The Americans keep pumping hot air into India’s ballooning self-image, but observe their private musings for some real clues, suggests Mani Shankar Aiyar
TIME FOR a reality check. In close to 500 pages on the key moments of his presidency, George W Bush mentions Dr Manmohan Singh just once, and that too in two lines of a single paragraph — a paragraph that begins, insultingly, by referring to the US President’s “visit” to Pakistan before which, he says, he made a “stop” to see the Indian prime minister! Poor recompense indeed for the second most discredited president in US history (the most being Richard Nixon, at whom Indira Gandhi firmly cocked her snook) being told in the full glare of the entire world’s television cameras by the Indian prime minister a fortnight before he was to be dumped in the dustbin of history that “the people of India deeply love you”! [Wot, me?] And quite a promotion for the guy who when he started campaigning for the presidency found himself tarred with a banner that read, “Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot!”
Well, so much for the global significance of an India which his successor, Barack Obama, assured us but a month ago, in the sacred precincts of our Parliament, had gone from being an “emerging” tadpole into a fully “emerged” frog. Hillary Clinton, bless her soul, described us in WikiLeaks as the “self-appointed frontrunner” for a permanent seat in the Security Council. Self-appointed? Rubbish! Vanuatu has assured us of its support.
Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf, on the other hand, gets all of five pages — except that Bush cannot seem to quite make up his mind whether he “admired” Musharraf, as he does at page 212, or whether he was concerned by the next page that Musharraf “either could not or would not fulfill all his promises” or whether, as happens three pages later, after being advised by Bush to “set a date for free elections, resign from the army, and lift the state of emergency”, “Musharraf made each of those commitments, and he kept them” (atta boy!); thus, by the time the reader gets to the top of the next page, “Pakistan’s democracy had survived the crisis”.
That, in brief, is the worldview of our Millennium Man. No room in Bush’s memoirs for the possibility that Musharraf might have worked out all on his own that it was time he shed his uniform, lifted the state of emergency and held elections.
Of a piece at my being intrigued that two of our top representatives at the IAEA Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, who chewed their nails on the sidelines awaiting clearance for our nuclear deal, on returning from Vienna used the same very American expression, “Awesome” (pronounced “aaa-sum”) to describe the US arm-twisting its closet allies to secure a unanimous vote for India from all 45 NSG members. “Aaa-sum,” they said, admiringly, “that all this power was displayed for and not against us.” “To what end,” I innocently enquired, “to make us the 46th?”
TEHELKA has allowed me only 500 words. So I beg you to read George Packer’s devastating critique in The New Yorker, 29 November.
Aiyar is a Rajya Sabha member
The world on a park bench
2009 suddenly seems so batty, says Gaurav Jain
WHAT DO old people do all the time? What becomes a year in our republic’s life? Khushwant Singh’s novel links these questions with a simple device: three old men meet every evening in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens to chat about their day and the headlines. Meet the Oxonian and Hindu Sharma, the rich nawab and Muslim Baig, and of course, the columnist, “agnostic sybarite” and Sikh Boota. Together they capsize the dialectical method from their ‘boorha bench’.
Our narrator Boota swings between gently fathoming the seasons and cussing at the news as he tries his damnedest to keep his appetites. Dilli upper-crust retired life streams through one exact year with a chapter for every month: Ghalib, sardar jokes, Shiv Sena, constipation, obituaries, Valentine’s Day, MF Husain, French etymology, Karva Chauth, courtesans, Nano, (graphic) memories of sexual escapades, Eid, Jarnail Singh, mangoes, Section 377, Holi, astrology, Ramadan, YSR’s accident, geese sightings, Madhu Koda, Liberhan, Telangana, Rathore and Ruchika, ND Tiwari on camera with prostitutes, Christmas pudding and cognac, MJ and Tiger Woods, and always, the flowers.
Allow its slightness and the book rolls smoothly, buoyed by the civilising effects of conversation. He may not be profound like Roth’s Mickey Sabbath or Yeats’ Crazy Jane, but this sardarji is most certainly chatty, fervid and assiduous.
The game of reality
CP Surendran’s biting wit doesn’t add up to a truly comic novel, says Arul Mani
CP SURENDRAN’S second novel places a homicidal cow trained to clamber up staircases, a disaster-prone auto-rickshaw driver, a stoner journalist named Placid Hari, a Maulana whose mind has begun to wander, an urban cowboy, a single woman burdened by guilt, and her neighbours, a Tam-Brahm couple deep in a high-decibel relationship, against the backdrop of 26/11.
My first year at school came rushing back as I began this novel. The nuns had forgotten to build toilets for the five boys in their girls’ school and sent us off on long post-lunch walks where we could unzip and aim freely at tree and wall. Balaji, boon companion, was apt to turn around halfway through to write his full name, a talent whose side-effects made the rest of us really jumpy around him.
The author wheels around every now and then with much the same artistic air to assault you with facile imagery. At Land’s End, the rocks insist on erupting “like a rash of warts”. Two sentences later, we are told that Lakshmi, the single woman “is ageing faster than a video-game”. A moment later, the same Lakshmi is dying “to rid herself of the smell of failure that envelops her like a cheap scent”. Lakshmi has spent the entire morning feeling “like a hormonal ball”, whatever that might be, “bounced by a machine”. And so on, at the rate of three on every page.
The novel’s shining moment arrives in a sentence that effortlessly outperforms every winner of the Bad Sex Award so far. Lakshmi is seduced by a beautiful stranger on a suburban train and “he duly proceeds to ram his oaken oar into what feels like a bush full of bricks, which suddenly gives way after a few punitive attempts to a slushy creek. Oh oh. A moment later the inlet is opening out to sea. They are to the vastness bound.” I have never seen a writer careen so expertly, and so quickly, from bad DH Lawrence to exhumed Tennyson.
Surendran is capable of biting wit, witnessed in sentences such as “Fully-grown Keralites talked of Marx…and Stalin, as if these august personalities had just got up and left their favourite parlour chairs for a walk and, fantastically enough, the imprint of their posteriors was hot and clear on the cushions for the believers to see and marvel at, and perhaps to inhale…”
And yet this wit resolves into a soggy mess rather than the truly comic novel that could have been. He dwindles into flip but monotonous natter when you expect narrative, and has absolutely no ear for conversation. There is also the separated-at-birth device, lifted from what the book describes — with cute self-referentiality — as “a second-rate Bollywood film”. Indian reality may well be tackier than Bollywood films, as the author said in his defence in a recent interview. That is not reason enough for inflicting a carelessly wrought novel on the paying public.