Lermontov and Coetzee

Over the week, I finally knocked off two books that have been near the top of my reading list for a long time: Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time and Coetzee’s Disgrace. They are both classics, and have been thoroughly analyzed over the years, so I don’t feel I can add anything very new, but here are some fleeting impressions:

A Hero of our Time

- I don’t agree with this repeated characterization I’ve seen equating Pechorin to Byron, and to the “Byronic (anti-)hero more generally. That is not, of course, to deny Byron’s tremendous influence upon Lermontov – Lermontov wrote a poem called Not Byron, if I recall correctly, and Byron is referred to at a couple of points in the book. It is not even to deny that Pechorin shares certain characteristics with your typical Byronic protagonist. But for me, what sets Pechorin apart – and makes him, indeed, a more interesting character than, say, a Manfred or a Childe Harold – is a sense of self-awareness and self-critique. Pechorin explicitly calls himself a “moral cripple”. You can’t imagine Byron’s characters being that frank about themselves (quite possibly because they aren’t at the cripple stage yet, but that is another matter)

Another way of looking at it: Yes, Manfred and Childe Harold are bitter, brooding, disillusioned and all the rest – and what’s more, they take their disillusionment rather earnestly and seriously. Pechorin refuses to take himself seriously, and indeed, consistently mocks himself in a manner that Byron’s men don’t. This is specifically evident when it comes to love. Both Manfred and Childe Harold are suffering because of some great love in their youth that they lost, and much of their bitterness is due to that. Pechorin at times hints at something similar, but refuses to take love seriously either. In short, Pechorin is almost a nihilist at times, he’s like a precursor in many ways to Camus’ Outsider more than he is a successor or Byron.

- This, on the other hand, is very Byronic. Reminiscent of the roving, roving poem:

“I am a mariner born and bred on board a buccaneer brig whose soul has become so inured to storm and strife that if cast ashore he would weary and languish no matter how alluring the shady groves and how bright and gentle the sun. All day long he paces the sandy beach, hearkening to the monotonous roar of the breakers and gazing into the hazy distance to catch in the pale strip dividing the deep blue from the grey clouds the flash of the long-awaited sail that at first is like the wing of a seagull and then gradually stands out from the white of the spray as it steadily makes for its lonely anchorage… “

- Lermontov does descriptions spectacularly. Consider:

All around, wrapped in the golden mist of morning, the mountain peaks clustered like a numberless herd, while in the south Elbrus loomed white, bringing up the rear of a chain of icy summits among which roamed the feathery clouds blown in from the east.


- Coetzee’s story of the mental and moral degradation of an individual, serving as a synecdoche for a rapidly disintegrating society is, of course, a brilliantly powerful book, raising a whole host of questions about aging, morality, personal and structural violence, and the rest. I was particularly drawn to how language plays its part, always in the background, always unmistakable. I don’t mean here the rather conscious and deliberate irony in the protagonist teaching a class on “communication”, while the entire book is about a breakdown in mutual communication in society. I mean the sense that at any given time, language is meant to – roughly – represent reality, and also mask some of its more unpalatable aspects, the relations of domination and subordination (see, e.g., James Scott). There are times, however, when language can’t keep up with life, when it no longer serves to cast that veneer upon reality, when there are fractures and slippages – and Disgrace is an account of one such time. Coetzee captures that sentiment perfectly, when he writes:

The language he draws on with such aplomb is, if he only knew it, tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites. Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them.

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Filed under J.M. Coetzee, Lermontov, Romanticism, South Africa

“The mirage shimmered before me in the wilderness of longing”: Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

“Are these the people who are called peasants in books? Had I told my grandfather that revolutions are made in his name, that governments are set up and brought down for his sake, he would have laughed.”

As a classic of postcolonial literature, Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North has been extensively critiqued and reviewed (see here, here and here for samples). What I found particularly compelling – and unsettling – about this book was the shifting, ambiguous place that it occupies somewhere between realism and allegory (taking, for a moment, these categories as given). If Chinua Achebe is an exemplar of the first, and Emile Habibi of the second, then Season… is both, and yet neither. Written in the immediate aftermath of Sudan’s independence (1966), the narrative itself spans the last years of colonial rule, and then the beginnings of self-government. The political is never far away (as the excerpted paragraph above demonstrates), but it is also never in the foreground. Through the lives of the two protagonists, we are shown glimpses of the destruction that colonialism has wrought – both on the individual, and on society – but always in a subtle, indirect – almost, questioning way.

The story’s narrator returns to his Sudanese village after three years in England, writing his doctorate on an “obscure English poet” (we are never told which poet). The book begins with an atmosphere of utter tranquility, the narrator imagining that he has finally come back “home”, where everything is as it should be. This tranquility is disturbed when he meets the enigmatic Mustafa. One night, seemingly in a drunken stupor, Mustafa breaks into perfectly-accented English poetry, revealing – to the narrator’s astonishment – that he too spent years in England. On being pressed, Mustafa recounts a harrowing – and tantalisingly incomplete tale of his time in the metropolis, his destructive liaisons with European women – ending with his killing his wife – and his eventual return to his country via stops in half the capitals of the world, to lose himself in an unknown village. The next day, Mustafa disappears – presumably drowned – and the narrator is left to pick through the aftermath, and try to stave off another – inevitable – tragedy.

The life of Mustafa in England – in particular, his use of all the classic Oriental tropes as tools of seduction (he repeats “my hackneyed phrases” many times in his story), and the life of the narrator in Sudan – in particular, the dissonance between himself and his fellow-villagers, that only comes to the fore as the novel progresses – can be understood as a synecdoche for the mutual – yet always unequal – interrogation between the metropolis and the colony. When Mustafa says, for instance, about one of the women he seduced, that “I was the symbol of all her hankerings”, and then proceeds to describe his bedroom straight out of a Francis Burton work – we think immediately of Aida, of Burton himself, of Disraeli, and of the multitude of examples that we find in Said’s Culture and Imperialism.

It is not surprising, then, that Salih often resorts to the language of illusion. “One mirage kept raising us up, another casting us down, and from deserts we were spewed into yet more deserts.”  Ultimately, the book is about mirages – England, as imagined and experienced by the colonial immigrants, and the immigrants themselves, who come to occupy some nameless, shadowy, liminal space between cultures, belonging to both and to none. Perhaps nowhere is this expressed more vividly, more forcefully and more evocatively, than here:

“It was as though I were a slave Shahrayar you buy in the market for a dinar encountering a Scheherazade begging amidst the rubble of a city destroyed by plague.”

This moment of self-realisation comes in the middle of yet another series of Orientalist tropes, and with the clarity and precision of a knife, lays bare – literally – the poverty of that discourse. There are many things that the “city” could stand for here: the crumbling of the edifice of Orientalism itself, built as it is around structures such as The Arabian Nights – or the cities of the metropolis and colony, intellectually and morally crumbling from the result of their destructive interaction. Perhaps it stands for both, or neither, or many more things – but if there is one line in all of literature that, for me, simply sums up colonialism, this is it.

A central theme of the book is interrogating questions of choice and agency, individual against structure. Mustafa’s trial becomes, in the end, not about his action, but his inability to act otherwise, caught in the space between two cultures, one alien and incomprehensible, the other distant and abandoned. And similarly, the narrator’s own life back home is marked not so much by his irrelevance, but by the paralysis of thought and action that follows upon it. It is this Hamlet-like attitude of delay and deferral that ultimately leads to the second tragedy that marks the book; and leads him to cry out, in the end:

“I had lost the war because I did not know and did not choose. Outside, my world was a wide one; now it had contracted, had withdrawn upon itself, until I myself had become the world, no world existing outside of me…”

And again, although colonialism is vaguely implicated in all this, there is no crude determinism at work here, but something much more subtle, complex and ambiguous. Marx once famously said:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Season of Migration to the North, then, is a beautiful story about men and women, history and circumstances.


Filed under African Writing, Sudan, Tayeb Salih

“And the room filled with pieces of shrapnel”: Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain

Memories come back in a burst of images“, wrote Jean Genet about his time with the Palestinian fedayeen. Elias Khoury’s impressionistic, first-person, thinly-fictionalized account of the beginnings of the Lebanese Civil War is written in and through just such a burst of images. Little Mountain is a short novel, the first four chapters of which present the lived experience of the war – street-battles, battles in the church, wounds and death – and the last, a series of broken, scattered reminiscences in a Paris metro. What binds all of this together – what conveys meaning – is neither chronological narrative (time plays little to nor role in Little Mountain), nor character (at the end, we know almost as little about the narrator as we do in the beginning), but images.

For example: We ran cautiouslyclutching rifles and dreams, writes the narrator in the beginning, - evocatively conveying, without conversation or action, through that simple image, the early idealism of the revolution, and the romance of violence. “Nothing remains in his hands save a wetness that recalls the rain.” “She laughed. It rang like a bow.” “They looked like the shadow of the old oil lantern one of them carried.” Each of these images, incredibly powerful in its context, does the work that events normally do: convey meanings (as I understood them), of loss, of love and of futility, all bound up with each other and with the war.

It is not, however, that Khoury has any wish to preserve or worship ideals. There are many striking passages about war in the book, especially the (thinly ironic) descriptions of battle in a church. And in these passages – that are at times strongly reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet in the Western Front, in their dispassion, detachment and seemingly unaffected attention to detail, Khoury mixes romance with dirt in a manner that the former cannot possibly survive. Consider, for instance:

The commander came running. It looks like they’re trying to overrun the street. Get ready. I followed him. I stood at the end of a street leading to the main road where we used to listen for the movement of military vehicles. He took Talal to another street, Talal alone. You’ve got to get down on the ground, the position commander was saying. He lay down on the water, shivering, as it seeped into his body. The shelling was intensifying. We’ve got to hold our ground. Water mixed with blood. This is the glory of the revolution. You are the pride of the revolution. And the pride of the revolution will stand fast. I was holding my rifle tight and firing. The shots rang in my ears, I couldn’t see them. I gripped the hand grenade and threw it. Water splashed up and the shrapnel went flying. The water gasped loudly; this is the glory of the revolution. I was down on the ground. But they weren’t advancing. Nothing but an overpowering smell. The smell of rain and brackish water and burning gunpowder. The sound of shells. I couldn’t see anything ahead. But Talal stayed down on the ground, shooting, advancing to the main road.  Nothing but shelling. The rain was stopping and masonry was beginning to crumble.”


In its choice of form (or formlessness), Khoury’s Little Mountain is similar to Latin American magic realism – in particular, it reminds one of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, that great Mexican novel. A reviewer writes of Pedro Paramo:

“The tenses switch back and forth, past to present and back again, sometime in the space of a single paragraph, until time itself becomes senseless. The stories begin to refract, shatter, and rebuild; pronouns multiply—I, he, she, you, stumbling over each other. Dialogue and thoughts are left unattributed. The perspectives shift from internal to external and back again.”

As a description of Little Mountain, this is accurate. In Pedro Paramo, the story is of the Mexican revolution and all its accompanying brutality, but that story is never told. We can dimly glimpse it, through a glass darkly, and we must reconstruct it in some incomplete way by trying to piece together the thousand little shards of events, metaphors, characters and images that lie scattered throughout the book. Similarly, Little Mountain is ostensibly about the Lebanese Civil War, but again, the Civil War, with its larger consequences, lurks in the background, just out of reach of our comprehension. “Do you see those clouds go by?” says the character Nazeeh. “You can reach up and touch them, but you can’t hold on to them.” This could be a description of Little Mountain. 

And what is interesting is that just as Rulfo was writing back – or writing against – a literary milieu of social realism, recognising that he needed a new form to adequately convey meaning, so is Khoury. This point is made by Edward Said in the foreward to the book, where he compares Little Mountain, as well as the Rabelaisian qualities of Emile Habibi’s Saeed the Pessoptimist, to the writings of that grand old man of the Arab novel, Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz, Said argues, being Egyptian, was able to “able to depend on the vital integrity and even, cultural compactness of Egypt.”  For a Palestinian writer like Habibi, on the other hand, and a Lebanese writer like Khoury writing in societies where:

“… national identity is threatened with extinction (the latter) or with daily dissolution (the former). In such societies the novel is both a risky and a highly problematic form. Typically its subjects are urgently political and its concerns radically existential. Literature in stable societies is replicable by Palestine and Lebanese writers by means of parody and exaggeration, since on a minute-by-minute basis social life for Lebanese and Palestinian writers is an enterprise with highly unpredictable results. Above all, form is an adventure, narrative both uncertain and meandering, character less a stable collection of traits than a linguistic device, as self-conscious as it is provisional and ironic…  Khoury’s idea about literature and society are of a piece with the often bewilderingly fragmented realities of Lebanon in which, he says in one of his essays, the past is discredited, the future completely uncertain, the present unknowable.”

Thus, the cry that the narrator occurs: “It is temporary!“, is perhaps most fitting of all. Temporariness is a theme that runs through Palestinian writing. Not just temporariness in the sense of present instability (think of, for instance, Mourid Barghouti comparing life to a hotel room in I Saw Ramallah), but also for a hope – and a belief – that this situation, in which everything is temporary, is itself temporary, and will pass. “We can’t just live like that with no reference point whatsoever. I can’t live like this, scattered to the winds”, he has his narrator say at another point, before immediately realising the futility of that wish. And if that is the dominant theme of Little Mountain, then it ends fittingly as well. “When the chapters conclude,” Said writes, “they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite.”

In Little Mountain, Elias Khoury tells an impossible story not by trying to fit events into a chronology, or by trying to impose the coherence of narrative form over reality and the order of sequence over life, but through scattered formlessness itself. And given the meaninglessness of the Civl War, this might be the most adequate – and maybe the only – way to tell this particular story.



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Filed under Elias Khoury, Lebanon, Middle-Eastern Writing

2013: The Year in Books

2013 has been a year of discovery. A chance remark by an Oxford professor during a lecture on Virgil led me to discover Ismail Kadare, who rapidly became by far and away my favourite writer. In Kadare’s novels, the themes of memory, narrative, myth-making, history, nationalism and love are entwined together through some truly lyrical prose, and enlivened by striking imagery. Kadare is a writer I recommend unreservedly.

Assigned reading in an informally organized reading group on post-colonialism in my Balliol College MCR was Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa. This searing novella about war and exile, memory and the homeland set me upon a quest to discover Palestinian writing, leading me to Elias Khoury, Jean Genet, Emile Habiby, Ibrahim Nasrallah, Mourid Barghouti, Tawfiq Zayyad and – of course – Mahmoud Dawish. In March, I stood by Mahmoud Darwish’s grave in Ramallah, and read those words that still give me the frisson - the butterfly’s tread leaves no footprints/ yet the butterfly’s tread shall never be erased” – words that, perhaps, sum up best what I love about this literature.

And lastly, I attended a series of lectures on W.H. Auden, whose poetry of love, loss and politics, by times serious and by times ironic, savage, humorous, mocking and profound – very quickly established itself in the space closest to my heart. LullabyIf I Could Tell You and Spain are just a few of my favourite poems, and I now carry a copy of Auden on all my travels.

Here, then, is a list of what I’ve read in 2013, with a very reductive one-para summary, and an even more reductive attempt at rating (5 stars – absolute must-read; 4 stars – excellent book; 3 stars – very good; 2 stars – decent; 1 star – give it a miss). Most of these books have been reviewed on this blog; some, I missed; and those that I read in this last month are still to be reviewed.

Middle East/Palestine

1. Ghassan Kanafani, Returning to Haifa (*****): Brilliant, searing, disturbing novella about home and exile, and Palestine. Reviewed here.

A man is a cause.”

2. Ghassan Kanafani, Men in the Sun (****): A series of short stories about Palestine; the eponymous tale is particularly harrowing, and a must-read; converted into a movie called “The Deceived“. Reviewed here.

““He knew his father through and through, and he knew that the past was for him, a solid wooden box locked with a thousand keys that had been cast into the depths of the ocean.”

3. Ghassan Kanafani, Palestine’s Children (***): Another short-story series, this time from the perspective of children, making it all the more poignant. Like the rest of Kanafani, filled with controlled anger, searing and savage. Reviewed here.

‘…there are a lot of things I didn’t tell you, and a lot of things that you don’t tell me. We make our world smaller with our hands in order to force outside its limits everything that has nothing to do with us. We make it smaller so we can fill it with happiness.’

4. Elias Khoury, Gate of the Sun (*****): The Palestinian revolution, as remembered by a dying Palestinian freedom-fighter, in a series of flashbacks spanning twenty years, Galilee, Haifa, Jerusalem, Beirut, Shatila, Shabra and the lands between. My favourite book of the year. Cannot recommend it highly enough. Reviewed here.

‘I’m standing here. The night covers me, the March rain washes me, and I tell you, ‘Master, this isn’t how stories end. No.’

I stand. The rain forms ropes that extend from the sky to the ground. My feet sink into the mud. I stretch out my hand, I grasp the ropes of the rain, and I walk and walk and walk…’

5. Elias Khoury, Little Mountain (****): Khoury’s modernist novella about the Lebanese Civil War, filled with staccato prose and vivid descriptions. The Foreword by Edward Said is an added bonus. (TBR).

6. Ibrahim Nasrallah, A Time of White Horses (****): The story of one Palestinian village as it moves from Ottoman rule to Mandate to the inevitable horror of ’48 and the nakba. The humanity in this story is what makes the novel special. Reviewed here.

She was like a beautiful edifice that had been abandoned, with nothing in it but the spiders that kept multiplying to fill the corners.”

7. Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (****): Cairo comes vividly, starkly alive in the first book of the Nobel Prize Winner’s Cairo Trilogy, a Cairo in terrifying and beautiful flux and chaos. The detail, richness and colour is astounding. Reviewed here.

He was like a branch that turns into firewood when cut from the tree.”

8. Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love (*****): The rebel and the exile meets a people in exile and rebellion. The story of Genet’s life with the Palestinian fedayeen, and his love of Palestine. Brilliant. Just brilliant. Reviewed here.

“To have been dangerous for a thousandth of a second, to have been handsome for a thousandth of a thousandth of a second, to have been that, or happy or something, and then to rest – what more can one want?”

9. Emile Habiby, Saeed the Pessoptimist (****): Rebalais and Voltaire in Palestine. Habiby’s magical-fantastic-realist novel is a whole new way of writing Palestine, and it is powerful. Reviewed here.

The moon is closer to us now than the fig trees of our departed village.”

10. Amin Maalouf, Leo the African (*****): Maalouf’s story of Leo Africanus, nomad, wanderer and exile, from Grenada, Fez, Tunis, Constantinople, Rome – but belonging to no place – is beautifully crafted and subtly wrought. The prose is mesmerizing. Must-red. (TBR)

“All men have always frequented taverns; all men have always loved wine. Otherwise, why should God have needed to forbid it?”

11. Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah (*****): His memoir about exile and return to a lost homeland. Poetic prose. Heartbreaking in parts, moving throughout. A must-read.

The long Occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine.”

Ismail Kadare

1. Kadare, The File on H (*****): Two Homeric scholars travel to Albania to record the last surviving oral epic poets – and find that oral poetry, writing, national identity and history come together with devastating consequences. Reviewed here.

2. Kadare, The Siege (****): The story of an Ottoman siege on an Albanian castle, a mirror to Enver Hoxha’s Albanian regime in the second half of the 20th century. Some of Kadare’s finest writing on the construction national identity. Reviewed here.

“We will leave the people their faith. As for their language, for the time being we will only prohibit it from being written down.”

3. Kadare, Broken April (*****): My favourite Kadare. Haunting and lyrical, the story of the blood feud in mountainous Albania, beyond the writ of lowlands law. Reviewed here.

“The world shone like glass, and with a kind of crystal madness, it seemed that it might begin to slip at any moment and shatter into thousands of tiny fragments.”

4. Kadare, Palace of Dreams (****): Kafka meets Marquez meets Orwell in this strange, exhilarating novel about an Empire that collects all its citizens’ dreams. Reviewed here.

As for Albania… it grew more and more distant and dim, like some far cold constellation, and he wondered if he really knew anything about what went on there… he sat there uncertainly, his pen growing heavy in his hand, until finally it rested on the paper and instead of writing Albania wrote: There. He gazed at the expression that had substituted itself for the name of his homeland, and suddenly felt oppressed by what he immediately thought of as Quprilian sadness. It was a term unknown to any other language in the world, though it ought to be incorporated in them all.

 It must have been snowing… there…”

5. Kadare, The Pyramid (***): His unique take on the building of the Egyptian pyramids as a prolonged, eternal moment of the construction of nationhood. (TBR)

6. Kadare, The Three-Arched Bridge (*****): Murder, legends, poetry and a war between two nations centered upon the construction of a three-arched bridge upon a river. (TBR).


1. E.M. Forster, A Passage to India (**): Finally got around to reading this classic. Which can never be the same after reading Edward Said’s stinging critique of it in Culture and Imperialism.

2. Mahasweta Devi, After Kurukshetra (*****): Mahasweta Devi brushes epic against the grain. The story after the story of the Mahabharata, from the point of view of women, of all castes and colors (literally!). Reviewed here.

3. Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (***): A jolly good tale, although I think it could have been 100 pages shorter, and perhaps not entirely deserving of the dizzying accolades that have come its way. Great ending though, and I’m certainly going to read the rest of the series. (TBR)

Other Literature

1. Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler (****): A beatnik on the road. The descriptions of France through the eyes of Cezanne and Van Gogh are particularly beautiful. Reviewed here.

Because silence itself is the sound of diamonds which can cut through anything.

2. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (****): His classic travel memoir. Spontaneous prose and the aesthetic of disharmony. Reviewed here.

 Everything since the Greeks has been predicted wrong. You can’t make geometry and geometrical systems of thinking. It’s all this! He wrapped his finger in his fist; the car hugged the line straight and true.”

3. Milan Kundera, The Joke (***): Kundera’s acerbic denunciation of youth, lyricism, poetry and revolution is starkly visible in this early work. Reviewed here.

“Youth is terrible; it is a stage trod by children in buskins and a variety of costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand.  And history is terrible because it so often ends up a playground for the immature… a playground for easily roused mobs of children whose stimulated passions and simplistic poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.”

4. Federico Garcia Lorca, The Spanish Trilogy (****): Garcia Lorca’s three plays bring rural Spain pre-revolution to life, in savage and uncompromising terms. Strong female protagonists, having agency and initiating their own actions, are his forte. Reviewed here.

“What glass splinters are stuck in my tongue?”

5. Chinua Achebe, There Was a Country (****): The great Nigerian novelist’s personal account of the tragedies of the Biafran war of independence, through poetry, reflection and memoir. (TBR)

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Slipstream

1. Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel (*****):  A novel about love and eternity. Borges called it “perfect”. That should be enough of a recommendation. Reviewed here.

2. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (****): Her brilliant dystopic novel about a near-future governed by a theocracy in which women’s bodies are completely subordinated. Reviewed here.

We are hers to define; we must suffer her adjectives.”

3. Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne (*****): My compulsory annual re-read of my favourite fantasy novel; this time in the place where it is set, high up in the mountains of Provence!


1. Lermontov (***): What is it about great Russian poets and premature deaths in foolish duels? In any event, Lermontov’s dark and brooding poetry is perfect for certain moods. My own favorites are The Sail, The Clouds, The Dream (this one, most of all!) and The Dagger.

2. Elizabeth Bishop (****): Her One Art quickly became one of my favourite poems.

3. Naziq al-Malaika: Iraqi poetess, very important modernist figure. Her Love Song for Words (available online) is beautiful.

4. Tawfiq Zayyad: Palestinian poet of resistance. His poetry is deeply political; pity that so little of it is available online.

5. Mourid Barghouti: As political as Zayyad, although in a softer, subtler way. My own favourite is The Pillow. Much of his poetry is available on his website.

6. Mahmoud Darwish: Palestinian national poet. Individual love and love for the homeland merge in indistinguishable ways – perhaps his hallmark. His poetry cannot be described – it must be read.  But I cannot now imagine a time when I did not know his work. My personal favourite is We Were Missing a Present.

7. Wallace Stevens: I love his non-symbolist work. “Far beyond the rhetorician’s touch” is one of my favourite lines in all of poetry. Favourites include The Idea of Order at Quay West (“ah quest for order, pale Ramon!), Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight, On Modern Poetry. 

8. Christopher Okigbo: Nigerian poet of Negritude, Achebe’s comrade-in-arms during the Biafran revolution, and killed during the war. From Lament for the Lavender Mist:

The moon has ascended between us—/Between two pines/That bow to each other;/Love with the moon has ascended,/Has fed on our solitary stem;/And we are now shadows/That cling to each other/But kiss the air only.”

9. W.H. Auden: Little to be said. Just read Lullaby, If I Could Tell You and Spain. And then read the rest of Auden. :)


1. William Dalrymple, Return of a King (****): Reviewed here. The story of the First British war in Afghanistan, in the early 1840s, ending with the heartbreaking sack of Kabul. Dalrymple mixes the art of the storyteller with the historian’s eye for detail, telling a jolly good yarn in the process.

2. Natalie Zemon Davis, Trickster Travels (****): Actually the real-life historical story of the same character around whom Maalouf builds his Leo the African. (TBR)

Apart from that, a few books of history that fall outside the ambit of this blog, but which nonetheless I found – even as a layman – interesting, even gripping: Shahid Amin, Event, Metaphor, Memory (about an incident in the Indian freedom movement); Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution (about the Omani republican revolution in the 1960s); James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed; CLR James, Black Jacobins (about the Haitian slave revolt in the 1790s); and Guha, Dominance without Hegemony.


1. Virgil, Aeneid (*****): How different an epic feels when you re-read it after listening to experts speak about it. I came to realize how richly layered, complex and deep this foundation myth really is. If there was one thing I’d recommend everyone to read before approaching Virgil, it would be Parry’s “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid“, a brief thirteen-page essay available online.

May 2014 be a year of many more books; and may it bring to all of you the many epiphanies that come with poetry, literature, laughter and love.


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“We can claim to have made a garden of the world”: Loss and Remembrance in Mourid Barghouti’s ‘I Saw Ramallah’

“We lived the experience of our displacement in the lands of others, and we lived with other displaced people who looked like us. Did we write our displacement? Why should our story, our particular story deserve to be listened to by the world? And who listens to the stories of those men, women, and children who are taken by their displacement to that other shore from which no one ever returns? Our dead are scattered in every land. Sometimes we did not know where to go with their corpses; the capitals of the world refuse to receive us as corpses as they refuse to receive us alive. And if the dead by displacement and the dead by weapons and the dead by longing and the dead by simple death are martyrs, and if poems are true and each martyr is a rose, we can claim to have made a garden of the world.”

Part-memoir, part-reminiscence, part-history, part-elegy, part-jeremiad – but most of all, a paean to a lost nation, Mourid Barghouti’I Saw Ramallah is the story of a man who comes back to his occupied homeland after thirty years of exile. Much like the work of Primo Levi, this is a reflection, written after the fact, that tries to use the medium of language to understand the incomprehensible, to attempt a reconciliation with the irreconcilable. And, much like Levi, from the moment Barghouti sets foot upon Allenby Bridge that leads from Jordan to Occupied Palestine, his writing is shot through with agony and ambiguity in near-equal measure.

At last! Here I am, walking, with my small bag, across the bridge. A bridge no longer than a few meters of wood and thirty years of exile.

    How was this piece of dark wood able to distance a whole nation from its dreams? To prevent entire generations from taking their coffee in homes that were theirs? How did it deliver us to all this patience and all that death? How was it able to scatter us among exiles, and tents, and political parties, and frightened whispers?

    I do not thank you, you short, unimportant bridge. You are not a sea or an ocean that we might find our excuses in your terrors. You are not a mountain range inhabited by wild beasts and fantastical monsters that we might summon our instincts to protect us from you. I would have thanked you, bridge, if you had been on another planet, at a spot the old Mercedes could not reach in thirty minutes. I would have thanked you had you been made by volcanoes and their thick, orange terror. But you were made by miserable carpenters, who held their nails in the corners of their mouths, and their cigarettes behind their ears. I do not say thank you, little bridge. Should I be ashamed in front of you? Or should you be ashamed in front of me? You are near like the stars of the naïve poet, far like the step of one paralyzes. What embarrassment is this? I do not forgive you and you do not forgive me. The sound of wood under my feet.

    Fayruz calls it the Bridge of Return. The Jordanians call it the King Hussein Bridge. The Palestinian Authority calls it al-Karama crossing. The common people and the bus and taxi drivers call it the Allenby Bridge. My mother, and before her my grandmother and my father and my uncle’s wife, Umm Talal, call it simply: the Bridge.”

Allenby Bridge is a symbol – the most poignant symbol of Palestinian exile. And it is symbols – symbols and metaphors that fill Barghouti’s work. They are his primary means of communication, and of understanding. The many aspects of exile, displacement and loss are approached through metaphor. A hotel room, for instance, comes to embody rootlessness and transience – it absolves one from “immortalize the moment”, but also “provides a theater for short acts and surprises and a widening of the monotonous horizons of life…” That hotel room, then, is the shifting life in the refugee camps of Lebanon, portrayed so movingly by Elias Khoury in Gate of the Sun, and the temporary return to Kanafani’s Haifa – because transience and temporariness is what it means to be an exile. The Israeli soldier’s gun is – similarly – the symbol of loss and deprivation, loss of the homeland that itself has now become nothing more than a symbol under years of occupation. It is in this way that it is appropriate for Barghouti’s principal stylistic technique to be approaching truth through metaphor because, as he understands it, the occupation has transformed Palestine itself into insubstantiality, an image and a song: “His gun took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land. In his hand he holds earth, and in our hands we hold a mirage.” But it is not just Palestine and the homeland that is a mirage – it is the occupation itself that is built upon a series of symbols, although grounded in the harsh actuality of the settlements:

“If you hear a speaker on some platform use the phrase ‘dismantling the settlements’, then laugh to your heart’s content. These are not children’s fortresses of Lego or Meccano. These are Israel itself; Israel the idea and the ideology and the geography and the trick and the excuse. It is the place that is ours and that they have made theirs. The settlements are their book, their first form. They are our absence. The settlements are the Palestinian Diaspora itself.”

And it is precisely this abstraction, this world of ideas, images, symbols and metaphors that Barghouti is anxious to resist.

The Occupation has created generations without a place whose colours, smells, and sounds they can remember; a first place that belongs to them, that they can return to in their memories in their cobbled-together exiles. There is no childhood bed for them to remember, a bed on which they forgot a soft cloth doll, or whose white pillows – once the adults had gone out of an evening – were their weapons in a battle that had them shrieking with delight. This is it. The Occupation has created generations of us that have to adore an unknown beloved: distant, difficult, surrounded by guards, by walls, by nuclear missiles, by sheer terror.

    The long Occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine. I only started to believe in myself as a poet when I discovered how faded all abstracts and absolutes were. When I discovered the accuracy of the concrete detail and the truthfulness of the five senses, and the great gift, in particular, of sight. When I discovered the justice and genius of the language of the camera, which presents its view in an amazing whisper, however noisy this view was in fact or in history. Then I made the effort necessary to get rid of the poem that was an easy accompaniment to the anthem, to get rid of the badness of beginnings.

Resist because living through ideas can not only create a supine antipathy, and hold one in thrall to dangerous illusions, but it is precisely a mode of control:

    I have always believed that it is in the interests of an occupation, any occupation, that the homeland should be transformed in the memory of its people into a bouquet of ‘symbols’. Merely symbols. They will not allow us to develop our village so that it shares features with the city, or to move with our city into a contemporary space. Let us be frank: when we lived in the village did we not long for the city? Did we not long to leave small, limited, simple Deir Ghassanah for Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Nablus? Did we not wish that those cities would become like Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Beirut? The longing always for the new age.

    The Occupation has forced us to remain with the old. That is its crime. It did not deprive us of the clay ovens of yesterday, but of the mystery of what we would invent tomorrow. I did not come here to reclaim Al-Abrash’s camel. I used to long for the past in Deir Ghassanah as a child longs for precious, lost things. But when I saw that the past was still there, squatting in the sunshine in the village square, like a dog forgotten by its owners – or like a toy dog - I wanted to take hold of it, to kick it forward, to its coming days, to a better future, to tell it: “Run!”

These passage are almost Kundera-esque in their fierce denunciation of mythologizing and romanticizing, and their commitment to a brutal – if prosaic – realism. But where Kundera draws his motivation from seeing oppression justified in the name of abstraction, Barghouti is struggling with that perennial problem that we find in virtually all of Palestinian writing: the longing for a certain, remembered – yet unattainable – pre-colonial past, in tension with a desire for an uncertain, unknown – yet possibly achievable – post-colonial future. Like Kanafani, Khoury and all the rest, Barghouti is concerned with how to bring about the second; and it in that context that he feels the pressing, urgent need to inveigh against the symbolization of the Palestinian tragedy that also ensures its fossilization within a timeless, unchanging present.

Exile is understood by developing associations not with places – because “I am always without a place“, but with time – time, “a mist that never stops moving“. What one remembers, as an exile, are stretches of time: in Cairo, “wisps of fog that formed themselves into a shape that pleased me one morning“, and in ‘Ein al-Dir, the thorns of brambles scrambled through in days of childhood. And again, what one wants to retrieve is not a place, but a time: “Do I want to scramble through brambles now? No, what I want is the time of scrambling.” But of course, the tragedy of exile is precisely the impossibility of that – and indeed, the impossibility of any complete experience. “For all displacement is a semi-sentence, a semi-everything”, Barghouti writes, “they snatch you from your place suddenly, in a second. But you return very slowly. You watch yourself returning in silence. Always in silence. Your times in faraway places watch too; they are curious: what will the stranger do with the reclaimed place and what will the place do with the reclaimed stranger?” And we are back again to the ambiguity, the lack of closure, the absence of any fulfillment that characterizes this entire experience.

Lyrical and mellifluous, Barghouti’s writing is, I think, an exemplar of poetry in prose: appealing directly, as it does, to the primary imagination, its rhythm and its cadences alternatively beguiling and compelling, and all the while without losing the sharp edge of the substance – the indescribable nature of loss, displacement and exile – in the telling of it. That is why I have, in this review, given primary place to excerpts – this is a book that is best experienced, rather than described. And the closing is perhaps the best example of Barghouti’s art, and the point I’m trying to make:

I crossed the forbidden bridge and suddenly I bent to collect my scattered fragments as I would collect the flaps of my coat together on an icy day, or as a pupil would collect his papers scattered by the wind of the fields as he comes back from far away. On the pillow I collected the days and nights of laughter, of anger, or tears, of foolishness, and of marble monuments for which a single lifetime cannot suffice to visit them all with an offering of silence and respect. 

Tonight, with everyone in the house asleep and morning about to break, I ask a question that the days have never answered:

What deprives the spirit of its colours?

    What is it other than the bullets of the invaders that have hit the body?


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“The moon is closer to us now than are the fig trees of our departed village”: Laughter and tragedy in Emile Habiby’s “Saeed the Pessoptimist”

The big man sent his own men to surprise me at my stall one noon. They led me off to prison after charging me publicly with having disobeyed the compulsory stay order. My going to Shafa Amr to buy melons, they said, had threatened the integrity of the state. Whoever, as they put it, transported red melons in secret could also carry radishes secretly and there was, after all, only a difference in colour between red radishes and hand grenades! And red was not, under any circumstances, the same as blue and white. With a watermelon, moreover, one could blow up a whole regiment if grenades were hidden inside it. “Don’t you see that, you mule?”

     “But I cut the melons open with a knife so the buyer can see,” the “mule” responded.

    “Oh! Knives too, eh?” they exclaimed. 

Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist brings Rabelais and Swift to Israel and Palestine. You cannot forbear to laugh, but the moment you pause to reflect, the laughter dissolves into the underlying darkness.  Innocence hangs like a thin film of translucent dew upon the surface, barely masking a savage indictment of the human condition just beneath (think of Voltaire’s Candide). The story follows the adventures of Saeed the Pessoptimist, a Palestinian who stays behind after the creation of the state of Israel, becomes an Israeli informer, and finds himself getting into one scrape after another with the authorities, while becoming more and more estranged from his sometime-countrymen. Filled with supernatural happenings, twisted chronologies and unbelievable denouements, the narrative tries to paint reality even while unmooring itself from reality; almost as though the only way to capture the bizarre actuality that is Israel/Palestine (labels are political) is by breaking with traditional narrative realism.

Saeed has been called an anti-hero by critics, but what truly strikes one about him is his passivity. Whether it is failing to kiss his lover goodbye as she is dragged away by the police for deportation, failing to stop his son from becoming a fedayeen, or failing to carve out any kind of independent existence for himself (a la Candide, before the end), Saeed never does anything. Things are done to him. In this way, he becomes a synecdoche for the larger Palestinian condition, as reflected in the works of so many other Palestinian writers. In Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, Palestinian inaction is symbolized by the passivity of three men as they roast to death in a truck; in Saeed, it is symbolized by Saeed’s overriding inability to act in any circumstance, especially when contrasted with the people in his life, lovers, sons and friends. Habiby makes a witty observation about this right at the beginning, before providing us an extended demonstration through Saeed’s character:

“The Arabs, that miserable teacher of ours concluded, always did thing quicker then – they thought faster than the earth moved around the sun – whereas they have now surrendered their power of thought to others … for the Arabs, so said this accursed teacher, would first act and then dream, not as they do now – first dream and then continue to dream.” 

Ghassan Kanafani once compared the Palestinian condition to people waiting on the shore for a boat that would never come. Saeed is a story – albeit hilariously told – of missed chances, delays, incompleteness, unfulfillment and disappointment. Saeed as a person is, of course, the greatest disappointment of the story, but it is also individual events that perennially fail to come to resolution. Consider, for instance, how the theme of the return to the homeland – something crucial to Palestinian writing – is dealt with by Kanafani, and by Habiby. In Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, the return is accompanies by a confrontation, a tragedy (of sorts), and definite closure. In Habiby’s account, however, what happens is that… nothing happens.

“What about our house?” I asked at last.

“They are occupying it.”

“Do you know who they are?”

You can see, my child, how dim my eyes are. And Europeans all look the same anyway. No one goes fishing anymore.”

    “Would they let me in if I visited our house?” I asked.

    “How should I know, my son?”

    She crossed herself. I said goodbye, feeling very uneasy that she had made that sign of the cross.

    When I reached the front of our house and saw laundry hanging out, my courage deserted me and I pretended to be taking a stroll along the seashore. I kept passing back and forth in front of our house. Each time I almost knocked on the door my courage left me.

    Eventually evening arrived. A woman emerged and began collecting the laundry. She stared at me and shouted something. I hurried away but saw a man of about her age come out of the house and help her collect the wash. I thought to myself: This must be a trick. Why else would a man bring in the family laundry? This was never done by my father, God have mercy on him, although my mother was always sickly and overworked.

Contra Kanafani, there will be no moment of epiphany, no discovery of meaning or truth, even though it is a tragic truth. And contra Khoury, even meaningful love is impossible for Saeed, because even that is defined by its interruptions and its incompleteness, at all times.

    Yuaad shook hands with me and bade me farewell. Then she brought her face close to mine and asked, “Did you kiss my mother before she left?”

    “No. They were standing between us.”

   “In that case you have missed the second kiss too.”

    Then she was gone. 

But if Saeed, even in his delay, is not Prince Hamlet and is never meant to be, ironically enough, the people he is closest to – lover, wife, son, friends – are his mirror images. Where Saeed turns informer, they join the revolution; where Saeed vacillates, they are constant; where he delays, they are decisive. And the contrast between characters is reflected in the contrast of styles. Saeed’s own experiences are portrayed with a savage, almost mocking (Swiftian?) humor, as he finds that being an informer is no guarantee of safety, ending up seeing the inside of a jail cell thrice, each time for absurd reasons. But it is when his supporting cast comes on stage, that the tone changes into something deadly serious. So, in one of the funniest scenes in the book, Saeed is arrested (for the first time) for following orders a bit too scrupulously, and putting up a white flag of surrender outside his Haifa home in the immediate aftermath of ’67. This is taken as a declaration that Haifa is an occupied city, and consequently, an act of rebellion. In prison, Saeed makes the mistake of quoting Shakespeare, and is soundly beaten for his pains. All grotesquely funny so far; and then, in his cell, he meets a Palestinian revolutionary, who considers him – wrongly, but by default – to be a comrade.

He healed my wounds by talking about his own. He kept widening that single tiny window in the wall until it became a broad horizon that I had never seen before. Its netted bars became bridges to the moon, and between his bed and mine were hanging gardens. I told him of myself, what I had always aspired to for myself. I did not want to lie, but I did not want to soil the majesty of the moment by speaking of personal details: these the jailers had stripped from me when they stripped off my clothes. Here we were, one naked man facing another. Would Adam ever have left Paradise of his own free will?”

The mask has dropped, and for all the time that it was on, the revelation hits home harder than it ever cold otherwise. The stylistic shifts – from Voltaire to Darwish, in an instant – are found again when his son Walaa is holed up inside an underground shelter, and speaks of speaking freely, longing, for once, “to be careless about what I say, because all my life you’ve told me to be careful“, insisting that he cannot wait any longer, that it is his generation that must resolve the issue, because “it is my generation.” The clarity and urgency of Walaa’s words and thoughts – again – put Saeed’s own dithering into sharper perspective than could otherwise be possible. Or again, consider this deliberate shift:

These settles, then, laughed good-naturedly when the following story about them spread. The elders of Zikhron Yaqub disagreed about the following problem: is it lawful for a man to sleep with his wife on the Sabbath or is the act a kind of work and therefore not lawful on that day? They went to the rabbi for a decision as to whether it was work or it was pleasure. The rabbi thought long and hard and then he ruled that it was pleasure. They asked him for his reasoning. He replied: “If I had ruled it to be work you would have give it to the Arabs of Fraydis to perform.”

    My, how we laughed at this story – Jacob because he hates the Ashkenazi Jews and I because he laughed.

    And who would be so unfair as to blame the people of Fraydis for owing their preservation to vintage wine? Who, after all, erected the tall buildings of this country, cut and paved its broad streets, dug the trenches and fortified the shelters? Who planted, plucked, and ginned the cotton, then wove it into clothes for the lords of Raghdan and Basman, palaces in the Amman, to wear so proudly. 

Like most other Palestinian writing, Saeed is a story of exile and about a lost homeland. Yet unlike the stories of Kanafani or Khoury, or the poetry of Darwish or Barghouti or Tawfiq Zayyad, there is one crucial difference: Saeed is an exile in his own home, and not on the outside looking in. The ambiguity, the doubt – the agony, even – is thus complex and often undefinable. As the book progresses, we see – we feel – Saeed’s growing estrangement both with his Israeli employers (and masters) and with the nascent Palestinian revolutionary movement. He is of both worlds, and of neither; understanding and understood by neither, liminal and homeless. Once again, then, he is simply caught up in the events, responding to them as they happen with the simple aim of survival. We cannot pity him because he has little moral fibre; and yet, we cannot condemn because we see ourselves in him, or what we would be like we we to face a situation of the sort – because who would be bold enough to predict their own heroism in the face of adversity? Habiby has painted a complex, ambiguous character, neither hero nor really anti-hero, someone who resists judgment and classification, but seeks – actively – our empathy. And more than that, perhaps, we are in no position to give.

I’ll end with an excerpt that once again reflects – fascinatingly – how very different Palestinian works are nonetheless – at bottom – concerned with very similar basic themes. The nakba, as we know, when it happened, was considered only  temporary situation by those who fled their homes in Mandatory Palestine. Of course, that temporary situation became permanent. That, however, did not stop many of the refugees from dreaming of a -now impossible – return to status quo ante. This conflict – between a generation that wants to restore a destroyed past, and one that wants to build a new future on its ruins – is explored repeatedly in Palestinian literature. It is the (implicit) debate between Said and Khaldun in Returning to Haifa. It is Younes, in Gate of the Sun, throwing away the oranges brought from old Palestine and exclaiming furiously, “The homeland is not oranges – the homeland is us!” And it is explored here as well, in one of the most moving passages of the book, with which I’ll close:

    “How can your brother believe that things will return to where they began?”

   “He got that idea from his elders; of his beginning an old man remembers only the prime of youth and so thinks fondly of it. Do you really know how the beginning was, uncle? The beginning was not merely sweet memories of pines over Mount Carmel, or orange groves, or the songs of Jaffa’s sailors. And did they really sing anyway? Do you really want to return to the beginning, to mourn your brother torn to pieces by the crane as he carved his living from the rocks. You want to do it all again, from the beginning?”

    “But your brother, Saeed, said they had learned from the mistakes of their predecessors and commit would not them again.”

    “If they had really learned, they wouldn’t have spoken at all of returning to the beginning.” 

    “You’re so young for so much wisdom, Yaad; wherever did you acquire it?”

    “From my long life that is still before me.”

    “Will you be leaving me?”

    “Water cannot truly ever leave the sea, uncle. It evaporates, then returns in winter in the springs and rivers. It will always return.”

This is widely regarded to be a classic of Arab literature, and deservedly so. Highly recommended.


Filed under Emile Habiby, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

The Mahabharata Project: Reading Epics Against the Grain – Mahasweta Devi’s “After Kurukshetra”

He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.” – Walter Benjamin

It is in the nature of literature – like all narrative – to promote certain voices, viewpoints and perspectives over others. And unless we’re talking about a self-consciously revolutionary text, the privileged voices will often reflect the social, economic and cultural hierarchies of the society that produces the work of literature in question. In the case of epics, this is probably even more true, because it is epics that – originating as they do, for the most part, in oral form – that reflect, or are meant to reflect – the constructed idea of a people, a nation  or even an Empire (to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase, “imagined communities). So it is in epics, perhaps, that we see the dichotomy between the articulated and the submerged voices most clearly. For instance, one of the central conflicts in the Iliad is between Agamemnon and Achilles over the possession of Achilles’ “meed of honour”, Briseis. Briseis’ own voice (notwithstanding the hack job that was the movie Troy!) is never heard: not when it is her body that is the subject of a tug-of-war, and not when Achilles and Hector fight their climactic duel before the walls of Troy. Then again, what would a Penelopiad, as a companion volume to the Odyssey, chronicling the travails of Penelope while Odysseus stayed away from home all those years, look like? We have no idea, because the Odyssey itself gives us precious little to go by. What happened to the Carthaginians after their iconic and charismatic leader burnt herself to death lamenting the departing Aeneas? What happened to the survivors of the Battle of Roncesvalles? Or to the survivors after all the carnage was over in Das Nibelungenlied? As we can see, there are two kinds of silences here: the one is the silence of characters critical to the story; and the other is the silence of all those who were profoundly affected by the events of the story, but are never seen in person.

Nonetheless, even with the epic, there is a respected literary tradition that seeks precisely to raise the submerged voices into consciousness. Euripides, for instance, wrote Hecuba, Andromache and Medeaeach of which viewed the pivotal attempts of a significant event (the Battle of Troy in the first two, the story of Golden Fleece in the third) upon those characters who are silent in the original story. In modern times, Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia tells the story of the princess over whom the critical battle that led to the foundation of Aeneas’ Rome was fought; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon does the same with Arthurian legend; Mark Twain’s partly-playful, partly-comic and partly-savage Eve’s Diary is a take on the Fall (perhaps as expounded by Milton). And in a curious twist, French absurdist playwright Jean Anouilh’s Antigone lets us, perhaps for the first time, here Creon’s voice.

Into this eclectic mix, we can add Mahasweta Devi’s After KurukshetraAfter Kurukshetra begins when the great Mahabharata war has ended, and follows the stories of those who are either not mentioned, or mentioned only to be ignored, in the original epic. The first story, Five Women, interrogates – inter alia - the themes of just war, imposed social roles, the epic hero, and enforced widowhood. The tone is set in the first two pages, that describe the aftermath of the battle: 

“They [the foot soldiers] were issued no armour. So they died in large numbers.”

The prostitute quarters, an essential part of war, now lie abandoned.”

“The chandals have no role in war. They arrive when the battle is over.”

The tone is set because, in single sentences, Devi highlights three sets of submerged voices: the ordinary soldiers who – as ever – have nothing to do with the casus belli, the prostitutes that seem to become a near-inevitable appendage to any large-scale war, and those who must clean up after the fighting’s done. But there is more: there are two key themes that characterize the classical epics – the amorality of war and the great hero. We are asked to suspend moral judgment because the heroic society, that forms the grist for the epics’ mill, simply had a very different code of values and morals than we do now. Large-scale slaughter over seemingly trivial causes simply wasn’t a problem for these men – their codes just saw it as a done thing, something as inevitable as the ebb and flow of the tides, as Lord Dunsany might say. But that leaves the question hanging: whose code of values, and whose code of morals? Of the warrior class? Yes, but what about those who were not of the warrior class? Did they too feel this way about the inevitability and amorality of war? Did Briseis and Penelope feel this way?

Devi’s five women certainly do not. The Mahabharata goes one further than exempting war from moral judgment – it emphatically asserts that the battle of Kurukshetra was a just war, prosecuted by the Pandavas against the Kauravas, who had unjustly deprived them of their kingdom. That simple binary is overturned in this brief conversation between the five women whose husbands, ordinary soldiers, have just died, and who cannot go back until the funeral pyres on the plain of Kurukshetra stop burning:

During such a disaster…

Disaster? What disaster? Huh, old woman? Was this some natural calamity? … We know of quarrels – jealousies – rivalries too. But such a war for just a throne? This, a holy war?! A righteous war?! Just call it a war of greed.”

By setting their teeth against the amoral neutrality of “disaster”, that equates war precisely to something like Dunsany’s ebb and flow of the tides, or the falling of leaves, or forest fires, the women place human – and for that, read male – responsibility at the forefront of everything, and question whether war can ever be just, if prosecuted only for power.

Another theme the epic thrives upon is the epic hero. Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Song of Roland, Lay of the Cid, Nibelungenleid, Ramayana, Mahabharata – every epic you can think of is choc-full of scenes where the hero descends on the battlefield, and slaughters a multitude of foot soldiers sent against him, before engaging an opposing hero in a pivotal, one-to-one battle. Through their wives, not only is the story of these soldiers brought to the forefront, but when they say:

“Day after day, the war heroes massacred hundreds of foot soldiers. Our men died in droves…”

You immediately link this up to the wry observation in the opening page about the lack of armor, and suddenly, all that death is not due to the greatness of the hero and the ordinariness of the soldier, but simply due to the callous negligence of an army that considers the lives of its soldiers expendable. The shift here is stark and brutal – just like the epic considers soldiers expendable, consigning faceless multitudes to their death at the hand of some hero every other chapter, the actual lives of soldiers are considered just as worthless by those who sent them to war.

The story continues with the five women being enlisted in the service of the Princess Uttara, who is about to give birth to a child; and “if Uttara bears a son, he will be King. It is imperative to keep Uttara in good spirits.”

This is where we have an added level of subtlety in the work. Because the submerged voices are never equally submerged, and even within the oppressed, there are the overseers. In the second part of the story, Devi develops a fascinating dynamic between three sets of characters: the five women, who have lost their husbands, and who are waiting to go back to the village once the plain of Kurukshetra cools down after the pyres have burnt themselves out; Princess Uttara, who is in every way a Marie Antoinette let-them-eat-cake royal; and Madraja, the majordomo, who hails from the same background as the five women but, having served at the court all her life, finds herself in a strange, undefinable liminal position, sometimes occupying one perspective, sometimes another, but never one entirely (the eternal fate of the rootless exile?). In that interaction, the blissful unawareness that the nobility has of the lives of is subjects becomes starkly clear, Uttara’s evident innocence and absence of malice only making the impact sharper. Explored also as is the oppressiveness of enforced widowhood (“In ihalok, in this world of ours, widows have no right to happiness. “) vis-a-vis an ethic that celebrates transience because it can afford no other philosophy, because who, otherwise, will harvest the next lot of crops? (After a terrible calamity, the sun always rises. Even after this dreadful war, Nature has not stood still.); and finally, a re-emphasis of the equanimity with which the nobility views war, because (again) it can afford to (But it was a dharmayuddha, a righteous war.), vis-a-vis the true sufferers of war, who reject it passionately, but are sidelined both in the decision to go to war, and the subsequent memory of it as recorded in epics (So many hundreds of widows! So many homes in which mothers have lost their sons.)

And yet, Devi is careful enough to avoid the trap of simple reductively. This is not about cloistered palace and idyllic village. When the women, at the end, leave, we know that they are going back not only to a life of toil, but to an enforced second marriage, one that they accept with an equable resignation, but conspicuously not with any great joy; and no amount of work-songs can rid us of the lingering unease about that. Much like the whole story, the ending rejects any easy conclusion; indeed, it rejects any sort of conclusion at all. And that is the point.

I will not here analyze the other two stories as closely; they deserve to be read in their own right. Souvali explores the complex dynamic between the classes, the struggle for acceptance, and loneliness and solidarity. Kunti and the Nishadin is perhaps the best story of the lot: dealing with the themes of choice and freedom (Karna is the only one of my sons whose father I took of my own free will.), the sanitizing role of language, myth and narrative (Only the wars of the victorious are known as dharmayuddha), and above all of guilt and responsibility, the ending plumbs the very depths of feeling that a reader can experience.

After Kurukshetra, then, is an essential companion to The Mahabharata. Yet not quite like a Dinkar gloss on Karna’s life in the Rashmirathi, taking an established hero and telling his tale. It is an essential companion because by telling us the stories that are not told, not only does it tell them for their own sake (which it certainly does), but in doing so, it holds up a mirror to the Mahabharata, and the principal themes, and voices are reflected, as though through a glass, darkly. For that alone, it deserves to be read, and read again, and again.


Filed under Mahasweta Devi, The Mahabharata Project