Monthly Archives: February 2012

CHARLES DICKENS IN KOLKATA – Sudeep Chakravarti

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of  Tin Fish and The Avenue of Kings. His major non-fiction work, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, was short-listed for the Vodafone Crossword Non-Fiction Award 2008.  Sudeep’s next work, Highway 39, set in Nagaland and Manipur, will be published in April 2012.

The poor man literally wrote himself to death in London. In Kolkata that was Calcutta in Charles Dickens’ time, he would have lived better—there were exchange-rate princes even in those days. He would have been a star curiosity and chronicler at the socialist end of the spectrum, opposite to, say, fantasies of Empire wrought by a writer that came after him, Rudyard Kipling—the other Victorian-era star curiosity and chronicler. They both had a father called John, but there rested commonality.

I imagine Dickens would have lived for about the same years in the Calcutta of his ‘when’; a relatively better quality of life than in London compacted by various Calcutta-borne diseases and, for sure, overwork from an overload of subjects. The White Nabob’s Papers, perhaps? Hard Times and Bleak House would surely be ready titles.

And now? Dickens would die in a decade in Calcutta-now-Kolkata attempting to stave off overwork and everyday compulsion: so many subjects, so little time, such urgency to earn, what a churn to earn it in. Perhaps he would die of asphyxiation as he rested a nervous breakdown. This would be at a hospital once named after Mother Teresa and to be run not-for-profit—but now a privately-run hospital-for-profit in which nearly a hundred patients died of fire and fumes a few weeks before Christmas. In death, Dickens would morph into a character in one of his stories of supreme irony.

He would have such a full life, though, till the end came. Walking, seeing, feeling, smelling Kolkata in a way no National Geographic documentary seen in London could ever convey; gathering material for his stories he would churn out each week for miserly websites and struggling literary magazines, saving novellas for the pulp-literary annuals timed each autumn around Durga Puja, and novels for release at Kolkata Book Fair each January—here at the mercy of his workhouse publishers.

(Such would be the life of a person who chose to not return home after his fellowship at Jadavpur University’s Department of English had expired. Kolkata would welcome him with its seductive tentacles of ambient culture that mesmerized generations of self-seeking gullibles into belief that it made poverty and decrepitude worthwhile. And, it would hardly help that, driven by the example of worthies such as William Dalrymple he pinned his hopes on earnings as a writer in this ‘place of fertile plots’ and contrived to bring along his surly wife Catherine and their brood of ten. Too late, Dickens would realize what Dalrymple already had: there was much money writing about a romanticized past, nearly none writing a sordid present.)

The good news: As he wouldn’t write about religion, Dickens would at least be permitted to exhibit his works at the book fair, and even sign copies, a privilege not granted fellow writers like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen. But such a politically craven ban would perhaps be to the good as Dickens would be swept away by the marketing finesse of his colleagues. Writing twitter, he would discover, is as crucial as writing prose. And an agent—oh, for a smart agent!

I can picture him, seated one evening by the traffic policeman at the corner of Park Street and Russell Street, watching the play of beggars and modern-day nabobs as they exited Bengal Club, to his left; younger nabobs and their frilly ladies from the music and dance clubs of Park Hotel, to his right.

I can see him walking under the flyover that stretches from the ragged cultural centre around Rabindara Sadan—an angrily thrown stone’s distance from the grand memorial to Empress Victoria—east toward a road once named after Viceroy Lansdowne. This flyover Kolkata claimed as a showpiece of progress to rebut claims of its death. Smooth vehicular movement for a few kilometers in a metropolis in which at the same time, several hundred kilometers worth of road would be gridlocked—even the roads the ‘fly over’ swept under its concrete and tar carpet. By walking under, Dickens would see huddled people in rags cooking meals in their homes of blue sheeting and beaten aluminium sheets that once held cooking oil. But he may already have seen those in a thousand shanties in Kolkata, a thousand streets. (Remember: he would have already written a short story about pickpocket children and their tormented leader, the lame Falguni who lived in the warrens carved under the platform of the suburban train station near the Lakes. The children would scurry in and out between trains; some would be run over, but there you have it.)

Dickens would have fought off for much his short, intense life all adulation from the Marxist government that ran Kolkata and the state of which it was the capital,West Bengal. Searching for propaganda victories, they would want him to join their version of the Communist Party. A man of Dickens’s proletarian, driven prose, they would reason, had to carry their card. He would even be summoned by their leader, Supremo, a gentleman who summered inLondonand appreciated the finer scotches. After passing on news of the stricken Charles’s former home, he would offer him a commission to write about the trodden in a manner that helped Supremo claim credit for saving the trodden.

Dickens would decline, pleading that such honour belonged to writers better than he. He would naively suggest Mahasweta Devi’s name—the tribal and caste rights activist—thinking her to be a kindred spirit, but without realizing she had gone past favour with Supremo. He would also choose to not see anger blazing through Supremo’s thick glasses, passing it off as an illusion worked by his own lack of sleep.

Some of his books would mysteriously burn in public squares as a result. Later, Supremo would send minions to the press that was readying to publish his next, an exposé of the wretched life of brick kiln workers near Kolkata. The thinly-veiled character of U. Ray, the overlord of those ‘bonded’ labourers was a senior Party functionary. Such exposés simply would not do.

Dickens would spend the next two years as a guerilla writer, underground, as his family remained sheltered by friends from a slum near his tenement home in Dhakuria. In particular a rickshaw puller called Joy, or Anondo, in Bengali. On one of his travels in the stricken northern suburbs of Kolkata—far from the new glitter of the tall towers of glass and steel to the east built over rich wetlands and farms—he would be searched out by a band of Maoist rebels. They had discovered that Supremo and his cohorts, worshippers of Marx, Engels and Lenin as they purported to be, were actually closer in characteristic to Stalin and a warped Croesus. This would please Dickens, as his recent writings focused on hypocrisy of power, especially crafted by those who claimed to speak on behalf of the powerless. Dickens, even on the run, appreciated the intent of these fighters who lived in the shadows of society, helping spread the word of revolution among the truly poor and the trodden: laid off factory workers; migrant farm workers who flocked to Kolkata from poorer parts of Bengal, and similar wasted lands of Bihar and Odisha; the children of prostitutes; beggars with limbs and faces deliberately disfigured to enhance the flow of alms.

While his power flowed from the keyboard of his trusted but nearly crumbling netbook; he would acknowledge that the power of some others may need to flow from the barrel of a gun. Anyway, it made for many plots for many stories. A man—and his wife and children—had to eat.

Alas, more clouds would visit our Charles, as soon he would shift his thoughts to how some of his Maoist brethren resembled Mao’s darker side in their dealings, suggesting radical social reconstruction as the only way out. If it were not for a Maoist fan of his early works, Dickens would not be able to escape to his family—he would likely be instead held up as a traitor to the cause. Even pushed to this wall, he would think to himself: more plot, more stories, more income (the resolute rickshaw-wallah and his family had been kind, but to feed ten children in this day and age?).

A lady in the neighbourhood, a new friend of his deeply bitter wife, Catherine, would intervene then as an angel. She worked at the home of a beautiful and wealthy spinster, Himali Sen. Himali had for long admired Dickens’s writings—‘truth must be told, even if it hurts,’ she would maintain, to some sniggers in her circles. And she would be delighted that her maid emerged as the conduit to this victimized talent, a shada-chamra—white skin—who had forsaken his own homeland to make a home among her kind; well, nearly so.

It would come to pass that one morning the maid would bring Dickens, camouflaged in burqa, to the stately mansion of Miss Himali Sen. The delighted lady would promise Dickens that better days were soon expected. Supremo and his cohorts were expected to be swept away by the impelling force of one she would only describe as Our Lady of Compassion—Mamata in Bengali—in the coming elections. And, by the way, did he realize that his powerfully descriptive works about commonplace tragedies and the trodden had become quite the flavour among society? Indeed, these could be said to provide motive force for political changes sweeping Kolkata. Dickens would be told he was now a darling of the classes, too.

His extreme nervous disorder would manifest itself soon after.

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What Would Dickens Write Today – Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee’s first novel, A LIFE APART (PAST CONTINUOUS in India), won the Vodafone-Crossword Award for Best Fiction in 2009 and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Fiction in 2010. His second novel, The Lives of Others, is out in 2013.

Photocredit - Daniel Hart                 Photo credit – Daniel Hart

How could we ever have failed to imagine this marriage? Dickens and India. Just think of the correspondences: of sentimentality, of the impulse towards tear-jerking, of wild unreality in the texture of realism. Who, in moments of lucidity, has not agreed with Wilde on what was, by general consensus, the most unbearably moving moment in his 1841 novel, The Old Curiosity Shop: ‘You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of little Nell’?  All the things that he took a scalpel to in Victorian England – poverty, child labour, the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, labyrinthine judicial processes, power exercised by an Old Boys’ network, the casual and entrenched cruelty of the powerful to the powerless  – flourish with sick fecundity in the hothouse of India. In a sense, a lot of what enraged him, and provided the motor for his writing, has disappeared from theEngland (and theLondon) he knew: the slums and the squalor, the all-too-visible human costs of the Industrial Revolution that poweredEngland’s resurgent economic growth, the seething social ills. Where do you think these things still obtain?India would have kept Dickens at the hot edge of inspiration and in material for several lifetimes. 

It is generally thought that the magical realism that marks the writings of Latin American writers developed as a response to represent in literature the surreality of politics and day-to-day life in Central and South American nations. If one were feeling charitable towards Dickens, as one feels somewhat bound to on his bicentenary year, that could serve as well an explanation as any for all those things in his novels that are so at home in a B- or C-grade Indian mainstream film or television drama – the wild and incredible coincidences, the tendency towards caricature in characterisation, the wishful endings.  That typical irreality in a Dickens novel – how well it answers to the Indian condition, the condition that is both a cause (the social and political situation) and an effect (as represented in cultural forms).

Consider this particular scenario, serialised, appropriately enough for a present-day Dickens novel, in a literary magazine, one of those rare corners where book-serialisation still thrives. A political party has sucked dry the lifeblood of the state in which it has been in power for three decades. Its early days of progressive land reforms are far behind it. The economy has changed; the future is not an agrarian economy any longer. Banging the anti-industrial drum has got the party the rural vote bank but the world is changing. That same tune, played relentlessly, has robbed the state of investment, encouraged an infamous ‘flight of capital’, made it an untouchable zone for industrialists, businessmen, blue-collar jobs. It has been falling falling falling for decades, it has become a byword for retrogression. For a state that still boasts of a Renaissance in learning and culture in the nineteenth century and likes to think of itself as the intellectual and creative powerhouse of the nation, its crucial development indicators, such as infant mortality rate, child nutrition, child immunisation (think of the possibilities in a Dickens novel here – slums, starving children, seething poverty), are lower than those of the neighbouring state, one traditionally thought of as the Heart of Darkness. Oh, the ironies of history.

The people, tired of stagnation, negative prospects of any kind of economic development or growth, rigged elections, the micro-rule of political goons, the impossibility of moving forward in any domain in their lives, have become restless and refractory. Into this cesspit arrives a rabble-rousing politician, promising the one thing that the people want: Change.  Every single bone in her body a populist one, she has promised to industrialise the state, thus creating sorely-needed jobs in the organised sector. Yet she has made her name chasing some prominent industrialists out of the state. How is she going to move forward? And why would the local power-brokers from the previous government, the public sector unions, teachers’ associations, the ‘dadas’, battened on thirty years of influence and power, allow her to erode their privileges? There are signs of an attempt to get out of this complete gridlock: playing Tagore songs at traffic junctions, initiating a public debate on tinkering with the name of the state. Think of the vast cast of characters as Dickens gets down to anatomise the different, clashing worlds, the hypocrisy and the festering stasis. Think of the fertile soil for some good old Dickensian caricaturing; admittedly, more the domain of the cartoonist than the novelist, but the situation is so rich, so inviting, that it demands it. The title of this novel? Great Expectations. Maybe even Bleak House.

Meanwhile, in the country at large, the coalition ruling party is mired in one corruption scandal after another; not your usual hands-in-the-till stuff (though there’s that too, in relation to an international sport festival) but on an industrial scale, costing the exchequer billions. But the main opposition party decrying this and demanding all kinds of anti-corruption measures, the party of the religious fundamentalist right, as it happens, has just had to depose a sitting Chief Minister of their party for his active, prolonged and leading role in mining and land acquisition corruption in a state down south; once again, the sums involved are tens of billions.  As if this were not enough, ministers from this very party, hysterically vocal about morality and corruption, have just been caught watching porn on their cellphones during a session of the State Assembly. And what’s this one called? Why, Hard Times, of course. 

Tolstoy, who had Dickens’s portrait on his wall, declared him the greatest nineteenth-century novelist; he would have been an even sharper twentieth- or twenty-first-century one.

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What Would Dickens Write Today – Chandrahas Choudhury

Charles Dickens and the modern industrialized city both came of age around the same time. Dickens’s descriptions of both the beauty and the horror of urban life remain intensely apposite today, and are part of the permanent inheritance of the human race.

“A metropolis,” the German writer Robert Walser wrote early in the twentieth century, “is a giant spider web of squares, streets, bridges, buildings, gardens, and wide, long avenues […], a wave-filled ocean that for the most part is still largely unknown to its own inhabitants, an impenetrable forest, an opulent, overgrown, huge, forgotten, or half-forgotten park, a thing that has been built up too extensively for it to ever again be oriented within itself.” This is a very Dickensian description, with its metaphors of webs, oceans and forests, and the suggestion of both knowledge and bewilderment.

The London in which Dickens lived, thrived, and  — especially as a child and a young man — suffered was in his day the greatest and most populous metropolis the world had ever seen. The journalist Henry Mayhew, a contemporary of Dickens, wrote, “In every thousand of the aggregate composing the immense human family, two at least are Londoners.” The many new implications of what it meant to belong to, and take sustenance from, a human family of this enormous size, with its variety, instability, grotesquerie, anonymity, interconnection, anarchy, and forms of community and exchange were explored intimately by Dickens in his novels and his journalism.

But Dickens’s achievement is not just one of empathy, of a surpassing range of perception and powers of connection. It is also one of style. Dickens invented a prose style that was equal, on the page, to the speed of urban life, the explosion of sense perceptions available within it. Just as, within the city, previously inanimate matter was now brought to life by steam and electrical energy, so too in Dickens, characters, scenes and conversations are animated by an extraordinary energy and clarity. The familiar is made unfamiliar; the unfamiliar familiar.

Here is Dickens describing the construction site for a new railway line in Dombey and Son: “There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water and unintelligible as any dream.” Such sentences don’t just describe a new world, but resemble it in their collage of different perspectives.

As the half-finishedness of this landscape suggests, in many ways the modern urban cities closest to Dickens’s London no long belong to Europe, but to Asia and Africa. For better or for worse, cities like Mumbai (where I live) have the same narrative energy. They exist permanently suspended between need and satiation, wakefulness and sleep, impoverished by the city and yet unable to imagine a life outside it, mixing a thousand different tongues and accents into one jumbled-up patois. Every construction site leaves behind a permanent fund of debris; every line of progress, whether physical or mental, is interrupted by the movement or will of another. For every kind of activity that is organized and regulated, there exists a shadow world where those in need and those who have something to offer find a way of coming together. Now that I don’t live in Mumbai all year round any more, I find that I can return to it just by opening to any page in Dickens’s work. Under the surface differences of names, streets, and manners, it is a similar world.

What I like most about Dickens are the absence of hierarchies in his narrative world, the way in which each character, whether high or low, major or minor, is given a distinct language and accent. A recent study showed that over 16,000 characters appear in Dickens’s work. That is, Dickens invented more people than we meet over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps we love Dickens so much because the world he gives us is bigger than any world we know.

What would Dickens write today? I think he would be greatly fascinated by the Internet: what it does to human selfhood and to relationships, how it is both a means to something and an end in itself. He would be struck, too, by the new forms of capitalism in place today: the financial bubbles of mortgages, derivatives and real estate, the networks of economic connection propelled by globalization and the field of economic desire that trails us wherever we go (he could stay with the titles Great Expectations and Hard Times).

He would have a field day making ironic use of the jargon of advertising and PR, and mocking the construction (and indeed constriction) of the human being as primarily a consumer and of the measurement of human progress primarily by economic indicators. And he would love to stand on the elevators of the Tube stations of London, looking at the vast array of human types from all around the world before him and listening to the sounds and stresses of their English and thinking of the images and transcriptions that would make them live again in his work.

Or, to think about the question in another way, perhaps Dickens would walk into a bookstore and find that he wouldn’t need to lift a finger. He could pick up one of his books and find that it was still, more than a hundred years after his heyday, he was still in tune with the world.

 Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf (2009). He speaks frequently on Indian literature and is a contributing editor at the Caravan.

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I Thought It Was His Name – Anjum Hasan

They left me, during this time, with a very nice man with a very large head of red hair and a very small shiny hat upon it, who had got a cross-barred shirt or waistcoat on, with ‘Skylark’ in capital letters across the chest. I thought it was his name; and that as he lived on board ship and hadn’t a street door to put his name on, he put it there instead; but when I called him Mr. Skylark, he said it meant the vessel – David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Savita kneels in the dust of the lane, watching the black ants on their two-way road, hooting the slow ones out of the way as they travel up and down the juicy stalk of a sunflower.

Every large cockroach her mother smacks dead with a broom is a crashed lorry belly-up, its skin tarpaulin, its innards sacks of onions or dal spilling all over the road. When Savita eats lunch, the morsels of rice mixed with sambar fall into her mouth like gravel and melted asphalt going into a churning mixer, and the evening chappati on her plate is always a flatbed truck transporting tightly-coiled strands of cabbage cable.

Everything smells and tastes of smoke and diesel, the sky is a dirty blank, and the roar of heavy vehicles has drowned out a good part of everyone’s world except Savita’s. She leaves the ants to their morning traffic jam and walks across to the highway. She is listening for the sound of her father. A million trucks could have gone down State Highway 17 since she was born but Savita will never mistake that one horn. She knows it better than she knows her father’s voice. 

She waits but he doesn’t come, driving up in the yellow and red truck, his arm waving to her through the open window long before she can see his face. She is anxious that if she turns her back, her desertion of her post will be the cause of his not coming. Nevertheless, she must go back to her unsmiling mother who whacks her with the ladle with which she is about to stir the ragi gruel and then pulls her hair into pigtails so tight that Savita’s head, as she starts out for school, feels torn in two halves. 

In school, it is a Tuesday.  Only in school do days take on names and implications. Wednesdays are a favourite because the new art teacher is cowed by the children into telling a story instead of getting them to do art—which would mean copying down yet again sceneries featuring hills green as neon and rivers blue as plastic, or pretty, sloping-roofed houses enclosed in pointy white fences. Fridays are welcome because they are Fridays. On Tuesdays, Savita suffers because of the recently-instituted weekly science test.

 ‘Nanna priya makkalu,’ says their science teacher, Nanaiah, as he searches among his dog-eared books for his wooden ruler. Savita waits for him to turn to the blackboard and start putting down questions about horrible things like the meaning of chlorophyll and the function of oxygen. Nanaiah Sir only talks in science. Other than that there is the ruler for the palms of the scientifically illiterate like Savita. So why is he wasting time on preliminaries today?

‘My dear children,’ he repeats. ‘Next week is…’

‘Republic Day!’ scream the children. Nanaiah holds up his ruler to silence them.

‘Correct. Our school will present…’

‘Tricolour umbrella dance!’ they scream again. They have been rehearsing since the middle of December.

‘Correct. This is the first time our school has been chosen for this honour. Afterwards, you will receive sweets and certificates straight from the hands of our MLA.’

The class is awed into silence. This is news to them.

‘Correct,’ says Nanaiah, anyway. ‘So stand up one by one and tell me your fathers’ names. Your certificate will say: so and so, daughter or son of so and so, is presented with this certificate for so and so. And the date. You understand, you asses?’

They begin with the first row. ‘Gopala Reddy. . .Srikrishna Gowda. . .Saleem Iqbal. . .’

Savita rapidly chews the end of one pigtail, sweat breaking out under her arms. She cannot remember her father’s name. In fact, she doesn’t know. She has never asked him, he has never told her.  How is it that her classmates are so sure? She prays to him to come roaring down the highway and flatten Nanaiah. 

Suddenly, seeing that beloved truck in her mind’s eye, she knows.

‘Ashok Leyland,’ she says loud and clear when her turn comes.

‘What?’ asks Nanaiah, his mouth hanging open.

‘Ashok Leyland,’ she repeats without any loss of confidence.

‘Miss Savita,’ says Nanaiah, ‘are you telling me your father is a truck?’

The class goes berserk. Some fall from their benches and roll in their aisles while the laughter of others degenerates into animal hooting and barking.

Nanaiah has to hit his ruler repeatedly on his desk to silence them. He calls Savita up, gives her five angry raps on her small palm and then says,

‘Now tell me your father’s name.’

‘Ashok Leyland,’ whispers Savita through her sobs. She is sent back to her bench after being told she has the brains of a sparrow and that there is absolutely no question of a certificate being presented to her.

After school Savita ignores the calls of her friend Dipali and runs ahead, tearing at her pigtails.  She flings her schoolbag at the closed door of her two-room house, then runs barefoot over the permanent puddles of black grease from the garage opposite and goes around the piss-smelling rear of Sagar Samrat where cars draw up all day to spill out cramped and scowling men, women and children always badly in need of tea and toilets.

Her eyes are on the traffic that causes roadside dust to swoop up joyously to greet her—nestle into her nostrils and line her lungs. Her curly hair flies loose, her face is still stained with tears and she stands there like a block of stone, waiting to hear the melody of her father’s horn.

A battered Maruti van comes perilously close to her, the driver leering as he throws the words of some film song at her. ‘O sanam o sanam. . . ’ She spits after him but steps back from the road anyway.

She could stand there till the grey of dusk dissolved the grey of the highway and only the headlights in her eyes and the smell of vadas from Sagar Samrat remained. She could wait all night. But however long she waits, there is no escaping homework, and the screeching of her mother’s sewing machine, and her grandmother’s cold chapattis. She is hungry. 

Approaching home with her ribbons in her hand she sees someone standing beside the door, near the small mud patch where the sunflowers grow, smoking a beedi with his back to her. She starts running and throws herself at him; he drops his beedi and lifts her high off the ground.

‘I’ve been waiting for you all afternoon,’ he says.

Savita looks over his shoulder at the open grounds where the weekly market is held. There it is, her father’s truck, “National” and “Permit” written high on each front window and, painted in white letters below the vent, the beautiful words “Ashok Leyland”.

Trying hard to hold back her tears, Savita hides her face in her father’s neck and whispers, ‘I thought it was your name.’

 Anjum Hasan is the author of the novels Neti, Neti and Lunatic in my Head and the book of poems Street on the Hill. Her collection of stories, Difficult Pleasures will appear from Penguin Viking in April. She is books editor at The Caravan.

 

 

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Anita Nair – What Would Dickens Write Today

We do not choose the world we write about. Most often than not, we write about what is the temple of our familiar. We locate our stories in the world that we believe we have a rare understanding of. A world that we internalize to an extent that it seeps into our every breath and thought. For only then can we recreate on paper that world with almost the life force it pulses with.At first the urban landscape failed to stir me. Even the books I read were based in quiet villages and small towns. To me, they offered a harmony between man and land strewn with a wealth of sub-plots. And so this became the landscape that I wished to set my novels in. In the books I wrote I sought to narrate the stories of people who would inhabit such a world.

And then a little over eighteen months ago, I decided to write my first true urban novel. It would be a novel dictated by the city as much as the characters. I had a choice of two cities. Chennai where I had grown up, Bengaluru where I lived. The danger of locating it in Chennai was to be swamped by nostalgia. And I wanted this to be an edgy piece of writing with no room for sentiment or memory.

In Bengaluru that has been my home for the last two decades, I sought a world that was far away from what is commonly perceived to be Bengaluru ─ The glittering cityscape of the IT companies, the orderly lives of the middle class, the joggers, the parks, the hi-rises and the international brands─. For I was certain that somewhere within Bangalore was another city that would be mine,  as London had been for Dickens. In fact, as the narrator of Dickens Master Humphrey’s Clock suggests, I too would have to ‘draw but a little circle above the clustering housetops, …have within its space everything, with its opposite extreme and contradiction close by.’

One evening as I drove through Shivaji Nagar, I had a moment of epiphany. For twenty years, I have driven through its narrow roads strewn with shops that dealt in everything from nuts and bolts to automobile spare parts to old newspapers to meat, vegetables, fruit and  flowers to clothes and shoes… My eyes had paused at the doorways here and there on the streets. No one would realize what lay behind the doors. That the narrow corridor flared into a small square courtyard and around it was a warren of two room tenements. Clotheslines would be strung in the courtyard and on a corner would be a couple of brick stoves, so each household could make its own hot water to take to the two bathrooms that was all there was for everyone who lived there. When it rained, the road turned into a stream of fast flowing dirty brown water in which garbage floated. To open the main door of the house was dangerous then. There was no knowing what would float in. An old tyre or a single chappal or a dead bandicoot.

I had trawled the streets of Sivaji Nagar with more the curious eye of a tourist rather than the calculated gaze of a writer. But that particular evening, I knew a sense of preordination. Was it the whiff of meat cooking or the sight of a raggedy group of children nibbling at cotton candy or was it the dying sun reflected in a window pane? I thought then of Dickens writing of his London. ‘The amount of crime, starvation and nakedness or misery of every sort in the metropolis surpasses all understanding.’

Over the next few months as I made countless forays into this Dickensian world within modern metropolitan Bangalore, I glimpsed it again and again: How late in the night the Shivaji Nagar bus stand area was still simmering with activity. Of a certain excitement that resonated through the alleys and lanes. Even the vendors had their carts edged along the roads. The smell of meat cooking on charcoal mingled with the aroma of samosas being fried in giant vats of hissing oil. Chopped onions and coriander leaves, pakodas and jalebis, strings of marigold and jasmine buds, rotting garbage and cow dung. The high notes of attar. The animal scent of sweat and unwashed bodies.

Men of all sizes and shapes trawled the alleys. Some seeking a hot kebab to sink their teeth into; some seeking a laugh, a suleimani in a glass and a smoke. There were men looking for a fuck and men looking to be fucked. Men returning home from work. Policemen on the beat. Autorickshaw drivers and labourers. Whores. Eunuchs. Urchins. Beggars. Tourists. Regulars.

A composite cloud of a thousand fragrances and needs in that shadowed underbelly of the city.

So when I chose to locate my novel in this world, I was only seeking to replicate what Dickens may have sought to write if he were alive and writing of Bangalore. An inner city that to most people didn’t even exist. ‘A black shrill city… a gritty city…a hopeless city, with no vent in the leaden canopy of its sky.’

The inner lives of characters needn’t always be located in their monologues. When everyday is a struggle to survive, when to claim a shred of humanity from bestial surroundings demand more than you can give, what place then for angst or soul-searching? Sometimes the very world they inhabit has the unique ability to postulate their inner self.

Humanity, shorn of high art and culture, stripped of its veneer of education and polish, is redefined here ‘amidst this compound of sickening smells, these heaps of filth, these tumbling houses, with all their vile contents, animate and inanimate, slimly overflowing into the black road,’ Of what it is to be human – complex, vulnerable, resonating with goodness and evil – is most evident where human life has little or no value.

Dickens recognizedthis perhaps more than any other writer ever did.

 Anita Nair is the author of  The Better Man, Ladies Coupe and Mistress. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel is Lessons in Forgetting.

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Introduction – What Would Dickens Write Today

As is common knowledge, the British Council builds mutually beneficial relationships between people in various countries to increase appreciation of creative ideas and achievements. One of them is to deliver a brand new digital writing blog aimed at generating high quality engagement with our audiences. The What Would Dickens Have Written Today is designed to engage strongly with the writers’ community and build international opportunities for theUK. Read the pieces penned by Anita Nair, Sudeep Chakravarti, Anjum Hasan, Neel Mukherjee and Chandrahas Choudhury and comment on what you have thought about the pieces. We look forward to reading your comments.

Samarjit Guha, Head Programme, British Council, East India

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The BIG day

Day 7, Having worked through the night both for the presentation and our dance, we got up a little later than usual, in time for our final rehearsal for the presentation.  With a little more correction to our recommendations and compilations we were finally ready for the big show.

Dressed in the British Council T-shirts, we gathered at the conference hall, where all the VIP’s including the Maharaja of Jodhpur Gajsingh ji, Members of ‘Wells For India’, Scientists from CAZRI and AFRI, Deputy Director of British Council Charlie Walker and our very own Reesha Maam and Guru Sir. Then began the round of presentations, at the end of which the chief guests expressed their pleasure in organizing such camps and its importance.

Following this formal gathering was the cultural show, where a group of native singers had come in to entertain the guests. As we were nearing the end of the camp, both happiness and sadness took on high and all of us started displaying our own talents in dancing (can be better called spinning) to the native tunes.

After the Maharaja left started our own party, which proved that even our dance rehearsal was a success and this party lasted all night resulting in us skipping our breakfast the next day. We had to finally split up, but the learning during this camp was not only the subject of climate change but also friendship and teamwork. In the end we were all sure that this camp will certainly encourage us to do further work in our own fields and we would help each other to bring an environmental change in our society.

Prajitha T, International Climate Champion, India

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Agro-Forestry

Day 6,  From day one, we had started off with lectures that were punctuated with field visits on the same topic. But day six had something different for us. Our field visit and our lectures were combined and we were taken to the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) and Agro Forestry Research Institute (AFRI), where the scientists showed us the various projects that they were involved in to improve the lifestyle of the people of Rajasthan.

At CAZRI , it was the solar energy based products that served to be the beginning of a very exciting visit. Here were products ranging from candle making machines to dryers to heaters, all based on solar energy, which could be purchased by the villagers due to its affordability.

Next, we were introduced to the process in which desert plants, which are facing extinction, are being conserved. The  efforts taken to make Julie Flora (a plant found in plenty in this desert) economically viable were showcased. After our visits, Dr.M.N.M.Roy, Director, CAZRI, briefed us about CAZRI and the projects they were involved in.

At AFRI, Agro-Forestry was the major topic. The process of growing forest plants in the agricultural fields in a condition which will benefit is agro-forestry. It is this aspect that AFRI has been trying to implement in the lands of this desert.

The evening was spent in an effort to prepare our presentations that we would be presenting to the Maharaja of Jodhpur the next day. The fun part was our preparation for a small dance that we wanted to present for ourselves and our mentors of course.

With heavy conclusions to our presentation and recommendations clouding our minds, we waited for the big day to arrive.

Prajitha T, International Climate Champion, India

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The Blue City

Day 5 was a trip to Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. The drive up to the fort begins to reveal the majestic presence it holds across the city. We were met by our guide for the day. The foundations of the fort were laid in 1459 by Rao Jodha and it has never been invaded. The fort is therefore considered one of the mightiest forts of all time and one of the most spectacular forts in South Asia. The fort was donated by the maharaja as a public building and has since been turned into one of the best museums in India. The tours included the beautiful Period Rooms, impressive collections of palanquins, elephant howdahs, cradles, paintings, weapons …the magnificent heritage of the Rathores of Marwar – Jodhpur.

The terraces of the fort offer a view across the blue city – the maze of buildings in the old town painted in a distinct blue which provides the eye with a vision fitting to the fort that overlooks it. The indigo blue paint not only reflects sunlight to keep the homes cool but also act as mosquito repellents.

Part of our tour  included an explanation of the water harvesting system of the fort, past and present.  We were guided through the old town, again shown the old water management systems. These are no longer used within the city following the connection of the Indira Gandhi canal to provide the city’s water.

The narrow streets of old Jodhpur were bustling and vibrant. The International Champions were dazed by the interaction between, humans, animals and vehicles.  A dose of ‘retail therapy’ was needed after such a packed week so we explored the many shops offering local textiles and handicrafts. A great day for all.

Jessica McQuade, International Climate Champion, UK 

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Mining!

Day 4  dawned with an insight into the main income generating industry of Rajasthan, Mining, by Mr.M.S.Rathore.With around 64 minerals in its earth, it provides employment to a majority of the population here. He went on to explain that illegal mining has been a reason for both exploitation of human resources and the loss of bio-diversity around the mining site.

Under the impacts of mining, health is the most important. The safety measures that are provided by the company are not effective and even if it is effective, the people do not follow some of the safety instructions due to lack of awareness. This is one major problem that needs to be addressed. Also the method of mining is still traditional which has increased the intensity of impacts.

With the knowledge of mining strong in our minds we visited the Balsamand Lake to visually understand the repercussions of mining when it is done illegally. Apart from learning the history of the lake which involved a human sacrifice, we learnt that one of the channels of this lake is to be revived soon because of water scarcity in the area of Balsamand. This gave us an insight into the effect of the people becoming dependant on the Indira Gandhi Canal for water. Next we had a look into a sandstone mine which was close to the lake and how it had affected the natural channels and the catchment area of the lake due to illegal mining.

Once back to the resort we had another NGO, ‘Wells For India’, like Jal Baghirathi Foundation, address us about the similar kinds of work they were doing for the poor in Rajasthan. This presentation delivered by Dr.Max Wilson , Chairman trustee, Wells for India, reinforced the ideas of traditional water harvesting and enabling desert greenery apart from providing sanitary and some technological supports to the poorest of villages. ‘Wells for India’, started by two Britishers, had changed the lives of the villagers to such an extent in the last 25 years that we could understand the barriers which they had to cross to achieve all this. In one word, ‘Inspiring’ will be the best word to describe our experience.

The end of the day signified that any new solution should only supplement the existing traditional methods and should not replace it.

Prajitha T, International Climate Champion, India

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