Archive for the ‘Book Responses’ Category

Ernesto Sabato 1911 – 2011

In Book Responses, Readings, The Daily Discussion on May 1, 2011 at 9:01 pm

He was my introduction to Latin American literature. Before I came to Marquez, Bolano, Paz, Allende, Galeano, Borges, Rulfo, Carpentier, Bastos, Llosa, Fuentes and Vallejo I had come across Sabato. And it was this work  - dark, nightmarish and frenzied that seduced me, and was my doorway to this amazing group of writers.

Angel Of Darkness by Ernesto Sabato

It was the book that led me to so many other amazing works from the region. My original copy of Sabato’s Angel of Darkness is one of the few books from my high school years that still survives my many travels and dislocations. I am forever grateful for this gift that he gave me.

Ernesto Sabato died on April 30th 2011.

The Travails Of Our Post-Colonial Subconscious Or What Does The English Language Have To Do To Be Recognized As An Indian Language?

In Background Materials, Book Responses, Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on April 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm

A very curious essay appeared in the recent issue of The Caravan magazine. Written by Nilanjana S. Roy, titled ‘How To Read In Indian‘, it veered uncertainly between discussing the emergence of the phenomenal success of Indian writers writing in English, and a discussion of outsiders writing stories about India. Subtitled The Long History of a Literary Argument That Refuses to Go Away it clearly meant to be a literary discussion, but in fact it quickly diverged into a discussion about the outsider writing about India.

Roy begins by recounting some of the debates at a gathering of Indian writers and intellectuals at Neemrama Fort Palace, and moves towards the criticism that so-called Indian critics have made of those from the so-imagined outside writing about India. Roy mentions Mulk Raj Anand’s criticisms of Salman Rushdie, various criticisms hurled against V.S. Naipual and his works on India, and a strange reference to Pankaj Mishra’s recent critical study of Patrick French’s new book on India. As Roy elaborates:

In a sense, we have always been sensitive as a nation to what is written about us; nonfiction about the US, for instance, seldom draws as many reactions, fuelled equally by anxiety and exasperation. The anxiety comes, in the reading of many, from seeing any narrative that interrupts the neatly seductive story of India Shining; the exasperation comes from a smaller band of Indians who are tired of having what they already know and consider familiar explained to them in exhausting and unnecessary detail.

But somewhere in the middle of the essay, the focus turns to the question of language. The example of Bankim Chatterjee is given – a Bengali writer who made a conscious decision to never writing in English and instead speak ‘to his people’ only in the native language of Bengali. As Roy states, that for Bankim…

…the question of whom he was writing for became urgent in his mind. He could not, he felt, write unless he was addressing his people, his countrymen, in their tongue

It seems to me that this is an entirely different question from the one that was first offered in the essay. One is a question of perspectives on India – the insider vs the outsider. The second is a question of language as a marker of belonging, and ideas of nationhood and community. The first is a criticism about what is said about India and by whom. The second is a question of what means ie language is used to write and whether English (and yes, lets admit that this is about English, about our colonial scars, and about our desperate post-colonial ideas of our indigenous cultures) qualifies as an appropriate language to use to speak about, and to India.

I am willing to admit that there may be overlaps in these discussions, but it seems that to make sense of either we should, to help with the discussion, keep them apart.


The first issue has come up quite bit lately. A certain group of self-appointed guardians of literary India have taken it upon themselves to pillory Europeans who have had the temerity to work in India, say something about her and her culture, and perhaps most egregiously, find a place of celebrity and social and cultural participation in India itself.

This peevish stance was recently seen in Hartosh Singh Bal’s recent tirade against the writer William Dalrymple that appeared in India’s (English language!) Open Magazine under the heading ‘The Literary Raj‘. It made for painful reading, riddled as it was in a language and presumption so provincial that they defied belief. The essay was inspired by Dalrymple’s prominent place in organizing and appearing at the now very popular Jaipur Literary Festival, a fact that seems to have upset Singh Bal’s Indian, and lets admit it, nationalist and cultural sensibilities, leading him to ask:

I have been told that Dalrymple is a personable man, and in my own encounters with him I have indeed found him so, but what is of interest in this context is not Dalrymple the man, but Dalrymple the phenomenon. How did a White man, young, irreverent and likeable in his first and by far most readable India book,’The City of Djinns’, become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?

Understandably, William Dalrymple did not take kindly to these suggestions, and fired back with his own piece in the same magazine titled ‘The Piece You Ran Is Blatantly Racist‘. Hartosh Singh Bal’s retort followed in the form of a piece called ‘Does Dalrymple Know What Racism Really Is?‘. as well as one by Pramod Kumar, one of the founders of the Jaipur Literary Festival, entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘.

A similar accusation of ‘how dare you!’ was leveled against – and I say this with no small irony, by Patrick French against the Indian born Pankaj Mishra. Yes, it may seem odd to say this, but that is precisely what happened when Pankaj Misrha wrote a ‘not so enthusiastic’ review of French’s new work on India called India: An Intimate Biography Of 1.2 Billion People.

Mishra’s criticisms, offered in a piece called (provocatively I will admit) ‘A Curzon Without An Empire‘ and published in India’s (English language!) Outlook Magazine, were leveled against French’s truncated understanding of India’s modernity and her economic development. Mishra’s criticisms reflected ideas already raised in many Op-Ed and other pieces he has written about the phenomenon of Shining India and the deep inequalities and injustices it is inflicting upon the majority of her citizens.

French, however, took it personally, and retorted with what can only be described as an attempt to singularly mark Mishra as an ‘outsider’ who pretends to be a ‘insider’. He chose to discredit Mishra in a response, with the rather catty title ‘Cameron’s Cuz Is More The Curzon‘, not by taking on Mishra’s socio-economic arguments, but his ‘outsider’ character:

It is a pity Pankaj did not pursue his burgeoning career as a novelist, or produce the promised short history of modern India. Instead, he has ranged widely, sitting on eminent literary prize committees, popping up as a visiting fellow at assorted foreign universities and jetting about denouncing “business-class lounges” and their elite inhabitants. It is not clear whether Pankaj—travelling the globe for high-paying western publications, while busily condemning “late capitalist society”—ever uses these lounges himself, or whether he prefers to take a downgrade to cattle class. For a long time I have appreciated his chutzpah most of all, though he remains a writer of promise. He has been successful in imparting his “authentic” take on India to the West, and one American intellectual even adjudged our reviewer to be “the young Siddhartha Gautama himself: a scholar-sophisticate” after meeting him at “the lower Manhattan holiday party of a stylish magazine”.

As these debates have raged it seems that we have lost sight of the key issue ie what is being said and not who is saying it. We can see this tendency in Singh Bal’s and French’s reactions. Instead, we have focused on who is saying them.

What should matter is not that Dalrymple or any other writer is an ‘outsider’ or an ‘insider’ but only whether what he says about India is intelligent, insightful, articulate and informative. We have to accept that many Indians have written rubbish works of fiction and non-fiction about their own country, and many foreigners have in fact written some fabulous works in the same categories. It is not the origins of the writers that matter, but the content of their writing. Dalrymple has in fact written some powerful works on Indian history – White Mughals: Love And Betrayal In 18th Century India and The Last Mughal: The Fall Of A Dynasty: Delhi 1857 being two such works.

Dalrymple’s place in India’s literary circles is not the result of a ‘Johnny come lately’ but reflects many decades of passionate engagement with the country and its history. We can’t fault him and others like him for his origins, but have to engage him, and all others, on the basis of their ideas and contributions. Which is what Mishra did when he critiqued French, though French preferred to offer a rebuttal that was if anything petty and venal.

A focus on the ‘what’ vs the ‘who’ helps distance us from debates that can quickly become mired in racist and xenophobic stances. They allow us to remain above the treacherous and slippery terrain of identity politics and nativist generalizations. It allows us to focus on ideas, insights, and information, without coloring our judgments on the basis of color, ethnicity, race, religion and class. Literary and intellectual criticism has to adopt this position if for no other reason than to be consistent and rigorous.


We next turn to the question of Indian writers writing in English. This question became an urgent issue of concern particularly since Salman Rushdie’s set off a fire-storm of indignation when he very careless suggested in the introduction to the The Vintage Book of Indian Writing that:

The prose writing–both fiction and nonfiction–created in this period [the fifty years of independence] by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen “recognized” languages of India, the so-called “vernacular languages,” during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, “Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. The True Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind.

Few have managed to get past this dismissal of India’s vernacular literature, and many have been fighting tooth and nail to argue for the importance and relevance of India’s so-called ‘vernacular’ languages.

And Roy too can’t get away from speaking about this. What is confusing is that she keeps returning to this question of language, which appears to have been her original motivation for writing the piece, sporadically while focusing far more on the issue of who writes about India. What is perhaps confusing is the underlying privilege she herself grants to Europe, its markets, its audience and its ‘reading’ of India.

What we are all uncomfortable acknowledging is that the West—shorthand for the complex markets and divergent reading tastes of the UK, the US and a large swath of Europe—has a sharply truncated view of Indian writing. Imagine assessing all of European literature by reading only works in Polish, or only works in Italian—that, in the absence of a market for translations of Indian fiction, is the position the West is in when it reads “Indian writing”. And as long as the market is open only, or chiefly, to Indian writing in English, this blindness cannot be overcome. There is also the question of economic power: with access to larger audiences abroad, publishers outside India can and do dictate who has that access, what kind of stories travel from here to there, what books will be considered future Indian classics. There is an inequality in the system, inevitable, inescapable and often resented.

There is just so much wrong in the above paragraph that I do not even know where to begin.

First, it is ridiculous to complain that the West reads only those works that are written or translated into English. I mean, what else would they be able to read? Furthermore, the critic has nothing to say about the fact that the initiative to translate works from various Indian languages into English or other European languages often comes at the behest of European publishing houses. If indigenous Indian writings are to find a global audience, they have to be placed into an Indian publishing structure that makes them i.e translates them, available to a larger audience. I suspect that the answer is not merely about translations though but also about the relevance and resonance of the stories.

Second of all, the statement carried within it an hypocritical thought: that it is Europe that does the reading that actually matters. Despite the writings attempt to complain about the value set on works that are recognized and celebrated in the West, she himself sets Europe up as the audience that actually matters and should in fact be reading India more broadly and in a less truncated way. Their reading us, and all of us, is very important and the determinant of value. She laments their ‘truncated’ reading of us, as if their reading is what really matters. This prioritization of the Western audience underpins all such complaints of ‘truncated’ views, and is the unspoken background prejudice of such critics. A need felt for stories to ‘travel from here to there’ belies a belief that arriving ‘there’ is somehow the achievement that matters. Here she is again:

She also ignores the reality that there are large markets for vernacular literature in India itself. Kerala alone boasts a market of nearly 33 million readers, and all in their native Malayam. As described in a piece in Le Monde Diplomatique called ‘Kerala: Mad About Books‘:

Outside the big cities, a very small minority of Indians – only seven to eight million – read in English. India has an overall rate of 65% literacy – measured in people’s own mother tongues. But where India drops into the Indian Ocean, in the state of Kerala, home of Malayalam literature, literacy is close to 100%. Not surprisingly, the population of Kerala – some 31 million – reads books.

Returning to the issue at hand, when will we accept that English is an Indian language? How many years, and what history, allows us to call a language ‘Indian’? Is it 10 years, 100 years, 400 years? I would argue that English is fundamentally an Indian language and has as much right to be called that as Urdu, or Tamil or Hindi or any other language that arrived into its present form and place as a result of settlement, communication, commerce, conquest and creativity. In fact, Roy herself admits that:

The Census 2001 figures, released late last year, revealed that English had, effectively, become India’s second language, behind Hindi. Many of the new English speakers come from the small towns or belong to metropolitan areas that lie outside the charmed circles of privilege…as this generation begins to tell and write its stories, it may not need to beguile the souks of the West with its Indiennisme.

But while doing so, refuses to see that the question of Indians writing in English and Indians not writing in English is only interesting if you privilege and value the judgment and commercial power of the European. An insistence that if it’s not being ‘read’ by Europe than it is being marginalized, ignored and under-valued reflects a very severe post-colonial inferiority complex that holds the European ‘audience’ on a higher scale of value and relevance. The question to ask ourselves is why this is so? Is it simply because they throw more money at it, and can hence create a greater aura of glamour, celebrity and fame around their industry? Is it because their voice continues to matter to us even far above our own? It reminded me of something Partha Chatterjee said, though in a different context, that despite our best efforts our…

…thought accepts and adopts the same essentialist conceptions based on the distinction between ‘the East’ and ‘the West’, the same typology created by a transcendent studying subject, and hence the same ‘objectifying’ procedures of knowledge constructed in the post-Enlightenment age…There is consequently, an inherent contradictoriness in…thinking, because it reasons within a framework of knowledge whose representational structure corresponds to the very structure of power…thought it seems to repudiate it.

Chatterjee, Partha Nationalist Thought And The Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? Page 38

What also remains unexplained is that given the growing appetite for Indian writers in Europe and the USA, why there has not been a greater effort from within India to have its many vernacular works translated into languages that can be read by the Europeans and the Americans? This is something yet remains to be understood, and as far as I know has not been sufficiently examined. A part of the answer I believe lies in the point I made earlier: that it is the universality of a story that matters, not merely its translation. I am sure that this is not the whole answer, but we cannot ignore this fact. And the naturalness of it: the European is under no obligation to read our stories and we should expect her to be.

Finally, I would add that the reason why we don’t just read Polish literature to understand Europe is because Poland comes to us not just as a separate language, but also as belonging to a separarte nationalism. The prejudice of Indian nationalism prioritizes her Northern Indian elite and mythologies, complete with its preference for English and its strong historical and cultural links to the West. I need to say more about this, since this may inflame some serious objections, but we cannot ignore the preponderance and unfair weight of North India when it comes to being mistaken for India as a whole. That is why we can assume that an Indian from a narrow, middle-class segment writing in English represents all of India because Indian nationalism itself has been articulated by this class since such nationalisms very inception, if not earlier. A very small elite speaks for the entire region, and many regions are marginalized in the process. This is a broader issue that require more explanation for which I do not have space here.


Underlying all this concern of course are some very nativist ideas of what it means to be Indian, and who can claim that privilege. These ideas are of course inflected by the definition of an Indian nation, cemented by the pillars of official nationalism: borders, states, languages, flags, passports etc. But literature is about ideas, not geography. It is about the human imagination, not cities of birth. The idea of India cannot be confined to within India’s physical borders. Her post-colonial modernity defies such simplistic definitions of what it takes to be Indian. A vast, diverse diaspora is one reality that undermines the country’s geography. The cosmopolitan lives of even so many millions of her resident citizens – lives that see them living, studying, conducting business in a number of different geographic and cultural domains, is another reality that can’t be ignored. Into this modernity of cultural and geographical flows we cannot place rigid and fixed ideas of ‘belonging’ or ‘culture’ or ‘vernacular’ languages.

Our citizen’s lived realities are far more interesting than fixed identities and out-dated ideas of ‘Indian-ness’ require. It is specious, if not a complete waste of time, to argue about whether a certain language is Indian or not. If we keep in mind that it is mere historical fate that Assamese is an ‘Indian’ language and Pushtun is not. It could just as well have been otherwise. And we should not forget that even today people in regions like Kerala and Tamil barely speak Hindi, with many absolutely refusing to do so.

We are better off, whether it is when we discuss fiction or non-fiction, judging a work on the merit of its content and imagination, rather than on merely its mode of communication. We are better off accepting the absolute hybridity of our lives, the many ways in which they are embroiled and mixed with the lives, cultures, histories and intellectual trajectories of societies, peoples and ideas beyond our geographical borders. Today more than ever – in an age of global media, the internet, accessible long-distance travel, inter-connected marketplaces and business, we no longer live and experience this world from within our geographical frontiers. Our imaginations are influenced by things we can’t even really enumerate, and perhaps largely by ideas that come to us from way past our known horizons. We don’t have to like this modernity, but it would be foolish to pretend to ignore its reality. It would be equally foolish to pretend that we can today set a clear definition of what it takes to be considered Indian, and who can claim the right to speak for it, to it and with it.

Into The World Of The Socially Misfit, A Moment Of Heart Pounding Excitement Arrives

In Book Responses, Just Fun Stuff on April 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm

On April 15th 2011, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King will be released.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The Paris Review‘s senior editor Jeremiah Sullivan has written an extensive review of the work – its more an exploration of the idea and meaning of David Foster Wallace for American literature, and his place in 20th century writing. Towards the end of the review, there is a short sample of what is within this new work….and it’s stunning.

They drove then once more at night. Below a moon that rose round before them. What was termed the truck’s backseat was a narrow shelf on which the girl could sleep if she arranged her legs in the gap behind the real seats whose headrests possessed the dull shine of unwashed hair. The clutter and yeast smell bespoke a truck that was or had been lived in; the truck and its man smelled the same. The girl in cotton bodice and her jeans gone fugitive at the knees. The mother’s conception of men was that she used them as a sorceress will dumb animals, as sign and object of her unnatural powers. Her spoken word aloud for these at which the girl gave no reproof, familiar. Swart and sideburned men who sucked wooden matches and crushed cans with their hands. Whose hats’ brims had sweatlines like the rings of trees. Whose eyes crawled over you in the rearview. Men inconceivable as ever themselves being children or looking up naked at someone they trust, with a toy. To whom the mother talked like babies and let them treat her like a headless doll, manhandle.

Another portion of this new work was also excerpted in The New Yorker, under the title Wiggle Room. The hype will inevitably lead to a lot of criticism once the work has been released. Some had already begun.

Who gives a damn!

Oh, with bated breath…

Defending The Myth While Killing The Reality Or Why Banning A Book May Reveal More About Us Than What Is In The Book

In Book Responses, Musings On Confusions, Readings, The Daily Discussion, Writers on April 1, 2011 at 8:20 am

The State of Gujarat has banned Joseph Llelyveld’s new book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India.

Gujarat’s much celebrated Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, called it perverse, or more specifically, he stated that:

This publication defames the Mahatma and there is rising anger not only in Gujarat but in the entire country. The perversion shown in the writings not only deserves to be condemned in the strongest possible terms but cannot be tolerated. I know that the members of this august house share my feelings.

He has called on the Indian central government to follow suit and ban the book across the entire country. This ‘reverence’ for the Mahatma, and an intolerance of anything considered an ‘insult’ is ironic to say the least. If there is anything state in India that has completely rejected and dismisses most everything Mahatma Gandhi stood for, then it is Gujarat.

To hear Modi, a man whose very idea of himself and the state that he controls is the absolute antithesis of what Gandhi preached and practiced, is truly amusing to watch. Anyone reading Gandhi’s remarkably revolutionary work Hind Swaraj would realize how completely Gandhi’s ideas of a genuine Indian independence and modernity are ignored in this state that now proclaims to ‘respect’ him by banning works it believes ‘disrespect’ him.

A state that is run by idealogues and ideologies similar to those that led to Gandhi’s murder, a state whose leaders and citizens quietly sanctioned and supported massive violence and outright slaughter of its own Muslim residents, a state that has marked by mass ghettoization and segregation of its populations, a state that has adopted an unforgiving and unquestioned policy of consumerism, capitalism and corporatism, and the same state that rejects everything Gandhi asked India to be, is now banning a book that has not even been released in India and obviously never even been read by the offended. Is it the book that offends, or is this grandstanding merely a veil to hide our erasure of him from our daily  life and politics while continuing to present him as our avatar?

Earlier the same state had banned Jashwant Singh’s work Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence because it argued that it was Nehru and the Congress Party’s policies that forced Pakistan’s founder Jinnah to accept the partition of India and the creation of the state of Pakistan.

Another intolerable intellectual thought, and another intolerable realization. Across the lines, the state of Maharashtra has also banned Joseph Llelyveld’s work on Gandhi. Earlier Maharashtra had banned Jamie Laine’s work Shivaji: The Hindu King In Islamic India where a discussion about Shivaji’s birth and sexuality provoked outrage across the state, and led to an attack by mobs against academics and intellectuals who had worked with Laine, and the trashing of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune, Maharashtra where Laine had done some of his research.

The Indian Supreme court disagreed and recently lifted this ban, though the work remains contentious and disputed, Laine a persona non grata, and any other work staining the ‘perfection’ of Shivaji’s life and reputation – Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey for example, targeted for banning.

Of course, acts such as these always take us back to perhaps the most famous book banning in modern times – the attack against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses which, in case you did not realize, is still banned in India. It has been over22 years since the ban was put in place, and no one dare challenge it. And yes, I do own it, and I have read it and I do love it. It’s hilariously funny, and the controversy over the offensive passages completely irrelevant and frankly ignorant.

Before I start to sound like a self-congratulatory, self-righteous and holier-than-thou pretentious secular modernist, let me confess that I do understand the instinct to ban works. There are plenty of books that I find offensive, and that I once would have loved to see removed from the shelves of bookstores.

One such work is Joan Peter’s confirmed hoax called From Time Immemorial: The Origin Of The Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine.

Despite a comprehensive series of works that revealed the sheer analytical, statistical, data, and factual fraud carried out to produce a work that basically argued that there are no Palestinians, the work remains easily available in almost all major bookstores in the USA. In fact, so much was written about this book that one did not even have to read it to know it. Norman Finklestein wrote his PhD dissertation on the work, and was the first to reveal it as the hoax it was. Noam Chomsky was Finkelstein’s thesis advisor at that time. However, this work received a National Jewish Book Award in 1985, before its veneer started to peel. Joan Peter’s book is comprehensively dissected in Norman Finkelstein’s work Image And Reality Of The Israel-Palestine Conflict, but even the ordinary pundits eventually had to take note. Ian and David Gilmour did a massive, 8000 word dissection of the work in The London Review Of Books called ‘Pseudo-Travellers‘ concluding that:

In spite of its grandiose claims to have altered ‘the very basis of our understanding’ and to have brought knowledge where before ignorance reigned, this book is not history. As a guide to what has happened in Palestine in the last hundred years Ms Peters is about as trustworthy as her Medieval ‘source’ Makrizi. The prominent Zionist academics thanked in the preface for their encouragement, their ‘data and statistics’, their ‘checking and rechecking’, seem to have some explaining to do.

And there were many others e.g. Yehosha Porath’s scathing analysis in The New York Review Of Books called ‘Mrs. Peter’s Palestine‘, New York Times had Anthony Lewis to turn to who broke open the fraud in a piece called There Were No Indians’ and many more. But the book is still on sale, and it is still lauded by those who originally lauded it.

I had once wanted it banned, though today it is an amusing reminder of the distance people will go to serve their sectarian, racial, ethnic, class and nationalist prejudices and lies. My complaint now is that it continues to be sold without an errata or a clear acknowledgement of the academic fraud perpetrated to produce it.

I could probably list a dozen or so more such texts that offend me, and the ideas I hold dear. I will confess that I have had the urge to remove such works from shelves but have stopped myself. I know that this act is futile, that like an idea once spoken, a word once print lives forever and will always overcome efforts to erase it. And that perhaps in the end this act is self-defeating.

However, I often ask myself where this urge comes from and why is it so powerful that it can take lives. After all, mere words, even the seemingly simple act of writing poems, can send powerful nations into paroxysms of idiocy. So what is it that we are reacting to? What is it about books that cripple our tolerance, and ability to simply let ideas live and be challenged?

Perhaps it is fear, and self-doubt. Perhaps it is the realization, fueled by an inherent intellectual and personal insecurity, that the ideas being written about are sure to influence others around us into asking the questions for which we have no answers. That they may begin to ask questions that reveal the hypocrisies we have been veiling behind pious platitudes and righteous rhetoric. Perhaps that which we wish to ban reveals the very chinks in our armour, the specific regions of self-doubt we carry within and hope that the others will never quite figure out. Perhaps we ban because we are afraid to ask ourself the difficult questions, and hope that others will not either. Perhaps we ban because we want to ban our doubts and erase our suspicions that our certainties are never as certain as we think.

Perhaps banning a work is not about defending the honor of the object offended, but about defending the obfuscations and myths we constructed to create that ‘honor’ in the first place. Perhaps this realization will continue to inform those who resist such bans, and compel the Indian State, and its Supreme Court, to continue to overturn such reactionary actions.

I Must Have Died And Gone To Heaven Or They Are Discussing Books And Interviewing Writers On TV!

In Book Responses, Journalism, Readings, Writers on February 25, 2011 at 9:38 am

What Is A Muslim Boy To Do On Christmas Other Than…

In Book Responses, Readings, The Daily Discussion on December 26, 2010 at 3:59 pm


Across my lap sits a fascinating work by Tzevetan Todorov called The Fear Of The Barbarians: Beyond The Clash of Civilizations where he confronts Europe’s slide towards xenophobia and Islamophobia and the abandonment of the principles of the Enlightenment (Todorov’s real interest is in this particular moment in European history and his The Imperfect Garden a wonderful exploration of the development of thought and ideal of that period, and their relevance and important to our modern age) that these attitude entail.

The Fear Of Barbarians By Tzevetan Todorov

And I can’t recommend enough Todorov’s earlier work The Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism

The Imperfect Garden By Tzetevan Todorov

And yes, I am reading it on a Kindle reader as a test to see if I eventually want to invest in a Kindle itself. My love of the book, the sheer pleasure of its presence in my hands, the ability to write within it, and the security of being able to hold it are hard to overcome. But as I prepare to spend the next many months working in India, I worry that I will not be able to carry as many books as I will want to read. I dearly hope that the Kindle can be even half as accessible and pleasurable as a physical book so that I can simply justify getting it, and being able to read voraciously and passionately during those many hours spent waiting for photographs.

The last some weeks have seen me explore America’s women writers, and I have been ensnared by Jennifer Egan’s hiliarious, poignant, and sad novel A Visit From The Goon Squad

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

She is one of a number of American women authors I am trying to examine and read. I am not sure why I have turned to them – perhaps a realization that I rarely read women writers, or that the sheer desperate gravity of so many of America’s ‘masters’ is becoming tiresome and disappointing. Recent works by Franzen, Roth, Delillo have left me completely unimpressed and unmoved. Worse, they have revealed a lack of creativity, compassion and curiosity about the world around them. So the women writers have proven more exciting perhaps because they seem less determined to write grand politically intelligent narratives and concentrate instead on the complexity of individual lives and small town experiences.

Pankaj Mishra expressed similar sentiments in a piece on American literature, and drew my attention to the works of America’s women writers like Picoult, Jane Smiley, Lorrie Moore, Shirley Hazzard, and Deborah Eisenberg. Some hours spent at the local bookstore had me coming home with Eisenberg’s collected works

The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg

On a different note, I do have in front of my a copy of Steinbeck’s The Pearl a book that has stood on my shelf for some years without my having read it. I can’t for the life of me remember why I never read it. But I am now.

The Pearl by Steinbeck

Wealth and greed destroys all – that is Steinbeck’s simple message in this lovely novella. And as I am reminded of this fact, I always turn towards those who may remind me of the other things in life that are worth fighting for. Edward Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism has been a long time favorite and once again sits in front of me as I remind myself of the completely naive, irresponsible, and as some would say, silly ideals and values that inform some of the works I am pursuing today

Humanism And Democratic Criticism by Edward Said

And there is more…a lot more – a return to Ayesha Jalal’s Self & Sovereignty and Bhabha’s Nation & Narration, Chatterjee’s Empire And Nation, Eqbal Ahmed’s selected writings and more. The latter all part of a process of turning my mind and eye back to the India project that has now seen a near nine month hiatus as a result of bureaucracy and logistics.

Seeing Europe Everywhere, Even In The Unfolding Of Another People’s Histories

In Book Responses, Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on December 9, 2010 at 5:55 pm

There are some issues where obfuscation and confusion are so prevalent, so pervasive, that we are unable to know what we are talking about any more. A recent example of such a situation is encapsulated and discussed in this new book by Gilbert Achcar called The Arabs & The Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War Of Narratives. There is a wide and popular set of writings that claims and insists that it is an inherent Arab anti-Semitism that informs the Arab resistance to the idea of Israel, and underpins the ongoing conflict there. That this Arab anti-Semitism is determined to destroy Israel and she is defending herself against this stain that aims to bring the holocaust back to the Jewish community.

There is little to argue against the fact that this narrative is largely believed, particularly in Europe and the USA, and strangely in full denial of the actual lived history and heritage of the Jews in the Middle East. Perhaps more egregiously, it is a narrative that takes a many centuries old European heritage of anti-Semitism, a heritage deeply ingrained in her society, literature, arts, and political (anyone remember Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice?) and simply foists its presumptions and history onto a new people where neither evidence nor experience suggests that anything of a similar depth and entrenchment ever occurred. However, challenging this has been difficult and many academics have continued to make this claim, and definitely many Israeli politicians and their supporters in the USA have repeated it ad nauseum – the Arab are anti-Semites and that is what is being fought in the wars in West Bank and Gaza, and that is what confronts Israel in Iran (ignoring the fact that nearly 30,000 Jews continue to live in Iran and are valued and crucial parts of its society and the nation!).

Now comes an essay in Dissent magazine called Anti-Semitism And Ignorance by Fredrik Meiton, a PhD student at NYU, as a review of Achcar’s book. It makes for interesting reading as Meiton challenges Achcar’s arguments and takes issues with specific incidents that Achcar outlines as in fact evidence of anti-Semitism. But throughout the essay this young man erases precisely what every Israeli or other politician, academic and intellectual with a strong pro-Israeli bent has done; the Nakba. Meiton wants to erase the broader political context of why Arabs, and let’s be specific – British Mandate Arabs were so supportive of the Nazis, and why the Nazis’ were so eager to foster collaboration with the British Mandate Arabs; it was calculated politics.

Meiton’s criticisms also represents a strange tendency of many to see all history as merely variations on European history – an Eurocentric pathology that insidiously and with alarming ignorance refuses to allow other people to have their own motivations, reasons, politics, calculations, judgements, designs and ideas. Meiton seems unable to allow for an Arab people to have an Arab-centric idea of resistance, opposition, ideas, politics, understanding of historical imperatives, and protection of cultural and social traditions.

We can’t avoid the fact that towards the end of WWI the Arabs of Palestine were confronted, thanks to the Balfour arrogance, a near absolute dispossession and dispersal. It was the Zionists, claiming to speak for all Jewery, who were going to be responsible for this dispossession. The very Zionists who happily conflated their Zionist political goals with Jewish spiritual and divine beliefs. This latter conflation of Israel with the entire Jewish community over the world was a political and rhetorical trick that Israel continues to use when it serves its purpose, but wants to scream ‘anti-Semitism’ against when criticism is aimed at its policies and practices. That is, on the one hand Israel says that Zionism is an all-Jewish movement, argues that anti-Zionists are anti-Jew and anti-Semitism, but then screams bloody murder if their opponents make the same connections by loudly accusing them of anti-Semitism! It’s a wonderful trick of language and reflects once again the powerful ways in which it can be manipulated to discredit your opponent. By conflating Israel with Jews, they can conflate criticism of and resistant to the Israel project with anti-Semitism. This is old news, but it was disappointing to read Meiton doing precisely this in his review; using this sleight of hand to build all his arguments in the review.

Meiton makes the same mistake; he can’t come around to acknowledge that the ‘heritage of anti-Semitism’ that he is talking about only dates to post- WWI, and has no historical trajectory to explain it. That is, all those who claim that the Arabs are inherently anti-semitic, begin their stories around 1918, unable as they are to find earlier traces, or even any consistent evidence of this in literature, politics, culture, poetry, art, politics, economics etc. They can’t find evidence because there isn’t any of a social pathology. What they find is a resistance and an opposition to the Jewish/Zionist/Israeli (take your pick!) project, and Meiton cannot accept that this resistance can be anything other than a social pathology.

That all the principal perpetrators of the so-called Arab anti-Semitism happen to be Palestinian Arabs, is ignored i.e. why would the Palestinians Arabs of British Mandate Palestine be opposed to the Jews and choose to collaborate with any power that was also opposed to the Jews? Well, because of what they knew was coming to Palestine – the colonization of their lands by tens of thousands, the dispossession and the displacement. It was a life and death moment. But Meiton can’t admit to this – he sees in incidences like a Nazi official being saluted by Arabs as evidence of anti-Semitism, rather than the evidence of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and no more. Meiton also wants to finely slice “Jews” from “Israelis’ from ‘Zionists’, but this is disingenuous for after all Israel’s own leaders and pundits never do this; when it suits them, they assume any one of these costumes to serves their purposes. If Israel is criticised, it is anti-Semitism because Israel is for all Jew etc. Sometimes it feels like the 3-cup trick; guess which one the dice is under!

This review is a classic case of a double-bind most Israeli apologists find themselves in. By erasing history, and the torturous experiences of the lesser other, the Palestinian, they then proceed to try to construct a narrative that gives precedence of Europe and a European history. Unable to acknowledge the stories and equal validity of ‘the other’, they are confused at the persistent resistance and entrenched opposition of this lesser people. Why do they hate us – because of who we are, and never because of what we have done to them. I often wonder if this shuttered view is intentionally constructed, or a means to ease our guilt and avoid the horror of our actions. To now face the fact that we are murderers, rapists, thieves and pillagers, and that our fine civilization is intrinsically tied to this barbarism.

And equally, I would argue, on a different note, that such loose and frivolous attempts to equate European antisemitism with Arab nationalist resistance to the Zionist/Jewish colonial project, denigrates the insidiousness and sheer entrenched scale of Europe’s hatred of the Jew. It takes what is a genuine fact with a centuries old heritage (anyone remember the expulsion of the Jews from Cordoba?) and attempts to foist its burdens onto a small people, in a small part of the world, who in a moment of fear and desperation choose their friends poorly, but were certainly not the only ones to have done so. We must also remember that in India, anti-British nationalists also collaborated with the Nazis, and even with the Japanese – anything to oust the colonialists, anything to protect their lives and their liberties.

Speaking about the Nakba is a punishable crime in Israel. Why? Meiton never mentions the Nakba, nor admits to a genuine grievance of the Palestinian Arabs in pre-Israel times. He never offers a larger political, social and colonial understanding of the period  – not the history of the region, the colonial context of its emergence, and the specific problems and fears that underpinned their allegiance to the Nazis. Their history, their horrors, their sufferings, their worries, their resistance, their determination to hold on to what was going to stolen from them, do not count as relevant facts in this story. Tariq Ali reviewed the same book and began his review of Achcar’s book from the very place that Meiton refuses to:

It was not until after the first world war that relations between the communities began to deteriorate seriously. The reason for this was the Balfour declaration (opposed by Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the British cabinet) that offered a homeland in Palestine to the Zionist Federation, without any consultations whatsoever with the people who lived on the land. Hitler and the judeocide of the second world war further cemented the foundations of the settler-state and led to the nakba for the Palestinian Arabs of the region. Hardly surprising that this led to the “war of narratives”

Where is this in Meiton’s account? As the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist (take your pick!) dispossession and occupation of the Palestinians as continued, as the Israeli/Jewish/Zionists wars in the region have continued unabated (Lebanon, attacks and occupation of Syrian and Syrian lands, attacks on Iraq, attacks on Egypt, attacks on Jordan) and as Israeli/Jewish/Zionist rhetoric of more war and greater war (Iraq, now Iran, who is next) underpins the presence of the state in the region, should it surprise us then that it is not uncommon or unexpected that Arabs will adopt a language of resistance and opposition that also uses the Israeli/Jewish/Zionist labels loosely and carelessly? Can Israel claim that is is the sanctuary of all Jews of the world, that being anti-Israel is being anti-semitic and then should ‘foul’ when in fact the people it confronts can’t tell the difference between what is anti-semitic and what is anti-colonialist or anti-Israeli nationalism?

Meiton is determined to point out Achcar’s flagrant use of ‘ignorance of the Arabs of broader political realities’ to explain what to Meiton’s eyes are clear acts of anti-Semitism, as for example when they allow a Nazi official to leave unhurt after he steps out of his car in the middle of a riot shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ As Meiton argues.

This repeated use of ignorance as an explanatory—and exculpatory—factor is the book’s greatest flaw. Whenever Achcar encounters anti-Semitism alongside contradictory words or deeds, the former is automatically discounted. The presence of such contradictions, he assumes, proves that it is a matter of ignorance, and not of real anti-Semitism.

But why is it not ignorance and real anti-Semitism? Meiton never offers an argument to counter Achcar’s argument i.e. Meiton has no evidence that in fact it was nothing but political convenience rather than an entrench social pathology called anti-Semitism. Meiton does not need to; he relies on our European/American presumptions that this behavior, as echoed in European history, could only be anti-Semitism. If it looks like a goose, walks like a goose, sounds like a goose, it must be a goose!

But the ignorance is on Meiton’s side; by failing to point out or accept that the Arabs of British Mandate Palestine were in a full-scale rebellion against the machinations of the Zionists, and the tens of thousands of immigrants that were arriving, the violence / terrorism that was being conducted by the Irgun for example, he deceives the reader, and also himself.

An entire people’s experience and perspective is absolutely absent; a taboo of such stark proportions that it can’t even be elided to in the review, and the realities of the political and military acts taking place on the ground during the period this so-called Arab anti-Semitism raises it head, erased as explanatory factors.The erasures are too stark. And they are not just Meiton’s, but those of the editors of the magazine and the reviewers who allowed this piece to go through. For after all, none of them noticed what was left unsaid.

(Full disclosure: This is not a review in defense of Gilbery Achcar’s book. I have not read the book so am not in a position to judge its contents or its arguments. What I am responding to here are Meiton’s elisions and erasures as he challenges Achcar. This essay should not be read as an endorsement of Achcar’s work. Until further updates of course)