Podcast • April 5, 2010

Arundhati Roy’s Version of Disaster in India

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Arundhati Roy. (52 minutes, 31 mb mp3) Arundhati Roy is giving us “the other side of the story” in this “Year of India” at Brown University and elsewhere. Media consumers in the US don’t get it all in ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Arundhati Roy. (52 minutes, 31 mb mp3)

Arundhati Roy is giving us “the other side of the story” in this “Year of India” at Brown University and elsewhere. Media consumers in the US don’t get it all in the TED talks, or in Nandan Nilekani‘s success epic, much less in Tom Friedman‘s relentless celebrations of the Bangalore boom in the New York Times. I sat with Ms. Roy for an hour and a half near MIT last Friday — first time since her book tour in another life, with the Booker Prize novel, The God of Small Things in 1998. This time she was just off a remarkable journalistic coup for Outlook India — an “embedded” report from the so-called “Maoist” uprising in the Northeastern states of India, the rebellion that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called India’s greatest security threat and Arundhati Roy calls a battle for India’s soul.

AR: What does the boom do? It created a huge middle class — because India is a huge country, even a small percentage is a huge number of people — and it is completely invested in this process. So it did lift a large number of people into a different economic bracket altogether — now more billionaires in India than in China, and so on. But it created a far larger underclass being pushed into oblivion. India is home to the largest number of malnourished children in the world. You have 180,000 small farmers who’ve drunk pesticide and committed suicide because they’ve been caught in the death trap. You have a kind of ecocide where huge infrastructural projects are causing a drop in the water table. No single river now flows to the sea. There is a disaster in the making.

The way I see it, we had a feudal society decaying under the weight of its caste system, and so on. It was put into a machine and churned and some of the old discriminations were recalibrated. But what happened was that the whole separated into a thin layer of thick cream, and the rest of it is water. The cream is India’s market, which consists of many millions of people who buy cellphones and televisions and cars and Valentine’s Day cards; and the water is superfluous people who are non-consumers and just pawns who need to be drained away.

Those people are now rising up and fighting the system in a whole variety of ways. There’s what I call a bio-diversity of resistance. There are Gandhians on the road, and there are Maoists in the forests. But all of them have the same idea: that this development model is only working for some and not for others.

CL: How do we Americans listen for a true Indian identity in this period of fantastic growth and, as you say, fantastic suffering?

AR: You know, I have stopped being able to think of things like Americans and Indians and Chinese and Africans. I don’t know what those words mean anymore. Because in America, as in India and in China, what has happened is that the elites of these countries and the corporations that support their wealth and generate it form tham have seceded into outer space. They live somewhere in the sky, and they are their own country. And they look down on the bauxite in Orissa and the iron ore in Chhattisgarh and they say: ‘what is our bauxite doing in their mountains?’ They then justify to themselves the reasons for these wars.

If you look at what is going on now in that part of the world, from Afghanistan to the northeast frontiers of Pakistan, to Waziristan, to this so-called “red corridor” in India, what you’re seeing is a tribal uprising. And it’s taking the form of radical Islam in Afghanistan. It’s taking the form of radical Communism in India. It’s taking the form of struggles for self-determination in the northeastern states. But it’s a tribal uprising, and the assault on them is coming from the same place. It’s coming from free-market capitalism’s desire to capture and control what it thinks of as resources. I think ‘resources’ is a problematic word because these things cannot be replenished once they are looted. But that is really the thing. And the people who are able to fight are those who are outside of the bar-coded, cellphone-networked, electronic age — who cannot be tracked and who can barely be understood.

It’s a clash of civilizations, but not in the way that (Samuel P.) Huntington meant, you know. It’s an inability to understand that the world has to change, or there will be — I mean, as we know, capitalism contains within itself the idea of a protracted war. But in that war… either you learn to keep the bauxite in the mountains, or you’re not going to benefit from preaching morality to the victims of this war. A victory for this sort of establishment and its army and its nuclear weapons will never be a victory. Because your victory is your defeat, you know?

Arundhati Roy in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, April 2, 2010.

Arundhati Roy’s new collection of essays — for “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason” — is titled: Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.

Podcast • March 29, 2010

This "Year of India" (6): What’s Wrong with our Afghan War

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan. (30 minutes, 18 mb mp3) The dirty little secret of the US drone war in Afghanistan is that the civilian “kill rate” is worse in the Obama “surge” than it was in the bad old Bush ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan. (30 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

The dirty little secret of the US drone war in Afghanistan is that the civilian “kill rate” is worse in the Obama “surge” than it was in the bad old Bush war. The dirty little sequel is that our friends in India don’t think the Obama – McChrystal war in Afghanistan can succeed.

Siddharth Varadarajan, the strategic affairs editor of The Hindu, India’s “national newspaper,” speaks plainly (and fast!) about Pakistan’s double game in the Afghan war and about India’s dissent in the American war. Short form: the US is still going “soft on the Pakistani military,” and “hard on Afghan civilians.”

The American military strategy has three “fundamental weaknesses,” Mr. Vardarajan is saying. (1) The long-distance application of force, by air, cannot defeat the Taliban. Civilian casualties are still going up. The promise of a kinder-gentler counterinsurgency campaign has not been delivered. (2) Foreign troops (ours) cannot bear the brunt of a war on the Taliban in a country and culture that reject outsiders. The US and Britain have had almost a decade since 9.11 to train an Afghan army, and have almost nothing to show for it — a big point against our seriousness. (3) The US is outsourcing much of the Afghan problem to Pakistan, which isn’t much interested in a solution. The Palkistani military and intelligence, which run the country, are still nurturing links with the Islamist, anti-Indian Taliban. And all the more because President Obama has already scheduled his American exit, there’s a built-in incentive for the Pakistanis to stay in touch with their jihadis.

Historically the Pakistani miitary has used the jihadis the undermine democracy in Pakistan, to promote Islamism and muddy the waters in the region. The presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan is a symptom of the problem… You have to deal with the root cause of the problem, which is the nature of the Pakistani military, and there is a reluctance to do that. Just as the Pakistani military doesn’t want to give up 30 years of investment in the Taliban, I think the Pentagon and the State Department don’t want to give up 60 years of investment in the Pakistani military. So you have a tendency to cling on to your strategic assets in the hope that they will somehow do your bidding. But life doesn’t go that way.

Siddharth Varadarajan in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, March, 2010.

Podcast • March 12, 2010

This "Year of India" (5): … and the chronic crisis of Pakistan

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Farzana Shaikh (38 min, 17 mb mp3) Salman Rushdie, no less, finished his packed public talk at Brown three weeks ago with the observation that Pakistan is the globe’s true nightmare nation — that if Pakistan doesn’t rescue ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Farzana Shaikh (38 min, 17 mb mp3)

Salman Rushdie, no less, finished his packed public talk at Brown three weeks ago with the observation that Pakistan is the globe’s true nightmare nation — that if Pakistan doesn’t rescue itself from political collapse into extremism, “we’re all fucked.” In this “Year of India” at Brown, we are talking again about the Pakistan question next door — about India’s nuclear-armed neighor and sibling, on the verge, some say, of meltdown.

Farzana Shaikh is a child of Pakistan who writes about her country now as the daughter of a distressed family. The thread through her pithy analysis, Making Sense of Pakistan, is that Pakistan’s problem is not fundamentally with India, much less with the United States and the world, but with itself and Islam. She begins:

More than six decades after being carved out of British India, Pakistan remains an enigma. Born in 1947 as the first self-professed Muslim state, it rejected theocracy. Vulnerable to the appeal of political Islam, it aspired to Western constitutionalism. Prone to military dictatorship, it hankered after democracy. Unsure of what it stood for, Pakistan has been left clutching at an identity beset by an ambigous relation to Islam…

Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, Columbia University Press.

Salman Rushdie’s irresistible prose is one touchstone of our conversation:

It is well known that the term ‘Pakistan,’ an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim intellectuals. P for the Punjabis. A for the Afghans, K for the Kashmiris, S for Sind and the ‘tan’, they say, for Balochistan. (No mention of the East West, you notice: Bangladesh never got its name in the title, and so eventually it took the hint and seceded from the secessionists….). So, it was a word born in exile which then went East, was borne across or translated, and imposed itself on history; a returning migrant, settling down on partitioned land, forming a palimpsest on the past. A palimpsest obscures what lies beneath. To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface.

Salman Rushdie, Shame, 1983. p. 87.

Podcast • March 5, 2010

This "Year of India" (4): The NY Times’ Man in Bombay

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anand Giridharadas (45 min, 27 mb mp3) We’re getting a personal take on the New India that we haven’t heard before from New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas. When he went “home” after college, from Cleveland to the ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anand Giridharadas (45 min, 27 mb mp3)

We’re getting a personal take on the New India that we haven’t heard before from New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas. When he went “home” after college, from Cleveland to the land of his ancestors, the feeling he confronted was, in effect, hey, your party in America is over, and you may be too late for the party underway in Bombay.

Born in Ohio and educated in Michigan, Anand is a child of that wave of immigration that brought India’s best and brightest out of a bad time back home in the 1970s to the land of milk, honey, high tech and opportunity in America. When Anand returned to do his bit for the mother country, as a McKinsey consultant in the mid-90s, he found not his parent’s stifled old India but rather a swarming entrepreneurial frontier more modern, more gung-ho in many ways than the American Mid-West he grew up in, but also a nation growing less “westernized” and more indigenous on a surging wave of growth.

He carried with him the story of India that his parents had given him, an image of a great civilization trapped in a box; a place where, in his words “No one questioned. No one dreamed. Nothing moved.” He begins this account of that quarter-century transformation through the eyes of his father:

AG: One of the reasons my father left — none of us leaves countries for massive geopolitical reasons, we ultimate leave for personal reasons. His personal situation was working in the 1970s for a company called Tata Motors, selling their trucks and buses in Africa. All he could do to make a judgment about whether he wanted to be in India long term was look around him at work. I will never forget the simple way in which describes why he decided to leave. He said he looked at his bosses twenty years ahead of him in line and concluded he didn’t want to spend his life becoming them.

Now fast forward a quarter century, Tata Motors is today, that same stagnant dead company that in some ways pushed my father out of the country as a whole, is today one of the most admired car companies in the world. Why? Because it no longer only sells rickety trucks and buses in Africa. It has now also made the world’s cheapest car, for about $2,000, in an engineering feat that has wowed every major auto maker.

CL: How did they do it?

AG: There are two ways to think about it. One is to say that they had consultants and advisors who had certainly come back form the West. But here’s another interpretation of what was different. the constraints were in some ways the same. They still had essentially 1 billion poor people around them; they still had engineering constraints; they still had a government that’s not particularly helpful to what business does. But in my father’s day most Indians would have interpreted that context as essentially hindering progress and being an excuse for producing sub optimal stuff. The new language is “we have unique hardships which gives us a unique opportunity to create globally competitive products that are better than anyone else’s products. Because our roads are bumpier, our suspension systems have to be even better than the Americans’ suspension systems. Because people are poor in this country, we have to work twice as hard to bring the price point of a car down to $2000.” It’s the same context, just a different way of looking at it.

Anand Giridharadas in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, March 4, 2010.

Podcast • December 9, 2009

This "Year of India" (3): Suketu Mehta, Bombay’s Biographer

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Suketu Mehta. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Suketu Mehta, the master storyteller of modern Bombay, learned by listening — to the runaway poet from Bihar, for example, who wanted him to write a book titled “Untold Stories” or ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Suketu Mehta. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Suketu Mehta, the master storyteller of modern Bombay, learned by listening — to the runaway poet from Bihar, for example, who wanted him to write a book titled “Untold Stories” or “Untellable Stories,” like his own.

He was a boy of seventeen who had run away from the poorest state of India, Bihar, to come to the big city, not to work in the movies, not to make a fortune but to write poetry. His father wanted him to be a scientist. So this kid slept on the sidewalks and he took me all around the city and showed me how he ate, what he had to pay to go to the bathroom, the small and great scams of the city. And he went all around the city writing poetry. And then I asked him if he had contacted his parents — he had run away from home — and he said he hadn’t, and so I said he might want to notify them. They must be worried. He wrote a postcard to his father, and his father took the next train over from Bihar. I got a phone call one morning from the kid saying his father had arrived in Bombay and was taking him back to Bihar, would I meet them for breakfast? And I did. The father was a lovely man, a science teacher from a small village, and he said he had come to collect his son. The parents had been worried sick about him. I said, “Well, now that you’re here, how long will you stay?” He said, “Oh, we are taking this afternoon’s train back.” Now, Bihar is at the other end of india. It’s a three day train journey. He’d just traveled for three days; he had come that morning and he was going back that afternoon. I said: “Why don’t you stay? This is a fabulous city, a great city. You can see the Gateway of India, you can see where the Bollywood stars walk around.” He said, “No, I have no interest in all of this. I want to get out of this city as fast as possible, because all these big buildings, they have been built by stealing somebody else’s money.” Essentially, he was paraphrasing Balzac without knowing it: “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.” And his son kept saying to his father, “But this is my karma-bhoomi” — the proving-ground of my destiny.” And the father said, “No, this is paap-ki-bhoomi” — the land of sin…

Suketu Mehta with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 12.3.09.

Suketu Mehta went home to India to track the migration — soul by soul, the reader feels — of a “nation of villages” into megacities on the scale of Bombay, now Mumbai, where people name the trickle of the open slum sewer after a river back home. His masterwork Maximum City, did for Bombay what the immortals Dickens and Balzac did for London and Paris; except that the sprouting of mushroom slums and high-rise spikes in India may be running 20 times faster and bigger. Suketu Mehta is the great expositor by now of a reckless, universal love affair with mostly miserable megacities. “Right about now, for the first time in history,” he remarks, “more people live in cities than in villages. We have become an urban species.” He is the expositor, moreover, of a method of listening for the unofficial narratives of the time: myths told in temples, migrants calling home, letter-writers composing messages from prostitutes to their parents, assuring the family that their daughter has a good office job and that money is on the way.

Suketu Mehta is telling me also that from the old India of starving cows and sadhus to the new one of Bollywood and billionaires, there’s a very old ping-pong game of ideas going back and and forth between India and the United States: from the Bhagavad Gita to Henry David Thoreau (“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial…”); from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to Gandhi’s satyagraha in South Africa and India; from Gandhi to Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr., and from Dr. King to Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The game, he’ll persuade you, isn’t over.

Podcast • December 8, 2009

This "Year of India" (2): Rana Dasgupta

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Rana Dasgupta‘s India is a land of grueling poverty still, in a culture transfixed by glittering wealth. The dominant mood is “frenzied accumulation” in a society “consumed both by euphoria and ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Rana Dasgupta‘s India is a land of grueling poverty still, in a culture transfixed by glittering wealth. The dominant mood is “frenzied accumulation” in a society “consumed both by euphoria and dread.” Mahatma Gandhi’s India of fond memory — triumphant non-violence and democratic socialism in a nation of villages — is almost gone, and mostly forgotten, too. Rural India has dropped out of the conversation. The “great man” in India’s dream of success, Dasgupta chuckles, is probably Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. The new half-hidden India in Rana Dasgupta’s telling is a dynamic contradiction — emphasis on the dynamic. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House, seen but not heard on our TV screens last month, is another version of the contradiction. On the outside, Singh looks like a cartoon of the last maharajah; unglimpsed, like the snowy mane under his Sikh turban, is the mind of the former finance minister who in 1991 opened India to a transforming flood of foreign investment.

Rana Dasgupta is dubbed by Salman Rushdie, no less, “the most unexpected and original Indian writer of his generation.” The blurb, too, half-hides the story. Dasgupta, Oxford educated, now 38, was born in London of an English mother. He returned to his father’s country at the start of the new century to write both fiction and fact. Tokyo Cancelled was a nested novel and a sort of homage to folk tales in an age of disconnection: 13 stories spun out spontaneously by travelers stranded overnight in an international airport. Solo, not yet available in the US, is a fantasy of music and memory, set in Bulgaria. All the while Dasgupta has been fixing a steady anthropological eye on the veiled violence of money rampant in Nouveau Delhi. “Capital Gains,” a long piece in Granta last summer, began with a true tale that’s also symbolic: the public scandal of Sanjeev Nanda, a reckless boy prince of the new money, drunk, in his $150-thousand BMW a few years ago, slicing through seven people, killing six of them, but rich and unrepentant enough to buy freedom from punishment – for a while.

This story erupts into the public domain with the delicious nausea of something widely felt, but rarely observed: the recklessness of this economic system, its out-of-control heartlessness. Sanjeev’s speeding BMW is a symbol of gleaming, maleficent capital, unchecked by conscience or by the roadblocks of the state. The scene of the impact, a one-hundred-metre stretch of road strewn with organs, severed limbs and pools of blood, is like a morality painting of the cataclysmic effects of this marauding elite in the world of ordinary people… as if his fatal velocity was that of foreign forces whose impact, here in India, could only be catastrophic.

Rana Dasgupta in Granta, July 2009.

But that is only the start of Dasgupta’s story of India, in Granta and in our conversation. Unpeeling what President Obama calls “one of the defining partnerships” in the world, Dasgupta seems to be betting on an Indian Century before it’s over:

The fact is that India and America have very very profound similarities, and a very obvious kind of relationship. Both countries are based around a grand political idea, they’re not based around any kind of racial homogeneity or anything like that, they are based around a constitution, and a moment of independence from the British. In both countries a desire to be left alone to run your business is a very powerful feeling. There is suspicion in both countries of governments and the interferences they make into private – read: commercial – life. And it’s precisely for this reason that so many Indians have been so successful in America – they don’t even have to stop at the airport to understand where they’ve come – they already know it. They’ve understood America deeply before they’ve arrived. This has been enhanced in the last two decades by the fact that the elite of India now automatically sends its kids to study in the US. There is a very very vast number of Indian teenagers who come here to study, to the extent I think that the Indian elite now regards the US as its other territory…

There are also ways in which America or India differ profoundly. America is a society of systems, there should be nothing that eludes the state – with systems of policing, control, regulation… That is clearly not the case in India… Indians accept that things cannot be systematized, that there is inherent chaos, that you don’t have to understand your neighbor, that he may live an incredibly different life from yours, but that’s not a problem. The incredible ramshackle bric-a-brac nature of Indian cities, where slums are next to high rises, is not felt to be a great shock. The face that people hack into electricity systems to run their slums is treated with wry humor by middle class Indians…

I suspect these things will play out to Indian’s advantage, because Indians will be much more comfortable in the US than Americans will be in India. And at a time when the new major economic growth prospects are in countries that look more like India than they do like America, Indians will be an incredibly mobile and flexible work population… Even being very wealthy they are quite comfortable living in a house that runs out of water quite often, and runs out of electricity. They’re able to go into weird places in central Asia and Africa and feel quite okay, knowing how things operate, knowing that even people who are turning over millions of dollars a year, can do so without contracts, just on the basis of various forms of informal business ethics.

So I think that as time goes on, America will retain its monopoly of certain things – India will never build a scientific academic research infrastructure that remotely rivals America’s. It will continue to use America’s and supply America’s with talented people, and Indians who are interested in working in those kind of environments will come to the States. But India itself as a major economic opportunity will continue to mushroom, and Indians will spread out into Africa and China and central Asia with enormous ease and flexibility.

Rana Dasgupta with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 12.3.09.

Podcast • November 16, 2009

The Voice of Gandhi in this "Year of India"

It’s the audacity of Mahatma Gandhi‘s non-violence, and the radical priority he gave to social justice, that Gandhi’s grandson stresses in a sort of keynote conversation at the start of Brown University’s “Year of India.” Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rajmohan Gandhi (35 ...

It’s the audacity of Mahatma Gandhi‘s non-violence, and the radical priority he gave to social justice, that Gandhi’s grandson stresses in a sort of keynote conversation at the start of Brown University’s “Year of India.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rajmohan Gandhi (35 minutes, 16 mb mp3).

Rajmohan Gandhi in Bapu’s lap, Delhi, 1936

Short form: The skinny brown man in the traditional loin-cloth would be a thorn in the side of power today — more perhaps than ever in nuclear-armed India and in a world more concertedly hostile to Islam even than India was in 1948.

The father of his country would be attacking “smug self-satisfaction” among the new rich in India. “He would be unhappy about the continued oppression of women,” says Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson and biographer of the man that his family and nation called “Bapu,” or father. He’d be attacking “the worship of money” with his deepest conviction, as Gandhi once wrote to a young American seeking Indian wisdom, that “life is not for indulgence but essentially for self-denial. Would that the students of America could imbibe that one lesson.”

If Barack Obama could fulfill his spontaneous, touching wish for dinner with Gandhi, he would find the Mahatma “as interested in Barack Obama as Barack Obama in Gandhi.” But the American president should be prepared, says Gandhi’s grandson, to hear the grand strategist of India’s independence “say to the Americans what he said to the British: who asked you to be the guardians of the whole wide world? And why do you think you know better than the local people what is best for them? Relax! Trust those people. Yes, they may make mistakes, but they’re entitled to their freedom, to their independence.”

If, as I suppose, President Obama asked the great Gandhi to “help me with Islam,” his grandson believes:

Gandhi would say: “well, you, too, have your links with Islam, through your forebears. You have a tremendous chance…” He would tell Obama, of course, about his friend Abdul Gaffar Khan, his Pashtun friend. And he would say to Obama: “there are today in the Islamic world so many thousands of women and men who are fighting for the very things you are fighting for. They are the immediate victims of terrorism. Look at the numbers of Pakistanis and Afghans killed every single day by the extremists in their midst. Now that Fort Hood has happened, we’re all moved by these poignant descriptions of every single life that perished there. But the Pakistanis, the Afghans who also perish because of suicide bombings, because they’re ambushed by extremists, they died unknown, unrecognized, unsung…”

Also, and this is what I think Gandhi would say: “you in the United States for the last 40 or 50 years have been drawn into the Muslim world. Ask yourself whether you really have been always fair and just to the Muslim world, and if you haven’t acknowledge the places where you haven’t. Because the anger in the Muslim world — although it is unwise, it is foolish, it is harmful above all to the Muslim world — does it have some basis in their experience with the Western world?”

Rajmohan Gandhi with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 11.15.09.

And if, I suppose further, Gandhi said to Obama in some fashion: you’re a young idealist with a global imagination; your military chief has asked for 40,000 troops to fight in Afghanistan and your ambassador in Kabul has said: don’t send them, it’s a dead end… how might I, Gandhi, help you, Obama, think through another way? What then?

Sure, I can imagine that. And I think Gandhi would also relate that to the situation in the United States where there is unemployment, there is suffering, there is sadness. Gandhi would readily acknowledge that Obama’s challenge is immense. And Gandhi would also be perfectly ready to say “I don’t know what you should do.” But he would also say that if you truly reflect and you think of the neediest people in the world and what will help them, then you will know what you should do.

Rajmohan Gandhi with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 11.15.09.

He would not be prescribing remedies, in short, but he’d been keeping a universal standard of social justice at the top of all of our agendas.

Podcast • April 24, 2009

Amitav Ghosh & Robert Coover: Speaking of Burma

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with Amitav Ghosh and Robert Coover (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3) Amitav Ghosh & Robert Coover Our conversation draws on the novelist Robert Coover’s exercise of conscience about freedom of expression in the world. Today. Burma was the focus ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with Amitav Ghosh and Robert Coover (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Amitav Ghosh & Robert Coover

Our conversation draws on the novelist Robert Coover’s exercise of conscience about freedom of expression in the world. Today. Burma was the focus this week of what’s become an annual International Writers’ Project teach-in at Brown.

Burma of the thin-skinned but immovable military regime in Rangoon. Burma of the Nobel Prize prisoner and non-violent point of resistance Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma of Kipling’s old “Road to Mandalay” (how we loved the Sinatra version) and the mahogany, jewels and oil that the British Empire stripped from the land between the 1820s and World War 2.

After our week with Burmese poets, artists and writers who’ve done hard time, some in solitary, in modern Burma, our conversation here is with Robert Coover about the artists’ predicament, and with the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, whose first big novel, The Glass Palace, retold the colonial story behind the “news” of Burma. Resonating around the conversation somewhere is the spreading scandal of official US torture of terror suspects after the 9.11 attack on New York, through the war in Iraq.

Amitav Ghosh makes a point of starting off with Burma’s colonial history. He’s driving much the same point that Mahmoom Mamdani posed against the American (typically “liberal”) reflex to moralize and racialize our stories of faraway people.

Burma experienced colonialism, perhaps, in the most extreme way, where it was almost completely ransacked. After 1885 it was, actually, strangely similar to Iraq. The British went in under the guise of freedom and so on. Shock and awe, tyranny, all those tropes were there. But then after that they were faced with this very long resistance, so the during the pacification campaign, thousands and thousands of Burmese were killed. And ever after the countryside was fairly unsettled, so there was a lot of brigandage and so on. So then after that, I think, what profoundly affected Burma was the Second World War. People don’t adequately recognize that in the Second World War, when the British were withdrawing from Burma against the Japanese attack, they adopted the “scorched earth” policy. They literally laid waste to all of the infrastructure that they themselves had built in Burma. All the bridges, all the railways, all the warehouses, all the oil pumps. Everything was just blown up. But then the Japanese did come in, and when the British were reinvading, the Japanese adopted the same policy. So Burma was flattened twice. You think of the sort of aid Europe got, the Marshall Plan and so on. After the Second World War, Burma got nothing. There it was, this really poor country, completely devastated, it had no way of really rebuilding itself. You know, what has happened in Burma is one of the great tragedies for which the whole world, in a sense, bears responsibility.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Robert Coover and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

Historical amnesia is Ghosh’s thread to Iraq and the furor today about the CIA’s “harsh interrogation techniques” in the Bush years.

You know, I must say, I sort of knew that the Iraq war would be a catastrophe. But since then, so much of what happened there, actually, is incomprehensible. Leaving aside the torture, do you remember, a couple of weeks after the fall of Baghdad, there was an Iraqi general who actually went to the American authorities and surrendered? He surrendered. His sons came with him. The next he was heard of he had been wrapped in a carpet and beaten so badly that he died. Now, can you imagine an American doing that to, say, a German general in the Second World War? It is inconceivable. Can you imagine the British doing that to a French general during the Napoleonic Wars? It is literally inconceivable. How is it possible that these deep, deep taboos, not just in global culture, but specifically in Western culture, come to be flouted so easily? This other thing, this torture business, you know, the Prussian state, of all, abolished torture as a method in the 18th century because Frederick the Great said that it doesn’t work. All the things that people are saying today, he said. And ever since it has been one of the rules of warfare and, you know, the rules of warfare basically decided what civilized conduct was… So it is strange to see these arguments being rehashed over two hundred years later.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Robert Coover and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

Amitav Ghosh in his public talk here relayed a subtle and fascinating piece of advice from Burma’s most famous resister, Aung San Suu Kyi. Resist politics, too, she has told her followers. That is: resist the post-modern tendency to locate morality in politics alone. This was the example of several Burmese artists at Brown this week, none more touching than the physician and writer Ma Thida, who said that she survived in prison by meditating 20 hours every day. The lesson for all of us seemed to be: remember also (quite apart from politics) the inner life, “laughter, love and joy,” as the last repositories of moral consciousness.

Robert Coover took the advice, first, with a grain of salt; and then as an embrace of art.

I have worked a lot on political issues and have always been disappointed at how few were alert to those issues and how many were sunning themselves on the green, enjoying their inner lives. But, I think that one of the roots here — it’s what we all pretend, anyway, is the root – is the thought that art itself has this function. The novel, the painting, and, now, digital art as well: all of our modes come into deep focus without having an external object at which that is aimed. So that you can be moved by music at the same time you are moved against American foreign policy. And I think that’s our hope as performers.

Robert Coover in conversation with Amitav Ghosh and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

Podcast • November 20, 2008

Amitav Ghosh and his Sea of Poppies

The Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh brings the British Empire to life again — the other side of the story, so to speak, from the other side of the world. If we’d had his wondrous new novel, Sea of Poppies, six years ago, we might have ...

ghosh1The Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh brings the British Empire to life again — the other side of the story, so to speak, from the other side of the world. If we’d had his wondrous new novel, Sea of Poppies, six years ago, we might have saved ourselves the folly of Iraq. Instead, you could argue, we reenacted the cruel absurdities of superpower addiction and the illusions that weave themelves around it.

Sea of Poppies, the start of a projected trilogy on Britain’s Opium Wars against China, elaborates the premise that, as Ghosh says in conversation, “basically, it was opium revenues that made the British Raj in India possible. Indeed, it was silently acknowledged by the British who resisted all attempts to end the opium trade until the 1920s. In fact the British Empire didn’t long outlive the opium trade.”

Our own foreign-oil habit — yours and mine — suggests itself as the counterpart addiction that drives the American empire. Evangelical bullying and the theology of “freedom” are vital links. President Bush’s line, justifying the invasion of Iraq, has been: “I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.” In Sea of Poppies, Ghosh’s kingpin Ben Burnham — closely modeled on historical figures from the Raj — has no trouble invoking his God in the service of opium.

“One of my countrymen has put the matter very simply,” as Burnham says in the novel. “‘Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.’ Truer words, I believe, were never spoken. If it is God’s will that opium be used as an instrument to open China to his teachings, then so be it. For myself, I confess I can see no reason why any Englishman should abet the Manchu tyrant in depriving the people of China of this miraculous substance.”

Popular will, democracy, representative government have as little to do with the action of Ghosh’s novel as Congress did with the war in Iraq. “Parliament?” Ben Burnham scoffs to a disbelieving Indian raja. “Parliament,” Burnham laughs, “will not know of the war until it is over. Be assured, sir, that if such matters were left to Parliament there would be no Empire.”

Our free-ranging conversation touches on, among other things, Niall Ferguson‘s apology for empire; the narrowing discourse in American media; Afghanistan and Pakistan today; the polyglot world of sailing ships; the anthropological eye; and the history of Asian words in English.

It is not his project as a novelist and an Indian, Amitav Ghosh remarks, to break the “imperial gaze” of British writers from Kipling to Conrad. Rather he would love to recapture the cosmopolitan vision of the American, Herman Melville — the real precursor, he says, of Barack Obama.

Conrad’s work really doesn’t interest me that much… Conrad is writing about the age of steam, as opposed to the age of sail, which is what really interests me. The writers who have profoundly influenced me and my project are Americans, Melville most of all. To me, Melville is the greatest writer that America has ever produced. And I find his writing, his projects, so rewarding in every sense… his take his anthropological projects like Typee, or his ethnographies of the ship, like White Jacket. “Benito Cereno” precisely addresses the question of repression and rebellion, a really amazing story. Benito Cereno was based upon an episode in the memoirs of Andrew Delano, who was actually an opium trader, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ancestor…

One of the most wonderful things about Melville is that he was just about the only one of the nineteenth century nautical writers who paid enough attention to the world of the sea to actually write about Indian sailors. Even Conrad, when he does write about Indian sailors writes them as faceless and demonizes them. Melville is much more open-minded, much more curious. He’s Obama’s true precursor if you ask me.

Melville has a level of curiosity, a level of engagement with the world that is completely absent from 19th century English writing. Even though England has a long connection with Asia, it is so rare actually to find a believable representation of an Asian in English books. In Melville, on the other hand, you remember in Moby Dick, the 40th chapter, all of the sailors sing in different languages, and then suddenly you discover that this ship, which is a Nantucket whaling ship, actually has forty different nationalities on board, including Indians. In those ways, Ishmael — there you have him, a figure who is articulating a very challenging view of our relationship with nature, in terms of attention to nature; and the whole idea of the destructiveness — both the interest of whales and the horror of killing whales, and at the same time the joys of men working together in killing whales. All of these things are so richly and ambiguously rendered in Melville. In many ways, his work is inexhaustible in its inspiration.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 19, 2008.

 

So the first homework assignment, kids, is: read Moby Dick.