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The Last Englishmen: Finding the Story

Deborah Baker’s new book is titled The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire. In this special piece by the author, she tells us how she came across this story.

My intention always was to write a book set in India during WWII. I wanted to find a story that would contrast the Indian experience of the war with that of the one the West is more familiar with. I wanted to complicate the picture of a beleaguered little England fighting all by itself on behalf of democracy and freedom. To tell the whole story I needed to begin with the Non-cooperation movement in the 1920s and carry it up to Indian Independence in 1947.
My last book had two settings, Lahore and New York, and three obscure “characters.”  As I reached the end of that book I imagined undertaking something more expansive for my next book. I wanted more room, with more settings, more characters, and perhaps a love story. That was the Dr. Zhivago fantasy.  I also wanted to weave well known historical figures together with unknowns.
But as I am not a novelist, I couldn’t make up a story. I had to find one.  I spent more than a year reading books about India and the war.  I also read a great deal about the Indian struggle for Independence (often treated as a separate subject from the war, rather than in tandem).  I paid particular attention to the way the debate over India’s role in the war and its aspirations for independence played out in America. I didn’t find my story, but I learned lots from Indian scholarship. Several important books on the subject were published in the course of my research. Then an archivist suggested I read the correspondence between the great English poet W H Auden and his brother John.
I’ve often written about poets.  Some poets seem to have their fingers on the pulse of history. I’ve always admired Auden’s poetry and I knew that his decision to remain in America while England went to war and suffered through the Blitz was a painful one.  He was called a rat and a traitor by fellow writers. Stephen Spender, a friend, publicly criticized him. Questions were raised about him in Parliament. I was curious to figure out, too, what this generation of 1930s writers, one of the most politically aware when it came to unfolding events in Europe, felt about their Empire, about India. As far as I knew, no one had asked this question of them. To some extent W H Auden’s poetry provided me a view finder. So that was in my head when I sat down to read the correspondence between Wystan Auden and his elder brother.
John Auden was a Himalayan explorer.  He lived in Calcutta from 1926 to 1953, working out of the Geological Survey of India as a geologist. John’s archive led me to Michael Spender (Stephen’s older brother and – coincidentally — another explorer of the Himalaya) and to Nancy Sharp, a London painter they both fell in love with in 1938.  John also led me to Sudhindranath Datta and his circle of poets and intellectuals in Calcutta and to an English ICS officer and a vicar working for the Indian Communist underground. So the story I found involved a motley circle of artists, poets, explorers, officials and intellectuals in both Calcutta and London and the ways in which their lives were intertwined.
With John, Michael, and Nancy’s cris crossing storylines I was able to weave the story of the quest for Everest’s summit, the golden age of Himalayan exploration, with both the proxy wars for supremacy taking place in Europe, and with the Indian struggle for freedom in the lead up to the war. At a certain point the narrative would turn on who Nancy chose. This choice helped define where their loyalty lay, to England and its unraveling Empire or to India and its Independence.
Forster famously said, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” (Both Forster and Orwell have cameos in the book). Throughout the 1930s the question of loyalty and betrayal was ever present.  After the senseless massacres and false propaganda of WWI, notions of loyalty and duty to King and country became more fraught.  If not for one’s country, for what ideals or causes would one sacrifice one’s life? Indians, alienated from those who ruled their country, asked themselves similar questions.
Did their loyalty lie with the Empire or with the Comintern, with the poor landless peasant of Bengal or with Gandhi? With the western democracies or with the fascist authoritarian states?  With white people or brown people? Working class or ruling class? Finally, which came first, the person they loved or their nation?
All my subjects came up with different answers.

The Last Englishmen is an engrossing and masterful story that traces the end of empire and the stirring of a new world order. For more posts like this, follow Penguin India on Facebook!

Storytelling as Life and Art – By Usha Alexander

Usha Alexander  grew up in Pocatello, Idaho, as the second of three children. She has lived in four countries and continues to visit as many as she can. Her first novel, Only the Eyes are Mine, was selected as a Semi-Finalist in the Multicultural Fiction category for the 2006 Independent Publishers Book Awards.
She is the author of three books, the newest of which is The Legend o f Virinara. The book is set in ancient India and is a thrilling tale of adventure and political intrigue that stirs up timeless questions about war and peace.
In this piece written by Usha Alexander, she talks about how we each tell ourselves the story of our own life, whether in large ways or small.

‘It was only some twenty years ago that I finally returned here to my ancestral lands, called back by the need to remember, to gather up the fragments, to reconstruct the cracked vessel of my life and pour from it my own story. I don’t know if any good will come from this exercise, whether there’s any wisdom to be had from it, but I feel compelled to put down my tale. Who knows why one feels this human urge to preserve and perpetuate ourselves, our visions and desires? Who knows why this need for art, this brazen denial of death and emptiness?’ ~ Shanti, The Legend of Virinara, page 5

Like Shanti, the primary narrator of The Legend of Virinara, most of us have moments when we reflect upon our own lives. We reckon with our choices, good or bad, to understand how we became the person we are today. We look for a coherent thread of cause and effect, of consistency in our own personality, of personal growth running through the events in our memories like beads. Perhaps we need to understand our own drives or desires—or explain to others why we’ve done what we’ve done. We might wonder what it all means—the sum of our life, thus far—or whether we can draw any lessons from it to teach others, to do better ourselves, or to build our sense of connection with others.
So we each tell ourselves the story of our own life. We do it in large ways and small. It may be a boy marvelling that he survived a war in which his parents perished. Or a mother wondering at her decision to take a job that brought her overseas and made her children’s lives unrecognizable from her own. It may be a young graduate trying to understand why she didn’t get that job or promotion she was surely qualified for. But however great or small or even petty our questions loom, compelled by a need for connection, continuity and meaning within the vagaries of life, we may tell ourselves almost anything to create a story that suits our needs, up to and including the grandiloquent and absurd; we even invoke the supernatural.
Consider two famous historical examples: Joan d’Arc was a French girl who led an army into battle against the British in 1429. As a teenager, she presented herself to the king of France, saying she’d been in conversation with several Christian saints since childhood and now god instructed her to lead an army; the king believed her. But soon after her battles, Joan’s story became less convincing to others; she was burned at the stake for heresy. Later, her version of events was re-evaluated and deemed sensible, so she was labelled a martyr and a saint. Similarly, in 1881 a lawyer, Charles J. Guiteau, assassinated the American President James Garfield, a champion of equal rights for the former slaves. Guiteau said that god told him he must get rid of this President to change the course of national politics and so—he insisted at his trial—what he’d done wasn’t murder. But Guiteau was hanged for his crime. His version of events was discounted as a symptom of an undetermined illness.
However else we might characterize the accounts d’Arc and Guiteau gave of their own actions, we must also recognize that their self-narratives gave them courage, absolved them of guilt, and helped them sift through or bind together their understanding of themselves in the world. As such, they remain testaments to our common human need to impose story upon our individual experience. And while theirs may differ vastly from our own self-narratives in details and biases or maps of belief, perhaps they are less different in their richness and force, in their essential creative impulse to find meaning and purpose.
We are inventive with our personal narratives: We build chronology, connecting the dots of cause and effect, usually reasonably, but not always. We imbue actions and outcomes with meaning. We select which facts and feelings to include. Our fears and egos shape our perceptions. We embellish facts to make ourselves feel good. Or to make ourselves feel bad. We disregard information that doesn’t fit our biases. We forget or misremember what makes us uncomfortable. We bridge the unknown with presumption, deduction or imagination, even fabricating details or whole events, adjusting the story to our needs.
It is in this very shadowland between ‘truth’ and imagination, a realm of uncertain borders, where each of us actually lives, alone. It’s here, among the shadows and flickers of our incomplete understanding and our desires, that we fashion narratives of our lives and our world, hoping to communicate it to those around us. We come up with stories that are always part ‘fact’ and part ‘fiction’. So every one of us is actually a storyteller, a world-builder, whether or not we’re aware of our own powers or how we wield them. And this innate storytelling impulse, which we use to bind together our inner and outer lives, is a seed of general human creativity.
As a novelist, I try to excavate this, to understand how we use storytelling, how it works for us, how it works against us—for it provides a broad and ever-astonishing view into what it means to be human. The power of storytelling serves as a theme in The Legend of Virinara, which depicts, in part, how stories are used to create realities. But understanding the foundations of our self-narratives can also enrich the creation of intentional fiction. Some of the richest characters and most deeply moving novels seem to stick close to the writer’s own emotional life, applying the same perceptive and imaginative facility they’ve surely used to shape their own life stories in order to imagine the lives of others.
One example that jumps immediately to mind is V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, with its heartbreakingly wry pathos. Though the details of the story are altered, one feels acutely that Naipaul is writing a paean to his own father, his struggles and triumphs, through the lens of a loving but troubled son. Something similar is discernible in Harper Lee’s late-published first novel, Go Set a Watchman, which, despite all its flaws, reveals her tormented struggle to understand the corruption of those whom she dearly loved and admired as a child. At moments, the distinction between young Lee, the author, and Jean Louise, her character, seems to disappear.
As readers, too, we bring our own sense of story to make sense of a creative work. The novels we often enjoy the most are those we recognize as uncannily ‘true’ and familiar through the questions, metaphors or feelings they generate, perhaps mapping in some way onto our own shadowlands. Jane Austen confined her writing to the very small world of British landed gentry of the late eighteenth century; none of us readers have lived in her time and place, yet she was able to mine the dissatisfactions and pleasures of the heart in a way that’s almost universally relatable. Arundhati Roy pulled up something similarly universal about the vulnerabilities of childhood in her first novel, The God of Small Things.
As Chinua Achebe said, ‘Art is and was always in the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and legends and told their stories for a human purpose.’ Storytelling is, above all, the art of social beings. A novelist’s greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that she has connected with a reader, touched another human heart or mind and illuminated a patch of their world, in resonance with her own.

The One Story and the Many – by Anjum Hasan

Anjum Hasan is the author of several books including Lunatic in My Head, The Cosmopolitans, Neti, Neti, Street on the Hill and Difficult Pleasures. Her latest book, A Day in the Life, is a collection of fourteen well-crafted stories that give us a sense of the daily life of a wide cast of characters.
Her books have been nominated for various awards including the Man Asian Literary Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Hindu Best Fiction Award and the Crossword Fiction Award.
In this special feature written by her, Hasan tells us about her relationship to the form of the short story.
Anjum Hasan
The first short story that haunted me was Anton Chekhov’s The Bet. Till then, I believed that narrative resolution meant happy endings. Rip van Winkle might find, when he wakes up, that twenty years have passed, or Sinbad will see that his only hope of survival after the shipwreck is to hang on for life to one leg of the giant roc, but these disruptions are only delicious means to redress. Whereas all the dark prefigurings of The Bet end in nothing – the hero simply vanishes on the last page.
The story is the case study of a philosophical question – is life imprisonment better or worse than the death penalty? The young lawyer who stakes fifteen years to prove his point does not emerge triumphant from the cell where he has been living out his self-imposed solitude. He decides – following on a decade and a half of the most voracious bibliomania, hundreds of books consumed and discarded – that human concerns don’t matter one whit, and then he slips out of the garden gate and disappears. To where? And why does he forgo all that money, two million roubles, that he is to get for winning the bet? As a ten or eleven-year-old, immune to irony, this tortured man’s strange renunciation and sudden disappearance, not to speak of that unclaimed cash, bothered me. Chekhov, master of enigmatic endings, provides no answer. I had to learn to live with my discomfort, accept the slippery nature of the modern short story, understand that its author might open a wide window on time and then leave it ajar for all eternity.
But the special pang that accompanies the reading of a good – that is essential yet elusive – story remained through the years of my coming of age as a reader. I experienced it with Tagore’s Kabuliwallah in which the unlikely friendship between a vagrant man and a radiant child can, once time has passed, never be recovered – no matter that the author, unlike Chekhov, does provide recompense in the form of a few banknotes to temper our sadness with. I felt it too with DH Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner where money itself is the object of lust and there can never be enough of it. Yet indulge too avidly in this passion and it can turn against you.
Over time I also realised that I wanted to do the same – not so much play with mutability as a literary device as snatch half a moment from the flow and give it life in writing. The short story is the ultimate temporal – and secular – form. There are no earlier incarnations and no hereafter. Now is the sum total of the aeons and this is all there is to the expanse. Anything can be a story and everything actually is. I’m always charmed by that anecdote about the demonically prolific Saadat Hasan Manto boasting that he could write a story on any subject. Someone knocked at the door of his office when he worked at AIR, Delhi, and asked “May I come in?” Manto was challenged to write a play by that name which he promptly turned out.
But this carpe diem spirit means that the older traditions of storytelling with their familiar tropes, their indeterminate locations, their shared myths, have to be put aside. For the short story is also the locus of a progressive imagination, one for which the people matter but the person matters more. In most Indian languages the break from the literature of the past resulted in the flowering not just of the short story but literary movements around it – ranging from the Nayi Kahani writers in Hindi and their championing of interior life to the hard-boiled urbanism of the Manikodi group in Tamil Nadu. Exploring the genesis of the form in his essay ‘The Indian Story’, Amitav Ghosh records its journey from the late 19th century to a good hundred years on. He writes that “the story was the chosen instrument of the subcontinent in the spring time of its nationhood.”  But it is no more our weapon of choice, suggests his essay, which was published towards the close of the previous century. The short story has, perhaps, had its day.
This might explain our contemporary ambivalence about it. Modernism has passed some of us by and our paradigms for the short story are still Saki and O. Henry, rather than Manto and Carver. Then there is the growing occlusion of telling of a story with storytelling – not all writers of the short story are aiming to be campfire entertainers in this sense but the tag is hard to escape. One is either a great storyteller or a self-indulgent aesthete; nothing, it seems, can bridge literary pleasure with pleasure taken in literature. One is always tempted to quote Nirad C Chaudhuri to those who insist on the distinction between style and substance. “There is no such thing in literary works as good substance spoilt by a bad style, or poor substance undeservedly accompanied by a good style. To believe in such theories is to have the stupidity which is dead to matter and the vulgarity which is dead to form.” But Chaudhuri himself, precisely because of his English hauteur, the proud certainty of that tone, can seem hopelessly old-fashioned.
We are quick to dismiss values that seem out of date, always on guard against nostalgia in our reading of literature but curiously, because of our growing obsession with specifically Indian narratives and a singularly Indian identity, have taken to refurbishing antiquities in our fiction. We want to retell rather than tell, and our retellings are informed less by ideas about the past and more by the desire to just invoke it. The popularity of these invocations makes me ask if we really have lost our appetite for the here and now. Was it misplaced, this desire we once had to cleave to the short-lived, the fragmentary, the unresolved? Are we in search of the one story that will capture it all – the overarching explanation, rather than the numerous small ones? Is that a genuine need and if so can the short story address it?
I happened to find something of an answer in a marvellously metaphysical essay by John Berger on the nature of time and, thereby, the nature of stories. In older, more religiously inclined cultures, the timeless was a constant presence but this conception of a realm beyond human time has been edged out of today’s worldview, he argues in ‘Go Ask the Time’. And yet, despite this dominant, two-century-old, positivist European image of time, we can’t quite suppress our longing for that which goes beyond it. We’re made that way. “A need for what transcends time, or is mysteriously spared by time, is built into the very nature of the human mind and imagination.”
If we turn away from the European lens we will find a conviction underlying many traditions of storytelling – many discourses – that everything to happen has already happened before, says Berger. This is a realisation that the writer like me, trying to compose that one unique if microscopic narrative, that one telling that has not been told before, wants to stave off. But perhaps the most long-sighted of the storytellers have always known it. Talking about the prose of realist fiction and its gradual seeping into Indian writing, Ghosh in the essay I mentioned speaks of it as “a form of address that creates the illusion of objectivity by distancing itself from its subjects; it is a style of narrative in which the machinery of narration is a source of embarrassment that must always be concealed.” This struggle is still evident in Indian fiction, he says. So perhaps it is this – the embarrassment with the modern rather than the insight into the mythological – that makes us want to go back to a time before realism.
AK Ramanujan, that great theorist of Indian narratives, has described in his ‘Is there an Indian Way of Thinking?’ how till the 19th century no Indian text came without a framing narrative; every story was encased in a meta-story. Berger would have loved, for its effortless scrambling of linear time, one of Ramanujan’s examples. When the Pandava brothers are exiled in the forest, and Yudhishthira is despondent because he has lost wife and kingdom, a sage visits him and tells him the story of Nala. Nala too has had to forfeit wife and kingdom but then he fights his brother and gets everything back. “Yudhishthira, following the full curve of Nala’s adventures, sees that he is only halfway through his own, and sees his present in perspective, himself as a story yet to be finished.”
So it could be that Chekhov’s hero, when he runs away from his cell, is fleeing the paltriness of the short story itself, seeking a cosmic vista that no worldly thing, least of all money, can offer. Chekhov cannot follow him because that is not his business. His writ runs only in that arena where each tiny, ordinary, human detail is so mesmerising a story there appears to be no point asking for more. And that’s where I hope to remain too, in the grip of the strangeness and wonder of this present time.


In Conversation with Osama Siddique

Osama Siddique has been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, a lawyer in New York and Lahore, a policy instructor in various countries. He is also a legal scholar, university teacher and reform consultant in Pakistan, and a successful doctoral candidate and visiting professor at Harvard Law School. His most recent book is an acclaimed and multiple award-winning critical legal history of postcolonial justice systems. We spoke to him about his debut novel Snuffing Out the Moon.
 Below are the questions we asked him.
You are and have been a very successful lawyer and legal scholar.  Why did you decide to write a novel?
There are many kinds of legal discourses of course that allow much room for critical expression. Quite apart from more conventional work, as a lawyer and an academic I have always been particularly intrigued by how law can be and is manipulated by the powerful against the disempowered. Regardless of which era we speak about what goes by the name of law has always been a strong weapon for those who can use it – for better or for worse. Indeed I have explored this theme in my legal scholarship. There are, however, certain limits on expression imposed by extant conventions of style, structure and methodology. Fiction on the other hand is a very vast, rich and multifarious terrain that provides tremendous flexibility and license to explore this and various additional themes that I dwell on in my novel – themes that I had always wanted to write about. Themes ranging, for instance, from ancient political landscapes to omens of impending evil to lives of petty criminality to literature as a weapon of protest to social media as a medium for hate mongering to environmental apartheids of the near future. Only fiction allows engagement with all this in one book. Such is its largesse. Hence the novel.
Why did you situate the book in these particular six epochs of time?
In large part because having blessed access to their archaeological sites and cultural artifacts I have been greatly fascinated by them since childhood. I continue to fondly visit them, read about them, live amidst them. Mohenjodaro also because it continues to be such an enticing enigma and unsolved mystery. The Gandharan civilization because it has left such an exquisite artistic and architectural imprint on the Pakistani landscape. Lahore – my beloved city – appears in three contiguous eras, which are all reflected in its hybrid culture and built heritage. And the near future is of course the source of tremendous curiosity and indeed concern to all of us – given the highly troubling times and the various political, environmental and civilizational crises that we currently face as humankind.
Somewhere in the book you say something like: “all eras are driven by the same hopes and fears and passions and we continue to make the same mistakes.” — Could you elaborate on this and also your concept of “time.”?
While one can surely detect evolution in various spheres of human endeavor – political structures, organized religion, modes of technology – it does occur to me that across the ages our fundamental aspirations and imperatives remain very closely aligned, if not identical. It is fascinating to think, for instance, how hope, fear, love, hate, dissent and the resulting conflicts drive people to act in such similar ways, regardless of whether we speak of today’s milieu or one of four thousand years ago, from whatever we know of that distant era. Naturally, it causes one to wonder whether we are caught up in a constant cycle of repetition. Civilizations come, flourish, decline and ultimately vanish. Whether time is linear or cyclical. Whether we are headed somewhere or will the wheel of time continue to turn and turn till one day our kind will simply be no more. That we will simply vanish. Without even a whimper, let alone a bang. Without any explanation, let alone an apology.
What are your thoughts on the concept of “evil”?
Evil is such a vital and fascinating concept in every religious and cultural tradition as well as manifest, however you define it, in so many human catastrophes through the ages. One of the most compelling questions remains whether evil is just another name for our baser instincts, distinct external influences that corrupt and corrode us and compel us to do abhorrable things, or an actual physical embodiment – a virtual devil. What causes us to indulge in devilry and why has humankind failed in putting a stop to murders, pogroms, genocides, travesties and wars. These questions provide a vital undercurrent to my overall narrative and evil manifests itself mysteriously and multifariously in the lives of the different characters. Quite apart from the more analytical dimensions there is also something very emotive, something very sinister and forbidding about the concept that impacts our senses in a remarkable manner. The fear and foreboding evoked by the concept of evil has been depicted so powerfully in many great pieces of literature and it has always been something that I also wanted to write about.
Your protagonists are non-conformists who dissent and then pay a price for it.  Can you tell us more about choosing protagonists who are dissenters and the importance of dissent in human history?
Arguably, as critically as ever before in out history we face the challenges of curtailment and censorship of free thought and speech. What is also obvious is a globe-wide shift to harder governments, to despots, officially sanctioned histories, blind dogma and also now, alternative facts. The present epoch is as Orwellian as it can get. Meaningful dissent, therefore, is a precious but also much maligned virtue and hence all the more worthy of preservation. Mine is just one modest endeavor to underline how vital dissent is for societal sustenance and integrity. Even otherwise, dissenters make much more compelling and effective protagonists than conformists. Dissent has contributed tremendously to history and brought about significant turning points and breakthroughs in human thought and achievement. And yet the dissenters have often paid a tremendous personal price, which makes their entire endeavor all the more heroic. There is thus no way that I would have been tempted to choose protagonists who are not dissenters. Having said that those who habitually conform and capitulate are also curious in their own way. Perhaps in my next book if there is one.

Trump and Modi: Strangely Silent on the US-India Nuclear Deal

By Larry Pressler
Larry Pressler was the chairman of the US Senate’s Arms Control Subcommittee and advocated the now-famous Pressler Amendment. His book Neighbours In Arms provides a comprehensive account of how US foreign policy in the subcontinent was formed from 1974 till today and ends with recommendations of a new US-India alliance that could be a model for American allies in future.
Here’s a piece written by him on the US-India nuclear deal.
When I first visited India in 1965, I was enthralled by the people, the food, the heat and the colours. The plight of its poor moved me. As a graduate student in the Rhodes Scholar programme at Oxford University in England, I was looking for material to complete a doctorate in philosophy and made a brief visit to New Delhi. There, I spent three to four days during a term break in December.
On a low budget, I travelled by rail. The trains were crowded and the passengers were noisy and boisterous. It was such a contrast to the quiet and subdued cross-country train rides in the United States. I ate whatever my modest budget allowed, and remember enjoying my first taste of idli in southern India. Enveloped by the country’s spirit, I found the whole experience exhilarating.
But I also witnessed the long-term impact of foreign occupation and the devastating effects on its poverty-stricken people. I later saw the same negative impact of long-term foreign intervention in Vietnam. In India, there didn’t seem to be as strong a sense of national pride as I have witnessed in many other countries. At the time, I blamed it on colonialism. But, fifty years later, I also wonder if extreme poverty, corruption and the burden of the old caste system play a large role as well. Of course, the country’s lack of reliable electricity also keeps the population in a type of permanent Dark Ages—pun intended.
Consequently, I was highly encouraged when I learnt that, along with members of the US Congress, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had agreed in July 2005 to a nuclear deal to bring electricity to the mass population. The US–India nuclear agreement would allow the United States to supply India with nuclear fuel for civilian power generators. In exchange, India agreed to institute international safeguards on its nuclear reactors to prevent them from being used for military purposes. The negotiations, surprisingly, had been conducted in almost total secrecy. Highly controversial, the agreement ended the United States’ three-decade ban on nuclear trade of any kind with India without requiring the country to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme.
An idealist, especially in the field of international development, might look at this deal as a great victory for the people of India, as the mass population would finally get reliable and clean electricity. In a country where 300 million of its citizens have no electricity and millions more have unreliable electricity, the US–India nuclear agreement—if implemented—could significantly improve the quality of life for more than a billion people.
To development specialists, the US–India nuclear agreement could be a godsend. Nearly 30 per cent of India’s population lives below the poverty line and 75 per cent earns less than 5000 rupees per month. The residents of the state of Bihar are among the most impoverished people in the world, with more than 70 per cent of its population suffering in extreme poverty. An ample and reliable supply of electricity will increase productivity in states like Bihar. More light in homes and in workplaces results in greater activity. This increased productivity will lift up those living in the most abject poverty in India. That is what proponents of the nuclear agreement must state as its main objective. It is a worthy humanitarian goal. But, thus far, the architects of this deal and its advocates have failed to reinforce it.
My love for India and its people is heartfelt. That is why I am so passionate about the transformative effects nuclear power can have on its citizens. If properly implemented, the US–India nuclear agreement could bring electricity, an improvement in the standard of living, and some level of dignity for many poor Indians. The poor are the ones who need the nuclear agreement the most, but so far this deal has just been a shuffling of millions of dollars between governments, arms dealers, consulting firms and lobbyists. Almost a decade after the deal was approved, not one nuclear power plant has even started construction.
Why hasn’t this happened? Importantly absent from the deal was a requirement forcing India to join the NPT and adhere to all its requirements. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, enacted in 1970, extracted a bargain between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states. Nuclear weapons states promised to use their nuclear capability only for peaceful purposes in exchange for a promise from non-nuclear weapons states not to pursue nuclear weapons in any form. The US–India nuclear agreement essentially gave India a waiver from the NPT, in an attempt to build a closer relationship with India and counter the rising threat of its powerful neighbour, China. This has antagonized many nuclear non-proliferation advocates, who see this move as a type of ‘nuclear double standard’. Many foreign policy experts claim that the special exemptions the US is giving India have done irreparable damage to global non-proliferation efforts. I tend to agree that we have executed an ‘about face’ on non-proliferation, but I believe it is necessary to get nuclear power for the Indian people.
It took nearly three years for both countries to approve the final agreement, which was signed by the then Indian external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, and his counterpart, the then secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, on 10 October 2008. Since it is not a treaty and merely an exchange of statements, we must accept the fact that it is not enforceable. Both sides are depending on the goodwill of the other for implementation. The publicly stated purpose of the agreement is to build nuclear plants in India to supply electricity to the country. In actuality, the United States’ primary goal with this deal was, selfishly, an economic one. The US–India nuclear agreement was primarily an arms trade deal. While it certainly was intended to allow nuclear suppliers entry into India, it also opened up vast new trade opportunities between the United States and India for many other industries. So far, the defence industry is the only industry that has enjoyed significant gains from the nuclear deal. This was not a quid pro quo, but the deal did open the doors wide for significantly more arms deals, notably C-130 and C-17 transport aircraft, and joint military exercises with India. This deal is simply a pathway to justify an escalation in arms sales between the two countries. Indeed, Stephen Cohen, a Senior Fellow from the Brookings Institute and an India expert, said that India will be ‘one of the largest markets for defense equipment in the coming two decades’.
President Obama continued the trend started by President Bush and further opened up arms trade between our two countries. In 2009, the Boeing Company won a contract for a $2-billion order for P-3 Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Lockheed Martin secured a $1-billion contract for more C-130 transport aircraft. In 2010, President Obama pledged $5 billion of military equipment to India, making the US one of India’s top three military suppliers. Further efforts were made to loosen antiquated restrictions on technology transfer and to relieve onerous oversight controls. In 2013, the then secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, announced that India would be admitted into the coveted ‘Group of Eight’, the US allies that share the most sensitive technology details—without any export controls.
In 2014, analysts from the military trade publication Jane’s Defense said that India had become the largest foreign buyer of US weapons (only to be outbought by the Saudis in 2015). In 2015, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi announced new partnerships between our countries to jointly develop military jet engine technology and aircraft carrier design. President Obama said publicly that forging deeper ties between our two nations was a primary foreign policy objective for his administration. What he did not say is that these deep ties are mostly military ones. My nation’s new president, Donald Trump, seems poised to build on and reinforce this military relationship and take an even stronger stance against India’s rival, the rogue nation of Pakistan. Indeed, when Prime Minister Modi visited Washington in June of this year, the Trump Administration announced the approval of a $2 billion sale of unarmed drones to India, which raised the hairs on the necks of the Pakistani military and ISI. He also has appointed Lisa Curtis to be the Senior Director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council. She is a veteran foreign policy expert who has recommended a much more punitive approach to Pakistan. And President Trump has made no apologies for his hard line against Muslim terrorists. Sadly, however, during Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Washington, there was no mention of the construction of any nuclear power plants. Their conversation (at least publicly) was strangely silent on this topic.
The US–India nuclear agreement was a good first step towards making India a key global ally. However, the deal has not even begun to achieve its full potential. I fear it never will.
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Forsaken Nests —Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan is one of the well-known names of Tamil literature. He has garnered both critical acclaim and commercial success on his writings. Many of his writings have been translated in English and have won accolades. His book ‘Seasons of the Palm’ was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Award in 2005.
 Murugan, in this piece tells us what pushed him to become a writer.
 My family background could not have been the reason for my becoming a writer. I was a first-generation learner. Both my parents, and their forefathers, were illiterate. After a few years of school, I taught my father how to sign. Signing, for him, meant writing his name. He would write each letter very slowly, leaving a playground of space between two letters. At first he did not know how to pronounce these letters. He took months to learn. He felt it would be beneath the dignity of his school-going sons if he were to remain an illiterate, and so he deeply desired to wipe away that shame with just his signature.
The first time he signed his name was on my report card. That day, his face shone brightly with pride. He never asked about my marks or my ranking. For him, the happiness of signing alone would suffice. My brother would forge my father’s signature, but I did not have that kind of courage. We used to call our father’s handwriting ‘hen scribbles’—like the footprints of hens that pitted the ground when they wandered about, without any discernible form or pattern. To this day, one such signature of my father’s is preserved in my tenth-standard register.
I have never had occasion to regret my being born in an illiterate family. Rather, it was an advantage. I enjoyed absolute freedom as far as my education was concerned. I was free to study; I was also free not to study. No one asked me why I studied Tamil often or told me to study mathematics instead. I alone decided the standard till which I would study. While selecting a field of study of my interest, there was no interference. Nothing can equal the joy one feels at the freedom to make one’s own decisions when young. And because I was born to unlettered parents, I enjoyed the peak of such happiness.
After completing my tenth standard, I myself decided on the branch of study I would pursue in the eleventh standard. Though I had secured more than 80 per cent in the core subjects, I opted to study Tamil literature instead of pursuing science or a technical education. My father willingly accompanied me wherever I wanted to go. If anyone asked why I wasn’t studying something else, he would simply say, ‘It’s his choice.’ This being my ‘educational background’, I cannot ascribe my interest in writing to any of my family members, including my grandparents and parents. I myself struggled and learnt to swim in the great flood. And that happiness still lingers in me today.
How the vocation of writing possessed me can be traced to my childhood. There were not many houses in the place where my family lived. Our household was just one among four on a dry, rain-fed stretch of land called ‘Mettukkaadu’. Unlike in other places, farming in the Kongu region demands more than just a few hours of work and a supervisory visit to the field once in a while. In fact, one had to struggle on the land along with the cattle, night and day. Hence families lived in single tenements on their farms. Along with our grandparents as well as two paternal uncles, we numbered four families in all, and we lived close to each other. Some other houses were also there, scattered in the distance.
I was the youngest boy among the families residing there. Those born after me were all girls. There were no playmates of my age. The difference in ages between the older boys and myself was such that I had to call them anna (elder brother) or mama (uncle). A boy playing with girls would be branded as girly and, in any case, boys looked down upon the games of girls. Hence I had to invent games and play them all by myself. I had to imagine playing and conversing with many people, and I even role-played those other people. I had a lot of uninhabited open space at my disposal. Otherwise I would withdraw into myself like a snail if anyone came near me. I barely spoke in public. I was very quiet, a good boy who did not know of mischief.
But in my lonely private terrain I was an adventurer doing all kinds of things. A circular rock in the middle of the farmlands became my regular playground. When the crops stood high and tall around me, I grew more enthusiastic about my private world. For instance, I very much liked the oyilattom—a folk dance staged during temple festivals. Of course, in the middle of a crowd, my body would freeze up; no force could loosen it. But it would become elastic once I reached the rock. The little sparrows living amid the millet crops and the big birds in the sky would move away, either in awe or in fear. However, one day, while I was dancing in my haven, a tree-climber scaling a palm tree in the vicinity happened to witness my antics. In no time he spread the word about my dancing. After that, I could not show my face in public. From then on, the rock was abandoned. That is just how bashful I was.
An unbridgeable solitude and the fictional world that I created in my private space together have propelled me towards writing. Apart from my textbooks, the magazine Rani was the only book that I got hold of by chance. ‘Kurangu Kusala’ and the children’s segment were the sections I really enjoyed. I started composing verses in line with those in the children’s segment. I sent those songs—rhyming ‘Little, little cat; beautiful cat’—to a radio station a few years later. Most of them found a place in the programme Manimalar broadcast by the Trichy Radio Station. The station would not announce in advance whose songs would be aired so I could never be sure whether my rhymes would be broadcast. And if they were aired, I had no one to share the news with. I did not reveal any of this to others for fear of being ridiculed. But these broadcasts boosted my confidence and eventually helped kindle my desire to publish.
I also had a habit of writing long stories modelled on the children’s series ‘The Secret of the Magical Mountain’ and ‘The Princess of the Hill Country’ that were published in Rani. Tunnels figured prominently in my stories. I loved the image of a shy, fearful person walking through dark tunnels all alone. I would imagine a variety of tunnels; myriad figures would appear as stumbling blocks on the way; those things were dear to my heart.
This was how I came into the world of writing. Even at a young age I could perceive writing to be a way of expressing myself. Still, I have been known as a writer in public only these twenty-five years. If I were to count my published works, there are ten novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry. I have compiled a dictionary on the local dialect. Some collections of essays have been published; some others compiled. If all my essays get compiled, then there might be some more books.
One who journeys through my works may happen to identify certain common features. I think most of these would relate to my childhood attitude. When I take a step back and view my work from a distance, I discern that by presenting an observation that has occurred to me, perhaps I could give readers an idea of my childhood. For instance, references to the house are made here and there in my works. But the reader cannot reconstruct the house out of these references. My works don’t have elaborate descriptions of the house, nor are the house and its parts at the centre of the scheme of things. All that my writings needed was the expansive open space. The house as an entity is not suited to fill in the open space. Rather, the house could be seen as an eyesore troubling that space. This attitude can be seen at its peak in my novel Koolamadhari, where the expanse is all pervasive. My childhood idea of the house was only that of a granary—used to store the grains for a year’s requirements. Cooking and sleeping were done outside the house. Even the stove used to be outside the house. A portable charcoal oven was used for cooking during the rainy season. Sleeping took place either in the yard or in the goat pens and the mangers. Though I have become accustomed to the middle class way of life, to this day, I like the open space the most.
Birds do not inhabit nests. They build nests, out of necessity, during the reproductive season. They require the protection of the nests for laying and hatching their eggs and till the nestlings spread their wings to fly. Then the nests are abandoned—forsaken on the trees, fallen on the stones, empty holes left behind after the chicks have grown up. I feel as though my childhood dispositions lie embedded in me in the form of such deserted nests. And it feels right to say that my works encompass such nests.
Translated by: V. Premkumar
Get copies of Seasons Of the Palm, Current Show, and Pyre here.

The Unbearable Embarrassment of Being a Romance Writer

By Sakshama Puri Dhariwal
‘Did you know Dadi loved reading Mills and Boons?’ Nidhi asked. When he shook his head, she continued, ‘She used to wrap the books in old newspaper and when I asked her why, she said it was because of the “sex scenes” on the cover. The year I turned thirteen, I couldn’t resist any more, so I stole one of her books and peeled back the newspaper. The cover had an illustration of a bare-chested man and a well-endowed woman. And do you know what they were doing?’
Enamoured by her infectious enthusiasm, Vikram gave her a curious smile. ‘What?’
‘The man was kissing the woman’s neck. So, for the longest time, I thought necking is how babies are born,’ she admitted with an embarrassed laugh.
This scene from Man of Her Match was inspired by real life. My grandmother did conceal her love for romance novels behind old newspapers. My mother loved them too, but conditionally – Barbara Cartland and Nora Roberts always found a surreptitious spot behind Erich Segal and Arthur Hailey. A voracious reader, her love for books transcends genre – she enjoys the classics and literary fiction just as much as her monthly copy of Filmfare and Vogue. So, while I inherited her love of reading, I unfortunately also imbibed the belief that romance was ‘less than’ science fiction or adventure, or even, sadly, recipe books.
In Delhi University, a classmate told me that she loved Judith McNaught. Instead of admitting to my own collection of the bestselling author’s books, I feigned disinterest and promptly turned away to join a different conversation about Murakami. In business school, while my batch mates were devouring biographies of Jack Welch and Warren Buffet, I was skipping lunch to finish the latest Sophie Kinsella novel.
When I discovered digital readers, I started reading a few books a week. And while I left alone the ‘acceptable’ books in my reading history, I deleted the romance novels – lest someone pick up the device and judge. It was, I realize now, the digital equivalent of covering books in newspaper. Because admitting to enjoying such books made you less of an intellectual and worse, less of a feminist. How strange these self-imposed rules are: reading Jane Austen is okay because her books are classics, but a historical romance – even one featuring a suffragette or scientist – is automatically dismissed as ‘trash’ or sometimes euphemistically, ‘guilty pleasure’.
When I tell people I’m a writer of romantic comedies, most of them express admiration. But every once in a while, someone will scoff, “Chick lit, you mean!” or wiggle their eyebrows and ask if there are any good sex scenes in the book. Laughing off such comments would make me a traitor to my profession. And to my gender.
Though people can deride the genre all they want, they cannot dispute the reading revolution that romance authors have brought about. In India, a bestselling book would need to sell 7,000 copies in the first few months, whereas the New York Times bestseller list features books that have sold 9,000 copies in the first week. And yet the first print run for many Indian romance writers is in lakhs. In a country where English is the second language for many people (and a foreign language for most), writers of this genre have done what others failed at: encouraging the reading habit in a land of non-readers. Ironically, the very first English novel read by young people is romantic fiction and instead of hiding these books behind newspaper, readers are flaunting them on their Facebook profiles.
What is it about these books (and movies) that makes them palatable to the Indian reader? Surely the relatively uncomplicated plots and simple language play a role. But another very important element is the persistent presence of the HEA (happily ever after) phenomenon. Historically speaking, HEAs sell. And the reason these feel-good stories sell is just that: they feel good. But while the last century saw several romantic films win Best Picture Oscars (It Happened One Night, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Apartment, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Annie Hall), the most recent film to receive that honour was Shakespeare in Love – almost 20 years ago!
Clearly, a large proportion of content consumers today prefers more realistic storytelling and more relatable characters. Take the Netflix show Black Mirror: it is a bleak but believable British science fiction series that warns the viewer about the degree of human perversion and decrepitude in light of changing technology. Or the Hulu show Casual: a dark comedy that navigates the world of casual dating, teenage angst, and the modern definition of sex and sexuality. Both shows are very successful even though both don’t walk the HEA line.
But in a world like the one we live in today, are readers and viewers truly ready to forgo HEAs? Breaking Bad may be touted as the best TV show ever made, but does that stop us from watching reruns of Friends? You could be counting the minutes to the new Game of Thrones season, but can you honestly say that you don’t hold your breath during the DDLJ climax even today, hoping that Bauji will let Simran go to Raj? On a rainy day, with chai and pakoras, the book I like to re-read isn’t 1984, it’s Pride and Prejudice.
Happy endings are much like comfort food – on a bad day, it’s the only thing that can make you feel better. Happiness, even vicarious happiness, offers us an escape from these troubled times. Which is why, even though I grew up embarrassed of reading romance novels, I am proud to write them.
Sakshama Puri Dhariwal is the author of the bestselling novel The Wedding Photographer. Man of her Match is her second novel. 
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In Conversation with Faiqa Mansab

We recently spoke to the author of This House of Clay and Water, Faiqa Mansab. Her debut novel is set in Lahore and explores the themes of love, friendship and orthodoxy.
Below is our conversation with Faiqa, who is currently in Lahore:
Share your writing process behind The House of Clay & Water, how did you think of writing about the insidious power of orthodoxy in Pakistan?
I’ve come to believe that we write the stories that we are meant to; stories which only we can write. I come from a pluralistic and hybrid literary family tree. Punjabi Sufi poetry was always playing in the background at home. I grew up reading English literature, then graduated to American and European literatures, and all the while I was also reading Ghalib, Faiz, Mir, short story writers, novelists, women who wrote about the devastating Pakistan I lived in, yet I was so far removed away from it. Despite such a diverse education, I was never confused about my identity or my languages.  I loved all three that were at my disposal and yearned for Persian and French.
I read whatever I could, except for comics. I’m afraid I’ve never appreciated comics. I read literary novels and also cross-genre novels like Du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Pat Conroy, Colleen McCollough and others who wrote beautifully but were still not considered ‘highbrow’. I wanted to write like all of them. I don’t think a writer makes a conscious decision to write about a topic or social issue.
This House of Clay and Water grew out of the first draft of another book that I had been writing prior to the MFA. It employed Magical Realism, sported a jinn, and a great deal of philosophy. After 60k words the story was still emerging and wasn’t very clear. It was called lyrical, beautiful and all that by my first readers, my class fellows, but I knew I had to let it go. I started the novel again, rooted in what is called ‘realism’ in literary terms. The female protagonist of the previous novel had stayed with me and moved premises into the new novel. She became stronger, her voice was so clear.
I’m very proud of my legacy, very rooted in this land, and my heritage. My writing stems from a place of deep love for this land, its customs and privileges, its tragedy and its sorrows. My memory goes back a long way; long before I was born, or my parents were born and this novel isn’t about orthodoxy waging wars on Pakistani turf, but orthodoxy waging war on spiritualism, on Sufism, on tolerance. It is hurtful. It is wrong. It isn’t us.
How did you come up with the different characters in your book, have you met such people in real life?
I never really know how to answer that question. If you mean, are they based on real people? Then no, they are not. If you mean that you will never see them in real life, then I’ve failed as a writer. They aren’t real but they had better be realistic. They are I think, or the biggest publishing house in the world wouldn’t have backed this book. (I love reminding everyone that Penguin has published my book).
Difference fascinates me. Peripheries and centers fascinate me. Power dynamics between genders and how social constructs mold people and their behaviors is frighteningly like living in a prison, like being conditioned and brain washed. When you really come down to it, we are all conditioned to behave in certain ways under given circumstances…like Pavlov’s dogs. There is very little agency in an average human life until and unless we actively go against the grain, at the risk of being ostracized, called mad or just hated.
I wanted to write about such people. Women who go against the grain are worse off than men even. They are intolerable. They are monsters that have to be killed to re-establish social order like in Sophoclean tragedy or Shakespearean tragedy, where the social sickness had to be rooted out, killed to purge the city state and bring peace. These aberrations are not tolerated.
Which brought me to those human beings the world considers aberrations, and ridicules, and humiliates: eunuchs, hermaphrodites, castrati’s. They were not treated this badly in the sub-continent until the British came along. The attitude of hate and humiliation towards hermaphrodites is a legacy of the British. In the traditional and historical culture of the sub-continent, hermaphrodites were treated with courtesy, even if they were not considered equal. But now we must do better for women and for transgenders.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Coffee. Nothing fancy, but hot, and at least two large mugs to start me off. I have a lovely little study, with a lilac ceiling, and a thick carpet of the same color and a small white mantle with my books on it. A writing table facing the wall which has my vision board from end to end, full of Van Gogh and Monet postcards, inspirational quotes and rules of writing from famous authors. I sit and I stare, drink my coffee and feel small and miserable. Then I drink another cup, and I feel better, less small, less insignificant, more ambitious. A few more sips, and I open my laptop. Its sleek and new, and has only my manuscripts. I begin by reading what I had written yesterday or day before. Sometimes I don’t see any mistakes and I’ll start typing happily. If I find mistakes, well, I start fixing them until I am tired. Then I get a new cup of coffee and start writing something new.
This happens only on good days. Sometimes coffee doesn’t work on feelings of smallness and insignificance. Those days I sit on my lilac armchair and read Proust. You know, one might as well go down in style.
How does the place affect your writing, in terms of setting as well as inspiration?
Place is important. Location is political. Location is the heart of the story. Sometimes it is the only story. For me that place is often Lahore. I will never understand this city. I’ve accepted that and that’s’ why I can write about it. It so complex and so Protean. I love writing about this city.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Learn to edit your own work. Read it again and again till you’re sick of it and can see beyond your love for it and into the mechanics of sentences and paragraphs. Then get rid of everything extraneous.
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