sectarian violence Posts

Of Nayantara Sahgal’s “The Fate of Butterflies” and Toni Morrison’s “Mouth Full of Blood”

Nayantara Sahgal (b. 1927) and Toni Morrison (b.1931) have new publications out this past week. Nayantara Sahgal has a novella called The Fate of Butterflies. Toni Morrison’s Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her non-fiction articles published over the past four decades. Every word chosen in these books is powerful. The two writers have witnessed significant periods of modern history — from the Second World War onwards to experiencing the joy of new democracies and its mantras of self-reliance, new freedoms as those made available with womens’ movements’ and the end of racial segregation, to the presently depressing times of rising ultra-conservative politics, authoritarian rule and sectarian violence. So when Nayantara Sahgal and Toni Morrison as seasoned storytellers pour their wisdom and experience into their writings without mincing words, you listen for the truths they share.

Nayantara Sahgal’s novella The Fate of Butterflies told from the perspective of a political science professor, Prabhakar, is a chilling tale about the all-pervading violence that exists in society. It is an insidious presence that is gradually transforming the rules of social engagement. It is licensing sectarian violence to such a degree that is fast becoming the norm rather than the deviant behaviour it is. The dystopic society Prabhakar finds himself in where people speak of “them” and “they”, mysteriously unnamned groups who are powerful enough to command and strike fear in the hearts of ordinary citizens. The horrors shared in The Fate of Butterflies of mass rapes of women and children, slicing bellies of pregnant women before sexually assaulting them, the homophobic behaviour of some expressed in the horrific violence towards individuals by setting them on fire after trying to castrate them, the quiet disappearance of kebabs and rumali roti from Prabhakar’s favourite dhaba with the excuse that Rafeeq the cook had disappeared making it impossible to offer Mughal cuisine to finding a naked body on the road wearing only a skull cap makes this fiction at times too close to reality. It seems to be a thinly veiled account of many of the witness accounts, oral testimonies and media reports of pogroms and communal violence that have been witnessed in recent years. Linking modern crimes to the historical accounts of Nazi Germany when such horrors unleashed on civil society where first witnessed and documented, Nayantara Sahgal, seems to be reminding the reader of the past being revisited today in the name of “nostalgia” and “harmony” when it is actually a crime against humanity, a human rights violation.

Lopez reminded his friends: no meat unless proven to be mutton, not cow. The Cow Commission went around making sure. He was thinking of becoming a vegetarian himself, he was scared as hell that his fridge might be raided and the mutton turned into beef. Suspects were being dealt with out on the streets, surrounded by camers and cheering beholders. He didn’t fancy that treatment for himself.  It was far from reassuring in view of Rafeeq’s disappearance or dismissal. they drank their cloying Limcas, not sure how to find out about Rafeeq. The kaif’s water wasn’t safe and there was no mineral water left. All the bottles of mineral water had been commandeered by ‘them’, the ‘they’ and ‘them’ who came and went, mysteriously unnamed.

Lopez, who taught Modern Europe, said, “This tea party you were at, Prabhu, you said the Slovak was well ahead of the others.’

‘Why wouldn’t he be? They’ve have practice. They had a flourishing Nazi republic during the war, with a Gestapo and Jew-disposal and all the trimmings, and evidently there’s a tremendous nostalgia for those good old days when everybody was kept in line, or in harmony, as they called it.

Togetherness was the watchword. Not that the other speakers weren’t harking back to the glories of the 1930s, but I did get the feeling that some of them were sitting back and waiting to see which way the wind would blow before they risked investing in it. Only fools rush in. Compared with the rest of them the Slovak was the only Boy Scout.’

‘But most people are little people who have to go along with whatever’s happening,’ said Lopez, ‘either because they don’t know any better, or they have no choice and can’t afford to lose their wages or their lives.’

‘Most people,’ repeated Prabhakar, and again with stubborn emphasis, ‘most people everywhere, in Europe or here or anywhere else, only ask to be left in peace to live their lives. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.’

Toni Morrison’s A Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her essays, speeches and meditations. They are a testament to her varied experiences in American history and literature, politics, women, race, culture, on language and memory. These are structured essays to occasional pieces of writing to moving eulogies as for James Baldwin to her Nobel Prize in Literature speech. It is a wide range of pieces which deserve to be read over and over again but it is the introduction to this volume entitled “Peril” that is exceptionally powerful. It is a commentary on contemporary world politics while focused on the importance of a writer and the significance of making art especially in authoritarian regimes.

In “Peril” Toni Morrison reasons that despots and dictators are no fools and certainly not foolish enough to “perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgements or follow their creative instincts” for if they did, it would be at their own peril. Whereas writers of all kinds — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that works like a coma on the population, “a coma despots call peace”. As she astutely points out that “historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow”. She continues that there are two notable human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. But she woudl like to add a third category — “stillness”. This could be passivity or dumbfoundedness or it can be paralytic fear. But in her opinion it can also be art.

Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, …writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. …The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films — that though is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” So begins Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture in Literature. Likewise pay heed when these two old and wise women speak. Pay heed.

22 February 2019

Tabish Khair’s “Night of Happiness”

I was trying to hide behind stories, to construct fictions, instead of facing facts. I asked myself: how are facts faced? I knew the answer: facts are faced with evidence, with data, with numbers. Fiction cannot be outnumbered; it cannot be proved. But facts, yes, I have known all my working life, I have built my business on it — facts can be proved. 

Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness is about Anil Mehrotra, a businessman, and his right hand man, Ahmed. Anil Mehrotra relies completely on Ahmed irrespective of whether it was day or night or a holiday. The added advantage for Anil was that Ahmed was a polyglot and the astute businessman Anil knew “People are generous when you speak to them in their language. They are nicer, happier; ‘Their hearts unlock a room for you in their distant homes.’ ” This was an asset in the import/export business.

Night of Happiness is about Anil trying to find out more about Ahmed’s past life particularly after one stormy night of working late in the office Anil had offered to drop Ahmed home. Ahmed invites Anil to have tea and maida ka halwa ( a sweet dish made out of flour and sugar), a special dish made on Shaab-e-baraat or “Night of Happiness”– a day when the departed souls are remembered by Muslims, much like other faiths too set aside a similar period of time to honour their dead such as All Souls Day for the Christians or the period of Shraadh for the Hindus or Dia de los Muertos ( Day of the Dead) as is observed in Mexico. Anil has an unnerving experience at Ahmed’s home and decides to investigate further. He hires a private detective to dig up facts about Ahmed’s past. During the course of investigation a string of details emerge that Ahmed had never hinted at in all the years he worked with Anil Mehrotra.

The story itself is crafted in a manner that distances the author from the sentiments being expressed in the story as the narrator says he found the manuscript in a hotel drawer and proceeds to read it. Be that as it may the first person narrative of the makes the plot very powerful and the pace sharp. Ostensibly it is a story about Anil trying to ferret out facts about his trusted colleague and yet it is thinly veiled fiction about a dialogue between Hindus and Muslims calling out the popular held myths about a Muslim. It rings so true because it can very well be a real conversation. Both the Hindu narrator of the manuscript, Anil Mehrotra, and Ahmed, a Muslim, are portrayed sensitively. While  the investigator works like the chorus of a Sophoclean drama supplying the necessary information to the main action while gently rebutting Mehrotra’s assumptions of Ahmed’s life.

When Ahmed served Anil at his home, he insisted he had offered halwa prepared lovingly by his wife, Roshni, who never makes an appearance. Anil is perplexed since there is no halwa on the plate and Ahmed seems to be relishing an imaginary dish. Tabish Khair neatly introduces the element of madness in the novella with this simple act. Witnessing Ahmed’s odd behaviour at home prompts Anil to hire the private investigator. It is then the personal history of Ahmed comes tumbling out—the time he spent as a guide of Buddhist monuments in Bihar to earn a little extra income to support his widowed mother and himself, meeting his wife Roshni, their shift to Surat, the Gujarat riots of 2002, and his final move to Mumbai.   So Ahmed’s mental turmoil viewed as madness by his employer or the mental agitation of Anil himself may be interpreted in many ways. It can be very real while being a comment on the horrifically disturbing times we live in leading one to ask existential questions like “Who is actually mad? What is madness?”

The further distancing of the authorial voice by presenting facts from the investigator’s report further lulls the reader into accepting the “make-believe world” of the “literary thriller”. Whereas Night of Happiness is much more than that! For one it is using fiction to remind people of the pogrom orchestrated in living memory and how its long shadow is still cast upon modern India.  It’s within this century and less than a generation old but sufficiently long for many people, particularly the young and the diaspora,  to have conveniently forgotten about it. More likely been brought up in an ahistorical environment  so these dastardly facts have no impact.

Tabish Khair is a well-known novelist but is also increasingly known for his opinion pieces published regularly in the Indian newspaper Hindu. These are well-argued, thoroughly researched, thought-provoking commentaries on socio-political events playing out in different parts of the world. It is quite possible that much of the preliminary work involved for these articles laid the bedrock of Night of Happiness. Certainly the publication of Night of Happiness close on the heels of the widely acclaimed novel by Mohsin Hamid Exit West raises the bar of literary fiction by many notches as both novels are able to focus on the horrific sectarian violence sweeping through the world. It is as if lessons from history were never learned. Both the authors, Tabish Khair and Mohsin Hamid, are writers of subcontinent origin who are also widely respected on the global literary stage. So when such powerful literary icons raise disturbing questions of a socio-political nature through their art, they must be heard.

Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness begs the question if it is really “Art for Art’s Sake”? Whatever the reasons for the existence of Night of Happiness, it is unputdownable.

Read it. Share it.

Tabish Khair Night of Happiness Picador India, Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. Rs. 450 

18 April 2018