Monday, November 28, 2011

On 'The Imam and the Indian'

A review I wrote on Amitav Ghosh's rather underrated essay.

There is, perhaps, a touch of indulgence in reviewing a work of an author you have grown to love with time. You try to be as objective as possible, as stern and unrelenting as a Supreme court judge, but eventually, your heart takes over the mind, for reading isn’t purely a celebral experience, is it? You overlook the long uninteresting bits, the geriatric descriptions and the annoyingly obtuse passages, only to land up with that gem you’ve been scourging for all that while. That overwhelming experience makes the scavenging completely worth it.

I felt that way when I picked up Amitav Ghosh’s book of essays, “The Imam and the Indian”. Here was the writer who produced the subliminal Calcutta Chromosome and the very engaging The Hungry Tide, two books I reveled in over the course of many late nights. Ghosh is also the father of another genius of a piece ‘The Ghat of the Only World’, which in my opinion is the greatest tribute one can pay to a relatively unknown poet. Thus it was with a lot of expectations that I picked up “The Imam and the Indian”, despite my general indifference towards non-fiction. I was gearing up for Ghosh 101, revved up and set to go.

“The Imam and Indian” is like a buffet meal at an expensive restaurant – a delicious starter and dessert, but pretty much bland and predictable in between. The book sets off with the brilliant “Imam and the Indian”, stumbles on to the “Tibetan Dinner”, and from there it’s mostly downhill. Mid-way, there are a few stoic research pieces thrown in, something about labour, envy and looking at Egypt from an anthropological perspective. The book then manages to startle some formerly involved reader with the engaging “The March of the Novel through History” and then tumbles down some more, only to reach its final redemption point “The Ghat of the Only World”.

However, the starting essay ‘The Imam and the Indian’ is interesting enough, I think to warrant an entire review on it. This piece works for me because of the simplicity in its narrative, the layers that aren’t visible to the naked eye and of course, the typical Ghosh’s style of writing which is elegant, discerning and entirely captivating.

The Imam and the Indian is a snippet of Ghosh’s travels through Egypt in the 1980s as a researcher. It sets the tone for the rest of the collection - a hint of the underlying tensions between the two civilizations – Egypt and India and the shared envy of the West. The West has always been perceived as the modern, the progressive and the technologically superior while the Other, the East is seen as primitive and barbaric. Ghosh explores this tension underlying the Egyptian society and through his position as an outsider provides for an interesting case of reflexivity – the observer influencing the behavior of the observed.

The essay begins in a very matter of fact fashion. “I met the Imam of the village and Khamees the Rat at about the same time.” Ghosh begins his narrative. “I don’t exactly remember now- it happened more than six years ago-but I think I met the Imam first”.
The opening sentence is only hoisted by the rather intriguing (and faintly alliterative) title. Perhaps the foundations of the contrasts on which the story is built on is laid there – the Imam and the Indian, two Is of a different pod. This hint of a literary device at the very outset had me hooked on to the story.
Ghosh uses the first person narrative throughout the essay, and I cannot see if how it could have been more effective otherwise. Yet, he is not a fly in the wall narrator, he doesn’t merely whip out his recorder and capture what the villagers have to say. Ghosh plays an active part in the story, his opinion, his indignation and his emotions are all integrated into the piece. There is no objective unbiased writing here and Ghosh is clear about who he is – a story teller, not a reporter. His ethicality as a non-fiction writer extends only to a certain limit and he does not deny himself his bouts of fabrication.

Ghosh makes ample use of dialogue in this piece which adds to the conversational village setting. The typical village backdrop with its long afternoons full of chatter is brought out through the use of dialogue, especially of those between Ghosh and Khamees the Rat.
“Tell me, ya doktor,”the Rat said, “if I get on to my donkey and ride steadily for thirty days will I make it to India?”
“No”, I said. “You wouldn’t make it in thirty months.”
“Thirty months!” he said. “You must have come a long way.”
“As for me,”he declared, “I’ve never ever been as far as Alexandria and if I can help it I never will.”

Ofcourse, it’s the fleshing out of the characters that adds to the charm of the story. The Imam, a relic of an era long vanished is an interesting character, one who tries to shun his older methods of treatment for the newer ‘Western’ medicines, one who berates the Indians and their primitive customs and one who worships the West, a civilization which he could only aspire to, never be a part of. The Imam with all his acerbity and undisguised hatred towards the ‘Indian foreigners’ makes for a layered character, one who is polite and withdrawn at the exterior and boiling with indignation at the core.

Khamees the Rat, on the other hand is the typical happy-go-lucky character every serious story occasionally needs. Khamees the Rat – who gnaws away at everything with his words, the way a rat does with its teeth- knows no decorum, or boundaries. His disarming frankness and his ability to put anyone at unease with his questions, makes the reader connect with him immediately. There is a bit of the Rat in all of us, the one who wants to know all the answers, and break away that thin veil called personal boundaries.

The two characters display unguarded horror when they learn that the Indians not only burn their dead, but also worship cows, something unimaginable in the rural Egyptian life. This quaint example of ethnocentrism succeeds in engaging the reader and providing that emotional experience, so integral to a good story. These characters are hardly caricatures even though their indignation may be hard to relate to. Yet they are symbols of the basic human emotions which define all of us – envy of the advanced nations, a feeling of superiority over the ‘primitive’ ones and a sense of insecurity one experiences with a foreigner around.

The narrative is well paced, not too slow so as to lull the reader to sleep, but not too fast either. At every turn, the tension slowly builds up, only to be released in a final outburst by Ghosh, who tries to defend his country and customs to a village which sees him as an alien from a land of strange beliefs.

This passionate narrative relies perhaps more on ‘telling’ than ‘showing’. Filled with dialogues, direct questions and revelations which are hardly subtle in nature, Ghosh does not leave much to the reader to infer from the narrative. The writing which is structured around dialogues and observations is taut enough, a case in point packed neatly into an essay with no loose threads.

But at the end, one doesn’t read Ghosh merely to gain a new perspective, or to expand one’s ideas about the Indo-Egyptian relations. Ghosh’s leverage arises from his use of language and his playing with words to convey a particular idea, something which makes him one of the prominent Indian writers of today.
“The men of the village had all the busy restlessness of air-line passengers in a transit lounge…some of them had passports so thick they opened out like ink-blackened concertinas..You could read the history of this restlessness in the villager’s surnames: they had names which derived from cities in the Levant, from Turkey…the wanderlust of its founders had been ploughed into the soil of the village.”

Well begun is half done, or so they say, and perhaps the first essay in the collection “The Imam and the Indian” does make up for the other lackluster ones. A well written piece is a magical one, in its ability to ship the reader into newer lands, newer uses of a language and newer perspectives. It does not take extravagant writing or obtuse ideas to achieve this, and Ghosh’s essay is a case in point.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Sometimes, writing is overrated.

Sometimes words just fall on your head like a heap of unwashed clothes. Yet, we pretend to capture the way we really feel by using big fancy words, much like the cellophane covering on your Flipkart delivered book. But words aren't cellophane sheets, they are just torn holey pajamas which you know you have to throw away, but never get around doing so.

Or maybe writing is like a net which traps a budding idea, confines itself to specious adjectives and darned word limits.

Like the way your nose ring gleams on a summer afternoon.

Friday, October 14, 2011


Sometimes I look at this blog and wonder - how much of this is really me?

Because, when I write for a blog, I write FOR A BLOG.. My words are automatically censored and my writing is careful - not too propah, yet not intended to provide a field day for that snoopy-relative-who-just-discovered-the-wonders-of-the-internet-and-decided-to-troll-my-blog.

And these days, I find myself increasingly drawn to poetry. My previous three blog posts have been poems, something which I don't know quite what to make of. I mean, there are some good poetry out there, but there are a lot more awful poems and awful poets who can't seem to think in straight lines. I do hope for the sake of my prosaic comfortable self that this is just a current fad of mine.

Also, I feel I'm becoming just too passive these days. Like I can't get angry (atleast not that angry), even when the circumstances demand that I respond. But then again, I'm a Taurean (a double Taurean as someone recently told me!), so when I do get angry...!

And..and...and...I got a Tarot reading yesterday! It was a wonderful experience and I was overwhelmed by it all. I never was a completely logical person anyway (the Tarot reading pointed that out too) and I fell in love with the whole process.

I am also in love with this! And this. And this.

One of these days, I think, I shall whip out my Megadeth tshirt and headbang to Judas Priest.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Demonic Resurrection

The demons of the world
the netherworld, the toxic skies
the demons lurking in my
dusty, bitter
and belligerent
are nothing
compared to
the ones in my head.

They flay their
angry arms
and ask
too many questions
they fill my head
with caustic bubbles
of futility
much like an empty stomach
at three AM
in the morning

they wail
they scream
they destroy
and demolish
and finally
rumble silently
in vain.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The most beautiful language of them all

Sometimes I wonder
What if I had grown up
learning, speaking and thinking
in Hindi, Urdu, Arabic
and Hindi-Urdu-Arabic alone?
What if I never learnt English
all my life?
Never spent class seven
agonising over modals, adverbs
conjunctives, prepositions
and a dirty red Wren and Martin?
What if I never read
Austen, Dickens, Conrad
The Bard, Keats-Shelley-Yeats
And not to mention
Kafka, Gogol, Balzac
all translated
into a language not my own?

What if, instead
I grew up reading Ghalib
Chughtai, Premchand
Suryakant Tripathy Nirala
Iqbal, Mir Taki
Mir and
Mahadevi Verma
and not their recreated
translations I read

Would my life be any better
more exquisite, meaningful
richer, varied
than now?
Would my inner world
be composed of
characters who speak
in metaphors, of a tedi ungli,
adrak ka svaad
and unitalicised

Would I think different thoughts
or the same
in different ways?
Or would I feel handicapped
trapped in my language
the most beautiful of them all
a wallflower in a world
which speaks a foreign tongue?

Perhaps I shall never know
that feeling of letting go
this language
which has slinked into my thoughts
my words, my indignation
and poetry,
only to embrace another one
live within its walls
exalted, empowered
and hidden.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


There are times when everything enrages me.

It's a slow, bubbling rage. For I'm usually not the type to blow my top, to let out a stream of invectives till hell freezes over.

On second thoughts, the latter is inaccurate. But I never blow my top.

Scream, throw stuff, say things I don't mean.


When I'm angry, I let the fury build within me. I do not respond, I silently mouth curses, yet I do not destroy the peace and well being of people around me. I let the hot, indignant rage build in me, while I cry or listen to metal or simply do nothing, simmering with rage all the while.

Some people say that I sulk during those times.


And I shall continue to sulk till I can't contain my anger anymore. And then, I shall burst out, the accumulated fury of years, months, days. A time I'd lose control over my senses, say things I don't mean, be a person I normally am not.

But till then, if that ever should happen, I'll plough on, trying to forgive, trying to forget. My anger is latent, perhaps it shall never rise as long as I live. But my anger is something I'm not proud of. Maybe with time, I'd shed it a bit by bit and learn to, as they say, love no matter what.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What you should eat before you turn 65 - I

Food has been my passion since a very young age. Blessed with a patient nature and a generally understanding appetite, I daresay I've ventured out quite a bit, as far as my vegetarian taste buds would take me. While I'm not a fabulous cook or anything - I can whip up a really good pasta or a paneer manchurian, but that's about it - this love for food has survived through the onslaught of mess food, the horrors of Basera 'food' and everything else life at IIT has in store for me.
But then, there are certain dishes which make me go weak in the knees that I'd eat them even if served in a black mug and an orange for accompaniment. So this is my food guide, cutting through kitchens throughout India, my own Top 10 guide on what you should eat before you turn 65. Not that I have anything against 65 year olds, but some things should never be put off till age catches us and wrecks us apart.

10.Pazham Pori/ Ethakka Appam

The first time I tasted this Kerala delicacy was at Saarang Village, 2011. Not that I had much of an option, the only delectable vegetarian options on the menu was this, and an utterly forgettable tea. I remember wondering then why the obligatory chutney or tomato sauce was missing till I took a bite…and discovered that it was sweet! Yet, the Nendranka bajji quite grows on you and I should know, I must have polished off atleast six plates that Saarang. The slightly fermented taste of the banana flirts with the taste buds and the very crispy coat disintegrates at the touch, making it a very satisfying culinary experience. It is hard to believe that something as amazing as this could come out of a land which also brought out Avial.

9. Akki Roti with Chutney

Oh Akki Roti, the stuff of my dreams, the breakfast fit for kings! Thou might look very unassuming to the benighted eye, who’d merely laugh at thee and move on to the more seductive benne masala dosa, only to end up with an unshackled bowel! Oh, Akki Roti, forgive me for not having discovered thy wonders earlier!
I stayed with my mother’s friend the last time I visited Bangalore. A wonderful, discerning woman, she was also the best possible cook I could discover in Bangalore. Every morning, I’d wake up to different Karnataka style rotis, one day ragi, another day, jowar, and maybe even bajra. And they were all super crisp, super addictive and super healthy.
The star of the show, however was the humble Akki Roti, the staple breakfast option for many Kannadigas. This dish made of rice and a very deft hand, topped with coconut or tomato chutney is super nutritious and very very tasty. Give me my akki roti over Raghavendra masala dosa anytime!

8. Onion Sambhar with Rice

Onion Sambhar is a staple luxury at every TamBrahm household – you’d know it’ll make its appearance every three weeks when the mother has run out of things to make, yet, its visits are sporadic enough to be alluring to the senses. I’m a Rasam person and sambhars don’t really excite me, neither do vathakozhambu, kozhambu and that miserable liquid called morkozhambu. But onion sambhar makes me sit up everytime it makes its rounds, and with rice and liberal doses of ghee, this Sunday lunch would leave you burping of tamarind and very very satisfied.

7. Khandvi and Dhokla

There are two things you ought to do if you do happen to go to Gujarat – shop and eat, and if you miss out on any one, you ought to be shaken up and packed off in the next train to the Kathiawar Peninsula. While all the Gujarati food sends me in rapturous delights and every time I make a trip to Ahmedabad, I return three kgs fatter and three times happier, there are some which are my especial favourite. The pretty Khandvi, made of gram flour and curd tops the list, followed by Dhokla, also made of gram, I think. It’s hard not to fall in love with these two, especially if they’re backed up with Green chutney, or my favourite, Imli chutney.
It’s been a long time since I had Khandvi anyway. When I was a eight or nine years old, there was a wonderful Gujarati restaurant called Bhavai in Chennai, which made the best Khandvis I could ever imagine. I used to be a very fussy eater as a child and all I’d have at that restaurant was their super soft khandvi decked with mustard which you could count off the tip of your tongue, and chaas. I think that restaurant’s closed now, I’m not sure and perhaps I need to wait it out till Ahmedabad calls me again.

6. Gobi Manchurian

My eighth standard was a decisive year, for I fell in love with both Abhishek Bachchan and Gobi Manchurian. It’s been five years since then and the love’s still there, but the priorities have changed. There’s Ranbir Kapoor now, Abhay Deol, the very alluring Imran Khan and so many more. And similarly I discovered Doodhi Halwa, Cheesecake, Paneer tikka and many more, thus relegating The Gobi Manchurian to a docile 6th spot.
Gobi Manchurian is a very tricky dish and can be scarring, if badly made. I have braved through many Gobi Manchurians, the salty Bangalore version, the undercooked, nauseating Tifany’s version, the tomato-sauce-can-salvage-me-after-all Adyar Anand Bhavan version…so much so, the original Gobi Manchurian, if it exists seems to have disappeared into the recesses of good cooking. Yet this Indo Chinese dish is a particular favourite of mine, and like narthanga, drier, the better.

And these are the five food items I'd want to eat, if marooned in an island with Johnny Depp for company etc etc. What did you eat today? :)