From the Archives • March 12, 2014

Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: "Striving is the Back Story"

Vijay Iyer brings rare stuff to jazz piano, starting with a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics. Gujarati stick dances and Bhajan devotional songs from Northern India are in his blood, well mixed by now with the pop sounds of a boyhood in Rochester, New York: Prince and James Brown, then Miles and Monk.

 

Vijay Iyer brings rare stuff to jazz piano, starting with a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics. Gujarati stick dances and Bhajan devotional songs from Northern India are in his blood, well mixed by now with the pop sounds of a boyhood in Rochester, New York: Prince and James Brown, then Miles and Monk. He brings also — to his Birdland debut this Spring, and to his new CD, Historicity — bassist Stephan Crump and the drum prodigy Marcus Gilmore, who just happens to be the grandson of the last living drum giant of the Forties, the eternally experimental Roy Haynes. But the sum of Vijay Iyer’s gifts is more exciting than any of the parts. He brings to improvisational music, most of all, the aura of an art starting fresh, just beginning — not looking back, much less winding down.

Could we talk, I inquire, about the space he seems to be building out between cultures and eras, between East and West, between the music that marked the American Century at its best and whatever it is that’s trying to happen next? So, on the morning after his opening gig at Birdland, Vijay Iyer is sitting at the piano in a rehearsal studio just off Times Square, making conversation in much the same confident probing spirit he makes music.

I identify with the culture of cities. I find cities to be inherently transnational… And that reflects my own perspective, and my own sense of hybridity and the dynamics that unfold in the music I make…

I was an improviser… I started on violin and then on piano learned to play by improvising. There was never any boundary between improvising and playing a song. It was really the same thing for me. That was how I learned to play. And really, that’s how we as humans learn to do almost everything… It’s the way we stumble around in the world.

Most of our social network as a family was in this burgeoning Indian community in Rochester, New York. That was where my Indianness existed, with family and with family friends. But in my neighborhood or in my school, Indianness was more a mark of difference, and something that had to be negotiated. There was this dual existence, which is reminiscent of Du Bois’ double-consciousness kind of thing. The Karma of Brown Folk…

I have this other heritage, and that heritage is a very important part of who I am, and it’s an important part of my music. But I’ve been here as long as anybody else my age. I was born and raised here and 100 percent immersed in American culture. To me, it was never a question of how American I was, but to others it is always a question…

The drummers are the real history of the music. The rhythm is where the music lives and grows…. I wish I was a drummer. I try to connect with the drummer and do what the drummer does. When you link with the drummer, everything sounds better. You get that resonance, that sympathetic action. That’s part of what music is: the sound of people moving together.

Here in New York…there are people playing together just for fun, or for mutual betterment…. People are in it because they love it, and that love is constantly expressed in wonder at new music and at new possibilities and new discoveries and new talent, new players on the scene who have something new to offer.
Architecture is a fair metaphor. The analogy holds up. Architecture is about creating spaces. You’re creating spaces for people to move around in. That’s what we’re doing. And you want people to be free, but you also want to offer them things, to offer them possibilities. You want to frame their activities in a way that helps infuse it with meaning.

My particular American experience is one of improvisation and navigation through a certain set of challenges and opportunities… For me, as a person of color in America, I’ve looked to histories of other communities of color in America as an orienting guideline. And that’s part of what led me to really stay with this music: the history of the African American pioneers who dreamed the impossible and made this music happen… That striving is the back-story for this music. When you talk about improvised music, it’s as William Parker says: “In order to survive, the music was invented.” Not to match my struggles with theirs—I had a very different path, and my parents had a very different circumstance—but they also came here with very little, and had to build something.

Vijay Iyer in conversation with Chris Lydon in New York City, June 17, 2010.

Podcast • July 1, 2013

Qais Akbar Omar: What We Owe the Afghans

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood ...
Qais Akbar Omar's view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes.  The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 2006, in flight from the fighting in Kabul.

Qais Akbar Omar’s view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes. The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 1993 When he went back and took this photo in 2006, the Buddhas were gone.

qais omar akbar

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood in Heaven and a civil war in Hell. In the most exciting days of his life, we’re sharing his idyllic view of the Bamyan valley from the eyes of the giant Buddha statues, before the Taliban blew them up. Then come the breakdown years of holy gangsterism and grotesque cruelty. Alongside young Qais, we’re staring down mad dogs who mean to tear him apart — and a man, believe it or not, making ready to bite him to death.

Qais Akbar Omar was studying business at Brandeis University when we started our conversations a year ago. Since then he has entered Leslie Epstein’s graduate program in novel writing at Boston University. Rug making is the link, as it also underlies the “strategic patience” he is recommending to Americans in the world. His grandfather was a rug trader, but young Qais was the first in his line to learn the rug-maker’s knots. When he started writing his personal history, he started noticing “how words are like knots in a carpet. One connects to the next until several make a thought, the way knots make a pattern.” He speaks now of this first book, A Fort of Nine Towers, as “the most complex and difficult carpet I have ever woven.” Of the post-American Afghanistan emerging, he says: “I know it will take a long time. I am a carpet weaver. I know how, slowly, one knot follows another until a pattern appears.”

In all his adventures and in his cathartic recounting of horrific fear, pain and loss, Qais has absorbed and adopted the stoic voice of his beloved grandfather. Old man and teenager are held together at one point in a ditch filled with dead bodies, under a sign promising “you will not walk out alive.” His grandfather tells Qais to write an answer in charcoal on their cell wall: “Death only breaks the cage, but it does not hurt the bird.”

There’s a challenge in this tempered memoir of a people, a culture and a U.S. warzone we barely got to know: “I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart,” Qais writes. “Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.” For American readers the particular challenge, as I take it, is to look inward at the presumption and folly of our faraway military interventions. In this case: our appropriation of Afghanistan as a key battlefield of the Cold War.

Of the Americans’ long half-trillion-dollar engagement, direct and covert, for 30 years (his own lifetime) Qais Akbar Omar writes scathingly: “We are waiting to see what they will build, besides their military bases.” What Americans have not helped Afghans build is sewers, a electrical grid or clean-water systems. What we have not learned is the double lesson dealt to Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.: that the Pushtun tribesmen of the Central Asian mountains are not to be dominated by outsiders; and that they have their own venerable shuras and the loya jirga, or grand council, for managing their many differences.

“One thing Afghans talk about,” Omar is saying, “is that Europeans and Americans owe Afghanistan this much — to bring peace to this country for defeating the Soviets and ending the Cold War.”

The way it works in Afghanistan is that with the local shura or jirga you invite the head of the town or the heads of each tribe and you sit together in a big mosque. Whether it takes one day or one month you talk about things and you come to solutions, and go on to the next thing… Militarily you fight with them for centuries. And they fight back. Afghanistan is 75 percent mountain, and every Afghan who fights back believes he is a child of the mountain. How do you fight the mountain and its children? It just doesn’t work that way. The best way is the tradition of the jirga or shura. Where is the problem? Where is the solution everyone benefits from? And then let’s go for that.

Qais Akbar Omar in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 2013.

Podcast • May 12, 2013

William Dalrymple: Lessons Too Late on Afghanistan

For President Obama, William Dalrymple inscribed his history of Britain’s First Afghan War (1839 – 42), “I wish I’d written this ten years ago.” In truth it might have made no difference at all in ...

For President Obama, William Dalrymple inscribed his history of Britain’s First Afghan War (1839 – 42), “I wish I’d written this ten years ago.” In truth it might have made no difference at all in 2003 to the Bush team, then diverting its military fire to Iraq. But for the rest of us this gruesome tale, Return of a King, might have clarified the clichés about Afghanistan the graveyard of empires — and the abounding cruelties, waste, hatred and blowback that come with invading it.

For American readers, Dalrymple’s bloody, brilliant narrative of Britain’s greatest imperial catastrophe asks anew why our governments have followed the same arrogant course — how Britain can still be used to represent the lure of empire, not the sorrows and the price of empire. What if the rule had been: “wherever the US finds itself embroiled in a place with an English cemetery: go home!”

June 11, 2012

Real India: a land soon without tigers, and maybe orchids

Suprabha Seshan -- a gardener and guardian of the land, living for the last 17 years in the wild rain forest of Kerala, near the southwest tip of India -- is taking a fierce run here at the glad gab in Bangalore about the software boom, jobs, sudden wealth, the "New India," which she believes has delivered itself into a deadly trap of consumerism, pollution, ruined forests and rivers, a "virtual" prosperity but a profoundly un-natural India. It is a New India, in short, without tigers or, soon, even orchids. But Ms. Seshan is scathing in a light, laughing, maybe specially Indian way.

BANGALORE — Suprabha Seshan — a gardener and guardian of the land, living for the last 17 years in the wild rain forest of Kerala, near the southwest tip of India — is taking a fierce run here at the glad gab in Bangalore about the software boom, jobs, sudden wealth, the “New India,” which she believes has delivered itself into a deadly trap of consumerism, pollution, ruined forests and rivers, a “virtual” prosperity but a profoundly un-natural India. It is a New India, in short, without tigers or, soon, even orchids. But Ms. Seshan is scathing in a light, laughing, maybe specially Indian way. It’s an underlying premise among Indian chatterers, as they keep telling us, that often the best point in an argument is one whose direct opposite may sound equally plausible, even true. So let the conversation continue, through many paradoxes. “Is it possible,” she asks herself in conversation, “to live a life without contradiction?” — i.e. without petroleum, chemical fertilizers, technology? “In today’s society,” she answers, “it’s not possible.” There’s a cutting Indian edge here on the global contradictions of growth in a collapsing biosphere. Tea and eucalyptus plantations under the British Raj upset the balance and beauty of the green range of India’s Western Ghats in the 19th Century, and destroyed vast natural forest lands — but not so much that the state of Kerala doesn’t still market its mountains as “God’s own country.” For 20 years now there’s been an eco-tourism boom in Suprabha’s jungle — with roads, hotels, breaking-up of farms and new construction to serve high-end and mass visitors. The “eco” industry gets its name from the jungle, Suprabha says, but the jungle is withering. Ayurvedic medicine, the rage in New Delhi as well as Los Angeles, draws heavily on plants from Kerala wilds, “but where will we get them in a few years?” Better eco-tourism, I wonder, than the coal and bauxite mining that is churning a tribal rebellion in Eastern India? “Mining is rape,” Suprabha responds. “Eco-tourism is prostitution.” The good news from her own two decades on 60-plus acres in the wild is that forests and all their complexity do grow back. “The forest will return if given the chance. We call it ‘gardening back the biosphere.’ It can be done.” The bad news is that no one in or out of power will say “no” to eco-tourism and the promise of jobs. How, I asked her, will all this be remembered in the emerging story of the new India?

SS: I cannot relate with the new India at all. We have nothing in common in terms of what we seek as a possible future. The new India is appalling to me, if the new India means the exclusion of the forests. The new India means the end of nature to me. The two cannot go together: this is an apocalypse in the making. Because what is new “Shining” India going to shine with if it doesn’t have its rivers and its plants and its forests? What will it go forth with? CL: What piece of the old India are you invoking? And what is it in the old India that might ring an alarm? SS: The old India, what little I’ve known, is the diversity of things, the beauty and the sacredness and the diversity of things. In people, in the land, in trees and plants. Everything was sacred, and this was commonly felt. But modern industrial civilization, colonialism, all the powers that be have made it their special mission to destroy that relationship. The sacred doesn’t mean worship necessarily. The sacred means seeing each thing for what it is, and that it has its own right to be. And unfortunately it seems that a lot of mainstream religion has ritualized the sacred and has made an idol out of the sacred. So the sacred is now a plastic idol ringed by lights in someone’s concrete home. And so you worship your elephant that way. And meanwhile, the actual elephant is dying of tuberculosis, and herpes virus.  So my question has always been with regard to the so-called famous Indian tradition which is spiritual and so on: it’s become so symbolized and so ritualized and so separated from the actual earth that it has lost its meaning. It is virtual. It’s a virtual religion. CL: You sound like high Hindu priests I’ve read about, who teach this reverence for the single wasp, for every form of life… Is that a foothold for India to catch, against environmental disaster? This reverence for the planet, for life. SS: Reverence of any kind, of course, would be a very very powerful foothold. But I just don’t see it. Except in textbooks and stories. I do feel the modern media are crowding them out. Because you can have this experience of nature, of the wild, of the sacred, of anything, and you can almost believe that it’s true. And that’s the danger of the new technology to me: you can track a tiger in the forest through your computer and feel all that adrenaline rush, but you don’t have a relationship with a tiger. Because when you are with a tiger in the forest and your adrenaline rushes you’re a life and death situation… One gym instructor told me in the city, when I told him I live in the forest. He said “Oh, the jungle is a deadly place to booze!” That’s a crude version of what a lot of people do. They go to the jungle and they’re shut away from the jungle. The new technologies and this kind of removal that we see: it’s a severing that’s happened. They’re blind when they go to the forest. They have no means to look at the forest, to see it in a simple way. Just the beauty of it, let alone sacredness. Sacredness is so much more, it’s part of a life and a relationship, a recognition that we all have our spaces and relations with each other.

The deeper messages of entering the forest, and the silence, and the sensitivity, opening up and so on. That is a very quiet thing. That can’t happen in the way outdoor education is being sold to people: you work in an IT company and then you go for a weekend to the forest and then you have this outward bound experience. I don’t think it can happen like that. A relationship with nature is built over generations for the human species — the human species has come out of this million-year evolution, eye-to-eye contact with snakes, and elephants, and plants. You can’t really do it instantly. But a lot can be done: awareness is a pretty instant thing. People can be suddenly opened up in a pretty instant way. But, for that to build into a living relationship of sensitivity and mutual care, I don’t think that is so simple.

Suprabha Seshan in conversation with Chris Lydon in Bangalore, India. July, 2010

Podcast • April 14, 2011

Pratap Mehta: Pakistan’s Perpetual Identity Crisis

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pratap Bhanu Mehta (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3)Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political theorist and intellectual historian based in New Delhi, is leading us through another reflection on the ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pratap Bhanu Mehta (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political theorist and intellectual historian based in New Delhi, is leading us through another reflection on the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.

The reconsideration of partition is a critical, current existential question not only for South Asians, but also for Americans who watch the continuous outrages from Taliban and CIA sanctuaries inside Pakistan. It’s a question on many levels — terrorism, geopolitics, ethnicity and religion — but, Pratap Mehta says, “it’s fundamentally the question of the identity of a country.”

In his telling of the partition story, the contemporary reality of Pakistan grew out of a failure to answer a core challenge of creating a nation-state: how do you protect a minority? It’s Mehta’s view that the framers of the modern subcontinent — notably Gandhi, Jinnah & Nehru — never imagined a stable solution to this question. He blames two shortcomings of the political discourse at the time of India’s independence:

The first is that it was always assumed that the pull of religious identities in India is so deep that any conception of citizenship that fully detaches the idea of citizenship from religious identity is not going to be a tenable one.

The second is that Gandhi in particular, and the Congress Party in general, had a conception of India which was really a kind of federation of communities. So the Congress Party saw [the creation of India] as about friendship among a federation of communities, not as a project of liberating individuals from the burden of community identity to be whatever it is that they wished to be.

The other way of thinking about this, which is to think about a conception of citizenship where identities matter less to what political rights you have, that was never considered seriously as a political project. Perhaps that would have provided a much more ideologically coherent way of dealing with the challenges of creating a modern nation-state.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, April 12, 2011.

Unlike many other Open Source talkers on Pakistan, Pratap Mehta does not immediately link its Islamization to the United States and its 1980s jihad against the Soviets. Reagan and his CIA-Mujahideen military complex were indeed powerful players in the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, he agrees, but the turn began first during a national identity crisis precipitated by another partition, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Suddenly, Mehta is telling us, Pakistan could no longer define itself as the unique homeland for Muslims in the subcontinent. In search of identity, and distinction from its new neighbor to the east, Pakistan turned towards a West Asian brand of Islam, the hardline Saudi Wahhabism that has become a definitive ideology in today’s Islamic extremism.

Mehta is hopeful, though, that in open democratic elections Islamic parties would remain relatively marginalized, that despite the push to convert Pakistan into a West Asian style Islamic state since 1971, “the cultural weight of it being a South Asian country” with a tradition of secular Islam “remains strong enough to be an antidote.”

Podcast • February 10, 2011

India-Pakistan: Vazira Zamindar on the raw wound of Partition

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Vazira Zamindar. (30 minutes, 16 mb mp3) Time April 22, 1946: “MOHAMED ALI JINNAH: His Moslem tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow” Vazira Zamindar is filling in ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Vazira Zamindar. (30 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

Time April 22, 1946: “MOHAMED ALI JINNAH: His Moslem tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow”

Vazira Zamindar is filling in a critical back story of fury and fear in our world, The Long Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and after. It was one of the great post-colonial wounds, and it keeps on wounding, visibly and invisibly. Partition has been the root of endless public miseries: ethnic cleansing, chronic warfare, constructed “national” and religious hatreds. It’s also, as Professor Zamindar testifies for herself, “a wound within.” It’s the mother of many millions of individual identity crises that seem never to go away.

Ahmed Rashid’s recent “lament for a troubled Pakistan” makes a similar zig-zag connection from 1947 to 2011, from the corrupted legacy of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and the frenzied fundamentalism behind the murder last month of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab state. He writes: “Jinnah was a liberal, consensual, inspired Muslim who categorically and repeatedly stated that Pakistan would be a state for Muslims to pursue their religion and culture, but never an Islamic state. He welcomed all minorities to live and worship in freedom. Jinnah himself never sold his house in Bombay. That was the kind of vision needed for a new country that was multicultural and multi-ethnic, one that had been the seat of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. That was the Pakistan we grew up in, in the 1960s and 1970s. But that Pakistan is now rapidly being lost…”

Vazira Zamindar, on the history faculty at Brown, is herself a child of one of those many “divided families” that never saw the division coming. Jinnah, she is reminding us, was a cosmopolitan lawyer who never envisioned an Islamist state.

Something that’s easily forgotten today is that the whole region was a multi-religious society, and people lived together… [with] class conflicts, and ethnic conflicts, and resource conflicts which often got translated in terms of religious boundaries… And still it was a profoundly multi-religious society, so any project to create a Muslim Pakistan or a Hindu India would necessarily have to be an extremely violent one…

The argument for Partition was decided in 1947 by a narrow elite. Instructively, ironically now, the Muslim religious leadership at the time opposed partition. Lord Mountbatten of Burma, the last British viceroy, was accused of rushing it. Nehru and Jinnah can both be charged with a heedless ambiguity about the consequences. A democratic choice in the matter would have come out differently, Vazira Zamindar is saying: “The way people actually live on the ground … is with a heterodoxy of practices. People learn to live together in ways that governments don’t learn to live together. 

I would argue that in 1947, it was still unclear how these two entities called India and Pakistan would inscribe themselves as two nation-states. I think it is the following decade that’s quite decisive, and one could say it’s still an ongoing process of creating this distinction: the need to constantly articulate this distinction, through hostilities, through enmity, through making the border between these two states almost impossible for citizens of the region to cross.

There is a line on the ground that disappears very quickly when people cross it.

Vazira Zamindar in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, January 31, 2011.

We are talking about the many reasons Partition is debated to this day. The fact that people keep reflecting on the question marks the spot, Vazira Zamindar says, to begin “a critique of the present… I want to hold onto that question as a sign that people can still imagine a multi-religious society. It’s a sign that people are fed up with our terribly divided present, that they don’t want these wars. They don’t want conflict.”

Podcast • November 16, 2010

Najam Sethi: A Pakistani Prescription for Af-Pak Peace

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Najam Sethi (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3) Photo: Juliana FriendNajam Sethi is the man any of us would want to know in Pakistan. He’s the man we might ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Najam Sethi (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Photo: Juliana Friend

Najam Sethi is the man any of us would want to know in Pakistan. He’s the man we might like — on a very brave day — to be. He’s got the voice of a reasonable Pakistani patriot, also of a free-wheeling American sort of peacenik and liberal. Standard bearer of independent elite journalism in Pakistan, Najam Sethi has been arrested and jailed in the 70, 80s and 90s by Pakistani governments of different stripes. In the last few years he’s had death threats from Taliban thugs, too. Always his “offense” is that gabby critical openness we like about him.

There are people, oddly enough, who call Najam Sethi a stooge for the US and India, but listen here to his denunciation of American ignorance, neglect and hypocrisy; and consider the most appealing case I’ve heard directly for Pakistan’s interest. What Pakistan needs is a friendly “good Taliban” regime in Kabul, Najam Sethi is saying. What it cannot abide is an Islamist trouble-maker, or a foothold for Indian mischief.

I am asking my American question: why not bug out of an Afghanistan war we wouldn’t want to win; and, while we’re at it, end a dysfunctional affair with Pakistan that has produced mainly white-heat anti-Americanism. It’s a thought that doesn’t tempt him — to leave a failing democracy of 180-million people in an anti-American frenzy, with nuclear weapons and a mostly young population. “If you leave that,” he says, “… you ain’t seen nothing yet.” The American exit from Afghanistan will be slow and drawn-out. A good withdrawal will depend on a joint American-Pakistani mission to isolate “good” and “bad” Taliban from “bad” Al Qaeda — and then shoo-ing Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan — dead or in flight to Yemen.

My main concern is not patriotism or nationalism. It’s that Pakistan should not fall victim to imperialist policies by Pakistan’s military or by the Pentagon in the region. I’d like to see a prosperous, safe, secure, secular Pakistan. I’d like to see a rollback of radical political Islam. I think if you don’t give the Pakistani military a certain degree of security, it is capable of adventures in the area ruinous for Pakistan and for the region. I’d like Pakistan to build peace with India. I’d like the Americans to withdraw from Afghanistan. I don’t mind if the Taliban rule Afghanistan. But I would mind very much if they began to export their ideology to Pakistan. I’d certainly like to see the Pakistani military taking its rightful place beneath the civilians, not above the civilians. And I’d like to see the civilians in Pakistan flourish and prosper. The good news here is that civilians now across the board want to redress civil-military relations. They’re not happy with the Pakistan Army’s military adventures in India and Afghanistan. The civilians want to build peace in the region. They want to aid and they want to trade, and they want to build an enlightened country. And I want to be part of that process.

Najam Sethi with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown, November 4, 2010

Podcast • October 25, 2010

V. S. Naipaul’s "Gloomy Clarity" about Africa, and Himself

V. S. Naipaul, in the winter of his long writing life, doesn’t disguise his melancholy or his frailty. Still, his inquisitorial eye and his magic with a prose sentence have not abandoned him, nor the ...

V. S. Naipaul, in the winter of his long writing life, doesn’t disguise his melancholy or his frailty. Still, his inquisitorial eye and his magic with a prose sentence have not abandoned him, nor the organ tones of his mesmerizing voice. In conversation he relishes my suggestion of magic — his new book on Africa is full of it. But when I cite some favorite examples of his inspired sentence-making, he recalls only hard labor in the cause of “gloomy clarity,” his signature effect. “I wrote that very carefully,” he intones. Of his non-fiction process — combining reading, field observation and interviewing — he says: “I see what is to be done, and I do it.” At a public reading the night before we spoke, the question came: what was the happiest moment of your writing career? “I suppose it would have occurred when one was very young. Because, you know, there are no happy moments now. When you are young the future is a great big ball, and anything is possible. So if you do a good review for The New Statesman and you feel good, it can make you quite happy, although it is a petty business… I know the future is small and eternally shrinking around me.”

Naipaul’s new book is called The Masque of Africa: it’s an inquiry not into politics or progress but into religion broadly: the magical systems of belief in Old Africa. “The new religions, Islam and Christianity, are just on the top,” says a classic Naipaul informant, a lawyer and former university dean in Gabon; his punchline is a perfect short Naipaulian thematic sentence: “Inside us is the forest.” Africa might well be better off today, Naipaul supposes, had its “forest beliefs” been spared foreign intrusions. Africa is a “wounded civilization,” he reflects, applying the phrase he used in one of several books on his ancestral India. But there is no going back, and perhaps no recovery from the loss of self and sovereignty. Naipaul was not at all impressed with my own “fantasy” that in both India and Africa it may be time, for some anyway, to rediscover the village possibilities, the chance that “Things Come Together.” Naipaul himself, of course, fled the colony (Trinidad) for the capital (London) long ago. His verdict is final: “the village is an awful place.”

On his best behavior, V. S. Naipaul knows how to be entertainingly grumpy. He does not forgive the English literary establishment for cold-shouldering him these many years, for snubbing even his Nobel Prize in 2001. He remembers one official personage sniffing: “It isn’t as though it’s the Booker Prize.” He is proud to have marked Tony Blair as a “pirate,” long before the Iraq War. “A calamity,” he judged. Wouldn’t he care, I asked, to offend somebody before we were done? “No, no, no, no,” insisted. “That is not part of my job.”

Podcast • September 3, 2010

Real India: Ashis Nandy’s ‘intimate enemies’

NEW DELHI — Ashis Nandy has a big idea about “loss and recovery” in the history of colonialism. The bumpersticker version is that the conquerors and colonists lose in the end; the vanquished victims win. ...

NEW DELHI — Ashis Nandy has a big idea about “loss and recovery” in the history of colonialism. The bumpersticker version is that the conquerors and colonists lose in the end; the vanquished victims win. He is talking, of course, about England and India. By chance on the day of our conversation, England’s new prime minister David Cameron was visiting New Delhi — hat in hand, shopping for deals in the land that now owns Jaguar autos and most of British steelmaking, the only place (we read in the papers) where British Petroleum might find a bailout buyer, if it had to. But Ashis Nandy is keeping score not of capital accounts but, in effect, of moral and spiritual well-being. Taking many subtle measures of “post-colonial consciousness,” he finds India mending and Britain still warped and wounded by its old habit of domination. But colonialism, as Nandy observes it, does not end when the colonists are finally forced out. The “hidden message of colonialism” and the beguiling message of Ashis Nandy’s most famous book, The Intimate Enemy, is that “what others can do to you, you also can do to your own kind.” In the deep emotional compact that is colonialism, native elites learn to play by the rules of the hegemon’s game — the game known today, in a word, as “development.” With the result that in our post-colonial world, “the colonial mantle is now worn by native regimes” on most of the planet, “who are willing to do what the colonial powers did.”

Ashis Nandy is a widely beloved independent scholar, a social-psychological theorist, a prolific writer and talker “beyond category.” Our conversation, too, roams beyond borders and disciplines:

AN:Malcolm Muggeridge once said that Indians are the only surviving English in the world. I would go further. I think that only in India will you find Victorian England surviving in pockets so confidently that you can consider it, in museumized form, the last remaining vestige of Victorian England. Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse, forgotten in England, survive here as the standards of detective and comic novels. There are people here who can give you street directions in London without ever having been there…

CL: Barack Obama will be coming to India in November. What would you want him to know about this country in a young century?

AN: I’d say he would be wise for him not to take the middle class as the be-all-and-end-all in India. The first principle is that he must take into account how the majority of Indians think about public life and global politics… Indians are looking for a more human and compassionate regime. Indians are not accustomed to impersonal government which works like a well-oiled machine, which gives them high growth rates but cannot take care of the more obscene forms of poverty and destitution. Actually, if you look at it, poverty is not a problem in India. Many sectors of Indians have lived in poverty for a long time, and their needs are very little. That is why most surveys show that most Indians are happy with their economic state though large sectors live in poverty. I think our problem is not so much poverty as destitution, what you might call absolute poverty where, if you don’t have the money you starve to death. You don’t starve to death in a tribal society for want of money. Only if the whole community doesn’t have money do you starve to death. I suspect that instead of trying to pull people above the poverty line, if we could directly attack this kind of destitution, we shall go much further.

CL: How would you attack it?

AN: By providing direct support to impoverished families — instead of a process of trickle-down effort where, by the time it trickles down, the bottom 10 percent will die perhaps, so you will eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor. Actually this has happened in many countries. I don’t want it to happen in India. I don’t think Obama can do anything about that, but he can at least be aware that the Indians he will be talking to are not the whole of India. They are a small minority.

A compassionate society is not impossible in India. It is tacitly accepted that it would be better that way, and an open society gives you scope to fight for it. But these battles are delegitimized by new power structures that Indians are not accustomed to handling. For example India never had multi-national corporations. They never had this plethora of billionaires who bestride Indian public life now in such a flamboyant manner, pontificating about everything. Indians are not used to this kind of heavy media exposure. They have not developed the kind of skepticism that Americans have after watching television for 60 years; Indians have seen it only for 15 years or so. Their judgments are too influenced by media. The newspapers are trying to imitate television now, becoming entertainment dailies instead of newspapers.

So it looks as if this is all of India: information technology; this proliferation of engineers and technical education of all kinds; the large number of Singapore-style malls you see in all Indian cities; the fashion parrots; Bollywood. These seem to be the New India, but it is not the New India.

New India is those who embarrass you by scratching their backs with forks, sitting in Parliament. That’s the New India, and you don’t like to recognize them because they’re new to power, new to the urbanity to which you are accustomed. Even that embarrassment that the middle class feels about these crude, slightly rustic hillbillies coming to power — that represents something of the New India, because they’ve expanded political participation and released new energies from the bottom of the society. New kinds of political leaders will come from these people, or at least from their children. This is the price you pay for democracy and an open society. The challenge is not to close up society and hand over initiative only to the technocrats. The challenge is how to allow to allow greater political participation and listen to the voice of the people.

Ashis Nandy in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • September 3, 2010

Real India: Namita Gokhale: the revolution will be written!

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Namita Gokhale (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Namita Gokhale — novelist, publisher, sparkplug of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival — says the essential (maybe the ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Namita Gokhale (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Namita Gokhale — novelist, publisher, sparkplug of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival — says the essential (maybe the only) revolution in India today is literary. She’s envisioning something like a galactic explosion outward from a Sanskritic big bang of three or maybe five thousand years ago. Abetted by digital technology, in deep sync with the info-tech surge in the Indian economy, her Indian literary supernova today is a force for liberating language communities, women and what used to be “untouchable” or “unhearable” voices. “Many languages, one literature” is the stand-by mantra of Indian writers. “Simultaneous” and “subversive” are the contemporary tags on a booming Indian literary space that she says is “beginning to see itself in its own mirror.”

It is the multiplicity of voices. It’s the spaces both democratic and technological — you’ve had a very stratified society for thousands of years. People are breaking out into an individual and individuated understanding of themselves. It’s a big deal for women to be able to be given new spaces, for people from different castes, different repressive backgrounds to be given new spaces and equal opportunities.

There’s huge collateral damage … but it is a new India in the hope that many people bring, with education, with the right to assert themselves. Of course all this hope is surrounded by hopelessness and damage. But there is a new India, fighting for its voice through many, many languages, through many literary traditions coming together to speak not as one voice, because in India we would never speak as one voice. Not in an orchestra either, because an orchestra is not an Indian concept. But in what is called a jugalbandi. Jugalbandi is when two people sing and perform together in a way that has complex classical structures, but is completely improvised in that moment. That is a Jugalbandi…

Namita Gokhale in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010