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 ...

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 ...

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 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 ...

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 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.