The Promise Breaker

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Siddharth Chowdhury has held his breath for too long. It’s time to leap, suggests Gaurav Jain

HERE IT is. Let’s ignore the futile book jacket that won’t call this work by its rightful, lovely name. A long story written by a sturdy talent. Reader, here is that rarely published thing — a novella.

Would-be writer from Patna, Hriday Thakur arrives in Delhi University’s north campus to receive an education. Day Scholar begins with a walloping first chapter about the local goon and “property dealer” Zorawar Singh Shokeen — it burns readily in its swift sketch of how Zorawar came to be who he is.

The rest of the book seems to hold its breath till the main hook of Hriday’s entanglement with Zorawar, which is too quickly tied up in a forced ending. Mostly we get a leisurely story of Hriday’s Patna life, his Delhi escapades and a love affair before speeding into the final Zorawar crisis. Along the way, Day Scholar is superb as a view of Delhi’s college scene in the early 1990s, with easy descriptions of student elections, gangs, romances, tiffin and hostel dances.

Chowdhury writes so plainly it’s as if he was translating from another lan Chowdhury writes so plainly it’s as if he was translating from another language (“But such a dullard”). Simple verges on the simpleton, but the lefthand prose does occasionally burst with loveliness, and its quietness is refreshing after the noisiness of most IWE authors. So when he describes a girl’s “full, butter- fortified figure” or a couple’s marriage as “the most extravagant thing they had bought together, even though it was not of much use to them. Like a crystal chandelier in a one-room flat”, you nod in assenting recognition. The Hindi vernacular also turns some gems (“attempt le liya doctorni pe”; “shake hands karo”; voting patterns called “hawa”). But we also get clunkers like “I couldn’t be a disinterested flaneur anymore”. Or a heroic train wreck of a sentence like this: “At Commerce College, which had along with Anugrah Narayan (AN) College in Patna, a reputation of being a tough, dangerous place, I naturally gravitated, as was my wont, towards boys who like me had no purpose in life whatsoever.”

The main problem is, Chowdhury tells everything in a tone of mock epic nostalgia. The first chapter’s friskiness is temporary and the book loops in a slowmo fugue of insecurity — we regularly get two-word emphatic sentences like “Only rapture.” One wishes Chowdhury had stuck with Zorawar rather than the hackneyed writer-observer narrator. Hriday is gallantly insipid, and you don’t much care what happens to this moony kid. Hidden somewhere in Day Scholar is also a touching story of a young boy’s journey into literature — from Auden and Cheever to Gorky and Hemingway. But Chowdhury manages neither the authentic earnestness of Edmund Wilson in Benares nor the spoofing of David Lodge. He needs to stop throat-clearing and sustain his happy instinct for risk.

Paul Schrader meets Nabokov, insists the book jacket. Like Hriday’s education, this turns out to be sentimental as well.

Photo: Vijay Pandey

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Two Boys And Their Grand Fight

Hamish McDonald takes a second whack at his notorious ‘Ambani book’ but he still doesn’t get the Indian psyche, says SHANTANU GUHA RAY

LIKE THE Nehru- Gandhis, the Ambanis have also come to mirror the state of the Indian mind. This is due to three factors: they’re capable of springing a surprise anytime, remain unruffled by the worst controversy and never take No for an answer. The incidental frills they enjoy are legend: a hotline to the entire Cabinet and almost 90 percent of the central bureaucracy, and the capacity to develop, if required, similar hotlines with state bureaucracy.

So it’s expected that any book on the first family of Indian business will be dissected, castigated, hated and eulogised, depending on which side of the fence you’re on when reading it.

That it took an Australian journalist to write about the Ambanis — without competition from an Indian writer who could have, perhaps, written a more fleshed out narrative — is interesting. Hamish McDonald worked in India as a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and appeared once as a part-time anchor for a show in the now-defunct Business India Television channel. He made his foray into the Indian business out-back with The Polyester Prince — a tome on Dhirubhai Ambani — which did not see the light of the day in India, thanks to court notices issued to him both in Sydney and New Delhi.

Now an updated version of the same book, called Mahabharata in Polyester: The Making Of The World’s Richest Brothers And Their Feud, will hit the stands in India soon — hopefully without court notices or pressure from the brothers. Many have said that McDonald’s first book was better. There are many pirated versions of the first book but I’m yet to lay my hands on the original version. Some chapters were apparently missing in these pirated versions — especially on the Ambani money machine as well as the million-dollar quote (“Everyone has a price”) that the old man always denied.

McDonald has played it safe with his second book and excised some juicy bits about Dhirubhai Ambani present in the first one. TEHELKA obtained the international edition of the new book for this review, which has much information on the Ambani- Wadia rivalry — some of which the Indian edition may not use.

Expectations for this new book are sky-high, since Mc- Donald had all the time in the world and was far away from the Reliance hawks who’d messed up his previous effort.

The book is like a B-school student’s crafty cut-n-paste job of floating Ambani stories

That neither brother granted McDonald access for this new book is a serious handicap in an otherwise racy read that culls much of its information from Indian and foreign media.

But this isn’t enough to write about a family that’s presided over the Indian business and political scene for the last 30 years. It requires access and — more importantly — an understanding of the Indian political and business psyche. McDonald lacks both.

That he relied on second-hand information and briefings by Ambani hate club members (Nusli Wadia, RV Pandit, S Gurumurthy, etc.) is evident when he says Murli Deora — the Congress’ main fundraiser — refused the post of Petroleum Minister when Sonia Gandhi offered it. This claim would make even Delhi’s paanwallas snort in disbelief. The book is akin to a safe play in journalism, almost like asking an intelligent B-school student to do a crafty cut-n-paste job with all the floating Ambani family stories.

WHY DOES McDonald open the book with a scene from the movie Guru without informing us how Mani Ratnam planned the movie? Why quote writers whose knowledge of the Ambanis is as limited as an intern’s? And if one is writing about the brothers, shouldn’t one discuss how their fight started and ended?

There are great stories of how Mukesh Ambani planned the fight during a holiday at Kruger National Park, South Africa and stymied the junior brother’s attempt to acquire African telecom operator MTN, as well as attempts to seek gas at a lower rate.

Who helped them bury their differences? Where did they go — was it minus their wives? — for the final patch-up? The book’s polyester quotient makes it a smooth read but the Mahabharata of the squabble is missing. It’s a pity, because McDonald knows all the characters — their extraordinary wealth, power, influence and legendary hatred for each other — almost too well.

EXTRACT 

‘The difference was billions of dollars in cash flow’

THE ROW over gas pricing was central to their rivalry. It put Murli Deora in an awkward position. Asked by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to be Petroleum Minister, he had tried to refuse: better to stick to the familiar role of Congress fund-raiser. But to no avail. His main task was to adjudicate a national gaspricing formula, with a decision rewarding either Anil or Mukesh. Anil was insisting on the low cost plus price he believed had been promised. Mukesh was arguing for parity with the landed price of imported gas: world petroleum price, plus shipping, plus 30 percent duty. The difference was billions of dollars in cash flow.

In August 2006 Manmohan Singh met Deora and at his request, so it was reported, decided to relieve him of the decision. The issue was handed to an ‘empowered group of ministers’ under the chairmanship of the External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, the same Congress veteran who had been so helpful to Dhirubhai in the 1980s.

Furious lobbying began, with Anil marshalling the Samajwadi and Communist Party (Marxist) to oppose ‘goldplating’ of the Krishna-Godavari project, while Reliance warned that its delicately poised financing could be upset, creating a two-year delay in commencement of gas production. The decision, announced 12 September 2006, was interpreted as both a blow to the free market and a capitulation to Mukesh, since, as the Supreme Court later noted, it was based on a formula very close to the one suggested by Reliance. It set a price of $4.20 per million British thermal units, based on a five-year peg to an oil price of $60 a barrel, a hefty slug above the $2.34 that Anil claimed to have promised, setting Mukesh in a position to dominate downstream industries, including the vital sectors of power generation and fertilisers.

shantanu.guharay @fwtehelka.com


The word

DN Jha,  Historian

A book you read recently?
About a month ago, I read The Hindus by Wendy Doniger. It is a very interesting read and extremely well researched.

A history book that inspired you? 
When I was a student, about a million years ago (laughs) DD Kosambi’s An Introduction To The Study of Indian History played an important role in my awakening as a young person and inspired me to study Indian history.

Your favourite genre?
Now I only read non-fiction, history, and economics. As a young person I read a lot of fiction, but it never really left an impact on me. What I wish I could read again for the first time is 20th century poetry. I will always remember these lines by TS Eliot, Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky.

A genre you dislike?
I could never read fantasy novels or books. They bore me. I feel like young people are getting a less real life and more rainbows and butterflies. I recommend that all young people read How The Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky because it reflects on the struggle of a differently-abled man in the Soviet Union.

Which Indian author do you enjoy?
About two years ago, I read Sarama And Her Children by Bibek Debroy. Sarama is a divine dog in the Rig Veda. Debroy draws out the dog’s history over the ages with references to and inputs from high and low literature, folk tales and temple art.

Your favourite character?
I don’t really relate to the characters I read about. I read objectively.

Sharanya Deepak


Remains of the Raj

Roderick Matthews paints a picture of an incompetent and confused British empire that wasn’t really malicious. But can he convince the Indian reader, asks Cyrus Vakil

The Flaws in the Jewel Roderick Matthews HarperCollins  Pages 312. Rs 350.
The Flaws in the Jewel
Roderick Matthews
HarperCollins
Pages 312. Rs 350.

After a spate of recent biographies on nationalist heroes and subaltern sub-heroes, it is refreshing to read about the Raj they contended with. Roderick Matthews explores the changing mindset of the coloniser, arguing “there was never one single ‘British’ interest” any more than there was “one unified ‘Indian’ view”. This assertion should not cause serious readers of history much surprise, any more than Matthews’ periodisation of the attitudes that characterised British rule: greed (1600- 1800), scorn (1800-57), fear (1857- 1920) and indifference (1920-47).

So is Flaws in the Jewel, an old wine in a new bottle, merely meant to correct Indian schoolbook accounts of a monolithically malevolent Raj? Perhaps, but the story is elegantly told. The Great Revolt is compared to a heart attack, “nature’s way of telling a workaholic (British reformers) to slow down”. Post-1857 agrarian policy “backed landlords socially and politically while defending peasants legally and economically”. And Matthews likens the thinly-spread ICS to a “gossamer web” rather than the “steel frame” it is usually pictured as.

Matthews’ Raj radiates incompetence and confusion rather than malice. It blunders along, torn by contrary impulses: toward military autocracy and political liberalism, self-denying paternalism and laissez-faire. It is a Raj more interested in projecting myths of the ideal ruler than in actually ruling.

But this indictment does not go far enough, partly because Matthews is less interested in economics than politics. The sin of the Raj was less what it did (the post-1947 state has clubbed demonstrators and levied “home charges” more ruthlessly than its predecessor) and more what it did not do. The Raj did not redistribute grain in times of famine nor did it usher in industrial modernity as Meiji Japan did, or an independent India in the 1890s might have done. It is not sufficient for Matthews to say that “the railways did not aid the growth of an industrial sector… they were the industrial sector” (employing half of all industrial workers even into the 1940s.) He then needs to indict the Raj for taking its imperial siesta when it needed to act, and for its self-congratulatory frugality when it needed to invest in development.

So how could such a blundering and self-deceived empire, headed by a miniscule number of under-qualified and unimaginative British bureaucrats, last so long? And what does it say of a nationalist movement that could achieve little against it (till a war-weary Britain lost its will)? Matthews asks the first question (though his answer is unconvincing) but evades the second. He is too aware of his bourgeois Indian readership to challenge nationalist myths. Imploding imperial myths is safer. One should never forget Indian nationalists were the one of greatest myth-makers of empire. Partly in awe, and largely to obscure their own failures, Indian nationalists often constructed a far too worthy imperial adversary than was actually the case.

Matthews does well to unmask the Raj. He tells you what nationalists were too bashful to utter. The empress had no clothes.

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