Tuesday, December 06, 2005
Milan, Italy. January 1998. Abraham B Yehoshua was surprised to learn that the person staying next door was none other than Salman Rushdie, who carries a price on his head, courtesy orthodox Iranian Muslims.
"He didn't look like a Booker of the Bookers award-winning litterateur, but resembled a Mafiosi flanked by gun-wielding commandoes, who were, however, protecting him from Khomeini's fatwa. Notwithstanding the security, I could talk to him for quite a while. And despite his appearance I was please to learn that he had mellowed down a lot — Rushdie is not that arrogant man we have so far seen on the screen and in the books and articles he had penned," observed Yehoshua.
Yehoshua was on a short trip to India. "According to you, who is the best Indo-Anglican writer?" he asked me as we travelled together through the labyrinthine roads of Mumbai. Rushdie, who else, I told him.
"But, what about [Vikram] Seth, do you consider him a good writer?" Not by any means, I replied. "Is it so?" he cried out. In fact, I told him, the world bears the misconception that India's best writers are those who write in English. There are more talented writers than Rushdie or R K Narayan in Indian regional languages, who unfortunately do not get noticed as there are, save for one A K Ramanujan (who, alas, is no longer alive), no efficient translators like Linda Asher, Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman or William Weaver — the translators who made Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera household names worldwide.
Yehoshua understood this. For, he is fortunate to have been widely translated into English, French, Italian, Japanese and Arabic by skilled translators. And he is the most celebrated literary figure in Israel (read in Hebrew writing) after Shmuel Yosef Agnon who shared the 1966 Nobel Prize for literature with the German-born Nelly Sachs.
Yehoshua's Indian connection, or perhaps his decision to visit India recently, is as mysterious and fascinating as he thinks India is. He has altogether written 12 books, and his eleventh book, Open Heart, was set in India. Before you ask, 'What's so great about that? Several authors, including E M Forster, John Masters, M M Kye and Dominique Lapierre, have used the subcontinent for their plot,' please realise that Yehoshua had not visited India before he wrote the book.
Still 1,00,000 copies of Open Heart were sold in Israel alone, a country with a population of 4.5 million — where the number of books published per person is among the highest in the world.
So how did he achieve it? "I read a lot about your beautiful country in literature, newspapers, travelogues, tourist brochures, history books... and of course I used my fertile imagination. Also, when I completed the first chapter, I showed it to my son, an army man who once spent two months in India. After reading the manuscript my son said, 'Dad, there is no need to waste money on an air ticket to India.' And I completed the book."
And what is the book about? A medical student, Robin, is assigned to travel to India with a hospital administrator and his wife. Robin's duty is to treat the administrator's daughter who is ill in India. After their Indian sojourn, the foursome returns to Israel. And then is revealed a shocking affair. Robin is in love with the administrator's wife!
The novel vividly portrays India's beauty and filth, its charm and inefficiency. There are minute geographical details of Varanasi and the pathetic condition of hospitals in India. Since most sequences are set in Varanasi, Yehoshua visited the temple city before he came to Mumbai. But he was in for a shock. "I discovered that some of the descriptions [in Open Heart] did not match with the life I witnessed in Varanasi. Lakhs of copies of the novel have already been sold and now I can't change anything," he said. Then he added with a grin: "Probably I can change Varanasi according to my novel."
Open Heart sold like hotcakes in the US. Yehoshua said that is where his biggest market is. "That is because my novels are a combination of American — or you can call it capitalistic — Western realism and eastern mysticism. Of course, lakhs of expatriate Jews in America are my greatest readers," he said.
Israel has two official languages: Hebrew, the language spoken by Jews who form 88 per cent of the population, and Arabic, spoken mainly by Arabs. Thus Hebrew played a prominent role in nation-making. "And, you know what, several Arabs, too, have started using the language with the same flair as us." Yehoshua, who has been teaching English literature at Haifa University for the last 34 years, said his Arab students know Hebrew better than Jewish students do.
Israel has produced many a good writer. There are the internationally reputed Shaul Tchernichovsky and Chaim Nachman Bialik. Most writers work within the traditions of their ethnic groups while others have successfully blended different styles from different sources to create a uniquely Israeli tradition. Literature in Israel, said Yehoshua, not only reflects the country's immigrant diversity but also draws upon Jewish history and religion and addresses the social and political problems of modern Israel.
"There are many impressive writers in our country. Most importantly, feminist writing has gathered pace for the simple reason that now the female population in our country is 65 per cent, whereas in my childhood women were a mere 10 per cent of our population. Another welcome change is that the present-day writers are slowly drifting away from their favourite theme — war — and have started writing about other issues," he proudly said.
The probable Nobel laureate is of the opinion that change is inevitable in any nation. "But one shouldn't forget the past. I admit that Israel imitates the West and its forms of governance. But one thing I like about India is that despite all the political turmoil, your country has been able to sustain a democratic form of government. This is absolutely praiseworthy. Israel has to follow in India's footsteps as that's the only way we can ensure peace in our region, especially at a time when religious minorities like Oriental Jews and Israeli Arabs, who were silent all these years, have raised their voice now."
Throughout our journey in the car, Yehoshua was admiring the beauty of the Mumbai coastline. "See, who will say that India is a third world country? The city matches any other world capital for its neatness and efficiency. It's better than our Tel Aviv. Am I right?" I told him his observation was not fully correct and asked him to visit certain Mumbai boroughs which are filthier than any African city.
He retorted: "I admit every city has two faces: one of prosperity and one of poverty. Even New York is not free from filth. But, my Indian friend, India is progressing, in case you haven't noticed that. Though I couldn't travel much I saw signs of changes in New Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, and now I see them in Mumbai."
Swiftly he changed the subject to racial ethnicity, which he thinks is a global problem. "A Sudanese student [in Mumbai] was telling me that Africa's ethnic problems are much worse than those of Israel. 'You are right,' I told him. Look at Algeria. The country stands as a cruel testimony of racial and religious violence. Though unjustifiable, one can understand if Aryans killed Nazis in Europe, or Jews and Arabs are fighting in West Asia, or even your Hindu fundamentalists are targeting the Muslim minority. But in Algeria, Muslim fanatics are killing their own brothers and sisters. It's a totally maddening world, I should tell you," Yehoshua sighed.
In this turbulent age the role of literature is immense, I told him. So he continued: "It can teach masses to live in peace, to love each other, and to progress… Literature is the essence of human culture and development, and if effectively used, it can change the nature of the world for good."
We were nearing the Taj Hotel. Quick personal queries. I told him about my life and work in Mumbai. He said he is happy in Haifa, a beautiful seaside city at the northern tip of Israel. He is married and has three children — two sons and a daughter. "All my children are in the army. So was I. In case you are not aware, in Israel, working in the army for a specific period is compulsory. Later you can choose your own course of activity."
We reached the Taj. Swift handshakes. When will he visit India next? "An Italian filmmaker has bought the rights of Open Heart. It will be picturised in India, and I will be invited to witness the shooting. See you then," were his parting words as he rushed to his room to change. He had to catch a flight to Tel Aviv that evening.
— Sunil K Poolani