Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Memories of Fallen cities

Orhan Pamuk (translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely)

When Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s leading author spoke with the Swiss paper Tages-Anzeiger,in February last year, of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, the Turkish govt promptly brought criminal charges against him for anti-nationalism.
As Pamuk says here :

“it was taboo to discuss these matters in my country. Among the world’s serious historians, it is common knowledge that a large number of Ottoman Armenians were deported, allegedly for siding against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, and many of them were slaughtered along the way. Turkey’s spokesmen, most of whom are diplomats, continue to maintain that the death toll was much lower, that the slaughter does not count as genocide because it was not systematic, and that in the course of the war Armenians killed many Muslims, too."

Government condemnation was not all. In the Turkish province of Sitculur, the governor ordered that Pamuk’s books be destroyed: it was Pamuk’s movie star like popularity and status that prevented book bonfires.

Says Pamuk of the Turkish govt’s stance

The hardest thing was to explain why a country officially committed to entry in the European Union would wish to imprison an author whose books were well known in Europe, and why it felt compelled to play out this drama (as Conrad might have said) “under Western eyes.” This paradox cannot be explained away as simple ignorance, jealousy, or intolerance, and it is not the only paradox. What am I to make of a country that insists that the Turks, unlike their Western neighbors, are a compassionate people, incapable of genocide, while nationalist political groups are pelting me with death threats? What is the logic behind a state that complains that its enemies spread false reports about the Ottoman legacy all over the globe while it prosecutes and imprisons one writer after another, thus propagating the image of the Terrible Turk worldwide? When I think of the professor whom the state asked to give his ideas on Turkey’s minorities, and who, having produced a report that failed to please, was prosecuted, or the news that between the time I began this essay and embarked on the sentence you are now reading five more writers and journalists were charged under Article 301, I imagine that Flaubert and Nerval, the two godfathers of Orientalism, would call these incidents bizarreries, and rightly so.

Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk’s latest offering is part autobiography and part biography of the city. The city runs through Pamuk’s veins and except for a brief stint in New York, Pamuk has always been there. As he says, his literature comes from never having left.

Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul-these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, and even civilizations.

But great literature can also come out of never having gone away: indeed having stayed on in the same city and same home.

Here we come to the heart of the matter: I’ve never left Istanbul, never left the houses, streets, and neighborhoods of my childhood. Although I’ve lived in different districts from time to time, fifty years on I find myself back in the Pamuk Apartments, where my first photographs were taken and where my mother first held me in her arms to show me the world.

We live in an age defined by mass migration and creative immigrants, so I am sometimes hard pressed to explain why I’ve stayed, not only in the same place but the same building. My mother’s sorrowful voice comes back to me: Why don’t you go outside for a while? Why don’t you try a change of scene, do some traveling…?

But Istanbul is also the city where Pamuk experiences hüzün; the turkish word for melancholy. Hüzün is the feeling of sadness, nostalgia and defeat at the thought of the bygone era and lost glory. Traces of ruins of the Ottoman rule (as Pamuk is wont to call it-instead of empire) are everywhere, as is the pervading sense of melancholy. So that today’s Istanbulu feels more at ease using grocery stores and coffee houses as landmarks instead of old structures in ruin.

This quiet grief and mourning for a city’s past was reminiscent of the lamentations of a poet and monarch of Delhi. Exiled by the British to Rangoon in Burma, Bahadur Shah Zafar had said of the defeated and vanquished Delhi:
subah ro ro ke shaam hotee hai shab tadap kar tamaam hoti hai (The morning painfully gives way to sunset, and then there is only grief)

Sad and beautiful as Pamuk's narration is, intertwining his own life with that of the city, the black and white photographs further fuel the feeling of grief. In other words, more hüzün.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Race, Sex and Class under the Raj
Imperial Attitudes and Policies and their Critics, 1793-1905
Kenneth Ballhatchet
St. Martin's Press, New Yor, 1980.

Bollywood is the reason I chanced upon this book. To be precise, Bollywood, and Aamir Khan's "Mangal Pandey". Because the last thing one expects of B'wood is accurate historic depiction. So when one hears that Mangal Pandey is backed up with a bit of homework (though there isn't much on the protagonist's life to do much homework anyway, but that's another story) and when one gets to watch in the movie this army of prostitutes-among them the lead woman-exclusively earmarked for certain military regiments, a bit of digging into the lives of the officers of the East India Company becomes necessary.

And that's where I came across Kenneth Ballhatchet's work. In this scholarly piece, Ballhatchet, a professor of South Asian Studies at the University of London, shows the influence that race had on shaping the British conduct in India, especially in the context of sexual mores of its officials. The structured hierarchy within the British society and the distinctions between them and the natives, required interracial sexual conduct to be very tightly controlled, regulated and legitimized. And all this had to be done within a narrow framework so as to allow gratification without upsetting the social equations between the ruler and the ruled.

From the first chapter of the book "Lock Hospitals and Lal Bazars" comes this bit.

Of all the areas of sexual behavior which embarrassed the authorities, relations between British soldiers and Indian women proved the most troubling. The problem was concisely expressed by Dr. W.J. Moore,Surgeon General,Bombay, in 1886.
"For a young man who cannot marry and who cannot attain to the high moral standard required for the repression of physiological natural instincts, there are only two ways of satisfaction, viz., masturbation and mercernary love. The former, as is well known, leads to disorders of both body and mind; the latter, to the fearful dangers of venereal."

Thus were born the Lock hospitals and Lal bazars; the former serving as hospices for "diseased women" to check the spread of venereal disease-the term lock probably implying the force or restraint necessary to confine them, while the latter were the red light or brothel areas for a particular regiment frequented only by its soldiers. The Lal bazar girls were chaperoned by an elderly woman who ensured that her girls were healthy and that those infected were either expelled or sent to hospital. By this practice, inelegantly termed as the "old bawd system", the procuress was paid five rupees a month from the regimental canteen fund and a permanent brothel for each regiment was in place. (Whether or not these women had romances a la Mangal Pandey style is better left to the imaginations of B'wood!!!)

As Lock hospitals and Lal bazars mushroomed all over British India;Berhampore, Cawnpore, Agra, Meerut, Dinapur, Fatehgarh, Satara, Bangalore and Calcutta, so also did campaigns in England and India against this system. The missionaries protested about the lack of morality and the Bishop of Calcutta often complained that the lal bazars had made sinning safe.

With the efficacy of this system under attack, the government pressed for specific proposals on the Lock or Lal bazar. There were reports saying that rather than contain VD, these institutions often increased the spread. Under the reforming governor, William Bentinck, each presidency was asked to submit statistics for each regiment. This started a series of studies from 1820 onwards detailing the incidence of VD among British troops, which is extensively documented in this book.

Amusing episodes abound. For instance when Dr. Burke (the Inspector General of Hospitals for the King's forces in India-fancy title that!!!) observed only four VD patients in the hospital of His Majesty's 11th Light Dragoons, he happily attributed this to the success of the "old bawd system". Three months later this number had swelled to twenty two. Appalled, Burke ordered an enquiry. Sure enough it revealed that the "old bawd" and her "troops" had gone away, as she had not been paid her salary.

With the Mutiny of 1857, also known as the First Indian War of Independence, came the abolition of the East India Company, and the rule of the Britsh Crown. As conditions improved for the British in India, more and more English women came to reside here, hastening the disappearance of lal bazars for regiments. Missionaries, that came into India in droves, too played their part, by voiciferously criticizing British immorality.

A British officer, Major William Palmer, was painted with the two muslim ladies with whom he lived and with this three young children by his 'senior wife', who sits on his right. The celebration of such relationships in paint would have been entirely unacceptable to later generations in British India.

Ironically while the British authorities regulated and facilitated prostitution on a systematic basis to "maintain soldiers' virile energy", there showed a complete turnabout in their approach toward romantic relations between officers and high ranking elite and native women. In this case there were severe restrictions, reprimands and loss of prestige for the men involved. The ruling class had to keep its distance at all costs.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Bye Bye 2005

Like every year 2005 too had its share of good reads. Time magazine and the AV club (AV is the Onion's books/music/movies review division) came up with their list of the best of 2005. So did the Guardian, although the listing was that of the readers'.

My "2005 resolution reading list" lies incomplete, and several titles will have to be moved to this year or the next. However, from what I've been able to read, here's a short list of my best books of 2005. These are arranged alphabetically.

1. Collapse (Jared Diamond)

With its release date of 29 Dec 2004, Jared Diamond's book should technically have featured in the 2004 list. But I included it here because it hit the stands around Jan 2005.

In one word this is vintage Diamond at his very best: weaving ecology, anthropology and history with spellbinding prose. In Collapse, Diamond points to five key factors that ultimately govern a society's fate. Armed with information of societies that collapsed in the past-the peoples of the Easter and Polynesian Islands, the Anasazi of Mexico, the Maya, and the Greenland Norse- and societies that were success stories-Japan (of the Tokugawa era, i.e. 17th to mid 19th century), Pacific islands of Tonga and Tikopia- Diamond shows the emergence of a pattern. Diamond's five factors that can signal a societal extinction are environmental degradation, climate changes, hostility of neighbors, irregular trade relations, and society's response to its own problems (environmental or otherwise).

2. Evolution in Four Dimensions (Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb)

This book has been discussed in an earlier blog-post (Thu, Nov 10). The book posits that in addition to genetic systems in evolution (i.e. information passed through the DNA) other non-DNA inheritance modalities such as those based on epigenetic, behavioral and symbolic (language and culture based) forms also exist. Together these four provide all the variations within which natural selection acts and evolution proceeds.

3. Istanbul: Memories of the City (Orhan Pamuk-translated by Maureen Freely)

While great literature comes from fractured identities (Naipaul), exile (Kundera,Kadare) and living in many worlds (Rushdie),it can also come from staying on. As Orhan Pamuk says "The city into which I was born was poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been before in its two-thousand year history. For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy." The city of his birth is the city of hüzün (hüzün is the Turkish world for melancholy). Yet Istanbul brings out the best of Pamuk's art. An interview with Pamuk is available here.

4. Never Let me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

Kazuo Ishiguro, born to Japanese parents in Great Britain, tells a simple story of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, children of Hailsham house. Yet this school, with its strong emphasis on physical and mental health and extensive medical check ups, is a place where everything is horribly wrong. Ishiguro's prose succeeds in conveying the feeling of something being abnormal and disturbing much before the actual and terrifying truth is revealed.

5. The Argumentative Indian (Amartya Sen)

Nobel laureate and distinguished academician Amartya Sen's collection of essays analyzes various aspects of Indian history, religious and social tradition, culture and identity. Although it has faced some criticism for oversimplification of India's historical complexity and legacy, Sen's work is indeed a treat for readers. Here is the Outlook Review and a gentle criticism by Tariq Ali in The Nation.

6. The Hungry Tide (Amitav Ghosh)

It has been said of Amitav Ghosh (and rightly so) that his only companions on the first class coach of Indian writers writing in English are Mistry and Rushdie.

After Glass palace, an epic spanning decades and continents, the Hungry Tide set in the Sunderbans would seem like a small canvas. But Ghosh does not think so. For a review of the book read here.

7.The Kite Runner: (Khalid Hosseini)

Soon after the fall of the Taliban, the skyline of Kabul was dotted with kites as people returned to kite flying, the favorite Afghan pastime, with a vengeance. This bond of kite flying can perhaps unite Afghans strewn across lands and rekindle lost dreams and hopes, like nothing else can.

I came across Khaled Hosseini's biographical work at an author event. Hosseini's description of the Kabul of his childhood (early 70s) seemed so charming that one was immediately tempted to pick up the volume. The story follows Amir and Hassan, two boys in Kabul, in the early seventies. With the Soviet invasion, Amir, son of a wealthy widower leaves Kabul and moves to the US, while Hassan born of a employed domestic lives on in war torn Afghanistan. Yet their fates are intertwined and decades later, Amir, now a well settled doctor in San Francisco, unearths the truth of Hassan's parentage.

8. The Husband of a fanatic (Amitava Kumar)

Married to a Pakistani lady, Amitava Kumar sets out to understand what it means to be an enemy.

9. Shalimar the Clown (Salman Rushdie)

The book begins with the murder of diplomat Maxmilan Ophuls, in his Los Angeles home by Noman Sher Noman. As the story unfolds, it turns out that Ophuls, during his years as an ambassador to India had fallen for the charms of Boonyi Kaul. Boonyi is the wife of an acrobat dancer, Shalimar (also known as Shalimar the clown) in Kashmir. Boonyi leaves her home with Ophuls, and the inevitable revenge by Shalimar aka Noman Sher Noman follows. Interspersed with the romance and love are the political and diplomatic events, the violence in Kashmir, the terrorism, Max's life as a resistance fighter in war torn Strasbourg in World War II and his daring escape in a Bugatti plane.

This moving across continents, cultures and worlds with elan and ease in the narrative is what sets Rushdie's work apart.

10. Voltaire in Exile (Ian Davidson)

Francois Marie Arouet was born in Paris in 1694 and assumed the name Voltaire in 1718. In this biography, Ian Davidson recreates the period of Voltaire's life from 1753 to 1778, when one of the most famous figures of the Enlightenment was forced to spend his days away from his home and land. To read more on Voltaire click here.