Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

Literature in the Fortress

March 26, 2013

By Hasan Altaf

in The Millions:

ScreenHunter_150 Mar. 26 15.40

From the beginning, there was a hint of the surreal to the recent Lahore Literary Festival, but it was difficult to put my finger on the root of that unsettling emotion, especially given the overall aura of triumph. A response to similar events elsewhere in the region – the most famous in Jaipur; the most rivalry-inducing, for the last four years, in Karachi – the festival seemed its own victory party, a massive and successful gambit in Lahore’s bid to reclaim its title as the “cultural capital” of Pakistan. The excitement had Lahore full of visitors, Mall Road festooned with banners, the Alhamra Arts Council packed with people, and in the middle of all that buzz it seemed almost churlish to have the suspicion that something odd was at work. (more…)

What Can Literature Do?

February 24, 2013

By Hasan Altaf

Interviewing Chinua Achebe – the author of Things Fall Apart, who has become, through the usual process of reduction, a one-man stand-in for Nigerian when not for African literature – for The Paris Review, in 1994, Jerome Brooks noted that the majority of Achebe’s work was in English. He asked about the existence or importance of Igbo translations, and Achebe responded with a story about an Anglican missionary’s attempt to standardize his language’s many dialects:

The way [Archdeacon Dennis] did it was to invite six people from six different dialectal areas. They sat round a table and they took a sentence from the Bible: In the beginning, God created… or whatever. In. What is it in your dialect? And they would take that. The. Yours? Beginning. Yours? And in this way… they created what is called Standard Igbo. (more…)

The Black Album: Between Liberalism and Fundamentalism

October 17, 2012

By Kabir Altaf

… ‘Please excuse me,’ Riaz was saying to Brownlow. ‘But you are a little arrogant.’…. ‘Your liberal beliefs belong to a minority who live in northern Europe. Yet you think moral superiority over the rest of mankind is a fact. You want to dominate others with your particular morality, which has—as you also well know—gone hand-in-hand with fascist imperialism.’ Here Riaz leaned towards Brownlow. ‘This is why we have to guard against the hypocritical and smug intellectual atmosphere of Western civilization.’

 … ‘That atmosphere you deprecate. With reason. But this civilization has also brought us this –’

‘Dr. Brownlow, tell us what it has brought us,’ Shahid said. (more…)

The Value of the Legend of Pradeep Mathew

August 9, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

The cards are laid on the table right away in Shehan Karunatilaka’s stunning debut novel, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (Graywolf Press). The narrator, W. G. Karunasena – an aging, alcoholic former sportswriter, who has just been handed what amounts to a death sentence (if he limits himself to two drinks a day he can hope for one or two more years) – takes a moment to respectfully rebut the criticism that sports, in this case cricket, have no use or value: “Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.”

Pradeep Mathew is in some ways like the great rock novels, the great books about Hollywood: From a specialized world, in this case that of cricket, it’s adopted a jargon, a built-in store of legends and myths and stories. (more…)

The Changing World of Urdu

November 20, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

‘Urdu has changed from the Urdu of Mir and Ghalib but that simply proves it is a living language.’

That was one of the comments I received on earlier posts (here and here) about the past and future of the language. At one level, it is a statement of the obvious – nothing ever stays the same. At another, it invites a host of questions: What is the nature of the change? Who owns the language now? What functions is it serving?

Such questions could be answered by survey of Urdu speakers. A canvassing of urban centers would suffice in Pakistan since Urdu is not a regional language and hence not spoken widely in rural areas. (The situation might differ in India.) An organization like the National Language Authority could design the exercise but is unlikely to do so for any number of reasons. The best we can do for the moment is to rely on personal knowledge to generate longitudinal case studies going back almost a hundred years. (more…)

Reflections: Literature and Nationalism

June 14, 2010

By Kabir Altaf

She spoke, with fluency, the Urdu of the enemy. She was unable to pretend, as she saw so many others doing, that she could replace her mixed tongue with a pure Bengali one, so that the Muslim salutation, As-Salaam Alaikum, was replaced by the neutral Adaab, or even Nomoshkar, the Hindu greeting. Rehana’s tongue was too confused for these changes. She could not give up her love of Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat.

—Tahmima Anam, A Golden Age, pg. 47

Literature often yields insights into political events in ways that traditional historical accounts cannot. History tells us of war, rebellion, the process of state formation, but the medium’s strength does not lie in describing the complex human emotions that lie behind such events. (more…)

A Gash in the World

July 30, 2008

Chapter 16 “Us and Them (And after all, we’re only ordinary men.)” 


It started out as an ordinary day. Cars were plying their routes and pedestrians were rushing to their destinations. By now Samir had dispatched all the pages of the Sahityashastra. On the outside, everything appeared the same.

Two schoolboys strolled homewards around noon. As they walked along Chowpatty, they found themselves taking giant steps, as if they were on the moon. Too awe-struck to say anything, they noticed that other pedestrians were also walking that way, with giant steps. They were sliding, gliding, rising into the air, and trailing down again. Anyone looking at Marine Drive and Chowpatty would have observed a strange sight, like a slow-motion film, with people flying a foot into the air and then drifting down, spanning a distance of about six feet.

At first, the people were shocked out of their wits. They felt apprehensive. They couldn’t quite master the six-foot step. Some of them even fell down. But gradually they began to enjoy it. Soon they were speeding along the pavement.

Gradually, the sight spread to other parts of the city. Suddenly, one of the schoolboys at Chowpatty rose into the air, spiraling higher into the sky. The other boy soon followed. When they halted, they were hovering about a thousand feet high in the sky, the height of a skyscraper. Suspended, they discovered they could walk in the air just by thinking the thought. No dull, mechanical motion and transformation was required. They could descend if they wanted, or stay up if they wanted. And they chose to stay up.

Ten more people joined them. Some of them drove by in a car. The car braked, they climbed out and flew up. In about an hour, a hundred people were circling and dancing in the sky. No one said anything. They were too excited for words. Even the children knew it wasn’t just a matter of fun. By this time, of course, most of the pedestrians on the road were trickling upwards.

Two hours later, the same thing began to happen in different parts of the city. In about five hours, over a hundred thousand people were perched in the sky. Harold, too, who had been walking along the Causeway, found himself floating in the air.

“I tell you this is a symbol,” one of the people said.

“No, no, it’s the real thing,” his companion said.

“It’s both,” a third said.

“It’s the collective unconscious,” another said.

“It’s a space. A space for us to be,” a fifth person said.

“That’s right. A space free of constraints,” a different person said.

“It’s a space of pure desire,” another said.

“What does it all mean?” an eighth person said.

Later that day, one by one, people willed themselves down.

By nightfall, everyone was ensconced in their homes and asleep. Not a word was mentioned in the press for once. The whole city had participated in the event. There was nothing to tell.

Bombay had become conscious of itself.


Back To Chapter 15          Back to Main Page

A Gash in the World

July 30, 2008

Chapter 15 The Politics of the End or The End of Politics


The two weeks in Naperville at Kulkarni’s house had flown by in a blur of activity. The beginning of December had ushered in the first snowfall. Samir saw snow for the first time in his life. He and Asha were returning from the supermarket and had just parked the car by the house. As they emerged into the twilight, the first flakes drifted from the sky. Samir set his grocery bag down and reached out for them, their wetness dissolving in his palms. He stood there, not uttering a word, as the sounds around him subsided. The earth turned white. At first, it was gradual, a patch here, a branch there, a roof nearby, until a luminous glow filled the sky. When Asha stepped on a twig, it snapped with a loud crunch. Neither of them said a word. Everything seemed deeper, rounder, fuller, a moment of rare disclosure, of slow revelation that overwhelmed and transformed them. Samir held Asha for a long time.

Asha and Samir stayed indoors most of the time and worked. Somehow she translated as many as sixty pages. Perfect translations were seldom available. The hardest thing was selecting from the many approximate English words corresponding to the Sanskrit. Samir helped by editing her prose and rendering it simpler and more graceful. The pages flitted back and forth between them. When they had finished a page, Samir would email and fax it to Bombay. Samir used Kulkarni’s fax machine and broadcast the page all over. He also emailed a number of addresses.

It started slowly. No one read the first few pages seriously. But it did make them curious. A small handful of people, maybe a hundred, scanned them, and then spread them all over the city. Some read them at home, some at work, and some in the many commuter trains that connected North Bombay to South Bombay. A large map of Bombay would have shown just a hundred sparsely distributed points in the city where the Sahityashastra had descended. As more pages flowed in, they started to talk about them to their families and co-workers. Soon they were copying and distributing them in their offices. The number of points on the map grew in small clusters as the pages circulated. And then people attended to them. As they read page after page, excitement mounted in the air. At first, people discussed the Sahityashastra in hushed tones. They didn’t quite understand it, but the sense of mystery and promise the pages conveyed kept them going. Then a couple of newspapers covered the story, fanning it like wild fire.

Before long, Bombay was full of anticipation. Samir had accessed a hundred addresses, and from what the newspapers reported, these hundred had distributed the pages to another thousand, and from there to another ten thousand and hundred thousand. And they were still being disseminated with the possibility of touching a million. The map would by now have been swathed with points extended more uniformly over the city. People emailed and faxed them to others. Some traveled outside Bombay and even outside India. Those who didn’t read them heard about them. People were enthralled by the pages that trickled in each day. The social organism was responding to the argument, playing out the logic of the Sahityashastra. The spheres of literature, religion, and state had seized their minds and hearts.

By now, the newspapers were trying to anticipate Samir’s next move. In fact, the process was becoming the product and the product was becoming the process. The social organism embodied the argument. As people read about rationality, they began to act more rationally with each other. In this vast realm, different people explored the domain of rationality in different ways. This did not mean that conflicts disappeared. But the way people approached conflict became increasingly rational.

There were many discussions in the press, people attacking and defending the Sahityashastra, and many interpretations of its relatively cryptic formulations. It was like an unfolding of a dialectic of experience, with all its ups and downs, its clashes and syntheses, its successive triumphs over apparently irreconcilable differences. People could join together in a shared transformation, discovering and inventing the many truths of the Sahityashastra. It was clear to Samir as he watched these developments from afar that the Sahityashastra was like a seed crystal in this process of crystallizing people’s ideas and feelings.

After two weeks, Kulkarni had an accident on the highway. He was driving home, talking to Samir from his car phone, when his brakes failed and he crashed into an oncoming car. Samir heard a surprised gasp and was stunned.

Kulkarni had narrowly escaped death but had to be hospitalized. Samir and Asha stayed on a couple of days and helped Mrs. Kulkarni to stabilize things. But an examination of the brakes in Kulkarni’s car had revealed that their failure had not been a mere accident. They decided it was no longer safe to continue in Naperville.

They chose to fly to Boston, to stay with Allison. Asha called her the next day. “Allison, this is Asha.”

“What have you been up to? Have you seen what’s happening in Bombay? The Sahityashastra is transforming the city. Do you know who’s behind it?”

“We are. We still have a long way to go. Can we stay with you for a while?”

“Of course.”

“See you soon. We’re on our way.”






Though Boston was now severely cold, another month passed in a frenzy of work. The streets were glazed with slush. Cambridge, where Allison lived, was adjacent to Boston. The stretches of white land and reddish brown rooftops appeared still and quiet, insulating them from the idea of a seething, churning Bombay, full of the turmoil of Bharata’s argument.

The days were filled with translating and emailing, and late afternoons were devoted to snow fights followed by coffee in Harvard Square. Allison and Anil and Asha and Samir had a lot to discuss, as they were all working on translation, Allison and Anil on its theory and Asha and Samir on its practice. They compared notes and ideas and tips and strategies. Anil and Allison solved Asha’s central problem with their recent topological breakthrough. She had struggled to choose the best word from a number of possible translations, a process that had slowed her down. Their method enabled Asha to choose the word that was closest to the original word in Sanskrit: translation as nearness! Anil had formulated the mathematics of translation by using the idea of a metric lattice. And Allison had written a computer program for it. All they had to do was feed in a sentence and the program would produce a list of possible translations with their distances from the original words. Asha would then pick the word with the smallest distance. The method didn’t always work. Sometimes they got absurd and amusing results as when, instead of `Religion and state are in harmony’, the program spewed out `The priest and the politician are copulating’. But it succeeded enough to speed up her translation significantly.

Bombay had received about a hundred and eighty more pages from Samir and was completely bowled over by the logic of Bharata’s reasoning. By now it had the whole argument, so it was possible to evaluate it. The city held many public discussions, and there were many articles in newspapers and magazines. The ideas of rationality, of balance and imbalance, of separation, and of optimality fired everyone’s imagination. Many explicators of the argument and the ideas came forward. They simplified it, offering many illustrative examples that inspired a deeper understanding on the part of the lay public. Interpreters and intellectuals broke down the somewhat abstract nature of Bharata’s argument into more concrete segments to make it more accessible to the public. As the argument was explicated and understood, it was absorbed and embodied. The mood of Bombay shifted from one of guarded hostility and latent shame after the riots to one of openness and questioning. Bombay became more gentle, more quiet.

Samir’s idea of emailing the Sahityashastra page by page was now outside his control. He was a mere cog in the machinery he had set to work. Asha’s translations lacked the nuances of the original, but something had to be sacrificed. There would be time for subtle shades of meaning later.

More and more pages sluiced into Bombay.






As the second part of Bharata’s book, the part in which he had developed the implications of his argument, permeated Bombay, another round of transformations swept through the city. The separation of religion and state and the meaning of their minimalism echoed through the streets and byways. Religion evolved into a matter of personal choice and inclination rather than one of organization and institutionalization. Those who chose religion favored a sense of the spiritual over rite and ritual. A desire for a secular state swelled among the people.

The deepest effect was undoubtedly that of the role of literature, and through literature, of science and secularism. This new sense, a sense of a new form of life, diffused gradually as if by osmosis, from a relatively narrow sphere to all of social life. There were moments when it also transformed the city suddenly, and Bombay changed overnight, to a new grasp of realities, to a new realism. A sense of finitude, of the particular and limited, pervaded the city.






Samir glanced up and his eyes met Asha’s. The translation of the sixth Veda was over. And he had completed emailing and faxing the last installment. They were both hunched over some cereal. Asha’s face eased into a smile. They had completed their crucial task. Bharata’s book had the desired effect, so many hundreds of years later.

“I can’t believe it,” Samir said.

“Neither can I,” Asha said.

“I find it hard to believe the effect on Bombay.”

“It is a transformed city.”

“I can feel a different pulse in the city, even sitting so many miles away,” Samir said.

“What will we do now?”

“There is only one thing left to do. As Bharata would say, ‘Maximize desire’.” Samir reached for Asha.

“Why don’t you stay in New York for a bit?” Asha said.

“I could become the foreign correspondent for the Indian Times. They’ve wanted someone for the last year. That would work out perfectly. I could write some more books.”

“Do we just pack and return to New York?” Asha said.

“No. I think we should wait a few days and let the waves of Bombay’s internal tremors die down a bit. It’s still a little dangerous,” Samir said. “Fundamentals has still to be completely disbanded, despite Harold’s dismantling of the top and the police’s chasing after the bottom. So far, people at large don’t know that we translated and emailed the Sahityashastra. It is best to maintain this anonymity for some time.”

The juggernaut of Bombay rolled on. The Sahityashastra seeped into the daily life and daily work of men and women. And their life and work was transformed by rationality, action, and balance. A certain equilibrium infused the spheres of literature, religion, and state.

Needless to say, all this did not happen in a smooth way. There was a great deal of chaos, of confusion and commotion. But Bombay muddled through, as it always did. The stock market reflected these ups and downs. The mood of Bombay, the mood of Marine Drive, the mood of its many suburbs all flickered from dark to light to dark to light. Even the sunsets matched the alternating somber and ebullient feel of the city.

By now, by the end of Bharata’s book, the importance of the separation of religion and state had been underscored and accepted. The pluralism of religion was felt to be a source of richness rather than weakness and confusion, a source, that is, of authenticity and holiness and desire. The minimalism that was hidden now surfaced. Literature had come to be the new form of life.

The city felt like it was pregnant, like it was going to give birth.


Back to Chapter 14       Back to Main Page        Forward to Chapter 16

A Gash in the World

July 30, 2008

Chapter 13            Geometric Progression


Aditya Gandhi motioned to Harold to sit across from him on the blue sofa. Harold, surprised, didn’t move. He tried to speak, but words did not form on his lips.

“Please have a seat. Forgive this unpleasantness.”

“Aditya!” Harold said, summoning his voice. He dropped his suitcase, walked over to the sofa, and sat down. He had regained his composure and now stared back at him.

“I hope we haven’t made you too uncomfortable,” Aditya said.

“Where are we?”

“Lonavala. I suppose you know where that is. It’s a lovely town, isn’t it? A bit spoiled with all the construction activity, of course.”

“You killed Meghnad.”

“I felt bad about it, but he left me no choice.” Aditya sighed. “He was beginning to make trouble for us, especially with his research into the Sahityashastra.”

“And what about Jim and Ajit? Did you kill them too?” Harold said.

“I merely planned them all. I am in no way connected with the actual killings.”

“What about the priest of Ranipur?”

“That was outside my purview. My domain is the U.S., you see. I have nothing to do with what happens in India. We have a complex organization.”

“How do you mean?”

“For example, I don’t even know who the head of the organization is. We have a very novel structure.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“Each person has only two subordinates. And those subordinates have two subordinates each, and so on. Moreover, each person knows only his immediate superior and his two immediate subordinates. He doesn’t know anyone else in the organization. That is how we maintain the secrecy of the organization. If someone defects, or is killed, it results in two new organizations headed by his subordinates. Sometimes these floating organizations link up again. It makes it very hard to destroy the whole organization. I don’t even know if my organization is the original organization or a branch organization. In any case, I don’t know who the head is, and it’s better that way.”

“Do you have anything to do with Kamal Kothari, a member of The Ideas Foundation?”

“He is one of my subordinates,” Aditya said. “He is one of the people we have planted in The Ideas Foundation. And his assistants are in similar groups.”

“I’m beginning to understand your organization. It is ingenious. The only way to dismantle it is to go step by step, member by member, finding what the next level of the organization is. Do you know how many steps there are between you and the head?”

“No,” Aditya said. “The flow of information in the organization is highly restricted. One branch doesn’t know what another branch might be doing. This way we are protected against defectors.”

“Does anyone know how large the organization is?”

“One gets a sense of it every now and then from its activities. But it’s a very rough estimate. I would say our strength is about a hundred thousand globally. Many people from ordinary walks of life like myself are members, but we try to restrict membership to intellectuals. That doesn’t mean they have to be academics, just intellectually inclined.”

“Who is the email figure Observer?”

“Who do you think was sending those warnings? Who do you think had the information? Me, of course,” Aditya said coolly.

“Anouk also mentioned her e-friend Napa. Who is he?”


“Aditya, what have you gotten yourself into?”

“Hinduism is weak today because it is pluralistic. Each region has its own practices, its own rituals, even its own gods. If India is to be strong, Hinduism must be strong. Besides, Hinduism is also too tolerant.”

“Everyone wants a strong India,” Harold said. “We also want a strong Hinduism. I say this even though I am not religious, as you know. But we cannot link the two. Hinduism accommodates a number of viewpoints. Its pluralism is its richness. The fact that it lacks a dogma is its richness. It makes Hinduism quite complex and elusive, not easily accessible to a doctrinal way of thinking. A certain fuzziness and indefinability lie at its core. Don’t you see that Hinduism’s soft boundaries, its lack of sharp differentiation from similar practices, is its strength? It is unlike any other religion in this regard. That is part of what makes the religion philosophical.”

“What you don’t understand is that Western liberalism is permeated with Christian values. Liberalism grew out of Christianity, after all. Why can’t Indian liberalism grow out of Hinduism?”

“What makes you think it hasn’t?” Harold asked. “Gandhi lies at its roots, even though it originated in the West. Indian liberalism is an amalgam of many influences and Hinduism is one of its major sources. Its culture is quite different from the culture of Western liberalism.”

“Enough talk. How about dinner?”

As the men ate in silence, Harold was furiously devising a plan.






Aditya broke the silence. “Where is the original Sahityashastra?

“It’s not with me. I’ve given it to someone else,” Harold said.

“Who? I must know.” After a pause, he said, “Oh, of course, it must be Asha. She was on her way to Bombay when I met her last. She had heard from Chaturvedi that you had disappeared. What she didn’t know was that I was on my way to Bombay, too.”

“Maybe so,” Harold said.

“What do you expect someone as inexperienced as Asha to do? Why don’t you just drop this whole thing? It really has nothing to do with you. You are an academic, not a crusader like Meghnad.”

“Meghnad was an exceptional man. I admired him. It’s too late now, Aditya. There isn’t much you can do,” Harold said.

“We’ll see about that.”

“Who’s your immediate boss?” Harold asked, as they continued to eat.

“You know him. You had gone to a party at his place in Delhi. Pal.” Aditya said.

Harold nodded, reminded of that uncomfortable evening at the Pals’ home in Delhi. They had people everywhere. Pal was a businessman of some repute; his involvement offered Harold a glimmer of the scope of the organization. Harold would be better prepared now.

Abruptly, the lights went out, as they frequently did on the hill, sweeping the whole region into darkness. With the darkness came a sudden silence.

Harold reacted first. He slammed the dining table into Aditya, momentarily stunning him. He groped around in the darkness before slipping out of the house. He saw the silhouette of a car, got in, fumbled for the keys inside, and in a moment, the car surged forward. He didn’t quite know his direction, but he headed for the road downhill towards Bombay, gingerly negotiating the winding roads.

Suddenly, there was another car behind him. The two cars snaked down the Ghats slowly. Upon reaching a sharp curve, Harold went around the bend, turned his lights off, and hid in the clearing on the other side. The other car rushed by in a few minutes and kept going after making the turn. Harold waited for about ten minutes, then doubled back to Lonavala, and beyond Lonavala to Pune. He proceeded straight to the airport after getting directions, and before long, had embarked on a late flight to Bombay.

Upon arriving and checking in at the nearby Centaur Hotel, he phoned the police. He narrated the entire sequence of events, starting with Meghnad’s murder in New York, and then described the structure of Fundamentals carefully. He also asked them to contact the officers in New York in charge of the case. He then suggested that they trace and dismantle the organization downward from Aditya, and provide him police escorts to chase after the top. The first task was to arrest Aditya himself before he slipped away.

Harold rested for a while, and boarded an early morning connection to Delhi.

It was ten a.m. when he disembarked in Delhi. He cabbed it to the Maurya and, upon entering his hotel room, flopped down on the bed, exhausted.






Samir and Asha were winging their way to New York to catch a connection to Chicago. Asha had already started work on the translation on her laptop.

“It’s going to be a long three months. This is not easy. A major problem is that Sanskrit has many compound words and these need to be broken down into their components before they can be translated into English,” Asha said.

“I’m sure you can do it. Let me tell you my plan,” Samir said.

“What plan?”

“We need to distribute it after all. We need to convince people to support the separation of religion and state. The question is, how do we do that speedily?”

“Go on,” Asha said.

“We’ll just use email and faxes. We should send the book to a few, maybe a hundred, addresses in Bombay, page by translated page, as you proceed with the translation. We will suggest that each recipient pass it on to at least ten other people, possibly in the same office. That new person will pass it on ten other people and so on, by geometric progression. It will be like a chain letter. If Bombay supports this, we could perhaps reach five per cent of Bombay, approximately half a million people. I think that will suffice to topple the opinion of Bombay in our favor, once it has seen the argument of the Sahityashastra. Most of all, sending the book page by page will get everyone involved in the process, as they wait for the next page to arrive, and this process of communication and deconstruction is at least as important as the content in this dismantling of fundamentalism. People may even form small reading clubs where they meet to consider more deeply what is going on, and how this is working to eradicate communalism in Bombay. It’s a bold idea, with a certain chutzpa to it, but I think it will work.”

“Samir, it’s brilliant! Simple, and yet powerful. It should get us to the half million mark quite quickly. If you start with only a hundred addresses, that will multiply to a thousand in the next round, ten thousand in the third round, a hundred thousand in the fourth round, and a million in the last. In about four to five rounds you’ll be done. And since it’s only a page at a time, people won’t mind reading it. What about the newspapers?” asked Asha.

“There are too many communalists in the newspapers and they would sabotage it. This strategy has the nice quality of depending on the readers themselves for the dissemination. They can make it or break it,” Samir said. “It’s up to them to realize the importance of participation. That is why the process is vital. It has a decentralized quality that gives everyone a role in this unraveling of communalist forces.”

“The democratic process makes it even more likely to succeed, I think. The next three months are going to be busy. I’d better be careful about what I do if so many people are going to be reading it. You know, Bharata’s Sahityashastra will become the most widely read ancient Indian text,” Asha said.

“Bombay loves a good argument, a good challenge,” Samir said. “And of course, it can spread beyond Bombay to other cities.”

A few hours later, the plane touched down at JFK, and Samir and Asha dashed through the terminal to connect to their flight to Chicago. Within a couple of hours, they reached Chicago, and sped by cab to Naperville in the suburbs to Kulkarni’s house.

The house was a modest two-story structure, Romanesque in its basic style, and perhaps a little out of place. With its arches, cream walls, and red tile roof, it resembled a villa. Kulkarni and his wife greeted them at the door. As they entered, Asha noticed a photograph in the living room of Aditya Gandhi, Haresh Chatterjee, and Amit Kulkarni. They were sitting at a restaurant table and raising their glasses. Asha wondered who had snapped the photograph. She shivered without knowing quite why.






After freshening up, Samir and Asha stepped into the living room and joined Kulkarni and his wife.

“That’s a long trip to do in one step. You must be tired. Amit’s been doing it almost every three months this year,” Mrs. Kulkarni said.

“Really? That’s a lot. I’ve been finding that an increasing number of people are doing it these days,” Asha said.

“What do you do, Samir?” Kulkarni asked.

“I’m the Arts Editor of the Indian Times,” Samir said.

“How do you find the paper?” Kulkarni asked.

“It’s doing very well, especially since few other newspapers cover the arts,” he said.

“What do you do, Mrs. Kulkarni?” Asha asked.

“I’m a housewife. We have two children, two girls,” she said.

“How old are they?” Asha asked.

“Eight and fourteen,” she said.

“That’s nice.”

“Shall we eat? It’s eight-thirty and you must be hungry.” Mrs. Kulkarni looked inquiringly at all three of them.

“That would be great.” Kulkarni said.

“How is South Asian Studies at the university?” Samir asked.

“Not so bad. We manage to get a little writing done now and then ourselves,” Kulkarni said self-effacingly. “Did you read any of the discussion surrounding my recent book on Buddhism and Jainism?”

“I read the review of your book in India,” Samir said. “It seems you reach some strong conclusions.”

“I defended the view that Hinduism is fundamentally distinct from Buddhism and Jainism, even though, at a certain level, there is no originality in the latter, they are derivative religions,” Kulkarni said.

“Aren’t the two views contradictory,” Samir said, “that they are distinct and yet unoriginal?”

“Read the book. That is the contradiction the book tries to resolve, by pointing out that their forms are distinct but their contents are unoriginal,” Kulkarni said.

“I’ve always seen the three religions as of a piece, both in form and content, without a sharp distinctness, but highly original in their formulations nonetheless,” Samir said. “Think of the ‘neti neti’ of Buddhism for example. This is no different from the absence of meaning or order in “Waiting for Godot.” Negative theology, if you will, or perhaps the first positivism. In this sense, Buddhism borrows an expression from Hinduism, but turns it to a poignantly contemporary meaning. Or Jainism, for that matter. Its nonviolence extends beyond physical harm to protecting the sanctity of individuals’ conceptual frameworks, their imaginative freedom. This again is found only in Western democracy, as late as the eighteenth century, and in the relativism of the twentieth century.”

“This is exactly what I show to be false. This is the received view among liberal intellectuals. But closer examination shows that this is a falsehood perpetrated by an increasingly marginalized and bankrupt class of people whose only goal is to downgrade Hinduism.” Kulkarni lost his rational exterior momentarily as he glowered at Samir. “You young people are all the same. No respect for your religion.”

“On the contrary, it is because I have great respect for it that I don’t try to upgrade it, as you say, by downgrading other religions,” Samir said.

“Dinner is ready,” Asha said, who had been helping Mrs. Kulkarni in the kitchen.

“Let’s eat,” Kulkarni said, shaking his head in exasperation.

The four ate in relative silence, exchanging a few enthusiastic remarks about the delicious pakoras. Asha glanced again at the photograph of Aditya, Chatterjee, and Kulkarni. “What were you cheering when that photograph was taken?” she asked, despite herself.

Kulkarni paused, cleared his throat, and spoke in a reflective tone of voice.

“We were celebrating being together after an absence of ten years. I have to say, though, that I do not get along with either of them any more. That is a pity. But that is how it is.”

“Even with Aditya? He’s such a gentleman,” Asha said.

“Time for dessert,” Kulkarni said.


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A Gash in the World

July 30, 2008

Chapter 12            Veil of the Vidhi


Half of Bombay was getting ready for Seth’s party. Samir glanced at Asha in her black dress and felt a surge of desire. At eight p.m. it was time to leave.

The cruise ship itself, the Vidhi, was anchored at sea, and they had to embark from the Gateway of India in a small boat to reach the ship. When Samir and Asha arrived, they found over a few hundred people there, all waiting for the twenty or so motorboats to ferry them across to the ship. The boats bobbed and pitched back and forth as people leapt from the quay onto the boats.

Asha spotted Haresh Chatterjee, her colleague at Columbia, and realized with a start that he had attended Harold’s lecture at the Asia Society, the night of Meghnad’s murder. At just that moment, Chatterjee glanced in her direction, and Asha waved. He looked startled, but waved back.

Samir nudged Asha and pointed to a man in a dark suit. The man was helping his wife into a boat. For a brief moment, he swiveled around and saw Samir.

“Nice to see you, Samir. Still writing for the Indian Times?” he asked.

“How are you, Mr. Murthy? Yes, I’m still with the Times,” Samir answered.

Mr. Murthy boarded the boat and set off for the ship.

“He’s one of the most extreme ideologues of The Ideas Foundation,” Samir said.

“I just saw Haresh Chatterjee, my colleague at Columbia. He was present at the time of Meghnad’s murder. I wonder what he’s doing here?” Asha said.

It was their turn to board the boat. They claimed seats at the front. As they surged forward, the Taj receding in the background, Asha broke the silence.

“I hope Harold is safe. There’s no news about him with the police or Chaturvedi,” Asha said.

“I hope so, too. Sometimes I wonder if we’re doing the right thing in not going after him.”

The sea was calm and the air still; only the boat’s roar broke the night’s silence. They could see the outlines of many ships and boats all around. They arrived after a ten minute ride, a little wet from the flung spray of the sea. When they climbed aboard the Vidhi, they saw Seth in the distance with other people. No one knew him well, no one knew exactly what transpired in his vast and variegated business empire, or what else he controlled.

He was also known as an extremely affable and generous man. He maintained dozens of charitable trusts in different areas. Samir served on the board of his Seth Arts Foundation, a master body with at least ten smaller centers and trusts under it, all operating in different fields of art in various parts of India.

Samir and Asha made their way upstairs and followed the stream of revelers into a lounge where the party was well under way. The first person they noticed was Gautam Bose, who pivoted around to face Samir.

“Haven’t seen you in ages, Gautam,” Samir said, slapping him on his arm. “Meet Asha Raman, a professor at Columbia University. Asha, this is Gautam Bose, a filmmaker.”

“How do you do, Asha? What do you teach?” Gautam said.

“Indian Studies,” Asha said.

“Oh, really? What is your area of interest?” Gautam asked.

At this point, Samir spied his colleague Mohan Mahapatra, and with Asha ensconced in a conversation, took off in his direction.

“Literature and painting. Most of my research has been in ancient literature, but I have of late begun to take an interest in contemporary literature and painting. I’ve just completed a book on the Natyashastra in which I look at the evolution of rasa theory, among other things. You may have heard of Harold Stone’s work. My work is in the same area,” Asha said.

“Harold. Of course. We were to meet, but I was told he had checked out of the Taj. Where is he?” Gautam asked.

After Asha told him briefly what had happened, a dark look veiled Gautam’s eyes. He drew Asha to one corner, and spoke in hushed tones. “Have you heard of Fundamentals? It is a most unusual organization. It is not directly political, but has interests in many political think-tanks. Fundamentals is trying to create a singular doctrinal version of Hinduism. I shouldn’t say strictly singular because that is impossible. But they are trying to narrow down the range of expression of Hindu belief. They feel Hinduism is weak because it is too diverse, because it has no doctrine.”

“Go on,” Asha said.

“It is a secret group, first of all, both a think-tank itself and an action group. Its members have infiltrated many other organizations. You may have heard of The Ideas Foundation. That is only the most prominent organization it has entered. It is like a meta-organization. It is everywhere and you have to be careful. They even have powerful links abroad, especially in the U.S. They are not ordinary fanatics, but rather intellectuals who know India well and want to take it down a particular path. What you see on the surface is the froth. A bunch of simple fanatics. But what lies underneath is the real danger.”

“Who is the head of the organization?”

“No one knows. Its organization is shrouded in secrecy,” Gautam said.

Samir returned and, after a bit, he and Asha excused themselves and ascended to the top deck to gaze at the stars. On the way, they met dozens of friends and acquaintances from all walks of life. They also ran into Chaturvedi again. They had met him earlier that day and shared information and discussed strategies.

Asha drew Chaturvedi to one side and told him she had just learned about Fundamentals. “I think you were right. Gautam Bose also had the same thought.”

“I just met Chatterjee. What is he doing in India?” Chaturvedi asked.

“I also saw him. He was at the Asia Society the night Meghnad was murdered.”

“Did you know that Anouk is here too? She said you were with her on the flight.”

“Oh, yes, that’s right. I forgot to tell you.”

They talked for a little while and then Samir and Asha continued upstairs. Each of the five decks included a couple of lounges and a theater. The party had spread all over the ship, with people weaving in and out of rooms. In some lounges, there was live music from different parts of the world. Some people had even sat down to watch old Indian movies of the fifties, “Shree 420” and “Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam.” On the top deck, stars punctuated the cloudless sky.

Samir and Asha headed downward again. For a while, they explored the ship and then circled back to the main lounge where they had started. It was one a.m. They spent another hour talking to various people and then at two, decided to head home.

Samir took Asha on a ghoda-gadi ride home after they reached the shore, lingering at the Taj for a quiet moment. The water lapped idly by the stone walls beside the Gateway of India. The Taj Mahal Hotel looked ghostly in the moonlight, its outline oddly medieval.

When they reached Deepak’s, it was three o’clock in the morning.






The next morning Asha awoke before Samir.

“We must leave for Chicago tonight. Chaturvedi said we shouldn’t lose a single day. I must start the translation of the Sahityashastra right away. I will phone Kulkarni in Chicago and let him know we’ll be staying with him for a couple of weeks. I think that’s the safest strategy. We need time, and we can get it by visiting a few campuses where I know people we can stay with,” Asha said.

“I’m still working out how we’ll disseminate it,” Samir said.

“I’ve been thinking about Fundamentals. It’s a strange group, made up mostly of intellectuals.”

“You always need intellectual thought to create and sustain a real movement. Otherwise it would evaporate after a few eruptions. The educated classes are always the engine of history.”

They were silent for a while.

“I was surprised to see Haresh Chatterjee,” Asha said. “He was at Harold’s lecture. Could he be a member of Fundamentals? He’s always been a quiet fellow and keeps mostly to himself. Aditya Gandhi is his only real friend in the department.”

Outside in the living room, Asha retrieved the Indian Times lying on the table and gasped. The headline read, “Professor Chaturvedi found dead at sea.” The report detailed how Chaturvedi’s body had floated to the shore, leaving the circumstances surrounding his death a mystery.


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