entire balance of the place they show up in, in a few years. They have polluted our environment and now even threaten our backyards. But it’s still not too late. Because now we have awakened. Now we know. And now is the time that we push them out and reclaim and replant what is ours. Trees like Acacia farnesiana and Acacia mearnsii have no place in our ecosystem. We must correct the past mistakes or these alien species; not only of trees, but herbs and shrubs too, would irreversibly change the climate and environment of our land. We must at once begin the process of eco-restoration. We must secure this land for our children and for our future generations.”

The leader stepped down from the mound of ash to a round of applause. The gathering then broke into smaller groups and started studying the flora around them.

Labels: activism, aliens, caricatures, experimental fiction, invaders, Pradip Krishnen, random

Comment by Banno:

The language of inclusion and exclusion remains the same whatever one is talking about, isn’t it? Liked it much.

Comment by Arfi:

Yes, strange but true. Was reading an obscure report on this and later something about Krishnen and it was the language that struck me – the way it was used.

Glad you like it.

Comment by me:

Do you actually realize what you are talking about?

You are in serious danger of becoming something like a Madhur Bhandarkar.

Comment by Arfi:

Hmm.. Madhur Bhandrakar – I hope not. Though in serious danger does sound almost irrevocable.

If you have read the labels with the post you would have noticed that I have labeled it as a caricature.

The point I wanted to make was about the use of language – which is so malleable that it can lend itself to any ideology, even if they stand at opposite ends. The entirely exaggerated narrative, atleast to me, clearly reads as such.

Comment by me:

I saw the caricature label, but I would still say that what you have written translates simply as this:

‘Left is equal to right and both are equally bad. Therefore centre is the best.’

And what is not stated but is usually the de facto meaning in such cases is that whatever is the status quo is the centre. Therefore whatever is, let it be, because that’s the best you can get.

This is the fashionable view in these days of clearly visible across-the-spectrum right-shift. In fact, this view (intentionally or unintentionally) serves to mask the shift.

The problem is that you can only write as well as you can read and, to be a bit harsh again, you don’t seem to read so well. But you are not alone in this. People who are really good at reading are much rarer than is usually assumed. Most people (and here I only talk about the intellectual type) are bad readers.

This is criticism. But it can be taken as an advice because reading skills can be improved. And I am sure you anyway didn’t expect a false pat on the back from me.

It would be a sad thing if, in spite of your writing skills, your writing doesn’t go where you wanted it to go because you can’t clearly see where you are going.

Comment by Arfi:

I welcome criticism, even more so coming from you. It helps unravel the thinking process – possibly at both ends.

The way one reads anything, as you correctly point out, reflects in our writing. And when we approach a text we bring to it our own world-view and politics which act as a sort of filtering mechanism or a highlighter – depending on whether you are trying to avoid or enforce certain beliefs – so one ends up glossing over some things and re-enforcing others. But this too is an evolving process, as we know from reading good literature – as to how it reads differently and leaves you with more each time you revisit it. This tells me that all hope is not yet lost and I might still become a good reader.

Now coming to the post itself, I dont know what exactly disappoints you. Is it that it does not take any stand – as I see it; or that it advocates maintaining a status quo – as you seem to have read it. It surely cannot be that I invoked Krishnen’s name :) (nothing and no one should be sacred, right ?)

Now why I wrote it the way I did was because of certain things coming together. I had gone on a nature walk in Uttaranchal with some local people, who are doing some really wonderful work related to eco-restoration and self-management of forested areas, and the politics of that movement would (and has) greatly stretched the right-centre-left spectrum that you have talked about. It’s quite obvious to which end and to whose discomfort.

But again like I said earlier what I found deeply ironical was the use of language when I was talking about some of those issues with them. It made me smile not in a derisive way but the way we smile when we realise, that strange though it is, the joke somehow is upon us. And that’s where this post comes from.

I cannot go ahead and declare – even though I would like to – that this here is my political stand; simply because I don’t have a one word label to express it. The labeling of views as centrist, rightist and left-leaning doesn’t help because even the connotations of these labels change depending
on the platform and the issues under discussion. Yes, right is centre now and forever pushing across, and yet the left doesn’t move away ? Old story.

But in the end, the fault perhaps lies in the post itself if it translates for you, to a one line false-hood of Left is equal to right and both are equally bad. Therefore centre is the best.

So I guess, it’s time for me to start reading in earnest, though even then I suspect that it would be difficult to know for sure, as to where everything is headed. :)

Good to have you here after a long gap.

~

Comment by me:

I knew what you were trying to say and also the fact that you were interested in the language (so am I).

The process of writing indeed evolves. But the problem is that once you write something, there is unconscious pressure on you (from yourself, your ego etc., if not from others) to then defend and stand by what you have written. This can come in the way of evolution, especially when your writing gets ahead of your reading, as I think is happening in your case.

I am glad that you are prepared to consider my suggestion. Actually, for people who restrict themselves to very narrow domains, this is less of a problem, but for people like you and me who want to write about almost everything, there is a serious risk of getting trapped in a net of our own making. (To digress, that is what seems to have happened with Ram Guha, among others). That’s why it’s very important to be a good reader so that you can read your own writing and decide whether it is expressing just what you wanted to say.

About the language, it is important to note that you can’t really look at such language of politics in isolation and ‘impartially’. Even if you explicitly don’t side with anyone, you are actually siding with the currently dominant party and, in a way, you are supporting the status quo. That the ‘language of inclusion or exclusion’ remains the same doesn’t change the fact that inclusion and exclusion can be very real. Therefore, the use of the same language can be valid in some cases and completely invalid in some other cases. To complicate this, there is the fact that there may be gray areas and partially valid cases or even cases where more than one parties have valid grievances with respect to inclusion or exclusion. Treating the language in isolation and supposedly impartially is thus a very political statement itself (whether you intend it to be or not).

But anyway, since you got my meaning, I hope I will have less (or no) reason for complaint in future.

And, no, Pradip Krishnen is not the issue. I am not even sure which Pradip Krishnen you mean. Perhaps you mean Pradip Krishen the movie maker and of the Trees of Delhi fame. I don’t know much about him. And I don’t think we should treat him or anyone else as too sacred to be criticized.

My main concern is that you have potential for good writing, so you should be writing in a way to realize that potential. You know that I don’t comment too often or at too many places.

Comment by Arfi:

I do concede the point that the use of language does not stand in isolation. Infact a writer steps into a virtual minefield, especially in the realm of fiction, when he dares to venture beyond the traditional fault-lines. He goes there because those spaces – the gray areas – need to be addressed, but at the same time, also require an extremely nuanced handling.

What also interests me is the unraveling and composition of layers, and the ambiguity that a well written text offers; where the reader shapes the meaning which entirely depends on what he brings to it. His interpretation says a lot – both about himself and the writer – and this ambiguity is quite difficult to achieve.

Guha’s is an interesting case. He is currently being heckled down by both sides. It would be amusing to see how it all unfolds.

Yes, I meant Pradip Krishen, not Krishnen. And I do realize that re-reading and re-drafting one’s work is almost a never ending process.

Comment by me:

>> “the ambiguity that a well written text offers; where the reader shapes the meaning which entirely depends on what he brings to it. His interpretation says a lot – both about himself and the writer – and this ambiguity is quite difficult to achieve.”

Is is true?

Partly true, but the meaning can’t completely depend on the reader, can it? And yes, the interpretation says a lot about the reader as much as the writer. That’s part of the reason why I talked about a good reader. The writer is, in fact, the first reader.

Also, what the interpretation can say about the reader includes the fact that the reader correctly understood the meaning. Or one or more of the meanings. After all there are people who know more and who understand more and there are those who know less and understand less, even if there is no objective way of finding out who is which in what case. But over a period of time, once you know someone well enough you might be able to decide whether to rely on someone’s judgment or not. We all rely more on the judgment of some people and less on others’.

About Ram Guha’s article, what he writes there is almost exactly more or less word for word what I used to secretly (as I had no one to actually say things to and I didn’t, of course, have a blog then) argue with the ‘left intellectuals’ about 10-15 years ago (perhaps influenced by the writings of people like Ram Guha who are given very generous space in the mainstream media and who, by the way, don’t talk nonsense most of the time: they are good enough writers). For example, I would (silently) say at that time that it is wrong to call the BJP or Shiv Sena etc. fascists. And I would give the same reasons as he has given in this article. It may be new to you, but it’s pretty stale stuff for me (I can’t help it if it sounds arrogant).

Now I know better. BJP may not be technically a classical fascist organization, but it is definitely a part of a network which has very strong fascistic tendencies. What we are seeing right now is corrupt fascism in somewhat slow motion. Whether it is better or worse than classical pure fascism is a matter of debate.

As for the again-and-again repeated diatribe by Ram Guha against the communist faction headed by Ranadive, how many people today know that the Nehru government had carried out systematic atrocities in suppressing these communists who believed that the independence that we had got was fake. In one of his articles in the Hindu as well as in a long article in the Outlook, Ram Guha ridiculed Ranadive for saying roughly ‘yeh aazaadi jhooti hai’. But was he the only lunatic extremist to say that? Do you remember the most famous poem by Faiz? And all this is very well documented and portrayed in the post-independence Indian literature (in Indian languages, perhaps that’s why the need to keep the literature in these languages down), though not much known to the general public. Just to give one example, Manohar Shyam Joshi, the writer of Hum Log and Buniyad etc., who was also a great writer in the true literary sense, wrote one novel which describes this in quite detail, as an allegory of modern India.

I like to read articles by Ram Guha, but be sure that I know perfectly well where he stands. At the very centre of centre (as the author of that article about Bhimsen Joshi said). He has no problem in saying that the left exactly equals the right. The funny thing is that he seems to be claiming that he is a leftist. And many people do think he is a leftist.

And, as I said earlier, the centre is shifting to the right. Hardly an original observation.

But I still like his articles most of the time. He is not very boring and he does give you a lot of background information about certain things and I want to read about everything. At least so far he doesn’t support the far right.

Comment by me:

And as for saying that Ram Guha is being ‘heckled down’, I don’t think you need to worry about him. He is a very privileged and respected person right in the middle of the mainstream.

It was he who had started the attack against Arundhati Roy, not vice-versa. I just hope that it was a misguided venture, not something deeper.

I don’t have much patience for card-carrying communists, what with their rigid ideology, but I do know that, on the whole, they fare better than most of the others.

Comment by Arfi:

>>”Is is true?

Partly true, but the meaning can’t completely depend on the reader, can it?”

Yes, I think it is true and something I am interested in exploring further. Of course I don’t claim that an entire text (any piece of fiction), can be that ambiguous. But, for example, the use of pronouns or initials (like Roberto Bolano’s B.) instead of a name in a third person narrative might go someway in achieving that ambiguity, if one consciously leaves open the narrative by not establishing the background or cultural influences of a particular character. There would still be other clues for the reader but what would be interesting is how he ‘fleshes out’ the character based on his own views when he reads the text.

Like I said, difficult but something worth experimenting with.

As for Guha’s article, I find his entire logic convoluted. First he applies certain ‘tests of fascism’ to the BJP, to let it off on a technicality and then later advises caution when borrowing terms generated from a different historical context – the very terms that he himself used to argue otherwise. Does he not realize that he cannot have it both ways.

I, for sure, am not going to worry about him anytime soon.

Comment by J.:

Today we were reading Derrida in class. Last couple of weeks Foucault. This in-depth discussion is very funny in this light. Funny in the sense that any talk of meaning is, post poststructuralist deconstruction.

Don’t read Derrida if you’ve managed to avoid him in your (lack of) reading so far. He may put you off reading forever.

Tongue firmly in cheek,

Your ardent fan,

J

;)

Comment by me:

So much for Ram Guha. There is something very ugly about discussing individuals. The only time it can be necessary is with respect to their public, professional or political stances, which is what I hopefully focused on. As an individual, I am sure he is great guy.

I have read tid-bits of Derrida and am familiar with his general ideas, but I most surely don’t apply his ideas because I wouldn’t know how to (TFIC).

For me, reading well is very much like appreciating music or appreciating cinema. It’s a mix of nature and nurture. The latter can often compensate for the former to a great extent. And if there is one thing I am very confident of, that is to differentiate good writing from bad writing, and good music from bad music and good cinema from bad cinema etc. So, though I can’t explain exactly why I think Madhur Bhandarkar is a classic pseudo, I am sure he is by watching several of his movies. Similarly, I know who to rely on more if I am in doubt. For example, I would rely on Orwell much more than I would rely on, say, Dan Brown. And I have been proved right innumerable times (sometimes wrong also, as No-One-Is-Perfect).

About your pronoun example, of course, that is true. You must be knowing that I know that much, don’t you? What I said was about the text as a whole, with the help of ‘clues’ in the text.

So I don’t have any objective arguments in support of my evaluation of your article, but you can either rely on me or not, depending on whether you place me nearer (in terms of my examples) to Orwell or to Dan Brown.

It has turned out to be an interesting discussion. I don’t even mind it being funny.

Comment by Arfi:

J.:

I have not read any Derrida except what surfaced in his obituary. (To be honest even that proved too dense for me.)

And I really have no idea what is meant by post post-structuralist deconstruction (you lost me after post-structuralism) but it does sound funny. ;)

But to be serious, what I am worried about is becoming overly conscious when writing if I venture too deep into literary theory. There is a long way to go and I am not even sure if I really want to or can go there.

Anil:

Yes, I am sure you know about the use of pronouns and initials in a narrative. I was only trying to further elaborate on the point I made earlier.

I rely on your judgement and look forward to further criticism. Indeed it has been an interesting discussion.

Comment by me:

To end on a lighter note, here are two excerpts from the book I mentioned:

(Caution: Hindi text ahead).

A kind of prologue

A popular hilarious passage

His writings, in general, are also very interesting from the language (if not linguistic) point of view.

By the way, I have left out one comment by someone because it was completely unrelated to my comments.

February 17, 2008

Mr. Expert-Vexpert, Please Leave Them Alone

My laptop was out of order for some days. For the last one year, since I bought it (my first), I was completely addicted to it. I became a laptop junkie. Then suddenly one day it was not available.

Life stopped.

But not for long. I picked up one book and again became a reading junkie. I finished ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ (another British Man Booker Prize winner written by an Indian woman). I won’t talk about it now. Deserves more than a few lines. I also kept reading a (Linguistics) book I am going to review. Then I picked up D. J. Taylor’s biography of George Orwell.

I have not finished it, but whatever I have read has provoked me to write this post. I will complete it and if there is something significantly better than what I have read till now, I will modify my comments. Eat my words as any person proved wrong should.

So what was in the book? A wealth. Of trivial details. Of no significance. I was hoping I would at least get some new insights about what kind of a person Orwell or Eric Blair was, if not about his work. The biographer claims to be an Expert on Orwell, so much so that when someone else wrote a book about Orwell, he reviewed it with the feeling of his territory being trespassed. He says he has read and researched Orwell for over twenty years.

He doesn’t seem to have much to show for it. I didn’t find anything new of any value about Orwell or about his work, even though I haven’t read any other biography of Orwell. I have not even read his literature as extensively as this biographer has. Then how come I got nothing new? Because what the Orwell Expert presents to the reader are a deluge of bits of information which are not even well connected. And these bits tell nothing of interest or consequence which can’t be obtained from reading Orwell’s two three novels (1984, Animal Farm), one or two non-fiction books (Homage to Catalonia), some essays written by him (Shooting an Elephant, Reflections on Gandhi) and some essays written about him (Tourism among the Dogs by Edward Said).

What the bit torrent from the big expert boils down to is that Orwell was not really a ‘secular saint’ and that he was just a mortal with many shortcomings. Of course, all this comes with a lot of technical trappings, just to show how big an expert the biographer is about Orwell and how much research he has done.

Big deal.

I knew that much just by reading one of his books.

The fact is that Orwell was one of those authors who are quite self-conscious and self-consciously responsible. He doesn’t really hide what kind of a person he is. Of course, a small margin is due to everyone, including the saints. He shows up in his writings quite clearly. The biographer (I am not writing about Taylor because I want to make a general point: My objective is not to review his book) does try very hard to show that Orwell was in many ways different from the impressions his books give. But he fails miserably. Every ‘insight’ that he tries to derive from his extensive research of two decades is easily derivable from the books written by Orwell. From just a few of his books.

Mind you, I do believe that trivia can give illuminating insights quite often. But not always and not everywhere. The biographer seems to have forgotten that.

The fact also is that Edward Said, who wrote quite critically and disapprovingly, did a much better job at showing that Orwell was not as great a human being as some of his fans might believe. And he did this in a short essay I mentioned earlier, not in a fat book.

Tell you what: George Orwell or Eric Blair was nonetheless a great and rare human being and an even greater a writer. He was (relatively) exceptionally honest in his writings. What’s more important, he was unpretentiously honest, which many of the ‘high class’ elite writers, artists, scientists, movie makers etc. are not. Of course he was no saint. He never claimed he was. Just as Gandhi didn’t: A fact which Orwell pointed out in his essay.

Knowingly or unknowingly, the ultimate effect of the book (in cases where it has turned out to be effective) is to undermine Orwell’s writings and concentrate on showing that Orwell has two eyes, one nose, one mouth, two hands, etc. and that he ate food to keep alive, that he needed money to buy food, that he had to earn money, that he managed to earn some money from writing, that he tried to have relations with women, that he even flew into a rage once in a long while etc. Very illuminating. Should we thank the author to tell us that Orwell was a more or less normal human being but was also quite different?

There are references to Orwell’s writings, of course, but they mostly seem to be dismissive in the sense that author is more interested in proving the above mentioned fact than what Orwell’s work tells us. There are a few interesting things, but they are very infrequent.

Orwell’s name has been so much misused that it’s no less than a tragedy that a person who claims Orwell to be his territory and has read and researched on him for over twenty years seems to be so little interested in the insights that can be obtained from Orwell’s life and his work and so much more interested in the fact that Orwell studied at Eton.

I would any day prefer a ‘fictional’ biography like Lust for Life if I want to know about Van Gogh. Even if I want to read a ‘researched’ biography, I would like to read again (third time) Awaaraa Maseehaa (आवारा मसीहा) by Vishnu Prabhakar (विष्णु प्रभाकर) if I want to refresh my knowledge about Sharat Chandra (शरतचंद्र). Or Ray Monk’s Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude. Even though Ray Monk didn’t really like Russell, he still tells you much more about Russell. And he doesn’t waste pages in his two (fat) volume biography on proving that Russell had two eyes and so on.

My advice to expert-vexperts like Mr. Taylor, researching writers or artists, is to just leave them alone.

Do something useful with your life. Orwell’s work can give a lot of clues about that.

For the rest, just leave him alone. Your kind of expertise is not worth two pennies. Or two pens. Or two pencils.

P.S.: Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that this Expert of Literature understands so little of literature. You shouldn’t really expect much from a person who calls Guliver’s Travels a ‘children’s classic’.

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