Vamp

Dear friend,

I would not have revamped this newsletter if I still had the honour of writing a books column for the most interesting newspaper in India. But Mumbai Mirror no longer exists[1]. To be honest, neither does my need for self-promotion. This newsletter began as a way to let commissioning editors know that I was productive and looking for assignments. For the moment, my relations with the means of production have changed. 

À propos, if you are or know a person who enjoys reading Fifty Two and would like to work with us as we expand our audience––in other words, should you be someone who enjoys promoting things––send me an email with your resume. 

Over the next few editions this newsletter will offer literary opinions, recommendations, and, as I am a hair older than those of you in the youth bulge, agony aunt-style advice about reading, writing and a limited sphere of work. I have some of these stored up from previous ventures on Twitter and Instagram; if you’d like to contribute a question, I will protect your anonymity.

Other subjects may appear over time.

READING

I couldn’t review Arshia Sattar’s Mahabharata for Children because of a pre-existing condition (I love her). But I can be less zealous about separating personal interests from column space in a newsletter. Her single-volume illustrated adaptation really brings the thrum of deep personal and political sorrow—no, agony—to the forefront of the pomp and bombast of the epic. The book is meant for children over ten years old, and I think a lot of adults will find it appropriate to their own level of understanding. It’s simpler and obviously more brief than translations for grown-ups. But it tells itself with a gravity and emotional maturity I found terribly moving. Sonali Zohra’s illustrations are beautiful. 

Following this I started to read Carole Satyamurti’s verse translation, a 900-page effort that does restore the pomp and bombast to the agony. Scholarly readers may find a U of Chicago connection interesting: Arshia Sattar graduated from that institution; Satyamurti is British and not a scholar of Sanskrit, but the introduction to her work is written by the US Sanskritist Wendy Doniger.

No good translator ever humanises an epic[2], but Satyamurti allows it to stay, hm, socialised. Its scaffolding of dharma and caste obligations contains and explains its action without rendering it distant or foreign, or not in a way that it seems unrecognisable. This is a good way to tell an old story: not to bargain or reason with its logic, only to suffuse it with pity for its actors, and terror for all those whose voices never appear in it, but who breathe life into it from its margins anyway—all the lives which gave the authors of the Mahabharata the audacity to say that what is in it may be found elsewhere, but what is not can be found nowhere else. (They were right in that reality can’t compete with a book. Only other books can.)

Those who share the imperial schoolmaster’s view that epics say something profound about the human essence of their descendant societies might like both these works. But this demographic now heavily overlaps with that of the oversensitive nationalist, for whom any number of celebratory modern renderings exist.[3] For the uncertain, the skeptical, the curious, and for those who know about pity and terror, I think they will suit. 

WRITING & WORK

My last few columns for Mumbai Mirror were about books by Manjiri Indurkar and Rituparna Chatterjee; S Jaishankar; AK Mehrotra (editor) and Moni Mohsin, among others. I’ll be in conversation with Moni Mohsin over a Zoom call organised by the Jaipur Lit Fest around the 20th of this month, if that’s your jam. 

Fifty Two has published its first twelve stories, and I recommend all of them to you. Sign up on the website for a weekly email link to a new story. Briefly, for those who haven’t already, our contributors wrote and illustrated stories about India’s worst air crash; the accession of Sikkim; a history of Indian custard powder; the thin end of the wedge of the internet; a 1995 frenzy over idols drinking milk; the lives of dogs in Gurgaon; the strand of Indian activism that emerged after the Mathura case verdict; India’s longest-running insurgency in Nagaland; a man who inadvertently changed India’s environmental laws; why horse-racing still exists in India; the trailblazing scholar Kamla Chowdhury; and India’s capitulation to the aesthetics of embarrassed wealth. Next week: the history of a colonial mental institution. 

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • I read the Ann Patchett essay like everyone else, enjoyed it, feel more alive &c., but even above the high degree of literary polish it was so interesting for its vistas of how the rich live. I really think other strivers should read it for this reason alone.

  • The only magazine I read with any consistency over 2020 was the LRB, which turned a bit fey. Last month I tortured myself with delight over this 12,000-word takedown of Isaiah Berlin by the righteous socialist Christopher Hitchens. Ten percent of the pleasure of this essay comes from the lengths to which Hitchens goes to insult Berlin; eighty percent from hindsight; and an unlooked-for bonus from the letters responding to the essay which devolve into a fight between Berlin supporters and Hitchens supporters.

  • I look forward to monthly numbers of the crisp and thoughtful Satyashodhak newsletter by Tejas Harad, which contains updates of the work released on their eponymous website, as well as recommendations for English-language writing and commentary.

  • In 2020 I stopped being unnerved by the idea of a spirit world. I admit this is a reactionary opinion to hold in a country where people are murdered for demystifying superstitions and untangling history from mythology. But all stories start out as individual, or at least very small, consolations. I don’t think the dead are crowding my sleeping bedside, nor do I have any wish to communicate with them; but I’m now okay with the idea that other people believe in supernatural things, and that there are worse ways to be irrational. 

  • One factor in this is the heightened awareness of the nightmare of waking life (lol). Others have written about this.

  • Another is how comforted I am by visions of the uncanny in Korean dramas, where shamanic rituals, memories of the dead, parallel universes of spirits and ghosts, and prospects of reincarnation are all common, and help make life––secular life, almost never moored to organised religion––more vivid. I found Hotel del Luna especially nice in this respect. It’s a madcap gender-bent Beauty and the Beast about a bitter 1,000 year-old ghost who runs a way-station for the newly dead on their way from one world to the next, and the 28-year old human manager from Harvard who’s trapped into becoming her newest employee. It’s also a meditation on attachment and pride, on shame and longing, and, of course, love and faith; and it is modest and lowbrow[4] and hopeful about the human ability to come to grips with all these things, at last. 

I’m stopping here. In the next newsletter: food, agony advice and TBD. I don’t know if future editions of the newsletter will be this lengthy but please feel free to unsubscribe if it isn’t to your taste! Thank you for reading my intermittent messages over the last few years.

[1] For reasons it does not behoove me to dissect, both as a former colleague of the employees of the paper and as a participant in the ongoing clown show that is India’s metropolitan media industry.

[2] Humanising things is for moderns, and while the Satyamurti Mahabharata is called ‘A Modern Retelling’ the subtitle speaks more to its language and style than to its substance.

[3] Take Amit Majumdar’s recent rendering of the Bhagavad Gita in blank verse, called Godsong. In the introduction, Majumdar writes, of the survival of brahminism over centuries of invasion: “Hinduism also had an orthodox priestly class, insufferably convinced of its own superiority. This supremacism, however odious to outsiders, is a sine qua non when it comes to building an empire––or resisting one. The Jews have it in their rabbis; the Hindus have it in their Brahmins. Both are survivor religions, and both, accordingly, are at times reviled by non-believers.”

[4] My favourite kind of brow.

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