Sunday, October 11, 2009

Of Beautiful Women and Other Disturbing Issues

Sunil K Poolani
The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions
Mukul Kesavan
Black Kite
Rs 295; Pages 302

It’s an unpardonable mistake from my part. Not having read Mukul Kesavan much, earlier. Part of the reason being his columns and his occasional writings (I missed reading his three earlier books: Looking through Glass, Secular Common Sense and Men in White) that used to appear mainly in the still-venerable Calcutta-based Telegraph rather than the Bombay rags that are only interested in showing Sania Mirza’s bare thighs than carrying pieces by Kesavan who, in one of the essays in the book under review, observes: “Sometimes [Sania] gets fed up with the attention she gets and asks to be left alone, to be given the room to be just an eighteen-year-old.”
For the uninitiated, which is unlikely if you are a reader of this magazine, Kesavan, who presently lives in Delhi, teaches “history, reads fiction, and has a particular interest in cinema, cricket, and politics”. Predictably, this collection of essays, which had appeared in publications like the Telegraph and Outlook among others, mainly touches on these topics.
But the main toast of the collection is the first section, ‘Looking’, arguably the best, save some of his travel writings and two on the media. In ‘Cine Qua Non’ he makes a valid point when he says the fundamental difference between (Hollywood) films and ours is that in Hollywood it’s all right for both heroes and heroines to be good-looking. His ‘find’ of ugliness of the Indian man does not stop there. In the title essay he makes a hilarious statement. “[The Indian male] uses [the index finger and the thumb] to adjust himself in public… You’ll never see women doing this, only men. It’s an important route to ugliness.”
Why is that, men, including me, are ugly? I believe men try to be macho and think they can get away doing dirty, offending mannerisms in public since they have the authority to preside over their women: in life, sex, family matters… They like to flash ornaments (think Bappi Lahiri, who wears more jewellery than his wife) and how much ever neatly they dress they wear the thick bands of rotting pink threads on till they discolour and fall off.
In another piece, the author is in awe of Konkana Sen, the actor, who “represents within Indian cinema the prospect of properly pan-Indian actors who have the intelligence, the linguistic ability, and the mimetic genius to plausibly inhabit the skins of characters from parts of India that are not their own.” He analyses two of her films, Omkara and Mr and Mrs Iyer, to drive this point home. Rightfully so. Never thought of it, though.
One has to admit that Kesavan has this uncanny gift of vividly narrating an issue threadbare, without being nasty, though highly subjective at times, with the aid of his experience as a historian, and with a Biblical simplicity. This is highly appreciated when he writes on politics and religion, where a minor casualness can kill the whole credibility of the writing.
One of the best pieces in the volume is ‘The Men of Madras’. Though he is unabashedly in admiration with the city and its people (he was visiting the city after twenty-two years, mind you) he thinks it is another country, cut off from the ineptitude and lethargy of say the cities of Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. He likes the food, he likes the people in Madras, he looks around the city in wonder, and when he goes back home, with a full stomach and an happiness-brimming mind, what he fears is that will one day the South secede from the subcontinent, for subsidising the laid-back BIMARU states.
One of the brilliant observations he makes is, “Sitting in a plane where the world isn’t north or south but simply below, it becomes clear that geography isn’t a subject, it’s a conspiracy. Mercator’s maps are a plot; they pump Europe up to the size of a continent and shrink India to the size of France… Why should England be North and Sri Lanka South?” Any objection? Not at all.
Travelling interests us all, so does travel writing, and Kesavan has a good section devoted to just that. Though I did not particularly like the piece ‘Antiquities of Egypt’ where he travels with Amitav Ghosh to see the hidden mysteries of that ancient land, another one, ‘Bathing in Istanbul’ is like a dream come true. Reading it we are virtually taken to a swift journey through the lovely, ancient capital city of Turkey, describing the richness of it; ruing, though, by drawing parallels, how badly India maintains its national heritages and monuments.
Another exotic piece is a junket to Australia he undertakes where he finds time to visit the most famous aboriginal place, the great red monolith Uluru. “The guides knew very little about Uluru… because it was what the Anangu considered a male site and their lore about it was kept secret from outsiders and even uninitiated aborigines.” What if he learnt anything, it is “the idiot’s introduction to geological time”.
The section on ‘Reading’ has, regretfully, ponderous essays: one on ‘Fiction and History’ (which does not reach a point); ‘History and Whimsy’ which unnecessarily praises Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown which to me, and several others, is an utterly boring joke; and ‘The Jews of Georgette Heyer’ (meanders). But there are two magnificent essays in this section: one on, why when American papers like to go local, Indian papers like to go national; and the second one on how the Net has changed the newspaper reading habits but people in the West prefer to read columns which are not Web-exclusive.
Then comes the vitally important section of the volume: ‘Politics’. In ‘My Emergency’ he talks about his personal experience and his father’s meeting with Maneka Gandhi. “She was the editor of Surya India, an Emergency rag, now deservedly dead… No one wanted any attention from that family: not from the mother, the son, or even his wife.” But the meeting turned out to be (a)harmless chat about libraries.
In another essay he argues South Asia will begin to make collective sense when India’s neighbours are remade by the idea that made India, while in another he emphasises that “the scale of American virtue — its extraordinary freedom, its myriad careers open to talent, its appetite for improvement — is usually invoked to put America’s failings into context”.
Talking about the Iraqi crisis he rightly points out that “the Iraqis need time and a common enemy so they can dissolve the politics of identity in the vague consolations of anti-colonialism”. It is not gibberish, but a cruel testimony of today’s multi-polar world. You may disagree with this stand in ‘The Defence of the West’, though: “To single out Muslims for special attention is fine because religious profiling is not the same as racial profiling… Liberals shouldn’t make the stupid mistake of equating Muslims with dark-skinned Third Worlders.” How righteous this argument is, is open to discussion.
In ‘Veiled Insinuations’ he touches upon a delicate issue: “The burqa [in the traditional families’] view was viewed as an enabling garment, a form of insurance that allowed anxious conservative parents to send their daughters out into the world.” This is a topical issue, now, since the French President wants to ban that piece of cloth in his country. Kesavan, it looks like, is particularly concerned about this issue because he teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, founded and nurtured by Muslims.
An essential essay in this impressive volume is ‘A New History of Indian Nationalism’ where his skills as a historian come to play. While lucidly analysing the role of Muslims in the Freedom Struggle, he cleverly sums up thus: “One of the mistakes the Congress made in the 1930s and the 1940s was to imagine that its good intentions in the matter of pluralism and secularism were enough to make it representative of all India.” This argument is becoming more and more important to be addressed at in today’s polity of perniciousness and religious intolerance.
In ‘How Pluralism Goes Bad’ he says Sardar Patel was venerated for his work of territorial consolidation because it addressed this anxiety at a time when the young nation seemed fragile. The problem, he discovers, is that the history of republican India is the history of a state which, when pushed, will recognise every sort of identity — linguistic, tribal, even religious — for the sake of pluralist equilibrium and political peace. This assessment may not find many takers from across the political spectrum, but I have to admit it that it is true.
The biggest article in this volume is ‘Secular Common Sense’, which was earlier published as a pamphlet by Penguin. Since this essay is a book by itself and it will take another long review to explain it, it is succinct to put that what Kesavan likes us to believe is: “In India today, secularism often appears to be a form of Hindu chivalry… Muslims are seen as victims of Partition and the prejudices that it institutionalised.” To substantiate this view, he lucidly examines the history of India, the Congress’ appeasement of the minorities, the Muslim point of view, the despicable act of the Babri Masjid demolition, the rise of the Hindutva, Dalit issues and even the Kashmir imbroglio. Well written.
Some of the interesting essays, according to this reviewer, are the ones on cinema. Particularly likable is ‘Urdu, Awadh, and the Tawaif: The Islamic Roots of Hindi Cinema’. Kesavan enlightens us that it is ironic but true that Hindi cinema is the last stronghold of Urdu in independent India, its last haven in a sea of linguistic bigotry. “It is appropriate that this is because the Hindi film has been fashioned out of the rhetorical and demotic resources of Urdu.” Agreeable, if you ponder over it.
In ‘Patriotism at the Pictures’, though Kesavan lays emphasis on the film Gadar saying it has the implications of communal conflict carefully sorted out, and the film “was so scrupulous in crossing the T’s and dotting its sectarian I’s is a tribute to the bred-in-the-bone pluralism of Bombay cinema,” I beg to disagree, find it na├»ve and also think the film was anything but a contrived attempt at pseudo-patriotism and a cheap attempt to rake in revenues.
Now I have to confess. This is a very difficult book to review — as in it covers several issues that are sometimes grave and other times frivolous (interesting, mostly, though), is a collection of essays culled out from several years of Kesavan’s writing and can even grapple with you due to a broader canvas. A smorgasbord, this collection is a reviewer’s nightmare but a reader’s delight. Particularly if you read it in several attempts: an essay a day.
Apart from sentences in one essay getting repeated in another, and some bit of typographical and grammatical errors, this is a volume you will always cherish: due to the mastery and beauty over the prose, the historical veracity in analysing facts and figures and, most importantly, the intellectual honesty.
A must read.

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