Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nero’s Fiddle, Gaddafi’s Fiction by Ross Perlin - Roundtable | Lapham’s Quarterly

Nero’s Fiddle, Gaddafi’s Fiction by Ross Perlin - Roundtable | Lapham’s Quarterly

Legislators are more often the unacknowledged poets of the world than vice versa. The Victorian literary world turned up its nose at Disraeli’s youthful romance novels (perhaps with good reason). The Athenian politician Solon, when he wasn’t laying the basis for the Western democratic tradition, tried his clumsy hand at martial hexameter, exhorting Athenians to “sentence hubris to obscurity and make the flowers of mischief wither.” The psalms of King David have outlasted his bloody conquests. The last of the Mughal emperors, Bahadur Shah II (pen name Zafar), lamented the collapse of his authority in well-formed Urdu ghazals.

The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee by Michelle Legro - Roundtable | Lapham’s Quarterly

The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee by Michelle Legro - Roundtable | Lapham’s Quarterly

from Lapham's Quarterly

Honoré de Balzac had a notorious coffee addiction. He would consume up to fifty cups a day while working on his series of novels La Comédie Humaine, and when desperate, would chew on the beans themselves. Before he died from the effects of caffeine poisoning at 51, Balzac wrote the essay "The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee" to explain the methodology to his madness.

Coffee is a great power in my life; I have observed its effects on an epic scale. Coffee roasts your insides. Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring. Think about it: although more grocery stores in Paris are staying open until midnight, few writers are actually becoming more spiritual.

But as Brillat-Savarin has correctly observed, coffee sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles; it accelerates the digestive processes, chases away sleep, and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects. It is on this last point, in particular, that I want to add my personal experience to Brillat-Savarin's observations.

Coffee affects the diaphragm and the plexus of the stomach, from which it reaches the brain by barely perceptible radiations that escape complete analysis; that aside, we may surmise that our primary nervous flux conducts an electricity emitted by coffee when we drink it. Coffee's power changes over time. [Italian composer Gioacchino] Rossini has personally experienced some of these effects as, of course, have I. "Coffee," Rossini told me, "is an affair of fifteen or twenty days; just the right amount of time, fortunately, to write an opera." This is true. But the length of time during which one can enjoy the benefits of coffee can be extended.

For a while—for a week or two at most—you can obtain the right amount of stimulation with one, then two cups of coffee brewed from beans that have been crushed with gradually increasing force and infused with hot water.

For another week, by decreasing the amount of water used, by pulverizing the coffee even more finely, and by infusing the grounds with cold water, you can continue to obtain the same cerebral power.

When you have produced the finest grind with the least water possible, you double the dose by drinking two cups at a time; particularly vigorous constitutions can tolerate three cups. In this manner one can continue working for several more days.

Finally, I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins. It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous, consumed on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

I recommended this way of drinking coffee to a friend of mine, who absolutely wanted to finish a job promised for the next day: he thought he'd been poisoned and took to his bed, which he guarded like a married man. He was tall, blond, slender and had thinning hair; he apparently had a stomach of papier-mache. There has been, on my part, a failure of observation.

When you have reached the point of consuming this kind of coffee, then become exhausted and decide that you really must have more, even though you make it of the finest ingredients and take it perfectly fresh, you will fall into horrible sweats, suffer feebleness of the nerves, and undergo episodes of severe drowsiness. I don't know what would happen if you kept at it then: a sensible nature counseled me to stop at this point, seeing that immediate death was not otherwise my fate. To be restored, one must begin with recipes made with milk and chicken and other white meats: finally the tension on the harp strings eases, and one returns to the relaxed, meandering, simple-minded, and cryptogamous life of the retired bourgeoisie.

The state coffee puts one in when it is drunk on an empty stomach under these magisterial conditions produces a kind of animation that looks like anger: one's voice rises, one's gestures suggest unhealthy impatience: one wants everything to proceed with the speed of ideas; one becomes brusque, ill-tempered about nothing. One actually becomes that fickle character, The Poet, condemned by grocers and their like. One assumes that everyone is equally lucid. A man of spirit must therefore avoid going out in public. I discovered this singular state through a series of accidents that made me lose, without any effort, the ecstasy I had been feeling. Some friends, with whom I had gone out to the country, witnessed me arguing about everything, haranguing with monumental bad faith. The following day I recognized my wrongdoing and we searched the cause. My friends were wise men of the first rank, and we found the problem soon enough: coffee wanted its victim.

Translated from the French by Robert Onopa.

Lalit Modi

By Badri Raina

As for you, in slick lines

Of slippery oil,

You have rogue writ all over

Your mercenary mug.

With a kidnap and cocain conviction

Under your nonchalant belt,

Your goat eyes cap

A world of coiled perfidies.

Your swagger with ruthless jaw

And calculating computer head,

Your plastic venture smile

Says to the glamour world

How money breeds between your

Greasy fingers, how you are

A quintessential neo-liberal file

That accumulates near and far.

Unlike the boy Tharoor,

You gloat in the knowledge

Of how many salivating souls

In high places

Are prisoner to your lure.

Or that should you be brought

To book, the traces

Could well burn a whole fat lot.

We simply say “ why not”?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


By Badri Raina

There is a fling to your hair,

And a mouthful of accent

To your words—

All redolent of a boyish

Amour propre.

Charming assets to a cloistered

World. Or to Tory English politics.

Here, in this land of subtle

And immemorial guile,

The merely smart are soon found out.

And those that float on sporty self-love

Brought down with a thud.

Thus, O Tharoor, swim not

In seas whose density you know

But scantily, as in some bright

School text book,

But return to your alma mater, namely,

A close-circuit Bloomsbury life,

Laced with wine, women, and converse.

Write those poems that you can,

Watch those high-falutin films,

Play golf, ride horses, try out a sports car,

And end your day at an English bar.

Then stretch your patrician legs,

And smile at politics from afar.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Joseph Stiglitz · The Non-Existent Hand

From London Review of Books

It has become a commonplace to say, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, that ‘we are all Keynesians now.’ If this is so, then Keynes’s great biographer, Robert Skidelsky, should have much to say about the recession, its causes and the appropriate cures. And so indeed he does. I share with Skidelsky the view that, while most of the blame for the crisis should reside with those in the financial markets, who did such a poor job both in allocating capital and in managing risk (their key responsibilities), a considerable portion of it lies with the economics profession. The notion economists pushed – that markets are efficient and self-adjusting – gave comfort to regulators like Alan Greenspan, who didn’t believe in regulation in the first place. They provided support for the movement which stripped away the regulations that had provided the basis of financial stability in the decades after the Great Depression; and they gave justification to those, like Larry Summers and Robert Rubin, Treasury secretaries under Clinton, who opposed doing anything about derivatives, even after the dangers had been exposed in the Long-Term Capital Management crisis of 1998.

LRB · Joseph Stiglitz · The Non-Existent Hand

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Alice Walker on "Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel"

I wanted to address what I feel is a real problem that we have in the last century, actually, or even before. And that is that things can be so horrible that people lose the ability to talk about them. And I had this happen when I was in college, actually, when I learned that the King of Belgium had decided that if the Africans in the Belgian Congo could not fulfill their rubber quota that he had imposed on them, he could order their hands to be chopped off. This was so appalling to me as a student, as an eighteen- and nineteen-year-old, that I couldn’t speak about it. I just—I put it somewhere that I left for many years. And I think this has happened over and over to people, that they encounter these brutalities, these atrocities, and they literally can’t talk about them, and so we don’t speak. But if we don’t speak, then there’s more of it, and more people suffer. So it’s a call to overcoming speechlessness.

Alice Walker on "Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel"

Monday, April 12, 2010

Impudence | The New Republic

"Dearest Georg": Love, Literature and Power in Dark Times: The Letters of Elias, Veza, and Georges Canetti, 1933-1948

edited by Karen Lauer and Kristian Wachinger

Other Press, 436 pp., $24.95

In The Human Province, a volume of fragmentary reflections, Elias Canetti writes that “one needs friends mainly in order to become more impudent, that is, more oneself.” With our intimates, Canetti believed, we are free to boast and lie and exaggerate, though we will come into our own only if we are moved to be indiscreet, to hold nothing back, to show the several faces we are inclined, as the spirit moves us, to put on. In this hefty volume of letters exchanged by Canetti, his wife Veza and his brother Georg between 1933 and 1948, we see at once how three remarkable people became “more” themselves by revealing to one another pretty much everything they thought and felt.

Of course we have known a good deal about Elias Canetti for some time, as he was one of the great memoirists of the twentieth century, the only Nobel Prize-winning writer whose autobiographical volumes may command more admiration than his more ambitious works: the early novel Auto-da-Fe, from 1935, and the massive historical-sociological-political study Crowds and Power, from 1960. In The Torch In My Ear, The Tongue Set Free and his other memoirs, we have not the surplus but the essence of a writer’s peculiar genius—a record of encounters, ideas, prejudices and passions as well as a vivid succession of novelistic portraits “from the life.” Canetti was an indefatigably curious and probing intellect, rarely playful but ever hungry to know and to extend his reach to everything under the proverbial sun. To read him is to feel consistently enlarged and provoked by what Susan Sontag once called his “moral and amoral seriousness.”

Impudence | The New Republic

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Destitution - India’s Greatest Internal Danger

By Badri Raina

From Badri Raina's ZSpace Page, Friday, April 09, 2010



The Hindustan Times is a leading herald of the developmental path that the current Indian government vows to carry forward in the main. Namely, the route that goes through free-market fundamentalism, fiscal prudence, and greater and greater transfer of wealth into private entrepreneurship. Which includes disinvesting public equity in what it sees as inefficient, corrupt and retarding Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs). Never mind that precisely the PSUs prepared the ground over some four decades of Independent India for the industrial and technological prowess that corporate India never fails to flaunt. For example, by making such core inputs as coal, oil, and steel available to a nascent national bourgeoisie at subsidized rates! No problem with subsidies then.

So when you notice that this Daily has been running an admirably laudable series on hunger in the hinterland, complete with brutally honest statistics, you cannot but acknowledge how dire Indian destitution must be.

And it does not matter a jot what its motives might be.

Do recall that Edmund Burke did not for a moment wish the British empire to be liquidated; which is why he was to become the most trenchant arraigner of the Company’s barbaric excesses in the Colony. And who can say that he made a mistake in initiating impeachment against Hastings.

Or that it was that arch Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who first coined the phrase “two nations” in an unreadable novel called Sybil, or the Two Nations (the “two nations” being the rich and the poor). Or that Thomas Carlyle wrote some of the most moving tracts on behalf of “reform” because he was terrified that were the Whigs not to make a gesture towards British destitution, the French Revolution would surely happen in England. And what could have been worse. And remember that it nearly did during the “hungry Forties” but was averted by a combination of the gestures, the sticks, and loot from the Colony.

Thus, recognizing the ideological history which The Hindustan Times replicates, we are thankful that it has made the no-nonsense disclosures it has; and for the reason that coming from it rather than from the Indian Left or the myriad non-governmental civil society activist groups, the fact of Indian hunger has a greater plausibility among India’s heady, consumerist elites who swear by this English Daily. Though it is much to be doubted that they will lose much sleep over the disclosures.

All that, even as The Hindustan Times also remains routinely and rather sniggeringly contemptuous of what right-wing opinion calls the “hand-outs” approach to social upliftment, often critiquing the recent policy initiatives of the government (under pressure, it must be noted, of the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, now also again the head of the re-constituted National Advisory Council, a policy think-tank derided in past years for recommending higher levels of social spending) to invest at impressive scales in schemes that are meant to benefit the lowest of the low. Impressive merely in relation to past practice of course, although in absolute terms, still a pittance.

Thus, even as it unleashes an editorial war on hunger (“Treating the Poor Like Dirt,” HT, April 6), it doesn’t quite know where to go from there, except to recall, most amusingly, that, among other things—“sovereign,” “secular,” “democratic,”—India also denotes itself in the Preamble to its Constitution a “socialist republic.”

A clear case of the Devil quoting scripture, since the Daily’s diatribes at anything sniffingly socialist remain its raison d etre.


So, why this new-found concern for the destitute?

Clearly because there is now a recognition of the fact that things are so abominably inequitous that merely upholding the suigeneric prerogatives of the State, or mouthing pious deprecations against social unrest and violent recourses by sections of the polity may not stem the tide.

And what could be more fatally threatening to the nation’s aspiration to super-powerdom via the corporate route, which will now increasingly include strategic corporates from afar as well.

After all, even as the numbers of dollar billionaires grow exponentially at one end, a half of India’s children—a whole half—are malnourished to a point where a whole new generation of Indians is faced with slow but certain extermination well before it grows into adolescence.

Infact, where the French Queen had recommended cake for the sancullotes, children in India have been discovered by the Daily to be actually subsisting on mud laced with silicon.

You read that right—mud.

When you remember that even in 2010—some six decades into Independent existence—India harbours the world’s largest numbers of poor people in absolute terms, mud has great prospects.

Where mud is available, that is.

Even this minute some canny corporate might be working out the idea of manufacturing mud cakes at affordable prices, for all you know.

It is another matter that these numbers range from some 27% to 77% of the population in various officially constituted findings, giving policy-makers a headache as to which figure to authenticate as it formulates schemes like the “Food Security Act” etc.,


What is of importance in the attention that hunger receives in the HT is the recognition, however unstated and denied otherwise, that a polity so execrably unequal (because exploited) is a natural breeding ground for all sorts of mayhem.

Thus, contrary to the oft-repeated mantra of the prime minister that “Naxalism” is the greatest internal danger that India faces, there is an unacknowledged and shamefaced realization that infact it may be destitution that lies at the root of the problem.

And that this destitution, far from being an other-worldly imposition, is very much the yield of policies pursued, especially over the last two decades of “reform.”

Now, The Hindustan Times and the material interests it espouses and projects would die before ascribing India’s destitution to the political economy of free-market fundamentalism.

Which is why its panaceas encompass the well-worn moralisms of ruling class elitism: root out corruption, reign in the bureaucracy, de-hoard the grains, invest in storage facilites, encourage more private initiatives in the food industry, accept BT technologies, eliminate middle men in retail, let in corporates directly into trading food, and put down civil unrest with a firm hand. But at no cost pull down the private mining corporates who busily and illegally rob millions in the hinterland of their right to forest wealth, to land, to water, to livelihoods which have sustained them for centuries.

And at no cost make any public acknowledgement that Naxalism is causal. As in the case of “terrorism” condemn it several times a day as being without cause and merely an expression of metaphysical evil. And waiting to be bombed out of existence.


As I write, the government’s touted “Operation Green Hunt” against the Maoists has received an ugly jolt in the jungles of Dantewada in Chattisgarh—a state ruled by the Bhartiya Janata Party: some seventy five soldiers of a hunting Central Reserve Police Force party have been wiped out in a cannily orchestrated attack. And most of those killed perhaps as destitute as the Adivasis among whom Naxalism breeds.

The no-nonsense home minister of India, P.Chidhambaram, has shaken his erudite head and pointed to the indescribable barbarism of the Naxals. Nothing here about the failure of the state government, whereas only two days ago he was pleased to berate the chief minister of West Bengal for the failure of his administration to curb Naxalism in Lalgarh, reminding him that the buck must stop at his table.

So much for the politics of the issue. And no mention of where the buck may stop after today’s massacre.

The Maoists who are accused of wishing to overthrow the State and the Constitutional regime are told that all their grievances will be heard if they abjure violence. But it is not explained why those who routinely espouse allegiance to the Constitution while espousing the cause of the destitute are routinely done violence to by the State. Except of course that they are suspected to be Naxal “sympathizers” rather than committed to the cause of the destitute.

And the test of loyalty to the realm is univocally held to be everybody’s unequivocal readiness to condemn Maoist barbarities while upholding the right of the State to the course it follows, as all debate on the issue of destitution is sought to be reduced to a “you are with us or you are against us” formula. Familiar Bushism. Not for nothing was he so well-loved in India.

Some time back the Maoist made an offer of a cease fire for seventy two days (a riposte to the official assertion that it would be willing to undertake talks within seventy two hours if the guns were silenced). That offer was expectedly accompanied by the stipulation that the State would put a hold on the ravaging Corporate activities in Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Orissa, and declare an adherence to the forest rights of the tribals as by Statute established.

There of course is the catch.

Many voices among India’s civil society ask why it is that in dealing with the problem born of destitution the State is unwilling to respect laws that indelibly protect those rights, to take cognizance of the bandit corporates who care a tuppence for the laws and the Constitution, and carry out their depredations with full connivance of the local authorities, or to enlist democratic voices who may be willing to bring the parties to the table on terms which are seen to be fair by contending interests.

Not surprisingly, such unwillingness is construed as the State’s class commitment to private marauders out to make a kill. While, India’s children blunt the edge of their hunger by eating silicon-laced mud.

Nor is there any acceptance of the fact that making war on its own destitute may not solve the problem. After all the days when genocide could be visited upon native populations with any conclusive prospect—the Native Indians in America, or the Aborigines in Australia—are long gone.

One would think that at a time when India

has its hands full with depredations visited upon it by inimical neighbours, and when elements within the State do seem to favour a wider investment in social programmes, it would be good policy to unite the polity behind sound national purposes.

And that would require a bold acknowledgement that mere militarist or moralist bravado may not meet the situation. Rather a paradigmatic recognition that social violence that afflicts large parts of the country issues from policies that are brazenly calculated to fatten the already fat at the cost of those that eat mud.

Exactly as the State does now recognize that the social unrest among its religious minorities issues from causes that are and have lately been firmly identified as well. For example in the Sachar Committee and the Ranganath Mishra committee reports with respect to Indian Muslims.

What is it then that prevents the State from according similar credence to dozens of its own reports on the extent, nature, and causes of destitution, and the remedies thereof?

Might it not be the case that whereas inequities that relate to caste, religious community, gender, linguistic and ethnic allegiance, are seen to be negotiable by the State in one way or another, sooner or later, and often profitably, those that relate to class remain simply non-negotiable?

If indeed so, a great task awaits India’s social theorists in determining as to how the Constitution of the Republic may be squared with so blind a refusal to address inequities rooted in a non-negotiable devotion to Capitalism which seems to make its own laws and write its own Constitution.

And whether, should that devotion remain unmitigated and rather drunk with the prowess of the state-apparatus behind it, violence can ever be conclusively put down.

Duet for Two Pens

From The New York Times

“Where literature exists, translation exists. Joined at the hip, they are absolutely inseparable, and, in the long run, what happens to one happens to the other. Despite all the difficulties the two have faced, sometimes separately, usually together, they need and nurture each other, and their long-term relationship, often problematic but always illuminating, will surely continue for as long as they both shall live.”

Book Review - Why Translation Matters - By Edith Grossman - Review -

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Killing (in) the Heart of India

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

The seventy six men who were killed in Dantewada are the kind of people for whom, ironically, such violence is carried out and explained away. Ordinary Indian people who needed honest work, and who found it in the paramilitary forces. They could have been, in a different situation, on the other side of the see-saw of violence!

When ideas and opinions screen the faces -and bodies- of living human beings, a cycle of bloody violence is waiting to be let loose. Whether you speak of the "savage nature" of some people or of the state, there is a risk that the real living people, each with a family and friends, will be erased from consciousness. You will take aim not at a person but at an idea.

Ideas do not die, because they do not have a life.

Real, living people die.

Buddha and Gandhi are needed today to hold our finger and show to us the faces of people who live and die. And who deserve to live longer -and to die natural human deaths.

In democratic civilizations there is no space for battlegrounds. Only for playgrounds -for contests of ideas.

Of ideas that would not bury real faces, that would not substitute life.

Of Men and Memories: Srinagar the Dream City

By M. L. Raina

Because I know that time is only time

And place is always and only place…

I rejoice that things are as they are. (T. S. Eliot)

Nostalgia is a luxury few of us can afford. And I am grateful because I can. To me Srinagar is not a geographical location, but a mood, a veritable see-saw of my mental and physical growth.

It is a school in which I grew up learning the ironies behind pious intentions and failures behind firm resolutions. To evoke one's past or to reach for roots is like touching a wonky tooth: it hurts but is satisfying nevertheless.

Whenever I think of my home town I do not see what the picture post cards sell, not the mountains or the lakes or the valleys, but a jumble of crooked lanes and knobbly backyards.

On the dug-up pavements of the city I recall the familiar sights and smells, such as the fetid reek of makeshift privies huddled cheek-by-jowl outside our drab houses in Drabiyar, or the ungainly sight of the public hydrant of the locality which often doubled as the backdrop for female gossip as the women crowded around to fill their pitchers.

Or the drone of Shamu, the halwai hawking his dals and savouries to the accompaniment of the refrain: ‘dal mein hai kuchh kala, gadbad ghutala ho’-not quite attentive to the unintended puns. Or the birthday blessings of my mother holding out the prospect of a rich meal of taher (yellow rice) and goat liver.

Looking back at the city many decades after I left for greener but less smelly pastures, it all feels so odd but real! And men and memories come crowding in.

Take my father’s rustic cousin from a distant village who, on a visit to our city house, was amazed at the sight of the hanging electric bulb. He tried to spark a piece of charcoal with the bulb but gave up in despair: “what is all this egg-light for if it can’t light a bit of charcoal for the hookah! Kangari fire will do for me”

Here is my uncle Lachman Joo, the police constable, who would practice his brand of English to my eternal delight. Once he bought a pair of pump shoes and bragged, ‘all new and watertroof’. His illnesses (even the milder ones) would mean long holidays from work and constant gripes and grouches amidst visits to the Hakim sahib. And yet he was affable and accessible unlike father who worked away from home.

There was our ever-obliging family matriarch Bhoon Ded who sang at our weddings and wailed at our family funerals with equally enviable gusto. She was rock-solid (her name means granny chinar) and we the children cuddled under her pheran in winter days (she reminds me of Gunther Grass’s Oskar Matzerath who too nestled under granny’s skirts). Of massive build, Bhoon Ded was the one everyone in the family looked up to in testing times.

The hullabaloo of each daylight hour or the eerie silence of each night is linked in my memory with people and places that crossed my path and left their impress on my childish imagination. Yes, the landscape of my youth was worn, predictable and unglamorous. But it was lighted up by ordinary accidents of observation such as the lope of a passing street cow, the strut of the locality’s bully-boy Makhan Lal and the slouch of Jacob Sahib’s shoulder as he walked down our grubby street on his way to the Mission school in downtown Fateh Kadal. ‘Mota Lal’, he used to call me later as my father, ever grateful to the English Sahib’s munificence, admitted me to that school for ‘education and discipline’. He was our saviour, come to lift me out of our depressed life, just as he had lifted father when he was struggling for a livelihood.

Those days the red of our school uniform had none of the chilling evocations it now has on the city streets. It was simply a bright ‘vardi’ and we felt proud to wear it.

The places that these days sputter gunfire were places where relatives, friends and well-wishers lived their peaceful ordinary unhurried lives. We visited them on festive occasions to use their house walls for sundry boyish games. Maharaj Gunj, a trade hub, was the place where our close relatives, Shers, had an ancestral house in which three generations lived in almost daily physical collision. We always wondered why the patriarch of the house had all the windows and doors boarded up before he had his one and only warm water bath of the winter season. It was a funny sight to see the venerable elder emerge from his mini-hamam muttering his gayatri mantra and warning other inmates not to let any air into the room where he chose to rest after his ablutions. It would be days before he cautiously allowed a small wooden trellised window to let in fresh wintry air. Neighbours watched with an uncanny curiosity when the windows opened and tittered no end.

Barbar Shah in the southern part of the city is where other relatives lived and where my father’s school friend Shridhar Kak wore himself thin searching for my future bride who, he thought, would bring in enough dough to support my college education. He would tell my mother: “your son speaks excellent Engliss and girls will fall head over heels to grab him”. Unfortunately, no one did, and I married anyway.

Ali Kadal, further downtown, was where my mother’s people owned a spacious house by the side of river Jhelum on whose banks we made mud crackers and watched beautifully upholstered shikaras ferrying bloated memsahibs downriver, and waited for little tow boats loaded with fresh vegetables to be sold across the banks.

Kraal Khud keeps resounding to the cross-fire of militants and security forces. In our younger days it was a place where our family priest Radha Krishen frightened us with visions of hell and enjoined us to keep to the straight and narrow. What made him special was his claim that his mother had returned from the dead and that he himself had plucked out thorn needles from under her soles—a grim reminder of the fate that awaited the unholy. In spite of his dour look we waited long hours to let him perform the Shivratri pooja which he did with great aplomb, even as he hurried to reach another house to repeat the same chants. In this way he kept everyone happy and probably interceded for our souls’ salvation. As for himself, he lived up to a ripe old age of 101 and died peacefully in his grandson’s house in Jammu. I am sure there were no thorn needles on his soles.

Who can forget Ahmad, the street charmer, entertaining big crowds outside the old secretariat in Sher Garhi area. The trickster had a respectable lineage in that he was the grandson of the legendary Ahmad Bazigar of our folklore. He certainly did not have the Houdini-like powers of the older man, but his sleight-of-hand kept onlookers spell-bound for long periods. What struck me about the man was the manner in which he cadged money from the assembled people after each performance. He would invoke Allah and ask “any one who pitches in with an anna or a two-anna coin or a quarter-rupee—may god fill his pockets with gold mohurs. He who has an empty pocket, may he too receive His benedictions”. At this, coins tumbled in thick and fast while his face expanded in a thank-you grin.

As the knots of people dispersed, he would call them back and say “what a fool I have been, a charlatan no less. I only cadged contributions from Muslim brothers even as my Pandit brothers also enjoyed my tricks. Wouldn’t they think I am a rank communalist, a Pakistani agent to boot? Now I appeal to my Pandit brothers gathered here… he who would pitch in with…..” As more coins fell into the ring, the grin became wider and more expansive.

Perhaps this was the best lesson in communal harmony that we have now forgotten. Ahmad Joo was a grass-roots secularist, but did he know it?


Memory is like a stream coursing through our minds, bearing with it all the algae of our past .It laps against the ribcage of our desires and leaves astringent fragments behind. Our school, for one.

I call up my classroom, tucked away behind peeling walls, and hear the swish of Maulvi Ghulam Nabi’s bamboo cane and the invective emanating from Pandit Damoodar’s permanent rage. I recall Pandit Ji’s English lesson which went something like this “C.A.T cat-cat is billi.R.A.T rat –rat is chooha. T.H.E the- the is yeh ya woh”. When I perked my eyes and tried to suppress a laugh, he would lose his temper and shout: “You scum, you think your father knows better English than I do? I shall whip the daylight out of you if you don’t obey what I say”. So it remained ‘yeh ya woh’ until the class finished.

Of course father always condoned my teacher’s bad temper on grounds of his lowly birth in a priest’s house and asked me to put up with him. But Maulvi Sahib was another matter. He dispensed a unique wisdom: “Hazrat Adam had two sons. One took to the pyre and another to the grave. That is how we were born Hindus and Muslims.” Thinking back on those days, I wonder what our cultural anthropologists, our Clifford Geertzs and Johannes Farbers, will have to say about the evolution of beliefs and customs. Could they have surpassed Maulvi Sahib’s acumen?

S.P. College in the southern part of the city was a landmark institution. There was a curious invitation coming from the place that encouraged us to convert the severities of Damodhar Bhai’s school into a mini-celebration of freedom—that is freedom to hang out near the neighbourhood cinema houses and outside the Women’s College without fear of Mamaji’s scolding. Also freedom to ogle the passing girls while you pirouetted in Raj Kapoor style trousers and almost crooned into their ears ‘awara hoon’.

There on the forbidding façade of the college building M and I etched out our adolescent dreams and innocent promises. Whether it was on the cobbled streets leading into the college, or the back lanes of Habba Kadal, we two drifted furtively to avert the curious eyes of the passers-by or the punitive prudery of a stray kin who might happen to be walking along the road... To relieve the wretchedness of our state, we sang love lyrics from Habba Khatoon and Arni Mal until we reached our respective college gates.

What a bunch of characters we had for teachers! There was Ramji who invariably began his lectures with “in this modern complicated world’. And there was Shyam Ji who found it awkward to explain the more suggestive bits of Othello to a mixed class of boys and girls. As he repeated Iago’s diatribe ‘fie! You are bells out of doors, devils, being offended…housewives in your beds ‘, he would lower his tone and avert his eyes from the women in the class. As congenital pranksters, some of us would ask him to explain these lines more fully—much to his discomfiture and our delight. Often he would dismiss the class as we persisted in our pranks.

Our physics teacher Yussuf Sir was full of surprises. After explaining the principle of specific gravity and then proving it in a practical experiment, he would remove his Pickwickian glasses and thunder aloud: “Bah, this tommy rot .Allah Tallah ordains all. We are but worms. What do we know of His laws?” Little could one realize that he was engaged in a perpetual readjustment of his religious beliefs with the tenets of science. As Robert Burns would say he was ‘a man for all that’!

Crankish as they were, these teachers had their uses. For example Shyam Ji explained the difference between tragedy and comedy with this homely example: “If you slip on a banana skin and bleed that is tragedy. If you only get away with minor bruises that is comedy”. As simple as that! Old man Aristotle could not have improved on this, could he?

In the Botanical Gardens where we went more in order to spy on girls than to hear him, Noor Mohammed, a journeyman city Marxist, expatiated on the Asiatic mode of production and the broader tenets of Marxism. He always succeeded in having a small audience of listeners who engaged him in animated conversation. His nasal twang made Marxism sound like a lullaby.

Yes, we didn’t read trashy books, but pored over grim-looking tomes bought from Kashmir book Centre, that baroque joint where ersatz intellectuals discoursed on political topics with the confidence of converts. We heard about the significance of Picasso’s dove, the Stockholm Peace appeal and Stalin’s genius as a linguist. We also read the latest doggerel from nondescript Soviet poets in the pages of Soviet Literature, a Communist Party monthly from Moscow that published eminently forgettable examples of socialist realism in literature and painting. Here Nadim recycled Mayakovasky in his own poems and Abdul Ghani, the singer with the bass voice, sang them to the tunes set by himself. Bang in the middle of the historical Lal Chowk, this bookshop nursed our ill-formed utopias.

The bookshop is now gone, so are many of its habitués, some them successful in more practical ways. Noor Mohammed became a minister and Ghani Bhai a ruling party member of the state legislature. So much for revolution and change!

Many of my beloved lanes in the city no longer exist, neither do the intimacies and the euphorias that were generated in close proximity to houses and people. Amidst these vanishings and shrinkings only nostalgia can reconstruct the pre-lapsarian times in which our childhood and youth were spent. From the glimpse of the remembered faces nostalgia once again discovers the insignificant and the contingent—say the drippings of blood on fresh mutton chunks in Kadir butcher’s shop, the small lumps of grease on Ragunath’s pretzel bread, the wrinkles of self-abasement on Damoodhar Bhai’s ageing face and, above all, traces of iron in the souls rendered incapable of charity by circumstances.

Not for a life-time can these be wished away. Its ordure notwithstanding, I would hate to see my city altered, let renovators be damned!