India As Fiction

I don’t have an exhaustive list – Indian literature is just too extensive and too diverse. I also have not read her writers in anything other than English and Urdu. That may still not represent a significant portion of India’s literary output. But India loves her books – anyone going to Kerala or walking into cafes in Calcutta will know what I mean. In fact, there was a Le Monde Diplomatique essay about the Kerala publishing industry and the love of books there called Kerala: Mad About Books.

Sixth on the list of seven objectives of Kerala’s communist-led state government’s literacy mission is “provision of facilities for library and reading rooms for creating an environment conducive for literacy efforts and a learning society”.

The grassroots level activism that brought about the literacy movement continues in the form of publishers like KSSP (Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad), which was formed in 1962 to publish scientific literature in Malayalam. Today KSSP continues its practice of door-to-door sales and Kala Jathas (literacy rallies). According to KK Krishna Kumar, its former president, KSSP publishes around 60-100 titles and sells books worth Rs 10-15m ($200,000-$300,000) every year.

Anyways, there have been rather ‘famous’ names winning awards recently some of whom are actually worth reading. Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss comes to mind. Adiga’s White Tiger does not!

Of course, the late, great Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Shame, and the very popular (though less read) Satanic Verses. I believe that Rushdie has died as a writer since his move to the USA (no necessary connection), but the three works mentioned here remain masterpieces. Certainly Midnight’s Children can be accused of overwhelming the modern Indian novel with its innovation and audacity. Regardless, it remains a pivotal pieces of work.

Amit Chaudari is a beautiful, intelligent and sensitive writer. His Freedom Song and the more recent The Immortals are worth the effort.

Amitav Ghosh, whose In An Antique Land, is one of the most beautiful books I have read in a long, long time. It has (we are all adults here), truly one of the most evocative and sensual descriptions of a dance  – I had ever read! Ghosh’s prose is precise, concise and visual, an eye that concentrates on the essentials of the action, something that all photographers can learn from. Here is how he describes the scene, on a hot evening, in the remoteness of a village in remote Egypt:

It was long past sunset now, and the faces around the bridal couple were glowing in the light of a single kerosene lamp. The drum-beat on the wash-basin was a measured, gentle one and when I pushed my way into the center of the crowd I saw that the dancer was a young girl, dressed in a simple, printed cotton dress, with a long scarf tied around the waist. Both her hands were on her hips, and she was dancing with her eyes fixed on the ground in front of her, moving her hips with a slow, languid grace, backwards and forwards while the rest of her body stayed still, almost immobile, except for the quick, circular motion of her feet. Then gradually, almost imperceptibly, the tempo of the beat quickened, and somebody called out the first line of a chant, khadnaha min wasat al-dar, ‘we took her from her father’s house’, and the crowd shouted back, wa abuha ga’id za’alan, ‘while her father sat there bereft’. Then the single voice again, khadnaha bi al-saif al-madi,we took her with a sharpened sword’, followed by a massed refrain, wa abuha makansh radi, ‘because her father wouldn’t consent.’

The crowd pressed closer with the quickening of the beat, and as the voices and the clapping grew louder, the girl, in response, raised and arm and flexed it above her head in a graceful arc. Her body was turning now, rotating slowly in the same place, her hips moving faster while the crowd around her clapped and stamped, roaring their approval at the tops of their voices. Gradually, the beat grew quicker, blurring into a tattoo of drumbeats, and in response her torso froze into a stillness, while her hips and waist moved even faster, in exact counterpoint, in a pattern of movement that became a perfect abstraction of eroticism, a figurative geometry of lovemaking, pounding back and forth at a dizzying speed until at last the final beat rang out and she escaped into the crowd, laughing.

Amitav Ghosh, from In An Antique Land

Qurratullain Haider penned in Urdu quite possibly the great Indian novel, River of Fire, and later did her own translation of it into English. A classic, and a must read indeed. It is vast in its scope and truly amongst the regions great books.

Upamanyu Chatterjee wrote what I think is also a great Indian novel, English, August – about a young Indian man forced by circumstance to take up a job in a middle-of-nowhere town with the Indian Civil Service, and longing to do nothing more than smoke pot and sleep! It is perhaps one of the finest studies of the divide between those who are called to serve as civil servants, and the communities they are expected to administer. And it is laugh-out-loud hilarious to boot!

Mulk Raj Anand has written a wonderful book called Untouchable.

Or Mukel Kesevan’s interesting attempt at a partition era book called Looking Through Glass.

I think someone mentioned Rohinten Mistry earlier (recently famous for being stopped repeatedly at airports by our fine, intelligent  Homeland Security officers while he was on a USA book tour. He cancelled it and returned home!) and his A Fine Balance is a heartbreaking but beautiful read.

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things has to be mentioned if only because I am a huge fan.

Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant and poignant The Romantics is perhaps one of the most insightful books about how an Indian student living int he city of Vatanasi (Benares), an albeit intelligent, educated and liberal Indian, views the tens of thousands of foreigners who mill about India ‘discovering’ themselves or exploring ‘spirituality’.

And the list of some other fascinating writers would include: Gita Mehta, R.K.Narayan, Ardashir Vakil, Bapsi Sidhwa, Ved Mehta – just getting started!

By the way, William Dalrymple’s recent works on India, though largely non-fiction (The White Mughals, The Last Mughal) are in fact fascinating historical studies written with the flair of a fiction writer. His earlier works on India including City of Djins are also fabulously fun to read. But certainly, The White Mughals remains one of my favorites because it explores the deeply heterodox social, political and cultural life of the Indians and the British before the rapid turn around of affairs with the arrival of the Evangelical Christian orientated, and far more racist (a connection between the two propensities I am not so sure about!) colonial administration post-1857.

Basically, Indian writers are ‘hot’ and in fact, so are Pakistani writers. South Asian fiction, that being written in English, is very popular with new talent emerging every month it seems. Tyrewala, Gasgupta, Mohamad Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Daniel Moinuddin and many others.

Phew lots to read!!

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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